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When Nothing’s Familiar – Everything can be Lost

When the boundary between worlds is breached, lives are at risk, balance is disrupted and nothing is the same.

I closed my eyes, drawing the energy that sizzled in my core into my fingers and allowing it to ease into Becksmart’s flesh. I controlled the speed of its insertion, knowing that it would be easy to lose control if the energy waiting within the husk of his body was hostile or hungry.

I looked for a spark of life that I could grasp. It was unusual for every bit of life energy to be evicted from the body immediately upon death. A small portion of magic usually remained for a while, a residual energy that I was able to tap into if I was lucky. That remainder was what I would use to read the deceased’s final moments.

Unfortunately, I’d never tried to read a human soul. Because that was what the energy translated to in a human. What was a life force made of pure supernatural energy in a magic user, was something much more ethereal in a human. Something that went beyond magic and was tethered to the spiritual realm.

I had no idea if my energy could even meld with that insubstantial force, let alone pull something out of it. When nothing immediately happened, I increased the energy, sending my explorative tentacles deeper. I probed more meticulously in my search for that spark of remaining energy.

Rummaging around in there for several moments, I found nothing.

Then suddenly, something changed. I touched a spark, seeing an internal flare of light as the energy pulsed into life, contracting and drawing away from my foreign power.

I went very still, retracting the probing energy slightly so I didn’t cause Becksmart’s life force to retract again. I waited, expanding my sensors in an attempt to identify the tiny speck of energy. It was very different from what I was used to. Purer, less stark. Like a golden thread floating gently in a pool of mercury. I got the sense it would like to be set free. I needed to be very careful that I wasn’t the vehicle it used to gain that freedom.

Aside from not knowing what residual effects that might have on me, I needed to read the energy before it fled the world for good.

A hand touched my shoulder. “LA, are you all right?”

I shook off Deg’s touch, frowning. On the outside edge of my awareness, I knew I was breathing really hard, and that sweat trickled down between my shoulder blades, but I still felt as if I had some level of control.

That feeling didn’t last very long.

The fearful speck of energy that had cowered away from my touch suddenly pulsed stronger and exploded into a painfully bright and burning essence. It flashed out and scorched my energy like fire, causing me to scream and pull away. But the energy followed, shooting toward me as I retreated, and I realized what it was doing.

Just before it would have ridden my magic into the ether, escaping me for good, I forced myself to stop retreating. Gritting my teeth against the agony to come, I wrapped the tentacles of my magic around Becksmart’s life force and held on as it writhed and pulsed in an attempt to escape.

Its touch was pure torture, sizzling against my unprotected power and burning it away as fast as I could send more to hold it there. My throat hurt. On some level I was aware I was screaming, beyond the ability to hold it in.

Deg wrapped himself around me and added his energy to mine, reinforcing my hold of Becksmart’s soul. He tensed against me and I heard his hiss of pain. But sharing the discomfort made it more bearable, and I slammed my lips shut on the screams that throbbed there.

I focused on reading the energy. Looking for a signature of the foreign power Tollman suspected had killed the reporter.

There was something hiding behind the painful brightness of the soul. Something darker and more familiar. I sensed its latent energy skulking there but couldn’t get a proper read with all the interference between us.

I couldn’t feel its essence or read the DNA of its magical makeup, but I felt its hostility like a low level hum behind Becksmart’s soul. With a start, I realized the foreign magic was shoving the piece of human soul at me, trying to push me out.

Do you feel that? I asked Deg through our internal communication channel. I felt his nod in my head. 

We need to get past the soul, he ground out, clearly in a lot of pain. I realized in that moment that he was taking on the brunt of it so I could do what I needed to do.

But I won’t be able to read his last moments if I do that.

It’s one or the other, he gasped in my head.

He was right. We could either try to see Becksmart’s last moments, or we could attempt to identify his killer. It was a risk either way. With the reporter’s soul doing such a good job of blocking, we could fail to uncover the deadly magic and lose everything. Or I could try to read his last moments and not be shown the killer. I couldn’t script what I’d be shown. What was there was what I’d see.

I had to decide. And I had to do it fast. I could feel Deg’s energy failing him more with every passing second.

Then the decision was ripped away. Becksmart’s soul flared again, sizzling against our combined energy, and Deg screamed, the agony-filled sound like razors over my skin. My magic faltered and fell away, retreating so quickly I didn’t have time to adjust as it shoved Deg and me so hard we flew backward and smashed up against the far wall.

“Tollman!” I screamed, as a pale yellow whisper of energy trickled from Becksmart’s gaping lips and shot toward the ceiling.

To his credit, the Angel was quick on the draw. His hand shot out and he grabbed for the wisp of soul, wrapping one big hand around it and drawing it in.

The wisp of yellow mist sunk into his palm, and his skin glowed brightly beneath it. I pushed to my feet, my gaze locked on the Angel.

He stood very still, his eyes closed and his head back. The skin of his outstretched palm rolled beneath some kind of impossible force.

How could so much power be captured in such a small amount of energy?

Suddenly, Tollman’s head snapped up and his eyes shot open. His fingers jerked straight, and his entire hand flashed a bright, silver aura, the energy snapping like a raging fire before extinguishing in a soft gasp of air.

I shoved hair out of my face and rubbed my back where I’d slammed into the wall. “Did you get anything?” I asked the Angel.

For a moment, he didn’t seem to hear me, then his gaze slid slowly to mine. His eyes were glassy, and I knew he wasn’t really seeing Deg and Me.  

“Tollman?” Deg said, coming up beside me. “Are you okay?”

The Angel blinked. He looked at his hand and slowly squeezed the fingers closed before answering. “It was something dark. Ugly. But I couldn’t get a signature.”

His voice was soft, breathy. He stared at his hand as if whatever he’d experienced had affected him strongly.

“Was it human or magical?” I asked, feeling dread like a lump of clay in my belly.

His mahogany brows lowered. He unfurled his fingers and stared at the skin I’d watched shifting under Becksmart’s soul energy a moment earlier.

He finally dropped the hand and jerked his gaze to us. “I have to go.”

As he hurried past, I lifted a hand to stop him, but the hand inexplicably missed, cutting through empty air. Before I had time to blink, Tollman was through the door and it had slammed closed behind him, causing me to jump under the violence of its closing.

I looked at Deg. “What just happened?”

He shook his head. “I have no idea. But whatever it was, I think it’s a pretty good bet that it wasn’t a positive development.”

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So MUCK Fun!

Mucky Bumpkin is Full Throttle Country Fun!

A dead Realtor, a cranky cat, an adorable, depressed pibl, and a boyfriend who hasn’t been…shall we say…totally honest recently. Joey’s got bigger problems than figuring out when she’ll get her next slice of banana cream pie. Though that certainly ranks high on her list of concerns.

I’ve always been perfectly aware of my shortcomings as a person.

Mostly.

I consider myself generally a good person. With good instincts about people and a desire to be kind to others unless they’re unkind to me. But I do have an aversion to pushy people. Which has put me on the wrong side of salesmen of all kinds more than once.

My second least favorite of these is real estate agents. Not that being a Realtor is innately bad. It’s just that the act of buying or selling a house is way too much like dealing with used car salesmen for my taste.

Which brings me to my first least favorite type of salesmen.

Fortunately, it wasn’t a car salesman standing on my porch that sunny, cool-ish fall day in the rural area just outside of Deer Hollow, Indiana.

But it might as well have been.

The woman standing in front of Caphy and me had lipstick on her teeth and hair that looked as if squirrels might have built it on her head for nesting. Lucky for her my dog was much more tolerant than I was. Even when she was being none-too-subtly dissed by said lipstick-teethed intruder.

“Miss Fulle, you should chain that beast up.”

The hand on Caphy’s collar tightened briefly as I fought to contain my instant rage. Cacophony, Caphy for short, was about the sweetest animal that ever lived. She was more than my best friend. I credited her with saving my life when I’d gone into the deepest depression imaginable after my parents were killed in a plane crash on our property.

She was also a pit bull.

And that was all some people saw when they looked at her.

Caphy smiled at the woman, her muscular tail whipping painfully against my leg. She whined softly, quivering with friendly excitement.

I drew myself up to my full five feet four inches, tucked a strand of shoulder-length red-blonde hair behind one ear, and narrowed my blue eyes at her. “She’s fine,” I told the woman with the squirrel’s nest for hair. “She lives here. Whereas you…” I let my statement trail away, allowing my uninvited guest to gather my implication all by herself.

The woman frowned slightly, moving a purse the size of her extra-large backside in front of her like a shield. “Oh…um…okay. Well.” She extended her hand a few inches in front of her, a white rectangle stuck between two short fingers. “Here’s my card. My name is Penney Sellers. I was wondering if you’re interested in selling your house.”

I blinked several times. “Not in the least.”

As I responded, I realized it was true. After my parents’ death, when I initially learned that I’d inherited the house and the family auction business, my first thought was to sell the too-big house rather than live here. Too many painful memories existed within its familiar walls. I still thought I’d sell eventually. But I wasn’t quite ready to make that decision.

The auction business was another matter entirely. I still hadn’t accepted the responsibility they’d left in my less-than-capable hands. There was no way I could fill their shoes in the business, and being there was just too painful for me to face.

I glanced down at the card, grimacing at the obviousness of the woman’s name. “Is Penney Sellers really your name?”

In response she gave me a slightly snotty smile. “I can offer you a premium price. There aren’t many homes in this area of this quality.”

“Not interested. You do know there’s a huge subdivision going up on the south side of Deer Hollow, right?” Of course she knew that. But I was making a point.

“Those houses are fine. But they don’t have the…” She swung her arms toward the pond and the trees. “Ambiance. The setting here is truly spectacular.”

“Thank you. But I’m not interested in selling.” I backed into the house, tugging gently on Caphy’s collar. Her gaze locked onto the other woman, who’d taken a step toward the door as if she was thinking about pushing her way inside. A low growl emerged from Caphy’s throat and the hair in front of her tail spiked.

Penney Sellers stopped dead in her tracks, her gaze shooting to the endlessly sweet creature who was giving her fair warning.

But Caphy’s warning didn’t stop the realtor’s mouth from moving. “Do you own all those woods over there?” The woman asked. Her expression was perfectly innocent. But there was a gleam in her eye that I didn’t like.

“Yes. All the way to the big stone marker on Goat’s Hollow Road. 100 acres.”

The gleam flared, making her look positively demonic. “A hundred acres! My goodness. I’d love to talk to you about subdividing the property. We could build a dozen homes and still have sizeable properties.”

“Not interested. Thanks for stopping by.”

“But…”

I slammed the door in her face and locked it. Pressing my ear against the warm wood, I listened for her to climb into her car and drive away before I took a full breath. A soft whine drew my gaze to Caphy. “It’s all right, girl. She’s gone.”

The pibl’s tail snapped sideways once and then she nuzzled me, snorting softly. She was sensitive to my moods, and the alarm I was feeling was no doubt putting her on edge. I couldn’t have explained the panic tightening my chest if someone offered me a thousand dollars to do it.

It was an unreasonable fear. But undeniable.

Nobody could force me to sell my house. Nobody could make me give up my private little wonderland. It was all I had left of my parents.

It was also the place where Caphy and I had grown up. Where we’d run and played, where I’d climbed trees and learned to swim. But the new subdivision was affecting my life in ways I hadn’t expected. When I’d first learned it was coming it had seemed harmless. After all, the three hundred acre plot on the south side of Deer Hollow was miles away from me. The homes were supposed to be decent ones, built on quarter acre lots and not all exactly the same. I reasoned it would be nice to have some new blood in town.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t counted on the other stuff that came with those homes. The constant traffic through town from looky-loos. The noise, mess, and invasion of people who thought the town had been conjured up for their enjoyment.

And the realtors, builders and construction people who clogged the streets and turned the few restaurants Deer Hollow boasted into hotbeds of noise and inaccessibility at meal times.

Still, I could deal with all that.

It was the other thing that had my nerves thrumming like a banjo in the mountains of Kentucky.

The sense of impending doom.

I couldn’t explain it. Hadn’t experienced it before. And I suspected it had something to do with the body we’d discovered in my woods not all that long ago. I was pretty sure I wasn’t completely over finding that mangled corpse or the terrifying events that came after.

Whatever the cause, it was all too real.

And it was making me as jumpy as a fat-legged frog in a French restaurant.

When the article declaring Deer Hollow as one of the best places to raise a family in the United States came out in the The Indianapolis Star weeks earlier, I’d never expected such a vast and immediate change in my world.

But suddenly the Hollow was on the news almost every night. Articles were being written about what a great spot it was. The local artists, authors, and businesses were being examined, highlighted, and, in some cases, given an anal probe, the likes of which the people in my little community had never experienced.

Our recent murder-driven scandal had been examined, the article’s author lamenting the fact that it had apparently been overlooked when choosing America’s favorite spots to live.

But, so far, my family’s involvement had been blissfully absent from speculation. A fact I thought had much to do with a certain uber-sexy PI and his connections with the FBI.

For that, I was both grateful and tense.

I felt as if the other shoe was going to drop at any moment.

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Wherein May was Sad out of only one Eye

I tucked the tiny bottle of fake tears more deeply into my tissue and sniffed daintily, scoping out the assembled crowd of mourners with a practiced eye. My baby blues caught on a handsome, dark-haired man standing back from the rest, and I did one of those embarrassing jerk-away things with my eyes, hoping he didn’t notice me noticing him again.

He totally noticed me.

He’d been staring at me since I’d arrived at the viewing an hour earlier. And his expression was anything but friendly. Somehow my eyes kept traveling to him, though I swear on the life of my spunky Pomeranian, Shakespeare, that it was pure accident.

I wasn’t ogling the mourners.

Really, I wasn’t.

Of its own volition, my gaze accidentally slipped over the spot where he’d been again, and I blinked.

He was gone.

To cover my surprise, I turned to the elderly woman next to me and let my bottom lip quiver. I gave a practiced little sob and squeezed the fake tears in my tissue just as a big hand landed on my shoulder.

I yelped, gripped the tiny bottle as if it was the only thing keeping me from plunging a thousand feet off a bridge to my death, and then yelped again as I shot a stream of faux sadness right into one wide blue eye.

Fake tears ran like the River Jordan down my artificially pale cheek. “Oh!” I exclaimed as I tried to deal with the mess.

I jerked around to eye the owner of the hand and forgot how to speak.

Across the room he’d been yummy, definitely an eight-star performance on opening night. But up close and personal, Mr. Hostile was a solid fifteen stars, with a good three-minute standing ovation added in.

Even with the glare on his face.

I couldn’t help wondering why he seemed so angry with me. Surely it wasn’t because I was ogling him at the viewing of the man who was supposed to be my boyfriend. I gave that one a few moments of thought.

Nah. That couldn’t be it.

Hostile Hottie stuck the hand he’d accosted me with in front of my face, all but daring me to shake it. “Eddie Deitz.”

I blinked. “Huh?” Brilliant, MayBell. Oscar-worthy response.

My poor tissue was swamped with fake tears, and there were more of them trailing down one cheek. I couldn’t seem to get them under control. So, I decided to embrace the dramatic substance of the moment. I quivered my bottom lip and sniffled behind the lump of saturated tissue.

Accepting his challenge, I placed a limp paw into his and allowed it to be pumped. “MayBell Ferth. It’s a pleasure.”

Ugh! I wanted to kick myself. Who says that at a funeral? Jeezopete!

His gorgeous green gaze narrowed slightly, bringing my attention to the thick fringe of black lashes framing his eyes.

I’d do a year’s worth of PiYo classes to have lashes like that. And that was saying something because I hated PiYo with the power of a thousand suns.

“Is there something wrong with your eye?” he asked.

I mopped ineffectually at the fake tears with my soggy tissue. “Um, no, I’m just sad.”

Stupid, May. Stupid.

His expression told me he didn’t believe I was sad out of only one eye. I couldn’t blame him for his skepticism.

NOTE: Mourning Commute is available exclusively on Amazon. If you don’t have a Kindle you can use Amazon’s free Reading App. That’s how I read on all my Apple devices! It’s also available in Print. 

Happy Sleuthing!

A Strange Profession Makes Great Fiction!

 

 

When I was asked to write Mourning Commute, I spent some time pondering the idea of hired mourning. It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about it, I’d actually already written a scene with paid mourners. Perhaps you recall this dignified and sedate scene from Naval Gazing?

***

A long, wailing sob broke the stillness, its fulsome, alarming tenor enough to break through even the little old man’s stupor. He flinched once but, no doubt suffering under nine decades of emphasis on manners and how to behave in polite society, kept his gaze fixed on the casket in front of him.

However, the emitter of the wail was not to be ignored. Another hefty wail broke the silence and it seemed the sound broke something loose in the rest of the assembled mourners. Loud sobbing bubbled up to fill the previously mostly silent cemetery. The sound rose to match the wailing in loudness and, in one or two instances rose above it.

Not to be outdone, one mourner called out, “Help me Lord Ja-eee-sus!” Sounding like a good old-fashioned television preacher working a crowd for money.

With that, the stakes were raised. Never one to let someone beat her at her own game, Agnes let off wailing and, giving her competition a very un-Christian glare, threw back her head and screamed, flinging herself forward toward the unsuspecting deceased.

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Agnes caught her oversized sneaker on a blade of grass and toppled, arms akimbo, onto the surface of the casket.

Everything stopped. It was as if someone had been playing with a time machine and, seeing the pure entertainment value in that place and time, hit a giant ‘Pause’ button to savor the train wreck more completely.

***

Yeah, not Agnes’s finest moment. But you have to admit it was a good bit of acting. #:0) The truth is that professional mourning has been a “thing” for a very long time. It has its roots in several cultures and is mentioned several times in the Bible. In ancient times, the profession was meant to comfort and entertain a grieving family and was performed mostly by women. The jobs were coveted because they provided a way for women to earn their own money. For the deceased, having paid mourners was a sign of prosperity and importance.

Like her ancient sisters, May Ferth believes her job is a comfort to her clients. She takes great pride in serving the grieving family’s needs. But it soon turns out to be the role of her life. May bumps up against a cold-blooded killer while performing her part, and is soon running for her life in a truly ugly pair of shoes!