Coffee Break Read – Ship of the Desert

I had been told the sand has no smell – but it does: a brittle and flaking scent which assaults the nostrils at the same time as the over-bright shimmer dazzles the eyes. My ship-of-the-desert was making me feel sea-sick and watching the ease with which Kerry was taking to it, chatting so casually to Drew, one of the better-looking of our companions, and the main reason I had been persuaded out here in the first place, only made me feel worse. Then there was the grainy residue which seemed to invade even the most intimate places, plus my hair felt like straw and I was sure it looked like it too. But worst of all was the heat – the relentless, oven-baked sensation which made me fantasise incessantly about the swimming pools and cool shower I had left back at the hotel.

Perhaps if I had been day-dreaming a bit less I would have caught the scarf, worked loose by my continual brushing away of sand, before it lifted off my head, startling my noble steed. One moment I was flying through the air and the next I made an interesting discovery: sand is not as soft as it looks when you land in it from camel-height. I lay there in an undignified heap, feeling bruised in the ego and painfully aware everyone was laughing at me. The head of my camel loomed large, looking down with an expression that was clearly condescending, as it reluctantly knelt itself in the sand beside me.

When our guide’s strong arms almost literally lifted me to my feet, I was so startled I didn’t even stutter thanks. The dark eyes that held my gaze were not laughing, if anything they were angry – probably at me for falling off so stupidly! His secure hands boosted me onto the deep saddle with a surprising gentleness and then urged my camel back to its feel. My misery was now complete.

I was only two hours into my ‘Genuine Saharan Overnight Adventure’, the supposed highlight of this Tunisian package tour, and already I wanted out.

E.M. Swift-Hook

Jane Jago’s Drabbles – Three Hundred and Eighty-Four

He was The Artist. 

Every woman he painted felt like the most beautiful in the world. Every landscape became a thing of enchantment. And every commercial design guaranteed world beating sales.

In spite of his genius, he was lonely and unfulfilled.

One day he picked up his brush and painted from his soul. It wasn’t the most beautiful face he had ever painted, and the body was on the generous side but something about the project pleased him more than anything had for many a day.

As he laid down his brush she smiled. The Artist walked into the picture…

©jane jago

Coffee Break Read – A Trail of Blood

From Midwinter Miracle a Fortune’s Fools story by E.M. Swift-Hook

The frost had frozen the blood onto the surface of the snow almost as soon as it landed, stark red against the white. In the cold illumination of the flashlight, it seemed crystalline and jewelled.
“She’ll have lost too much,” the bearded man muttered grimly. Gernie nodded. He was no expert but even he could see what this trail meant. They followed it out past the courtyard wall and on towards the edge of the settlement.
“If we had been a bit faster or you’d just hit that -”
“We had no bloody choice,” the other man cut across him. “It’s how things are here, lad, you can’t bloody change it.”
“The bastard shot her,” Gernie protested.
“And in his full legal right to do so. She is his property – or was, most likely. She ran away and that means she knew she was in for death if she got caught.”
“So you and Micha have to make nice to him? Man, that’s…” Gernie realised for the first time just how alien this world really was.
“We had to play it that way. That’s the way it bloody is around here, Tavi. Maybe if you work on it you can make a difference one day, but you can’t go shooting down local notables – nor even beating them up. Not if you are planning to stay here and I take it you are?”
For a moment, Gernie wanted to say no. Wanted to say he was not going to stay anywhere a teenage girl could be murdered, legally, in front of an entire tavern full of people. But even as he opened his mouth to say as much, he found his mind filled with the memory of an oval face with golden skin, framed by dark-copper ringlets and wearing an expression of appalled compassion. Something inside him moved.
“I’m taking the job,” he said, “if that’s what you are asking. It’s why I came here after all. The pay is crap, this place is like a nightmare. But someone has to run the spaceport so crazy people like you can come and trade here. I’ll stick it a year or two then head back to civilisation.”
The bearded man grinned briefly.
“I think Micha will be pleased.”
Gernie said nothing to that, it was still too new, too startling. He shone the flashlight back on the snow and followed the trail.
The blood seemed to vanish near the small block building that backed onto the first of the spaceport domes. As if the ground had opened and swallowed the girl.

A Midwinter Miracle is available as an ebook, audiobook and paperback special edition with typographic art . Cover design by Zora Marie.

Author Feature Pussycats Galore, by Stephanie Barr

From ‘The Unkillable Mr. Whiskers’ one of the stories in Pussycats Galore by Stephanie Barr

The cat, black as he was told, but with a white chest and feet and white whiskers and eyebrow hairs, lifted his head as he approached, his wide amber eyes unafraid. Instead, he sat primly on his cushion, regarding him with curiosity but not a speck of animosity. As Tony approached, telling himself one cat wasn’t worth two or three of the kids on his list, the cat twitched his whiskers, regarding him with the same intent calm. Then, with a volume that seemed inconsistent with this smallish creature, a buzz filled the room, a purr several sizes too big for this cat. 
There was something about the white whiskers and the black fur, the golden eyes, the white feet. Tony couldn’t help thinking this was, perhaps, the most adorable cat he had ever seen. The most adorable anything he had ever seen. 
But a job was a job. He was a pro. He reached out his hand to grab the cat by the neck. The cat turned his face into his gloved hand and rubbed his cheek against his fingers, his purr growing impossibly louder. Holy shit, what kind of monster wanted to kill a cat like this?
He couldn’t stop himself. He rubbed the cat’s ear, stroking his palm along the cat’s cheek and down its sleek body. The cat’s body rose to take his hand along his body and then moved closer, placing his front paws on his knee and batting at him for more attention. 
Damn, damn, damn. 
He couldn’t do it. No way he could kill this adorable, affectionate kitty in cold blood. Which left him with a serious problem. He took the job, which means he would be in bad favor with his previous benefactor. He’d lose the money. He’d lose reputation. He might even get a contract out on himself. He couldn’t afford to not do the job, which was the only reason he was here now. 
“Braow,” the cat said, injecting some of his mighty purr into his voice. Holy shit, that was cute. 
Only one thing to do, he decided, feeling various clocks ticking. He had to fake this cat’s death and sneak it out of there, far more challenging than just killing it. He scooped it up and gave it a quick cuddle. The cat responded without complaint. Then, he moved some tools around to make room for the cat in his bag. Fortunately, the cat wasn’t that large. But would he stay quiet. Had he brought any chloroform? No. He’d have to chance it. 
There was a standing lamp next to the table beside the window. It took more than one blow, but he managed to smash through the window—some of these older buildings didn’t have the tough glass. He knocked some of the other items on the table over, making a mess and leaving a cat-sized hole in the window. He reached in, petted the cat, and closed his fingers to tug some fur free, then wedge it into a broken corner of the glass. Only thing missing was a body. 
Well, it was New York. No telling what would happen to it.

Pussycats Galore is a book of short stories with cats as a central theme. Cats are already running rampant through my books. All of my novels has at least one cat and often it’s in a pivotal role. (or they are) so a cover I made as a joke took hold of my brain and I challenged to myself to write a book of stories all about cats. Naturally I love cats, not just because they’re soft and cuddlesome and purr, but because they’re also deadly creatures. That duality fascinates and intrigues me. And I use it in my books. Especially this one.

A Bite of… Stephanie Barr

Q1: Okay. Cats and dragons and rocket science. That’s a fascinating combo. Cats are understandable, but just how did a scientist come to be so invested in dragons?

Probably better to ask how a dragon-crazed kid, who collected Asian and European dragons, read mythology, every kind she could find, and loved fairy tales ended up in the practical side of space stuff.
Of course, I still wouldn’t know the answer. I always loved dragons and they were never antagonists to me, but mighty and ancient, so potentially wise. And, of course, there’s the flying thing. Plus, Anne McCaffery was one of my formative writers. 
I love intelligent creatures. I love creatures that are dangerous and intelligence. Cats and dragons both fit.
The rocket science thing, that was the fluke.

Q2: Given that you chose to parody soft porn in the title of this book, how much of a role does trope bashing have in your writing?

The cover started as a joke. There was a contretemps in the indie writing world with someone wanting to copyright the word “Cocky” in a title. Much angst went on, none of which directly affected me, but I drew up the cover as a joke, noting that Cocky wasn’t really my problem. Many laughed at the title (which has since become more family friendly) but at least two people told me the cover was too cheesy. No one would buy it. And that just set my back up.
To go to you question, however, I love it. I love challenging preconceived notions. The first short story I ever sold was a sword and sorcerer type fantasy story where my gal was coming into rescue her husband. In a novel based on the same characters, I gave that manly swordsman a flock of telepathic snarky kittens and made him learn magic. 
I love to make people think. There are many things in history that seem unbelievably horrific, but, if you give them context, you can understand how they happened, Sometimes that means violating a comfort zone. Sometimes, it’s as simple as showing an unusual perspective. 

Q3: What’s next for Stephanie Barr, writer? Give us a flavour of what you have in store for your readers.

So next is a paranormal romance set in close to the present day, something completely different for me. Which doesn’t mean much. I’m very eclectic anyway. I’ve found it cathartic, with all the ugliness going in the world, to write this story where someone ordinary-ish suddenly finds out she has the power to change the world. 
Only it’s not that simple. She accidentally unleashes a world-changing spell and starts a process that will, eventually, bring the magic world and the mundane world she lives in back into alignment. Dragons and other mythical beasties sneak over first. It’s a chosen one trope, something that I would nominally avoid, but then she’s no pawn driven by fate. She makes her own choices and isn’t what anyone expected. And that’s all to the good in my view. It will be called Catalyst and I’m hoping to have it out by November.  

Although Stephanie Barr is a slave to three children and a slew of cats, she actually leads a double life as a part time novelist and full-time rocket scientist. People everywhere have learned to watch out for fear of becoming part of her stories. Beware! You might be next! You can find Stephanie on her website, on Facebook, her FB fan group and her blog, subscribe to her newsletter or follow her on Twitter.


Jane Jago’s Drabbles – Three Hundred and Eighty-Three

Mother named the four sons of her womb North, South, East and West. And the winds took life.

But what of the fifth cherub? Mother’s only daughter was pink and fat with cheeks full of wind and tossing curls. This mischievous imp flittered from quarter to quarter bringing gales and whirlwind as she flew.

“What can we do?” her brothers cried.

Eventually, Father rose from the sea and called his errant daughter to him, his touch making her beauty so transcendent that even the waters followed her.

Selene took wing, and the crescent moon appeared to light the night sky.

©jane jago

Sunday Serial – Dying to be Roman XV

Dying to be Roman by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook is a whodunit set in a modern day Britain where the Roman Empire still rules. If you missed previous episodes you can start reading from the beginning. You can listen to this on YouTube.

“What new information did you have for me?” Julia asked. “You mentioned something when I arrived.”
Decimus frowned.
“I did?” Then his frown cleared. “Oh yes, I did, we have tracked down where Quintillas Publius Luca and his wife have been staying. They were under assumed names, of course. As he was the one banished, not her, there is no grounds to arrest her. But someone will have to go and break the news to that grieving widow too.”
“She can wait, this needs to be sorted first.”
It wasn’t too long before the sound of hurrying feet announced the return of the guard.
“Yes?” Decimus barked.
“The domina is not in the house. The rear door guard reports that she went out about two hours ago. A hovercab was waiting for her.”
“Thank you.”
The guard made a smart about turn and left the room. Julia poked around inside her head for something to say. She opened her mouth, but before she could speak the guard came back.
“One Llewelyn asking for Domina Julia,” he said woodenly.
“Let him in, man. Let him in.”
Dai came in, looking, Julia thought, distinctly uncomfortable. She noticed there was a new garum stain on his tunic. Didero gave him a wry grin.
“It appears,” he said heavily, “that my lady wife, who may well be connected to your investigation, has chosen to leave home. I have no idea where she has gone, though I fully intend to find out.” He cracked his knuckles, which sounded as loud as a pistol shot in the quiet room. “So just spit out whatever it is you are worrying about phrasing tactfully. I promise not to bite your head off.”
“I can help with the whereabouts of the domina,” Dai’s voice was flat. “I’ve just left her. Considering what she promised would happen to me and Bryn if we didn’t keep our mouths shut, I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject. But. I left Domina Lydia comforting the widow of Urbanus Hostilius Rufus.”
Didero leapt into action and before Julia had chance to think about what to do next, half a dozen grim-faced Praetorians were dispatched to the upmarket apartment building with orders to arrest anyone they found in the Rufus home.
Julia shared a grimace with Dai.
“Why do I have the distinct impression they won’t find anybody?”
Dai shrugged elaborately.
“There’s something else. I could be wrong, but I don’t think Rufus’ death came as news to the domina.”
Decimus looked at him soberly.
“You could be wrong, but you don’t think you are, do you?”
“No. I don’t.”
“So we wait.”
We do,” Julia agreed, then she had a thought. “There is something else we can do. The wife of Quintillas Publius Luca. I think she might be part of whatever is going on. You wouldn’t consider having her picked up, would you?”
“Why not? It smells to me like she could be up to her patrician titties in whatever is going on… apart from anything else she made no attempt to report her husband missing.”
He bashed his bell again and dispatched more Praetorians.

Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook

Kissing in the snow

I did not know
When I kissed him all those years ago
In the snow 
He would take my life in his keeping
And never let me go
I did not know 
In that moment I had found the life of my life
I did not know 
That with that kiss I promised to be his wife
And now I’m old
And we kiss each night
Goodnight my love, we say
And we both remember a snowy kiss
That begun our love. That day

©️jj 2018

Dying to Find Proof – Now Available To Pre-Order

Dying to Find Proof is the tenth Dai and Julia Mystery from Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook.

The all-wheel drew up at the back gate, the front gate being perpetually manned by a guard who would be very likely to inform Bestia of their visit even if he could not refuse access to the lady of the house. Vassenia ignored the speaker-phone and stuck out an arm to input some numbers into the digital pad on the gatepost. The gates swung open, squeaking horribly as they did so. Gerel winced, and Edbert hunched his shoulders in disapproval at such evidence of poor maintenance. The back gate being for staff was surprisingly close to the residence. Surprisingly because the main one, with which Julia was more familiar, stood at the far end of a long meandering driveway in order to show off the sumptuous grounds to visitors of status. 
Edbert parked the all-wheel on the raked gravel and handed the three women out. “Col, Bran. Please stay with the vehicle.”
The brothers bulked their muscles and Col went so far as to wink.
Vassenia smiled grimly. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
A uniformed steward stood at the front door. He looked deeply unhappy.
“Dominus Sextus says you are to be denied entry Domina.”
Vassenia looked coldly at the embarrassed servant.
“Whose house is this?”
“Yours, domina.”
“And whose money pays your wages?”
“Yours, domina.”
“So, just get out of my way.”
For a moment it was a toss-up who the unfortunate man was most afraid of, but in the end Vassenia was in front of him and Bestia was nowhere to be seen. He stepped back and the three women walked into the gloomy splendour of the over-decorated entrance. The steward tried to step in front of Edbert and the hounds, but found himself gently put aside by the blond giant.
Julia gave him her best flashing smile. “Don’t annoy my bodyguard. It’s not sensible.”
If it was possible for a person of such immense dignity to be said to run away then that was what the steward did, through the echoing corridors of leprous marble to escape from the frighteningly grim-faced quartet and their devil dogs.
Vassenia led the way through the comfortless modernity and the conspicuous displays of wealth to a surprisingly cozy sitting room.
“This is my boudoir. You can wait here while I find my stuff. And Sextus’ little secrets. No one is allowed in here but me – and that means no one.” 
Julia found the decor, which was rather disorderly in a comfortable way, somehow preferable to the much more formal look of the cenaculum where Vassenia had held her prandia before she had been compelled to withdraw from that social circle. Gerel sat in the window seat looking out over the strange topiary formations and spindly exotic plants of the villa’s formal garden.
“I did not know,” Gerel said quietly, “that it was possible for a garden to be ugly.”
“Anything can be ugly if it’s made without love and is all for show.” 
Edbert, who lounged in the doorway, grunted his agreement. “This whole place is a showpiece of wealth and ugly tastelessness. Except maybe this room.”
Vassenia padded back into the sitting room with two small leather cases in her hands.
“Now for Sextus’ books. They are in his suite. Through here.” She tapped what seemed at first glance to be the wall beside her. “Can somebody come with me and watch my back?”
Gerel followed her through a cleverly hidden doorway painted with trompe l’oeil panelling. They left the door open and Julia could see Vassenia pull out a cunningly fashioned set of steps and mount them with care. She seemed to be certain in her movements and Julia heard her give a small grunt of satisfaction just before Edbert’s wristphone bleeped.
Faex. Bestia’s home.”
“Right. You grab the cases and get through that door. Shut it behind you and get the girls and the stuff out to the all-wheel. Beep me when you are out.”
“But. Julia.”
Julia set her teeth and showed Edbert the business end of her professional-quality nerve whip. “Me and the dogs can deal with that spado. And no, before you ask, I won’t have any hesitation in hurting him badly if he gets too close.”
Edbert looked as if he would like to argue but he must have recognised Julia’s determination. He picked up the bags in one huge hand and slipped through the door shutting it quietly behind him. Julia snapped her fingers and Canis and Lupo came to her side. Once the dogs were at her knees she turned her eyes back to the ugly garden.

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