Monday, February 20, 2006

Hunting-gathering today, + an excerpt - Grave Images, ch. 3

We're still hunter-gatherers. I don't care what anyone says. We attempted to confine ourselves to agriculture, but we are still driven to graze, pick out the ripest plum or freshest loaf. We still wander distances to collect our goods and bring them back to a central point.

I was thinking about that today - how much we transport goods. Our efforts would put some of those ancient trading networks to shame. Most of us travel to feed and clothe ourselves - be it near or far. We consider it a sign of civilization.

I call it hunting and gathering.

There's a theory that humans were actually scavengers, coming out of Africa - following the big predators and eating the refuse. Interesting concept. Is there a human who doesn't admire a bargain, or attempt to get something for nothing? Isn't "free" one of humanity's most uplifting words? Winning Lotto, with its promise of free money, thrills us all.

And we don't trust anything which comes free, or too easily. Symptoms of our scavenger background. Always watching our backs...


Writing isn't going all that well. I'm using too much time promoting my books online. It's a necessary evil, because no one will read you...if he/she doesn't know you exist.


With that, I leave you. Have a fantastic week!

Happy reading!

N. D. Hansen-Hill (all my EBOOKS...except Gilded Folly) (my PRINT books) (my under construction new website) (Gilded Folly)

GRAVE IMAGES (Sir Julius Vogel Award Nominee), chapter 3
Chapter Three

Robart told Andy, "Rennet says they’d murder each other, if they could reach." There was a question in his voice. He couldn’t figure out why Andy had arranged for Marshall and Acklin to be in the same room.

"Hey—I’m just following orders." Andy lowered his head, so Robart couldn’t see the amusement in his eyes.

"Whose orders? The doctor’s?"

"Chandler’s. He decided having Acklin in the room would be better for Marshall’s peace of mind."

"So, you’re following his orders now?"

"Well—I thought about doing it my way—pardon me, our way—but then I remembered Chandler has a way of arranging things—his way. Giving in just seemed like it might be saving everyone a lot of time and frustration." He grinned widely.

"Have you found out any more about him?"


"Ask Marshall. Tell him we’re on his side. See if he’ll fill you in."

Andy looked at him doubtfully. "It might alienate him."

Robart shrugged. "Who cares? Our job is to protect him—and his research. He doesn’t have to like us. His job is to do as we say. For his own good."

As Wakeman was leaving, Robart called him back. Someone like Kris Chandler wouldn’t be that visible unless there was a good reason. His insistence on the shared room seemed out of character. Unless he thinks we’re incapable of protecting Marshall, Robart thought. This is his way of simplifying things.

"There might be something more to this than Marshall’s ‘peace of mind’. Stay alert. Chandler may be worried about another attempt on Marshall’s life."


It was trying to wake him up. Jarron could feel a restless tugging at his blankets; a voice in his ear.

A sense of self-preservation made him force open his eyes, only to find that the room wasn’t dark at all. Besides the dim light at the head of his bed, there was an odd glow to one side, that grew brighter as he watched.

It’s the drugs, Jarron tried to tell himself. He’d welcomed the painkillers ever since the doctor had told him he needed to get more sleep. Only Jarron knew it wasn’t the pain that was keeping him awake—it was the loudness of his thoughts.

He’d told the doctor about the hallucinations, but no one else—other than Kris. Jarron didn’t even know why he’d admitted it to Kris.

A moment of weakness.

He’d regretted it ever since. Ever since he’d seen that flicker of fear in Kris’ eyes.

There were other things, too, but they weren’t as frightening as the weird visions. That time when Wakeman had come into the room. Things like knowing who was standing outside the door, or that there was someone else in the room, even before he opened his eyes.

Like now.

He wanted to close his eyes; to block it out and pretend it wasn’t there. Like he’d done as a kid—hide under the blankets, Jar.

Only he knew it wouldn’t go away. It was too demanding. Insistent. He suddenly realised that hiding would be worse—would give it the opportunity to intrude closer on his space. To prod and poke the blankets. To maybe find a way inside—

Stop it.

Face it.

In the other bed, he heard a gasp. "Jar!" Nick whispered.

But Jarron was busy facing down his demons. "What—what do you want?" he asked, unaware that he’d spoken aloud.

It was the trigger. Like a vortex of swirling golddust, the glow gained substance—gathering it from the far corners of the room.

The outer door was pushed open. Andy Wakeman stood there, stunned, as the creature took form. The light in the hall seemed dim compared to the brightly glowing translucence of the apparition in their midst.

Jarron was only vaguely aware of Wakeman’s presence. He was staring now, at the oddly ethereal beauty of the being at his side.

It was a little girl. As he watched, she began to sway. Then, with a flourish and swirl, she began to dance. Swirls and pirouettes—a phantom ballet, but with a childlike innocence that left Jarron stunned.

No evil intent.

She spun, ending it a little clumsily, as a child does. Her redeeming grace was in the lightness of her step. She ended with a curtsy, and her smile told Jarron she was well aware she was the centre of all eyes.

That’s what it is, Jarron suddenly knew. She just wants somebody to watch.

With a smile that seemed to linger in the room, the dancer faded out. Only a slight chill in the atmosphere marked her passing.

Marked her passing, Jarron thought. Such final words.


Andy had to force himself to walk toward Jarron’s bed, to turn on the light. "You guys all right?" he asked, but it came out with a squeak. He cleared his throat.

Nick fumbled and finally managed to turn on his own light. "I don’t know why I didn’t do that before," he said. His teeth were chattering. "I guess I was hoping she wouldn’t notice me," he said, with an attempt at humour. "How could you talk to it?" He glanced over at Jarron. "You okay?" he asked worriedly.

Jarron was so pale his skin looked yellow. He had beads of sweat on his forehead, and the eyes that met Nick’s were haunted. "She just wanted us to watch," he whispered. He turned away. "So tired."


But Jarron didn’t answer him. His eyes were closed, and for a brief moment, Nick thought he looked dead.

Andy was already on his way for the nurse.


Andy sat down the hall, nursing his second cup of coffee. Despite how much hot he drank tonight, he couldn’t seem to rid himself of the cold that had invaded his bones.

It reminded him of the house he’d lived in as a kid.

That place had cold spots, like the chill he’d felt in Marshall’s room. Something else, too—a feeling of waiting. Only it had never been anything like what he’d seen in Marshall’s room tonight.

People die in hospitals. Of course they’re going to be haunted. That reassured him somewhat, because you could walk away from it. What bothered him more was the way his view of the world—of his own place in it—had been rattled tonight.

Some part of him wanted to go to Robart and demand that someone else take over Marshall’s case. Someone who might be impervious to what Andy had seen. Only then, Andy would have to give a reason.

And that dancing apparition isn’t going to be in any of my reports.

Andy sighed, and took another long gulp of the steaming liquid.


"You have to talk about it," Nick insisted.

"No, I don’t," Jarron replied.

"You trying to pretend it didn’t affect you? Hell, you were the one who passed out." Nick grinned. "I was a little shaky, but you didn’t see me going to pieces."

"Can we just forget about it!" Jarron said angrily. He was yelling now.

Jarron never yelled. Nick looked stunned—and concerned. "Sure we can, Jar," Nick told him. He frowned, some part of him resisting what he was going to say next. "Sorry about bugging you—" he mumbled.

"What?" It was Jarron’s turn to look surprised. Nick never apologised. "Did you actually say you were sorry?"

Nick grinned at him. "Must be your ears," he retorted. "Or a moment of weakness. Do us both a favour and pretend you didn’t hear a thing."


When Kris entered, silently as usual, he was frowning. "Why’d they change your room?" His pride was slightly affronted at having such an obvious "detail" get past him.

"I’ve never been big on dancing," Nick replied. He glanced at Jarron, then burst out laughing. It was interspersed with frequent "ow-w’s" and "o-oh’s".

"Watch yourself, Acklin, or you’re going to rip your stitches." Kris glanced at Jarron. He was pale, and unusually quiet. "How’re are you, Jarron?"

Jarron smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. "Great."


Jarron roused himself—making an effort. "Wakeman was asking about you," he said. "I got the impression he didn’t like the idea—that it was orders."

"What d’you tell him?"

"That you were actually Kris Kringle. This is how you look when it’s the off-season."

"He did, too," Nick confirmed. "You should have seen the look on the guy’s face. At least he’s got a sense of humour."

Jarron’s smile widened. "A damn good writer, too."

"Just stick in the knife and twist it," Nick muttered.

"Don’t worry, Nick. There’s no comparison," Jarron told him.

Nick changed the subject. "He’s got guts. If it’d been me last night, I would’ve quietly closed the door, and waited for our screams to die down."

"What happened?"

"Ghost, goblins, things that go bump in the night." Nick grew serious. "It had to be a ghost. This little girl—"

"Stephanie," Jarron supplied. His eyes were closed, and he was leaning back into the pillows.

There was dead silence in the room.

Finally, Nick asked, "How do you know?"

Jarron opened one eye and smiled. "I don’t. I named her, so we can stop calling her ‘the ghost girl’."

Nick looked relieved. "Anyway, ‘Stephanie’ sort of coalesced from this glob of light, and started dancing around the room."

"Ballet," Jarron told Kris. "Complete with curtsy."

"Wakeman pushed open the door, then just stood there."

"Maybe he was too petrified to move," Kris suggested.

"He was the first one to move afterwards. He came in and put on the lights."

"What did you do?"

"Nearly wet the bed," Nick replied. "Jarron analysed the whole thing, explained to us what she wanted, then promptly passed out."

"What did she want?"

"To be noticed," said Jarron solemnly. "Like any other little kid. She just wanted someone to watch."

"Put that way," Nick told him, "it almost makes me feel bad we switched rooms." He gave a mock shudder. "Almost, but not quite." He was silent for a moment, then recalled what Jarron had said. "What did you mean by ‘no comparison’?" he asked. "For him or for me?"

"Nick," Jarron said. "You know how supportive we are. Kris and I read your stuff. But, it’s not a bad thing to read someone else’s work, just as a kind of quality control."

Kris grinned and turned away. He could guess what was coming.

"Someone like Steinbeck or Hemingway, or Wakeman. Don’t feel bad about this. Consider it an opportunity."

"‘Opportunity’ my ass. If I could reach you, there wouldn’t be enough left to feed your rotten little ferret."


The moon was a damn sight too bright. She would have put it off, if she’d had a choice.

But they’d hired her for tonight. On short notice, too. They’d had everything she’d asked for: schematics, security equipment, as-builts. That was where part of her brilliance came in—the fact she always insisted on as-builts. Not as the plans had stipulated, but how they’d actually gone in. A few hours of scanning and layering as-builts into the computer gave her a much more accurate idea of where all the wiring, plumbing, and sprinkler systems were located. Even the security system had a schematic—for a price. She usually insisted on it.

They’d warned her that the security on the building had been tightened lately. Something to do with an assault on one of their scientists. They didn’t tell her whether they’d had anything to do with it, and she didn’t ask. Her scruples wouldn’t permit her to actively pursue something that had violence behind it. Both she, and her employers, knew it’d be better if her scruples remained dormant.

In the business she was known as the Wraith. She rather liked the term, and it was better than ghost or phantom. It implied an element of ingenuity along with the mystique. Slipping in and out wasn’t enough. She had to have something to show for her visit.

They wanted a copy of the man’s research notes, and any bits and pieces—samples—she could carry. They suspected he’d kept some of his notes at his house, but they were going to work both ends of the puzzle. She’d found it was often the case with these science types: like writers, or computer nerds, they were frequently struck with brilliant ideas at odd moments. Pieces of the puzzle or paradigm that came together and needed to be noted. For the basics, you hit the workshop. For the brilliant idea, you hit the home computer. At work there was often too much pressure, or too many interruptions, for the lateral thinkers to ride their thoughts. Inspiration often occurred in the shower, or during dinner.

She knew, because it had happened to her.

Brilliant, they’d once said. Until the system had dropped the bottom out of her funding, and left her without a job. Brilliant, on the point of developing a novel approach to drought tolerance in temperate plants, which would allow them to grow in desert areas. Food for millions. Then, suddenly, there was nobody to fund her. She found out later that most of her funding had come from certain segments of the ag industry with large investments in the irrigation trade.

So she’d fallen back on her years of training as a dancer. Those ballet and jazz lessons her mother had insisted on, in hopes her career would lead to the stage, instead of merely being upstaged by better-funded actors. The flexibility that needed only a little more structure and discipline to convert it to gymnastics.

Then she began to steal back what the industry had taken from her.

She didn’t mind stealing research, even though she’d once been a researcher. Very little research stood alone. Most of it was built on the painstaking efforts of others, with just that one extra step to make it "original". Research had become like any other commodity: bought and paid for. She was merely taking it an additional step: what she paid for in her effort would be bought at a damned good price.

Tonight she also intended to add to her collection.

She was one spectrophotometer short of finishing her lab. Well, she smiled. Not after tonight.


Kris pulled a chair over near Jarron’s bed and straddled it. Resting his chin on his hands, he sat there pensively. Jarron, recognising the signs, let him think things through.

When Kris finally spoke, it was barely above a whisper. "What are you working on, Jarron? At the lab."

"Endophytes. They’re big right now."

"What are they?"

"Fungi that grow in other plants. Entire life cycles within a host."

"What’s the point?"

"Advantages for both the plant and the fungus. For the host, it’s things like drought resistance and insect resistance." Jarron’s eyes lit up. "Recently, I’ve been playing with viruses—"

"Viruses?" Kris repeated.

Jarron grinned. "Plant viruses, you fool. Anyway, I’m trying to see whether they can be accidentally introduced into plants via introduced endophytes."

"Is that what they’re after?" Kris asked doubtfully.

"I can’t see why they would be. There’re a few species of fungi that can deteriorate wood, and damage people’s lungs, too. I was also running a study on that."

"Sort of like the way some penicillin attack oranges, but can also cause allergic reactions."

"Sort of," Jarron smiled. "I really don’t know what they’re after, Kris. I’m one of dozens of people studying net fungi, too." Jarron looked puzzled. "That’s what’s gotten me from the first—I can’t figure out what they’re after. What’s important enough to kill me for? Most of these ideas are things that have been around for years."

"Could it be your approach?"

Jarron shrugged. "Maybe. I’ve done some interesting stuff recently on lichens, and mutualism. Maybe it’s that."

"Someone must see some way to benefit from it," Kris mused. "Otherwise, they’re taking a hell of a risk for nothing. Have you asked Wakeman why his department’s interested? That might tell us a lot."

Jarron gave a wry smile. "I’ve been putting it off."

"When have I heard that before?" Nick commented from the background.

Jarron admitted, "I guess I’m just not sure I want to know."


"Someone got through security, into Marshall’s lab. Downloaded the information on the hard drive, took some samples. Stole a piece of equipment, too." Andy couldn’t quite keep the frustration out of his voice.

"What piece?"

"Spectro something or other." Andy glanced down at the paper. "It’s used for measuring wavelengths of light, given off by different compounds." He frowned. "Marvellous," he said dryly.

"Talk to Marshall. See if he can shed some light on it." Robart grinned.

"Very funny. I’ll schedule our discussion while Chandler’s there. I have a feeling I’ll understand him a lot better than Marshall."


It wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Andy’d already realised Kris Chandler didn’t adhere to any schedule when it came to his visiting hours. He also guessed that half of Chandler’s visits took place without anyone’s knowledge.

It turned out that wasn’t the hardest part of his "discussion", either. That came when he had to stand there, in front of Chandler, and admit that their security arrangements had failed. That Jarron’s lab had been vandalised—while ISO agents stood around, supposedly on guard.

He’d expected ridicule, but Kris Chandler surprised him. He merely smiled, and Andy realised the other man already knew what had happened. It made him wonder, and he returned Chandler’s look suspiciously. Would a man of Chandler’s ethics—if he’d discovered something worth stealing—hold back merely because a friend was involved? Or would he consider insider information as happy circumstance—the plum that Fate had dropped in his pocket?

"Maybe I should’ve asked you to fill me in," Andy muttered.

Kris grinned. "The Wraith." He smiled pleasantly, like someone savouring an enjoyable memory.

Wakeman looked at him blankly. "Wraith?"

"Not another one," Nick groaned, thinking about the phantom dancer.

"Not that kind of wraith," Kris explained. "A thief. One of the best. She steals a lot of research, and the odd piece of equipment. Supposedly to build up her own lab."

"Do you know her?" Andy asked him.

He knew immediately he’d made a mistake. Kris returned his look in silence.

"Bad move, Andy," Nick commented, grinning. "Loyalty’s NFS."

"NFS?" Wakeman repeated.

Nick’s eyes were serious. "Not For Sale."

Wakeman turned, "Look, Chandler, I didn’t—"

Chandler was gone.

"Oops," Nick said.

Wakeman frowned in frustration. "You’re quiet about all this, Marshall. What do you think about someone stealing your research like that?"

"Name’s Jarron," he replied. "Let ’em." His eyes met Andy’s. "Do you know what they’re after? Specifically, I mean?"

Andy shook his head. "I’m just the deckhand in charge," he replied with a trace of humour. "You don’t know how the system works. If they brief me on it, then they’re giving away the secrets they’re trying to protect. So, I have to operate with blinders on."

Nick hooted. "Chasing spectres in the dark?"

Andy grinned. "Something like that. It’s a matter of puzzling it out." He shook his head at Jarron. "Usually the ‘client’ can give me some clues. You really don’t know what they were after, do you?"

"Why do they call you ‘brilliant’, then, Jar?"

Jar grinned widely. "This is the truth, Nick: I honestly don’t know. Sometimes I feel like it’s all a farce. Though, in this case, if I knew what was stirring everyone up so much, I’d hand over my spoon and let someone else do the stirring for me."

Andy looked thoughtful. "Can you tell Chandler—"

"Kris," Nick interrupted.

"—Kris, that I didn’t mean to overstep the bounds. Sometimes, I have to make up my job as I go along. Tell him I’ll buy him a coffee. No questions. His choice of time and place."

Jarron nodded. "Thanks."

"No problem." Andy grinned and went out the door.


Jarron stared blankly at the pots of paint.

"Dr. Marshall, can you make an attempt to manipulate the material? It’s for your own good. We’re trying to help you regain full movement in your arm and shoulder."

"But, what do I do?" Jarron sounded frustrated.

"Just paint," the physiotherapist tried to explain. "Give yourself over to it." What she didn’t tell him was his doctor’s concern, over the hallucinations. Brain damage.

Angela Tieman had seen it before. It was sometimes a long process, re-training parts of the brain to take over functioning. Most of his motor processes appeared to be unimpaired. It was one of her jobs to see how much therapy he was going to require.

Jarron looked embarrassed. He felt like a kindergarten kid, dabbling with fingerpaints. "Just don’t expect much," he murmured.

She nodded, and went back to her reading. "Do it for yourself, Dr. Marshall," she told him. "Not for me."

Jarron smirked. It was obviously her standard answer. He wondered how many times she’d said it.

But, it worked. It helped him to relax. Jarron stared at the blank paper, and suddenly realised he could give the visions that hid behind his eyes both form and substance.

The dancing girl. Stephanie.

Jarron began to paint.


He’d been quiet for so long that she’d almost forgotten about him. She had an exam to take the next week, in order to upgrade her therapist’s licence. She’d found the swish of the brush a soothing background for her reading.

It was the grumbling of her stomach that told her it was nearing lunchtime. She glanced at her watch. Jesus Christ! She’d kept him at it for nearly two hours—far too long in his condition. What’s the use of an upgrade, if they can my ass? she thought.

"Dr. Marshall," she said, a little breathlessly, "I didn’t mean to keep you—"

The words froze on her lips as she stared at the painting.

It was a little girl: golden, nebulous, with eyes that gazed into her own. He’d captured her figure mid-swirl, and the fabric of her gossamer gown seemed to be in motion. The background was in darkness, yet the dancer possessed an aura that somehow permeated her surroundings, to show hints of light and movement. Somehow, the background was moving, too, just like the dancer herself.

Angela heard a noise from the other side of the room. A man cleared his throat. She turned, with distant eyes, and forced herself to focus on him.

"I’m looking for Jarron Marshall," he said, and she realised Marshall was hidden by the work on the easel.

"He—he’s here." She turned back to look at the painting.

"Jarron," Andy said. "I thought this was a half-hour session."

Jarron shook his head impatiently. "Not yet—" he said.

Andy looked expectantly at the physiotherapist. "Could I see you for a moment?" he said.

He drew her aside. "What’s the matter with you?" he hissed. "Look at him!"

For the first time she did. He was pale and sweaty, and she suddenly realised he’d been on his feet for most of the time since he’d arrived.

"Time’s up," she told Jarron, almost regretfully, Andy thought. What the hell was the matter with her?

Then, he looked at the painting. His eyes widened with shock. "Why do they call you brilliant, Jarron?" He recalled Nick’s question. If Nick had seen this, he never would have asked.

"Not yet," Jarron was pleading. "A few minutes more—"

Driven, Andy thought.

"I need to finish her—" It came out a little desperately.

Andy suddenly understood. After all, he’d seen her, too. Finish it. End it. Exorcise her spirit.

Another thought popped into his head. It was a sign of respect. She was a dancer. She couldn’t dance through eternity—couldn’t make people watch her spin—without her feet.

Andy nodded. "Let me help," he said. He came up on Jarron’s other side—the one that wasn’t wielding the brush, and took the man’s arm over his shoulder, offering him some support. Jarron flashed him a quick grin, then painted on.

It took another twenty minutes. Andy could feel the sweat leaking through Jarron’s shirt. He had almost his full weight now, but he didn’t complain.

At the end, she stood there, just as Andy had remembered her. Sweet, innocent, with eyes that held the glimmer of eternity.

"Dance on," Andy murmured.

Jarron twisted his head to look at him, surprised how well he understood.

"I saw her, too," Andy said simply.

Jarron nodded, and gave him the trace of a smile. Then he pulled away, needing to stand alone, and stare at what he’d done. "Finished," he murmured, and Andy wondered later whether he was referring to the painting, or himself. With a sigh of what sounded like relief, Jarron Marshall collapsed in an untidy heap on the floor.



Andy jumped as Kris slid into the chair opposite him. He knew from the amused grin on Chandler’s face that he’d not only seen his start, but had probably planned it that way.

Nerves, Andy thought. I’ve been caught out too many times recently. The painting hadn’t helped. He couldn’t get it out of his head. "You’re lucky my gun’s in my other suit," Andy told him.

Kris grinned appreciatively. "Jarron said you helped him. What’s it all about?" Kris asked.

"NFS," Andy told him soberly. Then he grinned. "He got stuck with a negligent therapist. I just helped him finish what he was doing."

Kris studied him for a minute. There was obviously something more to it than that. "Jarron looks wiped."

Andy nodded. "He was on his feet for over two hours. He didn’t want to give up, though."

"That’s Jarron all over. Stuck into it, was he?"

"Yep. I had to hold him up so he could finish."

Kris looked at him with surprise. Andy didn’t know if it was more because Jarron had enlisted physical support, or that Andy Wakeman had been the one to supply it. "He must have been pretty desperate to finish what he was doing."

Andy’s eyes were dark and unreadable. "Let’s just say he was working some things out of his system. Look—I promised you no questions. Let’s say it works both ways."


"I want to read you this section I just wrote—" Nick said enthusiastically. "You know how they say ‘write what you know’? I’ve got this great section on alien ghosts."

"Do I get an opinion on the ‘great’?" Jarron asked.

Nick flashed him a grin. "Of course you do. But if it’s negative, keep it to yourself. With your mouth, you could constipate my brain for a year."

"Not likely. You write because your mouth needs auxiliary run-off. Stop up your brain, and your head would explode."

"I’m going home tomorrow. Back to the Alien. She, at least, appreciates my company."

Wakeman walked in the door.

"Hey, Andy—you been feeding the Alien enough?"

"No." He plopped a stack of newspapers down on the end of Nick’s bed.

Nick waited a full half-minute for him to say more, then finally exploded. "What d’you mean, ‘no’?!"

"I’m not feeding her at all."

Nick’s eyebrows went up. He’d been in here ten days now. He sat up and started to push aside the blankets. "She’ll be dead," he moaned, genuinely distressed.

Andy, grinning, shoved him back into bed. "Helga’s feeding your ugly dog," he said.

"Helga?" Nick repeated, surprised. "I’ve been working on her for the past eight months." He turned a little smugly to Jarron. "See, Jar—all it takes is a little heroics here, a little flair there. The women love it."

"Eight months, huh?" Andy grinned. "It only took me eight minutes." Chuckling, he turned around and went back out the door.

"‘A little heroics here—a little flair there’. Never write about women, Nick," Jarron warned him. "Stick to what you know."

Nick threw his pillow across the room.


"Find out where he lives." Robart ordered.

Andy looked a little shocked. "Why?" he asked baldly.

"Just do it. He’s an unknown, and the situation’s rapidly getting out of control. There’s a good chance he’s involved."

"That’s ridiculous. He thinks of Marshall like a brother."

"Ever heard of Cain and Abel? All I’m saying is he had knowledge and opportunity."

Andy knew it’d do no good to argue. He could see where Robart was coming from—it’s what he would have thought himself until a short time ago. "I’ll do what I can," he said.

Or what my conscience will allow.

But later, when Chandler suddenly appeared and ordered up another cappuccino, Andy’s conscience didn’t let him get very far. "I’m supposed to find out where you live," Andy told him bluntly. "You’re a suspect."

"In the theft?"

Andy nodded. "We’d suspect you of the assault, too," he assured him flippantly, "except Halloran’s already got top billing."

"Damn," Kris replied. "I do so like to leave them wondering."

"When you get caught, don’t bother mentioning my name. I never knew you."

"If I get caught, I know a few names that would do me a lot more good than yours," Kris grinned.

"You’re a sneaky bastard, Chandler. I think I’ll use you in my next book."

"As the bad guy, or the hero?"

"Neither. As the sidekick—strictly for comic relief."

When Andy got up to pay the bill, he couldn’t find his wallet. Kris handed it to him with a smile.

"That’s what I mean," Wakeman told him. "A sidekick. Do it again, and I’ll kick you in the side." He added, "By the way—next time, it’s on you."


In the silence that followed Nick’s noisy leave-taking, Jarron started thinking about his last research proposal. He remembered what he’d told Kris: "Endophytes are big right now."

Big to mycologists maybe, or to ag scientists who were looking for advantages that wouldn’t poison stock, but big enough to kill for? Or, assuming Halloran had added the killing part on his own, big enough to steal?

It was more likely they saw some potential in his studies of obscure fungi, that could infect both wood and human lungs. Weapons potential, perhaps? Jarron didn’t think so. Chemical warfare would be far more deadly, and much easier to manage.

Could anything he was doing be worth a human life? Be manipulated into taking a human life? Jarron wouldn’t have thought so. Most of his projects involved means of improving crops, improving drought resistance, giving plants the ability to grow in places they never could before.

The universal endophyte.

Suddenly, Jarron thought he knew what they were after. He’d been doing systematics studies, routinely isolating endophytic fungi from leaf tissues and trying to classify them. He’d sought commonly ingested species of plants from pasture, forest, or bush that exhibited lush growth patterns. Plants that stood out, because everything around them was grazed down, or showed signs of herbivore damage. Plants that, for some reason, weren’t eaten, or which had a better-than-average rate of recovery.

It could be that nothing—from insects to grazing livestock—could ingest a particular plant, thanks to the secondary toxins produced by its endophyte population. Or, it might be that something in the environment had given that plant an advantage, so it could outgrow the grazers in the area. He was hoping to find an endophyte that helped plants recover from routine grazing—one that in some way enhanced survivability.

Then, he’d found a site which had made his imagination go wild. The first time he’d been through, there were a few lush plants, but most of the others had been heavily grazed. He’d taken some samples, but his curiosity had been aroused by the amount of traffic—animal traffic—that seemed to come through that section of bush. Was it a game trail? He’d never seen such a concentration of animal hoof and paw prints in one area. At that rate of browsing, grazing, and trampling, the place should have looked like a desert. He’d decided it merited another look.

He went back three days later. At first, he’d thought he must be in the wrong place. He was surrounded by lush bush. This wasn’t the tropics, and temperate plants didn’t usually grow at this astounding rate. Because it seemed to be a universal attribute, in this section of bush, he collected soil samples as well as leaf samples. He thought he might be on his way to detecting a new type of fertiliser.

He sent off some of the soil to be tested, and did some routine plating and isolation work.

There was one fungus that was present in every sample—except the soil. One fungus that persisted in outgrowing its Petri dish environment so fast that in twenty-four hours it was lifting the lids off the dishes.

He went back again, and collected everything from liverworts to tree leaves. Huge trees, that dwarfed many of the others in the area. Something he hadn’t noticed before, because he’d been so far beneath their canopy. Now he made a point of noticing.

The fungus was present in all his samples—even the lichens. Not as the mycobiont, or fungal partner, but as an accessory. Jarron had never seen lichens that big.

The universal endophyte.

Jarron thought about how endophyte research had grown—a lot of it revolving around finding favourable endophytes to introduce into pasture grasses. Endophytes that could promote growth, and confer some degree of insect resistance, without poisoning cattle or sheep.

Better than genetic research because it didn’t involve altering the genome. Not something that needed to be licensed, or voted on by selection committees. Most of the ornamental grasses now boasted a high percentage of endophytes. It was just a matter of introducing them into a plant, then waiting until they were passed on in the seed.

He hadn’t even really started testing it yet, to see what benefits the endophyte could confer. Hadn’t yet figured out why it conferred them.

But, he’d written a research proposal, for funding—to do just that.

That’s what had tipped them off. Jarron’s mistake was in thinking the thieves were seeking something he was working on now—not something he hoped to do.

His application had tipped them off—had told them about the endophyte, and its potential.

There was somebody out there who wasn’t willing to wait. Someone who wanted it now.



Sunday, February 05, 2006

Finished BoneSong + excerpt from Grave Images (chapter two) +

I can't believe I finished BoneSong yesterday! It seems like I've been writing it forever. I'm not sure, even now, that I tied up all my loose ends. Hopefully, any dangling scenes will resolve themselves in the rewrite.

In a minute I'm going out with my daughter to buy some chippies.

Oops - bought them. They're gone. Sour cream and chives - the only kind to get.

We ate M&Ms and drank Diet Coke to celebrate finishing my book.

Had a marketing meeting today, with some other NZ authors. We're all desperate to find ways to get our books onto NZ bookshelves. It's just so expensive to have books shipped here from overseas, and it prices us out of the local market. We could ask our publishers to produce them here, but it's difficult to find a competitive printer for POD - and even harder to find printers who will produce books a few at a time. That's the rate at which bookshops order them.

These are good authors, too - finalists, award winners. But they're - we're - making a pittance, because we haven't been able to get much name-recognition overseas. We're trying to figure out a way to boost sales, by hitting our local market. Besides, there's something about seeing your book(s) being read on the bus, or playing fly on the wall in the bookstore.

Part of our meeting was about name recognition, and getting our names into the marketplace. I have some fans (it sounds weird to say that!), and my books have been compared favourably with Koontz, King, and Anne McCaffery, but that doesn't assure me readers.


N. D. Hansen-Hill (all my ebooks...except Gilded Folly) (my INTERNATIONAL print books - so far, ELF & TROLLS ) (my under construction new website) (Gilded Folly)

Oh, below is an excerpt from Grave Images - to celebrate the completion of book#24!

Chapter Two

"Damned traffic!" Kris Chandler swore. Knowing what it was like in this part of town, he started looking for parking four blocks away. A place opened just ahead of him, and he slid the car straight in.

He grinned, and started walking. Nick was probably swearing up a storm about now. He always insisted on parking within a two-block radius. Kris, on the other hand, preferred his car as disconnected from his ownership as he kept his friends dissociated from his work.

The flashing lights triggered that tight feeling in his gut. They’re in front of you, Dumbass—not behind. They’re not after you.

An ambulance wailed past him. Some kind of traffic accident. Kris frowned as he thought about Nick’s driving.

No way. Too much of a coincidence. Don’t assume every police car is for you. Don’t assume every ambulance holds someone you know.

The ambulance was having a hard time of it. Something—Kris assumed it was the accident—had traffic backed up. He grinned again. If Nick was stuck somewhere in this, he’d be hard on the horn. It went with his carefully cultivated attitude of: "if it can’t be done fast, it’s probably not worth doing."

The police cars were close now, and Kris unconsciously averted his face. It was then he saw what was blocking the traffic—what a bunch of uniformed officers were trying to shift out of the way. Nick’s car. There was no mistaking it. Kris gulped. Where was Nick?

For the first time, Kris noticed where the police cars and a second ambulance were sitting. Jarron’s house.

Caution made him want to turn back the way he’d come—the years of friendship kept his feet moving forward. As Kris drew closer, and saw them pull the stretcher out of the back, his feet took over completely from his head. Kris Chandler began to run.


Kris beat the paramedics into the room. His eyes took quick note of the damage to Jarron’s house, as he knelt near Nick on the floor. Someone had rolled Nick on to his side, and placed him in a recovery position. Kris took off his jacket and laid it over his friend.

There was blood all over Nick’s shirt. Kris lifted it quickly, looking for an injury, but there wasn’t one. Then he saw the blood on the ground.

So much of it. Jarron’s? He paled.

He looked up, into the eyes of a policeman. Or, maybe not a policeman, Kris thought. He’d made a point of familiarising himself with the looks and characteristics of policemen. It came in useful in his work. This man was something else.

"Is he alive?" Kris asked.


The man’s eyes narrowed. Not "Where’s Jarron?" or "Who are you?". Just an "Is he alive?" Not only that, but this newcomer assumed that he’d understand the reference. That he’d realise they weren’t speaking of the victim on the floor, though obviously he was concerned about him as well.

No questions like "what happened?"

"I don’t know," the man replied honestly. "He was when he left here."


Kris nodded. As the paramedics went to work on Nick, Kris replaced his jacket with a blanket.

"We should have a talk." The man had moved behind him.

Blocking my retreat.

Keep a low profile. "No problem," Kris agreed as he walked alongside the stretcher.


The man watched as they loaded Acklin into the ambulance. Then, he turned to Kris. "Now, Mister—?"

But Kris was gone. The man looked in the ambulance, behind it, then up and down the street. Feeling like a fool, he even went back in the house, to see if the guy had gone past him somehow.

Then he felt more like a fool than ever. Right before his eyes, in full daylight, the guy had somehow vanished.



The whispered voice interrupted his dreams, and brought back the throbbing headache. "Go away!" he said grouchily. "Let me suffer in silence."

"Nick—it’s me."

Nick opened one eye. "I know it’s you. So what?"

Kris grinned. "So, how are you?"

"Hung over. Have you seen Jarron?" he asked worriedly.

"In the recovery room or intensive care?"

"He’s doing okay then?"

Kris smiled. "Yeah. He’s a real mess—face all puffy down one side, tubes coming out of his chest, bandages all over the place." He hesitated. "What happened?"

Nick made an effort to remember. "Whatever it was, it was fast. I saw him go in, and ran across the street. I only stopped to call the police—"

Kris looked at him in surprise. "You?"

"I had this bad feeling, okay?"

"Odds were against him?"

Nick gave him a trace of a smile. "Something like that." He yawned. "Anyway, when I came in the door, the guy hit me. Either he’d already shot Jar, or maybe I passed out. Never heard any shots."

"A silencer?"

"I don’t know."

Kris frowned. A silencer indicated this wasn’t any ordinary burglary.

"Did you do this?" Nick looked at the miniature TV, flowers, potted plants, stacks of racing mags, some math puzzle books, and several boxes of chocolates.

Kris grinned.

"Hand me a chocolate, you ass." Nick smiled back. As he bit into the caramel, he asked, "What’re you gonna do to Jarron’s room?"

"The man’s into fungus," Kris reminded him. "You don’t even want to know."


"Stupid thing to do." The words were out before Jarron even realised he’d spoken—before he even realised he was awake. The echo of them was like a whisper in his brain, and he didn’t recall thinking them.

But now he could agree with them. Everything he owned hurt—or, at least, that was the way it seemed. If it didn’t ache or pound or sting, it must belong to someone else. "Stupid," he muttered again.

"Probably," a voice said agreeably. "Unless he was going to kill you anyway."

"Con-man," Jarron tried to explain. He struggled to open his eyes. "Gonna murder Con-man."

"The ferret?" There was a trace of amusement in the other man’s voice. "They’d already wrecked your house."

Jarron tried to nod, sucked in a quick breath of pain and changed his mind. He gave a trace of a smile, pleased that the man understood. "Yeah. Not they. Only one—I think."

"Did you see him?"

Jarron thought about that one for a moment. He forced his eyelids apart. "He’s not you," he muttered.

"Good thing, huh?"

Jarron smiled. "Still tired," he whispered.

Andrew Wakeman looked around the room. "Someone really did this place up for you. Do you know who it was?"

Jarron’s eyes shifted from the pathology magazines that had been stolen from somewhere, to the posters of mushrooms on the walls. There were boxes of expensive chocolates, and a laptop computer sat on the table, waiting for him. Kris, he thought. His smile widened. "Friends," he told the police-type. Jarron was certain now that’s what the other man was.

"Do you want me to check into it for you? Find out who it was, so you can thank him?" Wakeman had his suspicions. Someone had done the same in Acklin’s room. Somehow come in and out—made his deliveries and escaped unseen. Not even the nurses had a clue. Disappearing acts. Like the man at Marshall’s house.

No friendly gesture. "Nope," Jarron replied. He knew the guy could dust for fingerprints, or run the serial numbers of the computer, but it wouldn’t do him any good. Kris had a way of covering himself. "I’m happy." He looked beyond Wakeman, to where some other people lingered in the shadows. "Sleepy," he muttered. "Could you get the rest of them to leave? Please—" he asked.

Wakeman twisted and checked behind him. No one there. A chill went down his spine, and he forcibly checked his reaction. Marshall had taken a hell of a blow to the head. Humour him, he thought. "They’ll come with me when I go. Talk to you later, Marshall." He hesitated, then added, "I’m putting a guard on your door, just in case."

Jarron didn’t hear him. He was already asleep.

Wakeman frowned and went out the door.


Andy Wakeman sat in his supervisor’s office, thinking for what must have been the hundredth time, how much better it was to be dishing out the questions instead of delivering the answers. Give me field work any time. "He might be able to recognise the man, once he’s stronger. He’s a little vague right now."

Colin Robart looked up worriedly at that one. "How vague?"

"The doctor thinks his memory’s intact, if that’s what you’re worried about. But it’s too early to know for sure. Marshall’s floating—talking about people who aren’t there. Things like that." Wakeman looked tired. Robart had put him on the case when the first police call had come through. It had been over forty-eight hours now. "We’ve got an unknown."


"Friendly. He’s managed to avoid me so far. I ran his description but no luck."

"How friendly?"

"At the scene, then at the hospital. At least, I’m pretty sure it was him at the hospital. No one admits to seeing him."

"Go home, Andy. Get some sleep. You’re rambling."

Wakeman smiled. "I’m not kidding. This guy’s the original disappearing man. He appears on the scene, agrees to be questioned, then vanishes before I can talk to him."

"Maybe I should hire him," Robart said, amused.

"Acklin’s and Marshall’s rooms at the hospital are suddenly filled with posters, flowers, chocolate—unbelievable. Nobody saw it happen."

Robart frowned. "What about the guard?"

"That’s why I posted a guard. I couldn’t believe Marshall could be under such close watch by the nursing staff, and nobody see his benefactor. I think it’s the same guy from his house."

"Get a composite made up and distribute it."

"Already did." Andy Wakeman sighed. "But I have a feeling it won’t do any good."

"What do you mean?"

Andy realised how foolish it must sound and shook his head. "Nothing. Just tired," he admitted. He rummaged in a clear file, and handed the composite picture to Robart. Rubbing his eyes, he said, "I’m going home to sleep. Unless the world’s coming to an end, don’t wake me up." He was silent for a moment. "On second thought—if the world’s coming to an end, just let me sleep."


It was no problem for Kris Chandler to access Jarron’s house once more. The place was being watched, and the surveillance went beyond human endeavour, to some fancy electronic gimmickry he’d read about. He easily circumvented both.

It was probably too late. If the thief hadn’t found what he was looking for, then Wakeman’s people probably had. Wakeman had struck him as the thorough kind. Unless he had no notion what he was looking for.

Kris, however, did. He’d known Jarron a long time. Long enough, anyway, to have figured out how sensitive his research could sometimes become. And—even if Kris hadn’t known—the presence of somebody like Wakeman, on a simple theft and assault case, would have clued him in.

Kris stood there in the shambles of Jarron’s living room. What a godawful mess. He already knew how it would go: Jarron would be released from the hospital, and forced to come back to this. He’d have to mop up syrup and old blood off the floor. It wasn’t in the budget to have someone do it for him.

Kris momentarily considered having a cleaning crew in to do the job. Except they might clean away the very things Kris was looking for. The things everyone was looking for.

Besides, Jarron would have a fit. Stuck in bed like he was, Kris had more or less forced him to accept what had happened at the hospital. Jarron would be furious if Kris extended the same kinds of unilateral changes to his humble home.

Kris sighed. If someone was going to be stuck with clean-up, it looked like it would have to be him. Nick was in no shape to help out—that was sure. Kris tried to picture Nick scrubbing the carpet and failed. He’d be the first to want to hire in the cleaning crews. Not a patient man.

Kris, on the other hand, could be infinitely patient—when he needed to. Still wearing the gloves he’d worn on entry, he squatted down, and began to carefully sift through and gather up the remains of Jarron Marshall’s belongings.


It was like someone nudging at his brain. Wake up. You’ve got company. Jarron opened his eyes to a nearly dark room. It was night, but one of the windows was standing open. Jarron didn’t even bother looking around. "Hi, Kris," he whispered.

"Did I wake you?"

"You mean when you fell in the window, then stomped around on the floor? Not a chance."

"Everyone’s a critic. I thought you’d be praising my subtlety."

"Like your subtle calling cards around the room?" Jarron reached out his hand. Kris grabbed it. "Thanks, Kris. Did it satisfy your yen to show-off?"

Kris grinned. Leave it to Jar, to pick up on the less obvious aspects of his "gifts". "Damn right. Everyone and their brother is trying to figure out how I did it."

Jarron’s eyes were dark with concern. "Kris—I’ve got problems."

Kris frowned. "What’s wrong?"

Jarron hesitated. Now that he’d brought it up, he felt embarrassed.

"Spill it, Jar."

"I keep seeing things. People who aren’t there. Lights. Voices."

"How do you know they aren’t there?"

"By the reaction I’m getting. Once I figured out that I was hallucinating, I could sort of pick out the unreal parts—the ones that don’t exist. They look more 2-D."

Kris nodded. "Can you tune ’em out?"

"To some extent. I think I could learn. It gets worse when I’m tired."

"How’s your memory?"

Jarron smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. "I think it’s okay, but about now, I’m not so sure I’m a good judge." There was frustration in his voice as he added, "Of anything."

"Concussion," Kris said confidently. "You’ll be better in a few days."

"You’ve heard of something like this?"

"Happens all the time," Kris lied.

"Thanks, Kris. For everything. Especially that last one."

"Would I lie?"

"Not usually to me," Jarron replied honestly. "That’s why I generally don’t ask what you’ve been up to." He frowned. "You’d better go."

Kris looked startled. "What’s up?"

"The guy—what’s his name? Wakeman? He’s on his way."

"You can’t know—"

"Go, Kris! Now!"

Kris didn’t say any more. He just headed for the window. He’d barely made it out when Wakeman walked in the door.

"They told me the way the monitor was acting, you were probably awake."

Jarron yawned. "Don’t you ever sleep?"

"Not nearly enough, Dr. Marshall." He gave an exaggerated shiver. "Cold in here. Opening the door slightly, he asked the man outside, "Could you get them to bring an extra blanket? Thanks." He turned to Jarron. "How’re you doing?"

But Jarron was lost in thought. When Wakeman had turned his back, Jar had caught a final glimpse of Kris’ face at the window. He’d looked startled, and there’d been a trace of something else there, too. Wariness. Maybe even fear?

Jarron knew that if he looked in a mirror, he’d see the same expression in his own eyes. How the hell had he known Wakeman was even here? That he was heading for the room?

It’s logical. You were awake, your heartbeat was showing up faster on the monitor, you guessed either Wakeman or one of the nurses would be in to check you.

It sounded good—even convincing—it’s what he’d tell Kris the next time he came.

Now, Jarron Marshall just wished he could convince himself.


Jack Halloran didn’t know what he was going to do. His life had undergone a major change in minutes. He’d thought he was in control. He had certain skills that paid well—mainly because he wasn’t afraid to use them. That gave him certain advantages. A lack of conscience always tended to pay better than any kind of moral outrage. Jack had been a master in a limited field.

But he’d totally blown the job. Failed to deliver the merchandise, allowed at least one of his victims to get a look at him, and nearly blown away the researcher—the one they were so interested in. Carelessness. Sloppiness. Stupidity.

Never allow yourself to get side-tracked.

If they knew, he’d be dead by now.

That was the funny part. They’d ordered the job, even paid him half, but they didn’t know he’d failed. Oh, they’d heard about the burglary, and the critical injuries inflicted on Jarron Marshall, but they didn’t realise Halloran had done it. If Halloran had been any more clever, or bungled just slightly less, he’d be dead. They’d have made sure of it.

But he’d never failed them yet. They wouldn’t have believed him capable of such criminal stupidity. The criminal part, yes—but not this degree of stupidity. They thought someone had beaten him to it. That in itself was ludicrous: as though the thieves were lining up, waiting to break in.

I can still get the CD. Take in a hard drive, and download anything else off the computer. Chances were the information was still there, untouched.

Jack wasn’t worried about the police, but he was concerned about the others—the ISO—Investigative Security and Operations—people watching Marshall’s house. He’d been warned they took their work seriously, but they were too damned purposeful— a fact which Halloran thought was damned stupid. If his employers had been doing their job, the ISO investigation should have been only cursory—the guard-duty an easily-averted formality. Instead, he’d have to work at this one now. Avoid being seen, or triggering their alarms. He frowned, disliking the effort this was going to cost him. Definitely people to watch out for.

And, if Marshall could identify him, he still had trouble. It seemed unlikely the man would remember much. The battle had been too brief, and too heated. Halloran doubted whether even he would have been able to form a clear picture of his adversary, and he’d had an opportunity to observe him first.

But, if Marshall did remember him, it would definitely be a problem. Jack couldn’t afford to have pictures of himself lodged in police files—not in his business. And he couldn’t afford to have his employers lay the blame for Marshall’s condition at his door.

For the fourth time that day, Jack picked up the phone. "Is Jarron Marshall still on the critical list?" he asked.

The woman recognised his voice. Pleased that he was so interested in his friend’s health, she told him enthusiastically, "He’s coming along, Mr. Haskins. He’s only listed as ‘serious’ now."

A feeling of doom tightened his gut, but Jack kept his tone light. "Thank you so much. I think I’ll pay him a visit."


Everyone—from Kris to the nurses to Wakeman himself—had been assuring him that Jarron was fine.

"Doing great," one of the nurses had said.

"He has a guard on his door," Wakeman had assured him, the last time he’d asked. As though that would stop him from bleeding to death, or dying from some kind of infection.

Nick couldn’t get the picture out of his brain. The blood seeping through his fingers as he tried to stop the bleeding. Blood going everywhere—

He scrunched his eyes closed, but the picture was still there.

It was no good. Nick knew he tended to get fixed on things, and right now, his fixation was on blood—blood and his best friend. He wouldn’t believe any of their assurances unless he could see for himself.

He knew Wakeman had wondered about him at first, but then Kris had come along, and made him wonder more. Nick grinned. Kris the magician, the special effects man, the industrial spy. Sneaky bastard. Kris set such a value on the few friendships he maintained, that you couldn’t help but value him back.

Nick climbed out of bed. He felt like he’d been sleeping forever. He’d had his little vacation. It was time to get back to the real world.

He was going home this afternoon, but he’d already made up his mind he wasn’t going until he’d visited Jarron. Just to make sure he was still alive. There’d been something wrong, when Kris had stopped by last night. Something Kris wasn’t willing to talk about. Time to find out what that something was.

Nick went to the closet and slipped on his clothes. Jarron’s room was upstairs, near the surgical unit. He cautiously opened the door, and headed for the elevator.


Jarron knew the moment the man entered. He came in silently, but there was something about him that drew Jarron’s attention. "I know you," Jarron said. He didn’t know where the words had come from, but they were accompanied by a sinking feeling.

"I’m your orderly," the man said, smiling.

Look at his eyes, Jarron, a voice said. Flat. Expressionless.

"No, you’re not." Indiscreet. Shut up, Jarron.


He wasn’t yelling for help. Halloran decided to play it out. Marshall might think he recognised him, but he might not know from where.


Some of the anger, that had driven him two days before, suddenly flared. Jarron’s eyes narrowed. "You’re the one—the one who trashed my things."

And nearly killed you, a voice reminded him.



Halloran relaxed. He could stop acting now. "Not everything," he said calmly. "That’s why I’m here."


Nick frowned. Wakeman had said there was a guard on Jarron’s door.

Huh. Nobody here. That had been one of Nick’s biggest concerns—talking his way into Jarron’s room.

He grinned. Must be on a break. I got lucky. He pushed open the door.

It took him a second to realise what he was seeing. The pillow. The flailing fist.

The Fucker was trying to smother him.

Nick took three steps and dove. Forward tackle. His momentum took him over the bed, and ploughed him full-weight into the guy. The two of them toppled off onto the floor.

For just a moment, Nick’s weight held the other man pinned. But he was tricky. Just like Kris. Tricky, fast, strong.

And trained. Nick had been in his share of fights, but this creep had moves he’d never seen before.

But Nick had the motivation. Something told him he was fighting the same one who’d rammed him into a wall. Who’d shot Jarron three times—an unarmed man.


Halloran wanted out. Nothing was going right on this one. Too noisy, too many witnesses. He booted his assailant hard—in the chest—and felt a satisfying crunch. That oughta do it.

But it didn’t. The man paused only briefly, then came at him again. What was it with these people?

Halloran pulled out a knife. Messy business, knives. But it would silence this one in a hurry. As the man lunged at him again, Jack Halloran lashed out and caught him in the side. The man collapsed, like a punctured balloon. Jack shoved him backwards, and watched him slam against the wall. As if in slow motion, his eyes rolled up and he slid down to the floor.

Jack stood up, casually straightened his shirt, and fastidiously mopped the blood off his hand with a handkerchief. He glanced at the bed. Marshall was moving, weakly stirring, but hadn’t regained consciousness.

Maybe he never will. Halloran glanced at the man on the floor. Too late to keep it clean. Get it done, and get out. Before they find the guard. Before—

He didn’t get a chance to think anything else. Someone else was there now, and Halloran had no idea where he’d come from. And this guy knew how to fight.


"Rickardson’s not answering his phone," Samuels told Andy Wakeman. They were downstairs still, in the hospital lobby.

"Shit!" Andy started to run.

The elevator seemed interminably slow. Sure enough, there was no sign of Rickardson. Wakeman pushed open the door to Marshall’s room.

It slammed back in his face, as a body was smashed against it. Then there was a muffled thud as the same body landed on the floor. Andy pushed open the door again, forcing the man’s legs to one side.

Andy took a quick look, then told Samuels, "See if you can find Rickardson."

Kris grabbed Halloran by one arm and yanked him out of the way.

"Don’t kill him," Andy said calmly, as he came into the room. "I need to know who he works for."

"Kellerman Enterprises," Kris told him. He went down on his knees beside Nick. Jarron was moving, but Nick wasn’t.

"Jesus!" Andy said, seeing the blood. "Shot?"

"Knifed. Get somebody," Kris urged. "Hurry!"

Andy nodded. "Don’t go anywhere," he yelled over his shoulder, as he tore out the door.

"S’bad?" Jarron’s voice came from the bed.

"I don’t know," Kris told him. "I don’t want to move him." He glanced up, and met Jarron’s worried gaze. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Nick must’ve pulled him off me."

Nick jerked awake. Kris caught his fist as it swung toward his face. "It’s okay, Nick. It’s me."

Nick’s eyes widened, and he blinked to clear them. "Did I get him?" he whispered.

Kris nodded. "Yeah, Nick. You got him good."


Andy couldn’t figure it out. It’d been bothering him from the first. He couldn’t figure out why ISO had been called in on this one.

It wasn’t as though Jarron Marshall was working on chemical warfare, or new weapons research. The man was into plant diseases. He worked at one of the dozens of ag research facilities around the nation. Andy had suspected there might be a drug affiliation—maybe Marshall had delved into new strains of hallucinogenic mushrooms or plants, that ISO wanted to keep out of the marketplace—but he couldn’t find anything to support the theory. Apparently, Marshall had a reputation for brilliance in his field—his field just wasn’t anything that had previously interested ISO.

You’re not supposed to ask. Your job is to protect him. Not to question his work. But Andy’s curiosity had been stirred. Now, as he faced Robart across the desk, he wondered just how far he should dig.

"We found Rickardson in the empty room across the hall."

"I heard. What I can’t figure out is why Halloran didn’t kill him."

Andy shook his head. "Too messy. Jarron Marshall saw Halloran—enough to ID him, anyway. I think that’s why he took a chance. He was worried Marshall could pick him out—give us a description." Andy’s voice was amused as he added, "As it turns out, the bastard was right."

"Has he told you what he’s after?"

Andy nodded. "With persuasion. A CD—some of Marshall’s research. He didn’t say what research."

"What about Kris Chandler? Did you find out who he is?"

"That’s the most interesting part of the whole thing. He doesn’t exist—on our records or anyone else’s. So we put him on ours." He chuckled. "By the next day, he’d somehow wiped the file. Gone again."

Robart looked startled, then angry. "How? How the hell did he get into our files? Who is this guy?"

Andy shook his head. "Damned if I know. It made me start wondering about Nicholas Acklin, and why Marshall and Chandler spend so much time with him. It turns out Acklin’s something of a genius, too. He’s into mathematics, but on the side he writes sci-fi. Best-selling sci-fi."

"Jealous?" Robart asked him.

"You know?" Wakeman frowned.

"I make it a point to know. You may not write best-sellers, but Tomkins and Rennet think you’re one of the best." Robart smiled. "Rennet says you’re wasted on mystery stories. Your field’s political intrigue—spy stuff."

"Too close to home. I might give something away."

"Not the way you write."

"You’ve read my books?"

"Sure. I agree with Rennet. Go with the spies. You’ve heard that adage ‘write what you know’."

Wakeman chuckled. "Spy stuff might be interesting to other people, but to me it’d be boring as hell."


Nick had just dozed off again. He was reaching that level of limpness, where everything was relaxed, and nothing ached, when the sound jerked him awake. He jumped, which hurt like hell.

"Now I know how you felt," a voice was saying.

"About what?" Nick grumbled. "And who the hell cares what you know, anyway?"

"Watching me bleed all over the floor."

"Didn’t bother me a bit," Nick replied. "As long as you didn’t expect me to clean up after you. Shut up, so I can get some sleep."

Jarron started working on the laptop—awkwardly tapping the computer keys with one hand.

"Dammit, Jarron. Can’t you just be quiet?"

"Like you, you mean? What about all your visitors, and the TV going all night long?"

"That was my agent—"

Jarron grimaced at him.

"Okay, so his wife and daughter came, too. What about your ‘friends’? Doctors Dung and Mucus. Going on and on about how well their cells were growing. And that’s bullshit about the TV. I used the earplug."

"Yeah—with the volume up just loud enough to make that insect whine."

"I feel inspired," Nick said sarcastically. "Tonight I’m starting my new book. Maybe I’m too weak to use the keyboard. I might have to use the microphone."

"Fuck you, Acklin. I feel a sudden attack of pain coming on. Give me enough drugs, and you can type yourself."

"What was Wakeman thinking of?" Kris’ voice interrupted the argument. "To put you two in the same room?"

"Don’t pull that bullshit on me," Nick told him. "He says it was your idea."

Kris’ shrug infuriated Nick. His grin infuriated him more.

"And why do you have to be so damn sneaky? Why can’t you come in the door, like everyone else?"

"I did come in the door. You just didn’t notice." Kris plopped a book on Jarron’s chest. "Read this. It’ll keep you out of Nick’s hair." He folded up the laptop and took it out of Jarron’s reach.

"Give it here," Nick said. He snatched the laptop out of Kris’ hand.

"What’s this?" Jarron turned the book over, and looked at the blurb.

"It turns out Wakeman’s a writer, too. Mystery stories. Not too bad." Kris grinned at Nick. "If he ever got into sci-fi, he might give you some competition."

"He doesn’t look like a writer," Jarron commented.

Kris just shook his head. He could guess what was coming.

"What do you mean by that?" Nick asked angrily.

"He’s the athletic type—obviously spends time at the gym. Looks like he has an IQ over forty, too." Jarron grinned, and relaxed back against the pillows.

"You’re an asshole, Jar," Nick told him. "Anybody got a club?" he yelled.

"Shut up, you moron."

There were two men on duty outside the door now, and one poked his head in. "Is there a problem?" he asked.

"Yeah—he’s raving. Give him some drugs," Nick said.

The man grinned, shook his head, and retreated. They could hear him laughing through the door. Marshall and Acklin had been at each other’s throats all day.

Kris pulled a sandwich out of a bag, stuffed a wad of cotton in one ear, and the TV’s earplug in the other. He tipped the chair back against the wall, and turned on the news.

"Jar?" Nick asked, a few minutes later.

Jarron was reading. He took a moment to respond. "Yeah?"

The slow response just added to Nick’s irritation. Jarron was never that absorbed reading one of his books. "The next time your life needs saving—warn me, so I can be out of town."

*If you'd like me to post a few more chapters, drop me an email to tell me (!