Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Random Paranormal Tales Part 9

Raincheck by Sarah Madison
Rodney isn’t like other gargoyles. No doubt it’s because of his fascination with humans and their culture. For decades he’s been content to observe from the shadows, but then a lonely human wanders onto Rodney’s rooftop one night and turns his world upside down. David Marshall is everything Rodney has wanted in all his years of solitude. Rodney manages to keep his crush and his identity a secret until David needs a gargoyle’s protection more than late-night conversations with a reclusive friend. Will David be able to see past the monstrous exterior to the true person within? Time is running out, and Rodney must try to grab onto life—and love—before it’s too late.

A Little Familiar by R Cooper
A powerful witch, Piotr Russell has resigned himself to loneliness, because ordinary humans can’t know what he is, and other witches are intimidated by his abilities. Generations of Russells have lived and died with only their familiars at their side. The presence of a friendly familiar is enough to keep even the loneliest witch sane, and yet Piotr deliberately hasn’t chosen one. He forces himself to keep busy instead, but the emptiness of his house haunts him even more the spirit of Great-Great-Aunt Elysia in the parlor. With Samhain and Halloween approaching, he’ll have much to do, and knowing that, his concerned coven seizes the chance to intervene and sends help to his door in the form of Bartleby Dorchester.

The rarest of rare jewels, Bartleby is a human familiar: a witch with no magic of his own, and a desire to find a strong witch to help and serve. In particular, he desires to help and serve Piotr, and everything in Piotr wants to let him. Bartleby was meant to be his familiar; Piotr knows it as surely as he knows when it will rain or when the apples in his garden will ripen. But what Piotr wants from Bartleby, all he’s ever wanted, is for Bartleby to love him, something he thinks is impossible.

Russells live and die unloved, and he won’t allow Bartleby to feel obligated to spend his life with him as his familiar if he could be happy in love with someone else. But Samhain is a time for change, when walls come down and borders grow thin, and Bartleby isn’t going to waste what might be his last chance to convince Piotr that they were meant to be. He might have no magic, but love is a power all its own.

This was a nice change of pace to read this Halloween season.  There is still witches and magic but the only bad guy in the story is Piotr's own determination not to let his feelings for Bartleby be known but Bartleby is equally determined to fulfill his love for the witch.  This is the first time I have read R Cooper but it won't be the last, I look forward to checking out the author's past and future works.


The Circus of the Damned by Cornelia Grey
Magician Gilbert Blake has spent his entire life conning drunkards in the seediest pubs in the darkest towns, careful to hide the true depths of his power. But when he spends a little too much time in Shadowsea and the infamous slumlord Count Reuben gets wind of his abilities, hiding within the Circus of the Damned may be Gilbert’s only chance at survival.

But there’s more to the Circus than meets the eye. Every time a performer dies, a new one must take his place, or the entire circus suffers the consequences. And while the handsome ringmaster Jesse isn’t one to coerce unwilling performers into giving up their souls to the devil, a recent death in their ranks makes Gilbert exactly what they need.

Yet the longer Gilbert stays with the Circus, the more danger he seems to bring them. Being with Jesse is more than Gilbert could have hoped for, but as Count Reuben’s men continue to search for Gilbert and the Circus loses another performer, they all face running out of time long before the Devil claims his due.

The Ghost and Mr. Moore by Ryan Field
When a famous child actor, Dexter Moore, leaves Hollywood and moves to Provincetown, MA, with his daughter and his longtime housekeeper, he doesn't expect to find that his new house is haunted. And especially not with the ghost of a strong, virile young sea captain who looks like Hugh Jackman and makes love like no other living man Dexter has known.

But Dexter must deal with more important things than ghosts. He soon discovers that his ex-partner lost all his money in a bad investment and Dexter is forced to go back to work. So he reluctantly agrees to do an intrusive TV show, where he is followed with cameras for three months. If he doesn't, he'll have to sell his magnificent new home and move back to Hollywood.

In order to make the TV show more interesting, Dexter's new best friend gets him involved in a heated town dispute. The new president of the chamber of commerce wants to cancel a town tradition and start something new, and half the town is against him. But Dexter doesn't get involved with this for the TV show or ratings. He's only interested in helping people and saving an important fundraiser from being canceled.

While all this is happening, Dexter slowly gets to know the ghost of handsome Captain Lang. He's the only one who can see and hear Lang. They make passionate love together, they spend long hours talking about Dexter's strong feelings, and they start working on a series of books about Captain Lang's notorious adventures at sea that will ensure Dexter's financial future. But when the books are finished and the two men finally admit they are in love, how will they reconcile their feelings with reality?

As I love the movie The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, I was intrigued after reading the blurb for The Ghost and Mr. Moore.  I was not disappointed.  This is a great story, tongue-in-cheek at times, serious at others, but entertaining all the way through.  A ghost story set around love and determination to make it work even when everything seems impossible.  A fun read from beginning to end.


Intercession by Pepper Espinoza
After fifty years of searching for his lost brother, vampire David Derringer attempts the unimaginable: he bends his knee in prayer. While he doesn’t believe, his mother’s faith was strong, and her final request—a request made the night she and David died—keeps David on the path to his younger brother, Danny, despite the many obstacles.

David doesn’t expect his prayer to be answered. He certainly doesn’t expect an angel to intercede on his behalf.

Jophiel is tasked not only with helping David find his brother but with saving David’s soul. It seems like an impossible assignment meant to punish him, especially when they must face the Brotherhood of St. Rocco, an organization dedicated to eradicating vampires.

But David has a chance to prove he’s not like other vampires when he meets Arthur, a young man with a secret and a death wish. Following a very steamy encounter, Arthur expects to be bitten. David never even drops his fangs. Which is a good thing, since Arthur might be the key to finding Danny before it’s too late.

RODNEY opened one eye and glanced up at the sky when the first drop of rain hit his nose. He sighed. Well, after all this unrelenting heat, a little rain was probably a good thing. Still, it made for an unpleasant night, particularly if the storm blew over quickly and left nothing but a steamy, sauna-like atmosphere behind.

As was his usual habit, he scanned his surroundings as best he could without actually moving just yet. The last rays of light were fading from the sky, the cars below beginning to turn on their headlights. Across the street, the skyscrapers began to light up from within. He could make out the movement of people inside some of the windows, like ants behind a wall of glass. Not that he’d ever seen an ant farm, but he’d read about them.

It should be safe enough. People seldom came up to the rooftop these days, especially now in the summer’s furnace of heat. Cautiously, he turned his head. Yep. Empty. The rain began to fall in a steady patter, slicking his skin and darkening the tarpaper on the roof below him. A small gust of wind stirred up the remains of some dead leaves and sent them skittering against the balustrade.

He glanced down at the supporting stone structure at his feet. The cement beneath his toes clearly showed a wide crack. Was it his imagination, or was it bigger tonight than it had been the night before? He didn’t know. All he knew was unless someone patched his base, at some point soon he’d go tumbling down thirty floors to the street below. Never mind the pedestrians and traffic; it wouldn’t be so good for him either.

Carefully, he eased himself off the damaged pedestal and, gripping the balustrade, swung lightly over the low rail to land on the rooftop. Ah, well. There was nothing he could do about it. It wasn’t as if he could head into the nearest hardware store and buy the necessary supplies needed to fix his own perch. The idea amused him, however, and he pictured himself walking into a supply store, his claws ticking on the tiled floor as he made his way to the information desk and asked for assistance. In his mind’s eye, salesgirls screamed and fainted, dropping inelegantly to the floor, while customers turned, white-faced and horrified, to shrink against the walls. And he, Rodney, walked out of the store with a basket under one arm, everything he needed to repair his base and get on with the next hundred and fifty years or so of his life.

Unless, of course, his building was torn down. Then it wouldn’t matter if his support disintegrated right out from under him. It could happen; he knew that. Older buildings like his were knocked down every day to make way for newer, larger, shinier ones. Was that such a bad thing? He didn’t know. Maybe this was all there was. Maybe he’d lived all the life he could have reasonably expected to live and to want something more was merely crying for the moon.

He stared out across the Hudson River, feeling the cool rain moistening his skin, and he sighed again. It was too soon to stretch his wings. His tail flicked up over one arm and coiled itself around his bicep as he sought the protection of the shadows and waited for darkness to fully descend. It was going to be another long night.

The Circus of the Damned
Chapter One
For the best part of three days, Gilbert Blake sat inside the dark, dank pub. The thin, dirty rain that drenched the dark brick walls of the city, its bowels of iron pipes and cramped alleys, and the pub’s wooden sign hadn’t stopped in all that time. The sign was purple—or it looked like it had been once upon a time—and missing so many letters it was impossible to guess what the pub’s name had been. Gilbert hadn’t cared; he’d just entered and stuck around.

The pub was a crammed underground hole without a single window, the atmosphere rank and suffocating. A narrow wooden door opened on steep iron stairs, encrusted with years’ worth of mud and grease. Drunken patrons yelled and drank and lay passed out in corners, after wasting entire paychecks on dice and cards. In the sawdust-covered pit, bloodstained by a hundred fistfights, a fellow was turning the handle of a potbellied instrument that sounded like a choir of skinned cats.

“So, ready to pick a card, mate? My balls are shriveling up over here,” Gilbert scoffed.

His blond hair and beard were a wild mess, and a tumbler of savage homemade vodka sat by his elbow. He was beyond drunk and about to land the hit that would keep him and Emilia fed for a month. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept or eaten, or even gotten up to take a piss, but he was sprawled like a king on his chair, cards in hand and a smirk firmly planted on his lips. A small crowd surrounded him, watching his every move. His opponent was sweating in a ripped shirt and vest, combing his fingers over and over through his long, brown beard.

Gilbert couldn’t remember exactly when they had started that particular game. Could have been a couple of glasses ago, could have been five bottles. Emilia was asleep, nestled in his scarf, dead to the world, her little body curled in a warm, furry ball against his neck, and there was a considerable pile of cash stacked in the middle of the table. Bills and coins, a golden ring, some brightly colored currency from some country he didn’t know, a lone ruby earring, and what looked suspiciously like a gold tooth that had been ripped out of somebody’s jaw.

Gilbert waved a deck of fanned-out cards under the man’s nose. He’d forgotten the fellow’s name, or maybe hadn’t even bothered to ask it. He chugged back the last of his vodka and decided to call him Bristlesprout.

With a suspicious glance and a grunt, Bristlesprout carefully selected a card and yanked it out, slapped it against the table, and covered it with a ham-sized hand while shooting threatening looks all around, as if daring the others to steal it from him.

“Anyone tries to help this wanker, I’m gonna break your fingers,” he warned, looking at the ragtag crowd through bloodshot eyes. The faint of heart took a step back. Everyone else pushed even closer. “I know somebody’s working with him.”

Gilbert smiled and waved his hand over his glass, which swiftly filled back up. Everyone’s eyes were on the glittering pile of coins, though, so only a skinny drunkard rubbed his eyes in disbelief, then went in search of a stiffer drink. He knew better than to call out the tall, muscular man with the seemingly magic powers.

Bristle had his reasons to be suspicious. Gilbert had already materialized in his own hand the cards that the man had hidden in his pocket, his beard, and most notably, the crack of his ass. Oh, he’d given the fellow some breathing room too. No gambler would bet against someone who always won. Winning every time wasn’t the goal, and neither was impressing the bystanders. The goal was coaxing more and more cash out of the pockets of his adversaries, letting them win occasionally to push them to raise the stakes, then making them slowly drop out one by one with swift moves, apparently strokes of blind luck—until he was left with one poor bastard drunk enough and gullible enough to empty his pockets on the table. In this case, his new friend Bristlesprout.

Gilbert had purposefully botched the last two tricks, failing to guess the card that Bristle had creatively hidden in his underpants—it had been the three of spades, and Gilbert would do without that card from now on, thank you very much—and spectacularly embarrassing himself when trying to make a coin disappear in his palm and instead causing a deluge of quarters to fall from his cuff. That one had brought a roar of laughter from the crowd, convincing everyone that the failed magician was by now too drunk for his own good and was just about ready to be plucked like a chicken.

Bristlesprout had fallen for it like a charm. Seeing his chance, he’d pushed all his winnings forward, even producing that golden tooth to add to the considerable pile. Gilbert had made a big scene of rummaging in the pockets of his black leather jacket, sighing and complaining and commiserating his bad luck, looking like he could barely scrape together the amount.

Oh, he could look like a miserable loser when he wanted to. It was a remarkable talent.

“Now, take this.” Gilbert snapped his fingers under the table, and a black crayon materialized out of thin air. Then he handed it to Bristlesprout. “Write something on the card. Or draw, I don’t care. You can turn it over, ’tis not a guessing game this time.”

Shooting him a dark glance, Bristle turned the card over—it was the queen of hearts—and snatched the crayon from Gilbert’s hand. “The fuck you playing at, crook?” He grunted. “I wanna know exactly what stupid trick you’re gonna botch this time. I don’t want no fucking cheating at my table, understand?”

A loud screech came from the pit, attracting everyone’s attention. The disheveled musician was being carried away by the neck by an impressively large man wearing an expensive-looking black suit with a bright-purple band around one arm. The musician’s wooden instrument lay abandoned on the ground. As everyone watched in silence, four other giant men crossed the room, shooting threatening glances at the patrons while surrounding a much shorter, older fellow. This one wore a bright-purple suit and top hat that were rather insulting to the eye.

God damn it. Gilbert followed the man with his gaze, a heavy feeling sinking in his stomach. This was the last thing he needed: Count Reuben himself, owner of the dump and pretty much every other shithole in town. The man controlled a good half of Shadowsea’s less-than-legal activities and was never seen without his personal guard, a cohort of murderers and henchmen whose favorite activity was stomping people to a pulp and tossing them in the river.

Gilbert examined them in mild apprehension as the pub’s staff stumbled over themselves, running around to set out a fancy dining table for Reuben in the bloodstained pit. His guards’ expensive suits were ill fit to their bodies, bulging with muscles, and telltale lumps revealed a knife here, a baton there. Their purple armbands and hatbands now dotted the room.

Gilbert downed his vodka. Damn. He hadn’t planned on having to deal with so many guards. They were already gravitating toward the table—the amount of money strewn over it wouldn’t escape them even in the dark. Hell, they could probably smell it. Oh, Reuben would be pissed that someone was gambling in his den without giving him a cut.

But Gilbert couldn’t leave; he couldn’t give up now. Not after he’d worked so hard, not when he was this close . . .

No. He had to finish this and then just get out. Fast.

He straightened his broad, muscular shoulders and leaned back into the chair with a sharp smile. “Where were we? Oh, right, my friend, our pleasant game. Now, you’re going to mark that card. Anything you want. Then you’re going to hide it, destroy it, dispatch it overseas via carrier pigeon, I don’t fucking care. And I—” He brought his hand to his chest in a theatrical gesture. “—I, the great Gilbert Blake, will bring it back and materialize it in front of your very eyes.”

The crowd murmured with comments and a few derisive snorts here and there. Gilbert had discovered that his boasting speeches made folks see him as an even bigger loser, rather than impressing them. That was fine by him. He wasn’t there to preserve dignity or gain respect; it was cold, hard cash he was after.

Bristlesprout thought it over for a moment. “All right. But on one condition,” he finally said, his eyes gleaming with glee. “I want your hands flat on the table the entire time. For everyone to see. Just wanna make sure you’re not copying my stuff on another of your shitty cards.”

Gilbert swallowed a mocking grin and carefully schooled his features to give off a hint of fear and nervousness, as if his trick had been spoiled. “But—”

“I’m not finished,” Bristle interrupted. “I want everyone on your side of the table to take a step back. Or three. I don’t want anyone near you, nobody who can slip you a card or write on it for you or some shit. I want the fucking desert around you, you got it?”

“B-but I . . .” Gilbert stammered, looking around to gather sympathy from the spectators, eyes skimming over a dozen purple spots at least. Really, he thought smugly, I should have taken to the stage, wooed crowds in theaters all over the country. It was sheer talent, that’s what it was. “I didn’t say that. Surely, a magician can’t be asked to . . .”

“Well, if you want to back out . . .” Bristlesprout spread his arms to embrace the pile of bills and coins on the table. “Of course, that means the jackpot goes to me. But if that’s what you want . . . I’m going to have to take all this money, then.”

Oh, hell yes. He’d fallen for it so hard that Gilbert could have gotten him to bet his fucking balls, too. Time to make his final move and crush him.

Gilbert swallowed, then looked longingly at the money. Emilia stirred against his neck, sniffling, and her long whiskers tickled his skin. “I guess that’s fine.” Reluctantly, he brought his hands down on the table. “The hands thing, I mean. And the people. Looks like I don’t have a choice, do I?”

Under Bristlesprout’s severe gaze, everyone on Gilbert’s side shuffled back, whispering and pushing and elbowing each other. Only the men in purple didn’t budge, but they didn’t come closer, either. Bristle smiled then, like a cat that’d found an unattended bird’s nest and was sharpening his claws for the buffet of the year. He didn’t deign to respond, and he bent his head and started drawing something on the card with great care, the tip of his tongue poking out from his mouth. When he was done, he proudly lifted the card and turned it left and right to show everyone a crude rendition of a cock and a pair of oversized balls pointed at the mouth of the poor queen of hearts.

“That’s . . . quite the piece of art.” Gilbert was about to slap his own forehead in utter despair for the human race, then remembered himself and left his hands lying on the table. “Now make the card disappear.”

“Oh, I intend to,” Bristlesprout assured him, smug smile still firmly in place.

And he really made an effort. He ripped the card in two, then four. He dug in his pockets and produced a gnarled box of matches and lit one after a couple of attempts. As the stench of sulfur hovered over the table, Bristle carefully selected two card pieces and held them over the flame, watching as they blackened and curled up and finally turned to ash, slowly consumed by the fire. He let the border go with a muffled curse as the flame brushed his fingertips, and the final bits turned to ash on the table. Once that was done, he brushed away the ashes, satisfied, and turned his attention to the other two pieces.

Gilbert saw the moment the idea struck the man. Looking, if possible, even smugger than before, Bristlesprout ripped what was left of the card to minute shreds, then shoved the pieces in his mouth. He grabbed his glass, an inch of cheap rum at the bottom, and tossed it all back, swallowing in one gulp. He made a big show of smacking his lips, then burped loudly and settled back in his chair.

“Can’t wait to see how you’re gonna get that back, magician.” He curled his lips to tongue at his not-very-clean teeth. He dug a thick, dirty knife out of his belt and picked his teeth with it, removing one single shred of spit-soaked card. “There, I’m gonna help you out. You can have this,” he said, flicking the sodden piece at Gilbert.

The wet bit of card stuck to his cheek. People laughed, Bristlesprout louder than anyone.

Something went dark in Gilbert’s mind, as though a shutter was abruptly slammed down. Oh, he was a jolly fellow for the most part, but his temper was a little . . . volatile. People who had known him for a while learned that soon enough, learned to recognize when the thunderstorm was rumbling in and flee. But it had been a long, long time since he’d stuck around long enough for someone to get to know him.

So nobody noticed the dark clouds gathering behind his brow, nobody saw how his shoulders stiffened and his strong arms tensed, how his hands turned to claws where they rested on the table. Only Emilia stirred against his neck, not quite waking up, but her light mouse sleep disturbed nonetheless. That little brown mouse had been his only faithful companion for years and had saved his life more than a few times. She knew him. Even asleep, she could tell he was getting worked up.

“You seem determined to make my life difficult,” Gilbert said, not quite able to contain the cruel curl of his lip. Bristle didn’t even notice. He was already celebrating, busy trying to calculate how much he’d just won and eyeing ladies in the crowd that might have been impressed by his wit. “You had a couple of pretty good ideas there.”

And they really had been good ideas. Any third-rate illusionist would be utterly screwed. Without an accomplice to slip him a card with a copy of the dick Bristlesprout had so artistically drawn, no sleight of hand would bring back the original card, so utterly and disgustingly destroyed.

Of course, things were a hell of a lot different when you were playing against an actual magician.

Very slowly, Gilbert lifted his hand, turning it left and right to show everyone it was empty, fingers spread and sleeve pulled back to reveal his wrist, his forearm. Then he slapped the hand down on the tabletop.

He stared at it and focused. His palm grew warm and, under it, he started to feel a hard, smooth surface, very different from the rough, splintery wooden table. Gilbert felt the surface grow and stretch and, as his eyes bore into the back of his hand, he could almost see it—the queen of hearts growing under his palm, just as he pictured it in his mind, down to the last detail, to the hastily scrawled penis.

Then he abruptly lifted his hand, and everyone around the table shouted.

He leaned peacefully back into his chair, letting the smug grin return to his lips, and nonchalantly lifted his hand to pick away the bit of chewed card stuck to his cheek. With his fingertip, he placed it on the lower-right corner of the newly formed card, where he’d left a tiny bit missing. He liked things done well.

People were leaning close and squabbling over the card, ripping it from one another’s hands, talking and yelling. A toothless man tried to gnaw on the card with his bare gums. The men in purple were exchanging meaningful glances across the room, and Gilbert knew his time was running out. He had to wrap things up and take his leave.

“How’d he do it? Man, how the fuck did he do it?”

“No, I can’t believe it. Lemme touch it. Hey, stop hogging—”

“The fucking devil’s helping him. No other way. The devil himself, I tell you . . .”

The only person perfectly quiet in the midst of all the excitement was Bristlesprout himself. He had gone very pale and was sitting very still, hands limp on the table, looking at the smears of ash with a somewhat-dazed air. He lifted his gaze to the card and, as a tattooed lady waved it around, snatched it from her hand and peered at it closely.

Gilbert leaned forward and sunk both hands into the pile of money. He’d been waiting long enough to tuck in. Let Bristle think about it all he pleased.

Oh, that felt good, holding the cold coins and crumpled bills between his fingers. It would keep them fed for a while, him and Emilia. Might even be enough to splurge and buy passage on one of the underground trains toward the coast, to someplace warmer. He would travel in style for once instead of screwing up his spine hobbling along on a goat cart. And it was time to blow this dump of a town. It was burned, now, anyway. Rumors spread fast, and no one else would play against him after tonight.

That was the only downside of the job, really, of working the pubs and gambling holes like he did—one trick and the whole city was useless to him. These folks had very long memories when it came to losing money. That was why his one trick had to be a damn good one: it was the only shot he got, and it had to be worth it.

Truth be told, it usually was, he mused, sweeping coins and rings in his deep pockets, then folding a handful of bills and tucking it in the inside pocket of his leather jacket. He brushed his fingers above the seam and it vanished—the pocket was no more, just a smooth patch of lining. A life of sleepless nights on the streets had given him a lot of time and motivation to cultivate his natural talents, especially when his particular gift could earn him a bed and a warm meal. But with this one, he’d really aced it. And now that he’d been spotted by Reuben and his watchdogs, in addition to the big scene he’d made, he wouldn’t be back here for a long, long while. Provided he didn’t end up in the river instead, courtesy of the count’s men. They didn’t appreciate people causing trouble or failing to pay up a cut, let alone at the same time.

As he tucked in for the last handful of coins, a large, burly hand clamped down on his wrist, pinning it to the table.

“How the fuck’d you do it?” Bristlesprout growled, staring at him with bloodshot and vaguely crazed eyes. They had obviously been playing for longer than Gilbert had thought, and most importantly, had been drinking longer than he’d thought, and the man was suffering from the blow.

Gilbert, not so much, not after that last trick. Using magic was like a peaceful daze floating through his veins, which made him happy and sedated. Or in short, high as hell. When using magic for extended periods of time, he tended to forget a lot of things. Once he’d been at it for a week nonstop, until he’d been shaking and nearly incoherent and had passed out on the floor of a brothel. He’d woken up stripped of all his possessions and feeling as though he’d been chewed up and spat out by an elephant. He was no fool; he knew he’d nearly killed himself. He’d been careful, after that.

Or as careful as he could muster, anyway.

“Told you, man. I’m a magician,” he replied, with what could have been a smile but was really just him baring his teeth. He closed his fist and let his wrist grow warmer until it burned so hot that Bristle had to yank his hand back. Gilbert picked up the ruby ring and twirled it in his palm, then made it disappear. He snapped his fingers. (Yeah, maybe he was slightly high on it still. But man, it felt so fucking good.) “And I never reveal my secrets.”

“The fuck you are. The fuck.” The large, disheveled man in front of him was growing agitated, his pallor quickly turning to a violent flush, his eyes glassy with alcohol and anger. Gilbert saw the tension in Bristle’s muscles, saw the way he was puffing out his chest and squaring his shoulders, rearing up for a fight, and he knew how this was going to end. If the sudden quiet and the watchful eyes surrounding them were any indicator, everyone knew. “You’re a cheat, that’s what you are. A fucking, filthy cheat.”

Gilbert cast a quick glance around. Reuben’s men were closing in, faster now that they risked never getting their hands on part of the money if he got away. His chances of getting out of this with minimal fuss were dwindling fast. And Gilbert was fucking angry. He was tired and intoxicated; he’d been working his ass off for three days, and now it would all be ruined because of this big, drunken moron. And damn his bad luck that Shadowsea’s most infamous slumlord just had to be there.

Gilbert was pissed that he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d slept in an actual bed, let alone had clean sheets. Pissed at the fucking rain that never stopped, at the endless stream of suffocating cities that made up his entire life. Pissed that this was all he had to look forward to: cheap tricks and scams in filthy pubs. Pissed because if Reuben’s men beat him to a bloody pulp out back, there would be no one to mourn him save for a little brown mouse—not a friend, not a lover, not even a mother because nobody wanted a cursed son. And he was pissed, most of all, at Bristlesprout’s livid, sweaty face.

Gilbert narrowed his eyes. “If I were you, I’d shut up now.”

The man was too far gone; he probably hadn’t even heard. “A fucking, filthy cheat, that’s it. I’m not falling for that. You fucking wanker. I’m not gonna let you take my money, you goddamn cocksucker, you freak—”

He fell silent with a strangled sound. He brought his hand to his throat, choking loudly as he began to shake. Growing frantic, he clawed at his skin and heaved, lurching forward as if he was going to puke his guts out. Men and women yelled, shoving and climbing over one another to get out of the way. Bristle’s face was nothing short of purple now. He was sweating buckets, rolling his wide, frantic eyes as he stumbled, toppling the table over with a loud crash, coins spilling all over the floor. The confusion increased as people dove in to get their hands on what little money was left, elbowing the livid Bristle as he fell to his knees, hands around his neck. The men in purple hesitated, taken aback, looking at their boss for orders. Out of the corner of his eye, Gilbert glimpsed Reuben standing up, observing the situation.

Through it all, Gilbert remained seated, legs spread and arms folded—straight-backed and perfectly still, like a merciless king—his gray, ice-cold eyes fixed on the man crawling on the floor at his feet. He was clenching his fist, slowly, inch after agonizing inch, observing the effect it was having. Oh, Bristle would be just fine . . . more or less. But he would think twice about insulting a magician in the future.

Something moved against his neck. Emilia was now poking out from his scarf, her delicate nose quivering as she sniffed the air. She caught on to what was happening soon enough and scuttled up to bite Gilbert’s ear, not too hard but sending him a clear message. Just stop, you moron. He should follow her advice, he really should—that mouse was smarter than he was by a long shot; she’d proved it time and time again. But it was too late now. The show was on.

Bristlesprout was on his hands and knees, his purple face turning blue, drooling, heaving, choking as if he was fucking dying, and a couple of people had mustered enough interest to be worried. Others were skirting around the man, still busy collecting money but trying to be a tad more discreet about it. Not that anyone was doing anything about it; they were just hanging around looking at Bristle and poking him in the side with the tip of their boots.

“D’you think he’s dying?”

“His ticker’s given out, I tell you.”

“Bet he drops dead within the minute.”

“Two minutes! Five quids down.”

Old habits die hard. Gilbert understood, but nobody was going to win the bet, he could promise that.

It was time for the grand finale, before folks started losing interest. Gilbert spread his fingers out in a fluid movement and Bristlesprout heaved with a horrifying hurling noise. His neck swelled monstrously, and something way too big and covered in brown feathers emerged from his unnaturally wide mouth with a sickening, sucking noise. The man tensed, every muscle shaking, his neck and face bright red as, with a final push and a gagging sound, a decent-sized hen tumbled from his mouth and onto the floor, covered in drool. The bird shook herself, looking confused and more than a little offended, then ruffled her feathers with disdain and set off to investigate the crumbs under a table.

The silence was nothing short of deafening.

It was only broken by the hen’s disdainful clucking and the sound of Bristlesprout throwing up on the floor, spreading the stench of alcohol and bile in the already-stinking pub. Yet, people were too shocked to even back off. They no longer know where to look between the man, the hen, and the magician still calmly sitting on his cheap throne.

Bristlesprout lay gasping on the floor, glancing up at Gilbert with a dazed, haunted look on his face, suddenly stone-cold sober, like he’d never been so terrified in his life. Which he probably hadn’t. He wasn’t going to cause any more trouble, Gilbert knew. In fact, he was probably going to spend the next month holed up in a room somewhere, consuming vast amounts of alcohol while trying to convince himself none of it had ever happened. Having a chicken crawl out of your throat would do that to a fellow.

Before Gilbert could even think about backing off and possibly out, a burly hand clasped his arm. One of the men in the black suits meaningfully tilted his head, the purple silk on his hat catching the light. He had a mouth of foul, rotten teeth and breath that could knock a donkey over from a mile away, at least. Gilbert would think of him as Skunktongue. And Skunktongue was pointing at a narrow open door near the fighting pit, leading to a dark back room that promised nothing good.

“Count Reuben was very . . . impressed by your show,” the man said, doing nothing to conceal the threat in his voice. “He would like to speak to you in private. Now.”

The hand on Gilbert’s arm may as well have been an iron grip. There was no way to flee, Gilbert realized with a detached calm as he contemplated his options. He had the feeling that once he got back there . . . he wouldn’t be coming out anytime soon.

So he stood up and broke Skunktongue’s nose with a punch.

The room blew up in a matter of instants. Among crashes, shouts, and curses, punches flew, the pent-up energy of the place finally breaking free like a dynamite explosion. Gilbert didn’t waste time thinking and promptly ducked to avoid a chair somebody swung at him, which crashed into the stomach of a gray-haired fellow, sending him diving into the shouting crowd. Underground gambling dens were volatile at the best of times, let alone after a guy had just thrown up a live chicken. This night, the place was nothing short of a fucking barrel of black powder, and Gilbert had lit the match and tossed it right in.

Gilbert couldn’t tell who was lurching at whom or why, so he dove into the crowd, trying to elbow his way toward the exit. Out. Out. Out. It was his only chance to get away from there.

He blocked a blow with his elbow then proceeded to smash the nose of a redheaded, spidery man, who fell back on a table, sending all the drinks piled on it crashing to the ground. Two large, very unhappy Chinese men lifted the redhead with a growl and tossed him into the crowd, bringing down three random fellows, then lurched toward Gilbert.

He ducked fast, and the two men crashed against two women who sported aviator helmets and were busy choking the daylights out of each other. The four toppled with assorted curses, getting in the way of two Purple Men trying to shove their way through the crowd—and just in time to make way for a flying chair that caught Gilbert on the shoulder, throwing him off balance.

Something small and sharp sank into his other shoulder—teeth. Emilia was very much unhappy about the situation and determined to let him know.

“Sorry,” he muttered, landing on his knees and rolling forward to avoid a kick. He sprang up to grab the purple-circled arm already reaching for him. Gilbert held the man in place as he landed three rapid punches to the stomach, then kicked him away to be promptly swallowed by the roaring crowd. In the brief instant when the tangle of bodies parted to absorb the fellow, Gilbert glimpsed Bristlesprout crawling toward a corner of the pub, muttering to himself. For a split second, Gilbert almost felt sorry for him. Then someone punched Gilbert in the face.

Pain exploded in his nose, shooting through his skull. He cupped his hand over it, groaning as his fingers were coated in warm blood. A familiar screech came from the pit. Somebody had lifted up the musician’s discarded instrument and was swinging it around like an oversized club. The tattooed lady, Gilbert saw before she leaped from the pit with a gleeful war cry and smashed the thing on somebody’s head . . .

A giant hand closed around Gilbert’s neck and yanked him around. He found himself face-to-bleeding-face with Skunktongue, who sported even fewer teeth than before, and whose mouth and chin were covered in spit and blood. “Gotcha, magician,” he growled, spraying blood on Gilbert’s face and lifting a fist big enough to crush Gilbert’s skull like an eggshell. “You’re coming with me, now. But first, I’m going to smash all of your— Ow!”

The man dropped him and staggered back, screeching, arms waving frantically. Emilia had leaped right onto Skunktongue’s face, sinking her teeth into his cheek. By the time he understood what was happening and threw a wild punch at his own face, Emilia had gracefully jumped off, swiftly disappearing into the crowd. Skunk destroyed his own nose and collapsed to the ground like a wet rag.

Oh, Emilia was pissed off all right. She’d be fine; it wasn’t her first brawl—she was just annoyed because she’d been woken from her nap. She hated that. She would find him outside. If he made it out at all, he considered darkly, trying to elbow his way toward the steep stairs. The men in purple were being held back by the brawling crowd, but it was also making it hard for him to reach the—

When the bottle smashed over his head, he heard the crash before he even registered the pain. He stumbled, glass shards cascading down his face and gin soaking his hair, stinging like a motherfucker where his scalp must have been cut open. His knees gave out, and he hit the ground, being shoved and jostled as the fight went on around him. The sea of legs and kicking boots swam before his eyes as he was seized by a sudden bout of nausea that spread from his pounding head all the way to his stomach. The glimpses of purple were getting steadily closer—he couldn’t stop now. He dragged himself upright, vaguely aware that passing out on the floor would mean all his ribs would be shattered and quite possibly his skull kicked in, as well.

Man, that wanker had gotten him good. His head was spinning so badly, he could barely keep his balance, let alone use his magic to push his attackers back or cause stuff to drop on their heads, stopping them so he could escape. He wiped his hands over his bloodied eyes to try to see where he was going, wobbling in the general direction of the stairs. But before he could make any progress, a shout rose above the crashing and cursing and yelling: “The magician! Get him! Count Reuben’s orders!”

As if a wave had ripped through the room, the crowd surged up and crashed toward him, carrying unwilling participants in its wake. Gilbert cursed, stuffed his hands in his pockets to grab two handfuls of coins and tossed them in the air, a glittering rain falling over the crowd. It was enough to distract them for the few moments he needed to dive toward the narrow metal stairs.

Skunk’s now very nasal voice shouted, “He’s getting out! Grab him, grab the bastard!”

There was a burly guard at the door, except instead of keeping people out, he was now looking down at Gilbert with the definite intention of keeping him in—standing tall and broad and ridiculously muscular on the top step. Fuck it. Gilbert charged headlong and, as Guardman leaned in to grab him, Gilbert abruptly bent forward, headbutting him right in the groin. The guy folded over on Gilbert’s back, so he wrapped his arms around the guard’s thighs and simply straightened, heaving him up and over his shoulder, dropping him down the stairs. Guardman toppled down the steps with a sequence of curses and meaty thuds, taking down all of Gilbert’s pursuers in the process. That ought to earn him a few moments.

He burst out of the door, boots skidding on slippery cobblestones, and dove into the maze of alleyways before him.

Chapter Two
Cold rain streamed down his face, falling from the gray sky as dawn approached. Gilbert stumbled on the uneven cobblestones, the trash scattered on the ground, and his own feet, following the pools of gaslights from the scattered streetlamps. His only chance was to hide somewhere in the maze of bricks—anywhere would do since after half a dozen blind turns he couldn’t even tell where the fuck he was. He mostly knew his way around this bloody city, but not when this drunk and running this fast, and certainly not when he was too busy listening for his pursuers to look where the hell he was going.

Skunktongue shouted from somewhere behind him, leading the chase. Forget about the back room, they would clobber him to death right here on the street. He had to keep running, as far as his legs would take him. Which, if the darkness creeping at the corner of his vision was any indicator, was probably not very far.

Skidding around a corner and into another alley, Gilbert barely avoided crashing into bins that stank of dead things and found Emilia running up his leg and around his chest and back to cling once again to his scarf. A sting of relief crossed his aching chest—breathing was growing more painful by the minute—but really, he should have known better than to worry. She had always been smarter than him. Her body was cold and soaking wet against his neck, and she was surely going to sulk at him for a week at least. He’d apologize later, provided he survived, which he was cautiously optimistic about. If only he could find a manhole or some stairs to the roofs; if only his head would stop pounding; if only he could focus, use his magic.

He burst out of the alley and almost ran face-first into roaring fire.

Gilbert couldn’t even scream as he felt his eyebrows and beard singe. He threw himself to the side and crashed headlong into someone. They fell together, entwined, landing with a splash in a puddle as someone gurgled a filthy curse and a rain of hard, round objects pelted Gilbert’s head and shoulders. It was . . . They were . . . skulls, he realized with a start. There were bloody skulls falling from the sky. “What the . . .?”

The scorching fire faded suddenly, as if it had been moved away from him, and somebody spoke. “Humphreys, are you all right?”

“I’m jussst fine. If only this bloody moron would get off my arms . . .” another voice replied, coming from somewhere below Gilbert’s nose. A strange hissing sound, like a whoosh of wind twisted and garbled until it resembled words.

Scrabbling blindly, Gilbert leaned against something thick, smooth, and elastic that twitched and shuddered under his hand. He jerked back, blinking as his vision cleared. He felt more . . . things moving beside him, around him, like rubber snakes slithering away.

The person rose up before him, and Gilbert stared dumbly, still sprawled in the mud. It wasn’t a man. It was . . . God, that bottle to the head must have screwed him up worse than he’d thought because he could swear there was a bloody octopus towering above him, wearing a three-piece suit, rumpled and wet but complete with the polished golden chain of a pocket watch. The jacket had four sleeves, a tentacle in each, and two tentacles poked out from each trouser leg, tips pooling elegantly on the ground to keep it—him?—upright. His skin was dark purple, and he looked agitated—if Gilbert correctly read the expression in those big, black slanted eyes. His tentacles twitched nervously as he straightened his suit. Truth be told, had Gilbert been more coherent, he would be pretty agitated too right about now.

“Don’t you have a tongue, sssir? You could at leassst apologize.”

Dear God, that thing can speak. “Yes. I— You’re right. I’m sorry.” He shook his head, and the wave of pulsing pain kind of helped him stop thinking about Squidlet over there and focus on more pressing matters. “Right. I . . . need help. Please. If you could . . .”

He couldn’t speak clearly. His head was spinning. There was rain and blood in his eyes, and Emilia was squeaking too loudly in his ear. A splash of color caught his attention—a bright-red sign painted on a black, wooden wagon parked just behind the creature. It read, Circus of the Damned.

Oh. Oh. It was starting to make a little more sense now.

A man stepped forward, getting down on one knee before him. He wore a red jacket with polished brass buttons, and a tall stovepipe hat sat on his long red hair. He had an air of authority about him. He might be the ringmaster. And maybe the source of the fire that had nearly burned his face off, given that the man was placing three torches in the ground. He was also quite spectacularly handsome.

Gilbert was stunned for a moment as the man leaned forward to peer at him intently. He had sharp features, a smattering of freckles on his nose and cheeks, and he was staring at Gilbert with the most stunning green eyes he’d ever seen. The vodka and the gin bottle might have something to do with it, as well, because he couldn’t recall getting quite so stupid from staring at someone’s face before. Ever. Something felt all fluttery in his chest, and he lost his breath for a moment.

The man’s brow furrowed as he reached forward, and Gilbert was somehow spellbound at the thought of being touched by him, but then Redhead grabbed him by the collar and gave him a good, hard shake, and the moment crumbled, shattered by the violent hammering in his head.

“Ow, ow, fuck. Stop that, my fucking head—”

“Clear up, mate. Are you sick? Do you need assistance?” Redhead asked, not rude, but not so kind, either. The illusion crumbled further. For his enchanting face, this fellow was not so charming after all.

“Just leave him,” said an annoyed female voice as someone came up behind the ringmaster, leaning forward to look at Gilbert.

He tore his eyes away from the handsome man that currently had his hands on Gilbert and saw a tall woman, her striped, sleeveless shirt revealing the most muscular arms he’d ever laid eyes on. She could have snapped his spine like a twig if she fancied it, and probably without breaking a sweat. Reflexively, Gilbert shot her a bright smile. She had a lovely, rounded face, with carefully arranged black curls and a bright-red flower pinned to her hair. And she most definitely did not seem impressed.

She answered his smile with an eye roll. “He’s a drunk, and a sleazy one at that. We have no time to waste with the likes of him. Just leave him on the bloody pavement, and let’s move on.”

“Drunk or not, we’re not about to let a man drown in a puddle in the middle of the street, or”—the ringmaster leaned closer and sniffed, then drew back with a grimace—“in his own vomit, more likely. Mate, how much have you had to drink? You reek like a goddamn distillery.”

No, that’s the gin bottle that was smashed on my head, Gilbert wanted to protest, but his tongue was tangled in his mouth.

“And look. He’s bleeding.” The supposed ringmaster grabbed Gilbert’s nape and unceremoniously tilted his head down. Redhead’s fingers were steady and warm on his skin, which was damp and chill from the rain, and his body reacted to the man’s touch, a heated thrill sizzling in his veins.

A yell and a crash came from far too close, abruptly waking him from his stupor. “That goddamn magician, I swear! Find him!”

Fuck, they were still after him, the relentless bastards. Gilbert had to snap out of it and sort himself out if he didn’t want to end up beaten to a bloody pulp in front of Redhead’s beautiful green eyes.

“Leave it, that’s not going to kill me,” Gilbert muttered, grabbing the stranger’s arm to push his hand off. He nodded toward the alley behind him. “But the gang of angry drunks that’s chasing after me might. Please—” he looked around, then pointed at the black wagon “—hide me in there. I didn’t do anything bad, all right? It’s just a stupid brawl, I swear. Help me, take me with you. I can pay, I . . .”

He trailed off, realizing that the ragtag gang had closed in around him, and everybody was staring. The ringmaster, still kneeling; the lady with her strong, tattooed arms folded and a disapproving frown on her face; the octopus man, worrying his pocket watch with a tentacle; and a willow-thin young woman with black hair and a red-sequin costume. Gilbert shot a frantic glance at the wagon. There was no horse, so Gilbert had no idea how the hell they were moving it, but he didn’t have time to care. The only thing he cared about was getting inside it, one way or another.

And it looked like he would have to convince them all if he wanted that to happen.

“Well, that isss quite convenient,” Squidlet said, snapping the watch shut and slipping it into his pocket. “Jussst what we needed. Let’s grab him and tosss him in the back of the wagon, and we’ll be on our merry way.”

“Yeah, right. We can’t pick up any moron that comes along.” Muscles shot him a reproachful look. The flower in her hair trembled as she shook her head. “This is a circus, Humphreys, not a public hospice.”

“At this point, I would take a bloody murderer along,” Squidlet—or, well, Humphreys—hissed in return, his purple color seeming to darken. Gilbert couldn’t quite distinguish the expressions on his face, but he could detect his temper well enough nonetheless. “We’ve got lesss than half an hour left! I’m this close to breaking into a house and kidnapping sssomeone from their bloody bed if . . .”

Gilbert stared at them. What was the octopus talking about? Who the hell were these people? Kidnapping? Were they murderers? Lunatics? They certainly looked the part. Were they wandering around with their wagon searching for victims?

Oh, whatever. It couldn’t be any worse than being beaten to death by an angry mob. He’d take his chances with the circus. He was a magician, an actual one, not a sideshow freak. He’d get rid of them in a heartbeat. As soon as his goddamn head stopped pounding.

“I’m no murderer,” he protested, interrupting Humphreys. It wasn’t much to be proud of, especially since he wasn’t exactly certain it was true—he may well have killed somebody at some point in his life and hadn’t stuck around long enough to find out—but never mind that.

He tried to get up, but his knees refused to comply so he settled for pushing himself to a seat, bracing a hand in the puddle. The shouting was growing louder—they must be on the right track—and there he was, sitting in the pissing rain conversing with a bunch of . . . rather unusual individuals who were, apparently, deranged criminals, as well.

Good Lord.

Gilbert was growing more frantic by the minute and so was Emilia, wet and pissed off, gnawing at his earlobe. “And I can help, I promise you that. I’m a magician! Just take me with you to the circus. I can work for you, to pay you back, I swear, help me out. Please.”

“A magician?” Muscles sounded rather doubtful. She clenched her fists, giving Gilbert a glance that promised he would pay dearly if he tried to fool her. “Why, of course. You sure look like one.”

All right, so he looked more like a thug, dirty and half-drunk, on the verge of passing out on the pavement and drowning in his own vomit, but Humphreys, for one, didn’t seem to care. “See, he’s a magician. That is marvelousss. All ssset. Just grab the man, for heaven’s sssake.”

“Let’s not do anything hasty,” the ringmaster interrupted, glaring at his companions, then turned back to Gilbert. “You. Can you prove what you’re saying, or are you too damn drunk to do that?”

Pinned down by the man’s piercing eyes, Gilbert was breathless for a moment. Prove it? How in the hell was he supposed to do that? Did it look like the time to be playing magic tricks when there was a fucking horde of . . . Oh, for God’s sake. He didn’t have enough time nor functioning brain cells to talk Redhead out of this; it would be easier to show him. The sheer panic might be enough to kick-start his magic into action. The shouting seemed dimmer now, maybe they had taken a wrong turn somewhere, but he could tell they were still in the maze of alleyways, searching for him. He wasn’t ready to bet his life on the off chance that they might give up looking now.

He was pretty sure he’d lost his cards and dice, and his head was pounding and stuffed with spider threads. He couldn’t remember any of his usual tricks. They had all vanished, trickled out of his brain as soon as the ringmaster had asked him. Isn’t that perfect . . . He grunted to himself, looking around in the rain for something, anything, he could—

Struck by inspiration, Gilbert scooped up a handful of water from the puddle he was sitting in. He held up his hand, the gray water trembling in his cupped palm. He focused on it, felt the familiar pinpricks burn behind his eyes, and the trembling intensified. The trembling turned into minute ripples, as if a wave was shifting across the minuscule lake in his palm, never breaking ashore. Then the water swelled, rising upward in a rounded, gentle shape.

“That is definitely not natural,” Gilbert heard someone murmur, but he didn’t break his gaze or his concentration. The water trembled, fluttered, and finally tore itself free from his palm, molding into a definite shape: a butterfly. Its wings spread as it came to life. It fluttered above his hand before the ringmaster’s captivated eyes, its translucent, gleaming wings unperturbed by the falling raindrops. It flew in a graceful circle, hovering near the ringmaster’s handsome face, and Gilbert couldn’t help a pang of satisfaction at the small smile that hovered on the man’s lips, the way his green eyes had warmed up. The water butterfly flapped its wings and flew upward toward a sky of bruised clouds and thin, gray rain, vanishing.

There was a moment of silence as the four strangers stood with their heads tilted back, staring at the sky in something like wonderment. Gilbert smiled.

“So, you meant an actual magician.” At last, the ringmaster brought his gaze back to Gilbert. Something had changed. He was staring at Gilbert as if he actually mattered, a spark of recognition, if not benevolence, in his eyes.

Gilbert just nodded, looking him in the eye. It was an odd sort of connection, there on the wet pavement. For an instant, he almost forgot about the others watching, and the other others, still out to get him. The moment was broken, though, when Humphreys snapped one of his tentacles with a loud, wet smack.

“That’s sssplendid. Now can we please take him and go?” He was twitching nervously, his flushed purple tentacles snapping and whipping the air. He opened his pocket watch again and cursed. “Jesse, come on. You’re going to damn us all even more than we already are. The hour is upon us, we’re not going to get another chance.”

“You know the rules,” the ringmaster replied sternly, without a single glance backward. “We only take the willing, and that’s not up for debate. It never has been.” His eyes had gone cold and severe, the lines of his face hardening. “He deserves the same respect you all were granted.”

Very solemnly, he grasped Gilbert’s face with both hands, looking him in the eye. Gilbert’s heart fluttered in his chest, and he was kind of worried Emilia would bite the man, but she had stilled, seeming equally dazed. There was something about him. Something utterly spellbinding. “What—”

“Look at me, magician. And listen closely to what I’m about to say because it is important. This is the most important decision you’ll ever make in your life.”

Gilbert was woozy and scared, and the world was swimming slightly in front of him, fluttering like the water butterfly’s wings. His body was bristling and itching with the need to run, if he could only make his goddamned legs work. But the ringmaster’s touch seemed to placate him, somehow. Or maybe it was something in his eyes. They had become impossibly bright and green, drawing him in, piercing his thoughts like a blade. The man’s words echoed deep in his chest, final like a pact etched in stone, sealed in blood, and he couldn’t have stopped listening even if he’d wanted to.

“You can join the circus. You can hide in our wagon and come with us, if that’s what you would like. The circus is short one performer, and we must fill that position at once.” There was a loud click, and a hissing sound, probably Humphreys with his watch. But it was so difficult to focus on anything other than the ringmaster’s voice. Jesse, his name is Jesse . . . “But— Hey. Listen. This is the important part. If you come with us, if you decide to join the circus, the deal is forever. You understand? Forever. Once you’re in, you can never get out. Ever. For the rest of your life.” He paused, letting his words sink in. “I need to know that you understand and accept this. If you never believe anything again in your life, believe this: if you join, you will remain with the circus until the day you die, and beyond that . . . Your soul will be damned for all eternity. There is no way out. None at all. Think about that, and give me your answer.”

“Oh, for God’s sssake.” Humphreys griped from somewhere nearby.

Gilbert was still confused, fuzzy, and between the head wound, Jesse’s captivating green eyes, just how close his mouth was, and that strange scent of fuel and smoke and fire, he didn’t know what to blame. But that stuff Jesse had said . . . It had to be gibberish. It didn’t make any sense. But hey, so the man is a little weird. None of them looked very normal, after all. Jesse was also handsome and charming. And if worse came to worst, if they really did try to lock him up in that creepy wagon of theirs, Gilbert could escape in any way he pleased. As if a scraggy circus could hold him prisoner until his dying day, of all things.

And even so, he thought hurriedly as something was smashed to pieces in what sounded like the next alley over. Fuck. Yeah, he’d be more than willing to spend the rest of his life with tentacled creatures juggling whole damn skeletons if it meant not dying right now.

“I’ll take the tentacles,” he blurted, clutching the ringmaster’s hand, the contact enough to ignite his blood. Jesse’s eyebrows shot up, and Gilbert realized that it might not have made as much sense out loud as it had inside his head. Somewhere dangerously nearby, there was a gunshot. “Yes. I’m saying yes, it’s a deal. I’m all yours, for life, whatever you want. Just get me the hell outta here.”

Jesse exchanged meaningful glances with Humphreys, Muscles, and Sparkles. Humphreys hissed, seeming quite relieved, and his tentacles flailed around a bit. Gilbert couldn’t disagree. The pressure in Gilbert’s chest eased, and he sighed. He wasn’t even perturbed when his hands met one of the skulls before a quick tentacle yanked the thing away from him.

“Oh, fine,” Muscles sighed, and Gilbert was grabbed by two strong arms and slung over her shoulder as if he weighed nothing. He was still too drunk on relief, alcohol, and magic to feel embarrassed as he was carried, head dangling and arse in the air, to the back of the wagon. The ringmaster opened the black wooden doors just as the voices and footsteps got frighteningly close. The crowd must have turned down the right alley at last. They were no longer running or shouting, but they seemed angry nonetheless.

His train of thought was lost when the woman tossed him none too gently into the wagon, and he landed on the wooden floor with an undignified oomph and an indignant squeak from Emilia. That was most definitely not going to help his poor head. The door was slammed shut as he tried to get up, but he only managed to drag himself to the wall and slump against it. It was pitch-black in there, except for the lines and pinpricks of faint light seeping between the uneven, ruined planks. He pressed his cheek to them, splinters scraping his face, and instinctively lifted his hand to pet Emilia, who was vibrating nervously on his shoulder, quickly sniffing around the new environment. She was wet and cold, but she leaned into his touch, turning her tiny head under his fingers.

“Sorry, Emi,” he murmured, scratching behind her ears. It was kind of ridiculous how many times he’d refrained from plunging headlong into outright suicidal endeavors, how many days he’d kept on living merely so he wouldn’t leave Emilia alone in this hostile world. Her sharp teeth had made him wise up more times than he could count, and her reproachful black gaze had often been more eloquent than any in-depth conversation about the meaning of life. He surely owed her better than a romp in the pouring rain. He couldn’t really provide her with a warm and comfortable home or an endless supply of cheese, but there were a few things he could have granted her, if he’d made a bit more of an effort. Such as avoiding pub brawls, for instance.

He silently promised himself he would do better next time, even as his vision began to blur. He pressed his eye to a small hole in the wall, trying to see what was going on outside. He was hoping this wasn’t just an elaborate prank before the circus fellows handed him over to the murderous mob.

He glimpsed dozens of moving legs as too many people streamed into the alley. The first words he heard, in a deep, nasal now-familiar voice were, “Hey, you stupid freaks. You seen some guy with a rat on his shoulder?”

“Why, good sssir, I can’t ssseem to remember ssseeing . . .”

“I’m not talking to you, you slimy . . . whatever the fuck you are,” Skunk replied, without even bothering to hide his disgust. “You, with the hat and ridiculous coat. You look like you’re the boss around here. You better tell me where the rat man went right this fucking second or you won’t like what happens to your . . . pet and your whores.”

Gilbert sighed with relief. That was a good enough guarantee that the circus people might not feel so inclined to do the man any favors.

There was a moment of icy-cold silence, then a sharp, smacking sound followed by a yowl. It could have been, say, a cane hitting someone in the face.

“Constance, if you please,” the ringmaster said, perfectly polite, as if he were sitting around in a gentlemen’s club smoking cigars and discussing the weather. “Would you be so kind as to handle these sorry fellows, if it’s not inconvenient?”

“Why, it would be a pleasure.” Muscles—Constance—seemed entirely too gleeful as she stepped forward. Her broad back obstructed the view from Gilbert’s peephole. He was too tired to move to another, so he just leaned his forehead against the wood and closed his eyes.

The screaming began, accompanied by crashes and smacks and loud thuds, as the wagon wobbled slightly, as if someone had hopped on board.

“That ought to teach them something about manners,” Jesse said, his voice coming from somewhere above Gilbert’s head now. “Let’s move along, shall we?”

Something splintered and cracked, quite possibly against a human body, and one of the men outside shrieked like a strangled chicken.

“What, passing out already, my dove?” Constance commented. “So soon?”

With a rumble and a loud hiss, the wagon started hobbling along, slowly, creaking and jumping on the cobblestones, shaking Gilbert around like a rag doll. Gilbert exhaled as the tightness in his chest fully eased, and he let himself be lulled by the sharp jolts of the wagon and the terrified screams they were leaving behind. It looked like he’d survive, after all.

Then he slumped further against the rough wooden wall, sliding down into darkness.

Chapter Three
When Gilbert woke up, the world was still and quiet. He blinked, trying to get his bearings. The dim light sliced through his head like a hacksaw, and he shut his eyes, groaning. He pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, in the exact spot where he could feel his blood pulsing under the skin. But the worst pain was at the back of his head, a dull, constant thumping, like a very large hammer hitting again and again. Gilbert rolled to the side, curling in on himself, and whispered a stream of curses that would have been enough to damn him to Hell, if that ship hadn’t sailed quite a few years before. Too late he realized that he had no idea if he was alone in . . . wherever he was and waited for someone to reproach him.

But no voice spoke up. As the hammering in his skull faded slightly and he started considering a second attempt at opening his eyes, he tried to focus on why he had no idea where he was—or how he’d ended up there, for that matter.

He was fairly sure he should have known that, even with how out of sorts he had been the night before.

With a deep breath, he hauled himself to a seat on the edge of the bed and opened his eyes. His head protested vigorously, but it wasn’t that bad—he’d woken up in far worse conditions. Nothing would ever beat the brutal homemade chili grappa an old Italian had offered him once. That had nearly blinded him, he was sure of it.

Blinking, he distracted himself from his memories of excesses past by examining his surroundings. He was in a small room, long and narrow, with reddish wooden walls and an arched wooden roof. The furniture was sparse—cabinets and a table and the narrow bed he sat on, all pushed up against the walls. They seemed bolted in place. Emilia sat on the table, busying herself with something he couldn’t quite see. She seemed perfectly fine and at ease, and that truly did wonders to calm his nerves. She would know if he’d stuck himself in some ridiculously dangerous situation. If she was untroubled, then he could relax too.

The walls were almost entirely covered in faded quilts and mirrors and assorted paraphernalia. It was all covered in dust. A bright-red glittered cape hung in the corner, along with an absurdly tall, black stovepipe hat. Gilbert snorted, shaking his head at the garment. It looked as if its owner had been in a circus or some—

Oh, right.

So, his current situation was not so much ridiculously dangerous as just plain ridiculous.

He groaned, fighting the instinct to flop back down on the bed, and rubbed his face with both hands. He was beginning to remember. He’d joined the bloody circus, of all things, to escape from a . . . What was it? Right. From the bloodthirsty mob that had been chasing him. And he’d signed on for the rest of his life.

Yeah, right. I am so out of here.

Gilbert glanced around, spotted his boots neatly placed by the foot of the bed, and got to work putting them on and lacing them tightly. He got up, patting his knees, and grabbed his jacket, which was hanging from a hook between the glittery red cape and what looked like an ancient morning coat.

He brushed his fingers against his jacket’s inner lining, which slit open under his touch, and rummaged in the secret pocket. Cards, crumbs, a—was that a tooth?—and a good amount of money. They hadn’t even robbed him. He thought about it for a moment, then left a few crumpled bills on the dresser. Since he wasn’t going to honor his promise and work for them, this was better than nothing. His fingers left traces in the dust coating the dresser, and he wiped his hand on his trousers.

He leaned over and patted his shoulder, and Emilia obediently scuttled on, carrying a piece of cookie with her and settling comfortably in his scarf. Gilbert tried the door. It was unlocked, so he slowly pushed it open, squinting as he walked down three creaking wooden steps.

There wasn’t much sunlight to speak of. The day was hopelessly gray, the dull sky cloaked with clouds, turning what little light that filtered through cold and heavy like lead. He guessed it was probably around midday—luckily everyone seemed to be still asleep. He’d be able to slip out unnoticed.

He hopped off the steps and started walking, looking around for the way out as he buttoned his coat against the chilly, murky air. His wagon was at the edge of a small encampment. A handful of wooden wagons, their once-bright colors faded, were scattered on a field of dry grass. There were gnarled, dead trees all around, and lanterns hanging from a messy net of cables like a sagging spiderweb. A black iron fence ran a few yards to his right, so Gilbert started following it. It was too high and too sharp to climb over, but it would lead him to a gate, sooner or later. He could see a forest of skeletal trees on the other side and wondered how far they could have possibly gotten from civilization the night before. Couldn’t be that far. Or at least he hoped so, since he’d have to make it back there on foot. He had to find a city, find a station, hop on the first train, and get the hell away.

A shiver crawled down his back, and Gilbert cringed, tugging on his scarf. Emilia’s warm little body pressed against his neck was comforting, but he would be much happier once he was away from this place. There was something odd in the air—a dead chill that seeped into his bones and made him an unbearable kind of cold, made him want to leg it as far as possible, as quick as possible. He wasn’t sure what he expected from a circus, but it wasn’t this silent parade of ruined, faded wagons. He’d expected color, lights, music, and dancing performers. This was eerie.

He’d just glimpsed the gate—a hole in the iron fence with a crude wooden sign hanging over it—when he heard the whispers. He glanced around quickly, trying to determine where the voices were coming from so he could run in the opposite direction. But there was no one there, certainly not anyone close enough for him to hear them whisper. There was only a small, black, windowless wagon at the very edge of the encampment. Strange. He had come from there, and he swore he hadn’t seen any—

His eyes burned. He blinked. It was getting hard to see; his vision growing blurry. The grass, the fence—it all grew unfocused. There was just the black wagon, clear and bright like a gas lamp in the night, a fixed spot as the world began to melt around it.

“What the . . .?”

He rubbed his eyes, squinting. The whispering was growing louder, murmurs echoing in his ears. Three, four, too many voices to count and that were now louder than screams. He brought his hands to his ears, but the sound wasn’t fading. It was coming from somewhere inside his head. When he blinked again, he thought he saw someone—a tall, dark figure, fluttering, on the verge of melting into the mist itself. Gilbert’s eyes watered when he tried to focus. He couldn’t see, but it seemed like it was smiling.

And then it all was gone. The voices, the water in his eyes, the person. Gilbert blinked, slowly bringing his hands down. It all looked perfectly normal now: no mist, no swirling. Just a rickety black wagon that looked about to crumble at the first gust of wind.

There were other sounds, though—rustling, creaking. A door being shut. Damn. The circus was beginning to wake up after a late night, and his chances of getting out of there unseen were dwindling fast. Time to stop with the sightseeing.

He jogged to the exit and turned to cast a glance at the sign once he was on the other side. It was black, old, and scraped, and it read in flourished red letters: Circus of the Damned.

How lovely. Well, at least he wouldn’t have to stick around to find out exactly why the troupe had picked such a cheerful name. By the time they went looking for him, he would be long gone.

What a shame, though. He wouldn’t have minded seeing the handsome ringmaster again. He may have been a raving lunatic, but he was an attractive one, nonetheless. When he’d knelt before Gilbert in the rain, looking at him with those green eyes, so, so close . . . close enough that, for a moment, Gilbert had foolishly thought the man would kiss him.

Ah, it was too late to do anything about it, anyway. He had to forget about it. He jogged down the dirt road, in the damp mist past the dead trees, heading as far from that damned circus as he could get.

The Ghost and Mr. Moore
Chapter One
On a warm Friday afternoon in June, Dexter Moore pulled into the driveway of his new home, Keel Cottage. The thick gravel crunched and cracked beneath the tires. The car rolled to a stop. He parked the black BMW sedan in the middle of a long, narrow driveway and switched off the engine. Then he unfastened his seat belt, ran his fingers through his hair, and took a deep breath. “We’re finally here, Brighton. We made it.”

He turned to his six-year-old daughter in the back seat and smiled. The little girl had already removed her seat belt and was leaning forward so she could look out the window. She stared up at an old house with gray shingled turrets and bright white trim and said, “It’s huge, Dad. And it’s nothing like our old house in Hollywood.” A small, white Bichon Frise jumped onto her lap and barked a few times. “Calm down, Cleo,” she said. “I can’t open the door or the window. Dad has them locked again.”

Dexter took a deep breath and raised his eyebrows. He felt like yawning; his eyelids were heavy and his legs felt stiff. “Wait until I get out, Brighton,” he said. It had been a long trip from New York. He’d stopped in Manhattan for the night, and traffic had been heavy all the way up to the tip of the Cape. But that had been only part of the trip. He was exhausted because he’d been driving for days—all the way from Hollywood, California.

When he unlocked the doors and pulled the key from the ignition, Brighton pointed to the house and shouted, “There’s Marion. She’s standing on the porch waiting for us.” Brighton opened her door, jumped out of the car, and ran toward the house. It would have been futile for Dexter to try to stop her. She hadn’t seen Marion in two weeks. Cleo followed her up the green lawn and past two large black urns filled with blood-red geraniums. Cleo was the kind of dog that didn’t need to be on a leash all the time. He never wandered, and he always listened to commands.

Dexter opened the car door and watched Brighton run to the house. He smiled and shook his head. Marion had been their housekeeper for five years, and she’d practically raised Brighton. They hadn’t seen Marion in a while because she had flown to Cape Cod earlier to prepare the house for their arrival.

On his way to the front porch, Dexter thought he saw someone standing up on the widow’s walk, beside the cupola. He looked down at the path for a second so he wouldn’t trip on the unfamiliar lawn. But when he looked up again the widow’s walk was empty. He chalked it up to his imagination and lack of sleep; he’d been driving too long.

When he reached the house, Brighton was already on the porch. She was jumping up and down and Marion was laughing, trying to calm her. Marion’s hands were clasped together and resting on her ample waist; her head was tipped to the side and her eyes were gleaming. She was wearing a pale blue cotton dress with a thick, white apron. Her shoes were black leather with large gold buckles and chunky three-inch heels. Dexter smiled and lifted his hand to his mouth so she wouldn’t notice. Marion had been raised in New England, but she’d lived in Southern California almost all her adult life and she’d resisted moving to Cape Cod. Now she looked as if she’d never left New England and California was on another planet.

“It’s so good to see you, Marion,” Dexter said. “I don’t think I want to get into a car for the next month.”

Marion smiled. “You just leave everything to me,” she said. “I’ll take care of the car, and I’ll bring all the bags upstairs. You just go up to your room and take a good, long nap, Mr. Moore. I’ll leave your bags outside your door in the upstairs hall.”

Marion had never called him or his ex-partner by their first names. She could have and it wouldn’t have mattered, but she was old school in this respect. “I made a nice Yankee pot roast for dinner and a Cape Cod cranberry pie for dessert.”

He reached for the banister and walked up four wooden steps to the porch. This was the first time he’d actually seen his new house. He’d purchased it long distance from a photo he’d seen online. The trim on the wide, wraparound porch was painted bright white, the planked floor was dove gray, and the bead board ceiling was a traditional sky blue. He looked at the white wicker furniture with apple green cushions and smiled. He tilted his head and stared at the copper light fixtures hanging from chains on the porch ceiling. The oversized front door was made out of thick walnut and it was supposedly original to the house.

Above the door, a brass sign read, Keel Cottage, 1897. Dexter had been told by his Realtor that Cape Cod had been called “Cape of Keel” by the original explorers, and the sea captain who had built the house in the nineteenth century had named the house Keel Cottage.

The white trim was glossy and smooth. He ran the tips of his fingers along the front rail and said, “I think I made a good decision, Marion. I like what I see so far. I was worried the house wouldn’t look like it did in the photos. But now I see that it’s even better than I imagined it would be.”

Marion frowned and smoothed the front of her apron.

When Dexter noticed the serious expression on her face, he asked, “What’s wrong?” After five years, he knew how to read all her moods.

She forced a smile; she wouldn’t look him in the eye. “Nothing serious,” she said. “It’s a fine old house, Mr. Moore. It’s just that I’ve noticed a few things, is all. Peculiar things.” Her voice was low, almost apologetic.

Dexter took a deep breath and sighed. “Have you been listening to local gossip, Marion?” Dexter knew what Marion was talking about and he didn’t want to discuss it in front of Brighton. So he patted Brighton on the back and said, “Why don’t you go upstairs and check out your new bedroom, sweetie? Turn right at the top of the stairs, and it’s the last door on the right. Marion will be up there in a minute.” He’d studied the floor plans of Keel Cottage on the Internet.

Brighton smiled and looked down at Cleo. “C’mon,” she said, “I’ll race you upstairs.” Then she rushed through the wide doorway and headed for the staircase with the little dog in tow.

When she was gone, Marion pressed her palm to her chest and said, “Each morning when I go downstairs, there’s a cupboard door wide open. I know I close them all at night, and yet one of them is wide open in the morning. And the butcher, Mr. Klinger, asked me if I’d seen any ghosts yet. The things he told me about this house, Mr. Moore.” She put her hands on his hips, pressed her lips together, and shook her head back and forth.

Dexter smiled. “Marion, I know all about the ghost stories. The real estate agent who sold me this house said it was rumored to be haunted. It’s just urban legend and folklore. There’s no basis to these stories. Every small town like Provincetown has at least one haunted house.” He didn’t tell her he’d purchased the house at an extremely low price because the previous owners also thought the house was haunted. The straight couple, two interior decorators from Boston, had renovated the entire place and they’d only been there a year. Dexter had fallen in love with the photos of the house, and then when he compared the price of Keel Cottage to other properties in Provincetown that weren’t even half as nice, he realized it was the buy of a lifetime. He didn’t believe in ghosts, witches, or vampires. He only believed in what he could see. But he knew Marion was extremely superstitious and he didn’t tell her about the ridiculous ghost stories because he didn’t want to alarm her.

Marion forced a smile and said, “I’m sure you’re right, Mr. Moore. It’s probably my imagination running away with me. Big old houses like this can be very quiet at night. I’m glad you’re both here.”

“That’s more like it, Marion,” he said. “I think I’ll go upstairs now and check out my room. And nice long nap sounds like a great idea. Will you be okay with Brighton?” He didn’t have to ask; he knew she couldn’t wait to be with Brighton again. The two had always been inseparable.

She smiled and waved her wide arm. “We’ll be just fine. Mr. Moore. You go on up and rest, and I’ll call you when supper is ready.”

When Marion went back into the house to find Brighton, he crossed into the entrance hall and looked around. The refinished hardwood floors gleamed, the white trim sparkled, and the walls were a pale shade of sage green. The dining room was to his left. The house had been sold fully furnished and there was a long mahogany table with Chippendale chairs, five on each side and two on the ends. The sideboard was Hepplewhite and the breakfront was built into a wall. Even though the house was Victorian, it was classic New England and very simple. The trim and the crown molding were solid and straight, without swirls, ornate carvings, or gingerbread. He took a deep breath and smiled. The whole place smelled like a combination of old wood, furniture polish, and the salty sea air.

Dexter turned to his right and crossed into a huge double parlor. The walls were painted light taupe and the trim was white like the rest of the house. There were two elegant Chippendale sofas beside a walk-in fireplace. They were the most ornate pieces of furniture in the room, with white cotton slipcovers and ball and clawed feet. The other furniture was simple. Two club chairs with sage and white striped slipcovers balanced the sofas, a black baby grand piano had been angled at the other end of the room, and the side tables and accessories mixed periods. He liked the modern rectangular coffee table with a two-inch-thick glass top that separated the sofas. The entire room was a balance of old and new, but everything had neat, tailored lines and worked well together. It’s a good thing the previous owners had been decorators, because he knew that he would never have been able to pull this off on his own.

He put his hands in his pockets and walked toward the fireplace. Above the tall, white mantle, there was a large oval portrait of a handsome man—one of the best-looking men Dexter had ever seen. He couldn’t take his eyes off the painting. He leaned forward so he could read a small bronze plaque at the bottom of the thick gold frame. “Captain Major Lang, 1899.” The real estate agent had told Dexter that Captain Lang had been the original owner of the house. He’d designed Keel Cottage and had it built back when Provincetown had still been an important fishing village and was filled with men whose lives revolved around the sea.

Dexter looked up at the portrait and rubbed his chin a few times. The face in the painting reminded Dexter of Hugh Jackman in the werewolf film. Captain Lang was sitting on a dark, hand-carved chair with his muscular hands folded on his lap. He had wide, square shoulders and what looked like a hard, lean body. His dark blue uniform and his sea captain’s hat made him look distinguished and important, yet his steel blue eyes were soft and mellow. He had a strong, angular face and a dark, well-trimmed beard. Captain Lang wasn’t smiling or frowning. His dark eyebrows weren’t up or down. And his overall expression could only be described as pleasantly amused, as if sitting for a portrait had been self-indulgent and silly.

Dexter leaned in closer and whispered, “Damn, you must have broken more than a few hearts in your day, man. You’re the hottest freaking sea captain I’ve ever seen.” He stared at the lips in the portrait and whistled.

While he was whistling, he felt a warm breeze and he stepped back from the fireplace. He turned to the right and watched a rush of wind pass through one of the tall front windows. It blew the white cotton draperies forward and knocked over a pewter candlestick that had been sitting on a round cherry table. Dexter crossed to the table, lifted the candlestick, and closed the window. Then he covered his mouth and yawned. On his way out of the room, he looked up at the portrait again and made a mental note to do some research on Captain Lang. Supposedly, he’d been very well known and slightly notorious, and Dexter was curious.

When Dexter was upstairs, he heard Brighton and Marion. They were down the hall in Brighton’s bedroom, and they were laughing about something. It was good to hear Brighton laugh again. In the past year, Dexter had experienced many sleepless nights worrying about her. When Dexter’s ex-partner, Michael, had left them to move in with a nineteen-year-old guy, Brighton had been devastated. Her grades had gone down, she’d stopped seeing her friends, and all she did was watch television. Dexter had tried to put up a good front, but he’d been devastated, too. But he’d worked hard to keep his separation with Michael amicable for Brighton’s sake. After all, athough Michael wasn’t much of a father, he was Brighton’s other father and she loved him in spite of his flaws.

The sound of their laughter at the other end of the hall made Dexter smile. And for the first time since he’d decided to move to Cape Cod, he felt a warm, comfortable feeling pass through his body. Starting over wasn’t going to be easy, but at least it felt right.

Dexter had read the floor plans of Keel Cottage so many times he knew exactly where he was going. He crossed to the other end of the long hallway and opened the door to his bedroom. It was the largest bedroom on the second floor. There were four others on the second floor, including Brighton’s bedroom, and three more on the third floor. Marion’s private bedroom was on the first floor, off the kitchen.

His room was the one above the dining room, where the front of the house rounded to form a turret. The turret was lined with tall windows flanked with cream colored cotton draperies. He went inside, closed the door, and turned the old skeleton key to lock it. His heels clicked on the wooden floor as he walked through the room. There was an antique high boy beside the window seat. He passed a four-poster bed with a white cotton duvet, and a large desk with tons of small drawers. He stood in front of the windows and looked out to the sea. Keel Cottage sat high on a hill in the far West End of Provincetown, at the end of Commercial Street. Even though Keel Cottage wasn’t directly on the water, every room in the front of the house had a clear view of the ocean. The Realtor had told him that the only other building with a better ocean view than his was the Pilgrim Monument on High Pole Hill Road.

Dexter yawned again and walked to the bed. He sat on the edge of the mattress so he could remove his shoes and socks, then stood up and removed the rest of his clothes. When he was naked, he went into the bathroom and turned on the shower. It was a simple bathroom, with white subway tiles, a white marble floor, and white marble counters. He looked at his body in a full-length mirror and sighed because he hadn’t had a chance to work out since a week before he’d left Hollywood. He’d lost a few pounds, and the muscles in his arms looked smaller. Dexter had a naturally lean, defined body. When he worked out with weights, his compact muscles popped and rounded with definition. Even though he was thirty-two years old, he still looked like he was in his twenties. Now that he was single again, after twelve years of being in a monogamous relationship with Michael, he wanted to hold on to his looks for as long as he could.

When the water was hot, he stepped into the shower and closed his eyes. The hot water saturated his short blond hair and coated his naked body. His legs were smooth and tan, and his ass was round and firm. Dexter didn’t have much body hair, and the little he did have below his waist he trimmed and shaved regularly. He always kept a small patch of blond above his penis, a triangle that pointed down.

He reached for the soap with his left hand and grabbed his penis with his right. He was already semi-hard and a full erection was forming fast. He hadn’t had sex with anyone since Michael had left him. And he hadn’t masturbated in weeks because he’d been on the road with Brighton. His balls felt low and heavy; the tip of his penis was already dripping with clear pre-come. He usually masturbated at least once a day, and this was the longest he’d gone without coming in his entire adult life. So he leaned back against the tiled shower, spread his smooth legs wider, and started to jerk his dick. The water splashed against his body; he arched his back and closed his eyes. When he pictured Captain Lang’s face from the portrait in the double parlor, his balls tightened and the head of his penis expanded. He usually fantasized about a porn movie he’d seen, or a famous actor from a recent film. But for some reason, Captain Lang’s strong, masculine face entered his mind. A minute later, he rubbed out a load that was so intense it smacked into the white tiles on the other side of the shower and left his legs trembling.

When his body was clean again, he stepped out of the shower and dried off with thick white towels. These were his towels. He’d had them and a few other personal things shipped to Provincetown ahead of time so he’d feel at home. He’d hated leaving his house in the Hollywood Hills, but there hadn’t been a choice. Dexter lived on money he’d made as a child actor, and Michael handled all his finances. He could afford to not work as long as he lived within his means. In the years that he’d lived with Michael in the Hollywood Hills, property values had increased so much that when it was time to sell the house, he couldn’t afford to buy Michael out without dipping into his capital. So when they split up, they sold their home and divided the money in half. Dexter bought Keel Cottage with his half and he didn’t have to touch his capital. And the fact that Keel Cottage had been listed at such an outrageously low price allowed him to own a beautifully restored home for a fraction of what he normally would have paid.

When he was finished in the bathroom, he went back into the bedroom and double checked to make sure his bedroom door was locked and shut tight. He wanted to take his nap in the nude, and he didn’t want Brighton or Marion walking in on him by mistake.

Then he walked to the bed and went down on top of the white duvet cover. He plopped hard in the middle of the bed, on his stomach, and spread his legs. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The light cotton duvet felt smooth against his balls and the mattress was firm, but not too hard.

And just before he dropped off into a deep sleep, he thought he heard a whistle. Not just any whistle. This was a soft, clear whistle that sounded like an old song he’d once heard. But he couldn’t remember the title. He wanted to lift his head and turn around, but his feet began to tingle and he couldn’t lift his eyelids. He was so relaxed he just drifted off to sleep with the whistle running through his head.

MANY bitter years had passed since David Derringer last darkened the church’s doorstep, but his mother’s training couldn’t be easily forgotten. Easily suppressed, yes. Easily ignored for the sake of his own sanity, absolutely. Mary Derringer had steeped her eldest in the mysteries of the Roman Catholic Church, his indoctrination beginning at her breast with hymns and whispered prayers. When things got really bad, she didn’t go to her family or call the cops. She went running to the Holy Mother. Right up until the day she died, and David swore he’d never be so foolish.

But there he was. On his knees and out of hope. He currently had the church to himself—the benefit of arriving at three in the morning—but he didn’t want to deal with any surprise guests. Especially in that place, when a surprise guest could very well mean his demise. He was in enemy territory, every one of his senses on high alert as he stumbled through an awkward but heartfelt entreaty.

“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing here, right? I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. I must be really desperate to come in here now. Desperate or stupid.” David shrugged. “I guess it can be both. But look, my mother always believed. She always did what she thought would please you. She loved her neighbor, she raised her kids, and she was a good lady. So if you don’t want to help me for my sake, at least help me for hers. And it’s the right thing to do.”

He looked over his shoulder, though his ears and nose both assured him he still had the church to himself. His skin crawled and his bones were desperate to move. He felt as though the entire building was pushing against him, every stone in every pillar, every piece of glass in every window, every dancing flame on every candle working with one will to repel him.

“I don’t belong here,” David muttered. “I get it, all right? But like I said, I’m desperate. And it’s for my mother. See, when she died….” When I… when you took her from me. “When she died, she made me promise something. I swore my mother an oath, and I’ve been trying for the last fifty years to keep my promise, but I’ve hit a dead end after decades of dead ends and I’m running out of time. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m out of options.” David paused, waiting either for lightning to strike him or the answer to his prayers to drop from the heavens. Neither event happened. Nothing stirred in the chapel behind him.

“I tried everything. But it’s been fifty years, and Danny isn’t like me. So it’s kind of important that I find him now. So if you could… point me in the right direction or send me a sign or something, I’d appreciate it.” He paused again, looking upward with his hands spread, silently asking God to just help him out here.

Again there was no response.

“God answers everybody’s prayers,” Mary once told him as she rocked him against her chest, trying to soothe his small sobs away. “You must be patient. How big are you to God?”

“The size of an ant,” David stuttered.

“Smaller than an ant. But he still loves us in his infinite wisdom.”

As a small child, David was confused rather than comforted. If they were nothing but ants to God, how could he hear their prayers? Did ants make any noise? If they did, David never heard them. He’d even held his ear up to a mound of black and red ants once to see if they buzzed or hummed or clicked or anything. But all he got for his trouble was a red, swollen ear and a dozen painful bites. Of course, Mary hadn’t understood why her son would be foolish enough to let ants swarm around his head.

“I don’t know what I was expecting, anyway,” David muttered, pushing himself to his feet. “It’s not like Danny would just appear on the altar, right? And it’s not like this ever worked for her.”

He took one step toward the door and froze, his nose quivering with the hint of a new scent. Male, in his forties, no booze, no smoking, no drugs. David hit the floor, more than willing to risk the embarrassment of jumping to the wrong conclusion. The arrow swooshing over his head a half second later confirmed his suspicions, and he rolled toward the shadows, holding himself perfectly still once he reached their welcoming embrace.

That little trick worked anywhere, even a house of God, and the monk got within five feet of David without seeing him. David grinned and melted out of the darkness, pouncing on the hunter as easily as a cat on a baby bird. The monk immediately reached for the cross hanging from his neck, but David was faster, clutching the silver chain and yanking it from the man’s neck with only a small hiss of pain. He tossed it to the far side of the room and bent the hunter’s head, exposing his neck.

The monk struggled, cursing him in Latin and French, calling on God to strike the beast where he stood for daring to enter a holy place. He probably thought David didn’t understand, but he knew the language of the monks.

“I swear to your God, if you don’t shut the fuck up, I’ll snap your neck right now.”

The monk was terrified, but he wasn’t stupid. He sealed his mouth shut but remained stiff in David’s arms, clearly waiting for any tiny opening he could get to either escape or attack. David tightened his hold, his mouth watering to bite through the monk’s paper-thin skin. His blood would burst in David’s mouth, hot and fresh and tasting of holy anger. The hunters always tasted the best. But David ignored the impulse, remembering that he had a more important objective than a snack.

“Now listen to me. Believe it or not, I didn’t come here to pick a fight.”

“Unclean thing,” the monk snarled.

“I know, I know. Spawn of evil, an abomination unto the Lord, etc. I’m familiar with the rhetoric. Like I said, I’m not here to fight with you. I need help.”

The monk barked laughter at that, and David found himself grinning as well. “I know. You can laugh. It’s fine.”

“You? You? Would come here to find help?”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

“What desperate times, vampire?”

“My brother’s dying.”

David released the man and sent him flying away with a hard shove. He stumbled forward, gaining his footing within seconds and immediately searching for a likely weapon. David didn’t give him time to find a piece of wood to shove through his back, darting out of the building in a blink of an eye. He fled to the sewers, using an unlocked manhole to drop into the filth below. There’d once been a time when David could wander the streets at will, but now it was too dangerous in the larger cities where cameras spied on him and reported his every moment, further complicating his mission.

But nobody would bother to follow him into the sewers. There the vampires who refused to leave the city lurked and slept and ate. They spent most of their time below ground, and David never understood how they could choose that life. As the walking undead, he had enough problems without entombing himself and hiding from the only things that made existence even mildly worthwhile any more.

He made swift progress, backtracking on his earlier trail and avoiding the scattered nests of sewer dwellers. They were mostly harmless, but living underground made them all a little batty, both mentally and physically. David didn’t like dealing with them. They were likely to mistake him for a human, and most of them were hungry enough to keep attacking once their fangs dropped, even if they got their faces beat in and the only blood they tasted was their own.

Twenty minutes later, David was out of the sewers and under a full moon, but he was hungry. Why had he spared the monk? David was too hungry to remember the genesis of his mercy, and that only sharpened his irritation. When a jogger passed by with her earbuds blaring Lady Gaga and her cute dog on a leash, David didn’t hesitate to reach from the shadows. This time he didn’t let go of his prey until she was nothing but an empty shell.

BROTHER Emmanuel Perillard cursed the demon in every language he knew and in a hundred different ways as it made its escape into the night. He’d been tracking David Derringer exclusively for the past three months and thought he’d finally had the damned monster cornered—in a church, no less! With the number of kills he had under his belt, he thought nothing of taking the vampire on in single combat.

He was lucky to have survived the encounter. No, not lucky. Blessed. God had touched the vampire somehow, allowing Perillard to escape with his life intact. At the first opportunity, he contacted his superior, Abbot John Dixon, with a full report.

“You found the vampire in a church?”


“What was he doing there?”

“I think he was praying, sir.”

He could hear Dixon’s amusement in the next question. “And what does a vampire pray for?”

“I couldn’t hear everything, but I believe he was asking for help in searching for his brother.”

“His brother? Why?”

“He said he made a promise to his mother, I think.”

“And now he’s escaped?”


“I’m sending you reinforcements. Get in contact with all the local authorities and have the entire area canvassed. But, Perillard, I do not want you to kill him on sight. This is a pick-up mission only.”

“What if he attacks me or my men?”

“Try to avoid killing him if you can. I want him brought to me alive… well, you know what I mean.”

“Yes, sir, I do.”

“His brother, huh? Are you sure?”

“Yes, I thought it rather peculiar myself. Vampires usually kill their families. Perhaps he’s looking to finish the job.”

“Perhaps. Keep me informed, Brother. And stay watchful. David Derringer isn’t like most vampires. He’s faster and smarter. He’s also ruthless. He has no qualms about killing, and if he has the chance to take you out, he will.”

But he didn’t. Perillard almost said as much, but years of faithful dedication had trained him not to contradict a superior. Besides, the vampire’s strange show of mercy probably hadn’t signified anything except a devious mind, intent on tricking him or lulling him into a false sense of security. Vampires were the children of the Father of Lies, after all.

None could be trusted.

Part 1: First Impressions
Chapter One
“I DON’T understand. Am I being punished?” He thought his punishment was over, but it was either that or some sort of divine joke, and Peter wasn’t exactly known for his sense of humor. Neither was God, for that matter.

Peter looked up from beneath his bushy brows with supreme irritation. “You’re not being punished. You have been chosen for this most… unique assignment. Are you questioning his will?”

“No, of course not,” Jophiel said quickly. And he wasn’t. He wasn’t asking if he could be excused from the Intercession, he merely wanted to know if he had done something to displease the Lord. “But, Peter… this assignment….” He looked at his superior with helpless eyes. Did he really need to articulate this? For anybody else in Heaven, it would have merely been annoying, but for him, it was like a personal slap in the face.

Peter sighed and inclined his head. “I understand what troubles you, but he’s never explained himself before, and he’s not going to start now.”

“Can you repeat it?” He’d been pretty stunned from the first word; he might have missed crucial information in his daze.

“Vampire David Derringer is seeking his lost brother. He requested Intercession on the nineteenth of September of this year. Assign Jophiel.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it,” Peter confirmed.

Jophiel bit his tongue, knowing that any other outbursts or questions would not be tolerated. It was only a consequence of these most unique circumstances that Jophiel had been allowed to stay in Peter’s presence for as long as he had.

“Has this ever happened before?” He mostly kept himself ignorant of anything to do with vampires. Still, he thought he knew the answer before Peter spoke and confirmed it.


“Is there anybody I can speak to for help?”

“There are plenty of monks in Paradise who reached their end as a vampire’s meal. Perhaps you can start with them.”

Jophiel turned away, trying to hide the way Peter’s words stung him. He knew exactly how many citizens of Paradise had been a vampire’s bloody meal, and considered each one a personal mark on his soul. That was the end of the conversation. If his assignment had been to kill the vampire before he reached his brother, that would be one thing, and it would require a trip to the monks’ corner of Paradise. But he was to help this vampire, and he didn’t think the monks would have anything positive to add.

Okay, so I can’t get out of this one. Where should I even start?

Hunt down the soul of the vampire’s brother. If he could locate that, he could just appear to David in a vision and tell him where to go. He might not even have to travel to Earth to accomplish this mission, which was fine with him. He had once loved his assignments to Earth, but there had been so many policy changes since the Crucifixion that it wasn’t really fun anymore. Travel was a pain, and only Peter’s official messengers were allowed to interact with humans.

The easiest way to find a human soul was to begin with a known match. David’s soul would have been best, but it was long lost in Lucifer’s vortex, and so Jophiel had to use an alternative. He had the transcript of the vampire’s prayer—which Peter hadn’t even wanted to hand over—and that gave him the mother’s name, religion, and approximate age. Which didn’t seem like much, but it was better than nothing when searching through every soul in existence.

Unfortunately, once he narrowed the pool down to approximately ten thousand people, he could go no further. The Father probably could pluck her soul right from Paradise and then use it to track down both her sons. Jophiel knew he shouldn’t think such things. He knew he shouldn’t commit the sin of pride—of thinking he knew better than God—but he’d been asked to build a cathedral out of straw and nails by the carpenter who had all the necessary materials and tools to complete the task.

God probably even knew he’d have that thought. Maybe that was why God chose to punish him.

Normally, he wouldn’t go to Raphael for assistance, even if he’d already exhausted every other path to his knowledge. There was too much bad blood between them for a conversation to be worthwhile. But if anybody benefited from the Father’s omniscience, it was the archivist, who was never far from the Book of Life, which contained every sliver of knowledge of every soul. And Raphael knew every word of every page. No new piece of information was committed to its permanent pages without first passing by Raphael. He would be standing behind God on Judgment Day with his Book opened to the correct page, whispering in the Father’s ear of every sin and every moment of grace. If anybody could help him find this Danny, it would be the archangel.

Unfortunately, he and Raphael rarely saw eye to eye anymore, and the importance of this errand didn’t mitigate anything. What was ancient history for the human race was barely a blink of an eye between angels, and Raphael hadn’t been blessed with a forgiving heart. As soon as Jophiel entered Raphael’s domain, the archangel was before him, his arms crossed over his chest and his massive wings spread wide. It was a needlessly aggressive stance, but Jophiel ignored the silent message and offered his most deferential smile.

“Greetings, Raphael. I’ve come to seek your help.”

“I know what you seek.”

“Great.” He paused, hoping Raphael would jump in with something—anything. But Raphael stared back, his face as impassive as ever. “Can you tell me anything?”

“I can tell you that the soul you seek is still on Earth.”

Jophiel had assumed as much, but it was a start. “Can you tell me anything else?”

“Can I tell you anything that’ll keep you from spending time with the demon? No. You can’t get out of that.”

Jophiel’s eyes widened. “I am being punished, aren’t I? Please, Raphael, please tell me his plan for me. If this is a punishment, I’ll take it and do my best to learn, but—”

“You know why you’re being punished.”

“But Peter said—”

“Peter doesn’t know anything except what he’s been told. Out of all the souls you have lost, how many have you saved? Hmm? How many souls have you pulled away from Lucifer and returned to the Father’s rightful domain?”

The words dripped with recrimination, and Jophiel had no choice but to respond with the truth—the truth Raphael already knew. “I haven’t… I haven’t won any souls from Lucifer.” Jophiel looked down, the fight suddenly gone from him. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to win souls back from the Vortex, but Peter had never given him assignments like that. He responded only to pleas of Intercession, and until this assignment, only to the souls who were already righteous and pure. He didn’t need Raphael’s sneering words to make him feel guilty about that. His guilt had never actually faded.

“And now you’ve been recruited to save a vampire’s soul.”

“Rescue a vampire’s soul?” Jophiel reeled at the implication. “But his soul has already been consumed… how can I win it back?”

“That’s not for me to tell you. This is your challenge, Jophiel. Your redemption. You’re welcome to read the book, but maybe you would feel better having earned your forgiveness.”

He could see Raphael meant it. He’d give Jophiel full access to the information he sought and not say another word about the purpose of Jophiel’s assignment. Once an assignment was given, he could fulfill it any way he saw fit. But would God task him with saving a vampire’s soul if it was an impossible undertaking? Once again, he couldn’t know the workings of the Father’s mind, and he shouldn’t assume.

“Thank you for the offer, Raphael.”

The archangel took Jophiel by the hand in a sign of brotherhood. Jophiel immediately swelled up with pride and affection, tightly clasping Raphael’s hand in return. Raphael’s voice was gentle. Almost kind. “God has great things planned for all his children.”

Jophiel nodded and took his leave, excusing himself while the feelings between the two of them were still good. His words went around Jophiel’s head again and again, and no matter how Jophiel looked at it, he knew there was only thing he could do.

Answer a vampire’s most sincerely offered prayer.

DAVID kept moving. He never stayed in one place for too long. Humans didn’t take kindly to vampires once they caught signs of one, and the monks never seemed to be far away. One dead body and the authorities would call in a whole gaggle of the hunters. So he parked his Rambler with the blacked out windows under big shade trees, in abandoned garages, and anywhere else he could get a few quiet hours of sleep without the heat of the sun scorching his flesh. Young vampires preferred to go to ground every day, sleeping in the same nest day after day until a monk found them and killed them in their sleep. David witnessed one massacre a few years after he was turned, and that was all it took. From then on, he avoided all nests.

The black ’58 Nash Rambler was the first, last, and only major purchase of his human life. He’d bought it for five hundred the day before he was attacked and woke up in a vampire’s nest, and it was really his only connection to that old life. It was getting harder to remember who he was before he died. Soon, he would feel absolutely no connection to that person, much less any need to keep his promises. What did a vow to a dying woman have to do with him? He wasn’t even there when it happened—the weak human was.

David reeled those thoughts back. She wasn’t just some dying woman, she was his mother. It wasn’t just a random promise; it was a vow to find her youngest son. And it had everything to do with him. The last of his humanity was slipping from him, ceding ground by inches to the red bloodlust every day, but he didn’t need to help it along. Danny wasn’t going to live forever—if he wasn’t already dead—and David feared the day would come when he simply couldn’t bring himself to care at all.

Some nights, he drove with a destination in mind. Chasing paper-thin leads in Texas and Arkansas and Oklahoma or backtracking over towns he’d already searched from top to bottom. Other nights, he was just looking for a quiet spot away from the monks. And once in a while, he drove because he literally had nothing else to do. He was a vampire—he was supposed to sleep, fuck, and eat. Most of his kind took Lucifer’s edict to heart, carrying out his will on Earth like twisted, bloodthirsty angels. But that didn’t really fit his style, either. He enjoyed sleeping, fucking, and eating, but there was more to existence than that. More to God’s creation. David was searching for that too.

David’s mind turned back to his ill-advised visit to God’s house. Of course the monk he spared immediately told everybody what happened and gave a full description of David to the church, the authorities, the news, and everybody else who would listen to him. As a result, the entire state of Washington was currently on high alert. Now he had to look over his shoulder everywhere he went, wondering if his picture had already gone nationwide. He cut right through Idaho and Wyoming and rolled into Colorado with New Mexico in mind. Of course, the monk never mentioned that he was in that church to pray. Nobody wanted to give him a break. And what would happen if his likeness did get national exposure and Danny saw it?

It seemed too much to hope that Danny might recognize David and seek him out. Why would he? People didn’t make it to a ripe old age and have full and happy lives if they were stupid enough to seek out vampires, and Danny had never been a stupid kid. He was the brightest person David knew, which would probably explain why he managed to keep himself hidden away for several decades.

Someday, David would have to face the possibility that Danny was already dead. Someday. But not this day and not the next day and probably not the day after that.

Just before dawn, David found a mall with covered parking in a suburb of Denver. Used to be he could just park at the airport or bus station, but these days people were far more likely to call the cops if they saw a beat-up old car with blacked out windows sitting in short-term parking. Malls were getting to be a pain in the ass too, with rent-a-cops likely to hassle him if they didn’t have anything else to keep them occupied. And they never had anything else to keep them occupied. But they all seemed to have the monks on speed dial these days.

Most of the parking was underground, and he went to the bottom level and parked in the corner. His nose itched with the smell of oil and burning gas and rubber, and his ears rang with cars roaring through the cement tunnels. It would be nice to have a quiet, private place to sleep every day. Maybe a place he could take his prey if he didn’t feel like eating out in the open. It would definitely be more secure to have a home base, and… and that was nesting.

David shook his head. Okay, so he understood the appeal, but it still wasn’t worth the risk. He didn’t need an address so the monks would have their work done for them. If they planned to take him out, they could hunt him across the country and earn their kill.

He crawled into the backseat and stretched out, his eyes heavy even though there were at least five levels of concrete between him and the sun. He didn’t have a picture of Danny, but when he closed his eyes, he saw the boy as clearly as any photo. His memories didn’t age or fade. Danny’s face was sharp and crisp, his smile warm, his eyes a honey shade of brown, and he looked at David with the most heartbreaking combination of awe and love. Sometimes it felt like a punishment, being the center of that kid’s world. Sure, they’d struggled. David had gone to bed hungry more than once just so Danny wouldn’t have to know what hunger felt like, but they’d been together, and Mary had been alive.

He closed his eyes and drifted in those memories—or rather, clung to them like a drowning man.

“God? It’s me again. I guess I didn’t need to do this at a church, did I? It seemed right, though. Okay, clearly we’re not on speaking terms right now. But you’re supposed to be the God of mercy, right? And it’s not like I asked to be made into a vampire.”

He didn’t hate it, though. There were minor inconveniences, what with the sun and the monks and the constant, never-ending hunger, but mostly he enjoyed it. He never got old, sick, or tired. He could drive his Rambler for an eternity—or until they stopped pumping oil out of the ground—and that seemed perfectly all right to him. The only thing marring his happiness was this unfinished business. “The point is, I know Danny’s out there, and I know you know where he is, so how about a little help?”

“If he knows where Danny is, he’s not telling anybody.”

David jerked up, his fangs descending and his body tensing to fight the stranger in his front seat. The stranger who appeared out of thin fucking air. “What the fuck? Who are you?”

David tensed, taking stock of every visible inch, storing every detail. The clean-shaven man blinked at him with amused blue eyes. His sandy hair was cropped short above his ears and he wore a blue checkered shirt over broad shoulders. His muscles bulged beneath the thin material, and he seemed too large for the Rambler’s front seat. David would have picked him out of the crowd for a meal, if only for the challenge. The slight tightening in his groin told him it wasn’t just the challenge that intrigued David… maybe it was the angular jaw, his pink lips, or his undeniably exquisite cheekbones.

“Isn’t that obvious?”


“I’m the answer to your prayers.”

Author Bios:
Sarah Madison
An avid reader as a child, early on Sarah was asked to decide between her creative and scientific interests. Believing that she couldn't explore both sides of her personality, she chose science, and made a conscious decision to shut away her creative nature. Though she loved her work, she always felt like something was missing from her life, but whenever she questioned that feeling too deeply, she convinced herself that a life without joy was simply the definition of being a grownup.

One day she discovered fanfiction online, and it was like waking  a sleeping dragon. Over the next three years, she wrote over a million words of fanfic, finally deciding perhaps it was time to take the training wheels off the bike and try her hand at original stories. Now an award-winning author of M/M romances, Sarah believes that if she can transport you to another world for a few hours, make you forget your bad day at work, or your chronic illness, or anything that hurts you--even for a little while--then she's done her job as an author.

R Cooper
I write strange but shiny things, like steampunk spies and detectives, and pirates, and cowboys, and dragons, and fairies, firebirds, and, well honestly, even my stories set in the here and now are a little broken and weird too. Because I am a messed up weirdo and that's who I like to write about.

I fall in love with my characters when I'm writing them, so I have a lot of self-written fanfiction about them that uh...I really have no excuse for, but oh my god how cute are they?

You can find all that and a lot more at my livejournal. (Which is, incidentally, where I am originally writing the blog posts that repost over here at Goodreads.)

Feel free to friend me on Facebook, or Tumblr (which is where I spend most of my time.)

Cornelia Grey
Cornelia Grey is a creative writing student fresh out of university, with a penchant for fine arts and the blues. Born and raised in the hills of Northern Italy, where she collected her share of poetry and narrative prizes, she is now based in London, and she is thoroughly enjoying the cultural melting pot that is the City.

Her interests vary from painting to photography, from sewing to acting; when writing, she favors curious, surreal poems and short stories involving handsome young men seducing each other.

After graduating with top grades, she is now busy with internships - literary agencies, publishing houses, and creative departments handling book series, among others. She also works as a freelance translator.

Ryan Field
Ryan Field is a gay fiction writer who has worked in many areas of publishing for the past 20 years. He's the author of the bestselling "Virgin Billionaire" series and the short story, "Down the Basement," which was included in the Lambda Award winning anthology titled "Best Gay Erotica 2009." Though not always, he sometimes writes gay parodies of *straight* mainstream fiction/films in the same way straight fiction and Hollywood has been parodying gay men for years, without apology. He also writes hetero romances with pen names, and has edited several short story anthologies. He has a long list of publishing credits that include over 84 works of lgbt fiction, some with pen names in various sub-genres. His e-mail is listed below, and he welcomes all comments, or through e-mail.

Pepper Espinoza
Pepper Espinoza has published several books with Liquid Silver Books, including The Zebra Wore Fishnets and The Zebra Wore Red Stockings, Amber Quill Press, Whiskey Creek Press, and Samhain Publishing. She currently lives in Utah with her husband and two cats. She hopes to complete her Masters degree in Literature in May, 2008.

Ms. Espinoza also collaborates with Vivien Dean, and they publish as Jamie Craig. Together they have Amber Quill Press bestseller The Master Chronicles, and The Silver Series with Juno Books.

Sarah Madison

R Cooper

Cornelia Grey

Ryan Field

Pepper Espinoza


A Little Familiar

The Circus of the Damned

The Ghost and Mr. Moore


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