Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Blog, page 5
December 28, 2015
The regulars at Spirit Winds’ Thursday night blackjack tournament never call attention to themselves. Some are retired, some are a little shady, some have seen too much. But none of them believed in UFOs. Until that night when the lights went out in the middle of the tournament…and something very, very strange happened. Something eerie. Something…alien.
“The One That Got Away” by Hugo Award-winning author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
The One That Got Away
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
It happened at the Thursday night blackjack tournament, and we were miffed. Not because it happened, but because of when it happened. And to get to that will take a bit of explaining, both about the tournament and about us.
There are about ten of us, and we call ourselves the Tuesday/Thursday regulars because we never miss a tournament. The local Native American casino—the Spirit Winds—held an open tournament every Tuesday and Thursday. Anyone could play if he put up twenty bucks, and if he won, he got a share of the pot. The pot consisted of the buy-in fees, and the buy-back fees plus another hundred added by the casino. The casino made no money on the tournament. The game was a freebie designed to get people into the casino—and it got me there twice a week.
Me, and nine others. There were more regulars than us, of course, but we were the ones who never skipped a week. I was a pretty good player—I’d made a living counting cards in the mid-seventies—and I’d swear that Tigo Jones had professional card-playing experience as well. Five more of the regulars played basic strategy, and the rest, well, they relied upon luck or God or their moods to supply their strategy. It worked for them every once in a while.
In blackjack, you learn to honor luck.
The good players just try to minimize it. They try to rely on skill. But luck can win out, in the end, if you’re not careful.
On most nights, pot’s only worth about two hundred to the winner, a hundred to second place, and fifty to third, with four dinner comps to sop the folks who made it to the final round. What that means is that there’s good money in this for me and Tigo because we place every four tournaments we play. A few regulars are losing money each time they play, and about five—those basic strategy guys—are giving their gambling fund an occasional shot in the arm.
It’s all in good fun, and we’ve become a family of sorts—the kind of family that barflies make or old ladies make when they work on church social after church social. We look after each other, and we gossip about each other, and we tolerate each other, whether we like each other or not.
We also know who’s crazy and who isn’t, and, except for Joey, the kid who is pissing his inheritance away twenty dollars at a time, no one who shows up for the blackjack tournaments at Spirit Winds is crazy.
Or, at least, that’s what we hope.
That night, I noticed a few strange things before I even made it to Spirit Winds. For one thing, the ocean was so black it was impossible to see. Now, the ocean is never black. It reflects light—and even if the sky is completely dark, the ocean isn’t because it’s reflecting the light of nearby homes. In fact, I like the ocean on cloudy nights because it has a luminescence all its own, a glow that makes it look alive from within.
The second strange thing was that there was no wind. None. Zero, zip, zilch. We usually have a breeze in Seavy Village and often have more than that. The ocean again. It is a major part of our lives.
And the final strange thing was the power outage that swept through the neighborhoods like anxious fingers pinching out candles. I didn’t know about that until later—the casino has back up generators—and if I had known, well, it would have made no difference.
I would have been at the tournament anyway.
I have nothing better to do.
You see, I call myself retired, but really what I am is hiding out. I’m good enough to play in big tournaments, but when Spirit Winds holds its semi-annual $10,000 tournament, I’m conveniently out of town. That way, I don’t have to fill out a 1099, and I don’t have to show three pieces of i.d, and all the correct tax information. Because I don’t have three valid pieces of i.d, and I haven’t filed taxes since 1978, the year I fled Nevada with the wrong kind of folks at my heels. I moved too fast to get any fake i.d., and so I lived off cash for far too long. By the time I had settled down, I didn’t know anybody in that business any more. The government had closed the loopholes making fake ids simple for anyone with half a brain, and I really didn’t want to put fingers out to the criminal element, since it was the criminal element I’d been running from.
I confessed to a local banker with hippie sympathies, let him think I had been underground since my college activist days, and had him set me up a checking account. It’s amazing what a man can do with a checking account—the lies he can tell to get him a real life in a small town.
But it couldn’t get me a driver’s license, nor could it get me a credit card. I still use cash much of the time, and a lot of that cash comes from my safety deposit box in the aforementioned bank. The gambling at the small casino is just incidental. I figure I’m old enough now that no one would recognize me and my problem is so out of date that the folks who were looking for me are either dead or in prison. But I have learned to be cautious by nature. I don’t rub anyone the wrong way.
And I never, ever call attention to myself.
The tournament was big that night, bigger than it had ever been. Later I learned the reason: the power outage. The casino was packed on a Thursday because much of Seavy Village had lost their lights, their heat, and their cable. I had been in the casino since mid-afternoon. I’d been on a roll at one of the regular tables, parlaying my lucky hundred dollar chip into six thousand. Normally that puts you in tax declaration territory, but I would get five hundred on one table, then pocket it, and move to the next. I was hot that afternoon, and it felt good.
Lucky streaks are important. Knowing how to maximize them is even more important, and that’s what I was doing. Perfecting the old skills.
When I reached six grand, my brain shut off, and I decided to replenish it with food. I had a solitary dinner at the buffet, and then wandered to the tournament tables.
There were a lot of unfamiliar faces around the table, and I was burdened with a small fortune in chips, stuck in my pockets and my fanny pack. I couldn’t take anything to the car because I didn’t have one, and I also didn’t have time to walk home. I’d been in that situation before, and I’d learned not to be too friendly. The last time I’d told one of the regulars about my run and a pit boss overheard. I had to spend a good fifteen minutes making a show of losing the money at various tables.
Normally the pit bosses don’t tell on me. They tolerate me and Tigo and the other local professionals. It’s the out-of-towners they kick out of the casino. Oregonians and their dislike of “foreigners.” Gotta love ’em.
That night, though, I wasn’t taking any chances. I leaned against one of the slot machines and smoked a cigarette, adding to the thick, slightly bluish air already growing around the tables. The casino is new and modern—no tokens for slots, only cash and cards—with high ceilings, good traffic flow. The place feels more like a spa than a casino, especially the casinos of my heyday. I still miss the chink-chink of tokens as they clink out of the machines. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to those electronic beeps. But not even the modern recycling system was taking care of the cigarette smoke. In a blue-collar town like Seavy Village, card players get nervous when more than $50 is on the line.
That night, forty players had signed up for the tournament, and the pot tipped a grand for the first time since the casino opened.
I’ll leave out the detailed descriptions of the rounds, although I can recite all of it, every card, every bet, from the first round, the semi-final round, and the buy-back round. I know by what percentage Tigo beat the odds when he doubled down on eighteen and got a three. I know the exact moment luck abandoned Cherise, and it wasn’t when she drew a twenty to the dealer’s twenty-one. I even know that I made a small mistake on the twenty-ninth hand, and if the cards hadn’t gone my way, I would have been out—deservedly so—and it would have peeved me to no end.
I rarely make mistakes.
I can’t afford it.
No. I won’t say much about the game except that tempers flared early, even among the regulars, because of the amount of money on the table. And people left angry when they were eliminated because everyone could taste their share of the pot.
When it came to the final hand, only the players and the regulars were left.
Tigo and I were on the table, of course, along with the idiot Joey whose luck was running better than usual, and Smoky Butler who was a dealer at another casino on the other side of the coast range. The rest of the players weren’t regulars. Two were bad betters and even worse strategists who managed to get the right cards at the right time, and the other one was a black-haired woman who’d caught all of our attention.
She looked like she should be in Monte Carlo, not Seavy Village, Oregon. She wore a black cocktail dress cut in a modified v that revealed more cleavage than I had seen in years. Her hair was pulled into a chignon and over it she wore a cloche hat complete with small veil. Her lips were dark red, and she smoked a cigarette through a cigarette holder.
And she wasn’t lucky.
She was good.
Almost as good as me.
The cards were running hot and cold that night, and our pal Joey’s luck ran out first. He was off the table in five hands. Then we lost the first of the two bad betters. The second was holding in, but not worth our time. He was out by the eleventh hand.
The rest of us, though. The rest of us had a game.
For our buy-in, the casino gives us $500 in tournament chips (which you can’t carry to the real tables) per game. The winner, of course, is the person with the most chips after fifteen hands.
By end of the eleventh hand, I had fifteen hundred eighty-five dollars in phony chips.
Tigo had fifteen hundred seventy-five.
Smoky Butler had fifteen hundred and fifty.
And the woman, well, she had two thousand even.
For the first time since I’d left Nevada, I was in a blackjack game where everyone knew how to play. That meant they knew how to draw cards, they knew how to bet, and they knew strategy.
I damned near licked my lips and rubbed my hands together in glee. Instead, I crouched over my chips as if I were protecting them from prying eyes.
We all put out our bets.
The lady put out a hundred.
Smoky put out a hundred and fifty.
Tigo a hundred and twenty-five.
And me, a hundred and fifteen.
Then Rosco, the dealer, began the hand. I was first base (a revolving position), and he gave me an ace of clubs.
Followed by an ace of diamonds for Tigo, an ace of spades for Smoky, and an ace of hearts for the lady.
“They should be playing poker,” someone said from behind me.
Rosco gave himself a three of hearts. Then he reached toward the shoe for my next card.
At that moment, the lights went out. The place was pitch black except for several small red dots made by the tips of a hundred cigarettes. I fell across my cards and chips, and Rosco yelled, “Freeze!” to the tournament players. The pit bosses were yelling and the dealers were shouting orders, and some old lady near the slots was wailing at the top of her lungs.
All the time, I kept thinking that this shouldn’t be happening. It couldn’t be happening. The casino had generators. They should have kicked in. (At the time, I didn’t know they’d already kicked in, which meant that they shouldn’t have gone off—at least, not all at once.)
Then the lights came back up, or I thought they did, until I realized that the overhead lights in the casino were white, not green. Everyone looked as if they were peering at each other through a fish tank. Even the mystery lady looked green. She was holding her cigarette holder over her chips, and glaring at us all angrily, as if we had caused the problem.
The pit bosses were looking mighty scared. I don’t know how much money they had to protect, in chips mostly because the cash disappeared into slots beneath the tables, but I knew it was a lot. And there were more civilians in the casino than pit bosses. Security guards had stationed themselves near the casino banks, and other employees had fanned themselves around the room.
I had never seen anything like it, but it made sense. The casino had to have a drill policy for all types of emergencies.
The place was hot and smoky and everything was green. I kept my hands over my chips and scanned for the source of the light.
As I did, a wind came up. First it licked my hair—or what’s left of it—and then it cleared the smoke. At first, I thought the air recycling system had turned back on. Then I realized something greater was happening here.
The source of the green lights were small dervishes the size of my coffee saucers at home. They looked like the alien spaceship out of E.T., only shrunk down into toy specials for MacDonalds’ Happy Meals. Except they worked. Their top was a dark cone, and their base was a rotating series of lights, all various shades of green.
And there must have been thousands of them in that small space. Maybe even millions of them.
They hovered over various tables, avoided the slot machines, and disappeared into the back. The poker room was filled with them. I could see them from my vantage points, lined up like tiny aircraft carriers facing a city, the poker players backing against the wall, hands up.
Five crafts found their places over our table, and a sixth placed itself above the dealer. The woman pulled a small pistol from her handbag, and a pit boss immediately grabbed it from her—firearms are illegal on Indian land. He pointed it, wobbling for a moment, at one of the little crafts, then Rosco said,
“If you shoot one and it explodes and we get that green goo all over us and we die, you’re going to regret that.”
“He’ll regret it more if the bullet hits one of us,” Smoky said.
“It could ricochet,” Tigo added.
The pit boss let the weapon fall to his side. The woman glared at him.
“I wouldn’t have missed,” she said, as if she blamed him for taking away her opportunity.
The little crafts were above us, whirling and creating the breeze. Rosco had his hand on the money slot. So, it seemed, did every other dealer in the place. We all stared at the things.
“What are they?” Tigo whispered.
I took the question as rhetorical, and apparently everyone else did too because no one answered him.
One of the pit bosses was on the phone, talking with the 911 dispatch. He was whispering loudly, so loudly he may as well have been shouting: “No, really, I’m not kidding. Please…”
Aside from the whirs, the soft mumbles of scared patrons, and the wailing woman, the casino was eerily quiet. No electronic beeps and buzzes, no blaring music, no tinkling chords of winning slots. The silence unnerved me more than anything.
“What do they want?” Tigo whispered.
“Ask them,” Smoky snapped.
“I feel like I’m in a James Bond movie,” the woman said, and that started a ripple of panic through the pit bosses. They apparently hadn’t thought of the things as high tech theft devices.
“If you were in a James Bond movie, my dear,” I said, “you’d have better lighting.” No one looked good in that ugly green. Not even the most beautiful woman in the place.
Then, as if on cue, green lights flared out of the bottom of the tiny crafts. I backed away from the table, chips forgotten. So did everyone else. Rosco let go of his hold on the money slot, and one of the pit bosses screamed at him but—I noted—did not make a move toward the money, the table or any of the lights.
The lights hit the table and I expected to see big burning holes appear. I was ready to run for cover—all of this going through my mind in the half second it took, mind you—when I realized what was going on.
The cards rose off the surface, whirling and twirling as if they were in a tornado. For a moment, the entire casino was filled with swirling cards. It looked like an elaborate fan dance, or as if green sea gulls were swarming the beach or like an electronic kaleidoscope performance designed especially for us.
Then one by one the cards slid into the crafts through a slot in the sides. They made a slight ca-thunk! as they entered. Then the green tractor lights—what else could they be called?—went out, and the little green ships whirled away.
The doormen and the folks in the parking lot at the time all say the little ships sped out the doors and into a larger ship that had been hovering over the ocean. A number of green slots opened on it, letting the little ships through, and then they disappeared into the night.
The ocean, which had been dark, regained its luminescence, and slowly the lights flickered on all over town.
At least, that’s what the outdoor folks said.
Inside, it was chaos. People started shouting and screaming, and that wailing woman continued. A few people stampeded toward the door, and one relatively fit young man got trampled just enough to later attempt a suit against the casino.
Then the lights came back on. The slot machines groaned as they started up, then beeped through their start-up protocol. The slot players, the video poker players, and the keno players all continued with their games except for a few sensible folks who decided to call it a night and left.
I have no idea what happened inside the poker room, but at the tournament table, we counted our chips. The pit bosses put the game on hold as they made sure the money was fine.
It soon became clear the only thing missing from the casino were the cards.
All of them.
Including the decks stored in the back rooms, and the discards waiting to be trucked off the place, and even the little souvenir cards in the gift shop.
The pit boss who had called 911 was off the phone, saying the police were going to arrive soon, but I suspected it would take them some time. If, as people were saying, things were a mess all over town, it would take the police a while to get anywhere.
“We still have money on the table,” Smoky said.
“And a game to finish,” Tigo said.
“How do you propose we do that with no cards?” Rosco asked.
“We know what was dealt,” the woman said
“But we don’t know the order in the rest of the shoe,” I said.
“We’re going to shuffle a new shoe and start over,” Rosco said, “just as soon as we get cards.”
“We need the other three players,” Tigo said. I glanced around me. Joe was standing behind me as he usually did after he got knocked out of a tournament, but the others were nowhere to be seen.
“We’re going to have to put this game on hold until the cops arrive anyway,” the pit boss said.
“Until we get cards,” Rosco added.
“Besides, everyone’ll have to report what they saw,” Smoky said.
At that point, the woman and I both stood up. “I think my luck has just run out,” the woman said.
“Mine, too,” I said.
We left the table and headed toward the door.
“Hey!” Tigo said behind us. “We can’t replay the game without you guys!”
“I think the game is forfeit,” the woman said.
“Yeah, have the casino put the pot in for next week,” I said, knowing they never would.
Then she and I walked through the casino, side by side. The conversations were strangely muted, only a few people discussing what they saw. As we stepped outside, we ran into chaos, cars cramming the parking lot, attendants staring at the sky, a warm bath of light all over the town.
A familiar bath of light.
I had missed it more than I realized.
I turned to her. “There’s a nice coffee place about a block from here. Care for a walk?”
“I’d love it,” she said.
And we had a nice cup of coffee, and a nice evening, and a nice night, and an even better morning. I never learned her name and she never learned mine, but we both knew that we had left the casino for the exact same reason.
We didn’t need to see the police.
Or the media.
Or anyone else, for that matter.
“What do you think they wanted with the cards?” she asked long around midnight.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe they use bigger shoes than we do.”
And a little later, I said, “That, by far, has to be the strangest thing I ever saw in a casino.”
“Really?” she responded. “I’ve seen stranger.”
But she never elaborated and I didn’t ask her to.
Some stories are better kept close to the vest.
You see, that isn’t the strangest thing I’d ever seen in a casino either.
But it’s the only one I’ll admit to.
And I only do that because I’m a regular and it’s a shared group experience. A bit of local legend—the one game that never finished, the pot that got away.
Well away. The casino had to shut down both the poker and blackjack tables for two days while it ordered cards from all over the country. During that time, regulars gave interviews on every show from CNN to Inside Edition. Except for me.
I laid low for a while even after my lady left. Laid low and watched the skies.
What would have happened on the thirteenth hand if we had all blackjacked on the twelfth?
What would have happened then?
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in The UFO Files, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Ed Gorman, Daw Books, 1998
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Glowonconcept/ Dreamstime, Antonprado/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
December 23, 2015
According to lore and the internet, either Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway first said that there are two kinds of writers—putter-inners and taker-outters. (I can’t find the quote. I’m pressed for time. You find it.)
I would add that there is at least one more type of writer, and that would be “all of the above.”
I’m getting the novel I finished last week ready for Dean to read—all 170,000 words of it. As I’ve said before, I write out of order, so my initial drafts are filled with repetition. They’re also missing stuff.
I liken what I do to making a quilt. If you look at most handmade quilts, they contain scraps of material placed in lovely patterns, and held together by other material. I cut the scraps first—one pretty piece of material and then the other pretty piece of material (or in this case, three pieces of material). Then I create the pattern, and then I figure out where they go. Sometimes the pattern holds together all by itself and sometimes it needs an additional bit of material—a border, usually—to hold it all together.
Often I end up with extra scraps, and I cut them, because the quilt is prettier without them.
I have 40,000 words left to run through—and by run through, I mean read through. It’s like setting the mostly finished quilt on the floor, standing up, and looking at it to see if it works. Usually it does.
When I hit 170,000 words, though, I had a hunch I had repeated myself. I had, although not nearly as much as I thought. I predicted I would cut 35,000 words minimum, and so far, I’ve only cut 9,000. And I missed two chapters. I added one in last Thursday—the last chapter, the one I usually miss on the first go-round because I’m so happy to be done—and then, yesterday, another chapter. (sigh)
I don’t call this rewriting because I’m still in creative mode. I’m acting like a reader (and someone who wants to stay warm under that quilt). I’m making sure that the story flows by reading it front to back like a reader would. Reading, believe it or not, for enjoyment.
I want to have this book done by Christmas Eve, so I can enjoy the holiday. The novel has been a jealous mistress: it didn’t want me to read anything else or write anything else (except the blogs). It held my imagination firmly, and only now, reluctantly, is it willing to let go.
I thought I’d have it done by my normal blog-writing day, which is today. But because we’re getting storm after storm after storm, I’ve lost time to power outages and early computer shutdowns.
We lost power for over an hour yesterday (not counting blips) and then again, this morning. Right now, it’s hailing. I have everything backed up so I can work off my laptop if I need to.
Unlike most of the United States, which is having the warmest Christmas week in decades, we in the Pacific Northwest are suffering through terrible storms. This is the wettest December on record—and that doesn’t count the windstorms. Yesterday’s outage was caused by (as the power hotline said) “trees.” The ground is saturated, and trees are falling over in the wind. It was sunny when the power went out yesterday. The good news is that I got to go on my walk in the sunshine. The bad news is that I lost hours of work.
So…this is going to serve as my blog for the week. I’ll definitely be back on track next week.
Let me wish you and yours the best holiday season, no matter what you celebrate. And I’ll see you next week.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Writing During Storms and Holidays,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
December 21, 2015
Secret Master of Fandom and private detective Spade thought he would be spending Christmas Eve alone—until a strange call from Paladin changes his plans. And just when he thinks the evening can’t get any stranger, a huge blast sends his world into chaos, along with that of Paladin and Casper.
And what the trio learn next might prove even more explosive.
“The Really Big Ka-Boom” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
The Really Big Ka-Boom
A Spade/Paladin Conundrum
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
“Do you have plans for Christmas?” I asked Paladin, and then flushed. I couldn’t believe my own boldness. I felt like Stalker Spade.
I hadn’t planned on running into Paladin here, at one of the Los Angeles megamalls. In fact, I hadn’t planned on seeing anyone I knew. Everyone I knew in Los Angeles (well, not everyone, but almost everyone) was at a hotel near LAX, celebrating Black Friday the way that sf fans always celebrated Black Friday—at a science fiction convention, with hundreds of their closest friends.
Paladin was an sf fan, but she didn’t make conventions the center of her life. Nor did she make malls the center of her life. I only knew bits and pieces of her life, the bits and pieces she let me know over the short time we’d known each other.
Mostly, what I knew about Paladin was that she rescued people. She took her inspiration (and her business card) from the old Have Gun, Will Travel TV show. She’s a wanderer who digs into whatever crisis she can, usually those involving kids.
I had no idea she was going to be in Los Angeles, let alone at this mall. I had seen her before she had seen me, which was kind of amazing, considering this was one of those big Los Angeles malls that made product placement a god, and people watching difficult. Plus there had to be a thousand people here, most of them in the broad walkway between the shops.
Paladin isn’t very tall—5’4” on a good day—but she has a distinctive look. She’s thin and elfin, with upswept ears that end in a point. A man who is not involved with a woman should never have a favorite part on that woman’s body, but I do have a favorite when it comes to Paladin. Those ears sold me the moment I first saw her. They were real, unlike most pointed ears you see at science fiction conventions, and they fit her puckish face.
I’ve seen a lot of fake pointed ears. I spend my life at science fiction conventions—literally. I am a Secret Master of Fandom, which sounds grand, but actually means I’m one of a group of people who make sure that science fiction conventions all over the world go off without a hitch. Fans call us SMoFs (pronounced “smoff”) for short, and only those fans who truly pay attention know who we are.
“Christmas?” Paladin said drily, as if she couldn’t believe I’d said that. “I’m working.”
Her sarcasm carried over some Bing Crosby wannabe’s hideous version of “White Christmas.” I resisted the urge to close my eyes and smack myself in the forehead with the heel of my hand.
I had been thinking of Christmas—who didn’t in this environment?—and then I saw Paladin. I’d been talking to other fen (that’s the real plural of “fan” in the sf world), and we’d been trying to figure out who was coming to Chinese Food Con.
Chinese Food Con wasn’t a real convention, but it was what we called our annual holiday celebration. Actually, we had two celebrations. Chinese Food Con was for those fen who didn’t celebrate Christmas. Started by Jewish fans decades ago back when the only restaurants open on Christmas Day were Chinese, Chinese Food Con lasted five whole hours and usually ended at the screening of some major holiday movie at a designated multiplex. After a while, we even started moving Chinese Food Con from town to town, picking the best or the most accommodating Chinese Restaurant in the area.
Chinese Food Con was one of my favorite traditions. I hadn’t missed in years.
I often missed the second holiday tradition: Regifting Day. The fen had been doing that long before regifting even became part of the lexicon. Usually held around New Year’s, again in a designated city, Regifting Day had strict rules. The regifted item couldn’t be cool. It had to be the worst gift you got that year.
Since I didn’t get many gifts (some years I didn’t get any), I had no reason to attend Regifting Day, even though I had heard it was fun.
So when I saw Paladin, heard the Christmas music, saw all the red-and-green and exhausted crowds, I asked her what I’d been asking everyone I liked at the convention. Want to join me for Christmas? sounded so normal when asked of casual friends at an sf con.
It sounded creepy and vaguely weird in the middle of Black Friday celebrations at one of the biggest malls in the country.
“I know,” I said, “I figured you were working. I wasn’t inviting you to my house or anything. It’s just we have a tradition in fandom for Christmas Day and I wasn’t sure if you knew about it, and—”
“I’m working,” she said again, with unusual emphasis, and I nodded like the doofus I was.
Of course she was working on Christmas. I’d never known Paladin to do anything except work.
Not that I was one to talk. I wasn’t at this mall for a Black Friday reason. I was here for a convention reason.
A phalanx of Klingons who had come here to scare the civilians had left behind a small troop who had started playing some light saber game in the center of the mall. Yes, yes, I know the irony of Klingons playing a Star Wars game, but most mundanes don’t, and they crowded around as if they were watching the second coming of the Enterprise.
One of the Klingon leaders had to be on a panel at four, so he rounded up the bulk of the team and left. When they got back to the hotel near LAX, they sent me into deepest darkest Los Angeles to save the rest of their people from the mundanes.
“Well,” I said, sounding even dumber than I usually did around Paladin, “in case your job cancels or something, we have this fannish tradition from the deepest darkest days of prehistory. It’s—”
“Where’s Chinese Food Con being held this year?” she asked as she peered around me.
My entire face was on fire. I didn’t know how I could screw this conversation up more.
“Um, Oregon. Portland. There’s this great restaurant near the tram that someone found at last year’s Orycon, and we decided that it would be spectacular for this year’s—”
“Fine, good,” she said, and then she pushed past me.
I turned, just to say something else, like maybe goodbye or I’m sorry or something profound (in my dreams), but all I managed to see was Paladin’s back as she slipped into the crowd. She looked like one of those heroines from the cover of an urban fantasy novel, all boots, muscle-shirt, and leather. She just needed a broadsword over her shoulder to complete the image.
The crowd swallowed her, and I was left alone with my terminal embarrassment.
At that moment, a Klingon clapped his steel-gloved hand on my shoulder and said, “Kapla!”
I was so startled, I almost stammered, And may the Force be with you too! but I managed to avoid that faux pas. Still, I didn’t feel like answering in Klingon.
“You guys ready to go home?” I asked, and as he nodded, I realized that I didn’t even have to apologize for the word “home.” We both knew what I meant, and we both knew the truth of the word.
For us, an sf convention truly was home.
I didn’t see or hear from Paladin again, and I figured she’d forgotten our encounter. Actually, I hoped she had forgotten that encounter. I wished I could.
I went to SMoFcon the following weekend, and presented two panels on accounting for sf conventions. Most people don’t realize that conventions are multi-million-dollar enterprises, and must be handled the way that large businesses are handled. That’s the reason I get called into most conventions; someone has messed up the books (again), and I have to fix everything.
After SMoFcon, December slows to nothing, which is why non-religious fen who consider conventions their home feel a bit lost at this time of year.
I do. I retreat to my house in Seattle, do the obligatory maintenance, sort through everything I bought at the various conventions through the year, make sure my own accounts are in order, and try to go out at least once a day.
I don’t work. I’m what’s called in Northwest parlance, a Microsoft Millionaire—one of the early Microsoft employees who got paid in stock options as well as ready cash. Mine vested back when Microsoft was the biggest company in the world, and I made millions. Unfortunately, most of my Microsoft Millionaire colleagues handled money the way that brand new sf conventions do, and those folks aren’t millionaires any longer.
I know how to handle my funds, and even after all the economic ups and downs of the past few years, I’ve still quadrupled my original take. I probably would have made even more, except for the holiday season. I believe in the charitable giving thing; I know a lot of folks who are struggling, and they get a visit from a Secret Computer Santa who pays off their house or their credit cards or their one and only car. There’s usually a tree and wrapped packages involved too.
It still means I spend the bulk of the holidays alone.
I have a personal tradition: I show up for Chinese Food Con about a week before (depending on frequent flyer blackout periods), and explore the city. Every city has different traditions for Christmas, and each one is both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
Even though I live close to Portland, I’d never been there over Christmas. I stayed downtown—not in one of the trendy boutique hotels, because I’m not a trendy guy—but in one of the high-end chains that had been downtown forever. I’ve stayed in so many hotels that I’m more at home in them than I am in my house, and I expected things—24-hour room service, enough TV channels to keep me entertained, a functioning bar, and access to a concierge who doesn’t look down his nose at a 350-lb man in an X-Men T-shirt.
On December 23rd, I went down to the bar for some hot wings and a microbrew. I had gone to local concerts on all of the previous evenings, but there were none tonight—or at least, none I wanted to attend, since most were in churches.
I was thinking of dinner and a movie. I had my iPad out to see which films were showing, and try to figure out which the Chinese Food Con folks wouldn’t want to attend. That ruled out all the sf movies, of course, and left me with the hopeful (and possibly dull) Oscar contenders. I had just stooped to reading reviews when my phone rang.
“Where the hell are you staying?”
It was Paladin, and she sounded grouchy. I actually pulled the phone away from my ear and looked at the screen. Yep, the screen image was a photo I’d taken of Paladin the summer before when she was sitting cross-legged in my gigantic con chair, looking both impish and Buddha-like.
I put the phone back to my ear. “Um, why?”
“I figured you’d be at the Other Hotel, like you usually are, but it’s gone. I mean, gone.”
The Other Hotel was a joke from Portland’s best convention, Orycon. Back in the day, the convention was held in a Red Lion hotel near the Columbia River. Across the parking lot (literally) was another Red Lion. People always came in and asked for something, only to be told it was in the other hotel. When Portland hosted Westercon in both hotels, the con committee actually made T-shirts that read, It’s in the Other Hotel.
Since Orycon’s standing committee was so very competent, I never had to work the convention, so I would go to relax and I would stay in…you guessed it…the Other Hotel.
“The Other Hotel’s still there,” I said. “It was the old Orycon hotel that burned. And I didn’t know you when I stayed in the Other Hotel. Did I?”
I felt awkward. Orycon had left the complex more than a decade before. How could I have missed Paladin?
“So where are you?” she asked, completely ignoring my question, which made me nervous all over again. She had sought me out for our very first case together, which I call “The Case of the Vanishing Boy,” although she doesn’t like the fact that I name cases. Had she been watching me long before that? If so, why?
“Where are you?” I asked.
“I’m at the Other Hotel, I guess,” she said. “Why won’t you tell me where you are? I thought you always came to Chinese Food Con early.”
I frowned. Had she been spying on me? I knew I hadn’t told her about Chinese Food Con before.
“I’m downtown.” I told her the name of my hotel. “What’s going on, Paladin? Is something—”
And at that moment, my phone beeped at me, like it did when a call got severed.
I set it down and stared at the screen. Paladin had come here? After our discussion in Los Angeles, I had thought she wouldn’t show up at all. She hadn’t said anything. She never contacted me, and I didn’t see her at Loscon (or SMoFcon for that matter). Plus, she was two days early.
I pushed aside the microbrew—I needed all of my wits about me—and ordered a Diet Coke. (No jokes, please. I happen to prefer the taste.) I ate the hot wings and wiped off my fingers. By the time I had popped in a Listerine strip to help with my breath, Paladin came through the hotel’s main door.
And she wasn’t alone. Beside her was her younger doppelganger, Casper. Casper was thirteen going on fifty. She wasn’t related to Paladin at all. Casper’s parents had abandoned her in the middle of the recession, and she’d ended up at a shelter. Paladin met her there, and then introduced her to me.
Casper might look like Paladin, but she had math and computer skills that made me seem like a slacker. She helped Paladin solve a case back in October, and Paladin convinced me to sponsor Casper at a private school for the totally brilliant. I paid her tuition, yes, but I also vouched for her, and that meant I got weekly reports.
They were stellar.
Still, I hadn’t invited Casper to join me over the holidays. I have to be careful to avoid the creepy unrelated sick-o uncle thing with a preteen girl. Not that I have designs on anyone under thirty, but I don’t want the perception to hurt either of us.
“Hey,” I said to both of them as I met them near the door.
Casper, who was wearing a parka despite Portland’s forty-degree temperatures, looked around. “This is where you spend Christmas?”
It did have upscale, somewhat inoffensive decorations, and Christmas music by actual musicians, but it didn’t seem very homey.
“This is my first Christmas in this hotel,” I told her.
“Expensive taste.” Paladin made a face as she headed to the reception desk. She was wearing a winter version of her usual outfit—tight black jeans and layers. Ever larger long-sleeved T-shirts covered each other. I could see a hint of a tank top underneath it all. She didn’t wear a jacket, but at least her black boots were practical.
She pulled a wallet out of her back pocket as she leaned against the reception desk. By the time I got to her side, she was tapping a credit card on the desk. I couldn’t see the name on the card. I knew it couldn’t be Paladin, but I didn’t know what her real name was.
No one did—at least in my circles.
“Let me get this,” I said. “My treat.”
She glared at me. “I didn’t come here so you could pay.”
“I know,” I said, and I was tempted to let her pay for the entire thing, just so that I could see what her real name was.
“I was going to find you after we checked in. But I was having a hell of a time.” She still tapped that card, even though I had my black American Express card clutched in my pudgy fist.
She peered over the desk. So far, no one had shown up to check her in.
“In fact,” she said, “the Other Hotel wasn’t even my first choice. I went to the Beaver Motor Lodge, but left after fifteen minutes because no one waited on me.”
She said that last bit louder than she said the rest of it. I grinned. I wonder what she had done to try to get someone’s attention at the Beaver Motor Lodge. Paladin called herself a bulldozer, and had, in fact, hired me in the past for my ability to finesse things.
She was in impatient bulldozer mode here, and I’d have to shut her down soon, but bulldozer mode might not have seemed out of place at the Beaver Motor Lodge.
The Beaver Motor Lodge wasn’t really a motor lodge. It was a funky hotel in one of the areas of Portland waiting for urban renewal. The “beaver” part wasn’t because of what you might think either. The beaver is Oregon’s state animal, and the name of the sports teams from Oregon State University—something I always thought of as bad planning, especially for the girls’ teams called (no, I’m not making this up) the Lady Beavers.
The Beaver Motor Lodge had been the site of one of Portland’s latest conventions, an anime/gaming/urban fantasy hybrid called MotoLoCon. MotoLoCon (short for Motor Lodge Con) died an ignominious death when the treasurer of MotoLoCon 2 ran off on the con’s first night with all of the funds. I investigated that one, found the stupid embezzler who had run all the way to Vancouver, Washington (across the bridge from Portland), and who had gone on a shopping spree at a rather downscale mall.
She was serving time, and the entire concom was not going to work conventions ever again.
I always liked Beaver Motor Lodge and thought it had potential to be one of Portland’s great boutique hotels, even if it wasn’t set up to be a convention hotel.
“She kept telling me how cool it was,” Casper said, hands shoved deep in the pockets of her parka. Her jeans were ripped and her tennis shoes had a hole in the top. Looked like new clothes were on the agenda for this trip, whether she knew it or not.
“You don’t think so?” I asked.
“Dead moose heads in the lobby? Are you kidding me? Ugh. And that stuffed bear was just gross.”
I grinned at Paladin, but she didn’t notice. She was peering over the desk again. No one was waiting on her here either.
“I’m never going to get a room anywhere, am I?” she said.
I hit the bell, and a man dressed in a shiny black suit appeared as if he’d been summoned by demons. The only thing that spoiled his wealthy look was the name tag on the lapel.
“These two need a two-bedroom suite,” I said.
“We do not,” Casper said as Paladin said, “Spade, no.”
“And put it on my bill,” I said before turning to them. “It’s the holidays and you should be comfortable. My treat.”
“I don’t want a treat,” Paladin said.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
“Spade,” she said, not letting it go. “I—”
“Say ‘thank you,’ Paladin,” I said.
She pursed her lips. “Thank you,” she said clearly reluctant.
“You were supposed to say, ‘Thank you, Paladin,’” Casper said, doing a perfect Gracie Allen. I had no idea how a kid like her even knew who Gracie Allen was, considering George Burns’ wife had died in 1964.
Paladin glared at her, and I was instantly grateful they would have the privacy of their own bedrooms. Paladin didn’t strike me as someone who shared her personal space well.
“She was promising me dinner at some diner near that creepy motor lodge,” Casper said. “Said it had the best hot turkey sandwiches on the planet. Then we didn’t stop. I suppose this place doesn’t have hot turkey sandwiches either.”
Clearly she was in the mood for them. And now that she mentioned it, so was I.
I smiled. “I remember that diner. It’s fantastic. And it’s not very far from here, if you don’t detour to Jantzen Beach where the Other Hotel is.”
“Really?” Casper said.
“Really,” I said. “Let’s just get you guys settled in.”
It didn’t take long. They didn’t have much luggage. I was beginning to think Casper didn’t have much of anything. Paladin wouldn’t think of buying Casper clothes—Paladin was not a girl-girl—and the money I sent for expenses probably went to books and gadgets instead of necessities because Casper wasn’t a girl-girl either.
I didn’t want to ride in whatever vehicle Paladin had rented, so we took my Lexus SUV across the Hawthorne Bridge to the east side of town.
Fortunately the diner was open, which was more than I could say for the Beaver Motor Lodge. No cars parked in its lot, even though lights were on in most of the rooms.
The Lodge resembled a hunting lodge crossed with a motor lodge. Rooms spread out like spider legs across the parking lot, but the bulk of the lodge went up four stories in a rickety wood building that looked like a sneeze could knock it over.
No one had even bothered to put up Christmas decorations. Apparently the Beaver Motor Lodge was on its last legs. Too bad. I had enjoyed the place when I stayed there.
The diner, on the other hand, thrived. We didn’t have to wait in line, but only because the place was huge. A waitress in a 1960s brown uniform and matching beehive hairdo grabbed three gigantic menus and led us to a table near the window.
Christmas music was playing here too, but era-appropriate: Elvis singing about his ba-ba-ba-blue Christmas and the Safaris (I think) doing a surfer rendition of “Jingle Bells.” The decorations that the Beaver Motor Lodge lacked were out in force here, from plastic lights nestled against real evergreen along the frosted windows to little Santa suits on the ketchup bottles. If you were not in the spirit of the season, you did not belong here.
I think Paladin was the only one who glanced at the menu. Casper and I wanted hot turkey sandwiches, and we ordered them, along with corn bread and soup and a bunch of other stuff neither of us would probably eat. Paladin finally decided on a cheeseburger.
We had just gotten our drinks when the world went black and white and whump! all at the same time. I got blown sideways out of the booth, landing on a vibrating floor.
Sound hit me next—a ka-boom like I’d never heard before. (And in my stunned mind, I kept hearing Marvin the Martian repeat in his little alien voice, A really big ka-boom!) It was a really big ka-boom, followed by another really big ka-boom, and yet another.
Sleet landed on me, at least, I thought it was sleet until a piece landed just in front of my nose.
Heat rolled over me, which I thought was very weird, and then a hand grabbed my arm, pulling me away.
I looked up.
Paladin, her face covered in blood, elfin eyes big, saying, “Jesus, Spade, I don’t want to drag you and Casper. Help me here.”
She had Casper by her arm. Casper looked dazed, but not out. She was getting to her feet.
I almost said, with the impeccable logic of a man in shock, that Paladin wouldn’t have to drag both of us, and then I realized that Paladin couldn’t drag me any more than she could stop a moving train. I mentally imbued her with supernatural powers because she was the most fascinating person I had ever met, but that didn’t mean she actually had those superpowers.
Somehow I got to my feet, terrifyingly unalarmed by placing my hands on glass shards to boost myself up, or the fact that the booth wasn’t anywhere in sight, or the way that the blood was dripping off Paladin’s lovely skin.
In addition to Marvin’s really big ka-boom voice, another voice in my head calmly and rationally reminded me that shock had its virtues but a realistic assessment of the danger around a person was often not one of them. Yet a third voice told me that it was winter, and heat shouldn’t roll in the window.
I listened to that third voice, put my arm around Casper to move her forward, and let Paladin tug us both to the back part of the diner. As we moved, so did other people. They were screaming or crying or searching through debris.
Paladin was telling them all to get out, get out, and asking for cell phones so that someone would call for help. But she kept moving all the same, and we got to the back of the building—which was intact. I wanted to stay there, but Paladin made us file through the door leading to the alley—not just me and Casper, but all the people huddled there.
“Stay away from the building. It’s not stable. And wait for me,” she said before running back inside.
I thought—stupidly, but all of my thoughts in that crisis were stupid—that I had finally met someone who would run into a burning building, and it didn’t surprise me that that person was Paladin.
“She gonna be okay?” Casper asked, holding me so tight it would have hurt if I could have felt any pain.
The fear in Casper’s voice caught my loopy brain and somehow focused it. I held her close. This poor kid had lost everything the past year, and had somehow stayed strong, and now she was going through this. If she lost Paladin too, she might break.
So I did the cowardly thing: I spoke with extreme confidence as I lied.
“Of course, she’ll be okay,” I said. “She’s Paladin after all.”
And she was a paladin that night, one of the foremost warriors in the world. She battled heat and smoke and fires, broken tables, and collapsed ceilings to get at least fifty people out of that building. I did what she told me to do: I moved everyone away from any walls that could fall, and kept a tight hold on Casper who was using the new iPhone I sent her three days before it got released to repeatedly call 911 and yell at them for not sending anyone.
She sounded so outraged and so strong that I didn’t want to inform her that someone was on the way: we were just in time dilation, as they would say in Star Trek. Everything was happening in slow motion, at least to us. Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours. We probably were outside without help for fifteen minutes maximum, but it seemed like days.
And through all of those days, Paladin kept bringing injured people out, and going back in for more.
Her layered shirts were ripped down to the tank, her jeans were in tatters, and the blood on her face had turned black. Or maybe it was just covered with so much smoke and dirt from the flames that it looked black.
She didn’t stop even after the fire trucks arrived, and she didn’t curse them the way that the crowd did, when they went across the street.
That was the first time I looked up, and saw what was really going on.
The Beaver Motor Lodge was gone, from its four-story center to the tentacles spreading across the parking lot. The buildings on either side—and by that, I mean across the street, like the diner on the north side, and something else (a strip club?) on the south side, had collapsed as well, and they were burning.
Fire truck after fire truck after fire truck arrived: I had no idea that Portland had that many fire trucks. As ever more arrived, I began wondering if any city had that many trucks and if I was seeing double (or triple or quadruple).
Paramedics had moved a lot of the people Paladin saved, sorting them as if they were damaged collectibles and someone had to grade them: Fair, Very Fair, Good. The folks in Mint condition stood to one side, and those who were judged Poor had already been stuffed into ambulances and driven to nearby hospitals.
Someone grabbed my arm, but I shook him off. I didn’t want to be graded or placed in line. But the arm-grabber was persistent.
“We need to check you out, sir,” he said softly (or maybe it wasn’t soft; I was beginning to think my hearing was damaged), “and your little girl too.”
It was the thought of Casper that moved me to the ambulance, and let them poke and prod me. I figured if I let them poke me, they could poke Casper too. All she kept doing was asking after Paladin, but no one knew who Paladin was.
Finally, I said, “The little woman who keeps carrying people out of the restaurant.”
“Oh, her,” the paramedic said. “No one can stop her.”
I nodded. That about summed her up.
Casper was okay except for some cuts and bruises (Very Fine), but they wanted me to go to the hospital to treat me for shock. They also wanted to make sure I hadn’t damaged anything else, which I finally realized was code for he’s fat and out of shape; he might have heart issues.
I made them wait until they could stuff Paladin in an ambulance too. She didn’t go willingly. I finally told her that I needed her to come with me, and then she sat quietly at my side, letting the paramedic check her blood pressure along with mine, search her skin for burns (miraculously there were none), and make her promise she’d get all her cuts stitched up.
The paramedic wiped off her face to find the cuts, and that was when we all realized that she was covered in ketchup. Her face was surprisingly unhurt, even though she had cuts elsewhere, especially on her hands.
“You guys sure know how to throw a Christmas party,” Casper said as they wheeled me into the ER.
Paladin smiled at her and said, “We like to start our holidays with a bang.”
I was okay. Well, as okay as an obese man who never left his favorite chair could get after he’d been flung across a room by the force of a blast that the news called (with hyperbole, of course) the equivalent of a five-megaton explosion.
Whatever that explosion had been, it had been dramatic, and by the time the hospital set me free (hanging onto me longer than expected, mostly to keep Paladin there so the docs could check her for all kinds of possible damage), it was nearly nine. We hadn’t gotten our roast turkey sandwiches, and I don’t think any of us were interested.
We went with the old standby. Pizza, delivered to Casper and Paladin’s suite. Because I wanted to rebel against all of those nasty medical assumptions, I made sure at least one pie was a five-meat combo with extra cheese.
The suite was lovely and so not-sf conventiony. Lots of high-end furniture, real flowers, and bowls of fruit everywhere. Complimentary Champagne “for the lady” and an entire assortment of chocolates “for the young lady.” Plus free big snuggly robes that Casper immediately crawled into. She looked as lost in hers as she had in her parka. But at least she was grinning.
I made the mistake of telling them about my Marvin the Martian moment, and Casper subsided into a sea of giggles, stopping only to imitate Marvin herself, and mutter, “A really big ka-boom.”
It did sound funny when she said it.
The local news featured the explosion, sending clueless reporters to the scene. The reporters had to stand blocks away with the still-burning fire as a backdrop. By the last newscast, someone had gotten their hands on cell phone footage of the actual explosion, and it was impressive.
Even our giggler fell silent. Paladin and I glanced at each other, clearly astonished that we had survived it.
I wanted to tell her how impressed I was with her actions, but every time I tried, she shut me down.
“You’d’ve done the same if you hadn’t fallen so hard,” she said, but we both knew it wasn’t true. Give me a computer screen filled with numbers and I can tell you if they’re legitimate or not. Give me a burning restaurant filled with people, and my mind conjured Marvin the Martian who, even in a cartoon emergency, wasn’t the most efficient of characters.
“How come you guys aren’t out there solving this?” Casper asked.
I looked at my bruised self, so big it didn’t fit into the complimentary robe. I wore a loose sweatshirt and a pair of sweatpants that I usually used for relaxing around my hotel room when I was alone. I didn’t look like a man who could solve anything.
And Paladin’s hands were wrapped in gauze, because the doctors didn’t want her stitches to get infected.
But Casper was frowning at us. I was going to ask if she noticed that we weren’t really up to snuff, but Paladin—the bulldozer—spoke first.
“Arson investigation is very specialized,” she said with a calmness that surprised me. “I don’t have the expertise, and I don’t think Spade does either.”
“What makes you think this is arson?” Casper asked.
Good question. I wished I had thought of it myself. My brain was still sluggish from the day’s events.
Casper glanced at the TV as Paladin glanced at me. She had a help-me-with-this look.
“I mean,” Casper said, “they’re saying it was a gas leak.”
Paladin frowned. Apparently she wasn’t thinking clearly either, or she would have answered a bit less directly.
“Remember that video of the explosion?” she asked.
I frowned, and wished the TV in the room came with a DVR. Then we could have rewound the footage.
“The explosion went through the building, and out through all of the rooms equally. If it had been a gas leak, the explosion would have been uneven, particularly in the rooms in the parking lot. They were too far away for anything but collateral damage, not for the original explosion.”
Paladin used her hands as she explained this. She didn’t seem like she was in pain at all. I felt like I’d been hit by a two-by-four (or maybe several two-by-fours), but she seemed physically unaffected.
“It sounds like you do know arson investigation,” Casper said.
“I know logic,” Paladin said.
“So you think someone set this,” Casper said.
“I think someone facilitated the explosion,” Paladin said. “Proving it will be hard.”
Casper frowned, then she looked at me. “We should be pretty mad about this, shouldn’t we?”
Bruises, no turkey dinner, the loss of the diner. Maybe we should have been mad. But no one died in the diner or in the buildings near the Beaver Motor Lodge, even though it would take some time to say for certain if anyone died in the motor lodge itself.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It seems to me that we’re pretty lucky, all things considered.”
“Maybe.” Casper sounded like she was getting wound up. “But you know, Paladin and I were there for like hours. What if we hadn’t given up? What if we got there later? Their front door was unlocked, the lights were on, and we were just waiting for someone to check us in. And no one did. And Paladin got annoyed so we left. But what if we didn’t? We could’ve died.”
I glanced at Paladin, who had actually paled. She hadn’t thought of that.
“I didn’t smell rotten eggs,” she said to me. All natural gas companies tinged their product with the stench of rotten eggs, so that you knew you had a gas leak in your furnace the moment it happened, not when—you know—the entire thing blew up.
“That’s something we need to tell the arson investigators,” I said. “But it can wait until tomorrow.”
I was exhausted. Casper had deep circles under her eyes. But she seemed to have a lot of energy.
“I know you can’t investigate the crime scene,” she said to me, “but I watch TV and I read a lot, and isn’t arson always about insurance money?”
“No,” Paladin said. “Sometimes it’s about revenge or sheer—”
I gave her a look that shut her down. Casper didn’t need to know about the kind of people who would burn up someone they hated simply for the pleasure of it.
“What are you saying, Casper?” I asked.
“I’m saying you know how to use computers and you are this financial wizard, and couldn’t you find this stuff faster than the police?”
I took the last piece of the five-meat pizza. I think Casper had one slice. The rest had been all mine.
I tended to eat when I was nervous. I didn’t remember inhaling that pizza. I must’ve been beyond nervous.
“I could,” I said, “but anything I found wouldn’t be legitimate. If this is arson, they’re going to want to follow an evidence trail that leads them in the right direction. And the right direction is one that holds up in court.”
“But they won’t even know where to look,” Casper said.
Something in her tone made me set the piece of pizza down. “And you do?” I asked.
“Well, der,” she said, as if I were the dumbest person on the planet. “I mean, how coincidental is it that every hotel in Portland that holds an sf convention has burned down this year?”
“Not every hotel that holds an sf convention has burned,” Paladin said, in what I’m sure she thought was a soothing tone.
But I frowned. People got ideas from other people. And the initial news reports about the old Orycon hotel fire mentioned arson. People linked to those old news reports on Facebook and fan sites as they discussed what great memories they’d had at Orycon back when the con was held in those hotels.
I know, because I wrote some of those posts. We talked about the great centrally located restaurant and how a disabled friend convinced the hotel to put in elevators to its function space and how the filking never managed to bleed into the dealer’s room despite the proximity of the space. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly how sad it was that the hotel had devolved from a beloved space to a place where transients lived and fires happened, maybe for the money.
“Crap,” I said.
“What?” Paladin asked.
It felt like my brain had returned. “Casper’s right,” I said. “This is a connection the police might never make.”
“What connection?” Paladin asked.
My brain had returned. It was moving faster than other people’s on money matters, just like it always did.
“The convention connection,” I said, “and the ties Beaver Motor Lodge had to the guys running MotoLoCon.”
I knew about it because I had offered to help with the books, and no one let me. The MotoLoCon people assured me they were getting a fantastic deal because one of the concom’s cousins owned the lodge.
The fannish connection was slight, but it existed. And people in fandom were bright, endlessly inventive, and sometimes a bit too invested in their own abilities.
Such as their ability to remain undetected.
“I need my computer,” I said as I stood up. I was a bit wobbly, but I wouldn’t let myself catch the side of the couch to show weakness.
“What can we do?” Paladin asked.
“Nothing yet,” I said. “Let’s just see if I have reason to be suspicious.”
Then I went back to my room, and got to work.
About two hours in, someone—Paladin, probably—called room service and got me Red Bull, coffee, Diet Coke, and all kinds of weird looking appetizers. The room service waiter showed up expecting a party, I guess, and seemed stunned when he realized I was alone.
I didn’t really care. I did remember to tip him, and then I went back to my computer system.
I hadn’t brought my tower of terror—I only used that at conventions—but I did have two different laptops, both the latest from their various manufacturers. I also had some software I designed that made it a lot easier to investigate someone’s finances.
I didn’t have a court’s permission to dig into the finances of the Beaver Motor Lodge, but I didn’t need one at first. I went all the way back to the material that one of the Oregon SMoFs had provided me about MotoLoCon.
The SMoF wanted to know if the various Oregon science fiction societies would be liable for any of MotoLoCon’s debts, since MotoLoCon was using all the sf societies’ good name and stellar reputation to get help with its financing.
I remembered that as a dicey case, with lots of potential problems. I scanned everything to remind myself, and then saw my e-mail back to the SMoF.
This is something we worry about if and when MotoLoCon goes belly up. If someone blames your organization, I’ll be right there to prove you had nothing to do with the convention.
I had a lot of good, legal information right in front of me, and I had a reason—besides a growing need to punish someone for nearly killing Paladin and Casper—for digging through all the records.
I dug a little further, and then I turned on the news. The local early morning shows mentioned arson in connection with the Beaver Motor Lodge’s demise.
That was all I needed. I picked up the phone and called an old fannish friend who had gotten transferred to Portland’s FBI Bureau. He greased a few wheels for me, so that I could talk to the right investigator.
I called him—a guy by the name of Ernie Reston—and he asked to see me right away.
Apparently the FBI connection—and my impressive forensic accounting résumé—caught his attention.
I knew better than to show up in my usual outfit of T-shirt and jeans, but I considered it, just to emphasize my fannish cred. Instead, I hauled out my suit. I traveled with it everywhere and wore it only when I was being official.
Portland’s Central Police Bureau was downtown, not too far from my hotel. I would’ve walked, but my bruises from the night before had turned into aches so profound I felt empathy with Oz’s Tinman. I definitely needed oil in my joints. Or something. I felt bigger and achier than usual.
The Bureau was in a large stone building that also housed the Justice Department. It was impressive; I had to walk farther than I wanted to in order to get to the press room, which was where Reston wanted to meet me. I was just happy we didn’t meet in an interview room; that always indicated something was about to go south.
I found a table and was just setting up when Reston came in. He was a dumpy guy whose suit fit worse than mine did. His face had streaks of soot, and he smelled like smoke. He looked so exhausted that I began to regret thinking I was tired at all.
We didn’t even exchange pleasantries. Instead, I explained how I’d been asked to investigate a science fiction convention a few years ago, and what I had found.
It wasn’t a lot—just enough to bend the rules in a way that would’ve made me hire a different group to run the convention—but in light of the fire, it looked truly suspicious.
Because MotoLoCon never made money, even though it had minimal expenses and “free” hotel access due to the cousin. The “free” access turned out to be less than free; most of the money from MotoLoCon 1 went to taxes, fees, and “additional expenses” provided by the Beaver Motor Lodge. Tens of thousands of dollars worth.
“Ballpark it for me,” Reston said. “I’ve been inhaling smoke all night and I’ve been thinking about burn patterns, not financial patterns.”
“Let me state that I don’t have information showing what Beaver Motor Lodge did with its money,” I said, “but I can tell you some of the taxes charged don’t exist, which makes what I have here something the Feds are going to want to see.”
“No kidding,” Reston said.
“The rest of it tells me that MotoLoCon was set up to make money for the people involved, even though the corporation running the thing had filed for nonprofit status. That means the organizers could pay each other a small wage, but they weren’t entitled to any profits from the convention. So they just funneled the money to the motel instead.”
“And this is tied to the investigation how?” He rubbed his face, covering it with more soot as he did so.
I explained Casper’s idea about the two convention hotels. Then I reminded him that criminals often took inspiration from each other to design a scam.
“Plus,” I said, “I think this one little convention alone shows a pattern of financial irregularity, and a willingness to bend the rules for financial gain. With your permission, I can look into the motel’s finances. Or you guys can just check to see what kind of insurance policy the place had.”
“Already did,” he said. “It’s large, considering what a dive that was, but that doesn’t mean anything if we can’t prove arson.”
I smiled at him. “I have some friends whom you might want to talk to,” I said. “They spoke to the police at the scene, but they were at the motel a few hours before it blew. They didn’t smell anything, and you’d think, with a gas leak that big, they would have.”
His eyes narrowed. Then he nodded. “I would like to talk to your friends as soon as I can.”
I took him to see Casper and Paladin at the hotel. I figured they would have more credibility in that setting than in a police setting. But I didn’t have to worry. Reston had already heard of the heroic Paladin, and how she had saved countless lives.
For a few minutes, I thought she’d flee the room. Paladin doesn’t do compliments well. But he saw her face, and quit. Then he listened to their story about the Beaver Motor Lodge’s reception area.
And then Paladin, without any help from me, found that cell phone footage on the news station’s website, and showed him how the explosion looked suspicious to her.
He eyed her sideways, then smiled for the first time since I met him.
“Yeah,” he said, as if he were talking with an equal. “The rooms off the parking lot all had space heaters—filled with oil. And not the kind the manufacturer usually provides. Plus adjoining doors between all the rooms were, somehow, left open.”
“I knew it,” Casper said, turning toward me. I put a hand on her arm. Too much enthusiasm at the moment was unseemly, particularly in light of all the injuries and damage. “We’ll have to testify, won’t we?”
He gave her a soft smile. I hadn’t known a man like that was capable of such warmth, particularly considering all he’d been through.
“It depends,” he said. “I’m hoping the bastards are going to realize how hopeless this all is, and take a plea.”
They did take a plea. But that was months and lots of attorney’s fees away. Plus fees for me, because the Portland Police Bureau decided that I could continue my investigation. As expensive as I am, the Bureau didn’t mind. The insurance company footed the bill. They figured it was cheaper than paying out.
But that was all in the future.
After Reston left, we decided to go out in search of hot turkey sandwiches. He recommended a few places and Paladin volunteered that any restaurant recommended by a cop had to be good.
She was right.
I had changed back, deciding on a nice holiday T-shirt, featuring Santa giving Chewbacca a boatload of gifts. Most of my other Christmas T-shirts had a lot to do with rather gruesome Santa death scenes or very obscene reindeer games. After the 24 hours we’d had, neither seemed appropriate.
In fact, the 24 hours inspired me to be a bit more forthcoming than usual. After we got our sandwiches, but before we dug in, I said to Paladin, “I was a little surprised that you showed up for tomorrow’s Chinese Food Con.”
She frowned at me. “You invited me.”
I felt that flush return. “I did. But you said you were working.”
She stared at me like I was a total idiot, and then she started to laugh.
“Spade,” she said. “I was working. That day. In the mall. And you were screwing up my op.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Wow,” Casper said. “You guys give a whole new meaning to socially challenged.”
Paladin glared at her, but I laughed. Casper had a wicked talent for the truth.
“No matter what,” I said, “I’m happy you both came.”
Paladin’s expression softened. “Merry Christmas, Spade.”
Casper lifted her water glass and said in a perfect movie Tiny Tim accent, “And God bless us, every one.”
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, January/February, 2015
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Lonely11/Dreamstime
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
December 16, 2015
I made a promise to myself when I started this blog up again a little over a year ago that I wouldn’t use the blog to put extra pressure on myself.
This morning, I finished the last chapter of a book I’ve worked on for eleven years. I’ve done six different half drafts of the book—all with different characters, starting in different places. Earlier this year, I started all over again—brand new words, brand new draft—and today, 170,000 words later, I have a book.
Which is pretty amazing when you come to think about it.
Now, here’s where the writer half-truths come in. If I were speaking to a large group at a library or somewhere in the future, and someone who has read the book asks me how long I worked on it, I would say about fifteen years start to finish.
That’s completely true. I started the research in the year 2000 or so, and did my first writing on the book in 2003 or 2004. I wrote a lot of drafts, but never finished one, because I started in the wrong place with the wrong point of view characters (once I even switched the setting to another city).
So I would also tell the group that I “rewrote” the book at least six times before they got to see the finished product. In reality, I wrote six different versions. And believe you me, this thing was hard to finish because I had made it hard. After you try and fail to complete something several times, you worry that you’ll never finish—or at least, I do.
Anyway, 170,000 words. Done. Finito.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, because I don’t care at the moment. I want to see a movie, have too much food, and maybe nap. Read something I’m not required to read. Go shopping. And maybe nap.
In fact, I suspect I’ll nap.
What I’m not up for is a long blog post on the industry. This week, the industry can take of itself.
I’ll be back next week, with clear and cogent thoughts about something.
Or at least, I’ll have a longer post.
See you then!
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Promises,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
December 14, 2015
As Rachel decides on a place to spend Christmas Eve, she can’t shake the feeling of being tracked. She knows well how hard they will search for her and Anne-Marie. Rachel knows they will never stop.
But Rachel also knows she needs to focus on the plan, and on making sure Anne-Marie knows Santa will still find her wherever they go. Because every child needs to believe in the magic of Santa—or do they?
“Christmas Eve at the Exit” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
Christmas Eve at the Exit
A Sweet Young Things Mystery
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The free story will be available for one week only. If you missed this one, click on the links above. There’s another free story lurking somewhere around the site. Track the story down, read, and enjoy!
December 9, 2015
After I published a recent blog post, a well published writer responded by saying that one of her business choices was the best possible bet she could take. Her entire response to the post was filled with gambling language. She said that business was about placing your bets where the odds are best, that becoming a megabestseller is hitting the jackpot (I actually agree with that one), and what you do with your career depends on what kind of gambler you are.
Her post took my breath away. I never think of my writing or my business as a gamble. I do know it’s filled with risk—anything worthwhile is. I also know that some people are risk-averse, and that means that certain aspects of a writing career are not for them.
But a gamble? No.
Her post was a lightbulb moment for me. It helped me understand some of what I’d been reading.
I have been getting a lot of pushback from writers for my Writing To Market and my What Market? posts of a few weeks ago. Some of those responses were in comments I did not let go through. Some were in email. And some were on other websites and listserves that friends forwarded to me (or that I saw in my weekly perusal of the cobwebby corners of the net).
First, let me explain why I didn’t let some of those comments through. I have rules about commenting here. I don’t take anonymous comments. You don’t have to sign your name for the public to see, but you need a website that I can go to, a functioning email address, a history of things other than trolling people’s blog posts, and/or your real name on the comment line provided for it.
I also draw the line at people who fill their posts with such invective that their message gets lost. I did, on one post, put through a man’s comment that insulted me and the folks who came to the blog, but he followed the rules. He used his real name (as far as I could tell), and included an email address as well as his website.
In other words, he was willing to stand behind his opinion rather than hide in the anonymity the net provides. Most of the stuff I get that insults me and mine—or you and yours—is truly anonymous and truly venomous. No one needs to read that.
I don’t mind if people disagree. I learn from posts that have facts and figures behind them, and I do investigate alternate opinions presented respectfully. I might not change my mind, but I will consider it.
But not from the haters and trolls. Those folks have no place here.
So…I took note of all the pushback I was getting to those posts on writing to market. At heart, those posts of mine are about trusting your art. About being an artist in the first place, and being the best artist you can be.
On one site, an anonymous commenter took me to task for the use of the word “artist.” He hated it in the context of writing. (I have no idea why.)
I admit: that stunned me. I’m a writer. That’s who I am. As a writer, I am both a craftsperson and an artist. I constantly strive to get better. I produce the best work I possibly can, and I always feel like I’m dancing on the head of a pin, trying to get something right.
Not the “right” of the marketplace. But the kind of right that Stephen King refers to in his introduction to Bazaar of Bad Dreams [Scribner, 2015, p. 2]:
I have struggled with feelings of inadequacy, a soul-deep fear that I will be unable to bridge the gap between a great idea and the realization of that idea’s potential. What that comes down to, in plain English, is that the finished product never seems quite as good as the splendid idea that rose from the subconscious one day, along with the excited thought, Ah, man! I gotta write this right away!
Honestly, the “right” that King defines here—getting it right as in realizing its potential—is the kind of thing an artist and a craftsperson cares about. The best way to write an idea is personal. Only King knows what that splendid idea actually was, and what he was trying to capture. Just like I’m the only one who knows what I’m trying to capture when I write some of my splendid ideas.
I miss most of the time. Yet I put those stories out into the wild, just like King does. Missing is part of the process. We might never achieve the potential of that splendid idea, but we can get close. And sometimes, we have even better stories that failed on the splendid idea part, but did something else.
It’s the pull of that splendid idea, though, that makes the true artist continue to learn their craft. They are constantly striving to learn more, to put more tools in their toolbox, so they can find better ways to capture the potential of that splendid idea.
That’s why King calls himself an amateur “still learning my craft” later in that same introduction. He says,
Every day spent writing is a learning experience, and a battle to do something new.
Exactly. This is not humble-bragging. These are words of wisdom from a man who has worked to improve his craft every single day of his life. I think he’s succeeding. It freaks me out as a writer to read King, because he does things I still don’t understand. Not in a how-did-he-get-away-with-that? way, which I experience with a lot of writers. (And then, when I figure out how, I steal from them.)
No, he does things in this way: I get so immersed in what he has written that the stories are as clear to me as my own memories, maybe even clearer. I have lived them. With most things I read, I disappear into the story and lose some hours in a wonderful entertainment.
But King doesn’t just put me into the entertainment. He makes it all consuming. When one of his characters escapes a Port-a-Potty by diving into the bottom of the damn thing as one did in “A Very Tight Place,” (collected in Just After Sunset) well, let’s just say, I have now done the same thing. Not in real life per se. But in my imagined life—not as a gross-out story, but as a lived experience. (And oh, thank heavens I didn’t have to actually do it.)
There’s something about his writing, something that he does that very few other authors do for me. He transports me into the world completely.
For me, King is a writer of such quality that I can only aspire to his level of greatness. I’m sure all of us, as readers, have a handful of writers like that. Not necessarily favorite writers (although King is one of mine), but writers who have achieved something in their craft that we have yet to achieve.
What does this have to do with gambling and writing and markets and all of the stuff I started with?
A lot, actually. In fact, the attitude of striving to be the best artist you can be is at the heart of it all.
Because writers often confuse “getting it right” on a craft level with “getting it right” for the teacher. Most of us learn how to write fiction in school. We took creative writing classes in college or had a creative writing unit in high school. We wrote short stories and submitted them to workshops, hoping that the workshop would help us “get it right.”
The problem with that approach is clear, if you look at King’s first quote. No one in your writing workshop, no teacher or professor or first reader, will ever know what your splendid idea actually was, nor will that person ever know if you reached the splendid idea’s potential.
So…relying on a workshop to tell you if a story works makes as much sense as asking your next door neighbor to guess what you were thinking last night at 11:30. There’s no way for that neighbor to know exactly what you were thinking even if you were talking to him at the time, and there’s no way anyone else will ever know if your story works—in the way you’re asking these people to know.
Nor will they be able to help you achieve that splendid idea. Because they don’t know what you’re striving for, and if you can’t put that idea into writing, you certainly won’t be able to tell them verbally.
Most workshops fail because the writers in those workshops come at the stories from the perspective of “improving” them. That’s not how readers read, however. We read to be entertained. So if you want to know if a story “works”—as a standalone piece of fiction, separate from the initial splendid idea—then have someone who is not a writer read it for pleasure. If that person has a visceral reaction to the story—they love it, they hate it—the story works. If they have a lukewarm reaction, then the story is probably pretty mediocre…or you have the wrong reader.
Put the failures into the marketplace, whatever that marketplace is for you—be it traditional publishing or indie publishing. The readers will decide what a success is. You’ve already judged the piece, and it has come up lacking—because it doesn’t achieve the potential of your splendid idea.
But there’s something that I haven’t discussed yet in regards to craft. King starts his introductory essay with it.
That something is confidence in yourself and your abilities.
Here’s what he writes,
…writing [short stories] makes me happy, because I was built to entertain. I can’t play the guitar very well, and I can’t tap-dance at all, but I can do this. So I do.
Repeat after me:
I can do this. So I do.
That confidence has to exist long before the first sale. That confidence, that willingness to say I can do this needs to exist when the writer first turns on their computer or first puts a pen to paper.
The confidence, the belief in one’s self and one’s work, has to be the core of every writer.
Yes, yes, I know, we’re all insecure. As I’ve told my writing students, we’re all a combination of extreme confidence and horrid insecurity. After all, the impulse to write—the belief that we have something to say that others will listen to—takes confidence. Extreme confidence.
The insecurity comes from a variety of places, including the nature of being an artist. We don’t fit in society. The society is built for people with day jobs and spend their free time with their families, not making up stories or playing piano to a half-empty bar.
People who want to make a living at the arts are constantly fighting other people’s perceptions—and two damn questions:
Why don’t you get a real job?
What makes you think you’re so special?
Well, the answer to the second one first: we’re all special. We truly are. We’re unique individuals, and some of us choose to express that uniqueness by writing stories. We have a confidence that underlies the choice, and makes people who live their lives by society’s rules very nervous.
Why don’t we get a real job? Many of us do. But that’s not what we want to do with our lives.
At heart, we all want to prove that we’re good enough to be professional writers, that we can play in the same park as our favorite writers. But we also know that there’s a hell of a gap between that splendid idea and its potential.
Some of us never learn that the gap is normal. Some of us never learn that we must persist despite the gap. We need to constantly improve to narrow the gap, but we’ll never make it go away completely.
Many of us who never learn (or accept) that the gap is normal reach outside of our art and our abilities to get approval from other people. From society or our family or our friends. We use their measuring sticks to measure our writing.
Some writers believe they need to climb the writing ladder the way that they’ve climbed the corporate ladder. They have to start in an entry level position and work their way, rung by rung, to the top.
These writers believe that the writers who catapult to stardom with their first novels have cheated somehow—when, in fact, the writers who have that kind of early success have told a damn good story. (And often, those early successes lead to failures later on, because the writer hasn’t yet learned what made that one story great, and keeps trying [and failing] to replicate the magic.)
Other writers who never learn that the gap is normal measure their writing with money. If they earn a living, whatever “earn a living” means to them, then they’re successful as writers. Which means this: If the bottom drops out of whatever they’re doing to make money—whether that is writing science fiction for the pulp magazines, the way that writers did in the 1950s, or writing for whatever version of Kindle Unlimited exists at the moment—those writers will believe their writing is now, somehow, flawed or has failed.
Many writers quit at that place, because they never really believed in what they were doing. They used the outside world to tell them how to succeed.
In order to chase those outside dreams, many writers write things they don’t believe in, because it’s popular and they can write well enough to get readers or sell a few things or make whatever they consider to be a living.
What these writers do is drain the energy from their creative batteries, so that when it comes time to write what the romance writers call “the book of the heart,” the writers don’t know how to do it. And books of the heart are often new to the marketplace, different or unusual, and they take a while to find their niche. So the writer struggled to write something they love, only to see it “fail” by those external measures.
Rather than looking inward, and improving craft or growing as an artist, and trying a book of the heart again, the writers look outward, claim that what they write “isn’t worthwhile” and write things they don’t believe in—to meet other people’s measures of success.
When you view writing from the outside in—from other people’s perspectives, not your own perspective—writing always seems like a gamble.
What do I mean by gamble?
The turn of a roulette wheel is all about blind luck. It doesn’t matter if you bet red or black, one number or another. The chances of you winning anything based on what you do are pretty damn slim.
That’s a gamble.
Every endeavor has an element of risk. If you have a corporate job, there’s a chance the head honchos will make a mistake that will shut the corporation down or make them consider layoffs. You can lose that job, no matter how good you are and what protections you have in place.
If you open your own retail store, there’s a chance that no customers will ever come inside. If you take a promotion, move to another company, move to another state, there’s a chance that your opportunity—this thing you’re risking your career or your family’s livelihood on—will fail.
We all try to mitigate the failures, but they exist. Often, the risk of failure has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with what the people above us in that corporate scheme or that company do. Some people prefer that lack of control, that lack of certainty.
I hate it, which is why I’ve walked away from jobs without a lot of control, why I’ve always run my own businesses (not just writing), and why I prefer to handle my own finances.
If I fail, the failure is on me.
If I succeed, then—usually—the success is on me as well.
When you gamble, however, you are trusting odds, if you’re even aware that there are odds. You’re giving into blind luck.
If you pursue writing as a gamble, then you are by definition making a mistake. Because you should never ever ever operate a business that relies on blind luck.
Writers who believe that writing is a gamble rarely go freelance. They take corporate jobs or they teach. And if their belief systems are deeply rooted, then that’s the way these writers should operate.
Gambling should always be a hobby, never a profession.
But indie publishing has allowed some writers to pursue their writing gamble as if it were a career. These writers are having some luck right now. They’re working the odds by playing a game. They calculate what they can make per-page reads in whichever genre hovers near the top of Amazon’s indie bestseller lists, and then those writers write that. They’re no better than people who go into a casino and play the same slot machine as their friends, because the “payout” is better. Or the people who have a system to win at Keno.
Eventually, the House will win. Eventually, Amazon will change its algorithms or lower its payouts. Eventually, some other (as yet unknown) company will take over the marketplace, and the gamblers will get wiped out.
It’s happened repeatedly throughout the short history of the ebook revolution. Anonymous writers who tried to comment on this blog in 2011, telling me I didn’t know anything (in horridly invective-filled posts like those I mentioned above) are mostly gone now. (Yes, I often knew who they were because they’d repost the same thing on the Kindle boards, only signing their names there.)
The problem those writers-gamblers have? They don’t have that deep down confidence in their own writing, that feeling of I can do this. So I do.
I think it got beaten out of them. They know they can write at some base level, but they no longer trust their voice. They no longer trust their art.
And they’re impatient. They seem to believe they can be as great as Stephen King without putting in the day-to-day work, without focusing on both the craft and the art of writing.
Deep down, all gamblers are terrified of losing. Failure could mean the loss of that last little bit of confidence, the loss of that last bit of self-belief. It can mean the end of everything.
I get that. I do.
But it’s a problem, because your self-worth as a writer is based on outside things, things out of your control. Artists must trust their art, and their own voice.
I can see the comments now: Rusch says that because she has a long career. She’s sold this and that, she’s won this or that award, she’s been around for a long time.
She uses Stephen King as an example, and he’s a multi-millionaire. Of course, he’s good.
But here’s the thing about me—and about Stephen King:
We knew we were good writers long before we sold a single word. King used to tell stories aloud to his friends in school, just like one of his characters does in “The Body.” He knew he could entertain them, and he did.
Back when I was in school, if I was offered a choice between a multiple choice test and an essay, I took the essay every single time. If the teacher gave me a chance to write something to get a good grade or to do something else—anything else—I wrote. Every single time.
I write. It’s what I do. It’s what I’ve done since I could put words on the page.
I’ll bet most of you are like that and were like that from the start. And many of you were taught that writing is, for some reason, a gamble.
What many writers never learned is that writing is also a craft. It takes much more than talent to do well. Talent is simply a measure of where you’re are at one particular moment.
In the fourth grade, I was a better writer than almost everyone else in my class. Was I a better writer than I am now? Hell, no. I’ve been learning my craft each and every year since.
Given a choice between making my living at a nine-to-five job or making my living as a writer, I choose to be a writer.
If, however, I must write things I don’t like in order to make money, I’ll get a nine-to-five job. And have over the years.
Because deep down, I believe in myself and in my craft. I also know that I have a lot to learn—even now. Especially now. I’m only just now beginning to see some (most) elements of the craft that I’m still striving to learn. If I have to do something else for a while to make money, I’ll do it—just like I did twenty and thirty years ago.
I learned back then not to drain my creative battery writing things I did not believe in. Even when I took tie-in work in some very dark days in my writing career, I only took tie-in work for properties that I loved. And I used that work to improve my craft, to reach new levels of storytelling.
And I always, always, always continued to write my own art, my own stories, my own novels.
I must say, though, that I took the tie-in work because a business I owned went so badly south that I owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. There was no other way I could earn enough money fast enough to repay those debts. So I wrote the tie-ins for money, and while that was a good financial decision, it wore me down emotionally. I ended up hating the work. I constantly looked for other ways to make that much money that fast. I was offered work in Hollywood and decided that, while it was very, very lucrative, it wasn’t work I could do and retain my own sense of my art.
At least with the tie-ins, I controlled my writing schedule. I wasn’t at someone else’s daily beck and call.
But when I wrote tie-ins, there were other people in my writing office, where they do not belong. I wasn’t working on my art or my voice. I was doing something for the money, something that badly drained my creative battery and slowed my own work to a crawl.
I knew, once the money was paid back, that I could quit that work—and I did.
If I had kept with the tie-in work—or, in the past, the nonfiction that I did (before giving it up to work exclusively on fiction)—I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am as a craftsperson.
I returned to my roots. I went back to writing what I loved.
Thirty years ago, when I quit the nonfiction, I went from fulltime freelance to part-time paid work for someone else, so that I had artistic freedom with my writing. It was the best decision I could have made, and it’s one I repeatedly make.
I always choose to believe in myself, my voice, and my art. Even when it makes better sense to play by society’s rules—to do what will earn me the most money or will get me the most prestige.
I would much rather work on trying to reach the potential of the splendid idea than I would on being a bestseller—whatever that means in the modern era—or on being the most award-winning writer in the world—or even on writing what would make me the most money, according to some algorithm.
All I have is my voice and my belief in myself. If I want to be read decades from now—and I do—then I need readers to come to my work because they get something unique from me. And if readers like what they read, they’ll tell their friends and their children and their children’s children. They won’t tell others about all of my books. It won’t even be half of them. It’ll be one story or one project, or just a handful of them, like it is with Charles Dickens.
And that’s if I succeed at what I’m trying to do. At my craft, not at my marketing. At my writing.
I also know that, like Stephen King, I’m still an amateur when it comes to craft. There are so many writers out there who are better than I am, so many storytellers that know much more about the elements of storytelling than I do. I have a lot to learn, and I will work on learning each and every day.
Is my writing a gamble?
No. Writing is my career. It’s also who I am. I have chosen a career with more risk in it than the average 9 to 5 job, but I have chosen a career with a lot less risk in it than some other careers. I’ve also chosen to work at something I love, and something I’m good at.
If I have to get a day job that doesn’t drain my creative battery some year in the future, I will. I doubt that’ll happen now, because my backlist is earning so much money through indie publishing that I could quit right now and still make more than I made in 2008. I also have other investments and other businesses.
But that’s where I’m at right now, not where I was thirty years ago when I quit writing for money. Then, I’d taken a day job to cover my expenses to allow me to work at my craft.
I don’t gamble with my creativity, although I did twice in my lifetime. For me, the gamble is burnout, writing something for the money rather than for the love. For me, the gamble is using my abilities to chase an outside goal, rather than try to do the best work I can possibly do.
I have known since I was in college that if I work hard enough, I can sell my writing to someone who wants to read it. I might not get as much money for that writing as other writers do. I might not sell to the first market I want to sell to. I might not be at the top of some bestseller list, and I probably won’t ever win the Pulitzer Prize for my fiction.
But I can make money doing what I love. It takes work, and patience. It means that I’m striving hard to learn how to tell the stories I want to tell.
At the end of the day, though, my writing charges my creative battery rather than draining it. I am constantly learning and growing and loving what I do, rather than slogging through it and resenting it, trying to find an advantage where there might be none.
I’m doing my best to be an artist.
And that’s the point of view that these blogs always come from. I assume that those of you reading these blogs want to be the best writers you can possibly be, that you write what you love, and that you’re working from your own vision, not someone else’s.
When I tell you to learn the business, when I say that you must understand what you’ve done so you can market it—those are all post-writing decisions.
I assume that when you sit down to write, you’re being 100% creative, alone with your thoughts, following your vision. I assume you’re pursuing art in this modern world, not pursuing riches.
There are other bloggers who can tell you how to make a fast buck. I’m not interested in that because it is a gamble, and it takes the kinds of risks I don’t believe in.
I’m here, talking about long-term careers for people who want to follow their own path, people who want to make a living from doing what they love.
And that’s why I sometimes get confused by the pushback I get from the marketers and the gamblers. Because we speak completely different languages.
I love to write. That’s why I do what I do. I don’t gamble. I choose to follow a path less traveled.
For me, that isn’t even risky.
For me, that’s as essential as life itself.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Gamblers and Artists,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.
December 7, 2015
An American in Paris, Alex faces Christmas alone—alone and lonely. Hopelessly lonely. He wanders the streets and train stations searching—for something, for someone, for hope.
Until Christmas Eve, when he meets a strange woman in an abandoned Metro station. A woman seemingly out of time. She both unnerves him and compels him. And if he decides to trust her, they might just succeed in freeing each other once and for all.
“Midnight Trains” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers.
A Faerie Justice Story
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Nights he would find himself in the Metro, just before closing. The wide tunnels emptied around 11:30 p.m. Most locals did not use the Metro late, avoided the buses that some ridiculous city planner believed could replace the trains in the wee hours, and generally, found their own ways home. Sometimes, he imagined that savvy Parisians simply stayed wherever they ended up, in some ongoing party to which he would never ever be invited.
Alex was 100% American. Nothing reminded him of that as much as Paris, which looked familiar, but always, always had an air of impenetrable mystery. Perhaps to the French, it was simply their grand city, like New York was to him—marvelous, yes, but not mysterious at all.
He shoved his hands in his coat pockets—a heavy wool great coat he’d found in some thrift shop, not that thrift shops here were anything like the thrift shops at home. Here, they smelled not of mothballs and sadness, but of cigarettes and perfume, forgotten traces of someone else’s life.
He loved the coat. It warmed him and made him feel like a local, only because he dressed like one. Only because the coat had history. He did not.
His first Christmas in Paris left him flat-footed and unprepared. No one had warned him that the city shut down over the holiday. Even some of the ATMs stopped working.
Before he left America, his friends spoke enviously of his assignment—Imagine Christmas in Paris, they’d say. Imagine the City of Lights. The City of Lights was beautiful—holiday markets, decorations everywhere, elaborate baked goods that he couldn’t imagine seeing at his last job in Chicago.
He’d come here to work, and his job, ostensibly in tech, was so high-up, he had trouble finding anyone at work who wasn’t a subordinate, and therefore off-limits.
He had friends in the city now, but they didn’t ask him to their Christmas celebrations. He never mentioned the holiday, but one-by-one, his French friends pulled him aside to tell him why they couldn’t ask him to join them. As one woman told him, The holiday, she is for family, no?
Only he had none. That was why the company had chosen to send him to France. That, and the fact that he spoke fluent French, although he soon learned that what he actually spoke was fluent American-flavored prissy and dated French, the kind that actually made the French wince and ask if they could practice their English instead. It was the polite French way of telling him that they didn’t want to hear him mangle the language.
He mangled anyway, and tried to imitate the accents he heard. Hard for him, since he grew up in Austin, then escaped to Chicago for high school. His personal accent was a jumble of the two cities, with Chicago taking precedence when he was awake, Austin when he was exhausted. Apparently, his French was mostly Texas-flavored, which his co-workers found hysterical. Once they relaxed around him, they’d mimic him in front of him, and rather than be offended, he learned what to say, when to say it, and how it should sound.
He had arrived in April; by September, he felt as accepted as a man like him could be, and by December, he’d been a bit surprised that he received no invitations.
And that was when he learned: Christmas, she is for families, c’est ne pas?
It shouldn’t have bothered him. He had been alone for Christmas for ten years. He was eighteen when his parents died in a terrible plane crash. He had been old enough to live alone, but too young to figure out how to do it right. A girlfriend in college (which he could afford with insurance money) had taken him to her family for every major holiday in the three years they dated.
When they broke up, he felt it not as the loss of a love, but like the loss of his parents all over again. A man without family, and this year, a man without country, away from the familiar rhythms of the commercial holiday season that he had grown up with.
His late-night walks around the city had started in August, another time when the French seemed to abandon work and their lives en masse to go somewhere else. He noted the closed businesses, the confused tourists, the occasional angry employee, left to guard the restaurant, the bar or the shop.
He got to know the sound of his own footsteps, echoing along the Seine in the Ile de la Cite, and he liked that sense of anonymity, which used to frighten him back in the States.
Back there, he used to think: What if I died here? No one would find me for days, weeks, even. No one would care.
Somehow Paris taught him a different attitude, a sense that nothing died, not really, and at the same time, that no one cared except in a way that interfered with their daily lives.
Maybe, someday, Alex would find someone who loved him as much as the couples who kissed on Pont des Arts bridge seemed to love each other. But not yet, and maybe not ever.
When he realized he would be alone on Christmas (Noël est pour les familles, non?), he checked his favorite restaurants in the area to see if they would be open. Of course, they were not. (It is, one kind chef told him, the only time we escape.)
Alex could, he was told, eat at some brasseries (except Christmas Eve, when almost everything was closed) or a few tourist spots, or in one of the train stations. Or, as in America, in any of the Chinese restaurants.
Alex decided to decide on Christmas Day. He walked everywhere, after all. He could walk then, even if it rained. He didn’t mind the rain; it was so much better than the Chicago cold.
He bought some food in case he felt like staying in, and thought it done.
But he was not prepared for the silence in a city usually filled with traffic, honking horns, music in the streets, arguing couples, and the occasional singing drunk. The closed shops, the empty streets, the shuttered restaurants, brought the city home to him in a way he had never seen before.
It was as if he had gotten closer to her, only to find her abandoned by the ones who loved her the most.
The Metro stations remained open—some people had to go to work, after all—but they all ran Sunday hours, and Sunday hours meant some stations were, for all intents and purposes, closed, trains running on a whim, it seemed, rather than on a schedule.
Early in December, he went to the Galleries Lafayette, because a friend had told him he had to see the entire store festooned in light. He did, and instead of taking his usual train home, he went to the Left Bank, and stopped in the Cluny-La Sorbonne.
If someone asked, he would say it was his favorite Metro station. If they asked why, he would give them the tourist answer—because of the mosaics. They covered the station’s vaulted ceiling. Most tourists adored Jean Bazaine’s gigantic frieze, Les Oiseaux, a yellow, orange, and pink monstrosity that suggested birds in flight.
But Alex liked the historic signatures represented in mosaic tiles. Some he recognized, like Robespierre and Richelieu, and others he had never heard of.
He stared at them for hours. They receded into the darkness that marked both tunnel entrances, some illuminated only as a train went through. It was in the Cluny-La Sorbonne that he realized rats appeared the moment the station closed. He’d gotten locked in one night, and was saved only by a kind guard who took him for a dumb tourist.
He didn’t want to stay with the rats—they heard the final announcement and poured from the holes in the walls, like something from a bad horror movie. Strangely, they didn’t frighten him.
This station had belonged to them much longer than it belonged to humans.
Because, what he really loved about Cluny-La Sorbonne was its history. The station, then called simply Cluny, opened in 1930, and was closed in 1939 because, the official records said, it was too close to another Metro station.
The Cluny-La Sorbonne became one of Paris’s Ghost Stations, a place on a map that only a few knew about. For nearly fifty years, the station remained unused. In the 1980s, city planners decided to revive it because they needed the connection—making it, in his opinion, one of the few ghosts to ever return from the dead.
The station also felt odd to him—a little cold, a little displaced, as if it never got used to its return. No ads graced its white tile walls, and the benches seemed like all others in the Metro, placed at comfortable intervals. The plainness of the walls, the ornate ceiling, the miles of track, disconcerted him on a deep level, and made him feel out of time, as if nothing could touch him here.
He would wander in cold nights, and sit, staring at the ceiling as if it held answers, the great wool coat wrapped around him. If he sat very still, the coat’s faint scent of cigarettes and perfume would rise like a half-forgotten memory.
He wouldn’t let himself doze—the rats had cured him of that thought—so on nights when he was most exhausted, he would stand and sway like a drunk.
Sometimes he would board a midnight train and ride it to a station near his apartment, but most often, he would sigh, give his station a fond glance, and head back out into the well-lit Parisian night.
He thought of going to church on Christmas Eve, but he wasn’t sure when the services would start. And he knew he would have a choice of listening to Latin or French. He wasn’t particularly religious, nor was he greatly interested. Much as he liked the great cathedrals of Europe, he saw them more as architectural curiosities, filled with a potent sense of history, rather than as a place to worship.
A neighbor told him of a concert to be given that night; another mentioned that some of the revues would be open; a third had winked and offered to give him the name of a proper gentleman’s club.
Alex finally decided on the concert, and started his walk. He ended up in the Latin Quarter, not far from the Cluny Museum, right near his favorite Metro stop, and somehow he made a decision without making a decision—he walked down the stairs to see if the station was still open on this most unusual night of the year.
The station was open, but he was alone. A train whispered by as if inspired by the city’s holiday hush. Even the announcements seemed fewer than normal, and the usually strident voices giving commands in rather harsh French seemed warmer than usual.
He huddled in his great wool coat, and then he saw her. Black hair, wedge cut, lipstick so red that it shouldn’t have worked on anyone’s face, let alone a face as small and delicate as hers. Her black dress with its diamond shaped neckline and nipped waist looked a bit old-fashioned. Even her stockings seemed dated. They had seams running down the back of her legs.
She held a cigarette in her left hand.
“Light?” she asked in Parisian-accented English. He had become used to that sixth sense Europeans had about him. They all seemed to know his nationality before he even opened his mouth. Even after seven months in Paris, somehow, he had not assimilated.
“No, I’m sorry,” he said gently.
“Ah,” she said. “It is a filthy habit that they claim will kill me. They know nothing.”
She looked at the cigarette as if she were deciding whether or not to hang onto it, and then she touched its tip. It flared, glowed red, and the rich scent of expensive tobacco rose around him.
He frowned at it, wondering if it was one of those electronic cigarettes he’d heard about, but then wondered why she would ask him for a light if it were.
“I thought you needed a light,” he said.
“I decided you would not mind,” she said.
“Mind what?” he asked.
“Me.” She smiled.
He felt dizzy. Maybe it was the cigarette smoke—maybe he had inhaled too much. Or maybe he was tired; it was the end of a very long year, after all, and he was at loose ends—not professionally, never professionally—but personally. Wondering if this was all there ever would be for him: Christmas Eves alone, in beautiful places.
“Why would I mind?” he asked, wishing he could follow her logic.
“Some do,” she said.
The station remained silent. He wondered if he could check his phone for the time, and then decided against it because he considered it rude. The fact he was worried about being rude to this woman, this confusing woman, seemed strange to him.
“We probably missed the last train,” he said.
She looked at him sideways. Her eyes were the color of dark chocolate, her skin smooth. Her faint perfume seemed familiar.
“You do not take the train,” she said.
He frowned at her. Of course, he took the train. He took the train all the time.
Just not here. He’d disembarked here the first time, but after that, he hadn’t come here at all. Not for the trains. For the signatures. The feel, the clean white tiles and the dim lights. The sense of something otherworldly.
“You’ve seen me here before,” he said.
“Yes.” Quick, with that accent. He was beginning to be able to distinguish one French accent from another, and this one had a curtness, a fillip at the end of words that he hadn’t heard before.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t remember seeing you.”
And he would. He would remember her, delicate and pretty and vibrating with an energy very similar to the trains themselves.
“I know,” she said. “I did not let you see me.”
He felt a chill. Was she stalking him? Was she crazy? He smiled at her, knowing the smile probably looked fake, knowing it probably seemed dismissive. He couldn’t help it. He no longer wanted to stand beside her.
He was about to move when she took the edge of his coat sleeve in her right hand.
“The man who owned this,” she said, “he was—how do you say?—a dreamer. Is that the word?”
How would he know what word she wanted when he didn’t know what she was trying to say? He bit back the irritation. He didn’t want to be near her any more.
“It’s just a coat,” he said.
“Ah, mon cher,” she said. “It is not just a coat. It is history, no?”
“No,” he said, and walked away. His footsteps echoed in the silence. The skin on the back of his neck crawled. She was watching him; he knew it.
But she was gone.
He vowed not to go back. On his entire walk home, the cobblestone slick with rain he had missed while underground, his breath fogging before him, he told himself he was done with the Metro, with the Cluny-La Sorbonne. He’d seen it. He had had enough.
She unnerved him. He recognized that.
The lights of the Eiffel Tower did not comfort him, so he walked to Notre Dame. He checked his phone—no calls, of course—but its clock told him that it wasn’t yet midnight.
Well-dressed worshippers walked behind the large Christmas tree near the entrance. The blue lights decorating the tree startled him as they had from the beginning; he was still used to red and green and white. But Paris preferred blue—all along the Champs-Elyse, near Les Halles and in the Place de la Concorde—so very much blue.
He almost walked around the gigantic tree himself. He could hear choral music on the night air, the harmonies pure and clear. He hesitated.
History waited for him in there, that sense of time standing still. Midnight mass at Notre Dame on Christmas Eve had to date back hundreds, maybe even a thousand years.
But it wouldn’t satisfy him. Christmas Eve mass wasn’t his tradition, wasn’t something he really believed in, wasn’t something that would touch his heart.
Like the brush of cool fingers as they touched the edge of his coat.
The man who owned this…
How had she known?
He turned, looked back down the street toward the Cluny Museum, which was impossible to see from here. He only had a sense of it, knew that it wouldn’t be open, maybe not even lit. It had looked surprisingly dowdy compared to the show the rest of Paris put on in the holiday season.
But he wasn’t looking at the museum. He was thinking of the Metro station. By the time he walked back, it would be closed. She would be gone.
Or would she?
He shook his head slightly, and stood, hands in his pockets, staring at the tree and the massive cathedral behind it.
This moment was almost magical enough for him. The music, the blue lights, the worshippers crossing the ancient stone, going under the ancient arches.
He took one step forward, and a hand slipped through his arm.
He looked to his side. She was there. She wore a black coat now over her black dress, with what looked like fur trim on the wrists and neck. She looked up at him and smiled.
“I do not go into such places,” she said. “They make me crazy.”
Then, she patted his arm, slipped away, and walked toward the tree. Its blue lights fell across her features, altering them, making her look almost two dimensional, like the old computer images. Her fingers rose toward the branches, brushing them like she had brushed his coat.
She stepped back.
Worshippers went around her, as if she were giving off a force field. One or two frowned at her as they went by. Others gathered their coats tightly around themselves and shivered.
He watched, not certain what she was doing.
The choral music flowed high above them, the harmonies unearthly.
She came back to him, slipped her arm through his, and said, “Let’s go.”
They walked through the quiet city. The lights made it seem like it had been abandoned mid-party. The scents of cigarettes and perfume followed them, and eventually, he realized it wasn’t just his coat. The scents also came from her.
When they came to the Institut de France, illuminated in white, they turned toward the Pont des Arts bridge. In all of his time in Paris, he had never seen the bridge empty—no humans at all.
The benches in the center bore no kissing couples, the wooden slats looked slick and lonely. The day’s padlocks remained on the railings, bearing the names of lovers, of happy couples and important dates. No one had cleared them off yet, and he wondered if anyone would over the holiday.
She led him up the bridge, her hands wrapped around his arm. The Seine reflected lights, mostly blue, from the holiday itself.
“You said you know my coat,” he said, because he couldn’t stand the sound of his heels on the wood. It sounded as lonely as he felt, even though he was walking with a beautiful woman in the most beautiful city in the world.
She led him to one of the benches, and ran her hand across it. Then she rubbed her fingers together as if testing whether or not they were wet.
She sat, then patted the wood beside her. It looked surprisingly dry.
“Your coat, like everything else in this city, has a past,” she said softly. “It called to me.”
He frowned, wishing she could be clear, maybe afraid that she was clear.
“It is why I watched you in the Metro,” she said. “I had forgotten the coat.”
Then she shook her head.
“I had forgotten the solstice. I have slept for so long.”
He frowned at her. She smiled at him. The light again played on her face, only this time, it was golden light reflected off the water and the buildings on either side of the bridge. The Louvre cast the most light. Perhaps, he thought, it should, since it gave the bridge its name.
The random thoughts, his emotional distance, the remaining loneliness, they still surprised him. This beautiful woman, for all her odd talk, should have intrigued him more.
But he didn’t understand her, almost as if she were speaking a different language and he only caught every other word.
“I wanted to believe I was used to iron,” she said, “and then it trapped me.”
She leaned her head on his shoulder for just a moment. He expected warmth. Instead, he got more perfume, more cigarettes.
“You freed me, you know.”
“What?” he asked.
She shook her head. “My people—this was our holiday. Mid-winter. We celebrated with lights. We put greenery in our homes. We danced, and feasted, and made love…”
He shuddered. He shouldn’t have shivered when a beautiful woman spoke of sex.
“Then we lost our homes, our forests, and came to Paris.” She ran a hand along his coat. “The man who owned this, he is dead now.”
Alex had supposed that much. Coats like this didn’t end up in thrift stores by accident.
“He died defending me. My family, we hid in those tunnels, because the Germans, they decided to do what they had always done. Take us, destroy us, make us into something more like them.” She nodded toward the road they had just walked on. “Like that cathedral, with one of our trees outside.”
She really was crazy. Germans, dead men, trees. She seemed to be conflating World War II with the Christian Church slowly taking over the pagan celebrations and making them part of the liturgy.
She made him nervous.
But Alex had to ask. “He died defending you?”
She nodded, then looked at Alex, tears in her eyes. “He had a pistol. He held the Germans off while my family and I escaped into the ghost tunnels. We were to leave, but the iron, it held us prisoner, changed us, trapped us. Like rats. That is how I first saw you, through the wall. I thought you were him.”
God, what was he to do with her? She was against the church, so he couldn’t take her to the priests there for help. And he had no idea what other place might take her in. He wasn’t even sure where the homeless shelters were—if there even were homeless shelters in this city.
She clearly had escaped from somewhere—an institution, a caregiver. Someone had to be looking for her, right?
There were several hospitals close to here, one near the Louvre itself. He wondered if he could get her there. He had never had cause to use any of the medical facilities in the city before.
“But you are not him, are you?” She brushed at his coat, as if she were removing lint. “You are not even his reincarnation. Mortals have such short lives.”
Alex couldn’t help himself. He engaged. “What are you, if not mortal?”
Her smile was sad. “We are so lost you no longer recognize us.”
She swept her hair back, then cupped his cheek. Her touch was cold.
“Lonely man,” she said. “You believe forever lonely.”
He tried not to move, not to betray anything with his expression. How had she known that? Was it that obvious?
It probably was. He was alone on Christmas Eve, after all. He was American. He clearly didn’t belong.
It didn’t take much to figure out that he was lonely, that he had no one to spend his time with.
“Because you freed me,” she said softly, “I owe you.”
“I don’t understand,” he said, “how did I free you?”
“You saw me,” she said. “As me, not as what I had become. To most, I was a creature. To others, the ghost of a woman they once loved. But to you, I was myself. You saw only me.”
She flattened her palm on his heart.
“It is because you have no woman and lost no woman that you saw me. It is your sadness that brought me back to life.”
Like the station itself, something whispered in his head. He didn’t like that thought. It made him uncomfortable. But, then, she made him uncomfortable.
“So,” she said, “a gift to you.”
She placed her red lips against his forehead. They were cold, like the rest of her.
And then, oddly, his heart lifted. Like it used to do when he was a child, when his parents were alive.
His mother used to say, Your heart has wings.
It had wings now.
“Sometimes,” the woman before him said, “hearts shatter. They must be repaired before they work again.”
Then she placed her chill forefinger under his chin, lifted his head slightly, and kissed him on the lips.
“I thank you,” she said—and disappeared.
He sat on the bench for a long time. Bells rang all over the city for midnight mass—Christmas Eve mass.
She had been an illusion, a figment of his overheated imagination.
He had himself convinced of that by the time he finished the long walk back to his apartment. A Christmas Eve hallucination. An undigested bit of beef, as Scrooge once said of Marley’s ghost.
Who turned out to be real enough.
Alex shuddered, not certain why he was so very cold. It was warmer in Paris on Christmas Eve than it usually was in Chicago on Christmas Eve. There, he would not have walked the center of the city in a coat, without a hat or gloves.
He took off the coat, and hung it on the built-in coat hanger near the door. Then he walked into the bathroom to wash the chill from his skin. He turned on the overhead light, and saw his face in the mirror, cheeks rosy from the chill, skin a bit too pale.
But that wasn’t what caught his eye.
What caught his eye was the bright red lipstick print on his forehead, with traces of the same lipstick on the side of his mouth.
She had been real.
And she had disappeared as if she had never been.
Oddly, he didn’t return to the Cluny-La Sorbonne Metro station for nearly a year. If asked, he would not say that was by design. He still used the Metro—maybe more than he had before—but he no longer wandered into the stations by himself, no longer stood waiting for midnight trains to whoosh by him on the way to something much more important.
He had important things to do now. A wife, an infant daughter, newly born. The City of Light had become a city of warmth for him.
He ended up in the Cluny-La Sorbonne by accident on the Winter Solstice, a bouquet of winter flowers in his hand, a bottle of wine under his arm. He had been distracted; he got on the wrong train, which brought him here.
He had already called his wife to apologize for being late. His wife, so lovely, so French. She had no family either, so she helped him make one. They had met on New Year’s Eve. He hadn’t planned to go out, yet he couldn’t stay in. He’d never been in a world-class city on a world-class holiday. It seemed churlish to avoid the celebrations.
And he didn’t want to seem lonelier than he already was.
He had stumbled into her. Truth be told, he worried for a half second that she was the crazy woman from the Metro, but his wife was not tiny or crazy. She was tall and blonde and sensible. She filled his arms, and somehow, she filled his heart—the heart he once thought untouchable.
Maybe it had healed. Or maybe…
That sensation of wings returned to him whenever he thought of that moment on the Pont des Arts. A gift, the strange woman had said. A gift he had told no one about.
He was the only person inside the Cluny-La Sorbonne. The birds mosaic flew overhead. The signatures glistened. And then the announcement sounded. The station had closed. Only one exit remained open.
He turned toward the wall, expecting rats.
But there were none.
His breath caught.
He wanted to believe the city had gotten rid of them.
But he had looked up old legends in the past year. Stories of Faerie. Trapped by iron, forced to change shape in their prison. Industrialization destroyed their habitat, just like the church had stolen their power.
The Germans had searched for them. Hitler believed magic would become one of the weapons of the Third Reich. If the Faerie existed, they hid.
And sometimes, all it took was something simple to destroy a curse.
Like a man, looking at a woman, and seeing her for who she was.
Alex shook his head, smiled at his fanciful nature. His wife said he was a dreamer. Perhaps he was.
He pulled one of the white roses from the bouquet. He knew the strange woman was no longer down here, just like he knew the rats were truly gone. But he needed a token anyway.
He placed the rose on the bench near where he had first seen her.
Whoever she was, she had touched him. She had made him see a future he didn’t want, one of lonely Christmas Eves that extended forever, like the Metro tunnels, midnight trains running with no one to board them.
He might have seen her, but she saw him as well.
And because she had, he saw himself more clearly.
That vision, that moment, led to this one.
“Thank you,” he whispered—and then walked to the exit, holding flowers for his wife, wine for their celebration, and a little bit of hope, in the wings of his heart.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published A Fantastic Holiday Season: The Gift of Stories, edited by Kevin J. Anderson and Keith J. Olexa, Wordfire Press, 2014
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Jocker17/Dreamstime
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December 5, 2015
I generally post my recommended reading list a month or three after I’ve done the reading. Which means that all of the holiday stories that I read get recommended in January or February. In 2011, I decided to do a compilation of past holiday recommends so that you can get them for the appropriate season. (Please note: the stories might have shown up in other collections. I haven’t gone searching, but you might want to.)
I’m also going to mention, by way of shameless self promotion, that I have a bunch of holiday stories available in print, audio, and ebook form, under Rusch as well as Grayson. You can find a list on the WMG Publishing website.
Also, this year, you can get a Holiday Storybundle, that has one of my collections, Santa And Other Christmas Criminals, as well as my Kristine Grayson novella, Up on The Rooftop. There are a number of marvelous short story collections as well, which I must confess, I downloaded immediately. Lots to read there.
HOLIDAY RECOMMENDED READING LIST
Allyn, Doug, “The Snow Angel,” Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, January, 2014. Detective Dylan LaCrosse gets called to a crime scene outside a beautiful home. A dead girl, dressed as if she were going to prom, dies in the snow. She had waved her arms and legs before dying, and she looked like a perfect snow angel.
Somehow, Doug, who is one of our best writers, imho, manages to throw a novel’s worth of twists and turns into this fantastic story. I thought it might be simply a good Doug Allyn story (and you know you’re in the hands of a great writer when good is exactly what we expect, and we hope for more) until the last section. And that section made the story absolutely perfect. Read this one. It is a holiday crime story, but you can enjoy it year round.
Baum, L. Frank, “A Kidnapped Santa Claus,” Short Stories For Christmas, Saland Publishing audiobook, 2013. I believe this story was read by Bart Wolffe, but I’m not certain, and the book listing doesn’t say which stories he read. The story itself was a revelation for me. Yes, this is L. Frank Baum, the man who wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and published it in 1900. I had no idea he wrote Santa stories, but he did, and this one, at least, is surprisingly modern. I mentioned it to Dean, and he had known about Baum’s Christmas stories. They were a surprise to me.
Some things aren’t the same, of course. Santa lives in the Laughing Valley, not the North Pole, and the elves and such are very different creatures than the ones we’re used to. But the sleigh, Santa’s midnight ride, all of that is quite modern. In this, Santa gets kidnapped on Christmas Eve and can’t make his ride. Very tense, and quite exciting. I have no idea how the story would be to read, but I found the audiobook marvelous, and worth recommending. I haven’t listened to all of the stories in the collection, but I plan to eventually.
Baxter, John, Immoveable Feast: A Paris Christmas, Harper Perennial, 2008. A wonderful little erudite book about an ex-patriate Australian cooking Christmas dinner for his wife’s family in France. No pressure there.
This is beautifully written, with lots and lots and lots of great descriptions of setting and food and food and setting. Lots of history of certain customs and traditions. It even has a bit of suspense: will he get the piglet he wants for the centerpiece of the dinner, will it (or any piglet) fit in the oven in the old farmhouse, and will the family eat the finished product, made with “unusual” (read: Not French) spices? By the time I got to the piglet section, I actually cared about all of those things.
A lovely little Christmas book, and one that can be read outside of the holiday season, if you’re so inclined. The clash of cultures stuff is particularly nice.
Burton, Jaci, All She Wants For Christmas, Carina Press, 2010. I read this book at night while I was trying to read a graphically violent book. I didn’t want to read that book before bed, and this one—with a country music singer heroine—spoke to me, even though it’s not Christmas time. (I think it shows how desperate I was to get away from that book that I went not only to a romance, but a Christmas romance.)
This is the first book I’ve read by Burton. I liked it. It was heartwarming, just like it should have been. I ordered the other two books in the series the moment I finished it, which tells you she did well. In fact, she did so well, she’s the one who convinced me I didn’t need to torture myself with that other book any longer. So I didn’t. I’m reading romances again instead.
Cach, Lisa, “A Midnight Clear,” Mistletoe’d, Kindle Edition, 2011. A lovely holiday novella, set in New York at the end of the 19th century. The period details are fun—I had no idea that was when the Christmas card habit started—and the characters are great. Catherine has spent years being wined and dined by her rich aunt, going to London, Paris, and on what was once called the Grand Tour. Catherine has met European royalty and American royalty. She wears fine clothes, and she has an eye for beauty. Sort of. Because Catherine is terribly near-sighted and too vain to wear glasses.
She comes home for Christmas, to her family’s not insubstantial house in a relatively small town, and one of her wealthy suitors follows her. But she also meets a man whom she has no idea is wealthy—William, the owner of the general store. She’s not attracted to him at first because she can’t see him, literally. Then someone (William?) buys her a pair of spectacles and has them anonymously delivered, and suddenly she can see everything much clearer.
A great deal more happens here, including a magical wish by an innocent young girl (is that where the spectacles come from?), and some proper comeuppance for a very bad person. The story is lovely, the details good, and all of it will put you in a wonderful holiday mood. Enjoy!
Cach, Lisa, “Puddings, Pastries, and Thou,” Wish List, Leisure, 2003 (also in Mistletoe’d). I have no idea where I got this anthology, which also features Lisa Kleypas, Claudia Dain, and Lynsay Sands, but I read it for two reasons: First, I’m still puttering through my Kleypas binge, and second, I always read a Christmas romance anthology over the holidays.
I have to say, though, that I really hated the design of this book. It doesn’t do what romance anthologies (heck, all anthologies) should, which is point you to the authors’ other work. In fact, the stories themselves have no byline. You have to look at the table of contents to see who wrote what.
The Cach story was a nice surprise. I’ve probably read two dozen such anthologies over the years and the stories are often sweet but predictable. This one wasn’t predictable. I’ve discovered Mary Balogh through such an anthology, and now I’ll seek out other work by Cach.
This is a witty story of a down-and-out woman whose immediate family was dead and who depends on the kindness of her distant relations. Only they stuck her with an elderly woman who had either dementia or Alzeheimers (of course, the story doesn’t say since it’s set in Regency England). She was the 24/7 caretaker, and she barely had time for herself. She also barely got enough to eat.
When the story begins, our heroine Vivian has just moved in with another set of distant relatives, and must contend with a jealous 17-year-old who is about to debut. I’m all set for a Mean Girls story—the 17-year-old doesn’t want to share her glory days with a lesser cousin—but the story doesn’t work that way.
The 17-year-old does set Vivian up with a seemingly undesirably hero, who is a bad influence not because he’s a rake or an alcoholic, but because…well, let me simply say that it has to do with morals that no longer exist. He had done something honorable in our world, but dishonorable in theirs.
The entire story centers around the feasts over the holiday, and Cach delineates them with loving care. It’s pretty clear that Vivian will go from being a bony distant relation to a fat lord’s wife, and we’re cheering for her the whole way.
And the story made me hungry for pastries. Enough said.
Dermatis, Dayle A., “Desperate Housewitches,” Uncollected Anthology: Winter Witches, Soul’s Road Press, 2014. I’m behind on some of my Uncollected Anthology reading from the previous group (including Dayle’s story), but I couldn’t pass this one up, just based on the title.
Trust Dayle to write a winter holiday story about the solstice and magic. She manages to combine the claustrophobia of a suburban neighborhood with the competitiveness that women sometimes engage in with holiday ritual. Only the holiday ritual here isn’t decorating a Christmas tree or singing carols (although there is a discussion of carolers that made me chuckle). Nope. This one is about pagan rituals. The story’s wonderful, funny, and a do-not-miss.
Dubé, Marcelle, McKell’s Christmas, Falcon Ridge Publishing, Kindle edition. 2013. McKell, a cop in Manitoba, finally gets a Christmas Eve off. He has dinner with his girlfriend’s friends. One friend brings a new boyfriend, and tensions rise—just not in the way you’d expect. The Canadian setting is real, the mystery is fascinating, and the characters excellent. Pick this one up.
Dubé, Marcelle, Running Away From Christmas, Falcon Ridge Publishing, Kindle edition, 2012. I read this one after the holiday because I simply couldn’t wait until next year. Faith can’t take another Christmas alone, so she runs away to Vancouver B.C., where…well, I’d like to say the holiday stalks her, but it’s not quite like that. It’s sweeter. A wonderful story, no matter the time of year.
Green, John, “A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle,” Let It Snow, Speak, 2009. Okay, I get it now. This is the first story I’ve read of megaseller John Green’s, and it’s a lot of fun. This is one of three linked holiday romances in the Let It Snow volume, and is perhaps the liveliest one.
Set in the middle of a Christmas blizzard, three friends get called by another friend to get to the Waffle House ASAP because a trainload of cheerleaders (literally) are stranded there. The adventure is the journey to the Waffle House, and all the character arcs, etc., punctuated by reports from the Waffle House itself. Extremely fun, extremely memorable story.
Johnson, Maureen, “The Jubilee Express,” Let It Snow, Speak, 2009. Jubilee’s parents get arrested in a brawl at a collectibles store the day before Christmas, so they send her to spend the holiday with her grandparents. She has to take a train, which stalls in the middle of a blizzard in a small town. She doesn’t want to sit in the cold train for hours (and maybe days) so she hikes in the snow to the Waffle House, followed by a gaggle of cheerleaders. I thought I had the story figured out twice, and I was wrong both times. Loads and loads of fun, with great characters and lots of heart.
Hockensmith, Steve, “Fruitcake,” Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime, Kindle edition, 2010. I love Steve Hockensmith’s short stories, partly because they’re so memorable. I couldn’t get fruitcake out of my mind for days—much as I wanted to. I’m not fond of fruitcake. Many others aren’t either which is the impetus for this story of regifting and murder.
Hockensmith, Steve “Naughty,” Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime, Kindle edition, 2010. Funny story about a down-on-her-luck woman, Christmas “elves,” a department store, and a rather unexpected crime. Fun and memorable.
Hockensmith, Steve, Naughty: Nine Tales of Christmas Crime, Kindle edition, 2010. I have no idea how many of Steve Hockensmith’s short stories I’ve read in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine or in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine over the years. Quite a few, judging by the ones I remembered and reread in this collection. It’s a collection of Steve’s Christmas stories, all of which I liked, many of which I loved. Even the copyright page is funny. My only quibble with the volume? In it, Steve mentions he’s too busy to write short fiction these days. So I say, Stop sleeping, Steve! Write your books, but write short stories too. Whatever it takes. Maybe it takes y’all to buy this book to get him to write more short stories. So do it.
Kleypas, Lisa, Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor, St. Martin’s Paperback, 2011. I saved this one for my holiday reading. In fact, I bought it in October when it first came out—and honestly, I could’ve read it then, despite the title. Because this isn’t a Christmas story; it’s a fall holidays story. Halloween makes a major appearance and Thanksgiving is hilarious, even though the book itself isn’t funny, but heartwarming.
Holly’s mother died in April, leaving Holly’s uncle Mark as her guardian. Mark has never been around children, doesn’t know what to do, but he enlists his brother Sam, and together they try to make a home for this poor little girl who has given up speaking since her mother’s sudden death. Six months later—in September—Holly writes a letter to Santa: she wants a mom for Christmas. Not that Mark wants to marry or anything. You get the rest of the plot, of course.
But the book is set on the San Juan Islands in Washington State, and it’s clear that Kleypas lives in the Northwest because the details are great. The characters are even better, from Holly to Mark to Maggie, the young widow who has just started a toy store. Realistic, sensitive, and touching. You can read this one at any season of the year (but fall would be best).
Kroupa, Susan, “Walter’s Christmas-Night Musik,” Laurel Fork Press, Kindle Edition, 2010. A wonderful story about Christmas Night visitors. Unlike the previous Christmas night visitor stories you’ve read, these visitors are a surprise. I’d like to be visited by these folks. I found myself thinking about this story long after I finished reading it.
Let It Snow, Speak, 2009. I normally label books by author, but I have no idea how to label this one, because it’s listed in three different ways on the three different websites I went to. So I gave up and did this.
Let It Snow is a series of linked holiday romances written for young adults, but really, who cares who the target market is? The stories work. All three of them are good, but the first two are so good that I found myself a bit disappointed with the third. Had I read it as a standalone, I probably would have loved it.
The sense of teenagers at loose ends on the night before Christmas in a blizzard comes through all of the stories. The romances are believable, the stories powerful, and the settings wonderfully done. If you need some holiday reading, pick up this book.
Levine, Laura, “Nightmare on Elf Street,” Secret Santa, Zebra, 2013. The voice in this piece caught me from the very beginning. In fact, I read it before I read anything else in the volume and, as a stickler for reading anthologies in order, that’s truly saying something.
A freelance ad writer thinks she’s going to get an advertising account; instead, through mishaps, she gets hired as a Santa’s Elf at Toyland. She doesn’t correct the mistake because she needs the money. The story’s a typical cozy—a rather bloodless (deserved) murder, lots of suspects, and a goodly amount of humor.
I laughed, fell in love with the cat, and enjoyed the situation. I’ll be looking for Levine’s other books, which is exactly what novellas like this should make me do.
Lovesey, Peter, “The Haunted Crescent,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. A delightful Christmas ghost story with a twist that I never saw coming. I shall say no more, except to remind you to go and read this one.
MacDonald, John D., “Dead on Christmas Street,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. This story, first published in 1952, feels surprisingly contemporary. A woman dives out of a seventeen-story window. The death gets investigated, of course. The forensic details are accurate for the time, and the entire attitude expressed here feels like something someone could have written now. MacDonald was/is a master, and stories like this prove why.
Page, Norvell, “Crime’s Christmas Carol,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. I’m sure Dean had heard of Norvell Page, but I never had. Page was a prolific writer for the pulps in the 1930s. This story was first published in 1939, and was a riff on O Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” only with a heck of a criminal twist. Yet somehow Page managed to pull off a happy ending. The story becomes more poignant when you remember that it was written and published during the Depression.
Patterson, Irette Y., “Worth,” Saturday Evening Post, December 19, 2014. A lovely short Christmas piece by Irette. I read it on Christmas Eve, and it really added to an already special day. A short story about money, holidays, and love. This one’s good any time of year.
Patterson, Kent, “The Wereyam,” A Fantastic Holiday Season, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, WordFire Press, 2013. Kevin put together a holiday anthology of the stories that the writers who used to gather for our Christmas holiday parties wrote and read to each other for those gatherings. Kent’s “The Wereyam” is one of my favorites, so when the book arrived, I sat down and reread this story immediately. It not only holds up, it’s better than I remember.
We lost Kent in 1995, and while it was hard on all of us personally, I think of the loss to writing, and I mourn. He was just getting started in what would have been a fantastic career, and he died suddenly. I’m so glad that this story has been reprinted. Take a look. See if you don’t love it too.
Peters, Ellis, “The Trinity Cat,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013. This particular story, originally published in 1976, the story is about a real cat acting in a real cat way. Set on Christmas Eve in a small English village, the story features an older woman’s murder, a tight cast of characters, and some wry observations. It’s a cozy, but not a light or funny one. I enjoyed it a great deal.
Reed, Annie, “The Case of the Missing Elf,” Thunder Valley Press, Kindle Edition, 2010. One of the nice things about the revolution in e-publishing is that you can buy a single short story of an author’s work just as a sample. I already knew that I liked Annie Reed’s stories, but I also know she’s not a household name. I hope that changes.
This is one of her Dee and Diz fantasy detective stories. Diz is an elf, although not a traditional one, and Dee is a woman with an added gift. There’s a bit of romantic tension involved, but that’s not at the heart of this story. Like so many stories on this month’s list, this is a Christmas tale. And the missing elf is not the Jolly Old One, but his occasional impersonator, Norman. Fun, and thought-provoking, in a Christmasy kinda way. It’s a nice introduction to Annie’s work.
Reed, Annie, “Essy and The Christmas Kitten,” Kindle edition, Thunder Valley Press, 2011. This story is not as sweet as the title implies. Instead, it is a bit dark and moody, so much so that I read with one eye half closed, worried that something would go wrong. But it is a Christmas story in the best way, and quite memorable. One of my best Christmas reads this year.
Reed, Annie, “Roger’s Christmas Wish,” Kindle Edition, Thunder Valley Press, 2010. Somehow I missed this in last year’s Christmas reading. Young Roger’s grandmother moved in with him, taking his room. His parents are unhappy, and so is Roger. All he wants for Santa to do is make his grandmother leave. The story is sweet, with unexpected twists. It’s also a nicely done e-book. I read it in the Kindle app on my iPad and it felt like I was reading a real book. Nicely done.
Reed, Annie, The New Year That Almost Wasn’t, A Diz & Dee Mystery, Thunder Valley Press, 2013. I love Diz & Dee so much that I bought one of the stories for Fiction River: Unnatural Worlds. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that about a year ago, Annie had written one and I had missed it! I ordered it immediately, read it immediately, and enjoyed immensely.
The woman pregnant with the New Year’s baby goes missing. Not the first baby born in the year, but the baby who will become the ancient guy by December 31. Great concept, and it becomes even greater when we find out what happens to the ancient guy when his job is done. I’m not going to spoil it. Read this one.
Runyon, Damon, “Dancing Dan’s Christmas,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013. Every time I read a Damon Runyon story, I realize how much I enjoy his work. I just never seem to seek him out. I’m not sure why. I loved this one as well. First published in Collier’s in 1932, this story is firmly set in its era. It begins in a speakeasy, involves a drunken pact, and…works. Somehow. I loved it.
Smith, Dean Wesley, “Jukebox Gifts,” WMG Publishing, Kindle edition, 2010. I love Dean’s jukebox stories. The conceit is this: for the duration of a single song, played on a jukebox, the person who chose the story can time travel to their strongest memory of that song—and maybe change the past. “Jukebox Gifts” is set at Christmas and is both heartwarming and heartwrenching.
Stockham, Kay, The Crash Before Christmas, Kindred Spirits Publishing, Kindle edition, 2011. A delightful Christmas romance. I figured out what was going on at the end of chapter three, but most readers won’t. This novel, about a bush pilot who crashes in a blizzard and is rescued by a mysterious woman, is occasionally creepy, and very suspenseful. It’s a great holiday read; I suspect you’ll enjoy it year-round.
Westlake, Donald, “The Burglar and The Whatsis,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2013. First published in Playboy in 1966, this story is as much sf as it is mystery. If I say much more about the story, I’ll spoil it. It’s very short, it has a couple of twists, and it made me laugh. In fact, it’s my favorite story in the volume so far (which isn’t saying a great deal, since I only managed about 100 pages of this massive tome before I stopped to save the rest for next holiday season).
Westlake, Donald, “Give Till It Hurts” Christmas at The Mysterious Bookshop, edited by Otto Penzler, Vangard Press, 2010. Losing Westlake was a tragedy. I love his Dortmunder stories and this one, written for the customers of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, is marvelous. Laugh out loud funny, as most Dortmunder stories are.
White, Ethel Lina, “Waxworks,” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage Crime, 2013. Ethel Lina White wrote seventeen novels, two of which became classic Hitchcock films, The Lady Vanishes and The Spiral Staircase. I hadn’t heard of her until I encountered this story, but it soon became clear why Hitchcock felt her to be a kindred spirit.
Sonia, a young reporter, has decided to make her reputation by spending New Year’s Eve in the Waxworks, ostensibly to catch the haunt or whatever it is that was causing all the spooky noises. She describes herself as “not timid” and “fairly perceptive” and believes she can solve this mystery.
Only things get a little more mysterious as time goes on. Someone dies, and some really spooky occurrences happen, and Sonia…well, read this. You’ll soon forget, as I did, that it was written in 1930. I actually pictured a waxworks I’d been to recently as I read it. Probably the most memorable story of the volume for me so far.
Willis, Connie, “All About Emily,” Asimov’s, December, 2011. For years, Connie Willis’s holiday stories, published in Asimov’s, were part of my Christmas traditions. Then, she got deeply involved in her excellent novels, All Clear and Blackout (which I recommended earlier), and she stopped writing any short fiction at all. Which is, I think, a crime. I love Connie’s novels, but I adore her short work.
“All About Emily” riffs on the movie All About Eve, and explains the film for those of you who missed that marvelous classic. The story is set in New York at Christmas, and our heroine is the aging actress who might be threatened by a new up-and-comer, Emily. And yet, something about that girl….
It’s a fun story, especially if you love old movies, Broadway, theater, and New York at Christmas time. And it manages to be good science fiction as well. It’s nice to have you back, Connie. Please continue writing short fiction while doing your novels.
December 2, 2015
This morning, I found out through the magic of Facebook that four of my sf novellas, translated into Italian, are four of the five bestselling titles in my Italian publisher’s bookstore. As I mentioned in my blog on translation a few weeks ago, that’s not due to me. That’s because I have an excellent translator. It’s a good marriage of translator and story, because books in translation don’t receive acclaim (and sales!) if the translator is poor, no matter how well the book did in its original language.
The Italian books came about because I don’t have an agent. I know that’s counterintuitive for those of you still wedded to traditional publishing myths, but things have changed dramatically in the past twenty years. Or rather, my eyes have been opened and things have changed.
For many years, I had sold many titles for translation in other countries. Then I switched agents, went to a much larger agency, one with a dedicated foreign rights department, and the sales of my books to foreign publishers for translations decreased. I switched agents again, to an even larger and more prestigious (and older) agency, and my foreign rights sales stopped completely.
What happened? It’s very clear in hindsight.
Agent #1 embezzled from me. His preferred area of embezzlement? Foreign rights royalties. He paid the advances, although I never saw the contracts (a problem right there, because who signed them? I never gave him power of attorney). I have no idea if he skimmed off the top of those advances. I suspect he did, but I didn’t audit him.
When I realized just how shady this guy was, and believe me, it took years because he (still) has a sterling reputation in the industry, I fired him and moved to the much more prestigious and much larger boutique agency with the dedicated foreign rights agent with an office in the basement.
My sales started drying up then, because she would turn down deals if they were too small. Embezzler Boy would take those sales, because he knew he would get more in royalties, but she was (in theory) above board, and thought the deals too small.
Since Boutique Agency handled (and handles) some big New York Times bestsellers, my deals were small in comparison to those offered to the big names. And apparently, not worth the agent’s time. She turned down the offers without consulting me. Yep, she and the agent I had for my U.S. rights often turned down “too-small” offers on my behalf without consulting me.
How did I find this out? Only when I went overseas as the guest of honor at an international science fiction convention and publisher after publisher who had published my work in the past pulled me aside to ask why I had gotten so focused on money. I mentioned changing agents, thinking these publishers had simply contacted the wrong person, and the publishers told me they knew I had changed agents and as politely as possible, told me that the change prevented my books from seeing print.
When I fired that agency, after discovering lots of things that I won’t go into here, and hired yet another agency (Bigger! Better! Older! Wiser!), the foreign sales stopped altogether. I had gone to this agency specifically for their foreign contacts. God knows what happened there, because I didn’t investigate. I was getting tired of firing agents anyway, and even though I ended up firing that agent too—in part because he sent me copies of letters in which he badmouthed me when I made him write to editors he didn’t want to contact on my behalf (I kid you not) — I hired one final agent. He was ethical, and did the best he could for me, but I shouldn’t have hired him. Because, by then, I had learned I could do so much better on my own.
I parted ways with him in a manner that allows us to still have a relationship, should I ever need an agent again. I won’t, because I do things much quicker and better on my own.
Except for one thing…I’ve been too busy with other matters to contact traditional publishers overseas, like so many of my writer friends do. I still haven’t contacted those publishers who spoke to me at that convention all those years ago. I’ve been too busy.
However, if publishers contacted me, I would respond. I would negotiate the deal myself, and take deals that were “beneath” that horrid foreign rights agent. Surprisingly, my final contracts were always much better than the ones she negotiated. I got a smaller advance, but the important things, like term limits on the contract and the royalty percentage, were always larger. I’ve been making steady royalties off the foreign deals I’ve negotiated, without any embezzling that I’ve caught. (Another foreign agent, a partner agent to Boutique Agency’s agent, embezzled as well. It’s so easy for “trusted advisors” to put their sticky fingers into a writer’s finances, so easy it’s scary.)
The Italian deal, above, with the novellas, is one I negotiated. I’ve done plenty of others, and I know I could have even more if I simply queried the older publishers. I’m sure I will…eventually.
But there’s another change as well, an important one.
One of the biggest overseas markets for my work twenty-five years ago was Great Britain. Back then, getting British books here in America or getting American books in Great Britain was a real chore. There were some booksellers, including friends of mine, who specialized in getting first edition British books into the States. That involved tariffs and taxes and expensive shipping or traveling with the books themselves. And then there was no guarantee of instant sales.
The best way for book dealers to handle British books was to deal with British writers who had become popular here. British writers like P.D. James would first publish their books in Great Britain, so the first editions in English were always British. Plus, they were released six months to a year in advance of the American edition. If you couldn’t wait for your next P.D. James fix, you either had to travel to England yourself, cultivate a British bookseller, or buy books from one of these American bookseller/brokers.
No matter what your preferred method was, you would always pay a premium for that first edition and the chance to read that book before everyone else.
Amazon started to change that when it opened its Amazon U.K. store years ago. Other online businesses sprang up that had partners in various countries, which somehow reduced the tariffs and duties. (I don’t even pretend to know all the legalities.)
But the real groundbreaker, as you all know, was Amazon’s Kindle, which led to the rapid rise of electronic books.
Electronic books have existed for more than twenty years. I had short stories in Fictionwise long before Barnes & Noble brought it out. My first contract with Fictionwise was in 1998. Back then, Fictionwise curated its own website, and many of the buyers were from overseas.
The Kindle was the game changer, though. The big splash in the U.S. was from 2009-2011. My books have been in the Amazon U.K. store since Amazon made it possible to sell English-language books in the U.K., and the one thing I always noticed was that the British market lagged a few years behind the American market. (I like to say five years behind, but it’s probably closer to three.)
The arguments against e-books were the same in Great Britain as the ones against ebooks in the U.S., but Great Britain was having the arguments years after the U.S. had already settled them.
The British market remains years behind the U.S. market, and the British market added some twists to protect paper books. For example, the U.K. market charges a Value-Added Tax (VAT) on all ebooks, which it does not charge on paper books. I’m sure there are other things that I’m not aware of that are currently hindering some of the growth in the U.K. ebook market.
But the market is a viable one. For years, for my work, Amazon’s U.K. ebook sales were always second to Amazon U.S. ebook sales. That’s no longer true. A number of other retailers both here and in other countries now scoop Amazon U.K. in terms of sales for my stuff. But we all know—or should know—that anecdotal evidence isn’t really evidence at all. It’s just proof that one writer’s career works one way.
We are starting to get some statistics, though, from the U.K. market, thanks to Data Guy and Hugh Howey. Responding to inquiries from BBC News about the U.K. market, Data Guy and Hugh have started to train their eagle eyes on Amazon statistics from the U.K.
One note: In the way of the chronically unsatisfied (and/or being that person who looks at the mouths of gift horses), I do hope that Hugh and Data Guy will eventually look at all of the retailers servicing the U.K. market—and maybe even the Eurozone—to get a bigger snapshot of the world market.
But, hey! What they released today is much more than we had earlier.
As Hugh and Data Guy state, there are some surprises in this report. The one they highlight is that self-published writers sell better in the Amazon marketplace than traditionally published writers do. Significantly better.
Now, for the record, I’m not sure what some of Hugh and Data Guy’s categories are. I’m not a self-published writer. (What Hugh and Data Guy call indie-published, which I find confusing, all by itself.) Back in 2010, Dean and I formed a publishing company as a corporation to handle our works. That corporation, an outside entity from us, is run by others now, although we have a controlling interest in it. That company publishes many authors other than ourselves, and has its publishing fingers in a variety of pies that are monitored by the folks who run the company, not by me.
By traditional publishing standards, that corporation is a medium-sized publisher, given its output. But I don’t know where Hugh and Data Guy slot it. Do they slot it in “Uncategoriezed Single-Author Publisher” (which I would call Indie Publishing)? Or in Small to Medium Publisher?
I don’t know, and can’t really tell from their descriptions. In other words, there are still unclear areas in the way they harvest their numbers.
But unlike most “studies” done of publishing, Hugh and Data Guy slice the entire market. Yes, they do it over a limited period of time, but they don’t discriminate as to type of book. And, unlike most “studies” done of publishing, Hugh and Data Guy also provide the raw numbers.
Honestly, I just got Data Guy’s email this afternoon, so I didn’t have time to delve into the raw numbers. But I like what I’m seeing.
Because it shatters myths.
Not just the myth that the Big 5 Publishers can make you an international bestseller, but also some smaller ones—some of which were niggling at me (having been raised in the pre-internet days).
Here are a few of the myths:
Myth 1: The markets are substantially different. “Everyone” used to say that the different cultures make certain books appeal to the British audience that won’t appeal to the U.S. audience and vice versa. The quote that captured this as a myth for me was this one:
More than 75% of indies selling in the overall UK Top 1,000 also appear in the US Top 1,000, compared to fewer than 25% of the Top 1,000 Big Five titles.
Why did this quote capture me? Because indies don’t really think about the outside markets in the same way that the Big 5 publishers do. To indies, the British market is simply one more click of the mouse or maybe two more, so that the price is set appropriately in a different currency.
To the Big 5 Publishers, the British market is different, substantially different, and it shows in their book sales.
Who knows—because I don’t, and the Big 5 don’t publicize this stuff—how different the marketing is between the Big 5 books published in the U.K. and the Big 5 books published in the U.S. But I do know that the marketing is different, substantially different.
One difference? Covers.
Myth 2: British book buyers want different things on their covers than American book buyers do.
Frankly, I’ve been worrying about that on some barely conscious level for years now. In fact, when Dean and I started publishing our work in the U.K., we discussed having different covers for different markets. Then we realized we simply don’t know enough about those foreign markets to figure out what an effective cover would be.
I know that most indie writers don’t think about different covers for different markets, and yet indie writers are doing significantly well in the U.K. without changing covers at all.
Which makes this one of those “We’ve always done it this way, so it must be true” kinda things that have come out of traditional publishing.
Myth 3: The Big Five Publishers here in the U.S. can get better overseas sales for their writers.
Simply not true at all. The entire study that Hugh and Data Guy did points to this conclusion—and frankly it surprised them. It didn’t surprise me, because my own personal experience has been that the ebook revolution has made my own English-language sales grow exponentially.
I’ve had some other experiences though that help this detail be unsurprising for me. I’ve traveled overseas as an author a number of times, and I was the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction before this ebook revolution hit.
I constantly got questions back in those days about making F&SF available for an international audience. After all, the major SF awards are mostly focused on short fiction and until the last six years or so, getting the issues of the various short fiction magazines into the hands of readers outside the U.S. has been difficult at best. Those readers had heard of all of these stories and authors, but weren’t able to sample them.
Now readers can, and can easily.
The same happened with novels. I can’t tell you how many people I met overseas who had heard of my work but had never read it. They wanted copies of the work, but couldn’t get their hands on it.
Then the ebook revolution happened, and I got email after email from some of these same readers, ecstatic that they can now get books they had only heard about before.
Some of my books that are unavailable overseas are traditionally published. In some cases, I got English-language rights reverted to me, so there are different editions for the overseas work and the U.S. work. But in others, I signed some bad contracts that took translation rights as well as World English. Those publishers have not exercised any of the overseas rights. Not a one, but they would come after me if I did so.
Yes, I’m working on extracting those books from those idiot publishers, but it’s taking time. I even sicced my remaining agent on one of those projects—and guess what? It vanished down the rabbit hole. I’ll have to do it, probably with lawyer in hand.
(To be fair, the agent makes no money on handling this for me, so why should he? In fact, in theory, he loses money—if the books were in print overseas, which they are not.)
The other thing that Hugh and Data Guy mention that I hadn’t thought of with the Big Five publishers is the pricing that they’re doing here in the U.S. Of course, they’re not doing it in the U.K. That price-fixing case was a U.S. case. The U.K. already had some protections against price-fixing. In fact, the protections in the E.U. against the kinds of monopolistic actions being taken by the Big 5 companies are much stronger than in the U.S. (Those protections are also biting Amazon in the butt on some of its business practices as well.)
So, of course, the lower U.K. prices on Big 5 books would have an impact on U.K. sales. What surprises me is that the impact the lower Big 5 prices has is less than I would have imagined.
In the ebook landscape, books are books are books are books. No one, except maybe writers or the deeply political, cares who publishes what.
The fact that Amazon is the bigger piece of the pie than the other retailers in the U.K. is also no surprise. Amazon’s footprint is very big there, older and bigger than it is in other outside-of-the-U.S. markets.
As I said above, I can’t wait to see some statistics on other marketplaces. I also can’t wait for the super-duper all-inclusive report on the U.K. market, after seven quarters of data, like Hugh and Data Guy had done with the U.S. market. I can’t wait to see the trends.
This is great information, and I can’t wait to delve deeper into it.
There are some surprises for me—like that marketing aspect—just like there were surprises when I learned it was easier and more lucrative to sell my own translation rights. I had no idea how badly my agents were hindering me on that, and until the ebook revolution, I had no idea how welcoming the overseas market would be to non-bestseller American books.
In fact, until today, I had no idea how welcoming the U.K. market was to non-bestseller American books. It’s even more welcoming than I thought.
Now, because I’m me, I have to point out one other statistic from Hugh and Data Guy’s report. They cite an International Publishers Association report on global book sales, with a nice juicy statistic in the middle of it. Rather than paraphrase, let me quote:
According to the International Publishers Association, the United States makes up 30% of the global book publishing market. In other words, $3 out of every $10 (or perhaps more appropriately, £3 out of every £10) spent on books of any format anywhere in the world, is spent in the US.
If the statistic is accurate—and that’s a big if, because I know about as much about how it’s derived as you do—then let’s flip it, shall we?
It means that 70% of the global book publishing market exists outside the U.S.
Writers who are not doing paper books and making them available worldwide are leaving $7 out of every $10 (or perhaps more appropriately, £7 out of every £10) on the table. Stop doing that. Yes, it’s more work. But jeez Louise, think broader, wider, and harder. Think of more cash streams, not fewer.
Even if you accept the completely unattributed statistic in the front of the Author Earnings Report (and I do) that 50% of the worlds ebooks are sold in the U.S., then that still means that $5 out of every $10 in ebooks is being left on the table by writers who are U.S. only.
I say this damn near every week, and I’ll say it again. Those of you who are U.S. centric, those of you who are Amazon centric, are leaving money, exposure, and readers on the table.
Yes, being exclusive to Amazon will make you rise higher inside their store. But it’s one store. Right now it’s the biggest one. These things change. Ask Microsoft. Ask IBM. Big companies lose ground over time.
Again, that’s your choice as a writer. The way you handle your career is your business, not mine. But I choose to have multiple cash streams because my business grows better and faster that way. I like being on the ground floor of new ventures, just like I was on the ground floor of Amazon U.K. back in the day.
And yeah, I can’t always do it. Translations are a bugaboo of time for me right now. But that’ll change at some undefined future date.
Just like I hope it changes for some of you.
All in all, though, there’s a lot of great news in the new Author Earnings Report. If you remember that the U.K. ebook market is years behind the U.S. ebook market, then you’ll realize that the U.K. market will continue to grow and mature, and become an even bigger market. Just like the other markets that Author Earnings mentions in passing.
The biggest takeaway from Author Earnings this time?
We’re in a true global marketplace now—and we can all easily access it. We don’t need agents or the Big 5 publishers to get us through doors any more. We can do it ourselves.
That’s such a sea change that I sometimes have trouble comprehending it. Although my subconscious is ahead of me on this. I posted a blog last Thursday on America’s Thanksgiving holiday, without really mentioning the holiday much. The blog went viral because of its subject matter, yes, but also because my readers overseas led the charge. They didn’t have a holiday. They read the blog at work (like so many U.S. readers do), and Tweeted and shared and emailed.
In previous years, I always sort-of apologized for the Thanksgiving blog. This year, I skipped right over the apology. Because a good third or more of my blog readers come from overseas.
Thank you for that. And for constantly discussing the changes, not just here but in other countries as well.
I’m so pleased that Author Earnings is now taking on the global marketplace. That’s important, all by itself. We’re starting to get real data, and oh, boy, it’s fascinating.
Just like this whole changing business is fascinating. What a great time to be a writer.
You have no idea how close I came to punting this week’s blog. When I came back to blogging after a six-month hiatus, I promised myself that I would not blog in weeks when I’m behind or stressed or ill. Well, 52 weeks later (53, actually, because I did a placeholder blog after I got injured in a car accident), I’ve been on another streak, and I’m loathe to miss.
Thank heavens, because I’m behind on a project, I have looming deadlines, and the lovely chronic health problem stole much of my writing time. Yet that streak means I’m sitting here, finishing the blog.
This week is the official anniversary of the Business Musings blog. It matters to me to finish a blog each week, simply because so much is changing, and I want to stay on top of it.
I had several ideas, but then more new information hit—Wednesday afternoon, when I sat down to write the blog—and I couldn’t resist.
That’s why I write this. So I don’t scan new stuff and disregard it.
If the blog helps you or has helped you in the past year, if you enjoy it, and if you want me to continue, please think of making a donation. The donations are one way that I can measure value to people other than myself.
The other way I measure value are comments, e-mails, and shares. You’ve all been so wonderful. Aside from the occasional snarky dweeble, who usually hasn’t read the blog (just an excerpt or someone else’s comments), the interactions have been great—and make me think long and hard about some of the issues in this ever-changing business.
So, thank you. I greatly appreciate your weekly visits to the blog.
Click paypal.me/kristinekathrynrusch to go to PayPal.
“Business Musings: Thoughts on the International Market,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2015 by Canstock Photo/vallepu.
November 30, 2015
Solae keeps his family alive during the horrible years of Paris’s occupation by hiding in the catacombs. The Germans murdered Solae’s father, who had a gift for glamour, in the first days of the occupation, as the lights went dim in the City of Light. Solae possesses the power to make light out of nothing. His father called that a useless talent, but it keeps the family from complete darkness. Now, as the Germans fight to stay in Paris, Solae wants to help defeat them. He wants to use his magic, but how can light save his city, his people, his family? Solae will soon find out.
“Dark Corners” by USA Today bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and from other online retailers. “Dark Corners” is also available in The War and After: Five Stories of Magic & Revenge, available in print and online.
A Faerie Justice Story
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
The fighting had been going on for days. Outbursts of gunfire—six German soldiers dead in front of the Gare d’Orsay—a full-scale battle, complete with barricades that the French love so much, near the Eiffel tower.
Solae had come to the surface because he heard the Resistance and the Germans had brokered a truce. The Resistance needed the time to organize, to wait for the Allies to arrive. The Germans, who were beginning to understand that they could not hold Paris, needed time to make a plan.
Solae needed food, so he had come to the only safe place he knew—a boulangerie on the Boulevard St. Germain. Most of the French were in hiding, not waiting in bread lines, and the Germans were at their posts.
He thought he would be able to slip in and out, unnoticed.
He had been wrong.
Solae ran across the boulevard, a loaf of bread beneath his arm, panic in his throat. He was thinner than most, so thin that if he turned sideways, the less observant could not see him. But he could not turn now.
The baker—a burly man who baked every morning for the Boche as if they were no different from the French he once served—was chasing Solae, shouting at the top of his lungs:
“Foul boy! Thief!”
Two storm troopers appeared from a kiosk, holding ripped posters telling Parisians to rise up against the Boche. The troopers looked ready for battle. They had shiny boots and shinier guns—and their eyes, that pale blue that the Boche seemed to worship—seemed even paler in the August sunlight.
Solae grabbed his bicycle, also stolen, and pedaled as fast as he could, praying that the troopers would not follow in a car. Was a bread thief worth the gas? Surely there were other battles to fight, other people to attack.
But he knew that the Germans—the filthy Boche—were like rabid dogs, unable to let go of anything once they sank their teeth into it.
He pedaled hard, weaving in and out of the bicycle traffic. Despite the fighting, Parisians were still on the streets, going about their business, ignoring the war as best they could, just like they had these last four years.
Behind him, he heard the roar of an engine. He glanced over his shoulder.
The troopers had followed him. Theirs was the only car on the boulevard. Their helmets made their heads look round and comical, but Solae did not laugh at them.
He had not laughed at the Boche for a long time, not since they put out the lights in his fair city. Not since his father’s death.
Solae pedaled faster, but he could not stay ahead of the car. It roared behind him, and it would only be a moment before it caught him.
The bread was warm beneath his arm. Sweat ran down his face, and he wished, not for the first time, that he had the magic of his ancestors.
He would make the Boche vanish. He would explode them, destroy their vehicle, wipe their race from the earth.
But he could do none of these things. His people could do none of these things. The powers that had once belonged to faerie had faded centuries ago. When he was his most cynical, he believed that his people had had no great powers at all—that Faeryland and the magic that went with it were the myths the Real Ones believed them to be.
The Boche sitting on the right aimed his rifle at Solae, and Solae’s breath caught. He imagined light streaming from his fingers, destroying the rifle, destroying the Boche.
But imagination did not make it so.
Instead, Solae veered onto a side street, then another, his bike bouncing on the cobblestones. He was near the entrance his people kept hidden with their tiny powers.
In one movement, he slipped off the bike and laid it against the closed and locked door of an empty shop. He gave the bike a longing glance—it had been by far the best bicycle he had stolen—and then he slipped sideways.
The Boche squeezed their vehicle onto the tiny street, the tires on the left side of the car riding on the curb. The Boche were laughing, calling out in German and bad French, promising le jeune a present if he but stopped for them.
Solae knew what kind of present they would give him: a bullet in the heart. And no amount of magic could undo that kind of damage.
The Boche did not seem to see him, even though one looked directly at him. Solae slipped around the corner and hid against a white wall covered with dead bougainvillea, until the Boche, their merriment gone, backed out of the street, and left him alone.
Solae had not always stolen bread.
Once the Real Ones of Paris thought him the favored son of a nightclub owner, a man who specialized in acts that had a touch of glamour to them—be it the way a chanteuse’s songs seemed to come alive on stage or the way that a young dancer almost seemed to fly as she leapt into the arms of her partner.
There had been magic during those nights. Not the magic of Solae’s ancestors, but slighter magic, a bit of beauty that seemed to brighten the darkness.
Not that there had been much darkness then.
Less than a decade ago, when Solae was a little boy, he used to escape the smoke of his father’s nightclub and climb onto the roof. There he looked at the lights of Paris—the arc lights illuminating the Eiffel tower, the gargoyles of Notre Dame grinning in the lights on the dome, the lights of Sacré-Coeur on top of Montemarte, glowing like candles in the distance.
The Real Ones called Paris La Ville Lumière, the City of Light. Perhaps they thought of the clear, crisp sunlight which, they said, they could not find anywhere else, but Solae always thought of the nighttime when the lights of the city made Paris as bright as day.
But when the bombings started, five years before—he had still been a boy then—the lights went out. Paris had not been La Ville Lumière for one-third of his life. It had become a place where darkness grew, like a hole in his soul.
For Solae, the absence of light was like the absence of air. His magic was not like his father’s. The family already knew that Solae would not run the night club. Solae couldn’t enhance acts, nor could he make a plain woman beautiful.
For a long time, his family thought he had no gifts at all.
And then they realized that his gifts were even subtler than usual—the ability to fade away in a crowd, or to brighten a room when he entered it.
Solae was not a creature of the night as so many of his kind were. He preferred the day, and if he had to chose a type of day, he preferred the bright sunlight of a Paris afternoon, the way the light fell upon the Seine, illuminating the classic lines of the Palace du Louvre and the magnificent windows of the Gare d’Orsay.
Sometimes Solae sat on the stone edge of the Pont Saint-Michel and watched the city pass him by, enjoying the light, the warmth, the way Parisians seemed to enjoy each moment.
He had not sat on the Pont Saint-Michel in four years, not since the Boche came in tanks, hanging their filthy flag with its ancient symbol, the swastika, across the Arc de Triomphe.
Usually, his people did not become involved in the ways of the Real Ones, except as his father did, to make money to survive. So many of faerie had moved to the city decades before. No one questioned strangeness in Paris. Even though it was a Catholic city in a Catholic country, certain behaviors were ignored.
Faerie who would have been hanged or shot or burned in the countryside were tolerated here. Many, like Solae’s father, were more than tolerated.
They were loved.
And now they were gone. His father to a bullet in the middle of a piano medley. Stormtroopers, drunk with power, insisted on hearing “Ein Prosit” and Solae’s father, who hated the Boche with a passion that made Solae’s seem tepid, refused.
His father had railed against the Boche from the moment they began their campaigns in the Real Years of the 1930s. Remember, he said to his wife and sons, the Germans are the ones who exposed us, told our histories as if they were fables for children, made us less than we are.
And that night, the night the Germans wanted to hear “Ein Prosit,” his father spoke of his hatred. The Boche reminded Solae’s father that France was theirs now.
France belongs to no man, Solae’s father said, his meaning clearer to faerie than it was to the Real Ones in the room. On some level, France had magic in her soul, magic that had been purged from so many European countries long ago.
Soon, the Boche told him, we shall remake France in our own image.
And you shall fail, Solae’s father said, just as you failed to hear “Ein Prosit.”
The words grew heated, and even Solae, who had been near the door, watching the lights of the city with a craving he still did not understand, turned toward the smoky interior of his father’s club. Voices raised, shouting in German and French, about country, patriotism, and the emptiness of the German soul.
Then finally the shot, silencing everyone, including the piano player, who had been playing American boogie-woogie as if it could cover the ugliness in the room.
The smoke seemed to clear. Solae’s father stood for the longest time, before collapsing in on himself. The Germans kicked him to see if he was still alive, and when he did not move, they stood. In a loud voice, the German who shot Solae’s father ordered the piano player to play “Ein Prosit,” and this time, the piano player did.
Solae had hurried through the crowd to retrieve his father’s body. His mother did the same, running from her position behind the wings.
But they both arrived too late. His father vanished into the floor boards, his soul stolen by the stone he landed on, his essence gone as if it had never been.
Solae’s mother had not been the same since. Solae had taken her and his brother away from that place, which the piano player took over and allowed to become a Vichy stronghold. Solae only hoped that the French who collaborated with the Boche were being haunted by the vengeful ghost of his father, and were suffering hideous torment because of it.
That was early in the Occupation, before the Germans began to understand Paris. The so-called decadence of Paris—the homosexuals, the mixed race couples, the transvestites who performed at the very best clubs, not to mention the Jews who corrupted (in the opinion of the Boche) every city they touched—disgusted and fascinated the German soldiers and bureaucrats who had invaded the city.
When the Boche discovered that Paris was a haven for yet another group—a group the Germans had slaughtered centuries ago—they were merciless. Faerie were murdered on the street, and no one came to their defense. For faerie were not French nor were they even human. They were something Other, and as food became scarce, they became little more than mongrel dogs to those who competed with them for every scrap.
Still, faerie were reluctant to leave Paris. They could not go to England, where they had been slaughtered centuries before the Germans came after them, and they could not afford the long trips to America—back in the days before the Americans became part of the war.
The countryside held the same dangers as the city, more so because there were fewer faerie and more Boche, and parts of France had become more German than others.
Faerie finally found themselves relegated to the land no one else wanted, the place no one else would think of as a refuge: the vast tombs beneath the city—the catacombs.
That was where Solae slipped now. He went onto the side street through a small, private doorway that faerie kept locked. The Boche thought the doorway led to the courtyard for the apartments above, and never investigate.
Although the doorway did lead to a courtyard, beyond the courtyard was a street, a tiny street that the Boche car would never fit on. Part of the ancient city, the street meandered for less than a mile before reaching another boulevard through another doorway.
But underneath the street ran a main section of the catacombs. Solae had discovered the entrance one afternoon when he had explored. Then he had shown it to the elders, and they had used their combined powers to mask the entrance as a whitewashed wall.
Solae touched that wall now. His fingers found the latch that released the stone door, and it swung open, echoing in the emptiness.
He hated the catacombs. They were dark and dank, and they reeked of death. The Real Ones could not smell it, although they did not care for the catacombs either. But the Real Ones had lost their sense of the Beyond, and they did not realize that when their ancestors emptied Paris’s graveyards and stacked the bones in the sewers beneath the city, they had stacked the power of death there as well.
Each time Solae descended into the darkness, he felt like he lost a part of himself. He had become convinced that his thinness was not due to his lack of meals, but to the pieces of himself taken by the darkness that lived below.
Still, he disappeared behind the stone door. As it closed behind him, he raised his right hand, pressed his thumb and forefinger together, and created a light.
The ability to create light was his only awe-inspiring power. A worthless power, his father used to say. But Solae did not think it worthless any longer, and he often wished that his father still lived so that Solae could prove how valuable the light had become.
Solae held his hand out before him. The light he formed was small—he didn’t want to burn himself out this early in the day—and shaped like a flame. Only it did not flicker. The light burned steadily like an electric current, providing constant illumination for his journey ahead.
That was the only way he could tolerate heading into the catacombs. Flickering light would have terrified him, caused him to see ghosts in the shadows where there were none.
The Boche had come below many times, but had found no one. Only rats. For the Boche, for all of their posturing, were the most superstitious race in Europe—and the most terrified of death. They avoided the catacombs as much as possible.
The steps leading down had been carved centuries before by unknown hands, and hollowed by thousands of feet. In the time that Solae had spent below, he wondered at who moved the bones of the ancient dead. What kind of man would carry skeletons from their natural resting places to the depths below?
The bones were not just placed in a pile. They were stacked neatly in patterns, and the patterns shifted. In some places, the skulls formed a congregation of a thousand empty eyes, staring into the passageway. In others, the skulls were the center of a skull and cross bones motif.
Solae had found other places where the long bones of the legs and arms formed crosses or stars or other patterns that had existed since the beginning of time. In the middle of one particularly dark night, he had even found a group of bones that formed swastikas—and he had to remind himself that the symbol had been around long before the Boche took it for their own.
The catacombs were deep underground, and he always knew he drew close when water from the ceiling began to fall like rain. He worried that one day, the roof would collapse under the weight of the water above, but others, older and wiser than he, swore that would not happen.
Still, in many places below, the stone floor was wet, and the ceiling even wetter. He had to go through such a place to find his family, huddled in their little sepulchre deep within the labyrinth.
At first, Solae’s mother had balked at staying in such a place. Clearly the priests who had designed this place had set up many areas for worship. There were long communion tables with all of the Christian symbols carved into the sides. There were quotes carved from the Real One’s Holy Book upon the ceiling. There was an altar in the center, and even a baptismal font filled that collected ceiling rain.
Solae had to sleep on the communion table one night alone before his mother believed that one of these abandoned churches would be safe for faerie. And even now, she still had her doubts, occasionally waking in the middle of the night screaming that the crossbones on the wall were coming for her, to put her down like the dog the Christians believed she was.
She was nothing like the woman who bore him, nothing like the glamorous creature who performed every midnight on his father’s stage. Then her alto voice had mesmerized the crowd, and her dark eyes had shown with magic unused. She had become the toast of their arrondisement, the center of faerie life in Paris—and beloved among the Real Ones themselves.
Or so it seemed.
When she had gone to the Real Ones after Solae’s father’s death, they had slammed their doors as if they did not know her. Solae’s brother Noene suggested this was because they had not recognized her; to them she was a musical beauty in a smoke-filled room, not a woman with haunted eyes who needed refuge.
Solae brought the bread, only to find his mother sitting on the priest’s chair, carved in marble and pushed against the stone wall—the only wall without bones protruding from it.
Noene was there with a sausage he had stolen, and together they made a feast. The three of them hadn’t eaten that well in days.
After they finished, his mother looked at Solae. For a moment, he thought she would ask him how he had gotten the bread—how he had survived in the city above.
But she hadn’t ever asked him about that. In fact, she did not speak of the city, as if it had ceased to exist. She hadn’t been above ground for four years. It had affected not just her manner, but her sight. Solae had to douse his personal light, and find candles for the lamps below. She preferred the gloom, claiming that anything brighter made her eyes hurt.
“They’ve returned,” his mother said.
Solae started. The Boche had come into this sanctuary more than once. The last time, Solae had been asleep on the communion table when he heard the clatter of boots against stone. He had doused the candles and climbed into the space between the skulls and the ceiling—a space barely a foot in width.
He had lain there, his nose pressed against the damp, the bones of the dead digging into his back, as the Boche peered into the chamber.
I cannot believe someone would hide here, one of them said in their hideous tongue. I would die first.
And then they had moved on, boots clanking with military precision, the click-clicks marking the time it took the Boche to leave Solae behind.
“Where did you hide?” Solae asked, hoping that his frail mother did not have to lie on bones as he had.
“Not the Germans,” Noene said. “The Communists.”
Solae suppressed his sigh of relief. The Communists were French, and they were not as frightening as his family made them sound. The Communists were part of the Resistance, the French who opposed the collaborationists who had taken the center of French government from Paris and moved it to Vichy to hide the fact that the Germans really controlled all that they did.
Vichy had become a dirtier word than Communist, and collaborationist the dirtiest word of all.
“You heard them?” Solae asked, pretending a concern he did not feel.
“They are plotting violence,” his mother said, as if the violence she spoke of was directed at her.
“They say the Americans have landed in Normandy.” Noene could not hide his enthusiasm. “They worry that De Gaulle will come here and destroy them.”
That was not the real worry of the Communists. Solae knew more about them than he told his family. He had found the Communist enclave long ago, and during the dark nights, had snuck through the bones to find the enclave, listening to the speeches and the pep talks and the news.
It was from them that Solae had picked up the word “Boche” which suited the Germans much more than any other word had. He did not want to speak of them with respect. He needed a word that was profane for what they had done to his city, his family, his home.
The Communists had taken to hiding in the sewers more than the catacombs, and planning small attacks against Germans. They disarmed the Vichy police, they occasionally killed a stormtrooper who did found himself alone, and they sabotaged shipments of French goods back to Germany.
The Communists were only a small part of the Resistance, but they were hated by their own people, and feared, for when the Germans were defeated and Vichy gone, the Free French believed the Communists would rise up and take over the government—obligating the French to Stalin and the Soviet Union the way Vichy obligated France to Hitler.
But Solae did not share that fear. The Communists called themselves freedom fighters, and they were fierce advocates for France.
He admired all they did. Sometimes he sat in the shadows and listened as they made their plans. He wished he could help them, but he could not. If someone died—even accidentally—because of his involvement, he would lose what little magic he had.
For that was why faerie were so easily defeated throughout Europe. Their powers were the powers of life, lost when touched with death. Faerie resisted coming into the catacombs for that very reason—even ancient death disturbed them.
It took a courageous few to live below, test their powers, and report the others before the entire community found the shelter and safety they needed.
Solae wished he could help the Communists. He did what he could. He was what some called a passive member of the Resistance—he taunted the Boche, stole from them or their Vichy compatriots, and destroyed their writings wherever he found them. Sometimes he siphoned precious gas from their cars, but carefully, never allowing his powers of light to touch the liquid for fear of a fire.
He did what he could, but it was very little.
“Aren’t you worried by this?” Noene asked. “They will start a war above us.”
“There is a war above us,” Solae said.
“But not like the countryside,” Noene said. “Paris still stands.”
For the moment. But Solae did not say that. Instead, he said, “They say De Gaulle will be here by the first of September and I believe it. Many of the Germans who are not soldiers have stolen what they can from the city and fled.”
“What will happen to us?” his mother asked. “If Communists find us, they are even more ruthless than the Germans.”
She was thinking of the Russian communists. She had lost family in St. Petersburg, which the communists had then renamed. Sometimes, she said lately, her entire life had been about loss.
“We’ll be fine,” Solae said. But he did not believe that, for the Germans were ruthless. He had seen too much to believe they would let Paris go so easily.
His thoughts made him restless. He stood, unable to stay in the darkness much longer.
“It’s still daylight above,” he said. “I’ll see if I can find us anything else before night falls.”
He did not wait for his mother’s answer. Instead, he fled through the tunnels, and went up to the light.
He heard the sound before he even left the stairway—gunfire. The heat had grown worse, a physical presence that made the gunfire seem even more ominous. As he stepped through the doorway, this one leading to a different part of the city, he saw German tanks in the street.
Four of them, large as houses. The tanks made Solae shudder. He pressed himself against the wall, uncertain what to do. He did not know if he had been seen, if his presence would lead others to the catacombs.
The gunfire came from the Hôtel de Ville, the city hall. Men—boys, really—leaned out of windows and shot at the tanks with revolvers.
The tanks swiveled, aiming their guns at the Hôtel de Ville. The building itself seemed to shudder from their might. Solae winced, feeling helpless.
He had heard that the Germans would destroy the city before they allowed the French to retake it, but he had not believed it. Paris was, according the BBC, the only intact city left in Europe. It had artifacts and treasures that everyone—not just the French—could enjoy.
It was his home.
A young woman, standing near his hiding place, screamed at the Boche. Solae couldn’t make out the words—something about leaving her city in peace—then she grabbed a bottle from the ground beside her, and ran for the street.
His heart pounded. He stepped forward to stop her—there was nothing she could do against tanks—but she kept screaming, “Filthy Boche! You do not belong here! Filthy Boche!”
Solae could not reach her.
She got to the side of the tank, smashed her bottle against its open turret, and somehow flames exploded along the metal. Solae had heard about such weapons—simple combinations of chemicals that he did not understand.
He heard a scream from inside, saw a German soldier rise, slapping himself, trying to put out the fire his clothing had become.
The girl grinned and ran back toward Solae, her steps almost a dance. For a moment, he remembered the beauty his father conferred upon the non-beautiful—a touch of glamour, given by a little bit of magic.
The girl had that magic, without Solae’s father’s help. She was not faerie, and yet she glowed with her victory.
Her gaze met Solae’s and he thought he had never seen anything so lovely in his entire life.
And then a shot rang out.
A single shot, even though he knew it could not have been the only one, even though he knew others were firing.
But it was as if he were with the girl, as if he were linked to her by her moment of victory. He saw the surprise fill her eyes, the blood spatter out of her mouth, her look of triumph turn to horror—
And then to nothing.
She stumbled, collapsed, and fell forward, like his father had done. Like so many others had done.
Solae did not stop to think. He ran into the street, to the girl, as people around him shouted, demanding that he take cover. The tanks kept shelling the Hôtel de Ville and, in one heart-stopping moment, he feared the building would tumble around him.
He reached her and crouched, knowing from her open and glazed eyes that she was gone. But he could not leave her there. Even if the stone would not absorb her soul the way it had absorbed his father’s, Solae could not abandon her on the street, to be run over by the Boche, to be treated as one more rag in a city littered with them.
He slipped his hands under her arms and lifted her. Bullets pinged off the cobblestones as someone shot at him—maybe even the freedom fighters above, missing their German targets.
His heart was pounding, the girl’s blood warm on his skin. She had had her moment against the Boche, her victory, and the Boche had stolen it from her, as they had stolen everything else—her home, her life, her world.
He carried her to the sidewalk, where one of the old women wailed in grief. Then he set the girl’s body, and knew what he had to do.
The Boche were the most superstitious creatures in Europe.
Solae turned to face them.
The boys still fired from the windows above. Three of the tanks still fired at the Hôtel de Ville. The fourth, its crew disabled or dead thanks to the girl, huddled like a wounded animal in the middle of the street.
Solae formed a fist and held it high, in mockery of the German salute.
“Achtung!” he shouted, his German flawless from years of listening to the vile tongue.
No one looked at him. No one seemed to see him.
He used his own glamour, his ability to brighten a room.
“Achtung!” he shouted again, and this time, every German within hearing range looked.
Solae squinted slightly, concentrating. He imagined his entire fist engulfed in flame—and suddenly it was. Cool flame which did not consume, but which burned beautifully in the bright August sunlight.
The shooting from the windows stopped.
He let the fire slide down his arm and engulf his entire body. The street looked wavy through the flame, as if he were viewing everything from a heat mirage.
“Vive le France!” he shouted.
Then he made the fire wink out.
The Germans stared at him for the longest time. The moment seemed to stretch forever.
Solae smiled at them.
“Vive le France!” he repeated, and put his hands on his hips, obviously unharmed by the fire that had surrounded him a moment before.
He took a step forward, and the German closest to him screamed. So did another, and another. They scrambled into their tanks, down the turrets, closing the hatches.
Solae remained on the street, watching them. The Germans drove their tanks away from him, their terror palpable in the thick August heat.
Dust rose around him. He did not feel the girl’s sense of victory. All he had done was a trick, nothing monumental, nothing worth a life.
But the boys in the windows above started to cheer. And so did the people on the street. They were looking at him, and cheering, and he could not take it.
He had done nothing. He was nothing. Just a small man with a small talent, and a little bit of luck.
He could not save the girl from death. He could not prevent death. And he had used his one talent the only way he knew how.
The cheering continued, and he looked away. The girl’s corpse remained on the sidewalk, the old woman bent over her, rocking, as if the movement would make the girl return.
Nothing would make her return. Nor would Solae’s father return, or their life, or his mother’s sanity. Nothing would be the same again, no matter when the Allies came.
All these years, he had deluded himself, hiding among the dead, believing that all he had to do was wait, and life would return to normal. The humans would stop their craziness, the war would fade, and everything would return.
But it was not just a human craziness. His father had been right: there were humans to ally with, and humans to fight. His father would have fought—he had fought, in his own turf, over his own command: music.
But Solae had not. He had not used his powers at all.
All these years, he could have fought in a slightly larger way, and he had not.
He had not.
While others died.
He had chosen to fade away instead of bringing light. He had chosen to live among the dead instead of fight beside the living.
But he would not make that choice again.
He could bring light to darkness, and vanish seemingly without a trace.
The Resistance was chasing the Boche from Paris, and Solae would help as best he could. And when he was done here, he would help liberate all of France, which was the world he cared about.
He finally knew how to do it, without losing his powers, without betraying his people.
He would haunt the Boche. He would bring light to the darkest corners of their souls, exposing them to all they had done.
He would destroy the Boche, taking all they feared and turning it against them, one by one.
One superstitious mind at a time.
Copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published published in Jim Baen’s Universe, 2007
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2015 by WMG Publishing
Cover design by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Andreiuc88/Dreamstime