You may possibly be waiting for installment 3 of “Fetching Slippers.” If so, I do apologize for the delay.
A really hurty/upset stomach all week had taken its toll on my concentration. I usually spend Wednesday working on the blogs. Due to being sick Monday and Tuesday, I ended up working my day job yesterday in lieu of Tuesday. So…no Wednesday blog. 🙁
However, as a consolation, I decided to post the draft first chapter of Sorrows’ Knights (Book 2 of the Sorrows Chronicles). This *is* a draft, so there is polishing to be done. I probably shouldn’t post this without my beta readers looking at it…but they’re unpaid and friends, not editors. There we are, a bit Out There as usual.
Oh…I did get a question about what happened to Mike when he arrived with flowers at the very end of Book 1. Hopefully, this will give you a hint!
Sorrows’ Knights (Book 2)
Monday, July 2, 2007
Palmers Rest, North Carolina
After hiding the third and last locked gun case in the crawl space in the ceiling of the closet, Michael could finally breathe easier. No emergency, just safely stowing them for the time being. He let the piece of white-painted plywood drop into place and then stepped back, rolling his shoulders to loosen them. The clothing he had brought with him on this personal project in North Carolina was still rolled up in the suitcases in back of him, sitting on the still naked mattress, and aside from the guns and electronics, this was nearly all he owned. The clothing would need hanging or washing at some point, since he had been living out of his suitcase for weeks. And because he was settling into this apartment, he also needed towels and sheets and a decent mattress cover for the Queen-sized bed. He foresaw a trip out to a Wal-Mart in the near future, since no household stuff other than a few battered kitchen utensils had come with the furnished apartment just north of Palmers Rest.
But not this minute. First, the new lair required christening.
He walked out of the bedroom with a quick duck and twist of his head to wipe his forehead on his tee shirt sleeve. Even in air conditioning, North Carolina in July felt soggy after living in Las Vegas for years. He felt like he hadn’t stopped sweating since he had arrived for this latest project in late May. And now the project had adopted him. This is actually a good thing, he reflected, amused at his own feelings on the matter. He rather liked the idea of being adopted, in fact. And in the recesses of his mind, it also frightened him that he liked being adopted. He usually responded to the offer of attachments by fleeing. Not this time. He liked it here, with these people. Time for a change? Or was he taking leave of his senses?
Maybe it’s time for me to take leave of my senses, he chuckled to himself.
The short hall with its squeaky cheap parquet flooring took him to the small kitchen on his left. On the right, the apartment opened up to a high-ceilinged living room with a pass-through counter that doubled as eating space in between. He turned into the kitchen on habitually quiet feet and caught the brown paper bag enrobing the Black Bush whiskey off the counter. He dropped the bag into the trash can and cracked the seal on the bottle in one smooth motion. Reaching into one of the cabinets over the counter, he pulled out a short glass of dubious cleanliness, so he put the bottle back down to free his hands for washing.
Of course, he couldn’t stop until all ten of the glasses were washed and dried with paper towels and standing at attention on the counter in a neat row. “At ease, soldiers,” he muttered after throwing out the wet paper towels. He half-smiled, taking up one of the glasses, inspecting it. Then three fingers of Irish whisky splashed into it, and he held up his tipple and said, “Cheers, Mikey.”
“Why, thank you,” he answered. Sipping, his eyes straying toward the nearly-empty, sparely-furnished living room.
He rather liked sparse and empty. Empty as a blank canvas, a clean sheet of Bristol board, full of potential, one part of him said. Neat freak, he said back to himself. Yeah, so? he replied. Crazy neat freak, the other bit said. “We all have flaws,” he muttered, attempting to mediate. Being a crazy-careful neat freak had kept him alive about a decade past the use-by date for most people in his line of work. And now he would formally declare himself retired. Living like a man on the move, however, was a hard habit to break.
He crossed into the living room, put his glass on the coffee table, dropped into the couch, and pulled off his cross-trainers. Feet in socks went up on the plain wooden coffee table and he sat back in one balanced motion. Squirming into the saggy couch that threatened to absorb his sturdy, muscular five-foot-eleven frame, he snagged the glass of Black Bush off coffee table. Another couple of days, and he would take a plane back to his Vegas base to pack up the rest of his meager possessions into a few cardboard boxes. Then he would rent a van with one of the not-yet-burned Vegas identities and schlepp his stuff back east to Palmers Rest. This rental would do for a while, until he figured out which way things were heading with the Gotth crew, they who had adopted him. And hey, he needed someplace he could secure his weapons meantime. This place came with electronic security and multiple door locks, not to mention a second-story balcony. Huzzah, he thought drily. It had nothing he couldn’t defeat, himself, in under a minute using his toolkit. Fortunately, he was pretty sure most of his Vegas clients would not be able to trace him here, nor really have a motive to do so. The locks would keep out most burglars while he was away.
Dismissing that issue, Michael glanced up at the wall to his right at the three framed drawings, the only decoration he had brought with him as yet. He still wasn’t sure why he had tucked them into his bag on impulse a few weeks ago on a running visit back west; he had made that trip just after he had introduced himself to the Gotth outfit. No, that wasn’t true, he knew why he had brought the three pictures. He had made them, and where he put them was where he hung his hat—they represented one of the few instances of sentimentality or personalization he allowed himself.
He had rendered these miniature architectural studies while traveling through Europe a dozen years back. Part of doing that had been cover: being an artsy tourist. Partly, it had pleased him just to draw plen aire in Europe in April. He had been able to wander around staring at old buildings slack-jawed and pretending to get lost, enjoying himself thoroughly. Most convenient for staking out operatives belonging to the former Communist Block, that. Those people, he had shot from a respectable distance with a silenced sniper rifle after the drawings were done. You could hide a lot of interesting things in artist’s equipment. The U.S. Government had sent him a fat check to foot the bill for that holiday. He gathered that he had done that bit of cleaning as a favor to some foreign nation or other.
Michael had made a number of drawings at Notre Dame de Paris over the years, on various trips—gargoyles, mostly. Sculpted grotesques tickled his sense of humor. El—no, his real name was Ian—had one of the gargoyles, and another of them currently graced this wall, sticking out its stone tongue and mocking him. Beside it hung a study of ornament from Chartres, and next to that picture, a nice façade from a Roman church. His choice in subject matter signified nothing more spiritually significant than a love of order and the beauty and permanence of these historic buildings.
He looked forward to sketching up at Gotth Hill sometime soon. The Gotth had built onto their great eclectic pile of an estate house continuously since they had settled when North Carolina was still an English colony. Michael smiled into his glass: things were looking good with the Gotth heir, young Alex, and his troop of sweeties.
And I’ve got to call and let old Gabe know I’m officially really and truly out of business in Las Vegas, he sighed to himself. As for his Vegas business, the cut-out guy there had already gotten the message he was no longer available to certain business interests in that locale. That relationship had been terminated satisfactorily. Now he had to break this news to “Gabriel,” his old friend and longtime handler from the U.S. Government. What agency were they with now? Who knew? It all paid the same: very well. After leaving first the Marine Corps and then the CIA “dirty works department,” he’d been moved onto the Government’s well-hidden roster of paid assassins—fine with him. That meant he got to keep his hand in, keep in touch with Gabe, and get paid for it. Now, the stuff here was promising to be rather interesting, not to mention extremely strange. So, he had shut down out West and had, as of yesterday, officially moved his flag to P.R., as the locals called Palmers Rest.
This weird old town—one of the older ones in North Carolina, and worthy of its moniker, “French Quarter of North Carolina”—lay tucked into the rolling forests south of Durham and Chapel Hill, and west of Raleigh. It didn’t quite slide into the man-made lake formed by the damming of a tributary of the Neuse River in the previous century. Gotth Hill lay between the town and the lake, overlooking the western approach to the town, anchoring it securely. He’d never heard of Palmers Rest before he tracked his former lover, El—pardon me, Ian Stewart, Michael corrected himself—to the school he was attending here. Trinity College, like the little town, had been founded by the extended German-speaking Swiss Gotth clan. They had traveled up as far as the falls of the Neuse and decided to put down roots in this forested country in 1749, for reasons known only to themselves. And, the family was still very much alive and living it up in the town they had settled. Definitely living it up, as Michael had found out by finding Ian. Ian had been staying in the same suite as the founder’s great-great-great-grandson, one Alexander Malcolm Gotth. And—get this—Ian had been dating the whole suite, men and women both. Well, this was Ian, so probably wasn’t sleeping with the girls—just all the guys. Yeah, Ian was one energetic youngster. He and the women were truly friends, as far as Michael had seen. That suite had been rather infamous at the college. As far as he could tell about who was sleeping with whom in that group, the answer was yes.
Last month, young Alex had offered to share his six lovers with Michael. Candy store raiding time!
And that was the normal part of things here.
Michael sighed, and felt around on the couch for his cell phone, the special one, which he only used to speak with Gabe. He himself was “Archangel.” The joke had worn thin about fifteen years ago, but they hadn’t seen fit to change his handle since it was still viable. The mobile phone, a fiendishly encrypted contraption, had slid under a cushion against the armrest. He fished it out, but laid it aside. First, on his personal mobile, he tapped out the number from memory and waited while it rang. The pleasant feminine mechanical voice asked him to leave a message, and he said, “Oops, wrong number. My bad,” and hung up. Dear old Gabe would get back to him in a few minutes on the encrypted phone, per usual.
Slurping up another mouthful of Irish whisky, Michael savored its warm, smooth peatiness. He could afford some luxuries like this. He had made enough to retire in style a decade ago, so money wouldn’t be a problem. After getting back from Vegas, he would settle in to play with the kids and basically keep an eye on them, he guessed, just because they were fun. Whatever else developed would develop. He had begun hoping to re-establish relations with Ian…and then Alex had happened to him. He could spend some happy time drooling over Alex, not to mention the rest of the boys there. And those kids had more than hair between their ears. Michael discovered he could actually talk to them, and they would understand. This had wonderful possibilities.
He had found Ian shortly after Ian thought he had escaped from Vegas to go to school. Well, maybe ‘escaped’ wasn’t exactly right. How about “dumped Michael?” Yeah, that was good, Michael chuckled to himself. Ian had made himself scarce and come east to reform and go to college, the murderous little angel, his bloody darling. But some angels never changed their feather-color, and his gleams black, black, black. Sweet Ian had been enjoying a special hunting season to himself in these parts, the naughty thing. Having moved in with the lovely Alex and his crew of tasty boys and girls, Ian staked out his territory and protected them viciously. Alex and his Number One Wife, a very tall mixed-blood boy named Kerry Jourdain, were not exactly harmless lads, either, but definitely not in Ian’s league. However, when Michael first looked into them, they were being stalked by curious persons of the apparently preternatural persuasion. These creatures had had a very serious feud going with the Gotth—preternatural politics, he guessed.
I mean, who knew? Michael chuckled.
Michael had gotten a chance to take down at least ten angry redneck white supremacists who had made an alliance with…aw, who would believe it, anyway? They weren’t just vampires, they were vampires-plus. The plus was…well, creatures with lots of squid-like barbed arms that had infested the vampires. Who knew that vamps could get parasites? Large, evil, undead, smart parasites. Of course they did. In any event, in the final fight in that particular conflict a month ago, Michael had whacked a bunch of them with his katana, shot them, and even had the chance to use his spanking new grenade launcher on them. And the local authorities? They had, in the end, looked the other way and let Alex and his crew cope with the evil beasts. Nobody had said a word about Michael’s nice work. He found it sad that his talent had gone unappreciated—but that had its positive side.
Man, you just couldn’t buy entertainment like that. And there might even be more, someday.
Michael was grinning to himself at the memory when the encrypted phone rang. He put his whisky down, picked up the phone and surged to his feet to pace toward the window. The thing had wretched reception, so he was always having to edge toward the outside of any building he was in for a decent signal. It was Government, which meant they had paid too much for a crappy phone, in his opinion.
“Yo,” he said cheerfully into the little slab of shiny black tech.
“Yo yourself. What’s on your mind?” His handler—whose name was most certainly not Gabriel—spoke with a low, musical tenor and a Mid-Atlantic accent like Michael’s. It never failed to tickle Michael to think that they had actually grown up in the same county in Virginia, in neighboring towns, but hadn’t met until years later.
“I’m out of L.V. Moving east. Going to settle here.”
“That North Carolina town?”
“Your boy take you back?”
“Uh, not quite. But he has friends. Lots of pretty, pretty friends, and they like me.”
“Guys, I take it.”
“And some girls.”
“You’re branching out?”
“As if. Anyhow, they’re cute as a basket of puppies and they need me, and not just for killing things all the time. Imagine! They have security concerns, and lots of excellent historical architecture that needs to be drawn.”
“Let me felicitate you on your new arrangements. But killing is in the picture, I take it.” Michael could hear his handler smiling—he knew Michael’s predilections quite well. He was one of the two people who wouldn’t run away screaming from them. Michael’s aunt Ida was the other.
“Oh most certainly—there are lots of beasties that need offing, I am told.”
“So, tell me who this bunch of kids are, and where you are—officially.”
Michael recited his new address, first. Then he continued, “If you don’t already know—and I’ll bet you do—Alexander Malcolm Gotth is the name of the young man that El is attached to. Town founder’s great-great-great grandson. Him and his…you’ll love this. They call it his Coven. He’s married six other kids, including El.” Michael pronounced Alex’s last name properly, with two syllables, not one: Got-huh, the second syllable sort of aspirated. And then he detailed the other names in the Coven: Kerry Jourdain, Trent Broyhill, Jimmy Cortés, Adele Draper, Brooke Leeds, and of course, Ian Stewart.
Gabe remained silent so long before he responded that Michael held the phone away from his ear and squinted at it to see if the call had dropped. No, his handler was just thinking. Probably writing, too.
His handler finally said, “Well, that’s quaint. You are still hanging with the Gotth kid, hm? This just goes with the vampires and Elder Gods story you handed me last month. They think they’re witches?”
“No. It’s just a name for the arrangement. They are a god.”
“Oh my. They, you say.”
“Yes, sir. A tri-partate god. Well, I guess all of them are the god, for that matter.”
“Hmm.” Gabe paused. “Legion, huh?”
“Yep, sorta. Only it’s not demons, and it’s not some kind of weird hive-mind, as one might guess, if you read science fiction much. They’re still individuals. You really can’t tell much difference, but they’re all connected. And I gather they were not born like this. But it’s there, it’s in them now, and they have a living goddess and a big ol’ magick sword that is also part of them. They’re some kind of fertility god. The Gotth are also related to more than half the town, most appropriately.”
“My, my, my. That is so interesting.” Curiously, Gabe really did sound interested.
“You sound suspiciously like you believe me.”
“Oh, I do, Archangel. I do. I have seen more than my share of weird shit in my time, including your own fine ability to hide in plain sight—when anyone should be able to see you.”
Michael grinned again, preening a little. “I have some mojo. Fits right in. This place is weird-shit-city. Should be fun.”
“You do realize I have to report this move. You aren’t giving notice, are you?”
“Hmm? Well, not exactly. I might have a good year or two in me yet, but over forty is over the hill for this professional work.”
“Yes. Yes, it is. Why do you think I’m running agents instead of being one, now?”
Michael laughed out loud. “Because you’re smarter than I am?”
“This is possible. And killing people is not my favorite pastime. I prefer gardening and cooking.”
Liar. Michael sighed. “Alright, then. Rat on me if you must.”
“I will, but in the nicest way possible. And only what our masters need to know,” Gabe said, and Michael could hear his old friend’s wry smile in the words. Gabe, he could trust with his life. Had. Multiple times.
“So, the people you were looking out for in Vegas, what happens to them now?”
“They have someone on staff that’s good at protection now.”
“Good for them, then.” More notes were made.
Michael sighed. And then, because it was expected of him: “Are you still single?”
And because it was expected of Gabe: “And still straight, as far as I know.” Gabe snorted. “Get your own life.”
“Later.” However, if Gabe had ever said yes to one of his passes, Michael would have flown to Washington in a heartbeat, and flung himself, posy in hand, on his knees in front of the man. And he smothered that thought before it went a smidgen further. It was downright humiliating to have held a torch for his friend for this long.
Michael ended the call and laughed out loud with delight. Then he sat down again, feet sweeping up, and put the phone down on the coffee table next to his heels and exchanged it for his glass. He took another smooth, peaty swallow and then nearly spit it out.
Directly in front of him, seeming to twist out of nowhere, Alex’s grandmother and goddess materialized. This was no hallucination. He had seen her do this once or twice before—never in anyplace public, of course. But she would occasionally just turn up like this around the family—so he supposed he had been officially absorbed into it, having dallied with her grandson.
“Michael Kaminsky,” Dolores Gotth stated in her sweet, low voice, a smile curving her full lips. She didn’t look all that much like a grandmother, but she would do for a goddess—which she was, so he had been told—and he believed it. Upslant dark amber eyes the color of good ale and framed with naturally dark lashes watched him lazily from under winged black brows. A wisp of her dark hair fell from its twisted knot on top of her head and swung past her eyes. She flicked it out of the way with one finger and folded her long, strong hands together in front of her in a way that an empress might while giving an audience—while wearing nice blue jeans and a pretty flowered knit shirt.
“Yes, ma’am?” Michael managed to swallow his mouthful and stand up again without coughing too hard. “May I offer you refreshment?”
“Oh, how kind. What have you there? It smells like Irish whisky. That would be lovely.”
Michael had reviewed his mythology in the last couple of weeks and learned that offering wine or spirits to a fertility goddess was a good move. Besides, she was a Southern lady not of the Baptist persuasion. So, he went to the counter between the dining room and his mostly-empty kitchen and poured out three fingers of Black Bush for her into a glass. Suddenly behind him as he turned, she graciously took it from his hand and raised her glass to him. She took a healthy swallow without the least bit of notice of the undiluted liquid fire in the glass, luminous golden eyes holding his.
Michael gestured to the arm chair beside the couch. “Sit? What may I do for you?”
She moved and lowered herself into the one uncomfortably rectangular arm chair which stood to the left of the couch. Michael sat back down on the couch and watched her run an elegant finger over the rough stain-proof fabric on the arm of the chair. Her other hand maintained her glass of whisky aloft, and she sipped again. Her amber eyes stayed on his face, contemplating him lazily. Michael ran a nervous hand through his very short dark curls, and his steel-blue eyes stayed on hers.
She was quiet, so he spoke. “I’m gathering that since you could come to me, that I’ve been inducted.”
“Not necessarily. Well, you have become a regular visitor at my great-great grandson’s house, so I have observed.”
Michael nodded. It was true. He courted them hopefully. And politely. Yep, that was the project. Courtship. Who’d a thunk?
“Which is fine, of course. And I taste Alex on you.”
What she meant by that…well, he could only wonder, since she had never come remotely close to him with her mouth. He, on the other hand, had gotten much, much closer to Alex. Alex’s mouth was sweet and delightful.
“So, my young friend,” she continued with a faint smile, “What exactly were you telling that man on the phone?”
“You eavesdropped?” Michael’s curly eyebrows rose, as he wondered how.
“Not precisely. You have a little of Us, of Sorrows, in you now, so I can get the gist of things. My ears were burning, and I had a bit of a notion. You work for someone else, so I am concerned. Naturally concerned, I would think, given our recent troubles.”
Michael blinked. “Oh… Oh! I’m not selling Alex.” In her case, since she could probably literally kill him with a look, he thought honesty was the best policy. “I’ve had a handler in the Government for many years. I was just checking in and letting him know I was moving permanently to P.R. I sort of have to.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Really.”
“Really.” He nodded.
“Well, then. He may be trustworthy, but what about his masters? Are they?”
Michael blinked again, taken aback. “They’ve kept me out of the hands of the FBI for decades, basically. And nobody but the locals believes this preternatural s—stuff.” His teeth clicked closed on the easier, more profane description. It didn’t bother him a bit to confess this to her because he sensed in her not a kindred spirit—nothing so common—but something that could destroy without qualm if suitably provoked. He respected that.
Dolores chuckled, a sound as rich and sinful as Swiss chocolate. “I certainly hope not.” And she put her empty glass down. “Well, then. Welcome to Palmers Rest.” And she stood and vanished again.
* * *
In an office on the fifth floor of a downtown office building in Washington, D.C., the lean and forty-something man that Michael had been talking to on the phone stared out the window across the cubicle aisle. His wintery blue gaze went past the shoulders of a coworker to the bright July day. It was only a little hazy out, but despite that would be miserably hot and humid outside—normal weather for Washington at this season. But it was not weather that concerned him at the moment. His mind was on his star resource, Archangel.
Yes, he would have to do some paperwork for this change. He wondered what his own supervisor would make of Archangel’s announcement. He had no intention of passing on the vampires-Elder God material, of course, lest they all be sent for psychiatric counseling or reprimanded for foolishness. Still, the move: Goodness knew, assets who were used to kill people were an ornery, capricious lot. Many ended up just on this side of psycho if they survived more than a handful of years, holding onto normal behavior by their fingernails. Often, they had to let the Fibbies catch them and put them out of the citizens’ misery. Archangel had been amazingly long-lived in his career, managing to hang on to fairly-normal by keeping to himself. Michael’s thing for the boy, Ian Stewart, was his sole exception to his rule. He had kept his life together far, far longer than Gabe thought he ever would. This was, for him, personally, a good thing, since Mike was an old friend just as Archangel was a terribly talented and creative assassin. He had been afraid that the thing with the boy had been the fatal crack in Michael’s armor, but so far, nothing untoward had happened. That intrigued Gabe.
He and Michael had met in a military hospital in San Diego decades ago, both recovering from near-fatal gut wounds, and Gabe, then a Navy Seal, had made friends with this smart and funny Marine sniper. As friends, they had worked together over the years rather successfully. Since being banished from official service at the Agency, Archangel had been traded like a professional athlete from covert group to covert group. He had taken Gabe with him as his handler—a condition that Archangel imposed upon remaining in the employment of his country; as one of Death’s divas, he had earned that right. Gabe wondered where they’d go next.
Michael wasn’t the only one with secrets. Gabe had not been kidding about his own experiences with Weird Shit. He did know it was out there and right under most people’s noses, plain as day. The real thing did not come with Hollywood extravagance and special effects. It was quiet, sometimes deadly, and often rather eccentric—rather like Gabe himself.
He felt a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he turned back to the computer on his desk to call up the forms and intranet pages that he would need to work on, thinking about how to word this. Because of who he was, and how goddamn classified he was, Archangel’s known associates would come under scrutiny as well. Gabe felt bad for Alexander Malcolm Gotth. The boy that Archangel had come looking for, Gabe didn’t feel bad for. El was short for Cinderella, and he knew about Cinderella’s charming past. So far, that little predator had evaded the FBI’s radar. Fine; he kept Michael happy. And Gabe was dead certain that Ian Stewart could take care of himself.