Exclusive Excerpt: Prince of the Sea; a Paranormal Love Story, Suspense/thriller Novella

Prince of the Sea

by

Jon Michaelsen

Blurb:

Destiny calls Jonathan home.

Jonathan Lemke thought spending two weeks alone with his partner in a beachside cottage would help to rekindle the lost passion of their ten-year union. He’d chosen Tybee Island, a quiet seaside community east of Historic Savannah on the Georgia coast. Jonathan spent his childhood growing up on the pristine shores of the barrier islet which continues to hold a special place in his heart.

The romantic surprise backfires when Jonathan’s partner, Paul, bails and rushes off to Chicago for the chance to woo a high profile client, leaving Jonathan alone and brokenhearted. But a chance meeting with a mysterious and seductive stranger linked to an ancient island legend provides a temporary distraction…and a chance at discovering forever love.

Island myth…or guarded secret? Someone with strong familial ties to Tybee Island wants to expose its secrets and avenge a grudge decades in the making. An assailant so threatened by the forces of nature that defy explanation will stop at nothing to expose island lore…even if he must kill to prove it.

Novella: 44,440 words Genre: gay paranormal, suspense/thriller

Editor: Jerry L. Wheeler

Cover: Dawne Dominique

 

Chapter One

Jonathan sauntered to the side of the verandah with his cocktail and leaned against the railing. The Jeep he’d rented at the airport sat idle against an ancient railroad tie baking in the sun, the space beside it empty. Glancing up, he didn’t see the tell-tale trail of dust billowing up through the brush to indicate a taxi drew near. Not even a glimmer of the sun’s intense rays reflecting off the body of an automobile, nothing to indicate someone approaching.

He wondered if Paul would appreciate the nineteenth century antebellum revival beachfront cottage Jonathan had rented for a surprise vacation, a second honeymoon of sorts. The past year had proved tough for them both, and Jonathan had sensed a growing tension in their relationship. They were drifting apart he feared, a fact that often plagued gay men in a relationship after a decade or so together.

Paul had taken months to get back on his feet after a rough job loss. Petty arguments had bubbled below the surface, but Jonathan thought two weeks on the beach far away from deadlines, cellphones, and demanding clients might prove ideal, a perfect oasis to help get them back on track. Jonathan had forked over the non-refundable deposit a few months back without a second thought, determined to inject some rest and recuperation into their lives.

Paul’s reaction to the gift proved more shocking to Jonathan than his impulse.

Sipping his cocktail, he recalled their exchange over dinner last week when he sprung the news of the planned escape.

“Now?” Anxiety had twisted Paul’s face, his lips tightening into a thin line as though he bit into a lemon. “You’re not serious? Are you insane?”

Jonathan had remained silent, of course, crushed beyond words at Paul’s comeback. He recalled how his chest tightened and forced the air from his lungs as he sat stoically, inspecting the food skewered on his fork, not knowing what to say.

“I’m only now getting my feet back on steady ground, John. You of all people should know I can’t afford to run away now, even if I wanted to. “Sometimes, babe, you just don’t think these things through before you make a stupid mistake.”

Clipped sentences and bitchy comments shared over several cocktails had capped the evening before they headed home earlier than originally planned.

Jonathan sighed and sucked down the rest of his drink.

PrinceoftheSea_800x1200_dpi300_LRG

Where is he?

He looked again toward the road, his hand shielding the afternoon sun. Exhausted after shuttling across the country to the east coastal town of Tybee, an island twenty minutes from Savannah, Georgia, he wanted to grab a bite and spend the evening relaxing on the porch facing the ocean’s cool breeze. Paul had booked a later flight in order to finish a few things at the office, but he promised to arrive in time for dinner. Jonathan checked his watch again. The evening loomed and still no Paul.

What if he’s not coming?

Will you stop? Jonathan chided himself for fretting when he needed to relax. Anxiety gripped the muscles in his chest, and his throat went dry despite the alcohol he’d consumed. He wrestled with the idea Paul might bail on him, offering the same old lame excuse about business coming first. It wouldn’t be the first time, but Paul wouldn’t do that, would he? Not after all that’s happened this year.

Still, Paul hadn’t called.

Jonathan had left several messages at both his partner’s office and on Paul’s cell. With everything going on between them, all they’d been through the past year, Paul at least owed him a phone call of explanation.

Shoulders slumped, head bowed, Jonathan raised his glass in toast to an ocean bathed in brilliant turquoise, and downed the last of the twelve-year-old scotch. He stared out across the water, despondent and aloof, like a seafaring mariner in search of land. The breeze skimming off the ocean’s surface cooled his cheeks and brushed the dark hairs of his chest peeking out from his open shirt.

The sun slowly joined with the western shore, its phosphorescent embers reaching out to touch the sugar-white sand. Moss-draped oaks and spiny palms fronting the beach basked in a sheath of glittery gold. Nearby tree frogs thrummed and crickets chirped as the afternoon began to yield to dusk.

A seagull floated past on the warmth of the current as insects indigenous to the area traveled in droves atop the sea of waving cordgrass. Rolling whitecaps of the ocean’s lips choreographed a symphony that crashed headlong ashore. Jonathan stared out across the water and wished on some level he could be one with the ocean to escape the realities of life threatening to suffocate him. The scent of salt, fish, and drying seaweed wafted in the breeze that coated everything in a gritty residue. He closed his eyes and drank in the air hitting his face, imagining the draft cleansing years of L.A. smog from his pores.

Hums of the world abuzz lulled him and warmed his heart with thoughts of the past. As a child, Jonathan had enjoyed long summer days playing on the beach with pail and shovel in hand, scooping up sand to fortify some sandcastle or surrounding moat. He remembered strolls along the beach with his family searching for that one of a kind shell or sand dollar. He’d spent his early years not far from where he stood now, the smell of salt air and seaweed all he knew before leaving the coast to attend the University Of Georgia in Athens. A promising career writing screenplays had sent him racing to the West Coast upon graduation to a life of fifteen-hour days and all-night parties.

Years had passed with little memory of his childhood until he’d returned to the tiny island. Being here now with the breeze jostling the fabric of his shirt, brushing past the cotton of his chinos, and with the sun highlighting his skin in iridescent bronze, caused his heart to swell. He closed his eyes and drank in the aroma of his youth.

Why hasn’t he called?

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The past twelve months had tested their relationship more than in any other year. Jonathan knew they needed this vacation, time alone outside the pressures of deadlines, e-mails, texts, and cellphones. It was to be a break from the constant demands nibbling away at their time together without regard to their needs. The first sign of things to come had been when their trusted housekeeper of many years sold details of Jonathan’s and Paul’s private lives to one of those trashy supermarket rags. Her lies sold thousands of copies across the country and caused a flurry of activity around the Lemke-Morley household, even threatened to derail their careers in a town known for feeding water cooler gossip. For the most part, Jonathan managed to escape the scandal, but Paul was forced to leave his job as a publicist with a major public relations firm, striking out on his own.

Jonathan checked his cell again. No missed calls or texts.

Six months ago, Jonathan lost his beloved grandmother to pulmonary artery disease. Complications from a heart attack slowly took her life, a mockery to one so selfless. Jonathan had spent months traveling back and forth to the Florida Panhandle where Mama Effie had retired. Effie’s husband had died ten years earlier. He’d collapsed on his job of forty years, sucking in carbon emissions at a heavy equipment assembly plant in Brunswick, Georgia. After cleansing herself of unwanted material items, Mama Effie headed to the Gulf Coast to live with her sister. Jonathan recalled the faces of stunned family members as his grandmother passed out heirlooms like worthless trinkets and snickered.

He missed her. Like him, Mama Effie had preferred to mourn in silence, and if ridding herself of a few personal items that reminded her of the only man she ever loved meant being able to face each day, then he supported her one hundred percent. He knew his grandmother like no other. She had readily accepted him for the boy he was and the man he became, unlike his parents.

His cellphone buzzed. Snapping back from his reverie, Jonathan accepted the call and turned inland. “Where are you?”

Jonathan heard a long pause before familiar noises drifted through the connection, and a feeling of dread overcame Jonathan as Paul spoke.

“Hey, babe, I’m in Chicago. Look, something came up. I got a call from Gyllenhaal’s people, and it’s possible I’m not going to be able to make it.”

“What? Paul, you promised.” Jonathan gripped the cellphone, wanting to smash the metallic cover against the floorboards.

“I know, hon. I’m really sorry, but signing this new client would mean everything to me. You know how bad things have been. I’ve told you I’ve got to attract the bigger names to get my business off the ground. This might be the break I need, Jonathan.”

“Paul, we discussed taking this trip for us. What about what we need?” Jonathan struggled to suppress his anger. “I booked the cottage months ago so we could get away from the rat race, you know? Spend some much needed quality time together. Sit back and relax, take a real vacation for once, just you and me.”

Jonathan wanted to unload on his partner, to express how for months he’d sacrificed at every turn, given in to Paul’s every whim in the interest of salvaging what they had. True, Paul’s demands had bordered on the selfish, but Jonathan didn’t care. Their relationship had soured, but all they needed was time alone to focus on a romance gone dormant far too long.

“Paul,” Jonathan said in a steady voice, “you don’t have to work so hard. We have plenty of funds coming in from my royalties, scripts I wrote years ago, and more on the way. Last year’s writer’s strike guarantees us at least nine months to a year of cushion. “Do you hear what I’m saying? Why do you have to rush off now?”

“John, as usual you’re not listening. What about what I want, huh? What I need?”

Jonathan bit his lip and listened.

“It’s not always all about you,” Paul said. “Signing Gyllenhaal would be my first chance to become a respected publicist again. No one has been willing to take me seriously, on my own terms in this crazy business. Not without the bigger names and greater celebrity influence. You know that.”

Jonathan bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose with his fingers. “You promised.”

“I need to go, hon,” Paul said. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

The call ended. Jonathan stared at his phone, stunned and slack-jawed.

What in the hell just happened?

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Chapter Two

A lone gnat buzzed about Jonathan’s face. He swiped the air in frustration, more at Paul than with irritation at the pest. He had agitated the insect, which fought to escape and yet managed to fly up his nostril. He plugged the side of his nose and tried to flush the pest without success. Finally, with apprehension, he swallowed to clear his throat of the insect.

Driven by need deeper than thirst, Jonathan ducked inside through the doorway of the single story cottage and crossed the threshold to the parlor of the west wing, filled with nautical trimmings and reproduced coastal collections. He tore past the cold fireplace and a sofa draped with an old patchwork quilt. The antique double-door bar cabinet nestled in the far corner reminded him of the days his mother had carted him through the vintage shops peppering the Southeastern Coast. In spite of his mood, he smiled at the memories. He snatched a fresh bottle of booze from the shelf below, tossed a couple cubes of ice into his glass, and filled it half-full of scotch.

Jonathan slugged the beverage, refilled his glass, and then shuffled to the floor-to-ceiling windows facing inland. He thought about being stood up by Paul, the knot in his chest traveling up his neck like a hand closing around his throat. Typical. Paul had become more distant of late and the excuses he tried to pass off seemed contrived at best. They were nearing the end of the relationship, perhaps. Jonathan didn’t know anymore, and it drove him crazy.

Stop with the melodramatics, Jonathan chided himself as he sipped his drink and stepped out onto the porch again. He set his cocktail on the railing, reached high above his head, and stretched his arms before crossing them over his chest and gripping his shoulders. The ocean breeze caressed him as he watched the waves rolling in, whitecaps bustling with the fury of stampeding cattle before crashing headlong into shore. Why did it bother him this much? Should he be surprised Paul chose career goals over their relationship yet again? Jonathan should have seen it coming months ago, but he’d ignored the signs, desperate to rekindle the passion slipping away after years of happiness.

A large cargo ship sailed in line of the horizon. Seagulls and pelicans floated along the shoreline searching for food. Jonathan dreamed of a relationship devoid of friction and financial strain, absent of business dinners filled with false hope and weekend interruptions. He savored his career as a successful scriptwriter, but he abhorred the Hollywood lifestyle.

His drink empty, Jonathan began to turn when something caught his eye. Glancing beyond the beach, he scanned the ocean’s surface searching the whitecaps. Someone was bobbing and swirling about in wide circular motions, dipping beneath the waves. Jonathan made out the head and shoulders of a man struggling to remain above the surface. Adrenaline shot through Jonathan like a bullet and panic clutched his chest.

He’s in trouble!

Jonathan scanned the beach for help. A few beachcombers walked in either direction along the sand, some strolling hand in hand, as others huddled in groups with a child or two darting out from the pack to race toward the water’s edge. No one seemed to notice the swimmer in distress. Most followed their downcast eyes, searching the beach for the ocean’s treasures washed up in the tide.

“Hey…hey!

Jonathan raced toward the water’s edge and kicked off his loafers, flailing his arms and screaming trying to attract attention. He ripped off his shirt as he ran, the fabric falling behind in the sand. Pausing to strip off his slacks, he trudged into the sea.

Waves battered him in violent succession, pushing him back, forcing him to lift his knees high to stab his feet into the water to stay righted. When the water reached his hips, Jonathan dove headlong into the churning surf. The smack of cold water against his face and chest sobered him as he pinwheeled his arms through the strong current toward the struggling swimmer.

Where did he go? Jonathan eased up to get his bearings, dogpaddling around and looking for the man. He called out, “Can you hear me? I’m here to help.” He swiveled his head back and forth, searching for the swimmer.

I’ve gone too far, he thought. Jonathan whipped around, turning back toward the beach. The cottage stood farther up the beach than his current position. Fearing the swimmer had disappeared beneath the surface, Jonathan ducked below the water and aimed his body deep, opening his eyes to take a quick peek. The sting of the saltwater forced his lids shut and he retreated.

Jonathan angled his body upward and kicked his feet hard against the strong current. Reaching the surface proved elusive, as the undertow sucked him down. Disoriented and terrified, his lungs begging for air, Jonathan clawed at the wall of seawater to no avail. No matter where he aimed, he couldn’t find the surface. The harder he fought the farther down he sank. Desperate for oxygen, his heart pounding, Jonathan’s life flashed before him.

Is this it? Am I doomed to be another tragic drowning?

Jonathan drifted into a quiet calm from lack of air, his thoughts a random jumble. Why had he charged forth in the first place, foolish considering all the alcohol? What about Paul? Would he be stunned to learn of his death, perhaps feel guilty about refusing to join him sooner? Would his family ever forgive his carelessness?

His chest compressed, expressing the last bit of air from his lungs. He wrestled an onslaught of convulsions as brackish seawater invaded his nose and mouth, his lungs. Arms and legs became lead. He lashed out, each stroke pulling him down until he settled on the ocean floor.

The undertow snatched him away as his awareness waned. He reached out in a futile attempt to right himself but grasped onto something slick and supple instead. His fingers slid over the soft object.

Huh?

Something large and powerful slammed into him from behind. He felt an incredible tug against his body, a whoosh that snapped him back like a bungee cord before he blacked out.

Tybee Beach2

 

Releasing Tuesday, December 1, 2015 via All Romance ebooks, Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, and other fine e-tailers.

www.jonmichaelsen.net

 

Excerpt: Avenged to Death: A Jamie Brodie Mystery by Meg Perry

Avenged to Death: A Jamie Brodie Mystery

by Meg Perry

Blurb:

Who is Randall Chesterson Barkley, and why has he named Jamie Brodie and his brothers in his will? The answer to that question leads Jamie to another answer: the story of what really happened to his mom. Then two murders throw Jamie, Kevin and Jeff into an investigation that uncovers more secrets from the past – and forces Jamie into a decision where there is no option for a happy ending.

Excerpt:

November 19, 1980

DEL MAR – A fatal crash on I-5 late last night took the lives of two women and seriously injured three others. Tracy Jemison, 34, of Camp Pendleton, and Julie Brodie, 30, of Oceanside, were killed instantly when Jemison’s Toyota Corolla was struck head on at high speed by a Ford Mustang traveling south in the northbound lane. Two passengers in the back seat of the Corolla, Belinda Marcus, 33, and Marie Crabtree, 34, both of Camp Pendleton, were airlifted to UCSD Medical Center after being cut out of the vehicle. Both are in critical condition.
The driver of the Mustang was identified as Gavin Barkley, 20, of La Jolla. He and his passenger, Kate Bianchi, 19, of Chula Vista, were also transported to UCSD Medical Center. Barkley sustained a chest injury and is in fair condition. Bianchi was not wearing a seatbelt and was thrown through the windshield of the Mustang on impact. She sustained severe head injuries and is in grave condition.
A California Highway Patrol officer at the scene said that the headlights on Barkley’s car were not on. The investigation is ongoing, but preliminary findings indicate that Barkley drove the wrong way up the off-ramp at the Del Mar Heights Rd. exit and struck Jemison’s vehicle in the right lane.
Barkley’s blood alcohol content at the time of the crash was 0.28%, nearly three times the legal limit.
The 5 northbound is still closed between the SR56 and Del Mar Heights Rd. exits and is expected to reopen by 10:00 am today.

Monday, March 30

“Dr. Brodie? I have a registered letter for you.”
I looked up from my desk. Rick, our mailroom guy, was standing in my office doorway with an envelope.
“No kidding.” This was a first. I signed Rick’s clipboard and took the envelope from him. It was heavy stock, thick with pages, creamy white in color. “What the heck is it?”
“Dunno.” Rick took his clipboard back. “Have a good day.”
I leaned against the door frame as I studied the envelope.
Jeremy D. Brodie, D.Phil.
Charles E. Young Research Library
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA 90095
I recognized the return address as downtown San Diego. The sender sounded like a law firm: Smith, Hendrickson, Delio and Franklin, LLC.
I went next door to Liz Nguyen’s office and waved the envelope at her. “I got a registered letter.”
“Who from?”
“It looks like a law firm.”
“It looks like? Open it, ya goof.” She handed me her letter opener.
I slit the envelope and removed the pages inside. “It’s a will.”

LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT
OF
RANDALL CHESTERSON BARKLEY

I, Randall Chesterson Barkley, now residing in the County of San Diego, State of California, and being of sound mind and memory and not acting under fraud, menace, duress or the undue influence of any person whomsoever, do hereby make, publish and declare this to be my Last Will and Testament, and hereby expressly revoke any and all former wills and codicils to wills heretofore made by me…

A lot of legalese followed. I flipped through the pages. “Who the hell is Randall Chesterson Barkley?”
Liz stood and looked over my shoulder. “You don’t know?”
“Never heard of him.”
“The lawyers are in San Diego – is it someone you knew as a kid?”
“Not that I remember. And even if it was, why have they sent me his will?”
Liz went back to her computer and opened UCLA’s database page. “Maybe his obituary was in the San Diego paper.”
“Maybe.” I went to look over her shoulder.
It didn’t take her long to find it.
Randall Chesterson Barkley, 85, passed away February 16, 2014, after a long illness. Mr. Barkley was a native of San Diego, a graduate of Stanford University, and the founder of Zaltu Inc. He was predeceased by his wife of forty-two years, Jeanette Cordelia Graham Barkley. There are no other survivors. In lieu of flowers, please donate to Hospice.

I said, “He died over a year ago.”
Liz said, “His name doesn’t ring any bells? He wasn’t your Little League coach or anything?”
“Nope.”
“Maybe your dad knows.” Liz gathered some papers. “I’ve got to lead a research session. Let me know.”
“I will.” I went back to my office to get my phone, and found a text from my brother Kevin. “You free? Call me.”
I called. “What’s up?”
“I got something odd in the mail today, delivered to the station.”
“A copy of the will of Randall Chesterson Barkley, whoever the hell that is?”
“Yeah. You don’t recognize that name?”
“No. Do you?”
“Nope.”
“Liz suggested that Dad might know.”
“Good idea. Do you have time to call him? Jon and I are about to head out to a scene.”
“Yeah, I’ll call.”
“Text me.”
“I will.”
I closed my office door and called my dad. When he answered it sounded like he was outside. “Hey, Dad. Whatcha doin’?”
“I’m at the beach with Colin. We’re taking pictures of plants.”
“Ah.” My nephew Colin was being homeschooled through middle school by his parents, my brother Jeff and sister-in-law Valerie. My dad, retired from the Marine Corps, helped out frequently with the field work. “I just have a quick question.”
“What’s up?”
I explained. “Does the name Randall Chesterson Barkley mean anything to you?”
Dead silence. I began to think my phone had dropped the call. “Dad?”
He said softly, “Randall Barkley was the father of the man who killed your mom.”

I sucked in my breath. “Holy shit.”
Another moment of silence. I could hear Colin’s voice in the background, telling my dad something. Dad said, “I’ll call you tonight. You going to be home?”
“Yeah.”
“Okay. Talk to you then.”
Holy fucking shit. The man whose son had caused the fatal car crash that killed my mom – and Kevin and I had a copy of his will? I flipped through the pages again. and something caught my eye.
My own name.

I hereby give, or devise and bequeath all of my property and estate, both real and personal, and wheresoever or howsoever situated, or to which I may be entitled at the time of my death, to be divided into equal shares, among the following:

Jeffrey David Brodie
Kevin Cole Brodie
Jeremy Douglas Brodie
Alexandra Colleen Crabtree
Asher Finn Crabtree
Drew Harris Jemison
Jennifer Louisa Jemison McCune
Joshua William Marcus
Karen Elizabeth Marcus Fornari
Jenelle Renae Shifflett

AvengetoDeath

Who were these other people? I knew my mom had been with some of her friends the night she was killed. I looked at the other names – Crabtree, Jemison, Marcus, Shifflett – but didn’t recognize them.
Were they the children of my mom’s friends?
I flipped through the rest of the will, but there was no mention of anyone else. Randall Barkley’s wife had died before him; there were no other survivors, according to the obituary.
What happened to his son?
I had never heard of Zaltu, Inc. I looked it up online – and nearly fell out of my chair.
Randall Barkley had founded Zaltu, Inc., a software company that wrote code for military satellites, in 1973. The company had done well during the Cold War, stagnated in the 1990s, then took off again after 9/11. In 2003 Barkley sold the company  to Lockheed Martin for $600 million.
I blinked and shook my head to make sure I was seeing that figure right.
Six hundred million dollars.
There were ten names on the list of heirs.
Sixty million dollars apiece.
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I grabbed my inhaler and took a puff.
Then I called my friend – my attorney – Melanie Hayes.
Mel was in court; I left a message with Sunny, the firm’s legal secretary. I texted Kevin – It’s complicated, call me – then called my fiance, Pete. His phone went straight to voicemail. Shit. I wanted someone to talk to now. I glanced at the clock; he should be doing office hours. I took a chance and dialed his office number.
He sounded warm but professional. “Psychology department, Dr. Ferguson.”
“Hey.”
His voice brightened considerably. “Hey, yourself. What’s up?”
“I tried your cell but it’s off.”
“Yeah, I’ve got office hours, but there’s no one here. You okay? You sound short of breath.”
“I am short of breath. I think I may have just inherited sixty million dollars.”
He laughed. “Good one. What are you all smoking over there?”
“I’m serious.” I told him about the will. “Six hundred million, divided ten ways. I don’t – I can’t – it’s not -”
“Good God. Did you call Mel?”
“Had to leave a message.”
“Okay. Let’s not get excited until she finds out what this is all about.”
“It looks like a legal will.”
“Yeah, but he may have spent his fortune down to nothing. Don’t start buying up waterfront property just yet.”
“I won’t.”

When I met Liz at the research desk for our 1:00 shift, she said, “Did your dad know what that will was about?”
I lowered my voice and told her. When I got to the $600 million part, she breathed, “Holy shit.”
“My exact words. But that was years ago. He may have spent it all.”
Liz disagreed. “Nah. A guy like that, who built a business from the ground up? He hasn’t spent it all. He worked too hard to make it.”
“Why would he leave it to us, though?”
She shrugged, as if the answer was obvious. “Guilt.”
I said, “Don’t tell anyone. If it is a lot of money, I don’t want people here to know. At least not yet.”
“I won’t.” She was nearly whispering now. “Will you quit your job?”
“It’s way too early to be thinking in those terms.”
Someone cleared his throat; I looked up to see Clinton Kenneally standing before us. Liz said, “Oh, sorry. Hi, Clinton.”
He bestowed a gentle smile on us. “Good afternoon, Ms. Nguyen, Dr. Brodie. The word of the day is manumit.” He bowed and walked away.
I opened an online dictionary and found the definition. “To free from slavery.”
Liz said, “With sixty million dollars, you’d be pretty damn free.”

I had just stepped onto the bus, on my way home, when Mel called back. “Hey, Jamie. What’s up?”
I told her about the will. “This can’t be real, can it?”
“I’ll find out. Let me call the law firm right now.”
She called me back as I was walking from the bus stop to the townhouse that I owned with Pete. “I spoke to the senior partner’s paralegal. The will is legitimate and has cleared probate, so the assets will be distributed soon.”
“Who are the other people?”
“The paralegal didn’t have any other information. Apparently old man Barkley only did business with Gordon Smith himself.” I heard voices in the background. “My next client’s here. I’ll talk to you later.”

After dinner I was placing the last dish in the drainer when my dad called. “Hey, sport. Sorry I couldn’t talk earlier.”
“Oh, it’s fine. I called Mel.” I recounted my conversation with her. “I wondered if the other names on the list might be the children of Mom’s friends?”
“What were the names?”
“The last names were Crabtree, Jemison, Marcus, and Shifflett.”
“Marie Crabtree, Tracy Jemison, and Belinda Marcus were your mom’s friends. I don’t recognize the name Shifflett.”
“Were they all killed?”
“No. Tracy was. She was driving and your mom was in the front seat. Belinda was paralyzed from the neck down. Marie broke both legs and nearly bled to death, but she recovered eventually.”
“Have you kept in touch with them?”
My dad’s voice was heavy. “No. I tried, but…” He trailed off.
I said softly, “It was too hard.”
“Yeah.”
“Liz and I looked up the old man’s obituary. It said he had no survivors. What happened to his son?”
“As far as I know he’s still in jail, but I haven’t kept track. I suppose he could have died in prison.”
“How old would he be now?”
Dad paused to do a quick calculation. “Fifty-four.”
“Why would Barkley leave his money to us?”
“I have no idea. He spent enough of it defending his son at trial – I don’t know why he’d leave it to you all now.”
“Dad… What happened?”
He sighed. “Barkley – Gavin Barkley, the son – was driving so drunk he could barely stand, according to the friends at the party he’d just left. He drove the wrong way up the off ramp at the Del Mar Road exit with his lights off and hit Tracy’s car head on at full speed. She never had a chance to put on the brakes.”
I took in a deep breath and blew it out. “Was Gavin even injured?”
“He bruised his heart and broke some ribs, but he recovered pretty quickly. His girlfriend didn’t have her seatbelt on, and went through his windshield. She had a severe head injury and ended up in a permanent vegetative state.”
“How did it even go to trial?”
“The kid pled not guilty. Old man Barkley paid for the best defense attorneys. He had a whole team. It looked for a while like the kid might get off.”
“What happened?”
“The prosecutor started bringing us in. Marie was still in a wheelchair at the time, and she testified first. Then Tracy’s husband, Tony, brought his kids in. They were a few years older than you all, and the prosecutor put Drew – the oldest – on the stand. Then he asked me to bring you guys to court.”
“Why? We were so little.”
“That’s why. So the jury could see what Barkley had done. I dressed you three so you matched, in little khaki shorts and blue polo shirts. Dad came with me. I carried you and held Jeff’s hand, and Dad carried Kevin. When they saw you, everyone in the courtroom went ‘ohhhh’ at the same time.”
“Did you testify?”
“Only at the sentencing phase.”
“Did the paralyzed lady testify?”
“Belinda. She sure did. She was still in a halo, but she could speak just fine. Then the girlfriend’s parents brought her in, and that was the last straw for the jury. They were nearly all crying.” Another sigh. “It was brutal, what the prosecutor did, but it worked. The jury recommended the maximum sentence on all counts, and that’s what the judge gave him.”
“Good.”
My dad barked a laugh. “Yeah. It was.”
“Are the other families still in town?”
“I don’t know. Do you want me to find out?”
“No, no.” I’d find out some other way. I didn’t want to put my dad through anything more. “I’m sorry to ask you all these questions.”
“It’s okay. You have a right to know what happened.”
“I’ve always been afraid to ask.”
I could hear the smile in my dad’s voice. “I know, sport.”

I spent the rest of the evening on the phone – first with Jeff and Kevin, repeating all the information I’d gathered. Jeff was dismissive of the will. “There’s no way the old guy would leave us all that money. I bet he left the bulk of it to some charity and we each get a token amount.”
“I don’t know… I didn’t see any charities listed.”
Jeff made a “pah” sound. “We’ll see. I guarantee, he tossed some pittance our way to assuage his guilty conscience.”
“Maybe. But hell, someone dumps a couple of thousand bucks in my lap, I’m not turning it down.”
He just snorted.
When I called Kevin he said, “Gavin Barkley, huh? I can find out if he’s still in jail.”
“Will you? I’d like to know.”
“Sure. I’d like to know too.”
“Jeff thinks there must be a catch. We won’t get that much.”
“Nah. I know how to read legal documents now, remember?” Kevin had just completed a year of paralegal training and earned his certificate; he worked for Mel on the side. “I read every word of that will this afternoon. There are no other beneficiaries. The only question is, how big is the estate?”
I said, “I sure would like to find that out.”
“So would I.”
My last conversation of the evening was with my friend Ali’s dad, Charlie Fortner. Charlie and my dad had worked together at Pendleton for years, until Dad retired in 2002. Charlie had finally retired a few years ago. He and Ali’s mom still lived in the same house where Ali and her sister Lauren had grown up, only a half mile from my dad’s place.
I’d spent almost as much time at the Fortners’ growing up as I had at my own house. Ali’s parents had held out hope that Ali and I might end up together, until Ali and I both came out to them in high school. After their initial shock they’d accepted the news, and I’d stayed close to Ali’s parents.
I wasn’t sure the Fortners would be home. They spent about half the year in their RV, traveling all over the US and Canada. But I got lucky.
Charlie answered the phone. I said, “Hey, Mr. Fortner, it’s Jamie.”
“Jamie! How are you?”
“Fine, sir, thanks. I’m surprised to find you home. I thought you might be someplace more interesting.”
He laughed. “Nah, had to come home and refuel. What’s up?”
“How hard would it be for you to find out if three men who served at Pendleton are still in town?”
“Not hard at all. I’ve got a friend in personnel at the base. But your dad could find out as easily as I could.”
“I know, but I don’t want to ask him. And I don’t actually know the names of the Marines themselves, just their wives.”
“Okay, you’ve got my curiosity up. What are the names?”
“Belinda Marcus, Marie Crabtree and Tracy Jemison.”
Charlie was quiet for a moment. “Ah. I see why you don’t want to ask your dad.”
“He’s the one who gave me their names, but I figured that was enough.”
“Sure.” It sounded like Charlie was looking for a pen. “I didn’t know any of the husbands myself, but my buddy in personnel has been there forever. He’ll know.”
“Thanks, Mr. Fortner. I appreciate it.”
“No problem, son. I’ll let you know what I find out.”
I tossed the phone onto the sofa and blew out a breath. Pete glanced up at me from his laptop. “Find out anything?”
“Just that Kevin read the entire will and there are no other beneficiaries.”
“Jeff doesn’t think it’s real?”
“He’s skeptical. I have to admit, so am I.”
“Why?”
I considered. “It just doesn’t seem possible. It’s too unreal.”
“It’s certainly out of the bounds of normal.”
“You can say that again.”
He grinned. “It’s certainly out of the bounds of normal.”
“Ha ha.” I pulled off one of my socks and threw it at him; it came to rest, draped nicely over his computer screen. “What are you doing?”
“Grading.” He picked my sock off his computer and tossed it to the floor.
I looked around the room. We were in our office, which also served in a pinch as a guest bedroom. Pete was at the long, narrow table that served as our desk, at “his” end, the lamp casting a warm glow on his dark brown hair. Behind him, the mahogany finish on a wall of built-in bookshelves and cabinets reflected the light. I was sprawled on the cushy leather sofa which opened into an incredibly comfortable bed.
We’d completely remodeled this room about a year ago, and had been delighted with the results. I said, “I love this room.”
“Mm. Me too.”
“If this inheritance ends up being just a few thousand dollars, even, we should remodel our bathroom.”
He glanced up at me again. “If that’s how you want to use the money.”
“Hey, it’s a joint decision, right?”
He gave me a look. “That’s not what you said when I was trying to convince you that you could share my salary.”
Pete made significantly more money than I did. I’d been teaching classes as an adjunct in the history department to make up the difference. “Salary is different. This is a one-time thing. What would I use it on for myself?”
“You could get a car.” We’d been living with one vehicle, Pete’s 1998 Jeep Cherokee.
“I don’t want a car. I want a walk-in shower.”
He turned back to his laptop, an indulgent smile on his face. “You probably shouldn’t speculate until you find out how much money’s involved.”
“I know.” I took off my other sock and threw it at him; this time it landed right on his keyboard. “Are you about done?”
“Good God. I’m gonna have to sterilize this laptop.” He tossed my second sock after the first.
“I thought you liked my feet.”
He leered at me over the rim of the screen. “I like other parts better.”
“Uh huh. Like I said, are you about done? Or do I have to throw my tighty whities over there?”
He grinned and closed the laptop.

Mnevermind Trilogy – Excerpt: The Persistence of Memory by Jordan Castillo Price

Excerpt from Mnevermind 1: The Persistence of Memory
by
Jordan Castillo Price
Mnevermind Trilogy
1: The Persistence of Memory
2: Forget Me Not
3: Life is Awesome
Summary

Every day, Daniel Schroeder breaks his father’s heart.

While forgetting your problems won’t solve them, it does seem like it would make life a heck of a lot easier. Daniel thought so once. Now he knows better. He and Big Dan have always been close, which makes it all the more difficult to break the daily news: the last five years were nothing like his father remembers.

They’re both professionals in the memory field—they even run their own memory palace. So shouldn’t they be able to figure out a way to overwrite the persistent false memory that’s wreaking havoc on both of their lives? Daniel thought he was holding it together, but the situation seems to be sliding out of control. Now even his own equipment has turned against him, reminding him he hasn’t had a date in ages by taunting him with flashes of an elusive man in black that only he can see.

Is it some quirk of the circuitry, or is Daniel headed down the same path to fantasy-land as his old man?

Chapter 1

Notes rang through the building…but not the sort you’d expect, given the concert hall, and the stage, and the humongous grand piano.

Chopsticks.

Not even the whole song. Only that first chord. Over. And over.

And over.

Already, it felt like a jackhammer to the base of my skull. I’d only just shown up to collect her—imagine the torture if I’d been riding along with the client the whole time. Since I’m just a mnemographer, a lowly thought sherpa, it’s not my job to hand-hold them through their entire four-hour neural adventure. The mnems I run at Adventuretech are quick-fade prefab packets for entertainment purposes only. My objective? Get in, get out, and get on with my life.

Now if only I could unhear that damn water torture of a chord.

The budding pianist on the stage was Sophie Wolinski, age 54. Her objective? To succeed at something. Not now, of course. Everyone knows that for the flap of a butterfly’s wings to cause a tidal wave, it needs to have happened back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. In Sophie’s case, that appeared to be around the age of twelve or thirteen.

I’d tapped in at the back corner of the concert hall. The red velvet curtains framing the stage had substance and volume—but only the parts that faced Sophie. From where I currently stood, the surfaces she couldn’t see were completely flat. I made my way up the aisle. The two-note chord kept plinking away, never varying in volume or rhythm as she labored over the piano keys. It was tempting to plug my ears, though it wouldn’t do me any good. I wasn’t actually hearing the notes—I was simply picking up on her manufactured memory of striking them—though I did have ears. Despite the fact that I’d been guiding people through mnems as long as we’ve had the shop, I still showed up in mnem as myself: Daniel Schroeder, and not a disembodied brain or a point of light. A shrink could probably read something into it. I liked to think it was because I had a healthy self-image.

I retained quite a bit of myself in mnem, since my physical body was relaxed, but still conscious. More of my gray matter was firing; this presence of mind was the thing that allowed me to see all the flaws beneath the fantasy veneer in a way the clients never did.

The audience didn’t seem to notice the fact that Sophie’s concert sucked, either. I stole a quick glance at the packed house. “All men” was my first thought—and given the fact that I’d had nothing to do with men since my last guy ditched me, ostensibly because my stubble annoyed him (Jesus, Daniel, would it kill you to shave once in a while?) I couldn’t help but check them out. Yeah, they’d be creepy. Mnem populations always were. Not to the client, of course—the cast of characters was made up of their memories, after all. But to outsiders, like me…waaaay creepy.

mnevermind-600

Sophie’s audience didn’t disappoint.

The men’s faces were clear enough, which wasn’t always the case. But as I looked from one to the next to the next, I realized each one was actually the same face. Bland. Doughy. Not much by way of a chin. Hardly the stuff of fantasies—which only made sense. My shop provided the fantasy elements—in this particular instance, the concert hall. Sophie’s cortex supplied the rest.

Bland Man in a suit. Bland Man in a Hawaiian shirt. Bland Man in a fishing hat. Bland Man in pajamas. Bland Man naked? Hey, I’m only human, I can’t help but checking—and nudity is one of those things that tends to make a pretty big impression on people’s memories. But no, there were no naked Bland Mans that I could pick out from the rows upon rows in the audience, dozens of him in all. Different iterations, but the same expression. Deep, profound, unflinching concentration…all of it focused on Sophie.

I thought about retrieving Sophie, and in the way of mnems, found myself at the foot of the stairs at the opposite end of the concert hall. I mounted the stairs and approached. Sophie hammered away at the world’s most annoying chord. It would be satisfying to grab her by the wrists, force her fingers into the keyboard, and say, “Play…something…else!” But, no. Although I was only a guide, a ghost in the machine, there was always the chance she’d kinda-sorta hear me, or at least the feedback my hissy fit would produce. And then she’d feel vaguely dissatisfied with her mnem experience. She might not know why. But a sneaking suspicion that something about the mnem hadn’t lived up to her expectations was the only thing she would take away, and I couldn’t afford to leave her with a bad impression.

Like I had outside of mnem with the guy who ostensibly didn’t like my stubble.

I paused beside the piano bench and looked at Sophie’s hands. They crawled over the keyboard like a concert pianist’s, even though the only thing coming out was a two-note chord. A good memorysmith would have included a hint of musical inspiration in the packet for the client’s mind to interpret and use. But we’d picked up this year’s packets secondhand from some Serbian guys selling them off the back of a truck, and though they were perfectly safe, they were also fairly lame.

Sophie wasn’t trying to learn the piano in one sedated afternoon, anyhow. Judging by the faces (or the single face) in the audience, she’d come to gain the approval of Dear Old Dad. Or at least the memory of that feeling of pride.

I scanned the stage, looking for signs of wear, hoping we could squeak another month out of the mnem packet, and doing my best not to dwell on how quickly my well-regarded shop was now tanking. Once upon a time, our mnems were good. But now…. The lower edge of the curtains faded from red to a sort of non-color, artifacts that only got worse every time I played it. At least the overhead lighting still looked good. The hardwood floor, too. And the seating…oh.

In the leftmost seat of the front row, one member of the audience drew my attention, probably because he wasn’t sitting in the same position as all the other Bland Mans.

And probably because he was so…hot. Especially for someone populating the memory of a fifty-something woman.

Maybe he was her son.

Oh yeah, she’d never married or had kids. Part of the Daddy-issues. Okay. Maybe a nephew. A hot nephew, dressed all in black, with dark hair, and spectacular cheekbones.

He had a casually elegant vibe about him, stark and pale. He looked young, maybe thirty or so. Chances were, in the real world, he might be fifty-something himself nowadays, depending on when the client had met him and which parts of her long-term memory she was dredging him up from. Or maybe she’d never met him at all. Maybe he was some actor from a bit-part in her favorite movie. Maybe she’d just seen him in an ad that she looked at a moment too long, an ad that featured a bunch of “cool” young people doing something that wasn’t particularly cool in hopes that someone cool might actually patronize the business. Which wouldn’t be a bad idea for an ad campaign for Adventuretech, which was almost crappy enough to be edgy. Unfortunately, chances were I wouldn’t remember my ad idea…and that was fine. We didn’t have the budget for a new TV spot anyway.

I turned back to the client before that single chord drilled a hole in my skull. “Okay, Ms. Wolinski. Time to go.” Earlier, when I’d ushered her in, I’d planted the exit peg close at hand. I grasped the top of the grand piano and pried it all the way open, and there among the inner workings of the huge instrument, among the hammers and the strings that should have been in motion (but weren’t) the red metal spike protruded from the spruce, exactly where I’d left it. It glinted and pulsed, throbbing like a heartbeat, in time with the client’s physical pulse. It looked as if a buff and sweaty blacksmith had just pulled it from the forge, glowing hot, and driven it there in the middle of a bunch of otherwise mundane memories. Once upon a time, I would have been scared to even touch it for fear of it scorching the skin of my palm.

But in that not-quite-right way of other people’s memories, the exit peg, when I closed my hand around it, felt like nothing at all.

Since I’ve been doing this for so long, I know better. It wasn’t physically there. But it was real—I’d set it myself. I reassured myself for the umpteenth time that the exit peg did exist…and I pulled.

A quick glance over my shoulder as I strained to end the mnem—you’d swear the fancy guy in black was looking right at me. Then again, since I was standing between him and starlet of the show, everybody else on that end of the row seemed to have his eyes on me too. The peg held fast, wiggled, then tore free. I felt something like the clunk of a circuit breaker, and all at once, the memory dissolved. We swirled around a few times, a nauseating merry-go-round of red curtains, white lights and black piano. It should have been smoother. But every time I pulled the peg, the exit was just a bit more logy.

It was probably time to retire Setting the Stage for Success. But then we couldn’t advertise “Over twenty exciting mnems to choose from.” That “exciting” part was already stretching it pretty thin…it wouldn’t do to lose mnem number twenty-one.

I groaned and felt the uncomfortable bulge of the creaky lumbar chair that couldn’t quite hold its supportive position anywhere useful on my back, and I took a few deep, anchoring breaths. My first move, before I was even fully alert, was to peel off my sweaty headgear. The array of electrical connections distributed over the scalp was held in place by an unflattering silicon cap. Long, tangled strands connected its sensors to a receiver antenna, where the low frequency signal from the mnem machine was amplified to tickle the neurons. When the cap wasn’t being worn, lying on the countertop minding its own business, it looked like a beached rubber jellyfish—a robotic man-o-war.

Eyes still closed, I turned the cap around in my hands a few times, finding little jabs where the electrodes had snagged my hair, and told my co-worker, “The curtains in that packet are getting shabby,” before I forgot. Carlotta wouldn’t do anything about them herself—her job was to make sure everyone was still breathing—but speaking the words aloud would shift them to my active memory. “And there was this hot guy in the front row. You think Ms. Wolinski has a nephew?”

Light flashed into my eye as Carlotta thumbed back my eyelid to check my pupil, and her round face filled my field of vision. “How long you been single now?”

I mumbled something that wasn’t actually a word.

“A year, I bet. Unless you count that guy who always looked like his necktie was too tight.” The one who ostensibly hated my stubble. Right. “Why don’t you do like everyone else who works at a memory palace and whip yourself up a memory man?”

“Let’s see.” I sat up, snapped my fingers, and said, “Oh, gee, I know. Maybe because he wouldn’t be real?”

Carlotta ignored me. She’s good at that. “Get with your memory man a few times, you’ll find the confidence to put yourself out there again—for real. Like you used to.”

“Confidence is one of those things people take for granted.” At least until they crash and burn.

“Then just pretend you’re confident. It’s all about the attitude.”

She should know. Her three-hundred-pound badass black self was all about the attitude. “I don’t have time for dating anyway,” I said. “When would I date? I’m working two jobs as it is.”

“Hmph,” she replied. Which meant, “I’m right and you’re wrong, but I can tell you’re too stubborn to admit it.” And could also be said around a mouthful of fries. “Most people don’t consider dating to be a job. Besides, who says you need to date a man? Just sleep with ’em. That’s what I do.” She took my pulse, which excused me from having to discuss anybody sleeping with anybody, and then said, “Okay, Daniel, you’re about as normal as you ever are.”

I peered around Carlotta, through the session room door. The office where Aunt Pipsie watched TV all day while she fielded the occasional phone call was dark, lit only by the lambent glow of the keypad of the multi-line phone. I glanced up at the clock—almost five thirty. “Is that right?”

“What do you think, I’m moving the clocks up so I can go home early?”

“Um…are you?”

“Puh-lease. If I was, would I go announcing it to you? Besides, if I did change that time, I’d need to show up earlier tomorrow morning or else you’d dock me for being late.”

I don’t actually dock her for being late. I just threaten to. I figure that since I’m now the manager, it’s expected of me. “I gotta go.” I stood up and threw on my coat, a green canvas army jacket that’d been my dad’s in Nam. Most of the cigarette burns were his. Most of the wear and tear, mine. “Are all the clients discharged?”

“All but Miz Wolinski. And she’ll be a little groggy yet since you kept her in so long. Her ride’s waiting in the lobby.”

“I didn’t think I…” I looked at the clock again. “How long was I in?”

“About an hour.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. I was sitting right here the whole time.”

“All I did was go in, pull the peg, and get right back out.”

Carlotta popped the packet out of the mnem machine and studied it with an exaggerated frown. “Maybe you hit a lag when you were looking at the curtains.”

“I don’t know. Never mind, it doesn’t matter. Just…tell Aunt Pipsie to steer the customers away from that title, if they ask.”

“You gonna replace it?”

“You know where I can find an extra five grand sitting around?”

She primped her fastidiously-straightened hair and said, “Well it better not be out of my Christmas bonus.”

I gave a dry “ha-ha” and let myself out the back door into the rapidly plummeting December chill. Christmas bonus. Right.

Yet another thing I couldn’t afford.

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