Make Mine A Mystery

On the hunt for the crucial clue
On the hunt for the crucial clue

Welcome to the new beginning for my author site. Changes have been afoot in my writing since fall 2020, and they are finally bearing fruit. I began as a fantasy and science fiction author, and eventually published seven novels, six fantasy and one space opera, as well as novellas in the 2018 Street Spells and last September’s High Moon. I am a long time fan of fantasy and science fiction.

I’m also a long-time fan of mystery. I started out reading a mystery every so often. Sherlock Holmes, Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue,” Kinsey Mallone, Lawrence Block and on. I idly thought about writing an historical mystery series set during the age of piracy in the Caribbean. (I may still.) I used to joke with library colleagues about writing a library murder mystery, and they used to suggest it.

But it remained on the back-burner while I worked on learning how to write fantasy novels. I racked up five before finally getting the elements lined up and working together, thanks in no small measure to hiring my friend and writing mentor, Mary Rosenblum, to story edit Empowered: Agent and Empowered :Traitor and give me feedback on the outline for Empowered: Outlaw, in 2016-17. It paid off. I went on to write five novels in The Empowered series as well as the space opera and Gremlin Night.

But things changed for me in the spring of 2020, during the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdown I began reading many more mystery novels, as well as watching mystery shows. In September, 2020, I decided to write my first mystery novel. I wrote a draft of sorts, finishing it in February, 2021. I then worked on rewriting it. I took a break from the rewrite that summer, writing an urban fantasy novella and returning to it in the fall. More revision followed, and then another interruption while I worked on a separate project.

But, as time went on, I became more and more passionate about mystery fiction. My library cozy had been titled, Death Due, but now it became A Shush Before Dying. Mystery is very much my jam now. I’ve read so many more, and watched a great deal of mystery television, everything from The Queens of Mystery and the new Father Brown to Midsomer Murders, classic shows like Perry Mason and Columbo, and now Murder, She wrote, and so many more.

One of my dear friends from my time in library-land, Jan, who I called our “mystery maven” because of her deep knowledge of that genre, told me she felt mystery must be the hardest genre to write in. I’ve learned this past year and a half that she is right about that. At the same time, writing mystery is irresistible for me, incredibly rewarding, and so very fun. I’ll talk about that more in future posts.

I may have chosen to write mysteries, but it was no real choice, since I felt so drawn to the form after years spent reading in it.

My site is going to have a different look in the not-too-distant future, but I didn’t want to wait on that to begin a new mystery-focused blog.

I hope you’ll join me as I do.

Empowered: Complete

I’m excited to annouce that the Empowered Complete Series collection is now out in all major eBook formats, on all the major eBook retailers, as well as platforms like Scribd. All five novels in the series, as well as the prequel Renegade and the linking story “Nullified,” which tells an episode from Mat’s time in Special Corrections, two years before the events of the first novel, Agent.

The Empowered began as a serial called Weed, back in 2012. In 2011 serialized fiction was being published on some of the online eBook platforms, including Amazon, and I was inspired to write my own, based on an idea for a novel the muse had given me. I spent months brainstorming, and then wrote three episodes, totaling about forty thousand words.

As much as I loved the idea, it didn’t work, so I put it aside for a couple of years while I worked on a six-guns and sorcery novel, The Hardscrabble. But Mathilda Brandt wouldn’t leave me alone, and in late 2015, I returned to the idea and fleshed out a new outline.

I hired a very talented editor, Mary Rosenblum (who was also a very talented, award-winning science fiction and mystery author) to story edit the novels, which proved to be a very wise decision on my part. Mary had a huge impact on the first three novels, Agent, Traitor and Outlaw. Tragically, she died while I was drafting Rebel, so she never saw the final two books.

Mathilda’s story means a lot to me, and I’m very pleased the entire series is now available in a single volume. Happy reading!

New Agents of Sorcery novella in an-all-new anthology

This summer I wrote a new novella entitled Lunaticking, featuring Elizabeth Marquez, magics good and evil, and more than one sort of werewolf, set in the Olympic rainforest. Writing it was huge fun. It was also emotional. My wife and I lost our long-time friend Rachel to cancer. She always believed in magic, and the novella is dedicated to her.

It will be exclusive to the new High Moon anthology, along with novellas by seven other urban fantasy authors also exclusive to the book: Aimee Easterling, BR Kingsolver, Jenn Stark, Becca Andre, Jenn Windrow, N.R. Hairston, and Marina Finlayson. The book will be released on September 14th. It’s already available for pre-order at three ebook retailers.

https://books2read.com/u/boaX0Z

Here’s the first two chapters of Lunaticking as a sample:

***

One

The howl shredded the silence of the Olympic Rainforest night, erupting from the canyon mouth, east of Tully and me. The hairs on the back of my neck stuck straight out. It sounded like something out of a horror movie.

“That’s our wolf-dude,” I told Tully. He loomed beside me in his leather duster, his dark face tight with concentration as he peered into his scry stone. He began chanting a Tag spell in Finnish.

I held my wand and peered into the darkness, brushing my bangs away from my eyes with my free hand. The waxing gibbous moon had sunk behind the wooded ridge west of us, plunging the canyon floor into darkness. Morning twilight hadn’t begun yet.

“Got you,” Tully said. A golden thread hung in the air, a glowing spell-line that connected him to the wolf-man manifestation.

“Let’s go then,” I said and started back down the trail at a half jog, my wand out, point down. I pulled a Link spell from memory. I’d cast it in German. Not much elegance, but plenty of sure strength, enough for this wolf-man manifestation, especially out here in the boondocks.

“Liz, wait up,” Tully called behind me.

I looked over my shoulder at him. “Come on, old man, better keep up.” Tully was thirty, four years older than me, and I never wanted to miss a chance to tease him about the age difference.

He broke into a run, and I ran faster to stay ahead of him, but Tully had longer legs, was former US Army, and a big-time gym rat. He passed me in seconds.

My breath burned as we ran. My boots felt like they weighed a ton each. Maybe I should have worn hiking ones instead of Doc Martens. We crested the rise in the middle of the canyon and then I could see the mouth, and the distant mountains, lit by the nearly full moon sinking in the west of us.

Tully stopped and I did likewise, bending over and gasping for air. He uttered a command word and purple mana pulsed along the golden thread of the spell.

The air shimmered, and a window of silver light appeared in front of Tully. He gestured and we finally glimpsed our target, after a night spent wandering through this forsaken forest.

The supernatural’s gray fur was shaggy. Its jeans bulged and ripped, going down to just below the knees, with the tattered remains of a checkered shirt hanging from its broad shoulders. The eyes glowed red. It sniffed the air, mouth open, short fangs shining in the moonlight. The manifestation was right out of a Universal monster movie from the Nineteen Thirties. Manifestations modeled themselves on human ideas and self-conceptions. Everything from myth and folk lore to urban legends.

“Now that’s a classic wolf-dude,” I said. It looked like a stunt double for Lon Chaney Jr.’s wolf man.

Tully gestured with his hands and the golden spell-thread brightened. “Anthro-wolf, to use the correct designation.” face narrowed in concentration. “It’s a Level Three.”

I blinked. That was a permanent on the Residency scale. “That was fast. We only picked it up yesterday.” How could it solidify that quickly? Manifestations took time to coalesce.

“And why is it out here in the boondocks?” Tully asked.  

“Good question,” I said. This part of the Olympic Rainforest was deserted. There shouldn’t be any here. “Maybe it wandered away from a populated area.” I shook my head. To exist, manifestations needed people. Supernaturals flickered into existence from the interaction between mana and the human subconscious. Mana was the fuel for magic. It flowed through everything and everyone, invisible except for the few of us aware of its existence. There were very few humans out here, and supernaturals typically needed a large collective subconscious. Which meant there should only be the very rare fleeting manifestations, not a permanent prancing about.

I searched my memory for the ranged binding spell I needed. The Spinning Chain, I’d go with that. Ensnare him at range, and then attach the Link spell. Two spells in quick order. Despite the long night, I could do it.

I began slicing the air in front of me with my wand, warming up. The wolf-dude was a hundred yards distant. It turned and ran off, shoulders rolling, long arms nearly scraping the ground.

I chanted the Spinning Chain spell in Spanish. “I cast forth my hand and ensnare you from afar.” My skin tingled as a spinning loop of golden light appeared before me. It turned to a muddy gray glow with steel glints, mimicking a real chain. “I bind thee!”

As I pulled back my arm for the windup, a chorus of howls echoed behind us. I couldn’t stop the spell, but my aim went all skewed and the chain missed the lens and spun into the trees. My right tricep muscle suddenly cramped.

In the arcane lens, the image of the wolf-person disappeared into the trees, the lens dissipating a second later as Tully lost concentration.

We turned and peered back up the canyon. Moonlight washed the tops of the trees with light, but the forest beneath was dark. The chorus grew louder.

I massaged my arm. “More? How are they materializing out here in this deserted forest?”

Tully snapped his wand, flinging a quick spell in that direction. “Reveal!”

We waited. And waited.

Nothing.

“No mana. No magic.” Tully said, after a minute.

“You’re kidding.” I flexed my arm. Still a bit cramped. “You’re telling me those howls are not supernatural?”

“There’s nothing magical there,” he said.

“Maybe that supernatural can throw howls. You know, like a ventriloquist.”

He gave me a side-eye.

“Okay, I admit, that’s ridiculous. Maybe those howls were fleeting manifestations, Level Zeroes?” Level Zeroes were supernaturals that only lasted for minutes, sometimes just seconds. Most manifestations were phantasmal Zeroes, only a few solidified enough to become even a Level One, which might last an hour, or a day at most. Level Twos, perhaps a few weeks. Level Threes, like the wolf-man manifestation I’d failed to ensnare, were the lowest level of permanents.

“Multiple Level Zeroes?” Tully’s tone told me he thought I was nuts.

“What else could it be?” I asked.

“How about actual wolves?”

I squinted at him. “There aren’t any real wolves here in the Olympic peninsula.”

“Actually, there is a wolf sanctuary here. Not close, but still here.”

“You’re suggesting that maybe an actual wolf left the sanctuary and happened to end up here, right when a manifestation outbreak occurred?” I asked.

Tully shrugged. “Okay, so it does seem pretty unlikely.”

“There are no coincidences, just connections not yet found,” I said, quoting our RU.N.E. field manual. The Regulating Union for Normalizing Enchantments loved to spell everything out, especially procedure.

His eyebrows rose. “You’ve actually read the field manual?”

“Hey, I’ve read it. I just don’t read it for fun like you do.” I put my wand away. Tully couldn’t cast another scry until after dawn, and then it was going to be very difficult to locate any supernatural. Day magic was much more subtle than night magic, and manifestations usually went to ground once the sun was up.

“There’s only one thing we can do,” I said. “Go find breakfast.”

Two

Chloe stood at the edge of camp. Her skin tingled in the glow of the nearly full moon that hung low in the west, taking the edge off her anger at Russ. He and the others had been gone for hours, out on his latest “lope-about.” Despite her annoyance at him, his expression made her smile. She shook her head. He seemed to do both to her on a regular basis.

Grass rustled behind her, and the familiar scent of a packmate filled her nostrils. It was Calvin. She turned to greet her friend. He smiled and adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses. She’d bonded with him on that ill-fated tour bus, when she was with her grandmother, and he with his grandparents. Before the terrible accident that changed the survivors forever.

Behind him the coming dawn had begun to smear the eastern sky.

“They still haven’t returned?” Calvin pushed his glasses back up his nose. Despite everything, poor Calvin was still near-sighted and needed his glasses. It wasn’t his fault.

“Not yet.” She suppressed a grin. 

“The moonlight gives your coppery hair a silver tinge,” he said.

“You only now noticed?” She grinned. “Making a pass at me, Calvin?”

He blushed. “No, no, I’m not,” he said hastily. “I wouldn’t want to get between you and Russ.”

“I don’t belong to him,” she said.

“Well, I didn’t mean it like that, but you guys are a thing, right?”

They’d become a couple. Chloe and Russ hadn’t committed to each other. Not yet. After the accident, they had been the first ones to shift and become wolves. Her human and wolf sides had both felt the attraction between them. It crackled like summer lightning.

For a time, they had been happy in the deep forest. The others learned to shift, and they bonded as pack. Then Russ began having dreams, dreams about another place, a better one. A month ago, they came to this place, near a fishing resort, not far from the highway, and not much farther from a town. They were able to get supplies, more clothes and shoes and other gear. But it also put them at risk of being discovered for what they had become.

Staying deeper in the forest was best. Chloe was sure of it. But Russ was certain being here was the best for the pack. He told Chloe he now dreamed of new members joining them. So, the pack had to wait here for the new members. She was still drawn to him, and she thought he was to her, but his dreams kept getting in the way.

She said they needed to move on. He said that they must wait.

Now the disagreement over what the pack should do next threatened what the two of them had together. She told him the entire pack needed to discuss staying or going. Russ agreed to it, reluctantly. He had agreed, saying it was only right, though she could sense the compulsion to just order them to stay. What was it about this place that made him so stubborn? When they’d been deep in the wilderness, he’d agreed that the pack needed to stay away from civilization and move as necessary. But these dreams now convinced him otherwise.

A chorus of howls echoed faintly to the east.

She shook her head again. “Russ and the others.” The fishing resort lay west, but only a couple of miles. Too close to be howling.

“It sure sounds like it,” agreed Calvin.

They stood there in silence, waiting for the pack to arrive.

Tyler returned first, still fastening his jeans as he walked out of the trees west of them. Barefoot as usual. His sleeveless flannel shirt was unbuttoned. His chest muscles flexed as he buttoned it, stopping two holes short of the top.

“Where’s Russ?” Chloe asked him.

He brushed his long blonde hair away from his eyes. “He’s still scouting.”

Which meant he was still in wolf form. “Now?” She frowned. “He knows we have this meeting.” She’d finally agreed to the discussion, and he stayed away?

Tyler shrugged. “He said he wanted to check out a possible intrusion.”

Worry poked at her. “Intrusion? How many and where?”

“I don’t know, that’s all he said.”

She frowned. Just like Russ to be the hero and investigate on his own.

Angel appeared next, pulling her black tank top down over her naked breasts. Her hair, which had been shoulder length when they’d all been on that tour bus three months ago, was now cropped close to her head.

Kat and Max walked behind her, both dressed in wool shirts and jeans, holding hands.

Chloe crossed her arms and stared up at the lightening sky. “Russ needs to be here.”

“He’s the Alpha,” Tyler said. The rest of the pack gathered in a circle around Chloe, beneath a sequoia.

Calvin adjusted his glasses again, and smiled. “Pirate Code, Tyler, remember? We decide together. Russ decides in a crisis. This isn’t a crisis.”

Tyler bared his teeth, took half a step toward Calvin, who bravely stood his ground.

“You aren’t the alpha,” Tyler growled. “You’re not one of the betas, either. Me and Chloe are. You’re in the back of the pack, man, where you belong.”

“Don’t speak to him like that,” Chloe said, putting a low growl into her own voice.

Tyler flinched, then lifted his chin up defiantly. “You aren’t the alpha,” he repeated, but there was less force in his words the second time.

Chloe uncrossed her arms “How about you shift and find our fearless pack leader and let him know we’re waiting for him?” He shouldn’t be chasing down intruders. The rules stated they must avoid outsiders.

Out of the corner of her eye, Angel smirked, but didn’t say anything.

Tyler pulled his shirt off as he stalked into the trees. Angel headed to her tent.

Chloe plucked a long blade of grass from the earth, twirled the stem. A flood of scents filled her awareness—the sharp, sour tang of the grass itself, the dirt traces tangling from the roots, the moistness that sheltered earth worms, wriggling insects, the trace of a bee that had brushed against the grass blade, the almost metallic taste of a dragonfly that had perched on the blade not long ago.

She shook herself. Lately, the world had begun opening up to her in a flood of sensations while she was still in human form. Not like it had been for the first two months.

“Are you all right?” Calvin asked.

She blinked. She had forgotten he was still there. “I was distracted,” she said. “So much to drink in here.”

“You’re more aware of everything now, aren’t you?”

“I guess. Why?” she asked.

“Because I am, too. In all sorts of ways. I notice sounds far differently than I did a few weeks ago. Smells and tastes, too. But it’s more than that.” He fell silent.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

He tilted his head, looking at her. “Haven’t you noticed tiny glints of gold and silver light, sometimes, when we transform? Have you seen how some rocks and hills have a really faint purple aura around them?”

She tugged idly at a strand of her hair, struggling to recall. “Maybe once or twice, but I thought it was just a trick of the light.”

“I’ve seen it more than once or twice, but only because I’ve written it down in my journal. I have four entries. But the thing is, I can’t actually remember any of them. I only know because I wrote down that I saw it.”

Chloe shivered. “That’s spooky. What do you think it means?”

“We’re changing. I don’t know why. Is it this place? Or just our wolf sides developing further?”

“I think it’s this place. We need to move on,” she said. “It’s too risky to stay here.”

“But this is something different,” Calvin replied.

She nodded. “Another reason to leave.”

“If only we knew why our senses are altering.” He got to his feet. “Another reason to leave, I guess. I’m going to get something to eat. I’ll keep an ear and an eye out for Russ and the others.” He left and she leaned back on her arms.

The Moon had disappeared behind the wooded ridge. She could go and look for Russ, but they’d argued before he took the others out on the run.

It had been a bad fight. She clenched her fists at the memory. He left to lead the others. He should come back to her, not expect her to chase after him.

She exhaled slowly.

“We need to decide, together, as a pack,” she said aloud.

The World Outside

Four years ago today I published Empowered: Agent, the first novel in the Empowered series. In honor of that, I’ve written a flash fiction story which takes place when Mathilda Brandt is still in Special Corrections, nearly three years after the event of “Nullified.”

***

The World Outside

Copyright 2021 Dale Ivan Smith

Rain popped and sizzled on the force dome above my garden in the Yard. My tomato plants withered in the heat, but the sudden rain outside Special Corrections would do them no good. San Diego got doused but it was still a desert inside Special Corrections, thanks to the damn force dome.

I frowned. My watering can was nearly empty. Even with the null cuffs on, I could still hear the faint moaning of the plants, craving water.

Another female inmate appeared from behind my tomato plants. My jaw tightened. She must have been waiting for me. She was a redhead, slender, maybe five ten, so four inches shorter than me, wearing the same white coveralls we all wore inside, and the same nullification cuffs that blocked our powers. 

I didn’t see either of the armored Corrections Officers that were on duty here in the Yard. My garden was near the forty-foot-high wall dividing our section of Special Corrections from the men’s section, which meant it was in shadow in the afternoon, since the men’s section was on the west side.

The woman held a watering can in her hand. “You’re Mathilda, right?”

I narrowed my eyes. “And you are?”

Concern flashed across her face. I didn’t know why. I didn’t get in fights, or bully anyone. But she must have been new, so she didn’t know that.

“I’m Lexie,” she said, blurting out her name. “I just got here a couple of days ago. I’d heard that you were having trouble with your garden.” She lifted the can. “I have more water for you.”

“You do know that helping another inmate in a proscribed activity is considered a Class Three infraction,” I pointed out. Warden Fulbright regularly drilled the rules into us during assemblies in the cafeteria.

Lexie’s gaze darted around and then back to looking at me. Her eyes were green. “No one’s watching. I’m sorry, I just wanted to help you.” She held out the can.

It looked identical to mine, right down to the dent in the side and the rust stains. That was weird. “Where’d you get the duplicate?” I asked her.

She glanced down at her feet. “Sorry, I can’t tell you.” She glanced off to the south. “CO Reiner will be headed this way any moment.” She took a step toward me. The water in the can sloshed over the top as she moved closer, droplets splashing on the bare earth just beyond a tomato vine. The plant keened in my mind. For an instant, I actually tried to reach out with my power. 

I sucked in a deep breath of air. I couldn’t use my power, even if I weren’t wearing the null cuffs.

“No,” I said.

Lexie’s voice changed, becoming insistent. “Come on, you feel it, don’t you? Take it. No one will know. I’ll take your can and you can finish watering your plants with mine. The COs won’t have a clue.” She thrust the can at me, sending more water sloshing over the edge and spattering on the ground. 

The tomato plants all began keening in my mind. I raised my fist. “Damn you, leave me alone!”

Her face hardened. The uncertain newbie was gone; instead, I recognized the menacing look I’d seen dozens of times in the nearly five years I’d been inside. 

Her lips curved up into a vicious grin. “You don’t know me at all. I can make things very rough for you.” She held the can like a weapon. 

I laughed. “Give me a break. Make things rougher for me? Maybe, but so what? I know what I’m going to do.”

“What’s that?” She asked. Her voice had turned dangerous.

“Get back to my work.” I turned my back on her and walked down the line, sprinkling drops where I could. I didn’t try to wall my mind off from the plants’ cries. Instead, I heard them, felt the echo in my body, and didn’t try to fight the tears filling my eyes.

The water was gone. I reached the end of the garden.

Clapping sounded behind me. I turned. Lexie had disappeared. Instead, a short, gray-haired woman in a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, stood there.

A Support agent, one of the normals who worked for the sanctioned Empowered in the Hero Council. I’d seen them here a few times, but it had been a while.

I put down my can and crossed my arms. “What happened to Lexie?”

The woman looked to be in her fifties. She wore her gray hair short. Her hazel eyes looked me over. “She left.”

“Just like that?”

The Support agent smiled. “Just like that. She’d served her purpose.”

“Which was?”

“A test.”

So, this had been another test. There had been so many of them since I’d arrived. Usually, Warden Fulbright set them up. But there had never been a Support agent in one of her little tests before. Fulbright used other inmates, like Tricksie, who had tried to get me to break out when I turned eighteen. The first test she’d set for me. Her tests were really snares to get you to become one of her stooges.

My fingers dug into my arms.

The agent watched me, not saying anything. Weighing me with her eyes, waiting to see what I’d do next.

I’d be twenty-one in a couple of weeks. Eligible for parole, since I’d been convicted of being a rogue Empowered when I was sixteen. I didn’t want to be Empowered. I just wanted to be released and take care of my grandmother and my twin sisters, who were going on seventeen. God only knew what trouble they had gotten into since I’d been inside.

Eligible for parole didn’t mean I’d be paroled. I could still end up a lifer here. So, I had to stay out of trouble, especially not fight or mouth off to the COs. 

I shrugged. “What’s next?” I asked the agent.

Her gaze bored into me. “The biggest test of all,” she said.

I tensed, then uncrossed my arms and rolled my shoulders. “Okay. I’m ready,” I said.

“No, you’re not,” she replied.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the test will be the world outside.”

Those words clanged together in my brain. The world outside

That was how I learned I was being paroled. They were giving me a chance for a new life.

I was grabbing that chance and not looking back.

It wasn’t until I’d been released that I realized what the Support agent had meant. I’d dreamed that I once I was out, it would be easy to walk on the straight and narrow and keep my head down.

But I hadn’t reckoned with the world outside and what it wanted.

The end of the vine

Nine years ago an image came to me–a young woman, discharged from a prison for super-criminals, trying to start a new life, and being approached by those who wanted her to use her superpower and return to her own life.

That was the start of Mathilda Brandt’s story. She was once a rogue Empowered, nick-named vine, because of her affinity for creating mutant blackberry vines. She was captured and sent to Special Corrections at sixteen, paroled at twenty one, and only wanting to take care of her ailing grandmother, Ruth, and her two younger twin sisters.

But, the world wouldn’t let her.

After several tries, I finally wrote the first novel, Empowered: Agent, in 2016, along with the sequel, Empowered: Traitor. In 2017, I published those two novels, along with the third in the series, Empowered: Outlaw. In June 2018, I published Book Four, Empowered: Rebel, thinking at the time that I’d close the series with that novel. Only, truthfully that was not the end of Mat’s story.

It took longer than I’d planned, but the final novel, Empowered: Hero, is now finished and out in the world. I’ve learned so much during my time with Mat. I’ve learned the importance of trusting in your imagination, and in listening to feedback from beta readers and editors, knowing how much to plan ahead of time, and how much run comes to me as I write. (Quite a lot, in fact).

Most of all, I learned to listen to Mat, and tell her story.

Don’t Panic

“Don’t panic” is advice from a favorite book of mine, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and applies doubly so right now, in the midst of the 2020 COVID-19 global pandemic. We have to be patient, as we stay-at-home, and vigilant. Those who have to go outside to work are all heroes, especially the healthcare workers and first responders, but also the delivery people and grocery and warehouse workers.

The least I can do is not panic, and I’m working on that. I even have a new fez to help me stay calm.

Words to write by, and words to live by, especially now.

I’m a huge fan of Doctor Who, and love the latest Doctor, played by Jodi Whittaker. I love her even more after this short video she did, in character, to comfort us right now.

“Brave heart,” the Fifth Doctor said, and we all need brave hearts, right now. We can do this. We really are all together, members of the enormous, raucous, strong-willed human family, brilliant in our individual and shared creativeness, passionate, caring, loving, and kindness. It’s said that patience is a virtue; right now, it’s more than that, it’s necessary, as most of us stay at home, and wait for the viral transmission to drop.

We can do this. And, even though it feels like we are alone as we do, we are altogether in this. Hang in there, and remember, don’t panic.

My first published story

Way back in October 2009, I learned about a new online magazine, Ten Flash Quarterly, which had quarterly themed issues. The one for Winter 2010 was an encounter at a lonely crossroads at dusk. As soon as I read the theme, my subconscious created a story, “Dead Wife Waiting.” The editor, K.C. Ball, loved it and it appeared in the January 2010 issue.

In honor of the tenth year anniversary of my first published piece, I’m reposting it here.

Dead Wife Waiting

by Dale Ivan Smith

My dead wife waited for me at twilight on the road through the Sky Touch pass. She stood beside the midway marker stone where we first made love ten years ago. Skeletal corpses were strewn across the broken ground to either side of her, all the way to both canyons.
That drunken librarian at the tavern back in Bandy had set me on this trail, babbling on about a dead woman with a nasty sword guarding the pass.
Mira didn’t look like a corpse. She wore leather pants, the long gray coat I’d given her, and a sword strapped to her side. Her face was scarred, her eyes shadowed. They had been brilliant green in life.
Dying hadn’t been easy for her.
“Thomas, turn back.” Her words were low, husky.
I laid my hand on my six shooter. “Toshi told me you were undead, guarding this pass for Richter.”
She lowered her head. “Yes.”
I drew my gun.
She stepped in front of me. “Turn back.” She smelled like lilac. Her face was scarred, but her breasts were still full beneath her woolen shirt.
My head swam from the smell. “Mira, I miss you.” Damn it.
Her left hand trembled. “Please turn back.”
I blinked at sudden tears, clenching my jaw. “Listen, I have to stop Richter.”
“You will die if you don’t turn back.” She leaned forward. “Or worse.”
The triplets twinkled above in the darkening sky. The scent of lilac faded, leaving grit in my nose. I sneezed, fighting to keep my eyes open in case she lurched forward.
“You left me. And then you got yourself killed.” I cocked the pistol. Four rounds left, all silver. There wouldn’t be any more for a long while but I suppose using one on your undead wife could be forgiven.
Something in her eyes stopped me, a gleam in the shadows. I took a few steps back and sat on a flat rock, stretching my legs and resting my gun hand on my knee. My throat itched. Damn dust. Water sloshed in the canteen hanging from my belt but I didn’t trust her not to strike while I took a swig. She was always faster than me, and she still seemed pretty fluid for a moving corpse. The last animated dead I encountered had been back in Geartown. Some huckster summoned them using an old calling spell he’d scrounged up. They stank to high heaven, moldering something awful. Not a fleck of lilac in that air. I had fought off retching while blazing away with the old double barrel. The shotgun broke in that scrap.
“Why did you leave me?” The words tumbled out like lead weights. My left eye twitched but I forced myself to keep looking at her.
Something worked in her face. “Richter wasn’t going to leave you alone.”
I could smell ozone clearly now. The border stones glowed indigo in the gathering dark.
I rubbed the barrel of my gun. “I quit working for him. My choice.”
Her face hardened. “He wasn’t going to let you. Not permanently.” She shook her head, her velvet cascade of hair rippling.
“You don’t know that.”
She leapt forward, sword out, point thrusting toward me. The tip was inches from my throat. “You’re a bastard. You never saw past your own nose.”
My stomach twisted. “You still didn’t have to leave.”
The sword point wavered and then lowered. “It was the only way to save you.”
I let the air out slowly from my lungs. I was sure she would run me through. “The amulet.”
My wedding charm to her. Silver, like my pistol. She still wore it around her neck
The sword touched the ground now. “I wanted us to have that family you talked about all the time. But that would never happen with that monster around.” She sobbed quietly, without tears. I’d never seen a corpse cry before. I wanted to hug her for all I was worth, to comfort her. But when she’d left, she’d left royally pissed. Never wanted to see me again, she’d said.
And here she was on the winding road, captured by Richter and trying to keep me from getting to Reach.
Or was she?
“How’d you die?” I asked.
Her face was bitter in the wan light from the triplets. “I ran the bastard through with my sword. Black blood oozed out like mud. I realized then he was some new kind of undead. He just turned around and laid a hand between my breasts, and the next thing I know I’m beside this marker stone, waiting for you.”
“But that was a year ago.” A year spent waiting.
She nodded. “There were others, too, always at nightfall. The last forest island is far enough every traveler arrives at dusk.”
On foot was the only way you could go these days. The horses were all gone. I raised my gun and aimed between her eyes.
Her face was calm now.
“You want to die?”
She nodded. “Please. I never knew being dead would hurt so much.”
The silver bullet would do it. My finger tightened on the trigger then I hesitated. Magic’s a crazy quilt but I finally got the pattern straight in my head. Richter was a genius of a mage. People thought he’d figured out how to keep himself going after death. But animated corpses fell apart. Mira was in one still glorious piece. Undead stank. She smelled of lilac.
I reached out and lifted her chin with my fingers. Her skin felt cool, but alive. She’d been ensorcelled and I’d been set up. I turned and headed back toward town.
Mira cried out. “Thomas! You are turning back.”
I smiled for the first time in over a year. “You’re not dead. Neither is Richter. I’m betting I’ll find him in the library back in Bandy.”

END

Witch Way

This year’s Halloween story is another “prequel” of sorts about Elizabeth Marquez, hero of my series Agents of Sorcery. It shows what happens when a grown-up dressed as a witch visited then sixteen-year old Elizabeth Marquez on Halloween. It also reveals an important episode from Liz’s life that took place earlier that year as well. I hope you enjoy it!

You can read last year’s story, “Halloween Duty,” here. Thanks for reading!

WITCH WAY

Dale Ivan Smith

“What, what are you?” I sputtered. I brushed my bangs from my eyes, and looked around frantically.

A tiny person-shaped cloud of silver sparkles floated at the foot of the couch, outlined in purple. I sat up, scooting away from the figure. The copy of Teen I was reading slipped from my fingers and flopped on the floor with a bang.

The sparkle thing vanished. I blinked, and rubbed my eyes. Maybe it had just been a trick of the light. Or, maybe it was a flashback to that afternoon in June. There’d been sparkly things there, too, and fluttering gossamer wings.

I swallowed. I wasn’t supposed to think about that day.

I wiped my sweaty palms on my jeans, then fingered the charm necklace Doctor Brown had given me, to help me think about other things.

I thought about saying the mantra he’d taught me. Before I could begin, a sudden gong sound broke the silence, like the peal of a giant bell. I jumped off the couch, my heart pounding.

It sounded again. It was the doorbell.

Tonight was Halloween but it wasn’t quite dark yet, and I’d been sure to turn off the light, so there shouldn’t be any Trick or Treaters.

I was all alone in the house. Mom was back east visiting my sister Clara, who was still in the special hospital. Dad was at a special university conference in Seattle, so it was just me. But I was sixteen; I could take care of myself. Maybe it was a delivery, but I hadn’t ordered anything, and Mom and Dad always told me when something was supposed to come. If it were a door-to-door sales person, I’d just wait. Mom had clearly visible “no soliciting” signs outside. Not one, but three. That was my mother.

The doorbell rang again.

Dang it. Maybe I’d forgotten and left the light on. But it was still too early.

I crept to the door. The light switch for the outside light was in the off position. I stood up on my tiptoes to peek through the peephole. Being five-foot-nothing made things difficult, lots of things. I was one of the shortest girls in my high school, and our front door was a tall one.

A grown-up wicked witch stood on the porch. She looked like she’d just stepped out of the Wizard of Oz. The point of her tall, floppy black hat bobbed as she looked around. Her skin was green, just like the Wicked Witch of the West.

She held a wicker basket by its arching handle. I couldn’t see what was in the basket.

The witch turned to face the door. Her red painted lips curved into a huge smile and she fluttered long eye lashes. “Please open the door. I know you are in there, Elizabeth.” I could hear her clearly, even through the thick wood.

I shivered. She knew my name.

She cackled, just like the wicked witch from the Wizard of Oz movie. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Her eyes reminded me of someone I knew.

Her smile softened. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Beth,” she said, her voice suddenly kind.

It was Grandmother Mary. Only Mary called me Beth. My father and my friends called me Liz. Mother always used my full name.

I unlocked the door and opened it. “Grandma?” I asked.

Mary nodded. “I thought I’d surprise you. A little surprise to go with a surprise visit.”

Her dress fluttered as she gestured at the high ceiling and huge living room. “Wow, this is a big house.”

I shuffled my feet. It was a big house. We’d only been in it for a couple of months. Mom wanted a change for us, after Clara had to go into that special hospital, after the—I pushed the memory away. The therapist mom had me see said dwelling on the memory of what had happened with Clara was “counterproductive.” I saw him twice a week.

His hypnosis helped dim the memory of that afternoon in the garden, last summer. When gossamer wings appeared and the air smelled so sweet and…“ I pushed the memory away.

Mary’s head was cocked to one side, reminding me of a crow. “What are you doing, honey?” she asked.

She looked at the couch. “How about we sit?”

She stepped over the fallen magazine and arranged her black skirts as she sat down on the couch.

I plucked up Teen, put it on an end table.

“I’m sorry about what happened to Clara,” Mary said.

“I’m not supposed to think about it,” I stammered.

Mary’s face became concerned. “Did Fiona tell you that?” She asked, using my mother’s name.

“Yeah. She and the therapist.”

Her dyed black eyebrows shot up. “She did?” Mary sighed. “You can’t suppress a negative event. Fiona should know that.”

She took my hand in hers, the long red add-on fingernails stroking my skin. “I’m sorry, dear.”

I bit my lip, tears welling up. This was stupid.

I pulled my hand away. “About what? You come here out of the blue, dressed up like the Wicked Witch of the West, how come?”

Mary smiled gently. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here sooner.”

I felt a pang of guilt. Mary had come to our old house right after what had happened to Clara, but there’d been an argument and she’d had to go back across the country to Cape Cod.

“But why as a witch?” I asked. “I wanted to see you.” I had missed her. Her ditsy, spacey, happy attitude. She never worried. Unlike my mother, who was always concerned. She never called it worry, she was too button-downed for that. Mary was a free spirit.

“For two reasons.” She tilted her head and gave me a sly, sideways smile. “First, to help you remember.”

I rubbed a tear from my eye. “I’m not supposed to remember. Doctor Brown said I needed to let go of those memories. He helps me using hypnosis. Even taught me this little chant.” I closed my eyes. “Let go, let go, let…go.” It had sounded so stupid at first. I stroked the charm necklace.

“That’s an interesting piece of jewelry,” Mary said.

I opened my eyes. My face grew warm. “It helps,” I mumbled, suddenly embarrassed. “It’s stupid.”

Mary lifted the necklace. “No, it’s not. It’s sneaky.”

“Sneaky?” I asked. “I don’t understand.” I twiddled the necklace. The urge to chant Doctor Brown’s little mantra tugged at me.

Mary sighed, let go of the necklace. “Don’t you remember when I came dressed as a witch to your Halloween parties?”

I nodded. “You came as a different witch every year.” One year she wore a blonde wig and a too-tight bustier that made my dad’s face go red all the way up to his hairline. Another year, she came as a crone. Another as an ancient Greek witch. Another as a witch from Macbeth, with an actual iron cauldron on wheels. Wheels. I realized I was smiling.

She stroked my cheek. “It’s good to see you smile.”

“You just came to remind me of when you used to dress up as a witch?”

She shook her head. “There’s another reason.” She became serious, and her gaze searched my face.

I bit my lip. Mary was never serious.

“What reason?” I asked.

“To help you see the truth, and to understand what happened to you and Clara is part of something much bigger.”

“Let go,” I muttered, then caught myself. My fingers stroked the necklace.

“You have to decide whether you’re going to see the truth, or keep it hidden from you.” Her tone was kind. “It’s up to you. But you’ll have to take off that necklace if you do.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

She giggled. “You know, pull it over your head and put it on the table.”

She seemed more sixteen right then than I felt.

“It’s a joke, honey,” she said.

I blew out the air I’d been holding in, and nodded again.

“But it’s also the truth.”

“But what do you mean?” I asked again.

“I’ve already said more than I should have.”

I crossed my arms. “Grandma, you came here dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West, telling me you want me to remember, and to see the truth. You’ve already done more than my mom would think you should have. So, please tell me.”

“You’ll have to take off the necklace and be ready to feel afraid again.”

“What’s the big deal with the necklace?”

“It’s not what it seems,” she said. “And it’s part of the truth.”

My eyes narrowed. “Not what it seems?”

“Take it off and find out,” she replied.

This was dumb. But my fingers didn’t want to take it off. Doctor Brown said it would help. Mom said it would help.

Help me forget.

“I’m supposed to forget,” I mumbled.

“Only if you want to.” She waggled her fingers, and I suddenly remembered all the magic tricks she used to do. Making things disappear, pulling a quarter out from behind my ear, card tricks, all those things she did when she came dressed as a witch to my kid Halloween parties. She used to read my fortune, too, and then it would happen. Usually little things, like finding something I’d lost or discovering a super-rare Pokemon card was suddenly in my collection, stuff like that.

I remembered the sense that something tiny and invisible scurried around me when she did those tricks.

She smiled. “You’re remembering. But that’s only part.” Her smile faded. “But, if you take it off, you might feel fear. You certainly won’t see the world the same way ever again.”

The necklace was warm between my fingers. I could keep it on and let what happened with Clara fade away.

“Mom told me to keep it on. Why?” I asked.

“You’ll only know why if you take it off. And if you do, you and I will both be in hot water with her.”

 Big deal. I was always in hot water with my mother over something.

I took a deep breath, and began pulling the necklace off. It suddenly felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. It didn’t want to leave my neck, I realized. I pulled harder, raising it over my head and flinging it away from me.

Mary’s hand flashed out and grabbed it. “Gotcha,” she whispered. She looked at me. “I’m proud of you, Beth,” she said.

That day in the garden was hot for June. Clara sat cross-legged next to the Irises and sang this song she said she made up, a song to summon a fairy, she said.

I said fairies weren’t real.

Then it appeared, the size of a flicker, a little person with fluttering gossamer wings that sparkled. Sparkled in the sunlight.

“You have the blood,” it sang to us. “You have the sight. You can help make me real for always.”

I shuddered, eyes shut, and pushed the memory away.

A hand squeezed my shoulder. “It’s okay,” Mary cooed. “It’s all right. I’m here.”

I sobbed out what I’d seen then as she held me and rocked me back and forth.

When I’d finished, she held me for a long while in silence, still rocking me back and forth.

“You saw a fairy that Clara had created. You see, honey, the world is much wider and deeper than most people dream of. Mana flows all around us, a fifth force unseen but real. Our dreams, our nightmares, our fears and desires, all of things we collectively hold in our subconscious, use the mana to create manifestations, supernatural creatures– like the fairy.

The fairy. It had swooped at Clara and landed on her head. She had frozen, and her eyes had turned silver. Silver. The fairy sang a terrible song. “You are mine, mine forever more.” I’d screamed and then there’d only been blackness. When I came to, Clara and the fairy were gone, and mom said there’d been a gas line leak, and that Clara had been poisoned. I wasn’t allowed to see her.

I blinked.

Mary was outlined in purple. Her basket had a crystal ball in it, a crystal ball that shone gold from within. The necklace dangling from Mary’s hand, for an instant, it looked like a silver snake, scales moving as it slithered in her hand. Then it was just a necklace again.

“You are seeing the truth, sweetheart.”

“How can I see this stuff?” I stammered.

“Because it’s in your blood,” she replied. “Some people have a knack for seeing the Hidden. I do, my daughter does, and my granddaughters do, as well. Some on your father’s side do, too, but it’s not for me to say who they are.”

“You’re an actual witch?” My jaw dropped and my eyes widened. I waved my arms. “And you say it runs in the family?”

She nodded.

“Mom, too?” I shook my head.

“No, she’s a sorcerer who wants to be a wizard.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

Her smile returned. “But you’re beginning to.”

END