Coming Up for Air in Quick Breaths…

Breathe, that’s the thing I’ve been forgetting to do.

The dizzy spells, the inability to concentrate, the ravenous sugar cravings, it all makes sense now.

I’m fine…

Really…

I promise.

Anyway, I thought I’d drop in with a few quickies, as it’s been a while since I let my crazy run free in short bursts.

So, here goes:

Abortion, Drugs, and Guns all suffer from the same problem: make them illegal and only outlaws and the rich will have them. Georgia and Ohio, get your shit straightened out and your noses out of women’s reproductive rights.

Climate Change is the new Marijuana: Both Nixon and Trump commissioned studies on the respective topics, and both threw out the results without so much as reading them when they were at odds with their political agendas. The more things change, the more they…

…well, fuck.

The Incredible AOC and the Marvelous Marginal Tax Rates. They really don’t kick in until after you make 10 million dollars. Don’t believe the bullshit people spew about the mean old government taking 70 cents of every one of your hard earned dollars – that’s not how it works. And really, if you make more than 10 million per year, you could stand to pay more in taxes, if for no other reason than to reinforce the safety net for all the poor workers on whose backs you make your millions.

(That’s not communism, that’s just good, old fashioned American anger talking. We were founded by people who didn’t take kindly to rich folk doing all the taking and not giving back. Time we started to remember that.)

Drawn to Flame is still selling. Not as well as I’d like, but given I’ve really done no advertising for it, I’d say it’s doing better than I have a right to expect. Still not making a killing, or even a living off it yet.

Oooh, on the book front: I have a new short story out to my beta readers. This will interest you because it is a prequel story to the novel and because I’ll be giving it away for free to anyone who signs up for my monthly newsletter. (I think it’ll be monthly, hopefully, I’ll have something cool to update with every month. We’ll see.) Anyways, there will be more news about that fairly soon.

I’m about to start the third round of revisions on the sequel to Drawn to Flame.

I’ll save the title reveal for a little later.

But, if you’ve been paying attention, you might be able to guess when, in 2020, the second book in the 3rd eye Detective Series will be released.

I’ve also started working on the 3rd book in the series. Notes. Some descriptions. Maybe the first sentence or two. I plan on seriously getting to work on it sometime around the middle or end of August. Likely I’ll want to stay inside and away from the Tennessee heat by then anyways.

What else?

Oh, yeah…

…I’ve decided to try to get my posts up to a total of 200 hundred by the end of the year. That means, counting this one, I’ll need to post something like 43 more times.

Challenge Accepted!

Ok, time to get off the computer and ponder.

Until next time…

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Media Appearances…

…Well, just the one really.

The folks behind Authors in Abstract had me on their podcast. It was a good time. Maybe you’ll be interested in giving it a listen?

LISTEN!

If you dig the vibrations, check out some of their other episodes.

Check out some of their books – see if it’s your kind of thing.

Until next time…

 

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Howdy…

…So, how ‘ya been?

Sorry I’ve been away for a bit. Honestly, it was longer than I would have liked.

I had about a week after my book release, and I got Sofa King™ sick, have been out of commission and on everything but rollerskates since, trying to recuperate.

I feel like a living human today.

So, that’s an improvement.

There is a ton of stuff to talk about: politics, physical and mental fitness, strange vistas of human consciousness, writing, you know, things…

…But not today.

Today I just wanted to touch base. Let you know I’m still alive. Still banging my fingertips against the keyboard. Still trying to get the word out about Drawn to Flame:

(BTW, anything you could do to help would be greatly appreciated.)

Anyways, I’m going to rest just a bit more, and prepare for the work week ahead.

Thanks for hanging around. The place would be boring without you.

Until next time…

 

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Book Birthday!

Well, this thing that’s been in my head for too long to mention is now a thing that’s out in the world, waiting to get into your heads.

It was a ton of work getting here.

I imagine, it’ll still be a bit of work going forward, although, not quite as much because:

Drawn to Flame is in your hands now.

I hope it scratches at least one of your itches.

I’ve mentioned it, somewhere here before, but this is just the first story in the series. Caleb, and the rag-tag bunch he calls friends – and a few he doesn’t – have more trouble to get into.

Yes, the second book is already written. (I’m moving into the 3rd revision or so once I recover from this book release).

No, that won’t be the last book either.

Yes, it has a title.

No, I’m not telling you, yet.

When will it come out?

I might need a year to get it all together, and I’m fond of planetary holidays if that gives any clue.

But, before we go all a-cart-before-horse-puttin’ allow me to ask this one thing:

If you’ve taken the time to read Caleb and Company’s first adventure, would you please leave a review?

Goodreads and Amazon are great places.

There are others, as well.

Blog about it, podcast, youtube about it – whatever your medium, please, make a bit of noise for my story. It would really help.

At some point, I’m going to delineate this journey of mine with the benefit of hindsight. I’ve made mistakes, and I’ll share them so maybe you won’t make them too.

But for right now, I’m going to float for a while.

This has been a long time coming. Think I’ll take some time to enjoy it.

Thanks for walking the road with me.

Until next time…

 

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Drawn to Flame: Chapter 3

The walk back to my office was only six blocks, more than I needed to notice I had picked up a tail.

Jesus, the guy was bad.

Every time I stopped walking, or checked both ways before crossing a street, the shmuck would try to hide. Or worse, he would lean up against a lamppost, and try to look like he belonged there. In truth, it took me longer to figure out who he was than it had taken to notice his efforts. He was the goth freak hanging around the crime scene.

I’ve seen gawkers at any number of crime scenes. Usually, they’re neighbors. Sometimes they’re local reporters looking for a scoop, but this one, this one just screamed weirdo. Maybe it was the chipped, black nail polish, or maybe it was the long, stringy hair that looked several weeks unwashed, or just maybe it was the fact that he was dressed head to toe in black – in the ninety-degree heat of early September – that tipped me off. Yeah, that could have been it. Either way, he wasn’t a professional. I was sure of that. Didn’t recognize him from any of my recent cases, but he could have been violent all the same. He was in his early twenties if he was lucky, and guys that age tend to reach for violence as the first solution instead of the last. Just hormones, I guess. I can’t remember my own youth, but I can guess it probably sucked.

I figured I’d let him follow me for a bit. If there was going to be any kind of confrontation, I wanted to keep it off the street. I hate creating a public spectacle.

Short, Dark, and Stupid’s technique was so ham-handed that it would have tested even the most patient of men. I am not the most patient of men. In fact, I don’t even rate in the top fifty. All the same, I kept my cool and let him pretend to follow me back to the office. My hangover was quickly receding, leaving in its place a mild brain fog. Some potential violence would be just the thing to clear that up.

I rounded the corner onto my block and was visited with another surprise. Standing next to the squat, concrete steps of my building was a guy in a suit.

It could have been his posture or the blond crew cut that just screamed ex-military, or it could have been the briefcase, cuffed to his wrist, but I knew that this guy was, in fact, a professional; probably the courier. He let me come within ten feet of him before he took official notice of me, although I’m sure he saw me coming long before that. It was just a sense I got about him.

“Mr. Carson?” he asked.

“Yeah. That’s me,” I replied, attempting to make eye contact with the suit and remain aware of my new stalker, “A package for me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do I need to show I.D. or something?”

“That won’t be necessary, sir,” he said, “Do you require assistance entering your office?”

I could have sworn he winked when he said it. It was quick and subtle, but enough to tell me he was aware of the situation.

“Nah,” I said, probably sounding a bit more bored than I actually was, “Got a bug-zapper in the front hall. It gets most of the pests.”

“Of course,” the suit said, “Shall we go inside, then?”

“Let’s.”

We trundled up the stairs and into the building. Well, I trundled, the suit’s steps were crisp and purposeful. I hoped for a moment that Short, Dark, and Stupid would bug out at the sight of this new player, but I had the feeling my stalker was too hot for the game to back off now. It would have made the day easier if he had left. Then again, the closest I had come to a good fight in the last month was nearly assaulting my newest client earlier that day.

Most times I truly don’t want the hassle of a dust-up, but after running into Barb I had a serious desire to feel my knuckles crunch against someone’s ribs.

Yeah, I have issues. Sue me.

The suit and I were all the way down the hall and nearly up the first short flight of stairs before I got around to proper introductions. I hate it when someone knows my name, but I don’t know his. Said his name was John McDaniels. I’d have made a whiskey joke, but I don’t know any that won’t start a bar fight. John was halfway up the steps when Short, Dark, and Stupid made his play. I had just put my foot on the bottom stair.

I heard his ratty combat boots clunking down the hall as he sped up to charge me from behind. I stopped to check one of my pockets, give him a chance to close the gap before I ran my play. He got up a good head of steam and was reasonably close before I spun on him.

Why is it they never expect you to have noticed them coming?

His eyes went wide, which gave him a more compelling view of my tightly clenched fist rocketing toward his sternum. Given the surprise, I expected him to hesitate. He didn’t. Just as my fist contacted his solar plexus, I saw the knife the little fucker had been palming. It wasn’t a big blade, he had small hands, but as anyone who has been stabbed knows, a small blade will kill you just as dead as a large one. I didn’t have time to think. My reaction flinched me to one side. Still spinning off to the side, I hoped I got far enough out of the way to avoid any serious damage. A flash of pain seared through me as the blade sliced through my jacket and bit into my right shoulder. It hurt too much to be a deep wound. So, I shifted my focus to inflicting as much damage as possible on my young assailant. Grabbing his pants and his scrawny neck I shoved my weight against him to slam him and his knife hand into the wall. That was the plan, anyway. He had already begun his next attack. A handful of shiny pain arced towards me as we struck the wall together. The impact didn’t jar the weapon loose, but it was hard enough to make it a miss. The blade shot past my throat instead of into it. I used the rebound off the wall to spin the son of a bitch across the hall and out of arm’s reach. In the breath distance afforded, I pulled a folding knife from my pocket and flipped it open. Allison hadn’t taught me a great deal about knife fighting yet, but I figured I knew enough to be dangerous.

Apparently, Short, Dark, and Stupid had a similar suspicion about me, because he got seriously cautious in very short order. We squared off, sizing each other up, looking for openings, and both noticed we were no longer alone.

John the Suit was standing on the bottom step, pointing a frighteningly large pistol at the kid.

“Would you like me to shoot him?” John said, as placid as a lake on a windless day.

I had been clenching my jaw, or else it would have hit the floor in amazement. Short, Dark and Stupid had a similar reaction to the statement. I could see shadows of doubt whirl in the kid’s face. Then John cocked back the slide on the pistol. The doubt on the kid’s face evaporated.

He broke and ran.

“I can still shoot him if you like,” John said from over my shoulder, still calm as cloudless skies.

“No,” I said, still shocked, “Thanks anyway.”

He eased down the hammer and slid the pistol into a nicely concealed holster in his jacket.

“Glock forty?” I asked, grasping at something to move on with.

“Yep,” he said, “Gets the job done. You don’t carry?”

“1911A myself,” I said, “I just didn’t figure on needing it for this.”

“You were going to slice it out with him?” he said, the note of incredulity ringing clearly in his tone.

“Didn’t think I’d be fighting just yet today,” I said, motioning up the stairs, “I just went out for a walk.”

“Some walk.”

“Sure was.”

And then my shoulder started to throb. Nothing like adrenalin to make a guy forget he’s been cut open. I moved up the steps as quickly as I could while still keeping my heart rate fairly low. No use in decorating the halls with arterial spray. John followed me up to the office.

My office was on the second floor of a badly renovated brownstone, in a neighborhood tucked into the University of Tennessee’s campus: affectionately known as The Fort. The tile in the halls always needed repair, and the air conditioner stayed broken through most of the summer, but, with a bleeding knife wound, I was grateful for the warmth.

I made it to my office without losing too much blood. John slipped in behind me and bolted the door. I would have given him a look if I could have managed anything other than a constant grimace of pain. Instead, I pulled a first aid tackle box out of a drawer and set to stripping off my shirt.

“That shirt is ruined,” he said.

“And I had just got the damn thing back from the cleaners,” I managed to say before the pain of cleaning out the laceration with betadine reduced my main method of communication to grunting.

John stooped and examined my shoulder.

“Fairly superficial, I think. You could probably get away with butterfly strips instead of stitches. But I’d go easy on it or it will open up more,” he said.

“Yeah, well, it’s not a month around here if I don’t end up in the emergency room.”

“Must be hell on the doctor’s bills,” he said.

“Yeah, some days,” I said with a short, snicker.

I bandaged my shoulder with the butterfly strips and a four by four square of gauze. Then I poured myself a drink. Too early for more ibuprofen, so I settled for Southern Comfort. I slipped into a clean shirt and, with a sense of remorse, chucked my old, bloody shirt into the trash. Someone better at sewing than I might be able to save the jacket, but I wasn’t getting my hopes up.

John the suit waited until I was comfortably seated in my chair before he uncuffed the briefcase. He drew out a videocassette and handed it to me.

“I was told to place this directly in your hands,” he said.

I nodded. Far be it from me to interfere with anyone’s sense of professional duty.

After I took possession of the tape, he closed the briefcase and re-engaged the cuff. He turned to leave and seemed to think better of it. Swiveling back, he handed me his business card.

“I don’t think I can afford your services,” I said.

“No. You probably couldn’t,” he said, “Keep it all the same. Maybe we’ll get together and have a drink sometime.”

“Not to be impolite,” I said, “but you’re really not my type.”

“Nor are you mine,” he said, “but if this is what passes for normal in your life, it must be damned interesting when you cut loose.”

“Never a dull moment,” I said.

“Of that, I am fairly certain,” he said, “By the way, did you know you have menthol cream under your nose?”

I had forgotten about it.

“Now that you mention it, the air does smell unusually fresh and minty,” I said.

He chuckled, mostly under his breath. And then he walked out, just as businesslike as he had walked in.

Everybody’s certain about me today.

I checked the clock and wiped my nose. My usual time to meet Allison down at The Dry Glass ticked nearer with every mechanical sweep of the minute hand. I would definitely go, but maybe she wouldn’t mind if I slipped away to watch the tape. I could use the VCR in the joint’s back room. I don’t own a TV, and Allison wouldn’t mind, would she?

With that set in my head, I let my mind wander. As usual, it wandered face first into a brick wall’s worth of questions.

For one: what the hell was going on with that punk kid? There wasn’t any reason, at least none I could remember, for anyone to come after me, much less with a knife. So, why had Short, Dark, and Stupid gone all stalker-happy with the blade? Moreover, what had he been doing loitering around the house where a woman had just mysteriously burned to death? I should have been upset that someone attacked me, but the pain and booze were dulling everything except the confusion. Could the kid have been waiting at the scene for me?

I had no idea. So, I filed it away for further thought at some other time. But something formless about the whole thing kept floating around in my head. It was doing an Olympic-level backstroke as I dialed Allison’s number.

When I hung up the phone, I knew only two things; that our appointment was still on and that I needed to use some of my newfound cash to buy another suit jacket. The knife slash, too jagged to sew without leaving an obvious repair seam, had killed my jacket. I mourned its violent passing and dug my spare out of the closet. I usually didn’t wear my gun to these weekly appointments but seeing as how the kid was still out there, somewhere, it seemed like a good idea to bring it along.

Too many things I didn’t know. That’s not unusual for the start of a case, so I let the thought drift into the shadows of my subconscious. Something would turn up. But that’s the problem with being a detective; I can’t do any detecting without clues. And, at that point, I had no clue whatsoever.

 

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Drawn to Flame: Chapter 2

I walked slowly to the address. It was only six blocks, but I needed to think. I had just met my new client, and the puzzles were already starting to stack up.

For one, how did he know so much about me? Was he having me followed? No, I would have noticed that. And exactly what had he meant when he said I was gifted? Also, if his sources were so thorough, why did he need a detective in the first place?

None of it was adding up. I was starting to get the sneaking suspicion that I was being used to take care of someone’s dirty laundry. I was still scratching my head when I arrived at the address.

The house was one of the less dilapidated Victorians in the neighborhood. It had been kept up by its owner, but just enough to rent. Detective Justin Hagen waited for me outside when I walked up. His nose was firmly buried in a notepad, and his glasses had slid almost completely off his face. Shrugging the hunch out of his shoulders, I could see his muscles shifting under the fabric of his suit. Justin’s built like a sprinter; probably ran track in high school or college. He must have slimmed down some in the time since, but he was still in much better shape than I was.

Justin was one of those people who wouldn’t have made it past beat cop in this town just twenty years ago. His skin, hair, and eyes were all a deep caramel, a trait I find fascinating, but that would have sunk him in an instant as a cop in a Southern city like Knoxville. Thankfully he was born in the right generation. He’s a hell of a detective. I’d thought about offering him a partnership, but I was barely making enough money to get by as it was. He’d have been a good partner, too. Everything about him screamed attention to detail, from his perfectly pressed slacks to his immaculately kept hair to his perpetually polished wingtips that gleamed like volcanic glass in the afternoon sun. The only piece of his ensemble that was out of place was his tie. It didn’t hang down or loose, no. It was a loud, blue and red number that looked like paisley, if paisley been painted by Salvador Dali, during an acid trip. I had to suspect the same attention to detail went into the choosing of his ties. Probably some kind of statement against authority.

“I thought you said fifteen minutes,” he said while pushing his spectacles back up his nose when I approached.

“Yeah, well, not all of us set our watches by atomic, naval standard. You have to allow for a few minutes in either direction,” I said.

“Whatever.”

“What ‘ya got?” I asked.

“Inside. Front room. You can’t miss it,” he said with a minuscule grimace.

I had worked with Justin a few times since he was handed the dubious honor of heading up the Special Crimes department, but I had never really seen him show any kind of emotion at a crime scene before. At the bar, after a case, with a drink in hand, sure. But never at a crime scene. He’s too professional.

Something must’ve spooked him.

A feeling like cold quicksilver wormed around in my guts as I climbed the porch steps and ducked under the police tape. I wrote it off as the hangover.

The front hall of the house was awash in the aroma of barbeque. It made me hungry and sick at the same time. My second reaction was sheer surprise that someone had been allowed to grill out at a crime scene. Then my brain kicked in and the cold chills trickled down my spine like ice water.

No one was cooking. Someone was cooked.

I made my way into the parlor and nearly retched.

Human flesh gives off a less-than-distinct odor when it burns. If you don’t know it’s a human being, charring, I’m told it can smell a lot like barbequed pork. I did not have the luxury of not knowing. In the middle of the parlor, on a small, oval throw rug, were the scorched remains of a person.

I felt the coffee come up in the back of my throat and knock its acidic fist on the back of my tongue. I choked for breath, caught it and forced myself to swallow. Puking at a crime scene is ok, for rookies. Puking on a crime scene is strictly taboo.

The body had been reduced to a cinder. There was no way of telling if it was male or female. It just lay there, curled into the fetal position, like some charcoal caricature of a person, its arms and legs folded up as if it had been trying to stay warm. My stomach threatened to crawl back up my throat for a second time. I jerked my eyes away from the corpse.

I tried to take in the details of the room; anything to take my mind off the lifeless cinder at the center of everything.

It was the type of parlor I expected to find. They run pretty standard in the renovated Victorians in this section of town; high ceilings, plaster coated walls, and smooth, hardwood floors. It was neatly kept. Nothing looked out of position. A small couch and a few end tables sat, minuscule, in the expanse of the room. Pictures hung, straight, on the walls, and fresh flowers filled a vase on a low coffee table. No television. There also weren’t any knocked-over lamps or gouges in the walls or floor. No signs of a struggle at all.

I suddenly found it hard to believe that someone could have burned to death in a room that well kept.

I stifled a nervous laugh and coughed into my hand instead. The boys in the crime scene unit looked up, for just a moment, before returning to the investigation. I spun on my heel and strode back out into the sun. Justin was waiting for me, sitting on the stairs, smoking a cigarette.

“How can you smoke those things?” I asked, settling down on the step next to him, “Especially with the smell coming from in there.”

“Smoke hides the smell,” he said, “A little. Want one?”

“I don’t think I’m up to it just yet.”

“Yeah,” he said, “You look a little green around the gills.”

We both snickered, then we both sat and stared off into the distance. I can’t say that I was doing much thinking. I don’t think he was either. I forced my eyes to move around, to come back to the moment.

There were a few people, civilians, milling about. Deaths and crime scenes are like any other spectacle: people tend to rubberneck. Hell, even one of the local goth-punks made an appearance to see the show.

Just another freak, trying to see what death looks like.

“What do you think?” Justin asked.

“About the rubberneckers?”

“Nope.”

“Oh, that,” I said, “I’m having a hard time with the whole thinking thing at the moment. I’ll get back to you on that.”

“Took a couple of minutes for me, too,” he said, exhaling a long stream of smoke.

“It’s definitely a she,” I said, “No man keeps his home in that kind of order.”

“I know a few fastidious souls who do,” he said with a smirk, “but what makes you so sure this is a woman?”

“Fresh cut flowers,” I said, “It speaks of someone who wants to bring beauty into her house.”

“Could be gay,” he countered.

“Nope,” I said, “Too subtle with the decorations.”

We looked at each other for a second, the barest traces of smiles daring to form at the corners of our mouths.

“Yeah,” he said, “I figured it for a woman too. No pictures of her or of family in the house. Think she was renting. We’re trying to nail down the landlord now.”

“Who called it in?” I asked.

“Anonymous,” he said, taking another drag on his smoke.

“That’s weird,” I said, “I kind of figured you’d have all of this wrapped up. Why’d the captain want me in on this one?”

“Not sure. It could have something to do with the circumstances,” he said blowing smoke through his nose like an amused dragon, “or it could be because I told him you might have some insight.”

“Maybe,” I said, going over the image of the parlor in my head, “It’s definitely strange. Nothing out of place. No scorch marks around the body. Spontaneous Human Combustion maybe.”

“Don’t know much about the phenomenon myself,” he said, “And that answer won’t earn your rate.”

“Figured as much,” I said, “If some kind of accelerant was used, there’d be signs of burning on something other than the body.”

“You’d think,” he said.

The coroner’s van pulled up and parked at the curb. The man in the passenger seat stuck his head out the window.

“The CSU guys done in there yet?” the passenger asked.

“Just about,” Justin said, “Should only be a few more minutes, I think.”

I walked over to the van and shoved my head through the open window.

“You got any of that menthol stuff to put under your nose?” I asked.

“Don’t really need it,” the driver said, “but we keep some on hand for you guys, just in case.”

He handed me the jar. I took some and smeared it under each nostril. I tossed it back and trudged up the steps to the house.

“What’s up?” Justin asked.

“I want to take another look around,” I said, “Care to join me?”

“Why not?” he said with a shrug.

He followed me back into the house.

The menthol didn’t exactly hide the smell of burnt flesh, but it lent it enough of a strange counterpoint that I could sense it as an abstract, instead of a more concrete, there’s-a-charred-body-on-the-floor smell. It kept me from wanting to vomit every couple of seconds.

I didn’t go back to the parlor, not at first. I headed upstairs to look around the second floor.

A neatly kept bathroom and office faced each other at the top of the flight. I poked my head into both. Nothing to see. So, I went for the bedroom at the end of the hall. It, too, was extremely neat and tidy. I was beginning to wonder if the woman who lived here was a woman at all. Maybe she was a nun, or a robot, or a robot nun. I was pondering her strange metal habits when the buzzing started.

Just an itching at my brain stem, at first, but the sensation grew more intense as I moved deeper into the room. It was positively jarring as I stood in front of the woman’s closet. The electric bees were awake.

I looked at Justin. He nodded, and I opened the sliding doors. The inside was out of place.

Thank god. I couldn’t have tolerated any more neatness.

Clothes hung at the sides, and a small altar stood in a cleared space in the middle. It was about three feet tall. Gold and green cloth lay draped over its surface. Several small statues, some of which I recognized, many of which I didn’t, stood arrayed around a small, silver bowl. Lying across the rim of the bowl was a slender, golden, ceremonial dagger. Whoever she was, she was a practitioner of some sort.

“Wiccan?” Justin asked.

“I can talk to some of the people I know. See if they knew her,” I said.

“But you don’t think so?”

“Not really,” I said, “The bowl and dagger fit, but the statue of Ganesh and some of the other figures, not so much.”

I took a step back and scanned the room again.

“What are you looking for?” Justin asked.

“This,” I said, lifting up an innocuous-looking throw rug.

Underneath, painted in white on the floor, was a circle, three feet in diameter.

“Don’t see that every day,” Justin said.

“Not on hardwood floors, no,” I said, “Not unless you’re hanging out with Aleister Crowley.”

“Isn’t he dead?”

“That’s what they say.”

Justin shot me a quizzical look. I just smiled.

“How long on the ID do you think?” I asked.

“We should have something later today.”

I dropped the rug back in place and headed for the door.

“What now?” he asked.

“Now we take another look at the body,” I said over my shoulder.

We hustled down the stairs and into the parlor. The CSU guys were just packing up. Justin told them to give us a few more minutes before they told the coroners to come get the corpse. I walked circles around the body. On the second turn, I saw a glint of metal out of the corner of my eye.

I knelt down by the body, motioning for Justin to join me. When he got to my level, I pointed out the glint.

Somehow, a necklace had survived the flames. The crime scene guys must’ve missed it under the layer of char.

Justin called one of them back into the room. The investigator slipped on a fresh pair of latex gloves and set to releasing the necklace from the burnt flesh. He snapped a few pictures, then pried it off the corpse, placed it in an evidence bag. He handed the bag to Justin and walked out.

“What do you make of this?” Justin asked, tilting the bag to catch the light.

“The chain might have been silver,” I said, “but whatever was on it looks like copper. Some kind of symbol or talisman, I think.”

The heat had melted the copper thing at the end of the chain. It was deformed beyond recognition. If it had been a talisman, there was no way to tell what kind.

“A copper talisman?” Justin asked, “What would someone use that for?”

“Don’t know,” I said with a shrug, “but if it was for protection, I’d really look into getting my money back.”

“Somehow,” Justin said, “I don’t think she’ll be redeeming her warranty.”

Gallows humor, sometimes it’s the only thing that lets you keep doing the job. Sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps you from crying. I hear it a lot at crime scenes.

Justin and I walked back to the front door. He signaled the coroners to come in and collect the corpse. We stood on the porch as they went about their duty. Justin lit another cigarette. He offered the pack to me. I waved him off.

I have no way of knowing if I smoked in my previous life, but I saw no use in starting up now.

“Oh, shit,” Justin said, almost choking on a puff of smoke.

There was only one thing that I knew of that could elicit cuss words from Justin while he was on the job. And she was slithering up the sidewalk directly towards us.

Barbara Hicks.

Barb, as we all called her, was as sharp and dangerous as her nickname implied. Barb was the star reporter for a local rag of a tabloid that specialized in strange happenings. She always dressed in classy blouses, skirts, and sensible pumps – nothing over three-inch heels. The professional manner of her wardrobe belied the creature that writhed underneath. She was lean and hungry in the way Shakespeare wrote. She had the look of someone who burned lean tissue into the night, thinking up ways to get a story or to get ahead.

And I hated her.

“You better get out of here Caleb,” Justin said.

“Yeah, before I punch her fucking lights out,” I breathed, already dangling one leg over the railing at the side of the house. She got up to the porch just as I managed a safe straddle.

“Caleb, Justin, how nice to see you here,” she said in that typically Southern, insincere, and saccharine-drenched drawl.

“That’s detective Hagen, Miss Hicks,” Justin said with only a minor scowl, “Try to remember it.”

“Oh, I’m sure I won’t forget,” she said, her intonation giving me a toothache, “and where are you going, Caleb?”

“Away,” I said, smiling as wide as I could, “and that’s Mr. Carson to you.”

I tried to make my voice as insincerely sweet as hers. I managed, just barely.

“Why, I haven’t seen you two together since the Delilah Simmons case,” she said.

I had to fight the urge to jump back over the rail and stomp on her empty, bleach-blond head. I could see Justin fighting a similar if more subdued urge.

“Yes,” Justin said coolly, “And, as I recall, you were warned against ever interfering with an active case, again.”

“And what are you gentlemen investigating now?” she asked, unphased by Justin’s threat.

“You know the police do not comment on active cases, Miss Hicks,” Justin said, ever the professional.

“What about you, Mr. Carson?” she asked.

“Go fuck yourself,” I said, my smile growing so wide it felt like it would crack my face.

“Charming as always,” she said, “but the both of you know that the press cannot be kept out forever.”

“Is that what you’re calling that rag of a tabloid you scribble for?” I asked, dripping sweetness.

Knoxville Uncovered is a respectable journal of reporting, I’ll have you know,” she said, her fake sweetness slipping.

“I’m sure it makes a perfectly respectable liner for birdcages,” I said, my smile becoming somewhat more genuine.

“Why, I have never….”

“Sure you have. That’s why you walk like that,” I slipped in before she could finish her sentence, the sweetness never leaving my voice, and the smile never leaving my face, “Now, get the fuck out of here before you get someone else damn near tortured to death, you fucking leech.”

That’s what it took.

She stiffened, spun on her expensive heels, and strode away, muttering something about not forgetting.

Yeah, I hope she doesn’t because I couldn’t forget – not ever.

Justin stared at me for a moment, arched his eyebrow in mock reproach, and continued puffing on his cigarette.

“You have no idea how much I’ve wanted to say that to her,” he said in between puffs.

“About as much as me, I’m figuring, but you have the grace and position to restrain yourself,” I said, “I have no such hindrances in my profession.”

“Sometimes I envy you,” he said.

“Sure,” I said, “And sometimes I get the bills paid on time.”

“Well, maybe not that part.”

“Definitely not that part,” I said.

“You better get going before she comes back with a lawyer or something,” he said.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, “Call me when you get a name.”

“Sure,” he said, “Call me when you get anything.”

“Sure,” I said and slid off the porch.

I slipped behind the house and down a couple of blocks for good measure. The long way home would keep me far enough away from Barb Hicks to avoid being tossed in the tank on an assault charge.

I could not afford bail just yet.

More images of Delilah Simmons’ face welled up in my mind. The picturesque school photo her parents had shown us at the beginning of the case clashed with the bloodied and battered image of when we found her. The blood won. It burned into my brain, the dark, dried streaks of blood in her dirty, blond hair; the jagged hole where her left eye had been. The anger bubbled up from my guts and made my hands tremble. I shook it off – pushed the images from my mind and attempted to concentrate on the case at hand.

I stalked back to my office in my own little world of rage and confusion.

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DRAWN TO FLAME: Chapter 1…

Something loud and thumping jerked me awake. My neck hurt from sleeping in my office chair – again. The hangover still sloshed behind my eyes. I rubbed at the pain in my temples and grumbled curses at whatever idiot had decided the road outside needed repair. My leg had gone numb from leaving it propped up on my desk while I slept. I leaned sideways over the worn vinyl arm of my chair and peered through the blinds, still askew from the previous night. There were no orange cones or construction crews out on the street. I gently lifted my leg off the desk and set it on the floor. I tried to figure out what the hell woke me up, and why it had done so before I had a chance to sleep off the headache. Then it happened again; a steady, insistent rapping. Someone was at the door.

“Hold on a sec,” I grumbled.

I stood up, and that was my first mistake.

The leg would move a little, and as soon as I began to move it the pins and needles began their well-orchestrated attack. Alternating painfully between fuck and shit, I cussed my way to the door. A tall silhouette darkened the leaded glass.

I opened the door to face a man dressed mostly in denim, and easily six inches taller than me. I’m average in height, so he had to be at least six-foot-three. He had a vaguely Native American cast to his features, but it looked like he hadn’t seen the sun in many moons.

“Mr. Carson?” he asked.

“That’s what the name on the door says, but if you’re with a collection agency I ain’t him,” I said, still grimacing at the phantom pains in my leg.

“Actually,” he said, reaching into his jacket.

I shoved one palm, hard, into his elbow and snatched up his collar with the other – pinning his hand between layers of fabric.

“You don’t want to do that mister,” I said.

It was about then that I noticed there was no bulge in the side of his jacket. Either they were making blue jean jackets in a new, concealed carry pattern, or he wasn’t reaching for a weapon. Still, it could have been a subpoena or something. I relaxed the pressure on his elbow and let go of his collar.

“A little jumpy for a detective, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, well,” I said, fumbling for an excuse, “Take one too many pictures of cheating spouses who lose everything in the divorce case and you start paying attention to movements like that.”

“My apologies.”

For a man I had just assaulted, he was being awfully polite. I stepped back and waved him into the office.

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

He didn’t answer right away, just looked the place over.

My office may have been a bit shabby – I’m kind of a slob – but it wasn’t a wreck. Most of my furniture was second-hand. I have a genuine, old, hardwood desk, not that particle board shit they sell to college kids. The desk took up space near the windows. A worn, vinyl office chair sat behind it. A little beat up, but none of the padding showed. It was the closest thing to leather I could afford. A mostly non-rusted filing cabinet and a couple of threadbare but comfortable chairs rounded out the ensemble. I know – you’re impressed. It may have been low-rent, but it was homey; and mine.

He looked as if he was making up his mind about me before he spoke.

“I’d like to hire you. That is, of course, if you are Caleb Carson,” he said with an almost imperceptible smile curling at the corners of his mouth.

“The one and only. So far as I know,” I said.

“Surely there cannot be two Third Eye Detective Agencies in Knoxville,” he said, again with the barest trace of humor.

“Surely,” I said.

It was my turn to give him the once-over.

He was tall but slim – all long lines and sharp angles, even under the denim. His black hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail. But his eyes were the kicker. They were the color of pale emeralds and seemed to sparkle like he held some secret knowledge no one else was worthy to share. That notwithstanding, he looked like an ok guy to me or at least one who could pay the freight.

“Made up your mind,” he said. I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement of fact.

“Yeah, I suppose. Have a seat.”

He moved to sit with a grace and confidence I didn’t usually see in clients. His worn, old boots didn’t make a sound when he moved. I filed it away for future pondering.

“What can I help you with?” I asked.

“I’m trying to recover a lost item.”

“That’s not my usual thing,” I said, simultaneously wanting to be straight with him and wishing that I hadn’t. “Divorces, deadbeat dads, cheating spouses; that’s my typical board of fare.”

“From what I’ve read in the paper, you appear to be branching out.”

Images of Delilah’s small and savaged face shot through my brain. I tried to shrug it off and focus on the matter at hand. The hangover made it easier.

“Forgive me for bringing up a tender subject,” he said, “but the circumstances surrounding the case lead me to believe that you are exactly the right person to handle my problem.”

“Maybe,” I said and limped over to the filing cabinet, “Coffee?”

“Sounds good,” he said.

I splashed some water on my face when I went into the bathroom to rinse out the coffee pot. I looked like hell. Red-rimmed eyes sat in hollow, dark circles above the ridges of my cheekbones. My hair was a mess, and a good two days’ worth of stubble poked out of my face. Not a picture of the modern, professional private eye by any standard. It had been a long month.

We waited in silence as the coffee percolated and I ran a comb through my hair. When the java finished brewing, I grabbed two mugs from the filing cabinet and rinsed them out in the sink. Handing a client coffee laced with some night’s Southern Comfort binge is a good way to lose said client.

“Thank you,” he said as I handed him the mug of joe.

“Sure,” I said, “How about you tell me about this lost item of yours.”

“I have a picture,” he said and reached into the same place in his jacket as before. “I was going to show you earlier before I underestimated the extent of your paranoia.”

I shot him a snicker and rolled up the sleeve on my left arm.

“Paranoia is when they’re not really out to get you,” I said, showing him the half-moon of jagged scar tissue that resided just below my elbow, “I got this from a guy I photographed cheating on his wife and mistress. He was not happy. Broken whiskey bottle. Eighteen stitches.”

“I can see the necessity for caution then,” he said.

“Yeah, well, it saves on visits to the emergency room if I’m a little extra careful with strangers,” I said, “Speaking of; what is your name?”

He smiled at that, maybe just a touch embarrassed by his lack of propriety. I think.

“Of course,” he said, “My name is Grant Whitehall. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Carson.”

“Please, only assholes and the police have to call me Mr. Carson. Caleb will do just fine.”

“Certainly, Caleb.”

“Pleasure to meet you as well,” I said, trying desperately not to mock his impeccable manners.

He grinned and handed me a glossy-print photograph. He held it gently – as if he was afraid it might crumble in his hands and blow away. I took it just as delicately. Immediately, the angry electric bees started buzzing at my brain stem.

I held it in my hand and felt the tingling like a joy buzzer wrapped in velvet.

This happened to me, enough that I thought I’d be used to it. It was fucking scary at first, but that was three years ago. Not a painful sensation, but too insistent to ignore. Whenever I was around something strange, something hidden beneath the surface of normal perception, the angry electric bees – that’s how I imagined it – started buzzing in the back of my head. It wouldn’t go away until I’d figured it out, whatever “it” was. I’d say I was psychic if it was ever anything other than a semi-annoying buzz in my nervous system. They probably have pills for that sort of thing. And besides, if I really were psychic, you’d think I’d have won the lottery by now.

He must have seen something in my face shift.

“Then it is true,” he said, maybe just a little excited, “You are gifted.”

“I thought that term was special,” I said, “but you know, we prefer to be called differently-abled these days.”

“I do my homework, Mr. Car… Forgive me, Caleb,” he said, “Is it true that you have no memories of your life beyond three years ago?”

“I forget,” I said. Oh, how I love amnesia humor.

“Quite right,” he said with a short snort of a laugh, “You are a character, Caleb. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps your gift and your lack of memory might stem from the same incident?”

“Well, not really knowing who I was before I woke up in this town; no, I haven’t given it much thought.”

“I know quite a broad range of talented individuals Caleb. I’m sure at least one could be of assistance to you.”

This is not the first time someone has suggested going to a shrink.

“Really, I prefer cash,” I said, “By the by, it’s fifty bucks an hour plus reasonable expenses. You handle that?”

“Certainly,” he said, without the wisps of insult that usually steam off my clients when I mention the rate, “I am quite capable of paying your fees. But, besides payment, I would still be willing to introduce you to some of my friends.”

“I don’t like psychologists.”

“Just the young lady, then?”

I had to hand it to this guy; he had done his homework. He even knew about Allison. I tried not to let the shudder of creepy semi-awe that danced down my spine show on my face.

“She’s still a student,” I said, wondering why I was scrambling to justify, “She’s not a full-blown head-shrinker yet.”

“I see.”

“So do I,” I said, trying to shove the subject away from my personal life, “Why don’t you go to the police with this?”

“Why should I involve the police?”

“Because the thing isn’t lost. It’s been stolen.”

He looked at me for a long moment – a stony, calculating stare. Then he shook his head and smiled.

“You are gifted. And quite perceptive,” he said, “The item was indeed stolen.”

At that point, I finally looked at the picture in my hand.

The blade, in the photo, was large – nearly eight inches of edge and gleam before tapering into a thin strip. The exposed metal of the tang had an inscription on it, but I’d be damned if I could read the language. At least I assumed it was some kind of language. The whole thing looked as if, during the forging process, it had been dipped in an acid bath. The resulting corrosion had revealed spidery veins of green in the folds of metal. I had never seen anything quite like it before. It looked old, bronze-age old. I have a few knives myself, but I couldn’t tell where it was made or what culture had forged it. It was a thing of terrible beauty; at once sleek and shimmering and altogether deadly. That much I could glean from the blade’s construction: this was a weapon for killing. At, least it had been at some time in the ancient past.

“Marvelous, isn’t it?”

“Sure,” I said, “Must be expensive.”

“Priceless,” he said.

“All the more reason to go to the police.”

“The police are so formal,” he said, “All that paperwork and red tape and evidence lock up. I’m afraid I just don’t have the time required to pursue this through conventional channels.”

“You on some kind of deadline?”

“You could say that,” he said, “I need the artifact for a very special ceremony, and I need it soon.”

“Why don’t you just let the cops handle it and perform the ceremony the next time it comes around?”

“The circumstances of this particular ceremony only allow it to be performed once every one-hundred and fifty years,” he said, “I’m afraid I don’t have that long to wait.”

“Are you in some kind of cult?”

“Oh, heavens no,” he said with another of his short laughs, “No, no cult. But I do observe certain esoteric traditions. That doesn’t bother you, does it?”

“Not as long as your money is good,” I said scanning the loud, red-lettered past due notices on my desk.

“I assure you that it is.”

“Cash in hand is always the best assurance, I find,” I said.

“Then you’ll take my case?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

“Thank you,” he said taking a roll of hundred-dollar bills from his pocket. The roll had to be as thick as my thumb. He handed them to me.

“When do you need the item?”

“In three days,” he said, “If that is not enough money, I will be happy to have more sent to your office today.”

“No,” I said, “This will do just fine as a retainer. I’ll have an itemized bill for you at the end of the case.”

“That will be satisfactory,” he said, “Caleb, I would be most interested in sitting down to talk with you again, about less pressing matters.”

“If you still feel that way in four days, maybe we will.”

“I’m certain of it.”

I wasn’t sure just how to take his certainty, but I let it slide until later. He got up to leave.

“I don’t suppose you have any leads to get me started?”

“Actually, I do,” he said, “My security cameras picked up something odd on the night of the theft. Maybe it will mean something to you. Do you have a VCR?”

“No, but I can borrow one.”

“Very good,” he said, “I’ll have a copy of the tape delivered to you today.”

“Just don’t be long about it.”

“Have no fear of that,” he said.

Then, he inclined his head to me in a brief nod, smiled, and strode out of my office. Again, I noticed, he made no noise – not even on the cheap tile in the hall. Like he floated down the hall or something.

Weird.

I downed three ibuprofen with the rest of my coffee and set the mugs in the sink. Sitting in the worn vinyl creases of my chair, I stared out the window and waited for my headache to subside. Questions kept nagging me. How had he known about Allison? Was he having me followed? And how the hell did he know about my amnesia? It’s not like I keep it top secret, but I sure don’t spread it around either. It’s bad for business being a private eye who just happens to not remember anything, at least not before three years ago when I woke up in that emergency room. I could see my trickle of clients completely drying up when that news got out. Maybe I would get it again, take their money and forget that I promised to find whomever. Maybe I would forget to show up for court, or the whereabouts of some incriminating picture would slip my mind. Couldn’t blame them if the calls stopped coming in, not that they were coming in too frequently anyway. I guess I had the same fears, and that’s why I never really told people about my condition. Or maybe it’s just what I told myself then. I was spiraling in ever-tighter circles of strange thought when the phone rang.

“Caleb Carson,” I said, cradling the receiver between my ear and shoulder.

“You sound tired. Were you sleeping? At three in the afternoon?” said the gruff voice on the other end of the line.

“Just a power nap, Detective Hagen,” I grumbled, “That’s not illegal yet, is it?”

“Still a smart-ass, even when you’re half asleep,” he said.

“Yeah, well, some men just have more talent than most,” I said through a yawn. If the phone hadn’t rung, I would have probably gone back to sleep. The painkillers were starting to kick in, and the sun through the blinds felt warm and soft. Perfect for napping, at least until the tape arrived.

“Some talent,” the voice in the receiver said.

“Hey,” I said, hoping I was coming across as something near friendly, “Not all of us can be working in the fabulously glamorous weird crimes division of Knoxville’s finest, now can we?”

“Oh, but we can,” he said, “And that’s Special Crimes Division to you. The captain wants your expert opinion on something.”

“Is he willing to pay for my expert opinion?” I asked, “And, as I recall, things did not go smoothly the last time I worked with your department.”

“No, they didn’t,” he said, “and yes, we’re willing to pay your fee.”

I would have shouted woo-hoo if I didn’t have a reputation to maintain. It looked like I was going to be able to pay the bills that month after all.

“What’s the thing?”

“Captain says I shouldn’t bias you,” he replied, “so you’re just going to have to meet me there and see for yourself.”

“Ok. Where and when?”

“Corner of Thirteenth and Clinch, as soon as you can drag your ass down there.”

“I don’t have a lot of time,” I said, “Got a case.”

“Good for you,” he said, “This shouldn’t take too long. Ten minutes maybe.”

“That interesting, huh?” I asked.

“Oh. Yeah. When can you get there?”

“It’s about six blocks from here. How about fifteen minutes?”

“Fifteen minutes? For six blocks? This isn’t New York Caleb.”

“I need to clean up a little first.”

“Sure. Ok, fifteen minutes.”

“See you there.”

I slung the receiver back onto the cradle and shuffled into my small bathroom. Ten minutes later, freshly shaven and wearing a clean shirt, I grabbed my coat and hat and headed for the address.

After a month of nothing but bad press, I had two paying cases dropped in my lap within twenty minutes of each other. Some days it just doesn’t pay to be hung over.

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