Blast from the past: new year; new classes; old book

I wrote this post originally in 2014, just as the new year had begun, and at the time I felt like I was coughing on the exhaust fumes from the bus leaving me behind. Gotta catch up! Gotta catch– Gotta– Guh.

54-heres-johnnyI no longer have classes at ELM, a noble institution unable to survive the pandemic. However, I’m still set to teach my fellow seniors at Kennesaw State University via OLLI, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. Just need to brush off the syllabi from the last session, update as needed, and get ready for some fresh new minds to corrupt. Heh, heh. Here I come, kiddies!

On the writing front, I struggled with a new book.  A third of the story would be contemporary; the rest would take place 12,000 years earlier, but not far away geographically. ‘Course, things have changed a bit in the interim. The temperature around here a dozen millennia back was five to ten degrees cooler and much drier (if there had been a Savannah back then, it would’ve been–are you ready?–pleasant in August). The landscape featured a good deal of open grassland punctuated by oak and pine forests, which all sounds pretty familiar. If you’ve ever driven through south and central Georgia, you know what I mean.

But the biggest difference was the population. It consisted of relatively few people, mostly scattered bands of 20 to 50, which moved from place to place in search of food. I’m guessing they looked for other things too, like entertainment and companionship–things we wouldn’t ordinarily associate with the idea of daily life among the Paleoindian set–and that was the essence of the new book. The 12,000-year-old Whisper came out in October of 2015. Here’s the link. If you haven’t read it yet, quit waiting! It’s one helluva story.


Mom feeds toddler to glyptodont, unaware that
A) they were herbivorous, and B) this one’s plastic.

The non-human cast consists of some interesting, but now extinct, critters like the Glyptodont, an armadillo built on the scale of a Volkswagon Beetle. But it didn’t forage alone; there were a variety of other formidable veggie noshers like giant ground sloths, camels, horses, and my personal faves, the mammoths.

Can you imagine what it must have been like back then, having so many magnificent creatures in one place, without fences or moats, or signs reminding us not to feed them? After getting by on squirrels or fish and a tuber or two, it’s understandable that our paleo-ancestors may have hungered for a few thousand slothburgers every now and then. That said, I’m not a member of the “Damned People Killed ’em All” school when it comes to explaining what happened to those big life forms. Africa, after all, still boasts some pretty large and amazing creatures, despite their having to share the continent with a human population that’s been expanding for a long, long time.

One of the things I find most interesting about the topic of paleo-anything is how the experts often hang on to ideas that have been passed down for generations, even if the logic behind them has been discredited. History is studded with examples: Gallileo, Copernicus, Darwin, and Flibnitz to name a few. (Flibnitz? Okay, he was a complete nob, an utter douche canoe, and nobody believed him. But that doesn’t mean he was wrong. Right?)

In 1967, palynologist and geochronologist Paul Martin decreed that “…man, and man alone, was responsible” for the extinctions. Lots of people agreed. Lots of people ignored him. Lots more hung on to other explanations, like climate change, disease, and natural disasters, including the 2006 theory that comet strikes wiped the megafauna out.

I had neither the time nor the patience to debate the issue. I had a book to finish, and some parts of it, though I didn’t know which at the time, would address the topic. It also addressed a more localized question: in lieu of archeological evidence, how likely is it that some of those cave painting of mammothsuper-sized critters lived around here (suburban Atlanta, Georgia) 12,000 years ago? Did our ancestors rub elbows with giant tapirs, dire wolves, and short-faced bears? How about some of those gigantic tuskers with the Rastafarian-style dreads?

Why the heck not?

And that’s where book ideas come from.

Anyway, in case you missed it (shame on you), I’ve thoughtfully provided a photo of the cover below. Please don’t wait to get your copy until after the inevitable price increase. Thank you, inflation.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Wisper cover update


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A Kirkus Review!

This will be a fairly short post, and I realize it’s coming out a wee bit later than usual. However, I’m pretty stoked about it, and I wanted to share it with everyone in case they missed it. Here’s a review of my latest book from Kirkus, one of the most well-respected organizations doing reviews of independently published material.

Below is a screenshot from the Kirkus page about Hyde and Zeke, available from Amazon (and possibly other outlets down the road).

At just a hair under 80,000 words, Hyde and Zeke is a story that should appeal to a very wide audience. It touches on a variety of genres, most notably science fiction and suspense, but adds a dash of horror and a healthy dose of humor as well.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you have a fabulous holiday season!


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The Worst Christmas Ever

Darby Flynn grimaced as he packed the last of his collection of chubby, stuffed gnomes into a box for the return home. A new departmental edict banned all such decorations. Instead, each worker was given a replica of the eagle which appeared on the dollar bill and the presidential seal. It clutched arrows in one set of claws and an olive branch in the other. The birds stood on black, plastic pedestals and came in silver, copper, or gold depending on the rank of the worker to which it was given.

“I can’t believe he’s done this,” Darby Jones complained to his equally dismayed co-worker, Agnes McGee. “I’ve put my little collection up in my cubicle every year since I started working here. Nobody ever complained.”

“That was all before the new boss arrived,” Agnes said.

Darby glanced around before responding, “He should change his name to Grinch.”

“Or Scrooge,” replied Agnes, a woman who’d occupied the cubicle next to his for several years.

“I’ll say this for his appointment.” Darby checked again to make sure no one else could hear him. “They picked the right guy for the job. I don’t know of anyone who hates the holidays more than Simon St. John.”

“A saint, he ain’t.” Agnes pursed her lips. “Have you seen the list of charges he drew up? The so-called crimes he intends to prosecute?”

“Crimes? Seriously?”

Agnes ticked them off on her fingers one-by-one, “Breaking and entering, illegal trespass, flying an unlicensed aircraft through restricted airspace, and that’s not all.”

Darby clenched his jaws. “I was only aware of the first one, but I didn’t really believe it.”

“Oh, it’s real all right, but that wasn’t enough for St. John. He’s also working on labor law infractions; he’s got a team pouring over OSHA rules and regs, and he’s appointed someone to draft a major complaint about discrimination.”

“You’re kidding,” Darby said. “Discrimination?”

“According to St. John, the old guy only hires elves, nobody over three feet tall, give or take.”


“And then there are charges of animal cruelty. Something to do with reindeer working extended hours in all kinds of weather. He’s even got somebody working on that.”

“We have to do something,” Darby said. “This is crazy. If he’s allowed to continue, he’ll destroy the holidays!”

Agnes exhaled. “Maybe, maybe not, but he’d for sure destroy the commercial side of things. People will still have the freedom of religion. They just won’t have… You know… The whole North Pole thing.”

“C’mon, Agnes, think about it—no more kids carrying their wish lists to the mall for a visit with old Saint Nick. Instead, it’ll be ‘Celebrate the season with Santa in Cell Block C.’”

“But we’ll still have the religious side,” she insisted, though her voice betrayed a lack of conviction. “And we’ll still be able to exchange presents.”

 Darby shook his head. “I’m not sure about that. Just the other day I heard our ‘dear leader’ complaining about the vast inequity of gift-giving. He thinks there ought to be some federal guidelines about who gets what, and how much anyone should spend.”

“Bureaucrats already have a dreadful reputation, but Simon St. John will add a whole new layer of—” Agnes abruptly went silent.

Darby took the hint and tried to appear casual as he turned his head to see what had caused Agnes to go silent. A pair of men in plain black suits and dark glasses had entered the room. They walked purposefully between the rows of cubicles, peering intently over the low walls as if looking for intruders. Occasionally, one or the other would adjust the bald eagle decorations adorning each of the work spaces.

“What’re they doing?” Agnes asked, but Darby remained silent.

When the two men reached them, they stopped and examined the security badges Agnes and Darby wore. One of them made a gesture to the other, who looked into the box on Darby’s desk.

“Thought so,” he said. “Pick that up and come with us. Now.”

“I packed ‘em up as soon as I heard about the new—”

“Shut up, and do as you’re told,” the man said, his voice cold and flat.

“You can’t talk to him like that,” Agnes said as she put her hand on Darby’s arm.

“Looks like you’ll be coming along, too,” the other man said.

“What? Why? What have we done?”

“It’s an obvious case of conspiracy. You’ve virtually indicted yourselves by discussing plans to disrupt the Seasonal Reality Statutes.”

“That’s absurd!” Darby exclaimed. “We haven’t done anything wrong.”

“That’s not how Commissioner St. John will see it,” the first man said. “Hope you weren’t planning anything special in the next few weeks. You’ll be confined to units in the Attitude Assimilation dorms.”

“I have to call my husband,” Agnes said.

Darby chimed in, “And I need to call my wife!”

“That won’t be necessary. We’ll advise your emergency contacts about your status.”


“So, Jonesy, what’d yer old man think of the new UIVR?”

Darby Jones, Jr. lowered his head. “Dad said it sucks, and whoever invented Ultimate Immersive Virtual Reality should be shot, or worse.”

“I’m guessing he didn’t have a fun trip.” Darby Junior’s friend, Louie, chuckled. “Which scenario did you give him?”

“The St. John thing. I mean, it made sense to me, ‘cause Dad’s always complaining about the commercialization of Christmas.”

“Oh, man. That’s a tough one to start with. I hope you gave him the code word so he could break out of the storyline.”

“Actually, no. In all the Christmas morning excitement I sorta forgot.”

“Oh, geez. What’d he do?”

“Other than ground me until Spring Break?”

“Seriously? Until Spring Break? That’s like months from now!”

“He said it was only because grounding me for life wasn’t an option. And he said it right after he smashed my UIVR headset with a sledgehammer.”


I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season and a healthy, happy New Year.


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Taco Logic (Encore)

Here’s a fable from my short story collection Who Put Scoundrels In Charge? (Available here.) I’d love for this to become required reading for anyone studying economics and/or political science. What do you think?

“Jealousy is the tribute mediocrity pays to genius.” ~Fulton J. Sheen

No one could make a taco like Antonio, though many tried. His shells were so thin and light and crisp that only he could load one without crushing it. His lettuce was always green and fresh, his tomatoes always firm and ripe. Some say that the angels made his cheese and most agreed that if heaven had a taste, one could find it at Antonio’s humble stand.

Every day, long before Noon, Antonio would push his cart to the side of the plaza near the bell tower and prepare his ingredients. The people who worked near the plaza loved the aroma of his corn tortillas as they baked. Hours later, when the other vendors arrived, Antonio gave each of them a cheery greeting.

“Ola,” he said to Enrique, the sausage vendor.

“Buenos dias!” he cried to Olivero, the maker of pies.

“Como esta?” he inquired of big Rosita, who could eat a burrito for every one she sold, and often did.

Enrique only scowled, and Olivero turned away. Rosita would nod, but rarely spoke, for she and the others had made a pact. They knew that good luck accounted for Antonio’s perpetual cheeriness. He must have had many advantages as a child since everything he touched turned out so well. It clearly wasn’t fair, and so they decided to teach him a lesson. They agreed to ignore him as long as he refused to change his attitude. They had each other; it would be enough.

But after several weeks nothing changed–Antonio remained the same. So did the lunch lines, which stretched farther from his cart than any others. He didn’t have all the customers, of course. Some people simply couldn’t take the time to stand in Antonio’s line, and those from out of town didn’t know any better. A few simply didn’t like tacos, even if they did taste like heaven.

Since the pact failed to change anything, the others formed a guild. Enrique and Olivero named it The Brotherhood of Plaza Vendors. Olivero even designed a noble banner with words in somber black and a drawing of a man baking meat pies. Enrique liked the banner because he thought the pies looked like sausages. Rosita argued against the word “Brotherhood,” but finally settled for “Fellowship,” though it didn’t sound exactly right. She agreed to the drawing since the man in it wore an apron and could just as easily have been a woman, albeit a big one. Besides, she thought the pies looked like burritos.

They called to order the first meeting of the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors in Rosita’s home one morning about two weeks before the annual Harvest Festival. Working very hard, the three decided on all the important rules, including the one about membership. Anyone who attended the charter meeting automatically qualified as a charter member; anyone who joined later must pay a fee. That would show Antonio, who was too busy worrying about himself to attend the meeting.

The members of the Fellowship pushed their carts close together on the side of the plaza away from the bell tower. They erected their impressive banner and explained to anyone who would listen how they had organized for the betterment of the entire plaza. Oddly enough, the lines remained longer in front of Antonio’s cart.

“Perhaps he is closer to the fountain,” said Enrique, “and the people do not have to go so far to get a drink.”

“That may be,” said Rosita, “but notice also that his cart is in the shade of the bell tower. The people stay cooler there, and that is why they buy from him.”

Olivero disagreed. “The real reason is much more simple.” He waved his hands in the air. “The breezes always come from the west. They blow right across the plaza to the bell tower. The insects and the bad smells are thus blown away. I’m certain that’s his secret.”

“It just isn’t fair.” Rosita fanned herself. It had never seemed so hot before. “Antonio should not have all that shade to himself.”

Enrique nodded. “Nor should he be so close to the fountain. His customers should be as far from the water as ours are.”

“And may I remind you,” added Olivero, “no one owns the wind.”

“I agree,” said the big woman. “It’s time we did something.”

“Absolutely,” said Enrique rubbing his chin. “But what can we do?”

“We must come to the plaza before he does,” suggested Olivero, “and be the first to open for business by the bell tower.”

“Excellent idea!” said Rosita. “One of you can hold the space for all of us.”

“One of us?” Enrique and Olivero looked at each other. “What about you?”

“My burritos are made with a secret recipe, known only to my family. If I come to the plaza early, someone is sure to steal it.”

“You too have a secret recipe?” exclaimed Olivero. “It is the same with me. If anyone learned my special technique, I would be ruined. Enrique, my friend, for the good of the Fellowship, you must come to the plaza early.”

Enrique clapped his hands to his face. “Alas, I cannot. Indeed, I cannot even tell you why.”

“But we are friends. Surely you can trust me,” said Olivero.

Rosita pursed her lips. “I never knew you were such a man of mystery, Enrique.”

“All right,” he said, “but I’m counting on your confidence. This is something known only to my family these many years.” He looked around to ensure no one else could hear. “You see, my sausages must be made by the light of the moon. I must work nearly all night just to be ready for the next day’s trade. I cannot work all night and get up early, too.”

The Fellowship struggled with their dilemma all afternoon before they found a solution. That very day they called upon the Mayor.

“Senior Mayor,” said Rosita, “you must help us. Antonio has the water, the wind, and the shade all to himself. The people are so uncomfortable they will not trade with us.”

Enrique added, “If we earn no money, we cannot pay taxes. If we cannot pay taxes, you cannot maintain the town. If you cannot maintain the town, the people will throw you out and find a new Mayor.”

Olivero summed it up. “Clearly, Senior Mayor, it is in everyone’s best interest for you to make Antonio move his cart to the other side of the plaza.”

What the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors said sounded logical, and though the Mayor would have liked more time to think it over, he knew that elections would be held right after the Harvest Festival. Choosing between Antonio’s one vote and the Fellowship’s three required no great intellectual effort. “I will talk to him in the morning,” he promised, but he didn’t look forward to it.

The next day, Antonio arrived at the plaza as usual and wheeled his cart over to the bell tower where he found the Mayor waiting for him. “Good morning, Senior Mayor! How are you today?”

“Fine, thank you,” the Mayor said, “but I’m here on official business.” He explained that a complaint had been lodged against Antonio by a prestigious and highly influential organization. “They insist that you move to the other side of the plaza,” explained the Mayor who then spelled out all the Fellowship’s objections. “I tried to reason with them, but they threatened to call a higher authority.”

“I see,” said Antonio. “Did you point out to them that there is no shade at lunchtime since the sun is straight overhead?”

“Indeed I did,” said the Mayor, wondering why the thought had not occurred to him.

“Then of course you must have also mentioned that the plaza is round so all vendors are the same distance from the fountain?”

“Of course! It goes without saying.” Which was true, for the Mayor had never said it.

“Then I know you explained about the wind.”

“Probably,” said the Mayor, “after all, we spoke at some length. Uh, which aspect of the wind did you have in mind?”

“Simply that in order for the wind to reach the bell tower here, it must pass through the plaza over there. I’ve been meaning to say something to you about the smells and the insects from that side.”

The Mayor bobbed his head in agreement. “I wish you had said something to me before. Now, it is too late. Will you move peacefully, Antonio?”

“Certainly,” said the taco vendor. Without another word, he wheeled his cart across the plaza and parked beneath the banner left behind by the Fellowship. He noticed that one of the two poles supporting the banner was stuck in a sizable hill of garbage also left behind by the Fellowship. A dark green frog, as big as his fist, sat behind the pole snaring an occasional fly with its long, sticky tongue.

He sits there like a king, Antonio thought, staring at the mound of rotted pie fillings, discarded sausages and rancid burritos which served as the frog’s throne. Disgusting. Antonio shook his head and sighed. He almost envied the frog. “How easy your life is,” he said.

The frog eased around the pole where it could see him better and replied, “Easy? How would you like to spend your life sitting on a garbage pile eating flies?”

This so startled Antonio that he nearly forgot to breathe, a blessing considering the awful stench from the garbage. “You spoke!”

The frog rolled its eyes. “Can’t get anything past you.”

“This is a trick!” Antonio spun around quickly to see if someone was throwing his voice like one of the visiting performers at the Harvest Festival, but he stood alone. Scratching his head, he asked, “Are you enchanted? Are you really a prince or a king or something?”

“How did you know?” exclaimed the frog. “I thought my disguise so clever that no one would ever recognize me. What gave me away, the webbed feet? The big eyes? The long tongue? No–I’ve got it! The green skin! That’s it! Of course–all kings and princes have green skin! How stupid of me.” The frog drummed his tiny fingers impatiently.

Antonio felt a flush of embarrassment. “What I meant was, you see…” He paused to gather his wits. “I’ve heard stories about princes and evil magicians. I thought maybe you were someone important who had been turned into a toad.”

“I’m a frog,” said the frog, extending a limb. “See? Smooth skin. Toads are all warty and dry.”

“Aren’t you afraid I’ll capture you and sell you to the circus? Surely there’s a fortune to be made from a talking frog.”

“Worried? Nah. I wouldn’t cooperate. And if I didn’t talk, no one would buy me. Listen, I’ve thought about it. A circus job would be too much work. After all, I’m only a frog. I’m just tired of eating flies.”

“So what do you want from me?”

“Tacos, of course! Everyone knows yours are the best.”

“Frogs don’t eat tacos,” said Antonio.

“They don’t usually talk, either,” said the frog.

“Good point. But it doesn’t matter. I can’t work here. The smell is terrible, and the Mayor says I cannot use the other side of the plaza. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

The frog appeared to give deep consideration to Antonio’s problems. “Hm,” he said at length, “maybe we can help each other.”

“How? Magic?”

“Will you stop with the magic already?” The frog did nothing to hide the exasperation in its voice. “I’ve got a deal for you. It can’t hurt to listen.”

So the frog talked and Antonio listened, and when the frog finished, the two made a bargain. Antonio squared his shoulders in preparation for the tasks ahead. He started by taking his cart home. For the first time since anyone could remember, the taco vendor did not open for business.

Later that day, across the plaza, the other vendors worked feverishly to keep up with demand. Long lines formed in front of all three carts. They reached the end of the day exhausted, but happy. When the Mayor came by to check on them, they heaped their praise upon him.

“You have done the entire village a great service, Senior Mayor,” said Rosita.

Enrique favored him with a weary smile. “We are in your debt.”

“Would you care for a pie?” asked Olivero.

“I think not,” said the Mayor, wrinkling his nose. “I just wanted to see how things were going. It’s only a week until the elec– I mean, until the Festival.”

“We can’t wait,” exclaimed Rosita. “This will be the best Festival in years!”

In the days which followed, Antonio left his cart at home and spent his time cleaning up the garbage, just as the frog suggested. Meanwhile, the members of the Fellowship enjoyed greater profits than they’d ever seen–right until the end of the week when Antonio reopened for business.

Garbage no longer occupied the western side of the plaza. In its place, Antonio had installed a long, wooden table. He even planted flowers. In the space of a single day, all his customers returned, plus a few new ones. Everyone smiled. Including the frog, who sat in the shade of Antonio’s cart, munching on a taco.

The following day, as the aroma of corn tortillas and fragrant spices filtered through the air, the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors met in an emergency session. “The Harvest Festival begins in two days,” lamented Olivero. “There will be twice as many people in town.”

“Then we should have twice as many customers,” said Rosita.

“Not if we have to battle Antonio across the plaza,” said Enrique. “There is something sinister about what he’s doing.”

“Like what?” Clearly intrigued, Olivero and Rosita leaned closer.

“Does anyone really know what kind of spices he puts in his tacos?”

“I think it’s a secret,” said Olivero.

Precisely! And why is it a secret?” Enrique squinted at the others, his voice dropping low. “What is it that makes his recipe so special? For all we know, he could be mixing vile narcotics in with those spices of his. I fear he has already addicted the poor people of this village, and that is why they rush to buy from him.”

“I never thought of that!” said an astonished Rosita. “Of course! You’re right. But what can we do about it?”

“I have an idea or two,” said Enrique. “But first we must hold elections.”

The actual voting was concluded quickly since there were only three voters, but getting to that point proved problematic. Considerable wrangling had to be completed before they settled on which of them would run for the various leadership positions. Once they agreed in principle to exchanging titles at the annual elections, the rest became easy.

After the election, and in the spirit of good citizenship, the three newly elected officers of the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors visited the village physician to voice their public health concerns.

“Though we surely represent our membership,” said Chairman Enrique, “our first concern is for our fellow citizens.”

Vice Chairman Olivero wrung his hands. “Have you heard? This Antonio character encourages people to eat their meals on top of a garbage dump!”

“How can that possibly be healthy?” Secretary-Treasurer Rosita wanted to know.

The village doctor agreed the situation sounded serious, else the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors would not have sent their entire Executive Committee to complain. Using the authority given to him by the Mayor in cases of emergency, he dispatched his assistant to post a public notice that henceforth, no food could be sold in the plaza until the village physician was satisfied with its safety. Pleased with the good doctor’s wise decision, the Fellowship gleefully provided samples of sausage, meat pies and burritos for inspection. All three vendors received certificates attesting to the purity of their wares.

When Antonio returned to the plaza the next morning, he found one of the notices tacked to his wooden table. As he read it, the physician’s assistant arrived to collect a sample.

“But I’ve only just arrived,” said Antonio. “Perhaps you could return later, when my tacos are ready.”

“Impossible,” said the official, “we were told this would be the best time to examine your food. Indeed, we received a warning that you might try to trick us with delays.”

Antonio struggled to hide his chagrin. “I’ll be happy to deliver a taco for inspection. Just tell me where to take it.”

“It must go to the physician, but it must go now. We will be too busy later in the day, and the Festival begins tomorrow. So bring it next week.”

“But by then the Festival will be over.”

“I don’t make the rules. But your clever tricks won’t work on me. It looks like you won’t be selling anything for a while.” He waved as he walked away. “Adios, senior. Have a nice day.”

Antonio felt like weeping. He sat at his wooden table with his head in his hands, wondering how he could make it through the winter without any profit from the Harvest Festival.

Just then, the frog woke up. “Why aren’t you busy? I’m getting hungry.”

Antonio explained his situation to the frog whose advice had seemed so good after the last calamity. “So you see,” he concluded, “there’s nothing I can do.”

“Nonsense,” said the frog. “There’s just nothing you can do here. Now, load your table on the cart, and dig up those flowers. There’s little time, and you have much work to do.”

Once again the workers in the plaza missed out on Antonio’s tacos. Once again they had little choice but to patronize the Fellowship. But on the first morning of the Festival, the workers were greeted with cheerful music even though the celebration would not officially begin until after siesta. Two musicians went round and round the plaza playing their guitars and singing. After every few songs, they made an announcement: “Antonio, vendor of tacos, invites you to join him for a Festival lunch! Free food! Just a short walk outside of town near the crossroads. Beverages available for a small fee.”

By the time the other vendors arrived, the word had already spread. Not only was Antonio back, but he was giving his food away! Since the Fellowship had no customers at all during lunch, they held yet another meeting.

“He has truly gone too far this time,” said Olivero.

“How can we compete when he gives his food away?” demanded Enrique.

Rosita was puzzled. “How can he afford to give his food away? Surely he must pay for his ingredients, just as we do.”

“Not if they’re stolen,” said Olivero.

“Or worse,” suggested Enrique.


“Perhaps. What kind of man would violate tradition and begin the Festival with music before the good padres have blessed the harvest? What greater sins would he commit?”

“Antonio? In league with the devil?” Rosita was shocked.

Olivero slapped his leg. “Of course! Why didn’t we see it before? We must inform the church. It’s our sacred duty.”

“And we must do it now,” said Enrique. “There’s no time to waste.”

By the time the priest and the other vendors arrived, the luncheon party was over, and all the celebrants were gone. Antonio, who had worked all night, rested in the shade of a tree and appeared to be talking to himself. The ecclesiastical crew kept their distance, in order to observe the obviously deranged taco vendor who kept looking down at the roots of the tree as he spoke.

Rosita crossed herself. “Do you see, Padre? He has found El Diablo’s door!” Enrique and Olivero shuddered.

The priest looked around at the setting Antonio had created. Nestled among the trees just beyond the village limits, the taco vendor had erected a second table to go with the first. Gaily colored paper streamers hung from the trees and pockets of flowers brightened the grounds. A huge container of lemonade sat in the shade beside the taco cart, which was still fragrant from lunch.

“It doesn’t look so bad,” said the priest, for indeed the little clearing was most appealing.

“Do you see a cross?” asked Enrique. “Or any sign of the holy nature of the Festival?”

“No,” admitted the priest, not entirely sure the Festival was intended as a holy occasion. “We must not be hasty. I would speak with Antonio before I decide if he has done anything wrong.”

The four advanced on the recumbent restaurateur who was too weary to rise.

“Who are you talking to?” asked the priest.

“My friend, the frog,” said Antonio, waving a hand toward the amphibian.

Olivero kept the priest between himself and the taco vendor. “And does the frog respond?”

“Of course.” Antonio yawned. “This whole thing was his idea.” His voice trailed off briefly before flaring into life for a few more syllables. “I’m indebted to him.”

In a whisper, Enrique addressed the priest. “Padre, must I remind you that frogs are kin to serpents? And did you not teach us yourself that the devil is often disguised as such?”

The priest nodded, and the three vendors stared hard at him as Antonio drifted off to sleep. “He is doomed,” said Rosita.

“There’s no hope for him,” said Olivero.

The frog, guessing how the conversation would turn out, sneaked away before the zealots came after him. His disappearance provided the final proof Enrique needed. “You see? Even the devil has deserted him!”

The taco vendor slept as the four walked away, shaking their heads. They returned to the village and spread word of Antonio’s fate. After that, no one dared go near him, not even the musicians he had hired the day before.

“I’m ruined,” said Antonio to the frog.

“Only if you stay here.”

“Where else can I go?”

“Anywhere!” said the frog. “You make the finest tacos in the world. You will be welcome anywhere you go. If I were you, I would have gone to the city long ago.”

So Antonio moved to the city. Soon the people there began to say if one wanted a taste of heaven, Antonio could supply it. His fame and his business grew. He married into a respected family and fathered enough children to run an entire chain of taco stands.

In the village he left behind, the members of the Fellowship rejoiced throughout the Festival. Without the competition from Antonio, they sold everything they could make. But it wasn’t long before sales faltered once again, and they called a meeting to discuss the crisis.

Rosita pulled Olivero aside. “Everyone knows the aroma of my burritos is very subtle, but my customers can’t smell it because of Enrique’s pies. We should consider asking him to move to the other side of the plaza.”

Olivero turned to Enrique. “People need us, and they need the good, healthy meat we sell. But they think they must also buy Rosita’s burritos. It’s obvious they stay away because of the expense. The people will be happier if Rosita moves across the plaza.”

Enrique found a moment to converse with Rosita. “A balanced meal means meat and vegetables. With your burritos and my sausages, people really don’t need Olivero’s pies. He should move his cart as a public service.”

They concluded the meeting by disbanding the Fellowship of Plaza Vendors and replacing it with three new organizations, each one-third the size of the original: the Congress of Meat Pie Makers, the Brotherhood of Sausage Stuffers, and the League of Burrito Bakers. They often held their meetings in the middle of the day since customers remained scarce.

The frog, meanwhile, made a killing selling brown paper lunch bags to the people who no longer purchased their lunches in the plaza and opted instead to bring food from home. In the end, the frog and the labor leaders were the only ones who didn’t miss the humble taco vendor.


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Why a Christmas book? (Encore)

Let’s say you’re familiar with the Grinch; you’ve seen Frosty at least a dozen times; you know the names of all nine reindeer, and you’re pretty sure that when it comes to the parts of Christmas kids love most, you’re totally on top of things. Right?

Uh… nope. Sorry.

Now, before you light the torches, round up the neighbors, and hand out the pitchforks, you need to get the latest on what’s afoot at the North Pole. More importantly, you need to know these revelations will, most likely, not damage all the centuries-old tropes about jolly old Saint Nick.

But, let’s face it, we’re well into the 21st Century, and there haven’t been any revelations about how all the Santa stuff we’ve come to know and love really works nowadays.

That’s one of the thoughts that danced in my head a while back when pondering what to write about in my third novel of 2020 (thank you, Covid-19, may you soon shrivel and waste away to nothing more than a dark memory).

It didn’t take long for me to realize that some of the questions I had about the traditional Santa tales had been with me since childhood. Okay, so maybe I was a wee bit precocious and/or my imagination might possibly have been tweaked by my incredibly inventive father. In any event, I had questions way back then, and they popped right back into my head a few months ago.

Questions like:

— Even if some rare strain of reindeer with the ability to fly actually existed, how come only Santa Claus was able to round them up? And why reindeer, when the world is chock full of amazing canines capable of pulling a sled?

— Using “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (ie., “T’was the night before Christmas…”) to establish a timeline, almost 200 years have passed. The population of the Earth has increased to nearly 8 times its size since 1800. How has Santa managed to take care of such an increased load?

— I don’t ever recall receiving something from Santa which appeared to have been made by hand, and I suspect those who did were in a distinct minority. So, how had Santa managed to industrialize the operation? What happened to all those poor elves?

— How did someone so old and so busy ever manage to work his way into the countless millions of homes without chimneys?

There had to be answers to these and many other questions, and therein lay the heart of the story. It was nestled somewhere between a child with a mysterious illness, a shopping mall Santa Claus trying to redefine himself, and the profoundly difficult challenges of delivering gifts to hundreds of millions, maybe even billions, of deserving children.

All I had to do was write it.

Fortunately, I had the assistance of all the pets, and their owners, who live on our street. The result of our combined efforts is a family-friendly Christmas story that supplies all the answers. It’s called A Season Gone to the Dogs.

Consider it my gift to everyone I know and anyone who’d like to find out what’s really happened to Santa’s mission and his secret hideaway after all these years. So, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, and Merry Christmas to you all!

Beginning on Monday, Dec. 5, and continuing through Friday, Dec. 9, you can download the ebook version–for FREE–from Just click HERE if you’d like to save some time.

For those of you who take advantage of this offer, I would appreciate it very much if you would post your thoughts about the story in an Amazon review. Let’s share this tale far and wide!

Finally, if you know someone with vision problems who might enjoy a family-friendly Christmas tale, please let them know a large text version is available in paperback. The same link will work for all editions of the book.

Best wishes to everyone, just a little early!


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Why teach? (Encore)

There are a great many reasons why I teach, but I suspect the most important one is that it makes me feel good. I don’t know if that qualifies as weird or not, and frankly, I don’t care.

I don’t teach in the inner city; I’m not some middle-class, suburban saint with a penchant for helping the underprivileged or the disadvantaged. I teach grown-ups. Seniors, mostly, folks who’ve lived a lot, who’ve seen a lot, and who have an abundance of stories to share. Most of them, however, need some help to get those stories told–and told right. The amount of help they need varies a great deal. Some are on the verge of doing primo work. Others need more, and I expect those with whom I work to pitch in and help, too.

Unlike those instructors who labor in the traditional fields of public and private education, my students have chosen to spend their time in my classes. They’re there because they want to be there. That makes all the difference in the world. They show up because they want to improve their skills. There aren’t any grades. No gold stars. No report cards. Instead, there is camaraderie, and that’s an astonishingly powerful potion.

Imagine telling your story, or parts of it, while a cadre of interested listeners tune in closely to what you have to say. Their responses, typically positive and affirmative, have an almost narcotic effect. My role, pointing out areas needing a tweak or a pruning, doesn’t diminish the goodwill engendered by the class. If anything, it leads to questions and dialog–all of which add to the value of the experience for everyone. Me, included!

I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I don’t know anyone who does. But I’ve been fortunate to learn from a fair number of truly gifted wordsmiths, some famous, some still waiting to be discovered. And I’m pleased to pass along what they’ve shared. Best of all, the lessons come not from theory and certainly not from the supposed wisdom of some greybeard in academia. God spare us more of that! The lessons are based on real-world trial and error–what works, what sells.

We don’t diagram sentences or pretend to know what went on in the heads of the “literary greats.” I couldn’t care less what Proust or Faulkner or Steinbeck were thinking when they drafted their work. What matters, to me, is whether or not they told compelling tales. That’s it. And those are the kinds of stories I want my students to write.

So, the answer to the initial question is pretty simple, really. I teach because I can make a difference, and that’s a reward in and of itself.


Posted in Historical writing, Memoir, novel writing, short fiction, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

It’s Thanksgiving. I think we all deserve a break.

So, I’Alabama Crimson Tide v Auburn Tigersm going to let my self-imposed deadline slide this time and concentrate on really important things like family, and turkey, and football. I may even consume an adult beverage or two.

Or three. Whatever.

My Auburn Tigers will be taking on the red elephants in Tuscaloosa. I have high hopes for the Tigers, mainly because I always have high hopes for them. I’m a fan. I’m just not a betting fan.

AubieSo, that’s it for this time. Go have fun. Be with your family or friends. If you don’t have any of either, then go find someone else in the same fix and buy him or her a sandwich — turkey would be good — and a cup of coffee. Who knows? It could be the start of a long and pleasant relationship. And if not, maybe you can get a story out of it.

Besides, what have you got to lose?Happy Thanksgiving

Until next time,


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You wanna know whut?

Genie and tubaWhat’s your book about? While that seems like an easy question, many authors have trouble coming up with a quick answer. What too often comes out is something like: “It’s about this guy who finds a magic tuba while digging through his great uncle’s attic. Of course, he doesn’t know it’s magic, so he’s not prepared when he blows on it and a genie comes out. Trouble is, it’s not a very nice genie. It’s been trapped in the tuba for ages, and now it’s out for revenge. Meanwhile, the guy’s mom is trying to get back home after escaping from prison for a crime she says she didn’t commit. Problem is, everyone thinks she’s a pathological liar, but that’s okay because….”

Is the book about a magic tuba? Or is it about the genie? Or maybe it’s about the poor shlub who finds them. Or his mother. Or maybe it’s about how the evil genie tries to seduce the girl next door. So maybe it’s a coming-of-age story. For the genie. Or maybe the girl next door. Who the hell knows? As the writer, you should certainly know. Alas, it simply ain’t so for way too many novices.

It used to be that only bad writers with money to burn would self-publish. Back then there was no “traditional” route to publication; there was only “the” route. Anyone wanting to see their stuff in print had to deal with agents or wrangle an appointment to chat with an editor at a writer’s conference or fan convention. Back then–and today for anyone still trying to sell a book to a Big Five subsidiary–the missing link was the “elevator pitch.” This amounted to a 30-second summary of the book packaged in such a way as to grab the attention of an editor or agent when trapped in an elevator at one of the aforementioned gatherings. Millions of such pitches have been cast in hotel bars, too, among other places.

Self-publishing has changed a lot of that, but there’s still a need for a pitch, even if you’re not trying to get a deal with a big publisher. [Don’t look at me like that. Just lemme explain.] Your elevator pitch might just make a dandy back cover blurb, and a well-executed book blurb is essential to a profitable sales campaign. It’s nearly as important as a great front cover.

If writing one seems like a daunting task, try using this formula for starters. You can revise it to suit your needs later, but for now, this should get you going. Just fill in the {blanks} as best you can.

When {identity} {character name} {does something}, {there’s a consequence}. Now, with {time limit/restrictions}, {character} must {do something heroic} to {reach a goal} or {lose something meaningful}.

So, f’rinstance:

When rookie FBI agent Filbert Feeney finds an ancient book of spells, he uses one to catch the top criminals on the agency’s Most Wanted List. But there’s a price to be paid for using the magic, and it will cost him his life–and his soul–unless he finds a way to reverse the spell without letting the criminals get away.

Here’s one based on the Leonardo DiCaprio film, “The Revenant,” released in 2015: When legendary frontiersman Hugh Glass is injured in a brutal bear attack while exploring an uncharted wilderness in 1823, he is left for dead by his best friend. Now, grief-stricken and fueled by vengeance against the confidant who abandoned him, Glass must survive the winter terrain to return home to his family.

Give it a tryWill it work for every story? Probably not. But it will help you shape your thinking about what needs to go in a blurb. More importantly, it might just give customers a solid reason for buying your book.

Your blurb, in various formats, will be needed to flesh out ads and other promotional material. And yes, you might even need to use it in an elevator when you meet some movie mogul on the lookout for a new blockbuster.

A good book blurb is the second most essential piece of your book marketing campaign. You won’t go far without it. In fact, if you lack a good blurb, your book and all the hard work you put into it, won’t go anywhere.


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What’s a tree? (Encore)

My niece, a medical receptionist, witnessed something inspiring not long ago in the waiting room at the doctor’s office where she works. There were a number of people waiting to see the doctor, and among them was a little girl about four years old. Bella XmasShe sat quietly beside her mother when she noticed a little boy in the waiting room. The girl asked her mother what was wrong with the boy, and her mother answered that he appeared to be blind.

The little girl didn’t understand what that meant and asked for an explanation which her mother quietly supplied.

At this point, my niece went back to her paperwork. But a short while later she heard the little girl talking again and looked up out of curiosity.

She saw the little blind boy smiling as he held hands with the little girl. She had closed her eyes tight and was doing her best to describe to the boy what a tree looked like.

When things like this happen, it restores my faith in mankind.

It also made me think about how difficult that little girl’s job would be. Can you imagine trying to describe a tree to someone who’d never been able to see anything? Where would you even start?

childs drawing of treeOne of the most powerful tools a writer can employ is sensory presentation–using all the senses to convey information, not just that which can be seen. This means expressing story detail that relies on touch, taste, texture, and aroma. How big is a tree? What does it feel like? Does it have a smell?

It’s possible to stretch the sensory issue even more. Most people have nine senses. In addition to the five listed above, and originally noted by Aristotle, there are also the senses of pain, balance, heat, and body awareness–we know where our body parts are without looking at them or touching something. Neurologists have suggested many others, like hunger, thirst, or the sense of danger, senses included in countless narratives.

I have to tip my hat to the little girl in that waiting room. If she managed to get her ideas across, she may have a brilliant future ahead of her as a storyteller.

For the rest of us, especially the writers? We’d be wise to learn from her. If for no other reason, some of our “readers” will be getting their information from audiobooks. Think hard on that.

Be well. And take some time to write!


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A Fairy Free Fairy Tale

It’s Halloween 2022; we’re supposed to post scary stuff, right? Well, this is about as close as I’m liable to get. Yes, I know it’s a bit long, but I think you’ll like it.

The Crown and the Crone (Encore)

“It’s time for a name change,” she said, smiling at herself in the mirror from behind long, raven tresses. “The old Magda is dead.”

She slipped into a lacy undergarment which somehow, free of magic, supported her bountiful cleavage; it would take some time to adjust to her new dimensions. The lingerie bordered on perfect needing only a pinch here, a pull there. Satisfied, she placed a graceful hand on her shapely hip and turned toward the window. Her smooth and freshly bleached flesh would benefit from a bit of sunlight.

“Perhaps I should become a Heather,” she mused then glanced at Filch, an associate from the old days. The feline gave no hint he’d even heard her question. She assumed he was an associate no more, thanks to her agreement with the warlock. Such is life, she thought, then turned her attention back to the question of a name change. “No,” she told herself, “Heather won’t do.” The name reminded her of the color green and ridding herself of that had cost too much.

“Fawn, perhaps?” She turned her head from side to side admiring the reflection of her now tiny nose, and the soft, mole-free contours of her formerly knobby chin. Her teeth were perfect, her tummy flat, her butt tucked, and her feet dainty. She was, unquestionably, the most desirable witch who ever lived. “But Fawn? No. Too dainty.” And beneath her new exterior she remained anything but dainty.

Still admiring her image in the full-length mirror, she relaxed. Names were silly things. She’d find the right one in good time, and if not, Magda would do.

“The old saying holds,” she said, quoting it, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”

And she would prove it. “Look out, Prince Charming, you asshole. Magda’s coming!”


King Laurence had been ill for months, and turmoil threatened the land.

Everyone from Lord Evan, the High Chamberlain and the King’s closest advisor, to the lowest scullery maid assumed the great monarch was the last of his line. The once formidable presence had outlived every known heir. The search for a successor had been intense, but fruitless. The other lords of the realm petitioned the crown for permission to conduct their own search, one limited to the nobility which had served Laurence during his family’s long and peaceful reign.

Though it pained him, the king acquiesced. “So be it,” he whispered to his Chamberlain. “With any luck, I’ll be dead before those jackals choose my replacement.”

In the kingdom’s dark past, several of the families had battled ferociously to gain the throne. Laurence’s grandfather had found a way to subdue them all and established a bountiful peace which lasted for generations. That the land might be thrown back into bloody turmoil had everyone from lord to lackey fearing for the future.

Then, as if decreed by the gods themselves, a whisper of hope arrived in the guise of a young man who claimed to share King Laurence’s bloodline. The High Chamberlain agreed to judge the claim and summoned the youthful petitioner who marched straight through his quarters, ignoring the high ceiling, the massive windows, and the lavish furnishings.

Stopping before the official seated behind an expansive desk, the new arrival took a breath, summoned all his courage and focused on projecting the proper image. Anything less could spell his doom.

“I’ve heard your claim,” said the Chamberlain. “Why should I believe you? Why should anyone believe you, for that matter? You come unannounced, unaccompanied, and unknown. I don’t even know your name.”

“You may address me as Prince Harmon, milord. King Laurence is my father.”

The official regarded the young man with undisguised skepticism. “Your father?


“How odd he never mentioned you.”

“He and my mother spent very little time together.”

“Enough, evidently, to generate an heir.” The High Chamberlain drummed his fingers on the heavy desk. “Can you prove your lineage? Where is this woman with whom you claim the King dallied?”

“Alas, she’s no longer among the living,” Harmon said. “She succumbed to a swamp demon.”

“A what?” The High Chamberlain laughed out loud. “What would a noblewoman be doing anywhere near a swamp?”

“The best she could, milord; she did the best she could.”

“This is absurd!” The Chamberlain slapped his hand on the desk. “I should have you thrown in irons!”

The young man merely smiled and offered his hand for inspection. “Do you recognize this ring?”

The King’s premier bureaucrat stared at the ring with the gold-encrusted gem on the youngster’s middle finger. “How? Who? Where did you get that?”

“T’was a gift of gratitude from the King to my mother.”

“That ring has been missing since the reign of Laurence’s grandfather, King Stefan.”

“Missing?” The young man chuckled. “My mother and I have known its whereabouts all my life. I cannot speak for anyone else’s.”

“Remove the ring. I’ll take it to the King. If he acknowledges it, I’ll accept your claim as genuine. If not, well, you’ll find the accommodations in our dungeon to be less than pleasant.”

“Sadly, that’s not possible,” Harmon said. “My mother bade me swear to never take it off.”


“You’ll simply have to take the ring, and me, to see the King.”

The Chamberlain’s growl spoke volumes about his displeasure at such an impertinent suggestion. “I could simply have your hand removed.” He scissored his fingers in the air.

“You could,” said Harmon with a shrug. “And if the King acknowledged the ring, he’d likely have something of yours removed. Your head would be my guess. Are you willing to take that chance?”

The official grumbled an acknowledgment of his defeat. “You leave me little choice. Just know that I can—and will—summon the royal executioner if you’ve bothered the king over nothing.”

“I’ll settle for that,” Harmon said suppressing a shudder. I had hoped to leave you no choice at all.


Despite the stunning image Magda knew she projected, approaching the castle grounds still gave her pause. So many things could go wrong. With the King ill, tempers among the nobles flared quickly. Fights had broken out everywhere, some between rivals who had lived peaceably for years. Keeping that peace, however, was no longer Magda’s job. It ceased to be her concern the day the swamp slut’s son stole her ring.

She had been a fool to think the youngster possessed an ounce of integrity, let alone a shred of honesty in his finely formed body. She’d watched him grow from toddler to teen and beyond. He had the looks and bearing of someone born to the upper classes, and in truth, his sire might have had a drop or two of lordly blood. But if any of it still coursed through his veins, the nobility had long since been diluted to nothing. His mother’s niche in the social hierarchy could not have been much lower. She would sleep with anyone, man or beast, who could afford to share a bed and a bowl of grog. It was through just such a union that she claimed a stake in the swamp‑side tavern where she birthed the brat.

The tavern had previously been run by a man of equally questionable caste, but Harmon’s mother somehow wormed her way into his trust. When he died, an event fraught with unanswered questions, she claimed an inheritance. Magda suspected that event had inspired the boy to seek even greater rewards for his own treachery.

She recalled the times the boy had been good to her, had earned her trust, and thereby induced her to lower her guard. She had no doubt he was the one who snuck into her room in the tavern’s shabby guest quarters and slipped King Stephan’s ring from her hand. Who else could have given her a sleeping potion? Who else had access to the cooking grease with which he oiled her finger? Why else would he have fled in the night?

With the thief gone, Magda’s wrath fell on his mother. She had raised the boy after all, and taught him how to cheat and lie, how to take advantage of others to advance himself. Magda killed the harlot quickly, much as she had those who previously threatened the peace of the kingdom, for that had been the arrangement she’d struck with the old King. He had given her his ring, the greatest single symbol of his reign. In exchange, she agreed to use her powers of enchantment to halt anyone’s efforts to upset the peaceful tenor of the realm. If someone attempted to stop her or interfere in her affairs, she had but to produce the ring and invoke the power of the throne. The bargain had been beneficial to all for the better part of a century. Best of all, she secured for herself a lifetime supply of gravas, the kingdom’s most valuable export. Gravas—the liquor of the gods.

But then, along came Harmon.

Blissfully unaware of the calamity he engineered, he forced Magda to take steps she would otherwise have never considered. The most egregious of these was the trade she struck with Rathbone, the grand warlock. She traded her entire store of magic power for a meager pair of skills: the ability to change her appearance and the power to disguise the appearance of others. There were side effects, of course, but she felt comfortable with them since they offered her no personal threat.

Finding the warlock, striking the deal, and perfecting her image had taken time, but she wasted no more in tracking down the monster who had ruined her life. She knew where he would go, and she was close to catching him.

The walls of the castle keep loomed ahead. Shifting the unaccustomed weight of her bosom to better display her cleavage, Magda approached the guardian of the gate with a smile and a wiggle of her hips. Such movements, once foreign, now felt entirely natural, and she liked the way men responded to them. Such simple creatures, they had no idea how easily they were manipulated. In her natural guise, men shunned her. Now, they groveled at her feet.


“Prince” Harmon sucked a grape from the bunch held above his mouth by an accommodating serving wench. He’d had his choice of the lovelies available in the King’s manse, which, if all went well, would soon be his, along with the rest of the kingdom. He laughed to himself at the memory of his one brief encounter with the ailing monarch. The High Chamberlain had crept into the royal sickroom with Harmon in tow, flanked by a pair of brawny guards, one of whom kept a sword tip nestled in Harmon’s back.

“Your Majesty,” the Chamberlain began, his posture a study in obeisance, “I’m loathe to disturb you, but I had no choice. It appears you may have a son.”

The aging king opened one eye and gradually focused on the Chamberlain who motioned Harmon forward, ring hand first.

Harmon’s heartbeat reached a crescendo but he somehow managed to keep his fear and excitement hidden.

The King’s eyes went wide when he saw the gaudy ring, and his sharp intake of breath launched a coughing fit. When it finally subsided, the Chamberlain continued. “This man,” he said, gesturing toward Harmon, “claims to be your son.”

The King, however, could not take his eyes off the gold-encrusted jewel on the supplicant’s hand. “My… My son—” he began, then collapsed back onto his pillow, unable to utter another syllable.

To Harmon, the King’s words sounded like a question rather than an acknowledgment, and he shifted his focus to gauge the Chamberlain’s reaction. That worthy, however, ignored the King’s words and instead raced from the room in search of a physician. The two guards ushered Harmon from the chamber and kept their weapons drawn while they waited for the Chamberlain and the doctor to arrive.

That had been nearly a fortnight earlier, and the King had yet to awake. Harmon dreaded that moment, and when he wasn’t busy bedding the younger members of the great noble’s female staff, he prayed the man never would wake up.


Magda’s efforts to reach the false prince had not gone well. It seemed everyone she met made it their business to delay her, if not rape or seduce her. In the process, however, she learned a valuable lesson about taking care of herself. More than one overly aggressive guard had found himself walking into a bedroom with a winsome wench only to discover she had turned into a hag of the lowest order. This unexpected conversion usually left them more than a bit stunned, and Magda was only too willing to put that hesitation to good use. Though she lacked the mystical powers with which she had once policed the kingdom, she had no trouble using her fists, her feet, and a measure of rage to disable any undesired paramours.

It’s not that she had little interest in casual liaisons; she merely preferred to focus such efforts on men of noble blood, even though her primary target had none. The side effects about which she’d been warned would make a perfect reward for that miscreant, provided she could get close enough to take him to bed.


To Harmon’s great relief, King Laurence never awoke and therefore never said anything beyond, “My… My son—” Fortunately, the two guards who had been in attendance were called upon to testify and both recited the late monarch’s exact words. Firmly backed into a corner, the High Chamberlain had to declare Harmon the one and only legitimate heir. As soon as Laurence was laid to rest, the lad would be crowned King.

The new king’s first order of business was an immense coronation ball. Every single female in the kingdom, regardless of social status, was summoned to the castle to stand for the Monarch’s Review. Those younger than sixteen or older than thirty were excused, as were any with health issues. According to the decree, the King would select a dozen ladies to form his coterie. Though not specifically stated, most believed the King would select one lucky member of the group as his Queen. Despite a short timeline, the competition promised to be fierce.


Magda heard the proclamation since the new King ordered it read throughout the realm. The whoreson had given her the perfect means to breach his defenses! With the powers she possessed, no one else stood a chance. And while her age was older than thirty by at least a century, no one would guess she was other than she appeared. She would soon own the little sod and make his life as miserable as he deserved. Her passion for revenge would be sated, and her place in the kingdom’s history would be assured. And, if there were truly any justice in the world, she’d once again be served all the gravas she desired.


Laurence’s funeral preceded the coronation ball by a matter of days, and the city’s population swelled in response to the King’s summons. Despite the limits the sovereign placed on his order, far too many of the women who answered the call failed to meet his restrictions. Guards were assigned to question the respondents and group them by height, weight, age, and hair color. King Harmon drew up additional limits for each category. Though fewer than one female in ten passed the screening, there were still more bodies available than ballroom space to accommodate them. Harmon opted to organize multiple affairs.

The nobility responded with outrage. Not only had the new king stepped outside traditional boundaries, he had trod them into oblivion. The High Chamberlain maintained order, but with a profound impact on the state treasury. King Harmon remained unconcerned and claimed the kingdom would never again run the risk of lacking heirs; something he vowed to take care of immediately. His logic seemed unassailable though his methods drove the nobles to the brink of rebellion. Only the history of what happened to those who sought to challenge any of the last three kings kept them in check. Those punishments, though absent lately, had been swift and gruesome, with the results typically displayed for all to see, though who performed the executions remained a mystery.

Magda would likely have been selected on the strength of her enhanced appearance, but she took no chances. She surveyed the field of beauties surrounding her and selected several she thought would draw the most attention. Moving casually but consistently, she approached each one and cast a minor spell to temporarily obscure their finest features. Harmon would never see those attributes. Hers, of course, would be spit-polished.

The results were exceptional. Magda not only made the first cut, she stood at the head of the entire cadre. When the final ball ended, King Harmon had assembled fifty potential queens, only one of whom claimed noble status. Magda felt a title would give her the additional edge she needed, especially since the Chamberlain was in a state of extraordinarily high dither over the hurt feelings of the nobility. Perfectly willing to be magnanimous, Magda promoted herself from mage to minor member of the aristocracy.

It made little difference as Harmon was so taken with the raven-haired beauty that he paid little attention to the rest of the contestants for the throne. And, after a single passionate evening spent with Magda, he dismissed the rest and married her.


Slipping silently toward her own quarters, Magda could not have been more pleased as she left the imposter king behind, sleeping. With a wave of her hand, she revealed the early effects of their union—a touch of green and a bit of mottling on Harmon’s face, a discoloration that would grow more profound over time. Even more pleasing, she’d never need to bed the bastard again.

Harmon, however, was anything but pleased. Magda heard his anguished cry from the adjoining room and reached the distraught ruler even before his servants. “What is it, milord?” she asked sweetly.

“My skin! Look at it.”

She pretended to examine him as carefully as a child might inspect a captured butterfly. “It’s definitely green,” she said, hiding her joy as best she could. “And a bit scaly.”

He leaned closer to the mirror and verified her observation. “By the gods!” he groaned. “What’s happening to me?”

“It’s but a taste of what you deserve,” Magda said. She gestured with two fingers, and the discoloration instantly went away.

“What do you—” Harmon went silent. “It’s gone. Look! The green is all gone.”

“For now,” Magda said.

Harmon’s brows dropped into a sharp V as he stared at her. “I don’t understand.”

“You will.”

A handful of retainers entered the room and interrupted their conversation.

“I’ll explain later,” Magda said.

Harmon gave her the evil eye. “Damned right you will.”


The court physician could find nothing wrong with his new sovereign, despite the latter’s claim that he was turning green. “No, my liege, I assure you; you’re mistaken. Your complexion is perfect. You have nothing to fear.”

Armed with this knowledge, Harmon hurried to the Queen’s chamber. “Ha!” he barked as he burst into the room. “If there’s any color on my cheeks, it’s merely the flush of youth. The Royal Physician says I’m in perfect health.”

“And you probably are,” Magda said, “except for your wretched hide.” Once again, she wiggled two fingers at him. “See for yourself. My mirror stands ready.”

Harmon pushed his face close to the reflecting surface and examined his features. In the bright light of the Queen’s chamber, he could easily see his skin had taken on a subtly darker shade—distinctly olive. “What witchery is this?” he cried.

Magda set aside the tall glass of gravas she’d been sipping and yawned. “It’s actually quite basic witchery. Nothing fancy at all.”


“And nothing less than you deserve. But know this, the color will only grow darker. And you’ll soon begin to see a few other delightful features as well.”

“What are you saying? Have I been bespelled?”

“Of course, you have, you idiot. That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

While he pondered her words, she allowed her appearance to shift from that of the stunning young woman he’d wed to that of the vile crone he’d robbed near the swamp. Magda quivered with joy at his horrified reaction.

“You!” he whispered, his voice thin and shaky. “I’ll have you cut to pieces and fed to the hogs! Such treachery—”

“Treachery?” Magda broke into a peal of laughter. “You dare speak to me of treachery?”

“Guards!” screamed the young king.

Magda casually consumed her beloved gravas. “Just remember, my dear king, I alone control the way you look. Kill me, and that control is gone; everyone will see your true colors evolve. They’ll watch you change, and in a matter of weeks, you’ll resemble a prodigious toad. How long do you think the nobles will let you occupy the throne looking like that?” She laughed at a new thought. “Imagine the names they’ll have for you: King Croaker! Monarch of the mud! Sovereign of the swamp!”

Harmon waved his guards back as they swarmed into the room. “Never mind!” he yelled. “Go away.”

“That’s better,” Magda said when they left. She restored his appearance with a flick of her fingers. “Y’know, I think I’d like you better in a shade of emerald.”

He ignored her. “I’m surprised the guards didn’t attack you when they saw me in the company of a witch.”

“They saw no such thing,” she said. “You’re the only one who sees my true self.”

He covered his eyes with his hands. “Must I see it all the time?”

“Oh, indeed you must. Especially when I enter your chamber at night. I want you to see exactly who you’re making love to.”

Harmon gagged. “That will never happen.”

“It already has, my sweet. That’s how you’ve come to look the way you do. Consider it my gift to you.”

He appeared on the verge of tears. “If I give you back the ring, will you go away and leave me alone?”

She shook her head and made pouty lips at him. “That’s no longer an option. I no longer need the ring. You can swallow it for all I care.”

As he scrambled to leave her room, Magda finished off the bottle of gravas she’d opened that morning. It would be a lovely day; she just knew it.


Several weeks passed, and the loathing Magda and Harmon felt for each continued to deepen. When forced to be in the same place, typically in some official capacity, their bickering quickly reached a boiling point, but the High Chamberlain always intervened before they hurt each other. One day, however, he summoned them for a meeting that had nothing to do with their positions as royals.

Seated in a room once reserved for councils of war, the two sovereigns and their chief functionary faced each other across a narrow table. It sported a pitcher of gravas and two goblets. As soon as they were seated, the royal couple each grabbed one. Magda took two swallows for each one of Harmon’s, but they eventually drained both glasses.

“That’s the last of the gravas, by the way,” the Chamberlain said. “It came from my own private stock.”

The look on Magda’s face registered shock. “It’s gone? All of it?”

He nodded. “By a crown decree. The King ordered the royal stock sold to replenish the treasury.”

Magda turned on Harmon. “Are you completely insane? What will we do without gravas?”

“I’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m not the one who can’t stop drinking it.”

“Swine!” Magda said with a snarl. “I’ll—”

“Please! This constant quarreling must stop,” the Chamberlain advised. “It’s wreaking havoc on the kingdom. For the good of the people, and for yourselves, you must find a way to end it.”

Harmon eyed the official with disdain then let his eyes wander the length of the room, taking in the pikes, swords, daggers, and other tools of war on display. “Kings listen to the advice of subordinates. We do not take orders from them.”

“Ordinarily, milord, I would wholeheartedly agree. But we face two grave threats to the peace and safety of the realm.”

“Only two?” Magda asked, her tone falsely innocent as she continued to stare daggers at the King. “What might they be?”

The official took a deep breath before responding. “Despite our sovereign’s heroic efforts at procreation, there’s not a single female on or near the castle grounds who’s with child.”

Magda’s wrath softened to a chuckle. “He has the need but lacks the seed.”

“Silence, woman!” Harmon growled, then in a softer voice addressed the Chamberlain. “What’s the other issue?”

“It’s a plague of some kind,” he said. “Thus far it has afflicted over half the noble families. The male heads of households all report the same symptoms.”

“Which are?”

Clasping his hands in helpless angst, the Chamberlain answered, “They’re turning green, milord. Green and scaly.”

Harmon turned on Magda in a fury. “You’ve done this!” he cried.

Magda ignored him and walked the Chamberlain to the door, closing it once he’d left the room. She turned and faced the King with a smile of satisfaction.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” he asked. “You stand accused of infidelity with proof aplenty, and yet you smile at me like a fool?”

“I’m not the only one guilty of infidelity. Or did you forget you’re my husband?”

“That’s different.”

“Is it? You’ve taken to bed nearly every female within walking distance of the castle! I’ve at least restricted myself to a higher class of lovers. And, if you must know, the worst of them was still far better than you.”

Harmon seethed and jumped to his feet, snarling, “Harlot!”

“Bastard!” Magda yelled back. She, too, stood upright, her face flushed with anger.


“Fraud!” Magda emphasized the point by throwing her goblet at him.

He dodged the missile and threw one of his own.

In short order, the warring royals had cleared the table of projectiles and worked their way toward the weapons standing racked and ready around the room.

Though untutored in the art and tactics of combat, they knew enough to hurt each other and did so. Thrusts and parries were awkward and ill-timed, but occasionally effective. Pausing to catch their breath, the combatants quickly assessed the damage they’d sustained, then went back on the attack.

Magda drove a pike into Harmon’s belly eliciting a sharp, high-pitched wail, but the wound wasn’t immediately fatal. He countered with a downward stroke of a battle axe which split Magda’s skull in two. As she dropped silently at his feet, Harmon landed in a chair at the table and quickly bled out. He was dead before he slid from his chair and joined his dead queen on the hard, cold floor.


The High Chamberlain stood just outside the aptly named war room and waited until the sounds of battle from within subsided. It hadn’t taken nearly as long as he thought it might.

The potion he’d procured from Rathbone, the warlock, mixed easily with the gravas and worked as advertised. Anyone who drank it could be driven to a state of uncontrolled rage over the most innocent of remarks. Nonetheless, the Chamberlain made sure his remarks were anything but innocent, and the royal couple had responded with anticipated vigor.

Finally, the kingdom stood a chance of survival. The warlock had also provided a cure for the green plague, which the Chamberlain used as a bargaining chip to secure the support of the nobility when he soon declared himself King. In exchange, Rathbone accepted the role of Royal Enforcer and the lifetime supply of gravas that went with it. All in all, the arrangement bode well for the realm.

Harmon and Magda were buried side-by-side in a remote corner of the royal cemetery.


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