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VAGABOND by Rhonda Eudaly

For the up-and-coming rock band Vagabond, buying a house together turned out to be a real trip.


CHAPTER 1

“That’s it?” Tommy Doyle asked as Steve pulled the moving van into a sprawling, two-story house’s wide circular driveway. “I thought a house with a reputation like this one would be…I don’t know…creepier or something.”

“What were you expecting?” Steve threw the van into park and looked over at his friend and bandmate. “The Psycho mansion or something out of a Halloween movie?”

“Well, it sure doesn’t look haunted.” Tommy not only sounded disappointed, he actually pouted.

Steve shook his head. Tommy was overly dramatic, but a killer guitar player, and he did have a point. Steve wasn’t sure what he’d expected, either. In all honesty, he hadn’t believed the online photos to be accurate. So far, he was pleasantly surprised.

Tommy bounded out of the van like a kid visiting an amusement park. What he lacked in height—he was only about five feet seven inches—he made up for in energy like it was concentrated in his slight frame. Steve chose to approach more cautiously, but that was sort of his role as the lead singer and front man for Vagabond. He was the “responsible“ one.

As he closed the driver’s-side door, the other two band members pulled in behind them in their old tour van and trailer. In moments, all four stood in a clump staring at the huge house with columns.

White stone gleamed in the twilight. The Los Angeles skyline glittered behind and below the house as darkness fell in a blue-violet drape. Solar-powered security lights winked on within the unruly landscaping. Not a lot of gardening had been done while the house stood vacant—just enough to pass ordinance regulations and to keep the ground neat while it was on sale.

“Sure doesn’t look haunted,” Tommy said again.

Michael Fowler elbowed Tommy in the bicep—aiming for his ribs; but at just over six feet, he overshot. “And you would know…how? Come on, Tommy, how many real haunted houses have you seen? Has anyone really seen?”

Michael’s sarcastic tone echoed Steve’s sentiments. Bret Harris sniggered behind Tommy. Still he brought it on himself, acting like he was twelve.

“Well…” Tommy didn’t have an answer.

“Maybe the stories are true,” Michael said. “Don’t judge. Something had the guy back at the store spooked. Maybe he knows something you don’t.”

“You really believe that, Michael?” Bret asked, incredulous. “Dude, you’re as bad as Tommy. He’s supposed to be the gullible one, not you.”

“Hey!” Tommy turned on Bret and jabbed at his chest with an index finger, pushing Bret back a bit despite the other man’s being a few inches taller and more sturdily built. “Cheap shot.”

Steve sighed. Yeah, buying a house together had been a great idea. This was going to be fun.

He steeled himself to step into the fight about to erupt. Sometimes being the “Designated Adult“ wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. He wasn’t ever sure how that had happened, but it made sense to have one contact person to run band business. Steve not only was the “front man“, he’d earned a law degree before chucking it all to be a musician. So, the role had fallen to him.

Michael bristled first, but Steve could almost see his hackles lower as he shrugged and said, “Well, maybe not the actual ghost part. But the dude who lived here before us did disappear without a trace. There’ve been strange occurrences since. Those are documented facts.”

Steve smacked the back of Michael’s head, easy enough since they were about the same height. “Are you trying to scare us?”

Michael shrugged. “Just saying maybe we should be careful. This place may not be haunted, but something weird happened here.”

“Can we move on, please?” Bret said. “It’s not like we’re all a hundred-percent sure of this move as it is without having to deal with bickering over whether or not the place is haunted. Let’s all grow up and go inside.”

Steve sighed as he saw Tommy and Michael about to turn on Bret. It was time to step in. “Everyone just take a breath. We all need to knock it off. We don’t need to be going at it before we even get in the door.”

Tommy, who never stayed angry long, grinned. “So, what are we still hanging around out here for? It’s getting dark.”

“Steve, you have the keys, right?” Bret asked.

“Yeah, I’ve got ’em.”

Steve searched the pockets of his brown leather bomber jacket while he fought to control his face. He didn’t want the others to see a troubled expression when his questing fingers failed to come up with the keys right away. He also hid his sigh of relief when he found the ring in his pants pocket.

He held them up. “Who wants to do the honors?”

Tommy threw Michael a dirty look. “If no one believes in ghost stories, there’s nothing to worry about, right?”

“The warehouse looked okay, too,” Bret finally weighed in. “From the outside.”

The warehouse. Steve wasn’t the only one to shudder at that vivid shared memory. The warehouse was their common nightmare.

In the beginning, they’d taken over the rundown industrial building as a rehearsal space. When early gigs dried up and times were tough, they’d ended up crashing there as well. They’d fled at the first opportunity—along with the cockroaches.

Bret butted Steve in the back with an elbow. “You have the keys, just open the door. We can’t stand out here forever.”

Steve shot the drummer a venomous look but took the first step on their new adventure. He approached the door cautiously with the rest of the band clustered around him. He didn’t know if it was for moral support or to keep him from retreating. Not that it mattered—he was thankful not to be facing the unknown alone.

He fumbled the keys once more getting the right one into the lock. Fortunately, the tumblers turned easily. He pushed the heavy wooden door. It swung open easily on well-oiled hinges.

No one made the move to step across the threshold.

“Now we’re just being silly.” Bret pushed past Steve. “Let’s go.”

With Bret taking the first step, the others seemed to move in a single mass; Steve felt himself caught up along with the others. They all but tumbled into the entry in a physical-comedy parody.

Steve’s mind raced. He couldn’t have made a coherent thought if someone put a gun to his head. He didn’t know what he was expecting, but what greeted him wasn’t it. If his bandmates’ expressions were any indication, they felt the same way.

The main room was huge. The floor was tiled in three gigantic intricate mosaics in hues of blue, pink, and purple inlaid with gold and Cambrian Black granite. Each mosaic marked a period of time—Past, Present, and Future. The Past end of the room boasted a floor-to-ceiling picture window overlooking the countryside around the property. The Future end contained nothing but a small, round window facing the driveway. Present lay squarely in the center of the room.

There were two exits and a staircase. The doors included the one the band had just come in and another presumably—according to photos—leading to the kitchen, utility room, and garage. He turned to see a magnificent curving stairway leading up to the second floor. He wasn’t the only one craning his neck to look up.

“This is wild!” Tommy’s excited voice bounced and echoed off bare walls. “Let’s see what else it’s got!”

His comment broke the spell rooting the band to the foyer floor. Like shot, they scattered—Bret heading straight for the kitchen door, Tommy and Michael bolting up the stairs. Steve gave the great room one more look before hustling upstairs himself.

“How many bedrooms does this place have again?” Tommy asked as they hit the landing.

Steve did a quick count in his head from memory. “Six.”

“Cool. Rooms to spare. Who’d’ve thought.” Tommy sounded positively giddy.

“But more importantly,” Michael said, “how many bathrooms does it have?”

Steve fought hard not to roll his eyes. “Didn’t any of you read the specs?”

Neither answered him. Michael, though, had the grace to look guilty. He broke eye contact with Steve. Tommy came off as simply oblivious.

The lead singer sighed. “Each bedroom has its own full bathroom. There are half-baths downstairs under the stairs and off the utility room.”

Steve could all but feel the joy radiating off his friends. Having a bathroom all his own hadn’t been a reality for any of them since they’d formed the band, and for some probably longer than that. Bathroom time and space was a big deal, considering none of them could be considered low-maintenance when it came to grooming.

“Who decided who gets which room?” Tommy asked as they stood in the hallway, nearly dumbfounded by the possibilities.

“Does it matter?” Steve asked.

A piercing screech from the kitchen downstairs interrupted further discussion. The guys all exchanged wide-eyed looks then broke and ran back down the stairs. Steve had the horrible feeling they were going to find a broken body and/or a blood pool. As one they barreled toward the kitchen door, only to be met by Bret coming back through, grinning wickedly.

“Ha! I gotcha!” Bret pointed and laughed. “You should see your faces! That’s the best!”

“I’m going to kill him!” Michael lunged toward Bret, only to be held back by Tommy. Steve stepped between them.

“Michael! No! Stop.” Steve put his hand on Michael’s chest. “We don’t need a fight on our first night here.”

“Oh, it won’t be a fight,” Michael said through gritted teeth.

Bret rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. It was a joke. What’s the big deal? Where’s your sense of humor?”

“It wasn’t funny, Bret.” Steve jabbed at him with a finger. “This is all new and weird. We’re all on edge.”

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you’d just let me kill him,” Michael said.

Steve put a hand on his shoulder. “I can’t let you do it.”

“Why not?” Michael’s voice rose to a whine.

“We don’t have time to replace him before the tour.”

“Aw, man.”

Steve laughed. “Maybe next time, okay? When we’re not in a time crunch.”

The tension broke with laughter. Steve caught sight of Tommy drifting toward the picture window as the other two wandered off in other directions. He didn’t want that to happen. They had work to do.

“Come on, guys, let’s get the important stuff unloaded. A lot of it can wait until tomorrow, but we should get the equipment and our personal stuff inside.”

As the other three trooped for the front door, Tommy stood transfixed by the window. Beyond the treeline, the lights of Los Angeles twinkled in the darkness.

“Take a look at this view.”

“Yeah, yeah, Tommy, it’s great. The best.” Bret crossed the room in long strides to pull the small blond man away from the window. “Let’s go. Didn’t you hear Steve? We’ve got work to do. We’ll appreciate the view later. It’s not like it’s going anywhere.”

They joined the others, who stood outside staring at the vans.

“Where do we start?” Tommy asked.

Steve shrugged. “With the equipment. Definitely don’t want to leave that outside. Then let’s concentrate on our van. The truck doesn’t have to be back until tomorrow, and we all have important stuff in the van. We can leave most of the truck stuff until morning.”

“Where do we put everything?” Michael asked. “After all we’ve been through, please don’t say the garage.”

“Why would we use the garage?” Tommy asked with a dismissive note in his voice. “We have that huge room on the first floor.”

“Okay.” Steve rattled the keys. “Let’s do this thing.”

They moved forward as a group., then hauled out anvil cases, instrument cases, suitcases and duffle bags until it seemed like an impossibly large amount of stuff had come out of the small space.

“Man, I miss the crew,” Tommy said, stretching a kink out of his back. “We haven’t done this on our own for a long time.”

“It’s good for us,” Michael said. “Let’s get this stuff inside, it’s getting late.”

They shouldered the first load and headed inside.

“Which end do we want to set up in?” Tommy asked, stopping just inside the door, causing a bottleneck.

Bret craned to see over the load. “This end. It’s closer.”

Tommy followed Bret’s head tilt. “Future. That’s appropriate, don’t you think?”

“I think I’m going to dump this thing on your head if you don’t get out of the way.” Michael bumped a hip into Tommy. “This is heavy!”

Tommy jumped out of Bret’s and Michael’s way to land squarely in Steve’s path as he guided a rolling platform in with monitors stacked on it.

“Out of the way, Tommy!”

“I guess I’m not wanted.”

“Oh, we want you,” Steve said. “We want you out of the way. Then we want you out at the van to hand stuff out. You’re the one who fits.”

Tommy made a face but jumped out of the way. Steve dumped his load and hooked an arm around Tommy’s neck.

“Come on, bro. The sooner we get the van unloaded, the sooner we can call it a night.”

Tommy blew a raspberry as he stormed out of the house and stomped toward the van. Steve tried not to laugh as he followed, but Tommy was a small guy and actually fit inside the van. He was also a master packer, even though he’d never admit it. Every band had a “van guy“, and Tommy was theirs.

The bandmates took several trips back and forth from van to house. All four were hot, tired, and ready to be done. Bret shoved sweaty, sticky bangs off his forehead as he leaned against the bumper.

“How much is left?”

Tommy threw a duffel bag to him. Considering he was a drummer, Bret barely got his hands up in time to catch the bag before it smacked him in the face.

“How much more is there?” he asked again.

Tommy ducked back inside. “Only a couple of things, and I think they’re mine. You guys can go in. I got this.”

A ragged cheer went up from the others as they hurried back inside. Steve held back as Tommy grabbed a guitar case and a suitcase; then he slammed the back doors closed and checked the locks to make sure everything was secure. He waved Tommy ahead of him.

“You didn’t have to wait,” Tommy said.

Steve threw his free arm around the guitar player’s shoulders in a mock headlock.

“Come on, let’s go start our new adventure.”

After a brief debate of who got which room, they called it a night. Darkness and quiet descended over the house.

Steve was the last one to retire. As he started to close his door, he thought he saw a pulse of light downstairs. He went to the railing overlooking the main floor. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Whatever he thought he’d seen was gone. He chalked it up to exhaustion as he went back to his room and closed the door behind him.


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Posted by on December 21, 2020 in Round Robin

 

Adversaries: The Color of Fear 3

CHAPTER 2

August 10

Cincinnati, OH, outside the former home of Tzu Shin

Late afternoon

Valery Paz’s lips twisted into a mocking pout. “Now what are we going to eat?”

Tzu Lin Kwan sat hunched in the passenger seat of Valery’s big red truck, belated guilt making her blush. Being here on the Cincinnati street where her father had lived, learning he was alive but had been transferred to a lab in St. Louis, had caught her off-guard. When the neighbor woman asked for the bag of groceries she’d bought to share a meal with Tzu Shin, Kwan had blindly given it to her.

That left Kwan and Valery with nothing.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t think.”

Valery laughed and punched her lightly on the arm.

“I’m totally kidding you. We have to stop for gas anyway, so we’ll pick up something. Come on, let’s go.” She started the truck, then drove toward downtown once again. “Since your dad’s already in St. Louis, we’ll just head on back. We can be in New St. Lou by noon tomorrow, if everything’s clear.”

St. Louis. The thought made Kwan smile. About her father. And San.

Her emotions welled up and bubbled over. So much she’d hoped for was so close now. The mission her father had given her, to bring the zi su ye herbs to America, would be completed soon. He would save the people, and make the world whole again.

She’d followed her defector father to San Francisco, then to Cincinnati, only to find him gone. But now, at least, she had a positive site where he could be found.

Her pride in the promise of completing this mission brought the memory of her now-dead mentor, Li Zhong. He had given up his quiet life in Hong Kong to chaperone her voyage. She, too, had put aside her own desires and wishes, perhaps the largest her own sacrifice in denying herself the right to love Xi San, when everything in her heart told her they belonged together.

Could she really have her father and San, along with a real life?

“Oh, no way. No way. Look!”

Valery slammed on the brakes, pulling over to the curb. Kwan clutched the dashboard, her breath half stolen by the sudden screech.

“What? What?” she gasped, heart pounding. She peered desperately around for a child in the road or some justification.

Mira! It’s a taco truck!”

Her face split by a huge smile, Valery bailed out. She ran to the open window of the large white panel truck, spewing a string of Spanish. Nodding and waving her hands, she exchanged words with someone inside, then called to Kwan.

“Come on, chica. I’m about to change your life.”

Still rattled by the sharp halt, and unsure if she could handle any more life changes at the moment, Kwan slid out of the cab. Keeping a watch around them, she walked slowly to the food truck. Inside, she discovered a young couple who spoke excitedly to Valery, hardly taking a breath as they laughed and conversed. Kwan hung back, feeling excluded.

“Oh, my God,” Valery said to Kwan. “These two are from back in King City! Their parents ran La Potranca, a place I used to practically live at, pozole to die for. I swear.”

Kwan glanced at the grinning couple, who piled food into some folded flatbread, and then into a white bag.

“They left town when the virus first hit, and brought all their mama’s recipes along. This is just a temp deal until there’s enough local resources and money to open a restaurant.” She accepted the bag from the young woman, reached inside and handed Kwan a greasy, paper-wrapped bundle. “Eat.”

It was Valery; no point in arguing.

Kwan peeled the paper back from the closest end of the handful, and was greeted by a wave of pungent scent. A bite brought her creamy cheese, spicy meat, a crunch of greens and smoky sauce. It was one of the best things she’d ever tasted.

“Mmm,” she sighed.

“Told ya.” Delighted, Valery devoured one, her eyes closed in overwhelming satisfaction. “Que bueno!

She asked the couple a question, and they quickly prepared another bag of treats for her. She paid them from the coins and bills Eddie had given them for the trip, still chattering, and then reluctantly dragged herself back to the truck.

“So unreal. I can’t believe I could find someone from home all the way out here. It made me feel…” She clutched the paper bags, her face working. Suddenly, she was in tears.

“Val?” Kwan reached out to smooth back her companion’s auburn locks, stunned at the strong woman’s disintegration. “What is wrong?”

“La Potranca was one of my mom’s favorite places, too,” she said between sobs. “We ate there just before…just before…” She couldn’t go on.

The walls that contained strong feelings only held so long. Kwan slid closer to Valery and slipped an arm around her shoulders. So often during their journey from San Francisco, Valery had been the pillar of strength that held up both of them. She’d come along on this jaunt to Cincinnati to find Kwan’s father only to support Kwan. The least Kwan could do was repay the debt.

When Val had cried herself out, with a few empathetic tears from Kwan, both sniffed and scrubbed their faces with brown napkins, then dug into the bags, toasting each other with tacos before starting the engine and heading down the road again.

Kwan checked the notes Eddie had prepared. “Route Fifty is only a few miles from here. We can get gas just before that.”

“Eddie typed his fingers off getting us ready to go.” Valery’s smile was wistful. Her eyes teared up again.

“You’ll see him soon,” Kwan reminded her. And I’ll see the men I love.

They filled up with gas at the station Eddie had told them was safe, and then Valery turned toward the interstate. Kwan caught the sign for the highway out of the corner of her eye.

“But we took US-Fifty out here. That road was approved by the team.”

Valery rolled her eyes. “Look, chica, it’s almost dark. It’ll take six hours or more to get back to New St. Lou. We’ll get there a lot faster on the interstate. Don’t you want to get there fast?”

So much waited for her there…

“Of course.”

Kwan looked away, startled to find San’s image in her mind instead of her father’s. No. Not yet. You’re still on your mission. You can’t indulge yourself until you’ve delivered the herbs.

“Well, then.” Valery floored the gas pedal, and they zoomed up the ramp onto I-71, headed south.

Unlike the highways of the West, this interstate was less cluttered with abandoned vehicles, and those were mostly pulled off to the right side of the road.

“We’re going to make great time,” Valery commented, fitting their truck into the sparse line of vehicles taking the middle route down the dividing line of the two lanes.

Kwan studied the bicycles, motorcycles, and to a lesser extent, other cars that shared the road. People here had committed to making a life for themselves again, using as many of the tools as they could keep working. Several drivers eyed the shiny red truck with hungry avarice as it passed them. Valery had proudly cared for and polished the vehicle every day since they’d liberated it from a garage outside Lake Tahoe on their journey east.

Surely, the theft can be forgiven if the family it belonged to wasn’t around to use it.

As many times as Kwan repeated Val’s justification for keeping the truck, the concept did not sit comfortably in her heart. Taking what wasn’t yours was stealing. This lesson had been drilled into her, black and white, since she could remember. Her aunt Ehuang, even in their hardest times, had insisted that they not fall to the common level of street thieves.

But there was no question that having a vehicle made life much easier. Without it, would they have encountered Xi San and his traveling group? Could they have come to St. Louis? Or ever made it to Cincinnati? Now the trip to find her father would take only hours instead of days or weeks walking. Perhaps it was possible that fate had brought their path together with that of the red truck, a gift from the gods to help them on their mission.

It still felt wrong.

Kwan shook the gnawing guilt from her mind. It served no purpose. She turned her attention instead to the impending sunset. A cornflower-blue sky spawned streaks of lavender-and-violet clouds. Vehicles on the road around them turned off, headlights shining, to the side roads. Once it was fully dark, it was miles between sightings of another car. The countryside was dotted with the occasional glow of generator-driven lights from homes in the distance, their randomness making them quite noticeable against the otherwise black landscape.

The monotony lulled Kwan into a state of drowsiness. She laid her head on the back of the seat and closed her eyes, letting her mind sink into memory.

Valery hummed one of her musical tunes. Kwan recognized it as a refrain Valery and Arik Logsdon had sung together in the community apartment building Eddie Garrick had established. Shortly after they’d arrived in St. Louis, the neighborhood had hosted a block party to meet the newcomers. Singing something about “Sisters,” Arik and Val had waylaid Kwan in the hallway and steered her into the room she shared with Val…

#

“Wait till you see what we’ve got for you, querida!” Valery giggled as she pulled her into their room. Arik closed the door behind them, beaming.

Her traveling companion had a certain look in her eyes, and Kwan recognized it as the one that always led to mischief. But unlike some of the other times, this one didn’t seem geared toward trouble.

“What are you up to?” she asked.

Her friends dug into the closet.

“Look at this!”

Valery whipped out a red silk jacket trimmed in black, with a mandarin collar. The short-sleeved jacket was delicately embroidered in gold. Kwan thought she’d never seen anything so beautiful.

Arik mock-swooned. “Oh, honey, it’s to die for. And size two. I’m jealous.”

After she slipped on the jacket and a pair of dress black slacks, Arik encouraged them both to sit at a table covered with makeup and hair doodads, and he dolled them both up. Valery enjoyed the attention, but Kwan had never experienced such fuss over how she looked. Certainly, she’d never worn such makeup and even false eyelashes. They pulled at her skin and tickled. But Arik waved away her protests.

“It’s about time someone looked glam around here!”

“You have enough to do,” Kwan interjected feebly.

“This isn’t stressful at all, love. Believe me, this is something that relaxes me. You’re the one doing me a favor.”

He finished and admired his work, then he clicked his tongue. “Oh lawd, lawd. I know two young ladies who are gonna get their bones jumped tonight. I’ll bet my sweet ass on it.”

Valery snorted. “Tease.”

“Shut up, sister woman. Artiste at work.” Arik chuckled. “Perfect. Go get your duds, Val.”

Kwan studied the unfamiliar face in the mirror, realizing she might well be a movie star with all this added to her skin. She’d never looked like this, ever. It was uncomfortable, but she had to admit she liked it.

Valery slipped into a black-beaded jacket Kwan knew she hadn’t brought with her.

“Isn’t this fabulous? I found it stuffed in a box in the attic. A huge pile of vintage clothing up there. I think we’re going to recycle it for the new community theatre.”

Valery finished dressing, topping off the outfit with a pair of black platform shoes that she wobbled on the first couple of times across the room. Arik offered Kwan a pair of high heels, but she shook her head. She knew her limits. She wore her usual black flats, the ones that looked like dancers’ shoes.

“Mmm-mmm,” Arik said. He pulled them both over to look in the recently acquired full-length mirror. Kwan saw not two girls who’d traveled through some of the roughest country in America, who’d survived a shootout in Kansas, but two grown-up women who’d found their place in life.

Arik and his partner Mark escorted them to the event, making sure no one saw them until their grand entrance, which caused even the garrulous Eddie Garrick to stop mid-punchline. He stumbled through the rest of his conversation, eyes on Valery.

San’s face when he saw Kwan walk into the banquet room reflected everything Arik and Val had promised. They’d sat together at dinner, and he kept reaching out to touch her, as if she were a dream. She’d felt part of that dream, too…

#

Now she could live it. She was on her way back to St. Louis and San.

A warm feeling of satisfaction coming over her, she sat up and opened her eyes.

“Should we try to contact them? Ask them to be waiting?”

Valery grinned in the way Kwan recognized as the expression that meant Val was throwing caution to the winds.

“Let’s hope they’re having a great time and letting go for a change. They’ve been so uptight about getting us where we needed to be. Nice that they can just be boys for once.” She smiled wider. “You know…that means we could be wild women on the way home. We could stop at a strip club or something—”

“Val!” Now that her path was clear, the last thing Kwan wanted to do was stop anywhere at all. “Can we please just drive?”

Valery laughed. “I’m just teasing you, querida. I wouldn’t keep you away from either of your men for a second longer.”

Distracting herself, Kwan concentrated on her father’s memory instead. The adrenaline of discovering his whereabouts had begun to wear off, and she rolled her shoulders to dispel the tension.

“I still can’t believe my father is so close.”

Her face ghostly pale in the reflection of the dashboard lights, Valery stared out the front windshield and chewed her lip.

“I’m praying he is,” she said, her tone fading to a serious one. “I don’t want you to get too crazy excited about this, sister mine. Remember, we had good word he was in Cincinnati.”

Kwan refused to allow doubt to cloud her hope. “He was in Cincinnati. That woman actually knew my father. She knew who I was. Somewhat.”

So she called me Kay Lynn. It was close enough.

“She’d seen him before he left here.” She nodded, more to reassure herself than Valery. “Once we get back, we just have to find him in St. Louis.”

“That might not be such a big issue. I know someone who’s a pretty big radio star in the city, you know. If he puts the word out, you’ll hear from your dad in no time.”

Those words were like a warm blanket for Kwan, who took them and held them close. They’d be back in St. Louis before the night was over; and first thing in the morning, she and Val could talk to Eddie about making an announcement over KMOX.

How much easier could it be?

“Do you think we could listen to KMOX now?” she asked.

“Probably.”

Valery poked at the dash, and the radio came to life.

“—children of the night,” came the sultry alto voice of Isis, as it had every night during their travels. “We have a whole pile of messages going out to those wandering our highways and byways this fine evening. I’ll get to those in a minute, but I wanted to let everyone know that, here in New St. Lou, we’re expecting a visit from representatives from Washington DC. Rumor has it they will bring presumptive President Eartha Osman. Perhaps then we will be able to help the city acquire some funding to help get things up and running again.”

Valery snorted. “Maybe.”

Kwan frowned at the cynicism in Val’s tone. “Is Washington not your former capital? Surely, they will be able to help.”

“Uncle Dave used to have a cartoon posted on the refrigerator saying ‘We’re your government, we’re here to help.’ Everyone was standing there holding a rifle on some poor little immigrant kid. It was scary as hell. He never trusted the government to do anything.”

Kwan thought back to some of the corrupt politicians she’d heard about in Hong Kong after the Second Holocaust, people who took bribes, people cowed by the military into cracking down hard on some of the poorest people in the city.

Zhong, too, had been with the government at one time, and he had often worried they’d come after him. The government couldn’t be trusted, he’d always said.

“My father thought that America was a better place, though. That the government was free and—”

A figure dressed in white waving its arms suddenly appeared in front of the car, standing in the middle of the road, captured in the headlights.

“Hold on!” Valery yelled. Brakes squealing, she swerved the truck toward the far side of the road. The wheels ground to a stop.

Kwan’s head hit the side window at the angle of the swerve, but she was otherwise unharmed. She unlatched her seatbelt, her gaze swiveling back to the dark in the center of the road, searching out the “ghost” they’d nearly run over.

“You okay?” Valery asked, leaning down to pull her gun out from under the seat.

“Yes.” Kwan checked to see that her long knife was in her boot, then slowly opened the door, trying not to make any noise. She caught a brief look at Valery’s face before the overhead light went out. Val’s jaw was set tight. Not the time to remind her this was not the chosen route home.

Valery scooted out her door, her movements large and friendly-appearing. “Hello? Can I help you?”

No one answered, but Kwan caught a hint of movement in the dark on the far side of the shadowed median. She kept to her place, hidden by the bulk of the truck’s bed. Valery’s advantage was the gun; Kwan’s would be surprise.

A querulous female voice came from the median.

“How far to Cincinnati?”

Kwan saw Valery’s outline in a pale sliver of moonlight that came through the clouds. She moved around the cab of the truck, keeping it between her and the voice.

“About twenty miles.”

“They’ve hospitals running, right?”

“As far as I know. What’s your situation?”

Kwan inched closer to the back of the truck, wishing the moonlight were bright enough to verify how many people waited for them in the night. This wasn’t what she had expected, certainly. Usually, there were a lot more threats, followed by even more shooting.

But that didn’t mean they weren’t in lethal danger.

“My granddaughter’s having a baby. She’s been in labor for two days. It’s breech.” The tears in the old woman’s voice sounded real. “She’s bleeding now. We come from Frankfurt, and we run out of gas. We just gotta get her there.”

Val didn’t answer right away. Kwan guessed she was weighing the odds it was a trap. Only one way to find out.

Kwan dashed to the left, taking cover behind another stalled car, then made her way silently across the two lanes of the highway. She hunkered down, making herself small. A faint light came from a parked car on the other side of the highway. A woman appeared to be lying down in the back seat and another leaning over from the front. From this vantage point, Kwan could dimly see the woman who’d been speaking. She wore a long dress or robe, no hat on her head. Her hands were empty.

“Kwan?”

“I think she’s all right.” Kwan stood up, placing the woman between herself and Valery. “She’s unarmed.”

The woman took several steps back, visibly alarmed at Kwan appearing so suddenly.

“Please, don’t hurt us! We’re just three women trying to save this little one comin’.”

Valery came out from behind the truck then, and dug in the cab for a flashlight. She shined it on the woman, who covered her eyes from the sudden brightness.

“You need a ride into town?”

“Oh, yes, miss, thank Jesus for you. Thank Jesus.”

The woman in the worn housedress beckoned for them to follow her. Kwan jogged across to meet Valery, still not totally reassured.

“They could have men…”

Valery nodded. “ I don’t think so. Let’s check it out.”

They crossed to the parked car, Valery keeping the light moving, showing them the ground as well as checking out the area around the car. Nothing untoward appeared.

In the car, they found a very young woman, her face white and drawn, abdomen distended with child, barely conscious. Kwan didn’t know much about the birth process, but she had seen people die. This woman was about to leave the earth.

Valery ran back for the truck. She pumped it into gear and drove it over the lumpy median grass. Kwan helped the older women load the younger into the truck bed, the three of them holding her to try to cushion her from too many bumps and bruises on the ride. For a brief moment, Kwan was reminded of the day they’d found the Enforcer, after his encounter with the snake, and the ride that had allowed them to really speak to one another for the first time. Val’s driving, too fast and too furious, wasn’t too different, either.

The women spoke softly to the girl between swerves and bumps, half-shaken to bits themselves by the transit. If the breech baby didn’t kill this girl, Valery’s driving might.

Kwan didn’t know how Valery managed, but she found a hospital with a half-lit emergency room sign out back. She bailed out of the truck and ran inside, returning with several white-clad orderlies with a gurney. They made a quick business of transferring the girl and her womenfolk back inside, and suddenly, it was just the two of them again.

Chale!” Valery yelled. “Our good deed for the day. We should be, like, Boy Scouts. Out rescuing the injured of America…” She trailed off. “Like your man San.”

Kwan nodded. “I was reminded as well.” She couldn’t help but smile at the thought of San’s face. “So, we should get back on the road home, then?”

“The road. Yes.” Walking with a spring in her step, Valery went to jump back in the cab. “And I know what you’re going to say.”

Kwan, following her, sat demurely and fastened her seatbelt. “What am I going to say?”

Valery snorted. “You’re going to tell me that I should have taken the other road. And you’re right. That could have been a very different situation.” She sighed, then smiled. “But maybe we saved a life. Two lives.”

Kwan agreed. “Perhaps fate led us down that road on purpose. But all the same, couldn’t we take the interstate now?”

“Your wish, dear sister, is my command.”

Valery hit the CD player, and the rugged voice of Willie Nelson rolled out as they left the driveway and headed back toward St. Louis, on the road once again.


 
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Posted by on October 9, 2020 in Round Robin

 

A Comedy Career Cut Short?

RUTHERFORD will be on sale this Friday, 11 September. Preorder now from Kindle and Barnes & Noble

Chapter 2

Down and Out


I was rudely awakened from a sound sleep by the shrieks of my little sister Daphne. She was standing in the open doorway of the barn.

“Rutherford,” she said, “wake up. There’s something going on.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look out there. See that car with the red light on top of it? What is that?”

I got up, walked over, and took a look. “That’s an ambulance,” I said.

“What’s that?” she said.

I remembered the only other time I could recall seeing an ambulance. It was when old Mr. Davis had suffered a heart attack. We were all really worried about him, but he managed to pull through, and was back on his feet in no time. That was about a year ago.

“An ambulance is a car that takes sick people to the hospital,” I said.

“What’s a hospital?” Daphne asked.

Here we go again. These puppies don’t know anything.

The ambulance had pulled right up to the front door of the house. The light on its roof was spinning, but the siren was off. Nothing else was going on.

“A hospital is a place where they take care of sick people,” I said.

“Who do you suppose is sick?” she asked.

“It’s gotta be Mr. Davis.”

Who else could it be? His wife had passed away before I was born. My mother used to talk about her sometimes. She really missed her. After that happened, everyone thought Mr. Davis might sell his breeding business, but in time, he decided to keep it running. I was sure glad about that.

“I’ll be right back,” I told Daphne. I looked around for my mother. I found her in a corner of the barn nursing some of the other puppies.

“Good morning, Rutherford,” she said. “Why the long face?”

“What’s happening out there?” I asked. “Is it Mr. Davis?”

My mom nodded. “It’s his heart again. I’ve been worried about him lately. For the past couple of weeks, he’s been moving around more slowly. And he looked pale to me the other day.”

“You never said anything.”

“I didn’t want to worry you,” she said. “None of us wants to think about what this place would be like without him.”

She was right. I didn’t want to think about it. I decided to check things out for myself.

I left the barn and walked up to where the ambulance was parked. Just as I got there, the front door of the house swung open. Paramedics wheeled a cart out onto the porch. Mr. Davis was lying on the cart. His eyes were closed. There was a long skinny tube attached to his arm, and one of the people was holding a plastic mask over his nose and mouth.

Horace Davis followed them to the ambulance. He watched as they slid the cart into the back.

“I’ll follow you over there,” he said.

I stared at Horace. I couldn’t bear the thought of him taking over this place.

“What are you lookin’ at, freak?” he said to me. He sneered and walked to the garage.

I watched the ambulance race down the dirt driveway. It was the last time I ever saw Mr. Davis.

#

The funeral was held a few days later. The procession drove by the farm that morning. My mother insisted we all stand on the side of the road and bark as the cars drove by. It was our own personal tribute to the man who had raised us and cared for us.

That day was a long one. Horace hadn’t fed us. The puppies were fine. They still had mother’s milk. We wondered if there would be more days like this one.

But to our surprise, in the days that followed, Horace never forgot to feed us once. I hoped it meant he had turned over a new leaf, but my mother set me straight.

“He hasn’t changed a bit,” she said. “He knows you can’t sell a dog with its ribs sticking out.”

She was right. We were fed each day, but we didn’t get the attention dogs crave. He couldn’t have cared less about us. All we were to him were dollar signs.

The place was filthy most of the time. Horace would only clean it up when he knew a buyer was coming through. Spirits were getting low. It had become more important than ever for me to concentrate on producing some sensational new material—great jokes that would take our minds off of our new living conditions.

On a Saturday night about two weeks following the funeral, my mom, my brothers and sisters, and some of the other basset hound families gathered in a corner of the barn for my performance.

“Hey, did you hear the one about the dog who went to the flea circus? Wouldn’t you know it—he stole the show.”

It was followed by a timely rim shot. I had taught Daphne how to make that sound. She held a stick in her mouth and banged it on the bottom of a coffee can for the intended effect. It wasn’t perfect, but it did the trick.

Sometimes you have to remind your audience that you just delivered the punch line. That’s where Daphne came in. The older dogs always knew when to laugh. It was those darn puppies who were clueless. Every so often I thought it might be a good idea to install an applause sign just for them. They were that dense.

I ended the show with one of my favorites.

“Hey, here’s one for all you wranglers out there. Did you hear about the dog who limped into town one day? His foot was all bandaged up. The sheriff walked up to him and said, ‘Howdy, stranger, what brings you to Dodge?’ The dog held up his injured foot and said, ‘I’m looking for the man who shot my pa.’”

Rim shot. Thanks, Daphne.

Roars of laughter were followed by applause. It had been a good night.

Barney, one of the grown-up male dogs, slapped me on the back. “I gotta tell you, Rutherford, you never disappoint.” It was high praise coming from one of the veterans.

“Thanks, sir, I appreciate it,” I said.

“So, when’s your next performance?” he asked.

“I’m not really certain. I’ll have to get to work on some new material.”

“Well, you be sure to let me know, you hear?” he said.

“I will. I promise.”

Barney turned to rejoin the others, but then he stopped abruptly. He leaned in, as if he only wanted me to hear what he was about to say.

“Kid, let me give you a little advice.” He looked around to make sure we were still alone. “Things are different around here now. You gotta look over your shoulder at all times. Do you know what I’m trying to say?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. But I knew exactly what he was talking about.

Barney lowered his voice even more. “I don’t trust Horace. Nobody around here does. He could start cleaning house any time now. No one is safe. Heck, I’m getting up in years. He may have no use for me soon.” He had a serious look on his face. “Just be careful out there, okay?”

I nodded.

“Good boy,” Barney said. He winked and joined the other members of his family.

Daphne ran up smiling. “You were great tonight, Rutherford. The crowd loved you.”

“Thanks,” I said with a forced smile.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “You don’t look very happy. Did I make a mistake with the drum or something?”

“No, you did just great. And let me tell you—you have a real musical flair.”

She grinned.

“Listen,” I said, “I have to be somewhere. You better go back with Mom and the others. I’ll see you later.”

She scampered off.

I really had no place to be. I just wanted to be alone. I decided to walk around in the barnyard for a while to think things through.

I guess I wasn’t completely surprised to hear what Barney had said. I had known that if Horace was ever in charge my days around here would be numbered. To him, I was just another mouth to feed. And since no families seemed interested in taking me home with them anytime soon, he was getting nothing in return.

I wandered into the garage, pushed a stepstool up to the back of a pickup truck, and hopped up onto the bed. Horace had returned from town a few minutes earlier, so the back of the truck was still warm. It was time for bed, my favorite time of the day. There was nothing like settling down for the night and a few Zs. If you never noticed, we dogs do love our sleep.

I rolled over onto my side—my favorite position—stretched out my legs, and was soon in dreamland.

To Be Continued…


 
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Posted by on September 8, 2020 in Round Robin

 

From Zumaya Thresholds – Lights, Camera, Ali!

Lights, Camera, Ali!
by Christine Marciniak

If it isn’t one thing, it’s another.

Ali Caldwell figures her fifteen minutes of fame have expired, and she is ready to ditch the TV cameras. That’s hard to do when she has to spend Thanksgiving with her mother in Malibu, where they’ll be filming the Christmas special for their reality show.

Then her little brother disappears while she’s in charge of him, and and everyone in the world is watching and blaming her, including her mother. Ali is determined to find him and make everything right, but life is ever that simple.

Purchase the trade paperback from Amazon as well as in ebook for Kindle and NOOK.

ISBN:    9781612712147

Also available in ePub, Mobi, and pdf at the ZP eBook Store.

Sample Chapters

 
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Posted by on August 26, 2013 in Round Robin

 

Round Robin Episode 11

I knew the old lady was bluffing. She wouldn’t get her answers if she shot Jackie, and I was pretty sure she knew I was a bystander in this crazy game. I couldn’t muster much interest for the goings-on anyway, even with a gun pointed at me and the mention of a multi-million deal.

All I could think about was Riane—who had morphed from human to alien in the blink of an eye—and the message she’d given me before she’d dissolved into a puddle of slime, most of which I was still wearing.

—Kill my son.

Not an every day request, although the last whispered words had sounded more desperate than any I’d ever heard. Even if I were to agree with her appeal, I had no idea how I’d go about it. I knew her first name, and that was it.

From the way she’d dissolved, I knew she wasn’t from Earth but I was still a newbie when it came to identifying alien species. Yeah, I’d met more than most of the residents of the third planet from the sun, but it was amazing how full the universe was, let alone our own galaxy.

“Are you listening, Jack?”

“Huh? Sorry.” I look at Jackie, who was trying to send me a message with her eyes. “You’re on your own for that one, sweetie. I got problems of my own.”

I heard twin gasps, from Jackie and from the old broad wielding the gun. Both had their gazes fixed on the center of my body, which was beginning to become heavier. I looked down and gaped too.

Slowly, the goo that had coated me when Riane had melted was reconstituting itself into a head, a torso, arms and legs. In the space of a few seconds, she stood beside me.

“God, I hate when that happens. Now, where were we?” She brushed her hair away from her face. “Ah, yes. There’s this matter of disposing of my offspring.”

M. D. Benoit is the author of the Jack Meter Case Files series and of the SF Thriller Synergy.

Look for her upcoming SF Thriller, Catalyst, this August.

Follow her on Twitter: @mdbenoit2

 
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Posted by on August 1, 2010 in Round Robin, Zumaya Publications

 

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Round Robin, Episode 10

Well he will be when I get my hands around his throat, Jackie thought. Then the lights in her head snapped on, and she whispered, “Robbing Peter to pay Paul?” This old bag knows a lot more than she is letting on.

“Listen,” Jack said, “I’d love to stay and chat over a cup of tea with you all, but I’ve got places to be.” He began to walk towards the next roof over, hoping  he could somehow make an escape without being noticed by the police downstairs.

“You’re not going anywhere until I find out what the hell you were doing here tonight,” Jackie said is a most unlady-like bark.

He kept walking.

She tried to bluff, “Take another step and I’ll blow your brains out.”

Jack lifted the middle finger of his right hand as he kept walking towards the next building.

Good God, Jackie thought, a man with balls as big as mine. How long had she waited for someone like him. How long had she put up with that whimpering ex, praying he would somehow grow a pair. And true to form, when he finally did, he went completely overboard. But this man, Jack, was something else, someone who was a match for her. She wasn’t about to let go of that. She took three quick paces and fell into step behind him.

“You’re not shaking me until I know everything,” Jackie said.

Harriet pulled a Glock from her handbag, snapped the safety off. “Hold it right there, both of you.” When they both ignored her, she fired a round into the roof, just two feet in front of Jack.

Jack jerked back and turned. Jackie could only follow his lead.

Harriet said, “Now that I have your attention, there are a few things I need to know in order to ensure that the money Jackie’s mother raised is handed over to the women’s shelter. You might not think twenty-three-million dollars is worth fighting for, but I can assure you I do.  And let me also say, unlike Jackie, I don’t bluff. If I don’t get what I came for, they will carry all of you off this roof on gurneys.

Twenty-three million? Christ, Jackie thought, can this night get any more bizarre?

Go on to Episode 11

Alan Chin writes gay fiction. Visit him at http://alanchin.net

or http://alanchinwriter.blogspot.com and http://twitter.com/alanhchin

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2010 in Round Robin, Zumaya Publications

 

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Round Robin Episode 9

Harriet’s Aunt Beth stood over the prone figure at the top of the stairs. You need to watch where you’re going, mister. You ran right into a broken vent pipe. Looks like you’ve got a nasty bump on your head, but I think you’ll live.”

“Who’s there?” Jackie called across the roof.

“My aunt and I,” said a voice that was much closer than Jackie expected. A flashlight flicked on and flashed her face. Jackie held her hand up to shield her eyes.

“How did you get up here?” Jackie asked. “You were supposed to be talking to the police.”

“Well, while you and this guy,” Harriet pointed at Jack, “were doing gymnastics on the fire escape and that clown,” she pointed to the man by the stairs, “was climbing ten flights of stairs and performing a do it yourself lobotomy, we took the elevator.”

“Why are you following us?” Jack asked. “This isn’t your business.”

“If you two are trying to steal the money Jackie’s mother raised for the women’s shelter, we’re making it our business; even if you are stealing it to fund the animal shelter.” Aunt Beth said.

“What on earth gave you that idea?” Jackie asked. This night was getting weirder by the minute.

“We talked to the guy across the street,” Harriet said. “You know– the big guy in the black coat– the one you left for dead. Turns out he wasn’t quite as dead as you thought.”

Go on to Episode 10

Arlene Sachitano – Author of the Harriet Truman/Loose Threads Mysteries and The Harley Spring Mysteries

http://www.arlenesachitanosblog.blogspot.com

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2010 in Round Robin

 

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Round Robin Episode 8

…kiss him?  kill him?  I didn’t know what she’d do.

I knew I shouldn’t get involved.  It wasn’t like this was even close to my jurisdiction–southwest Louisiana may as well have been on a different planet.  Still, I couldn’t just wander off knowing I might have prevented another person’s death.

Besides, she wasn’t bad looking.  And she climbed the fire escape without hesitation.  Not many women I knew could do that.  She wasn’t the woman I’d traveled so far to locate, but I felt compelled to find out more about her.  I’d waited ten years to follow Grace; I could wait a few more minutes.

When I was fairly sure I knew where these two were headed, I crossed the street and slipped into the massive building.  A stairway waited behind the first door I tried.

Flashing lights from the street below gave the night an unreal quality as I stepped out onto the roof, reminding me of the swamp gas that sometimes rose from the marsh in ghostly glows on winter nights.  Gravel crunched beneath my boots and I froze.

It took a moment to find the voices in the dark, and even longer to ease silently toward them.  Judging from their exchange, I was now fairly sure they weren’t working together.

“Look,” the woman said, “there’s a lot more at stake here than you know.”

“Oh?”  The man huffed a quick laugh.  “And I thought the stakes were already high enough.  What is it you’re not telling me?”

I suddenly felt a presence –a large, menacing presence.  I hadn’t heard anyone approach, but I knew someone stood right behind me.  And I had a strong suspicion that person wasn’t going to be friendly.

Damn, I knew I shouldn’t have left my thirty-eight in the hotel room.

As I turned, something smashed into the side of my head and I went down hard.

“What was that?”  The woman sounded farther away than she should have, but at least I was still conscious.

Trying to ignore the searing pain, I turned my head to look up at my attacker and found…

Go on to Episode 9

S. H. Baker writes the Dassas Cormier Mystery Series.  Visit her at www.SHBaker.com.

 
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Posted by on July 24, 2010 in Round Robin, Zumaya Publications

 

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Round Robin Episode 7

Help? Jackie needed a high profile lawyer and a giant shoe horn to get out of this. Or… She caught sight of Jack climbing the fire escape. Or one PI who could cough up some answers, like how he knew Matt and what he knew about her mother’s secret account. “Thank you ladies for your help, but I think you need to turn that quilt square over to the cops. Evidence, you know.”

“This isn’t our first murder, dear.” The two women looked at each other before easing toward the bar’s open back door. “Are you going to join us?”

Not in this lifetime. Inside, Jackie heard the police barging into the scene upsetting the already traumatized patrons. Red and blue strobelights sliced through the dark alley, tainting their faces in garish hues.

The woman on the left raised an eyebrow.

Jackie resisted the urge to cringe while slipping on her heels. Why is it that women of a certain age always managed to make her feel guilty with that look? “I just need to collect myself.”

Ignoring the body of her ex, Jackie tiptoed around the blood oozing along the debris strewn asphalt. She felt more than saw the two women head inside. Smiling, she ran to the lowered fire escape and set her hands on the cold metal rungs. When she caught up with Jack, she’d….

Go on to Episode 8

Linda Andrews writes romantic adventures with a paranormal twist

Visit her at http://www.lindaandrews.net

 
 

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Round Robin Episode 6

Jackie struggled to keep herself upright as she looked at the two women. “Robbing Peter to Pay Paul?  Interesting…”  Where was Jack?  And Matt?  She stood up, aching.  “There were two guys, fighting…”  Those who hadn’t run away were now setting tables back up, checking each other for injuries.

One of the ladies folded the fabric up carefully and placed it in her pocket.  “Who could tell, in all this confusion?”  She stood up and held out a hand.  “I’m Harriet, and this is my Aunt Beth. ”

Jackie held out her hand, looking at the two seemingly friendly faces suspiciously.  “Jackie.  I’m sorry but…this doesn’t seem like your normal hangout.  What brings you here?”

Harriet explained, briefly, about the quilt for the animal shelter.

“I approve of that cause…but since the cops are almost here, I think you’d both better get out while you still can.”  She strode towards the back door and threw it open.  She could hear the cars pulling up outside, but her head was clear, now…she could deal.  Now, to find Matt…

Finding Matt was the easy part…he was dead in the alley behind the bar.

“I think,”  Harriet said behind her, you’re going to need a little help.”

Go on to Episode 7

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cindy Lynn Speer is the author of Blue Moon, Chocolatier’s Wife and Unbalanced.  More about her and her work can be found at www.apenandfire.com

 

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