K. L. Noone: Alex and the Crime-Solving Werewolf

A blast of a story from K. L., who describes it thus:

This short story was written very quickly, pretty much on the spot, as a get-well fic for a friend, some time ago! Mostly I was trying to make them smile. I’ve sometimes thought about doing something else with it—Alex and Blake are such fun, and this is clearly just their first encounter—but it’s a little out of my usual genres, and I haven’t had the time to give it more attention. Still, I like it, and I hope you do too!

***

Alex Lyster was lying in a hospital bed, alternating between trying to sleep and not wanting to sleep and worrying about deadlines and wondering whether giving a main character appendicitis would be a good plot twist, given recent real-life experience, when his door slammed open and the werewolf burst in.

The werewolf had impressive shoulders and shaggy brown hair and angry eyebrows over ink-pool eyes; he was wearing a nicely fitted suit in a way that suggested he didn’t enjoy it, and he snapped, “Blake Forrest, FBI. What do you know about the cancelation of MysteriCon 2023, and why do you smell guilty?”

Alex was definitely no longer trying to sleep. And probably shouldn’t be enjoying the shoulders and the angry competence and the undeniable presence, at least not quite so much. It was an annoyed kind of enjoyment, because the sexy werewolf FBI agent had shoved his door open and was yelling at him, but his day had inarguably become a lot more interesting.

He sat up more. And folded the blanket over his lap. “Nothing, because I’ve been in the hospital. Busy, you know, getting my appendix out. I canceled as their Guest of Honor yesterday.”

This earned him a noise in response. It was almost a growl. Alex’s spine did a little shiver, thrilled by danger or want or both.

The werewolf FBI agent said, “If you were ill, why do you feel guilty?” and began glaring around Alex’s hospital room, presumably looking for clues, or simply very irritated with nondescript chairs and beeping monitors.

Alex crossed his arms. “Because I had to cancel, and I feel terrible about that? Also, I think interrogating a suspect using meta-human senses, without disclosing your meta status beforehand, is illegal under the Extra-Sensory Perceptions Enforcement Act of nineteen-eighty-eight, thanks.”

The werewolf—Agent Forrest—stopped in the act of glowering at the underside of Alex’s bed to turn the glower on Alex himself. His eyes smoldered, which was not a phrase Alex would normally have written into action-packed thriller crime novels. But they did. “How did you know—”

“About the Enforcement Act? Public knowledge.” He threw the werewolf a smile just to be annoying right back: every drop of golden youthful brazen charm he could muster. “Plus, mystery writer. How did I know you’re a werewolf? Apart from the whole announcing you could smell me line, you mean?”

Agent Forrest had enough self-awareness to look mildly embarrassed about that. “If you haven’t done anything wrong—”

“I don’t have anything to worry about?”

“You canceled less than twenty-four hours before the entire convention apparently ceased to exist, and attendees lost their entire—”

“What division do you actually work for? How to make friends and cross-examine people just out of surgery?”

Agent Forrest paused again. His nostrils flared. “You do smell…”

“I told you, they took my appendix out. You want to see the incision, too?”

“No. I…” Those intense inkwell eyes hesitated, skimming Alex’s face. “You almost died, didn’t you?”

“Yes, because, according to my agent, I’m an idiot who ignores massive painful warning signs and then gets on a plane to Seattle. Does that exonerate me from whatever nefarious plot you think I’ve come up with?”

Agent Forrest stared at him for another second or two. Then muttered, “Maybe,” and turned about and stomped out of Alex’s hospital room. And slammed the door behind him. Hard.

“Okay,” Alex said to the suddenly much less occupied space. “Okay.” And then he looked around for his bag, and a notebook, and his phone.

He had an idea or two. He had the contact information for the convention’s organizer, or the woman who’d claimed to be, who’d invited bestselling author Alex Lyster to speak; he also knew some of the volunteers, who’d helped out with previous convention years. He was thinking about the brand-new organizing committee, and the new tech team they’d brought in. About people no one had known, not even by reputation.

He also wanted to make some notes. He did not normally write much paranormal crime, but he’d done one or two; sometimes that was what a story wanted to be. A new hero, maybe. Tall and dark and grumpy. Dangerous, but sensitive. With broad shoulders and extremely intense eyes.

About an hour later, Agent Forrest reappeared. Once again, he did not knock, though he’d lost his suit jacket someplace and rolled up both sleeves, white fabric against tanned skin, delicious. He opened the door and said, “I talked to your surgeon.”

Alex surfaced from scribbling notes about a werewolf private investigator firm. “I’m glad for you. Did you get his number? Are you going on a date?”

Pink flickered behind dark stubble—artistic stubble, too, which Alex considered unfair—and faded. “I do have his number. Work. Personal. Home. In case you need it.”

“Why would I need it?”

“If you’re in pain. If your stitches open. If you require more attention. If he’s an idiot and left a scalpel inside you—”

“A scalpel?”

Agent Forrest crossed his arms. Muscles rippled. “It happens.”

“Um. Okay.”

“I could tell you the statistics about—”

“Please don’t.”

“I also ought,” Agent Forrest said, with the caution of a man unused to the words, “to apologize? For earlier.”

“Oh, ought you.”

“I’m trying.”

Alex waved a hand. “Don’t worry. Mystery writer, remember? I like puzzles.” And attractive FBI agents, he nearly said. But didn’t. Self-control. Practicing it. “I have a present for you.”

Agent Forrest now appeared profoundly baffled, as if this were not the script he’d had in his head. Up close, and somewhat perplexed, he became younger: Alex’s age, or a couple of years older, maybe late thirties or barely forty, and confronted by new information. “When did you…why…you shouldn’t even…you almost died, yesterday…”

“I didn’t get out of bed. Is that concern? You look concerned. Sit down for this, it’s fun. Would you like the names of all the new organizing committee members, and their official convention-related emails, and, this is the big one, the email one of them sent to an external address, containing financial account information? With some interesting transfers?”

Agent Forrest stared at him more. And then, slowly, sat down. The chair creaked in protest.

“See,” Alex said. “A present.”

“How?”

“I know a lot of the volunteers from previous years, and most of them weren’t happy with this weird takeover by a whole new group of organizers, claiming to have new ideas and all. And one of the previous committee members, someone who worked with the convention finances, still has account access.”

Agent Forrest leaned forward. Intense, alert, poised, and—protective? “You investigated. On your own.”

“I made a call or two. Not dramatic. I thought it might help. Does it?”

“Yes. You should be recovering.” He actually moved as if planning to take Alex’s hand, and then visibly seemed to think better of it. “I don’t want you hurt.”

“Neither do I, so we’re in agreement.”

“But you were investigating.”

Alex raised both eyebrows at him: yes, obviously.

“You…” Agent Forrest exhaled. Ran a hand through his hair. Muttered something under his breath that sounded like, “Humans.”

“My great-great-grandmother was a siren, I’ll have you know.”

This time the grumble sounded like, “Of course she was.”

“What was that?”

“I said,” Agent Forrest snapped, “of course she was. Luring people into trouble.”

Alex grinned. “You think I’m trouble?”

“I think—” Agent Forrest stopped, exhaled, scrubbed the hand through his hair again. In golden afternoon light, small lines lingered around his eyes. “I also brought you something. Here.”

It was a book. A paperback. Clearly used. “Unsolved Mysteries of Victorian London.”

“I thought you might be bored. And writers like…books. I didn’t realize you’d be attempting to give me a heart attack.”

“Because you care so much?” Alex looked back at the book. At ruffled pages, and warmth, as if it’d been left lying someplace in the sun, on a table or in a car, just this afternoon— “Is this yours?”

“No. It’s yours.”

 “You gave me your book. That you were reading. While you were waiting to talk to someone?”

“I thought,” Agent Forrest said, stiffly, “that I owed you an apology. For suspecting you.” His shirt was just on the right side of too tight, Alex decided. The tempting side. And his tie was loose. Drawing attention.

And the room felt warmer. Because an irritable werewolf agent had glared at Alex and accused him of some sort of crime, and then had fretted over him and worried for him and given him something personal, something real.

He said, “Thank you.” He meant it.

Agent Forrest sighed. “Again, I’m sorry. Long day. Not much sleep.”

“I get it. And, hey, I must’ve looked suspicious. Siren blood, crime novelist, canceling the day before a big—what, money laundering? Embezzling? Fraud-related crime?”

“We didn’t know you were a siren. But…yes.”

“I’m flattered, Agent Forrest.”

Agent Forrest hesitated again, and then said, “Can I introduce myself properly? Blake Forrest, Financial Crimes Unit, meta-human, werewolf.”

“Very formal of you.” Alex saluted him from the bed. “Thank you.”

“Do you take anything seriously?”

“Yes. My friends, my career, the fans who’ve lost a lot of money and who’ve been hurt by this. They’re who I write for.” He touched the book cover; he thought, this is serious. You giving me something of yours. A scent of yours, a belonging. “And I’m not much of a siren. It’s diluted enough to not even show up on the registry. Which is why you didn’t know.”

I should’ve known,” Agent Forrest said. “You’re—never mind.” He also bit his lip, and shifted in the chair. “I’ll let you rest.”

“I’m what?”

“Get some sleep. Are you in pain? Thirsty? Can I get you anything?”

“I’m good, thanks. I’m what?”

“I didn’t say anything. I’m leaving now.”

“They’re letting me out of here tomorrow morning,” Alex informed his retreating back. It was also a very nice back. Extremely so. “If you want to know. If you want more help with your financial fraud case and the mystery of the vanishing convention. If you want your book back.”

Agent Forrest paused halfway to the door.

“So I’ll see you in the morning,” Alex said.

“I…maybe. If I have the time.” He put his head on one side, studied Alex. “You’re smiling.”

“Excellent deductive skills.”

“I mean you smell like you’re smiling. Like…sunshine.” Agent Forrest did the hand-through-hair gesture again. Dark strands slid through his fingers, touched with one or two stray streaks of silver. “But you are tired. Get some sleep.”

“That’s cheating.”

“It isn’t. I’ve disclosed it. Rest, Mr Lyster.”

“It’s just Alex,” Alex told him. “Please. We’re sharing books and all, now.”

That earned a tiny evanescent grin, there and gone, tempted out for a second, and oh Blake Forrest was even more glorious when grinning. “I’ll see you in the morning. To ensure your safety. Since you’re recovering. And apparently asking questions. Without oversight or any consultation with the agent in charge.”

“Which is you. And you want me to be safe.”

Blake managed to both blush and glare at him again, which made Alex’s heart do an excited small flip, because yes, yes to the hotness and the hint of power and the protectiveness, please. “I take my responsibilities seriously.”

“I’m your responsibility now?”

Blake did the almost-a-growl noise again, and flung open the door, and vanished with surprisingly little noise, given annoyed werewolf size.

Alex looked back down at the book in his lap. His stitches ached a little, but not badly. His body felt tender, bruised, aware of recent last-minute surgery. But also alive, alert, awake. Intrigued, because he had a mystery and a tantalizing crime-solving werewolf, and he wanted both of those. He wanted them in a way that felt like possibilities, like questions that might have answers, a story unfolding, taking shape before his eyes.

K. L. Noone: Ember and Serenity

Here’s something a little different for the zine, but no less delightful. I’ll leave K. L. to explain all!

“Hello, all! This is something perhaps a bit different—it’s the opening scene of a work in progress, in fact! I’ve been poking at this one, on and off, for a while now; it’ll be a full-length novel eventually, high fantasy m/m romance, stand-alone, beginning in a library, with the theft of a book…and also a kiss.

I’ve been very much enjoying the writing of it so far, so I wanted to share the opening scene—I think it works fairly well as a first-meeting story, and obviously there’s more to come, but it’s a good (I hope!) intro to King’s librarian Ember and his book-thief, whose name, by the way, is Serenity…which is somewhat ironic, considering how much he’s about to, er, disrupt Ember’s peaceful night…”

***

Pic credit: Henry Be on Unsplash.com

Emberly Lyon, reshelving the third volume of Gruyere’s History of Empire, startled a book-thief in the back room of the King’s library at half-past three in the morning.

Ember, one hand still clutching leatherbound pages, blinked at the intruder in lantern-light. The book-thief recovered from surprise first, and demanded, “What are you even doing here?”

“I was—” Instinctive guilt—he’d always been capable of losing time in a book, about which Chance teased him mercilessly, in the way of younger brothers—lost out to baffled anger. “I’m the King’s librarian! What are you doing?”

“I don’t suppose you’d believe I wanted to borrow a novel of seafaring navigation, shipwreck, and improbable feats of adventure?” The book-thief had a voice that laughed: wind over water, copper chimes in arched doorways, melody in sunshine. Ember couldn’t see much of him in library shadow, only the glance of a single dark-lantern’s rays across slender build, petite height, dark hair.

And that laughter. Beckoning.

He glared. “No one’s allowed in here after hours. No one’s allowed in here without my permission. And you’re stealing that!” Book-walls spiraled upward around them, a supportive tower sketched in silken grey, gilt-lettered spines, curious hollow spaces. He and Chance had been filling in those gaps as best they could for the past three years; the late King Brassen hadn’t cared much for reading. Every volume, and not only those in the more valuable back room, was his friend. “Put it back.”

“I’m afraid I can’t. A commission, you see.” Light as chatter across a ballroom, casual as a rowing-party on the Sweetwater; but this river glinted with robbery and danger. The book-thief had quite sensibly worn dark grey and green, fitted and shadowy under a hood; he wasn’t tall, and his voice sounded cheerful and irritatingly blithe, caught red-handed. Literature-handed. Mid-narrative. “Did you say you were the King’s librarian? The King’s librarian is—” He stopped.

“Yes,” Ember agreed, “you were saying?” and shifted weight, ever so slightly.

He and Chance did, in some ways, look alike—the tilt of eyes, that straight Lyon nose, the expressions on his half-brother’s face that Ember had glimpsed on his own in a mirror—but most people never saw that. Never saw past the height, the shoulders, and his skin, midway between King Brassen’s aged tawny gold and the shimmering onyx of the Araly dancer who’d caught the lion’s eye. Chance had the late Queen’s fairness and got sunburnt under rainclouds. Ember had waited in his chambers with aloe creams for years, after Brassen ordered his only legitimate son to keep up on all-day hunts.

His book-thief must be new to Lyonheart. Any person in the city’s market would’ve known. The King’s librarian was the King’s bastard older brother, and at a glance they did not resemble each other.

Ember tended to get stares in that market less because of his coloring specifically—though that was a part of it; traders came by from the Southern Continent often enough to be unusual but not singularly so—but because he loomed. Couldn’t help it. Their father’s muscles.

“The King’s librarian is someone who spends his days indoors with books, I was going to say.” Pale eyes flickered over him. Up and down. Lingering, Ember realized with a shock of thrilled outrage, on his shoulders, waist, below his waist. He couldn’t tell what color those eyes were under the hood, only that they danced in a ray of lamplight. “You, on the other hand, should be rescuing virgins and valiantly slaying monsters in perilous forests. Have you seen your arms, lately?”

That tone was either genuinely honest admiration or outrageous flattery; Ember choked on unexpected absurd laughter. “I’m preventing a crime, aren’t I? Put it back, please.”

“Do you know how difficult it was to break in here? You’ve actually got decent wards up. How’d you manage that?”

“Valiant monster-slayer secrets. Learned in a perilous forest. How did you—stop that!” His thief had begun inching toward the rear—and open, he noticed—window. Lyonheart sprawled sleepily outside, dreaming with the restlessness of an island city-state in the hours before dawn. Morning marketers and broadsheet-vendors and primrose-sellers would be stirring soon, bakeries opening, the drifting scents of strong tea and hot pies and fish-hauls and the clatter of early voices like a hundred melodies at once. Beyond darkened windows the sea lapped at shore, purring, wine-hued.

A few streets down from the palace, etched in black-on-night along the harbor’s curve, he could make out the shabby old spires of the dilapidated Magicians’ College next to the taller newer symmetry of the University. He thought, as he always thought, home; and memories of creaky voices and dusty spellbooks and patched-up robes warmed his bones.

“Sorry. I thought you said I could go. I’m certain I heard that.”

His thief was having fun. Teasing. That laughter again. Ember narrowed eyes at him, stalked closer, and demanded, “How’d you get in?”

“Through the window. And I’d quite like to get out again, so if you’d not mind, I’m trying to borrow a book from your library, which I believe you’ve opened to all visitors—”

“Borrow implies that you’ll bring it back. Visitors come in during open hours.” He put a hand on the book in question; his thief had been attempting to tuck it into a bag. An antique volume. One of Flint’s histories of magic in Lyonheart, volume one, all the way back to the Crossing and the First Kings. The copy itself was fairly old, but they had older; it did not have a jeweled cover, though it did have real gold leaf in illuminated capitals. “Visitors check in at the front gate. So I know who’s in the house.”

“You enjoy knowing who’s here?” His book-thief had dark hair, black or brown; he’d tied it up, but stray waves were escaping. “You enjoy knowing who gets to…come…into your library?”

Young, Ember thought; not a boy, but youthful enough to be reckless, to dare consequences, to twirl on a tightrope. To laugh.

Despite the book between them, they were close enough to touch. Close enough for heat in the night.

And that night crackled: awake and conscious of every sense in a way he was not sure he remembered ever having been. The closest might’ve been the time Chance had come down with summer fever and almost died and not died, opening exhausted eyes and finally seeing him; this was not that emotion but nearly so, a kind of stunned relieved recognition, a quickening to life, the leap of joy in his veins.

His book-thief’s lips had parted, soundless now, gazing up. He’d had to tip his head back to do so; and they stood framed by fourteenth-century political discourses for a moment, caught out of time.

The young man went up on tiptoes, sudden and sweet, and kissed him. A thief’s kiss, a bandit’s kiss, dazzling as sunrise and as audacious.

The young man tasted like cherries, and possessed bones as light as a bird’s, no weight at all against him, and had soft bouncy hair; Ember knew this because apparently his hands had slid into it, pushing back that hood. The book was trapped between them. It held heartbeats and pressed edges into his chest.

The young man drew back, laughed briefly—wondering, as if surprised—and kissed him again, deeper this time, tongue sneaking out to explore, to lick, to drink him in. Ember made a noise, or one of them did, and pulled him closer and met playfulness with strength; his thief outright moaned, shameless, and actually leaned into him, eyes closing.

Warmth flooded through the library, and hummed in his blood, in that welcoming response where their bodies met.

Chilly air rampaged in. Emptiness. No more lips on his. Ember blinked, panted, fought for equilibrium. One hand on the bookshelf.

“I’m really very sorry,” his thief said from the window, perched on the sill like the nightingale he might’ve been, lightweight and song-voiced, “that was—that was—well, you’re not anything I expected. From the King’s librarian. Good night, my valiant monster-slayer.”

He vanished. Out of sight. Doubtless with a rope, a ladder, a daring swing across kitchen-gardens and courtyards. Ember hadn’t recovered enough to go after him.

The young man had taken the book, too. Of course he had. A book, a kiss, Ember’s ability to think about anything other than that kiss. Neatly stolen.

The palace—Lyon House to everyone besides the most particular; it’d been Brassen’s great-grandfather who’d called it a palace, and it wore the name rather sheepishly—opened onto the public square. That laughter, that quickness, would be long gone.

Ember stared at the night. He caught himself lifting a hand to his lips; and then he laughed a little, too, astonished.

Christmas fun with the team #2

Here’s another selection of entertaining answers to the questions I set the team. I must say cats seem to be popular in this instalment! Have fun reading them, check out the ‘Meet the Team’ tab above for links to everyone’s websites and/or books, and have a great time over the next few days celebrating your favourite winter festival.

***

Pic credit: Moondance on Pixabay.com

What’s the one thing you’d take to a desert island?

Rebecca Cohen: a magic lamp with ready-to-rub genie in situ

Alexa Milne: Always a tricky one as it depends on the island. It says desert not deserted so I’m going with there being people there and civilisation. In this case, I’d take my laptop. I know it’s a bit sneaky.

K.L. Noone: Definitely some sort of laptop with portable self-sufficient wifi – practicality, for rescue, and also a way to read and write while waiting!

Chris Quinton: Factor 50+ sun block – I burn too easily

What’s your favourite (or least favourite) Christmas song?

Rebecca Cohen: Stille Nacht – the German version of Silent Night is a favourite thanks to 7 years in Switzerland

Alexa Milne: Favourite though it makes me cry is Christmas List. I can’t stand O Holy Night.

K.L. Noone: As a punk rock and pop-punk kid, most of my favorite Christmas songs fall into that category! Songs like the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Christmastime,” or the My Chemical Romance cover of “All I Want for Christmas,” or Green Day’s “Xmas Time of Year”…or even the Rise Against cover of “Making Christmas,” from the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack! There’s a good Rock Christmas playlist on Spotify, which we had on while putting up our tree…

Chris Quinton: I’m something of a Scrooge – I dislike them, and cheesy Christmas movies.

If you could shape-shift, what creature would you change into?

Rebecca Cohen: A cat – they have the life of Riley in my house and I want in on their sweet deal.

Alexa Milne: I’d love to be a cat as long as I could be a completely spoiled and pampered cat getting to choose what I eat, when I sleep, when I go out. Oh the mischief I could make and be forgiven every time and loved. I could even have my own social media!

K.L. Noone: Some sort of large happy house cat, like a big fluffy Maine Coon: indoor, cozy, well fed, lots of toys, and soft blankets! Aside from that, it would be fun to be able to fly, so perhaps a raven, or something along those lines – not too frightening, but clever!

Chris Quinton: Now, that’s an easy one! An otter, every time!