Date Published: November 20, 2020
Champagne Shores, Florida, is a beach town in need of a paint job.
What it doesn’t need…is a murder.
Champagne Shores, Florida, is poised to become a tourist magnet, but a murder in the marina threatens the town’s sunny reputation. Sure, the marina’s owner had been a thorn in the local chamber of commerce’s side, but he hadn’t really made serious enemies…had he?
Millie Silver wants her True Colors Paint Store to inspire a makeover for her hometown, and she’s busy leading the Champagne Shores Revitalization Committee. But when she and her dog Sunshine discover the body of the marina’s owner, they find themselves on the trail of a murderer. The clues and suspects stack up and include an estranged wife, surly fishermen, and a flashy group of treasure hunters flaunting the Spanish gold they find offshore.
While the town repaints and reinvents itself using Millie’s color inspiration, Millie recruits her family and friends to help the police chief uncover secrets, grudges, and even sunken treasure along the Florida coast.
About The Author
Amie Denman lives in a small town in Ohio with her husband and sons. She has published more than 40 novels—romance, mystery, and women’s fiction. When she’s not reading or writing, she’s walking and running outside. The victim of a lifetime of curiosity, she’s chased fire trucks on her bicycle just to see what’s going on. Amie believes that everything is fun: especially roller coasters, wedding cake, and falling in love.
Champagne Shores, Florida, was a beach town in need of a paint job. I rolled out a diagram of the town and spread my paint swatches in front of me. Golden October light poured through the wide glass windows of the True Colors Paint Store and my yellow Labrador slept peacefully inside the front door, nose on her paws.
The paint shaker provided the swish-swish background noise that was the heartbeat of my shop on Atlantic Avenue while I challenged myself to choose the future palette of my hometown. Because I own the town’s paint store and have a reputation for sharing my opinions when it comes to paint colors, I was being offered a golden opportunity. Champagne Shores straddled the line between Old Florida postcard town and big bucks tourist stop, which meant orange stands mingled with boutiques. New hotels towered over the beach and the new town management wanted to attract more tourists.
“What do you think?” I asked my brother Darwin. “I could repaint the store fronts in a random pattern or in a sequence from dark to light or hot to cool.”
“There’s no such thing as a random pattern,” Darwin said. “It’s a contradiction.”
He picked up his kitten and set him on the counter, smiling as the black and white cat batted a paint card off the counter. Tony, whose original name was Saint Anthony, had come to us four months earlier in the middle of a murder investigation—the only murder known to have happened in the peaceful town. Tony had quickly endeared himself to all of us, even when he swiped things off counters like the paint card Darwin picked up and put back in my lineup.
I curled Tony’s tail around my finger as I glanced at the card labeled Sunrise Blush. “I do like this one and I think it has the fresh look the town committee wants. If I paint the downtown shops in shades of blush, though, it might look too planned.”
“But it is planned,” Darwin said.
Tiffany came through the front door, bent down and gave Sunshine a dog treat, and made her way to the counter. “It looks too planned,” my sister said after a cursory glance. She rearranged the paint cards several times, placing samples on top of each business depicted on the town plan until she smiled at the order.
“Nice,” I said.
“Like a good set of highlights,” Tiffany said. “Makes a statement without shouting.”
Darwin scooped up his cat and shook his head as he retreated to his computer at the back of the store where I knew he would ponder how paint colors could possibly shout.
“And,” Tiffany added, “with this arrangement, our building has the prettiest color. Beach Rose. Almost as if I accidentally planned it that way.”
“Hazel, too,” I added, noting the Peaceful Harbor Blue that had landed on Hazel’s Front Porch Bakery across the street.
“Everyone’s a winner,” Tiffany said.
I saw Darwin’s head come up as if he wanted to explain the necessary balance between winners and losers, but I gave him a reassuring smile and he returned to his work. Darwin is the most literal member of my family, but he’s slowly learning not to flinch when people violate the laws of logic.
Tiffany and I see the world in color—hair color for her and paint color for me—but our younger brother is more a black and white guy.
“The town hall meeting is tonight,” I said. “I’m going to present several options, but I hope they go with this one.”
“You should get to the other committee members first and plant the seed,” Tiffany said. She put both elbows on the counter. “I hope no one gets all grouchy and rains on the parade like last time.”
I shrugged. “Almost everyone likes the idea in theory.”
“Even Richard Croy?” Tiffany asked. She tilted her head and gave me the look that said she was ready to listen. Whereas I had a reputation in town for strongly advising people about colors, Tiffany had a reputation for being a good listener. It was a trait that served her well as the town’s only hair stylist, and by the end of any given day she’d heard everything from parents celebrating their kid’s place on the swim team to dark secrets involving affairs, family squabbles, and questionable paternity.
“I’m working on Richard Croy,” I said. “Deep down, I’m sure he wants his marina to look just as nice as the rest of the town is going to look, even if we have to be creative in prying the money out of him.”
Tiffany grinned. “You could tell him that anything he spends is less money his wife gets in the divorce settlement.”
I laughed. “I don’t think I’ll lead with that argument, but I could save it for the kill statement if I get desperate.”
“Even though it’s not even that much money since the town is supplying the labor and you’re providing the paint at cost,” Tiffany said. “I wonder if we’ll really be overrun with tourists someday because of all the improvements.”
We heard Darwin grunt behind us. The idea of being overrun with anything probably made him uncomfortable. As the official tech nerd for many of the enterprises in Champagne Shores, he already stayed busy maintaining websites and keeping up with computer updates. He was currently revamping the site for the Chamber of Commerce, which would include proposed plans and colors as soon as I got a consensus from the committee.
“I’ll settle for steady business and a very nice write-up in a travel magazine. Or five travel magazines,” I said. “And if tonight’s town hall goes well, these colors will transform Champagne Shores before Christmas.”
Tiffany blew a kiss to Darwin, gave me a little wave, and patted Sunshine on the head. I heard the bell tinkle on her beauty shop door as she slipped into her business next to mine.
The moment I walked in the door of Hazel’s Front Porch Bakery that evening, I felt the little shiver of excitement that only one man I know causes. Last spring’s murder of real estate mogul Ransom Heyward had divided the town and threatened its sunny reputation, but that tragic event had also introduced Champagne Shores to the deceased’s nephew. Grant Heyward had all the charm and personality his uncle hadn’t, so when Grant announced he was making Champagne Shores his official home whenever his documentary filmmaking allowed him to work in the area, no one had been disappointed.
“You have your camera with you,” I said, skipping a hello and pointing to his tripod.
“I have ideas.” Grant put a hand on my upper arm and leaned close. Our relationship was well beyond the handshake-greeting type, but not quite the kiss-hello type, either. Most days, it was hard to define. I’m sure he was leaning in so I could hear him over the voices in the room that were—unexpectedly—loud. “Do you think small-town politics would make a good film?” he asked.
“No,” I said. After serving on the spruce-up committee for a month, I was sure there was nothing entertaining about fighting over streetlights, flower boxes, and paint colors.
“Even if there’s a nice angle like a revitalization project that brings out long-simmering bad blood between business owners?” Grant prodded. He was lucky to have a dimple that made him endearing even when his grin was more devil than angel.
I cocked my head. “I thought you stuck with nonfiction for your film subjects?”
“I’m evolving. Drama is hard to resist.”
“There’s no drama,” I said, trying to sound certain despite the buzz of tension in the room. “We’re discussing the plans in a public forum, inviting comment, and voting on colors. I hope. I also hope Hazel plans to sweeten everyone up with baked goods so there’ll be no bad blood simmering anywhere tonight.”
Grant sighed. “Disappointing.”
I fanned out a full deck of paint cards and held them up for his camera. “These are beauties. The real story is the transformation of fabulous Champagne Shores.”
“Fact or Fiction?” Grant asked.
“You decide,” I said.
I made my way toward the table where the three other members of the Champagne Shores Revitalization Committee sat. Hazel owned the bakery, Vera owned the BeachWave Motel, and Chester was the newest business owner in town. He took over the antique store when its previous owner had to move to Jacksonville to keep her seventy-five-year-old sister out of trouble at her nursing home. Chester had almost discontinued the yarn sales that had taken up half the shop so he could have more room for antiques, but my Aunt Minerva had persuaded him to change his mind and he’d won the hearts of the town yarn club.
I wished there were more knitters in attendance tonight. They loved color and personal expression. My aunt and my sister were in the front row. They smiled encouragingly as if whatever I was going to say was going to be brilliant. Most of the other town residents in attendance looked as if they’d rather be home watching television. Except Poppy Russell. She wore a red sweater-dress that was already covered in white fur from the cat on her lap.
“Saint Mary of the Snow,” she said, offering me the cat as I walked past. I paused and stroked the soft fur under the cat’s chin instead of taking her.
“Is she new?”
Poppy nodded. “She was sacrificed when someone left a home empty in Champagne Circle.”
I smiled. All Poppy’s cats were named after saints, and most of them came with a tale of persecution. Poppy leash-trained them all, and they took turns accompanying her around town as she watched out for gossip and the inevitable invasion of the Russians she’d been predicting for years.
“Here we go,” Hazel said as I sat between her and Vera.
“Tension,” I whispered.
“Mostly just one person,” she said. Hazel nodded toward Richard Croy, the owner of the Champagne Shores Marina. Never the master of subtlety, Hazel’s nod was exaggerated and obvious, and the marina owner’s grimace deepened.
“Oops,” Hazel said.
“I’ll try to win him over with Ocean Sunrise Blue,” I said. “It’s perfect for his marina storefront.”
Cecil Brooks stood at the end of our table and raised a hand. After the former mayor was charged and convicted of murdering Ransom Heyward months ago, Cecil had run for the empty office. As the owner of the BrewPub downtown, he had skin in the game. And he made French fries I’d be willing to fight someone for.
“Thank you for coming,” he said to the two dozen people in Hazel’s Front Porch Bakery. Most of the attendees had a beverage and a plate of sweets, and I suspected the venue was part of the reason some of the good citizens had left their easy chairs on an October evening. “First of all, I’d like to thank our committee for all their good ideas so far. The hanging baskets along the sidewalks are even nicer now that the heat of summer is past.”
There was a little polite applause, mostly from my aunt and my sister.
“So far,” Cecil continued, “the committee and the town leadership have done the work and covered the costs, but we’re here tonight to ask local businesses to get on board and help us out.”
A short silence followed during which I heard an electronic beep that indicated Grant’s camera was rolling. He was set up on the side, and I wondered what the good citizens of my hometown would look like in profile.
“I’ll say it,” Richard Croy blurted into the silence. “Prettying up the town isn’t going to do much good unless we get more tourists in. And those tourists are probably just going to cost more money than they’re worth. I say we keep things just like they are.”
An audible sigh came from a row behind him, and I glanced over in time to see Lisa Croy roll her eyes at her husband. My sister had told me about the Croy marriage problems she’d overheard in her beauty shop, and it sounded to me like the issue boiled down to Lisa having bigger dreams and desires than Richard.
I wondered if Grant had caught the exchange and what he would do with those five seconds of dramatic film. I wanted to believe everything was fine with the Croys, but Lisa wasn’t sitting with her husband or even near him.
“You could at least look at the pretty paint colors Millie brought,” Vera Rivers said. She smiled sweetly at me and I wanted to hug her.
“Right,” Richard Croy said. “Says the owner of the ugliest orange motel in town.”
A few gasps followed that statement. It was true that Herb and Vera Rivers were married to their vintage motel’s orange color scheme, but I had gotten them to improve the shade and add a nice accent color last spring. They were happy and excited about the new look of the BeachWave, but Richard Croy had just ground the Rivers’ pride in their motel under the worn-down heel of his deck shoes.
“Their motel is lovely,” I said. I was glad Darwin wasn’t there to hear my fib because he would have had a hard time going along with it. My aunt and sister nodded emphatically, backing up my generous characterization of the BeachWave Motel. “And all our businesses could use a fresh color. If we work together, the palette works.”
I directed my words at Richard, almost daring him to criticize my expert color skills.
“Maybe I like my place just like it is,” he said.
His wife huffed, the small sound obvious in its meaning. No one could say the Champagne Shores Marina was perfect just as it was. The paint had once been lime green but it had faded and peeled until it looked like a rotting head of lettuce. The docks jutting out in long rows were crooked and weathered, a few of them partially sunken. Even the sign over the entrance to the office and store looked as if it just wasn’t trying.
“We all love Champagne Shores,” Cecil Brooks said. His tone was neutral and pleasant, the kind of tone he might use to persuade two drunkards to put away their fists after a few too many brews at his pub. “But sometimes a fresh viewpoint is just what we need. Take my BrewPub for instance. I thought the menu was just fine, but when I added some new burgers and sauces to the summer menu, I upped my sales.”
“Our hotel has been almost one hundred percent occupancy since we remodeled,” Vera Rivers said, her voice defiant as she directed her words at Richard Croy.
“That could be because you got rid of those bedbugs,” Richard muttered.
I heard at least three people gasp at the mention of the thing no one discussed out of respect for the Rivers’. Their infestation months ago forced a temporary closure of the family-owned motel but also gave them time to remodel. I was thankful I had chosen a shade of orange for the BeachWave’s exterior that would coordinate with the rest of the colors I was presenting.
Chester Bucks rose slowly from his seat on the other side of Hazel. Despite the warm evening, he wore a blazer that was at least three decades old and would have blended in with the wares in his antique shop. His white eyebrows and patient smile seemed to erase the rude comment from Richard and the discomfort of the audience.
He raised one hand, professor-like in his movement. “If I may interject a newcomer’s viewpoint.” He paused, but no one said anything. Since moving to town in July, Chester Bucks had become everyone’s grandfather, even if they already had one. “This town has welcomed me with open arms,” he said, his words slow and measured. “But it’s not just the people. Not at all. It’s also the location, the history, and—dare I say—the potential that has convinced me to make Champagne Shores my home.”
His sincerity was such a contrast with Richard Croy’s petulant assertions about his run-down marina that I glanced over at Grant to gauge his reaction. He gave me a wide-eyed head nod that seemed to say take your opportunity.
I stood and held up my deck of paint cards. “Speaking of potential, I doubt any of us want to stay here all night debating the next phase of the revitalization.” I saw Chester graciously lower himself into his chair out of the corner of my eye. “As you recall, when we started this project, we agreed that a common color scheme would pull us all together and give us a magazine-cover look.”
“We’ll get on a cover,” Vera interjected. “A really good one.”
I smiled. “I certainly hope so. I invite you all to come up here and see the colors I’ve suggested for your businesses. Of course it’s open to some changes, but I also hope you’ve learned to trust my judgment. I’m providing the paint to you at my cost, and the city will provide the labor. Some of your shops will only take a few gallons to do the outside, but I know it will be a bigger investment for larger businesses.”
I rolled out the banner showing the downtown stores and placed the paint cards according to the numbers I’d written on the backs. People vacated their chairs and crowded the table with the samples. The evening light coming through the bakery’s front window combined with low overhead lights hardly did the plan justice, but there were still enough murmurs of satisfaction to calm my nerves.
“Ocean Sunrise Blue,” Lisa Croy said to her ex-husband. “If you ask me, it sounds too good for you.”
“You’re just as delightful as the day I married you,” Richard sneered. He crossed his arms and reviewed the paint swatches along the table.
I focused on the other owners of shops, restaurants, motels, and beach rentals. They seemed happy. My sister gave me a reassuring wink.
“If anyone wants to view their paint suggestion in daylight, I’d be happy to come by tomorrow morning.”
“That’s a good idea,” the owner of a retro souvenir stand said.
Richard Croy tossed the paint card on the table and turned toward the door, but I wasn’t giving up on him or that beautiful color. His marina deserved to be prettier. It was practically crying out to me. I decided he’d be my first stop the next morning. Maybe I could persuade him to like the color—especially if he wasn’t being goaded by his wife in front of an audience.
“So lovely,” Chester Bucks said as he picked up a paint sample with his arthritic fingers. “I don’t know how you do it.”
His words were punctuated by the bakery door slamming as Richard Croy left.
Omni Legends – The Commander: Guardian of Utopia
Date Published: January 5, 2021
Welcome to Utopia—humanity’s second home for over two centuries. It is a world controlled by the military and corporations, waging war with advanced alien races, but 18-year-old Carter Sanders is about to change the rules of the game.
Freshly conscripted into boot camp, he needs all his brains and ability to
survive skirmishes and develop allies among his fellow-recruits who resent
his privilege. Training exercises in weaponry, close-quarter combat,
strategy and tactics, and missions test his bravery, while female recruits
test his moral fiber in close situations.
When bionic upgrades for soldiers become mandatory, Carter feels he needs to take a stand. Can he and his mismatched fellow-recruits get their message about preserving morale through to the top brass? Will they survive sadistic drill sergeant Banes before they’re sent off to battle giant, scaled Lorgans on unknown worlds?
The Commander–Guardian of Utopia is the first book in the US version of the epic New Adult military sci-fi fantasy Omni Legends series.
About the Author
Born and raised in Hesse, Germany, Kevin Groh imagined stories and other worlds from early childhood on. In elementary school, he concocted stories to entertain teachers and family. Kevin first visited the US when he was 8 weeks old, returning periodically to see two aunts. He fell in love with the openness of Americans and the non-judgmental environment that accepted him for who he was–a gamer and a nerd. Passionate about the English language, Kevin mastered it by reading, watching movies, playing video games, and traveling.
After high school, Kevin apprenticed as an industrial clerk, and then completed a Bachelor’s degree as an industrial engineer with a focus on electrical engineering. Eventually, he decided to put his own stories on paper, and by his early 20s, became a sensation in the German sci-fi market. His Omni Legends book series includes the best-selling subseries, “The Commander,” “The Black Wanderer,” and “The Shadow Guard.” Kevin was an Amazon Kindle Select All-Star in sales every month from August to December
in 2019. The young author is now ready to entertain a US readership looking for its next page-turner.
When he’s not writing or gaming, Kevin enjoys working out and discussing philosophical questions with his girlfriend. He also loves recording his audio books and mastering accents. Russian-accented English is one of his best. He is a member of the German “Autorenwelt” community of selfpublishers, as well as “Lovelybooks,” a network for organizing book clubs and readings.
With the recent launch of The Collectors, I experienced the same fine emotion I always feel when a book is shared with readers and reviewers. To me, each book is a like a daughter, stepping off the porch barefoot, a bit disheveled, but grinning—perhaps smirking—as she heads out into the real world. As I watch her head on up the road with her battered suitcase and tousled hair, I wish her all the best, confident that I have loved her and done my very best to raise her well. We’ve had our ups and downs, disagreements and arguments, but this was always in the spirit of helping her become the best that she can be.
As always, I hope her journey is good and interesting, just before the screen door slams and I head to my back office, where another young one is waiting to be born.
This is why when I’m asked about having a favorite Danser novel, the answer is always no. How can you, and why would you ever favor one darling child over another?
All the best,
The Danser Novels
Greg Jolley earned a Master of Arts in Writing from the University of San Francisco and lives in the very small town of Ormond Beach, Florida. When not writing, he researches historical crime, primarily those of the 1800s. Or goes surfing.
Publisher: BHC Press
December 15, 2020
Pierce Danser is on the hunt for his soon-to-be ex-wife, the actress Pauline Place, who’s disappeared from the Black Island film set in the heat swarmed waters off the Mexican coast. A wealthy “collector” with a black heart and dangerous, evil mind has kidnapped her, planning a forced marriage to complete his manage of twisted museum pieces. As Pierce starts down the winding, dark, and deadly path in pursuit, his journey is a roller coaster through a horror show. No matter the grisly and dangerous obstacles, he is determined to rescue Pauline, even if it means the loss of his own life.
The clock is ticking, his resources are slim and he’s up against a man of great means as well as a twisted, cruel vision.
“Welcome to the film set, Mr. Kiharazaka. Please mind your step, we’re having a problem with vermin.”
The tall, thin man, fresh from Kyoto, adjusted his stride, placing each step of his spacesuit boots gingerly.
“I’m Rolf. Can I call you Zaka?” the assistant director went on.
“Please, no,” Mr. Kiharazaka replied demurely.
“Will we be going weightless? It was in the original scene.”
“We’re woking on that, yes.”
“A joke. Sort of.”
A few yards away, green gaffing tape marked the edge of the darkened film set. Rolf spoke into her headset and the lights came up, revealing the interior of the spacecraft: the complex helm and seating for the crew. The second set—the crew table and galley kitchen—was half-lit in the distance.
Mr. Kiharazaka stared with unreserved delight. The crew had accurately replicated the 1990s television series Tin Can’s two most famous locations.
Members of the film crew were already on the set, at their places among the equipment; lights, extended boom mics, and various cameras, some dollied and some shoulder-held. Mr. Kiharazaka had to rotate stiffly in his spacesuit, turning his helmet, visor up, to watch the young, professional film crew. He nodded to some and spoke to none. For the most part, these serious professionals looked right through him, focused on their craft.
“Please step in, Zaka. We’d like you to feel comfortable in both locations.”
“Where is the cast? The Robbins family?”
“Soon enough. Please.” Rolf extended her hand and Zaka crossed the green tape and stepped into the helm, noting that the flooring was white painted plywood. With the flight helmet on, the voices about the set were muted. Zaka stared at the helm, admiring, but not touching, the multiple displays. He stood back of Captain Robbins’s helm chair, taking in all the exacting details of the complex spacecraft controls. Easing between the captain and copilot chair, he turned to Rolf with his white gloved hand out to the second chair, asked, “May I?”
Rolf gave him her buttery professional smile.
“Captain, permission to man the helm?” Zaka asked.
Rolf rolled her eyes, up into the complex scaffolding above. The client was already in role, using the famous and familiar dialogue from the Tin Can series. Since none of the cast was yet on set, Rolf answered for Matt Stuck, the sod of an actor who played Captain Robbins.
“Aye, mate. Take thar helm,” she spoke the next well-known line with a grimace.
Zaka bowed to her voice and twisted around into the copilot’s chair.
She looked on as Zaka began the familiar series of taps and changes on the right side of the helm. She could hear him identifying each click and adjustment he made. He was doing a good job mimicking the terse, focused voice of copilot Sean Robbins, but his inflections were clearly Japanese.
The director, Rose Daiss, entered the soundstage, crossed to the set, and for once didn’t trip on the snakes of cables. She wobbled her large rear into the La-Z Boy with “Director” stenciled on the back. Her nickname was “Bottles” and never used in her presence—it was a reference to the many times she had washed up. Her pudgy face was nip-and-tuck stretched, her skin was rough, but rouged well. She did have good hair.
The director’s personal assistants entered the soundstage and roamed to their places just back of the cameras. They donned headsets and leisurely took up their positions, standing deferentially to Bottles’s side, their faces lit by the glow of their tablets.
Rolf shouted for status among the film’s crews, and they called back equally loud. Lighting, boom mics, and cameras leaned in on the set. Mr. Zaka climbed from the helm and walked back into the spacecraft along the equipment bays on the left wall—the right wall of equipment didn’t exist, providing the view for one of the many cameras. He tapped a brief series on the wall panel and the air lock door opened with a gasp. He stepped through, the door closing at his heels, and crossed the short area of soundstage to the side entrance of the crew and kitchen set. Zaka took in every detail of the reproduced Tin Can galley as he moved carefully through the room. He eased himself into his role and the chair assigned to Ruth Robbins, the flight crew’s matriarch.
The director shouted at her assistants, barking orders and questions, sounding semi-lucid. Rose’s drug-addled, fast-clipped voice received intimidated replies. She was enjoying their pale, cowering expressions while chasing two lines of thought, a mixture of movie-making aesthetics and redundant direction. Her face was beading with drug sweat on her upper lip and brow.
“Where’s my cast?” Rose bellowed, finishing the tirade. That done, she promptly nodded off, delighting Rolf, who then inherited the director’s role.
Zaka was exploring the many displays embedded in the galley table, trying to ignore the shouting.
“Heat it up,” Rolf instructed her underling
The assistant typed a series of brief commands on his tablet and the script dialogue for Ruth Robbins—whom Zaka had paid dearly to portray—appeared. The script was scroll ready and at an angle on the galley table that couldn’t be seen by the cameras.
Rolf heard the cast crossing to the set, a scuffing of moon boots and voices approaching from the soundstage. A sweeping flashlight beam guided their way. The cast moved into the back glow from the lights on the set. Rolf pressed the inside of her cheek between her teeth and bit down. Most of the original cast had been hired or persuaded to appear in the remake of the famous season seven-ending cat fight scene. The brawl between the Robbins’ daughters was nominally, impotently, refereed by the only member of the flight crew who was not a member of the family: the handsome, irreverent, and sociopathic engineer, Greer Nails.
Twenty-two years had been most unkind to the once-famous family members. Greer Nails appeared overinflated; the penchant for food and wine, and dessert, over the past years of dimming celebrity had taken their toll. His formerly idolized face was jowled, reddened, and fat. His spacesuit looked like a white dirigible.
The other cast members were naked save their space helmets. Time and gravity and overindulgence had also taken a toll on their bodies. Greer Nails was the lone holdout from nudity, and with obese good reason.
The scene that Zaka had chosen from the menu provided by the studio had cost him a breathless $3.7 million. An additional $1.3 million was invoiced when he selected the option off the Premiere menu for the cast to be nude except for space helmets. He had expressed his desire to be part of the famous scene’s reenactment, in the role of Ruth Robbins, the space family matriarch. Most of his role was to be aghast at the start of a violent family shouting match and brawl. Later, he would be able to view the vignette time and again, for all eternity, receiving sole ownership of the footage of this and the other short scene as part of the package he had paid for.
Zaka watched his castmates approach, trying to keep his eyes on their helmets, not their nakedness. He was delighted and light headed with his proximity to the famous—the real flesh instead of celluloid, but their memorized faces were distorted by their helmets.
Nods were used in lieu of greetings. They had met during rehearsal earlier in the day. Places were taken, and Rolf reviewed the lighting and camera placements.
The first scene was succinctly re-rehearsed. This was of little use to Zaka, who had the script committed to memory. But the rehearsal helped him dissolve some of his lighter-than-air headiness. The rest of the cast drolly joined the read and walk through, their acting marked by a blend of boredom, professionalism, and chemicals.
Zaka was delighted. Here he was, a real actor with an important part in the infamous scene’s reenactment. It was all he could to not giggle. He somehow found the ability to maintain Ruth Robbins’s dithering mothering role.
Julianne, the slutty smart sister, stepped past Greer and pantomimed the jerk-off gesture that would set off her sibling, “Cy,” as in Cyborg. In the television series, Cy had been Greer Nail’s budding romantic interest.
Zaka was enthralled, but also concerned. He had paid for Captain Robbins to sit at the head of the galley table, and he was nowhere to be seen.A booming, authoritative voice carried from the back of the soundstage.
“Welcome to Tin Can Two, Mr. Kiharazaka. You are certainly star material, mm-hmm!” Fatima Mosley called out.
Fatima was the studio head, noticeably short and burdened by a massive chest that gave her stride a wobble. She was dressed in an elegant and trendy style, including a beret. She had a titanium leg, the original lost to disease. The metal ratcheted when her knee articulated.
“Zaka’s doing a great job.” Rolf called over, not turning from the rehearsal.
“It’s Kiharazaka, please,” Zaka politely corrected Rolf again.
“Actually, it’s Ruth Robbins,” Fatima smiled, causing her cheeks to fill and her eyes to disappear.
Zaka flushed with pride at being addressed as Ruth.
“All is well, mm-hmm?” Fatima asked Zaka.
“Yes, yes. Might I ask? Is Captain Robbins ready? And son Sean Robbins?”
“Why, here’s Sean now,” Fatima answered, her crunched face dissolving downward, revealing her wise, ferret eyes. She didn’t explain Captain Robbins’s absence, and Zaka showed good manners by not repeating his question.
Sure enough, Sean Robbins, the Tin Can’s copilot appeared from the shadows of the soundstage, naked save his helmet and boots, looking slightly sedated—well, a lot sedated. His birdlike wrists hung limp.
There was a white worm of drool creeping from his face, now ravaged by years of amphetamine addiction. He was escorted by two of the bigger grips, who held his scarecrow thin arms and pulled him along, his moon boots sketching the soundstage flooring.
The sisters, Cy and Julianne, did not look pleased to be reanimating their once famous daughter roles, no matter the money. They were clearly drugged to an agitated condition and firing foul slurs, even before the shoot began. Julianne had a wrench tattoo on her naked, once-perfect boob. Cy’s sensual body was scarecrow thin, as though drawn of all blood.
The grips assisted Sean Robbins into the hot lights and seated him at the galley table. He opened one eye and panned it across the cameras and lights aimed on him, then barfed into his own lap.
“Unpleasant, mm-hmm,” Fatima observed.
Zaka did the brave thing—he stayed in role, putting on his best Mrs. Robbins bemused and maternal expression.
“Nice,” Rolf encouraged him.
One of the grips wiped up Sean’s vomit. The other cleaned off his chest. Sean stood up and looked on, patting one of the men on the top of the head.
Rolf called out, “I have the set!”
From the film crews came sharp, short calls, and the boom mics lowered overhead.
“Quiet, quiet!” Rolf delighted in her temporary directing role.
“Lock it up,” she hollered.
“Places,” she shouted to the cast.
A young woman appeared with an electric slate, shouted a brief stream of incomprehensible code, clacked the device, and disappeared.
Zaka did well, not looking to Captain Robbins’s empty seat at the head of the table.
Rolf yelled, “Action,” and the movie magic began.
For Zaka, there was a spiritual lift, even as he stayed in his rehearsed movements. He allowed himself to experience the elation, but stayed in the role of motherly concern.
Julianne entered the scene from the door to the helm. She moved behind Sean, who had a line of dialogue but missed. Staring at Cy, she stepped to Greer’s side and hefted the weight of his groin. Cy transitioned fast and smooth, from agog to madness. She fired forward and attacked, going for the smirk on her sister’s face with a clawed left hand and the space cup in the other.
As scripted, Mrs. Robbins took one step back from her end of the table, her expression alarmed and offended.
Greer was looking down at his groped crotch like he was just then realizing he had one. He leaned back as Cy collided with Julianne, and the brawl exploded with screams and nails and fists. The two careened off the galley counter and shelving, swinging and connecting blows.
If Captain Robbins had been at the head of the table, he would have moved fast to separate the two, looking sad and determined and disappointed. Instead, a bit of ad lib occurred, the two brawlers tumbling low in the shot, fists and knees swinging and pumping. Greer performed the ad lib, turning to the mayhem with a slack expression and barfing on himself again.
Mrs. Robbins went into action. She stomped manfully to her scuffling daughters, arms shooing, intending to break up the chaos on the spaceship floor. She was two strides away when Greer stepped out and pushed her back. Mrs. Robbins resisted, flailing her arms, eyes wide with alarm. Greer held her true. The fight continued, the sisters grunting and gasping. Hair was grabbed, a low fist was thrown. Julianne coughed in pain. Cy let out a cry, “You bitch!”
That was Zaka’s cue. He looked away, eyes upward and spoke the season-ending line, “My daughters. The sluts.”
“Cut. Cut. Cuu. Cuush . . .” Rose Daiss, the replaced director, called out in a trailing off slur. She was ignored.
The brawl continued. A mangy rat crossed the plywood set boards, scurrying away from the fisticuffs. The two beefy grips stepped to the edge of the set, poised to separate the sisters. The brawl looked real enough to them.
Rolf took the director’s prerogative, screaming at everyone.
Date Published: 10/1/2020
An ancient guardian chose her. Neither the guilty, nor the innocent, nor she are safe.
Fresh out of the Projects, Jasmine’s days are filled with emotional, physical, and cyber abuse at the hands of her new school’s queen bees. With her parents mostly absent, Jasmine latches onto Bibi, a grandmotherly figure from Tanzania, and her beloved pet chameleon, Jackson. Rivalries, jealousies and hatred escalate the violence toward Jasmine to a murderous level, until a monstrous force intervenes with deadly consequences. When she discovers the secret behind her unholy avenger, Jasmine takes the offensive, becoming a merciless force more terrifying than her worst tormentors. But choices have consequences. Some more horrific than others.
Can Jasmine untangle her life and reclaim her identity, her life—her soul—from her inscrutable guardian, while eluding the police and those who seek revenge?
Halfway down the latest alley, her ears pricked up at the sound of a footstep. Before she could turn around, her world went blinding white with pain.
Jasmine doubled over in the back doorway of a Chinese food joint, gasping for air between two dumpsters reeking of rotting meat and burnt soy sauce. Her ribs were aflame and the back of her skull felt like it had been split by a jackhammer. She reached for her searing scalp, and her backpack tumbled off her shoulder, clanging against the dumpster.
“Bitch, I told you to stay away from Caleb. He’s mine!”
Jasmine gathered her rubbery legs underneath her to stand, steadying herself against the nearest dumpster. Her vision returned, rippled with wet blurs that might have been tears, snot, or blood.
In the long shadows cast by distant streetlights, Nevaeh’s face burned out of the darkness, livid with rage.
Jasmine’s abs clenched, trying to squeeze behind her spine, when she recognized the signs of a girl prepped for a throwdown. Earrings gone. Hair tied tight behind her head. Face slicked with a sheen of Vaseline to deflect blows and scratches.
What the hell do I do now?
The oversized heavy steel ring emblazoned with a prominent gold initial “C” no longer hung from her necklace. It was on the middle finger of Nevaeh’s fist. A tuft of Jasmine’s frizzy hair dangled from it.
That ring—it ain’t her bling, it’s Caleb’s.
The tendons of Nevaeh’s knuckles quivered, taut as bridge cables. She shoved Jasmine backward against the wall with her free hand.
Jasmine whimpered as her head thumped against brick. The world’s loudest gong clanged in her ears. Her legs buckled, helpless against the ground that seemed to spin under her. She kept her eyes glued on Nevaeh’s burning scowl, the only thing that kept her consciousness from tumbling upside-down.
Jasmine’s accusing stare only infuriated Nevaeh even more.
“Can’t you take a fuckin’ hint? Don’t you know you ain’t wanted, ho? Our team don’t want you. Caleb don’t need you. And I sure as shit want you gone!”
Nevaeh raised her fist again. “Die, bitch!” Putting her full weight behind it, she swung, aiming Caleb’s ring straight for Jasmine’s face.
A glistening blur of dark umber shot out from behind the other dumpster. It wrapped around Nevaeh’s head, and a muffled scream flooded Jasmine’s ears. Nevaeh clutched at the glistening slimy blob, but her attempts to claw the suffocating mass away from her face proved futile.
A split second later, Nevaeh’s whole body snapped away like a rag doll.
Caleb’s heavy steel and gold ring clattered on the asphalt.
Nevaeh’s strangled gurgling made Jasmine’s gut twist. Somewhere beyond the dumpster came a slurping rasp, as if from a giant bowl of ramen. The sound of tearing cloth and rending flesh was followed by the sickening crack of bone.
Jasmine curled into a ball, raw terror forcing her knees into her chest. Her feet twitched with every shallow ragged breath. She clamped her head between her hands, but the horrific sounds still reached the spinning pit of her darkest fears.
The dull murmur of the streets had reclaimed the alley, and her sense of up and down returned. Righting herself against one dumpster, she wiped the stinging sweat and tears from her eyes and squinted into the murky light.
What the fuck just happened?
About the Author
Christopher D. Ochs’ foray into writing began with his epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland: The Five Artifacts. Several of his short stories have been published in the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group and Bethlehem Writers Group anthologies and websites. Using his skills learned with the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild, he crafted a collection of mirthful macabre short stories, If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep. His latest work, the gritty YA urban fantasy/horror, My Friend Jackson, has earned 5-star ratings from Indies Today and Readers’ Favorite.
His current literary projects include: short fiction in BWG’s and GLVWG’s upcoming anthologies, and Firebringer Press’ next entry in their Eternity series; a sci-fi/horror novel Sentinel of Eternity; a prequel novella and a second novel in the Pindlebryth of Lenland saga.
Chris has too many interests outside of writing for his own damn good. With previous careers in physics, mathematics, electrical engineering and software, and his incessant dabblings as a CGI animator, classical organist, voice talent on radio, DVD and anime conventions, it’s a wonder he can remember to pay the dog and feed his bills.
Read Veronica Jorge’s Review of My Friend Jackson.
Date Published: 11/17/2020
Publisher: Lands Atlantic Publishing
Nineteen-year-old Juliet can’t shake the nightmares after surviving a brutal bank robbery. In order to put those terrifying memories behind, she’ll have to testify against the criminal known as the Half Face. She convinces herself that she is perfectly safe, until he manages to break free and grab the nearest hostage he sets his sights on. Her.
In an effort to escape the captivity of the law, and his tortured past, the Half Face takes Juliet on an obsessive search for answers and redemption. During the harsh journey, his unpredictability fuels Juliet’s worst fear, that he just may be insane and beyond any hope of saving.
I glance at my watch. Fifteen minutes to go. It seems both too fast and too slow.
I go over the rehearsed words in my head. What if I forget everything I need to say? What if I black out, or cry? I don’t want to cry where he can see me. No, that cannot happen.
In an attempt to distract myself, I slide my phone out of my pocket and mindlessly scroll through the menu. I freeze when I come across the news feed.
Liveblog: trial of top-criminal known as “the Half Face” continuing today.
Someone in that courtroom is twittering the events, and I’m locked up in this miserable room until they can bring me out like the next circus act.
‘I must ask you to put your phone away for now,’ the woman says. When I look up, I find her looking at me with a pitying gaze. ‘We don’t want you to read anything that can influence your statement.’
Of course. ‘I’m just nervous,’ I say, and put my phone back in my pocket.
‘You will be absolutely fine. If you find you don’t want to look at him, you don’t have to. Remember that you’re doing this to help us put him away for good. That is why you chose to testify, isn’t it?’
She nods, and we fall into silence again, until there’s a brief knock on our door. The woman smiles, rises from her chair and beckons me.
Suddenly, my heart is racing even harder than before. ‘Can…can I go to the bathroom real quick?’
‘Sure. Just this way.’ She leads me over to another door and remains outside as I enter.
The tiles are shiny and clean. I hear the buzzing of air conditioning.
After I flush, I take a quick moment to splash a handful of cold water in my face. It helps a little. I lean my hands on the sink and stare at my reflection in the round mirror. I’m very pale. My eyes are wide open, like a frightened animal. Strands of dark brown hair are falling from the bun that had been so tightly secured this morning. They cling to my sweaty face. I brush them away.
The woman knocks on the door. ‘Juliet? It’s time.’
I’m on the verge of calling out: No! Leave me alone, I’m not going! There’s a thick feeling in my throat that I try to get rid of by swallowing. When it doesn’t work, I settle for a deep breath before wiping my palms on my skirt and exiting the bathroom.
‘There’s no need to be nervous,’ the woman says again. But what does she know? She didn’t have to drop to the ground, pretending to be a dead body, while a monster was standing mere feet away from her barking orders.
We make our way across the building, all the way to the end of the long corridor, and make a right turn. The entire building is so clean. We pass a large, square painting on the wall; we pass a mirror where I briefly catch my pale reflection, we pass a man with a cell phone pressed to his ear, giving us a curious glance.
Then the woman stops in front of a dark, polished door. The small plate next to the door reads Courtroom 14.
The woman gives me an encouraging smile. I pull up the corners of my mouth, just enough to make it look like I’m smiling back.
‘Remember, you just have to answer a few questions. I’ll be here to escort you back.’
She looks like she wants to say something else, but before she does, the door opens. I automatically step back, creating some space for Harry Dartes. He sees me, undoubtedly registers the worry in my eyes, and gives my shoulder a brief squeeze. ‘It’s worse just before you go in, girl.’
I nod. He smiles one last time before another court attendant urges him on, and mine gestures to me, indicating that I will have to enter Courtroom 14 at last.
About the Author
Mara Li has been writing from an early age. She is inspired by fairytales, myths and legends from all over the world. In 2016 her debut novel De Stem van de Zee was nominated for the Harland Awards Roman Prize for best Dutch fantasy. Winter is her writing season (summer never gets much of it). Tea and ginger nuts are her writing food, her cat’s attention can sometimes be an obstacle. Her novel, Half Face, launches her as an international author with books published in multiple countries and languages.
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