Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Letters of Smoke Preview --> Chapter One



Letters of Smoke 
Chapter One


The walls were red with blood. It was all she tasted when she swallowed, all she saw when she forced her eyelids open. The heavy, metallic scent of blood overpowered everything else in the room.
Riona's world was comprised of blood and pain. 

Footsteps echoed like gunshots on the parquet floor. Riona tensed. Footsteps meant more pain, more blood. A whimper fell from chapped, blood-caked lips. Pathetic. She was pathetic. It had only taken five hours with a madman to reduce a nine year veteran of the CMPD to a whimpering, wounded animal.

"Detective O'Dell," a nasal, masculine voice sing-songed. The footsteps grew closer. "I have a surprise for you."

Edwin Galicia, dark eyes glinting with malicious humor, stalked into the living room of his former home. There was a hunting knife, blade stained with her blood, in his right hand. His left arm was wrapped around the neck of a tall, fit man with fair hair and pale, sightless eyes.

Her heart leapt to her throat. Her stomach twisted; the air in her lungs froze. Of course. Of course he'd get tired of playing with her and move on to the hostage. 

"Thought this was between you and me, Eddie."

"You know how to end this, Detective."

She did. Her department issued Sig was within reach. She could grab it and put a bullet smack in the middle of Galicia's forehead. Of course, moving the gun would set off a trap that would drive two barbed, needle-sharp iron spikes right onto her abdomen. 

Suicide-by-cop had always been Galicia's ultimate goal. Taking the cop with him was just a neat, little bonus. 

"I heard that losing one of your senses enhances all the others. Think that means he'll squeal sooner?" Galicia squeezed the hostage's neck. "Think the little psychic will know what I'm going to do before I do it?"

"He talks to dead people, moron. He's not precognitive."

"Hey!" Galicia's smirk slipped. "Just for that, I think we'll skip the warm up and move right on to the real fun."

Riona exhaled and ignored the sharp pang of pain in her chest. Broken ribs were always a bitch. She extended her arm. Her fingers brushed the grip of her gun. She mentally calculated distance and trajectory, tried not to think about the pain. 'Here we go.'

Riona O'Dell jerked upright. The echoes of her screams hung in the air. She pressed icy, shaky fingers against her abdomen. Through the thin t-shirt she could feel the raised, puckered scar tissue. Sweat dripped off the end of her nose and splashed onto her shirt. Just a dream.

She drew her knees to her chest. Her heart was thundering. Tears stung her eyes. She wanted to lick her lips, but her mouth had gone dry.

Shadows danced across her bedroom walls. The view of the Charlotte skyline was worth the extra sixty bucks a month, but sometimes those lights and her imagination worked against her. "Get it together, chickadee," she murmured.

Riona let the sounds of cars and sirens and downtown Charlotte seep into her consciousness. She wasn't in an old mansion on the outskirts of the city. She was safe in her bed. She wasn't strapped to a Chippendale table. She was home. She was safe and sound.

Well, at least she was safe.

The sound of an old-school telephone jangle sent her leaping off the bed. She stared at her vibrating cell phone as if it was a coiled-up rattler. The phone rang again. She snatched it up and slid her finger across the bottom of the screen.

"Grandmama Cat, it's three o'clock in the morning."

"It's my hearing that's going, honey, not my eyesight." Traces of Ireland lingered in Catriona O'Dell's voice. "Besides, it's not as if you were sleeping."

"I could have been."

"But you weren't," Grandmama Cat said, proving that she had contributed to the stubbornness that flowed in Riona's blood.

Riona heard the clank of the kettle being set on a stove burner. The craving for a cup of her grandmother's chamomile-and-lavender tea hit her like a punch to the gut. She turned on every light in the apartment as she made her way to the kitchen. Shadows and nightmares were no match for fluorescent bulbs.

"I'm fine, Grandmama," Riona insisted as she filled and then switched on the electric kettle.
"That's not the way I hear it." The sharp whistle of a ready kettle cut through the connection. "You were hollering so loud it woke that nice man across the hall."

Riona scowled at the empty kitchen. Her mother had named her eldest daughter Catriona, an O'Dell family name, in hopes that Riona would also possess her grandmother's special skills. Unfortunately, the only special genes Riona inherited were the ones that prompted her to join the police academy two days after her Clemson graduation.

"Tell Grandpapa Sean that I don't care for snitches."

"He's worried about you, honey."

"He's an old fusspot with nothing better to do but spend the afterlife tattling on me." Riona grabbed a coffee mug from the dish drainer and set it beside the stove. She fished one of her grandmother's homemade tea bags out of the jar on the counter.

"Catriona Presley O'Dell!"

"Snitches get the sage."

"Ungrateful child. I don't know what's happened to you."

"Grandmama," Riona sighed, pouring hot water over the tea bag. Guilt nipped at her. "I'm sorry. You're right, it isn't a good night. Tell Grandpapa I'm sorry, too."

She carried her tea to the living room and sank into the cushions of the square-legged, eggplant-colored sofa. They discussed her younger sister Sadie's upcoming wedding and her baby sister Annie's pregnancy until the sun competed with the artificial light. Sadie's wedding, due in part to their mother's influence, was all set to be the event of the season in their hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. Annie's baby girl, due between Sadie's wedding and Thanksgiving, was already the apple of her Grandpa Colin's eye. Riona was Sadie's maid of honor, but fortunately Annie had hit up their brother Brendan and his wife Lizzy for godparent duty.

The telltale thump of a newspaper hitting her front door roused her from a floral arrangement-induced daze. "I liked the picture of the bouquet with the dahlias, but I'll feel Sadie out about the orchids," she promised, padding to the front door to retrieve her daily edition of the Charlotte Observer. "Try and get some rest now, Grandmama."

"I will, honey. You be nice to Nate. Don't take your rough night out on that sweet man."
Riona hung up without responding. It was insulting, really. She never took her moods out on Nate. At least not intentionally. She downed three mugs of coffee while she read the newspaper from front to back. It was a habit she'd picked up during a public policy class in college. Staying up on current events had come in handy when she was a cop. Ever since she'd started NC Investigations and Cleansings with Nathaniel Guterman, she spent more time with the real estate section and less time with the local news.

Current events weren't much use for someone who dealt with the specters of the past.
Paper folded up in the recycling bin, Riona poured the rest of the coffee from the pot in a purple-and-orange travel mug. They were starting a new investigation, so her day would likely be spent in the library, the Mecklenburg Historical Association, or the CMPD archives. Really good investigations meant she'd have the chance to visit all three.

She dressed for the warm early September weather in jeans and a sleeveless button-front blue blouse. There was a black cardigan folded in her messenger bag in case hot-blooded Rita Collier at the MHA had her hand on the thermostat. She pulled her shoulder-length walnut brown hair into a low ponytail before slipping on socks and blue sneakers.

Her apartment came with a one-car garage bay. The day after she'd turned in her badge, she'd traded her car for a seven-speed commuter bicycle in orange and purple. Groceries were carried in the saddle-style basket on the rear of the bike. The hard, locked handlebar case was the perfect place to store her gun.

Riona took the long way from her apartment to Nate's 1930s Dilworth estate. His ancestral home doubled as their office. The fresh morning air and the familiar buzz of the city helped clear her mind. The chocolate hazelnut tart she'd wolfed down in the parking lot of her favorite bakery hadn't hurt, either.

She parked her bike in the garage bay Nate had cleaned out for her and slipped through the side gate to the spacious, perfectly manicured back yard. Her morning habit was to binge on caffeine and read the newspaper. Nate's was to listen to the morning news while sitting by the pool.

Tiger, Nate's German Shepherd, left his master's side to greet her at the gate. She kept a package of homemade treats in a pocket of her bag just for the well-trained dog. They were healthier than the high-priced, brand-name crap Nate insisted on feeding the poor thing. Tiger gleefully munched a treat while she made her way to the wrought iron table set up by the pool.

"Good morning, Nate."

Nate turned away from his laptop to face her. He sniffed once, frowned. "You had another nightmare last night."

The smile slid off Riona's face. She dropped a white paper bag on the table beside Nate's right hand and flung herself in the chair next to him. Her lips twisted in a scowl. "Did Grandpapa come squealing to you, too?"

"I have not seen your grandfather since last week." Nate dipped a long-fingered hand into the bag and extracted a warm, fragrant raspberry croissant. "You're twenty minutes late, which means you needed the extra time to center yourself. Which means you rode past Sweet Lorraine's. You can't resist a chocolate tart, so you stopped. You know my weakness for their croissants, so you picked one up for me. You're not the only one who can follow clues, Detective."

"A delicious, hand-delivered breakfast automatically means that I had a nightmare."

"Exactly."

"I think I liked it better when I believed Grandpapa Sean had told you."

Nate wiped crumbs of croissant off his fingers with a paper napkin. He reached out to pat her hand; his aim was off by a few inches. Despite her irritation, she slid her fingers under his. Pale green, sightless eyes stared at a point slightly over her left shoulder.

"There's no shame in having nightmares, Riona. Considering what you went through, I think it would be abnormal if you did not have nightmares."

She took a long sip of cooling coffee to clear the lump in her throat. For months, she and Nate had honored their silent agreement to not discuss the tragic event that had drawn them closer. She'd always assumed that he would be the first to break, but there was something inside her cracking.

"Do you?"

There was a long pause. An apology, something to call back her question, hovered on the tip of her tongue. Nate answered before she could speak.

"Yes."

The brusqueness of his response made it clear he wasn't open to a follow-up question. Riona nodded. She could respect his need for privacy. She had her share of secrets.

"Are you walking the house this morning?" she asked.

"Tonight. Allen has a class this morning. Since he's actually attending his classes this semester, I do not want to give him any excuse to skip."

Allen Harris was Nate's twenty-one-year-old distant cousin and personal assistant. After years of pressure from Nate, his only living relative, Allen had started attending UNC Charlotte to finish his business degree. Allen lived with Nate for most of the week, but spent several nights with his girlfriend Erica.

"I can do the assist."
 
"What about your research?"

"The house is from the '60s. I don't foresee having to spend much time in the archives unless there's something wrong with the property. This should be an easy one."

"That is the same thing I said about the Mercer house."

Riona shuddered. They'd both been fooled by the cheery white picket fence and well-maintained early twentieth-century house. There had been so many spirits in the house, so much malevolence, that Nate had called her grandmother in for assistance. Riona had filled an entire spiral notebook with information on deaths, violent acts, and tragedies.

"Point." She leaned her chair back and propped her feet on the edge of the table. "Besides, I want to get another read on the realtor. We've never dealt with her agency before, and she didn't seem happy that the prospective buyers hired us."

The Home Purchase Full Disclosure Act, better known as the Amityville Act, required home sellers to disclose to prospective buyers any known paranormal activity. It also allowed home buyers the opportunity to investigate a house by having a medium or ghost hunting group go through the house. Ghost hunting teams gathered evidence of activity to provide to owners but often didn't research the house's history or offer any other forms of proof.

NC Investigations and Cleansings utilized their individual talents. Nate, a card-carrying psychic medium, conversed with any spirits in a home. Riona hunted through the house's history to see if there was any truth to the ghosts' claims. Spirits often lied about their true reasons for hanging about that they couldn't be evicted. A time or two, Riona's investigative work had led to the closing of a cold case.

Riona played fetch with Tiger while Nate changed clothes. Normally a conservative, classy dresser, Nate's spirit walks often took him into dirty attics, dusty basements, and closets so he opted for jeans and casual shirts on walk days.

She grinned when he emerged from the house in jeans and a Duke Blue Devils polo shirt. "Wish I'd known it was alma mater day. Now I feel out of place."

He frowned at her. "You put the Clemson vest on my dog, didn't you?"

She glanced down at the purple vest on the dog's dark fur. Tiger nudged her knee with his head. She instinctively reached down to rub behind his warm ears. "Maybe. But I grabbed the Duke leash."

"He's going to have an identity crisis."

"He's a dog."

"That doesn't preclude him from having a mental breakdown during game day because he's confused about which team to root for."

"Sure it does." Riona used her set of keys to unlock Nate's luxury SUV. She opened the back hatch so Tiger could hop in and settle on his plaid rug. "A: Duke isn't on Clemson's football schedule this year. B: I don't care about basketball."

"I do."

"I don't, so I'm not going to care who you teach him to root for during basketball season. And C: He's a dog."

Loaded down with every possible amenity, Nate's car was fun to drive. She and Allen often fought over who got to play chauffer. She kept the radio on the instrumental jazz station Nate liked to listen to when he was prepping for a walk.

The house in Sardis Forest was only half an hour from their office. The lots were heavily wooded. As Nate was known to ramble through backyards, she was grateful the kit in the back was stocked with bug spray.

Nancy Walker, an over-tanned, bottle-blonde on the backside of forty, was waiting for them in the driveway. Riona parked the SUV next to Nancy's shiny red convertible. The realtor's smile was a fake as the boobs threatening to spill over the top of her silk camisole.

"You're lucky the Taylors signed the waiver regarding the dog," she snapped as Riona led Tiger around the car to Nate.

Nate's fingers lingered on Riona's when she handed him the leash. The touch was brief but comforting. "We have worked with the Taylors before, Ms. Walker. They understand Tiger's necessity."

"None of this is a necessity." The thin heels of Nancy's patent leather pumps wobbled with every angry step. Keys jangled as she unlocked the door. "Our usual company has already given the house a clean bill of health."

Behind Nancy's back, Riona poked out her tongue. Most realtors took advantage of a loophole in the Amityville Act. They hired cheap, amateur ghost hunting groups to "investigate" their listings. It gave buyers warm-fuzzies but was essentially worthless. Investigators weren't required to guarantee their work, though Nate and Riona did, and evidence could be faked or suppressed.

"Greg Taylor is highly-sensitive child," Nate said, "the Taylors just want to make sure there is nothing in the house that could disturb him."

"Like your perfume," Riona muttered as she followed Nate into the wide, bright foyer.
Nate tapped her foot with his cane. "Be nice," was his whispered admonishment. It was a phrase Riona often heard from her partner.

Though Nancy initially insisted on staying throughout Nate's walk, he sweet-talked her in to taking an early lunch and returning when Riona called. There was a reason Nate was the one who dealt with clients and realtors. It was the same reason Riona had left her gun locked in Nate's glove box.

She videotaped Nate's walk. Often the tapes were used during their final presentation to the client. Most spirits couldn't resist performing for the camera or responding to Nate's presence. He was unusually silent as they explored the first three rooms of the house. When they reached the living room, a massive room with large windows and a gorgeous view of the woods, he raked a hand through his honey-blond hair.

"Well, damn."

Riona's eyebrows shot up. She could count on one hand the number of times she'd heard Nate swear. The hair on the back of her neck started to rise.

"What's up?"

"Can you smell that?"

"Nope. That gardenia crap Ms. Walker bathes in has completely screwed up my nose. Makes me wish I had a cough drop."

"Someone's tried to do something. There are spirits here, but I can't reach them. They're at the edge of my senses."

Riona adjusted her grip on the recorder. She glanced around the room, but there were no obvious signs of magic. Proper cleansings could only be done by those "fey-touched", as her grandmother called it. That didn't stop every wannabe with access to herbs and crystals from trying a DIY job. 

"Botched cleansing?"

"No. It feels more like a suppression." Nate ventured closer to the windows. He ran a finger along the glass, traced a series of symbols. For a second they glowed a bright yellow. He leaned closer and sniffed the glass. "Definitely a suppression."

"Can you break it?"

"Possibly." He moved away from the window. His square jaw was set in concentration. A furrow appeared between his closed eyes. "It may take some time."

"I've got all the time in the world," Riona said. She paused, tapped her lip. "But the library closes at seven."

He held up a hand to indicate a need for silence. She dropped to a squat and reached for Tiger. The Shepherd padded to her side. His long tongue hung out of his gaping mouth as she ran her fingers along his spine.

Without warning, he sat back on his haunches, threw his head back, and howled. Riona fell backwards into an inelegant sprawl on the hardwood floor. The camera slid from her hands and disappeared underneath a mission-style sofa.

"Okay," Nate said, voice raspy. Both hands were wrapped around the cane so tightly his knuckles were white. "I can sense them. Not too clearly, but they're there."

"That's good, isn't it?"

Nate shook his head. "Ree, one of them is a newbie."

Letters of Smoke -- New Project

I have a new project in the works.  

It's one that I absolutely adore.  It has ghosts, mystery, romance, humor, and everything I love in a book.

And I'm trying a new venue to publish it.

Letters of Smoke

Riona and Nate team together to investigate potentially haunted houses and are continually reminded of what they already know: everybody lies. Even ghosts

ABOUT THE STORY

Ever driven by a house you just know is haunted? Or driven by a perfectly ordinary suburban house and wondered what stories those sturdy, vinyl-sided walls could tell you? Maybe you’ve moved into a new space that feels creepier at night than it did during the day. Maybe you’ve felt someone staring at you while you’re in the kitchen. In the living room. In the shower.
My two favorite types of shows revolve around crime and the supernatural. When something blends the history of a place with tales of spirits, my poor heart goes into overdrive. There just aren’t enough books and tv shows with the right blend to keep up with my appetite, so I developed my own concoction. The recipe is a simple mixture of: mystery, ghosts, the history-rich South, college football, romance, and tortured heroes.

Nathan Guterman: Charlotte blue blueblood, psychic, blind. Riona O’Dell: fourth generation member of the thin blue line, ex-cop with PTSD, college football fanatic. Their partnership is one not even Riona’s clairvoyant Great-Aunt Siobhan could have predicted.

Brought together to stop a twisted serial killer, they should run, not walk, from each other at the horrific end of the case. Neither can let go. Neither can admit why. With real estate agents and home sellers scrambling to comply with the recently passed Amityville Act, Nate and Riona pool their talents to investigate potentially haunted houses. Nate speaks to the resident spirits while Riona uses her investigative skills to get to the truth behind the haunting. Nate’s rule number one: ghosts lie. Riona’s supplement to rule one: the living lie, too. During what was supposed to be a routine house investigation, they discover trapped spirits and a mystery that could bind the partners together once and for all or split them apart forever.


Inkshares

I am crowd sourcing this book because I believe it deserves proper attention from an editor and a publishing company.  If you go to Inkshares, I have posted the first chapter, and I will be posting updates regularly on the status of Letters of Smoke

https://www.inkshares.com/projects/letters-of-smoke

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Updates

What have I been working on lately?  Where have I been?  Both are very good questions.

I have been working on a few projects - including something with werewolves and a project that involves ghosts, cops, and a law called the Amityville Act.

I have been reading a tremendous amount.  I tend to not read as much when I'm writing, so between projects I gorge on anything I can get my hands on.

Things I'm currently reading:

Who Says It's a Man's World by Emily Bennington --> I love it.  Love it.  Once classes are over, I plan on following her exercises. 

Courtney Milan's The Heiress Effect --> I plan on starting this book tonight (because I have tomorrow off).  I have a feeling that it will be one of those books that makes the hours disappear, and I'll be a zombie (but a happy one) come the morning.

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley.  I picked up a few of hers when they were on sale at Amazon.  I am finding this one hard to get into.  My mom, however, loved it and read it in a couple of days.  After I finish The Heiress Effect, I hope to try again with this one.

Two weekends ago, I read twelve Harlequin Presents.  That's a lot of billionaires, secret royals, and ingĂ©nues.  Not to mention the surprise!pregnancies. 

 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Sometimes It Is Rocket Science - new release

Sometimes It Is Rocket Science is now available at Amazon.
It will be free until Sunday 08/18/13.


More comfortable in the lab than in the boardroom, engineering genius Georgiana Collier has been floundering in her role as CEO of her late father's company. Raising her teenaged brother isn't easy, either - ever since a fatal car accident he spends his days in a depressed fog and nightmares hamper any attempt at sleep. When her mentor Dan Norwood has a heart attack and members of her board start to conspire against her, she fears a nervous breakdown is on the horizon.


Called back to Houston after his father's heart attack, playboy computer whiz Robert Norwood knows he's going to have his hands full relocating the company's main office and keeping his father from having another attack. He doesn't expect an automated house with his dead mother's voice or the rush of desire he feels when faced with childhood friend Georgiana Collier. His plans to win Georgiana's cautious heart are threatened by his reputation as a ladykiller and a murderous business rival.


Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Sometimes It Is Rocket Science

Why is it that whenever I rearrange my priority shedule, and then announce it to everyone, that I change my mind?

Remember when I said Rocket Science was on the backburner?  Yeah, seems I was wrong about that one.  The story is due for publication by the end of August 2013, pending final edits and a cover makeover.  I do have a few advanced copies available for those who wish one.

For those of you new to Rocket Science, here's a blurb:


More comfortable in the lab than in the boardroom, genius engineer Georgiana Collier has been floundering in her role as CEO of her late father's company. Raising her teenaged brother isn't easy, either. Ever since a fatal car accident he spends his days in a depressed fog and nightmares hamper any attempt at sleep. When her mentor Dan Norwood has a heart attack and members of her board start to conspire against her, she fears a nervous breakdown is on the horizon.

Called back to Houston after his father's heart attack, playboy computer whiz Robert Norwood knows he's going to have his hands full relocating the company's main office and keeping his father from having another attack. He doesn't expect an automated house with his dead mother's voice or the rush of desire he feels when faced with childhood friend Georgiana Collier. His plans to win Georgiana's cautious heart are threatened by his reputation as a ladykiller and a murderous business rival.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

New Project

I adore my job.  I really, really do.  I love going back to school.  I enjoy transcribing World War II tapes.  You know what I miss?  Free time.  Writing time.

Sometimes It Is Rocket Science and The Art of War & Werewolves are still on my project board, but I've decided to move ahead with a new, untitled project.

Here's a teaser:


The walls were red with blood.  It was all she tasted when she swallowed, all she saw when she forced her eyelids open.  The heavy, metallic scent of blood overpowered everything else in the room.
 Riona’s world was comprised of blood and pain. 
Footsteps echoed like gunshots on the parquet floor.  Riona tensed.  Footsteps meant more pain, more blood.  A whimper fell from chapped, blood-caked lips.  Pathetic.  She was pathetic.  It had only taken five hours with a madman to reduce a nine year veteran of the CMPD to a whimpering, wounded animal.
“Detective O’Dell,” a nasal, masculine voice sing-songed.  The footsteps grew closer.  “I have a surprise for you.”
Edwin Galicia, dark eyes glinting with malicious humor, stalked into the living room of his former home.  There was a hunting knife, blade stained with her blood, in his right hand.  His left arm was wrapped around the neck of a tall, fit man with fair hair and pale, sightless eyes.
Her heart leapt to her throat.  Her stomach twisted; the air in her lungs froze.  Of course.  Of course he’d get tired of playing with her and move on to the hostage. 
“Thought this was between you and me, Eddie.”
“You know how to end this, Detective.”
She did.  Her department issued Sig was within reach.  She could grab it and put a bullet smack in the middle of Galicia’s forehead.  Of course, moving the gun would set off a trap that would drop two thin, needle-sharp iron spikes right onto her abdomen. 
Suicide-by-cop had always been Galicia’s ultimate goal. Taking down a cop was just a bonus.
“I heard that losing one of your senses enhances all the others.  Think that means he’ll squeal sooner?”  Galicia squeezed the hostage’s neck.  “Think the little psychic will know what I’m going to do before I do it?”
“He talks to dead people, moron.  He’s not precognitive.”
“Hey!”  Galicia’s smirk slipped.  “Just for that, I think we’ll skip the warm up and move right on to the real fun.”
Riona exhaled and ignored the sharp pang of pain in her chest.  Broken ribs were always a bitch.  She extended her arm.  Her fingers brushed the grip of her gun.  She mentally calculated distance and trajectory, tried not to think about the pain.  ‘Here we go.’


Hope y'all are having a fantastic summer

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sweet Ride - Normalcy

While I work on Sometimes It is Rocket Science and The Art of War and Werewolves, I've been decompressing and coming down from my Ashwood-haze with a series of shorts.  The title is Sweet Ride and the tagline, in a nutshell, is "A series of shorts on life, love, and the pursuit of aliens."

Be prepared for a whole lotta silliness.

The backdoor exploded open. Splintered wood littered the kitchen floor. Heart pounding so hard it hurt her chest, sixteen-year-old Sarah Johansen reached for the small stun gun concealed in the cutlery drawer. Sweat dotted her forehead. Her arm trembled.

"Towels! Lots of them!" a female voice barked out. A slender, medium-height figure covered in blue goo appeared on the threshold.

Sarah's shoulders sagged in relief. Tears gathered in the corners of her brown eyes as she said a mental thank you to whichever deity protected teenage girls who were home alone. She caught a whiff of sour milk before dashing off to the laundry room. By the time she returned, the figure had moved into the kitchen and was dripping goo onto the bamboo floor. She tossed two towels on the floor and threw a stained, pink towel at the figure.

"Why didn't you hose off outside first?" she asked, using a fourth towel to wipe at the goo covering the figure's back. The goo was thick and sticky. It smelled worse up close.

"Uh, because it's cold?" A swipe of the pink towel across the figure's face revealed the smooth cheeks, slightly crooked nose, and slate blue eyes of Sarah's aunt and guardian Astra Johansen.

"Don't get this stuff in your nose or mouth. It's hell on the mucus membranes."

Sarah dropped the towel she'd been using and took a large, hasty step backwards. Her soft-soled sneakers had no traction on the slick floor. Her feet flew out from under her; she landed flat on her back, head inches from a barstool. Cold blue goo soaked into the seat of her jeans and stained her hands.

"This isn't going to turn me into a Smurf or anything is it?"

"Nope. No Smurfette for you." Astra paused, eyes going soft and unfocused. "Well, probably not. Nothing that won't fade away by Monday, at least."

"Except I have a date tomorrow night." Sarah crawled across the floor to the round table in the breakfast nook and used the edge of the table to haul herself to her feet. "You did this on purpose, didn't you? You don't like Matt Barker."

Astra wrapped a towel around her head before crouching down to unlace her goo-coated running shoes. "Oh, I like Mr. Barker just fine. He's a polite boy and a hell of a field goal kicker. I do wish he'd pay more attention to his grades, but other than that he's a surprisingly normal teenage boy."

"Ah. Normal." Bitterness dripped from Sarah's words. "I forgot what a crime being normal was."

"It's not just him, kiddo. It's his parents. The lawyer and the doctor. Who both have time to make it to every PTA meeting and participate in the booster club and bake sales. They look so perfect it makes my teeth itch."

"Matt says they never fight. So what if his family is normal?"

"Anyone who tells you their family is normal is lying or an alien. Even then they're probably lying."

"Not everyone has a closet full of skeletons, Aunt Az."

Astra eyed her niece for a long moment. She let out a reluctant sigh and slung an arm across Sarah's shoulder. "You're right, kiddo. I'm sorry. I'll go easy on your Mr. Barker."

"But you'd still like it if I brought him by for a quick scan, wouldn't you?"

"Better safe than a Pfrashan's midnight snack."

"Can you do it without drawing blood this time? It always makes the rest of the date awkward."

Astra released Sarah. On her toes, Astra hurried back to the door and snagged a strap on the goo spattered backpack just inside the doorway. She plopped the pack on the granite countertop. Glass rattled and something beeped.

Sarah carefully made her way across the kitchen, glanced at the chicken sauteing in the pan, and leaned against the counter with her arms crossed. "Dinner's going to be ready in ten minutes. If you blow the kitchen up, you're ordering the pizza."

Astra scowled at her niece. She unzipped the center compartment of the pack. She stuck her hand into the dark recesses of the pack. When she was elbow-deep in the pack, she let out a soft, triumphant laugh. "Got it!"

"I want pepperoni and mushroom. And breadsticks."

Astra held up her find. What looked like an old Polaroid camera dangled from a weathered black leather strap. She cradled it in her hands, stroked the grimy lens with blue fingers.

"So you're going to take his picture and see whether or not he shows up on film? I thought you were afraid he was an alien, not a vampire." Sarah knew better than to touch the device. Alien tech always looked benign but usually did nasty things like burn your fingers or make you hallucinate for two days.

"Nope." Astra popped the 'p', grinned. "This is a Virah scanner. I found it in one of the Institute's closets. Terrible xenophobes, the Virahs. Their security forces use these scanners on anyone who passes through their ports. It'll tell you a person's planet of birth, their year of birth in relative time, which solar system their parents are from, the last five planets they've visited, and which immunizations they've had."

"Scan me."

Astra stilled. Her eyes went dark and cold. She blinked and that horrible stillness was gone. The plastic smile that stretched across her face sent a shiver down Sarah's spine. "No can do, kiddo. Don't know how much charge is left in the power cell."

"Okay." Sarah could feel the goo solidifying on her skin. It was cold and hard as concrete. "I'm going to wash my hands and change clothes. Can you watch dinner until I get back?"

"Of course."

Sarah hesitated. Take down squads of rampaging, or just hungry, aliens? Her aunt could do that with one arm tied behind her back. Cook a meal that was nutritious and tasty? Not even with Julia Child standing over her shoulder. "Are you sure?"

"Positive, kiddo. Go wash up before you have to wear gloves to tomorrow's date."

Sarah washed her hands three times with the scrubby antibacterial soap Astra brought home from the Powell Institute, the shadowy quasi-government agency tasked with protecting the US from aliens, and in some cases protecting the aliens from US citizens. To her relief, the blue washed away and she was left with pink, steamy skin. She tossed her jeans in the hamper and pulled on a pair of soft black sweatpants.

By the time she returned to the kitchen, Astra had taken the chicken out of the pan and zapped a bag of frozen vegetables in the microwave. The individual cups of brown rice Sarah had nuked earlier were already on the table. The back door had been closed but there was a gap between the jamb and the door.

"Your turn," Sarah said, sliding the meat thermometer into the nearest chicken breast. She ignored the gold cylinder sticking out of the other breast. Alien tech was good for self defense or verifying that one's potential boyfriend was as human as he looked. It wasn't necessarily good for testing the readiness of poultry.

Astra pressed her lips to the top of Sarah's head. "Back in a flash." She disappeared down the hallway.

Sarah used the towels to wipe up as much goo from the floor as possible. The steam mop took care of the goo that remained. She dumped the towels in the washing machine but didn't turn it on. There was no telling what the goo was. Astra would have to determine which laundry soap they used: the regular detergent or the Institute detergent.

She set Astra's backpack on the built-in desk near the oven. There was something beeping inside, but Sarah knew better than to go looking for the source of the sound. There were dangerous objects in Astra's impossibly deep pack. Items so dangerous Astra refused to leave them in the Institute archives.

The rice was starting to go cold when Astra returned. She was dressed in a clean pair of jeans and a University of Alabama sweatshirt, but her skin held a faint blue tinge and her damp, normally blonde, hair was a startling shade of indigo.

"Either you have a bomb with the longest timer in the world in your bag or your comm unit is going off," Sarah said before Astra could sit at the table.

"I have not brought home a bomb in over two years. I think it's time to let it go, Sare."

Sarah arched a dark eyebrow, flipped the end of her chestnut ponytail over her shoulder. "'Better safe than missing fingers,'" she parroted.

"You know, that copycat thing was cute when you were five. Now, not so much." Astra dug into her pack and emerged with a silver sphere. It was dented and showed signs of having been burned. Astra held up the device, which put out nearly imperceptible telepathic waves, to her temple. She frowned, slipped the device into her pocket.

"Do you have to go back out?" It would be disappointing, but not unusual. Though her aunt tried to conform to something of a regular schedule, Sarah often ate dinner alone.

"Nope. Just a reminder about Monday's meeting." Astra collapsed in her usual chair, gestured at the chair across from hers. "Let's eat before it gets even colder."

In between bites, they traded stories of English assignments and alien sightings. While having to analyze Lord of the Flies wasn't quite on the same scale as negotiating with notoriously long-winded and pompous Losas, Sarah appreciated Astra's attempt to commiserate. She spread out her trigonometry homework while Astra loaded the dishes in the dishwasher.

"It's an alien conspiracy to take over the planet by turning our brains to mush, isn't it?"

"Reality TV? I thought we already had this discussion."

"No, trig." Sarah glared at her textbook, hoping to set it ablaze with the force of her hatred. "All these sines and cosines and tangents. It's confusing."

"Wait 'til you get to spherical trig, kiddo. I thought I was going to have to tattoo the haversine formula on my arm."

"Not helping, Aunt Az."

"Sorry."

The last dish in the washer, Astra nudged the door closed with her foot and rinsed her hands at the sink. She studied Sarah the way Sarah imagined the geeks at the Institute studied bits of space detritus. Just as Sarah braced herself to ask what was wrong, Astra strode forward and sank onto the chair beside Sarah. Astra placed a hand on Sarah's arm, the blue of her fingers lost in dark fabric of Sarah's sweater.

"What we were talking about earlier - the normalcy your Mr. Barker has- is that something you… want?"

A flippant remark was on the tip of Sarah's tongue, but the seriousness etched on Astra's face forced her to swallow it back. She considered the question. For a time she'd envied the friends who had two parents with normal jobs who didn't race out in the middle of dinners or award ceremonies. She'd resented not being able to have sleepovers in case her guardian came home covered in alien goo or with more injuries than she could explain away. Her friends thought her aunt was a cool spy and that was for the best. The truth was too strange for anyone on the outside to truly understand.

She no longer minded finding random pieces of alien tech in the living room or the garage or the freezer. She knew how to use the stun gun and how to call for help. She knew that her aunt wanted her to join the Institute and she was, more or less, okay with that. She'd accepted that the aliens and weird tech and secrecy and the explosions every other Tuesday were normal.

It meant a lot, though, that her aunt was willing to change her life, the life she'd had long before Sarah was even conceived, for her. She let her mechanical pencil fall to the table and launched herself into Astra's arms.

"No, strange as this life is, I think it's just about perfect."

Warm lips pressed against Sarah's temple. Her aunt's voice was high and bright. "I think so, too."

Sarah's eyes fell on the broken door. It would be the third they had to replace in a month. "Next time you go running after a stray pack of Evirs, could you just knock or call ahead? Mr. Haversham at the hardware store is starting to get suspicious."