Saturday, May 14, 2011

Our Friday Feature Collaboration In It's Entirety

If you miss our Feature Friday Astraea Press collaboration of the last few weeks. Here is our amazing collective body of work from authors specializing in genres from inspirational to paranormal. Now all we need is a title....leave suggestions in the comments.

 Llama, dating, waterfall

The house looked like half of a bleached orange, placed juicy side down in the shadow of a long, sloping hill. Detective Elleanor Sharpe slammed the door of her rental car, leaned against its hot metal, and kept staring. A geodesic dome, the guy at the gas station had called it as he’d given her directions, his chest thrust out as if proud he’d mastered the term. She’d caught him reading a Scooby Doo comic book, so he hadn’t mastered much else.

Grasslands and cacti faded into the distance in all directions, sliced through by the state road and caliche driveway, punctuated by lazy pump jacks, and weathered, leaning shacks. To the west, looming mesas shimmered in the heat haze. Behind the dome, a flock of sheep hid in the fold of a ravine, the hillside shading them from the afternoon sun. The sky was too dry and washed-out for even the wispiest of clouds.

Well, this Dallas detective might not be from flyover country. But she knew enough to wear a light cotton shirt with heavy trousers and boots against the cacti and scorpions, a cowboy hat and Maui Jims against the sun. Even so, as she climbed the cut-out steps from the parking area, sweeping across a broad swathe of the south-facing slope, she could feel sweat pooling between her breasts and sliding down her spine.

If this wasn’t a murder investigation, she’d never be caught in such a place. It seemed so barren, so naked—no garden, no handrail, no trees, and no shade, unless you were willing to argue with the sheep. And the smell wafting from the ravine was enough to convince her against that.

One animal, on the edge of the flock, suddenly rose, staring at her. Ellea slowed on the steps, staring back. That thing was far too tall to be a sheep. Besides, it was the wrong color—spotted black and white, more like a long-necked, awkward horse with flat feet and a hippie haircut. And it stared as if she had a run in her stockings or a pimple on her nose.

Suddenly it screamed, an angry, braying honk, and charged down the slope toward the stairs. Ellea jumped, tripped over the next step, and sat down hard. Her hat slid down over her eyes. But she didn’t need to see that thing, because she could hear it, braying like a burro on steroids, big feet galumphing across the hillside. At this range, she could feel and smell it.

What was it? Would it kick her? step on her? bite her? Forget it, these were new clothes, and she didn’t want to know. Ellea scrabbled to her feet and raced up the last few steps—straight into the chest of a real cowboy.

Strong arms closed about her, took her weight, guided her scrambling steps in a half-circle, and parked her behind his Wranglers. “Satan!” he yelled over his shoulder. “You stop right where you are, you devil!”

Panting, Ellea made sure her Walther PPK was secure in her hidden front holster, and then peered around one soft denim shirtsleeve; she didn’t have a hope of seeing over that six-foot-plus shoulder.

A long, narrow, camel-like head peered back, just peeking over the last step, atop a long, narrow, shaggy neck. The animal’s face was white with a black nose, naked as a rat’s pelt but with a wild shag of rough hair sprouting over its eyes. Fluffy ears waggled, flipped back.

“Guard llama.” The cowboy shrugged. “Takes his job seriously.”

Satan gargled at her, like a camel, lips drawing back from big yellow teeth.

“What does he do with those teeth?” Ellea asked.

“Whatever he wants.” The cowboy waved one arm. “Go on, get back to work.”

With one last forlorn gargle, Satan lumbered down the steps to the slope and returned to the sheep. None of them had budged from the shade.

Crikey, what an entrance. If this tall tale made it back to Dallas, she’d never hear the end of it. Besides, she’d sat on those dusty steps and had to be a mess. Ellea brushed at her behind. But the cowboy’s eyes, steel-colored and sharp as barbed wire, followed her swiping hands with a gleam. Not good. She stopped and straightened before she made herself look even sillier.

“Mr. Carmichael?” she said. “Thaddeus Carmichael?”

He winced. A fan of brown hair, shades darker than the sandstone caliche of his roadway, drifted down over his high forehead. Carmichael combed it back with a long-fingered hand that was surprisingly gentle and precise. “That’s me. You the detective?”

“Elleanor Sharpe, Dallas Police.” She dragged the ID wallet from her hip pocket and flashed it. His eyes followed the motion, squinted at the badge and photo, flickered to her face, and then relaxed as he nodded. Ellea felt her shoulders loosen, too; the guilty ones usually tensed at sight of the badge. It was a good sign. “Can we talk inside?”

The door was plain, steel with a kickplate at the bottom, and painted the same shade of eggshell as the pebbled concrete of the geodesic dome. But on either side, narrow inset panels of stained glass sparkled with leaded glitter. They seemed an oddly decorative touch on an otherwise plain residence—there wasn’t even a knocker on the door, nor a pot plant on the flagstoned stoop—but the doorknob was matte brass. Maybe it was civilized inside, at least air-conditioned. She followed him through the door, watching his broad shoulders for possible wrong moves.

A mass of humid, heavy-scented air flowed over her, as if she stepped, not into a high plains Texas ranch house, but into a languid tropical jungle. Water flowed, a steady fluid sound. Carmichael stepped aside to close the door behind her and as his big frame moved and exposed the view, Ellea gasped. The dome’s interior was huge; a big open shell lit by skylights, and down the center of it thundered a waterfall. It poured from a granite ledge, level with the balcony of the second floor, splashing over a pile of glistening white rocks into a shallow pool edged with quarried stones and dotted with water lilies. White and yellow Bourbon vanilla orchids bloomed on wooden trellises, brilliant in the sunlight.

“Wow.” Ellea paused for another deep breath. The air smelled good enough to bite. “Just wow.”

Carmichael’s narrow lips curved in a shy smile. “Like it?”

She wanted to gush like a teenager. But she stopped herself in time. Her years in college and the Academy hadn’t created a fool, and she was in Pecos on business, not the undeniable pleasure she felt relaxing the last tension from her shoulders. And this was a murder investigation, the most serious of her career.

But she couldn’t dam up all she felt. “It’s truly beautiful.”

“Thank you.” Carmichael crossed to a glass and metal table, nestled beneath the vanilla orchids. “We’ll sit here. Can I get you something cool? Iced tea?”

Through the shiny leaves, she saw a small and ordinary kitchen. “Sure.”

Ellea sat, drinking in the tropical languor and listening to the little clinks and rattles audible beneath the waterfall’s splashing. She’d expected—shoot, she didn’t know what she’d expected, a drab doublewide trailer huddled beneath an empty mesa, perhaps, or a hunting cabin with outdoor plumbing. This casual elegance had her so off-balance, she was forgetting the reason she’d come. And that wouldn’t do at all.

Especially if she wasn’t satisfied with his story. Thaddeus Carmichael, “Deuce” to his friends, was one of those casual Texas millionaires whose lifestyle, according to the press he routinely snubbed, didn’t reflect his resources. Two days ago, he’d met his ex-wife in Dallas at her attorney’s office. The notes typed that night by the efficient legal secretary, who’d stayed late for the task at the attorney’s request, had shown lingering anger as they wrangled over custody of their little boy, who’d been living with his mother until word leaked of her torrid and poorly hidden affair. Those notes showed no satisfactory arrangement had been reached at the meeting and Carmichael had left the area immediately after, according to the testimony of the valet parking lot attendant who’d driven out the F-150 SuperCrew and seen the cowboy off the upscale Galleria premises.

At midnight, the attorney’s live-in housekeeper had been awakened by a screaming fire alarm. When she stumbled into the Swiss Avenue front yard, choking on smoke, her Sponge Bob pajamas blackened with soot, she’d tried to tell the embattled firefighters in her mixture of broken English and vexed Tongan that her employer hadn’t made it out. Nor had his girlfriend.

The two bodies were pulled from the still-smoking debris hours later, to no one’s surprise; the fire had burned long and hot, and already the investigators were discussing accelerants and throwing about the other fiery “A” word. But the autopsies sealed it and guaranteed a charge of murder for someone, for both the attorney and Serena Carmichael had been double-tapped in the forehead with a small-caliber handgun.

The burned and twisted skeleton of a Smith & Wesson was pried from what was left of the attorney’s fingers, as if the police were supposed to believe he’d shot her, set the historic Mediterranean frame house ablaze, and then blew out his own brains—twice. But that just wouldn’t fly, even if it were physically possible.

Because little Brian Carmichael was missing.

Not only was it Ellea’s job to learn everything she could from the embittered ex-husband and yearning father. She also had to break the news of Brian’s disappearance.

And see if Carmichael was really surprised or faking it.

Ellea was the best judge of character, the best reader of emotions, in the police departments of East Dallas. How she managed those readings was her secret, and she’d promised her mother she’d never break it. No suspect had successfully lied to her during an interrogation, at least not that she or anyone else knew of. But she worked best alone, away from the station, in relaxed surroundings. She worked best with people, including suspects, in their natural environment.

Otherwise, she wouldn’t have braved an attack llama to beard a true Texas cowboy millionaire in his hideaway tropical den.

His long, gentle fingers, just a bit roughened at the tips, set an already damp glass of iced tea on the table before her. A touch of mint joined the vanilla, sharpening the air’s sweetness. That fan of hair was back over his forehead, the edges floating and falling in the breeze off the falling water. Steel-colored eyes darkened as he examined her face, and the little shy smile faded away. Nonsensically, she wanted to say something funny and bring that smile back.

But she wasn’t here to comfort him. And she most certainly wasn’t going to be dating him any time soon, so she could just get her interest under control.

She was here to decide if Deuce Carmichael was a double murderer.
“You here about Selena?” he asked her.
“Good guess.”
“I didn’t kill her, where’s Brian?” the cowboy asked.
“You tell me.”
“You mean you don’t know,” he asked her rising to his full height.
“Didn’t you take him when you set the house on fire?” She asked him.
“What are you, crazy?”
“Lots of men get rid of their wives to avoid divorce, alimony and the sting of infidelity. What makes you so different?”
“I love my son. I wouldn’t kill his mother!”
“Did you hire someone to do it?”
“Same answer. What are you doing to find my boy?”
“Talking to you. Where is he?”
“You’ve got it all wrong.”
“Do I?”
“If you’re not going to do anything about finding him, I sure as heck am,” he said, rising up and attempting to push past her.
“I don’t think so,” she said, pulling her weapon, “I’m not through with you.”
Her face flamed as a few ideas of what else she’d like to do with this handsome cowboy entered her thoughts.
“Sit down and stay down,” she said, waving the gun at a chair.
He sank down, shooting an angry glance at her.
“For a man worried about his son losing a mother, you don’t seem too broken up about it.”
“We had our differences, but I didn’t want her dead.”
“Could’ve fooled me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I heard about your session with the lawyer. Pretty nasty stuff,” she said.
“So what? A divorce isn’t a picnic in the park, officer.”
“But there’s nasty and there’s evil. Which one were you?” She asked him, levelling a cool stare into his gray eyes.
He laughed.
“I guess she’d have said ‘evil’ and I’d say ‘nasty’,” he replied.
“If you don’t have your son, who else would want him? Who would murder your wife and her lawyer lover with a bullet between the eyes and take your son if it wasn’t you?”

He sat quietly for a moment, holding his hat and raking his fingers through his gorgeous head of hair. Ellea looked at him and wished he’d been begging her to fix a parking ticket instead of a murder suspect.
‘My first wife might be a good bet.”
“First wife?”
“Yeah. I was married before. Mary Jo wasn’t the most stable person. When she found out she couldn’t have children, she had a breakdown.”
“So you dumped her?”
“Of course not. She recovered and divorced me. But she never stopped contacting me. After my son was born, she would drop by unannounced from time to time. I had to get a restraining order out on her. Hated to do it…”
“Your kid. So she wanted your kid, eh? You expect me to believe that?
“It’s the truth. You can check on the restraining order.”
“Don’t think I won’t.”
“While you’re talkin’, my son is still missing.”
“I’m taking you down to the station so I can check your story. If you check out, we’ll need your help to find your son.”

“That’s the first sane thing you’ve said. Let’s get going.”
“Tie up that attack camel out there.”
“He won’t hurt you?”
“I’ll believe it when he’s tied up.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll go first.”
He stepped in front of her, his big hands on her waist, guiding her behind him and holding her there. His touch was heaven, but she tried to cover it up by coughing and moving around so he wouldn’t feel her trembling.

She put him in the back of the squad car, behind the cage and locked him in.
“Is that necessary?” He asked her.
“Procedure,” she lied.
Ellea wasn’t taking any chances. She didn’t get where she was taking unnecessary risks and she wasn’t about to start now with that hunk of cowboy in the backseat.

The station house was a dusty, dry two-story building alive with the sound of fingers on keyboards tapping in the background, feet shuffling along the gritty floor and the smell of pure male sweat in the air. Ellea pushed open the doors with enough force for the two of them to go through at the same time so she could keep her hand on Deuce’s arm. If he made a move, she would feel it in his muscles before he could get away. Besides, he had sexy arms.

Once inside, she sat him in the chair facing her desk while she attacked her computer, checking his story about the restraining order. She pulled up all the information she could find on him and sure enough, he was married before to a Mary Jo Stevens. Everything he said checked out.
Rats, dead end! But secretly she was glad he had fallen far down on the suspect list.

“Okay Deuce, how do we find Mary Jo?” She asked him leaning her elbow on the desk.
“She has a couple of friends and used to hang out at this bar, Ye Olde Gin Mill on Center Street.”
“Give me the name of her friends,” Ellea said, clicking on a pen and grabbing a pad.
She wrote down the names and leaned over to the desk on the right of hers, Joe Callon’s desk.
“Joe, you working the double murder, right?”
“Like you, yeah.”
“Check out these names. Friends of Deuce’s first wife, might know her whereabouts.”
Joe turned his gaze to hers and his dark brown eyes lit up. Joe had been asking Ellea out every week since he started there. She always turned him down, not interested in having her personal business brought into the station, but he was persistent and with those bedroom eyes and his good build, she was weakening.
“Anything for you, Ellea,” he replied, raising his eyebrows.
Deuce looked at Joe, then at Ellea and chuckled to himself.
“What are you laughing at?” She asked, printing out a picture of Mary Jo, folding it up and putting it in her pocket.
“Nothing,” he said, hiding a smile behind his hand.
“Let’s go next stop, Olde Gin Mill,” she said, rising out of her chair, checking her gun and walking next to Deuce.

None of this ladies first stuff, just gives him a chance to hightail it out the back. Deuce kept abreast of her, looking her over once. She grabbed a couple of bottles of water and handed him one as they walked through the door.
“Think about anyone else who might want your son. Anyone hate you, besides your dead wife?”
“Not to my face,” he shot back.
They walked into Ye Old Gin Mill and stopped for their eyes to adjust. The bar was dark and appeared to be empty. Ellea put her hand on her gun while she looked around the room, getting the layout of the bar, entrances, exits and a glance at the patrons. She could size up the people there quickly having seen their types a thousand times before. There were two men and a woman sitting at the bar.

Old rock and roll was playing softly in the background. The walls of the bar were dark brown with greasy signed pictures of movie stars in frames and a cheap painting or two hanging up for decoration. As if anyone drinking in this dump could care what’s on the walls! The floor was warped wood, giving the floor a little rise as fall as they walked in. The bartender was a middle aged man, not heavy, with steel gray hair and hard brown eyes. He was dipping glasses in soapy water then drying them off. Remind me never to drink here.

Ellea turned to Deuce,
“Is that her,” she asked, nodding to the half-drunken woman sitting at the bar.
Deuce shook his head.
“She’s shorter and probably not drunk. It’s not seven yet, she’s still sober. Besides, she’s a brunette or was when I last saw her,” he said.
“According to this picture, she’s a blonde,” Ellea corrected him.
“Beats me,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Ellea pulled out the picture and walked up to the bar, her hand still on Deuce’s arm.
“Good afternoon,” she said, flashing her badge at the bartender.
He nodded.
“What can I do for you, officer?”
“Ever see this woman before?” She asked, handing him the picture of Mary Jo.
“Sure, but not for a month or so.”
“How often did she come in here?”
“Every night.”
“Know where she lives?”
“Buddy over there might. He and she were…an item…for a while,” he said, indicating a tall thin man drinking a beer at the other end of the bar. 

I'm sorry I just love that llama photo. LOL. So tune in next Friday to see what happens next....

Ellea walked towards the tall, thin man cooly. Confidence oozed from her as her shoes echoed on the floor. He didn't notice her until she sat next to him, and even then it was only a brief glance. She pulled out her badge, and then the picture of Mary Jo.

"Do you know this woman?" She asked.

The man studied the picture, slowly running a hand over his rough, unshaven, chin. "Psycho, yeah, I know her."
"I heard you two were involved. Is that true?"

"Yeah, we dated." He said cooly, and then took another drink from his beer. "It lasted a few months. I didn't like her too much, but she did some pretty kinky things if you know what I mean." The man glanced past Ellea and at Deuce.  His smirk widened when he watched the other man bristle slightly. "Yeah, you do know what I mean, don't you. I recognize you from all of the pictures she carried. You and the little brat she obsessed over."

Deuce's fists clenched at his side. Ellea reached a hand out to his arm, in an effort to calm him. Fighting wouldn't be productive.

"The boy is missing. Mister?" Ellea raised an eyebrow, hoping this man would offer up a name.

"Mister Eli Stover," he nodded at her. "He's missing you say? Too bad. I wouldn't put it past her to have taken him. I meant it when I said she's psycho."

"Do you know where she went Eli?"

"I haven't seen her since we broke up about a month ago." He downed the last of his beer, simultaneously waving the bartender over to fill him up again. "I may have had a brief encounter, but the details are getting a little fuzzy."

Ellea rolled her eyes.  "I'm guessing they'll be less fuzzy after I pick up your tab."

"It would help."

"Fine, now tell me what you know."

"When I met Mary Jo, she was pretty unstable." Eli explained, grabbing his newly filled mug. "She stopped taking her medication, so she was all kinds of a walking disaster. She just wanted to feel good. Who am I to deny her?"

Ellea nodded, but said nothing. What a pig.

"It felt good helping her out. She started to relax a lot more. Things were going good. I actually kind of like her when she's sane." He took another large gulp. "Then it went south. She found religion. Those were her words at least. In my opinion, she found a cult. They call themselves the Natural Assembly. They didn't sound bad at first. She told me how they preached peace and understanding, acceptance of all. They're in touch with nature and respect the Earth. Kind of hippy sounding, but to each their own right? Well, my opinion changed pretty fast."

"Why's that?"

"Because she killed my dog for one of their witchcraft rituals." He stated, his dark eyes meeting Ellea's. Their expression dead serious and filled with intensity. "Naturally, that was kind of a deal breaker. I dumped her so fast her head spun."

"What kind of ritual was this?" Deuce asked in disgust, beating Ellea to the punch.

Eli shrugged non-chalantly. "She said she stopped something bad from happening to the county - something big. Mary Jo was all kinds of honored because the leader had told her it was her responsibility to protect everyone. Only she could do it. She was to use it as practice for the bigger picture. She believes she's the chosen one. The one who will save the world."

Ellea felt like a vise had cinched her throat. The Natural Assembly was here . . . in Pecos?

Back in Dallas, she’d worked a case on the secretive church and its leader, Reverend Peter Staff. He—it was always a man who led these cults—was in his midfifties with brown hair so gelled a tornado couldn’t move a strand of it. She’d taken an instant disliking to him from the moment she offered her hand in greeting and he held it like a dead fish. The station had called her in to question him after an embezzling charge was leveled against the Natural Assembly by a disgruntled former parishioner. There were also complaints about beheaded chickens, but sacrificing animals was not against the law. Apparently, the church had moved to a smaller pond, perhaps to draw less attention, but they’d also moved on to bigger animals.

It wasn’t remembering the sacrifices that unnerved her, though. She’d realized, without needing to rely on her special skills, that the complainant was a revengeful former flame of Staff’s. His books came out clean, and despite the perfectly coiffed hair, he had none of the trappings typical of hucksters: no Rolex, no 100-watt smile, not even a snack oil grin. He was very serious in demeanor the whole time she had talked with him. He only smiled after she had thanked him for his time and risen to leave.

“Officer Sharpe,” he’d said as she’d walked toward the door, cursing her new pair of shoes for the blister forming on her big toe, “we could use someone like you in our congregation.”

She’d laughed; she couldn’t help it. Sacrificing chickens was not a calling she felt. “Reverend Staff, thank you, but I already have a church.”

“A church that you haven’t told about your gift, I’d wager.”

That had stopped her in her tracks, giving her the same reaction she felt now. Chilled to her core. No one knew about that. No one. Sure, the station relied on her ability to use it in tough investigations, but they thought she was simply good at cracking a witness open. They didn’t know that when she had them alone in a room and relaxed, she could jump into their minds like diving into a swimming pool. No one knew that, except her mother.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she’d stammered.

“Yes, you do.” His half-smile disappeared. “Lying isn’t virtuous, Officer. When you’re ready to be who you are, why don’t you come by again?”

She’d walked out his front door without saying goodbye.

Deuce said her name, shaking her out of her memory. “Officer Sharpe? Are we done here? If these crazy people have my kid, I’d really like to get him away from them. Now.” Barely contained rage could be heard in the way he said the words through gritted teeth.

Ellea nodded and thanked Eli for his time. She didn’t believe he’d told all he knew—not with the way he’d kept his eyes firmly on his second bottle of Miller’s Lite—but she needed to follow this new lead before it got cold. And she needed to know more about Mary Jo, or she wouldn’t be able to get anything out of Reverend Staff or his congregation. Which meant she needed to get to know Deuce more . . . personally.

Her cruiser looked too shiny for this dusty town, even after the long drive from Deuce’s ranch. As they walked toward it, she considered the man beside her. Even with his cowboy hat on tight, his hair poked out from under it, longer than she’d expect for a businessman. When that business made millions, she supposed it didn’t matter how long his hair was. He walked in long, measured steps, fast enough that she had to pick up her usual hurried pace just to keep up with him. But still, he seemed too calm and assured for a man whose ex-wife had just been murdered and son was missing. And why did he have no family or associates about? Men that rich—and that gorgeous—usually attracted attention. Maybe that was why he lived here, in this podunk town. Heck, no one had even acknowledged they knew him in the bar except Eli.

Deuce reached the car a few seconds before she did and tapped his fingers against its roof. She unlocked the passenger  door—keeping him in the cage would not help relax him—and opened it for him, garnering a befuddled glance from him before he shrugged his shoulders and sat down. When she slipped into the driver’s seat, he asked, “So where is this crazy church? And do you need to call in reinforcement before we get there? I don’t want anything happening to my son.”

She gulped. “We aren’t going there, at least not yet.”

She could barely see his eyes over the brim of his hat, but she could feel them. His gaze felt hotter than a shell casing right after a shot. “I’m sorry, Officer. Did you see we aren’t going after my son?”

That man probably withered his opponents in the boardroom with a glance. But his cool anger was also sexy—and she certainly wasn’t going to let him bully her into what to do next. She was the one in control here.

“No, we are heading back to your place—your dome. I have some more questions for you.”

He kept his cool, though there was a tinge of worry and frustration creeping into his voice. “Then ask them now, on our way to the church. My son’s been kidnapped! Why would we waste time going back to the ranch?”

Because I can’t dig into your mind like this. “We don’t know where they are for one. But more importantly, I don’t know enough about Mary Jo to get them off their guards. We are due for a nice, long conversation so we can get your boy back, rather than lose him if we go in unprepared. That’s final.”

Deuce relaxed back into his seat and pulled his hat over his eyes in response. They drove in silence down empty side roads, except for the occasional silo or herd of grass-munching cattle. He didn’t look up until they reached his front gate. Then he stepped out to open it and whistled. Satan appeared from the western side of the dome and came barreling forward like a puppy, until he saw her through the windshield. Then he bared his teeth and spit off to his left. Wonderful. He hadn’t tied up the llama after all.

Deuce patted the llama’s flank and led it off the road. Ellea drove the car past them and into the car port farther up. As she looked at the dome, she was amazed at how small it seemed from the outside. Its egg-shell exterior radiated heat from the sun, making it look like a UFO ready to take off. If she hadn’t been inside it already, she might have been afraid of what it contained. 

 She heard a click and instinctively reached toward her weapon, but it was just the sound of the door handle being pressed. Deuce opened it for her, and she said thank you, which he acknowledged with a mumbled, “You’re welcome.”  Once inside the dome, he offered her a seat by the vanilla orchids again, which she took. The waterfall’s soothing rush would certainly help create the mood she needed to do her work.

“Your house is so refreshing after being out there in that heat.” She started things off friendly. He needed to relax a little, or she’d never be able to probe him.

He put two fresh glasses of iced tea in front of them and sat down across from her. “Look, I’m not really in the mood for chit chat. My kid’s missing. Just ask me what you need to ask.”

“Okay, then. How about we start with Brian? Tell me about your son. What’s he like when he wakes up in the morning?”

“Oh, he’s impossible to get out of bed. But when he lived here—it’s been about half a year since Serena left—I would pick him up in his PJs then set him down in front of the waterfall in the garden. He’d stare at the water while I poured him some Fruit Loops. I think it helped him clear his mind, you know?”

Amazingly, she didn’t have to pry the stories out of him. The invitation to talk about Brian opened some sort of cap on his bottled conversational skills. Before long, his furrowed brow had diminished, and his stance was more like that of a man—well, a man who enjoyed talking about his kid. She almost didn’t want to stop listening, but he’d calmed down so much faster than she expected—it was nice that he was so obviously in love with Brian. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a second, then visualized herself channeling a stream of energy from her mind to his, penetrating right above those dark grey, smoldering eyes.

She gasped and gripped the sides of her chair, dropping the visualization instantly.

“What’s wrong?” he said, jumping up and rushing over to her. He picked up her arm gently, and she let him feel for her pulse while she gathered her thoughts. His roughened fingertips felt warm and pleasant, but it didn’t matter—she was shivering on the inside.

Whenever she entered someone’s mind, there was always a sensation like pushing against a current of water. Once the sensation ceased, she’d be inside, and she could start shuffling through the memories and thoughts she found. The person never felt her energy there, and she was able to keep one eye on the conversation while rifling through his or her mind to find out what really happened. But when she’d entered Deuce’s mind, if felt like hitting a brick wall. She couldn’t move forward, couldn’t move up or around it. And it hurt too hard to try and press through it.

For the first time in her life, Ellea had found someone whose thoughts could not be breached.

Deuce adjusted his hold, catching her before she slid off the chair. Ellea could hear his voice, strained and anxious, but her mouth wouldn’t allow her to answer him. A freezing, aching sensation had settled in her brain and she couldn’t move her mind forward past the barrier or retreat out of the recesses of Deuce's memories. She was stuck.
Clearing her mind again, Ellea pushed, located the brick wall, pushed harder. It had no give to it at all. There must be a way to get to the other side—if not through it then around it, or perhaps over...
"You are trespassing. Leave this place." The voice boomed in her head like a clap of thunder.
Ellea jumped. A feeling not unlike static electricity crept along her arms making the hairs stand on end.
Deuce’s voice was now far away and she couldn’t make out his words.
Crackles of electricity worked at her arms again, snapping and popping sounds surrounded her. She leaned into the wall. A loud crack sounded and electrical bolts arced through her mind. Still she pushed.
"Go back!" ordered the thunderous voice.
"No," whispered Ellea.

"Then take the consequences." Crack! She was slammed back hard. Pain radiated through her body, immobilizing her. She was stuck and she was panicking.
Especially when that face... That horrid black and white face of the devil llama swam into view. He was charging her, his yellow teeth bared, his eyes flashing red and black. He let out a hissing sort of hum, and the sound exploded in her ears. Flashes of colorful hues raced across her mind and then…nothingness.
Awareness returned slowly with a feeling of floating. If she didn't know better, Ellea would swear she was suspended in thin air. She couldn't feel her body! Had she been stricken with some sort of paralytic agent? How had she gotten here? Where was here? Colors and shapes swirled around her, fluid, yet unmoving. Every time she tried to focus on one of the shapes it drifted from her vision to be replaced by another.
Apparently, she was in a giant kaleidoscope.
She became aware of muffled voices but she couldn't pinpoint where they were coming from. She struggled to hear what was being said.
"Why didn't you warn her off before she got this far?"

Ellea started. That authoritative voice sounded like the thunderous warning she'd heard.

"I tried!" This voice was female and sounded...a bit familiar. "I can't reach her when she goes into that state."

Who were they talking about? What state? And who in the world were they? Where in the world were they? Where in the world was she? Was she still in the world?

Why were her thoughts so oddly disassociated from her brain?

Ellea concentrated on seeing her surroundings. The colors became more vigorous, with lively bursts of increased vibrancy to the rainbow hues. Tiny arcs of electrical energy leapt along the edges of color.

"You should have kept her away from this place entirely!" It was the male voice, full of censure.

"Don’t you think I tried?" The familiar voice.  "As soon as she knew a child was involved, her guardian instincts took over and she was determined to come here. Where is the boy? Is he safe?"

"For now. I wish I could have saved his mother, but it was too late for her. It wasn't easy getting him to suppress his power so he won't be discovered again."

They must mean Brian! Who were these people?

Ellea pushed through the colorful swirls of fog. She had to see who was talking. Why did the woman sound so familiar?

The male was close. He was lithe and fit, and from Ellea's vantage point seemed impossibly tall. His dark mane of hair flowed down his back, completely black except for the shock of white in front that framed his long face. Nearly black eyes were glaring at his companion.

“Wha—what happened?” Ellea croaked.

The woman spun around and gasp. “How did you get here? You’re not supposed to be here.” She turned to the man. “See what you’ve done.”

The kaleidoscope of color moved faster, making Ellea dizzy. She tried to sit up, but the colors seemed to force her down. The woman knelt, her golden hair brushing across Ellea’s arm. She had a beautiful heart-shaped face that held the most amazing pair of purple eyes. She wore a peasant tie dyed shirt and skirt.

“Now I’m going to have to erase her memory and se—”

“No!” Ellea swung into action, grabbing the woman’s hands before they rested against the sides of her face.

The woman yelped and tried to pull away, but Ellea held on tight. Looking over her shoulder to the man, the strange woman implored, “Help me.”

He lunged forward and wrapped his arms around the woman and Ellea was assailed with a feeling like she was falling. With the two strangers in tow, she tumbled and fell, spiraling down into darkness.

After what seemed like an eternity, Ellea slammed into something hard that knocked the air out of her lungs.  Slowly, a voice entered the recesses of her brain.


“Can you hear me, Ellea? Are you okay? Talk to me.”

Of course she could hear him. She just couldn’t answer him. Her eyes fluttered open and she focused on his face.

Concern and worry marred his handsome features. “What the heck happened to you?”

She sat up with his help. Her vocal cords seemed to relax and she had control of her voice. “I-I’m not sure. One minute I was listening to you, the next minute I was in a strange room with—”

Ellea jumped up and pulled her gun, scanning the room for the two intruders.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Deuce asked, ducking, slightly taken aback.

“Where did they go?”

Deuce raised his eyebrows and looked around. “Um…who?”

“The man and the woman. Where did they go? We have to find them.”

“There’s no one here but us. We were sitting by the waterfall.” He turned and raised his hand to indicate the spot, then dropped his hand. “What in the world? What happened to it?”

Two small arcs of electricity coiled and danced, hopping from rock to rock. Rocks that were now immersed in the same rainbow hues Ellea had seen when she woke up to the strangers’ voices.

Realization dawned and Ellea returned the gun to its holster seconds before lunging for the circles of light dancing on the waterfall. There had to be a portal connected to the waterfall and the lights had to be the two strangers trying to return to the strange place she had been.

“Help me! Grab them! They know something about Brian.” Ellea captured one of the beacons in her hand, but howled when sharp biting streaks of pain shot up her arm and fell back to the floor.

Deuce jerked her gun from the holster. “I’ll help you all right. I’ll blow whatever it is to smithereens.”

Just as he took aim, Ellea jumped up yelling. “No! They know where we can find Bria—”
An orange and blue explosion flew out the barrel of the gun, ripping into Ellea’s chest.

Ellea’s head throbbed. She didn’t know how much more her body could take. Flashes of lights exploded behind her closed eyelids, making her dread the idea of opening them. Once again, voices filtered into her mind. Angry voices.

“Of all the idiotic things to do…I can’t believe you shot her.” Ellea stiffened. That voice. That nasty voice from earlier was back. Her throat tightened and she couldn’t breathe. When she tried to sit up, she realized she couldn’t move. Her whole body was paralyzed, immobile.

“He can’t answer you, remember?” the melodious female voice from before said. Why did she sound so familiar?

Ellea wanted to cry, but she couldn’t do that either. Deuce. What had these people done to him? What the heck was going on?

The pressure on her chest eased, but not enough to allow her to move.

“Deuce, if you think you can behave yourself and stop trying to kill everyone, I’ll release you,” the male voice said.

Ellea’s eyes flew open. The bright lights nearly blinded her. She turned her head to see the woman with the beautiful purple eyes standing to Deuce’s left. He stood stock still with the gun still aimed at the waterfall. Standing a few feet in front of her and off to the right was the man with long black hair, his hands on his hips. He raised his hand and flicked it.

Deuce stumbled back a few feet. When he regained his footing, he leveled his gaze on the male intruder, eyes blazing. He made to raise the gun, but the man’s words brought him up short.

“If you want to see Brian again, I wouldn’t do that.”

Deuce’s face paled. His hand fell to his side. “Where’s my son?”

Ellea’s heart broke for him. She wanted to go to him, to comfort him. With every ounce of strength she could muster, she held her hand out toward Deuce.

The woman gasped and hurried to Ellea’s side. “Elleanor!” She knelt down and placed her hand to Ellea’s chest. “How do you feel? Can you speak?”

She could if she weren’t too shocked. Who was this woman that looked so familiar? How did she know Ellea?

"Don't call me that. No one calls me Elleanor." Since she apparently had the equivalent of a molten boulder resting on her chest, Ellea had no idea why it seemed so important to make that point clear.

The purple-eyed woman raised her hands and hovered above the heaviness in Ellea's chest, and the searing pain with each breath lessened to a steady throb, then a mild ache. "What happened to me?"

"There was an accident," began the strangely familiar woman.

"You were shot," said the man with the mane of black hair.

"Why aren't you dead?" Deuce's voice cracked.

Ellea focused her gaze in his direction. Had she really felt sorry for him? Now she remembered. The waterfall, the electrical charges dancing on the colorful rocks. The explosion, the pain. She looked down and saw the blood on her blouse. So much blood she should have died by now. She swiveled a look at the woman with the purple eyes.

"I'd like to know the same thing. Why didn't I die?"

The woman did something else with her hands and mumbled a few words under her breath before she answered. "My name is Nuri. I've healed your wound."

Ellea moved her shoulder. No pain at all now.  She sat up. "I know you from somewhere . . .  your voice."

"My voice guides you when you need it to, keeps you safe." Nuri sighed and stood. "I suppose you could say I'm your spirit guide."

Ellea wanted to scoff at the notion but couldn't. The statement felt too plausible, too real. It explained so much about Ellea's life, she knew Nuri spoke the truth. She frowned, trying to comprehend it all as Nuri helped her sip from a cup of water. Where had the cup come from? Had she just dipped the water from that waterfall?

"Yeah, isn't this a sweet moment?" The unknown subject in the room paced like a sentry in front of the colorful waterfall. "We don't have time to play nice. Stesha is going to notice all this energy. She'll come for the boy. Soon." He stared into the gurgling water.

"If Nuri here is Ellea's spirit guide, then who the heck are you?" Deuce spoke up, his voice filled with suspicion and disbelief.

"My name . . ." The harsh man stopped pacing and turned to face Deuce. From her vantage point, Ellea could only see their faces in profile. "My name is Argent. But you know me as Satan."

Deuce's jaw dropped and he stared in silence.

Ellea choked on her water. "The llama?"  He turned in her direction and she peered into his face. The extra height, the mane of hair, the white streaks. It made crazy sense, and she narrowed her gaze, half expecting him to morph into that objectionable beast.

Argent cleared his throat. "Actually, I'm a totem." He swung his gaze back to Deuce. "Your totem."
Deuce opened his mouth to speak but Argent held up a hand and nothing came out.
"I'm sure you have questions and I'd love to give you the answers but we're pressed for time just now. Long story short, Nuri here is a spirit guide who helps humans, and I’m a totem, or a being who protects humans from supernatural harm," said Argent.
“This is crazy,” Deuce said. “Who are you people?”
“Think about it, Deuce. When did you get me? Roughly around the time you got divorced. About the same time that Selena went off the deep end. I was assigned to you to keep you and Brian out of harm's way.”
"Your son is safe." Nuri took up the story, her voice like the whisper of a breeze, settling over Ellea like a comfortable old blanket and bringing a sense of peace. "But he won't stay safe if we don't keep Stesha from getting him.”
 “Who?” Ellea and Deuce asked simultaneously.
“Stesha is an ashray. She’s a fairy who was punished for bringing harm to humans and was sentenced to live for all eternity in the depths of the sea,” Argent explained.
"What does this ashray thing want with my son?"
Argent and Nuri exchanged a look, but kept silent.
“Don’t even think of keeping something about my son from me. I still have a mind to blow your sorry brains out. My instincts are screaming that you’re the bad guy.” To further emphasize his point, Deuce raised the gun and leveled it at Argent’s head. “The only reason you’re still alive is because you saved Ellea’s life.”
Nuri touched her fingers to his arm and lowered it as she spoke. "She wants to use him to gain freedom from her watery prison. Your ex-wife was a fairy. She chose to give up her powers so she could live here on earth with you. No one was supposed to know…" Nuri’s voice broke and tears streamed down her eyes.
Argent picked up the story. “But you’re ex wasn’t very good at keeping her mouth shut. Especially after losing you. Stesha has many followers, such as the good Reverend Staff that you met, and once word got out that a fairy had given birth to a son who was half human, they were willing to kill to get him.”
“They did kill to get him,” Ellea reminded. “What I don’t get is why? What’s the motive?”
“The only way Stesha can be released from her watery prison is by taking the soul of a half-fairy half-human and using it to open the portal between the two worlds,” Nuri explained.
A thought jumped into Ellea’s head. Eli Stover had told them Deuce’s ex Mary Jo thought she was the only one who could save the world. And her obsession with Brian. She must have figured out what the church intended to do with him.
Deuce’s face drained of color. “My son—”
“Is safe for now. I’m sorry we had to keep him from you, but we couldn’t chance letting him be here as long as you had the waterfall. Stesha will figure out where it is any day now and if he’s anywhere near it, she’ll kill him,” Nuri said.
“There’s something else.”
Deuce and Ellea turned to face Argent. “How much more can there be?” Deuce asked.
“If Stesha is able to get her claws into Brian and gain her freedom, it will cause the portal to collapse, unleashing unspeakably evil creatures on humankind,” Argent said, his tone grave.
Ellea gasped. This was a bad dream. How could this be possible? The devil llama was enough evil for her.
“From that thing?” Deuce pointed the gun in the vicinity of the waterfall. “It’s fake. I built it—”
“Because your ex wanted you to,” Argent interjected.
Ellea watched as Deuce’s face started turning red, his chest heaving. “Are you implying that my son’s mother intended to sacrifice him to this ashray? Whatever her faults, she loved Brian.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I meant," began Argent.
"Selena missed her home world," continued Nuri, her voice soft. Ellea now understood the familiarity. That calming tone was exactly the voice she always thought of as her inner voice of reason. Only now it was being directed toward Deuce and working its reassuring magic on him. "She thought if she had the waterfall, she could travel there, see her family. She wanted to show Brian that part of his heritage."
Deuce paled again. "She would have taken my son to—what? Another world?"
Argent nodded once.
"Something obviously went wrong," prompted Ellea.
"The constant pull between the two worlds, her home world and her chosen world, drove Selena insane." Argent's voice softened.
The air over the waterfall began to crackle. Four heads turned in the direction of the gurgling water, which was rushing faster now. The kaleidoscope of color danced more wildly. 
“Argent! The portal is opening!” Nuri screamed.
“Oh my goodness. It’s our worst fear, it’s her. She’s coming.” Argent started shifting into his llama form.
Deuce raised the gun. “That thing isn’t getting my kid.” He pulled the trigger.
The door to the conference room swung open just as author Kay Springsteen hurled a paper airplane at the water cooler sitting in the corner. The plane caught Astraea Press owner Stephanie Taylor in the chest.

The room fell silent. Six pairs of eyes fixed on Stephanie. “What are you girls doing in here? Horseplay does not a story make. I'm already feeling clucky because of these menstral cramps so don't even think about pulling that Hoodwinked stuff on me!"

Author Jean Joachim cleared her throat. “Sorry, Stephanie. We’ll get your story for the blog finished. Don’t go having a litter of kittens.”

“Or a dragon,” Jilly Jenkins added, making everyone else snicker.

Except Stephanie, who crossed her arms and started tapping her foot. “Do I have to remind you girls that we have a deadline to meet?”

“Am I the only one who thinks Stephanie needs a vacation?” Becca Gomez Farrell asked sarcastically.

“I think we’re making Stephanie contemplate making a deal with the devil,” J. Gunnar Grey added.

“Hey, she should have known putting the six of us together was like letting the blind lead the blind,” Kay Springsteen said.

“Yeah, our spirit guides might keep us on the straight and narrow. Our muses on the other hand…” Kim Bowman supplied with a semi-apologetic shrug.

The girls started laughing.

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Just get back to work. Now. Or I’ll sick Bri on you and you know how the DIVA hates to have to leave her tower.” With that she turned and walked out of the, mumbling something under her breath about smart-aleck authors and their wild imaginations. 

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