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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

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Excerpt

Excerpt: Mum’s the Word

Long Beach, CA.
Fall. 1926.

I stood just inside the main door, my heart thudding heavily against my ribs as I surveyed the lobby. Outside, the faint sounds of the crowds enjoying the carnival-like amusements of the Pike wafted in just below my range of hearing, cutting out when the main door going to the street shut behind me with a firm thud. I jumped, gasping, nervous, then resumed examining my surroundings more closely.

The lobby was shabby and the building itself had been without heat for months. I stared at the row of phone booths on the far side, searching for and finding the last one. There, I would pick up the receiver and speak into it. I wouldn’t need to drop in a coin or dial for the Operator. The person on the other end would know who I was, why I was here.

My name is Mildred Falls, Millie for short, and I had quite literally stumbled onto this place and my new job. Nervous, I swallowed, took a deep breath, then crossed the lobby’s distance and found myself ensconced in the tiny booth. I picked up the receiver, staring at the rotary dial, shivering. My nipples prickled against the satin dress I wore, its fringed hem falling just below my knees under my long coat.

I wore no brassiere, no corset and the barest of underthings. According to my new ‘employer’, such items were not part of the dress code; indeed, it was intimated quite the opposite. Despite the necessity, despite my skills as a typist, I resented that the only work I could pick up was here, in a speakeasy, as a kind of…..of…..hostess. I thought briefly of my younger siblings, at home with a full meal for a change, and shrugged. It was what it was and I either accepted it or sought other employment.

I resisted the urge to adjust my clothing – it would only increase the sensation and I was already highly aware of how the fabric felt against my skin. I was not used to being so acutely sensitive to what I wore. The garters I had on were too small and dug into my hips and thighs, but they did what they were supposed to do – hold up my very poor stockings. I was grateful that the few holes they did have were hidden by my shoes.

It’s scandalous, I thought, grumbling under my breath, the way girls dress these days.

I sighed. At twenty-nine, I wasn’t much older than those girls, who probably would have seized any chance to take the job I needed and now held. Given the loss of my job in a steno-pool the month before, I didn’t see as how I had much choice in the matter.  I had three younger siblings needed to be supported in some way and, given the uncertain state of the economy, a job was a job.

I could not afford to be choosy.

prohibition

Excerpt: Secrets & Howls: A Wolf’s Head Bay Mystery

 

From the Prologue:

Her skin prickled and she stopped, alert.

Whoever was watching her was back. Or he’d never left. She suspected the latter – the sensations were so strong that she instinctively knew he was still around. Gripping her keys, she turned in a slow circle, her eyes touching on every shape, muscles tense, aware of the scents carried on the ocean breeze. From the center of town, she could hear the post office tower’s bell chime out the hour.

He was close – she could feel it. The question was, where would he come from?

The attack, when it came, was sudden – her body’s instinctive reflexes were faster than her mind and she ducked just in time to miss the swinging, clawed fist.

He roared, furious. She leapt back, dropping her purse, her breath coming in sharp rasps.

He was new to this – it was obvious from the way he carried himself. But new or not, if she wasn’t careful, he may just take her by sheer brute force.

She intended to take him down first.

They circled each other – Holly hoped that something or someone would distract him long enough so that she could gain a better advantage, but she didn’t rely on it happening. She had to rely on herself.

As she studied him, gauging his skill, her analytical mind suggesting strategies that she automatically considered or disregarded, it occurred to her reporter’s mind that there were peculiarities surrounding the death of Jackson Tanner. Peculiarities that had been similar to another death…..

Her attacker growled – her eyes widened in shock as she saw him literally expand in size and knew that she was in far more danger than she had at first realized.

She had no choice now. This was a fight that would end in one way.

She roared at him until her throat was raw, her hands like claws, and she ran at him.

His first blow sliced through her shirt and opened up her belly – four neat, parallel incisions, nearly gutting her.

 

The next blow killed her.

 

Secrets & Howls

Excerpt: How to Bury the Undead

Chapter One

I’d been thinking about that encounter with the vampire a lot, lately.

Why I was thinking about him while fixing myself some tomato soup on a hot plate, I’m not sure, but I was. Behind me, Dottie Perswalski attempted to tidy up my tiny living room, which was not at all – although she was a ghost and had been for decades, she hasn’t learned the art of manifesting enough energy to move things yet. The living room is tiny because my entire living space is tiny. I couldn’t even call my kitchen a galley, with it being made up of a hot plate and a microwave on a battered dresser. The place being a crypt in a previous incarnation was why. The dead don’t take up much living space, especially if they’ve been cremated.

The crypt had been part of what used to be the primary mausoleum, a larger stone structure that fell into disuse after an earthquake in 1993 demolished the majority of it. The remaining structure (and my home) remained in use for another five years, but numerous break-ins and graffiti made the decision to inter the urns elsewhere in the cemetery a respectful and logical choice. That had been in the fall of 1998.

Dottie was one of those who had originally been interred in my crypt, which is why she was fussing about in my living room. In life, she had been one of five housemaids to a wealthy family in Wickerman Falls, some ten miles away. The daughter of immigrants, Dottie was happy with her lot in life until a fire burned the place down one night in the winter of 1925. It was a horrendous tragedy that killed everyone inside, including poor Dottie. She had been sixteen when that happened and is clearly of a generation that belonged in the here and now. She hangs out in my crypt because she still isn’t used to the new one. This probably explains why she hasn’t yet mastered the art of manifesting enough energy to move solid objects.

I don’t mind Dottie’s presence so much; actually, I kind of like hearing her chatter, even if it does border on the obnoxious. I guess it’s like having a younger sister, but being an only child, that’s all speculation on my part. Right now she was fussing over my shoulder, commenting on my lack of skill with the pot of soup. That was my cue to turn the hot plate on low and go sit down on my seen-better-days couch.

The couch came from a thrift shop in Wickerman Falls. So did the tiny, drop-leaf table, a couple of high-backed chairs, a dresser, my bed frame and the faded carpet on the floor, which hid a trap door to a tunnel. All of them had seen better days, especially the couch, but they were still serviceable and that was just fine by me. I don’t need much to live on, just enough to survive. Most of what makes the crypt hospitable for me to live in is the generator tucked discretely into an alcove outside the front door.

The alcove has a roof and door; it’s leak-proof and blends in perfectly with the exterior of the crypt. If you didn’t know where to look, you wouldn’t find it. It will never be warm and cozy during the winter, but it keeps me safe and it’s mine until it was time to move on again. I like it that way, but I will admit that I sometimes feel the pull to stay in one place for a little longer than a few months.

Anyway.

I was thinking about vampires in general and my first and only encounter specifically because, in the course of fussing and chattering, Dottie had let it slip in her naturally gossipy way that the “oh, isn’t he dreamy” pastor was in a big bother over some vandalism that kept occurring at night at the church, some of it on the inside next to the podium. I considered telling her that nighttime was usually the best time to commit vandalism, but refrained. Dottie doesn’t understand my sense of humor.

I kept muttering “uh, huh” as she spoke, which, I realized too late, only encouraged her chatter. Then she changed topics and began comparing the pastor to some guy named Rudolph Valentino and that’s where I lost interest, especially when the dreamy sighs began. I wondered what she would make of today’s movie stars – Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt or (I shudder to think) George Clooney. I wouldn’t get any peace, that’s for sure.

Something in my jeans pocket pinched and I scowled, shifting so that I could pull out my stupid cellphone. It was a basic model, the kind that opens and shuts like a clam-shell and also wonderfully cheap. I eyed it, thoughtful. The date to change it was looming and I’d been trying to work out how to explain the change in my number to my current boss.

I turned thirty a month ago, but I didn’t celebrate it, not even with a special cupcake from the local bakery. It was on my sixth birthday that put me on the path to where I am now, so I’m not fond of them. The spot between my shoulder blades began to itch and I squirmed, trying to reach it and failing.

The pastor Dottie was mooning over was Pastor Devon Maclaine, who moved to the area over a year ago and presides over the local church. To hear her go on about him, you’d think that he was a strong mix of good looks and charm and resembles Rudolph Valentino. For a modern comparison, think of a David Boreanez type. I didn’t see it, but then I’m not a teen-aged ghost with a tendency to develop huge crushes on a guy that even passes the neighborhood of being kind of cute.

I’d spoken to him more than once, but while he was intelligent and easy-going, he seemed out of place in Sleepy Eye Cove. I wasn’t sure of the appeal a small town had for him or why he chose to settle here. The congregation is on the small side, since most of the locals tend to lean towards the mediumistic. But he seemed okay with it, the few times I’d seen him out and about in town. People liked him, made a point of engaging him in conversation and inviting him to social functions.

I think he’s too good to be true, personally. Since he discovered that I had landed in Sleepy Eye Cove in late March, he’s been encouraging me to join in on the social scene, such as it is (there isn’t one). He even suggested the local historical society. I think my job at the cemetery gave him ideas that it would be good for me.

About three weeks ago, he had begun dropping hints about the local softball league. I knew about this because of the flyers left in my mail cubby in the cemetery office. Tryouts were in late April, practice beginning in May and the season ending in October. Since I wasn’t planning on sticking around that long, I had passed on the idea. Twice. It’s now mid-May. I’ve made a point to avoid him, which so far has been successful. The flyers kept coming, though, and I’d resorted to tossing them in the trash.

I know he hasn’t given up on making me a part of his softball team. I’m not sure why. As pleasant and as concerned as he is, I always felt a little uncomfortable in his presence. I couldn’t explain why, even to myself, so I just kept quiet about it and kept my distance.

Abby Somers, a part-time gardener at the cemetery and practicing witch, says he has a lost-cause complex. I suppose that’s one reason to go into the seminary.

And another very good reason for me to keep my distance.

“Quit sighing so loud,” I said, feeling cranky. “I get it, I get it. You think Maclaine is cute.”

Dottie pouted. “And why not? He has a singular light about him that only Mr. Valentino possessed.”

Typical teenage girl, according to Abby. I had asked her about it shortly after moving into the crypt and was faced with the permanent teen angst. I wouldn’t know, not having any normal teen experiences to compare it with. My teenage years were more concerned with escaping from a mental hospital with help from one of the nurses. The main part of the asylum was shut down officially in 1990. The children’s ward, where I had been placed at the age of six, was shut down a decade later, shortly after I had escaped. I still have nightmares of that place haunted by the living, also known as an asylum.

Especially about the doctor who oversaw my treatment. Heavy-set and gray, he would peer at me through his glasses, his gaze unreadable and discomforting. I didn’t like the looks he gave me and hated the therapy sessions he insisted I have. Looking back, I suspect that he knew that I was telling the truth, that I talk to ghosts, and that he misdiagnosed me in order to keep me under lock and key to study me. My parents were much relieved at no longer having to be responsible for my blasphemous accounts of ghosts.

If it hadn’t been for the nurse who had once been assigned to my part of the hospital, I’d still be there. I say ‘once been assigned’ because she had been dead fifty years before I’d gotten there, had worked there when it was an actual place of healing and despised the creepy doctor and his methods, especially when it involved children. I didn’t think that he’d stop looking for me, even though I had become a legal adult long ago. That doctor had an agenda, one I wasn’t privy to, even though I was central to it. And he wasn’t the type to let that go, once he got his guinea pig.

I shook off those thoughts and continued to ponder the idea of vampires as I stirred my soup in slow circles. I’m not exactly sure why they had leapt immediately to mind when Dottie mentioned the vandalism at the church. She hadn’t mentioned anything in particular that would have labeled it a vampire problem. And besides, vampires are unholy creatures of the night – hallowed ground is not easy for them to breach unless it had been defiled by suicide or something.

And as far as I knew, the local church had not been the scene of such an incident.

But then, since I was a fairly recent resident of the area, that didn’t mean much. The thing to do would be to ask around. There were plenty of locals to talk to, and most of them were my neighbors, of the spectral kind. Ghosts are really chatty, probably because so few of the living can hear them, so it wouldn’t be too hard to get them talking about the past. Plus, they wouldn’t ask any of the awkward questions that the living seem so fond of.

Pastor Maclaine was not on my list of those to ask.

My soup was bubbling, so I turned off the hot-plate and lifted the pot, pouring the red liquid into a bowl. Steam rose in a cloud, and I inhaled the tomato scent with a sigh.

Vampires. God, I hate those bloodsuckers. At least they clean up easily with a broom after staking.

I shuddered.

A cemetery in the afternoon.
A cemetery in the afternoon.

****
Editor’s Note: This chapter also appears in a slightly different form published on March 2, 2012 on Hubpages.com.

Excerpt: Untitled Fantasy Novel

My brother Angus was the better swordsman, but my arrow always held true and found its mark, even in the strongest wind. Father had always maintained that my eye, my sure hand with a bow, could easily bring down a charging bull. Angus would roll his eyes at such praise leveled at his younger sister, but it was just as precious to me as the charm Mum made us wear under our tunics….

And there it was, the reference of a charm worn by Amidelanne, the first woman archer to have ever made captain in the King’s Army of Talisierre.
I marked the page with a broken quill, shut the heavy tome with care and sat back in my chair with a sigh. It had taken me more than two months of painstaking research through the collected histories of Talisierre. The histories were a set of twenty volumes, each book more than two thousand pages of recorded events, written in a cramped hand.
I had finally found what I was looking for, that brief mention, in volume nineteen.
Leaning forward, I ignored the sudden aching protests of my muscles and snatched up my quill. Dipping it in ink, I reached for a fresh page of parchment. I made quick notes about what I’d found, the quill making soft, scratching noises as I wrote. The sound was soothing and I was soon lost in it.
A half hour passed before I finish, my hand aching. Folding the page into thirds, I tucked the slip into my knapsack. Scowling at volume nineteen of The Histories of Talisierre, I stood and, hefting the massive tome with both hands, walked back to the stacks. I replaced it with care back among its siblings, my fingers caressing the worn bindings of each volume, my thoughts drifting.
It wasn’t much, that reference, I thought. It seemed to be more of a throwaway comment. The charm had no other importance attached to it, in the eyes of the historians. Other than it was a gift from her mother, there was not even a description of it in Amidelanne’s own words.
And yet, legends had risen about this charm, this bit of magic worn around a young girl’s neck. A girl who became an archer in the King’s Army, then rose to the rank of captain. So it did have some meaning, both to the wearer and to the person who began the stories that surrounded it.
I reclaimed my seat and leaned back, my eyes drifting closed as my thoughts swirled, trying to make sense of the knot I had before me. How had these legends of a charm not described come about? Did it still exist? What sort of magic did it claim? And who wanted it badly enough to commit murder?

That was what bothered me most in my research – that someone willfully committed violence over what some would dismiss as mere stories.

 

***
Edited: This was previously published January 2015 on Hubpages.com in two parts, here and here. JJB

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