Hi Folks and Happy Monday (bit of an oxymoron, that)!

As many of you know I am currently working on finding representation for my novel, Sea Strand.  In the meanwhile, every pundit, agent, editor, would-be savant on writing agrees, keep writing.  Keep working on the craft.  Get better at what you do.  Best of all, find a distraction to keep the unrelenting stream of rejection from swallowing your soul.

Being the good (okay, good-ish) girl that I am, but more importantly, the goal oriented individual that I am, I am following said advice.  I have started a new novel.  It has the working title of The Devil’s Advocate.  That title may definitely change, but let’s go with it for now.  It is based on a short story I did for our critique group, The BBB’s, group blog called The Devil’s Own.

Side bar:  many of you asked what happened to that site.  It was so fun- why did we stop? The answer is simply life.  However, BBB’s is returning.  I have lined up THREE fabulous guest authors for the coming weeks and I am collecting prompts for more fun adventures in writing.  Party people, stay tuned.

This novel is strict urban fantasy with a touch of noir.  It’s definitely more urban and less magical realism than I usually sway.  I am trying some things outside my usual writing style both in sentence structure and flow of back story versus narrative.

I need Beta Readers.  Simply put, these are fresh eyes to read the story after my critique group has made it bleed red.  If you read the fantasy genre that is great, but not required.  If you have editing skills, also great, but again not required.  You can drop out at any time.  Beta Readers merely need to show up with their honest opinions.

1.) Would you keep reading?

2.) What did you like?

3.) What gave you hives?

And that, my friends, is it.  I’m including the first chapter below for you to check out.  Plan on reading about 3,000 words a week.  Occasionally there will be more, sometimes less.  It takes me about six months to finish a book.

Who’s in?  Please comment, post on FB or Twitter, or email me privately to join the group.  THANK YOU!

Oh, and this week’s song?  As the main character is named Charlie (Charlotte) Watts and we’re dealing with things most devilish… please enjoy the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil from 1968’s Beggars Banquet.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBecM3CQVD8&feature=kp

Real life inspiration for April & Gabe's place.

Real life inspiration for April & Gabe’s place.

CHAPTER ONE

After the funeral, I needed a drink.

Another time there might have been shame in that naked reality.  Not today.  It was what it was.  Grief is pure.  It is raw emotion that makes you clean.  I wanted to be where people were and I craved a drink.  Heck, maybe ten.

I needed to be numb.

Night’s dark blanket cradled the streets by the time I arrived at the Dive Bar.  The chill in the January air cut through my coat.  I longed for the California summer with its life-giving sun, but then, I longed for a lot of things these days.  Resolutely, I blotted out the memory of his brilliant smile.  I focused on the glossy wood of the varnished bar before me.

“Hey, Charlie.  You okay?” said April, one of the bar’s owners.

I met her gaze.  Her brown eyes were wide and concerned.  She and her husband Gabe were good people.  Maybe that was why so many souls gravitated to their place.  It was safe and had more than a touch of home, for some patrons, a home they’d never known or would ever know.  This was neutral territory.

I shrugged and stared at the mirror behind her– all those lovely bottles. “I’m fine.”

April frowned, her dainty dark brows drawing together, but not marring her fine-boned face. “Right, and I own a unicorn whorehouse.  They fart rainbows.”

I snorted in spite of myself. “Hey, big deal. So do I.”

“What? Own a unicorn whorehouse or fart rainbows?”

“Obviously, I fart rainbows.  Do you have any idea what the taxes are on being a unicorn madam?  Your profits are completely swallowed up,” I deadpanned.

“No pun there, right?” April set her hands on her slender hips, intent as she watched me. “Spit or swallow?”

“April!” I said.  “You are just plain nasty.” I paused. “Okay, swallow, but only on wicked Wednesdays.”

“Um, hmm,” she said, wiping the bar clean and waiting.  “What are you having?”

“Galliano, on the rocks,” I answered, slipping off my black pumps.  I never wore heels. My feet ached.  “Make them little ice chips.”

“Yep, I know.”  She was quick and spare in her movements.  The drink was not so much made as it appeared before me– a gift from the bartending elves.

It wasn’t even six in the evening yet.  The bar was quiet.  The jukebox in the corner played “All By Myself” by Eric Carmen. I rolled my eyes and turned to Gabe.  “What is this shit?”

Gabe shrugged. “It’s on automatic, no coins in it right now.”

I frowned and tossed him my phone. “’We’ll Burn the Sky.’ Scorpions. Repeat. We good?”

His expression lightened and he popped the phone into a dock.  The jukebox was silenced by a remote from under the bar. “You know I’m always good with the Scorps, Charlie.  Especially today, Sam would have loved it.”

“I know,” I said as April served me my drink.  I scrutinized the brilliant amber liquid. “He was a guitar junky.  Anything with two guitars.”

“Or more,” said Gabe, speaking more than he usually did in a week. “Iron Maiden has three these days.”

I acknowledged him with a nod and drank deeply from my glass.  The small ice chips melted into the Galliano, creating a magical elixir.  The mix of water and alcohol was just right.  Images of cut flowers, a Bible, and tears on an older woman’s face merged in my mind.  For a moment my vision blurred. I drank again. April and Gabe exchanged glances and then stepped away.  I was left with my blacker than bile thoughts.

The fabric of my lonely internal soliloquy was torn by a woman’s voice, soft and warm.  “You’re bleeding and raw, child.  Your pain is broadcasted for all to see.”

I raised my head from my glass.  A cat sat on the bar a few stools down from me.  I frowned and looked around for the woman.  Now the pub contained a couple more patrons that I recognized by sight, but no women.  It was still early.  I turned this way and that, uneasy, but it didn’t matter.  I was numb, separate.

April stepped forward. “Another, Charlie?” She pointed to my empty glass.  I nodded and regarded the cat.  It was a motley-colored long-haired.  I think people call the color “tortoise-shell,” but I am not a cat person.

“These are only Galliano, right, April?” I asked.  Grief-stricken and exhausted or not, if I’m hearing talking cats, that couldn’t be good.

She nodded. “Just what the lady ordered.”

Another drink was deposited before me and its golden elixir was really all I had eyes for.  “Careful, child, he’d not want you to drown yerself,” said the kind voice.

“Who’s speaking?” I hissed, pitching my tone low.  Even a tough as nails private investigator needed to be careful when hearing voices.  People might get the wrong idea.

“Just a friend.  None likes to see a good woman down,” said the voice.

I stared at the cat. “I am distraught with grief.  Hysterical.”

“No,” said the voice as the cat stood and stretched out long across the bar. “Ye’ grieve and I’ll give ye’ tha’ but hysterical ye no’ be.”

“Yet, I am talking to a cat?” I whispered.

“Certainly not!”

In spite of myself I relaxed a bit. “I’m not?”

“No, I’m a restless spirit, trapped in a cat.”

Drinking again, I resolved to get to bed early.  I pushed the impossible away. It had been a rough week, clearly. “You are not helping the situation,” I remarked, gripping my glass like a lifeline.  I was hearing voices.  Well, at least despair wasn’t boring.

“What’s up, Charlie?” asked April.  “Do you need to talk? A ride home? Just want to get blitzed? Look, we got you.  Anything you need.”  She extended a hand across the bar to cover one of mine in a brief, warm squeeze.  Involuntarily, I shrank from that flash of human connection.

I waved my hand toward the talkative feline, grateful for the excuse to withdraw.  My heart couldn’t take that contact right now.  Memories of happier times in this same bar, not really a dive bar, the name was a pun, flashed on the edges of my mind, fighting to break in, to incapacitate me in my own emotions.   “You got a cat?  That’s new. What’s her name?”

“Oh, him,” said April, waving her ubiquitous towel, “he showed up a week or two ago.  He’s a character alright.  Guess we need to call SPCA, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.”

“He?” I repeated as April drifted toward some newcomers at the end of the bar. “Really?”

“No, not really. That is, I’m a woman.  This body is a male.” There was a pause. “Ye’ wouldn’t believe what I’ve had to put up with.  Bath time? Ugh. Mother Mary preserve me.”

Thinking of cats’ bathing habits, a dark chuckle escaped me. “I’ll bet,” I said, barely above a whisper.

“I don’t know how the males of any species walk around with those things, the lot of ‘em.” The cat flicked its tail and leapt in a light motion on the stool to my right.

I took another sip and turned to address my unlikely, and imaginary, drinking companion. Wonder almost cut through the numbness of sorrow.  Almost, but not quite.   “A restless spirit, eh?  What does that mean anyway?”

The cat hissed and darted away as a shadow crossed the bar.  I took another sip and glanced up.  A man sat down next to me.  I had not heard or seen him approach.

“Charlie Watts?” he asked in a pleasant, light tenor voice. “Can it be?”

Setting my glass down, I frowned.  “I beg your pardon?”

“You just aren’t what I expected.”

I drank again and sighed.  Conversation felt heavy and laborious. “And what, exactly, did you expect?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of expensive fabric and the gleam of bar lights on dark gold hair.  The smell of subtle cologne tinted the air around us. “I don’t know. Someone more male, more British, more Rolling Stone-esque.”

I didn’t turn.  Feeble jokes on my name were nothing new.  My name is Charlie Watts.  Coincidentally, that is also the name of the legendary Rolling Stones’ drummer.  Believe me when I say that I have heard all the smart remarks on the subject and, frankly, they aren’t that smart.

“Aren’t you the clever one,” I said, staring into my glass.

“Apparently not.”

There was just enough self-derision and humor in the voice that I tilted my head to regard him.  “What do you want?” I asked.

Blue eyes so dark they could only be called violet met mine.  The stranger blinked and his gaze swept over me.  I had the sense that he missed very little.

“I am sorry,” he said, his tone softer and deeper.  “I did not realize.”  He frowned. “You have lost your husband?”

Before I could answer there was another searching gaze. “No, not a husband.” His voice was soft and intimate, just between us. “But beloved.  You have lost your betrothed.”

The old-fashioned term caught me off guard.  I set my glass down and truly looked at the newcomer for the first time.  My grief rose in my throat, hot and burning me with choked, unshed tears.  I swallowed and blinked fiercely.  I would not give way. Blinking again, I willed the tears away as I studied the stranger.

He was exquisitely dressed.  “To the nines” my Aunt Lottie would have called it.  His dark blue suit was sharply tailored.  He appeared to be about my age, thirty-two, but his manner said younger, while his eyes said older.  The hairs on the back of my neck rose.

In my business you survive by recognizing types.  I saw two things in this man.  One, he was an alpha, a predator. Two, he carried with him the demeanor I have only seen in the best con men, the true tricksters.  Usually, you can’t spot it in the real professionals, but given my past, I have made a study of this sort of thing.  He didn’t fool me.  Yet, factors one and two not withstanding, there was something else, call it the X factor, but not like the television show.

There was something new, something I had not seen before.

“Got me figured out?” The corners of his mouth twitched.

“No,” I said. I frowned and drained my drink.  Signaling April, another appeared an instant later.  God bless the bartending elves, I thought. “No, not yet.”

“I would like to hire you,” he said.  I hadn’t seen him order a drink, but I noticed that he drank whiskey, neat.

“You okay, Charlie?” It was Gabe, returning my phone and, I suspected, checking up on me.

I nodded.

Gabe shrugged. “Sorry, but they want to use the jukebox.” He nodded toward a group of twenty-somethings clustered around the machine.

As the first notes of Dragonforce sounded, I smiled at Gabe. “I can live with that.”

He grunted. “Beats Miley frackin’ Cyrus.”

“Amen,” said my new companion.  We all exchanged tight grins and Gabe faded into the shadows behind the bar once more.

I raised an eyebrow at the man to my right. “Okay, you pass the music test.”

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome… I don’t think I caught your name?” I watched him.  He was lean and tall.  The suit fit him well.  Another day I might have enjoyed the view.

“I didn’t give it.  It’s Nick Scratch,” he said.  He gave a half-bow from his seat.  Again, there was the whisper of the old-fashioned, a glimpse of a bye-gone era, but gone as quickly as it appeared.

“You mentioned something about a job,” I said.  My head felt light and everything was a little muted.  Maybe this needed to be my last drink.  Or maybe not. One part of my brain wondered where the cat had gone.

“Yes.” He leaned toward me. “I’ve lost someone.”

Gazing into his violet eyes, I had the spinning sensation of a kaleidoscope.  I blinked and tried to gather myself.  Shaking my head, I gave up. It was all too much today. “I’m sorry, Mr. Scratch,” I said.  “I am afraid I am not at my best.”  Reaching into my handbag, I grabbed a business card and scribbled an address.  I was proud to note that my writing was unaffected by the drinks I consumed, no matter what sideshow was going on in my head. “Could you meet me at this Starbuck’s on Monday morning, say 10am?”

“Call me Nick, please.” He drained his Scotch and stood. “I think I can manage that.  Please accept my apologies.  It was inexcusable of me to intrude upon your grief like this.”

I waved his excuses aside.  “You and the world, Mr. Scratch,” I said.  “It’s all the same.  Monday I’ll be fine, but today…”

“Was Sam’s funeral,” he finished.  Standing, he threw a hundred-dollar bill on to the bar.  “Allow me to buy your drinks.  It’s the least that I can do.”

I stared at the bill.  “I think you might be over paying just a tad,” I said.  How had he known Sam’s name?

“Then your friends will receive a generous tip,” he said. “May I walk you out?”

I had intended to drink some more and listen to the music, maybe even find that blasted cat, but suddenly, I just wanted to go home.  Empty and lonely, but at least Carl was there waiting and, despite mounting bills, it was still my place.

“Sure, er, thanks,” I said, slipping my heels back on and grabbing my things.  I waved to April and Gabe.  The cat was nowhere to be found.

The chill of the deepening night enveloped us as we stepped out onto the street, the bar’s lively hustle and bustle behind us.  Tendrils of Bay Area fog were drifting down the streets of downtown San Jose.  It was damp and cold, the kind of night to snuggle at home.

The streets were eerily silent, except for the echo of our shoes upon pavement.  Where were the cars?  The traffic lights changed for no one. Where were the people?  It was a Sunday and there wasn’t a Sharks game tonight, I reflected. Perhaps the quiet was normal.

Nick spoke in a subdued voice.  “I did not realize. I would have not contacted you yet had I known.”  He sounded worried. “Now they can see you.”

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “How could you have known?”  I blinked and thought for a second. “Who can see me?”

He stepped closer. In the pale streetlight I saw that he was frowning. “It does me no good to find my investigator only to lose her before she can embark upon her task.”

Nick grazed my forehead softly with his left hand, tracing a design I could not discern from only touch.  “Go home, sleep, heal.  You are protected.” A brilliant golden glow infused us both.

On the darkened street the bright light blinded me for an instant.  Blinking, I wiped my eyes and searched my surroundings.  Nick Scratch was gone.  I was alone in the gathering fog.

Sighing, I returned to the bar.  A talking cat, a stranger, bright lights, and all combined with alcohol?  It was apparent that there was no way I should be driving myself home tonight.  I would wait for my cab inside where it was warm.

Sam always told me, two Gallianos were fine, but nothing good came from the third.  Not ever.

Inside the Dive Bar, downtown San Jose, CA

Inside the Dive Bar, downtown San Jose, CA

This post was written by Erika Gardner.  If you enjoyed it, please sign up to receive updates on this blog.  Or you can follow Erika on Twitter @Erika_Gardner or “Like” her Facebook page Erika Gardner- Writer and Storyteller.  Check out her contributions to the BBB Blog.

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