Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide Excerpt

I hear voices behind me, but I don’t have room for any more bodies in my space, so I ignore them. When I look back to Maria, she flings her eyes past me. She’s mad, too, that much is easy to see. But then the tension melts, her eyes drop impossibly wide, and her mouth silently opens.

Her obvious shock is like a PTSD trigger, and it blindsides me so that for a moment, I can’t move either. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that look on her, and somehow I expect that if I turn around, I’ll see her brother risen from the dead.

Josh moves closer to her, so that he’s almost touching her, and he glares past me. The voices behind me die, and so does the movement. Abruptly, I’m right in the middle of a silent firefight that I don’t comprehend.

I step to the side as I turn around, so that I’m at her other shoulder. Abuela’s directives be damned, I will always be her right hand. I fight the urge to draw arms within these walls as my vision lands on the offending party. 

For a moment that lasts longer than I would ever admit, he looks like just another guy – an uppity thirty-something in a snob’s clothes, not packing any heat on his hip or shoulder. But the moment passes, and those angular cheeks and broad jaw are too familiar. He’s barely been gone long enough for me to forget that I took his seat only because he left.

He’s a bit thinner, a lot browner, and all kinds of dressed up. I can’t say I was torn up when he left us, but he did leave us. He turned his back on what was supposed to be his crew. Never mind that I was willing to do the same thing, on one tiny difference of condition. I wouldn’t leave without her, but he did. It made sense, but that didn’t make it OK.

Then the details begin to click into place like a well-oiled machine. The man beside him is Jorge, our most recent heroin hero, on the scene with a deal to end all deals. The guy worthy of a family dinner in his honor.

Jorge is skinny, greasy, and appalling in a general sense. He wears his long hair in a slick, low ponytail, and sports a long, equally greasy goatee. At the moment, he’s standing half a step behind Isaiah, openly assessing the threat that hangs vaguely between the other four people in the hallway.

Isaiah, here, in one of the most guarded and secret locations under Abuela’s extensive network. With Jorge, who just made a really impressive connection and got a pat on the back. What the fuck has Izzy been into this past year? 

Isaiah isn’t armed, so there’s no threat, but Josh and I are formed up on Maria as though a SWAT team is about to storm the windows and doors. Whatever internal hang-ups we have be damned, nobody from the outside will ever get a glimpse of that. We stand together.

Except this isn’t even my division anymore.

Izzy’s eyes scan over the three of us, slow and methodical as one might expect, and brave. He looks each of us directly in the eyes. He doesn’t shove his hands in his pockets. He doesn’t walk away. There’s no cigarette in his hand. He just stands his ground. He’s different in his stature, more comfortable, less cautious. 

He was always the best among us at reading people, but he was only barely better than me, and that’s just because he had a little empathy where I had no time for that shit. It only takes me a moment to see what Maria did to him.

She destroyed what little he had left, from whatever life he had before. He’s more like me than ever, and all it takes to tell me that is the reckless gleam in his eyes. Maybe for the first time, I can relate to him, and no one has said a word. I think he wants someone to say something. I think he wants to snap. 

What righteous hell is this?

Rising Tide available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and KindleUnlimited April 15, 2021.

Cadillac Payback Crew: Charlie

I have been completely up in the air about what to share in the Caddy ‘verse today. I was undecided until about an hour ago. I have chosen, because I’m the author publishing my own stuff and I can make this decision, to share with you a glimpse of the only member of the crew you won’t meet in the books. Charlie, the central force, big brother, and leader.

My disclaimer here is that what I’m sharing has not been through an editor. It’s a raw piece of history I wrote a while back. If I’ve learned anything from past experience it’s that if you start a story with a dead brother, you will write him eventually. I’m surprised it took me as long as it did. I love him even more for it.

So without anymore delay, I give you Charlie.

I’m staring at a gun barrel. It’s pointed at my chest. Outwardly, I haven’t moved since he drew on me. Internally, all I can hear is my heart pounding.

“What are you doing, Warren?” I ask. When I lift my eyes he shifts his weight.

“He’s hustlin’ me, Charlie,” he says. There’s sweat breaking on his forehead.

When I look him in the eye he shifts again.

“Of course he’s hustling you. He’s obviously a rookie. I don’t remember that being punishable by death,” I say.

Warren’s eyes cut from me to the kid he was threatening just minutes before now. If I really thought Warren had it in him, I’d choose now to draw. But his heart isn’t in it. He turned his gun on me before he recognized me.

“Do you really want to draw on me, Warren?”

“I didn’t mean to,” he mutters, his attention flitting back to me.

“I know. Put the gun away. I’m not going to retaliate,” I tell him. The whole time I’m consciously relaxing the muscles in my shoulders, in case this gets ugly.

Warren looks at me like a dog who has been kicked too many times. He knows he fucked up and he doesn’t quite believe me that I won’t kill him if he takes his aim off of me. I get it, honestly. As his internal conflict rages, his gun slowly lowers to his side.

“Put it away, Warren, and we’re done here,” I say. I still haven’t moved.

He holsters so I gesture toward the building with my chin.

“Time to go,” I say.

He nods and shuffles away inside the bar’s back door. A long breath slows my pulse. I pull my smokes from my pocket, lip one, and light it. I hear the stranger move again and release a shaky breath. I take a drag and angle toward him.

He’s young, maybe my sister’s age. His eyes are wide. He’s wearing jeans and plain black t-shirt. He probably goes to Tulane.

“Close one,” I muse, slightly lifting an eyebrow. I don’t smirk at him, but my tone is definitely goading.

“Hey man, thanks,” he says in a rush. The hands hanging at his sides are shaking. He’s scared shitless.

“A word of advice, rookie, this territory is taken. If you want to hustle, go back to the playground,” I tell him, casually sliding my free hand in my pocket.

The movement catches his attention. He freezes, waiting to see if I’m going to draw on him, too. Now I let a small smile play on my lips.

“You’re not even strapped, are you?”

His shoulders deflate and he kicks at a wadded up paper bag on the ground.

“No,” he admits quietly.

I take another hit from my cigarette and shake my head. This guy is gonna get himself killed.

“Can I buy you a drink, you know, as thanks?” he says, his tone more hopeful than I would have expected.

“You got a name, rookie?”

“Josh.”

I pull my hand out of my pocket and extend it.

“I’m Charlie.”

He stares at it warily, then accepts. His handshake is firm despite his obvious fear. I flick my cigarette at the ground and add, “Come on.”

I head back in the bar without waiting to see if he’ll follow. Where else is he going to go? When the door swings wide, there’s someone poised to open it. My hand twitches toward my gun, but recognition stops me.

“You OK?” Isaiah asks, his eyes skipping over my shoulder to the new kid.

“Gravy,” I say with a grin.

He nods and turns back inside. I’m on his heels and Josh brings up the rear. He follows us to the semicircle booth where we’re posted up.

“Did you finally find a boyfriend?” Noah asks around the cigarette hanging from his lips.

“I thought he was more your type,” I tell him, sliding into the booth. I tip up my PBR, drain it, then add, “Anyway, next round is on him.”

“You’re right, he is my type,” Noah says with a big smile.

“I think shots are in order,” Jack weighs in.

He has one arm slung over the back of the booth, and he’s sizing up the new arrival with a passive expression. His dark hair is hanging against his shoulders and he has a hand on his Budweiser bottle.

Josh is standing awkwardly by the table. His eyes are bouncing among the rest of us as we candidly volunteer him to buy us liquor. When he realizes what I’ve done, his expression becomes a scowl that tugs at the corners of my lips.

“Tequila all around,” I say with a nod.

“Good call!” Noah says.

“Go help him carry them,” Jack says to his younger brother.

“What? Why do I have to go?” Noah protests.

“So he doesn’t spill them all on the way back,” Jack says, lifting an eyebrow. His expression is enough to let us all know this won’t be an argument.

“Oh, what the fuck,” Noah says with a groan. Still, he stabs out his smoke, scoots out of the booth and mutters, “Fine. Come on, new guy.”

Josh gives the rest of us another calculating glance then follows Noah toward the bar.

Jack watches them for a moment then locks eyes with me. He raises his eyebrows expectantly. After years of being friends, he doesn’t need to put a voice to the questions in his gaze.

“I found him out back about the get himself shot. He hustling something. Doing a shitty job, too,” I say.

“So that’s why Warren came through here sulking,” Izzy says, lighting a cigarette.

I nod, grabbing Izzy’s pack off the table and shaking one out. He watches me do it, his lips pressed in a thin line, but he doesn’t say anything. He lifts his lighter, flicks the flame to life. I duck the end of the smoke to the flame and light it.

“So you invited him to join us?” Izzy says in an unamused tone.

“He offered to buy me a drink,” I answer with a shrug. “You know, for saving his ass.”

“What a hero,” Izzy says flatly.

Jack snickers and brushes some wayward strands of hair over his shoulder. There’s a fresh burn on his forearm in the shape of a grill grate. He looks back toward the bar and I know he’s tracking his brother.

“You’ve been watching that kid since he walked in here,” Izzy says.

“So have you, I’m not stupid, Iz,” I answer. My tone is nonchalant, but he’ll know better than to think I’m taking the situation so lightly.

“Apparently he is,” Izzy answers.

“I don’t know about that,” I say, catching Izzy’s frown in my periphery. “Stupid and inexperienced are different matters.”

“Looks like Noah is making a friend out of him,” Jack says, his eyes still on his brother’s back.

“Noah would make friends with a snake after it bit him,” Izzy says. One of his hands is idling on his amberbock as the other transfers his cigarette to his lips.

“That’s not entirely true,” Jack answers, side-eying Isaiah. We all know that though Noah can – and usually will – talk to anyone, he’s a damn fine judge of character.

When the younger two return, Noah has two shots sitting on the palm of his left hand and one shot in his right hand. Josh is holding one in each hand. Noah reaches his left hand toward Izzy and me, and we both take one. Josh hands one to Jack and waits for a cue.

“To Charlie. Not all heroes wear capes,” Jack says snidely.

A laugh tumbles out of me as we clink glasses and toss back the shots. I watch Josh over the rim. He grimaces, but he keeps it down.

“Everyone, this is Josh,” I say, drawing attention to him as he battles the tequila gods.

Noah is also watching with a one-sided smirk as Josh tries to handle the liquor. Noah points when he says, “Jack, Charlie, Isaiah. And I’m Noah.”

Josh just nods at us. I can still see uncertainty in his eyes. He’s either not sure how to handle the dynamic among us, or he’s not sure if he measures up to our league. It’s a strange thing to think, but I have this feeling that with the right guidance, he’d fit in just fine.

“I sure could use a smoke break,” Izzy says grimly.

I watch Josh’s eyes bounce from the cigarette in Izzy’s hand to me, then get wide as the words seem to make sense. He’s quick minded, I’ll give him that.

“That’s a damn fine idea. Who brought the blunt?” I say.

“Got it,” Noah answers, patting his pocket.

Without any more directive, we start sliding out of the booth. The others head toward the back door. Josh just stands there, watching us. I meet his eye from over my shoulder and say, “You coming?”

His eyes brighten and he nods.

Cadillac Payback Crew: Frederick

I’ve always been the kind of guy to instigate action. Call me a catalyst, but if you want to do something, don’t fuck around about it. I’m also the kind of guy who gets the same half-cocked response from a sleek and functional weapon as I do from a hot bitch. That’s why I always work guard duty. 

It’s why I’m sitting in the cool of the first hours of morning, feet propped on the railing of Noah’s balcony, my .50 cal Desert Eagle resting in my lap with its silencer lodged comfortably against my thigh. It’s why I’m up here sitting in the open, darkened doorway instead of downstairs, behind drawn shades with a bunch of really dangerous assholes who I’d rather fight than talk to. 

“Lighten up,” Noah says beside me, setting his lips in a grim line. He makes a dramatic pause, waits for the scathing look that is my reaction. Then he laughs.

I hold the serious expression just long enough to make his smile fade. Then, just as everyone always does, I fall victim to his charm. I grant a dry laugh at his questioning gaze. If it were anybody else, he’d be knocked out already or defending himself, depending on his reaction time. But it’s Noah, so I sneer into the early morning.

“I’m high as a damn kite,” I scoff, watching him produce a cigarette from a pack of Camel Turkish Royals. “Doesn’t get much lighter than that.”

He, too, has been fettered to this guard post. We are strange company, my temperament too salty for negotiations, his far too lighthearted. Noah is the type who’d just as well stay out of that shit. Generally, so am I, if for different reasons. This time, though, I’m pissed that she didn’t take me. 

“Don’t you have faith in our girl?” he asks, pushing back the brim of a black, tweed Trilby hat with the barrel of his Glock 9 mm as he closes his lips around a smoke.

“Faith doesn’t stop itchy trigger fingers.” I wave away the pack he pushes in my direction, his arm like a muscled art exhibition. He knows I don’t smoke. 

I look to my own tattoo, a red-banded daisho on my left forearm, the handle of the katana starting at the elbow and its sheath running to my wrist. I’m supposed to be her guard, but she ordered me here, where I can’t do a damn thing. I won’t say that shit to Noah, though.

The cigarettes linger in the space between offering and rebuke, and his features crunch in suspicion. I’m used to it, nobody ever really believes me when I say I don’t smoke. The weight of the street life that keeps our heads above water also drags life to a sluggish halt in moments like this. Then he sighs and the haze of introspection clears.

He pockets his smokes and lights up. A haunting, urgent tune drifts from the stereo inside, a song of hot grunge guitar and a high-hat-punctuated beat. My knee bounces with the aggravating rhythm, but I won’t react on base response. I opt for the cold truth that’s been nettling at my resolve.

“Josh doesn’t know dick about protecting her.” I shrug, eyes latching onto a shiny black Crown Victoria below, which creeps into view near the store front. The windows of it are darker than the shadows that hide us.

“Josh is good,” Noah points out, exhaling a thin stream of smoke. 

The Vic rolls on down the street and I turn my blatant “beg to differ” on him. The smoke curls against his shoulder like his thick hair, both of which upset as he laughs at the ferocity of my reaction. 

“He’s a joke, can’t take anything seriously,” I spit, pulling my legs down and leaning forward anxiously. I nail Noah with a humorless stare and my tone flattens. “Like you.”

“And you’re a dick, Freddy, but they keep you because you’ve got a good eye. That and some twisted fetish with weaponry.” 

He leans forward, too, flashing his little boy smile in my direction. That’s Noah: never gets angry over the small hitches in the road, has a penchant for the truth. 

It’s not the whole truth, really. They keep me because I have connections they never could. They keep me because I’m a walking arsenal with a need to intimately know the tools that will keep me alive. When you grow up in swamp country, you gain a little respect for personal protection. 

There’s humor in Noah’s eyes, but his voice is serious when he says, “That’s why you’re here, it’s what you do.” 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Noah cut the clown shit and lay it down. 

“Besides,” he sniffs, taking a drag, “Jack runs a good meeting and Izzy’s there, too. They’ll be fine.” 

I stubbornly stare at the street below, and say, “Yeah, great, so Izzy can shove his hands in his pockets and shrug at them.”

It doesn’t matter who else is there – if it’s not me, it’s not good enough. I’ve got the best gun, fastest, most accurate. We all know it. And I’ve got rank. Josh doesn’t know his gun from his ass.

I stand just to move. I lay the black piece against the railing with a clang as I lean on it. Just as several potential nasty replies surface in my thoughts, the Crown Vic glides back into view. I freeze, glaring at it, and so does Noah. 

“Still wish you were inside?” he wonders with a hint of sarcasm.

“Negative,” I grunt, straightening and training my barrel on the passenger window just in case. 

Frederick is, by far, the most tragic character I’ve ever written. He comes with a hard past, a strict personal code, and a mind like a machine. There’s no gray area with him. He doesn’t play nice for anyone, not even the other men in the crew. He is also my favorite of the four if you rank them on total product.

I feel like the first book really only gives you just a taste of his personality, even the chapters from his POV. He totally steps it up in the sequel. He gave me a view from under the surface, and we get to see his brilliance in action.

Without giving away too much, I will say (for me) he is one-hundred percent the MVP of Rising Tide. His narrative truly drives the story. His decisions push the line. He may also break your heart a little. He did mine. Of all the characters in these two books, he is the one who makes me wish the story weren’t over so I could write more of him. Who knows, maybe I will someday.

And now, for an excerpt from Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide:

I roll the Indian into the garage lot, and park it. I let the engine growl for a bit before I shut it off. The only time I enjoy turning heads is when they hear this streamlined beast coming. This bike came back from the dead. Only true fans could understand.

Josh is already here, the garage door is up, and so is his hood. A greased-up Cajun by the name of Spanky is checking out the car’s guts. I think that’s his name, anyway.

Spanky is one of the few associates of mine whose interest lies almost solely in a legal trade. He knows where to get old parts for real cheap, and though sometimes I don’t know what the fuck he’s saying to me, he’s reliable. He owns the place, and for a fat sack, he lets me use his space when he can. He’s used to seeing the Caddy. The Challenger is a new treat.

I swing a leg over my bike, then replace my road goggles with my wire-framed glasses. The days are fading earlier the closer we get to fall, and the air has cooled from the mid-summer shroud of humidity and heat. The ride over was nice, wind against my face, carrying what last bits of aggravation lingered from the earlier part of the day.

Everything changes tomorrow, but tonight, I’ve agreed to do a tune up on Josh’s Challenger. He offered me money, but I won’t take it. I just want to get elbow deep in that machine.

I’ve dressed down in a pair of stained jeans, my old motorcycle boots, and a pristine white t-shirt. It’s something of a ritual, the process of getting a clean shirt dirty. I can hear Spanky jawing at the engine in an appreciative tone, and I smirk as I approach. Josh is watching Spanky’s backside with a look of confusion, which he turns on me, like I can somehow explain.

I say, “She’s a damsel, eh, Spanky?”

“Daaaaayum straight,” he answers, with a drawn out “Wooooooeeeeee” as punctuation.

He straightens and gives me a half-cocked grin. The grease on his cheeks makes what’s left of his teeth seem almost white. Somehow I think under that layer of muck, his skin is pale as a newborn, and he never sees the sun without a solid mask of grit.

He points at a large dirty cooler full of ice and clear beer bottles, and says, “Youawnt’un?”

I shake my head and hand over a rolled-up fast food bag, which contains a few flat, oozing burgers and his weed. His eyes light up when he sees it. As much as he’d love to stay and drool over Josh’s toy, he’d just as rather go get high and down some disgusting food. He nods to us, and disappears into the bowels of the garage.

“What the fuck?” Josh mutters under his breath as he snags a beer for himself.

He eyes the label, Miller High Life, and his expression turns down in distaste. It’s so haughty that I almost give him shit for being such a picky bitch. He pops the top anyway and takes a swig. 

I’ve been riding for a while, so there’s already a layer of road dirt on my face. It was the best way to find the space to breathe after everything clicked just out of place at the Garden District house. That moment has been carefully boarded up and stored for later inspection.

There’s a strange ease in knowing the secrets are out, at least as far as our inner crew is concerned. The mandate has been passed, all applicable parties have been notified. Effective immediately. Except not really. Tonight I’m a free agent, floating too far from the ground to control my landing. 

Freddy’s songs on the Rising Tide playlist:

You Lied by Peach

You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine by Death From Above 1979

When I Die by The Heavy

View the whole playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSgJKLWWisA-ZmHhzzvPOacwXC485gR4c

Cadillac Payback Crew: Joshua

Business is slow at the restaurant. Today is the top of the week, two hours to close, and I’m standing behind a bar shaded by neon blue lights. It’s Jack’s first night open since Noah got jumped, and whether it’s because it’s Monday, or the rumors of the shooting, the place is dead.

I haven’t had to do much other than pop the tops off a couple beers, and make change a few times. That may be a good thing, since I don’t know dick about bartending. Right now, it takes everything I have not to fidget. I’m not used to being confined to a small space, surrounded by glass bottles that more or less look the same. The blue light is still nice, even from this side of the bar, but this wasn’t what I had in mind in assuming the role of the diplomat.

It took me halfway through this day to realize that when Maria said Jack might need help, that I could literally help him keep his books. She sent me, the son of a banker, the one who had followed in his father’s footsteps until his arrest.

I know numbers, know the right columns and decimals. Without ever having to ask, I know that Noah is the math kid, and Jack is the creative kid. I’ve always known that Maria is smart, but still I’m impressed with her directive – as much as I hate it.

I hate it, because I hate numbers. I hate it because it made my dad a cold, greedy bastard. 

I hate it because she’s so far from me, with only Izzy to protect her, and maybe I hate it that she was right. 

I’ve never had a real job, just a lot of school. Somehow this is not what I imagined.

I’m staring at two men boxing on the TV screen, when movement in front of me catches my attention. It takes me a moment to swim out of my introspection, and to register the blonde female who has just sat down. She makes an easy smile that knocks my thoughts off-kilter.

“Hi,” she says when I don’t.

“Uh, hi.”

She laughs, and my brain finally tells me what a dipshit I’m being. Time to flip the switch before I completely burn. I let her laughter ring out for a moment before I crack a half smile, that innocent grin that always gets the first hit. I shove my hands in my pockets, and shrug.

Her smile softens, and she says, “I’m Eva.”

Nailed it.

She’s wearing a low-cut black tank top that begs me to look, a nice curve, green eyes, dark red lips. I don’t make it past those eyes. When I don’t answer, she continues. “I wanted to introduce myself earlier, but you seemed scared.”

Scared? Some choice words race from my brain to my mouth, but I shut it down. Now is not the time. I’m just a friend of Jack’s, helping him out. Cute and dumb will do.

“Earlier?” I say.

She giggles, and there go her eyes, softening to me just a little more. I learned at a young age that girls will pity a stupid boy, take him under their wings, and fuss over him.

She says, “I work here. I just got cut.”

I widen my eyes, glance away. Even I am surprised at the shame I can fake. I say, “Wow, I’m so sorry. You look…I didn’t recognize you.”

Her smile shortens. “That’s what they all say.”

Shit, change of direction. I lost that round. Not too much too fast. Stupid, basic. “I’m Joshua.”

Her eyes flick back to me, warming a shade. I learned it from Maria, to own my name. I could be Josh – any idiot douche bag on any university campus. But to be Joshua, well, that carries a little more weight. I figured it out the first time she didn’t shorten it, because when she says my name it’s like a command.

Meanwhile, Eva gives me a smirk, amusement at my seeming ineptness. So I give her a real smile, full-fledged, dimples and teeth, and say, “What can I get you?”

Oh, Joshua. I went back and forth about which excerpt to share of him from the first book. I finally decided on this one. Josh definitely takes the most shit from the other guys in the group. Charlie aside, everyone else completely underestimates him – including Maria. I chose the above glimpse of him because I think it’s a perfect representation of the way he can flip the switch between acting like he’s a bit stupid when it’s beneficial, and engaging his criminal mind.

Josh isn’t stupid, not in the least, but he has perfected his act to the point where he fools even those closest to him. When the story starts he has been around for about a year. He hasn’t had the chance to harden off like the others have, who have lived the crime life for much longer. However, he rises to each new challenge and he wants nothing more than to belong.

His transition between books is, perhaps, the most predictable. He’s emotionally harder, bordering on bitter, and he doesn’t exactly take shit from anyone anymore. I think one of my favorite dynamics in the sequel is the tentative and unlikely friendship that has developed between Joshua and Frederick. As far as character evolution goes, I think Josh gives the best look into how and why he has changed. I will say this, he’s definitely not afraid to stand up to Maria anymore, and his sex appeal is super amped. You’ll have to read Rising Tide to get the full gist of what I mean.

Meanwhile, an excerpt from Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide:

The Challenger growls as I wait for the light to change. It’s dark, but I can still see the woman in the car next to me staring. I ignore her. The sound of the engine is haunted by the last thing Freddy said to me before he started his bike.

You should probably check on her. She’s a mess by now.

I’ve never heard that tone from him. It was . . . sad. All this time, I guessed he would have stepped up and been her man. Now I think I was wrong. What a dick, seriously, to have such an unchallenged piece of her heart, and to leave it wanting. For him to turn over so easy, to give me his place without a fight, it doesn’t sit right. Maybe that’s why I’m driving toward her place instead of mine.

The light changes. I punch the gas and shift her up.

I’m moderately buzzed from the beer and the second joint, but it doesn’t calm me much. If Freddy’s right, I’m on my own. It’s Maria, a ledge, and me. I have no idea what I’m doing.

I shift the Challenger into the lot, and the sight of the Caddy in its spot is a bloom of relief. At least she’s safe if she’s home.

I pull into the space beside the ’73 Calais, white paint covered in a coat of dirt. She’s no good at keeping it washed. Charlie would shit a brick of weed worthy of the garbage we’ve managed – miraculously – to move lately.

Goddammit. Once upon a time, he told me to stay away from her. We partied together. He knew I never invested in a woman for the long term, knew me for the smooth operator that I was. I always thought that was the reason he said that shit. I never was sure of his reasoning, but I can damn well guess that he didn’t imagine I’d be the one to show up when no one else will. 

I kill the engine, and for a long time I just sit there. What the fuck am I doing? Is this smart, or really stupid?

My gaze tugs toward the Caddy again. Too many memories ride in those seats. Too many ghosts. One memory in particular plays like a dream that won’t let go. A roadside moment, a desperate Hail Mary, and my very first experience with a Molotov cocktail. It’s the only time I’ve seen something blow like that, a thought that threatens to turn bitter.

I slip my phone from my pocket, bring it to life, and hit her name. My thumb hovers over the call icon. Freddy’s intuition is damn near infallible. I’d be doing him a wrong by ignoring his advice.

The phone rings long enough that I’m sure the voice mail will pick up. It doesn’t. All she says is, “No more bus’ness today, Joshua.”

“Are you OK?”

She laughs, but it’s not an amused sound. She says, “Soy la reina de Mexico.”

Freddy was right. This is bad. Her words are slurred, but her Spanish is second nature. I wonder if she thinks I don’t know what she just said.

I say, “Are you drunk?”

She doesn’t say anything for a stretch. I can hear music in the background, punk, so I know she didn’t hang up. 

Finally she says, “No. It’s all gone.”

And something large shatters.

Josh’s songs on the Rising Tide Playlist:

Blue on Black by Kenny Wayne Shepherd

It Ain’t Right by the Red Stick Ramblers

Howling At Nothing by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats

View full playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSgJKLWWisA-ZmHhzzvPOacwXC485gR4c

Cadillac Payback Crew: Maria

**Cadillac Payback Second Edition available March 18, 2021**

**Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide coming April 15, 2021**

Charlie, if your spirit lingers, guide my hand, and bless the bullet. If it flies, it does to honor you. 

I make a slow sigh as I cross myself, a dramatic play, I admit, as my guests and my boys are frozen to their roots, as I make them all wait. I’ve never been much for my family’s Catholic heritage, but if any prayer has ever mattered, it’s this one. 

Expectancy shuttles between me and my untimely interruption. My guests are to my left as I face the door, all of them seated in a line behind eclectic, retro tables. Joshua, Isaiah, and Jack are to my right, also seated. I had just taken the floor to speak, when Noah crept inside. Now Noah has resumed his guard post, with his barrel trained on the driver outside, and Frederick stands rigid with his beautiful piece of a gun held steadily on his only mortal enemy. Oh, how quickly momentum can change. 

Charlie, if you have moved on, from your place in heaven, please look away. My actions are only mine. 

I drop my eyes to the door, to Derrik, the Jester as he’s known in dirtier circles. There is sweat on my skin, but my gaze is cold. I hook my fingers on Charlie’s gun without looking at it, and it drags on the table as I pick it up. The sound creates turbulence in the suspense. Its weight becomes more familiar every time I hold it, and I wonder if I’d feel anything if I put a slug in the Jester’s gut right now. I point the chrome .40 at him, just to see if my nerves stir. All eyes on me. Still nothing. 

So I say, “You are not welcome here. You know that.”

My brother used to say that the secret to owning the moment was to find the right vibes and surf them. I don’t know if “right” is a good adjective, but it feels like some higher power guides my movements just now. I take slow steps closer, and Derrik’s hands inch a little farther in the air. The automatic toothy smile on his lips falters as he finds himself staring down my barrel. I wonder if he recognizes Charlie’s gun.

He says, “I heard there was some sort of bus’ness meetin’.” 

I’m certain the confidence he means to portray doesn’t come as strongly as he’d like.

His expression plays like a morbid comedy as he tries to maintain a cool and collected front, but I can see the wariness swimming in his eyes as I lift the steel just a little, so that it’s trained on the middle of his face. Perhaps he thought he knew us, knew me, from past encounters. Perhaps he thought he had adequately gauged this situation from afar. And maybe, now, he’s realizing that he was sorely wrong. He doesn’t know this girl at all. 

I can almost feel his desire to back away from me. He has to know that if I pull the trigger, even if this big ol’ gun kicks, the space behind his eyes will be gone. All the muscles along my arm pull against one another, beg for me to do it without ever hearing another word from his vile lips, but it’d be wrong of me not to give Freddy first dibs. 

I cock my head to the right the slightest bit and say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, this is obviously just a gathering of friends.”

His eyes flick almost imperceptibly at Freddy, who hasn’t moved since he came in, who also has his sleek silencer aimed at his former mentor. My beautiful and deadly Frederick. I know, just as the Jester must know, that true rage manifests in Frederick like the slow tip of an icicle as water drips down, freezes. When he’s aggravated, he’ll fight anyone. But once he is past violence he is extremely dangerous. I wonder if he’s even breathing, and I can only imagine what filth has already spewed from Derrik’s mouth. 

I wait for the Jester’s eyes to reconnect with mine, just so he knows I am absolutely serious, and say, “So it seems you’re being a party crasher, and nobody likes a party crasher.”

So, Maria. What do I say about her? First of all, she’s not a likable character, not in Cadillac Payback, though I think she redeems herself some in the sequel. If I’m completely honest, I don’t even like her. I spent a good deal of time when writing the first book despising my own character. She’s just…well…such a selfish bitch.

She is, however, the central focus and the driving force of the first book, and her growth from Caddy to Tide is probably the most remarkable of the four main characters. By the time she accepts the ways in which she was wrong, it’s almost too late for her to salvage any pieces left from her life before her brother died.

There’s actually a review from the initial release of Cadillac Payback that just tore Maria apart. I remember at the time my author feelings stung a little, but now, thinking back, it’s all true. Not all characters are meant to be loved, and in Maria’s case, she gets more love than she really deserves in the first book. Does she prove herself worthy of it in Rising Tide? You’ll have to be the judge.

An excerpt from Rising Tide:

My voice is quiet, hoarse from disuse when I say, “Offer still stands.”

He glances at me, shoulders tense, and he says, “What?”

I’m so goddamned tired of fighting. I wake up with my fists in the air, I walk with a perpetual shield on my arm. I’ve lost everyone who ever mattered because of it.

“Smoke?” I say.

He hesitates, and that stings almost as much as Frederick’s silent retreat. Maybe he thinks I’ll bring up the trap incident. I won’t. Frederick said he’d handle it, and I trust him to it. 

Finally he says, “Sure. That dinner was stuffy as hell.”

“No shit,” I say, and it’s so almost a sigh of relief.

The tension shifts, eases its pressure as the night weighs down on us. We don’t speak as we enter the building. The hallway smells like garlic from a nearby neighbor, and the aroma is oddly comforting. 

This is what I call home these days, something that is only mine. I don’t have visitors, don’t have time for that shit. My stuff is here, I sleep here, and have a few plants that I forget to water. It’s strange to invite him in, but it’s something I should do.

He follows me quietly, as he’s used to doing, but it feels less guarded. Less like work. I point him to a table for four where I eat my meals alone, and he sits obediently. I kick off the heels under the table, and amble into the kitchen.

I keep my personal stash in a cigar box in the cabinet, next to a bunch of spices and no food. I snag it, and when I close the cabinet door, I realize Josh is watching me. It’s a different sort of hunger in his eyes than those pigs at the party. I need to change. Now.

I pretend not to notice anything at all as I set the box down in front of him and say, “I think a blunt is in order.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he says.

I see the corner of his lips hook upward as I pull away, as my hair brushes across his arm. I didn’t mean to, I swear I didn’t. And the smile disappears. I’m already padding down the hallway by the time he starts moving to break up a blunt.

In the relative safety of my room, I shimmy out of the dress without a second thought. I catch my reflection out of the corner of my eye, and stop to look. No bra and a black thong, and no one will ever know but me. It’s better that way.

I lost weight after Izzy left and I no longer had revenge as a motivation and distraction. I haven’t been able to gain it back. My gaze lingers over the ridges of my ribs and my shoulders, too pronounced. Even my tits are smaller. I give myself a disgusted look and turn my back. 

I move to my dresser and dig through three drawers before I find what I want. It’s a big faded black t-shirt bearing a cracked Rancid logo. Charlie gave this to me years ago, after my very first punk show, attended under his supervision, of course. At some point, I cut the neck out of it, and it hangs over one shoulder. I slip into the shirt and pull on a pair of gray shorts. Already I feel better.

By the time I return to the dining room, Josh is about halfway through his rolling process. He doesn’t look up when he says, “It’s been a while since I rolled anything. This could suck.”

He doesn’t look up, so he doesn’t see me stop and stare. His tie has been discarded on the table, the first few buttons on his shirt are undone, and his sleeves are rolled up. The suspenders are in place. He’s like a goddamned biological weapon. He’s a man of style where once there was a boy who wanted to be . . . something. Anything.

My brother created a monster. No, not quite. My brother molded a damn fine protegé. I made him the monster.

Maria’s songs on the Rising Tide Playlist:

4 & 20 Blues by Redbird

The Truth by Handsome Boy Modeling School

Graveyard by The Devil Makes Three

The Lonesome Road by The Heavy

View the whole playlist here: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSgJKLWWisA-ZmHhzzvPOacwXC485gR4c

Cadillac Payback Crew: Isaiah

**Cadillac Payback Second Edition will be available through Amazon on March 18, 2021.**

**Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide will be available through Amazon on April 15, 2021**

I make the joint’s finale as hard and consuming as possible, with the hope that if it blasts me well enough, I can fade from this conversation. Maybe if I never exhale, I’ll float away and be higher than emotion, and I’ll forget everyone and everything. 

It ain’t me. It ain’t me! Dammit, C.C.R.

My chest feels like a compactor. Pressure builds in my forehead until, bitterly, I lose the battle against my body and blow away my breath. Escape plan failed. Deliberately, I reach into her space to drop the roach into the bottle, watch her gaze travel along my forearm, then retreat. 

“What now?” I ask, staring forward so hard I can’t actually see anything. “Do we find out why they shot him?”

“No,” she answers, a little too quickly, in the same unsettling tone she used upon finding Charlie dead. 

She exercises the ceded control, brings my eyes to hers with a single word. She establishes a firm connection and manly rise in my gut. She’s too damn young to be so damn persuasive. I’d love to act like she’s a naïve child, but I know she’s a quick learner, a latent observer. 

She says, “I don’t care why they did it. I’m going to destroy them, that’s why I told you all that I understand if you want out.”

I scoff at the ground. I can’t keep my reaction in check like I told myself I should. She’s playing such a dangerous game, toying with those closest to her.

“You know none us wants out. You knew it before you ever said those words,” I answer, my frustration making my voice climb in volume, bringing her eyes to light on me like some blessing, sweltering and irresistible.

Her lids are weighted, like maybe the thoughts that cross her mind are not of vengeance, but of sex. I know her well enough to know that it’s a turn-on for her when men stand up to her, something Josh fails to do. Yet she still wants him.

“How would I know what any of you wants?” she asks softly. Her words could be innocent if it were anyone else saying them. She has to know at least one thing we all want from her.

I look away from her, for anything that might be a distraction, and scoot just a little closer to the edge of the hood, in case I need to make a quick escape. I can’t pretend the heat she lays on me doesn’t make my testosterone surge. I let her see my rare reaction to her, something she recognizes and, I believe, relishes. 

I say, “Just be careful with the forces you’re fucking around with, don’t turn your allies against one another.” 

My tone is harder than she’s used to from me. She’s high. I can tell she is, because she lies back against the hood of the car she has inherited and takes a long breath. She props her arms behind her head, resting it in her palms, and I can almost see her mind wander away to a less tense moment. I wonder – inevitably – if she’s thinking of me. 

Sometimes, I write a character who presents himself with hardly any provocation, who defines his personality within a few sentences. Isaiah isn’t that guy. He was as difficult for me as he is for the other characters in Cadillac Payback, and he was so stingy with the details of his past that I didn’t know much about him until the second book. That’s part of what makes me love him so much.

Izzy is the old gun of the group when the story begins, and he acts every bit of it. He makes avoidance an art, always squirming just out of arm’s reach, yet not afraid to stand up to Maria. He is wise beyond his years, but he’s not the type to share the depths of that wisdom with the younger members of the crew.

I feel like being an author is kind of like being a parent. You shouldn’t play favorites with your characters. Maybe. You still do. Izzy’s transition between books is probably my favorite out the four, and the amount of personality that came out in Rising Tide blew me away. I remember finishing his chapters and staring at the words I just wrote, wondering where they came from and who was this guy I thought I knew.

I present an excerpt from Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide:

I’m stoned. I’m so baked that I think if a fish did bite the line of the fishing pole in the sand beside me, I’d probably let it win. I have plenty of poles. Though that is my favorite reel.

I push the brim of my brush hat out of my eyes, lazily scanning my rig, following the line out into the surf. I hear a giggle to my left, and glance that way to see two girls, mid-twenties – maybe – in tiny bikinis. They’re checking me out. I give them a little smirk, pull my brush hat over my eyes, and relax against the thatch of my discount store lawn chair.

Sure, it’s nice to know I’ve still got it, but anything beyond distant appreciation is a hassle. The last thing I need are the complications that come with women. What to wear, where to eat, who to kill? Trouble, every single one.

It’s hot, but the ocean breeze keeps the heat at a steady roll. It’s about 10:30, judging by the sun’s slant. By noon, the beach will be drenched in unforgiving oppression, but just now I’m enjoying the burn. 

It’s my day off, and I’m almost out of beer. I am out of weed. Already there are two errands to be achieved today. With luck, that’s all I’ll fucking do.

The hardest part about transitioning to life lived mostly on my own has been having to buy weed. OK, maybe it’s not the hardest, but it’s been the most annoying. Running out is the worst kind of bullshit.

Paying street prices is an insult. Having rookie assholes trying to haggle me while I silently hand them a lesson in trade, it’s demeaning. But what can I say to them? In my last life, you would have been so far beneath me that you never would have met me. No, of course I can’t say that. So I grit my teeth through it, pay too much, and retreat to my little beachside apartment.

I don’t go out, don’t drink in bars, don’t want friends. I don’t own a TV. I spend long hours doing hard labor on a fishing trawler, where all the guys think my name’s Jonathan, and call me Doc – like Doc Holliday, because of the time I shot a flare down the throat of a shark we accidentally hauled up.

I saved Dave from losing an arm. The guys thought it was awesome. I never did address how naturally it came to me to point and shoot. We just dumped that shark overboard and didn’t talk about it. Unless, of course, we were tossing back tall boys at the bait house after a long day and too many beers.

I enjoy the work. It keeps me busy. My time at sea has whittled my physique into something harder than it was when I was into “produce” distribution, and bar hopping with Charlie. I like the ocean. There are a lot less assholes out there. It’s my day off, and I’m still fishing.

Izzy’s Rising Tide playlist songs:

House of the Rising Sun by The Animals

Off the Road by the Record Company

Them Shoes by Patrick Sweany

View full playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSgJKLWWisA-ZmHhzzvPOacwXC485gR4c

Home for Wayward Writers, Sun and Moon

There’s something strange in the air this week at the Home for Wayward Writers. I’d be lying if I said strange wasn’t the norm for this little niche of the internet, but this is…intriguing. Chills sprawl along my skin though it’s not cold. Not at all. The air is hot.

The sky outside the tall windows is a dark, churning gray. The clouds are thick and indeterminate. It’s impossible to tell what time it is. It could be midday or it could be an everlasting dusk.

The fire roars on its hearth, but I don’t believe that’s the source of the heat. Sitting atop one of the heavy, wooden tables is the Genie. He’s straight-backed, his legs crossed so that I couldn’t tell he has no feet if I didn’t already know. He’s watching me with a close-lipped smile that holds all the warmth of his composition. The light in his amber eyes flickers and shifts.

A few steps closer I realize he’s not alone. The midnight Muse sits silently in a high-backed chair near the fireplace. His silver-green eyes glow with a pale illumination as he stares into the blaze. Shadows swirl to and around him, holding him as close as his black robe does so he’s almost concealed from view. His alabaster skin gives him away, his slender face framed by night-colored curls, the long fingers of one hand absently drumming on the chair arm. A cool mist snakes along the floor at his feet despite the temperature and the light.

My steps drag to a stop beside the Genie, my sidelong gaze sweeping across his bare, broad shoulders and the well-sculpted abs that beg my attention to go farther down. It doesn’t. When I look him in the eyes there are glowing embers ready to ignite.

“What strange company you two make,” I tell them, glancing at the Muse, who still hasn’t moved.

“If it pleases you, Master,” says the Genie in a low growl undertoned by his sly smile. He holds up a hand and a single flame dances from one fingertip to the next.

“I can’t say that it doesn’t please me, Genie, but it does conjure a certain curiosity. You are a creature of golden sun on shifting desert dunes. You, Muse, are moonlight on a night-dark field. Yet here both of you are where there is neither sun nor moon. What is the meaning of this?”

A beat of silence answers as loud as any voice could. Then the Muse says, “You didn’t come to us last week,” without shifting his focus away from the fireplace. His tone is flat and it reminds me of clouds rolling across a starlit sky.

“He broods as I burn,” the Genie says. “Have you forgotten us already? Did we displease you so?”

A smirk plays across my lips and my head cocks to the side a little. I say, “I did not forget you nor did I want to neglect you. My absence was not displeasure although it was unavoidable. Do you have so little faith in our writers?”

The flame in the Genie’s hand grows so that it wreaths around the black bracer on his forearm. His smile lengthens and thins until his expression lingers between mischief and menace. He answers, “Why do you think we wait so patiently? Do you think it’s because we lose faith? Perhaps we are eager to get back to our purpose.”

I notice the mist reaching toward me in tendrils, like fingers beckoning me closer to the Muse. I slowly bridge the space to the chair, and when my hand gently grasps his chin, his eyebrows lift. I’ve never seen surprise on this timeless visage. The result is as intoxicating as everything else about him. His skin is cool against the warmth of the room. He allows me to turn his face toward me, and he stands fluidly as I summon him from the chair with nothing more than my touch.

I don’t need to look to know that the Genie has quit the tabletop to come to my other side. I can feel him burning like a star, and maybe a little jealous of my attention.

The Muse’s gaze is intense as he looks down at me. His eyes don’t quite follow my hand as it slides away from his face and reaches into the folds of his robe. He doesn’t move, but his body goes rigid. 

Without breaking eye contact I hold out my free hand toward the Genie, palm up. I feel his fire twine around my wrist then coalesce into a sphere in my hand. Moments later I pull the crystal ball from the Muse’s dark robe. A subdued curve possesses his lips.

I hold both hands before me, in one a tiny moon, in the other the sun. I look from one to the other and say, “Then by all means, let us see to your purpose. What task do you have this week?”

“Duality,” then say as one.

“Writers, this week we bid you explore both sides of the coin,” the Muse says, his bass tone vibrating in my core.

“This could be two aspects of one character or conflicting themes of one subject,” adds the Genie, his voice like a chord struck on a string instrument.

“Maybe you would rather study two characters who represent opposite ideals. You could do this through dialogue or by showing their different reactions to the same stimulus,” adds the Muse.

They’re talking to you, writers, but they are looking at me. They make a devastating team.

“Whatever method you choose, the point should be rooted in the difference of the same. Two roads that lead away from each other, or two beings whose backs are touching as one watches the dawn and one sees the coming night,” the Genie purrs.

“The sun and the moon,” says the Muse.

“Whatever you choose…” I whisper.

“Happy writing,” they finish.

Home for Wayward Writers, the Den

It’s not exactly nerves simmering in my stomach this week when I enter the Home for Wayward Writers. Anticipation is a better way to put it. What will greet me on the other side of the door? I step inside.

The first thing I notice is the rain pelting the tall windows in driving waves. The room is loud with the sound of the storm outside. I am mesmerized by the mottled shadows cast by the water on the glass. They ebb and flow along the surfaces of the tables.

My eyes catch on an object lying on one of those tabletops. As I get closer, I see that it’s a notebook. It’s lying open and words are written across the pages. Someone has been here, I think with a smile.

Lightning brightens the room. Thunder shakes the sky and the window glass. For a flash I feel like someone is watching me. When I look around there’s no one. I do notice that we seem to have acquired another door. This one is in the right wall. It’s open.

As I approach, I see a hallway beyond. Of course I take it. The lighting here is soft, inviting in a way that pulls my steps forward until I come to a door done in deep red. Gold letters form the words ‘The Den.’ It opens for me without a sound. I enter.

Inside I find the space draped in sheer fabrics, accents in the same red as the door, fringed in gold. Large cushions lie around a low table, begging for someone to sit in sensuality, to explore the finger points of writing sexy. The air smells of spicy incense. In the center of the room is a black pedestal, atop which rests a red cushion. There sits an old, black lamp.

I pick up the lamp with reverence. For a moment, I just hold it as fond memories play of the first time we created this room. I’m smiling again when I rub the dark metal.

In an ethereal stream of smoke he appears, ever in his white linen pants that fade away where there should be feet. The brown skin of his upper body radiates like a long, desert sunset. His glowing amber eyes flash when he sees me. The long waves of his hair glint red in the low light from a source I don’t see. His black metal bracers catch a dull gleam.

“It’s gorgeous, Genie. Are you happy now that you have your room back?” I say, an amused curve possessing my lips.

He says, “I have been waiting for you to visit me. I’m beginning to think you like the Muse more than me.”

A mock pout sits on his full mouth and he crosses muscled arms across his smooth chest.

“You should know better, Genie,” I answer with a lifted eyebrow and a tsk. “You are both my beautiful creations. I presume this week you will be returning to your roots?”

I let my gaze drag downward in blatant appreciation. When my eyes return to his, the pout has become a steamy smile.

“Indeed, Master is always astute. Writers, this week I have for you a word, one of my favorite words,” he says, uncrossing his arms. As he does the room goes hot, and the air heavy.

“Just a word? The Genie is a tease,” I say.

“Just a word, but Master is correct. Your word is sultry. You may choose to explore the weather definition, or you may choose the passionate nature of a person. I hope you choose the second. As always you may use existing characters or create some. Though my preferences always tend toward more sexual writing – that is why I was created, after all – it is not a requirement. There are plenty of ways to play with this particular word without writing about sex or romance. You may even choose to practice writing environment. You could write a poem, a character description, a conversation. You might just run with whatever comes to mind when you hear me say sultry. Have fun and be creative. Whatever you choose, happy writing.”

“Well done, Genie. Perhaps I will have to find a proper reward for your performance,” I tell him, running a finger along the spout of the lamp.

His eyes flash and he says, “Be careful, Master will make me blush.”

“Can you blush when you are composed of fire?” I ask, again arching an eyebrow.

“Would you like to find out?” he says, his tone sliding downward in pitch. I swear the room gets even hotter.

“Easy, Genie. Maybe next week if you are well-behaved.”

“As you wish,” he whispers as he disappears into a cloud of smoke.

Home for Wayward Writers, the Observatory

My nerves flutter as I pull open the door. Anticipation for what this week will bring feels like butterfly wings against my composure. Even so I smile as I enter.

The room is empty and the windows are dark. The fireplace gives the only light, a soft orange that dances intimately across endless book spines and titles. The stone floor is cold beneath my bare feet.

Bare feet? I look down and see that I’m wearing a black dress with no sleeves, and no shoes. The hem whispers against my ankles. A low fog floats in gentle currents close to the floor. I track the movement with my eyes.

There’s a door in the left wall that wasn’t there last week. It stands open to the night beyond. The ghost of a smile that rests on my lips gets deeper. Someone has been busy.

I move toward the door without a second thought. The fog swallows any sound of my steps and beckons me forward. The hush is bigger than that, though. It envelopes the whole space like a spell.

On the other side of the door is a huge expanse of grass, shadowy green and dewey against my skin. Before me a tower reaches high into the night sky. Stars glitter in the vastness above, in the absence of artificial light. A crescent moon hangs close to the horizon, only a few nights past new.

I gravitate toward the tower, which I believe is the point. An arched door waits silently, the word “Observatory” shining in silver letters despite the lack of a light source. I brush a reverent touch over the letters. I have not seen this place in a long time.

I let my gaze scan upward over moss-covered stone. From this angle it’s impossible to say how tall the tower is. Hinges creak as the door slowly opens beneath my touch. I press forward.

Inside it’s warm. There’s just enough light to see the staircase that spirals upward along the wall. I look down and see that the fog has trailed me.

I push up the stairs, gathering my skirt in my hands so I don’t trip on it. The air here is thick, tangible like velvet, and moving only when I cut through it. My hair hangs heavy around my shoulders. The curls come alive in the humidity.

At the top of the stairs the space opens to one large room. A balcony wraps the outside, accessible by open archways. A breeze tousles my hair and tickles my face. In the center of the room waits a silver basin on a stand. When I was here before the scene was different, brighter and alive with a collective energy of writers who had found a common place. Now it is inky and unlit.

I stare at the water in the bowl, as black as the night is. I dip my finger in and a gold luminescence ripples across the surface. I walk to the wall and trace the word “Capricorn” in cursive with my fingertip. A pale glow marks the track of my touch. It starts as a dull hint of light that gets brighter, then flashes when I finish the word.

“You remember,” a voice like the darkness says. I can feel the words rumble in my core and my exposed skin thrills.

“It was the first prompt you ever gave me, the first time your words were written. It’s fitting to write it now, don’t you think?” I say without turning to him.

I hear a rustle and he steps up beside me to study the word. He stretches out his arm, his hand open, palm facing the wall. The letters’ light gets brighter.

“It’s perfect,” he answers. I can hear the smirk in his tone and I don’t miss the echo of my words to him last week.

My gaze maps a course from his hand up his arm, over his robe, to his face. His silver-green eyes shine as brightly as the letters on the wall and, I see now, the water in the basin. His lips are hooked up at one corner. His dark curls fall in tight coils that beg me to bury both hands in them. He doesn’t return my attention.

“What do you say, Muse? Do you have a word of inspiration for our writers?” I ask.

“More than a word,” he says.

He turns away from the wall still without looking at me. He sweeps over to the scrying basin and holds his open hand above the surface of the water. He steadily lifts that hand, pulling up an image of the same crescent moon that graces the sky outside.

“Writers, this week my task for you is to write a scene that occurs by the light of the moon. You may choose existing characters or create some for this exercise. Regardless of the action you choose to drive the scene, the lighting should be a main factor. Focus on your environment. I want you to pay close attention to how the light affects your characters – what they see, what they might miss, where the shadows play. You may choose to write a fight scene, or something quite the opposite.”

Now he cuts his eyes to me with a wicked smile.

“You could write a simple conversation, or an introspective moment for a single character. Whatever you choose should be outside at night. You may even decide what phase the moon is in.”

He moves his hand from above the image of the moon to below it, so that it seems to sit upon his palm. The room gets suddenly bright. For a moment the walls are covered in shining, scrawling script. Just as quickly the words are gone, save the one I wrote.

When I look back to the basin, I expect him to be gone. He’s not. He’s watching me over the gleam of his crystal ball, which casts shadows that don’t quite hide that naughty smile. He says, “Happy writing.”

Home for Wayward Writers Grand Opening

I draw in a long breath in attempt to squash the nerves that are fluttering around in my stomach. No use in doubting myself now, I’ve already bought the place. I look down at the curling skeleton key in my right hand then back to the big, wooden door in front of me. First things first.

I reach my left hand forward and gently press my fingertips against the door’s surface. The wood ripples and writhes beneath my touch, then distorts. I watch lines come into focus and connect. I feel ridges rise, other areas sinking simultaneously, until it all comes together into a carving of an open book. Golden script etches itself above the book’s pages.

“Home for Wayward Writers.”

Can I really do this? Can I create a nook in the universe for others like me? Can I carry the banner for a while?

The key goes hot in my hand. The lock on the door flashes. My fingers release the key and it floats into the keyhole on its own. It turns with a resounding clunk. The door swings open. I step inside.

My feet drag to a halt just on the other side of the threshold, my breath catching in my throat. Huge windows let in long rays slanting across the large space. Every wall is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Two ornate staircases on either end of the room lead to a second floor where more bookshelves silently wait for curious eyes. Throughout the bottom floor are tables for writing and overstuffed armchairs for reading. There’s a fireplace on the back wall, mysteriously already lit.

“What did you expect when you accepted so much?”

The voice is a silky bass and suddenly right beside me.

“It’s perfect,” I answer, my voice barely more than a whisper.

I slide my attention left to him. He is a tall and slender muse with ebony curls that fall around his shoulders. He has an olive complexion and a timeless face. I can’t see his eyes but I know they are pale green and silver. He wears a black wizard robe that absorbs the light that touches it. Somewhere in those folds is a crystal ball. He’s a character who has been with me for a long time.

“I did, at least, expect you. You’re going to help me,” I say.

The corner of his lips hook upward. His curls shiver. Finally he looks at me.

“I have been waiting a long time for you to write me again,” he says.

The words send chills across my skin.

“It has been a long time for us both. Maybe you should give the first prompt, then,” I say, lifting an eyebrow.

He slowly shakes his head and his smirk turns into something more impish. He says, “The day is not my domain.”

Ah, yes. How could I forget? His crystal ball glows with the moon’s light.

“Of course, you’re right. Not everyone is here,” I say.

I lift my right hand, palm facing up. An old metal oil lamp appears there, its surface black and its spout long. I rub the side of it.

Smoke rolls from the end of the lamp to coalesce at my right side. I watch it take form, wavy hair that glints red, eyes that burn with amber light, smooth brown skin of a bare upper body. White linen pants hang dangerously low. He wears black metal bracers.

He looks around for a moment. Then his gaze goes to the muse then to me. He smiles like a late-summer sunset.

“It needs a bedroom, but it will do,” he says.

It’s my turn to smile. I say, “All in time. I imagine there will be quite a few additions. For now why don’t you get us started.”

“My pleasure,” he says like a wolf. “Writers, for your first task I bid thee consider what home means to you. This could be a chance to explore a character’s history. How has this character’s background shaped his or her definition of home? You could also use this prompt more personally. What is that makes somewhere home for you? Is there a person who influenced how you feel now? Has this concept changed for you? Respond in whatever format you’d like, story, memoir, poetry. Anything goes. Good luck and happy writing.”

“Well done, Genie,” I say with a smile.

“It’s good to be back in action,” he says, his lips forming a sly smirk.

“Indeed. Welcome home, boys,”