Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Random Paranormal Tales Part 5



Wolf Bound by Theo Fenraven
Summary:
A year after suffering a disastrous end to his relationship with his partner, teacher Jon Anderson trades his apartment in the city for a lake house in the country. Told there is an author living nearby, Jon, who dreams of being a writer, goes in search of him and finds the attractive older man in a small, rustic cabin on a tiny island on a neighboring lake. Harrison Kalmes shows Jon around, but makes it clear he’d rather be left alone. Jon respects that wish until the night he and his friend, Suzie, drink a little too much scotch and impulsively decide to visit the island.

What happens then is the start of an incredible journey that will eventually take Jon all the way to mysterious and seductive Transylvania in Romania, where he searches for the answers that will save someone’s life while setting him on the road to rediscovering his own.

Beware the woods. Transylvania isn’t only about vampires.






The Bone Orchard by Abigail Roux
(also available in My Haunted Blender's Gay Love Affair, and Other Twisted Tales Anthology)
Summary:
After leaving a trail of terror and death in his wake, the notorious “Missouri” Boone Jennings finally meets his match in San Francisco when US marshal Ambrose Shaw catches up to him. The story of his capture, and the marshal’s bravery, has already become legend back east by the time Pinkerton inspector Ezra Johns gets off the train from New York City to testify in the murderer’s trial.

When Ambrose is unable to give witness to the evils he’s seen, Ezra becomes their lone hope for putting Jennings in a noose. But if Ezra thinks that’s his biggest problem, he’s got plenty to learn about life—and the afterlife—in the spirited West.

Fortunately, Ambrose is there to assist, and more than happy to oblige Ezra—in the courtroom or the bedroom. He spent his life bringing justice to the Wild West, and if he has a say in it, that’s how he’ll be spending his death too.


In this Abigail Roux creation we have lawmen, outlaws, hanging, shootouts, all the elements of a great western and then of course we also have ghosts.  Oh and for Roux fans, we also have a great little surprise treat near the end of the story.  Knowing her work as I do and I never saw it coming, afterwards, I realized I should have had more of an inkling that it might happen, but I didn't and that made it all the more sweeter.  Ezra and Ambrose have an instant connection that goes beyond their common lawmen occupation and it's just fun to watch unfold. In Marshall Ambrose Shaw you have the quintessential old west lawman, in Inspector Ezra Johns, you have the apparent bookish Pinkerton agent and you really don't expect their commonalities to go beyond the badge but boy does it ever.  Throw in the evil ways of the outlaw Boone Jennings and you have the workings of a great western and of course love story doesn't go unnoticed.  A perfect addition to your bookcase.

RATING: 

Horn Gate by Damon Suede
Summary:
HORN GATE: Open at your own risk.

Librarian Isaac Stein spends his lumpy, lonely days restoring forgotten books, until the night he steals an invitation to a scandalous club steeped in sin. Descending into its bowels, he accidentally discovers Scratch, a wounded demon who feeds on lust.

Consorting with a mortal is a bad idea, but Scratch can't resist the man who knows how to open the portal that will free him and his kind. After centuries of possessing mortals, he finds himself longing to surrender.

To be together, Isaac and Scratch must flirt with damnation and escape an inhuman trafficking ring—and they have to open their hearts or they will never unlock the Horn Gate.

The Long Way Home by ZA Maxfield
Summary:
Re-release -- Ever since the accident that cost him his job on the Seattle police force, Kevin Quinn has been living with psychic abilities he refers to as the ‘gift that keeps on taking’. His attempts to use his talents to help the police have met with limited success. Yet, when teenage boys start going missing from the beach cities of Southern California, Kevin gets on a plane.

Connor Dougal has every reason to believe all psychics are fakes and charlatans. He’s still numb from the disappearance of his first love, a boy who went missing ten years earlier. Everything he aspires to is a direct result of that tragedy, even the acquisition of his detective shield. The irony of having to babysit Kevin Quinn is not lost on him.

These two suspicious men must develop trust and respect for one another to solve the case and, on the way, maybe fall in love.

Duet by Eden Winters
Summary:
A conqueror’s decree can’t separate Aillil Callaghan from his Scottish heritage. He wears his clan’s forbidden plaid with pride, awaiting the day he becomes Laird, restores his family’s name, and fights to free Scotland from English tyranny. An Englishman in his home? Abomination! Yet the tutor his father engaged for Aillil’s younger brothers may have something to teach the Callaghan heir as well.

Violinist and scholar Malcolm Byerly fled Kent in fear, seeking nothing more than a quiet post, eager minds to teach, and for no one to learn his secrets. He didn’t count on his charges’ English-hating barbarian of an older brother, or on red-and-green tartan concealing a kindred soul. A shared love of music breaks down the barriers between two worlds.

Aillil’s father threatens their love, but a far more dangerous enemy tears them apart. They vanish into legend.

Two centuries later, concert violinist Billy Byerly arrives at Castle Callaghan—and feels strangely at home. Legends speak of a Lost Laird who haunts the fortress in wait of his lover’s return. Billy doesn’t believe in legends, ghosts, or love that outlasts life.

But the Lost Laird knows his own.



Wolf Bound
We stood at the end of the dock holding hands, gazing toward the island across the open water. The house was dark but for a faint glow at the windows I thought might be from the wood stove, and all was silent except for the wind through the branches and the subtle sound of shallow waves against the pilings. The rowboat was tied to the pole on shore, which meant he was still there. An owl hooted, and it was a mournful sound. I shivered in my jacket and wished I was back in front of the fire.

“It’s… nice,” she said, squeezing my fingers. “This is where he writes?”

“That’s what he said.”

“What’s it like inside?”

I looked at the thin smudge of smoke coming out of the stove pipe, saw the trees bending to and fro in the wind over the roof, and exhaled audibly. “Rustic. Cozy. Mysterious.”

She shot me a glance. “Mysterious?”

The word had popped out of my mouth, and I saw no reason to take it back. Nodding, I slipped an arm around her waist. “We should go back now.”

“If we yell, will he hear us? Maybe he’d come fetch us in his boat.” She paused for a beat, then called, “Hey! Want some company?”

“Shhh! He might be asleep.”

“It’s early yet,” she insisted. “Not even nine. Why would he be in bed already?”

Cat’s paws slithered down my spine, making me uneasy. “Let’s go.”

The relative silence was suddenly shattered by a wolf’s howl. It started low and crescendoed to a high pitch, where it held for a long moment before dropping off.

Suzie trembled against me, and I clenched my teeth to stop from shaking.

That howl had come from the island, from inside the cabin.

The Bone Orchard
Chapter 1
Marshal Ambrose Shaw shoved through the doors of the Continental Hotel, squinting into the dim interior. He headed for the rowdy saloon, following the sound of the piano, and gave the patrons a once-over before moving toward the bar and the dapper tender behind it.

The man greeted him with a nod, tossed a rag over his shoulder, and came over. “What can I get you, sir?”

“Top-shelf,” Ambrose said, jutting his chin toward the row of bottles above the mirror on the back wall. Anything from below the bar, even in an establishment as fine as the Continental, was sure to make a man blind. As the bartender moved away, Ambrose reached into his vest and pulled out a cigarillo he’d rolled the night before. He placed it between his lips, then patted himself down, looking for a light. He found none, which was why he hadn’t smoked the damn thing earlier. With a sigh, he reached in again for a folded-up piece of paper he’d been carrying with him clear across the country.

He spread it out on the bar, smoothing his fingers over the creases.

The bartender set his glass and bottle beside the paper, then silently lit Ambrose’s cigarillo for him.

“Obliged,” Ambrose said around the cigarello. He tapped the drawing of the man on the paper. “You seen this man hereabouts?”

The bartender raised both brows, then met Ambrose’s eyes again. He shook his head slowly, but his eyes darted to a dark corner of the saloon, to a table that was shielded from the doorway by the player piano.

Ambrose sighed deeply, smoke wafting from his lips. “Is that right?” he murmured.

The bartender’s eyes darted toward the corner again, and he moved away, putting as much distance between himself and Ambrose as the bar back would allow. Leaning to his left, Ambrose could see “Missouri” Boone Jennings in the mirror behind the bar, and he tracked the man’s movements. He took the cigarillo from his lips and set it down, then pushed back his overcoat, revealing the pommel of the six-shooter at his hip.

The saloon cleared almost by magic, with gamblers, grifters, miners, traveling businessmen, drunks, and dancing girls scrambling for cover or slinking away to safety in corners and behind solid tables. Even the piano had gone silent. Ambrose didn’t turn around; to do so would have been deadly. Instead he watched Jennings in the mirror, trying to judge the distance of the reflection.

Jennings stood from the table he’d been drinking at, his feet spread apart, his jacket pushed back to reveal twin sidearms. His fingers tapped the ivory butt of one gun. “You come to take me, Marshal Shaw?”

“That I did,” Ambrose answered. He kept his back to Jennings, almost a dare for the wanted man to shoot him down like a coward. Jennings wouldn’t do that, not in front of people who would tell the tale.

“You been on my dust since St. Louis. Took you long enough, Shaw; I hit the damn ocean before you found me.”

Ambrose smiled sadly. “Had a handful of funerals to attend. You been collecting quite the bone orchard.”

“You find any witnesses to testify to my . . . ownership of that bone orchard?”

“Not any left alive.”

Jennings’s shoulders relaxed. “Then you’re wasting your time, ain’t you, Marshal?”

“Last one I saw buried was nothing but a boy.” Ambrose took a gulp of whiskey, then set his glass back down with a clink. “I decided I ain’t going to let you get in front of a judge.”

Jennings moved, his muscles tensing, his hands merely a flash. Ambrose pulled his gun and turned, firing. Bottles behind the bar popped and exploded. The glass in Ambrose’s hand burst into a million fragments. The mirror shattered, filling Ambrose’s vision with glittering shards of light like quartz dust on a sunny afternoon.

Jennings went to his knees, though Ambrose couldn’t say where he’d hit him. Then warmth and pain began to spread through his belly, and the shards of refracting light surrounding him turned blindingly white, brighter and warmer until he could see and feel no more.

*****

Ezra Johns was hot, dusty, and sore. It had taken five rail days to make his way from New York City to San Francisco. After the chilly peaks of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada range, with stars so large and bright Ezra thought he must have been taken to another world, the heat of the California coast was enough to knock him back.

He stepped out of the carriage in front of the Continental Hotel and Saloon. Down the street, he could see the monstrous frame of the Palace Hotel, where the trial would be held. Just two years old, it was arguably the most luxurious building west of the Mississippi, built in 1875 with all the modern fineries of the time. The Pinkerton Agency would never pay for a room there, though, so Ezra would make do with the Continental.

It would be but a short walk each morning to get there for the trial. Ezra had been summoned to testify against one “Missouri” Boone Jennings, a man wanted for murder as far back east as New York. As many as eleven deaths had been pinned on Jennings, who was notorious for his cruelty and violent nonchalance. None of those eleven murders, and there were probably even more than that, could be proved. None but the Irish dockworker Jennings had beaten to death in the streets of New York City.

Ezra had investigated that murder. He had a leather satchel full of evidence and witness statements. Proof beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jennings was the killer. And it would ultimately be Ezra’s testimony that would put Jennings in a noose.

That was what his superior had told him, anyway, to justify dragging him across the country.

Ezra entered the Continental. The saloon appeared to be under construction, with workers hanging an ornate mirror behind the bar. Ezra gave the dining room and saloon another glance before heading for the proprietor’s desk.

“We have one room available,” the attendant told him, casting a hesitant glance at his ledger.

“Is there a problem?” Ezra wiped down his spectacles so he could read the book.

The man winced and looked around, as if making sure no one else could hear him. “An injured lawman died in that room some time back. Our guests complain of there being . . . spirits.”

“Spirits?” Ezra couldn’t keep the amusement out of his voice. He smiled and gave the attendant a nod. “Well. I’m not opposed to double occupancy, so I’ll take it.”

He received his key and turned down assistance with his luggage, considering he only had his small canvas bag and the leather satchel full of evidence. He didn’t intend to let anyone handle that until it reached the court.

He trudged up the flight of stairs to his room, sighing in relief when he was finally able to close the door behind him and shrug off his frock coat. He’d not been prepared for the warmth out here; he might have to find a mercantile to purchase a summer coat.

The room was a nice one, almost comparable to his accommodations back east. It had a bed large enough for two, a washbasin and a private entrance to a water closet, not one but two armoires, and a sitting area. It was possible this room was the honeymoon suite. Considering the affordable rate, there must have been some powerful lore to keep it from being rented nightly. Ezra didn’t put much stock in spirits or hauntings, but he was grateful for the discount.

He set his bag on the end of the iron-framed bed, but before he could begin unpacking, he heard a scratch at the door. He turned, frowning as he watched the doorknob rattle. After a moment, the door creaked open, and just as Ezra was beginning to second-guess his belief in the afterlife, a man pushed the door open.

He was handsome. Blond, with a well-groomed mustache, a tan that gave evidence of many days spent in the sun, and blue eyes so clear they seemed almost silver peering out from under the brim of his hat.

“Can I help you?” Ezra asked, flustered from the intrusion.

“Name’s Ambrose Shaw.” He pushed the door open wider. His saddlebag was draped over his shoulder. “Man at the front desk said you might not mind sharing a room.”

“Oh. Oh! Of course not.” Ezra gestured to the room, then walked forward and offered his hand. “Ezra Johns.”

Ambrose looked down at his hand and nodded, but he didn’t take it.

“Right.” Ezra backed away to allow Ambrose into the room. He wasn’t sure if the lack of a handshake was supposed to mean something in the west or not, but he was too distracted to be offended. “Ambrose Shaw. You’re a US Marshal, aren’t you? You’re the one who finally brought down Boone Jennings?”

“I suppose I am,” Ambrose said, gravel in his voice. “Where’d you hear that?”

“The telegraph wire. News reached the east two weeks ago; it was huge. I work for the Pinkerton Agency.” Ezra fumbled in his pocket for his badge and showed it to Ambrose. He’d heard about the steely-eyed western lawmen with their unflappable demeanors and six-guns strapped to their thighs, but he’d not been prepared to meet one. Or room with one. “I was brought in to testify against Jennings.”

“For the murder of the Irishman, right?” Ambrose nodded and tossed his saddlebags onto the delicate rocking chair in the corner. Dust rose around it.

“That’s correct, yes. I was told there was no one else to testify, that all the witnesses . . . But you tracked him across six states and two territories.”

“I did.” Ambrose grunted. “Man shot, strangled, beat, knifed, and poisoned victims all across the damn country, but I never could prove it was him.”

“But you were involved in a gunfight with him, were you not?”

“That’s what I’m told.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I don’t remember.” Ambrose gestured vaguely to himself and gave Ezra a crooked grin. “I certainly can’t testify to it.”

Ezra frowned in confusion, but nodded anyway, not wanting to appear inexperienced in front of the legendary marshal. “If you can’t testify, then why are you here?”

“To watch,” Ambrose growled. He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes catching the light from the hurricane lamp and glinting dangerously. “I came to see him hang.”

Ezra’s mouth was suddenly too dry for him to swallow. “I . . . I suppose that’s a good reason.”

Ambrose removed his hat and set it on top of the washbasin in front of the dainty mirror as he walked past. “You’re the prosecution’s golden bullet,” he told Ezra. They stood on either side of the bed, staring at each other. Ezra’s heart was beating harder than was healthy. Ambrose studied him from under lowered brows, his eyes magnetic, his jaw clenched. “Best not miss,” Ambrose said before turning and walking into the washroom.

Ezra put a hand to his heart and sat heavily. The bed squeaked beneath him. It wasn’t hot in here at all. In fact, he was shivering.

“God help my aim,” he whispered.

*****

When Ezra awoke, it was to the chirp of birds outside the window, the creak of wagon wheels and shouts of merchants, and the gentle, husky breaths of the man sharing the room with him. Ezra sat up, rubbing his eyes as he reached for his spectacles.

Ambrose was sitting in the rocking chair in the corner, watching him.

“Good morning,” Ezra mumbled to the marshal. He received a grunt in return. “Did you sleep there?”

“I don’t sleep,” Ambrose told him. “Best get ready. I intend to see Boone Jennings hang today.”

Ezra swallowed hard, nodding as he fumbled out from under the bedcovers. He splashed tepid water from the washbasin on his face, shivering even in the heat of the summer morning. He glanced in the mirror at the rocking chair, but Ambrose had moved. The chair was still rocking, but the marshal was nowhere to be seen.

Ezra turned, eyes sweeping the room. How the hell had he done that? It must have been a western lawman thing, like an Indian in high grass. The marshal’s saddlebags were nowhere Ezra could see either. Ezra shrugged and proceeded to dress, muttering to himself about the heavy frock coat he would be forced to wear through the first day of the trial.

As if he wasn’t going to be sweating already as the only witness capable of putting Boone Jennings in his grave.

“You seem nervous,” Ambrose said, his gruff voice just inches away from Ezra’s back.

Ezra jumped and turned, wide-eyed and blinking. “I am now, thank you! Do you make noise when you move?”

Ambrose pursed his lips and frowned. “Not really.”

“Could you try?” Ezra snapped as he shrugged into his vest and wrapped his tie under his collar.

Ambrose’s lips were still pursed, but one eyebrow slowly raised, and he nodded as if giving the request real thought. “Sure.”

Ezra turned to fix his tie in the mirror. He glanced up, expecting to see the marshal’s reflection, but the man was gone again. Ezra rolled his eyes and returned his attention to his appearance once more.

Once he’d finished, they made their way downstairs, Ambrose falling in step with Ezra. Ezra was clutching his satchel with the evidence for the trial so tightly his fingers were beginning to ache.

“You okay?” Ambrose asked. For some reason, he seemed to be fighting a smile, as if he found such serious business as life and death amusing.

Ezra gave him a tense nod.

“Still nervous,” Ambrose observed.

“You’re not helping,” Ezra said through gritted teeth.

“Sorry.”

Ezra gave him a sideways glare, then glanced toward the desk and offered the attendant a pleasant smile. “Good morning.”

“G-good morning, sir.” The man gave Ezra an odd, questioning look. What western custom had he violated now? “Is your room to your satisfaction?”

“It is, thank you.”

Ezra gave him a second glance as they walked past, then looked Ambrose up and down. “A little haughty of him not to speak to you.”

“I get that a lot,” Ambrose said with a shrug. He waved a hand at himself. “Folks don’t speak to the likes of me.”

“Really?” Ezra almost tripped over the doorway when they reached it. He turned and pushed the large wooden door open, holding it to let Ambrose walk out into the bright sunshine before following him. “Do people not recognize you as the law?”

Ambrose turned and squinted at him, his silver eyes sparkling in the sunlight. He laughed and headed off down the sidewalk. “That must be it,” he said over his shoulder.

Ezra stared after him, frowning for several moments before hurrying to follow.

Chapter 2
The trial itself had drawn quite a crowd of onlookers, and though Ambrose seemed to have no trouble slipping through the rabble of curiosity seekers, journalists, and possible vigilantes standing outside the building shouting for Jennings’s head, Ezra could barely squeeze by.

He was jostled and pushed, and he held closer to his satchel of evidence. A hand reached out of the crowd and gripped his shoulder. Shivers wracked his entire body, and he closed his eyes against the inexplicable chill. But it was only Ambrose, who dragged him through the crowd, holding tightly to him as people complained and were shoved out of the way. Ezra tried to offer apologies, but he was hustled along too quickly.

He headed up the steps of the Palace Hotel, glancing sideways at Ambrose with a disapproving scowl. “That was quite rude. Do you make it a habit of dragging people along by their collars?”

“No, I usually use shackles.” Ambrose hooked his hand in his belt, tapping the butt of his gun with his index finger as he sauntered toward the doors.

“Please never do that again!”

“Sorry, did you want time to go put your bustle on?” Ambrose stopped at the doors to the hotel, turning to cock his head at Ezra and raise an eyebrow. His manner was still gruff and imposing, but his oddly silver eyes shone like he was amused.

Ezra was still clutching his satchel to his chest with both hands. He glanced down at the crowd, who were being held back by wooden barriers and two overwhelmed constables. Ezra straightened his shoulders and raised his head, jutting out his chin. “This is a more rowdy environment than I’m accustomed to,” he admitted. “Thank you for your assistance.”

Ambrose nodded, then reached out and fixed Ezra’s collar, which had gone askew. He patted Ezra on the shoulder, knocking him sideways. Then he stood waiting for Ezra to get the door.

Ezra couldn’t help but laugh as he pulled the heavy wooden door open and gestured for Ambrose to enter first. “For a big tough western lawman, you sure do have some feminine sensibilities,” he said as he followed Ambrose in.

Ambrose merely laughed as he led the way to the courtroom.

They seated themselves on the left side of the room, in the only empty spaces in the very back row. The room was packed, and the heat was almost as oppressive as the tension in the room. When the side door shoved open and “Missouri” Boone Jennings shuffled in, chains rattling, two armed US Marshals following him, the room fell silent and still.

Jennings was dressed in a suit, his long hair slicked back and tied at his neck, his left arm in a cotton sling. He was clean-shaven and rather handsome—not at all the dirty, disheveled outlaw Ezra had been expecting.

A low hum started in the back of Ambrose’s throat, and Ezra glanced at him worriedly. Ambrose’s sharp eyes had gone cold, his shoulders tense. The mere presence of the murderer in the courtroom had caused all movement to cease, the temperature dropping by some trick of the mind. The man at Ezra’s side shivered.

The loudest sound in the room, other than the clanking of Jennings’s chains, was Ambrose growling.

Ezra patted his arm. “Be calm,” he whispered.

The man on his other side chuckled. “Ain’t nothing to be calm over, not being in the same room as that snake.”

An hour later, Ezra was called to take the witness stand. He carried his satchel up and placed it on the floor beside the chair.

“State your name and occupation for the record, please,” the judge requested.

“My name is Ezra Johns, of New York City. I’m a special investigator for the Pinkerton Agency.”

“How do you know Boone Jennings?”

Ezra took a deep breath, then described in detail the vicious assault he’d investigated a year ago. He pushed his satchel toward the prosecuting attorney. “All the evidence I collected is in there, including witness statements authorized by the district court of New York State.”

“Is there any doubt in your mind that Boone Jennings was the perpetrator of that murder?”

“There is none. He fled New York by rail, heading west to Chicago and then St. Louis. The US Marshals were brought in to track him down.” Ezra’s eyes strayed to the back of the room, where Ambrose sat, silent and stoic, his face enveloped in shadow.

The prosecuting attorney nodded, then retrieved a stack of telegrams from his table. He handed them to Ezra. “Can you tell us what these are?”

Ezra flipped through them. “These appear to be telegrams sent by Marshal Ambrose Shaw.” He glanced up at Ambrose again. The man had tracked Jennings clear across the country, sending out a telegram every time he found another body. A chill ran through Ezra. No wonder Ambrose was so invested in this trial.

“Can you find the last three, please, and read them for the court?”

Ezra nodded and paged through them, coming to the final telegrams. He cleared his throat. “Silver City. Victim thirteen years old,” he read, struggling with the telegram’s shorthand. He paused and glanced up, blowing out a breath of nerves. “Eighteen men, women, and children now in the orchard. Believe Jennings heading for California. Watch the ports.”

“Those are the words of Marshal Shaw,” the prosecutor said quietly. “The last telegram was sent from right here in San Francisco, a fortnight ago. Please read it, Inspector Johns.”

Ezra nodded, swallowing hard. He didn’t understand why they were having him read the telegrams with Ambrose sitting right there. The marshal would make a much more effective witness with his gruff drawl and haunting silver eyes.

He held the final telegram up. “Jennings in San Fran. I do not aim to let him leave. I bury him here, or they try him for . . . for my murder.”

The finality of those words echoed through the rapt courtroom, and Ezra shivered. He raised his head, staring at Ambrose with his lips parted in shock.

“This was a hardened US Marshal,” the prosecutor was saying to the judge and jury. “A man who saw war, a man who tracked murderers and thieves over deserts and mountains. The atrocities he witnessed in the aftermath of Boone Jennings’s wake drove him to forgo the due process of the law he had upheld all his life, to risk his life to take Boone Jennings off the face of this earth so no one else could be hurt by him.”

Ezra’s mouth went dry as he stared out at Ambrose, trying to imagine what would drive the man to such action.

The prosecutor stopped pacing, his hands behind his back as he stood before the jury with a grim set to his jaw. “Marshal Ambrose Shaw died of his wounds the same night he confronted Boone Jennings. He gave his life to bring this man to justice, to end his reign of terror. You the jury must be just as brave in your convictions as Marshal Shaw was in his.”

Ezra’s heart stuttered, and his gaze shot to the back of the courtroom. Ambrose was still sitting there, his face hidden in the shadow of his hat. He raised his hand, and tipped the brim toward Ezra.

Boone Jennings began to chuckle.

*****

“You’re a ghost!” Ezra shouted at Ambrose as soon as they were in the lobby of the Palace Hotel, the trial left to carry on without them once Ezra’s testimony was over. Ambrose was quite proud of him. He wished he could have sat up there himself, but he would settle for a front row seat to Boone Jennings’s hanging instead.

People stopped and stared at Ezra as he continued to rant at Ambrose, their scandalized murmurs growing louder the longer Ezra spoke.

Ambrose glanced around. “Most folks can’t see me. You might keep that in mind when you’re shouting at me.”

Ezra coughed and covered his mouth, glancing at the nearest hotel patrons. “Hello,” he said with a polite smile. He pointed at Ambrose. “He’s a ghost.”

The couple stared at him, and then the gentleman grabbed his wife’s arm and led her away in a hurry.

Ambrose laughed.

“I’m glad you find this funny, because I certainly don’t,” Ezra hissed. He stopped and narrowed his eyes. “Why can I see you and they can’t?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you got that second sight thing. Ain’t Pinkertons supposed to be all-seeing?”

“That’s not funny. Why did you choose me?”

“You were in my room, remember?”

“Your room?” Ezra spat. “It’s not your room, you’re dead!”

Ambrose reached for his arm, taking it in a pale imitation of the iron grip he’d once employed in life. “People are going to think you’re crazy, son. I’ll be damned if your testimony gets struck because you’re talking to air. Come on.” He dragged Ezra with him.

“Your hands are cold,” Ezra grumbled as he followed along.

“Of course they’re cold, I been dead for two weeks.”

“I’m dreaming right now. I’ve been slipped opium, and I’m in some sort of drugged daze.”

“Stop muttering to yourself, goddamn.” They got to the doors of the lobby, and Ambrose stood staring at them. Then he glanced at Ezra, who raised his eyebrows at him.

“Go ahead,” Ezra said, crossing his arms over his chest. “Open the door.”

“I . . .”

“You can’t, can you?”

Ambrose sighed at the grand doorway with its ornately carved wood and lead glass. “They’re awful heavy,” he said.

“Heavy,” Ezra echoed. His expression became more sympathetic. “I see,” he whispered, then opened the doors and let Ambrose walk through first.

The crowd was still waiting in the streets, but it had calmed. The rowdier element had drifted off to the saloons or the docks, and the curious had grown bored. The people waiting now were all silent, standing as if at a vigil. Ambrose’s hair stood on end, the air around him going colder despite his own state of ghostliness. He recognized every one of them.

“What’s wrong?” Ezra asked, finally remembering to speak under his breath so no one would notice him talking to nothing in the middle of the street.

Ambrose waved at the crowd. “You see them?”

“See who?”

Ambrose merely nodded. “I ain’t the only one he killed who’s been drawn here to see him hang. Guess that answers why I’m still here. They can’t get in. They’re left out here to wait.” He smiled sadly at Ezra. “Thanks for opening the door for me.”

His meaning seemed to hit Ezra suddenly, and the man looked out at the street again, going pale. “You mean . . . there are more of you? Spirits?”

“Men and women he killed.” There was a feeling in the pit of his stomach, the same one of helplessness and desperation that had driven him to sacrifice himself in a gun battle he’d known he couldn’t win. “A few little ones too. They look . . . they look confused.”

Ezra put both hands out as if to ward off the image of Boone Jennings’s victims wandering lost in the streets of San Francisco. “Oh this . . . this is so beyond my experience,” he said, then headed down the steps, still muttering to himself.

Ambrose watched him wade through the crowd, even walking through a few people. They shivered violently when he contacted them, then disappeared into the ether as if smoke to Ezra’s touch. The ones who remained didn’t seem to notice, all of them staring at the hotel, waiting. One by one they began to fade, pulled back to wherever they were doomed to spend their afterlives, just as Ambrose was sure to return to the bar of the Continental.

Ambrose glanced back at the doors, then lowered his head and followed after Ezra. For some reason, Ezra’s presence allowed him to travel off his tether; if he let Ezra get too far away, he’d surely be pulled back to the Continental and get stuck there again. He’d been trying to get out of there for two weeks now, but the damn doors were as solid as walls.

“Stop following me,” Ezra barked when Ambrose appeared at his side again.

“I’m not hurting anything being here.”

“Except my sanity!”

People on the street took pains to avoid Ezra, whispering or darting their eyes at him.

“You got to stop talking to yourself,” Ambrose reminded.

Ezra growled and gritted his teeth.

“Look, I don’t know why, but I can follow you out of the Continental, see? It’s the first time I’ve been able to leave the place where I died.”

“What about all the people you said you could see in the street, hmm? How’d they get here if you’re attached to me?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know the damn rules, I’ve only been dead a couple weeks!”

Ezra snarled and stopped in the middle of the street, shooing his hands at Ambrose, heedless of the attention he was drawing to himself. “Stop following me! It’s . . . it’s unsettling! I don’t wish to know there are ghosts roaming the streets, I don’t wish to know what happens after death, do you understand? I don’t need to know these things!”

“But—”

“I don’t wish to know this!” Ezra shouted. “I gave my testimony, I even read yours for you, and there’s no chance Boone Jennings will be anything but hanged at the end of this. I did exactly what you wanted, so stop following me.” He turned on his heel and stalked off.

“Thank you, Ezra,” Ambrose called after him.

Ezra didn’t turn around.

*****

Ezra shoved through the doors of the Continental so hard that one of them banged against the wall, rattling the frames hung there. People turned to stare. He cleared his throat, straightening his coat.

Aside from the fact that he’d just learned his roommate for the evening had been dead, he wasn’t sure why he was so upset. Yes, befriending a ghost was the most unusual thing that’d ever happened to him, but at least Ambrose had been pleasant company. It was the fact that he was here at all that was rocking Ezra’s normally placid mind. Was that what happened when you died? No Heaven? No Hell? Just . . . an eternity of hoping someone could see you?

Ezra shook his head and rubbed his eyes. “Good Lord.”

He didn’t head for his room, instead making a beeline for the saloon. If ever a drink was warranted, it was now.

The new mirror behind the bar had been hung, and the bartender was busy stocking bottles above it. It hit Ezra that this must have been where Ambrose had finally tracked down Boone Jennings and challenged him. Bullet holes littered the lower part of the bar, and one in the back wall must have gone right through a bottle of whiskey. This was where Ambrose had been shot. This was where he’d died.

“Best to order top-shelf,” Ambrose said to him.

Ezra jumped, holding a hand to his heart to calm its frantic beating. Ambrose was leaning on the bar, sipping from a shot glass and staring into the mirror on the back wall.

“You almost frightened me to death,” Ezra hissed.

Ambrose chuckled and took another sip of whiskey. “It’s not so bad, you know. Being dead.”

Ezra drew closer to him, still exasperated by his presence but beginning to truly ponder the implications of his being there. He stepped up the bar beside Ambrose and turned his attention to the mirror. Only his own reflection stared back at him.

He lowered his head sadly, glancing sideways at Ambrose. Was he stuck here? Doomed to forever haunt this hotel where he’d lost his life? If no one else could see him, was Ezra his only company? The thought made Ezra cringe at his earlier reaction on the street.

“What can I get you, sir?” the bartender asked him. Ezra tore his eyes away from Ambrose and gave the man a weak smile.

“Top-shelf,” Ambrose said. “Order top-shelf.”

“Top-shelf, please,” Ezra managed to say.

The bartender nodded and turned away. The smell of tobacco smoke wafted through the air, followed by a whiff of gunpowder. Ezra glanced around, frowning. The saloon was nearly empty, and no one had lit a cigarette.

“You here for the trial?” the bartender asked.

“I am.”

“They going to hang him?”

“I believe so, yes,” Ezra said, a hard edge creeping into his voice.

“Good.” The bartender set a glass and a bottle in front of him. “He killed that marshal right here in front of me.”

Ezra had to force himself not to glance at Ambrose. He nodded instead. “Why wasn’t Marshal Shaw’s murder prosecuted? His case seems far more compelling than the one being tried.”

“Self-defense,” the bartender grunted. “Marshal didn’t draw first, but no one who saw it was willing to say that. And the only other man still alive to tell it is Jennings.”

“What about you?”

The bartender smiled sadly. “Boone Jennings is a devil. Takes a brave man to stand toe to toe with him. And if I’ve learned one thing of myself, it’s that I am not cut from the same cloth as men like Marshal Shaw. I just serve the drinks.”

He took his leave then, stocking new bottles at the other end of the bar. Ezra turned his attention back to Ambrose, who was staring at the bar top.

“Are you here to protect me?” Ezra asked. “Is that why you won’t leave me alone?”

Ambrose spoke quietly. “I don’t know why I’m here. You left me standing in the street; next thing I knew I was sitting here.” He put his glass down and narrowed his eyes at Ezra. “Maybe you’re the one following me.”

There was a hint of amusement in his features, and Ezra found himself fighting a smile. He poured himself a glass of whiskey, then set the bottle between them. They sat in silence for some time, drinking together.

“I’m quite sorry you’re dead,” Ezra finally offered.

Ambrose laughed. “Me too, partner.”

It made Ezra chuckle. At least the man wasn’t a morose ghost. Ambrose pulled a cigarillo from his vest and frowned at it.

“I keep smelling those,” Ezra said. “Is it you?”

Ambrose shrugged. “Alls I know is it’s damned hard to light one when you can’t hold a match.”

He placed it on the bar. A moment later, it was gone. Ambrose stared dejectedly at the empty space, then reached in his vest again and pulled out the same cigarillo.

Ezra watched in fascination. “All you have on you is what you died with, isn’t it?”

Ambrose nodded. “I keep finding myself here, saddlebag over my shoulder. Pulling out a smoke. No one will light it for me though.”

Ezra wanted to reach out to console him, but he had the presence of mind to know that he’d likely reach right through him. He licked his lips instead, looking away. “I’m sorry I shouted at you. I was distraught by the thought of the afterlife you describe.”

“Yeah, well . . . I’m sorry I haunted you.”

They both chuckled softly. Ezra studied him, thinking of the sacrifice the man had made, the guts and bravado it had taken to walk into this saloon knowing he might die and not caring as long as Boone Jennings went with him. Ezra nodded. “I’ll open your doors until he’s hanged, Marshal Shaw.”

Ambrose tipped his hat, lips quirking. “Much obliged, Inspector Johns.”

Horn Gate
1: The Club
CRASHING a sex lounge required a certain amount of planning.

Isaac would probably arrive earlier than he should, but he’d never been to a full-on flesh pot. His eczema had flared up, and his acne, and he wanted to be forty pounds lighter, but tonight was his. Instead of watching from the sidelines, he was sailing the uncharted waters of debauchery. Protocol be damned. Besides, this evening was a celebration.

Tonight was his twenty-second birthday, and after ten years of coloring inside the lines, this excursion was going to be his first real party, even if none of the loungers inside knew. He just wanted to watch.

He clutched the stiff card hard enough to cut his pudgy hand; the invitation was translucent plastic with a crimson pitchfork over the words “Pitt Street.” No address, no number. Hope, a coworker at the Division Street Library, had won it at a charity raffle and was too married and too staid to set foot in a “sex lounge.”

His feet led him downtown from the library, and the July streets were hot and empty at midnight under the waning moon. He turned down Ridge Street and crossed to Pitt.

Old shops and synagogues peppered the Lower East Side from a time when immigrants had lived eight to a room in muggy tenements. Now the neighborhood was a lively, expensive jumble of trendy boutiques and cool bars; all those pokey warehouses had gone co-op and the speakeasies and Masonic halls had become four-star restaurants and private clubs.

If Isaac hadn’t been looking, he would have missed the entry in a small dogleg alley. The only hint was the card’s red pitchfork painted on a waxy sphere glowing high over a gated chain-link fence. Lifting the rusty hasp, he wedged through. The clothes on his bulky frame were dark enough that no soot or rust would show. Another marked lamp lit the corner of the alley where it bent toward Delancey, but instead of turning that way, he headed right, parallel to Pitt, approaching a pale door.

Since it occupied an old Jewish slum, the lounge sported a biblical name for Satan’s basement: Gehenna. Technically it meant the Abyss, but as a naughty moniker for a hip place off Pitt, it worked fine. Hope hadn’t given the card to him exactly, but at the coffeepot, she’d announced she didn’t want it. All day, he’d sat imagining what he might miss and what he might see if he visited a club as decadent as Gehenna.

He’d worked late tonight, and as he left the building alone, the card’s unused, unwanted pitchfork had practically prodded him from across the room. Feeling a little guilty, he’d lifted it off her pile of book requests without telling her. Isaac knew the invite would have gone to waste, and as he’d pointed out to himself when he’d hesitated: today was his birthday. He’d confess the theft tomorrow, when he could apologize with a few salacious details of his adventures in this kinky Xanadu.

She wouldn’t mind. If anything, she’d feel embarrassed that the other librarians had forgotten his birthday completely and pretend she’d meant to give it to him. Maybe she had. As the young homo on staff, Isaac tended to land all of these items: souvenir masks and kinky bridal shower presents. The ladies in the restoration department would titter and tease him about all his catting around as a young bachelor.

Hardly.

Isaac saw another scarlet pitchfork on the lamp over the door, but no other sign to mark it. He wiped his hands on his thighs, feeling ridiculous and hoping he wasn’t underdressed or overdressed in the blazer and cords he’d worn to work. What did a first-timer wear to a sex lounge? Looking back over his shoulder, Isaac considered the alley snaking back, heaps of trash and a car coasting in the direction of Ridge Street forty yards off at the alley’s other opening. The entrance to the club was mottled ivory, dim under the little globe. Gehenna hid back here like a scorpion.

He raised his hand to knock, but the door groaned open so that his knuckles almost rapped a large bosom. “Sorry.” He stepped back, putting a couple of extra feet between him and the threshold. He hated being touched.

“We see you.” A curvy woman in a plain plum dress winked and pointed her manicure up at the camera over the door. Her mouth soured a little as she got a load of his bulk and bad skin. She held out her hand, took the plastic card. “Come to dream a little?”

He stepped inside. A narrow hall led back about twenty feet to a hum of voices and an entryway. A quote in gold leaf stretched the length of the left wall in letters three yards high: flesh is weak, and on the right spirit is willing.

Gehenna had been a speakeasy back in the 1920s, then a bordello until the publicity of a horrible triple murder had shut it down in the 1960s. In the cocainey eighties, it reopened as a swanky restaurant that wasn’t listed in the phonebook: three hundred dollars a plate and booked six months in advance. Now, a sex lounge. Not a club, mind you. The place was well lit. It showed up in Around Town pieces in Vogue and People because Gaga loved their martinis and Michael Fassbender often swung by to waggle his big unit.

Forty or fifty trendy young things didn’t even look up when Isaac entered the wide room. In its 21st century incarnation, the lounge featured low mod furniture in dark purples under a curved ceiling. No sexual congress out here in the public area. Pretty tame for a pleasure dome, it seemed. The magazines hinted at darker doings downstairs… maybe a bordello holdover.

Isaac gave a wide berth to the clusters of chatting hipsters. The idea of strangers brushing against him, even by accident, made him want to heave and leave, but he knew he had to start somewhere. He decided to grab a drink to give his twitchy hands something to hold. Again, he wished he had a flat stomach and clear complexion to face all these slickos.

At the bar, a gargantuan bodybuilder in a pair of loose silk overalls wiped his hands on a towel. His greased exaggerated muscles made him resemble an Atlas built out of baked hams. A short word had been written across his chest in fat magic marker, but Isaac couldn’t read it at this angle. He wore a ring through his nose and was completely shaved from his scalp, his eyebrows, his gargantuan torso, right down to his nearly exposed pubic bone. The trousers hung on the root of his cock, which seemed likely to appear at some point.

Isaac licked his lips and bellied his way up to the bar.

He raised his eyes to order and saw the word on the tan chest was “HOLE.” A name? Insult? Invitation? He wished he didn’t feel so hopeless in here and hoped the hooch would help.

The brawny bartender waited impassively. One pec twitched under the O. His lashes were lined with black pencil and his mouth tattooed with horizontal crisscrossed ribbons to seem laced shut unless he spoke.

Isaac decided not to risk it. “Gimlet, please.” He tried to name a pricey gin, but all he could think of was swill from subway posters. “Uhh, Gordon’s.”

Hole squinted as though Isaac had done something strange and nodded. “Sir.” He shrugged and turned. His ass was so huge that the meaty shelf of it didn’t vanish when he bent for ice. The silk traced the crack deeply and was thin enough to show the flex and bunch of muscle.

An ass made for eating, that was for damn sure. Poor guy, probably got treated like a cumrag in this place, though considering the caption on his chest, maybe that’s why he tended this particular bar.

Isaac fished out a couple of bucks for a tip, and when his drink appeared, he nudged them forward so he wouldn’t touch the bartender by accident.

Again, Hole looked at him oddly. The bodybuilder flicked his gaze across the domed space to look at something and then back at Isaac. He shook his head, quickly and tightly. “No, sir.” He looked down at the bills. A vein pulsed at his temple.

Oops. Lesson learned. No money in here. “Sorry. First timer.”

Hole licked his lips and peered across the lounge again.

On a small dais, an older man stood watching over the assembly like a grizzled hawk: handsome but stern as a preacher, forties or fifties and improbably dressed in a jacket and collar old enough to look like a pilgrim costume. His face bristled with old-fashioned muttonchops and a mustache like Captain Ahab. Maybe the manager? Definitely in charge, the way the staff kept whipping their eyes over like they felt his.

Isaac grimaced in apology. “Sorry. I don’t know the rules.”

Hole wiped the counter between them and muttered, “No one does.”

Had he made a mistake coming here? Isaac took a swallow of the gimlet. Expensive gin and fresh lime. The taste was resinous and smooth. Usually, he got too queasy to drink much or often, but the moment this liquor hit his stomach, he felt stupid for ordering a bottom shelf liquor in an upscale venue. He toasted himself and took another swallow. “Happy birthday.”

Time to open my present.

He scanned the room with greedy eyes. A few guys caught his attention and nodded blankly, but again, several glanced back at the dour scarecrow on the platform. Isaac had expected more nudity, maybe a little fetish, drills and spills… more of a circus, less of an expensive hotel bar. For a sex club, it seemed restrained. Granted, a couple of women were bare-breasted. A hairless twink in a booth masturbated halfheartedly, his thin cock appearing and disappearing to the shock of absolutely no one. Odd. And oddly unsexy.

Some birthday voyeurism had sounded fun at the library. He wanted to be able to tell Hope about the sordid adventure his present had turned out to be. Inside for five minutes and he was back in seventh grade playing the role of “fat friendless faggot” in a hallway full of pert majorettes and lacrosse gods torturing him for being Jewish. Every one of his blemishes felt magnified. Now he wished he’d never taken the little card or followed the pitchfork lamps to this place.

At the back, a staircase led down into a dim orange gap. Promising.

Isaac picked his way back through the tables and bodies. He could imagine the place as an old cathouse. Remembering the building’s red-light history, he had a brief moment of double vision, seeing as a phantom haunting the past. The old-timey johns had waited in the parlor while rented vamps turned tricks in the rooms below.

No. Something felt wrong in here. The bartender’s worry. That grim puritan glowering at the crowd like a cheated pimp. The sleek patrons didn’t seem to notice, but Isaac did. So much for vicarious depravity.

His eyes itched for a rude and spectacular memory to take home. A borrowed fantasy of the rich and shameless. He decided to give it another fifteen, just to get enough details that he could make up a story for his library ladies, and then he’d go home for a perfectly adequate nightcap of HΓ€agen-Dazs and masturbation.

Isaac glanced back at Hole leaning over his bar, massive triceps bulging. The bartender was staring at the old goat on the dais again, telegraphing something.

The light hairs on Isaac’s neck lifted and his fingers twitched. Creepy. Maybe he should go before his kidneys got harvested or worse. He’d try downstairs first… just a peek at the forbidden fruit.

Lumpy and homely as he was, he was able to cut his way through the pockets of yattering people without even touching anyone. He didn’t have a phobia, exactly. But if he could avoid strangers pressing against him, he did. Which meant for meeting men, bars were out, clubs too. He’d liked the idea of a sex lounge because it sounded spacious.

Gehenna was palatial, in its way, and happily no one touched him at all. If anything, the crowd ignored him. Isaac suspected they all knew each other and sensed he was an impostor. I am. A pretty woman curtsied drunkenly and said hello as he passed. A trio of dapper executives in corporate drag laughed and joked at something in Portuguese and nodded at Isaac. Great. He pretended to ignore them.

He reached the unlit stairs that descended twenty or thirty feet into a sullen orange dimness. Was the basement annexed to the sewers? Each step dipped in the center, worn by the passage of a million feet. How old was this building?

The hum of conversation faded the farther he went, echoing strangely in the dark stairwell. He took each uneven tread slowly, certain he’d stumble into someone else’s NC-17 craziness. At the very least, he hoped for a celebrity erection he could report to the other librarians, praying it wouldn’t be attached to Newt Gingrich.

At the bottom, more pitchfork globes lit a low-ceilinged hallway paneled with steel, tiled in granite, and so silent his ears rang.

This must be under Pitt Street. “Duh.” Isaac nodded. Right: Gehenna. Bottomless pit. He took another sour swallow of gimlet, wondering where he’d put the glass when he’d drained it.

Six double-width doors punctuated the corridor at twelve-foot intervals, and then one small entry at the far end, unlit and narrow as a utility closet. Well, in a sex lounge someone had to mop up the jizz, right?

A muffled cry. “Oh. Aggggh-oh!” The terrified male moan came from the middle door on the left. Could have been pleasure or anguish. “Augghhh. I’m gonna go. Gonna— Ohhhhhh.” Pleasure? The vowel ended in a gasp, a gurgle, and then an uncanny silence that lifted the hair on his arms. None of the other doors offered even muffled smut. So much for voyeurism.

Without warning, the moaning middle door throbbed for a moment, and the metal walls vibrated in tandem. Subway. Old speakeasy, the tunnels must share a wall. Even so, he couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness as he stood watching the doorframes judder and fall still. Too nervous to try the handles, he stood in the passage under the smoldering owl-light.

Isaac waited on unsteady feet, his options murky. The subterranean quiet made his skin hum. The cubes rattled as he finished his drink, but there was nothing to look at and, already, he’d heard a little and seen more than enough.

He turned and went back to the base of the stairs, where the lounge chatter above hummed like a wasp nest. Happy birthday, dipshit.

At the moment he put his foot on the lowest step, he realized no subway ran underground here. He shivered. Not subway. He grasped the rail to make for the exit.

“Kholem.” The hissed word filled the metal hall, amplified. Isaac flinched and squeezed his glass tighter than he should have. At first he misheard the word as “Hole,” but then he heard it again, echoing around him. “Kholem.”

He knew the word from his bar mitzvah reading on Joseph the seer: “Dreamer.” Hearing the word made him feel anxious and homesick. Isaac had suffered through Hebrew school for a couple of years and worked in a rare manuscript room, but hearing it aloud erased nine years of his life so that he was thirteen and miserable on the day he figured out why he liked to wrestle his best friend so much. Dreamer.

His feet wouldn’t move. Goose bumps swept his arms. He took a step into the passage and then back.

Hebrew in a sex lounge. Maybe some kind of bizarre Israeli role play? Hasidic sex games? Kinky kabbalah? Isaac had visions of doddering rabbis being spanked while strict blondes forced them to eat sausage. Ick. No thanks.

A low, dry cough and the guttural scratch of the opening syllable. “Khol—”

The pitchfork globes flickered for a moment. The cinnamon light wavered and returned.

Hair standing on end, Isaac pivoted. He leaned close to the nearest door. Silent. The next three were the same. Silent as a meat locker and nearly as cold. So much for his whorehouse reverie.

The voice deepened. “Kholem.” A man’s rough, plaintive cry called to him from the little closet at the hallway’s end.

Each step a sticky squeak, Isaac passed under the pitchfork sconces to the dark end and the narrow door. He pressed his palm against the dull metal. Even in mid-July the steel felt frigid… so bitter arctic cold that the surface felt weirdly dry in the humidity of a New York summer, freezing the air. The doorknob burned his hand and wasn’t locked when he turned it.

“Hello?” He stooped to enter a bare brick room the size of a restaurant freezer.

Isaac dropped his glass and forgot to flinch. He heard and felt the burst of shards from far away.

In one corner, glaring like a leopard, a naked angel shivered.

He had a warrior’s body worn by a prince, all buttery bronze. Light down gilded his pectorals and belly. His gunmetal gaze was sloe-eyed and wide with relief. The tawny brows swept over his eyes like wings, and his hair was a loose tousle the color of burnt sugar. Even his powerful hands seemed carved by Michelangelo… thick, gentle fingers to bless a sinner or pull a baby into the world.

Isaac shook. He covered his mouth and, when he touched his face, realized he was crying.

No one should be in this terrible frozen cage. Every inch of Isaac rang with the wrongness of it. He had trespassed on something inhuman. A protective rage licked his bones at the thought of rescuing someone this helpless. His righteous certainty drove him another step closer to the anguished body.

Isaac’s hair just missed scraping the ceiling. The entire concrete chamber looked like a perfect six-foot cube. Was this poor creature a prostitute or a junkie? What was this frigid box? Who had built it and why?

“Dreamer.” The angel turned fully to him, the proud profile of a Persian king becoming a terrible, tender gaze. He struggled to straighten, then wiped his swollen lip. “You came.” He slurred the words, as though someone had drugged him, his accent lightly Arabic.

Isaac opened his mouth, then shut it. “I heard you,” he panted, his entire body slicked with sweat even in this icebox. The delicate musk of the radiant flesh crowded the tiny room, stunning him into servitude. Nothing seemed adequate. He wanted to kneel. He wanted to shout or beg.

“I called you and you came.” A radiant calm stole across the angel’s face. Again he tried to stand, wobbly as a newborn colt. His half-hard cock rolled, succulent, against his inner thigh, and the petal-thin foreskin slid back. His corded legs strained to bear the weight of standing; the brawny shoulders bunched with sinew. His shivers pained Isaac, and yet his golden skin was pinked with impossible health. “Without the Horn Gate.”

Horn Gate?

There was something else strange about the crouched nude figure, but Isaac was too stunned to puzzle it out. Another scuff closer.

Isaac started as the door swung shut behind him, blocking out the orange glow from the passage so that the only light shone from the strong body shivering in the corner.

“I am in your debt, Dreamer….” He smiled.

Under the weight of the tender bend, Isaac forgot to breathe. Musky sweetness flooded his senses. His swollen cock jogged sideways in his briefs.

The angel lifted eyes impish as a fairytale bandit’s. “And I thank you for hearing me.” The hungry gaze raked over Isaac’s spotty face and saggy form.

Isaac smiled back, his idiot’s grin an ugly echo of the impossible curve shining at him, for him, with him. “Thank you for calling me.”

The angel tipped his head to the side and closed his lids. He breathed raggedly, filling his powerful torso with effort. “Few hear.”

Then again, maybe he meant “Few here” since the long corridor was still empty and the music upstairs a low hum like the tide.

“A true dreamer.” The muscular throat swallowed. “Yet you brought with you so much…” The blissful smile again and a sigh of relief. “Pain and fear.”

“No! Really. I’m fine.” Isaac stared, his mouth agape. “I just wanted to watch. It’s my birthday and—” He fell silent. Every word tasted stupid in his mouth. “This place was my… present.”

The shaking angel tried to stand again, his perfect shaft hardening and his nipples pebbling as if he could smell Isaac’s lust, as though answering it. Kholem.

Isaac tried to ignore the plump erection that rose from the crisp nest of curls. His own balls drew up against the root of his boner, and the stiffness jerked with his pulse. Even the friction of his boxers against his knob felt amplified. He panted and licked his lips, trying to restrain himself. Again, something about the impossible torso struck him as odd, but he couldn’t focus long enough to make sense of it.

The angel’s tongue swept the firm bow of his upper lip. “Help me.” His taut nipples were carved from the same honey stone as his pectorals.

Isaac extended a hand in the hope he could control himself. His fingers twitched and shook. His nutsack knotted and throbbed. He had never wanted to touch another person, and suddenly the thirty-six inches of air between them burned and tickled like head-to-toe poison ivy.

“The Horn Gate.” The angelic flesh radiated scalding warmth, flushed and feverish, even while he shook with cold. The wall behind him buckled, no longer cinder blocks but woven out of branches, forked and spiraling. The boughs gaped where the angel touched them, giving the impression that his glowing skin loosened and bent them. The braided limbs strained to open to slithering shadows.

No, not branches….

Saliva pooled in Isaac’s mouth and his breath nearly stilled. Black orchids bloomed behind his eyelids as if he was about to faint. His pulse slammed in his skull, his rod painfully rigid since he touched the wintry door. His frantic arousal wrapped itself around him from his fundament to the top of his head like a fiery snake.

The angel slid his back up the wall to brace himself, the hypnotic flex and flux of his Michelangelo muscles were the Adriatic sun on the ocean at night and then, and then, and then…

“I am called Scratch.”

There was no navel on the flawless abdomen.

He wasn’t born.

The angel took his hand.

With a strangled yelp, Isaac’s body arched and ejaculated, scorching his stomach with semen; lightning chased his limbs and cold blackness blossomed behind his lids like ink in water.

The weaving walls gaped and a spiky portal of interlocking horns and antlers seemed to orbit Isaac for a moment. Scratch’s pewter eyes were the last thing he saw before he hit the floor, unconscious.

He saw them for a long while after.

The Long Way Home
Chapter One
It was always an adventure driving the icy Wyoming roads in winter. Kevin tapped the steering wheel nervously in time to the song on the radio. Great. His truck moved slowly, but resolutely, east on the I-90 toward town. Normally, he liked to watch the wisps of fog easing over the mounds of piled up snow, creeping onto the road like ghosts. He enjoyed the pure dead eeriness of it when he had to drive cold nights like these. Back when he was on the job in Seattle it was never this cold. Now Kevin wished he were at home, asleep. He heard the whining yips from the back seat of his crew cab truck and silently cursed.

James Wexler, his vet, met him at the door of his home office and took his baby from him.

“So, Asia, are you giving this good man grey hairs?” James said gently to the old dog.

“She’s been having seizures.” Kevin stroked her sweet grey muzzle. “I think… I’m not sure but…”

“Let’s take a look, shall we?” Dr. Wexler took Asia past his waiting room and into one of the exam rooms. Asia cried out when he put her down. He folded the blanket around her like a soft cocoon.

“So Asia, what have you been up to lately? Are you thirsty?” Wexler made small talk with his patients, as he always did, while taking different vital statistics and checking her out. He asked her as though he expected her to answer. “Or hungry?”

“She hasn’t been eating much lately, Doc,” said Kevin. “I wondered about that. I was going to call the office on Monday… It’s just that when I came in from the garage this evening, she was shaking, like she was having a seizure, and since then, she hasn’t been right. Sorry to call you on a Saturday night like this.”

“Of course you called, Asia’s special. Aren’t you, Asia? Have a seat, Kevin.” He motioned Kevin to one of the two chairs in the cramped room and carefully picked Asia up. He sat in the opposite chair, holding Asia in his lap.

“Kevin.” He spoke gently as if he were talking to one of the animals. “I think it’s pretty clear Asia’s had a stroke.”

“Oh.” Kevin couldn’t think what that might mean. “I see.”

“It’s possible that her brain and parts of her body have been affected. In a younger dog, stroke can be overcome, but I don’t think she’ll be able to drink water, for example, or eat. She can’t seem to walk. I notice that the arthritis in her hips is much worse this year, too. Even if I press on her joints lightly, it seems to cause her pain.”

“Did I…” Kevin swallowed hard, “have I left it too long? Have I let her suffer because I didn’t want to let her go?”

“I’m sure that her quality of life was wonderful. Knowing you, you’ve even been carrying her around, right?" Kevin looked embarrassed, and Doctor Wexler smiled. “But now we have to decide if she can have that quality of life anymore. I suspect if you take her home she’ll starve herself to death.”

“Shit.”

“She’s old, Kevin, she’s twelve. That’s really a long life for a Lab.”

Kevin rubbed his hand over the light golden stubble on his chin. “Can I be with her, you know, when you do it?”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll bet she’d like that.”

Dr. Wexler left Kevin alone to say his goodbyes to Asia, the dog who had been virtually his only companion for years.

Some time later Kevin stood by the exam table still stroking the soft grey muzzle of his beloved dog.

“Kevin,” Dr. Wexler said, “she’s gone.”

“I know… I know that.” Kevin didn’t turn. Dr. Wexler handed him a cup of coffee.

“I’m so sorry, you know? I never did get used to putting a dog down. You can stay the night, Kev. I’ll respect your privacy,” Kevin felt the doctor's fingers on his jaw—felt him brush the hair behind his ear, “or not. It’s up to you. If you want to stay, I’ll put a little Baileys in that.”

“I think that might be nice.” Kevin tried to remember how long he and James Wexler had been friends with benefits. “I could use the warmth.”

"Me too."
* * * *
The next morning, Kevin pulled his T-shirt over his head when Dr. Wexler—now called James away from his official capacity as Asia’s veterinarian—brought him coffee and a bagel with some kind of cream cheese spread.

“Here. Breakfast, such as it is. I had hoped to serve it in bed but I see we’re playing hit and run today.”

Kevin smiled and ran a hand over James’ kind face. “Not really, I was cold.” He took the bagel and got back on the bed. “We did the right thing, right?”

“Yeah,” whispered James, “I swear to you it was her time.”

“It just sucks so much. She trusted me, you know?”

“I know.” James sat with his back to the headboard, and picked up a newspaper while Kevin rested with his head across James’ thighs. He stroked Kevin’s blonde hair.

“Why do you suppose,” said Kevin, "that it’s never happened between us?”

“You mean, like the coup de foudre?”

“What the hell is that?” Kevin knew full well what it was but refused to admit it.

“It refers to falling in love romantically in an epic way. My mom uses it when she writes her smut novels."

“Seriously.”

“Really. It’s supposed to be a big deal. Send me a postcard if it ever happens to you."

“Right back at you.” Kevin stayed just like that for a while, enjoying the feel of hands in his hair. “You know, I’m really grateful for our friendship though, right? I feel lucky as hell to know you.”

“That’s only because I make good coffee. Hey, look at this—”

Kevin preempted him by untying the sash to his bathrobe and placing a cold hand on his cock.

“That’s funny.” James put the paper aside. “He never has a second cup at home.”
* * * *
Kevin hated the drive back from James Wexler’s office and dreaded the moment when he’d have to enter his home alone. He put his car in the garage and closed the door, crunching in the snow across the path to get to the front entrance. He stood for a long time, the cold burning his ears and his nose, till he put the icy metal key in the lock and walked inside.

Looking at the living room's rustic furniture and brick fireplace, Kevin wasn’t sure—to tell the truth—if the look was actually rustic, or if it was just old. As he walked, he casually picked up something here or there that belonged to his lab, Asia.

Kevin stacked the toys on the coffee table, and folded the blankets and put them by the front door. He picked up her dog bed, which he had recently been complaining smelled like dog, and breathed in the earthy scent, knowing that it would be in tomorrow’s trash. Eventually, he collected enough things to warrant pulling out a laundry basket to carry them in. He shoved everything into an empty box on the floor of the garage and sealed it. Leaving it there, he returned to the house feeling like an empty box himself.

In the kitchen, Kevin stood and glanced around as if seeing it for the first time. He made a plain ham and cheese omelet, foregoing the usual culinary self-gratification of fresh herbs and flourishes of kosher salt and cracked black pepper. He slid it onto a plate, and grabbed a six-pack of beer to go with it.

It was Sunday, a football day, the day his dog died, and nothing was going to keep him from sleeping on the couch until it was just the hell over.

When the phone rang, at first he thought it was ringing in his dream. He rolled off the couch and stumbled to his feet, smacking his knee on the coffee table on the way to pick it up. He answered just as the machine got it.

“Hello,” he fumbled with the buttons and rubbing his knee, hopping on one foot, “don’t hang up, I’m here. Quinn.”

There was a moment’s silence on the other end of the line.

“Kevin? Is that you?” A familiar voice. “It’s Carl.”

“I told you to forget this number.”

“I don’t blame you for not wanting to talk to me after everything that happened in Colorado. I was damned sorry, and I tried to make sure—”

“Save it. It’s Sunday, so make what you have to say brief.”

“I see. Well, you’re needed.”

“I’ve hung up the going-out-of-business sign at ‘Intuitives R Us’. Say anything you want to say before I hang up on you.”

“Geez,” said Carl. “Did I or did I not give you respect? It wasn’t me that ambushed you. It wasn’t me that leaked the story to the press. I’m in a different department in a different city, and I swear, it will not be the same. You'd be home.”

“What is it?” Kevin asked, hating himself for it, but knowing he couldn’t sit around listening for toenails clicking across the linoleum that weren’t there anymore.

“Kids." Carl said the one word guaranteed to get Kevin's attention. "Somebody’s taking young boys. No evidence, no trace, no ransom demands, and no bodies ever show up. It’s like the Rapture happened, and we’re all left behind.”

“Well, we both knew that was going to happen.”

“Speak for yourself,” Carl replied. “Please, Kevin. We have nothing. They’re being taken at the rate of about one a month, but last month, there were two.”

“Escalating?”

“Or copycat. But I don’t think so.”

“Fax me.”

“What the hell did you just say to me?”

“I said, FAX me. Everything you can, all the particulars, agency and press.”

“I misheard,” Carl said quietly.

“You bet you did. It’s cold here, but not that cold.”

“Same number?”

“Yeah, give me time to set it up. I wasn’t kidding when I said I was out of the business.”

“Okay, call me when you’ve read it.”

“One more thing,” Kevin said. “It goes without saying that I’m a ghost. Nobody sees me; nobody knows I’m there. No press calling me names like ‘outside psychic consultant.’ It makes me feel like that Brit who talks to dogs. Don’t screw that up or I’ll never, ever speak to you again.”

“Even though I’m married to your sister?”

“Especially because you’re married to my sister.”

“Geez, all right, just look at the fax, Kev,” said Carl. “Then call me.”

Kevin hung up the phone. “You don’t get to call me Kev."

Why was Carl calling him today of all days? It was only a week till Christmas. It wasn’t like he was planning to celebrate with anyone, but to start a case just before Christmas? That was like pissing on the goodwill toward men part of the holiday.

Turning the sound back up on the game, Kevin went to plug in his fax machine. He loaded it with paper, and tried not to wait for it to hum to life. After about a half an hour, it started to spew pages and pages of information. Kevin was completely captivated by the picture of the first boy taken, back in July. He looked at what was probably a school photo, and felt that gnawing ache he always felt for the parents of these missing kids.

It was hopeless to refuse. As soon as he saw one innocent face he knew he'd get involved in the case until he was successful or kicked to the curb. Both had happened.

He dialed Carl's number from memory.

“Lubbock.” Carl picked up right away.

“Get me a ticket. I’m in, damn it.”

“Merry Christmas to you too. I’ll fax a reservation confirmation, and get you a room or something. I’ll assume you don’t want to be part of the festivities at the Quinn household?”

“Not a chance.” The idea of seeing his father was unbearable. “A room is fine, cheap is good.”

“Okay,” said Carl. “But I think Himself regrets…”

“Not a chance. That’s a deal-breaker. Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said Carl, “I’ll be seeing you.”

“Bye.” Kevin hung up.

Kevin collected some things from the laundry and got out a pilot case and a carry- on. They were dusty with disuse. It had been a long time since he’d ventured away from his home. Except for that disastrous trip to Colorado he had hardly traveled at all.

Kevin emailed his latest manuscript to James’ mother, Ana Wexler, to edit and pass on to her publisher, glad that as far as he could tell James was none the wiser. He dreaded the day that James realized it was he, not James’ mother who wrote all those lurid romance novels. He didn’t think James would let him live it down, even if he knew that was how Kevin had been able to pay all those veterinary bills.

Pride wasn’t tasty and a man had to eat.

Kevin muttered words like ‘idiot’ and ‘stupid waste of time’ to himself—even as he dragged his pilot case out of the airport shuttle. His plane would be making two stops before it even reached John Wayne International, Orange County, California’s only commercial airport. Someone would no doubt be waiting to pick him up, like always, to drive him around and generally babysit. The most fun part of the whole affair, usually, was trying to figure out what the poor bastard had done to deserve such a fate.

Duet
One
Kent, England—1758
NOT all of Malcolm Byerly’s passions put him at risk of imprisonment. Music and learning were safe enough pastimes, and he eagerly pursued both as substitutions for the love denied him by his nature. If the closest he’d come to romance was sweet love songs played upon the strings of a violin, at that he could excel.

From the longing in his soul sprang melodies of passion and harmonies of desire, things of which he dreamed and never hoped to have, for danger lurked in the having. Better a solitary existence than to forfeit honor, or worse, to partake of forbidden fruit.

Sometimes, when he tucked the instrument beneath his chin, he unleashed not the joys of affection but sorrows and disappointments, the mournful cries of his violin giving voice to loneliness in a tongue few understood. On the fateful night he set foot on the road to destiny, the notes formed on the strings fluently spoke the language of heartbreak.

He’d paused to scribble notes in the margin of a music sheet when the bells tolled in the courtyard, marking the hour and summoning him to the dining hall. He sighed, regretting the interruption. Alas, the school maintained strict rules and didn’t tolerate tardiness in the students or the staff. The headmaster lectured endlessly on the grave responsibility of teaching young minds and the necessity of practicing self-discipline in order to properly instruct another. After putting away the violin and vowing a quick return, Malcolm left his sanctuary and joined the throng heading for the evening’s repast, the notes of his latest composition echoing in his mind.

The usual faculty members took their places on the long benches on either side of his assigned table, mostly older, gray-haired men who’d been with the school many years—bachelors who, like himself, resided in the dormitories. Bitter old maids, Malcolm usually thought of them. However, a few were closer to his age of twenty-three and too new to their scholarly profession for such cynicism.

A handsome stranger occupied the formerly empty place at the table, peering up with piercing blue eyes from beneath a cascade of dark brown hair. An easy smile on a pleasing face ignited a spark of recognition from deep within Malcolm. Something long buried bloomed to life—attraction. Without knowing quite how, Malcolm recognized another lover of men.

He seated himself beside the stranger, willing his pounding heart to calm. Their legs met under the table, sending a jolt of pure desire shooting straight to his groin.

A hint of a blush crept up the stranger’s face. “I’ve been told you’re the gentleman who played the violin earlier in the dormitory. You play wonderfully. I’m Kinnerley, Thomas Kinnerley. And you’re Malcolm Byerly, if I’m not mistaken.” He appeared young and fervent, all bright eyes and bashful smile.

Malcolm’s cheeks flushed hotly and he struggled to accept the compliment with grace. “Thank you. My apologies if I disturbed you. Before the evening bell is the only time I can practice.”

“Oh, no!” the man assured him. “I never learned to play myself, and I’m fascinated by those who can. The song you played, how melancholy. What was it?”

Malcolm’s blush deepened, and he felt somehow exposed that another had been privy to what were, in essence, his most personal thoughts. Since the other teachers never commented on his music, he’d assumed they didn’t listen. “It’s nothing. A little something I’m working on.” He hoped the man wouldn’t believe him boastful.

“A composer! How marvelous!” Thomas Kinnerley beamed, causing a squirming, not entirely unpleasant sensation in Malcolm’s belly.

A stern look from one of their dining companions hushed them. Apparently, the elders frowned upon Thomas’s enthusiasm, much as they frowned upon everything else. Malcolm solemnly swore never to take his anger and bitterness out on the world around him, no matter how old and disillusioned he grew.

He focused on the others’ conversations while munching his portion of roast chicken, occasionally distracted by the beguiling brush of Thomas’s leg against his own. His cock throbbed throughout the entire meal. What harm lay in privately enjoying the accidental contact? He discovered a few moments later that the casual attention wasn’t accidental.

After several of their peers left the table, Thomas leaned in, pressing his leg to Malcolm’s more directly. He quietly suggested, “Perhaps some evening I can come to your room whilst you play?”

Malcolm froze. Thomas couldn’t mean…. He studied the new teacher, from the heated sidelong glances and the suggestively lifted brow, to the slight, smirking upturn of lips. The hand casually stroking his thigh removed any lingering doubts of Thomas’s intent.

Breath caught in his throat, Malcolm scanned the table for possible witnesses. Those remaining sat too far away or seemed too deeply engaged in their own conversations to notice. “I’m sure that would be highly inappropriate!” he hissed, reluctantly pulling his leg from Thomas’s. His traitorous body naysaid him, creating an unmistakable bulge in his breeches.

Thomas gave Malcolm’s thigh a light squeeze before removing his hand. “I merely wish to hear your music,” he said. A wink and a brazen look added heat to the words.

Malcolm stammered, “I… I’m not like that!” Terrified of being overheard, he sank lower on the hard wooden bench, praying his far-too-forward admirer would go away before the whole world knew his secret.

Thomas was either naΓ―ve or unafraid of the consequences. Malcolm, however, had no intention of skulking back to his father’s house, tail between legs because he’d been dismissed from a post, or worse—bearing the accusation of sodomy and facing the full punishment of the law.

“Your words lie,” the young teacher persisted. “I can tell what you are and what you want.”

Struggling with the urge to flee, Malcolm pleaded with his eyes for understanding. “What I want is to finish my meal and retire to my room—alone.”

From down the table, another teacher laughed, obviously misunderstanding what little he’d overheard. “That’s the problem, Byerly—you spend too much time alone. If you’ve no need of a wife, I know of a reputable place not far from here. The ladies are comely and affordable, even on our salaries.”

Few topics captured the attention of the older, single teachers housed at the school, which was a beacon of higher learning where the sons of the wealthy and titled received their educations. Women, or rather prostitutes, were one of them. The remaining men expressed opinions on the subject or made suggestions about their favorite ladies. All except for Malcolm and the new arrival.

“I’m very tired tonight,” Malcolm stated. “I believe I’ll retire early. If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen.” Outwardly, he rose and calmly walked away; inwardly, he ran, too afraid to take a chance. Thomas didn’t follow. Malcolm’s emotions bounced from relief to disappointment.

The next night, he deliberately came to the table late, risking the wrath of the headmaster. An empty place remained at the opposite end from Thomas, who seemed fully occupied, smiling and nodding, conversing with another. Good, maybe there’d be no repeat of last night’s advances. How dare the man make such a suggestion openly, where anyone might overhear! Nevertheless, in the pit of Malcolm’s gut lingered the bitter pill of regret. Deep down, he wanted the attention, wanted to accept Thomas’s offer, not daring to admit the truth.

Occasionally, Thomas’s admiring gaze found his, full of longing. A kindred spirit. After all these years, he’d met someone like himself whom he found desirable. Malcolm hardly touched his meal, too busy waging an inner war with his conscience. Did he dare cast aside years of hiding and take a chance? Could he and Thomas conduct a discreet affair, leaving none the wiser? After excusing himself, he wasn’t surprised to hear footsteps behind him in the courtyard separating the dining hall from the dormitories.

Taking a deep breath and exhaling sharply, Malcolm waited. He turned to find an eager, expectant face—eagerness he intended to crush.

“I’m sorry for my forward behavior last night,” Thomas began. “When I first laid eyes on you, I knew you were like me, and I—”

Malcolm didn’t let him finish. “Thomas,” he said, a shake of his head sending curls bouncing around his face. “I’m not like you. You’re bold, I’m not. You’re daring, I’m a coward.” A quick glance ensured their privacy before his eyes found his would-be suitor’s and held them. Very deliberately, he spoke rehearsed words to destroy what might well be his one chance at happiness in this place. “What you seek cannot be found here.”

Unwilling to witness Thomas’s pain—the same pain and rejection he’d always felt in his own soul—Malcolm fled across the courtyard, slamming the door once he’d reached his tiny room. The rough wood bit into his back and he leaned against it, burying his face in his hands. Why did he have to be this way? Why couldn’t he, like his brothers, want the love of a woman instead of a man? Why couldn’t he be content to marry and father children?

Afterward, he and Thomas remained politely civil, limiting their talk to matters of the school and other innocent topics. Gradually, the yearning in those blue eyes faded. Months passed, and a new empty space appeared at the table when a teacher left for a private post. A few nights later, a replacement arrived, an energetic blond with a hearty laugh and an infectious grin. Malcolm liked him immediately and, apparently, Thomas did too.

Malcolm watched the two leaning together as they chatted, an ache of loneliness building in his chest. What would it be like to give in to temptation, to experience firsthand being held, being loved?

All he knew of such were the boastful stories of his peers about female conquests, involving lust, not love. Forcing his eyes to stay on his plate, Malcolm turned deaf ears to the murmured voices around the table, Thomas and the blond’s in particular, as the food turned to sand in his mouth.

The torturous ritual continued for weeks. By day he focused on filling the minds of his students; each evening he sat and watched what he’d thrown away, pretending not to care. During that time, no tender songs emerged from his violin, only requiems of desolation and emptiness. One night, he arrived at the table to find two places conspicuously empty, as they remained throughout the meal. Oddly enough, at a table full of gossips and “brothers’ keepers,” no one mentioned the missing men and all eyes studiously avoided the vacant seats. Appearances in the dining hall were mandatory. Though bold, surely Thomas wouldn’t risk a reprimand, knowing such an absence would be noted?

Unable to tame his curiosity, Malcolm asked, “We’re missing two of our ranks tonight. Are they ill?”

His fellows grew uncomfortably quiet. “You mean you haven’t heard?” the man sitting beside him finally spat. “Seems we had two sodomites in our midst. Caught them at a molly house. Don’t you worry, we know how to deal with the likes of them.” The man’s beefy hand rested on the table, the knuckles torn and swollen.

Malcolm swallowed hard, his eyes darting from one stern face to the next. Some of the teachers nodded agreement while others kept their eyes downcast. A dark bruise marred one’s cheek, a deep gash another’s. What had they done? And why had Thomas and his friend visited a molly house? Didn’t they only need each other? Malcolm heard tales of such places, safe havens for men who desired other men, too reticent to pass the door. Denying his curiosity appeared now to have been a wise decision.

Thankfully, no one observed him too closely, or if they noticed the flush of embarrassment on his cheeks and the horror in his eyes, they mistook his discomfort for indignation at having been exposed to such vile men. He dropped his hands beneath the table to hide their trembling. Afraid to press further and reveal his true interest in the men’s fates, like a coward, Malcolm joined Thomas’s accusers. “Serves them right, too, if you ask me,” he muttered, while inwardly praying for the two lost souls.

By unspoken agreement, the teachers never mentioned the offenders again. That didn’t stop Malcolm from thinking of them often, wondering what had become of them, and whether their few shared moments had been worth the price they’d paid.

Although he’d rejected Thomas, Malcolm still felt a kinship to the lovely brunet with the expressive sapphire eyes, and deeply mourned the loss of a good teacher. In the evenings, alone in his room, conjured images of the ill-fated lovers filled Malcolm’s mind, and when his bow caressed the strings of his violin, he named the result, Thomas’s Lament.

Night after night, he sat at the table, studying face after face, trying to decide which of his fellows passed judgment and who’d stood idly by, and what he himself would have done had he been present. How Malcolm came to dread those times and the painful memories dredged from the depths of his consciousness where he tried to keep them safely locked. Upon whose hands did Thomas’s ruin reside?

Fate had spared Malcolm, but for how long? If any discovered his true desires, would they care that he’d not acted on them? Probably not. Suspicion alone would prompt action. He never learned precisely what heinous cruelty his peers endured. Most likely they’d been beaten, judging by the injuries he’d witnessed. And the careers of both men were over, their reputations damaged beyond redemption. Had they been dragged through the streets, cursed at and spat upon, as Malcolm had once witnessed?

The punishment could be quite severe if they’d been caught in the act. The two men could face the pillory or, at this very moment, be languishing in prison. For Malcolm, his absence from the jeering crowd mattered little. He knew he was too weak and afraid to take a stand. He’d told Thomas the truth when he’d confessed, “I am a coward.”

Soon, his imagination created trouble where none existed before. Were the other teachers watching him? Did they suspect? Guilt and fear gnawed constantly at his belly, his unease growing with each passing day. He needed to leave Kent before he, too, fell victim to self-righteous judgment.


“MASTER Byerly, you have a letter.”

Malcolm glanced up one early spring evening into the sweet face of his deliverer, who unknowingly handed him salvation. He stared down at a flowery script he’d not seen in years, recognizing the handwriting immediately—his former teacher’s, from whom he’d learned music.

Dearest Malcolm, the letter began, I’ve found a position for you in Scotland…

Dear Master Edward, who’d shocked one and all by leaving a prestigious position in Kent for the wilds of Scotland, had remembered him.

There is a family of my acquaintance in need of a tutor for their sons. Forgive my presumption, but I recommended you, dear student and friend, remembering how fondly you once spoke of your ambition to visit Scotland.

Relief flowed through Malcolm, and he didn’t try to hide a smile, the unfamiliar gesture causing his cheeks to ache. “I’ve received a letter from my mentor!” he announced to the men he’d secretly begun referring to as the angry mob.

With great satisfaction he tendered his resignation. The letter enabling his escape was tattered and worn from nearly constant handling by the time he traded familiar surroundings for the unknown of the Scottish Highlands. All his life, he’d done as expected, head down to avoid notice. Now he feared obscurity wouldn’t be protection enough. For once in his life, he’d do something daring, something bold.

Packing his precious violin, a few books, and other meager possessions took a mere handful of minutes. To avoid his sire’s admonishments that he’d soon return in shame, upon leaving Kent, Malcolm sent a letter back home to be delivered long after his departure.

He left with his head held high, determined never to look back.

Author Bios:
Theo Fenraven
Theo Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is hot and sunny much of the year. I'm a writer of m/m romance, mystery, and adventure. I'm also a better than average photographer. Follow my blog, where I talk about writing, self-publishing, my dog Suki, the state of the world, and just about anything that catches my interest.


Author Bio:
Abigail Roux was born and raised in North Carolina. A past volleyball star who specializes in sarcasm and painful historical accuracy, she currently spends her time coaching high school volleyball and investigating the mysteries of single motherhood. Any spare time is spent living and dying with every Atlanta Braves and Carolina Panthers game of the year. Abigail has a daughter, Little Roux, who is the light of her life, a boxer, four rescued cats who play an ongoing live-action variation of 'Call of Duty' throughout the house, a certifiable extended family down the road, and a cast of thousands in her head.

Damon Suede
Damon Suede grew up out-n-proud deep in the anus of right-wing America, and escaped as soon as it was legal. He has lived all over and along the way, he’s earned his crust as a model, a messenger, a promoter, a programmer, a sculptor, a singer, a stripper, a bookkeeper, a bartender, a techie, a teacher, a director... but writing has ever been his bread and butter. He has been happily partnered for over a decade with the most loving, handsome, shrewd, hilarious, noble man to walk this planet.

Though new to gay romance, Damon is an award-winning author who has been writing for print, stage, and screen for two decades, which is both more and less glamorous than you might imagine. He's won some awards, but he counts his blessings more often: his amazing friends, his demented family, his beautiful husband, his loyal fans, and his silly, stern, seductive Muse who keeps whispering in his ear, year after year.

ZA Maxfield
Z.A. Maxfield is a fifth-generation native of Los Angeles, although she now lives in the O.C. She started writing in 2007 on a dare from her children and never looked back. Pathologically disorganized and perennially optimistic, she writes as much as she can, reads as much as she dares, and enjoys her time with family and friends. If anyone asks her how a wife and mother of four manages to find time for a writing career, she’ll answer, “It’s amazing what you can do if you completely give up housework.”

Eden Winters
Eden Winters was captivated young by storytelling, and her earliest memories include spinning tales for the family’s pets. Her dreams of writing professionally took a sojourn into non-fiction, with a twelve-year stint in technical documentation.

She began reading GLBT novels as a way to better understand the issues faced by a dear friend and fell in love with the M/M romance genre. During a discussion of a favorite book, a fellow aficionado said, “We could do this, you know.”

Good-bye gears, motors, and other authors’ characters; hello plots and sex scenes. This has resulted in such prize-winning stories as Settling the Score, The Angel of Thirteenth Street, Naked Tails, The Wish, Duet, and Diversion.

Somewhat of a nomad, Eden has visited seven countries so far. She currently calls the southern US home, and many of her stories take place in the rural South. Having successfully raised two children, she now balances the day job with hiking, rafting, spoiling her grandchildren, and stalking the wily falafel or elusive tofu pad Thai at her favorite restaurants. Her musical tastes run from Ambient to Zydeco, and she’s a firm believer that life is better with fur kids and Harley Davidsons.


Theo Fenraven
GOOGLE+  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  ARe
EMAIL: fenraven@gmail.com

Abigail Roux
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
TUMBLR  /  GOOGLE+  /  GOOGLE PLAY
CAFE PRESS  /  ARe  /  RIPTIDE
EMAIL: abiroux@gmail.com

Damon Suede
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
GOOGLE+  /  ARe  /  AMAZON
EMAIL: press@DamonSuede.com


ZA Maxfield
FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  CARINA
ARe  /  AMAZON  /  GOODREADS

Eden Winters

FACEBOOK  /  TWITTER  /  WEBSITE
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  ARe
AMAZON  /  DREAMSPINNER  /  GOODREADS
EMAIL: edenwinters@gmail.com



Wolf Bound


The Bone Orchard
B&N  /  KOBO  /  ARe

My Haunted Blender's Gay Love Affair, and Other Twisted Tales
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK
B&N  /  KOBO  /  ARe
RIPTIDE  /  GOODREADS TBR

Horn Gate
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  AUDIBLE  /  iTUNES
iTUNES AUDIO  /  GOOGLE PLAY  /  ARe
DREAMSPINNER  /  GOODREADS TBR

The Long Way Home
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK
B&N  /  KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe
SMASHWORDS  /  GOODREADS TBR

Duet
AMAZON US  /  AMAZON UK  /  B&N
KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  ARe  /  GOOGLE PLAY
DREAMSPINNER  /  GOODREADS TBR


1 comment:

  1. Wow, I get another mention during your Halloween blast of books. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete