As I’ve been working through my novels, I ocassionally take my characters on a “test drive” in different scenarios to see how they’d handle them, if there’s any chemistry, etc. I thought I’d share some of those on the blog. Let’s me do some character development, and gives you some (hopefully) fun short stories.
As always, comments are welcome.
To Catch a Dragon
Ndrek sat behind the bar, sizing up each of his mid-afternoon customers. Some had started drinking early, others had rented a room for the night and were just starting their day. Boredom itched.
Now was as good a time as any to start work on the new spell he’d discovered.
As he slid off his stool, the door to the bar opened and the man that entered had to stoop to get under the doorframe. His shoulders matched his height, and the gold dragon on his breastplate seemed to glow in the dim light.
The archetype for the Knights of Valor.
Sir Leopold grimaced at the sticky floor.
“To what do I owe this…” Ndrek paused. “Honor?”
The Knight leaned against the bar, his back to the wall as his faded blue eyes surveyed the tap room. “Don’t believe for a minute you’ve settled down as a barkeeper.”
“That is not what brought a High-Knight to my humble establishment. Perhaps you came for a Fire and Brimstone? My establishment is said to make the very best.”
Leopold looked at the pristine glasses behind the counter. “At least those are clean.”
“Too much cleanliness would scare away my best customers.”
Leopold’s eyes narrowed. “Not what I came to see you about, though I probably should.”
“What has brought you here?”
The Knight reached into his cloak and withdrew a sheaf of papers imprinted with the wax seal of the dragon church.
Ndrek sucked in a breath as he looked at the sealed documents. “You have an army of Knights blessed by Dracor Himself. Why would you have need of me?”
“We’ve been issuing more of them lately. Not enough Knights to oversee all of Tamryn and the eastern provinces.”
“Then you need more Knights.”
“That’s up to Dracor,” Leopold said.
Ndrek bit back his quip about fickle gods.
“Figuring you’re getting bored about now. This’ll keep you busy and out of trouble. Pay’s not bad either.”
Ndrek grinned and took the papers, but he frowned as he read them. “This is a goose chase, as you Tamarians say. Dragons have been extinct since before men walked these lands.”
“Locals of Kelleran don’t agree with that assessment.”
“A dragon.” Ndrek rocked back on his heels as he tried to wrap his brain around the thought. “Are you sure?”
“Nope, but that’s where you come in.”
“Would not the followers of the Dragon God Dracor wish to be first on the scene?”
“Already sent a contingent of Knights.”
“Let me guess. They did not return?”
“Of course they did. They didn’t see any dragons, and they didn’t find any proof that there’d ever been any.”
“Then why send me?”
“Found a few things that made some folks worry there might’ve been a dragon. Knights couldn’t tell if it was real or a hoax.”
“Would not the Knights know this best?”
“Dracor might take the form of a dragon, but dragons are magical beasts.”
“No wizard was with the team you sent?”
Sir Leopold shook his head.
“So you think I will be able to tell for sure.”
“That’s the reasoning, anyway.”
Ndrek looked at the bundle of papers, including the generous payout. Far more interesting than tending bar.
Sir Leopold pushed off the bar. “I’ll send Knight Kailis over. She was on the original expedition. And Priestess Vaiya.”
“Was she on the original expedition as well?’
“No, but I figure if you find a dragon, you might want the healing skills of Priestess of Thalia on your side.”
Ndrek frowned. “You think there might actually be a dragon.”
“Doesn’t much matter what I think. It’s what you find that counts. I’ll send Knight Kailis over in the morning.”
Ndrek watched the High-Knight leave and looked down at the papers in his hands.
If Sir Leopold thought it was a goose chase, he wouldn’t be sending Ndrek, a Knight, and a Priestess of Thalia to investigate.
Sir Leopold hadn’t become a High-Knight by being wrong.
I received some feedback on the blog that people wanted to see little more of my fiction writing, so I thought I’d give it a try. This is supposed to be an author’s website, and I really do write. A lot, actually.
I figure I’ll post a little fiction on Fridays. Something fun before the weekend.
Let me kow what you think in the comments section. Figure if the experiment doesn’t work, it’s easy enough to return to my previous ramblings and ruminations.
Loving a Mage Lord: 1
Aenwyn focused on her magical tome as a maid tugged on her hair. Wincing, Aenwyn tried to ignore the maid and concentrate on the arcane symbols. The young wizard didn’t much care what she looked like for the Oakenvale ball, but figuring out the nuanced spell dancing across the pages captured her complete attention as she tried to learn it.
Escadia closed Aenwyn’s book. “How do you expect to marry an earl when you won’t hold still to get your hair done?”
Aenwyn glanced up at the duchess. “I was studying that, Your Grace.”
“You’re getting ready for a ball.”
Sitting up straight, Aenwyn sucked in a breath and her lungs filled with the tang of magic and beeswax. She glanced up toward the towering ceiling with its swooping curves and large windows as massive crystal chandeliers illuminated the room with magelight so bright it made evening feel like afternoon.
Aenwyn grimaced as the maid coiled her hair. “I’m not interested in marrying an earl.”
“You should be,” Escadia said. “Then you wouldn’t have to hide from my mother.”
“Are the rumors true?”
“Don’t know, and I’m smart enough not to find out.”
Aenwyn stroked the cover of the tome. “I don’t want to marry. I want to study magic.”
Escadia took both of Aenwyn’s hands in her own, the duchess looked unusually serious. “The Empire needs more wizards like you, and I know you love spending time with those dusty old books. Caewyn Oakenvale can give you unimaginable opportunities, and his family has one of the best, one of the oldest, libraries in the Empire.”
“So do you.”
“Mine comes complete with my mother.”
Aenwyn pressed her lips together. “I don’t know him.”
“We’re going to fix that.”
“What if I don’t like him? What if I don’t fall in love with him?”
Escadia squeezed her fingers. “Marriage is not about love.”
“It should be.”
“Caewyn is smart, wealthy and capable,” Escadia said. “He’s also a decent elf, and there’s few enough of those.”
“If he’s all that, why would he want me?”
“Because you’re amazing, and you’re a mage. His family needs him to make a match with magic. That’ll smooth over any issues with you not being nobility.”
“You have a strong magical talent, Your Grace” Aenwyn said. “You’d be even better at magic if you tried a little more.”
“And you’d be better at dancing. Now stop all that ‘your grace’ nonsense. You only do it when you’re mad at me, and you should be happy I’m helping you.”
Aenwyn resisted rolling her eyes. “If Lord Caewyn is so wonderful, why don’t you marry him?”
“Because I would never give my mother the satisfaction of me making a suitable match, much less a desirable one.”
Aenwyn glanced up at her reflection as the maid twined her thick red hair into an elegant coif. She reached a hand toward a brilliant white orchid woven into a braid, but the maid stopped her.
“Miss mustn’t touch,” the maid said.
Aenwyn sighed and endured the rest of the torture the maid inflicted on her, including cinching her into one of Escadia’s silk gowns. The fine silk slid over Aenwyn’s lithe curves and made a soft shushing noise as she moved.
“How do you breathe in these?”
Escadia smiled and liked arms with Aenwyn then spun her around the room. While the duchess’s steps were graceful and fluid, Aenwyn stumbled after her. The wizard mumbled something about the cold marble floors on her slippered feet then yanked back her hands and let herself fall onto the over-stuffed silk cushions of a white chaise.
“Remember to let Caewyn lead,” Escadia said. “And ease into sitting. Think of yourself as a haughty cat rather than a farmer’s hound.”
Color crept over Aenwyn’s cheeks, and she pressed her lips together. Even after years of taking dance lessons with Escadia, Aenwyn moved like a human rather than one of her own kind. But then, she’d never much liked dancing and had only done the minimum the tutors required. Like Escadia and magic.
“You look stunning,” Escadia said as she pulled Aenwyn back to her feet and turned her towards a mirror.
Aenwyn smoothed out the emerald silk of her borrowed gown and peered into the silvered glass. While Escadia looked as stunning and regal as she always did, Aenwyn barely recognized the woman standing beside the duchess.
Her over-sized mage robes had been replaced by a gown of the latest fashion that bared her neck, shoulders, and a generous amount of décolletage. The dress made her eyes look greener, and the maid had tamed her unruly red hair into an elaborate and elegant coif.
Aenwyn could pass as one of the noble ladies that moved in Escadia’s rarified circles. As long as she remembered to say little, smile often, and ignore the servants.
Escadia dropped an ermine cloak over Aenwyn’s shoulders. “Caewyn is going to be smitten.”
“I think he already is.” Aenwyn raised a brow at the duchess.
“Stop being silly and come along. We’re already fashionably late.”
Aenwyn shook her head but followed Escadia down to the waiting carriage.
My entry to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge. There have been a lot of really sad entries to these challenges of late, so I thought I’d try a different take.
The Blood Lottery
Helena shivered as the cold spring breeze cut through her thin cloak. The scent of freshly tilled earth and young growing things filled the air. A time of rebirth. A time of blood sacrifice to keep the monster from devouring the calves, lambs and newly planted fields.
Even standing in the center of the crowd, Helena felt alone. Her mother had been sacrificed first, then her older sister had been taken by the blood lottery five years later. Her younger sister’s name had been called last spring.
No one stood up for them as most were happy it wasn’t their friends or family. And who would miss a poor washer woman and her impoverished children?
Helena suspected that the lottery was not random as it was supposed to be. It had been a long time since a merchant had been chosen and longer still that an aristocrat had.
The poor, the misfits, the criminals unfit for hard labor. Those were the ones that somehow were chosen time and time again. And she fit two of the three criteria. Helena assumed the only reason she hadn’t been chosen yet was Lord Lothar’s lustful interest in the washer girl who read books. But that shred of protection was gone when she’d refused to jump into his bed. She’d take her chances with the rigged lottery.
Fear knotted her chest as she watched the sheriff roll out the silver basket filled with names. She knew, and yet, it was supposed to be a lottery…
She held her breath as the priest reached into the basket and drew out a name.
The crowd parted like a sea around her, afraid to get too close to the condemned woman. She swallowed back the fear. Time to join her mother and sisters in the great beyond.
Helena said nothing even as the guards swooped in and yanked her forward. Lothar leered down at her from the podium, a dark smile twisting his lips as they bound her arms behind her back. He sat back and watched as they dragged her through the streets toward the Tower of God.
Helena kept her face blank as her heart pounded against her ribs. She’d done the right thing rejecting Lothar. Her mother’s willingness to bed a nobleman and let him sire her three daughters had done nothing to protect any of them. Nothing to feed them. And the nobleman had been quite willing to sacrifice his illegitimate daughters when knowledge of them had become inconvenient.
Steadying her breathing, Helena said a prayer to Thalia. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about how she was going to eat tonight.
They reached the gleaming silver temple overlooking the jagged Dragon Cliffs. Helena had only a moment to take in the glorious windswept valley and jagged peaks before the guards forced her up the almost endless flight of stairs to the top of the Tower of God. The icy wind tugged her mahogany hair from its braid, twisting the shining tendrils as they bound her to the pole.
A guard drew his dagger and sliced her wrist.
Helena yelped, watching her blood flow from the wound and drip down her hand and over her cloak. The only cloak she owned. Not that she would need it much longer.
The moment her blood touched the Tower of God, she heard it. A deep, low rumble that made her stomach climb into her throat.
The guards heard it too and raced back down the stairs.
Growing louder, the rumble filled her ears and shook the ground. The entire temple swayed, and had she not been bound to the pole, Helena would’ve tumbled onto the jagged rocks below.
A moment later she saw it. Her eyes saucered. As large as the temple itself, the silver dragon glittered in the afternoon sunlight as it glided through the cold air.
Before she could think, before she could offer another prayer to Thalia, it dived at her.
She closed her eyes and screamed.
But there was no pain. She opened her eyes, expecting to be dead, but instead she found herself soaring over forests and streams so fast that they disappeared beneath her in a panoply of color. A wave of nausea hit her, and she buried her face in her arm as she steadied her stomach.
Collecting herself, she took several slow breaths and looked up. A basket made out of strong but flexible reeds surrounded her and protected her from the dragon’s razor sharp claws. Was the beast taking her home to eat her? Or taking her as a meal for its children?
The dragon snorted above her, and Helena fell back against the basket.
I have no intention of eating you, and I have no children to feed you to.
There was bitterness in the words, and she looked up at the beast’s claws surrounding her.
“I can hear your thoughts?”
If I so wish it.
Helena said nothing and tried to keep her mind blank as she gazed down at the blur of landscape below them. The dragon’s flight felt effortless, yet she knew they were crossing in minutes what would have taken hours.
At last his pace started to slow and he spiraled upward. Helena clung to the sides of the basket. The dragon cleared the top of a mountain and descended into the valley below.
Lush, green, and full of life.
Given their altitude, it should have been snow-covered; instead she saw farmers’ fields already sprouting and orchards in bloom. The rich scent played off the cold glacial smell of the dragon.
Another flap of his wings and they were gliding over towns and climbing towards a large castle that glittered like ice.
The dragon circled the castle then landed with a cat’s grace in the windswept courtyard. The doors to the castle opened and a group of revelers raced outside, their arms laden with flowers as they welcomed her.
Helena’s eyes widened and tears streamed down her cheeks as she saw her sisters and her mother running toward her.
“Am I dead?” Helena asked as she hugged her mother.
Her mother shook her head as she brushed away Helena’s tears. “This is Dragon Valley. Lord Ander brought us here, as he brought you.”
“I thought…” Helena said and looked back at the massive silver dragon.
A blast of magic puffed her cloak, and where the dragon had been stood a man with silver hair and eyes bluer than the sky. A well dressed courtier hurried forward and draped an exquisite white cape over Ander’s shoulders.
“Let the feasting begin. The girl is hungry.” Oblivious to his nakedness, Ander left them as he strode into the castle.
“Still not the one,” Helena’s mother whispered. Looking down, she said a prayer.
“Not the one?” Helena asked.
Her mother hugged her. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go enjoy the feast celebrating your arrival. We’ll have plenty of time to explain later.”
Dressed in a warm cape and clean clothes, Helena ate her fill for the first time in her life. Still not totally convinced this wasn’t heaven, she looked towards the glittering castle and wondered about the man that had given her a new life.
DH’s next installment of the Drake Diamond Saga. I am really enjoying seeing where this is going, and DH won’t give me any hints!
Final Resting Place
The clouds outside are starting to break up, showing irregular patches of clear night sky. We’re a few blocks away from Frank’s Diner. Not sure where we’re going, but I figure Betty knows. Puddles and wet pavement in the street shimmer in reflection of the intermittent moonlight. I take a deep breath. There’s always that smell in the air, after it rains. It reminds me of my childhood, even if it mixes with the adult smell of cigarette smoke in my nostrils.
I frown. Something isn’t right. “Betty?”
She tilts her head slightly and gives me a coy grin. “Yes, Drake?”
“I just took a deep breath. How is that possible with bullet holes in my lungs?”
She raises one eyebrow at me. “Really, Drake? Don’t get hung up on it. If you think too much about magic it might stop working. And since it’s what’s holding you together, you don’t want it to stop working.”
“Then you’d better give me something else to think about. Because thinking about things that don’t add up is what I do. Cop trained, street honed. Isn’t that what you wanted me for?”
Betty stops walking, so I stop too. She looks me right in the eye, then quickly looks around, and even scans the rooftops. Then she looks me right in the eye again, and beckons me close with her finger. I take a step closer and lean in.
She whispers quiet enough that if someone dropped a pin, the racket might drown out her voice. “I need you to find out Papa Thorne’s daytime resting place.” Before I can say anything, she turns and starts walking at a brisk pace. The clacking of her heels on the wet pavement is oddly quieter than one would expect. Magic? Or just the way she walks?
I catch up to her just as she turns right at the corner, onto Ravenswood Avenue. Almost no traffic. Streets are deserted this time of night. But she’s worried about being tailed. Or eavesdropped on. And not taking any chances.
“Finding him isn’t the problem, Drake. He’s…” She gives an exasperated sigh. “He’s my Master.” She says the word like it leaves a taste in her mouth she can’t spit out fast enough. “He’s the Master of all the vampires in the city. If I needed you to find him I’d just bring you with me. He’s expecting me later. And he’ll get suspicious if I’m late.”
I shrug. “So? Bring me with you. I ain’t afraid of him. Like you said yourself, I ain’t gotta worry about dying no more.”
She gives me an irritated look. “Neither does he, Drake. For the same reasons I don’t. Do you know the first thing about fighting vampires?”
“I suppose I don’t,” I admit, “seeing as how I never thought they were real. You got any pointers for me?”
“Yes,” she hisses. “Find his daytime resting place. Where he goes before the sun comes up. All vampires need one. Direct sunlight burns us. And just like we still need to eat, we still need to sleep.”
We walk a few more paces in silence, other than a gust of wind blowing some leaves and trash along the sidewalk.
“Betty…this might be a touchy subject, but are you and he…”
“Occasionally,” she sneers. “I don’t dare refuse him.” The disgust in her voice is so clear a deaf guy could hear it. There’s rage there too, but that’s less obvious. Easier to miss, unless you’ve got experience reading people.
I let a few more silent paces go by. I need answers, but some questions have to be asked in a certain way. But she seems to realize what I’m getting at and pipes up on her own.
“No, Drake, he’s never brought me to his daytime lair. I don’t think he trusts anyone that much.”
The wind picks up. I turn the collar up on my coat and tug the brim of my fedora down. “You said all vampires need one. Does he know where yours is?”
She frowns. “I honestly don’t know. I’ve tried to be careful, but…he has ways.”
I shrug. “Is there a reason you only have one? Why do you think he only has one? That another vampire rule?” We come to the corner. There’s no traffic, but the light is red. Betty stops, looking down at her shoes, so I stop too.
She doesn’t look up as she answers me. “It’s more than just a place to get out of the sun and sleep, Drake.” The light turns green and she starts to cross, the wind blowing her coat and hair. I follow.
On the other side of the intersection we’re walking alongside a tall brick wall with wrought iron spikes on top. Something about this place gives me the heebies…and I’m already dead. Then I see the elaborate balustrade of the front gates a ways ahead, and I realize where we are.
“Rosehill Cemetery,” she says. She grabs one of the cold iron bars of the gate, and pulls it open with a rusty creak that can clearly be heard above the rising wind. “Come on.”
“This is where you sleep during the day?” Suddenly I feel hackles rising in my neck. I’m on edge. If I still had a heartbeat, it would be hammering against my ribs. Instead it feels like my body is trying to fly apart, and sheer force of will is the only thing holding me together. I grit my teeth and ball my fists.
“No. Cemetery’s too obvious. Any vampire that makes their lair that easy to find doesn’t last long.” She tilts her head at me and raises an eyebrow. “Drake? You okay?”
“No! No, I’m not okay! I’m dead!” I feel like I’m covered in ice-cold sweat. Freezing rivulets running down my body.
“Drake!” It’s Betty, still holding the Cemetery gate open. She looks real worried all of a sudden. “Drake, listen to me. I can help you, but you have to focus on something. Take out a cigarette, Drake. Take out a cigarette and put it in your mouth.”
Hands shaking, I do as she says, nearly dropping it with my fumbling fingers. Holding it between my lips, I reach for one of the books of matches from the diner. But the wind is too strong. I’ll never be able to light it in this wind.
I hear the sound of Betty snapping her fingers, and the end of my cigarette glows red hot for a second. I taste the smoke in my mouth. My throat. Feel it in my lungs. I inhale the smoke, and I feel alive. Of course, I know I’m not. Not really. But the smoke helps me accept that sometimes what you know isn’t as important as what you do.
“Come through the gate, Drake! Quick!”
I do as she says, and she slams the gate shut. She’s a lot stronger than she looks.
…And she’s terrified of Thorne. So how strong is he?
“How are you feeling now, Drake?” The winds is really picking up. Leaves and smaller bits of paper trash sweep along the ground and against the iron gates. The branches of the trees in the cemetery sway and twist. But I can still somehow hear every word she says crystal clear.
“Better, I guess.” I reach up and take my cigarette out, and hold it between two fingers at my side, flicking it a couple times. The ashes disappear in the wind. “Why are we here, Betty? I gotta tombstone here? You wanted to show me my own grave?”
She gives me that same look she gave me when I woke up on her marble altar, surrounded by candles. Scrutinizing me. Like she’s not sure I’m all right in the head.
“It must have been the iron,” she says.
“The what now?”
“Drake, in those pulp magazines you used to read when you were younger, do you remember any stories about werewolves? About their weakness to silver?”
I manage to sort of nod and shrug at the same time. “I guess so, yeah.”
She points to the heavy cemetery gates. “Old folklore says ghosts can be warded off by iron. Or harmed by it. You’re not exactly a ghost, Drake. But apparently you’re close enough. Being near those gates seemed to…disrupt you, somehow.”
The wind has cleared away almost all the clouds now, and the half-moon casts it’s silvery patina over everything. I raise the cigarette to my lips and take another quick puff, and look towards the tall brick wall all around the cemetery. Those decorative iron spikes along the top must have been what was bugging me as we walked along the sidewalk outside.
“I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
I shrug again. “It’s a trade-off. I’m vulnerable to iron now.” I point to the bullet holes in my chest. “But I used to be vulnerable to lead.”
Betty smiles, and it’s oddly like tasting the sandwich at the diner. My senses are as sharp as ever, but the same sensations don’t mean the same thing. Betty’s a real looker. And despite being Malone’s daughter, she’s got class. But I don’t respond to her charming smile the way a living man would. It’s just as well.
“You seem fine now that you’re away from the gates. Come on. I need to go see Thorne before he suspects I’m up to something. And I can’t take you with me. Let’s hurry.”
Now that the sky is clear, the wind is starting to die down. But for now it’s still strong enough that the trees are swaying and my trench-coat’s flapping. Betty’s dress, too. But she either doesn’t notice or mind. The wind doesn’t slow her down at all.
“Just so I understand: you have to play along with Thorne for the time being, so you don’t want him knowing that you and I know each other?”
“I don’t want him knowing about you at all,” she replies. “That we know each other, who you are, or that you even exist.”
I drop the butt of my smoke to the cemetery path and crush it out with my foot. “Fine. But I’ll need a place to lay low for a bit. After we’re done here I’ll have to go find a flophouse. Or a cheap motel.” I keep forgetting that it’s three years gone by. I’d swear I was only out a few minutes. My office, and the small apartment I had above it, are probably leased out to someone else now.
“I tried to take your needs into consideration.” Betty sounds like she’s apologizing. It strikes me as odd, considering without her I’d still be an inert pile of calcified remains. “To have everything ready for you, so you could focus all your attention on helping me bring down Papa Thorne.” She stops in front of a private mausoleum, and turns to look at me. I look up and see the family name, carved in marble: MALONE.
I’m confused and I probably look it. “Betty, I thought you said no vampires rested in cemeteries anymore.”
“I knew you would need a place to stay once I brought you back, Drake. But Thorne would have found out if I’d rented an apartment, or bought a house. And I spent a lot of time fixing up the inside…”
“I’ll find somewhere else, Drake. I honestly didn’t know about the iron. But for now you’re far enough away from it here.” She’s right about that. But the gates and the spikes on top of the wall surrounding the place means I’m trapped in the cemetery until she comes back to open the gates for me.
“Betty, didn’t you say cemeteries were a bad idea? Too obvious?”
“For vampires, yes. You’re different, Drake. No one will find you here.”
“You don’t sound too sure of yourself.” She didn’t.
She hesitates for a moment, then nods. “You were a desperate experiment, Drake. I really can’t trust anyone else. But I’d never brought anyone like you back from the Other Side before. You’ve surprised me in a number of ways already, and it’s only your first night back. Even though it was my spell that raised you, I’m still not exactly sure what you are. You’re too solid to be a ghost, and you’re far too smart to be a zombie.”
I grit my teeth and look over the stone construction. “Betty, I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and you can count on me to bring down Thorne. But…I do not want to share a mausoleum with your father.” Dead or not, we’d make lousy roommates.
Betty looks confused for a second, then smiles. “He’s not in there. There’s a plaque with his name on it, but the police never found his remains after Thorne’s men murdered him.”
I have to think it over for a few seconds. “Well, in that case, I guess it’ll do. For now.”
Betty reaches up with both hands and tweaks one ornate carving while pressing inward on another. The heavy marble slab swings open revealing granite stairs leading down into a dusty crypt.
“I don’t suppose the other members of your family interred here will mind me crashing the place?” I ask a little nervously.
“I doubt they’ll say a thing,” she replies with a chuckle.
“Betty, I wasn’t cracking a joke. Whenever I see my reflection, I see a skeleton. And you don’t have a reflection at all. And the only reason there’s any spring in my step is that you can apparently do amazing things with candles and chalk.”
She frowns. “Fair enough. All kidding aside. Every Malone in the family mausoleum was given a proper burial. As a fairly skilled necromancer…and you are proof that I am…I can tell you that it’s next-to-impossible to do anything with someone who was given a proper burial. You and I are the only up-and-around dead here. Everyone else should be Resting in Peace.”
DH finished the next part in the Drake Diamond Saga. I like the set-up for this character, but I am biased. hard not to be excited about what DH is working on, but I could see a series of fun, snarky, gritty stories about an undead detective. Flesh out the world. The people in it.
Outside, the gray sky matched the wet pavement. Cold, dirty puddles covered the sidewalk beneath dim, flickering street lights. I fished my pack of smokes out of my pocket, raised it to my lips, and took one between my teeth and pulled it out. I was about to light up when I remembered my manners.
“You want a smoke?” I’d never been raised from the dead before. Wasn’t familiar with the etiquette. Figured the least I could offer Betty Malone for bringing me back to the World of the Living was a cigarette.
“Sure, thanks.” I hold the pack out and she takes one between her fingers. I notice her nail Polish is the exact same shade of red as her lipstick. She holds the cigarette up and stares at it for a second. It lights itself, tiny curls of smoke raising from the now glowing end, and she gives a slight smirk and puts it between her lips.
“Want me to teach you?” She raises an eyebrow at me, with a coy smile.
“I’ll stick with my lighter, thanks.”
“I thought you lost yours.”
She’s right. I remember being hit in the jaw by an entire side of beef at the end of someone’s arm, sending me, my thirty-eight, and my lighter in three different directions. And then some bullets decided to move into my chest cavity, ruining the whole neighborhood.
“Damn. Guess I’ll have to start carrying matches until I can get a new one.”
“We’re not to far from Frank’s Diner,” Betty says. “You can get some there. It’s just as well. Doubt you’ve got the patience to learn magic anyway.”
Betty’s probably right. I never believed in it before. Now, with my reflection in the puddles below an eyeless skull grinning back at me, it’s kind of hard to remain a skeptic. But time spent learning how to light my smokes with a snap of my fingers is time I’d rather spend tracking down Thorne.
Frank’s Diner is one of those places you can tell exactly what it is from the outside, and the inside is just what you’d expect. Hash browns, steak and eggs, grilled ham and cheese sandwich…you can have whatever you want as long as it ain’t fancy. Its open late, and never very crowded. There’s a few other customers there, getting their late night fix of greasy food and cheap coffee. Betty picks us out a few stools at the counter, down a ways from the other patrons. First thing I do when I sit is pocket a few books of matches, and strike one to finally give myself a light.
Seconds later, Maxine appears with an order pad and a pen at the ready. Forty-something, dishwater blond hair up under a hair-net. Been a fixture at Frank’s for all the years I’d been eating there. An incurable gossip, she’s both a good source of information, and a bad source of misinformation. On a number of my past cases, I’d come to Maxine to check what she’d heard. Can’t always trust her info, but it’s a place to start.
“And what can I get you folks tonight? The apple pie’s fresh, and we have…Drake? Drake Diamond!” It would be cliche to say she looked like she’d seen a ghost. But saying she’d seen an old acquaintance back from the dead doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
“The usual, Maxine. And a slice of that apple pie, too.” I tap some ashes from my cigarette into a tray and turn to Betty. “You want anything?”
“I am positively ravenous,” she smirks, narrowing her eyes. Maybe bringing a vampire to a public place was a bad idea. But then she says, “Pastrami on rye, and a cherry cola.”
“One pastrami on rye, cherry cola,” she says as she scribbles on her pad, “and Mr. Diamond’s usual: black coffee and a fried egg sandwich with ham and Tabasco sauce.” She winks at me. “And a slice of pie. I’ll be right back.”
Betty watches Maxine hustle off and turns to me. “You two have a history?”
“Nah. She winks at everybody like that.”
“Good. Don’t get too involved with the Living, Drake. You’re not one of them anymore. It wouldn’t end well for either of you.” She crushes out her lipstick-stained cigarette in the ashtray.
“Sounds like the voice of experience.” I don’t mean to pry, but it never hurts to throw out a line. You never know what you might catch. Betty looks at me and shakes her head.
“Not me. I’m not the same as you.” She glances around to make sure no one’s eavesdropping, and lowers her voice. “You’re Undead, Drake. You were Dead, then I undid your death. That’s what Undead means. That’s not what I am. I was never Dead. Not entirely. No one Undid anything that had happened to me to make me what I am.”
I purse my lips into a frown as I try to recall what I know about vampires. Nothing, that’s what. I never believed they were real. There were some stories about them in a few of the pulp magazines I read as a kid, but I’m guessing those were more full of misinformation than Maxine on a bad day. But I think I get the basic idea.
“I’m Undead. You’re the Living Dead.” Betty thinks about that for a second, then nods.
“Yes. And there are Rules for each of us. But the Rules I have to follow aren’t the same as the Rules you have to follow. And the consequences for breaking our rules aren’t the same. You don’t have to drink blood or avoid direct sunlight, like I do. But trying to reestablish the close personal relationships you had when you were alive…will turn you back into a sack of bones.”
“I…what?” It takes me a minute before I realize my cigarette has fallen into my lap.
Maxine comes by and gives us our sandwiches and drinks. “I’ll be back with your pie in a sec, hon!”
Betty waits until she’s gone, then speaks. “Acquaintances are fine: people you worked with, or passing familiarities,” Betty takes a bite of her pastrami, then continues, “But interacting with any close friends or, worse, loved ones, risks undoing the magic keeping you intact. I doubt I’d be able to bring you back again after that.” She somehow has a way of speaking clearly even while she chews her food. “So…if you and that waitress had anything beyond casual meaningless flirting, every word she says to you…or that you say to her….increases the risk of you getting sent back the the Other Side.”
Taking a bite of my own sandwich, I chew in silence for a long time. This is a lot to to take in. The sandwich isn’t very satisfying, even though it’s dripping with Tabasco. I swallow, washing it down with a gulp of coffee.
“I don’t remember being dead. I just remembering dying. Three forty-four magnum rounds to my chest, and the next thing I know I’m sitting up on a marble altar surrounded by ritual candles. You say I’ve been dead three years but I didn’t feel any time passing. Now you tell me I can only have professional relationships, or superficial ones. Any real genuine human connection…could end me?”
Betty shrugs. “With the Living, yes.” She takes another bite of her pastrami, speaking with her mouth full. Still, she manages to pronounce everything flawlessly. “You know how people who’ve lost a close friend or relative sometimes regret an apology never made, or a hatchet never buried? Something important that needed to be said or resolved, but they never did, and now it’s too late?” I nod, taking another bite of my sandwich. It’s not bland or tasteless. It’s just that I don’t seem to enjoy the taste anymore. I don’t dislike it either. It’s just…a sandwich.
“Turns out that’s one of reality’s biggest Rules: if you’ve got something important to say to someone, you have to say it while you still have the chance. Once they die, or you die, anything left unsaid stays unsaid. And you died, Drake.”
“I didn’t die. I was murdered.”
She shrugs again. “Getting murdered is one way of dying. Doesn’t change the fact that you’re still bound by the Rules, Drake. I know there’s a lot of ghost stories where there’s a spirit that’s restless from some Unfinished Business, and needs it taken care of before they can pass on. And those are just stories. If you wanted to Finish your Business, you needed to do it while you were still alive. I’m not trying to rub it in, Drake, but you’re not alive anymore. Any Business you left Unfinished is going to stay that way. You’re not allowed break that Rule.”
Lana. I never told her…I never…she…
And now it’s too late. I should…should’ve said…should’ve let her know. But it’s too late now. I’m…gone.
I put the fizzed cigarette from my lap into the ashtray and light up a new one, inhaling deeply. It’s rich and satisfying in a way the sandwich wasn’t. I look up to see Maxine is back.
“Here’s your pie, hon! And the check. Now, don’t you worry. You take your time and enjoy, and just take care of it at the register on your way out. Glad to have you back in town, hon!” She hustles off, other diner patrons to see to. I’m just another customer. A familiar one, maybe, but just a customer.
And that, apparently, makes her safe.
The pie is warm and sweet. The crust is crispy, the apple filling just right. It’s just not…satisfying. It’s as if I no longer enjoy warm and sweet. Take no pleasure in a crispy pie crust. I take another long drag off my cigarette. Now that feels good. Betty’s slurping up her cherry cola through a straw until nothing is left in the glass but ice.
“I thought vampires drank blood,” I whisper.
“We do,” she whispers back. “But we still need to eat and drink. The blood doesn’t replace the need for other nourishment. It’s an additional requirement.”
“What about me? Do I need to eat?”
“Well, apparently you can eat. I honestly wasn’t sure about that, before. But as far as needing to?” She shakes her head. “No. You’re not the Living Dead, like me. You’re Undead. It’s a subtle distinction.”
“But apparently a profound one,” I say.
She nods. “I’ve heard it said that to the Undead, all food tastes like ashes. Is it true?”
I take another drag from my cigarette and shake my head. “Nah. I can taste it just fine. All the flavors, all the textures. It’s all still there. I just don’t enjoy the flavors or textures anymore, you know? But cigarettes?” I stop to take another deep inhale and let it out slow through my nostrils. “Those are just like they always were.”
“Makes sense, I guess,” she says, taking the guest check between a finger and a thumb. “Food nourishes and sustains Life. You’re not alive, so it doesn’t do anything for you. But tobacco is tied to Death. Now that you’re Undead you may actually get some kind of nourishment or energy from it.”
“Let me get that,” I say, pointing to the check, and grateful to have something so mundane to talk about.
“Drake, you were murdered by one of Papa Thorne’s thugs.” So much for mundane topics. “Did you really think that when I found your remains that you were buried along with your wallet? And that it was full of cash?”
“Swallow your macho pride, Drake. I’m paying.”