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Award-Winning Author ~ Editor ~ Writing Instructor
Winner of the 2012 New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards
2012 Lefty Award Nominee!
International Book Awards 2012 Finalist
Groom Lake, Nevada
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Desperate times called for daring measures.
Perfect for him! He knew others would consider his bold solution as a reckless disregard for everything his kind held sacred, but he cared not. He’d always carved his own trail, thumbing his nose at those in charge. Of course, it was precisely that attitude that had brought about his present dilemma.
Dilemma? Hah! He’d never been in such threatening straits. The being in Cellblock One gasped with surprise as an unfamiliar sensation constricted his air passage and set his blood racing. Anxiety—the first time he’d felt it in his lengthy existence. While a quest for novelty had long been his ruling passion, he could have done without this new experience. When had time become the enemy, instead of his plaything? How could a bit of merriment have turned so dreadfully against him?
He glanced around at the space that had housed him for decades. This place they called Area 51 wasn’t where he’d arrived in their world. He’d appeared to them first in Roswell, New Mexico, in the year called 1947 in their calendar. Not that he’d remained there for long. They’d whisked him away fast to quell the rumors that flourished to this day, and had kept him hidden here ever since.
Though they described it a cell, it looked more like a utilitarian suite, with sitting and sleeping zones. A far cry from the luxury he’d known at times, but more than comfortable. While this installation contained many other units, he remained the cellblock’s only occupant. His captors had expected more of his kind to come, believing they’d fill the entire wing. As if they had a clue about his kind. Was it any wonder he couldn’t resist toying with them?
The creature made his way to the window. Six inches of some indestructible acrylic, surrounding titanium bars, made it hard to see through. What children they were, his jailers. If they only knew the times he’d slipped away after lights-out. It had to be beyond their comprehension to think that someone would find enjoyment from pretending to be their captive.
However much these pitiful little beings would never grasp, they understood this: The balance had shifted now. He could see them walking out there, on the soil he had long used to hold them in a terrifying stalemate. At one time they would not have known whether setting foot on that ground would reduce them to such a state of dreamy oblivion as to render all action impossible, or if it would turn them into raving psychopaths. He had really kept them guessing with that. What grand fun!
But his magic was waning fast, and his captors had caught on to that fact. It was too much to hope that they wouldn’t solidify their domination over him now that they could.
The creature heard a sound at the unit’s entrance. A guard paused at the clear panel in the cell’s door. Acknowledging him with no more than a brusque nod, the guard moved on, confident in what he’d seen through that pane. The being chortled. His charade still had the power to tickle him. He’d always planned to surprise them someday with a look at his true appearance. Now it was too risky. He had to keep the sham going, even if it sapped his precious energy.
With a last look out the cell window, he saw the caravan gathering in the distance. Now they would finally succeed in moving him to another facility, as they’d wished to for some time. With his failing strength and their reinforced installation—hidden on a secret Air Force base in the Arizona desert—the creature had no doubts that this time they really would contain him.
Or his own kind would come for him, and they’d imprison him in a way his present captors could never imagine, harnessing him so he’d never escape.
Yet he had one chance, a single opportunity to save himself from an existence of bondage and drudgery. There was a place, which for one night, could charge his failing strength with the power he’d need to resist everyone who wished to control him. But it would take all his weakened magic to make it there. He’d have to charm his caravan captors into altering the route—directing them, not to the place of certain captivity, but to the site that promised him robust renewal. And he’d have to keep them under that spell for the entire journey, to prevent them from correcting the course. The creature simply didn’t have enough power for that.
There were some who could help him, but would likely not, out of principle or fear or some such nonsense. Fortunately, there was one he might safely tap without her awareness. The advantage to having lived as long as he had was that he knew all the ancient tricks and magic, forgotten by many. Given how she’d cut herself off from their ways, his benefactor might not notice. If he worked it right, he could steal enough of his unwitting accomplice’s powers to keep himself going. Too bad her resources were so limited.
It might also help to drag in someone else, to further distract his unwitting helper. More power lost, he thought uneasily, dealing with limitations he’d never had to consider before, but a worthwhile investment if he pulled it off. He’d have to devise just the right trick to capture that facilitator’s attention.
Now, what should it be?
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Airborne, Near Phoenix, Arizona
| || Pinch me. |
Not really. Pinches bruise. What I meant was that I couldn’t believe my amazing luck. Less than a year ago, I’d scraped so low, I’d dealt myself in on a crazy scam that nearly took my life. Now I was thoroughly ensconced as a solid citizen of Fat City, and my brilliant star was about to glow even brighter.
If only I could escape that creepy sensation that something bad was about to happen again.
Maybe I was just queasy—eating a pound of premium chocolate will do that. Still, who could blame me for pigging out? I mean, there I was aloft in a luxurious private jet, where they plied me with anything and everything I could possibly want, on my way to Phoenix, Arizona, where I’d co-star on the national news for weeks to come.
Sure, lots of people would loathe my boss and me, but there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? My new employer had built his career on irreverence, and they loved him for it. I was crazy to worry.
I should introduce myself. I’m Samantha Brennan, a Los Angeles-based spiritual advisor to the stars, just a year away from the big three-oh, if it’s any of your business. Actually, I’m no more psychic than a tire iron. My clients believe I am because, after I tell them what they obviously want to hear, they unconsciously move mountains to make my predictions come true. Senseless from my point of view, but as long as it pays the bills, why should I argue?
At one time I considered all claims of supernatural abilities to be pure hooey, a trap for the more gullible among us. Despite my non-sensitive status, however, I’d now had two genuinely psychic experiences. One saved my life and the other allowed me to repay that debt and rescue my savior. I hadn’t experienced a single supernatural sensation since, though, and I hoped I never would.
There was something else people believed about me—that I was a descendent of an ancient Celtic goddess. A hoot, huh? Since I always forgot the name of my supposed ancestor, I only threw that mythological crap around with people I felt sure knew less than I did. Fortunately, that was almost everyone.
Gods and goddesses—more hokum you’re thinking, right? Wrong. No, I wasn’t really a goddess, though I did own some really special clothes. But I swear they exist. I’d met actual ancient deities myself. Right here on Earth, if you think L.A. qualifies for that description. Not that I chose to see them anymore. Though I still ran into Angus, the ancient Celtic god of youth and love and laughter, far too often, I hadn’t crossed paths with his modern descendant, Annabelle Haggerty, lately. If I ever did, I planned to run the other way. It was because of my association with Haggerty that I nearly went on to my Final Journey, as we say in spiritual advisor-speak. As for Angus, I never wanted to see him again. That rat absolutely broke my heart.
Enough with the trip down Memory Lane! I’m strictly a today-kinda girl, and today was great. If you doubt that, look at where I found myself: Aloft in the chartered Gulfstream of none other than Rand Riker, the frontman of the aging bad-boy band, Devil’s Disciple, being feted by a flight attendant with such a snooty English accent, she made the Queen sound like a scrub woman.
Since the publicity generated by my past near-demise had brought me a better class of client, my financial prospects had been looking up. But this jet had introduced me to a whole new strata, one I was going to fight to hold on to.
Rand and I had met at a party the week before, and he hired me to serve as his personal psychic on the Sex, Drugs & Rock ’n’ Roll tour, to be kicked off with a benefit concert in Sedona, Arizona just two days from now, although the actual tour wouldn’t begin for another couple of weeks.
It did surprise me, when I showed up at the Van Nuys Airport earlier this morning, to learn Rand and I were the only passengers. I assumed the whole band would be flying with us. Apparently, the other musicians traveled by bus, while Rand flew in style, and usually alone.
People—just when you think you’ve got them pegged, they’ll fool you every time.
Especially since the cushy Gulfstream could easily have carried many more lucky souls. I’d plopped myself down in one of four leather club chairs at the front of the plane. The empty cheap seats—two rows of standard seating—followed behind my section. Rand sat at the dining table farther back, where he had been shouting into the satellite phone to his attorney ever since we’d taken off.
His voice rose now above the roar of the engines, “So you think I’ve got protection on this thing, Dan?”
That sounded pretty cautious for a guy who’d built his reputation by flaunting rules. I tuned him out. Knowing too much about my clients’ actual lives leeched all the artistry from my readings. Occasionally, though, his voice became too loud to ignore. And despite the billions he’d made singing, I found the sound irritating. After decades of living in the U.S., only the broad vowels and the odd expression betrayed the Down Under roots of an Aussie upstart, who’d hitched a ride on the British Band Invasion on the theory that Americans couldn’t tell the difference between the accents.
Speaking of Brits, the flight attendant approached. She was a pretty gal, around my age, with finely chiseled features, artfully tousled highlighted hair and big brown eyes. She wore a body-hugging navy skirt suit that bore the charter’s insignia embroidered onto the breast pocket. The only tacky touch was a plastic nametag pinned above the charter’s logo, on which she’d written her name.
Given her ritzy accent, I kept thinking of her as “Princess.” Now I saw that her name was Holly O’Neill. She had looped the tail of the “y” over the names on the hand-written nametag and ended it with a little heart. See what I mean about surprises? I would never have taken Princess Holly as the heart-drawing type. The surprises made my job so much fun.
Princess Holly carried a tray with a champagne flute filled with some amber-colored bubbly.
“I thought you might want to wash the chocolate down with some champagne,” she said in that frosty accent. “It’s Cristal.”
No kidding? I’d always wondered how good champagne would taste. I refused to let her see that, though. Instead, I nodded nonchalantly, as if to say I was so used to it, I brushed my teeth with the stuff. I swilled a gulp and waited for the ecstasy to hit. To my surprise, good wine didn’t taste like wine at all. It tasted like…apple juice.
Huh? I took another sip. Sure enough, apple juice. Even the bubbles had gone flat. How could that have happened?
Apples made me think of Annabelle Haggerty, my goddess companion in that earlier caper. Celtic deities, I’d learned from Haggerty, regard apples as a sacred symbol of their divinity. Apparently, apples grow everywhere on their homeland, Tir na N’og, their place of immortality, which means “The Land of the Young.”
Enough with the Celts! It wasn’t like I’d never seen an apple before I met Haggerty and Angus. I had to be wrong about the champagne anyway. That chocolate had simply numbed my taste buds.
When Holly said we were starting our descent, I asked her to bring me my carryon bag. I’d decided to change my clothes on the plane, since it struck me as incredibly decadent to wear two outfits for a one-hour flight.
In my stiletto, open-toed pumps, I wobbled past the dining table where Rand still shouted into the phone, beyond the small galley and the jet’s business center, with its fax and copy machines, to the restroom at the rear of the plane.
I was known for my really special clothes. The dress I planned to wear for our landing was a white mid-calf gown with flowing organdy layers. The clerk at the vintage store told me it had been worn by some actress chick named Adriana, for the opening of a TV show she did back in the fifties. But my grandma said, since I was probably a size…or ten…bigger than that Adriana-girl, I shouldn’t pass on that story.
Hey, I liked chocolate too much, and just about everything else. But even if some would regard me as a tad pudgy, I never lacked for male attention. I had my pick of guys.
And I’d better choose one soon just to show that rotten Angus I was really over him.
Come to think of it, shouldn’t I be longing for some mattress athletics? It had been months since Angus and I did the wild thing, yet I still felt adequately satisfied. Maybe god-sex just had a longer shelf life than regular-guy-sex.
After slipping on my dress, I admired myself in the mirror. Tossing the organdy layers out and letting them fall around me, I thought I looked like a really built Tinker Bell.
When I stepped from the restroom, Rand was finally off the phone. He sat there, idly drumming his black polished fingernails against the tabletop.
You know Rand Riker, of course—or as I thought of him, Thick Lips and Crater Face. He had to be the most legendary bad-boy in the rock world. When my mom was a girl, she attended the first of the concerts at which he was arrested for indecency, after he appeared on stage covered in nothing more than red paint. When nudity no longer attracted sufficient attention, he went on to something else, and something after that. Always ahead of the curve.
With that kind of reputation, you’d be surprised by what he looked like today. The hair he’d once dyed primary red had returned to its natural black with gray streaks, and it reached to his waist. He wore wide cotton pants above sandals and a loose jacket such as an Eastern monk might wear. The only sign that he was still Devil’s Disciple’s bad boy were the black fingernails and toenails, as long as an armadillo’s, which he’d also painted black.
When I passed the table, his gaze met mine. A sparkle of recognition rose into those famous hooded eyes, as pitch as midnight in a coal mine.
Since I was on the clock, I paused beside him. “Everything okay? You seemed to be shouting a lot back here.”
“Just hedging me bets,” he said with a flickering grin. “You know, some might consider what we’re about to do in Arizona as a fair dinkum risk.” He gave his hair a toss that sent a ripple through it that made it look like the skin of a seal. “Ah, no worries. I’ve built my entire career by adding one dare onto another. Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
I slipped into the chair across from him. “Anything I can do?”
He lifted his fingertips to his forehead and seemed to be unconsciously trying to flatten its deeply etched lines. “Such as what?” he asked absently.
What he was paying me for, to act as his psychic. Okay, so maybe I had begun substituting the word mugs for drugs in the name of the Sex, Drugs & Rock ’n’ Roll tour. Mugs because anyone who thought I could tell a psychic impression from a Fig Newton was a first class patsy. But he had hired me. Other people made the impossible happen purely on the strength of my predictions.
As if he were the one with telepathic abilities, Rand said, “Oh, I get it. You want to tell me my future. Is that it, Madame Samantha?”
Not precisely how I would have expressed it, but why else was I there?
He reached across the table and gently traced my jaw with fingertips callused from decades of strumming guitar strings. “Maybe, luv, I could tell you yours.”
Was that why he hired me? Despite the sixty-plus years of hard living reflected on his face, I had to admit there was something about him. When a wicked grin caused his full lips to twist crookedly, he seemed to be saying that he knew what you wanted, how you wanted it and that he was just the guy to give it to you.
Whoa! He was old enough to be my father. If my mom had had her way, he would have been. Besides, Rand Riker had cut so many notches in the bedpost, he’d reduced hundreds of headboards to kindling. I didn’t need another guy who had never heard the word fidelity.
Even more unsteadily on my towering shoes now, I babbled something about needing more chocolate. Rand gave me a look that pierced through my lie. I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to say he knew I wanted to escape, or if it was obvious there couldn’t be any chocolate left.
At the front of the plane, I sank into my chair, careful to drape my elegant gown around me. Until it occurred to me that I might be making myself too gorgeous to resist. I didn’t notice the clunky approach of Princess Holly’s sensible shoes until she stood before me.
“Madame Samantha, is the champagne all right?” she asked.
I wanted to say, No, it tastes like kiddy swill. Naturally, I told her it was fine.
Holly hovered expectantly before me. Sure, I said I wasn’t any more psychic than a jelly donut, but even I could sense that she wanted a reading. At least someone respected my sham-skills. I urged her to sit across from me. She threw a quick glance to the rear of the jet, where Rand was once again yammering on the phone, before she perched on the edge of the other chair.
Her story poured out fast, and it was a familiar one. Concerned a guy, of course. A cheater, of course.
I put up my hand to stop her. “I got the picture. You’re working your tail off to scrape together enough bucks for your wedding, while he’s off nailing some mermaid.”
She wrinkled her small, elegant nose in confusion. “A mermaid? You mean one of those sea creatures...? No, it was his assistant.”
“Assistant, mermaid—what’s the difference?” But it hit me, what I was saying. Okay, so maybe I wasn’t as over Angus as I thought. I drew myself up and said with unaccustomed dignity, “It’s a metaphor.”
Holly O’Neill nodded slowly. “I see that. Like a siren, you mean.”
Siren? The noise an ambulance makes? Whatever. “Exactly,” I said. “Dump that loser before he hurts you again.”
“But he said he’d never—”
I sighed loudly. “They always do. And they always do. Cheat, I mean. Trust me, you’re meant for someone else. It’s written in the stars.”
That usually convinced them. I couldn’t say why. If you can erase something written on paper, why should stars be exempt? Nothing in life is set, I believed. Even if it were, wouldn’t most of us resist it? Holly, I felt certain, would find someone better, now that I’d sent her off in that direction. I’d really done her a favor.
She wasn’t getting with the program, though. “It’s hard for me to meet men. Our passengers…well, they regard me as either their servant or a flying call girl.”
I felt an unexpected kinship with her, thanks to Rand’s recent come on. But that gave me an idea. “The man you’re supposed to be with is right here.”
“The pilot? He’s gay.”
“Not the pilot.” I tossed my curly blonde mane toward to the back of the plane.
“You mean…?” She gave her head a speculative tilt.
Good. Since Rand had chartered this jet for the entire tour, we’d be seeing more of Princess Holly. If she went after him, that would distract Rand and save me from my own self-destructive impulses.
I looked out the window when the plane banked into a curve. “Ooh! Look at that mountain.”
“That’s Camelback Mountain.”
“It does resemble a camel,” I said, gushing. “Look at that. It even has the distinct look of a camel’s face.”
Holly’s lips twisted skeptically. “I can’t say I ever saw much facial resemblance. The hump, of course, and the head, but not the face.”
Was she kidding? A camel’s face distinctly stared back at me. Actually, there was a cartoonish quality about it. How could a rock assume that form?
“Come on,” I said. “Look out this window and tell me you don’t see—”
The most incredible thing happened then. The camel stuck out its tongue at me. I swear! I sank back in my seat, shaken.
My fear didn’t last long, though, as I put it all together. Cristal Champagne transformed into apple juice…a face on a mountain that nobody else could see…a tongue wag.
I didn’t have to ask what was happening—this had to be the work of one of the Celtic deities. I just didn’t know which one. It couldn’t have been Angus. He wasn’t that subtle, if you could describe putting a cartoon face on a mountain as subtle. And it sure wasn’t Haggerty—she was too stingy with her powers to waste them.
Who else cared about attracting my attention? And why?
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