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Wednesday, May 25, 2022
In the meantime, here's a tidbit to tide you over...
Sunday morning dawned bright and beautiful. However, Susan Kennedy was glad she wore jeans and a sweatshirt emblazoned with her law school alma mater. The light hadn’t burned off all of the desert’s chill fog when she exited the Lechuza Building, a little reminder that it was still technically winter.
She strolled down Sixth Street, her goal to pick up breakfast at Celia’s store. Traffic was almost non-existent this early on the weekend. Two doors from the bodega, she paused in front of what would become the first of Rey, Reuben, and Emilio’s restaurant empire.
“Eggsactly” had been stenciled on the largest window to the right of the door. The guys had already cut a deal with Celia for the recipes of her tamales and breakfast burritos. In addition to that revenue, Susan had found a factory to produce and package Celia’s spice mix. The breakfast place would be the third new business in the Canyon Block.
The downfall of Canyon Industries after the last scion of the Canyon family was accused of murdering his wife and son twenty-one years ago had left the northeast section of the city destitute. If Rey Garcia was going to save the Canyon Block and the people who lived in it as an investor and as the superhero Black Falcon, Susan would do her damnedest to make sure he had the tools to make both happen.
She grinned as she peered through the glass. Her next door neighbor Miguel Esperanza and his construction crew had done a fine job on the interior. Miguel respected the Art Deco designs of the surviving Canyon Block buildings. He worked with the architecture instead of making the storefront something it wasn’t meant to be.
She slowly pivoted. The tall, dark-haired man behind her wore khakis and a polo beneath a navy windbreaker. Dark glasses shielded his eyes from the rising sun. None of which disguised the fact he was her law partner Harri Winters’ ex-husband, FBI Special Agent Edward Lewis.
“Doesn’t Sarah have an electric shock collar on you that goes off if you come to the Canyon Block, Eddie?”
A whisper of a smile floated across his face. “I’m still one hundred yards away from Harri. Besides, I heard through the grapevine she and Tim tied the knot over New Year’s weekend.”
“Is your current wife okay now that your ex-wife is hitched?”
Eddie chuckled. “Not one bit.” He sobered. “Unfortunately, I’m here on business. My boss wants your opinion on something.”
Susan folded her arms. “And why isn’t Special Agent in Charge Consuelo contacting Harri?”
“Because she needs someone who can keep their cool, and we both know Harri’s not the most level-headed attorney at Winters and Franklin.”
“And because Aisha’s in Paris.”
Crap. Susan expected something to hit the fan once the Garcia-Franklins left for Europe, but a summons by the head of the Canyon Pointe FBI on a Sunday morning was not going to be good. She eyed Eddie. “Can I get some breakfast first?”
“Depends. How strong’s your stomach?”
Nope, definitely not good.
“Shouldn’t you be calling in the NSB and a super?”
He gestured further down the street. She looked to her left.
Past the traffic light, another federal agent stood by a parked blue SUV. The woman was dressed similarly to Eddie, but she wore the black windbreaker of the National Superhero Bureau. The firm’s client Qiang Reilly AKA Sparx stood next to the agent. However, Qiang wore civilian clothing. Both woman were watching Susan with frowns on their faces.
Crap. This was really, really bad if the FBI and the NSB were working together on this one.
“Let me grab a tea at Celia’s for the ride if you want a coherent legal opinion.”
Three hours later, Susan watered some sage brush with her tea. When she was sure she had nothing left her stomach, she wiped her mouth on the back of her sweatshirt sleeve.
“Want some water to wash out the taste?” Qiang held out a bottle for her.
“Thanks.” Susan unscrewed the cap, took a swig, and swished the liquid around her mouth before she spit out the water in the direction of her vomit.
“First body?” the superhero asked sympathetically.
“How’d you guess?” Susan said bitterly.
The NSB’s special agent in charge for Canyon Pointe Wilbur Nesmith approached them. Susan had never seen the sixty-something man in less than a full suit, and he didn’t disappoint, even though they were in the middle of the Polvo de Oro Desert.
“You okay, Ms. Kennedy?”
“Just peachy.” She took a small sip of water to ease the ache in her stomach. “I am questioning your intelligence. You don’t need me or Ms. Reilly out here. You need a good forensics team and a lab.” She waved toward the techs who were taking samples of everything. “For all you know, this was a hiker or a motorist who got lost.”
The FBI’s special agent in charge Sylvia Consuelo joined them. “I would have preferred the Ghost Owl, but they’re out of pocket at the moment. You two are the next best thing we’ve got.”
“This is the one Sunday a month I have to run personal errands,” Qiang growled. “I’m the last person to suggest Harri be involved, but there’s obviously a reason you don’t want her here. I suggest you spill before I start electrocuting people.”
“Oh, my god,” Susan whispered. “You think that’s Byron Trubble, don’t you?”
The look Nesmith and Consuelo exchanged said she was right.
“So he was stupid and died out here.” Qiang threw up her hands. “You found him. You saved the taxpayers a buttload of money by not having to send him back to prison. Case closed. It’s Miller time.”
“Not exactly.” Nesmith scratched his chin.
“It looks like two bullet wounds to the back of the head,” Consuelo said.
“How do you know for sure?” Susan demanded. “With that much decomposition—”
“I used work in the Las Vegas office.” The FBI agent smirked. “I’ve seen more than my share of shallow graves in a desert.”
Susan glanced at the techs before she returned her attention back to the federal agents. “I still don’t understand what you want from us.”
“Has Harri ever mentioned her grandmother’s involvement with Eagle Forever?” Nesmith asked.
“No,” Qiang blurted.
“Mrs. Winters donated to his charities, but you have access to her tax returns.” Susan scowled at Nesmith and Consuelo. “Where are you going with this?”
“Considering Carol Inunza is doing time for attempted murder, that leaves two suspects who would want Trubble dead,” Consuelo said.
“Then I suggest you start with the supervillain who abducted him,” Susan shot back.
Qiang lowered her voice even though no one was near them. “You don’t think Trubble authorized the hit on Eagle Forever, and Seismic Shift was acting on someone else’s orders.”
Again, the two agents exchanged looks that admitted everything.
“So why not ask Harri about her grandmother directly?” Susan asked.
“One, we don’t want her going on one of her half-cocked crusades,” Consuelo grumbled. “Do you have any idea how many reports have crossed my desks that mention her name?”
“Two, we want to give someone at the Lechuza Building forewarning.” Nesmith’s gray hair fluttered in the chill breeze coming down off the mountains. “Lyle Baxter-Murray, aka Judge Pablo Inunza, wasn’t the only suspected super child who disappeared fifty years ago. We know Trubble was hunting them. And we also know an unknown party was hunting those kids, too. We think Eagle Forever was helping those families hide their kids, including his own daughter and grandson.”
“What does this have to do with Mrs. Winters?” Susan asked.
Nesmith blew out a gusty breath. “We’re concerned our third party may go after your law partner on the mistaken belief she knows something. We have reason to believe her grandmother was funding Eagle Forever’s underground railroad for supers.”
Wednesday, May 18, 2022
Five months ago
Byron S. Trubble would have laughed if his life didn’t depend on his silence. The old battleax and her stooges thought they’d broken him. He’d only given one real name and location to Peggy Reinhold. One of the kids that died in a training accident. The rest of the information he supposedly spilled was total bullshit.
If anyone should have known that torture wasn’t a reliable method of extracting information, it should have the woman who used to be Rue Liberty.
And if she were smarter, she would have recruited more people with powers than just her daughter. Maybe even a telepath to dig through his head.
Like he did in Corvus.
He slunk along the dry limestone wall. The fishy smell meant he was getting close to the bunker’s entrance.
His last escape attempt failed because he was stupid enough to believe the new Ghost Owl was Pablo Inunza’s son. Nope, it had to be the Garcia kid’s twin brother. With their ties to the Winters and Franklin law firm, the goodie-two-shoes brothers would have had Professor Venom trace his call to Aisha Franklin.
What if the bitch didn’t tell them about his call? What if he really miscalculated and Franklin was part of Reinhold’s little organization?
Trubble blew out a deep breath. If he wanted to keep breathing, he needed to move. He stepped into the night and waited for his vision to adjust. Beneath the moonlight, rust covered the steel escape stairs. The damn things were nearly as old as he was. One step onto them, and he could plummet into the Rio Cristo fifty feet below. If he didn’t hit a rock on the way down, the rapids would drown him.
However, free-hand rock climbing a canyon wall in the dark was an even stupider option.
Trubble grabbed the railing.
He didn’t touch rust. It felt more like paint. He gently flicked the railing with his forefinger and snickered at the bell tone. The old biddy had replaced the escape stairs and painted them to look like they were the original decrepit ones.
Still, he tapped the landing with his foot in the stolen boot to make sure. Yep, damn solid.
Trubble eased down the steps, not out of worry of plummeting to his death, but so the sentries above and the possible ones below didn’t hear him. He could handle a couple of punks as long as they weren’t supers.
Air came in short, desperate gasps when he reached the trail at the bottom of the stairs. Despite his best efforts at exercise and diet, he was seventy. This getting old crap sucked, but the torture hadn’t helped either. Maybe he was too stubborn to die.
Trubble chuckled at his own idiocy as he ducked under the “No Trespassing” sign. He headed north along the canyon trail for Logan Grove. Normally, the ten-mile hike would be three hours or so. With the guard drugged and in his cell, Trubble estimated he’d have four hours until they missed him.
Logan Grove might have only consisted of a few houses and a general store in the Seventies, but now, it was a decent-sized town with a vehicle or two he could steal. Then it became a matter of disappearing until he could access the money he deposited offshore.
After two hours by the moon, his legs cramped something fierce. He didn’t want the break, but he couldn’t afford falling out here. A thigh-high boulder provided a resting spot. He perched on it and rubbed his calves.
“Not so easy running away from your past, is it, old man?”
Trubble froze at Monica Reinhold’s voice behind him. So much for his brilliant plan.
“Kill me and get it over with, Miss Purrception,” he snarled. “I’m not going back with you.”
Monica dropped in front of him. She had her mother’s classic hourglass figure, but she was so more…flexible. A matte black bodysuit with a matching cowl and boots covered her from head to toe. Eye black cover her exposed skin around her orbs.
“Tell her what she wants to know, Byron.” Weariness coated her words.
“We both know the minute I do, I’m dead.” “Tell me then. I’ll tell her I killed you and disposed of your body. We all get what we want.”
“She’s not going to believe you killed me, Monica.” His breath clouded in the cold mountain air. “For your vaunted reputation as a murderer and thief, we both know you’re not cold-blooded enough to kill an unarmed man.”
“I’ve killed before,” she snapped.
“An accident while defending yourself is not the same thing.”
“Maybe I should toss you in the river,” she said. “With that cold mountain water, hypothermia is a fairly easy way to go.”
“I can’t let you do that,” he said.
“What are you going to do? Kill me?” She snorted. “And everyone calls me a supervillain.”
“What prison did we break out of?” he shot back.
“Either you kill me or you tell me the names. Those are the only ways you get to leave here alive.” Monica sounded deadly serious. There was none of her usual mockery in her tone.
“I’m not going to kill you,” Trubble said, and for once, he meant it. “But I’m not betraying those people. Harriet and I made sure they were well out of your mother’s reach. They lived normal lives. You and your daughters are an experiment to her.”
“If you hadn’t taken my girls, she wouldn’t have gotten custody of them,” she sneered.
“That’s because Byron’s a blunt instrument,” a husky feminine voice said. Another dark figure landed on the trail, well out of Monica’s reach. “I should have known you’d betray me, too, my dear.”
“Why do you have to spoil all my games, Mother?” Monica complained. “I could have gotten the names for you if you hadn’t interrupted.”
“Because you’re even more a sentimental idiot than he is?” Peggy Reinhold raised her arm, a gun in her hand.
“You promised I could kill him once you got the names from him,” Monica screeched.
“I promise a lot of people a lot of things.” Peggy’s laughter was still as low and throaty as it had been fifty years ago. “Including your father. I didn’t keep those vows either.
The muzzle of her gun flashed--
Saturday, May 14, 2022
PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE return your pre-ordered book and get your money back.
Then on the contact page, send me your e-mail address, and I will make sure you get the correct copy free-of-charge.
I sincerely apologize for my screw-up!
[Edit to add: The corrected version has been uploaded to all retailers!]
Thursday, May 5, 2022
And DH and his eldest sister had to make the tough decision to move my father-in-law to hospice today.
So it's been a little difficult around Casa Harden lately. If I fail to post, I'm probably up to my neck in other deeds. Like rushing through unpacking the remaining boxes from the move still sitting in our living room so we can temporarily store FIL's apartment furniture.
On the other hand, I hope you all have a glorious Cinco de Mayo or Revenge of the 5th, whichever holiday you celebrate. Here's your last sneak peek before A Measure of Knowledge drops on the 15th.
When the final peal of the bells died, the five of us joined hands. Both Shi Hua and Quan’s hands were clammy to the touch. In any other circumstance, I would have teased the ambassador about his nervousness, but I couldn’t this time. Not with his family’s lives at stake.
Luc and I gently fed energy into the young Jing priestess. Talbert and Quan focused on their desire to speak with Reverend Father Biming. Shi Hua launched her thread of magic westward.
The main problem was the Reverend Father was a quicksilver like Talbert. Someone who essentially was undetectable by those of us with mental talents. If the Reverend Father wasn’t deliberately listening for Shi Hua, she wouldn’t be able to communicate with him. Our unspoken hope was the demon attack meant he was listening for her.
Assuming the demons hadn’t killed him.
Shi Hua? The masculine silent voice wasn’t Biming. Nor was it Brother Jian of Light. From the feeling of two beings in one mind, he was a Wildling.
Fa? she asked. Are you all right? Is Mei Wen alive? She said there was a demon attack in Chengzhou. Where’s Reverend Father Biming?
Just a moment, Fa said. The link still existed, but his attention was split. After a breathless moment, he returned. I sent one of my wardens to fetch the Reverend Father. He assigned me to listen for you.
Brother Fa, Prince Po is with me, Shi Hua said. As are Chief Justice Anthea and High Brothers Luc and Talbert.
Your Highness, Honored Seats. I hope you don’t mind, but Reverend Father Biming was adamant that he speak with you tonight. He will be here momentarily. The Jing priest hesitated a moment. I can say a healer was already at the home Temple of Balance. The last report indicated Justice Mei Wen is alive. His worry filtered through the link despite the young priest’s best efforts. Shi Hua had told me that she, Mei Wen, Jian, and Fa had been close when they were novices in the Jing Capital.
How many justices did you lose, Brother Fa? I asked. What assistance can Issura render?
As to your first question, I do not know. Clergy and wardens are still searching Balance, m’lady. The young priest’s weariness tugged on our link and I poured more of my own resources into Shi Hua. As for your second, the Reverend Father can answer that question better than I can.
The smooth essence of Reverend Father Biming entered our link. Sister Shi Hua, are you all right? I was told you were in contact with Justice Mei Wen when the demons attacked Balance.
I’m fine, Reverend Father, she reported. Chief Justice Anthea absorbed the brunt of Justice Mei Wen’s pain.
Can we drop the titles for now, Biming? I said. We have a multitude of questions, and I don’t want to wear out Shi Hua more than necessary.
I understand, Anthea, but may I please speak with Prince Po privately first? Biming said.
My brother and his sons are dead, aren’t they? The tsunami of Quan’s grief drowned all of us for a moment.
The empress as well, Your Highness. I am so sorry. Biming’s love and affection for his prince swirled around us all.
How? I bit out.
One of the imperial concubines was replaced by a skinwalker. Biming’s simple statement tore at me. When I first learned Shi Hua was Temple, she asked me how I was able to see demons. My strange sight that allowed me to see demons and skinwalkers resulted from an accident when I tried to bestow human sight on myself in my efforts to escape service to Balance. Shi Hua had hoped to replicate my spell, but according to my own Reverend Mother, all efforts to duplicate my accident had failed.
If I understood what I’d done wrong, I could have reproduced my eyesight in someone else. The emperor’s little boys wouldn’t be—
Anthea! Luc snapped. You can wallow in guilt later.
My apologies. I struggled to breathe evenly. From the anxiety irritating my nerves, I would need to visit High Sister Mya of Child before I would be able to sleep tonight. Both she and High Brother Ben of Vintner had been adamant that I couldn’t rely on soma tears for sleep.
You must come home, Po, Biming said. You are now the crown prince. The heads of the Temples know I’m speaking with you. We will keep the peace until you return.
How bad is your situation? Talbert asked.
Biming gave a stark recitation of what he and the other Temple heads had pieced together over the last two candlemarks. The actual attacks matched Quan’s analysis of quick, surgical strikes at the human institutions the demons considered their chief opposition. At the extent of the losses, I feared the almond pastries I’d eaten would make a reappearance.
Everyone of the Jing home Temples and their schools of philosophy had casualties. Of course, Light was more heavily targeted, but Balance and Death were as well. Which meant somehow the demons who survived the Battle of Tandor managed to get word to the other demons in our world before our own Crown Princess Chiara and the Issuran army hunted them down and killed them.
The School of the Dragon and the Phoenix suffered the most casualties. According to Quan, they were an offshoot based on the more esoteric teachings of Balance and Light. His own father had been a master of the school and its representative in the imperial court until he was struck with a scourge designed to resemble the disease known as the Child’s curse.
The teams of clergy and talents who acted as the imperial family’s personal bodyguards had been killed by the skinwalker, as had a number of the imperial harem. The skinwalker killed as many of the civilian troops guarding the imperial palace as it could before a cook warded it in one of the kitchens until Temple assistance arrived and ended the threat.
All the guilds were ignored by the demons except for the Healers Guild. One master, a journeyman, and a handful of apprentices survived at their headquarters, but in the demons’ focus on the main guild house, they missed the personnel who’d taken up residency at the Temples to assist with the multitude of babes the breeding edict had produced.
I wondered if the demons targeted the Healers Guild because it spawned off from the Temple of Death. Balance was the only one of the Twelve Temples that didn’t have a guild cleave off from the order over the last century.
The demons also ignored the nobles. If Jing were like Issura, the nobles had few of their members with any talents. Our enemies needed to take out the Temples, the guilds, and the schools of philosophy. Everyone else could be eaten at their leisure.
Quan let out an audible sigh before he said silently, It’s the midwinter, and Issura has been beset with storms since the solstice.
We may not be able to get you a weather sorcerer, but we can petition the duke for a weather oracle, Talbert said.
If Anthea and I ask, the duke may be willing to loan us Captain Titus and the Mars Tranquilus, Luc added. She’s a nimble ship with an excellent crew, and no offense, Quan, but she can handle a winter storm better than your ship can.
Quan chuckled, but the effort sounded forced. You have no argument from me on that score.
In the morning and if it’s all right with you, Quan, Shi Hua and I can contact Queen Teodora, report Jing’s situation, and petition for additional aid, I said.
If it’s all right with you, Anthea, I’d like to be involved in that conversation, he replied.
The renegade’s spies are expecting you to go back to Jing, Talbert said. There’s going to be ambushes along the way.
In the middle of the Peaceful Sea? I said.
Yes, my dear Anthea, Quan mocked. They are called pirates.
We have to assume they will strike before you leave Issura, Luc said. I strongly suggest you stay here for your own safety.
I concur, sir, Shi Hua said.
No comment, Anthea? Quan teased.
Only if you say no to a common sense precaution, I replied. You already know those from Thief will not be as direct even though they agree with me. Biming’s laughter pealed like a bell through my mind. It sounded like he needed the emotional release.
We’ll discuss our preparations further tomorrow at the same time, Biming said. I’ll send Jian and Fa with a Temple group I trust to meet you in Ryuku. Is that acceptable, Shi Hua?
The sister had come to Issura as Quan’s bodyguard. It said much that Biming trusted her to get their new emperor back to Chengzhou safely.
Yes, sir, she replied without hesitation. It hadn’t registered yet that her new assignment meant leaving her son Chao behind, possibly never seeing him again. In all my jealousy over the other Light and Balance clergy given permission to bear children, the thought of leaving my child behind hadn’t occurred to me.
Mya never called me self-centered during our talks involving my emotional repair work. She should have. Maybe I would have understood sooner.
Be careful, Biming, I said. Renegades may still be hiding in and around Chengzhou.
We will, Anthea. Weariness filled his mental voice even though it was fairly early in the day for Jing, but a demon attack will exhaust everyone when the initial adrenaline charge fades.
Shi Hua dissolved the link with Biming and Fa. She blinked a few times to reorient herself. “Shall I inform your concubine to have your concubine order the embassy household to pack, Your Highness?”
Quan nodded absently as he played with the beads on his moustache. “Wait.” He gestured sharply. “Hers and her son’s belongings. Sufficient clothes and weapons to sustain me during the voyage. Have Mistress Yin Li select four guards to accompany us. No more, no less. Tell her about—” He choked on the word while he did his best to be the world leader he thought he should be. “—about the imperial family, but neither of you are to say anything to anyone else. Understood?”
“Yes, Your Highness.” She nodded.
“It’s going to be difficult to keep this news quiet, Po,” I said softly. “Not with the clergy from all Twelve Temples present tonight when the demons attacked Chengzhou.”
“I trust the seats of Orrin to keep their silence and to ask those of their Temples to do the same.” He flashed me a brief smile. “At least until I can leave Orrin.”
“I’ll ride up to the duke’s estate.” Luc grabbed his crutches and stood.
“Tonight? I thought I was the one with the lack of manners,” I teased.
“Luc’s right.” Talbert pushed to his feet as well. “We need to work fast to get the new emperor out of Issura alive. I’ll inform the other seats of what’s happening.”
“What about me?” I was a little nonplussed the two high brothers had taken the jobs I would have preferred.
“You and I will put together a list of requirements I may need from your Teodora,” Quan answered. “We both need to be prepared for tomorrow morning. Would you mind if the chief justice and I use your dining room for a little while longer, High Brother?”
Luc nodded. “Our facilities are at your disposal, Your Highness. And I’ll have Edberth brew you two some more tea.”
Quan was correct. We did need to be prepared for speaking with the queen. But what puzzled me was the surprising lack of jealousy from Luc for once over me spending time alone with the future emperor of Jing.
Maybe Luc was simply happy Quan would soon be out of his hair.
In my case, I simply didn’t like change, and I’d had far too much of it over the last two winters.
And some instinct deep in my spirit said Balance wasn’t done flinging more challenges at me than She already had.