Friday, February 24, 2017

Chapter reveal: Changing Faces, by Barb Caffrey


portrait in gardenTitle
: CHANGING FACES
Genre: transgender fantasy-romance (contemporary)
Author: Barb Caffrey
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
Allen and Elaine are graduate students in Nebraska, and love each other very much. Their life should be idyllic, but Elaine’s past includes rape, neglect, and abuse from those who should’ve loved her—but didn’t, because from childhood, Elaine identified as transgender.
When Elaine tells Allen right before Christmas, he doesn’t know what to do. He loves Elaine, loves her soul, has heard about transgender people before, but didn’t think Elaine was one of them—she looks and acts like anyone else. Now, she wants to become a man and is going to leave.
He prays for divine intervention, and says he’ll do anything, just please don’t separate him from Elaine…and gets it.
Now, he’s in Elaine’s body. And she’s in his. They’ll get a second chance at love.
Why? Because once you find your soulmate, the universe will do almost anything to keep you together—even change your faces.
////////////////////////////
Chapter 1
Picture this:
It was the middle of July in Nebraska. Sweat started dripping down my back even before I’d stepped foot outside my apartment. My hair was already sticking to my neck, and I didn’t know how I was going to play my clarinet. And I had to do that, because my best friend Jolene Harris was marrying her long-time partner Paula Adelson today.
You see, this wasn’t just a wedding. Paula and Jolene had waited for years to get married, and until recently, they couldn’t. But the Supreme Court of the United States made up their mind a short time ago that same-sex couples are like anyone else—if they want to marry, legally, they should be able to do so. Of course I agreed with this. Anyone who ever saw Jolene with Paula and their son, Adam, for longer than two minutes would agree, if they had any sense at all.
Fortunately for me, my boyfriend, Allen, completely understands. He’s coming with—and he’ll be playing his clarinet, too. (He’s going to play Ave Maria at Jolene’s request.) Allen, unlike me, identifies as straight, but he’s no bluenose—he’s even walked with me in Lincoln’s Gay Pride parade.
Yes, I know I need to tell him…everything. But must it be today?
The sun was shining. The birds were chirping. We’d even seen a rare double rainbow last night, after a brief but intense thundershower. Most people probably would’ve thought that today was absolutely perfect for a wedding, if they didn’t mind having to stand outside in 90-plus degree weather.
Allen and I made it to the car, we stored away our clarinets and music stands, and started driving. Considerate as always, he turned the air conditioning on and let me bask in it a few minutes before he spoke.
“I wish it were our wedding,” he said wistfully.
Oh, no, not that again, I couldn’t help but think. I loved Allen—truly, I did—and I wanted no one but him. But…
“I’d rather get married in the winter than the summer,” I told him, trying to keep it light. “It’s way too warm right now for my liking.”
“Are you sure you’re from Florida?” he half-joked back.
“Hey, it’s humid there, but it rarely hits the triple digits.” At his cocked eyebrow, I added, “That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”
He laughed, as I’d intended, and the subject was defused. For now.
Somehow, I had to tell him what I really was. But I didn’t have the words just yet.
* * *
I snuck a peek at Elaine as we set up our music stands. She looked gorgeous, as usual, though by her standards she was a bit dressed-down for such festivities in a burnt orange blouse, dark slacks and low heels, with an orange flower in her hair for the sake of whimsy. Chestnut brown hair cut short for the summer, bright brown eyes with flecks of gold only I could see, when she was particularly happy, high cheekbones…a beautiful woman, inside and out.
Who cared that she, like me, had been known to look at women from time to time before we met? Not I. (And no, I’ve never had that whole threesome fetish thing going on, thank you. I’ve always refused to share.)
Because it was hot, I’d worn dark slacks, a long-sleeved white dress shirt, and a tie with musical notes on it. (Jolene had told Elaine it was to be a less formal wedding, so what I was wearing should be more than good enough.) My glasses were starting to slide down my nose—occupational hazard, on a day as hot as this—but I knew the music well. Even if my glasses fell off, I’d be able to play and no one but Elaine should notice.
The caterers were still fussing with the food, and neither Jolene nor Paula was anywhere to be seen. It was an hour and a half until the ceremony, so this wasn’t entirely a surprise. Elaine and I liked to be early, to get ourselves acclimated, whenever we played a gig—not that we’d played a ton of weddings, but we’d certainly played at enough other places that this should not be much of a stretch.
We started with the Telemann Canonic Sonatas, easy enough pieces to play as they hadn’t been designed for the clarinet’s three-octave range. They were fun, though, and suited the day well…after a while, I noticed Adam, Jolene’s son and a burgeoning clarinetist, watching us avidly. His two-toned blond head bobbed to the music, and he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. But he wasn’t dressed for a wedding; instead, he wore a t-shirt and ratty old jeans with shoes that looked two sizes two big.
When we took a break, I nodded toward him and asked Elaine, “He seems happy, don’t you think?” Of course, I wanted to say, What on Earth is he wearing? But I was far too polite.
“He’s probably glad I didn’t assign him to play these pieces,” she said with an arched eyebrow.
I stifled a laugh. “He’s still a beginner, so he doesn’t need to worry about that yet.”
“Ah, but does he know that?”
After we put our clarinets down, Adam came over and handed us each an ice-cold bottle of water. “You two sound great!”
“Thanks, kiddo.” I resisted the urge to ruffle his hair, taking a sip of water instead. “Are you wearing that to your mothers’ wedding?”
Adam shrugged. “They’re worried about what they’re wearing. I didn’t think they’d care what I wore…”
“Try again,” I said kindly. “I’m sure they’ll have someone taking pictures, as they’ve waited a long time to get married.”
“I don’t see what the big deal is. They’ve been together since I was a baby. Do they really need a piece of paper after all that?”
Before I could say anything, Elaine jumped in. “Yes, having the relationship matters more than the piece of paper. But they want that piece of paper. They’ve dreamed about having that piece of paper. And you, Adam, are going to go in the house and find yourself something to wear that shows you made an effort, or I’ll give you five extra scales next week.”
“And if you don’t find something better than that,” I added, “I’ll have to come in and help you.”
Adam shuddered dramatically. “Okay, okay already.” He went into the house.
The minister had arrived, a cheerful, fortyish woman. The food had all been brought out. The guests were starting to assemble, so Elaine and I played some more duets. The music flowed out of me, and I became so caught up in that that I didn’t care how hot it was. It was just me, Elaine, and the music.
Life was good.
By the time I looked up again, it was fifteen minutes until the ceremony. Jolene, tall and resplendent in a bright blue satiny long dress, was chatting with the minister, but Paula was nowhere to be seen. Then Jolene came over to us, murmuring, “Paula’s nervous. Says she can’t find anything to wear. And we went over this yesterday—I can’t believe this is happening.” She bit her lip, adding, “Maybe she wants to back out.”
“I’m sure it’s not that,” I put in, trying to settle her down. “She loves you to distraction.” My words were absolutely true. I’d never seen a more devoted couple.
Elaine sighed. “Let me guess. She won’t let you see her, because of that old superstition about brides—even though I’m sure you don’t care—”
“Got it in one,” Jolene said, nodding.
“And I can’t go to her,” I put in.
Both women looked at me like I’d grown a second head. “Of course you can’t,” Elaine snapped. Then, her eyes silently apologized…she must’ve realized I’d been joking. “I’ll go.”
“Would you?” The look Jolene gave her would’ve melted an iceberg—that is, if it hadn’t already melted due to the heat.
Elaine touched my hand, and was gone.
I turned back to my clarinet, and started playing the Miklos Rosza Sonatina, ideal for today as it required no accompaniment. Before I immersed myself fully in the music, I prayed that Elaine’s errand would not take too much time.
I didn’t get nearly enough time with Elaine as it was.
* * *
I went down the hall to Paula and Jolene’s bedroom, and knocked.
Paula let me in without saying a word. She wore a bra and a half-slip, but nothing else. The last time I’d been here, the bedroom had been painfully neat but a bit cluttered; now, though, it was as if a tornado had hit the place. Black pants were draped over the wooden headboard along with a shiny silver bolero; a red dress was covered by a bright yellow swath of something in the middle of the carpet—had I ever seen either Jolene or Paula wear yellow? I didn’t think so—while I saw green, brown, white, and checkered blazers, pants and skirts all over the place.
And a lonely light blue dress sat in the middle of the bed, crumpled as if Paula had thrown it.
Before I could say anything, Paula beat me to it. “Feeling femme today, Elaine?”
I blushed. “You two are marrying. It doesn’t matter what I feel like.”
“Then why the flower in your hair?”
Paula was the only person who’d guessed that I wasn’t simply bisexual, though I was certain Jolene knew something was off, too. Paula knew what I was in its entirety—I’m a gender-fluid person, and some days I feel female, others male. But I’ve never felt fully comfortable giving in to my impulses, not the way I was raised…
I realized I was woolgathering. “Who cares why? I’m here to help you. Jolene’s a mess. I think she’s afraid you’re going to call off the wedding.”
“No, never,” Paula said with a faraway smile. “But I have to have something to wear. And the blue dress that I was going to wear must’ve shrunk at the cleaners.”
“Are you sure this isn’t just bridal jitters?”
“Jitter me this,” Paula snarled, and put on the blue dress. Despite Paula’s tiny frame, the dress didn’t fit over her slender hips, much less meet in the middle of her back. “Could anyone wear this?”
“Maybe a dwarf could, but certainly not you.” I shook my head, and sighed. “You didn’t want to try it on yesterday, why again?”
“It’s a tradition in my family that we don’t wear our wedding dresses between the time we try them on and actually are about to get married. My parents are out there, and I figured they’d know—” She looked like she was about ready to cry.
“I understand that you want to be as traditional as possible,” I said gently. “But isn’t it more important that you wear something that you might actually feel good in on a day like today?”
“Point.” Paula smiled ruefully. “I certainly can’t wear this. And everything else, except for one outfit, I’ve already worn…and that isn’t very festive.”
“Show me the outfit,” I told her.
Paula pulled a charcoal grey sleeveless top with a bit of shininess to it out from under the pile of clothes on the floor, and grabbed a grey pair of pants. “I’d intended to wear this to dance with Jolene later. But it’s not good enough to wear now!”
“Put it on, and let’s see.”
After shrugging off her slip, Paula got into the outfit. The top fit well, but wasn’t too snug; considering it was at least ninety-five degrees in the shade, I didn’t see a problem with it. And the grey pair of pants looked comfortable and easy to move around in.
“To my mind,” I said, “this is the right outfit. Wear your best black shoes, and maybe add a black or white scarf? Or do you have a statement necklace, something that will visually draw the eye?”
“Who knew you knew this much about fashion?” Paula teased, as she got out her shoes and a white, fringy scarf. Once the scarf was draped, she added a chunky pearl-and-onyx brooch that went perfectly with the outfit, almost as if it had been designed for the thing.
“Don’t tell anyone,” I advised her. “It might ruin my reputation.”
As we laughed, I took her arm, and escorted her outside to her waiting father.
“Dad, this is Elaine,” Paula told him.
“I saw you playing the clarinet before, didn’t I?” But before I could answer, he added, “Thanks for your help.” He took my place at Paula’s side, and walked her down the flower-strewn path toward Jolene and the minister.
Allen started to play Ave Maria. Before he got four measures in, I saw people dabbing at their eyes.
Of course, Jolene and Paula both looked beautiful, Jolene tall and buxom in blue, Paula petite and dainty in grey and white. So that might’ve been it…but I still think Allen’s playing had a great deal to do with it, too.
I went to Allen, unnoticed in the crowd, and squeezed his shoulder. He put his clarinet down, and grabbed my hand; as I had been about to hold his hand, I had no problem with that at all.
We could barely see Paula’s blonde head back here, due to the crowd, but it didn’t matter. We were ready to play again long before Paula and Jolene shared their first kiss as a married couple, and before the audience had finished applauding, we were playing recessional music—Mendelssohn, I thought—that Allen had arranged for two clarinets.
After a while, everyone had gone toward the refreshment table but us. But before we could go get something, Jolene came up to us and insisted that we get our pictures taken. I hate having my picture taken, as my outer self doesn’t always match my inner self…and even on a day like today, where I felt more feminine than not, I still hated having the flower in my hair memorialized for all time.
Still, Allen’s kiss on the cheek was nice, and my smile at him was genuine. He was truly a good man, the best person I’ve ever known…someday soon, I’d have to tell him the truth about me.
And if he still wanted to marry me then, I’d let him.
* * *
Later on, after we’d stored our clarinets away and the food had been cleared out, I took Elaine back out to the yard again. Toward the back, there was a patch of green grass near the fence that I didn’t think anyone had stood on today; an untrammeled bit of grass, if you will. The sky was breathtaking, all bronzy red and pinkish orange, fading into the deep twilight blue I’d only ever seen in a Nebraska summer sky. It was a sky Maxfield Parrish might’ve painted, had he the chance.
“Such beauty,” Elaine breathed.
“What better omen for a wedding,” I added.
For once, Elaine didn’t give me a reproving look. Instead, she looked soft, touchable, feminine in a way I rarely saw…I knew I couldn’t waste this moment.
As Jolene and Paula were saying goodbye to their guests, we were quite alone. Our temporary solitude suited me well.
I went down to one knee on the grass, and said, “Elaine Foster, will you marry me?”
Elaine bit her lip, which wasn’t the response I wanted.
So before she spoke, I tried again. “Look, Elaine. We are meant for one another. I love you to distraction. I want you to become everything you have always wanted—a great writer, a great educator. You’re already a great person, and the only woman I want to be with. Will you please put me out of my misery and say yes?”
At that, Elaine laughed, pulled me up, and kissed me. When I broke away again, I looked down at her shining eyes and said, “So, is that a yes?”
“It’s a yes,” she murmured. “But…”
Before she could say anything more, Adam came barreling out into the yard. “My mothers told me to come and find you.”
As we went inside, I thought, This is the happiest day of my life.
* * *
I loved Allen. So I said yes, when he asked me this time—hoping I’d be able to explain just who and what I really was, after. And it made Allen so happy, for a time, I basked in his reflected happiness, and felt transformed.
If only we could’ve stayed in that moment forever.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Right Wrong Number, by Jim Nesbitt


edearl56-300dpi-3125x4167Title
:  THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER
Genre: Mystery
Author: Jim Nesbitt
Publisher: Spotted Mule Press
About the Book:  
When the phone rings long after midnight, it spells trouble of the lethal kind for Ed Earl Burch. A cashiered homicide detective with bad knees, a wounded liver and an empty bank account, Burch has been hired to protect an old flame after the disappearance of her husband, a high-flying Houston financier who ripped off his clients, including some deeply unsavory gentlemen from New Orleans.
It’s a simple job that goes wrong fast, plunging Burch into a ruthless contest where nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted. Money and sex— twin temptations served up by the old flame, a rangy strawberry blonde with a violent temper and a terminal knack for larceny and betrayal—tempt Burch to break his own rules. But when his best friend gets murdered by hired muscle in Dallas, Burch blames himself and grimly sets out for vengeance.
Bristling with relentless action, a pulse-racer of a plot, a solid storyline, and a colorful cast of characters, The Right Wrong Number is hard-boiled detective fiction at its finest. With his pitch-perfect voice and keen eye for detail, Jim Nesbitt uses the skills honed over decades of deadline journalism to create an extraordinary story centered on a protagonist like no other: the deeply flawed but wildly compelling Ed Earl Burch. A taut, tense, uncompromising tale of revenge and redemption, The Right Wrong Number is a damned good story exceptionally well-told.

THE RIGHT WRONG NUMBER 
An Ed Earl Burch Novel


ONE 
It wasn’t San Francisco or London, but the fog was thick and flowing — like tufts sucked from a bale of cotton, carrying the muddy tint of a used linen filter. It made him think of trench coats, lamp posts and the low warning moan of a ship’s horn sounding somewhere out on the water. Rolling across the flat fields, it made dark gray ghosts of the trees that huddled along the far fencelines and left cold beads of moisture on his skin and memories of old black-and-white movies in his mind.
But there were no ships in the harbor, no waterside buckets of blood, no Rick or Ilsa. Just lightless farmhouses, barns, open-sided equipment sheds and squat corrugated feed bins for cattle, all cloaked by the fast-moving fog, glimpsed only if the wind parted the curtain of stained white wetness as you rolled by.
And it wasn’t the Left Coast or Britain. It was Texas and the scrubby coastal country north of Houston, beyond the Intercontinental and its roaring planes. Take a left off the farm-market road with the four-digit number. Find the third dirt road on the left, take it for three miles. Splash through the potholes and set your teeth against tires juddering across the washboard track. Hit the T of another dirt road. Look for a faint gravel trail at your 10 o’clock. Rattle over the cattle guard. Close the gate behind you.
Easy to remember. Hard to do with visibility down to zero. Even with the window rolled down and the Beemer’s fog lamps flipped on. Nice car. Leather seats the color of butterscotch taffy. Mahogany inserts flanking the instruments and fronting the glove box. Killer sound system and a cellular phone. Shame to bang this baby along back roads, splashing mud and gravel against its polished flanks of forest green.
Not his car. Not his problem. Fog and time were. He was already a half hour behind schedule when his contact finally drove up with the car, the briefcase of bills and directions to the meet. Fog was adding more minutes to his travel time. He had to double back when he missed one turnoff and that made him slow and leery of missing another.
Not good. Not good. Patient people weren’t on the other end. They never were. But they would wait because he had the money, they had the product and both sides wanted this deal closed tonight. And if they were pissed and wanted to wrangle, he could deal with that; a matte-chrome Smith & Wesson Model 6906 with thirteen rounds of 9 mm hollow point nestled in a shoulder rig underneath his black leather jacket.
Always the chance of a wrangle on a run like this. Rip-offs were a run-of-the-mill business risk, even between long-time associates. But on this deal the probability of gunplay was low. He was just nervous about running late. It wasn’t professional. He thought about using the cellular phone but shook the idea out of his head. Not something a pro would do.
And not something his people would appreciate. They were security-conscious and worked the high-dollar end of the street. No cowboys. Pros only. Running a well-oiled machine. Not that he knew them well. He was strictly a cutout man, a well-paid delivery boy who made it his business to stay ignorant about those who hired him and their business partners.
He wasn’t totally in the dark about his paymasters; no prudent pro ever was. But he kept his curiosity in check and his focus on the amount of money he was paid and the demands of the night’s job.
It was a relaxing way to make a living. A phone rings. A voice on the line gives him the name of a bar or cafe. A man meets him with an envelope and instructions. And he goes where he is told — to deliver money, to pick up a truck or car loaded with product, to put a bullet through the skull of someone he doesn’t know.
Command and control. Just like the Army and those over-the-border ops in Cambodia. Project Vesuvius. Studies and Observations Group. Words both grandiose and bland to cover what he and his comrades did. Slip over the fence, gather the intel, slit a few throats along the way. Set up the Big Death — from the air and on the ground. Operation Menu. Operation Patio. Operation Freedom Deal. Cambodian Incursion. More bland words for killing the enemy in his safest sanctuaries. Parrot’s Beak. The Fishhook. The Dog’s Face.
A sputtering string of electronic beeps startled him. The car phone. He glanced down and saw a red pin light flash to the time of the beeps. He pulled the receiver out of its cradle.
“Talk to me.”
“Where the hell are you?”
“You don’t want me to say.”
“You’re late and that’s making some people nervous.”
“Your man was late and this phone call is making me nervous. It’s not very smart.”
“We decide what’s smart. We pay you to get things done and be on time. How long till you get there?”
“Ten.”
“Get there.”
He snapped the receiver back in place and shook his head. Not good. Not good. Lots of snoopers scanning these cellular circuits. A pro would know this and wouldn’t risk a call unless the other side was making a ruckus. Made him wonder if the players in this game were as big league as he thought they were.
Those thoughts rode with him as he wheeled the Beemer down the dirt road, looking for the T intersection. There it was. He looked for the gravel trail, slowly turning the car to the left and letting the fog lamps cut a slow sweep across the far side of the road. There. At his ten o’clock. Just like he was told. He stayed alert, but his nagging nervousness and doubts started to fade.
The trail led from the gate and crossed the field at a sharp angle. He crept along, easing the car through ruts and washouts. He saw the shrouded form of a tin shed and weaved the car so the lights would pan across its open door. The yellow beams caught the wet metal of an old tractor and two men in dark slacks and windbreakers — one tall, bald and lean, the other short, squat and slick-haired.
He stopped the car, fog lamps still on. He pulled his pistol, letting his gun hand drop to his side and rear as he stepped out, keeping his body behind the car door.
“Wanna cut the lights, guy?”
A purring voice from the short guy, coming from a full, sleek face that made him think of a seal.
“Not really. Let’s keep everything illuminated. Makes me feel safe.”
“You’re among friends, guy. Nobody wants monkeyshines here. We just do the handoff and the call and we can all get the hell out of this fog. You’re late and we’re cold.”
“No arguments from me, my man. But let’s do this by the numbers.”
“Numbers it is, guy.”
He stepped away from the car.
“Money’s in the front seat. Have your buddy do the honors.”
A nod from the talker. His companion walked to the passenger side of the Beemer and leaned in. He heard the latches of the briefcase pop open.
“Looks good to me.”
“Make the call. That okay with you, guy?”
“By all means. Make that call. Tell Mabel to put a pot of coffee on.”
A laugh from the talker. He could see the other guy reach for the cellular phone. Somewhere across town, a phone would ring. Assurances the money was in hand. Somewhere else another phone would ring. Product would change hands. Then the Beemer’s cellular would ring again and the night’s business would be done.
He was alert but relaxed, ready to wait, the screw-ups behind him and the deal running smooth and professional now. He had a clear view of the talker and his companion. He had his gun in hand. He was thinking about a cup of coffee when the baseball bat cracked across the back of his skull.
“Cut those damn lights. Secure the money.”
A nod from the companion. The talker moved toward the third man, the man with the baseball bat, a hulk with the arms and shoulders of a lineman and the on-the-balls-of-the-feet stance of a third baseman. They stood over the slumped body.
“Give me a hand with this sumbitch. He’s heavy. Get that gun, Jack.”
“Got it. Who’d this guy piss off?”
“Nobody you need to know about, guy. Or me. He’s just a poor soul somebody wants whacked.”
“Awful lot of trouble just to whack a guy. What the fuck are we stagin’ this thing for, Louis? Why not just pop him and get it over with?”
“Not your worry, guy. Just muscle him into the driver’s seat and let me dress him up pretty. Bill, did you wipe your prints?”
“Does it matter?”
A glare from Louis. The companion shrugged, pulled a bandana from his back pocket and leaned into the Beemer. When done, he hoisted the briefcase and walked back toward the shed.
Louis kept his eyes locked on the bald man as he walked away, his head swiveling like a table-top fan, his eyes popped with anger. He broke the stare and fussed with the body, pulling the head back, reaching into the mouth, then his pocket, then back into the mouth. Jack watched and shook his head.
“Bill!”
“Yo!”
“Get me that bundle, guy. The jacket and the trench coat. And bring that bag with the stuff in it.”
“Yo.”
Bill hustled to the car. Louis patted him on the shoulder, thanking him in that purring voice, his face soft and placid again. He turned back to the body, peeling off the leather jacket and unfastening the shoulder rig. He fished through the pockets, pulling wallet, keys and a checkbook, leaving loose change. He replaced these items with wallet, keys and a checkbook he pulled from a crumpled brown paper bag. He pulled a ring from the right hand and a fake Rolex from the left wrist, digging a wedding band, a class ring and a real Rolex — an Oyster Perpetual Datejust — from the bag.
The jacket and trench coat came next — a nicely tailored Burberry, pity the waste. Louis started to sweat as he pulled and smoothed the clothes onto the body. He unbuttoned the shirt down to the navel, then reached into the bag and pulled out a squeeze bottle, the kind with the thin nozzle that could poke through the bars of a footballer’s facemask. He squeezed water onto the body’s chest then reached under the dash to pop the hood of the Beemer.
“Jack — hook up those cables, guy.”
“Jesus.”
“I know it’s unpleasant, but just do it for me, guy.”
Louis fired up the Beemer’s engine then waited for Jack to hand him the twin clamps. Clamps to the body’s chest. The smell of burning flesh and electrified ozone.
Again. Again the smell.
And again. Clamps to Jack. Engine off.
“Bill. The acid, guy.”
A glass bottle of sulfuric acid. A small glass tray. Fingers and thumb from one hand in. Then the other hand. He handed the tray to Bill.
“Careful with that, guy. Dump it.”
“Yo.”
Louis turned back to the body. He pursed his lips as he lined up the shoulders, the head and the arms to stage the proper angles of a kill shot.
The head was the difficult part. Without a helping hand to hold it in place, it rolled about and wouldn’t stay upright. Louis pulled the hips forward then shoved the shoulders deep into the folds of the leather seat, pressing them into place. The head was now resting lightly against the butterscotch leather padding of the headrest.
That’s how it would line up. He stood up and pulled a snub-nosed Colt Agent in .38 Special from the paper bag with a gloved hand. He eyed the angle for another second then nodded Jack away.
Louis eased the pistol barrel into a sagging mouth, eyeing the angle one more time. He pulled the trigger, blinking at the pistol’s flash and sharp report. He dropped the gun to the floor.
The bullet had blown off the back of the man’s skull, obliterating the pulpy mark of the baseball bat and spraying a dark stain of brains, blood and bone shards across the light-colored leather seats. The impact canted the body across the console and gearshift, head and shoulder jammed between the seats.
“Jesus, Louis.”
“What?”
“Christamighty, it’s one thing to whack a guy up close like that, another to do all that shit with the battery cables and the acid. But to have to fish out his dentures first? They’d have to pay me double to do that.”
“They are, guy. They are.”
“Whadja have to do it for?”
“They were making his gums sore. He needed a new pair.”
“Like he’ll need ’em where he’s going.”
“You never know. Blow the car, Jack. We gotta get us back on home, guy. Get us on the outside of some gumbo down to Tujague’s.”
“I’m for that. A shame though. This is a nice car.”
“That it is, guy. Blow her just the same. Make it burn pretty.”
“Lotta noise. Lotta flash. Cops’ll be here like flies on a dead fish.”
“Do it quick then, guy. So we can be long gone.”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

NASHVILLE: Music and Murder, by Tom Carter


cover-low-resTitle
:  NASHVILLE:  Music and Murder
Genre: Mystery
Author: Tom Carter
Find out more on Amazon
About the Book:
Set against the backdrop of Nashville’s thriving country music industry, Nashville:  Music and Murder introduces an unforgettable protagonist: country music’s reigning queen for over two decades, legendary vocalist Maci Willis.
When the novel opens, Maci Willis has taken the stage at Bridgestone area. Performing an unbelievable string of hits to legions of adoring fans, Maci is back for her fourth encore…until a gunshot rings out in a shocking attempt on her life.   But who would want country music’s queen dead?  And why?
Beloved to fans, but widely known offstage for extraordinary talent and unnecessary drama, Maci miraculously escapes with her life—a life that quickly begins to spiral out of control.  Eager to do damage control for the scandalized starlet, Maci’s record label launches an extensive publicity tour in the wake of the shooting. But when an overzealous fan gets way too close for comfort and dies under dubious circumstances, Maci is forced to flee.
Out of the spotlight and on the run, Maci has to face the music.  As her carefully-constructed façade crumbles, Maci realizes just how empty, hollow, and meaningless her life has become.  But soon, Maci discovers a shocking truth:  there’s something sinister behind the music, and beneath the glittery veneer of fame and fortune lurks an unseemly underbelly of greed, deceit, and deadly intentions.  Could it be that Maci Willis is worth more dead than alive?  Seems like someone is poised to make a killing in country music…
Will Maci finally come to see the light?  Or will she even live to see the light of day?
About the Author: 
Bestselling author Tom Carter is a longtime Nashville who lives with his wife, Janie, a few miles from Nashville’s legendary Music Row.  
Connect with the author on the Web:
Chapter One
Singer Maci Willis faked another smile, then gazed wearily across a sea of 18,000 jubilant fans. Twenty years ago, she would have given her heart and soul to
draw a crowd this size. But tonight, the demanding masses were draining her of everything she had.
As her eyes scanned the room, she heard not the adulation of an army of admirers, but the deafening roar of a thousand lions that had just spotted a solitary gazelle named Maci.
Looking down, she told herself that she could hold her composure together for a few more minutes. The rhythmic stomping of feet told her what she already knew – that people were hungry for more musical manna – and were hoping for a third encore.
With her nod to the band, the opening chords of one of her signature hits filled the arena. Then, as a sea of smart- phones flashed at her, she waved her hand, a gesture to stop the music.
“You probably heard I’m not too big of a fan of these phones,” she said.
A few hundred fans who had seen the previous month’s tabloids hooted in approval. They’d read the story of how Maci, while dining at a riverside restaurant, was approached by a fan who tried to force her into an unwanted selfie. In one swift, nearly choreographed motion, Maci snatched the boy’s phone and threw it into the river. When the press called the next day, her only comment was, “I don’t know why they call it a smartphone when there always seems to be an idiot attached to the  screen.”
Now, in front of a capacity crowd, Maci decided to double down. Rather than address the entire audience, she turned her attention to a pudgy teenage girl in the front row, who was still squinting into her phone as she recorded Maci.
“Darlin’,” she said. “You. Open your eyes. You’re sitting beneath a thirty-foot Jumbotron. Me and my band are standing here in front of you, larger than life. And your mama paid two hundred dollars for that seat. And now, you want to squeeze us all down into a teeny, tiny, four-inch screen.
“Well, I’m waaay too big for a four inch screen!”
The crowd roared in support of Maci. When the Jumbotron captured the image of the young offender, it finally dawned upon her that she was the target of Maci’s  remarks.
“Honey, just look at yourself,” said Maci in a voice that blurred the chasm between sarcasm and concern. “You’re scarcely fourteen years old, and you’re already at least thirty   or forty pounds overweight, maybe more. That ain’t living, darlin’. Put down that stupid phone. Throw it out. Get out of your chair. And get up on your feet and   dance!
“In fact, everybody, put down your phones!” Maci yelled  to the audience. “Get up on your feet! You  didn’t come here   to see Samsung! You didn’t come here to see Apple! You came here to see the greatest female singer alive—and to hear the best songs in the history of country music! Now get up and dance!”
The band instantly ripped into the opening bars of the third encore. Maci had worked the crowd into such a frenzy that only a few noticed the glistening tears rolling down the chastised girl’s reddened face. Just as two other teenagers left their seats to console her, the Jumbotron cut away from her and back to Maci, and the cries of the crowd reached a new crescendo.
Winding down from two hours of singing and shuffling across a 40-foot stage, Maci took a deep breath. The sprawling screen above the platform magnified the sweat that beaded on her brow. Her normally erect posture was slightly bent, as if she carried not just the weight of the night’s performance, but of the entire world’s.
“Maybe not the entire world,” she thought to herself. “Just thousands of fans, a production crew of sixty, and five truckloads of equipment. Plus a sizeable part of the country music industry.”
Outside, additional Jumbotrons on the façade of Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena thrust Maci’s voice and image out to the throng of fans without tickets. Throughout the evening, she’d intermittently talked directly to the sidewalk followers, who for the most part were a bit more drunk that those inside. A drone-mounted camera occasionally panned the crowds who came to life each time they saw themselves on the massive screens. One man shot the moon to his fellow fans and a few women flashed their  breasts.
The frenetic sea of Maci’s fans stretched down Broadway for two blocks, nearly reaching the bank of the Cumberland River. From that vantage point, most could neither hear nor see Maci’s show; they’d come primarily to drink and mingle with other folks, and occasionally they’d contribute their own song and dance. Temporary beer stands had taken root in the middle of the road, which had been closed off to accommo- date the crowds. In each booth, bartenders poured a   steady stream of ice-cold lagers for the mob, who had come as much for the beer as for the  music.
“You folks outside should have scooped up some tickets from the scalpers,” Maci shouted into her microphone. “The cost would have been outrageous, but I’m worth the money!” The lilt in her voice hinted that her energy was waning like a jet aircraft leaking fuel. Even so, her little asides ignited smatterings of applause from both inside and outside the arena.
“How much more do these people want from me?” Maci mumbled off microphone. “How much more can I give? Let’s see what the old gal’s got left.”
Lifting the microphone to her lips, she blasted out the first few words of “Come and Get It,” her chart-topper from nearly fifteen years earlier. As the band joined in, the audi- ence once again rose to their feet. Maci crossed the stage, dragging the spotlight with her, toward her steel guitarist. Feigning astonishment, he leapt from his seat on cue, and Maci playfully pushed him away. Sitting in his chair, Maci sloppily played a three-string verse without a chorus, and then jumped atop the borrowed chair where she wobbled back and forth to the delight of her  audience.
Just as she expected, a hefty faction of the crowd mimicked her movements by jumping up and teetering on their seats. Unaccustomed to balancing on their chairs, people were laughing, spilling beer and falling like leaves in a windstorm. Holding her microphone to her waist, Maci made sure her admirers could see, but not hear, her exaggerated breaths, which were worthy of a boxer after going twelve rounds with Muhammad Ali. The theatrics once again worked the crowd
into blistering ecstasy as the lights began to  fade.
“Bye bye, folks,” she thought as the darkness embraced her. “I’m leaving my stage, leaving it without an ounce of remaining energy. Time for y’all to go back home to your bored and boring lives.”
Precisely as the curtains dropped, the room’s semi-dark- ness was shattered by the burst of the arena’s house lights which pierced the air like a thousand tiny suns. Their idol gone from sight, fans squinted into the glare, contorting their faces like animals surfacing from a long winter’s hibernation. Many hummed or sang as they headed toward the exits. Most were smiling, and a few were teary eyed from having finally seen a living legend. The Queen had left her throne. There was no High Princess in the wings. The music had silenced, and so had the listeners’ world.
Or so they thought.
Before the fans could leave, the arena was thrust into total blackness. Scattered exit signs eerily dotted the  darkness like flickering fireflies. Some fans wondered aloud if there had been a power failure. Then, in a flash, the surprised audi- ence released a collective gasp as spotlights sliced through the ocean of black. As the crowd slowly realized what was happening, their murmurings rose from unexpected joy, to unbridled jubilation to outright nirvana.
“Nobody returns to the stage four times!” shouted the announcer through the sound system. “Except for Maci Willis!!!!”
Like shoppers squeezing through a Black Friday turnstile, the departing fans wrestled madly to get back to their seats. “The show must go on—again!” yelled the announcer. “You won’t miss what you don’t see, so you’d better see what
you might miss!”
Shouts, sometimes profane, resounded from fans, espe- cially those bottlenecked inside the exit tunnels where ushers struggled to herd them back  inside.
Then she appeared.
Alone in seven spotlights, Maci stood motionless as she was lifted through the stage floor, bathed in an aura of pastel footlights. Then, as the band played the opening chords of another signature song, she began to frantically dance in place with the fervor of a barefoot child on a tar roof.
“You didn’t think I’d leave without singing my favorite song, did you?” she screamed into her earset microphone. “You ain’t getting rid of me that easy. I’d NEVER leave you!” Separated from their assigned seats, the confused audi- ence shifted like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces had sprung to life. As the band began to play, Maci ripped away her designer gown, flashed her legs beneath her mini-dress and the musical madness became as loud as New Year’s Eve at Times Square. The crowd, startled yet joyous,   unanimously
wondered how long the show would actually go on. Except for one fan. He knew exactly how   long.
Having followed Maci’s touring extravaganza through  three cities, he’d memorized the show down to its smallest detail. He knew this encore was truly the last. He knew just when Maci would strut across the stage,  and  exactly  when and where she’d stop to pose for one last flurry of photos like   a gloating minstrel. Like a legend finally at rest.
Like a perfect target.
While the houselights had sent most of the crowd to the exits, he waded against the plethora of fans, working his way closer to the stage. He knew the arena well; the route back- stage, the nearest exit, the gateway through which he could sink safely and silently into the night.
Like a child seeking a hidden toy, he slid his hand gently under his black, all-weather coat to reaffirm the presence of his .357 Magnum whose steel jacket bullets could penetrate an engine block. Patting the weapon’s cold steel contours, he marveled at its sleeping power which he would soon awaken.
“The entire crowd’ll want to kill me,” he whispered to  no one. “But that won’t be personal. They’ll want to kill me because I killed  her.”
Like a salmon battling its way upstream, he wove his way through the widening flow of torsos engulfing him.
Still too far to see Maci clearly, he repeatedly glanced upward at the Jumbotron as he inched toward the stage. The face he saw no longer had the youthful glow that had filled her early album covers. He could see the streaked mascara and the tired lines on her face that resembled creases on silk. “Maci’s  exhausted,” he told himself. “She needs to   rest.
She needs . . . me.”
He drifted, lost in the crowd, moving slowly but methodi- cally closer to the stage. As the song entered its second verse, he smiled wryly, realizing he could now ignore the Jumbotron and look straight into Maci’s eyes.
“I love you, Maci,” he yelled, his voice buried beneath the blare of the music and the roar of the crowd. “I understand your songs better than all of these simpletons!”
As he continued his journey toward destiny, his excite- ment over seeing Maci was matched only by his disdain for the audience. They were fools. They didn’t understand Maci. They didn’t understand her or her songs. Not like he did. Idiots. All of them.
Maci and four backup singers slipped into an a cappella refrain as the band members raised their hands high to kindle a round of unified clapping throughout the arena. Not content to merely clap, the crowd began to stomp their feet in time with the music. Feeling their cadence through the soles on his boots, he knew the crowd’s emotions were rising. As were his. None of them realized how close they were to the end of Maci’s show, and of her life.
But he did.
An unimpressive row of security ushers, dressed in canary yellow sport coats, stood rigidly a few feet apart from each other, forming what passed for a protective line in front of the stage and the performers standing on it.
“Useless geezers,” he smirked aloud, safe  and  smug  in  the knowledge that his spoken words still could not be heard above the din and fray. He could announce his plans aloud and no one would hear. He shook his head at the inept, unintimi- dating guards. “A Girl Scout could get by you. Maci deserves better than a handful of escapees from an old folks’ home.”
His heart raced. He was now close enough to count Maci’s finger rings, and was more energized than ever. His voice beginning to rasp, he couldn’t hear his own words this close to the stage, no matter how forcefully he shouted.
Realizing he was no longer struggling amid the masses, he drew a deep breath as he turned to gaze at the people in the front row, who rhythmically danced in place. Like the Pied Piper, he would soon abandon everyone on the ground floor before scaling to his lofty perch, and taking his place onstage aside his beloved Maci Willis.
“I’m closer to Maci than anyone else in the hall except her people on stage,” he said, congratulating himself.
His starstruck eyes suddenly filled with lust, he barely noticed the nearby security guard waving at him. For a moment, he was tempted to leap up, grasp the lip of the plat- form, and pull himself onstage.
“Not now,” he told himself. “Move now and they’ll stop you.”
The guard continued to  wave.
“Me?” he mouthed as he pointed to himself, faking confusion.
The glorified usher nodded and signaled for the misplaced man to come to him.
Forcing a smile, he walked slowly toward the yellow coat and the old man wearing it. As if seeing a long lost friend, he thrust his arm around the fellow and pretended to yell into his ear. Moving stealthily, he slid his hand into his coat’s inside pocket. With a magician’s sleight of hand, he quickly found his Taser and dropped the guard.
Maintaining his grasp on his prey, he called out to two of the nearby guards.
“Need some help here,” he shouted. “Looks like heatstroke.”
The two guards discretely eased their companion to the ground, trying their best to not distract attention from the show.
A drunk from the front row, deciding that a dousing of liquid was the best way to revive someone, flung the contents of his plastic cup into the fallen guard’s face. Upon seeing this, two more guards left their posts to drag the drunk away.
With five guards out of the way, half the stage was now  his.
“Hell’s bells,” he shouted, his voice still inaudible to the crowd. “I was expecting a challenge. Seems like you clowns are actually trying to help.”
A shiver ran through him. “Like you’re trying to help,” he said. “Like it’s meant to be. Like it’s   destiny.”
Glancing at his watch, he counted in time with the beat as the music approached its bridge into the third  verse.
“Three . . . , two . . . , one . . . ,” he shouted. “Showtime!” High above the arena, a thunderous cloudburst exploded from the ceiling, raining colorful, vibrant foil confetti    upon
the crowd like blessings from Walmart.
Despite the full saturation of stage lights, he knew the torrent of tinsel would conceal his movements as he pulled himself onstage in one quick, coordinated maneuver.
There, behind the cascade of colored paper, illumination and glitter, he slowly rose, invisible to the audience. While the crowd was swept away by sensory overload, his focus sharpened. His entire world was now reduced to Maci, his gun and his hand.
Her back turned to him, he watched her take her first step to stage right. There, she’d halt to wave goodbye to fans, lingering for a moment in a frenzy of camera flashes. He waited until she struck a photo-worthy pose, which she’d hold for several seconds, just as he’d seen in her last two concerts. Inhaling slowly, he steadied his breath as she hit her mark at stage right. He vowed she’d never make it to stage left.
Holding his breath, he pointed his gun squarely into the back of her heart. His thumb cocked the hammer as he made a mental note to squeeze, not pull, the trigger. Resting rigidly on his knees, he felt his forefinger easing toward him.
The impact of the policeman’s tackle ignited the shooter’s reflexes. His elbow buckled and his grip tightened as the officer collided with his arm. The force knocked the stalker violently to the floor, sending the pistol sliding across the stage.
The officer had acted quickly—but  not  quickly  enough.  As his head hit the platform floor, the shooter saw a spurt of blood and hair from the left side of    Maci’s  head.
Amid the blinding spotlights and the relentless storm of tinsel, most of the audience had failed to see the three-feet- long flash from the weapon’s  barrel. Those who discerned   a policeman wrestling a man to the floor assumed it was another case of an overzealous fan trying to get too close to the star.
But onstage, it was a nightmare come to life. The stage- hands and musicians had been close enough to hear the cannon-like blast of the weapon. A few of them joined in the melee, helping the officer subdue the stalker. Others started to join, but were stopped mid-step by the sight of a fallen Maci Willis, whose head lay in a widening pool of crimson.
On cue, the thicket of confetti stopped. People in the higher seats, along with everyone viewing the Jumbotron, saw the ongoing skirmish taking place on the stage.
And they saw the fallen Maci.
The crowd emitted a bone-chilling chorus of shrieks, as  if the entire arena had been cast into an inferno. The music ceased, the house lights were raised, and everyone under the cavernous ceiling could now see the four-man fracas at stage right, violent and unexplainable.
As the shrieks gave way to shouts, sobs and pandemonium, Maci’s sparkling dress reflected the spotlights that were still swirling in time to the now-silenced music. Only the scurrying of first-responders was able to lower the arena’s volume, and a concerned, unintelligible murmur filled the air. In seconds, Maci was hoisted upward by emergency personnel, while the stagehands and musicians fumbled about helplessly, equally torn between the urge to look and the urge to look away.
From the first row to the top tier, confused and terrified fans fell into a hush. For the first time all night, the arena was silent.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Heatstroke Line by Edward L. Rubin

Title: THE HEATSTROKE LINE
Author: Edward L. Rubin
Publisher: Sunbury Press
Pages: 223
Genre: Scifi/Cli-Fi (Climate Change Science Fiction)

Nothing has been done to prevent climate change, and the United States has spun into decline.   Storm surges have made coastal cities uninhabitable, blistering heat waves afflict the interior and, in the South (below the Heatstroke Line), life is barely possible.  Under the stress of these events and an ensuing civil war, the nation has broken up into three smaller successor states and tens of tiny principalities.  When the flesh-eating bugs that inhabit the South show up in one of the successor states, Daniel Danten is assigned to venture below the Heatstroke Line and investigate the source of the invasion.  The bizarre and brutal people he encounters, and the disasters that they trigger, reveal the real horror climate change has inflicted on America.
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Chapter One:

Daniel Danten didn’t really want to have a family.  What he wanted was to be a scientist, to teach at a university and produce original research.  But this seemed so unlikely, given the state of things in Mountain America, that he decided to hedge his bets or he’d have nothing to show for his life.  So he married a woman he convinced himself he was in love with and had three children.   As it turned out, somewhat to his own surprise, he achieved his original goal, probably because he switched fields from astronomy to entomology, a subject of enormous practical concern these days.  And now, with a secure position at one of Mountain America’s leading universities, his own lab, and a substantial list of publications to his credit, he spent most of his time worrying about his family.  His wife, Garenika, was depressed, his ten year old son Michael was suffering from one of the many mysterious ailments that were appearing without warning or explanation, and his fourteen year old daughter Senly was hooked on Phantasie and running wild.  Worst of all, his sixteen year old, Joshua, who had always been such a reliable, level-headed and generally gratifying son, had become an American Patriot.
            On a blazing, early September afternoon, with the outdoor temperature spiking at 130 degrees Fahrenheit, he was sitting with Garenika in the waiting room at Denver Diagnostic Clinic while Michael was being examined by still one more doctor.  Garenika thought they would get some sort of answer this time, but Dan was convinced that the doctor would come out of the examining room and say that she really couldn’t tell them what the problem is.  Senly was spending a rare evening at home and Joshua was on his way back from his field trip to the Enamel, an expedition that, Dan felt sure, was designed to make the participants angry, rather than providing them with information.    The doctor appeared and Garenika jumped to her feet.
 “Well,” the doctor said,” I really can’t tell you what the problem is.”
            “Why not?” Garenika asked, her voice tinged with its increasingly frequent sense of panic.  “Why can’t you find an answer for us?  Look at him –he’s losing weight, his skin keeps getting blotchier, and he’s exhausted all the time.”
            “I’m sorry.  As you probably know, we’re pretty sure that we’re seeing all these new diseases because the climate change has wiped out a lot of the beneficial bacteria that we used to have in our bodies.   Commensals, they’re called.  But we’ve never really figured out how they work, so it’s hard to compensate for their disappearance.”
            “Okay,” said Dan.  “So what can we do for Michael?”
            “Keep him comfortable and give it time.  Put cold compresses on any area where there’s a rash.  Try to get him to eat, lots of small meals if he can’t tolerate a large one.  We’re expecting some new medicines from Canada that may relieve the symptoms.  Michael’s getting dressed; he’ll be out a few minutes.”
            When Michael came out, they went back down to the clinic carport.   Dan set the car for Return and sat in the rear with Michael, letting Garenika sit alone up front.  They were quiet on the drive back home.  Dan kept watching his discolored, fragile little boy, trying to think of something reassuring to say, but nothing came to mind.  So when they arrived at the house, where Senly was waiting for them, he just gave Michael a long hug and told him to take a nap.
            “Be quiet when you go into the room” Senly said to Michael.  “Josh is sleeping.”  She turned to Dan and Garenika.  “He was really tired out from the trip, so he decided to rest up.  But he’s looking forward to having dinner with you.”
            “Wonderful,” said Dan, “we’ll all be together.”
            “Well, actually,” Senly answered, “I figured you’d be occupied with all the news from Josh, so I made plans to go out.  Anyway, the kitchen might break if it we have to program another meal for tonight.  It hasn’t been working very well.”
            “That was our decision to make, Senly, not yours,” said Garenika.
            “I was just trying to be considerate. Remember, you told me that you wanted me to take other people’s feelings into account without being asked.  So that’s what I did.  I even took the kitchen’s feelings into account.”
            Dan couldn’t suppress a grin.  Senly got up to leave.  “You can reach me on my wristlink.  I’ll just be having a quiet dinner with Ranity and  Sharana.”
            As soon as she was out of the room, Garenika turned on Dan. “You did it again.  You smiled at her for her smart-ass comeback.  You seem to think that anything she does is okay, as long as she acts clever.”
            Garenika was right.  Dan knew that he valued intelligence too much.  Somehow, he thought Senly’s good mind and quick wits would make up for her surly irresponsibility, and that she would turn out well in the end.  But it was his job as a parent to exercise more control over her, to keep her from getting into some kind of trouble she couldn’t get out of, and maybe even to teach her some sense of morality.
            “You need to be more careful, Dan.  You have a career, but these three children are all I’ve got.”
            In fact, Garenika was a food inspector for the government, but she hated her job. 
            Josh appeared in the multi-purpose room promptly at 7:15, just as the servo-robot was putting out the plates for dinner.  He looked completely refreshed and as handsome as ever.  After announcing that he was glad to be home, asking where Senly was, and telling Michael that he was looking better, he launched into his account of the trip by using his wristlink to project images onto the wall.
            “I couldn’t send anything from the Enamel, of course, but that’s what it looks like.   I know you’ve seen it Dad, but Mom and Michael haven’t.  Isn’t it awful?”
            A scene appeared of wide, flat land, part brown rock and part dark clay, with scattered pools of water, jumbled piles of brick and stone, and a few stunted, scrawny bushes.  Josh had taken the footage on an overcast day to heighten the effect.
            “This used to be the richest farmland on Earth,” he continued.  “Until the Canadians raped it.  You know where the term Enamel comes from, don’t you?”
            “Yes,” said Dan.  “NML -- No Man’s Land.”
            “I didn’t know that,” said Michael.
             “They called it that because it’s supposed to be a buffer between us and the UFA, didn’t they?” Garenika asked.
            “That what I thought, particularly because of the Canadian communications blackout there,” said Josh, “but Stuart told us that the Canadians would actually have been glad if we kept fighting with the UFA.  American netnews writers named it No Man’s Land because no one could live there after the Canadians got through with it.  Stuart really knows a lot about it.”
            “I should hope so,” said Dan, “he’s probably the leading American history professor at the University of Mountain America.”
            “He’s really nice.  And he ran a great trip.”
            “If he hadn’t been running it, dear, we wouldn’t have let you go,” said Garenika.
            “There are the train tracks,” said Joshua, switching scenes.  “You can’t really get a good sense of them from a picture, but it’s horrible to see them in real life.  There are three sets, each twenty feet wide and running straight into Canada.  Did you see them Dad?”
            “No, I went to the Enamel to find insects. I never got that far east.”
            “Maybe if you’d seen the tracks you would feel different about the whole thing.   Stuart said it took three years for them to transport all that topsoil up to Canada, even with those giant trains.  Just think, three years ripping the surface off seven states.”
            “Well, we did drop nuclear bombs on their two largest cities,” Dan replied.
            “We were justified.  They were supposed to let our citizens move into the Arctic, instead of taking in all those Aussies, Brits and Frenchies.  They just let us die from the heat.  What were we supposed to do?”
            “Not that.  Even the Russians didn’t do that when China conquered East Siberia.”
            “But both sides used nuclear weapons.”
            “Just tactical ones, on the battlefield.  The United States was the only country that ever used them against civilian targets.”
            “Are you two going to start arguing again?” said Garenika. “I thought we were just hearing about Josh’s trip.”
            “Well, the purpose of Josh’s trip was to get him revved up so he’d argue with me.”
            “The purpose of my trip was to provide me with information so I can explain to you why it’s so important to be a Patriot.  We were the most powerful nation on Earth before the Second Civil War.  And we could be powerful again if the three Successor States united.  Just think, we’d have almost as many people as Canada.”
            “How do you figure that?” said Dan.
            Josh was obviously waiting for that question.  “Mountain America has 24 million people, the UFA has 25 or 26 million, and Pacifica has 12 or 13.
            “Well, that’s a little over 60 million by my math.  Canada has 150 million.”
            “Yeah, but five million of them are in New England, and another 20 are in Alaska.  Those used to be part of the United States.  If you subtract 25 million people from Canada and add them to us, the difference gets a lot smaller.”
            “But why would all those people want to leave a richer, stronger country with a decent climate to join three smaller, overheated  ones?”
            “Because they used to be part of the greatest nation on Earth.”
            “Not the people in Alaska. They came from Australia, Britain and France, as you just mentioned.”
            “Only some of them.  There are plenty of Patriots in Alaska.   Plus another five million people in the Confederacies, and almost all of them are Patriots.”
            “They may be Patriots,” said Dan, “but according to the last count, there’s only about three million of them.”
            “That information comes from a Canadian satellite survey, and they falsify the data to make the Patriots look weak.”
            “Did Stuart tell you that?”
            Josh was getting rattled, but he held his ground.  “No, Noah told us that.”
            “Noah!” Dan exclaimed, with a snort.
            “Noah knows a lot.”
            “Noah’s a nut case,” said Dan. “A Revivalist nut case.”  He was about to add that Josh would be a nut case too if he kept listening to people like that, but he caught Garenika’s eye and restrained himself.
            “I’m tired,” said Michael.  Can I go back to bed?”  Dan noticed that he had barely touched his food.
            “Of course, darling,” said Garenika.  “I’ll come in to say goodnight in a few minutes.”
            “Actually,” Dan continued, trying to be slightly less contentious, “even three million people is impressive.  Most of the areas below the Heatstroke Line are completely uninhabited these days.”
            “That’s American ingenuity for you,” Joshua said.
            “And that’s just a Patriot slogan.”
            “Dad, if all the Successor States were unified, we could repopulate the South.  Crops grow there, so there’s no reason it couldn’t hold more people.”  
            “That’s impossible, Josh.  I’d be surprised if they can even sustain the present population very long.”
            “Why exactly is that?” Garenika asked.  “You can live below the Heatstroke Line if you have air conditioning.  I mean, I’m a nutritionist, not an h-vac engineer, but the Halcyon units are really good.  Ours can handle 150 degree weather easily.”
            “So it would seem,” said Dan, “but it never works.  It’s a matter of social organization, not engineering.  You’ve got to keep a power plant going all the time.  As soon as it breaks down, or the fuel supply is interrupted, or one of your enemies blows it up, you die.  Then there are the biter bugs.  And you’ve got to give everyone a stun gun or life is just intolerable.  Even with the guns, it’s pretty damn unpleasant. You’re always on edge.”
            “But everyone in the Confederacies does have a stun gun” Josh responded.  “And the power plant situation isn’t as bad as you say, because they’re not so far south.  You can survive in winter without air conditioning, so it’s only a little more than half the year that a power failure actually kills you.”
            “Well, that was the idea behind President Garcia’s program of repopulating West Oklahoma, Central Texas and New Mexico,” said Dan, “but the problem in that case is that there’s no water.  It’s a lost cause.”
            “The problem,” said Josh, “is that it created an unnecessary conflict with the Confederacies in Arkansas, East Oklahoma and East Texas.  We need to start working together, not competing for little bits of extra territory.  The Canadians never could have invaded us if it hadn’t been for the Second Civil War.”
            “Well then,” said Dan.  You should be an enthusiastic supporter of President Simonson.”
            “Simonson’s a lot better than Carletta Garcia.  At least he’s trying to establish better relations with the Confederacies.  But he’s not a Patriot.  He has no vision.  One day we’ll elect a real Patriot as President and start putting this country back together.”
            “One day,” said Dan, “you’ll go back to fantasizing about being a medieval knight, or hunting dinosaurs, or something else that’s more realistic than the lost cause you’ve got for yourself now.”
            When Dan and Garenika were in bed that night, she told him that he was being much too hard on Josh. Dan   was tempted to respond that he was just following the advice she had given him about Senly, but he realized that would be a smart-ass, Senly-type remark and stopped himself.
            “You know,” he said instead, “what Josh is doing can be dangerous, maybe more dangerous than Senly’s Phantasie parties with those so-called friends of hers.   I trust Stuart, but when they were looking at the train tracks, they were pretty close to territory claimed by the UFA.  And American Patriotism is a criminal offense there; they could all have been arrested.”
            “But it’s legal here.  And at least he’s using his mind and doing something constructive.”  She paused.   “Oh hell, you’re right.  I’m worried about him too.  I’m worried about all of them.”