Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Top Secret, Adventures of an Undercover Agent" by Maria E. Schneider

Today, Fiction for Dessert is proud to showcase the work of author Maria E. Schneider.

Maria grew up in New Mexico where the desert environment required that she embellish the landscape with her imagination. After working in the computer industry for twelve years, she decided technology moved too slowly, and again put her imagination to work, creating messes and then inventing characters to handle all the clean up. She currently resides near Austin, Texas.

She is the author of Executive Lunch – the first in the Sedona O'Hala series. Sedona is given the opportunity of a lifetime: play an up-and-coming executive with all the trappings of wealth with someone else footing the bill. The catch: find out who is stealing company funds before the criminals find out that their program is being debugged. Sedona runs into danger, the corporate glass ceiling, and an occasional chance at romance in her quest. The second in the series, Executive Retention was released June 15, 2010.

In just two weeks, I will be posting an excerpt from Executive Lunch, so stay tuned! In the meantime, I’m pleased to present:

“Top Secret, Adventures of an Undercover Agent”

By the time we arrived in Nice after a mind-boggling fourteen-hour flight from Houston, I was exhausted. Perhaps that is why I was not paying attention to details when we checked into our hotel. How could such a small lapse lead to such trouble?

Let me assure you that being a secret agent is nothing like the portrayal of James Bond. The only thing I share in common with the man is his first name. My hair is boring brown; slightly too long. My eyes, which are surrounded by rim glasses that I don't actually need, are also brown. I purport to be a professor at a local college.

For this assignment, I was traveling to Europe with Don and Elaine, a stockbroker and his wife. They believed they were doing me a favor by allowing me to travel with them on vacation. At twenty-six, Elaine was too young to be matronly, but she was headed towards plump. Much as children gathered “homeless” pets, Elaine gathered friends; she had also invited her friend Becka along.

Hotel key in hand, I opened my room door, and then watched with astonishment as Becka and Elaine marched inside. Becka dragged her suitcases in and combed her short black hair in front of the mirror. My first thought was that she was a spy for the other side and intended to insinuate herself into my life to keep an eye on me.

It wasn’t until Becka noticed me bringing in my suitcases that she chirped, “What are you doing?”

“Unpacking.” Spy or not, I hoped it would dawn on her that this was my room, which was why I had the key and she did not.

“But you’re not staying here with me!” She looked at Elaine and asked, “Is he?”

Elaine, unable to decide whether to giggle or look horrified, gasped, “James, why aren’t you going to your own room?”

I held up the key. “This is my room.” I heartily wished that Elaine’s stockbroker husband would come and sort this mess. Being unmarried, I simply hadn’t the proper skills.

“Well.” Becka blinked. “Where’s my key?” She turned her baby-blues towards Elaine.

Elaine’s mouth dropped open. “Didn’t you get her key? She doesn’t speak French. What if the hotel clerk didn’t speak English?”

“I don’t speak French either—“ The rest of the logic was beyond me. Stiffly, I asked, “Do you need me to get your room key?”

“Oh, just let her have this room and go get your own!” Elaine suggested cheerfully.


When I passed my old room to get to the new one, the door was still propped open. Elaine giggled, and I distinctly heard her utter, “Maybe he likes you. He’s a professor type and they aren’t very good at expressing their feelings.”

I should have taken the first available plane back home.

The next morning, much to my dismay, Elaine rented a car. Due to her bargaining, we were “upgraded” to a van. Wonderful. The roads were little more than wide bicycle lanes with traffic lights. Don's driving was akin to him trying to maneuver a double-decker bus down an alleyway at sixty miles an hour.

Elaine didn’t notice; she spent the time reading from the guidebook about the Grand Canyon of Verdon.

“It would be best if you just dropped me at the hotel,” I informed Elaine and company. “I will soak up Nice while you drive to the canyon.” This would give me the privacy required to obtain my espionage package.

“Are you kidding? The Canyon du Verdon is steep enough for rock climbers,” Elaine said. “We simply must see it. But we won’t try to squeeze it in today. We’ll get souvenirs instead. Did you know that France is known for lingerie?” A giggle.

Even without a mission awaiting me, I wouldn’t have been keen on shopping. I made my excuses. “I think I'll just go to the beach.”

Don grabbed at the glimmer of hope. “Good idea!”

Disapproving silence from the girls. Elaine actually sneered. “I suppose you expect us to come with you?”

Don, being experienced, hedged carefully. “You don’t have to, of course. We’d love for you to come with us.”

Elaine crossed her arms under her breasts and huffed, “And do you expect us to go topless?”

Ah, now we had a clue. “It’s not required,” I guessed.

Don was smarter. He smiled and teased, “Please? You know I’d love that!”

While he was getting himself out of marital trouble, Becka displayed shock, pleasure and a blush of embarrassment. I wondered how much an early plane ticket home would cost, and if “Matty,” my contact, could meet me at the airport as I was on my way out of Europe.

Elaine finally agreed to the beach.

Unfortunately, by the time we gathered swimsuits Don had been conned into reinserting the shopping trip. By any reasonable definition, this would mean stopping at a store if we saw one on the way to the beach. By Elaine’s definition, it meant checking side streets, the post office and any building with a door that wasn’t locked securely.

It got worse when she actually found a lingerie shop. “Come on,” she squealed, grabbing us both.

“Uh—“ I was yanked unceremoniously inside the hallway-sized shop.

Before my eyes could adjust to the dim light, a shadowy figure with Becka’s voice asked softly, “Would this look good on me?”

Elaine giggled again. “Try it on. Then he’ll tell you.”

The dangers of traveling as one half of an unattached party were increasingly evident. “I’m sure it will look fine,” I gasped and headed for the door.


Elaine crossed her arms and sniffed. “It won’t kill you to help us.”

I wasn’t certain of that. I stood there, first on one leg and then the other as my appendages tried to respond to the command, leave, yet could not because Elaine was standing in front of the door.

From behind me, “Do you like this one better?”

It would be impossible to answer without turning around.

I turned.

A clerk urged Becka towards a partitioned closet. Another clerk grabbed my arm and began dragging me along.

In alarm, I protested, “No, no—uh, non!”

Becka looked startled, then pleased, then unsure. All the while she juggled two or three bits of lace. The curtain closed, and I turned to find Elaine happily purring behind me with her own lace.

Don valiantly tried to control his enthusiastic wife by tucking her under his arm, but all it did for me was make the blockage of the door two solid bodies rather than one. Before I could search for a back door, I was accosted by a clerk again. She set out several garments.

My eyes bulged. This was simply too much. I like lace as much as the next guy, but I did not have a girlfriend.

Just then, Elaine disappeared into the changing room, giving me a perfect escape opportunity. I prepared to dash into the street and throw myself under any available moving vehicle.

Becka popped out of the dressing room. “It fits!” She nodded at the clerk. “Por favor!”

I groaned. While I did not speak French, I was more than reasonably certain that “Por favor” was Spanish, not French. “I think you mean merci or s'il vous plait.”

The clerk zeroed in on me, nodding and exclaiming as she rang up the items.

“See, she understood me perfectly. Por favor!” Becka shouted in triumph.

The clerks waved several more garments. I backed away.

“Wait!” Becka cried. “How much does this cost?”

Fearing she might run after me while dangling the pair of scanty underwear, I froze. With a sigh, I used my little French phrase for, “How much?”

The problem was, of course, that I had no idea what the lady said in reply.

Eventually, the woman pulled out a calculator. She entered the numbers, and to my relief they flashed onto the display.

“Oh,” Becka said. “Is this in American dollars or French dollars?”

“You do have Euros?” I pleaded.

“Well, I was just wondering how much all of this was going to cost,” she whispered, even though the people in the shop understood perhaps one word of English, and we had already proven our ineptness at French.

I tried not to snarl as I guessed the exchange rate and entered it into the calculator.

“Oh,” Becka said, relieved. She whipped out a credit card, which started more babbling on the part of the clerks. Whatever the problem was, they worked it out without me. It was a good thing because I had no idea what they were saying and every time they glanced at Becka she smiled and shouted, “Por favor.”

By the time we left the shop, we barely had time to gallop to the beach before sunset. I was quite starved from my exertions, so I foolishly agreed to dinner--before I realized the French requirement for such a simple past-time.

There was an aperitif, a salad, a main course, some course after that, dessert, coffee and then drinks. The event was mind-bogglingly long. Like honking geese, Becka and Elaine were completely oblivious to the other’s conversation, but honked continuously.

By the time we returned to our hotel, I was frantic to meet with the other agent. I arranged a midnight meeting by phone, giving myself an hour to get to the agreed to destination.

To my dismay, Becka and Elaine were still awake, chatting in Becka’s room.

Good God, the women had discussed every topic under the sun at dinner. What could possibly be left???

Getting past Becka’s room without being spotted was impossible. Elaine latched onto me the moment I stepped into the hallway. “Oh, James, James!”

“I'm just going to the front desk for a moment.”

“Oh, good! We’ll come too!” She was as excited as if I had suggested a coveted trip to the beauty parlor.

“No, thank you.”

Elaine came out of the room and tripped along behind me.

I made it to the lobby, but couldn’t lose her.

I asked the front desk for ice. No one has ice in France. It is not one of their customs. Elaine wondered if we should go out and get some.

“No, no!” I made a mad dash for the elevator. Once upstairs, I managed to slam the door to my room before she could force her way in.

The window was my only hope. The electronic gadgets and high tech equipment that I carry were perhaps the closest I came to James Bond. The rappelling line was something I had only because it was a good source of strong, retractable wire. In this case, I was down to a half hour to get out of my room. I had no other options.

It didn’t take long to secure the device and launch myself out the window. I considered myself lucky to be on the side of the street with a dark, narrow alley.

France seemed like a fairly safe place. Who would have suspected that the hotel hired a guard to roam around the building? By the time I slid to the concrete, his flashlight blinded me. He waved what I took to be a weapon. I had no idea what he was yelling, but I was quite certain that at any moment Elaine would stick her head out the window.

Worse than Elaine, I got a trip to the local police office in something called a “smart” car.

The car was so small, it could be picked up and wedged into a parking spot the size of a shoe box. As for riding in the thing, it was like being crammed into a baby stroller.

At the police station, I withstood round upon round of questioning. I had proof that I was staying at the hotel, so the officers were having trouble figuring out why I had been repelling down the outside wall.

Seizing upon a moment of brilliance, I turned to the translator. “We’re headed to the Canyon du Verdon tomorrow. I was practicing for the cliffs.”

It took a couple of tries, but eventually, my excuse seemed to satisfy all concerned. The translator slumped into a chair with a grumbled, “The police will check to see if any guests have reported anything stolen.”

They were in no hurry. I remained chained to a pole until the wee hours of the morning.

By the time I stumbled into the hotel lobby, it was seven o’clock. I stank of cigarettes, sweat and alley-refuse. Elaine was in the lobby, but busy talking with great animation to her husband. In my current disguise as a disgusting, bleary-eyed bum, I was able to sneak back to my room.

Apparently I had been the topic of the frantic conversation downstairs. Don had only been able to buy me five minutes before Elaine came to find me.

Dripping from the shower, I yelled through the door, “I’m ill. I’m not going.” I had not met my contact. After a failed meet, there were procedures to be taken to ensure that neither agent had been compromised.

As soon as I was convinced that Elaine had departed, I called headquarters, but was immediately disturbed by pounding at the door. “James! James, are you all right?”

Luckily the ridiculous amount of noise she made allowed me to finish my business before opening the door. When I finally did, I said, “I’m not well. I should stay in for the day.”

I kept Elaine from barging in, but only by blocking the door. The woman was only four feet and a few inconsequential inches. She didn’t budge my almost six foot frame.

“You can't stay here alone.” Becka sounded as though the mere thought had brought her to tears. Then again, it might have been my appearance. My eyes were bloodshot and though I was clean, my room reeked from the clothes I had been wearing. No doubt I looked ill; my head throbbed as though Elaine were still pounding on the door.

It would take headquarters a minimum of twelve hours to clear the contact mess. Perhaps it would be more peaceful sleeping in the car than fighting with two hardy females for the next hour.

In the confusion of getting to the van, I went without breakfast, a sad fact that I realized the moment I was seated in the backseat next to Becka. I was starved. Worse, I had taken nothing for my headache. I put my poor head against the window and closed my eyes.

“Oh, you aren't feeling well,” worried Becka. “Maybe we should stay.”

Don was used to ignoring drivel. He kept driving. I made sure my eyes stayed closed and within minutes, exhaustion beat out hunger.

I was forced to wakefulness into a nightmare.

The car lurched wildly. Elaine screeched. There was a death-defying scream in my ear. Becka’s half-inch nails nearly took out my eye as she reached for me. Sadly, she lost her grip, and I lost strips off my face as her nails tried to regain ground.

Agents always carry weapons. Certain I was under attack, I went for my weapon, an ice-pick-like device tucked inside the frame of my glasses. Becka must be a secret agent from the other side sent to kill me.

She made a grab for my arm and left more gouges. The car lurched again. Horns honked madly around us.

Elaine shrieked, “There’s two lanes! Take that one, there’s our exit.” She shoved the map in front of Don’s bewildered gaze. Brakes screamed and suddenly Becka was in my lap.

She got a strangle-hold. With the one eye that wasn’t obscured, I glimpsed a traffic circle on which we were merrily cavorting.

Don shouted, “I thought it was a stop sign!”

Don had driven a traffic circle before. He was unable to exit and barely able to avoid the masses of cars coming on and off. In the meantime, Becka had decided she could safely kill me.

She clutched my neck and pressed my face into her breasts. While not a position I would normally complain about, I preferred to do it while still able to breathe.

Don turned the van sharply and exited. “Oh my God!” Elaine screeched in relief.

The van’s motion threw Becka sideways. “Mmgrgh!” I tried prying one of Becka’s hands free. My pick at the ready, I moved to slide it between her ribs.

Instead of fighting me, she collapsed against the far door. "Are we dead?" she whispered. There was no malice in her eyes, only tears and panic.

Frowning, I slid the pick under my hand. “Nearly.” Especially me. The cuts on my arm and face stung fiercely. My head pounded. My stomach growled. Perhaps I was better off dead. I righted my glasses and tried to sit up straight, keeping a close eye on Becka in case she decided to attack again.

“Oh, there’s a perfume factory,” Elaine exclaimed. “Can we stop?”

If a building went with the sign, we whizzed by too quickly for my eyes to see it. My empty stomach protested and threatened to launch itself.

We drove for many more hours, but never found the canyon. Don learned from the first traffic circle, but by the time we made it back to the hotel, he had a twitch in his right eye. I looked worse. My eyes were red and swollen from lack of sleep. Becka’s nails had left bloody scabs on my face and arms. A nasty bruise ran across my neck from her clutching hands.

Slamming the door of my room, I managed to shower faster than the competition. I snuck out on foot and found a pub.

By the time I got back to my room, the other three had left for one of the typical lengthy French dinners. I communicated with headquarters. They informed me of a new meet setup for the following afternoon.

Nearly incoherent from lack of sleep, I slept deep enough to have allowed someone as incompetent as Becka to slay me without effort.

At seven, during breakfast, I politely declined all invitations to drive into the “small alps.” Becka offered to stay with me again, but wasn’t quite as enthused as before. Perhaps she was getting the message or maybe the scars on my face embarrassed her into keeping some distance.

Eventually, the group set off without me.

At three o’clock, I threw on my swimsuit with a few special provisions.

The beaches in Nice, as Elaine had mentioned, were topless. Ignoring the sometimes enticing scenery, I laid out on a towel for a half hour before making my way to a jet ski booth. Since it was late in the afternoon, I wanted to appear interested, but not have to actually rent the things.

The woman already there was in deep conversation with the attendants. She was slim, tanned—and topless. When I made my request for a price list in hopeful English, the attendant ignored me. I tried my broken French phrases. “Combien?”

It was then that the female I was certain must be “Matty” turned and exclaimed, “Oh, you don’t speak French, do you?”

I opened my mouth to answer, but found myself too stunned to do so. The woman had the most beautiful breasts I had ever seen. They were perfect globes, as much as any man had a right to wish for, tanned and smooth as glass. My name, the real one and the code one, was lost.

She did her best to cover for me. “Or maybe you don’t speak English either?” The biting tone, if not the words, made it through to my brain.

For the first time in my life, I was meeting with a real James Bond movie candidate. I wanted to savor the moment, but alas, it could not have happened at a worse time. There were the scratches, which were bad enough. Since I had fallen asleep against the window in the van, my skin was a mottled sunburn all the way down my neck. Just as that bright color ended, there was the nice bruise from Becka. “I speak English,” I pronounced slowly, sadly. I managed to raise my eyes to her face, which was not at all disappointing. “It’s been an unbelievable vacation, is all.” This was code for, “put me out of my misery,” but it was guy code-speak, not agent-speak.

While I could have easily spent the rest of the night just staring at her, I didn’t think my ego could handle the rejection.

“Let me help you with the prices,” she said. I noticed her eyes were hazel, but then she began pointing to the various skis as the attendant rattled off numbers. Inevitably, my attention riveted to the supple movement below her neck.

I had to face the attendant to keep my sanity.

“How long are you staying?” she asked, pretending interest.

“A week. I think I’ll try the skis when I’m not quite so sunburned.” At last I was participating and moving the conversation forward.

She asked where I was from and oh, it turned out she had a sister visiting Texas! Could I tell her what it was really like there?

I babbled helpfully and asked if she knew where we could get a drink.

She knew the perfect place.

As we walked across the beach, she stopped at a towel and put on a bikini top and t-shirt.

Every part of me was disappointed.

We went to the restaurant and ordered drinks and appetizers. The jet ski attendants would remember a bumbling American getting lucky. The wait staff would remember a comfortable couple.

After an appropriate lull, she pulled various shopping purchases from her beach bag. Like any normal male, I pretended cursory interest. There was a music CD along with a souvenir shot glass, and of course, some perfume. It would be silly to wish for French lingerie when I had already been treated to a better eyeful at the beach.

After taking all this out, she looked at her watch. “Oh! I told them we’d meet them at six! We’ll be late!”

Quickly, I called for the bill and gave the waitress a credit card. “Matty” shoved things into her bag. Helpfully I grabbed up the CD and stuffed it in my case before asking for the bathroom. The innocuous looking music CD contained secret information accessible only by codes.

By the time I returned from the bathroom, Matty had signed the credit slip and pocketed the card. The card contained enough credit for the payment of services and was hers to keep.

We walked quickly towards Old Nice where the crowds swelled. With a few steps into the throng, we were separated.

I wandered aimlessly before accidentally spotting my friends. With a sigh, I slipped into my proper persona.

I managed one more day before I booked a flight home. I wasn’t certain if leaving early would be suspicious, but there is only so much a man can take.

As my plane lifted, I watched the sparkling Mediterranean below. I felt a sharp pang of regret when I saw jet skis in the bay. As I said, the life of a secret agent is nothing like James Bond, nothing at all.

Visit Maria at her blog: Bear Mountain Books

Saturday, June 26, 2010

My New Blogger Award!

Thank you to Lee Libro from Literary Magic for presenting me with this very pretty Versatile Blogger Award! She has a wonderful blog over there where she reviews books and does author interviews. I encourage everyone to check it out. It's my new favorite blog and not just because she gave me this award!

Now that I've received this award, I am supposed to:

1) Thank Lee and link back -- DONE! :-)

2) List 7 things about myself. Hmmmm . . .

my favorite movie is Out of Africa

I lived in Italy for two wonderful years

I'm deathly afraid of ferris wheels

butterflies make me smile

I have a strange aversion to men in cowboy boots

summer is my favorite season

pickles make me sneeze

3) I'm to pass on this award to 15 deserving bloggers I follow:

Two Ends of the Pen
Fiction Groupie
Writing Without Paper
Kirsten Blogs Here
When Kate Blogs
The Little Things
Things Debbie Needs to Say
Indie Books Blog
Janel's Jumble
Lotus Reads
Pencil To Paper
Rachel in the OC
So Rachel Says
Mary McDonald Has the Write Stuff
The Book Buff

THERE!!! 15 GREAT blogs! Check them out.

4) Notify them and tell them they can pick up their badge at your blog. I shall go do that now. And if you have just received this award from me, consider passing it on as well.

Thanks again Lee! I accept this award with great pride.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Book Trailer: Take the Monkeys and Run

Introducing my new book trailer for Take the Monkeys and Run. I hope you laugh a little. And if you like it, please, share it with your friends!!!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Take the Monkeys and Run, Available on Kindle Now!

I'm so excited to announce that my first novel, Take the Monkeys and Run, is now available for purchase on Amazon.com for Kindle, for just $2.99.

Take the Monkeys and Run is a fast and funny women's mystery about soccer mom and movie-lover, Barbara Marr, who gets a little too curious for her own good and uncovers a piece of neighborhood history that certain people would kill to keep quiet. When things spin out of control, Barb finds herself in the middle of her own deadly action-adventure just like the movies. The question is, can she rise up and be the heroine in her own story?

Check out Chapter One below:


The sky was black, my toes were numb and I was a lunatic.

Forgetting that our recent October nights had turned colder, I had set out on my mission barefoot. I had no idea what the thermometer said, but the ice cold brick beneath my unprotected feet told me plenty. And my worn-thin-through-the-years knit jammies were certainly no match against the biting air. Evidently I had left my brains in the house along with my shoes and down-filled parka. Indiana Jones, our orange Tabby, followed me and purred while he rubbed against my legs, offering a tinge of warmth at best.

I squinted into the darkness. “Three thirty in the morning. Am I totally insane, Indy?”


“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Yes, I’m a grown woman and I talk to my cat. What’s the big deal? My cousin Samson the psychiatrist tells the family I’m delusional and should be medicated. Pshaw I say. Samson has a psychiatrist of his own as well as a far more disturbing obsession with large farm animals, so I severely doubt his legitimacy. As long as Indiana Jones talks to me, I’ll keep talking to him.

My name is Barbara Marr. I’m not a lady coroner, bounty hunter or crime scene investigator. I don’t fight vampires, werewolves or flesh-eating zombies destined to destroy humanity. Even worse, I don’t knit, sew, bake gourmet goodies for sweet English ladies or refinish houses then flip them for a profit. In fact, I lack a veritable encyclopedia of talents and accomplishments. I have managed to give birth to three children, but when my teenage daughter looks at me like I’m an alien from the planet Freak, I wonder at my parenting abilities.

Then of course there is my marriage. Not long ago I would have bragged to anyone about our solid bond. True love. True fidelity and commitment. That was before Howard dropped the bomb and moved out. So perpetuating matrimony can be added to the list of things I don’t do.

When reviewing the list of lifetime achievements for which I am proud, being mother to my three girls sits at the very top, followed by the time I saw Yul Brenner in a convenience store and discreetly let him know he had ketchup on his chin. He was so thankful that he autographed a bag of Fritos for me.

And most recently I got familiar with the video camera again and shot a music video with my daughters. We called it Four White Girls Do Madonna. I posted it on You-Tube and got over twenty-five views. It was very exciting. Still, I’m not exactly setting the world on fire.

So when Howard left, I decided it was time to resurrect my dream and write about movies. I love the movies. Old movies, new movies, musicals, dramas, comedies, westerns, action, science-fiction, and anything starring Meryl Streep. Some years ago, in between changing diapers and potty training, I had bought a domain name, ChickAtTheFlix.com, with the intention of building a movie review website. I kept the domain name, but got side-tracked by little things like ear infections, strep throat, pre-school, elementary school and baby number three. Now, with my life deteriorating before my eyes, the time had come to take the bull by the proverbial horns and start anew.

After putting the girls to bed, I needed a way to keep my mind off Howard. I plotted and planned a grand design. The website would contain reviews of current release movies as well as DVD releases of older classics. I would also have a weekly blog where I waxed enthusiastic on different subjects of the cinema. Since I had just recently watched a Men of Mystery Film Festival on the Classic Movie Channel, my first blog title would be, “Charlie Chan or Sherlock Holmes? Whodunnit Better?”

At two a.m., I was too tired to think about the website, but too upset about my marriage to sleep, so I turned on the TV. Movie fare included The First Wives Club, A Bill of Divorcement, An Unmarried Woman and The Breakup on HBO. Disgusted, I turned off the TV, turned out the lights and contemplated learning voodoo so I could hex Howard with a festering urinary tract infection.

By three a.m., I had been crying for at least twenty minutes when I heard the rumble of a truck outside my bedroom window. Suddenly, I had something else to occupy my frazzled mind. The truck was back at House of Many Bones.

And that was how I ended up outside on a cold, fall night with no shoes on.


Howard hadn’t changed the porch light bulb before skipping out, so I was resigned to forging ahead with my crackpot scheme sans illumination to guide me. I’d give him a piece of my mind the next time I saw him. Not that I knew when that would be.

With teeth chattering, I crossed my arms and shuffled forward blindly down the brick walk from my front door, intent on catching a glimpse of the activity next door at House of Many Bones.

“Come on boy,” I said to my cat. “You can protect me.”

Indiana trailed behind, but I detected trepidation in his gait.

Nine Hundred White Willow Circle, dubbed by me as House of Many Bones, was the neighboring house to my left, and the current source of my midnight madness. A contemporary style home with avocado green painted siding and beige trim, it camouflaged nicely with its wooded lot and appeared to be like any other house in our quaint and quiet town.

But appearances can be deceiving.

This particular house had been vacant for nearly thirty years. Even stranger, none of the retired couples who had lived on our street long enough to have some knowledge of its history would talk squat about it. They’d talk about the weather, how much their new roof cost, or the woes of their latest hip replacement, but they wouldn’t give up one itsy bitsy little word about the strangely vacant house. In my twisted mind, there could be only one reason a place stays uninhabited that long: skeletons. Be they literal or figurative, I was sure that house just had to be full of skeletons.

I had developed my skeleton theory and coined the nickname five years ago – not long after we moved into the neighborhood. Every Tuesday, rain or shine, I observed a rusty El Camino pull into the driveway of Nine Hundred White Willow Circle at one o’clock sharp. One hunched-over, arthritic man would crawl out of the car, do various jobs around the place then leave. After a few weeks, being the neighborly sort I am, I attempted contact. He had just finished mowing the lawn. The meeting remains vivid in my memory.

“Hi there!” I remember saying, offering my hand for a friendly shake and smiling my friendliest smile. “I’m Barb. Barbara Marr. We just moved in next door.”
He didn’t return my smile. Instead, my hand lingered awkwardly mid-air. I pretended to swat at a fly instead, just to avoid looking foolish. I highly doubt that I accomplished that goal.

Undeterred by his silence, I bumbled forth. “So, I notice you don’t actually live here. Do you own the place, Mr . . . .”

Mr. Whoever-He-Was just stood there staring. Bent, wrinkled and mute. As the silent seconds ticked by, I started getting nervous like a dog that doesn’t like eye contact. If I’d had a flea to scratch, I would have scratched it. He broke the stare by pulling a hanky from his back pocket and wiping the sweat off his face. Then he blew his nose. I cringed.

“So,” he said finally, replacing the hanky. “You like your life?”

“Excuse me?” I covered my mouth, trying not to gag. That whole, blow-your-snot-into-a-piece-of-cloth-then-cram-it-in-your-pants thing has disgusted since I was five and saw Grandpa Joe blow a loogie the size of Texas into a dinner napkin thinking it was his trusty, crusty nose cloth. I still turn green remembering.

“It ain’t a trick question, Toots. Do you like your life?” He pointed a gnarled finger in my face.

“Yes,” I gulped, a little disturbed by his manner, but also surprised to hear someone actually say “Toots.” I was sure only criminals in 1940’s gangster flicks used that word. “Yes,” I coughed. “I do like my life.”

“Then don’t come over here again askin’ questions. Very simple. Stay away from me. Stay away from this house.” He moved off, pushing the lawnmower to the garage.
Needless to say, that was the beginning and the end of our relationship. And that’s when I decided there was probably a whole lot more in that house than dust and cobwebs. Who knew what madness lingered in the mind of Grumpy Lawnmower Guy? Maybe years ago he chopped up more with that lawnmower than just blades of grass, and now only the bones lay hidden within the walls of that house just waiting to tell their sad story.

So at three o’clock in the morning, nearly five years later when I heard a truck with muffler issues rumbling into the driveway next door for the second night in a row, my curiosity was piqued. Ubur-piqued. Grumpy Lawnmower Guy was scary, but he was predictable to a fault. Middle-of-the-night errands were not his style. Not at all. Something was definitely up in my generally calm little corner of Rustic Woods, Virginia and I wanted to know what. And Lord knew I needed a diversion from masterminding painful plots on Howard’s well-being. Hence my frigid barefoot foray into the cricket infested dark night. Truth be told, I was probably also channeling a bit of the Chan-man after watching that Men of Mystery Film Festival.

Regardless the reason, I was moving forward and the only question really was, should I keep going? Reaching my driveway, I realized that acquiring a reasonable view of the house or the mysterious truck was going to be harder than I thought. First, the black of night was a major impediment. With no moon or streetlights to help, I was like a bat with radar malfunction. Secondly, the significant distance between the two houses and the fact that they were separated by a line of dense trees and shrubbery meant I would have to walk out into the middle of the street to really see anything of worth.

“What do you think, Indy,” I whispered. “Out to the street or back to our house?”
He didn’t answer. He purred and rubbed, but he was keeping mum.

“The street is cold and the house is warm, and at least I was able to see the top of the truck from my bedroom window. And one of the girls could wake up and get scared if they don’t find me in bed. Whadaya say?” I was weighing the pros and cons with my hands moving up and down like the Scales of Justice. “Street? House? Street? House?”


“Great minds think alike.”

The cat and I agreed that a warm and toasty house was a far better alternative to a frigid and fruitless expedition. Turning back toward the front walk, I stopped when my eyes caught a hint of light glowing through the trees between my property and House of Many Bones. Based on the location of the light and how low to the ground it was, I had to assume it was coming from one or more of its basement windows near the rear. Aha, thought I. Maybe there was something to see inside that window. The gears of my curious mind were turning again.

“Look at that,” I whispered again. “Maybe we should just take a gander over to those trees, peek through and . . .”

“Out for a nighttime stroll?”

With a jump, I grabbed my pounding heart and stifled a scream that, left un-stifled, might have aroused the entire neighborhood. Luckily, it was just my neighbor and friend Roz, who had sneaked up from behind, nearly causing me a major myocardial meltdown.

“Don’t scare me like that.”

Roz Walker lived in the house on my other side. She was smart. She was wearing shoes. Fleece lined. And a puffy coat over a flannel robe. Playboy wouldn’t be calling her anytime soon, but she was warm.

“Sorry.” She handed me a flash light. “You look like you could use this.”

I turned on the flashlight. “Thanks. How partial are you to those shoes?”

“You’re spying aren’t you?”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“You first.”

“Of course I’m spying. So are you. Your turn.” I shined the light onto her shoes for emphasis.

“Keeping the shoes. Not necessarily partial to them, but I like my feet. You can keep the flashlight though. I won it in a raffle.”

“What are you doing awake at this hour?” I tucked the flashlight under my arm so I could blow warm air into my icy hands.

“The truck woke me up. You?”

“Never fell asleep.”


“Instead of counting sheep, I tried counting my blessings. When that didn’t work, I tried counting ways to hurt my hideous husband.”

“Did that help?”

“I’m awake, aren’t I?” With fingers warmed enough to function again, I shined some light onto my lawn illuminating a maze of carved pumpkins and Styrofoam tombstones. “Can you see the truck from your house?”

Roz shook her head. “Barely. I could see you real good though.” She tugged at my sleeve. “Did you know your pajamas glow in the dark?”

“They’re Halloween pjs – those are little ghosts.” I pointed to the glowing white figures on my top. “I’m trying to stay festive despite the sad state of my life.” I shined the light toward House of Many Bones. “Do you think it’s a moving truck?”

“Could be. Small one.” Roz’s breath was visible when she talked.

“Did you see Grumpy Lawnmower Guy?” I started bouncing to get my blood flowing.

“I didn’t see anybody. Maybe the house has been rented or sold and someone’s moving in."

“At three thirty in the morning?”

“Actually, it’s after four now. You should go back inside and try to get some sleep.”

My ears detected a faint noise from next door.

“Wait!” I stopped bouncing. “Did you hear that?”


“That.” I turned my ear. “You don’t hear it? It sounds like . . . hmm.”


“It kind of sounds like a monkey.”

“It’s your cat.”

“No. No it’s not.” Reaching down, I picked up Indiana Jones and held him under one arm. The noise was still there. Almost a vibration. Barely audible, but definitely from House of Many Bones.

“I’m going a little closer. I’m sure I hear something.”

“Well you’re on your own. Peter made me promise to come out just long enough to give you the flashlight and find out what you were up to.”

“Then give me your shoes.”

“No way. I have to walk through sticker vines to get back to my house. Come by tomorrow for coffee. Or lunch, depending on when you wake up.” She flicked on her own flashlight and stepped gingerly away, leaving Indy and me alone to fend for ourselves.

Stepping out onto the frosty grass, I had second thoughts. The icy blades felt like millions of needles pricking the bottoms of my nearly gangrenous feet. Damn! At the very least, I was going to need a pair of shoes if I was going to attempt a peek through those trees. The minor noise had faded anyway. And maybe Roz was right. Maybe this was as simple as new neighbors moving in. Neighbors who worked odd hours. A bartender perhaps. A bartender bringing a few things by after his shift ended at two.

Reason trumped wild imagination. I took two steps backward onto the driveway and put the cat back down.

“Let’s go, Indy. We’re not cut out for adventure after all.”

I hadn’t even turned back toward my own house when out of the blue, piercing the dead still of the night, a high pitched howl stopped me in my tracks and sent my heart rate racing at breakneck speed. This was no vague sound drifting through the crisp night air. This was loud, sharp and painful to the ears. Sort of a man-beast howl. Hard to describe, but every decibel was chilling to the bone. Seconds later, I heard a door at the rear of the house swoosh open followed a flurry of activity on the ground behind House of Many Bones. Leaves rustled wildly and there was a pounding of footsteps. I couldn’t see what was happening, but it didn’t sound good. It seemed that something very violent was going down. I looked back for Roz, but she was long gone.

Forgetting my feet altogether, I flew up the driveway, across the walk and up to my front door. Indiana had beat me there and was clawing to get in. As my hand landed on the door knob and turned, I heard a man yell from the backyard.

“Toes!” he screamed.

Wow, that was one mad bartender.

Indiana and I leapt across the threshold. We were inside, but not yet safe in my mind. Just before the door slammed shut, I heard the man yell again.

“Toes, you stupid, chickenshit! Get back here!”

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"At the Cafe" by Misha Crews

Donald stood on the sidewalk, gazing impatiently about him. Donald was usually impatient. Behind him, people at the Childe Harold CafĂ© laughed and ate at round tables covered with white table cloths. In front of him, cars and buses rolled by, spewing exhaust to mix with the smell of good food and fresh flowers wafting through the air from behind. People walked by him – or walked around him, really, for the sidewalk was narrow and Donald was unyielding in his position. Half a block away, more people floated up from underground, riding the escalator out of the subway station.

It was to this group of people that Donald now directed his attention. Possibly, quite possibly, he would catch sight of a familiar figure, slim with untidy red hair, hurrying to meet him, apologizing for being late yet again: Lisa. During the eighteen months that they had known each other, Donald had been hard put to become tolerant of her constant tardiness. But eventually he had come to realize there might be one or two facets of his personality that she would find hard to accept, so graciously he acknowledged that it was a part of her with which he would have to live. Then gradually he had come to realize that it was a part of her – along with other parts – that he would not be able to live without. In fact, it was her entire self that had become strenuously necessary to his survival, and he had decided (much to his surprise) that he loved her and wanted to marry her. He had said as much the last time they had spoken.

She had been surprisingly hesitant at his proposal, saying that they were both so young, that they had so much time left in front of them, why rush into things…all the things that one might expect to hear, except that Donald had not expected to hear them from Lisa – his Lisa. His sweet Lisa with her sweet wild-gypsy red hair and sweet wide dark eyes and sweet creamy-pale skin – Donald halted this line of thinking firmly. It was just too…mushy (for lack of a better term) and Donald was never mushy.

After their last conversation, in which Donald had proposed and Lisa put him off, he had spent several agonizing hours contemplating the prospect of life without her as his wife. Never in his life had Donald experienced self-doubt, and he was not happy with feeling it now, just when he needed his confidence most. Then he had gotten her message to meet him here, at the Childe Harold, where they had first met. That seemed an omen, somehow: the place of their meeting, would it also be the place of their separation?

Standing on the sidewalk, Donald’s impatience masked his uncertainty. What if she didn’t love him? What if she said no? What would he do then?

The next second, those three questions were forgotten, pushed away forever, their answers never necessary. He didn’t need a “yes” or a “no” to know that Lisa would marry him, all he needed was the sight in front of him now: Lisa running down the street, hair flying out behind her, calling his name. All he needed was the feel of her jumping into his arms, laughing. All he needed was to know that his future with her was assured.

And this he did know.

Misha Crews is the author of Homesong (Vanilla Heart Publishing, 2008) and the soone-to-be-released Still Waters, a tale of love and deception, set in 1950's Arlington, Virginia. You can learn more about Misha and read excerpts of her work at her website Misha Crews.

Monday, June 14, 2010


We have two winners!

Vanessa and Natasha have both won an autographed copy of Kim Wright's debut fiction novel, Love in Mid-Air.

Thanks to all who entered, and as always, thank to all who follow this blog.

Tune in tomorrow when we post a short story by author, Misha Crews, whose second novel, Still Waters, will be released in August of 2010.