"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov


Thursday, December 18, 2014

No Place To Hide - Chapter Two

Mitch Cartwright stood under a large Ponderosa pine and silently watched the woman moving about the house.  She was preparing to leave.  He smiled to himself.  Good to know his instincts were still right on point.  Because even though she had an impressive poker face and appeared to have no tells that gave anything away, the fact she went stone cold whenever his words hit home was the tell.  He grinned outright, looking forward to how pissed she was going to be when he reappeared on her doorstep.

There was no way she was hightailing it out of these woods without him.  Whatever was driving her, whoever was after her, didn’t matter anymore because now that he’d gotten a good look at the mysterious woman that Mike had coerced him into finding, he would be keeping her safe, whether she liked it or not.  She might be tough, but from what his brother was hearing through his contacts, whoever was looking for her was deadly serious.  Emphasis on dead.  And he was way too intrigued to let that happen.

She was in the kitchen now, scraping what looked like burnt cookies into the garbage. Her rich, dark auburn hair was probably shoulder-length when it wasn’t piled in a messy heap on top of her head.  When she’d come out onto the porch earlier to confront him, the sunlight had shot sparks of fire off the strands, vivid and bright as the anger in her eyes.  Mitch grinned.  He thought her eyes were some shade of green, but hadn’t gotten close enough to see, although he’d had no trouble spotting those full, sweet lips.  She had a cleft in her chin that was tantalizing and yet for some odd reason also made her seem more vulnerable.  Slender but with nice curves, she’d been in jeans, a thermal tee and an oversized flannel shirt. With bare feet and painted toes.  His grin widened.  Red toes, red hair, and a red-hot temper.  Add in the weapons—because yeah, he knew she was carrying more than that rifle—and he’d just found the woman of his dreams.

He leaned against the tree trunk, eyes fastened on her movements: efficient, calm, precise.  She washed the cookie sheet and other dishes, straightened the kitchen then packaged up cookies she’d obviously baked before he’d shown up.  His mouth watered. He hoped they were chocolate chip, with the big chunks.  The cookies and other food items went into what looked like saddlebags, along with bottles of water and a large Ziploc bag of dog food.  She turned in a wide circle, like she was memorizing the space, then scrubbed her hands over her face a couple of times before shaking her head and walking out of sight.

Wanting to get closer, still trying to work out exactly how to approach her without losing body parts, he straightened away from the tree.  The low growl at his back made the hair on his nape rise in primitive awareness.  Slowly he turned, then braced as the dog padded silently toward him, head down, fangs bared, eyes filled with hungry promise.


 Thumbing through the handful of false identities, a sense of hopelessness swamped her.  She’d used them all.  Ella Bennett was her current alias, and her last.  Four years of running, hiding, endlessly starting over and yet she’d never imagined this moment, never thought there would come a time when she’d be out of options. She’d read once that—just in America alone—over a million people disappeared every year and were never heard from again.  How was it possible then that no matter what she did, how many names she’d used, places she’d left behind…here she stood, found in the middle of the freaking wilderness.

Sitting on the edge of her bed, she shuffled through the drivers’ licenses, Social Security cards, birth certificates.  Chloe had long blond hair—a wig that had itched like crazy—and blue eyes, contacts that also irritated by the end of each day.  Sara had been a brunette, with brown eyes, frumpy clothes and wire rim glasses.  Jane, blond again, hair short and spiky, blue-gray contacts.  Marissa, long black wig, brown eyes, lots of tats and piercings, all fake.  Ella had been as close to her real self as she’d been in years: her own auburn hair and hazel eyes.  She raised her head and stared across the bedroom into the mirror above the dresser.  Her face was leaner, eyes calculating and sharp, body honed.  There was nothing left of fashionable Katherine Lancaster, concierge extraordinaire for the exclusive Fordyce Hotel in Washington, D.C.  That woman was well and truly gone.

Stomach churning as she forced the memories away, she shoved her alter egos back into the small zippered pouch, then into the side pocket of a leather pack.  Grabbing underwear, socks, another pair of jeans, two sweaters and a thermal shirt, she crammed them into the bag as well, then walked into the bathroom.  She filled a small cloth make-up case with bathroom essentials, then grabbing a handful of hair ties, a brush and the first aid kit, she walked to the bed and stuffed everything into the pack with the other items.  After another long look around, her heart aching at having to leave a place she’d finally thought would be her home, she went back to the kitchen and dropped the pack next to the saddlebags.

The plan was to leave as soon as it got dark. She wasn’t leaving in her car, or going down the drive to the highway, just in case Scary Biker Dude was out there somewhere on the road waiting for her. In the nearly two years she’d lived in her cabin, she and Ace had hiked, camped and explored the area for miles in every direction.  She had an escape route in case of emergency, a safe passage through the forest that she’d never thought would be necessary, not after all this time.  So stupid.  And stupid would get her killed if she didn’t get her head back in the game.

Opening the hall closet, she punched in the code for the safe and took out three boxes of ammo for her pistol, two extra clips and a box of bullets for the rifle, stashing everything in the pockets of her winter parka along with a small gun cleaning kit she’d found in Montana at a military supply store. Her eyes closed as another glimpse into the past bubbled to the surface.

Missoula.  Running on empty, no idea where to go after leaving Wichita two days before, she’d been reading the local newspaper at a diner on the outskirts of town.  She always had a book or a paper when she was in a public place.  It kept people away and gave her a reason to keep her head down.  On that day, eating a piece of very tasty cherry pie, she read an ad for survival training being taught in the Rocky Mountains at a compound close to the Montana/Canadian border; an intensive three-week program, catering to body guards, security personnel and retrieval agents.  She finished her pie and drove north.

It had taken some serious convincing, but eventually Mike had let her take the course.  It had been a defining moment for her, changing everything.  Mike said she was a natural, Lisa argued that it was time women were included in their training program.  And she'd learned how to survive in almost any situation.  Against her better judgment she’d stayed on for a few weeks after the course finished because she really liked Mike and Lisa and it had been so long since she’d allowed herself to make friends.  She helped out around the compound, then one day discovered the kennels.  One look shared between her and a two-year-old Rottweiler named Menace and the rest was history.  Mike said the dog was promised to someone else, but when he saw the instant connection, he gave in.  It took a huge chunk of change, but she didn’t regret a penny.  He was the best thing that had ever happened to her.

When Mike and Lisa tried to get her to open up, made overtures that she could stay and work for them, she knew it was time to go.  It was hard, almost too hard.  She’d made her first friends in years, but she also realized her mistake.  Her life had been reduced to a few simple rules:  Head down, keep moving, no contact, but for a brief moment in time she'd forgotten all three.

Shaking her head to dislodge the thoughts, she lifted out the last bundle of cash.  The twenty thousand would have kept her safe in her forest hideaway for a long time, but now she had to move and with no destination in mind, no ID to cover her ass—which meant finding someone to make a new set—the money was going to be gone before she knew it.  With a sigh, she closed the safe and grabbed her jacket, gloves, wool scarf and hat.  Dumping them on the kitchen counter next to the rest of the gear, she glanced out the window at the gathering dusk.  Almost time to leave.  Going to the back door, she whistled for Ace, surprised he wasn’t already waiting on the porch.  With a frown when he didn’t come bounding into the house, she paused, trying to think how long it had been since she’s seen him.

Maybe twenty minutes?  While cleaning the kitchen she’d watched him chase a squirrel around the side of the house, then before going into the bedroom to pack, she’d seen him stalking something in the woods by the big Ponderosa pine.  Still, no matter the temptations, it wasn’t like him not to come running the minute she whistled or called.

She walked to the front door, opened it and pushed the screen.  Even in the forest gloom, the bright white card that Scary Biker Guy had flicked at her seemed to glow on the landing.  She bent to pick it up, then heard an odd snuffling noise to her right.  Her hand whipped to her back, the Ruger out and pointed before she had fully straightened.

The sight before her was so strange and inexplicable, she froze in jaw-dropping astonishment.

Her dog.  Her beloved partner was laying on his back, feet in the air, all one hundred and thirty pounds of lethal sprawled across Scary Biker Guy’s lap.  The guy who was currently sitting on the porch, lounging with his back against her house, rubbing Ace’s stomach while the dog's tongue hung nearly to the ground in rapturous joy.  But it was the man's wicked grin and his expression as he held her gaze that made her finger itch to shoot the smug right off the rat bastard's face.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

No Place To Hide - Chapter One

     As she started to pull the last cookie sheet out of the oven, the soft purr of a motorcycle in the distance sent ice down her spine while the blast of heat from the oven billowed around her.  The combination made her whole body shiver.  Closing her eyes, she focused, quickly estimating sound and location, judging how much time she had.  When the purr grew louder—Harley by the throaty rumble—she spun, tossed the cookie sheet into the sink and ran toward the hall, Menace on her heels, his deep growl announcing that someone was determined enough to ignore the No Trespassing signs, the double-locked steel gate and two miles of bad mountain road.

     Wrenching the knob to the hall closet door, she tapped a code into the key pad on the right-side wall.  Before the gun safe had opened completely, she had the Ruger in her hand and was reaching for the clip.  Menace was standing by the front windows, his growls deeper, hackles standing straight up like the Rottweiler version of a Mohawk.

     “Quiet,” she murmured, “stand down, Ace.”

     The glare as he looked over his shoulder at the command was so male, she wanted to laugh.  “No tearing a lost biker limb from limb, my man.  Let’s see who’s come calling first.”  She grinned at his low grumble of dissent, though Ace obeyed and sat facing the front door, no doubt hoping a tasty chew toy was headed his way.

     Slapping the clip in place, racking a bullet in the chamber, she tucked the pistol at the small of her back, then quickly unbuckled her belt and added a sheath with her favorite blade, re-buckled and covered both weapons with her long flannel shirt. Just as she reached for her rifle the motorcycle’s engine cut off in front of the house.  Ace stood, going rigid in the sudden silence, his intensity ramping up to ballistic.

     Stock tucked into her side, she held the rifle in a loose grip and walked to the door.  Laying a hand on the dog’s head, she bent and whispered in his ear, “Down, Ace.  If this goes bad, you’re my secret weapon.”  He held her gaze, refusing to move away from the door for a moment, then reluctantly dropped to the floor.

     Opening the thick oak door, she pushed on the screen and walked out onto the porch.  The afternoon sun had warmed the boards and felt good under her bare feet as she crossed the landing, her eyes on the man still sitting astride his bike, hands on the grips, long legs balancing the heavy weight with ease.  The Harley was old, a bit beat up, but it was easy to see there was history between the man and his ride.

     They stared at each other over the fifteen feet that separated them, though she was at a disadvantage: his mirrored aviators blocked any chance of seeing his eyes. That annoyed her.  She shifted the rifle, raising the barrel a few inches.  “You speak English?”

     He lifted a leg over the bike, hit the kickstand, then sat sideways on the seat and stretched out his legs, crossing one ankle over the other.  “Yeah, I speak English.  What kind of question is that?”  His voice was rough, rumbling from deep in his chest.

     “You understand English?”

     He scowled.  “What the—”

     She cut him off.  “Because I’m wondering what you’re doing on my property, two miles off a dirt road that’s ten miles off the highway, not reading a dozen No Trespassing signs, or understanding a locked gate means the difference between my privacy and you sitting on that bike in front of my house.”

     He stood, took a step toward her.  She raised the rifle higher, held her ground.  Standing, he was huge and every inch of his six and a half feet screamed dangerous.  Arms loose at his sides, he stopped and said softly, “Cut right to it then.  You know a Chloe Jones?”  When she didn’t respond, he began a litany.  “Sara Matthews?  Jane Franks?  Marissa Wilson?  Ella Bennett?” 

     Outwardly, she didn’t give herself away, but hearing each name conjured images of the past and fear rocked through her belly.  Chloe Chicago.  Sara Wichita.  Jane Missoula.  Marissa Portland.  Ella log cabin in northern California wilderness staring at a man who had no business knowing any of this.  She was only marginally relieved that the only name not flying out of his mouth was her real one.  “Nope, never heard of those women and if you’re looking to add to your harem, I’m not interested.”

     He took off his shades, closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. She took the moment to study him.  Broad shoulders, dark brown hair tangled from riding with no helmet, long enough to touch the collar of his black leather jacket.  His tee shirt, faded jeans and scuffed boots were also black—his go-to color then.  And damn he was big.  If he got too close, she wouldn't stand a chance against his brute strength.  Then he raised his head and speared her with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen.  Even from a distance the color was mesmerizing, vivid and intense, like falling into the heart of a sapphire.  He might be the poster boy for badass, and with those eyes, chiseled face and a body women probably worshiped on a regular basis, it was obvious he was a player.  A major one, with too much information about her and an unknown agenda.

     She opened her mouth to order him off her property, but he spoke first, low and serious. “You’re in danger here.”

     “Yeah,” she snorted, and I’m looking right at it.”

     He took a step.  She raised the rifle.  He cocked his head.  “You willing to shoot me?” he asked, a hint of laughter in his voice.

     “I learned a long time ago that if you point it, you’d best be prepared to follow through.”  She smiled through cold eyes, the rifle not wavering from a spot dead center on his chest.  “I don’t know you, you’re trespassing on my land, I’m a woman alone in the middle of nowhere.  You think I’m not willing?”

     “Fuck,” he growled under his breath, no longer amused.

     “Like I said,” she snapped, “don’t know those women or why you want them, so you need to saddle up and go before somebody gets hurt.”

     Turning his back, he walked a few paces then stopped and bowed his head, hands clasped over his nape.  She let her grip loosen and lowered the rifle for a moment to relieve some of the tension in her arms.  At her back Ace chuffed softly at the bottom of the screen door, growing agitated by the confrontation.  She knew how he felt.  While her stomach roiled and her mind played a continuous loop of bad memories, she kept her eyes locked on the man.  Goddamn it.  She loved her little cabin, her hard-earned safe life.  Now she had to run.  Again.  Goddamn it!

      “Hey mister,” she half shouted at his back, “I need you gone.  I’ve—”

     “Okay, here’s the deal,” the guy barked as he spun to face her.  “No bullshit now. I know it’s you, all of those names belong to you.  I’ve been tracking you for weeks.  I don’t know your reasons for playing hide and seek.  Yet.” He paused, nailed her with a look. “But I will.”

     Her eyes iced over, the rifle again aimed steadily in his direction. Raising both hands, palms out, he said quickly, “Hold on now, just hear me out.”  After a long stare she tipped her chin in the barest acquiescence.

     “My brother sent me to find you.”  Scowling, he lowered his arms.  “Though I’m beginning to wonder why he thought you needed help.” 

     “I don’t.”  She hesitated for a second, then asked sharply, “Who’s your brother?”  Her only mistake in four years might have just come back to bite her on the ass.

     “Two years ago you took a survival course in Montana.  My brother was your instructor.  He liked you, his wife liked you, hell, I heard even his damn dog liked you.  Mike knew you were in some kind of trouble, wanted to help, but you left before he could offer.”  He took a deep breath, then said evenly, “Month or so ago he hears questions are being asked about a certain woman.”  He took a step toward her.  “My brother had a hunch, called me, I did some poking around.  I followed a lead, worked my way back and forth across the country, took a photo off a security video at the bookstore where Sara Matthews worked in Portland, showed it to Mike.  That woman looked real familiar to him, even with the short, blond wig.”  His gaze swept over her, taking in the tumble of auburn hair, the alabaster skin.  She'd felt secure enough here to be herself.  After I left the military, I started my own business, but also do contract work, sometimes for my brother.  I’m good at surveillance, better at digging deep.”  His voice lowered, eyes locked with hers as he strode closer, paused a few feet from the bottom step and looked up at her.  “Best at finding things.” 

     Stalling for time, mind racing, she decided to drop the clueless act.  He knew who she was—or thought he did—so maybe admitting it would get rid of him faster, because if he could find her, they could too.  “I don’t remember hearing anything about a brother.”

     “Not around much, mostly on the road or out of the country.”

     She stiffened.  “So what, you’re some kind of bounty hunter?”  Her eyes narrowed as her grip tightened on the rifle. “You can claim to be Mike’s brother all day long and it still won’t mean a thing.  You’re trespassing.”  Her eyes blazed.  “Get off my property.” 

     Holding her gaze, he slowly reached into his jacket, pulled out a small white card and flicked it toward the porch. She didn’t move, didn’t try to catch it, didn’t break eye contact. The card bounced off her left leg and landed at her feet.

     A hint of respect flashed in his eyes for an instant before he muttered, “I’ve been all over the world, fought my share of battles, hung with some good men and bad, but I gotta say woman, you’re damn cool under pressure.”

     She shrugged.  “It really doesn’t matter what your little card says.  For one, anything can be faked, and for another,” she gestured with the rifle toward the Harley, “you’re leaving. Yesterday.”

     “Now honey, here’s the thing.  I promised my brother I’d find you.  I did.  I also promised him I would take care of you until he says it's safe.”  He took his last step before hitting the stairs.  “I intend to do just that.”

     “Well honey, here’s my thing.  Get on your ride, head back to wherever you came from and along the way tell your brother I appreciate his concern, but I don’t need anyone’s help.”

     “Okay, that’s it,” the man barked in frustration as he moved to climb the steps. “I’m only trying—”

     Before he could finish, there was a low, deeply serious growl from behind the screen door, followed immediately by a crash as it flew open and slammed into the side of the house.  A dog, huge, bristling, and way into the red zone stood solid beside the woman, vibrating with barely controlled aggression, dark lips curled back over sharp teeth.  The man stood frozen, one foot on the bottom step, held in place by the dog’s hard, unwavering focus.

     “I think that’s your cue to leave,” the woman said quietly.  He lifted his eyes, caught the smirk, knew she’d won this round.  One side of his mouth tipped up in grudging admiration, then he slowly backed away from the porch.  “If it will make things easier, tell Mike thanks, but like I said, I take care of myself.”  She gestured toward the Harley with her rifle.  “Please.  Go away.”

     He cocked his head, scanned her from head to toe, and stared intently at the dog for a long moment before turning on his heels.  Kicking the motorcycle to life, he adjusted his hands on the grips and slowly maneuvered the half-circle turn in her dirt and pine needle drive.  He stopped for a brief, taut moment, looking from her to the dog, then without another word slowly rode out of sight.  She listened to the low, unmistakable rumble of the Harley for several minutes until silence returned to the forest.

     “Good boy, Ace, good boy.”  She lowered the rifle and reached down to scratch behind one of the dog's ears.  “Extra treats for that dramatic entrance.”  Smiling, she turned and let them both into the house.  Heading toward the kitchen, the dog at her side, she began to laugh.  “You accomplished more in one minute than I did in ten with a loaded weapon.”  She propped the rifle near the back door and opened the pantry, grabbing two large dog biscuits.  “You eat these, then I’ll let you out while I pack things up.

       Menace, dangerous and lethal when necessary, sat with tongue lolling and tail twitching, waiting patiently for his treats.  Gently he took first one, then the other from her hand, crunching happily.  When the last crumb was gone, she opened the back door and ordered quietly, “Patrol.  He stood on the porch for a minute, head raised to sniff the air, then charged down the steps and began to circle the house, searching for something to chase, or better yet, something to catch.

Friday, August 1, 2014

3. Leap Of Faith

Kardeeb shoved an elder out of his path and started toward Rafe.  “Are you saying this woman is not yours?”  His dark, beady eyes heated as he stared avidly at the unconscious woman.

“No, I didn’t say that.”  Rafe held the woman against him with one large hand on her back, using the other to reach under his djellaba for the bag of gold.  Tossing it at Kardeeb, he said tersely, “Your payment. We're done.” 

Snatching the money pouch out of the air as it flew toward him, a cruel smile spread over the Mor’Abat’s face.  “I think not, my friend.”  Gesturing at the two guards, he shouted, “Seize them!”

Before the words had left Kardeeb’s mouth, Rafe had tossed the woman over his shoulder to free his fighting arm and was on the move.  It wasnt his habit to unman a guy, but outnumbered, one-handed and hampered by dead weight, Rafe didn’t hesitate to boot the first guard in the balls and snatch the man’s sword as he dropped with a low, guttural cry. In the slight pause as the second guard eyed the painful writhing of his fellow tribesman, Rafe lunged forward, smashed his fist into the man's face and ran for the exit.

The two men who’d taken his weapons had scimitars drawn, blocking the only way out of the pavilion.  Behind him Kardeeb was screaming for his weapon, women wailed in high-pitched ululations, and the elders scrambled frantically to distance themselves from imminent bloodshed.  Rafe smiled, tossed the sword aside and pulled the cloth fully away from his face.  As the guards stared, transfixed in horror, Rafe slammed into one, sending him in a violent spin out of the tent, then wrenched his Jambiya out of the second man’s belt and hammered the pommel down on his head with a satisfying crack.

His way was clear, but now there was a loud, growing commotion outside the pavilion.  Over the chaotic sounds at his back, Rafe could hear the shouts of men rushing toward the Mor’Abat’s tent.  Spinning to his left, leaping over cushions and cook pots, he ran to the far wall, slashed an opening and vaulted through.
“Master Treb!”  The shout from above was sharp, edged with excitement.

Treb looked up at the small enclosure circling the topmast.  Henri leaned precariously over the edge of the wooden basket as if she could get closer to the image in her spyglass.  “Aye lass,” he shouted back.  “You see him?”

“He’s on the run.”  She looked down at Treb, her grin slightly feral. “With half the Red Tribe on his arse.”  Laughing exuberantly, she climbed out of the basket, danced like a monkey along the yard and down the rigging, landing gracefully in front of Treb.  Henri was small, lithe, with a delicate face, guileless blue eyes and freckles sprinkled in a band across her nose.  She wore her thick auburn hair in two long braids, tied at the ends in bows of silk ribbon, color determined by her mood; today they were blood-red.  She exuded a child-like innocence, an illusion she cultivated.  No one ever saw stone-cold lethal, until it was too late.

“Guns primed and ready, Master Treb,” she said with glee.  “Time for a bit of fun?”

“Aman!” Treb bellowed.  He walked to the port side, raising his own spyglass as the quartermaster joined him at the rail.  “All provisions and supplies aboard?  Jai-Li’s medical paraphernalia?  The ballonets of lifting gas?”

“Aye, we’re loaded to the gunnels, ready to sail at your word.”

Lowering the spyglass, Treb turned, gave both Henri and Aman a broad smile and said, “Then let's go get the captain.”

With a loud whoop, Henri ran forward to the three men who worked under her command in munitions.  Handpicked and trained to her exacting standards, they could handle any weapon with calm efficiency, including the two long cannon protruding through either side of the prow.  Running a hand along one sleek barrel, stroking it like a beloved pet, Henri smiled at her team in anticipation.

     Treb kept his spyglass on the area outside the el-Ahmar compound as the Dark Wind began to ease away from the docking poles, bracing himself against the rail as the ship gently moved forward.  The soft whisper of lifting gas, drawn from a ballonet in the chamber beneath the deck, was as sweet as a lover’s kiss to his ears. Rafe might love wind billowing the sails, but for Treb, liquid helion transformed into lifting gas that would allow an airship to fly?  Well, that was just magical, as far as he was concerned.

Rafe suddenly came into view.  Treb frowned and quickly spun the outer brass ring on his spyglass to bring the image closer as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing: Rafe, firmly gripping a body draped over his shoulder before disappearing behind a row of tents. 

Aware Rafe’s plan had been to get in and out with the least amount of damage and make his way back to the ship by nightfall with Elissa, Treb knew the body had just buggered that scheme.  As a large group of red-clad tribesmen began to spread out in a search pattern around the marketplace, Treb barked an order to the helmsman, directing him toward the center of the city.

 Rafe set the woman down, then crouched in the narrow space between two tents. Slumped against his thigh, her head lolled and she softly groaned.  Rafe leaned close to whisper, “Hush. No sounds.”  He watched her eyelids flutter as she struggled to lift them, but then she shuddered and went limp.  Sliding his dagger into its sheath, Rafe put a hand to her neck and quietly waited to feel a pulse, his mind racing with questions.  He went still at the approach of running feet and harsh voices.  Kardeeb’s men were close.

Laying the woman flat on the ground, Rafe stretched out beside her, gathered her close and swiftly rolled them under the bottom edge of the nearest tent.  He had chosen this area of the market for its selection of rugs, carpets and silks, tents that would provide ample places to hide. Pleased to discover row after row of colorful bolts of material, Rafe burrowed into a mound of sky-blue silk and held the woman against his body, one hand around her waist, the other securing her head beneath his chin, ready to cover her mouth if she made the slightest noise.

Minutes passed while Rafe listened to Kardeeb's men searching, shouting, threatening.  He breathed easier when the sounds moved further away, giving him a chance not only to consider his next move, but to ponder the unconscious woman.  What was wrong with her anyway?  Had she been drugged, or was she one of those females prone to swooning? And if that were the case, what insane circumstance had brought her—and supposedly Elissa—to this uncivilized and brutal corner of the world?  Rafe shook his head. Answers would have to wait for now.

     Prepared to rest until full dark, he was just getting comfortable when a familiar dark shadow passed over the tent, followed by a swelling roar of outrage and fury.  Rafe laughed out loud. It was strictly forbidden to fly over the city, yet his crew were blatantly making a point by putting themselves above the rulers of the Four Tribes.  And from the sound of it, the entire city was howling for blood.

Still chuckling at the audacity of his crew, Rafe eased his large frame over the woman's body, gently wedged her back into the fabric niche and slipped out the tent. Looking skyward he caught a glimpse of the rudder and the starboard propeller before the ship was out of sight. Digging under his robe for the small reflecting device that all airship sailors carried, he pulled out the round disk—a comfortable fit in the palm of his hand—and rubbed the battered, tarnished metal. It was probably time to get a newer, shinier version, but this one held far too many memories in each scratch and dent to ever be replaced.

Flicking up the lid, he walked to a small path that ran behind the silk merchant's tent and waited. When his ship came back around, Rafe quickly lined up the reflecting mirror with the sun and shot a beam of light toward the Dark Wind. The response was immediate. Flashes traveled back and forth until both he and his crew knew exactly what to do and where to rendezvous. Hurrying back to the tent, he yanked up the edge and pulled the still unconscious woman out of her hiding place. Settling her over his shoulder once more, he stood in the shadows, tense and ready.

When the first explosion shook the ground, sending shock waves through the tents, Rafe took off, running toward the center of the market.  He plowed into a few guards, too busy shouting up at the airship before being knocked flat and barely avoided a large, irate group of fist-waving tribesmen. Sliding around a corner, the fountain in sight, he hurdled over a fruit cart, and jabbed a hard fist into the nose of a basket merchant who foolishly tried to grab him.

Overhead he heard a crazed laugh—Henri in her element—followed by another explosion just as the hawser dropped through a veil of smoke and dangled near the fountain.  Tightly gripping the woman, Rafe put on a final burst of speed, bounded off the rim of the fountain and with a flying leap, grabbed the thick rope as the Dark Wind rapidly ascended. Grinning, heart pounding, he savored the heady rush of exhilaration that thrummed through his body as he was quickly hoisted aloft.

Treb was there to help him aboard, then they laughed with shared relief.  “Excellent rescue, my man,” Rafe said, pounding his second on the back.

“It was a joy to see you move, boy.  A pure joy.”  His gold tooth sparkled in the sun.  “And that great leap at the end?”  Treb shook his head in amazement. “Songs should be written.”

Rafe started to laugh again, but the woman stirred, reminding him that he couldn't plot their course until he had the necessary information. Swinging her off his shoulder, Rafe carried her determinedly toward his quarters, a frowning Treb on his heels.

“If memory serves, Cap’n, wasn't your brother’s wife a small and dainty thing?”

“Aye, indeed she was.  This is not Elissa.  I don’t know who this is, but I aim to find out right now.”

Stalking into his cabin, Rafe laid the woman in his berth, thoughts already on reviving her with the brandy in the bottom drawer of his desk.  As he turned, a shocked gasp from Treb stopped him cold.  “What?  What's wrong?”

“Damnation boy, you never said you were hurt!”

“I’m not.”

“What's all that then?”

Rafe peered down at his blood-soaked djellaba, met Treb’s gaze, then they both stepped toward the bed and looked at the woman.  Her hood had fallen back, revealing blue-tinged lips in shocking contrast to her white, nearly translucent face. Frail, labored breaths sounded ominous in the quiet cabin as the two men stared at several wet, dark patches on the front of her brown robe.

“She doesn’t get to die until I have answers,” Rafe hissed.  “Find Jai-Li.”

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

2. Complications

Rafe let go of the rope several feet from the ground, dropping easily to the wooden dock.  He didn’t have to glance back to know it had been quickly draw up behind him; no one would be given the slightest chance to board the Dark Wind in his absence.

Nearly a head taller than most of the local residents, he tried not to draw attention to himself.  Rounding his broad shoulders and stooping slightly, he walked toward the center of the city and in the quiet of the early morning had no trouble sensing the three shadows at his back, men he’d easily spotted while being lowered from the airship. Although expecting the unwanted company, he had no intention of arriving at the el-Ahmar compound until he was damn good and ready, so losing them was vital.

But first, a good strong cup of caffé was in order and if things hadn’t changed over the last thirteen years, he knew just the place.

Half an hour later, Rafe sat at a small table under the awning of a colorful orange and yellow tent, sipping his second cup of the dark, rich brew Ha’Roon was famous for.  One side of his face remained hidden, but he’d loosened a corner of the cloth to drink the caffé.  Savoring the delicious drink, his gaze focused on the Dark Wind in the distance. Surrounded by the other ships—large frigates, provision carriers and a few pleasure balloons—tethered along the harbor pilings, she stood apart from them like a jewel.  Watching a large wooden pallet, laden with bundles and baskets, being hoisted to the supplies hold, Rafe didn’t need his spying glass to see that Treb and Hamson were directing the lift and that Aman’s skill in procuring anything, anywhere remained true, even in Ha’Roon.  She would be ready to sail well before nightfall.

Rafe’s eyes wandered over the sleek lines of his ship as he took another taste of the strong, potent drink. Her hull gleamed with a richness that rivaled the ebony hue of his caffé, the Piedra wood light as air, durable as stone; her sails, black silk woven from the strongest threads, had been made in a tiny village on an obscure island in the Sea of Storms by a handful of ancient, skilled women—repayment for saving Jai-Li, though in truth, she had saved him first.  The Dark Wind’s decks and rails were hewn from the Canela tree, the heady scent of cinnamon permeated the air whenever it rained.  There was nothing more exhilarating to him than watching those sails fill with wind, and feel the power surge beneath his feet as she raced through the skies, glorious and free.

Never could he have imagined, as he lay dying in the jungles of Amazonia, that his fevered dreams and ramblings would result in such an exotic and beautiful vessel, the one thing left in this world that he truly loved.

His musings were interrupted by a slight shift in the air behind him. Leaping to his feet, Rafe pivoted and grabbed the man’s raised arm in one fluid motion, twisting it painfully until the cudgel dropped with a clatter onto the table before rolling to the ground.  Hard, icy gray eyes narrowed on his assailant.  “You spilled my caffé.”  Pulling the struggling man toward him, Rafe hissed, “Tell your Mor’Abat I will see him soon.”  Then he bent lower, purposefully allowing the shemagh cloth to shift, revealing the whole of his features.  He only had to wait a moment before shock washed over the man’s face, his eyes wide in disbelief.  Satisfied at the reaction, Rafe shoved the man away, waiting until the el-Ahmar spy had disappeared before quickly covering his face and entering the caffé seller’s tent.  Nodding to the old man seated next to a large samovar, Rafe slipped out the back, the delicious aroma of freshly brewed caffé floating in the air behind him. 

Standing in the gloom between two large tents, Rafe looked across the dusty market street and watched as two men joined the one who had tried to bash him over the head a few moments ago.  Agitated, the man punctuated his account with wild, slashing gestures toward his face as the other two listened in dawning horror. Rafe chuckled quietly to himself, perversely amused that all it had taken to rid himself of the Mor’Abat shadows had been to show his face.


A few hours later, Rafe had managed to slip past the compound’s armed guards, then narrowly avoided a run-in with his three shadows, fortunately too busy hurrying toward the great tent at the end of a long, wide avenue to notice him.

After carefully searching numerous tents for Elissa, he was concerned to hear she was being kept isolated and under guard in a small tent next to the Mor’Abat’s pavilion.  Rafe had hoped for a simple rescue, though that had been more wishful thinking than a belief that things would ever be that easy.

With one final look over his shoulder at the Dark Wind, Rafe stepped out of the shadows and walked across the avenue toward the two men standing guard on either side of the pavilion’s main entrance.  They stiffened when he approached and drew their swords, bristling with hostility as if he had appeared from thin air by some foul magic.

“The el-Ahmar’s most illustrious and benevolent ruler is expecting me.”  He nodded his head slightly, glad the shemagh hid the grin behind his bullshit. “Tell the exalted one that Batiste is here.”

One of the guards turned sharply and strode into the tent while the other blocked the opening with his body and the wicked scimitar used by all the desert tribes.  Rafe waited patiently, appearing completely at ease though he was aware of everything around him even as myriad obstacles, plans and scenarios played through his mind.

The first guard reappeared and motioned him inside, holding wide one side of the tent flap.  Rafe ducked through the opening, then stood for a moment to get his bearings while his eyes adjusted to the more subdued lighting after the harsh desert sun.  When his weapons were taken, he didn’t protest, nor did he volunteer the blade in his boot when the guards overlooked it in their excitement with his pistol and Jambiya.  Rafe made a mental note of which guard held the dagger.  He didn’t care about the pistol, but he definitely wasn't going to lose a weapon that had been earned under fire and paid for in blood.

A prod at his back moved Rafe forward into an opulent and flamboyant space. Blood-red dominated, in the silken cushions and pillows, in the beautifully woven carpets, and the long, gossamer streamers that covered the walls and draped in billowy folds from the vaulted ceiling, the slightest hint of air giving them graceful movement.  Several women worked at various chores around the fringes of the room, and a score of tribal elders sat cross-legged on the floor, divided equally along both sides of the central aisle. 

At the far end of the room on a raised platform, lounging casually against a mound of cushions, Kardeeb, leader of el-Ahmar, the Red Tribe, was being fed large, ruby-colored grapes by one of his handmaidens.  An ugly man, with an enormous, bulbous nose, small black eyes, and hair of an odd, burnished shade of copper that hung in dozens of braided tangles past his shoulders.  A long, thin mustache, framing a cruel mouth, was woven into a wiry beard that reached the middle of his chest.  His robe was brilliant red, the hem and sleeves edged with intricate designs stitched in gold thread.

Rafe wasn't fooled by the nonchalant posturing.  The malevolent glitter in the man’s eyes was clearly evident, even from a distance.  Out of respect, he partially uncovered his face, bowed deep, then carefully said, “I am arrived, Mor’Abat, as requested.”

Kardeeb slapped the girl’s hand away, several grapes bouncing down the steps of the platform and rolling across the carpet.  He sat up, stiff and angry.  “You are here, but not as requested!  You should have come before me the moment you arrived in Ha’Roon, as is required by tribal law.”

Slowly walking down the center of the room, Rafe said softly, tempering the edge of his own anger. “I have not broken tribal law.  I am not the accused, I am the negotiator.”

Murmurs rose and fell between the elders.  Kardeeb waved a hand for silence.

“And yet, your past transgressions have assuredly broken—”

“I am not here to answer for whatever crimes you imagine have been committed in the past, Kardeeb.  Although, if you want to get personal, I could lay several at your feet.”

Leaping off the cushions, Kardeeb began shouting and stomping across the platform, sending pillows flying as he viciously kicked them out of his way, servants cowering from his rage.  Swallowing his loathing of the man, Rafe took a deep breath, determined not be goaded into making a mistake…like killing the bastard in a room full of his loyal tribesmen. 

When Kardeeb paused in his rant for breath, Rafe interjected calmly, “You have my brother’s woman.  I am here to pay the death penalty fees as required by your laws. There is nothing else to discuss.”  He hesitated, his next words risky if he was wrong, but he had to keep Kardeeb from doing something stupid, and right now, stalling was the only idea he had.  Certain the flag of el-Azraq—the Blue Tribe—had not been flying over that ruler’s pavilion—meaning the Mor’Abat wasn't in residence for a legal ruling on tribal law—Rafe murmured, “Don’t force me to call for an arbitration of the Four, Kardeeb.  All it would take is one word.”  

“You dare threaten me?”  Kardeeb spat, hate thick in his throat.

Ignoring the question, Rafe said, “Instead, here’s my proposal: You take the money, we go merrily on our way, and I don’t bring the wrath of the Dark Wind down upon your heads.”  At Kardeeb’s shout of outrage, Rafe raised a hand to forestall another long, boring tirade and walked determinedly to the base of the platform.  Coldly he said, “Enough, Kardeeb.  I want to see my brother’s wife.  Now.”

The two men faced off, barely an inch between them as the anger grew; a small spark—a word, a gesture—and the fire would ignite.

Sensing the danger, six of the elders quickly approached.  Rafe allowed one old man to push him back a foot or so, then ignoring the furious hissing and sharp rebuttals of the group, he was contemplating how best to retrieve his dagger with a minimum of bloodshed, when Kardeeb barked an order.  In the sudden silence, Rafe heard a small commotion at his back.

Turning, he watched as a tall, slender woman was brought into the tent.  Completely covered in the drab brown robes of a servant, with a veil hiding her face, she shuffled toward him, held at the upper arms by two of his shadows.  When the figure was a few feet away from where Rafe stood, Kardeeb ordered them to halt.

This isn't right, Rafe thought. Granted, he hadn’t seen Elissa in well over a decade, but how would she have grown taller in that time?  Surely his memory of a small, delicate woman held more truth than this female standing before him now.

“Take off the veil,” he ordered. “Let me see your face.”  When she made no move to comply, Rafe began to laugh.  He glared over his shoulder at the treacherous Mor'Abat.  “You think to trick me with one of your slaves?  You will get nothing but dishonor for this deceit, Kardeeb.”

The promise of a reckoning in his voice, Rafe stepped close to the woman. “Where did you get my brother’s ring?”  Before anyone could react, his hand shot out, ripping the veil off her head. The hood of the robe kept him from seeing her clearly, though dark green eyes met his, swimming with unshed tears, bright with pain.  He growled low in his throat. “Who are—?”

 His words were choked off when she wrenched away from the guards and threw her arms around his neck.  “Please,” she whispered frantically in his ear, “you must help me.  Elissa was taken in the desert. She gave me the ring, made me hide, told me to find you.”  Rafe felt every tremor in the body pressed against him; felt heartbeats racing in her chest, felt the struggle as she tried to breathe.  “Please, you have my vow to tell you everything, just help me get away.”

With her voice ringing in his ears, Rafe pulled back and looked full into her face, just in time to watch her eyes roll back in her head and he found himself reluctantly holding an unconscious stranger in his arms instead of the woman he’d come to rescue.  

Damn.  Here was a scenario that had never crossed his mind.

Friday, June 20, 2014

1. Demands Are Made

Tales From The Dark Wind


      At the dawn of time, the earth was a vast supercontinent surrounded by churning seas. Over millions of years, in endless cycles, the land shifted, broke apart and reformed; islands rose and fell, mountains crumbled, oceans ebbed, ice conquered and retreated. 

Eventually life, in all its myriad diversity, covered the earth. Dinosaurs ruled with a ferocious tenacity until falling stars burned through the skies destroying everything in lethal balls of fire.

The land drifted, the seas boiled, air became a poison that eradicated most living things, though not the burrowers or denizens of the deep oceans.  They survived and became stronger, more adaptable, deadlier.

Eons pass, the earth settles, and humans begin to evolve.  After thousands of years the structure of civilizations are built; laws and politics are established; wars are fought in defense of ideologies; borders and boundaries are claimed and disputed.

But then, without warning, another star falls from the sky, striking the southern ice cap, shattering the enormous plate, melting unimaginable tons of ice in mere seconds. The cataclysm that followed scoured the land as tsunamis tore around the globe in relentless waves, drowning countries, erasing entire populations, ravaging and reshaping the earth once again.

In the aftermath, climates changed, air and water currents shifted in wild, turbulent eddies.  And Mankind was brought to its knees.


The New World 
One Thousand Years Later

Tethered fore and aft to iron rings attached to docking poles, the airship Dark Wind, swayed gently in the warm breeze wafting off the desert. Leaning against the railing, Rafe Batiste absentmindedly wound several lengths of the shemagh around his head as he stared down at the bustling port below.  

     The early morning light sparkled on the water of the wide seaway that divided the Great Desert from Ha’Roon, the thriving tent city of the Four Tribes.  From his vantage point, fifty feet above the harbor, the city's colorful layout was beautiful to see.  Like a giant wheel with four spokes, the individual bands of color vividly identified each tribe in reds, blues, greens and golden yellows. At the hub of the wheel, like the many facets of an exotic jewel, the market tents circled the oasis fountain in a burst of rainbow hues.  

Rafe could see the merchants rolling up their tent flaps, preparing to open for business; watched groups of women with jugs and baskets gathering at the fountain to draw water, laugh and gossip.  With the sun warming his back, he idly followed the meandering trail of red tents down the south spoke of the wheel, narrowing his eyes at the largest tent, the blood-red flag of el-Ahmar fluttering listlessly in the desert air above the Mor’Abat’s stronghold.

Of the Four, the el-Ahmar were the most mercenary, the least likely to negotiate.  Die now, talk later was their preferred method, unless substantial amounts of money, jewels or favors were involved in the bargaining.  In Ha’Roon, the leaders of each tribe ruled with ruthless authority, none more so than the man Rafe was soon to meet. 

Leaving a long flap of cloth hanging over his shoulder, Rafe gripped the rail and stared into the distance at the endless, undulating sand dunes that filled the horizon past the city gates.  He let his thoughts wander, running through every possible scenario as he tried to anticipate what might arise in the coming meeting, but there were just too many variables, too much that didn't add up.
“I reckon this could be a trap, Cap’n,” Treb murmured, coming to stand beside him.  “Any one of those desert rats would sell their favorite harem girl to get their hands on you again.”

Rafe reached inside a pocket in his djellaba. “It most likely is a trap,” he said quietly, “though I don’t plan on being caught.”  He gazed thoughtfully at the black onyx ring laying in the palm of his hand.  The gold band around the stone gleamed in the sun as he murmured, “I would have ignored the ransom demand if this hadn’t been wrapped inside the note.”  Slipping it back inside his robe, Rafe said, “The last time I saw that ring was thirteen years ago on my dead brother’s finger. It would have been given to my sister-in-law on his burial day.” His mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “An event I did not attend as my father had disowned me, throwing me out of his house the previous night.”

Treb felt anger burn hot for a moment.  He had been there, remembered that night, remembered the lost, broken young airship captain, and a cruel, heartless father.  Shaking his head to clear the past, he asked, “I just don't understand why his widow would have come to this blighted land?  How could she, a pampered society woman, have traveled halfway round the world to this place?  And what was she doing out in the desert?”  They looked toward the massive eastern wall, a barrier fiercely guarded from all but members of the Four Tribes. To gain access to the land beyond the formidable gates required permission from one of the Mor’Abat who ruled in each region, and much money in exchange for the privilege.

“The note said she’d been found wandering alone in the el-Ahmar region without authorization.  That’s a death penalty transgression, but because she’s not dead and I have the ring, I’m assuming Elissa told them who I am.”  Rafe tugged the scarf lower over his forehead and wrapped the last piece of cloth across his face, leaving only a narrow opening for his eyes.  “The Mor’Abat no doubt thinks he’s stumbled upon a fabled cache of lightning gems.  Not only does he have an aristo woman at his mercy for breaking tribal law, but his enemy, the devil Batiste is coming to bargain for her.”

“I don’t like it, Cap’n.  I don’t like it one little bit.”

“Nor do I, but if he has Elissa, I can’t leave her to die.  I owe my brother that much, at least.  If she's not here and this is some kind of el-Ahmar plot to seek revenge?  Well, I haven’t been in a good fight to the death lately and I’m in the mood.”

 Briefly scanning the scene below, he focused once again on the blood-red tents, the colors wavering now in the rising desert heat.  “If I’m not back by nightfall, you know what to do.”  Rafe turned to his ship’s master.  “See that she’s ready to take off at a moment’s notice, Treb.  I don't know how this will play out, but smooth or rough, I'll want out of here quick.  Make sure Aman gets the food stores list from Bertoni, have him talk to Jai-Li about medical supplies and tell Hamson to load as much lifting gas as the old girl can hold in her ballonets.  Without fail, I want everything on board today.”

Nodding at his orders, Treb handed over a small cloth bag. Rafe hefted it, judging the value in the weight of the heavy coins, then slipped the pouch next to the onyx ring and quickly checked the pistol at his back, the blade in his boot, and the wickedly curved Jambiya knife strapped in a sheath on his left side.  Reaching for the hawser attached to a winch near his shoulder, Rafe swung over the railing, looped a foot around the thick rope and nodded at two crewmen standing by to lower him to the ground.

Ten feet below the airship, Rafe looked up and met Treb’s eyes.  “Tell Henri to get the guns primed and the cannons ready, just in case.” 

Sunlight glinted off the small diamond embedded in one front tooth as Treb grinned broadly.  “That’ll make her day, Cap’n.  I’ll go tell her now.”  But before he turned away, the man glared down at him and said roughly, “Expect you back before dark, boy, no excuses.

Rafe barked a laugh, gave Treb a mocking salute, then cleared his mind of everything except the immediate trouble.  His misfit crew would take care of the ship; now his job was to get everyone out of Ha’Roon alive.


[FYI:  At the top of the page, under the Scribbles blog title, there's a link 
to a map and brief intro of the Dark Wind world, if anyone is curious]

Friday, May 9, 2014

It's A Big Box

I spend a lot of time thinking before I go to sleep.  I'm not one of those people that fall asleep the minute their head hits the pillow.  I mull, cogitate, review; rehash what's happened during my day, consider what I have to do the next day.

Last night, in the midnight dark of clear thinking, I wandered through the plot of the story I'd posted earlier in the day. And arrived at the jarring conclusion that I don't like it or where it's headed; that somehow I missed the signs this isn't the tale I want to tell.

I'd been working on a different story, one wafting in and out of my head for a week or so, but yesterday morning whilst walking the dogs, the wraith story popped into being. Intrigued, I came home and wrote it. Unfortunately, I wish I'd thought it through before posting, figured out beforehand that it wasn't really going to work...or just ignored the distracting whispers in the storytelling part of my brain and stayed focused on my original idea.

However, the beauty of writing--or the agony, more often than not--is that, as the goddess in charge, these are my creations, my worlds, characters, stories.  I can do whatever I want with them and if I don't like any of it...well, into the box at the back of the closet it goes, along with all the other notes and research, lost chapters and stories to nowhere that have filled my head over the years.

So. I'm forging ahead to write something else, though what that might be is unclear at the moment. Writing is not rocket science...it's much, much harder.