Monday, April 21, 2014

The Sapphire Astonishment by Edward C Patterson

The Sapphire Astonishment - a Nick Firestone Mystery - is a work in progress by Edward C Patterson. Part of the Jade Owl Legacy family of novels, The Sapphire Astonishment is a stand-alone novel, the first of several volumes centered around the career of Nick Firestone (who in the 4th and 5th books of The Jade Owl series is a five year old hero).  Little Nicky is now all grown up and thriving in the year 2021. This work is a fast paced mystery and does not require having read the preceding five Jade Owl books.  But as many of the San Francisco characters from that series show up in this work, those who have read that series will get an extra jolt.

The Sapphire Astonishment
  • CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (TBA; June, 2014)

Excerpt: 
 
Chapter One

The Break-in at Han Ch’i-wang’s

1

Chinatown, San Francisco had seen better days — days ablaze in neighborhood life and tourism, but since the 2016 quake, any structure not converted to withstand the shock had either crumbled or burned. This was not the first time a catastrophe had struck the area and, since most of the neighborhood abutting Grant Avenue had been slowly consumed by rising glass and metal buildings, all in the shadow of that monstrous tower, Meridian One, only the remaining below-code buildings were affected. Most were gone now, the streets looking much like any other place in San Francisco from the Castro to SOMA. But the aroma of rotting cabbage still lingered in the morning air along with a pagoda sloped roof — here and there. Mandarin was spoken less, replaced with the riffs which buzzed between the glimmer glass windows, as they now say. But it still could be called Chinatown, although the much of the ethnic portion had drifted away along the former BART routes into the suburbs. The Chinese architecture was particularly dilapidated — quaint in that respect and visited by some tourists who read on their guide tablets that there were things to be seen and had, for those who still liked to explore the exotic beyond-the-glimmer-glass purchase. There was plenty of glimmer glass in Chinatown, hawking restaurants and trips to the People’s Republic. But for those who rode the only remaining Cable Car line along California Street to Grant Avenue, they could be rewarded handsomely from the past.

Tucked between a dance palace called The Ging Gong Club and a zip suit boutique, Sony Circuit Fashions, stood a lopsided shop with an unconverted display window, smoked with age. Those who peered through it could see a riot of Chinese bric-a-brac — touristy hoopla, but also a promise for hours in a true bazaar of unique specimens from a time beyond the glimmer glass information bombardment and the shadow of Meridian One. Here stood Han-ch’i-wang’s Chinese Antiques, owned in absentia by a Chinese antique himself, Xiao Win-t’o, and run by two gay men, whose specialty went beyond the ordinary.
When Grant Avenue was in its prime — the glory days of the Twentieth Century, there was little to distinguish it from a street in Shang-hai or Hong Kong. Neighborhood folk choked the vegetable markets, calling for live eel and bitter melon. Bicycles clogged the lanes with laundry baskets filled with uptown wash. Children begged for steam cakes and almond cookies, and the clash of old country music crashed over happy tourists, who snapped old-style cameras to record their trip to the City by the Bay. Now, even the cats were safe from the butcher block so little was the call for fresh wok-helper; and the old Apothecary Shop only opened twice weekly to serve up remedies to a few drifters from Oakland or San Carlos. But Han-ch’i-wang’s could still bustle on a Sunday afternoon, because both the fashionable and downtrodden sought a happy forgery to grace their coffee tables. Or they longed to don a silk dragon robe for those chilly summer mornings, which, despite the drift of time, never seemed to change in San Francisco. So between the warped beats of new style horse-dancing at the Ging Gong Club and the hi-tech apparel at Sony Circuit Fashions, the proprietorship of the old Chinatown don, Xiao Win-to (in absentia) thrived both in fact and fiction.

2

Warren Ch’u sat bolt upright in bed. He was a light sleeper. He twitched about, waking his partner, Marsh Eliot.

“Did you hear that?” Warren whispered, anxiously.

“It’s just a rat or something. Go back to sleep.”

“No, Silky. Something’s in the shop.”

Marsh, whom the world called Silky for his flaxen hair — hair less flaxen since his thirtieth birthday, rolled over trying to ignore his husband. Warren tossed off the sheets and swung his legs over the bed’s edge, groping for his glasses. There was a time when those glasses made him the picture of a Chinese geek boy, but since his adventures in China, he had fleshed out into something that would scare most people in a dark alley. He leaped to his feet.

“Shit,” Silky said, sitting up. “Must we do this now?”

“The new shipment.”

Silky grumbled, but reached for something to cover his ass. A silk shift would do. Then a distinct rattle of glass came from the shop below, followed by the creaks of the ancient floorboards.

“Fuck,” Silky groaned. “Grab your gizmo. We might need to call the cops.”

“Why didn’t the alarm go off?”

“How should I know? I’m a battle scarred warrior not a fucking grid jockey.”

He rarely referred to himself as a battle scarred warrior since that day thirteen years ago when he helped save the world in China — an event never discussed by its participants by mutual agreement and by cash arrangement. But occasionally Silky tipped his hand when speaking to those in the know — those who shared in the settlement.

Warren didn’t bother with clothes, except a pair of slippers to protect his feet from broken glass, which he assumed was already somewhere. He appeared odd — a naked brawny specimen with pink fluffy slippers, a gift from Silky’s adoptive mother — a drag queen of renown.

“That’s a picture,” Silky said, peering through the dim light in the hallway. “Any rat seeing you like that will run back to the trash can.”

“I don’t see you running,” Warren whispered, and then handed Silky the gizmo, not having a pocket to put it in.

Silky, still half-asleep, managed a chuckle, but then another noise came from the lower floor — this time metallic, followed by a distinct rumble.

“I hope that was one of the fakes,” Warren said, moving steadily to the top of the stairs.

“Now’s not the time for the Tsa-la-gi way,” Silky remarked, referring to a code taught to Warren by a dedicated local artist, who happened to be Cherokee and sworn to a distinct martial arts code. “If it’s someone in the shop, he could have a gun. I’m in no mood to mop up your blood.”

“You have a sword you could use.”

“Never that.”

“Then we’ll rely on Griffen’s code.” He punched his fist. “Be ready to jump in.”

As they descended into the shop, groping the banister, the noise increased — certainly not a rat. In fact, Warren saw a shadow — briefly, but definitely human.

“He’s in the back room,” he whispered.

“The new shipment.”

“Maybe it’s the real owner come to collect.”

Silky clicked his tongue.

“We have regular business hours.”

Warren halted, raising his right hand high and putting his left index finger to his lips. The shadow appeared again, and then a shape — a man in a hoodie and, no doubt nimble to be navigating in the dark Han Ch’i-wang’s considerable clutter. Warren saw light from the street, flooding through a circular cut in the front door’s glass. It had been some time since any light penetrated the window’s smoky surface. The door was ajar.

“We’ll do this the Tsa-la-gi way,” Warren grunted, and then hopped forward to the light switch.

Suddenly, the place was bathed in incandescent light as the overhead bulbs lit, startling both the intruder and Silky.

“Take it easy,” Silky warned, but to no avail.

“Stop right there,” Warren shouted.

He bolted forward, the thief twisting about, rushing to the door, but Warren caught him by the shoulder, pulling him into a shelf of marked-down vases and plates. These crashed to the floor, sending shards in all directions. The intruder was quick — not as powerful as Warren, but quicker. Warren tried to pull the hoodie off, but only succeeded in tearing part of the sleeve, and just enough to lose his grip.

Silky threw himself into the fray, but the thief reached for a shard, only to be pushed aside, clasping a small brown parcel in his other hand — a parcel Warren recognized. He lurched for it, but too late. The thief slipped it into the hoodie’s belly pouch, and then seized a round silk-covered box from a table nearest the door. He whipped around, slamming the box into Warren’s head, glasses flying off.

“Shit,” Warren shouted, covering his face.

“China Doll,” Silky gasped, a nickname he hadn’t used in years.

Warren felt like a China Doll, cracked in the head and bleeding, consciousness escaping to the shop’s ceiling. He tried to concentrate on finishing the job — to get the parcel or to grab a shard and catch the thief’s leg. He glimpsed the thief’s face, but was too woozy to recognize him and, without his glasses, it was useless. The thief looked like a blonde teenager, and he had a mark on his inner right arm, but every teen had tats and this tat wasn’t clear to Warren’s dazed eyes. The thief fled.

Warren tried to remain standing, Silky helping, but then the ground gave way and the lights went out, in China Doll’s mind, at least.

3

“Warren,” Silky whispered, shaking him.

Warren was suddenly awake — fuzzy, but as lucid as he could be with a throbbing head that had been hit by a brick, or whatever that shithead used to conk him. He touched his head expecting a crater, but instead felt an egg-sized bump. There may have been blood, but he couldn’t tell. It was just wet. Then he realized it was ice residue from a compress Silky applied.

“Warren.”

“I’m okay, Yellow Hair Boy. Where’s my specs?”

He groped the air, Silky fitting the glassed over his ears.

“There, and you’re not okay and you haven’t called me Yellow Hair Boy in years.”

“Well, I thought I heard you call me China Doll, and in front of the enemy.”

“The enemy? You’ve got too much Griffen Jones in your fucking head. This isn’t warfare. It was a break-in by some dumb-ass teenager, probably looking for drug money.”

“Then he’s cleaned out the register?”

Silky appeared stunned, and then puzzled.

“Here, keep this pressed to your head.”

He darted away.

“You mean you didn’t even check to see if he took the cash?”

Silky shouted back something, and then returned, shaking his head.

“That’s strange,” he replied. “He didn’t take anything. I mean, since GlimmerCards, there wasn’t much in there — just a few Hyperbucks and GovCoupies, but . . . you must have turned the lights on before he had a chance to raid the till.”

“Shit on that,” Warren said, stirring unsteadily to his feet. He kicked aside some glass, and then reached for Silky’s shoulder. “He was leaving when I surprised him. He’d finished taking what he’d come for and I saw it. He took the brown packet. You know which one.”

Silky grinned.

“If that’s all, we’re in the clear.”

“I don’t get it. From what I saw, he got away with something rare.”

“Possibly rare,” Silky replied. “But he got nothing, because I wasn’t sure about that thing, so I asked John to have it checked out with his uncle.”

“John’s got it?”

“Yep.”

Warren laughed, and then squinted with pain.

“Then the little shit head got nothing for his pain.”

“Looks like you got the pain,” Silky said. He stooped, retrieving the silk covered box which had played the deuce with Warren’s forehead.

“That thing,” Warren exclaimed. “That’s been here since . . .”

“Since the shop opened back in whenever. Back before the Old Grandmother bought the place.”

Warren took the box, examining it. It was a round container, discus size and covered in crimson silk, a lake scene embroidered on one side and a phoenix on the other. It had been on every shelf in the shop as a hard to sell what-not, because as a box it was a failure, with no visible way to open it. A paper weight? A doorstop, if the Chinese ever started using western style doors? In any case, Xiao Win-t’o had tempted many a browser with the prospects of having a conversation piece on their coffee table or desk, but he had no takers. Old lady Ching had expressed an interest just last week, but when she wanted to see the inside, she turned away disappointed, because there was no inside, apparently.

Warren examined the box as if it had been the final insult in the assault. Then he turned it over and saw that the silk cover had been torn.

“It’s ripped,” Silky observed. “Now we’ll never sell the damn thing.”

“Ripped or not, we never had much chance of . . .” He paused, cocking his head.

“What?”

Warren’s fingers poked through the tear. A silvery shimmer danced beneath his middle finger. He raised the tear to his eye.

“No one has ever thought to remove the cover?”

“Obviously not. Let me see.”

Warren passed the box to his husband.

“Could be silver. Could be . . .”

Warren winced, his head throbbing with pain.

“Could be the fucking Queen of Chinatown for all I care now.”

The silk box was set aside. Silky raised the gizmo.

“You should go to the ER. You could have a concussion. And we should call this in.”

“No,” Warren said, swiping the ice pack and pressing it to his head again. “If the bastard got an empty packing box and we only lost a bunch of crap we were only throwing out, I’d say it would be a waste of time. We’re out only the front door glass. And as for my head, I’m the apothecary’s son. Let’s wake my father up and get one of Magoo’s mystery seaweed poultices shoved up my nose.”

Warren opened the door and started out.

“Hey,” Silky called.

Warren stopped, shrugged and then remembered he had nothing on but an ice pack, his glasses and Simone DeFleurry’s pink fluffy slippers. He chuckled.

“I see what you mean.”

“I don’t think I’d get far either in my fashion statement.”

He twirled about, the silk robe revealing a similar display. So they retreated over the glass, back to the stairs, where Warren flipped off the lights.

“No sense inviting him back,” he said.

“No sense.”

Suddenly, the burglar alarm sounded.

“It’s about fucking time,” Warren snapped.

They laughed — two naked gods of irony.

Chapter Two

At the Painted Ladies

1

 For a century and a half, San Francisco’s Painted Ladies peppered the streets of Haight-Ashbury in various states of disarray. At times these glorious Victorian structures were the pride of the rich and, at other times, the suffragettes of depression, their wondrous pastel walls dabbed in battleship gray, paint begged from the navy — convenient and affordable. Gradually these wooden landmarks fell to earthquakes or to weather, but a few marvelous examples were gussied up and sold for small fortunes, especially the suite which climbed Steiner Street across from Alamo Park. Not so fashionable were the survivors of the last quake in Haight-Ashbury — a crowded remnant of high-shouldered ladies, paint fading, each sporting a steep stairway into the doorway’s open gawp — a startling welcome to those apartment dwellers who could afford the rent. Among these tenants at 456 Ashbury Street were two bachelors starting out their young adventurous lives, although one of them had had more adventures when a child than the majority of citizens in San Francisco.

John Gray and Nick Firestone rented the second floor two bedroom apartment in this old painted lady — not as luxurious as the Steiner Street suite, but still a spacious flat with morning sun and a glimpse of Buena Vista Park between the buildings across the street. John had a good job with Ruggers Inc., a financial analysis group. He also had part-time work for his uncle Xiao Win-to, the owner of Han Chi-wang’s Chinese Antiques. However, despite meeting his share of the expenses, John Gray could never afford the full bull. Nick Firestone, on the other hand, could, if he kept a steady fist on his trust fund, a task which always seemed to elude him. Nick had shared in an unusual settlement from his childhood along with his mother, father, and John’s father — Rowden Gray (and among others, all referred to as The China Hands). It seems this group had saved the world . . . not figuratively, but literally and . . . the world didn’t know about it, nor would they. The People’s Republic of China was manifestly clear that the so-called Jade Owl affair was never to go beyond the small circle of those in the know. So, the Chinese government did what they did best. They snowed the peoples of the world, claiming that the unusual activity in Western China was caused by weather inversions and earth tremors. Anyone who guessed the truth was invited into a private cell. But that wouldn’t due for the heroes of the event. So they were sworn to secrecy, sealed with fat annuities, pensions and, in little Nicky Firestone’s case, a trust fund. The hush money didn’t necessarily squelch conversations between the China Hands, but Rowden Gray had advised the recipients to take care. They never knew who was listening or when the money would be replaced by an invitation to an all-expense paid trip to a Bei-jing detention center.

2

“Get your ass out of bed.”

Nick Firestone stretched under the satiny sheets, mashing his face into his pillow. He tried to hold onto the last vestiges of his dream — an image of a sweet feminine face that often visited him at the edge of slumber — a happy relief from another sort of dream — one filled with dragons and green hulky monster men and a host of bizarre creatures that belonged more to his own brand of reality than to the realm of dreams. Many nights Nick awoke sweating from his childhood terrors — the bravery of his past. He found no comfort in it. But now the sweet lovely feminine face was disturbed by the wake-up call from that face’s brother.

“Get your ass out of bed,” John Gray repeated, stripping off the top sheet, leaving Nick Firestone bare-ass naked in the morning sun’s filigree fingers.

“Too early,” Nick grumbled, snatching the covers and pulling them back.

“Tomorrow’s rent day,” John replied.

“I’ve got it,” Nick said.

“You’re tapped out. I know you are. So you’ve got to get over to Mr. and Mrs. Trust Fund and bring your begging pail.”

Nick knew this was so. He could afford the rent, but he was unemployed, or at least, employed at being Nick Firestone, who indulged in his own interests at his own pace. He’d run through his monthly allowance and the rent money was gone. He needed to pay a visit to his parents and plead for some of that Chinese hush money. With it would come a lecture from Mrs. Mei Lin Firestone, who spent most of her life controlling the household men — from her Chinese uncles to her own afflicted husband.

Nick sat up, puffing his checks. He reached for his glimmer glasses — not for vision, but for internet access.

“Damn,” he said. “There’s not much oomph left in them.”

John tossed something on the dressing bureau and continued his prep for work, tying a gray and red striped tie under the collar of a crisp white shirt.

“You have mail,” he chirped, laughing, and then leaving the room.

“I might. Your sister sometimes leaves me a good morning call.”

“Even after your battle royal?” came John’s voice from the bathroom.

“Sometimes.”

Nick went to the bureau, opening the middle drawer and snatching a pair of tighty whities, slipping them on with a few tugs. He then reached for his glimmer shirt, slipping it on quickly, fitting the scaly sleeves about his arms — stretched over his fading tattoo on his inner forearm. Once secured, he looked into the mirror and grinned. He was not above admiring his sexy smile and his fetching wink. He had that alluring Eurasian appeal, much like John, who’s dearly departed mother also had been Chinese.

“Well,” John called. “Are you up? Because . . .”

“Yes, I’m up and trying to get my mail.”

Nick raised his arm, found the start button on his shirt and waited. It vibrated gently, and then he whisked his hand along the sleeve, a shimmer dancing beneath his palm. Once lifted, the text — green and glowing, breezed through the air and came to rest in the mirror. He leaned into the screen and read.

“Nothing much,” he mumbled, scanning for the one email he wanted — a good morning message from Amy Gray. But they had had words yesterday, a frequent occurrence when he disagreed with her. Two strong willed twenty-somethings should probably not date, but here they were or weren’t, as the cycle progressed. 

“Nothing.”

He sighed, and then noticed the object that John had tossed on the bureau — a brown package, long and irregular, loosely taped with the remnants of string flopping around the edges. Nick touched it, curiosity being his middle name, but wondered if he should take a peek. It wasn’t his business after all.

“I bet you didn’t hear from her,” John called out.

“You’d bet right,” Nick mumbled, pawing the parcel. “Why not? What the hell?”

He breached the tape and tossed off the string. With two quick turns, the package was opened, the contents staring at him.

“What the fuck?” he mumbled.

Lying on its brown paper bed was an ornamental piece — a dark blue stone on a lighter blue enamel framework of leaves and mounted on a long golden spike. Nick slid his glasses down from his forehead hoping there’d be enough juice to magnify the piece. He tapped the spectacle’s rim, waiting for the familiar buzz. He grinned when it came and the ornament now became a gigantic piece for his exploration.

“So you’ve found it,” John said, suddenly beside him. “I knew you would. But you should know that hairpin’s hot.”

“Hot?”

“Yep. There was a break in last night at Han Chi-wang’s.”

“No shit,” Nick said, turning, but becoming unbalanced as he now saw John Gray’s face magnified by ten. “Did they get much? I mean, the most anyone could steal from the antique dealer is a fake vase or Chang Kai-shek’s imitation chop sticks.”

“Well, you’d know more about it than me. I just help out when I can. And Silky said they didn’t get anything. Warren confronted a teenager, who got away clean, but got away with nothing. But they’re certain whoever it was looking for . . . looking for that hairpin.”

“It’s not a hairpin.”

Nick raised his glasses, and then lifted the piece, weighing it in his hand.

“How do you know that? Or should I ask, you and your obsession.”

“It’s not an obsession. My father’s the greatest conservator of Chinese antiquities in the business. Don’t you think his son would have the knack?”

“Well, it looks like a hairpin to me.”

Nick sat on the bed’s edge.

“Well, if this was a hairpin, the lady who used it would be deaf.”

“Deaf?”

“You’ve been around Chinese women enough to know that hairpins are also used to clean their ears.” He touched the end of the piece. “This one’s sharp and has some kind of hook at the end. It’d puncture an ear drum if used as a traditional hairpin. I’d say it was a hat ornament of some kind . . . and a fancy one at that.”

“It kind of gaudy.”

“Gaudy or not, the stone’s a sapphire, if I lay a bet on it and the setting’s gold and lapis lazuli.”

“And I’m supposed to be impressed?” John said, reaching for it. “The reason it wasn’t stolen last night is because it arrived at Han Chi-wang’s by mistake. It came through the mail slot and taken in with the usual bric-a-brac shipment. Silky thought it odd and asked me to take it Tangy Win. I mean, it is my uncle’s after all as the shop owner.”

“True, but I think your father should have a look.”

John rolled his eyes back.

How about it if you see my father and I see yours — for the rent money?”

“I’ll go see Professor Rowdy,” Nick said, grasping the ornament closer. “My father isn’t the holder of the purse strings anyway.”

John Gray bowed.

“Mama Chen, eh?”

“You got it, and it takes a silver tongue to get around her.”

“Okay. I’m going to be late.” He stared into Nick’s ebony eyes. “But don’t lose it or hock it for the rent money. Warren would have my balls if I lost it. Okay?”

“Cool. Go. You’re late already and I’ll get to my parents sometime today.”

John nodded, and went for the door, grasping his jacket as he passed the chair. He reached inside the coat grabbing his own glimmer glasses, popping them on and tugging his shirt to activate his daily database of to-dos. He suddenly stopped.

“You know, my mother wore hats with fancy ornaments when she performed at the opera. I remember them. I was a kid then, but she did. She had them at the house at one point, but since . . . well, since she’s gone now, I don’t know if they’re still there.”

“Nice to know.”

“You might ask my father.”

Nick shook his head, and then continued his examination of the ornament.

3

Being the son of a former conservator of Chinese antiquities rubbed off on Nick Firestone. Although his father didn’t practice his craft now due to an uncommon affliction, the study of things Chinese gripped the son as much as it had the father. So when a puzzle of an ornament showed up on his dressing bureau, it beckoned for further study. It called to understand its time and place. Nick had no formal education in these matters, but having been a lynch pin in the events fifteen years ago — events sufficient enough for hush money, his exposure to China’s past was powerful and it matched his inquisitive nature, which went beyond the usual youthful assimilation of the grand into the mundane.

Nick sat by the window, the sun now optimal. He lifted the ornament into the rays, studying the blue stone carefully with his glimmer glasses down in magnifier mode.

“No scratches,” he mumbled. He turned the ornament about. “No bubbles either and . . .”

The sunlight penetrated the stone, reflecting a shimmering azure ray, which struck the opposite wall. Nick grinned.

“It reflects blue and no other color.” He bounced on the bed. “I’m no fucking gemologist, but it’s a good chance this thing is a genuine sapphire.”

He drew the piece closer, studying the setting, which could be painted enamel, but he suspected it was lapis lazuli, rare these days and generally faked — easily so. His eyes wandered through the magnification as he tilted the piece left and right until the light caught flecks of gold.

“Yes,” he shouted, to no one in particular. “Yes, yes. Flecks there be, Sonny Jim.” He giggled. “A genuine sapphire set on real lapis lazuli. Do I know my stuff or what?”

Then his attention turned to the pin itself — the framework and long line leading to the stem. Gold was a harder determination and without a number of tests, he probably couldn’t get that one on the nose. He knew the old bite test was bogus and proved nothing, and might damage the piece. The magnet test also proved nothing, only eliminating suspicious metals, never proofing gold as gold. So he examined the whole, looking for silver patches — wear and tear revealing baser metals beneath. He saw none, which also was inconclusive, except the ornament wasn’t necessarily ancient, as in thousands of years old.

“Probably mid-Nineteenth Century,” he reasoned. “Or later.”

He then looked for hallmarks or inscriptions. None appeared in the framework, but as he scanned the pin he saw something.

“What the . . .”

He pressed his shirt sleeve button to raise the magnification on the glimmer glass. There, just above the strange end shape was inscribed a symbol he knew. In fact, he had one tattooed on his inner forearm — an insignia shared by all the China Hands from those unspeakable days on the mainland. They all shared this mark and the hush money.

“Cutting the day from day,” he muttered, and then looked to his arm, shushing the sleeve to reveal the mark. He squinted. This character was similar to another — more common one — chung, which meant the middle or centerChung-guo was the real name for that place the West calledChina, because the Chinese called their nation The Middle Kingdom.

“I bet it’s chung,” he said. “This tomb mark is much older, as I should know. This piece isn’t that old. So chung it is.”

Although he had no explanation why the character was inscribed there, nor a real reason to seek out John’s father, or even his own father, he could use this sinological inquiry as an entré excuse to approach his mother for some cash. He sighed, and then glanced down at the ornament.

“This’d fetch a fortune on the black market, I bet.”

But that was not his game, although no option was ever totally dismissed from the mind of Nick Firestone. Suddenly, he needed to know more, but he didn’t have enough juice to do a full net search. So he took a deep breath and tapped his elbow three times. His glimmer shirt vibrated.

“C’mon, Amy, pick-up.”

He went to the mirror and waited for a flash, which, when it came, revealed a beautiful, but scowling face.

“Hey, Fly,” it said.

He was glad to hear her. Amy had several names for him. Fly was a neutral one — indifference, but not the angry Firestone, but far from the flirty Nicky, dearest. So Fly it was.

“Hey, Babe,” he replied.

“Don’t Babe me, Firestone.”

Whoops.

“Sorry. I thought we were over that . . .”

“Not yet. I’m at work, so what’s up?”

Amy worked at the perfect place for this task — Simon Fischer & Moore, a computer and network firm, where she sold access licenses and time sharing. Unlimited juice.

“I need a favor.”

“If you’re nice.”

“I’m always nice.”

“Huh?”

He held up the ornament. Her eyes bugged.

“What’s that?”

“Something your brother brought home from Han Chi-wang’s.”

“Oh, a fake gagoo for Chinese ladies with strong necks?”

“No. I believe it’s much more. Much much more. I’m thinking of bothering your Dad with it, but I’d like to do a net search first.”

“But you ran out of juice again. How many times have I told you that . . .”

“I know. I know. But after our little discussion last night I was so upset I forgot to . . .”

“That’s so much Chop Suey and you know it. So, Fly, what do you need?”

“Just see if this comes up anywhere and let me know. There’s a lunch in it for you.”

“Yeah. I’ll hold my breath. You’re tapped out.”

“Taking care of that.”

She laughed.

“That time of the month, eh?”

“Not looking forward to it. But will ya . . .”

“Send it over.”

Nick flipped his glimmer glasses down, focusing on the piece. He touched his right shoulder and snapped a digital picture, and then another covering the reverse.

“That should do it,” he said. “And thanks, Ba . . . Amy, dearest.”

“I’ll Amy Dearest you,” she said, not unkindly. “I got it. Let you know. Got to go.”

The mirror lost Amy Gray’s face, replaced now with Nick’s handsome image. He grinned, winked, and then departed for his first stop — the East Asian Art and Antiquities Museum.
 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dragons of Winter excerpt by P A Brown



In The Dragons of Winter, by P A Brown, dragons aren’t supposed to fight dragons.

Eighteen year old Alecca is set to join Ciburon, the new leader of the Realm of Xua and become the most powerful rulers of Telen, their world. But amid the ceremonies that will bind the the two dragonshifters forever, Kytam, a rival from a smaller realm seeks to take Alecca for his own, thus gaining control of the world. There is no history of war on their world, but war comes anyway. Kytam must be stopped if there is ever to be peace again among dragons and frails.

The Dragons of Winter
Crimson Frost Books (November 24, 2013)

Excerpt:

It had stormed during the night. Snow piled against the walls of the stable and main house. Paths had already been cleared and the vast courtyard was empty. The only light was from first moon on the snow and the glow from the cook’s window. She would be baking the morning bread.

But none of that concerned Alecca anymore.

He and Ciburon left the house when Válka, the first moon rose. He was naked, as the gods demanded. Ciburon held his hand and ignored his shivering. Once in the center of the courtyard Ciburon turned to face Alecca. He laid his open palm against Alecca’s chest and held his gaze. His eyes were bottomless pits and Alecca fell into them.

“You must bring it from here.” He traced a circle over Alecca’s heart.

“But how will I know?”

“You've had dreams, right?”

Startled, Alecca looked down at the hand splayed above his heart. How did he know that? “I never told anyone—”

“You don’t need to. We all experience the dreams before our first shifting. They help us find our form. You have to remember them now.”

Alecca closed his eyes, focusing his inner eye on memories of those dreams that had come with increasing regularity over the last year. Now he understood them. He thought of wings stretched wide, of twisting muscles and tendons that gave them the strength to lift and carry him for hours. A sinuous neck and tail, glorious claws burnished deepest ebony. Jaws and teeth that could rend the thickest drakken skin and would never feel the deepest cold. 

The touch on his chest changed and he opened his eyes. Where Ciburon’s hand had spread over his heart, curved black talons now rested. Alecca raised his head and looked into flashing golden eyes in a massive, wedge-shaped head of obsidian that morphed before him. Wings unfolded as dark shadows, blurred, then grew solid in the growing light.

Alecca reached inside himself. He saw his soul change. Pain shot through him, radiating out from his chest. It was worse than the pain of Ciburon entering him. Sharper. Cleaner. He doubled over, falling to his knees on the packed snow.

Get up.

At first he ignored the voice in his head. Then it came again. Ciburon?

You must stand and face the pain, Alecca!

He struggled upright, staggering while wave after wave of agony rolled through him. In horror he stared down at his hands and saw them shift. Soft skin became elongated claws of bronze; he stretched them out, marveling at the taut web of wing. Pain ripped through him.

Rise! Rise! Now Alecca, rise up.

Alecca threw his head back to scream, but instead he found himself bugling and his face and mouth felt... wrong. He snaked around, looking right then left. Delicate crimson wings stretched wide; he flexed shoulder muscles and watched, in awe, as his new wings moved. He did it again. Faster this time. He could feel energy flow through him. The wind from his wings created vortexes of snow that swirled around him. New snow fell, obscuring both first and second moon. He was no longer cold.

Rise!

The ground beneath his clawed feet fell away and he rose into the heart of the storm. The snow should have blinded him, but his vision was unimpaired. He knew where the ground lay, where all the stone structures of Kalec’s estate were. He knew where Ciburon crouched on the ground below him watching his first flight.

Then he forgot his lover in his new-found freedom. He surged upward and the ground fell away. He swung west, toward the mountains he had flown over in his dreams. The night brightened, the sky cleared of dense snow clouds, and both first and second moon rode high in the sky, casting double shadows on the drifts below.

He was alone, reveling in his new-found freedom. It was all open to him. The world that had taken him weeks or even months to cross on foot was now his. He could see the great waters and black cliffs of Drakh and the strange creatures that rumor said lived in the bottomless seas below them. The permanently green forests of the southern Ehras, where the sun burned so bright the forests steamed during the day. 

All his to see and explore.




Monday, April 7, 2014

The Popsicle Tree excerpt by DorienGrey


Once upon a time, my boyfriend (now my partner and soon to be my husband) bought me a copy of The Popsicle Tree by Dorien Grey, based solely on the fact that I love popsicles!



Thus, I became a fan of the Dick Hardesty mysteries and a friend of Dorien Grey 



The Popsicle Tree

  • GLB Publishers (January 1, 2005)
  • ISBN-10: 1879194554
  • ISBN-13: 1978-1879194557


Excerpt:



Didn’t somebody once say ‘the only thing consistent in life is change’? So how come so many people are totally unprepared for it? They go through life as if they were driving down a freeway using only their rear-view mirror to steer by. They think they’re going along fine, and suddenly: Wham! Something they didn’t see coming plows into them head-on and changes their lives completely, sending them spinning off in directions they’d never imagined going.


The best way to handle change is simply to deal with it, and try looking at it the way a kid sees new experiences: as a challenge often filled with wonder. Everything’s possible to a child, and ‘growing up’ shouldn’t change that. Just keep your mind and your heart open, and who knows? A Popsicle Tree? Why not?

#

“You think they’ll like them?” Jonathan asked as we left the apartment with a shopping bag full of presents.

“Of course they will. We have excellent taste.”

“In men, anyway,” he replied, grinning. “At least I do. I’m not so sure about you.”

“Would this be Bid for Reassurance number 1,209?”

We were on our way to our friends Tim and Phil’s apartment, where we were invited for an impromptu ‘Welcome Back’ gathering the day after our return from two weeks in New York. It was pretty short notice, and Jonathan had to scurry to get the presents wrapped, but we were anxious to see everyone again—‘everyone’ in this case being Tim and Phil, Bob and Mario, and Jared and Jake, who formed our inner circle of friends.

They’d said five o’clock, since it was a Sunday and everyone had to work the next day—including me, unfortunately—and to my surprise we arrived exactly on time.

Tim, Phil, Jake, and Jared were already there, and you’d think we hadn’t seen each other in two years rather than two weeks. Jonathan discreetly put the shopping bag on the floor next to the door before our exchange of bear hugs with everyone. Phil excused himself and went into the kitchen, returning with a Coke for Jonathan and a Manhattan for me. It was good to be home. ....


Monday, March 31, 2014

Butterfly Girl and Truth or Dare, two short stories by Anne Brooke

Here’s a new short story double-shot from Anne Brooke:

Butterfly Girl and Truth or Dare
By Anne Brooke
Copyright 2014 by Anne Brooke
Cover Copyright 2014 by Untreed Reads Publishing
Cover Design by Dara England
The author is hereby established as the sole holder of the copyright. Either the publisher (Untreed Reads) or author may enforce copyrights to the fullest extent.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the publisher or author, except in the case of a reviewer, who may quote brief passages embodied in critical articles or in a review. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, dialogue and events in this book are wholly fictional, and any resemblance to companies and actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.



Butterfly Girl
It started in innocence and ended somewhere else. Abi Huntingdon was unhappy, though it took her a while to understand this. She appeared to have a full life, working part-time for the local museum, having a relatively trouble-free marriage, seeing her small group of friends on a regular basis for coffee or occasionally lunch, and doing voluntary work for her local women’s group.
The trouble with all this was that Abi was bored. Not terribly bored, but just enough that if someone had asked her for one word to describe her life, the word which would have leapt at once to her mind was: dissatisfaction. A gnawing feeling that wouldn’t go away, no matter how often she told herself not to be ridiculous.
Even her husband Bill, never the most perceptive of men, had noticed. His answer to the problem was simple. He bought Abi her own computer. She knew this made perfect sense to him as he spent many happy hours playing games on his own computer in his office space at home, and no doubt doing many other things she didn’t wish to know about on it. Abi had always supposed a computer was something men liked and women didn’t.
It didn’t take her long to find out how untrue this was. After Bill had taken time out from his sign-writing business to show her how to access the social networking sites and make new online friends, Abi took to it fairly well. She enjoyed “meeting” people from all over the world and chatting, about everything and nothing. After a couple of months, she was an old hand at the game; she knew when to accept friendship and when not to; when to quietly lose a contact and when to search them out and make sure they were alright. She felt confident and happy, although with all the online networking she seemed to have less time for her husband. Still, that was his fault and he only had himself to blame for her new-found hobby. Sometimes, she couldn’t wait for him to leave in the mornings, so she could chat on the computer without worrying about him. Naturally, on occasions, her eagerness for him to be gone led to rows.
It was one of those mornings when the atmosphere between Abi and Bill had been chilly that she “met” Tina. She logged in as usual, feeling the familiar relaxation of her shoulders when the front door clicked shut, and saw a new friendship request email from her favourite networking site.
It wasn’t the sort of friendship request Abi normally accepted, as Tina gave no information about herself, nor her reasons for contacting Abi, and all her email said was, hi, would you like to meet me? However, the argument with Bill had drained her and she felt the need for something different, for taking a chance on finding friendship where she least expected it. Most of all, Abi accepted Tina’s offer of friendship because she loved the girl’s avatar; it showed a woman’s back in a summer cornfield surrounded by butterflies. It looked magical and peaceful and she typed hello, it would be nice to meet you almost before she’d read the little she could see of Tina’s profile.
Tina replied quickly, something along the lines of how much she liked Abi’s photo and thought her life sounded great. That made Abi smile. A week or so went by, with at least daily contact with Tina, who didn’t give much of herself away, but otherwise seemed pleasant. Abi looked forward to chatting with her new and mysterious online friend; it relaxed her in a way nothing else seemed to.
One afternoon, after a hell of a day at the museum, Abi came home, threw off her coat, poured herself a chilled white wine and listened to her husband’s voicemail apology that he would be working late, again. She didn’t mind; the last thing she wanted was any conversation with him. So she logged on and found Tina online.
Hi there, just back from work, DREADFUL day, don’t ask! she typed. How are you?
A few moments passed and then came Tina’s reply: Poor you, so sorry to hear that. I’m fine, babe, but tell me what happened. I want to know…
Abi proceeded to tell her, in succinct sentences, exactly how the caretaker had managed to all but ruin a display, the lighting had broken in the bathroom, and the till had refused to play nice. After every item, Tina cut in with a line of sad faces.
And suddenly in the middle of this straightforward conversation, Tina typed: You sound so rough. Would you like some gentle kisses?
Abi’s skin turned cold and she blinked. Her fingers froze over the keyboard and the air around her went still. She hadn’t seen that coming. She hadn’t seen any of it. What should she do? By rights, she should block Tina at once and turn off her computer. She was a married woman, and she didn’t need this kind of approach.
Still, when her fingers went to type the words her mind told her she should say, they didn’t happen. Instead, she typed: Yes, please. That would be nice.
In the silence while she waited for Tina’s response, Abi felt her whole world turning. She shouldn’t be doing this. She should be preparing dinner, waiting for Mike’s phone call telling her when he was leaving work. A thousand and one important domestic acts awaited her, and yet she was here. Would Tina reply? Was it all a joke and she’d misunderstood? Perhaps she should stop being so dirty, turn off the computer, cool down and get on with her life.
Lovely. Where would you like my kisses, Abi? I really like you and I want you to be happy.
Abi let out a breath. She squirmed on the chair and tried to calm down. Where did she want to be kissed? She should respond before Tina thought she’d gone. She didn’t want to go.
Thank you. I love to be kissed on my shoulders and breasts.
Anywhere else?
Yes. I enjoy being kissed between my legs too.
No time elapsed at all before Tina’s reply. In your cunt?
Yes.
That’s nice. I love the thought of kissing your cunt, and your breasts and shoulders too. Can I touch you there, Abi, with my fingers as well as my lips and tongue? Please say yes.
Alright, yes. But, please, Abi wrote, her fingers missing keys in the growing excitement and terror, my husband will be calling me soon. I mustn’t miss his call. And anyway, I shouldn’t be doing this. I’m sorry. I’ve never been unfaithful to him before, please forgive me.
Oh honey, you’re not being unfaithful to him now, and I really admire you for that btw. We’re just talking, enjoying each other’s company online. Playing a little game together, if you like. It’s perfectly harmless. When will your husband be back?
This time, Abi got up. She walked around the spare room, studied the books and ran her hands through her hair. Glancing at the computer, she saw Tina had typed: You okay, honey? Are you still there?
Almost experimentally, Abi slipped her hand under her shirt and smoothed it over her nipple. It hardened almost at once. She sat down at the keyboard again.
Yes, I’m here, she typed. I-I just felt uncertain for a moment, that’s all. Had to get up and walk around. I’m very new at this, I-I feel apprehensive.
She hadn’t typed a stammer before, but it felt right. Tina’s answer reassured her:
That’s okay, hon. I love how honest you are. You’re so very special. I missed you though. But no need to feel worried. I’ll always look after you—want to make you happy. When will your husband return?
He said on the message he’d call in about half an hour.
That’s lovely, that’s plenty of time. Abi, what are you wearing? I want to visualise how beautiful you look.
Abi smiled. I’m wearing a light blue shirt and a black cotton skirt. How about you?
I’m wearing my nightshirt—it’s just gone midnight here. It’s pale pink with butterflies on it. I love butterflies. What underwear have you got on?
A white bra and light blue French knickers. Oh, and tights and shoes—can’t go to work without them!
You’re so funny. I love what you’re wearing. I think you’re beautiful. Why don’t you take your top off, Abi? Then I can kiss your shoulders.
Abi looked up. Over the computer screen, she could see the evening light over the neighbour’s chimney and, beyond that, the local wood. From the garden the other side of her, she could hear the sound of children playing and a dog barking. Alright, but I need to draw the blinds first.
OK, that’s a good idea. I want you to feel safe with me. Always.
Abi got up, drew down the blind at the window on her left, wondering what her neighbouring family would think if they knew her intentions. She could never even imagine sharing this with them.
When the eyes of the world were firmly shut out, she turned the light on and took off her shirt. Slowly, savouring the slow catch and release of every button, wondering how Tina would respond to her body if she were here in truth. She supposed she didn’t need to take off any clothes, however, not really. She could lie in her responses online. Other people lied. Perhaps Tina herself did? Nobody could prove Tina existed in the way she said she did, and nobody could even prove Tina was a girl. But the persona of Tina, the one who’d drawn Abi into friendship and, now, something else, existed. That Tina was true. And, because of it and no matter what, Abi wouldn’t lie to her; she didn’t wish to.
Once she removed the shirt, Abi folded it up and placed it over the spare chair, the one in front of her exercise bike. Then she sat down at the computer again.
Hi, Tina, she typed. I’m safe now. I’ve taken off my shirt. Please, could you kiss my shoulders? I really want to feel your lips on my skin.
A pause, then: You feel so soft. I’m kissing your left shoulder gently, just how you wanted me to. Soothing the difficulties of your day so far away that you can’t even remember them. I’m nibbling you with my lips right now and stroking my tongue over the tops of your arm. I love the way you taste. Are you enjoying it, Abi? Tell me what you’re feeling and doing, please…
I’m stretching my shoulder, lifting it up to your mouth, feeling it relax under your kisses. They’re so lovely, Tina. Nobody’s ever kissed me like that before. You make me feel so good, I can’t even tell you how good. I love the way you’re making my shoulder wet, marking me with your tongue. You’re so gentle that I…I…
…what, Abi? What are you doing now, honey?
Abi could hardly believe she was typing this, but she couldn’t seem to stop: I-I’m spreading my legs under my skirt. Gasping.
That’s good. I love to feel your reactions. I’m kissing you across the throat now, working my way over your skin to your other shoulder, licking and nibbling you as gently as I can. I love to hear you gasp. You’re so beautiful…. There, see how wet your shoulders are now. Oh, Abi, I’d love to kiss your breasts too, take them into my mouth and feel the weight of them on my tongue. Please, please take your bra off for me. Please, it would give me such pleasure to see your breasts.
Abi stared at the screen. Her breathing was unsteady and her skin felt hot. Slowly, so she could almost not believe it was happening at all, she reached behind herself and undid her bra. It fell to the floor and she kicked it away.
You can see them now, she typed. My breasts are naked and I want you so much to kiss them.
I’m doing that, hon, I’m running my tongue over your nipples, feeling how hard they are. Do you like my tongue? Do you like the way I’m making your skin so wet? Tell me everything you’re feeling, Abi, every sensation. I want to know you, through and through.
Oh, Tina, I love how warm your tongue feels. I love the way you lick me. My nipples are so hard now. I-I’m going to take my skirt and tights and knickers off. For you. Can I do that? Will you let me? I just want to be naked with you. I know you’re so far away, but I really want that. Please?
Abi, hon, you’re so special. I love the way you are. You’d make me so happy if you took all your clothes off. I want you to feel relaxed and totally safe with me. I’d love to know you’re naked. I’d love for you to be that open and vulnerable. How I wish I could see you, but I’m with you anyway, Abi, in ways that are so very special. You can trust me. Do you trust me?
Yes.
Then, please, take off the rest of your clothes. For me.
Abi obeyed. Her fingers felt so sticky with heat that she could scarcely pull her skirt and tights off, and the dampness between her legs stained her knickers. Then, finally, she was there. She sat down again, feeling the slight roughness of the chair on her thighs and bottom.
I’ve done it. I’m naked, she typed. She wondered for a moment what it would be like to have a video link with Tina, but no, she didn’t have that kind of equipment and, anyway, she didn’t like the idea. This encounter was happening in the internet’s strange darkness; visibility would only take the mystery, the allure of it, away.
That’s wonderful, thank you, wrote Tina. Now, for a while, I just want to type while you do what I tell you to, imagining it’s me doing these things to you. I don’t want you to type anything back. Can you do that, Abi?
Yes, Tina, I’ll do that for you.
Thank you. You’re so beautiful. I want you to stretch upwards and imagine my mouth kissing your breasts, circling them. At the same time, my fingers are stroking your shoulders, over and over again. I work my way slowly round your breasts, sucking and licking them, loving you deeply in a way I know you love. Watching you smile, and hearing your soft gasps as I pleasure you. Then, oh so slowly, I work my way down your stomach, kissing a trail of delights from your breasts to your pubic hair. How soft you are, Abi, how soft and warm. Stretch your legs wide for me, Abi, and watch me as I kneel between your legs, gazing at you in adoration. Oh, hon, I can’t get enough of you, not now and not ever. My fingers caress your inner thighs, feeling how your skin quivers at my touch. My tongue and lips follow the path my hands make to your delicious centre. The heart of you, Abi, and how I long to be there. It takes me a while because I love exploring you so much, but soon my tongue is licking your cunt. How wet you are, how deliciously wanton, seducing me with your beauty. Put your fingers into your cunt, Abi, and feel how wet my attentions are making you. Touch yourself, my love, and know that behind your touch lie my tongue and lips and fingers, stroking and caressing you as the pleasure, the pure physical pleasure only I can give you, builds and builds until you can’t hold back. Keep your legs wide apart, Abi, my wonderful, beautiful girl, as wide as you can so I can bury myself as much as I can deep within you and so you can know that I am right here between your thighs, in your secret and wonderful place. Oh, Abi, Abi, come for me, beautiful woman, come for me, and when you are finished, tell me what you feel as I lap and lap at your glorious cunt.
The depths and richness of Abi’s orgasm startled her. Her legs spread wide over the computer chair and her fingers caressed her clitoris while her own juices smeared her skin, just as Tina had told her to do, as she arched her back and cried out, gasping and shaking, riding the overpowering release of her body until the fit was over. It was the best sex she’d ever had, or at least for a long time. She couldn’t really remember it being as intense as that, ever.
It took a while, but at last her trembling stopped and she straightened her legs, wiping her wet fingers across her stomach to dry them. She swallowed, hard, and reached for the keyboard. She couldn’t see how she could form any coherent words, but she had to try. Tina—astonishing, overwhelming Tina—would be waiting.
Oh Tina, that was glorious, so wonderful. When I came, I cried out and I could see you there, between my legs, your hair bent over my cunt, I could feel your tongue inside me, I swear it. I love what you’ve done to me, I love you—oh god, is it all right to say that? It’s what I feel, I promise. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I do. I love you, I love you, I love you—god it feels so good to type that. I feel so soft and open, so vulnerable. You could reach inside me and know everything about me. You already have. How can I ever thank you?
My darling Abi, it’s me who should thank you—just knowing how good I make you feel has made me so happy. I love licking and kissing and fondling you. You’re beautiful and so open and ready for what I’m doing to you, it’s very special. You’re very special. I want to be with you over and over again like this. I want to love you in our special way again when we can next meet here, and I want you to love me too. It will mean so much. Will you, Abi, will you promise to do that with me? Please say you will.
Sitting there, deliciously and gloriously naked as she was, and as open as she’d ever been, Abi knew what her answer would be. Yes, my love, of course. I can barely wait for our next meeting. I want to be able to share everything with you. Thank you for letting me have the chance to do so. I love you, now and always. Thank you, thank you, thank you. But my husband…
Yes, Tina wrote back quickly as Abi left her sentence unfinished. He’ll ring you soon, and you have to be the wife for him that he expects. I know that, hon, and I understand it. I think you’re beautiful whatever you do and whatever choices you make. I’ll always be here for you, always. Good night, my love, good night.
She signed off. Abi dressed herself slowly, shivering at the way her body had responded to the loving words of another woman. She had never known that about herself, not until meeting Tina and not until today. How she longed to learn more and soon. She could hardly wait for tomorrow and all the other tomorrows stretching out beyond it. How could she have ever thought life was boring? With Tina, it would never be boring again. She promised herself she would hold onto all the moments she could share with her special friend and remember them when things were bleak or difficult in her marriage or in her “real” life. It was a way of being honest, it was a way of most truly being herself.
As the phone began to ring, and Abi smoothed down her hair ready to speak to her husband, she smiled to herself; she was prepared for Bill’s call now. She was decent for him, no longer dirty and sexy and wild, as she had been for Tina. She would give her husband what he wanted, she would give all her other friends what they wanted too, knowing the rest of her life was her own. Oh yes, Abi could do that, easily. It was worth it, for Tina, her own and very special butterfly girl.


Truth or Dare
Once seated at the only empty table, Suzie gets the drinks. A bottle of house white and two glasses. That suits Kate fine. She’s had a rough week. She deserves a break. Something else too, if she’s lucky.
Because this time she’s not going back home without trying.
As Suzie settles into her usual window seat, Kate admires her friend’s shoulder-length blonde hair, her rich green eyes and her full mouth. Suzie has always been the beautiful one, but Kate’s never minded that. Her own slight form and short dark hair could never compete in their teenage years, but Suzie’s never made an issue of it. She’s always stuck by Kate. It’s meant a lot.
Now here the two of them are: Kate six years’ married to Robert, a steady accountant with a good job in London; Suzie with her new fiancé, Neil, and all the upcoming wedding plans to organise. It’ll be a good year, she thinks. But still Kate wants something to change.
‘Cheers,’ Suzie pours the wine, and Kate savours the hint of spices and lemon in her mouth.
‘Cheers.’
The conversation moves on. Suzie talks not just about Neil and the wedding, but about her work colleagues, her new car. In turn Kate talks about Robert, his job, her brothers, her church.
During a pause, Kate sees her chance.
‘All right then, let’s play Truth and Dare,’ she says. It’s a game they used to play often when they were younger. Already Kate knows what she will confess, but she wants to hear Suzie speak first.
Her friend laughs. ‘It’s years since we’ve done that. What’s made you think of it now?’
‘Memories, I suppose,’ Kate shrugs. ‘Old times’ sake.’
Suzie stops laughing. Frowns instead. She takes another mouthful of wine from her glass and the clear liquid glistens on her lips. Kate has to stop herself from brushing it away with her fingers. It’s too soon for that, if it happens at all. Now she wants to listen.
‘Well,’ Suzie says. ‘You know most things about me anyway, but…but there is something I haven’t told you. I didn’t know what you’d say, and it’s nothing much. At least nothing happened, but…’
‘That’s all right,’ Kate lays her hand on Suzie’s for a moment, feeling the warmth of her friend’s skin rising into her own. ‘Tell me: truth or dare.’
Suzie begins to speak. At first her words are hesitant but soon, when Kate makes no sound of disapproval or surprise, she grows in confidence. So Kate hears about a party a couple of months ago, where Suzie had gone but Neil had cried off at the last minute. Pressure of work. She hadn’t known many people there but she’d had three or four drinks, chatted to various groups and everything had been fine. Then she’d gone to the kitchen to refresh her vodka and tonic, and had fallen into conversation with a young bloke whose name she never got to know. After a while, the inevitable had happened. He’d made a pass but, instead of walking away, Suzie had gone with it. They’d kissed and made out with each other. She’d liked the feel of his tongue, the herbal scent of his aftershave. She hadn’t thought of the guilt. Half an hour or so later, he’d suggested they use one of the bedrooms and she’d been more than tempted but, in the end, she’d pulled away. When she was leaving, he’d asked for her number but she’d shaken her head. She hadn’t given it to him.
When she finishes speaking, Suzie gives a snort of laughter that doesn’t quite ring true. ‘There. You see. I’m just a slapper who can’t keep her hands to herself when my fiancé isn’t around. And you know the worst of it, Kate?’
Kate shakes her head.
‘The worst of it is I wish we had used a bedroom. I wish I’d given him my number. I just wanted to know what it would be like—to be a different kind of woman for a while. I love Neil, but…’
‘…but sometimes you wonder?’
Speechless, Suzie nods. Refills both their glasses.
Kate takes her time in answering.
‘I think,’ she says slowly, not looking at her friend. ‘I think it’s perfectly natural to wonder what another kind of life would be like. It’s part of being human, isn’t it? And, really, I don’t care what you do. I’ll always be your friend, I’ll always be utterly and totally on your side. You know that.’
‘Thank you,’ Suzie gives a half-smile and wipes one hand over her eyes. ‘I do know it. And you don’t know what that means to me. Honestly, you’re the best. I don’t know where I’d be without you. But anyway, your turn for Truth or Dare. Tell me something you’ve never told me before. I could do with a meaty piece of gossip to mull over this weekend.’
Kate sits back. She finishes her glass and gazes at her friend. ‘Deal. Do you think you can take it?’
‘Sure I can. Go ahead.’
‘All right.’ Kate pauses. She glances round the pub, with its beams, Italian prints and rowdiness. Breathes in the smell of crisps and wine. Then she leans forward and speaks softly enough for only Suzie to hear. ‘The biggest regret I have is this: in all the time I’ve known you, I’ve never seen your breasts. Or touched them. I’d like to do both.’
A long pause follows these words. Kate continues to hold Suzie’s eyes with her own. It’s as if the whole pub around them has disappeared and they are the only two people there. Perhaps they’re the only two people in the town, or even the whole world.
Then the noise and laughter of the other pub-goers rushes in once more.
Suzie takes her glass, places it to one side. She gets up and stretches out her hand to Kate.
‘Please,’ she says, ‘come home with me.’
In Suzie’s small flat, Kate notes the signs of her absent fiancé: a man’s shirt draped over the back of the pale blue sofa, a pair of distinctly male shoes, a briefcase.
‘Okay,’ her friend says. ‘What would you like me to do?’
When Kate looks at her, Suzie is standing, ramrod-straight, like a schoolgirl waiting to be told off. She can’t help but smile. ‘You don’t have to do this, you know. It’s lovely of you to bring me here after what I said, but it’s my fantasy. Not yours. You don’t have to do anything.’
Suzie shakes her head, frowning. ‘No, please. I want to. I want you to…see me. Is that wrong? Are we being…unfaithful?’
‘I don’t know,’ Kate whispers. ‘Why don’t you sit down?’
Her friend does so. Once she’s settled, Kate kneels between her legs, gazes up at her. ‘Please, will you unbutton your shirt for me?’
Without a word, Suzie begins to undo her top button, looking down, concentrating only on the completion of her task. Kate catches her breath as the milky skin of Suzie’s throat is revealed. Of course she’s seen her friend’s body before—during summer holidays when they were teenagers, on shopping expeditions together. But never like this. She longs to touch her, but doesn’t quite have the courage.
Slowly all the buttons are undone. Suzie is wearing a lacy white bra and, through this, Kate can see her nipples. They seem to push against the whiteness. A flush has spread over her friend’s skin and she is breathing deeply. Kate leans forward. Suzie’s breath smells of wine, and her lips beckon her, but there is something she must do first. Something she has only ever dreamt of.
She gently pushes Suzie’s shirt away from her shoulders, down over her back and past her arms. Then she unhooks her friend’s bra and pulls that away. Suzie gasps and Kate sees her eyes are closed. She gazes at Suzie’s breasts, drinking in the whiteness of them, the creaminess of her flesh contrasted to the stiff pink nipples.
‘Thank you,’ Kate breathes. ‘Thank you.’
This is all she can think of to say. With Suzie’s eyes still shut, Kate begins to kiss and lick her breasts, running her tongue over each nipple and sucking at their glorious firmness. She assumes Neil does this too, and wonders how different the sensations might be for Suzie.
Her friend moans and pushes her breast deeper into Kate’s mouth. Suzie’s fingers run through Kate’s hair. Warm and soothing.
After a while, she realises Suzie is saying something but at first she can’t make out the words. Then she hears them.
‘I’m wet,’ her friend is saying. ‘Kate, I’m so wet.’
‘It’s all right, it’s all right, I know.’ Because Kate is wet too, almost dripping beneath her jeans and knickers. She can’t believe how turned on she feels, and she can’t believe how what she’s doing is making Suzie turned on also. She’s never had this kind of power in the bedroom before. With her husband she’s always been the passive one. But here, tonight, everything is changing. She feels free.
As if she’s done this a hundred times before—whereas in fact this is the first time she’s ever been unfaithful—she unzips Suzie’s trousers and pulls them down. Her knickers are small, lacy and white. Matching the bra.
Kate smiles. ‘They’re beautiful.’
‘I-I always dress up when we go out,’ Suzie murmurs. ‘I like to.’
‘Do you?’ Kate can’t believe the gift which is being offered to her. The understanding that perhaps Suzie has dreamed of her like this too is almost beyond her comprehension. ‘Thank you.’
Lifting Suzie’s buttocks, she slips the knickers off. Her friend’s pubic hair is soft and inviting. Kate buries her face in its rich depths. Breathes in musky perfume and licks the wetness with her tongue, pushing it deep into Suzie’s warm folds. Funny how this seems so natural even though she has never done it before. As if she and Suzie are two halves of a perfect whole and were always meant to be together like this.
Still, even though she knows her own body by feel and her husband’s touch, it takes Kate a little while to understand someone else’s. She uses her mouth and fingers to tease Suzie’s clitoris, remembering that too much pressure will only chase the pleasure away. It astonishes Kate how much she loves this and how powerful it makes her.
Just before Suzie comes, she whispers, ‘I love you, Kate. I love Neil but I love you too.’
As Suzie’s body rides the waves of her orgasm, Kate keeps pushing her fingers into her friend’s vagina and across her clitoris where only a moment ago her mouth has been. Over and over again. Her own body longs for satisfaction but she is patient enough to wait. For now, she basks in the understanding of how her lips and tongue, her teeth and fingers can make Suzie lose control so completely. Finally, when her friend’s shuddering and low cries have come to an end, Kate releases her and lays her down, naked and open, upon the sofa.
With the salt-sea taste of Suzie’s cunt filling her mouth, Kate at last kisses her on the lips, tongue linking with tongue, and feels her friend’s astonished groan of delight.
‘Are we lovers now?’ Suzie asks with a smile, when the kiss is over.

‘Yes,’ says Kate, revelling in how everything has changed and so delightfully. ‘We are.’
Author: Anne Brooke
Title: Butterfly Girl & Truth or Dare
Publisher: Untreed Reads
# of Pages: 12; Price: $0.99
To purchase, click http://goo.gl/MGcSXh 

Also by Anne Brooke and Untreed Reads Publishing
Thorn in the Flesh
The Girl in the Painting and Other Stories

Untreed Reads Publishing