Friday, February 1, 2019

Chapter reveal: 'Shirtless Men Drink Free' by Dwaine Rieves

Title: Shirtless Men Drink Free
Genre: Literary Fiction
Author: Dwaine Rieves
Publisher:  Leapfolio/Tupelo Press

 In Shirtless Men Drink Free, Doctor Jane Beekman has seen her dying mother’s soul, a vision above the bed—a soul struggling with a decision, some undone task, something in this world too noble to leave.  The question that lingers—why?—prompts a shift in the doctor’s priorities.  In this election year, Jane must do what her mother, an aspiring social activist, would have done. Soon, Jane is embroiled in the world of Georgia politics, working to make sure her dynamic younger brother-in-law Jackson Beekman is selected the next governor, regardless of what the soul of the candidate’s dead father or that of his living brother—Jane’s husband—might want done. 

Indeed, it is a mother’s persistence and a father’s legacy that will ultimately turn one Beekman brother against the other, launching a struggle with moral consequences that may extend far beyond Georgia. Set amidst 2004’s polarizing election fears—immigrants and job take-overs, terrorists in waiting, homosexuals and outsider agendas—Shirtless Men Drink Free makes vivid the human soul’s struggle in a world bedeviled by desire and the fears that leave us all asking—Why?

Engaging, beautifully written and resplendent with realism, Shirtless Men Drink Free is a standout debut destined to stay with readers long after the final page is turned.  A meticulously crafted tale that showcases an outstanding new voice in Southern fiction, Shirtless Men Drink Free has garnered high advance praise:

“This is brilliant and rare work, as attentive to an absorbing plot as it is to a poetic, chiseled cadence."—Paul Lisicky, award-winning author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship

“These characters are all too real. Rieves, as Faulkner, McMurtry and Larry Brown, writes people and story that will worm, burrow into you.  Change you even.” —Adam Van Winkle, Founder and Editor, Cowboy Jamboree

“Vividly sensuous, this novel is full of textures, sounds and smells.  Rieves tells a terrific story with the sensitivity of a poet.” —Margaret Meyers, author of Swimming in the Congo

About the Author

 Dwaine Rieves was born and raised in Monroe County, Mississippi.  During a career as a research pharmaceutical scientist and critical care physician, he began writing poetry and creative prose.  His poetry has won the Tupelo Press Prize for Poetry and the River Styx International Poetry Prize.  His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Georgia Review and other publications. 



A Fact

If pressed, she just might someday describe the experience as a vision, but that word alone would be insufficient, if not false, for what she had seen above the bed was more than apparition, more than a visual thing. There, sitting beside her dying mother, she’d sensed another presence, a new being, energy membrane-bound, translucent and hovering, alive in the air. The sense was volatility, the struggling with a decision, a choice—most definitely a choice—more why than when, more God than science. There, fibrillating above the bed was a soul. It was her mother’s soul, the very soul of her mother deliberating its only options: whether to stay or depart, this world or another. And in the instant before it abandoned its literal form, whatever her mother’s soul accepted or denied had to have been better than the body below, the face still puffy from chemotherapy, that halo of resurrected hair.
Something else must have mattered in this world, some undone task or rethought decision, something noble in the making, for her soul clearly wanted to stay. But it couldn't. It simply couldn't.
Perhaps revelation would eventually prove a more credible label. Or insight. Regardless of what she might ultimately call it, she wanted to believe the whole episode was a lesson for the scientist within her, a gift for the daughter who had to make sense of the inexplicable she’d seen. No. No one would ever believe she had witnessed such agony above the bed, the struggle between what the body demands and the soul needs.
Such thoughts she knew she must keep to herself, that vision or revelation or insight from a few months back, the soul of her mother wrestling with the air.
Tonight, Doctor Jane Beekman is alone. She sits on the back porch at home, a rocking chair helping to hold her there. The sky is closing in yellow, the world that was almost gone. She is motherless now, the backyard calm in disbelief. In the wake of her mother’s final breath, in the air that struggle―why? The question will never disappear and the more she stares, the more the world before her eyes darkens any possible answer.
The air is unsteady, too uncertain. It trembles as if still above the bed, as Jane saw it and forever will. That odorless instant when decision turned gunmetal thin, she will smell it always. The distance between struggle and release, its clamor breathed clean. That morning her husband held her mother’s hand, but never did Price waver, never did his eyes leave the body. Her mother’s soul had battled the air and Jane, she alone was the witness.
Her body demands a reason. Her soul needs more gin.

Chapter One


Never had she given much thought to politics, never had she pictured what a brief speech might come to. But to understand that trajectory as she ultimately came to follow it, you must first step back a few months, take a determined breath and stand with Jane before a plateau of silvery eyes. The titans have gathered, gawkers shoulder to shoulder, a certificate framed on a tripod far stage right. The words have power, authority—2004 Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year. Lights are low, God and the crowd focused. The podium is all Jane’s, the first slide at her back. On the canvas, a ladder of DNA coils ten-foot-high in Christmas colors. Five-carbon sugars twinkle for emphasis. Base pairs stiffen then jitter like ill-tempered brothers. Finger the laser pointer’s bump and the hot red dot jumps. Control goes with accomplishment. Smile. 
Jane is on the stage because she and her husband Price accomplish great things. She is proud of this. Atlanta is proud, no doubt all Georgia. But this award is not about her or Price, she tells the crowd. It’s about their baby, CellSure. It’s about the company’s birth and maturation, teamwork in translational science. She uses that word translational and thinks transcendent. They know what she means. “People, CellSure is a company that can take less than a nanogram of genetic material and in a matter of hours match the specimen to a criminal, a fraud, a father.”
More than once Jane says “genetic material” and each time she sharpens the syllables. “Yes,” she proclaims, “with less than a snippet of tissue CellSure can even diagnose—” She pauses for air, for the air to settle. “Yes, we can even diagnose cancer.” Applause comes. The great polynucleotide pulses. People stand. They point. Jane has become one with her company. She can even diagnose cancer.
“And with more CellSure innovation, I have little doubt that the same tissue indicating a cancer will also identify a treatment. Yes, my friends. The CellSure technology that pairs a precise diagnosis with a precise therapy will make most cancers curable and the few incurable ones truly treatable conditions.” She thrusts a decisive finger into the air. She is transcendent. “Mark my words—as CellSure pairs ingenuity with our city’s fine medical research institutions, Atlanta will become the nation’s go-to hub for hope, a city where the word impossible never crosses a lip.”
People whoop and stomp their feet. They slap shoulders. Strangers hug. The air vibrates, every face catching the glow of the great iridescent molecule, the image secured by the clicker Jane controls with a single finger.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Die Back by Richard Hacker

Title: DIE BACK (Book One of the Alchimeia)
Author: Richard Hacker
Publisher: Del Sol Press
Pages: 332
Genre: Fantasy/Thriller

In 272 AD Egypt, an enemy thwarts an attempt by League Inkers, Thomas Shaw and Nikki Babineaux, to obtain the Alchįmeia, a document holding alchemical secrets. Sensing his impending death, Thomas secures Nikki’s promise to keep his son, Addison, from the League, an organization defending the time continuum. After his father’s death, Addison inherits a mysterious pen, accidentally inking himself into the consciousness of a man who dies on a muddy WWI battlefield in France. Hoping to make sense of his experience, he confides in Nikki, his best friend and unknown to Addison, an Inker. Keeping her promise to Thomas, she discounts Addison’s experience. 
Fixated on the pen, Addison inks into a B-17 bombardier in 1943. The pilot, whose consciousness has been taken over by someone calling himself Kairos, gloats over killing Addison’s father and boasts of plans to destroy the League. As Kairos attempts to wrest Addison’s consciousness, Nikki shocks Addison out of the Inking. She confesses her knowledge of  the League. When Kairos threatens to steal aviation technology, she she sends Addison and his partner, Jules, to an Army test of the Wright Flyer in 1908. Believing they have succeeded, they return to find the continuum shifted and Nikki knowing nothing about the League.
Inking back to his father’s mission in Alexandria, Addison and Jules hope to get his help in returning the time continuum to its original state. Instead, Addison’s father gives him the Alchįmeia to hide in a crypt at the Great Lighthouse on Phalos. On their return to the present a Kairos agent murders Jules, her consciousness Inked into the past. Addison follows the clues, Inking into Pizarro in 16th century Peru. He finds Jules in the child bride of the Inca emperor. His plan to find the technology and save Jules without destroying the Inca civilization is thwarted by a fleet of Inca airships. Captured, he is taken to Machu Picchu. With Jules help, they find the stolen schematics, but are confronted by Kairos. He stabs Addison, forcing Addison’s consciousness back to the present and traps Jules in the 16th Century. Addison returns to another altered world. Nikki no longer exists, the world is at war with the Inca, and Manhattan lay in ruins.
Addison Inks his father, learning the origins of the League. Thomas urges Addison to uncover their enemy with the help of his colleague, Maya. Putting suspicion on another inker,  Cameron, she insists he must be killing Inkers and acquiring Pens. In a final attempt to stop him, they entrap Cameron, only for Addison to discover Maya is Kairos, his enemy.  She kills Cameron, also wounding Addison.  He chases Maya, who intimates that she holds his mother’s, Rebecca’s, consciousness. Confused he delays, giving her time to scrawl a name with her pen before shooting her dead.

Inked away when Maya died, Kairos finds himself, not in his intended host, Hitler, but in a German infantry soldier POW in the Ardenne during the Battle of the Bulge, WWII. Hoping to repair the shift in the time continuum, Addison brings the League Pens together with the fate of the world and everyone he loves at stake. He awakens to a dissimilar world, but Jules and Nikki exist. And with life there is always hope.



Watch the Trailer!

First Chapter

I am an Inker. Without death my job goes undone. Like other Inkers, I plan for it, yearn for it while never loving it, but this time, death might well prove to be my doom. Alchemic algorithms placed my partner Nikki and I at the historic burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt, in 272 AD. We had inked ourselves into the consciousness of the right people—an arthritic librarian and his slave boy—and stole the Alchi̱meía papyrus scrolls for their rare alchemical formulas.
Our plan should have worked without a hitch. Instead, we are now faced with a severe obstacle: a massive Roman centurion in heavy scale armor, a member of Aurelian's legions currently sacking the city in an effort to defeat and demoralize Queen Zenobia. The centurion stands at least six foot three, his armor smeared with Egyptian blood, his mouth open and yelling at me, not in Latin, but with a voice oddly reminiscent of twentieth century New York:
"Stop, Inkahs!"
He blocks a narrow passageway of the library, holding an infantry gladius, a short-sword with a golden hilt, sunlight from the open courtyard glinting off his blade. There is no way forward or around him. White limestone walls on my left, stonework railing and black marble pillars on my right, and a long drop over those rails into the quadrangle. We are so screwed. I speak in the librarian's Coptic dialect.
"You must be mistaken, brave centurion." I nod to my partner, Nikki Babineaux, an athletic twenty-something woman present-side, but a small, twelve-year-old boy in this passageway. In our robes and sandals, an old man and a boy, we define defenseless. "I am a librarian and this boy is my slave."
American English with a New Jersey accent. Who is this guy? I feign confusion, continuing in Coptic, hoping to buy some time. "What is this word you use? Are you a foreigner?"
"Enough, Inkahs. Gimme the satchel!"
Nikki drops the pretense, shifting to twenty-first century English, "You know killing us won't do you any good."
"The satchel, ya little prick!"
Before I can stall, the New Jersey centurion surges forward, scale armor clattering against leather, his short sword poised to strike. Nikki dives to the right while I hurl myself toward the son of a bitch. His powerful forearm catches me in the chest like a cinder block, slamming me back against the wall. My vision blurs, but I see the boy jump to his feet, the satchel hanging from his shoulder. He tries an evasive head fake, but the centurion proves too quick in this narrow space, his blade piercing Nikki's side. The crack of breaking ribs echo down the passageway. Nikki sprawls to the floor with a shriek, and lies there moaning, crimson blood spreading from the wound. No, this was not going well at all.
"Goodbye, Inkahs." With a clean sweep of his blade, the centurion cuts the satchel loose. He rips the bag from Nikki, turns, and runs.
Who is this guy working for?
Whoever he is, I hope the bastard runs face first into a flaming arrow for his die back. I’m still winded and dazed, but I crawl over to Nikki. The boy opens his eyes, color draining from his face, the savage wound foaming with blood.
"Thomas—" He coughs a red mist. "We failed."
"We'll get another chance." I tear a piece of my robe away, placing the cloth under the boy's head. "We didn't expect a fight with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Roman centurion gear. I thought Aurelian's men were still out in the harbor burning the docks."
"Merde." The boy closes his eyes, grimacing. He swallows, opening his eyes again. "Wrong time, too."
An early die back is always a potential problem for Inkers, especially if the premature death alters the temporal flow. "You're supposed to get run over by a cart later today, but this will do."
Nikki manages a smile, a rivulet of blood dripping from the boy's mouth. "Bummed 'cause you won't get to throw me," he grimaces, taking in several quick breaths, “…under the wheels, mon ami?"
We always die, but I never get used to the final moments. "You're still pissed about me garroting you with a string from one of Puccini's violins? Thought you'd be honored. It was Puccini's string. Of course, you're the one who shoved me in the path of the Starlight Express."
Nikki, in the boy’s body, labors with each shallow breath. Reaching with a weak hand, the boy touches my arm. "Mind yourself, Thomas Shaw."
"I'll do my best." I lean in, the boy, just a few years younger than my own son, dying in front of me. I thought I would pass my legacy on to my son, but now I know differently. I can't let him walk into this hell. "Nikki, there's something you need to know, just in case."
"What are you talking about?"
"Just a hunch, but be on your guard present-side."
Nikki fought for another breath. "Compromised?"
I hold his gaze. "Someone I trust told me I'm dead."
"Does it matter?" Dying back into a dead body equals dead. Permanently dead.
“Who…kills you, Thomas?"
"My friend didn't know. But keep an eye on Cameron."
Nikki winces, blood oozing between lips thin with pain. "I know…you have history, but Cameron?"
Yeah, we definitely have some history. "I'll never forgive him, but the League sanctioned his actions, so that's the end of it. Besides, I don't even know if he's the threat. It could be anyone. But Cameron has…well, he's killed before. Just watch your six. Five bucks says we'll be drinking a beer together, laughing about all this, in a few minutes. And if not…"
Nikki tugs at my sleeve. "No, mon ami."
We lock eyes. "If not, I made some arrangements. Renascentia is safe, but…my son. I've changed my mind. Find someone else. He's been through enough already."
"He's stronger…than you think."
"No. We assumed we were just dealing with a rogue, but our enemy is proving far more malicious than we thought possible. Addison would be risking everything. His very existence. You have to promise you'll keep him away from all of this, Nikki. Promise me."
Nikki glances at the wound, sucking in air through clenched teeth, then exhales. "I don't know, Thomas… Ahhh.” The boy moans, squeezing my hand with his remaining strength. "Doesn't know League. When he does…" His chest rattles with each breath.
"Addison's strong, but he's in pain. If I'm gone he'll need you, Nikki. I'm counting on you. Keep him out. Got it?"
"Copacetíc…," he chokes up more blood, "mon…ami."
“There’s a letter. You’ve got to get it from my lawyer.” A hiss of breath leaves the boy’s blue tinged lips. “Nikki?”
His grip slackens and I’m looking into vacant eyes. I stop talking.
Nikki has died back. I should have held her after we'd made love on her favorite red chaise lounge last night, her scent still a precious memory. I should have stayed the night with you, Nikki.
"Forgive me, my darling."
Footfalls echo around me. I rise turning just in time to see another Roman soldier close enough to smell his sour sweat mixed with blood. Without a word, he drives his blade through my heart. A savage pain explodes in my chest, dissolving to nothingness as my mind leaves the old man’s body.


Thomas stirred, now removed from the “I” of the old librarian, after-images of Alexandria flashing in his mind: Nikki’s dying breath, the grand sweep of sunlight outside the Great Library, the intense burning pain of a sword tip thrust through his host’s chest. He took in a gulp of air, his eyes fluttering open. A moment of disorientation before the tumblers fell into place.
He scanned the desk of his study, pen still in hand, his eyes registering a figure across from him. Blue jeans, tee-shirt, Asian, leaning on the desk, his veined arms rippled with lean muscle. The figure spoke.
“Don’t you want to ask me who I am, Thomas?”
Their eyes locked on each other’s. Thomas suspected the mind behind those eyes belonged to another—an Inker from the past.
“Not really.”
The man laughed, stepping back from the desk as if he had dropped by for a casual visit.
“I’ll give you one thing, Thomas. You do have…what is the word…a man in Juarez begged me not to cut them off. What was it? Cojones! Yes, you have cojones.” He scowled. “Your feigned courage in the face of certain destruction. Very moving.” His eyes flashed to the pen in Thomas’ right hand. “Good, I see you’ve got your pen for me. Excellent.”
Thomas kept his eyes on the intruder, all the while inching his left hand toward the gun in his desk drawer. The man’s eyes flitted to Thomas’ gun hand as he swung the weapon up. With a speed Thomas didn’t anticipate, the man leaped on the desk, and with a violent swipe of his foot, sent the gun smashing into the wall, the knee of his other leg crashing into Thomas’ face, slamming him, chair and all, to the floor.
Thomas lay still for a moment, dazed. Then he rose with slow, deliberate movements, pain hammering his head.
“So, who do you think I am, Thomas?” His attacker had stepped off the desk and now danced like a boxer waiting for an opportune moment to plant a combination punch.
Nose broken, blood pouring down his face, Thomas maneuvered to keep the desk between them. “One of Cameron’s hired guns, I imagine. Been expecting you.”
The man stopped dancing, putting his hands on his hips, cocking his head. “Expecting me? Oh, you’re talking about the two dead sentinels in your back garden.”
Thomas had posted two Inkers at the house to prevent this very thing. Crap. “What did you do?”
He glared at Thomas. “Terrible how some people lose their heads at the first sign of trouble.”
“You didn’t?”
He smiled with a chuckle. “I’m afraid I did.”
“My…God. Cameron wouldn’t…Who are you?”
“My name is Kairos. I’m the one who is going to kill you and destroy your League.”
Kairos had been a threat in the past, but the League had stopped him. No, it can’t be. Too much has been sacrificed. Rage and grief exploded from Thomas. Crying out, he hurled himself at the man, but a fist slammed into his chest with an unexpected ferocity, the sternum fracturing with a loud, crack! Reeling back, his knee exploded in agony as he went airborne, slamming to the floor on his back with a forceful thud. He tried to move, but the grinding of his fractured sternum and the throbbing jolts of pain from his knee slowed him down. Kairos grabbed Thomas’ feet. He heard the sound of his own agonized cry of pain as something outside of his body. He took in a breath, willing himself to focus. Kairos dragged him down the hallway. Thomas’ head banging across the floor, he reached for door jambs, furniture, anything to slow Kairos’ progress. But each time he resisted, Kairos twisted the broken knee, causing Thomas to break his hold, screaming in torment.
At the open basement door, Kairos dropped Thomas’ legs. The world constricted to a small dark space filled with anguish. In the distance he heard his attacker.
“Stay with me, Thomas. I don’t want you to miss the finale!”
Kairos levered him up against the wall, each movement a hundred knife wounds slashing his broken body. He opened his eyes to his attacker’s dark, angry gaze. In a labored voice, Thomas spoke.
“You. Won’t. Succeed.”
“Oh, but I will, Thomas. After I kill you, I will kill every League Inker until I have possession of the five pens.”
Every League Inker? No! Through the pain, a panic crossed Thomas’ face.
“Not…Addison. Not…Inker.”
“The son of the great Thomas Shaw?”
He grabbed Thomas by the shirt, dragging him to the open door.
“Don’t worry another moment. Once I have your pen which you have so kindly left for me—” He shoved Thomas down the staircase. Slamming into a wall, Thomas’ ribs cracking against a handrail only for his battered body to flip, shattering his jaw against a stair tread, Kairos’ words taunting him as he fell.
He slid across several steps upside down, and rolled, the broken knee punching a hole with explosive force in the wall.
Thomas tumbled, limbs askew, the concrete floor rushing toward him…


Kairos went down the steps to the body crumpled at the lower landing, his victim’s head and limbs twisted awkwardly. After checking for a pulse to be certain the deed had been done, Kairos returned to the study for Thomas’ pen. The League had five pens which, individually, enabled an Inker to transfer his consciousness to someone living in the past. But together… Ah, together the pens will create new continua. Imagine, the power to forge a new world at my fingertips! He expected to gather Thomas’ pen from his desk, but instead, he found a green puddle of melted acrylic, alloy, and ink.
The son of a bitch built a self-destructing pen?
Enraged, he tore through the study, pulling out drawers, ripping books off shelves, checking floorboards, but turned up nothing. Even in death Thomas had managed to be a thorn in his side. He considered scouring the entire house, but if Thomas had the forethought to create a self-destructing pen, he certainly wouldn’t leave the real pen somewhere vulnerable. Besides, he had a better idea.
His current host, Kwan, a martial arts instructor from San Francisco, had come in handy, killing Thomas and the other two Inkers. But now he needed a host with a bit more finesse. He got in Kwan’s car, driving the short distance to Seattle’s Sunset Park overlooking Puget Sound. With Thomas dead, surely his son would take up his duty as an Inker, which means, the young man would certainly have the pen. He pulled a Glock 17 from the glovebox, and dropped the sun visor to gaze into the vanity mirror, Kairos’ consciousness giving fire to Kwan’s eyes. He smiled at the thought of ripping the life out of Thomas’ boy, Addison, once he had acquired his pen.
Time to get to work.
Placing the gun’s muzzle over Kwan’s heart, he fired. For a brief moment Kwan’s consciousness rose to the surface, filled with the panic of a man who had no idea of where he was, how he got there, or why a gaping hole gushed crimson blood all over him and the dash of his car. His last awareness, a consciousness not his own whispering by, as his own life sputtered to darkness.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Liebold Protocol by Michael & Kathleen McMenamin

Title: THE LIEBOLD PROTOCOL: a Mattie McGary + Winston Churchill World War 2 Adventure 
Author: Michael & Kathleen McMenamin 
Publisher: First Edition Design Publishing  
Pages: 389 
Genre: Historical Thriller


Winston Churchill’s Scottish goddaughter, Mattie McGary, the adventure-seeking Hearst photojournalist, reluctantly returns to Nazi Germany in the summer of 1934 and once again finds herself in deadly peril in a gangster state where widespread kidnappings and ransoms are sanctioned by the new government.

Mattie turns down an early request by her boss Hearst to go to Germany to report on how Hitler will deal with the SA Brown Shirts of Ernst Rohm who want a true socialist ‘second revolution’ to follow Hitler’s stunning first revolution in 1933. Having been away from Germany for over a year, her reputation as “Hitler’s favorite foreign journalist” is fading and she wants to keep it that way.

Instead, at Churchill’s suggestion, she persuades Hearst to let her investigate one of the best-kept secrets of the Great War—that in 1915, facilitated by a sinister German-American working for Henry Ford, British and Imperial German officials essentially committed treason by agreeing Britain would sell raw rubber to Germany in exchange for it selling precision optical equipment to Britain.  Why? To keep the war going and the profits flowing.  After Mattie interviews Ford’s German-American go-between, however, agents of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch are sent by Churchill’s political opponents in the British government to rough her up and warn her she will be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act unless she backs off the story.

Left no choice, Mattie sets out for Germany to investigate the story from the German side and interview the German nobleman who negotiated the optics for rubber deal. There, Mattie lands right in the middle of what Hearst originally wanted her to investigate—Adolf Hitler believes one revolution is enough—and she learns that Hitler has ordered the SS to assassinate all the senior leadership of Ernst Rohm’s SA Brown Shirts as well as other political enemies on Saturday 30 June, an event soon known to History as ‘The Night of the Long Knives’.

Mattie must flee Germany to save her life. Not only does the German-American working for Henry Ford want her story on the optics for rubber treason killed, he wants her dead along with it. Worse, Mattie’s nemesis, the ‘Blond Beast’ of the SS, Reinhard Heydrich, is in charge of Hitler’s purge and he’s secretly put her name on his list…



Chapter 1

Winston Churchill

Number 10 Downing Street
18 December 1918

WINSTON CHURCHILL, the 44-year-old Minister of Munitions in His Majesty’s Government, was late for a meeting with his friend, Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He checked his pocket watch and smiled. He was only 20 minutes late. LG surely would keep him waiting for at least that long, Churchill thought, as he made his way up the narrow staircase to the antechamber of the Prime Minister’s office, announced his presence to an attractive secretary in her early 20s. He shook his head. LG always had young attractive women working for him and, if widespread gossip were correct, no doubt under him as well. Churchill lit a cigar and took a seat. It gave him time to gather his thoughts.
Churchill had been Minister of Munitions for two and a half years, his first office since he had been unceremoniously dumped in May 1915 as First Lord of the Admiralty by then-Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. That was the price Churchill’s old party, the Tories, had exacted from the Liberal Asquith for them to join a coalition government. While Asquith had kept him on in what passed for a war cabinet, Churchill had seen his influence over events diminish to the point where he resigned and left to join his old regiment in the trenches in France and Belgium. LG succeeded Asquith as Prime Minister in December 1916 and his old friend rescued Churchill from the political wilderness six months later, making him Minister of Munitions.
Though only 44 years old, Churchill was no stranger to high office. Already, he had been Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty. Still, today was a first for him. In all those offices over a ten-year span, he had never had occasion to report to the Prime Minister that he had uncovered evidence of high treason in his department by one of his predecessors. It was a matter of chance that he had uncovered it at all. Upon the war’s conclusion, he had commissioned the preparation of a history of the Ministry of Munitions. He did so because he intended to write his own history of the Great War and there was a gap of two years from 1915 to 1917 where he held no office and had no access to official documents. A history of his new ministry would help fill that gap.
Churchill assigned his long-time Personal Private Secretary, Edward Marsh, to supervise the project. To his surprise two days ago, Marsh brought him a thick manila folder stamped ‘Top Secret’ in red ink on the front and back of the folder. Marsh, a slim man with receding dark hair and bushy black eyebrows, had been Churchill’s Private Secretary in every office he held.
“I think you’d better see this, Winston,” Marsh had said. “It’s most distressing. I didn’t want to believe it, but the memoranda in the file make it all too clear that it’s true.”
Carefully opening the folder and reviewing its contents, Churchill was astonished. Lord Bertram Lyndon was a traitor! He had no choice. He had to bring this to Lloyd George’s attention even though it pained him to do so.
Lord Bertram, the Earl of Lyndon, ‘Bertie’ as he was known to his friends, had married Churchill’s first love, Priscilla Plumpton, in 1902 after her parents had persuaded her to break off her ‘unofficial’ engagement to Churchill. The ostensible reason for their doing so was that Lord Lyndon would make their daughter more financially secure than would Churchill, depending as he did on only his income from writing and public speaking tours as well as modest sums from his father’s and maternal grandfather’s trusts. Churchill had greatly resented Priscilla’s parents for this. True, he was not a man of inherited wealth, but that was only because his father, Lord Randolph, was the second son of the Duke of Marlborough and hence had taken nothing when the old Duke died. Instead, everything went to his older brother, the new Duke.
Churchill had written bitterly to his mother on the occasion of their broken engagement, complaining that no one of his age—then 25—had started from nothing and accumulated a fortune of over 10,000 pounds sterling in such a short time. He had told her that Priscilla was the only woman with whom he could ever happily spend the rest of his life.
Churchill, as he subsequently learned, had been wrong. He had no way of knowing that, eight years later, he would meet and marry Clementine Hozier, literally the love of his life—his ‘Clemmie’—or that in his memoirs in 1932, he would write ‘I married and lived happily ever afterwards’.
Churchill still had a soft spot in his heart for the woman he called ‘Cilla’ and they had continued to correspond even after their respective marriages. Exposing her husband as a traitor would cause her great distress and subject her to public ridicule were it ever made known. But his first duty was to his country. Besides, if Lord Lyndon could be tried secretly—which was Churchill’s hope—then he had every expectation that Bertie would do the right thing and take his own life rather than wait to be hanged. After all, he had a three-year-old son who would inherit the family estate and Cilla could manage affairs for their son until he came of age.
“The Prime Minister will see you now Mr. Churchill,” the pretty young secretary said. Churchill rose and walked into the British leader’s office.
“Winston, how good to see you,” Lloyd George said. The short, white-maned Welshman with a broad, bushy mustache of the same color came around his desk and extended his hand. He was dressed as usual in a wing-collared shirt, black bow tie and dark blue suit. “How have you been? I’m pleased you asked to see me. Otherwise, I would have sent for you myself. I have a new position in mind for you. But that can wait. Your message said it was ‘urgent’. Don’t tell me the Turks and Greeks are at it again.”
“No, Prime Minister, it’s far more grave than that,” Churchill replied.
Lloyd George raised his eyebrows at the use of his formal title, which Churchill did not normally do when they were alone. ‘Winston’ and ‘David’ were how these two old friends and political allies usually addressed each other.
“That serious, eh Winston?” the Prime Minister said. “Pray go on.”
“A file has been brought to my attention, David, that establishes that one of my predecessors, Lord Bertram Lyndon, was trading directly with the enemy in 1915 supplying certain raw materials—specifically raw rubber—absolutely essential to Imperial Germany’s war-making capabilities in exchange for Germany supplying us with precision optical products we bloody well could have purchased elsewhere. Had Germany been denied those raw materials, we could have brought the Hun to his knees in 1916! A million lives would have been spared! The man should be hanged! Here, look at the file for yourself.” Churchill said and handed the manila folder across the table to the Prime Minister.
Lloyd George took the folder, opened it and briefly scanned the contents. He looked up at Churchill and spoke softly. “And what would you have me do, Winston?”
Churchill was taken aback. What a curious question. There was only one thing to do. “Refer it to the Attorney General for criminal prosecution, of course. Preferably with the press and public excluded.”
The Prime Minister sat back in his leather desk chair, steepled his fingers and looked over them at Churchill. “I can’t do that. You were effectively out of office in June of 1915 when Bertie cut that deal with the Germans, but he didn’t act entirely on his own. The War Cabinet was not consulted, but, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Prime Minister Asquith brought me into it after Kitchener had come up with the plan. I approved, as did the Prime Minister. Moreover, your two old Irish Home Rule adversaries, the Attorney General Edward Carson and the Colonial Secretary Bonar Law, did so also. Had to have the Tories on board, don’t you know?”
Churchill was uncharacteristically speechless. He sat there a moment before the words came to him. “I find this all difficult to believe. Why, David? Why?”
“We really had no choice. We needed what the Germans could deliver to prosecute the war and vice versa. We had to keep fighting because in those early days, the war was so popular that any government that tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement with Germany would have been thrown from office in a heartbeat. Besides, by then, the war had proven so profitable to so many financiers and industrialists in both Britain and Germany that no one in industry, finance or public life wanted it to stop too soon. Believe me,” Lloyd George said as he leaned forward and gave the file to Churchill. “This is only the tip of the iceberg. I suggest you let sleeping dogs lie.”
Churchill wanted to ask about the rest of the iceberg, but he decided against it. He thought he knew what it was. Still, he was appalled by Bertie Lyndon literally trading with the enemy. If the British public ever learned of this, they might not wait for a treason trial and Lloyd George, Asquith, Carson, Law and Lord Lyndon might find themselves all hanging from lampposts. He wondered briefly if any of those profits had found their way into the pockets of the politicians responsible. Bertie certainly didn’t need the money, but the same could not be said of any of the others, especially Lloyd George.
“But there’s nothing in the file to show this was an approved transaction,” Churchill said.
Lloyd George laughed. “Of course there isn’t. Asquith was an idiot, but I’m not. I made it clear that my cooperation depended upon there being no record of our approval. The others agreed. Lyndon was to be our scapegoat if it ever became public. But you and I are not going to do that, are we? It would be a clear violation of the Official Secrets Act, don’t you think? So, take the file back to the archives of the Munitions Ministry; bury it; and forget all about it. Besides, munitions are no longer your concern. Once the election results are final, you will be the new Minister for War as well as the new Minister for Air.”
Churchill was surprised. And elated. He had not known exactly what his office would be after the 14 December election four days ago. The Admiralty again would have been nice. This was better. Save for being Chancellor of the Exchequer or even Prime Minister, he could not have asked for a better position or, rather, positions as War and Air were two separate ministries.
“Thank you David, I appreciate your confidence in me. But why, if I may ask, are you putting me in charge of both War and Air?” Churchill asked, wondering if both positions were a bribe to keep him quiet about the devil’s bargain Lord Lyndon had cut with the Germans.
Lloyd George laughed again. “Economy! We have to reduce expenses. You’ll do two jobs, but it will cost the Crown only one salary.”

AS CHURCHILL walked back to the Ministry of Munitions he would soon be leaving, he pondered what to do with the Lord Lyndon treason file. He could place it back in the Munitions Ministry’s Archives as LG had suggested, but that meant it might be re-discovered by a civil servant who was as appalled as Churchill and who might leak it to the Labour Party who would certainly make it public. That would prove highly embarrassing to Lord Lyndon who had recently been appointed Viceroy of India. Indeed, the new peacetime coalition government might well be toppled in the process. Wholly apart from the Official Secrets Act, Churchill thought, the British Empire was facing too many severe threats right now to allow that to happen—the insurrection in Ireland, unrest in the Middle East, India pressing for Home Rule, the Bolsheviks in Russia, not to mention Churchill’s biggest problem facing him as the new Minister for War—demobilization of the British Army before its enlisted men could duplicate the mutinies in Russia and Germany that had forced the Czar and the Kaiser from power.
Even worse, from Churchill’s perspective, was the identity of the American who had served as the liaison between Britain and Imperial Germany. He had said nothing to Lloyd George about it because he had no proof. Still, a close confidant at the Admiralty had confided in him that lurking in the secret files of British Naval Intelligence was a March 1916 report based on two reliable sources identifying the American as an agent of Imperial Germany. Reporting directly to Franz von Papen, the German spymaster in America, the sources claimed that the American was behind the sabotage of several U.S. munitions factories whose entire output had been destined for Britain. If that ever became public knowledge, Bertie and his co-conspirators like Lloyd George, Asquith, Carson, and Law would be branded as fools as well as traitors.
Even though Churchill disagreed very much with what Lyndon had done, the man was no more a traitor than the higher-ups in both parties who had approved his actions. The new Viceroy of India did not deserve to be the scapegoat for those higher-ups who supported trading with the enemy, but who did not have the courage of their convictions to document what they had done. Bertie did not deserve to have his reputation besmirched for doing something he and the senior government ministers wrongly thought was in their country’s best interests.
Of course, Churchill had to admit, if only to himself, he was equally, possibly even more, motivated by his concern for Lord Bertie’s beautiful wife. She did not deserve to be publicly scorned for her husband’s actions that had been fully, if secretly, supported by His Majesty’s government. Churchill smiled. To him, she would always be Cilla, ‘his Cilla’. Even Clemmie, who knew of their young romance, called her ‘his Cilla’. Churchill made his decision. The file would not go back into the archives. He would keep it safely in his private papers. Lady Priscilla Lyndon’s reputation would be preserved, even if her husband did not deserve the same.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Slay Bells by T.C. Wescott

Author: T.C. Wescott
Publisher: Better Mousetrap Books
Pages: 273
Genre: Cozy Mystery

‘Twas the week before Christmas and all through the village, the night settled in over swirling-smoke chimneys; the air was alive with pine and holly, with sugar and cinnamon and cider, by golly!

Along snowy lanes and through shadows it crept, past windows behind which each villager slept, where sleeping dogs lie and cats rest a’purring-

Tonight, in Christmas Village, a killer is stirring.

Welcome to Christmas Village, a magical hamlet where even in December the roses hold their luster and bees buzz among the bluebells. Nestled betwixt an opulent garden with meandering footpaths and an ancient grove of plum trees, Rose Willoughby’s boarding house is plum-full with lodgers. There are no vacancies, but just wait. Soon there will be one…and another…and another.

When the Inn's guests begin dying in inexplicable ways, some villagers believe a beast from old village lore is the culprit. The sheriff knows better, but he’s just as helpless to catch the invisible killer as are the town folk with their eyes to the sky in search of a flying creature. But our mysterious murderer hasn’t counted on yet another lodger coming to the cottage: Maribel Claus.

Short as a stump, round as a wheel, sweet as a candy cane, and a sharp as a whip, Maribel loves a good puzzle. But can she unmask the phantom killer in time and save Christmas?



"Each time a kiss is given under the mistletoe, a berry is removed. When the berries are gone, so is your chance for romance. Them's the rules, so don't miss out!" said Rose Willoughby as she centered the old chair under the stairway arch as she had done every December for the past thirty years. Same day, same chair, same nail. The only thing new was the fresh sprig of mistletoe, and it was plucked from the same tree that provided the green, berried adornment for as many Christmas seasons as she could remember.
She retrieved the sprig from the fireplace mantle and held it up to the approval of the lodgers gathered in the parlor. "As out-of-towners, I thought you'd enjoy knowing the correct way to use mistletoe."
Rose had lived her whole life in Christmas Village where, generally speaking, there was a 'right way' and 'wrong way' of doing just about anything. Were she aware of the existence of plastic mistletoe, for instance, she would be quick to inform you that such an abomination had no place in a world where existed the true article.
Her rambling three-story house—long ago christened Plum Cottage by the villagers on account of the plum trees planted out back by her grandfather—rested at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac off Cinnamon Street. The property was notable not only for its plum trees but also the deep beds of lustrous flowers and the pea shingle pathways meandering through them. The cottage had been built by hand by her father's father and later converted by Rose's mother, when Rose was still a girl, to what out-of-towners might call a bed and breakfast. The house and acreage were handed down to Rose upon her mother's retirement some twenty years ago. In Christmas Village parlance, Plum Cottage is referred to as a lodging house, and Rose its keeper.
Jimmy 'Sticks' Johannsen sat cross-legged on the edge of the sofa, twirling a candy cane through his fingers with remarkable dexterity. "With Harper's Harpoons in your house this week, Miss Willoughby, I dare say those berries needn't worry about being separated from their brethren." Sticks, a juggler, was to be the village tall man for the next week during the Christmas Festival. Ironic, as he was all of five-feet in height, but so adroit was he in the use of stilts that it has been said the only thing stopping him from walking on posts a thousand-feet high was the effect such elevation would have on his health. Everything about the man was square—his hands, his head, his torso, even his nose. Such angularity, however, was relieved considerably by his warm eyes and genuine smile.
There was a flash of fire and smoke in the corner as Eric Stumpf, professionally known as Siegfried the Great, performed another of his tricks in hopes of impressing young Missy Culpeper, Rose's apprentice and part-time help.
"We are a singularly single group," continued Sticks, "That is, unless Eric can magically make Missy's good sense disappear sufficiently to steal a kiss from her."
This evoked a hearty round of laughter. Eric took the joke in stride but Missy turned progressively deeper shades of red before spinning and skipping out of the room.
A man stood upside down on his hands between the open curtains of a large picture window. Snow gently fell outside as he raised a hand in the air, now balanced on only one palm. "Are you going to take that kind of talk, Eric?" he teased.
By the time he'd finished speaking he had lifted himself up by his fingers, and curling his thumb and pinky finger inwards, balanced on only three phalanges. Such a feat was little more than the flex of a muscle to the troupe's ace acrobat, Xander 'Whirly' Byrd, a man well past his fortieth year if his face was to be believed but possessing the body of a twenty-five-year-old gym dweller with not an ounce of fat to spare on his taut frame.
"As a matter of fact, I will take it." Eric jumped from the antique settee, his black cape flying opened to reveal its dark red inner lining. "I will even up the ante!"
He rushed across the room to where Rose stood and plucked a little green leaf from the sprig of mistletoe in her hand. "A rose by any other name. . ." he said, a mischievous gleam in his eye, the leaf on display between his thumb and forefinger.
Then a flash of smoke.
Rose coughed and waved away the smoke to find the young magician holding a single rose in place of the leaf. ". . .is just as beautiful." He held out the flower for her to take. This she did between exclamations of joy and surprise. "Now, how about that kiss." He winked.
"Mr. Stumpf, if I were twenty years younger, I might take you up on that."
He stepped over to the wooden chair, tested it for sturdiness, and put on an expression of feigned disappointment.
"Then the least you can do is to help a poor, dejected fellow regain some measure of dignity by allowing him to climb this chair and place that mistletoe for the benefit of lovers more fortunate than himself." He was a tall, handsome young man, with hair so dark it shined blue and teeth as white as the snow outside.
She held the mistletoe close to her chest. "Nothing doing, young man. If you want an extra share of plum pudding for dessert, that I can do. But me climbing on that chair to hang this plant is tradition, and here in Christmas Village, tradition is a very precious thing. Now shoo!"
She playfully motioned him away and plopped a defiant foot on the chair seat, shakily pulling herself up to full standing. The echo of approaching feet sounded out from the stairwell.
"Oh, crumb," mumbled Rose as she lowered herself off the chair. "People are coming."
"Why, Miss Willoughby, whatever are you up to?" said Madame Zorena, the troupe's psychic-in-residence, upon reaching the bottom of the staircase and finding her hostess atop a chair. She affected a European accent of some sort, though how real it was had long been a matter of speculation. Although not presently in the five-gallon turban and full-length flowing gown she wore for her public performances of tarot readings, palm readings, and group séances, she was still very much dressed the part of the traveling gypsy with handkerchiefs and bandanas aplenty.
"Oh, Madame, please excuse me," begged Rose. "Let me get out of your way. I was only trying to hang this mistletoe."
"I would beg you to carry on as you were and let me wait, but I will not be the only one seeking passage."
As though summoned by her words, the beautiful Anemone Harper and her rather brutish shadow, Bull Vargas, appeared behind Madame at the foot of the stairs. Anemone, with her tall, curvaceous frame, her sky-blue eyes and full red lips, appeared at first blush to be a gentle flower. But Rose had seen the young woman unloading the troupe's equipment and knew this flower had strong roots.
"Oh, good, Miss Harper, Mr. Vargas," said Rose, with more enthusiasm than their faces reflected back. "Now that you're here I suppose we can have pudding. Just let me finish this one thing."
Rose stepped aside as they passed and then returned her chair to the center of the archway and promptly climbed onto it. She was not about to let anything else impede her progress in hanging the mistletoe! Aside from her usual duties tending to lodgers, she had a late night of baking to look forward to and was anxious to get started.
The annual festival, when the village would be open to throngs of out-of-towners, was the single greatest source of income for the Christmas Village Historical Society. These funds came largely through the sale of baked goods. It didn't hurt that the Society boasted two of the best amateur pastry chefs in the village—herself and Mrs. Maribel Claus. Maribel was expected over early the next morning to help Rose set up their booth and Rose had to make sure the goodies were packed and ready to go by that time.
If she couldn't manage the hanging of a single blasted plant, how was she expected to get forty tarts baked and still squeeze in her requisite four hours of sleep? Somehow, she was sure, it would work itself out. Things always did.
But first, the mistletoe.
"I'm not sure I would do that, if I were you," said Madame Zorena.
"And why not?" asked Rose, trying not to sound annoyed. "I'm not so old my joints don't work. Are you having a premonition, Madame?"
"It's not that, I think Mr. Snipes might be—"
"Ah!" Rose felt the impact before she saw its cause. Next thing she knew, she was on the floor next to the chair and her right ankle felt like someone had wrapped it with barbed wire. When she looked up, she saw a nose so sharp it could cut words, a receding hairline, and ridiculously pinched features, all haphazardly stuck on a head shaped like a light bulb.
It was the head of Mr. Barnaby Snipes, who identified himself as the owner and manager of the troupe of performers currently lodging in her cottage. He had come down the stairs and walked directly into Rose, sending her flying.
"Miss Willoughby, what on earth do you think you're doing, standing on a chair where people walk?"
Eric rushed to her aid as Whirly somersaulted to her side. Together they picked her up and sat her in the chair. Snipes didn't budge.
"I was just trying to hang my mistletoe," said Rose between sobs of pain and disappointment.
Sticks got into Mr. Snipes's face. "How did you not see her? Or did you see her and not care?"
Snipes huffed and puffed in feigned indignation. "How dare you! Of course, I did not see her. My mind is on tomorrow, on making sure all of you are taken care of. I can't be expected to know each time a woman is going to put herself in the way of common foot traffic." He stopped to watch Miss Willoughby pathetically pick her precious sprig up from the floor. Miraculously, it had not lost any of its berries. "I hope your stupid small-town superstitions are worth it. Don't you know that mistletoe is nothing but a parasite that sucks the life out of trees? I must question the hosteller who would subject paying guests to such grotesqueries."
"Barnaby, how dare you be so cruel!" said Anemone. She would have continued her rant but Bull put an arm around her shoulder. For the effect it had, it might as well have been a hand over her mouth.
"What? Nobody's hurt. At least not terminally," retorted Snipes, glancing passively at Rose sitting in the chair, rubbing her ankle. "Now, where's this plum pudding I was promised? You forced me to participate in the making of it, so I insist upon having mine now as I plan to spend the remainder of the evening in my room going over the City Council contracts again. I'm certain they're trying to swindle me somehow, I just haven't yet found the loophole. Though, rest assured, I will! Now, about the pudding."
"It's on the table," said Rose. She tried to stand but her ankle protested and she tumbled back into the chair.
Anemone wrestled herself out from under Bull's heavy arm and rushed over to inspect Rose's ankle.
The young woman grimaced. "Oh, dear, I think it may be sprained. I should get some ice."
"You may be right," conceded Rose. "See Missy in the kitchen and she'll take care of it. That's her job, not yours."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Anemone, showing more life than she had in the two days since she arrived at Plum Cottage.
Rose had first suspected the young woman, with fresh shadows under her eyes and skin so pale, might be coming down with a cold. No one so beautiful should have a right to sadness, she thought. But Rose knew that wasn't true. Love isn’t the only emotion that is blind.
Anemone looked up at her from her kneeling position on the floor. There was a smile on her lips and so much more behind her eyes. "You've welcomed us as friends into your home and friends look after each other, do they not? I will see to the ice myself."
Anemone sped out of the parlor and across the hall towards the kitchen. Bull, the troupe's strongman, his head and chest free of hair and full of muscle, took a few steps forward as though to follow her, but thought better of it. Rose couldn't say what Anemone's function was within the troupe. She wasn't a performer nor was she the manager. That was Mr. Snipes. She was, assumed Rose, some sort of assistant to Mr. Snipes; a buffer between him and the humanity that seemed to displease him so.
Snipes turned his back to the small group huddled around Miss Willoughby and focused his attention on the Christmas pudding enjoying pride of place on the coffee table. Small plates and silverware were at hand so he served himself.
Whirly floated over to the other side of the table. Snipes avoided his gaze, but that didn't dissuade him.
"I didn't have you pegged as a pudding man," said Whirly. "I'm sure it'd be no trouble for Rose to whip you up a pie from all those mistletoe berries growing in the grove out back."
"Idiot. Mistletoe berries are poisonous."
"That won't stop us from making the pie if it won't stop you from eating it."
Snipes caught Whirly's meaning and looked at him in reproach. Whirly winked and walked away.
Barnaby Snipes took a bite from his pudding and, for the second time that evening, someone in the parlor of Plum Cottage cried out in pain.
"Gorblimey, what did I bite into? I think I broke a tooth!"
It was one of Rose's many traditions each December to make a Christmas pudding. Following the old customs, each member of the household took a turn stirring the mixture, always in a clockwise motion to ensure good luck. As the stirring commenced, small trinkets made of pewter would be dropped into the mixture: a thimble, a trumpet, a ring, a car, a bell, a hat, and so forth. Lodgers loved being involved in the creation of such a special dessert, seeing what trinket they received and learning what it meant.
Out of town visitors for the Christmas Festival were typically in Christmas Village specifically for these experiences. Not so with her present boarders, who were there to perform and earn a living from the village. To be fair, the majority of the entertainers were true and good and relished both her company and her knowledge.
Then there was Barnaby Snipes, who reluctantly agreed to his turn at the stirring of the pudding but insisted on stirring in the wrong direction to tempt fate. Now fate was biting back. Or, he was biting fate, as the case was. When he reached into his mouth and removed the trinket, 'fate' was revealed as a little silver bell.
Snipes tossed his plate down on the table and held the little bell in the air. His hands were shaking.
"I'm going to have my teeth looked at tomorrow, and if there's so much as a scratch on any one of them, I'm handing this over to authorities and my lawyer will be in touch."
With a huff he shoved the bell into his jacket pocket, gave each person in the room the stink eye, and shuffled his skinny legs back up the stairs and to his room.
"I feel sorry for that bell," murmured Sticks.
Bull Vargas followed his employer up the stairs without saying a word. With her bulky escort gone, Anemone lit up like a cold lamp and the mood in the room shifted from tense to upbeat.
Rose's ankle was wrapped and she was able to wobble around on it but now she was concerned that she wouldn't have the stamina to stay up late and bake all the goodies needed for the sale tomorrow. Missy could handle the household duties, but when it came to baking, the poor girl couldn't be trusted to make toast.
Rose called her friend Maribel, and with a frog in her throat, explained the situation. Maribel assured her she would have the matter well in hand. Having already baked her share of the goods, she said it wouldn't be a thing to bake Rose's share as well. Rose was doing her a favor, she said, as she was too wired for sleep and didn't know how to fill her time, but now Rose had answered her prayer.
Rose smiled. That was just like Maribel. It was as important to her to relieve Rose of any sense of guilt as it was to help her with her predicament. All she wanted in return was Rose's solemn oath that she'd take it easy on her ankle so she wouldn't be out of commission for the bake sale.
Rose removed the last batch of tarts from their cooling spot on the windowsill. While closing the window she noticed the snow had stopped and all seemed quiet in her gardens. She placed the tarts on the kitchen island and covered them with a towel. She turned to leave the room.
Tap, tap, tap.
The sound came from outside the kitchen window. It was a little black bird, pecking away at the sill. For the slightest of moments, she found herself overtaken with a sense of dread, as though something uninvited had slipped into her comfortable world. Something just the other side of right.
The chill in her bones passed and Rose did the one-legged hopscotch into the parlor where she was quickly accosted by Whirly and Sticks, who inserted themselves under her arms and guided her to the sofa. Then the two men, along with Eric, Anemone, and Madame Zorena, sat in the chairs surrounding her in a half-circle in front of the roaring fireplace.
"It looks like my evening has just opened up," she said expectantly to the younger people gathered round. "But never mind me, I love a quiet evening by the fire. You all skedaddle and get what fun in you can before your busy week begins tomorrow."
"Nothin' doin'," said Eric. "You know this village as well as anyone, right?"
Rose was curious. "Yes, at least as well, I'd say. Been here my whole life."
The magician became excited. "I have heard things happen here that don't happen elsewhere."
Rose laughed. "The things people say!"
"So, it's not true?" asked Madame Zorena, who'd apparently heard the same thing.
"As I've lived here my entire life, I can't well say what does and doesn't happen anywhere else."
"Fair enough," said Sticks. "But we were hoping you might be willing to tell us some stories."
"Stories? What kind of stories?" Rose hoped she hadn't appeared as eager as she felt. As a child she loved hearing the stories of the elders and, now of a certain age herself, she found she loved sharing them.
Whirly peered between the window curtains. "Let's see. The snow has stopped falling. It's now pitch-black outside with only a sliver of moon casting its pale light. Here we are inside, sitting cozy by a roaring fire. What kind of story do you think the moment demands?"
"I see," said Rose, narrowing her eyes mischievously and pointing them over her wire frames. "You want a ghost story, do you?"