Tuesday, February 5, 2013

LOVE NEVER DIES: A ZOMBIE LOVE STORY



by Tawn Krakowski
 
            He shuffled aimlessly near the structure in the near pitch darkness.  Ambling with his crooked, hitching gait, he knew she was inside.  He ached for her.  Hungered, like a man deprived of air.  He also knew that she would have to come out eventually, and when she did, they would be together...forever. 

***

            Thomas was riding a bicycle he had found abandoned in an alley when he came across the building.  He was on his way to check on extended family that had been living in Wisconsin.  He didn't really expect to find them, but the journey was all he really had left after his wife and three children had been turned.  He didn't have it in him to kill them—even as a mercy—so instead, he ran.  Like the lowliest coward, he left them to whatever existence they had left.  Not a day went by that he didn't think about what he had done and how much he had lost.  But if he had to do it all over again, he knew he would choose the same horrific path, despite the fact that it led straight into the bowels of Hell.

            A large “911” printed on the front of the structure above the door declared it to be an emergency center.  Thomas had been an electrician before the virus had mercilessly swept through this part of Illinois.  Many people hadn't known of the treasure trove of electronics, emergency supplies, and security benefits that such a place boasted or even where to find them.  This meant that most emergency centers were relatively intact, even after all the Walmarts everywhere had been looted into oblivion.  He approached the building warily, circling completely around it twice to verify as best he could that it hadn't been compromised, and then went to work on getting the door open.  He had to hurry.  It would be nightfall soon.

            To his vast surprise, it clicked open before he even had a chance to decide upon the best way to force the lock.  Thomas heard a woman's voice beckon him inside, further adding to his confusion.  Since zombies don't do much more than snarl, grunt, and bite, he figured it was safe to enter.  Once past the front door, he found himself in a short, dimly lit corridor designed to be very much like an airlock on a submarine.  The metal door at the far end of the hallway could not be opened until the outer door had been closed and whomever was inside pressing the buttons decided the visitor was welcome. 

            What if this is some sort of trap? Thomas suddenly wondered, as apprehension crawled up his spine.  Only when he heard the click of the inner door did relief drown his irrational fear.  Thomas pushed through the second security door and was greeted by a slightly plump yet still athletic-looking woman with short mousy-brown hair and a vacant look in her hazel eyes.  There was nothing extraordinary about her looks, but the way she carried herself and the tone of her voice identified her as someone teetering on the razor edge of despair.

            “My name is Sandra,” she said tonelessly before turning her back to him to lead him further into the facility.  The center was built like a bunker.  Before the apocalypse—that's what those who were still human called it—the structure was used as a police station in addition to an emergency response center and was well fortified against attacks from the outside. 

            Thomas was surprised to find that it was also well provisioned within.  The first room she led him through had been an office and was set up as a first line of defense with several riot shotguns, 9mm automatic handguns, boxes of ammunition, and even the sleek black clubs with handles that were issued to cops.  There were flashlights, boxes of batteries, and even a couple of outfits Thomas assumed were standard issue riot gear.   A team of navy seals couldn't get past this room without divine intervention, even if the only defender was a child.

            “How long have you been here, Sandra?” Thomas asked, marveling at the arsenal. 

            “Three months.  My husband was a dispatcher here...before...” She abruptly shoved the knuckle of her right index finger into her mouth and bit down hard to stifle the tears already threatening to spill onto her pale cheeks.

            Thomas didn't need to hear any more to know what had happened.  Her husband had been bitten and turned.  Just like Thomas' family.  “My name is Thomas,” he softly introduced himself to combat the awkward silence that had developed between them, as each mournfully remembered what they had lost.

            “Welcome to Hell, Thomas,” she replied so softly that he missed it. 

***

            Sandra showed the tall, gaunt man she had let into the facility where all of the supplies had been stashed.  In addition to all of the guns in the front office, she and Reggie had loaded three of the four cells in the basement with provisions.  One cell was their pantry, loaded top to bottom with canned food.  A second cell held water.  They had been able to obtain six racks each holding eighteen full five-gallon jugs of bottled water, which they had used and refilled in the early days when the water supply had still been uncontaminated and fresh from the taps.  Now she had just over four racks full of water left and no way to refill them with untainted water.  Even boiling the gunk that came out of the faucets could not make it drinkable.

            The third cell held cans of gasoline for the large generator located upstairs that was jury-rigged to direct its exhaust outside, propane tanks for cooking when the gas company was no longer supplying gas—which came to pass only two weeks ago—and all the lighters, kitchen matches, and butane refills they could find on all of their pre-apocalyptic scouting missions.  There was even a pile of homemade torches for when the generator could no longer provide light. 

             “And this last cell is the sleeping quarters.” Her voice broke from the heartbreak that had not faded in the last three months.  The man—Thomas, she reminded herself—took her into his arms, hesitantly at first, but it wasn't long before he was sobbing as desolately as she was.   Sandra's grief was so raw, so bottomless that he was swept away by her emotional maelstrom.  They stood, clinging to each other, weeping, until Sandra emptied her broken soul and her breath came in ragged gasps. 

            Oh, Reggie...

***

            The decrepit, shambling creature that used to be Reggie was so far gone now that he couldn't even remember her name.  Or his own.  But the miniscule part of him that was still alive, that remained locked away deep inside, imprisoned by the catastrophe that had transformed him into an animated corpse, that part knew her.  Loved her.  But that was the extent of his awareness.  He only knew that she was his reason for being.  In some primitive way, perhaps he sensed that she could free him from his abhorrent captivity so he would no longer be forced to commit the most heinous of crimes to feed the cravings within his rotting dungeon.  If she could love him again, as she had before he had become this...thing...then maybe he could finally be at peace.

***

            Thomas awkwardly released the despondent woman from his arms and wiped his own eyes.  Somehow, her raw pain had blown apart the barrier that he had erected around his emotions as if it were nothing more sturdy than a house of cards.  Comforting her had initially made him feel a bit better, reaffirming his place among humanity after his vile abandonment of his loved ones.  Now, however, something felt wrong.  As if she were feeding on his pain, sucking him dry.  He feared that soon nothing would be left but a husk if he did not push her away.

            “I'm sorry,” Sandra sulked.  She didn't even bother to dry her tears, allowing them to glisten and dissipate on her cheeks.  “It's been so long with only my nightmare for company.  I just...couldn't...”

            Thomas interrupted her confession.  “Your nightmare?  What do you mean?”

            “I'll show you,” she replied.  “Come look at the monitor.”

            Intrigued, Thomas followed her back up the stairs to the main floor.  Sandra led him into a room which contained four high tech computer workstations.  This must have been where the 911 dispatchers had worked before the world was turned upside down. 

            To conserve energy, Sandra had a single station operational with only one monitor on.  She turned to Thomas and said, “Tell me what you see on the monitor.”

            Thomas tilted his head quizzically at her before honoring the request.  The screen cycled through the images piped in from various cameras located around the facility.  “What the...” Thomas breathed as he saw a shadow, darker than the surrounding night, clumsily trudge past the door from which he had entered not so long ago.

            “I let you in because I couldn't stand to watch him...it...kill another one,” she shuddered in horror.

            Another one?”  Thomas' creeping apprehension returned, running its icy fingers lazily from his neck to the base of his spine.  “You mean it comes here to feed or something?  But they don't do that.  They wander around and kill whatever they come across.  They don't hunt!”

            “He never leaves,” Sandra whispered hauntingly and moved deeper into the room to Thomas' right.

            Thomas found the control inputs for the cameras and removed all the other feeds from the cycle so that he could more closely watch Sandra's zombie.  He said nothing as he concentrated, brow furrowed, for another ten minutes on the image shown on the monitor.  “It's still out there,” Thomas said, nodding at the camera.  “I can't figure it out.  What does it want?”

            “Me,” Sandra said without looking at him. 

            She sat on a desk in the abandoned 911 center, hugging herself tightly.  She had been terrified and sad for so long now that her overwrought emotions, agitated when Thomas had held her, had morphed into a detached  hollowness.  She didn't have to see Reggie on the monitor to know that he was waiting for her.  But the thing that waited outside was no longer the man that she had loved with wild abandon.  It was a hollow shell that was all that remained of the Reggie who had succumbed to the last wave of the virus that had nearly scoured mankind from the planet. 

            A rotting corpse which had, until three months ago, been her husband. 

            “You?” Thomas' voice cut through her misery. “What are you talking about?”

            “It was my husband, Reggie,” Sandra told him.  “He was turned three months ago and hasn't left.”

            Thomas was so baffled that he could not process what Sandra had told him.  “He hasn't left?  That zombie has just been hanging around for three months?!”

            DON'T CALL HIM THAT!” Sandra screeched, her hazel eyes erupting into a wildfire of anger fueled by anguish and fear.  Her voice pitched higher as her denials became more vehement. “He's not a zombie!  He's NOT!”  She clutched at her short hair, whipped her head from side to side, and repudiated all of Thomas' startled attempts to soothe her before she streaked toward the front door without warning.

            Thomas' utter shock kept him rooted in place for a moment too long.  He sprinted into the office that was outfitted like NRA headquarters just as the inner door banged closed.

            “NO!  Oh, God, NO!”  Thomas prayed to a God he no longer believed in that he would find the button to seal her into the corridor before she could do the unthinkable.  He searched frantically around the room, but the hollow sound of the outer door opening stabbed at his heart an instant before he found the control panel. 

            Sandra was already outside.

***

            The monster that stalked the building in the dark night halted its lonely rounds, sensing that something had changed.  A loud noise and her sweet voice echoing into the parking lot heralded the end of his suffering.  She had come.  At last, she would save him and his hunger would be quenched.

***

            Sandra had come entirely undone.  The frayed bits of her mind that she had thought to mend by letting a stranger into her sanctuary had been the very thing to finally break her.  She had heard the man she had saved from the thing outside use that disgusting word to describe Reggie, her soul mate.  But it just couldn't be true.  Reggie was not a monster.  Reggie loved her.  He couldn't...wouldn't...

            She had to know.  She had to find out the truth...whether or not even the most miniscule speck of what had filled her heart with so much love remained.  Why else would he still be here, but for her?  Maybe he needed her help.  Sandra could not hide in her fortress anymore.  She had to be with Reggie even if there was nothing left of the man she loved. 

***

            Thomas ran back the way he had come to the dispatcher workstation.  He didn't want to watch the broken woman be torn to bits by her zombie husband, but the guilt that this was somehow his doing needed to be assuaged.  Sandra had to be delusional, insane.  Zombies simply did not behave in the manner she insisted this one did. 

            Thomas watched the monitor, frozen in horror as the woman and the zombie closed the distance between them, like a cheesy movie where lovers run to each other through a field of blooms in slow motion.  He hoped against hope that her death would be quick and painless, that she wouldn't be turned instead.  Maybe that's what she wants, materialized unbidden in Thomas' mind.

            He squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his jaw in an effort to force the repulsive thought from his head.  When he opened his eyes and focused again on the image on the monitor, he saw the plump, short-haired woman with the tear-stained cheeks fall into the arms of the ravenous walking corpse.  The scream Thomas fully expected to hear despite the lack of speakers did not come.  The awful sounds of the rending of flesh and warm blood splashing on the concrete played only in Thomas' imagination.  Against everything Thomas knew to be true, Sandra—still alive and unbitten—was snuggled in the putrid arms of her zombie lover. 

            Thomas' appalled disbelief overpowered his rising need to be sick and he absently swallowed the bile in the back of his throat.  He sat down heavily in the rolling office chair at the desk, still staring aghast at the monitor.  If that zombie was still human enough to remember Sandra, then what hellish nightmare must my wife and children be experiencing?  Can love really overcome a zombie's hunger?  Oh, God, what have I done?

            Thomas buried his face in his hands and wept bitterly a second time in less than a day.  He didn't need to see the woman and her zombie wander hand in hand into the night to know in his heart  that he had just witnessed proof of the power of love.

 ***
This and other series available at BigWorldNetwork.com
Audio version available on iTunes and BigWorldNetwork.com

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Requiem of Humanity: Book Two (Excerpt from Reborn by Catherine Stovall)


The room was a blur, she could no longer feel the floor beneath her feet, and suddenly the ground rose to meet her, face first. The hard impact barely registered and the voices of Matteo, Soborgne, Imre, and Celeste were only shushed mumblings to her.

The cold marble felt good. She wanted to lie there and die. Her entire body felt as if it were on fire. She did not want to move from the chilly embrace of the smooth stone. Her eyes were open, but unfocused. She could not see anything clearly except a statue sitting in the far recess of the room. Something about the statue made it different from the others.

She felt gentle hands touching her body. They were lifting her from the floor. She tried to resist but she didn’t have the strength. As they moved her, she craned her head so as not to lose sight of the strange form. The others carefully lowered her onto a lounge chair near the pool. The agitating voices all around her were breaking through, but the fire was ascending. Her body no longer burned. A deadened feeling crept through her limbs.

She didn’t want to come back, she like it there where she was numb. In the place where she lingered there was no fear and no pain. Celeste’s musical voice was the first to filter through the haze with any clarity. “You mean she has not fed from her first human? Matteo, you know how dangerous that could be.” The voice was stern and admonishing.

“She has been doing well on the stored blood. I thought only to get her here and then to worry about the rest. I fear I was gravely wrong.” Matteo was scaring her. Why was he talking about her as if she wasn’t there?

Then she could hear Soborgne’s strong voice. Jenda was no longer afraid. Soborgne would care for her. She could slip back into the haze and not have to worry. The words were not important. She wouldn’t hear them; she would just stay away for a while where it would be safe.

She closed her eyes and relaxed her body into the lounge chair. The overstuffed cushions hugged her closely. In her mind, she still saw the statue. No, it wasn’t like any other in the room. Obviously not marble, Jenda wondered if it were bronze. Obviously an ancient piece, it was much older than the marble statues were.

The sculpture was of a man and woman. The man held the woman to him in a firm and loving embrace, one arm encircling her waist and the other holding the woman’s hand. Her naked bosom was pressed tightly to his equally bare chest, her chin rested in the crook of his neck, and her fingers rested beside her cheek. He held his face pressed close to hers, his lips brushing the lobe of her ear, and his eyes cast upon the beautiful curve of her neck.

On the top half, they looked like lovers embracing passionately, but something tainted the image. Below their waists, they lacked human limbs. Their entwining bodies resembled the trunk of an ancient tree instead. The twisted and gnarled shape trapped the lovers together for eternity. The man’s face held a hint of sadness. The tension in the woman’s body was real. Welded together and rooted deep into the earth, they would remain forever. Their only comfort was being together in this torturous marriage of human flesh and spirit wood.

She opened her eyes and the statue remained the same as she saw it in her mind. She could see every line, every nook so clearly. The pain and beauty reverberated through her very soul. She wondered to herself who they were. She wanted to know why. She longed to know them. She wished to enable them to embrace each other at will instead of as a punishment forced upon them by some masterful artisan.

As if the thought awakened the bodies beneath the bronze, the woman’s head slowly began to move. She turned her face from her lover’s shoulder towards Jenda. The bronze began to melt away, streaking from her hair and face. Her hair was raven black beneath the lingering weight of the metal, her skin olive in tone, and her eyes were so familiar. The thought shot through Jenda like a bullet from a gun. The woman’s eyes were exactly the shape and color of Soborgne’s. The statue smiled at Jenda and turned back to her lover. The bronze snaked up and reclaimed her beautiful face. A shame to watch it harden over the soft flesh, to see it silence those full lips and seal shut those entrancing eyes.

**
About the Author:
Catherine Stovall is the author of The Requiem of Humanity Series and the short story Fearful Day. Catherine received her Associates of Science from Colorado Technical University. After working in the Criminal Justice field for several years, she has decided to dedicate her life to her true passion, creating captivating works of fiction. She lives in Southeast Missouri with her husband, three children, and pets.

Website: www.catherinestovall.webs.com

Facebook Fan Page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/catherinestovall/

Twitter: @CathStovall

Stolen, Reborn, and Fearful Day on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Catherine-Stovall/e/B005LET560/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

Book Giveaway

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Six Hearts Under the Christmas Tree - Michael Henry

CHAPTER 1

    One of the perks of staying in an executive suite in one of the best hotels on New York’s Fifth Avenue was the grand piano in the living room. Over the six months of their stay, Veronica had become used to waking up to the sound of Katrina running scales or trying new material, but what was with her playing the Wedding March?

    Opening the door of her own room, Veronica was greeted by the sight of her best friend, client and employer, Katrina Marshal, grinning from ear to ear while she thumped out the notes and sang, "tum tum tetum, tum tum tetum." The singer was dressed in the Christmas pajamas she’d worn for the last scene of the special they’d shot last night--a gift, probably, from the delighted and grateful sponsor.

    "Going for grand opera next?" Veronica asked as she poured her first coffee from the room service carafe. "You’ll have to learn the words. I’m sure they insist on that."

    The pianist’s good mood was unflappable. "I happen to know the words Ms. Smarty Pants. I am, after all, the all-around musician that you, my super agent, keeps telling people I am. I think you’ve scared my fans into thinking they better buy my songs or I’ll go sing with the Met and they’ll have to endure culture in order to hear me. Do you want me to practice the piece for your big event? I can see it now. Me singing, accompanied by the New York Philharmonic, you in white with a fifty-foot train carried by cherubs. The groom can afford cherubs, can’t he?"

    "What in the world are you talking about?" Veronica demanded.

Katrina pointed to a small package resting on the piano next to Snuggle Mutt, the toy Dachshund that Veronica had given her for Christmas when they were in the second grade. The box was tied with red and green silk ribbons, and the toy wore a seasonal collar and red cap. "Those came this morning. Room service brought them up with breakfast."

    "Oh my God, it can’t be," Veronica moaned.

    "It’s the right size," Katrina said. "And that store doesn't exactly sell bonbons. If you don’t open it, I’m going to."

    Veronica opened the package, then the box inside. Katrina sat back at the piano and played the first few bars of 'Diamonds are A Girl’s Best Friend.'

    "You could sprain a finger wearing that rock," she said.

    "Oh lord, I hope this doesn’t get out," Veronica said.

    "Well, actually," Katrina reached into the piano bench. "You should maybe see this morning’s papers?"

    "I’ll kill him. I’ll murder him. I don’t know what I’ll do." Veronica was now pacing while reading the gushing news spread over not only the society pages, but a few front pages as well.

    "It was on the morning shows too," Katrina said. "Let me see, what kind of announcement will you guys have? I know! Alix Retstone, the nicest, most handsome, richer than just about anybody and only about two hundred dead English relatives away from being king, announces his intention to marry Miss it doesn’t count if I haven’t made it by the sweat of my own brow, can’t imagine why anyone thinks I’m a success, and doesn’t think she deserves the best. How’s that?"

    "Cute. You know perfectly well I haven’t said yes to Alix. I just don’t know if I love him."

    "From the size of that rock, I’d guess he’s in love with you," Katrina said.

    "You still don’t get it." Veronica said. "The Retstones don’t marry for love. To them, a wedding is a merger with flowers and champaign thrown in. This last six months with Alix has not been a whirlwind romance. It's been an extended job interview."

    "Some interview, some job," Katrina said, and swung into a blues version of 'Santa Baby.'

    Veronica went on, "I should have been suspicious when he didn’t just happen to meet me. He had my bio memorized that first night."

    "You were flattered," her friend reminded her. "And you said yourself, very rich people have to be careful whom they date."

    It had happened the previous May at the party welcoming Katrina to New York for her six-months-long Broadway appearance. The star had dutifully allowed herself to be introduced to the critics and editors, most of whom had come for the free drinks, as well as the dignitaries, who wanted to meet and be photographed with the star. After the news people had gone off to file their stories and the crowd had thinned down to a few hangers-on, the guest of honor did what she always did in social events, organized an impromptu jam session with the other musicians.

    Satisfied that she had accomplished a good evening’s work, arranging just the right mix of publicity to guarantee sold-out houses well through Thanksgiving and beyond, Veronica sought out some alone time. The rooftop balcony was perfect for what she had in mind, contemplating the lights of the city that had once been the culmination of her dreams and ambitions. Lost in memories, she had been mildly annoyed at the interruption, then curious about the tall, impeccably-dressed man who joined her carrying champagne and two glasses.

    "That lighted corner office, two buildings over, would have been yours if you had stayed in New York," he said. "Your old boss says you could have it now if you wanted. The partnership offer is still good."

    "You seem to know a lot about me," Veronica had answered, accepting a glass. "It’s Mr. Retstone, isn’t it?"

    "Please, call me Alix. We met a year ago at a fundraiser for some disease or other. Before then, back when you were about to move into that corner office, you handled the PR for some of the family’s charities. You were destined to be the partner in charge of good works."

    It was flattering, and fun, being pursued by the best-looking millionaire in New York. And their six-month affair was nothing short of amazing.

Dates with Alix ranged from hotdogs in the park to opera in Vienna. Everything necessary for a fairy-tale romance was present, except the feelings. The word love never came up, even at Thanksgiving when Alix began to talk about a 'permanent union.'

    It was then she realized, she was being recruited for a job.

                                                                           * * *

    "So it’s a job," Katrina said. "...with so many down-sides." She played a dirge on the base keys. "Like being driven in limos, flying in private airplanes, houses all over, travel, hot and cold running servants, hopping over to Paris to shop. You poor thing, how will you cope?"

    "Not interested," Veronica said. "I like driving myself, we already fly first class, one half a house is good enough for now. Heaven knows the last ten years have cured me of the travel bug, and I prefer to do my shopping from the LL Bean catalogue, thank you."

    Katrina put on one of her rare serious faces.

    "Alix has his good qualities too, you know,” she said. “He’ll never be unfaithful. He’ll always be reasonable. You haven’t complained about him as a lover, and I just know he’d be a wonderful father. So you don’t feel mad, weak-in-the-knees romance. You could do a lot worse. We both could. We have, in fact."

    "Don’t you see?" Veronica said. "He would be all of those out of duty. The Retstone men have duty pounded into their heads from the time they start to walk. Is it too much to expect all of that, simply because he loves me?"

    "Maybe," answered the singer. “...it’s time to be practical."

    Veronica looked at her friend in amazement. Of all the characteristics that made up the beautiful, talented Katrina Marshal, practical was not one.

    She wondered what could be going on under that gorgeous mop of red hair.

                                                                          * * *

    Veronica had planned the day around three main tasks: finalize their Christmas-giving list, deal with an unpleasant situation in Brookline...and, deliver Katrina and herself to the airport in time for the five o'clock flight.

    She opened her laptop, thought for a moment, sighed, and closed it.

    "I’m going to have to go see Alix before we leave New York," she stated.

    "Seems like maybe one of those things you really need to do," Katrina agreed.

    Veronica thought over her now-shattered schedule. She hated having plans disrupted.

    "We’ll have to go over the charity list tomorrow,” she said after a pause. “I’ll deal with Alix, then the other problem, and be back in plenty of time for the airport." She didn’t believe in pushing her luck where deadlines and airline schedules were concerned.

    Katrina offered to step in. "I’ll go to Brookline. After all, he is my problem. I should be the one to deal with him.”

    "That’s what you have me for," Veronica reminded her. "Besides, you’re way too soft-hearted. You’re the talent, I’m the hard-hearted one. Let’s each play to our strengths."

    As she headed for her room to shower and dress, she heard Katrina play and sing "Hard Hearted Hanna the Vamp of Savanna."

    Veronica showered quickly and put on the one outfit she hadn’t packed, winter boots with a good tread for icy sidewalks, a dark gray wool skirt that brushed the top of those boots, a white blouse and a light gray cardigan. She finished dressing for the weather with a matching gray leather coat and Irish rain hat.

    Stepping out of her room, Veronica found Katrina still at the piano, working over variations of the same song. As she stuffed her slim briefcase, she joined in singing the phrase, "I saw Hanna down by the shore, pouring water on a drowning man."

    "Just getting in the right mood," Veronica said as she let herself out the door.

    "You know why she’s going to turn him down, don’t you?" Katrina asked the stuffed dog. "Us, of course. She doesn’t think I can manage on my own. And darn it, she’s probably right."

    The toy had patches of fur missing from being held. His button eyes didn’t match and one ear had been poorly repaired. Katrina’s fans sent her a constant stream of replacement stuffed dogs, which Katrina passed on to Christmas toy drives.

    Only talking to Snuggle Mutt would do, when she needed to think.

                                                                           * * *

    If Veronica wanted a taste of what life as a Retstone would be like, she only had to step outside her hotel suite.

    The theater had treated their star soloist to the best. Their floor, just below the Presidential and Royal Suites, had a full-time concierge on duty, day and night, to see to the guests’ any need or whim.

    Upon seeing her, that gentleman quickly arose from his desk by the elevators.

    "Good morning Ms. Nobel," he said. "Allow me to say how happy we all are to read the news! And please convey my heartiest congratulations and best wishes to your husband-to-be. He is truly a lucky man. I speak for the hotel and staff, as well as for myself, of course."

    Veronica couldn’t help but laugh. "Andrei, you are a silver-tongued devil. I’ll pass on your regards."

    A door slammed at the end of the hall and a raucous voice spoiled the moment.

    "Daahling, there you are, the woman of the hour! You did it. You hooked the biggest fish in the pond."

    The woman hurrying to share the elevator with Veronica wore plain slacks, a sweater, dark glasses and a scarf over her pile of blond hair. It was a completely effective disguise, provided you had never seen a movie, watched television, or read a tabloid.

    The star turned from Veronica to the concierge. "See to it that Mr. uhh . . . "

    "Smith, Madam," Andrei said, in a perfectly formal, ice-tinged voice.

    "Yes, see that Mr. Smith gets breakfast, just eggs and bacon, and knows to check out before noon," the actress ordered.

    Turning her attention back to Veronica as they entered the elevator, she gushed,

    "Daahling, I’ve got to see that stone! You’re not wearing it? Of course, it has to be sized, doesn’t it? Is he going to stick you with a prenup? Don’t sign it, dear. I can give you the name of a lawyer who can tie it up in knots."

    The annoying woman stayed with Veronica as she walked through the lobby and out onto Fifth Avenue. It seemed the actress was an expert in the care and handling of rich husbands, of which she’d had several. Her lecture only ended when they stepped onto the street and were faced by a solid line of photographers.

    The actress preened. Veronica, used to being ignored by paparazzi, began walking away only to have half of the news hounds follow her.

    "Have you and Mr. Retstone set a date?" one shouted.

    "Will you keep your name?" another wanted to know.

    Flustered, Veronica turned. "There’s no news today. I’m on my way to talk to my fiancĂ© now. When there are more details, we will announce them through the proper channels."

    Disappointed, some of the reporters turned back to the actress.

    "You just live a couple of blocks from here," one asked her. "What were you doing coming out of this hotel?"

    As a public relations professional, Veronica was interested in how the guilty party would answer.

    "Isn’t it obvious?" she heard the actress say. "I was here trying to convince Veronica Nobel to handle my career. We in show business are of course happy for her, but it’s so sad that we’re losing the greatest agent in fifty years. Katrina Marshal must be devastated. My heart goes out to her."    The PR side of Veronica had to admire the quick-witted lie. True, the actress, like many others, had pestered her to take her on, and had been turned down.    Somebody should ask about Mr. Smith. No he might have a wife who could be hurt. Leave it to his conscience, Veronica thought and walked rapidly away.

    She had other concerns.

    Had she just acknowledged her intention to accept Alix? Had she just settled for practical rather than love?


                                                                         *******

    Thank you for reading the beginning of Six Hearts Under the Christmas Tree. If you like this sample, I believe you will enjoy the full story of Veronica, Katrina and four others who are determined to find their life partners without all the nonsense of love and romance. That is until Christmas, an old boyfriend or two, a gold digging starlet. A vengeful hacker, and an overly ambitious government lawyer all conspire to spoil the most practical of marriage plans.    

    Six Hearts is available from Amazon http://amzn.com/B0063Q0PH8

Friday, December 14, 2012

Father Christmas - Elizabeth Ann Scarborough with K.B. Dundee



‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring; not even a mouse. Rats! While I’d been out chasing vampires and zombies, my furry housemates had hunted all the fun prey. Now my fourteen feline roomies were all asleep, our human mom Darcy was gone for the weekend leaving us on our own with just a cat-sitter coming in to feed us, and I felt restless. I was nine months old, and this was my first Christmas.

It felt like something ought to happen. It felt like something was going to happen, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be in my boring house with my boring friends and relatives.

On the other hand, it was snowing outside. We were having a white Christmas. Bah, humbug. Bad weather is what it is, the kind that clots white cold stuff in your paw pads. Unacceptable. I would wait until the weather humans came to their senses to go out, I had decided.

That was before I heard the prancing and pawing of each little hoof, apparently coming from up on my roof. I sat down to think, curling my tail around my front paws, my calm pose betrayed only by a slight flick at the creamy end of my plumy appendage. There were stockings hung by the propane stove with care, but a trip down that chimney would be disastrous for anybody, since they’d just end up inside the stove and wouldn’t be able to get out. I considered waking my mother for a further explanation of the powers of Santa Claws. But then I thought that if anyone would know what was going on, it would be Rocky. I jumped onto the kitchen counter and stood against the corner cupboard. I am a very long cat, even without taking my tail into account. My front feet could just reach the top cabinet, where Rocky liked to lurk during the day. Inserting my paw beneath the door’s trim, I pushed. It smelled like vampire cat in there, but not as though the vampire cat was actually in there. Rocky was out. Well, it was night. He wouldn’t mind the snow.

Some more scrabbling on the roof, and I suddenly thought, what if Rocky has Santa Claws and is feeding on him? He might. He was my friend, but he was definitely no respecter of age, gender, or mythological belief system.

I bolted out my private entrance. Only Rocky and I were able to come and go through that new cat flap that had been installed for me since my last adventure. I had a chip in my neck that activated it. Rocky had my old collar containing a similar chip, the one I’d worn before I went to the vet and got tagged.

The cold air hit me with a shock, and the snow wet my pink paw pads, though the heavy tufts of fur between them formed natural snowshoes. I was a very convenient breed of cat for this climate, actually. Maine Coon cats, or their undocumented relatives like me, were built for cold and wet and according to the Critter Channel, used to be ships’ cats on Viking vessels. I didn’t mind a nice trip around the bay on a nice day, but this snow stuff wasn’t my cup of—well, snow.

I dashed into the snow without the benefit of any sort of vehicle, responding to the clatter, and from a safe distance, gazed back at the roof to see what was the matter. Other than snow.

The feel of the air shifted behind me, and I glanced back to see five deer step out of the moon shadows beneath the big apple tree. Nelda, Buck, and some other deer I knew fairly well—as well as a cat can know a family of deer, anyway—stood behind me, whuffing steam from their nostrils and looking up toward the noise.

I saw nothing special up there. Just weathered red tiles, our smokeless chimney, and snow falling on it.

“You guys weren’t just up there, were you?” I asked Nelda.

“No, silly. How would deer get on your roof?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “You know—it’s Christmas and everything, so I just wondered . . .”

“What’s that got to do with Christmas?” Nelda asked.

“Oh, grandma,” the young doe Gelda said, “Don’t you know anything? Spam is under the impression that all deer are like those horned ones who pull that sled across the sky.”

“What sled?”

“The one that’s on half the lighted windows downtown.”

Nelda shook her head, flipping off snowflakes melting on her muzzle. “Christmas is very confusing. I’ve been through several now and it never makes any sense to me at all. Why is there a sled with captive deer pulling it?”

“It’s simple, Grandma,” Gelda said. “The sled is magic, and the deer are pulling it through the sky, following a star that will show them where there is a manger with fresh hay. There are humans involved too, but that part isn’t clear to me. The lights in the windows symbolize the star, I believe.”

“Spam, that is species profiling, thinking we’d get up on your roof just because it’s Christmas. Just because we live in this wet climate doesn’t make us rain deer, dear,” Buck said, snorting at his own pun. He’s hilarious sometimes. Nelda and the other deer I’ve met are mostly as refined and classy as they look. I love deer. Most cats do, I think. They smell great and they are the prettiest creatures alive, other than cats. They have charisma—animal magnetism. It’s a little lost on human gardeners; but we cats appreciate it, though Rocky says it’s only because if we were a little larger, or they were a little smaller, we would find them tasty instead of merely tasteful. Okay, maybe they’re a little hazy on some of the holiday mythology, but they are terrific critters.

Even Buck is handsome enough, if you like that sort of thing, and a lot of the does seemed to. But he was on the rowdy side and too big for me to be anything but wary of all that head tossing and prancing and showing off his antlers. Fortunately, he had respect for his mother, and she seemed to have decided to like me.

“You must have heard something too!” I said. I don’t like being laughed at. “Otherwise, why were you looking up there?”

“There were strange noises,” Nelda said. “And strange scents.”

Just then, outlined against the snow, a masked face peeped up above the ridge of the roof.

“Renfrew?” I asked the coon. Who else would it be than my friend, sometimes assistant detective, and frequent moocher? “What are you doing up there?”

The coon opened his mouth to reply, then threw up his front paws, dropping something that clattered down the half of the roof facing me before sliding down the back. “Renfrew, wait!” I called, anxious to see what he was up to.

He didn’t answer me, and I ran to the house to try to catch up with him, but he had slid off the roof and left a coon-shaped bare patch in the snow before waddling off toward the woods.

“Renfrew!”

“Merry Christmas!” he called back. In raccoon, of course, which sounded more like, “Iiiiiiiiiriii chirrit-termaaaaw.” But mostly, interspecies, we read thoughts for any real communication—sometimes you just can’t say what you mean with barks, tweets, growls, or neighs—or other sounds. Meows, of course, and other cat language, are quite eloquent; but other species don’t seem to be able to master the accent.

What had that silly coon been up to that he didn’t even take time to stop and beg some kibble? What had he dropped? I thought he meant it was supposed to be my Christmas present. It was caught in the gutter. Double rats! Very inconvenient.

But I didn’t want to miss out on a gift, so I raced around to the back of the house, where the scrap wood box was, and leaped up on it, thinking to mount the roof myself.

I jumped onto the steeply pitched part of the roof and slid much faster than I’d planned to down to the gutter, to the amusement of my deer audience. The snow had made the roof very slick, even with all my claws extended. I put a paw into the gutter, but it rattled and creaked alarmingly, so I pulled my paw back and tippy-toed along the edge until I spotted the gleam of silver and red.

Most cats would wonder why a raccoon would have a packet of batteries. I knew raccoons liked anything shiny. But in Renfrew’s case, he might have wanted them for what they were made for, to power a phone or a radio or camera or something, at least until he decided to wash it. Renfrew was very clever with such things, which had come in handy when we were fighting vampires together.

It was really nice of him to give them to me, in that case, but other than batting them around the floor, I didn’t have a lot of use for them. I’d just tell him this was the package I’d got for him for Christmas and give them back to him. No use wondering where they originally came from.

Biting down on the edge of the package, I jumped down from the roof. It’s easier to get down than up. Carrying the battery packet in my mouth, I trotted to the edge of the driveway. The slight skim of snow seemed to have discouraged any cars that might normally be on the road this time of night. Understandable. It was pretty slick. Getting colder by the minute too. I cast one look back at my nice warm house. I could go back whenever I wanted to, have a nibble and a drink and settle down in my favorite office chair for a nap. Off to the right, the deer picked their way across the snowy brown grass, then paused. One of Nelda’s legs hovered, suspended bent over the ground. Her head was up, watching the sky, or the stars, and Gelda and Buck followed her gaze. Then they moved on again, crossing the front yard of Bubba’s house and on down the block.

Renfrew doesn’t have a permanent address, being a raccoon of no fixed abode, as Bubba, the retired police dog next door would say, but he did have a general territory, though it was not his exclusively because there were too many raccoons around. He’d tried living under our house for a while, but said the upstairs neighbors were too noisy.

I didn’t have to look hard for him though. A trail of packing peanuts and the noise led me to a tree near the one where we’d first met a couple of months before. Somebody was singing “Silent Night” with a lot of hissing and buzzing and an overlay of a football broadcast kicking in once in awhile that made the night anything but silent.

His den was a dump of more packing peanuts, torn up cardboard boxes, bubble wrap (ooh, fun to pop with your claws! I wondered if I could sneak a piece out of his stash and take it home to play with), and newspaper. Nestled among the packing stuff were various items that the Critter Channel does not usually mention when talking about raccoon habitat.

Renfrew did not look up. His paw hands were busy turning the noisy shiny white box over and over, looking for a way inside.

I dropped the batteries at his feet with relief. My teeth ached from clutching the plastic. “Here,” I told him. “Merry Christmas. These are for you.”

He could have said thank you. Instead he mumbled to himself—raccoons do a lot of mumbling and grumbling, I’ve learned—and kept fiddling with the box.

This gave me a chance to paw through the opened packages, sort of checking to see if there was one I might want to try on for size. A half-torn label was on the largest one, with an address, a Christmas sticker, and a UPS logo. Suspicion dawned.

“Where’d you get this?” I asked Renfrew.

“Found it,” he said, finally looking up with big masked bright eyes full of innocence and wonder.

“Found it where?” I asked.

“Just laying around,” he said. “There’s all sorts of stuff just laying around right now, Spam. You wouldn’t believe the things people put in these boxes and leave on their porches. I’ve noticed a lot more of them lately, so I brought some back to see if there was anything inside. There’s been food in some of them. Here—” he reached a paw back and picked up a piece of something dense and colorful. “Do cats like fruitcake? Didn’t care for it myself.”

“Renfrew, I hate to tell you this, but they don’t leave those boxes laying around for coons to find. They’re calling you the UPS bandit!”

“I’ve been called worse,” he said, dropping the fruitcake and flinging the white box aside in disgust before tearing into another, unopened package.

“You’re taking peoples’ Christmas presents!” I told him.

“They put them outside, Spam. Honest. They didn’t want them.”

“They didn’t put them outside. The delivery guys brought them to the houses and left them outside for people to pick up when they came home. Except you got there first. There’s more of them now because people are ordering Christmas presents delivered.”

I put a claw through the plastic covering the box with a lady doll in a fancy dress inside. “This is some little kid’s dolly.”

He gave it a glance then went back to rooting around among the boxes. “Yes, well, you can’t tell from the outside, can you? A lot of them haven’t had anything shiny or good to eat, but lots have too!” He stuck his paw in a box and held up a sleek silver cell phone. “Look! I have a new phone. It’s all mine.”

I read the label on the torn edge of the box. “No, it’s not. It belongs to this Bert Smashnik guy.” I patted the dolly box. “And this is for—Mrs. Angela Atkins. I bet it’s for her little girl. Her main Christmas present.”

“And your point is?”

I was tempted to extend all of my points and let him see what they were, but didn’t for two reasons. One is that he also has sharp claws and teeth, and is maybe a pound or two heavier than me. The other is that he is my friend and he can be useful. I just had to appeal to his better nature. If only I could find it.

“Renfrew, you don’t even know how to use this stuff!” I told him, patting an iPad still in its package inside its box with the lid ripped off.

“I can feel it and wash it and make it shine!” he said. “And some of it looks like computers, and I can work computers better than you!” He flexed his hand-y paws at me.

“You can plug stuff in, but you can’t really make them work,” I told him. “Not out here in the woods. You need accounts and passwords and all kinds of stuff Darcy and Maddog and Bubba’s partner have already.”

“I could use the ones at your house,” he said.

“Right. Of course you can. So why do you need to take somebody’s Christmas present? I’ve spent my entire life learning how to use a computer, and there is quite a learning curve. Honestly, I don’t think your—uh—temperament is suited for that kind of dull geeky stuff. I’ll tell you what. If you’ll help me return all these things before morning, I’ll help you make a YouTube video showing how cute you are. You’ll be a star.”

He frowned, grumbled, and looked around at the litter with a very territorial gleam in his eye. “I don’t think so, cat. This is mine. I stole it fair and square.”

There was so much there, and I knew he’d lose interest before tomorrow, by which time it would all probably be ruined.

“Let me take the doll at least,” I said. “She’s not shiny, and you don’t really want her, do you? Some poor little girl is going to be really sad tomorrow, and will probably grow up to hate Santa Claws thanks to this childhood trauma. She may even belong to a family that feeds raccoons now, but will become a hunter because she somehow suspects what became of her Christmas doll.”

He stopped fiddling long enough to growl at me. “What do you care, cat? Why should you care if humans get what they want or not? You haven’t seen what I’ve seen. There are cats and dogs wandering all over town, making nuisances of themselves, whose people abandoned them and moved away.”

“Oh no! Why didn’t you tell me? Is it vampires again? Are there more taking other people like the Vampire Marcel took Darcy?”

“I wish. No, they leave because they want to, and they abandon little Fluffikins or Fido because they want to.”

“Renfrew, you’ve changed. You didn’t used to hate humans.”

“I don’t hate them, but I’ve seen some stuff lately that—well, let’s just say I don’t care if they have a special happy day where they keep all their toys and I don’t, even though they just left them on the porch.”

He was justifying his selfishness by making it all someone else’s fault, just like the bad guys on TV always did. I knew times were hard for humans. I’d heard Darcy on the phone to her friends talking about how tough it had been for people to get gifts, or even food for their families this year. It was on the news too. Some people may think it’s un-catlike to care about that stuff, but I have always prided myself on being a good kitty. If nothing else, it makes me stand out from the crowd.

“You’re just being a Scrooge,” I told him.

He looked up. “What’s that?”

“It’s a mean old man in a story. He keeps seeing these ghosts, see . . .” I couldn’t quite remember the whole thing, or which was the right version because since Halloween I’d seen the same story done about twenty different ways.

“What’s a ghost?”

“Kind of like a vampire only deader, and without a body. They’re very scary.”

“Why if they don’t have bodies? That’s silly, being scared of those. Was the Scrooge scared of them?

“No, but they reminded him of stuff. Like some were—uh—the ghosts of the past. That was—er—animal friends who’d either died or been left behind come back to tell him to stop being such a jerk. Then there were the ghosts of Christmas present. I think those were people who found out coons were stealing the Christmas presents intended for their families. They all had ghostly guns. And then there’s the ghosts of the future, and you don’t even want to know what they did.”

“Well, I don’t know any ghosts. Just one noisy cat who’s mad because he didn’t like his present, and is trying to give it back. You can have something else if you want it. I’ve got lots. I’ll even wash it for you to make it shinier.”

“No thanks. I’m taking the doll, and then I’ll be back and return the rest of the things where you got them,” I told him. That was a lot easier said than done, however.

 ***
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough is the author of 38 fantasy/science fiction books,
24 solo novels including the Nebula-award winning HEALER'S WAR and 16 in
collaboration with Anne McCaffrey, including the two most recent, CATALYST and
CATACOMBS, Tales of the Barque Cats.
Her most recent novel is THE TOUR BUS OF DOOM, set in a town
suspiciously like Port Townsend. It's her third story featuring the heroic Spam the
cat, and is a spoof on the zombie craze. The first book SPAM VS THE VAMPIRE
is the first of the "purranormal" mysteries. Bridging the novels is the novelette,
FATHER CHRISTMAS.
You can buy her book at: http://amzn.com/B007307Q52