Welcome to our October 2022 edition.
As we enter October, we thought we’d take a peek at the supernatural. So we have seven stories that we hope you will enjoy.
The A Muse Bouche Review Team
The A Muse Bouche Review Team
Feature: Shadow and Gloom (David M. Simon) (a new contributor) Fiction
The 13th Floor (Joseph P. Garland) Fiction
Play A Song for Me (Marian L Thorpe) Fiction
Dance, Baby, Dance (Louise Sorensen) Fiction
Amanda: The Madness of Guilt (Excerpt) (Crystal L. Kirkham) Fiction
The Worse Story Ever Written (Excerpt) (Nicole Wells) Fiction
Justified (Renée Gendron) Fiction
October Team Showcase
David M. Simon (@simon_simply)
THE WORDS WOULD NOT COME. I stared at the thick, creamy pages of the leather-bound journal, pen in hand, for hours at a time. Words once flowed through me like a high mountain stream, inexorable, impossible to contain or even control. Now that stream had dried to dust, leaving me hollow. If I could not find the words to write, was I still a writer?
At last, desperate, I decided a change of scenery would do me good. I secured the use of an isolated country estate in Hertfordshire. There would be no staff. Just me, alone with the ghosts of my past artistic success. I packed my journal, pens, and inkwell, and made my way by carriage out of London.
Legend had it that Dunkelheit Manor was haunted, and my first view of it seemed to confirm this. Clouds massed like soiled grey hospital sheets behind the spires and gables of the manor’s roof. The fountain before the entrance was bone dry, the once-frolicking stone angels now indistinct and encrusted with pigeon droppings. The formal gardens flanking the building had gone feral, great tangles of roses encroaching on the walls.
The inside of the manor was defined not by the furnishings shrouded in dusty white sheets, nor by the dark paneled walls and grey flagstone floors, but by shadows. Dusk was fast approaching, and the stained glass windows, now discolored, allowed little light to pass. The shadows seemed physical things, as if they had weight and mass. They reduced the vast great room to a tunnel, a road with black, spectral trees on either side arching overhead.
I decided to get a good night’s sleep and start fresh in the morning. A candelabra waited on a side table by the door. I lit the candles, though it did little to illuminate the scene. If anything, the shadows swallowed the meager light. The sweeping staircase before me disappeared into a darkness so profound that I found myself hesitant to take the first step, but with candelabra in one hand and valise in the other, I made my way up the stairs. The walls were lined with centuries of family portraits, and the eyes of the men, women and children, alive in the dancing candlelight, followed me.
I turned right and entered the room at the end of the wide hallway. Its door was open and I collapsed onto a massive four-poster bed hung with linen curtains. The mattress was comfortable enough, and the bedding, although old and well worn, was warm against the chill of the night. As I settled myself, the room was lit in sharp relief by a flash of lightning, a deep peel of thunder hard on its heels. The rain came then, a staccato beat drumming on the roof like the hooves of horses galloping on cobblestone streets. I closed my eyes and let the sound take me. Tomorrow I would reclaim the words that I had lost.
I opened my eyes to a three-eyed dog crouched on my chest. The animal’s outline was indistinct, blurred, and logic told me I was in the throes of a nightmare, but I could feel its weight pushing me into the bedding, feel its hot breath on my cheek. The eyes of the beast bored into mine with frightening intensity. I tried to push it off me, to roll away, but I was paralyzed. Mouth open wide and bristling with teeth, it slavered over my face. Each drop of saliva burned like acid.
I saw a bright glow next to me, heard a soft, accented voice say, “Leave him be.” A woman of pure white light drifted to the dog’s side. She ruffled its fur and gently pushed it off me. The dog looked back at me reproachfully, then sulked away out the door. Free of its weight, I sucked in a deep, shuddering breath. The woman was beautiful, but looked even less solid than the dog. She was translucent, diaphanous, her outline constantly shifting. When she held out her hand to me, I took it. It felt real enough, firm and warm.
She pulled me to her and we floated, hand in hand, out the bedroom door and down the staircase, my feet barely brushing the floor.
She stopped at the bottom of the staircase and pointed. All the shrouded furniture in the great room was pushed to the walls. At its center was a single writing desk. A man made of darkness sat at it, working furiously. He was faceless, all shadow and gloom. Instead of an inkwell, he dipped the pen tip into his own brain, then bent to the paper. I watched in terror as he cast each completed page into the air, where it dissolved to smoke, swirled away.
The woman of light grasped me by my shoulders, turned my body to face her. Her fingers were surprisingly strong. She smiled at me, a little sadly I thought, then pushed me backwards. I fell through a featureless void, for hours it seemed, until at last, thankfully, I blacked out.
I woke in my bed to watery morning light, sheets tangled around my feet. I was cold and disoriented, the tattered memories of my nightmare hard to shake off. As I stumbled shakily from the bed, I realized that my valise was no longer on the chair where I was certain I had left it. Alarmed, I hurried down the staircase, but stopped abruptly at the bottom, shaken. The great room looked exactly as it had in my nightmare, the furniture pushed to the edges of the room, the writing desk and chair standing empty at the center. My valise was open on the floor next to the chair. On the desk, my pen and inkwell, and there, perfectly centered, was my journal opened to a page.
I approached the desk slowly, fearfully. In the center of the page was written, in my own hand, a single line of text:
It was a dark and stormy night.
Joseph P. Garland (@JPGarlandAuthor)
I WAS MORE THAN A LITTLE disoriented when I woke up. The last thing I remembered was turning left onto Clarence Street when I heard the sound of a horn of a truck, a very loud horn of what I imagine—I didn’t have time to look—dopplering to me. Now things were bright and it took a minute to realize I was in a hospital bed. Everything was very white and to my left I could see a monitor reflecting my heartbeat. That seemed steady.
On my right, I heard a “Mr. Eustace. I’m glad you can rejoin us.”
I turned to look at the speaker, and if he wasn’t a lawyer he sure was dressed like one. He stood.
“Yes, Mr. Eustace,” he said. “My name is William Pressler. I do odd legal jobs and one of those jobs is to apprise people like yourself of their entitlement to bequests from wills of sometimes unknown relatives.”
“Nice to meet you Mr….”
“Pressler. William Pressler. Esquire.” He shook my hand before reaching down and lifting a quite nice leather briefcase, which he placed delicately on my hospital table. He opened it, and as far as I could tell it contained just a single document and a large, manilla envelope, both of which he lifted.
“Yes, Mr. Eustace here we are.”
He took a pair of reading glasses that was dangling around his neck and placed it on his nose, though he seemed far too young to require them. He read, and my mind glazed over shortly after the “being of sound mind” part. Mr. Pressler stopped when he finished that paragraph.
“Ah, Mr. Eustace. I see that you are not quite up to what we lawyers like to call the ‘legal mumbo jumbo’ so I will tell you what it says. Your Uncle Jeffrey Owens has bequeathed to you a co-op apartment at”—here he lifted the page closer—“at 1060 Fifth Avenue. That’s New York, of course. It is the penthouse unit and, Mr. Eustace, I took the liberty of looking it up and it overlooks the Central Park Reservoir. It has…well it has more bedrooms and bathrooms and kitchens than you could ever use so I’ll say it has ‘enough’ for you.”
“But,” I said as I was processing this, “I have no Uncle Jeffrey Owens. If I had an uncle of any name who owned a penthouse apartment in New York, I’m pretty sure I’d know about it.”
“Oh, Mr. Eustace. You don’t want to know how frequently I hear that in my line of work. I’ve learned, though, that not only do rich people have poor relations come out of the woodwork but poor relations sometimes have an angel appear out of the blue, as it were. I should not, sir, look a gift horse in the mouth. Perhaps we should wait until the painkillers have vanished from your bloodstream to continue this. I do sometimes jump the gun.”
It didn’t take me long to get a hold of myself.
“No, no. I’m sure he was simply a relative no one bothered to mention. No, Mr….” “Pressler, sir.”
“No, Mr. Pressler. I’ll sign whatever I need to sign and take the next flight east.”
“Ah, Mr. Eustace. I can fairly say that you yourself are of quite sound mind, indeed. Now let me open the envelope.”
MY RECOVERY WAS astonishing, perhaps aided by my anticipation of owning an apartment that overlooked the Central Park Reservoir. A penthouse at that. Within a week of my meeting Mr. Pressler, I was in a first-class seat heading to JFK. A limo awaited me there, and the driver told me that my “new wardrobe” was already at the apartment.
As we moved quickly along, he said, “It’s not everyday that traffic actually moves on the Van Wyck, Mr. Eustace. You must live a charmed life and if you get a Lotto ticket I’d be much obliged if you share the numbers with me,” and we laughed as the car turned and I could see the New York skyline.
We pulled up and the doorman opened the door for me and the man at reception smiled at me, both referring to me by name, and the concierge led me to the apartment, refusing a tip. “Just remember me at Christmas,” he said as he left.
I noticed on the elevator that there was no 13th floor. “That’s something of a New York tradition,” he said.
It was a Friday and early in the evening. I was still on Chicago time. I called to the front desk and asked for restaurant recommendations. Seeing as that manilla envelope contained a note that I had a prepaid credit card with $100,000—to be replenished whenever it fell to $20,000, tax free—I wasn’t worried about paying a premium for a nice steak dinner on my first night in the Big Apple!
“If you’d prefer, sir, seeing as you just flew in, we can have your dinner brought to you. You can have it on your patio overlooking the Park. There’s a menu in the drawer of the table in the front foyer.”
I hurried there and called back down and asked for New York Steak—when in Rome and all—with all the fixin’s and a half bottle of a top-of-the-line Bordeaux.
Within two hours I was finished what was easily the finest meal I’d ever had, sitting on the patio looking at the lights reflected in the Reservoir like pearls all around it and the buildings across the Park, sipping cognac from a snifter, which I raised to thank my Uncle Jeffrey Owens, whoever he was.
I spent Saturday walking around the Park after selecting something from the closets—yes plural—overloaded with perfectly fitted clothes. When I came back in, the concierge told me there was a pair of orchestra seats for Hamilton in my Apartment “and should you need company we can of course accommodate you.”
While I might take the latter part of that offer up down the road, for tonight it was enough for me to go to the musical alone and offer the extra ticket to an attractive woman who might be hoping for one.
Alas, there was none so I gave the ticket to an older gentleman who I saw with a single ticket way up and honestly I quite enjoyed his company, though he vanished into the crowd as we left the theatre.
It was just as well, as I was tired. When I returned to the building, though, the doorman didn’t look happy. The concierge approached me in the lobby.
“A thousand pardons, Mr. Eustace. It happens sometimes in these old buildings. The elevators are broken. I’m afraid you will have to walk though I must say that you seem quite in good enough shape to scale double the eighteen floors to the penthouse.”
Oh, yes, I’d be remembering him at Christmas. I bid him good night and, feeling in an alliterative mood, I commenced my climb. The stairs were wide and marbled and the air was circulating quite well so it was not as oppressive as I feared, with subtle lighting. As floor after floor passed, I was suddenly at the…13th floor. It was, I must say, quite the surprise. Feeling adventurous, I decided to open it, “because it was there,” I laughed to myself.
The knob turned easily and I was inside. It looked like a gentleman’s club, at least from what I’d seen in the movies. A man in a tuxedo stepped up to me.
“Welcome, Mr. Eustace,” he said with a bow. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
He put his arm to his right side, directing me deeper into the “club.” There I found groupings of burgundy leather chairs with small tables and reading material. Porters were walking around with small trays holding glasses of various concoctions and men and some women were chattering here and there.
The maître d’, as the man in the tuxedo clearly was, directed me to a cluster of three chairs not far from the bar.
“Your guest has arrived,” he said, and the two men already there got up.
“I did quite enjoy that show,” one said, “though I’ve seen it hundreds of times. Always a treat with someone there for the first.” He was the gentleman who sat with me at the show. He shook my hand.
“Michael Taylor. I’m the last point of contact till folks like you join us at the club.”
The other man stepped closer. “I am your Uncle Jeffrey Owens. I am a pure fiction as to being related to you, of course. But we like to have our fun.” We shook on it.
The other two sat, and I joined them. Just as I was comfortable, a porter brought over a tray with three cognacs, and we each took one.
“Now,” my “uncle” said, “let me tell you about our club activities.”
Marian L Thorpe (@marianlthorpe)
I’VE HAD MANY NAMES, many guises, over the centuries. The siren. The Pied Piper. Death, even. Sometimes the song I play is what people remember; sometimes it’s the dance. Here and now, these last sixty years, I’m best known from a folk song, pulled from memory and myth by a singer wise beyond his age.
I slumber now, even sleep. People are forgetting me. But in my dreams, I again hear a pleading, faint in the fading memory of morning, but getting stronger. Play for me.
When the days shorten and the winds rise, that’s when the call comes most often. Even now. Maybe there’s a music in the rustle of frozen leaves that beckons, maybe it’s a fear of the dark to come. I don’t know.
I wonder where it’ll be, this time? Always somewhere spare, sere, free of fences: desert, beach, ocean. Away from crowds, cities, demands. To a place where the only shadow to chase is your own.
The voice, calls, pleads, but it’s not time. I still wake, the world of night vanished under drifting sands like Ozymandias’s empire. The refrain’s getting stronger, though. Play for me.
I never know who it will be, the person whose longing or need calls me to their aid. To send me spinning with the music out of this life and into another, to play and dance and hear, behind me, footsteps. The follower never visible, but there. Sometimes I hear laughter; sometimes snatches of rhyme, and feel their joy and relief at forgetting. Play for me.
The call’s getting stronger; the music louder. In a morning very soon the supplicant’s weariness and desire will be deep enough, strong enough, and I’ll find myself on a beach under a sky of diamonds, the spell cast. And I’ll dance and play, driving out sorrow and exhaustion, taking it into myself for a time. Granting the favour asked. Play for me.
Tonight, I think. The call is insistent now, demanding. My waking hands can feel the instrument, my fingers tapping its unsubstantial drum, its jingle audible if only yet to me.
Where I’ll wake in the world beyond dreams doesn’t matter. Sooner or later, the call will come again, the prayer, the pleading, and I’ll be off again. Hey, the voice will cry.
Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me.
Louise Sorensen (@louise3anne)
THE AIR IS SPICY with the scent of autumn leaves falling from sleepy trees.
Sheltered in bare branches from the edge of night and the echo of fairy pipes, young birds dream of flying south for the coming winter.
Harry’s leaving town. For how long, he’s never sure. He limps along as fast as his old bones will allow, his breath pluming in the frosty air.
One hand clutches a jug of water, the other, to keep night things at bay, a flashlight and lighted lantern. A clutch of glow sticks hangs from his belt, a last resort if batteries fail or flame dies.
When he reaches the edge of town, he takes a long swig from the jug and studies the ocean. Sunset paints it blood red. The sand glows pink. But the waves wash calmly up the beach, their rhythm unperturbed by events to come. On the land side, his destination squats in long shadows.
As he nears the gates of the old amusement park, he hears them creak open just far enough to allow him in, and limps between them. The park will remain abandoned until the first day of spring. A shudder passes through him as he crosses the threshold. He stops and looks around, sees nothing, but brandishes his lantern anyway and creeps in. He listens carefully for the creak of the gates closing behind him, but there is no sound, and he relaxes. It’s one thing to answer the call, and yet another to be trapped.
Deep inside the park, a huge dragon comes into view, standing with one foot raised, alert, but motionless. Yesterday, in daylight, Harry, hardly believing his memories, visited early. The gate had been ajar and he squeezed through easily, though he cut his hand on a jagged edge. Just a small cut really, but in the same place where he had so many similar scars. The air had changed then, like the world was holding its breath, but he kept going, something leading him on, like catnip to a cat.
Yesterday the dragon’s sides were faded, peeling, needing paint. And wasn’t it curled up in sleep, its head tucked beneath a wing? But was there still a grace to it? An energy building? The memory slithers away before he can be sure. Tonight, its green scales shine sharp and perfect, edged with the last red rays of the sun.
Has the dragon moved? Have its massive jaws opened wider? Harry peers through the gloom. It’s a trick of the eye. No more. But wait. It that a drop of poison glistening from its fangs? Or merely dew?
Harry stops and catches the dragon’s yellow eye. Moment by moment, it glows brighter. He wields his flashlight like a sword. Holds his bright lantern like a buckler in front of him. Drowning in shadow, the sun cannot reach him. He is a figure all in gray, and hopes the dragon will recognize the spirit, if not the substance, of a knight.
On a heavy sigh that echoes from dark caverns beneath the earth, he hears Pass, Man. The dragon’s tone is reluctant. It snaps its jaws shut and hunkers down to wait for easier prey. Harry sucks in a quiet breath, and limps on.
A skirl of pipes crashes, sending shivers through him. The party is starting. With thunderous clangs, Tilt-a-Whirls and Caterpillars on one side of his path jerk into motion, and a mammoth roller coaster on the other side ripples, sending its cars and the music on their way. One Caterpillar, black eyes shining in the lamplight, rears up, its giant head towering over him, and whips its antennae back and forth, tasting human.
Harry stops. “Peace, Brother.”
The Caterpillar flails overhead, considering the lantern’s rosy flame. Harry tenses, ready to run, or, more accurately, limp away as fast as he can, but the creature settles into its tracks, accepts his greeting with a nod, and trundles along.
A snort echoes from the carousel. One of the horses, dark and gleaming in the waning light, stamps its hoof. A sword gleams from the scabbard on its saddle.
The urge to answer that call, to fly, escape the bonds of this world is strong, but he wrests his attention away from its gaze. He has promises. Sorry old boy, not yet.
Taller and more massive than any medieval destrier, the horse lays back its ears. On the wooden platform, a whole stable of them champ their bits. They stamp their hooves, boom… boom… boom… The carousel’s music starts up and it rumbles forward, revolving slowly.
Harry’s knee twinges. He rubs it and limps on. The drumming of the horses’ hooves accelerates, faster and faster until it becomes a thunderous gallop, and then dwindles. He looks up. He knows the horses are airborne, but can’t detect them in the darkening sky.
He reaches the centre of the park and stands in the circle of stones that always appear on this night. “Feels like the right place,” he says, and sticks his tongue out just a little, tasting the energies. He holds up his hands, flicks his wrists. A wheel of stars twinkles into existence in front of him.
He nods, and fog billows from it, engulfing him.
In the mist, a fiddle howls. A pipe joins in, its highest notes reaching beyond the human ken. Green lights swirl and dance and coalesce into musicians not of this world.
Magic flows, and the old familiar glamours slip into place. A line of mirrors appears, one within the other, reflecting Harry a thousand thousand times, until he is a black clad youth, dark haired, lithe, strong. He throws off his belt of lights and straightens his collar. Considers throwing his jug to the side but rejects the idea with a smile.
The scent of bilberries and moss announce the arrival of his queen. He opens his mouth to murmur her name but she stops him with a finger on his lips.
“Not until you stay.” Her voice is a caress and he wants to lean into her and never leave. He shakes his head. The magic is strong. But he wants no trick or treat, and instead they dance.
The music speeds up. A crowd of whirling figures, some taller than the tallest man, others smaller than the smallest woman, some with horns, some with wings, join the fray. Harry claps his hands and stamps his feet so hard he fears his bones will shatter. Magic seeps through him, a healing balm to his bruises. The heels of his boots smoke, and he dances on.
The musicians take a break and ale flows freely. Sweat flows off Harry. Careful not to eat or drink any offering by the servants of the Fae, he drains his jug. If he decides to stay forever, it will be on his own terms.
The final dance is a waltz, and the music ends with a flourish. His queen tilts her head up and kisses him on the lips.
“It’s your birthday. And the only day you can pass through forever. Will you stay with me now?” She asks the same question every year.
He laughs, full of himself, and magic, and youth.
“Not this time, my love. But I’ll meet you here next year.” He smiles, tastes her sweet lips, and the promises she holds.
The first light of dawn peeks over the horizon. Drawing cloaks of vapour about themselves, the musicians disappear. Fog wreathes his queen and she smiles and fades from sight.
The long walk out of the park is safe. All of the enchantments have perished with the ending of the night. Except for the horse. When Harry passes the carousel, it leaves its drowsing herd, falls into step with him and escorts him to the front gate, its gold clad hooves silent on the pavement.
“One thing I want to ask,” says the horse. “Are you ever going to take her up on her offer?”
Harry stops. “Stay with her? Live forever?” Youth’s magic will linger with him a few days, her birthday present to him, and then he’ll feel again the pangs of old age.
He looks the horse in its red red eye. “Tempting.”
And then he grins and steps lightly through the gate. The air here on the outside is buoyant. The scent of leaves underfoot chases away the last cobwebs of magic. He ponders the question. The horse stands statue still, a dark silhouette blocking out the sunrise, though it’s becoming fuzzy around the edges.
Harry chuckles. Leaps into the air, clicks his heels five times, and as he struts away, throws over his shoulder, “Nah. I just love to dance!”
Crystal L. Kirkham (@canuckclick)
The full content of this story appears in 13 Drops of Blood, an anthology published by Black Hare Press in February 2021. I had the great fortune of being invited to write one of the thirteen short stories that appear in this book which all are connected around to the first story written by my good friend, Jodi Jensen.
This anthology is all about love gone wrong and revenge from beyond the grave. I hope you enjoy this short excerpt from my contribution to this wonderful anthology.
FOR DAYS I HAVE AVOIDED writing about the latest attempt. Every time I try, the memory of your screams rip through my soul and leave me a trembling, bawling mess. It doesn’t help that ever since the…fifth? sixth? I don’t know, but it was a few attempts ago; the nightmares have been getting worse.
I feel like I am failing you. No. I have failed you, Amanda. This last attempt…
This last attempt was the worst thing I have ever experienced. Like I was killing you all over again. I…I can’t do this. I want to write about it, but even now I can barely see the page through my tears.
I couldn’t even finish writing yesterday; the pain and memories of that last try took over, and I can’t remember anything after that. I have to write it down, though. I don’t know why, but it seems important for me to do this. Maybe it is just a habit now. I’ve been writing in a journal every week for almost a year now.
I can’t keep putting this off. I have to write about the latest attempt. For a second, you were so close—almost real. There was a warmth in the room that I haven’t felt since your death. I wanted to drop everything and run into your arms, to hold you again would have been the greatest joy.
And then, you screamed…
The memory of it hurts nearly as much as when it happened. Though, I should be thankful that memories don’t make my ears and nosebleed. It felt like I was killing you all over again. Watching you shatter, disintegrate into a flash of bright light…and know it was my fault… I’m surprised I’m not back in the psych ward.
I need to find a solution soon and stop taking stupid chances. I can’t risk hurting you like that again. I’d rather die myself. Hell, if my death could bring you back, then I would sacrifice my life readily.
I will find the answer, somehow.
Merry Christmas, Amanda. I wish I had something more to say. I’ve moved on from that cursed book. What mysteries remain in the rest of the pages I will never know. The night terrors that have been plaguing me since that one failed attempt would be enough to drive anyone insane. Night after night, I relive that moment; I relive your death, and the pain of every failed ritual.
Sometimes, I am myself, but more often I am you. The pain and anguish is near maddening. What I have put you through in life and in death is unimaginable. I wake up soaked from sweat and tears, my heart pounding as if it were trying to escape its mortal cage. It takes a few minutes for me to even realise where and who I am.
I’ve tried to avoid sleeping, but when I finally succumb to the exhaustion, the nightmares are worse than ever.
I can’t even bear to face my family or yours this Christmas. I’ve received invitations from both. Instead, I have decided to stay here, in my apartment. I will not rest until I find an answer, a way to bring you back. I know I can do this. I must do this.
We both have suffered long enough. I need you. But, for the holidays, I will do my best to try to forget. And if the only way to lose those memories is at the bottom of a bottle or ten, then so be it.
I can’t believe how close I came this time. I couldn’t even wait to write my entry. To feel your touch, to hear your voice—it was magical. If only it could have lasted forever, but that is the only part that hurts about this ritual. It was nearly the one. You were real for a moment. Here and alive.
Every failure, the nightmares, the suffering is all worth it to know that I have come this close to fixing the mistake I had made. Stupid Internet witch was sure there would be horrible consequences, but she’s an idiot obviously. I am fine, you were alive, and the world didn’t end.
I’m going to spend some time studying more on this latest ritual. I need to know how to make it last longer, to make it stable. Oh, Amanda, when you said my name I nearly started crying. Maybe I need more foetal blood, or perhaps it wasn’t pure enough. I don’t know. Whatever it was, I will find it and you will be mine. You will live and we will be happy again. I can’t wait. I don’t think I’ll even sleep tonight. I’m so wired.
Soon, my darling love. Soon.
If you want to read the rest of the story or any of the other stories in this anthology, you can find them here: readerlinks.com/l/1659596
This is an excerpt from the just-released rewrite of a hilarious paranormal romance with a touch of mystery.
I WANTED TO TAKE FULL advantage of my anonymity and not presume it will last, so I’ve come to the area of the Quad near the Council chambers to investigate Erold. Unfortunately, that also means I hadn’t had time to find out what Erold looks like, because if he is behind this murder, I can’t give away any connections and ask people directly.
Even more unfortunately, from my place on the fringe of the activity, all I saw were broad backs. The last hour has taught me that male vampires all look surprisingly similar from behind—an aggressive yet graceful stride, tall yet well-built, although leaner than the werewolves. The black robes help me identify Council members, but a little earlier, befriending and questioning of servants revealed that vampire Council members who oppose the upcoming marriage—and any werewolf-vampire alliance—wear hoods, an ironic mimic of the werewolves.
My neck might actually have elongated from all the straining I’ve done.
Hmm, I wonder if that would be considered a vampire delicacy?
I shake my head when I hear a scribe being ordered, “Lord Erold needs the notes from last week’s meeting, as well as the bylaws concerning territorial rule.”
Focusing on the scribe’s group, I quickly notice that one individual stands out from the rest. There’s a cold stiffness to his bearing and everyone affords him extra space, with deference to their posture.
The good thing about being a human in a Palace filled with human servants is that most of the vampires ignore you. At least, Erold doesn’t once look back as I surreptitiously trail him. It’s nearing midnight and, as planned, the foot traffic is fairly heavy and helps my cause.
I scurry after Erold, clutching my papers to my chest as part of my ruse—the novel of an unknown author. I figure all I have to do if someone approaches is to act like I know them and remind them they promised to read my book. They’ll go running for the mountains.
I can’t hear a word Erold says to the seven people also following him, of course, but that’s okay. The key to being a good detective is being thorough.
And that often means being indirect.
Erold veers down another hallway and opens a pair of doors in a familiar manner—his office, if I’m not mistaken—and he has the audacity to not lock it. My passing peep into the room shows it’s in comfortable disarray. When half of his cluster of people go in, I follow the three that break away.
I doubt Erold himself would slip up; what little I’ve gathered from the broadsheets and Immedia-Graham storytellers is that he is taciturn, intimidating, and powerful. Not someone I want to mess with, yet.
The people around him are another matter, though. Especially a trio of young-looking vampires who look a bit high from being in his company, even after being dismissed. They don’t have the powerful aura of Liam and Cyn, nor do they embody the same confidence and stealth.
Concentrating hard on not stumbling and bringing undue attention to myself, as well as memorizing our path so I don’t get lost, I try to calm my heart from all this excitement. I hear adrenaline tastes good.
Which has me wondering if made vampires ever long for chocolate? Goddess help me if I ever have to give the stuff up.
The tallest member of the group breaks my reverie with his loud comment, “Yeah, right! Lord Erold will exsanguinate anyone who gets in the way of his duty to this country, especially wasting the King’s resources on some poor, dead storyteller.”
Wait, they know about the urolodyte investigation?
“It’s infuriating that we spend any effort on a human when we need to get this Kingdom set to rights!” his comrade enthusiastically agrees.
My heart freezes and I bump into a werewolf coming the opposite direction. She growls as I recover. I hold my book out as a shield.
“Do you like reading science fiction? This book is about an alternate universe with mechanical horse-less transportation where their rulers are humans that influence them to do weird things like dumping ice water on themselves. And it’s totally free!”
She shoots me a grimace as she hurries away.
The tall vampire continues aggressively waving his hands around in the air with flourish, “I’d love to see those werewolf-lovers go head-to-head with him. The one thing we can learn from those dogs is that the strongest one should rule, regardless of bloodlines.”
The third member of their party shushes him and looks around. My eyes whip to a figurine set in the wall.
Nothing to see here. Just a statue of a vampire god with an extra pair of balls. Dangling from his chin. Ah, the fertility one.
I focus on reciting every god and goddess I know to keep my heart rate down as I surreptitiously peek their way.
The first one continues to be loud and obnoxious, and I catch his words, “ …just a human. Look, I can set a privacy spell if you’re so worried.” He exposes a bracelet of beads and as he rubs them I know he must be activating the sacred grid symbol that’s carved onto all such magical reservoirs. Soon their voices are muted. I let the three fade from view as I let out a breath.
My thoughts transition to what I know: Erold wants this investigation to end. And he leaves his office unlocked.
The Worst Story Ever Written is available on Amazon, including for free on Kindle Unlimited.
Renée Gendron (@ReneeGendron)
RUE MURPHY STARED at the unresolved cases on her desk. Last month, the holo-papers were half the height of her holo-computer monitor. This month, after an unusually long full moon and freak natural disasters on three continents, the stack surpassed her monitor.
She closed her eyes for an instant, not that it gave her respite or solace. Photos of the dead flashed before her eyes. Some faces were serene, others confused, a few were still angry and vengeful.
Her phone rang, an obnoxious ring that disrupted her already tattered concentration. Eyes still closed, she swatted her hand on her desk until she found the receiver, then brought it to her ear. “Murphy.”
“There’s another suspect case.” Her captain’s voice was solemn.
Rue pinched the bridge of her nose. The gesture was muscle memory from when she still had a substantial body.
“Samvel and I are on it.” She hung up.
Samvel, investigative partner for one hundred and twelve years, husband of one hundred and five years, sat across from her. He typed on his holo-computer. The blue-grey light brought out the angle of his jaw and the dimple on his chin. For a flicker, a flash of an instant, he was forty-two again, lost in thought and handsome as ever.
“We’ve got a new case,” she said.
“Hmm?” He continued typing.
“There’s another case of a suspect haunting.”
His rich, dark eyes met hers. “Another one?”
Three this day. Ten in the past week. The universe had taken one giant hit of meth, leaving everyone trying to sort through the pieces.
She locked her holo-computer, then collected her instruments. “That’s right.”
Samvel sucked in a breath, then rose. “Lead the way.”
She punched the coordinates in her teleporter, light shimmered, then they stood in front of a sleek black door in an apartment building in Uptown. Rue stepped through the door.
The place was pinky-toe small. A gold-trimmed plate set was stacked against the wall, a near-extinct mahogany wood table for two was pushed against the far wall, and a sleek couch-turned-wall bed sat in the space.
Samvel stepped into the small kitchenette. “How much does she spend for this?”
“Three times your monthly salary.”
Samvel shook his head. “A thirty-minute commute, and she’d at least have a separate bedroom.”
“Says here she works at a boutique executive recruiting firm that’s a five-minute walk from here. Fourteen-hour days. I’d bet that ten-minute commute is worth whatever she puts into this place.”
He made a non-committal grunt, the same kind of grunt he made when he was tired, disinterested, or lost in thought. Which was to say, the grunt he’d always made.
Samvel opened the first of the three kitchen drawers. “Two forks, knives, spoons, cloth napkins.”
“Not much space here to entertain.”
Rue pulled the wall bed down. The bed was made, the sheets fresh, the pillows neatly stashed in their cubby holes. She ran her fingers along the sheets. “That’s an eight-hundred, nine-hundred thread count.”
“She likes to spend.”
Rue’s body, what remained of it, pleaded to rest on the bed. Even a ten-minute nap would do her a world of good. She’d slept only six hours in the past two days. “What do you make of the scene?”
“There’s extra security.” Samvel gestured to the three deadbolts on the door, and two security cameras.
“She’s invested a lot in this apartment. Nothing here is second rate.”
“Even so, the building has a twenty-four-hour doorman and cameras in the hallways. This isn’t a high-crime neighbourhood.”
Rue drew in a long breath and ordered her scattered thoughts. There was something wrong with the room, something wrong with the crime scene, some thread she needed to grasp and weave back together until the entire thing made sense.
She slipped into the walls but found no hidden room. “There’s no secret room here to hide in.”
“Think it’s a lover?” Samvel’s voice sounded older than the Pyramids.
“There’s no report of her having an active lover.”
“A past one?”
She scrolled through the victims’ files. “No one that would care enough to stalk her. The only two serious relationships she’s had have happily remarried. All her shorter relationships have moved on without prejudice.”
Samvel circled the small kitchen island, took five steps through the living room-turned-bedroom and tried the balcony door. His movements were jerky. Long gone was his swift gliding over a floor, and in its place was laboured movements pointed to a dense fog that refused to leave. “It’s closed. There are two locks on this.”
Silence consumed the space between them. The kind of silence that used to be filled with comments, insights, or private jokes. Instead, it was weighed down by unspoken words and fatigue.
Rue settled on the edge of the bed, her semi-corporeal form dented the sheets. She drew in a breath. She ordered a shot of Burst on her wrist holo-computer, but it flashed in angry neon lights that she’d passed her daily recommended limit by three units.
“Thoughts?” She swiped away the strand of hair tickling her cheek, rather the memory of one.
“This has all the markings of a haunting. More security on the inside than on the outside.”
Rue shook her head. Everything about her was heavy—her eyelids, jaw, shoulders, breath. She wanted to retire. Somewhere where what was left of her bones could warm in the sun. “The victim’s almost broke. She spends most of her money on this place.”
“No one comes here. She has two forks, two plates, two cups. It’s not to show off to friends.”
“It’s a haunting.”
“Why? Money, revenge, entertainment?”
Samvel stared out the window. His already pale features, a shadow of his forty-something self, were bathed in the city lights. The line of his nose was strong, the soft slope of his chin, the curve of his ear, all were attractive. “I’m leaning towards greed.”
“The victim’s an up-and-coming professional. Has her whole life ahead of her. She’s on the cusp of a major career breakthrough that will get her fat bonuses and weeks paid in a five-star tropical resort. She has the talent to serve those clients and bring in the big dollars.” He pressed his lips tight, the way he did when he was piecing together a thought, or banishing a thought, or refusing to say anything else.
She sat a metre away from him, the farthest possible in this tiny apartment, but it might as well have been a galaxy away.
A piece of her crumbled, the one that held joy and happiness and eagerness for his touch.
“And?” he asked.
“And? I still don’t know who did it or why.”
Samvel floated from the balcony door to the kitchenette. He was as ancient as time, like the light of the sun caressing the surface of a place a billion light years away, ancient.
He turned to her, and their eyes met for the first time during this investigation. The line around his mouth had deeper shadows, the angle of his shoulders was more slanted, more weight. He was old, but at this moment, he looked older than a geological age.
“Samvel, what’s wrong?”
The set of his shoulders lowered further still. “Nothing. I’m working the case.”
“It’s more than that.”
He angled his chin towards the floor, the way he did when he wanted to keep a secret.
“Samvel.” Her voice was rough. Every syllable was an undue burden.
“It’s not nothing if you say it’s nothing.”
He swiped the holo-computer files closed.
“You can’t ignore me. We’ve died together. We work together, and we live together.”
Samvel leaned against the small kitchen island, and half of his form disappeared into the cabinet. “You remember the case three weeks ago?”
She opened her mouth to speak but closed it. There had been so many cases in recent months, so many tormented eyes looking back at her. Outbreaks of war on two continents, a deadly epidemic in Tokyo, and a spike in drug use all leading to unsettled souls and more hauntings.
“It was the car crash victim, wasn’t it?” she asked.
She ran her tongue over her non-existent lower lip. Strange how behaviours transcend the corporeal to the ethereal.
Liam Harris had been fifty-two, divorced and a father of a son. He’d been driving his blue Honda Civic to visit his family cottage, went around a near-blind turn, and a tractor-trailer hit him. The truck driver had driven sixteen hours that day to make up for lost time stuck in traffic and had dozed off.
Liam Harris was killed instantly, and the truck driver didn’t have a scratch.
Painful memories crashed against Rue, and she lowered herself onto the bed. Grief, anger, and unrelenting anguish washed over her. Tears that couldn’t be shed welled in her eyes. “It’s how we died.”
Samvel nodded. “Not the same turn, but the setup—” His voice broke, like their lives on that day.
“I’m so sorry.” She reached for him, needing him close and the lovely sensation of his energy mingling with hers, cursing this realm for not having a sense of touch.
He glided across the tiny apartment and sat next to her. He smelled of ozone and energy and a lifetime and deathtime of memories.
Their forms mingled, and a thousand flashes of light flared. They sat in silence, exchanging emotions and comfort and soothing thoughts. Words were poor replacements for directly living and feeling another’s emotions. She caressed his soul with love. He breathed energy into the part of her that was so tired she could barely move, think, or exist.
“I didn’t realise it was this bad,” he said.
“How exhausted you are.” He pulsed more energy into her.
She perked up. Not jolted like she’d chugged three shots of Burst. Or like she’d been woken in the middle of the night by a nightmare but perked up like she’d finally had a good night’s sleep. “It goes with the job.”
“But not like this. You were near collapse. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You have enough troubles.”
“We lived together, died together, now we work together.” His tone was hurt, like the last one hundred years didn’t mean anything. “You have to tell me these things.”
“I didn’t want to add to your worries.”
A fresh shower of bright yellow lights erupted between them, the ethereal realm’s version of a little nudge of his elbow. “We need to get away for a while before we both can’t do our jobs.”
“Death follows us.”
“We’ll go on to the moon.”
“Think of it. We don’t need to pay for a shuttle to take us there. We don’t need to eat or find a hotel. We can stay on the daytime side of the moon and warm ourselves. Look on the bright side. We’ll have the entire place to ourselves.”
She laughed again, this time with more joy, less fatigue. “How long have you been planning this?”
“I thought I’d surprise you for our anniversary.” He grinned, a broad grin that brought out the kindness in his eyes.
“Consider me surprised. I was thinking Bahamas or Greece.”
He winked. “We have to work this scene first.” He made to float away but drifted back to her, his form overlapping hers. “Are you okay with continuing? Need some more energy?”
“You gave me exactly what I needed.” She leaned towards him and pressed her mouth against his, then peeled away until their forms separated. “What does this scene tell you?”
“The victim’s afraid of someone or something.”
He floated to the kitchen and looked inside the fridge. “She has a little food in the house, all things that would keep more than a few days. Seems she spends most of her time outside of this apartment.”
Rue returned the wall bed to its upright position and straightened the plush throw rug. A floorboard had some scratches, and Rue slid aside a loose floorboard and found a locked metal case.
“What do you have there?” Samvel asked.
“Not sure yet.” She slipped into the case.
A vintage gold-ringed cameo lay around a black ribbon choker. It didn’t appear expensive and was more likely a family heirloom.
“It’s a necklace,” she said.
“Think it’s worth haunting someone over?”
“I don’t know. Does her file mention her family?”
He swiped the air and the victim’s file appeared again. “She has a brother who was married, but his wife died from a previously unknown medical condition.”
Rue floated out of the box back and hovered over the throw rug. “Any other deaths in the family?”
“The grandmother died three years ago from natural causes.”
“Did she have a will?”
“Yeah.” Samvel swept his arm and flipped through more files. “The cameo was supposed to go to the brother’s wife.”
“There it is. That’s the motive for the haunting. The victim probably borrowed the necklace from the grandmother, then the grandmother died. The cameo has sentimental value, and the victim didn’t want to hand it over to the sister-in-law. That starts a grudge between them.”
“All right. We’ll file the paperwork on this one. Mark it as a justified haunting because the victim stole from the haunter, and then—” His cheeks curved in a soul-warming smile. “We go on vacation.”
“Fly me to the moon.”
This is part of the series that began in October 2021 with the story Spectre Investigations, A Muse Bouche Review | A Muse Bouche Review: October 2021 | (ambreview.com)
New This Month: Newcomer David M. Simon has published The Wild Hunt: Novella 2 of The Wild Hearts and Hunts Duology (Part 1 is Renée Gedron’s Ninth Star) as well as Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, a middle-age fantasy adventure.
Renée’s other books:
- Jaded Hearts: Book 1 of the Outdoorsman Series
- The Officer’s Gamble, Book II of the Outdoorsman Series is available for pre-orders on Amazon.
- Seven Points of Contact
- Heartened by Crime
- Heads and Tales. A supernatural/mythological anthology (contributor)
- Beneath The Twin Suns: An Anthology (editor)
- In The Red Room: A Crime Anthology With Heart (editor)
- Shopkeeper & Spoon: Tales of Important Spoons (editor)
Nicole Wells’s The Worst Story Ever Written, whence her contribution this month comes, is available on Amazon (including for free on Kindle Unlimited). You can sample Chapter 1 here. Her other stories of various and mixed genres are at NicoleWellsWrites.com
Nicole’s other stories of various and mixed genres are at NicoleWellsWrites.com
Joseph P. Garland has published his third novel set in the early Gilded Age in New York City. A Maid’s Life is available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover formats. I Am Alex Locus and other novels and stories, contemporary and set in the Gilded Age, are described at Joseph’s Dermody House site.
Marian L Thorpe has six books in her on-going historical fantasy/alt history series Empire’s Legacy available; they can be found at her aptly-named website, MarianLThorpe.com. Her preferred site for purchasing her e-books is the indie on-line bookstore Scarlet Ferret, or, her books are at Books2Read.
Louise Sorenson is the co-author of Duel Visions with Misha Burnett.
Crystal Kirkham‘s many books can be found on her website.