Free Fiction X 2
For anyone following me on Twitter (@mikestackpole) or on Facebook, the following is old news, but I do have some new details. Night Shade Books has made a deal with Amazon to give away copies of At the Queen’s Command free. This offer, I’ve been told, runs at least until my birthday (11/27) and is good in the United States and Canada. Please, feel free to snag a copy to read on your smart phones, computers, Kindles or any other device which has a Kindle app—which is pretty much anything with a chip as nearly as I can tell. 🙂
Fingers are crossed that Night Shade will be able to work out a similar deal with other ebook retailers (Nook, Kobo and Apple) to make the book available through them.
Please let everyone you know about this deal. Retweet as much as you want. I promise, the supply will not run out.
But that’s not all:
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a second story about Jack Card, Boy Skeptic. The first story, The Adventure of the Ghost Watch, is still available here on my website, for free. The Jack Card stories marry two loves of mine: Skepticism/critical thinking and the old Encyclopedia Brown stories. I ate those stories up when I was a kid. Two years ago, when I got the idea for the Jack Card stories, I snagged a collection of the Encyclopedia Brown stories and still found them intriguing. The author, Donald J. Sobol, manages to write these elegantly succinct mystery stories in which the reader is challenged to find the solution to each case. The solutions are printed in the back of the books, and sharp-eyed readers can pick out the details upon which each solution hinges.
The Jack Card stories are a bit different. First, they’re all organized around some paranormal phenomena. The first story involves a ghost. The second one, which you can read below, involves a dowser. Second, they run a bit longer than the Encyclopedia Brown stories because the mysteries need a bit more set up and, frankly, I’m not as good as Mr. Sobol at writing short. Even so, at roughly 3,000 words each, the Jack Card stories are some of the shortest stories I’ve even done. Third, and this is just a stylistic difference necessitated by the changes in the reading audience since Encyclopedia Brown first showed up in 1963, I add more in the way of characterization than Mr. Sobol does. Down through the years, as mysteries shifted into crime fiction, the books got bigger and characterization is a huge part of that. The focus moved from being solely on the puzzle to be solved, to a split between that and the development of characters. I love playing with characters, so this shift suits me just fine.
This second story, The Crossed-wires Adventure, is largely based on the work of James Randi and his educational foundation (JREF) in exposing dowsers and water-witches. Over coffee at DragonCon in 2010 Randi was kind enough to explain some details to me which figure into the tale that follows. It’s my hope that this story can, in some small way, encourage critical thinking and/or be an easy way for folks to learn the truth about certain paranormal phenomena. (And by paranormal I mean evanescent and by phenomena I mean persiflage.)
Without further ado, The Crossed-wires Adventure.
©2011 Michael A. Stackpole
Jack Card, safely ensconced in his room cataloguing the latest addition to his coin collection, heard Aunt Flora well before he saw her. His mom had greeted the old woman at the front door, which was a straight shot down the stairs from Jack’s room. Though he couldn’t make out any of the words spoken, Aunt Flora’s high-pitched tone meant only one thing: adventure was afoot.
“Jack, Aunt Flora is here to see you.” His mom’s voice had a note of urgency. Jack hurried getting his sneakers on. “She needs your help.”
He took the stairs two at a time, pausing near the bottom. “Hi, Aunt Flora.”
“There you are, Master John.” The elderly woman—who was really his Great Grand-aunt—cupped his face in her boney hands. “Mina, dear, you will let me borrow him? Atrocious manners, short notice and all, I do apologize, dear, but I need your bright boy.”
“Is your homework done, Jack?”
“Finished an hour ago.”
Jack’s mother nodded, then gave him the look. Aunt Flora had taken a small fortune left to her by her father and turned it into a large fortune through shrewd investments. Because she was known as the richest person in North Greenvale, lots of people came to her with investment ideas. As his mother had done when she was his age, Jack was given the duty of protecting Aunt Flora against swindlers.
“Of course, Aunt Flora. Jack should be out and about on a nice afternoon like this anyway, shouldn’t you, Jack?”
He nodded. “Yes, mother.”
Aunt Flora smiled. “You’re very kind.”
Jack raised an eyebrow. “What do you need me for?”
“Well, John, I have been given a most wonderful opportunity to invest in a treasure hunt. You’ll get the details when we make it to the old Appleby farm. Suffice it to say, an experience treasure-finder has been brought to town, and he is going to make us all rich!”
The older woman’s smile shifted from pride to indulgence. “Well, when I was a girl we called them water-witches. Dowsers. They’d tell you where to sink a well to get water. But this one can find gold, Master John. He’ll prove it this afternoon. I want you there to see.”
Jack and his mom exchanged a quick glance. “I would love to go, Aunt Flora. Can we ask my friend Henry Lee to come, too?”
“The young man from the Shippington mansion? Yes, of course, by all means.”
“Great. I’ll call him.” Jack shifted on the stairs. “I’ll get my phone and a few other things. Just to be sure.”
“Splendid, splendid.” Flora clapped her hands. “I do believe, Mina, your boy enjoys these adventures more than you ever did!”
Aunt Flora had her limousine driver stop by Henry Lee’s place on the way out to the Appleby farm. Henry had moved to North Greenvale in the summer. Jack had seen the Asian-American boy at the YMCA. They both attended sixth grade at Erik Weisz Middle School. They were lab partners in science class and geeked out over science fiction, games and science in general.
Jack briefed Henry on the Appleby farm. “Horace Appleby owned most of North Greenvale at one time. He made money off logging, farming and some manufacturing. He made a fortune during the Civil War—some folks said by cheating on government contracts. He worried about the Confederate Army coming north to steal his fortune. Local legend has it that he buried a bunch of strong-boxes full of gold throughout the area. He died without revealing where any of them were.”
Henry frowned. “Lots of folks must have looked for them.”
Aunt Flora laughed. “For year and years, Master Henry. The Appleby family fell on hard times after Horace died. They sold off great portions of the estates, but not before having dug up every inch of the plots. During the Depression treasure hunters poured over what was left. Eventually the last of the Applebys moved away and the town took over the farm for taxes.”
The limo pulled onto a dirt road that wound its way up a low hill. At the top stood the ruins of what had once been a proud stone house. The roof had long since sagged in, and trees thrust branches through the windows from the inside. A number of other people—potential investors—stood on an area of lawn that had been raggedly cut back. A dozen post-holes had been dug in a circle roughly thirty feet in diameter.
A young man with thinning blond hair, wearing a grey suit suit and red tie over white shirt, smiled as he walked toward the limo. The driver helped Aunt Flora from the car. Jack and Henry piled out behind her. “Miss Williams, so happy you were able to come.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Boyer.” Aunt Flora waved a gloved hand toward the boys. “These are my nephew John, and his friend Henry. They’re clever boys.”
“Good, I might need some assistants.” Boyer shook each boy’s hand. Jack didn’t like the man’s soft grip, nor the way his nostrils had flared when Aunt Flora said they were clever. “Please, if you would join the rest of us.”
Boyer led the way to the center of the circle. “Gather round, please. I want to thank you all for joining me here. This is a great opportunity for your town, to enrich it not only in monetary terms, but historical terms. You’re all aware of the Appleby family contribution to North Greenvale. The endeavor we begin today will not only refurbish their reputation, but allow North Greenvale to place itself on the map as a tourist destination. I have drawn up some plans that will make this a reality, and if all goes well here today, I’ll be speaking with your mayor very soon so we can make this a reality.”
Boyer opened his arms and turned toward the ruins. “However, I am not the man whom you have come to see. I do not have the gift that will locate the Appleby treasure. For that we need an expert, and I present to you Augustus Fitch.”
A man came around the corner of the house. He wore a red union-suit stained black around the cuffs and neck, with soiled overalls over. One pants’ leg had been tucked into a half-laced, battered brown boot. The other boot was black and in not much better shape. Dirt made a thick, black line under the man’s fingernails. He hadn’t shaved in at least a week. What little hair he had on top of his head hadn’t felt a comb or brush in forever. His icy blue eyes—one appearing bigger than the other—moved more quickly than the rest of him. The way he staggered, Jack thought the man might have been drinking.
As unsteady as he was, however, the divining rods in his calloused hands swung smoothly and fluidly back and forth. As Fitch enter the circle, he half-turned and his hands extended. The silvery rods, bent at the bottom to form grips, swung together and pointed at the thick, gold chain Aunt Flora wore. Fitch tugged hard at the rods, as if they were resisting him. He pulled them free of their attraction to gold, staggering back as he did so. The rods swung apart as he passed them over each boy, then he curled in toward the middle of the circle and Boyer.
“You’ll be a-forgiving me, I hope.” He scratched his unshaven throat with filthy nails. “There’s times, you see, when there’s so many riches, that I am just a-feeling them hither and yon. This is such a place. But I ain’t a-specting you to be taking my word for it. No sir or ma’am.”
Mr. Boyer, with some apparent reluctance, rested a hand on Fitch’s shoulder. “You’re asking yourselves, I’m sure, why, if there is so much treasure here as to make Mr. Fitch take notice, we don’t just go out, dig it up and be done with it?”
Fitch shrugged Boyer’s hand off his shoulder. “Well now, it’s this way. I is the seventh son of a seventh son. Y’all know what that means. I have the Second Sight and the power. My granddaddy did, too, and he done tolt me how it works. This here power, it only works for good, and greed ain’t good. Soes I go around and find lost things for people, returning good to them, see. I done found millions, and will take my reward in God’s Heaven.”
Boyer smiled. “As Mr. Fitch has so succinctly put it, he cannot use his powers to enrich himself. Our preliminary survey indicates that the majority of the Appleby treasure is located here, on the farm. We need to buy the farm from the city, then we will own the treasure. I have contracts that will sell you shares in our company. Fifty percent of the recovered treasure will be sold on the open market to repay you, and the other half will be donated to North Greenvale; along with enough money to create a museum and a visitors’ center for all those who will come to see this location.”
Aunt Flora nodded. “Very civic-minded of you.”
“As Mr. Fitch said, he returns the lost to those who deserve it, and North Greenvale is very deserving.” Boyer pointed over toward the corner of the building from where Fitch had appeared. “Augustus, if you don’t mind.”
The dowser nodded and headed off, fighting to keep his dowsing rods from drawing him to Aunt Flora again. Jack watched him, making sure the man disappeared from sight.
Boyer pointed toward the nearest of the holes. “I don’t expect you to invest in supposition, so I propose a test of Mr. Fitch’s ability.” He dug into his pocket and produced a small golden coin in a plastic coin case. Jack recognized it easily since many of the coins in his collection came similarly packaged from the United States Mint. “Here I have this year’s dollar coin. It’s Ulysses S. Grant—fitting since he was the president when Horace Appleby died. I will have one of you place it in a hole. I have eleven more coins—quarters also encased in plastic—which will go into the other holes. You’ll fill them in, then Mr. Fitch will find the gold coin. His random chance of being correct is one in twelve, and we can run multiple tests, if you wish. I assure you, he will always find the gold coin.”
Jack raised a hand. “Excuse me.”
“Just to make the test scientific, shouldn’t anyone wearing gold put their gold back in their cars?”
Boyer smiled. “My, you are clever, aren’t you? Perhaps a couple of you would also like to go keep an eye on Mr. Fitch to make sure he’s not watching?”
Two of the men appointed themselves to that committee, while everyone else, including Aunt Flora, returned to their cars to get rid of their jewelry.
Henry glanced over at Jack. “You know…”
“I do.” Jack nodded confidently. “You’ll need to get pictures of each hole. Make north equal twelve o’clock, then work around clockwise.”
When people returned from their cars, Boyer directed them to pick a hole. Aunt Flora and Jack had number four. Boyer went around the circle, handing people coins. Flora got a quarter, but before she could bend down to drop it in the hole, Jack took it from her.
“You don’t want to get dirty, Aunt Flora.”
“Thank you, Master John.”
“Now, if you all will put your coin in the bottom of the hole and scoop the dirt back on top of it, please.” Boyer nodded as Kenny Erickson—the owner of the Jack & Sons Burgers chain—dragged the small mound of dirt into his hole. “And when you’re done, just tamp it down good with your foot.
Jack laid his coin in the bottom of the hole, then dumped handfuls of dirt on it. It mounded up just a little bit, so he stood and stomped it down good and hard. Boyer came along, inspected his work, then added one final stamp to seal the hole.
“Well done, son. Thank you.”
Henry, who had been following behind Boyer taking pictures, gave Jack a nod. He flashed him some fingers. The gold coin was in hole number nine—Erickson’s hole.
“Gentlemen, if you would bring Mr. Fitch back, please.” Boyer lowered his voice again. “And you, ladies and gentlemen, if you don’t mind, please turn away from the circle. We don’t want anyone suspecting that a stray glance might influence Mr. Fitch.”
Boyer dutifully turned away from the circle and Jack did as well. Mostly. He actually kept looking at Boyer out of the corner of his eye and watched Fitch as he approached the circle. The man staggered as before. The dowsing rods swung wildly back and forth until Fitch entered the circle near hole six. Then they quieted down. Jack lost sight of him as he headed toward seven, then found him again as he came back to hole five.
Fitch approached hole four. Jack couldn’t see him, but he could hear the dowser. The man was sniffing like a hound dog. He mumbled under his breath. The only words Jack actually understood were, “Nope, ain’t here.” Then Fitch came into view to his left and continued on around the circle.
Jack half-turned. The man moved slowly, the rods held steady. They didn’t so much as twitch until he got around to hole number ten. Both of them skewed toward nine. Fitch snarled, which brought everyone around. He fought the rods, but then they fairly well yanked him off his feet toward number nine. Fitch dropped to a knee. The rods crossed and stabbed at the hole.
Kenny Erickson gasped.
Fitch ignored him and got to his feet like a man trying to haul an anchor from the river. He pulled back, staggered, then tried to go on to hole eight, but the rods plunged back toward hole nine.
Fitch surrendered to the rods and landed on his knees. “Praise the Lord. If this ain’t the hole, I’m beat.”
“But it is!” Erickson sank to his knees and scooped the dirt away. He reached down into the hole and pulled the coin out. He cleaned the dirt off and held it up. “See, there it is!”
Boyer plucked it from his hand and lifted it higher. “He found it, just as he’ll find the Appleby treasure!”
Kenny Erickson stood and brushed dirt off his knees. He glanced at his wife. “Honey, get me my check book.”
“I wouldn’t do that, Mr. Erickson.” Jack pointed a finger at Boyer and Fitch. “These two can’t find gold.”
Erickson shook his head. “I’ve seen them do it with my own eyes, son.”
“Sir, you saw no such thing.” Jack pointed to the coin in Boyer’s hand. “One dollar coins in the United States look gold, but there’s not a speck of gold in them. Anyone with a smart phone can look at the US Mint website and read that.”
One of the men who’d kept an eye on Fitch pulled his phone out. He touched the screen several times, then looked up. “The boy’s right.”
Erickson shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. He found the gold colored coin out of all the others. Hit it right off.”
Henry held his camera up. “I took pictures of all the holes. Mr. Boyer stomped on each one. You can see his footprint on top. And on eleven of the twelve, it’s his right foot. On number nine, he used his left foot. If you look at his left shoe, it has a line carved down the center of the heel. He tipped Fitch off.”
Erickson’s face flushed red.
Jack smiled and walked back over to hole number four. He dug down and pulled the coin from the bottom of it. “In case that’s not enough for you, I didn’t put a quarter in the bottom of my hole. This is the latest addition to my collection: a five dollar, Medal of Honor commemorative coin, straight from the mint. It’s 90% pure gold. It was the only treasure in this field, and Mr. Fitch passed it by.”
Fitch sprang to his feet and dashed off, looking a lot more spry than he ever had before. Unfortunately for him, the half-laced boots that made up part of his costume came loose and tripped him up. He sprawled face-first and Aunt Flora’s driver pounced on him.
Boyer looked as if he wanted to run, but the circle of investors closed around him.
Erickson pulled out his cell phone. “I’m calling the police.”
The police responded quickly enough, including Henry’s mom, who was a detective with the North Greenvale fraud squad. Jack and Henry got to watch the crime scene investigators dig up the other coins for evidence. Henry turned his camera over so his mother could copy the pictures.
Finally, as the sun began to set and the police started to pack up, Aunt Flora bundled the boys into her car. “I’d still like to believe that Horace Appleby’s treasure is out there somewhere, boys, because it is fun to dream. But…” She winked at them, “I think the true treasure in North Greenvale is the pair of young men seated right here with me. And that makes us all very rich indeed.”
I hope you enjoyed the story and the news about the At the Queen’s Command giveaway. If you’d like to see more free fiction, please consider purchasing one of my books to support my fiction-writing efforts. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)
Tricknomancy is a braided novel. That’s author for a serial story told through a number of shorter pieces that all come together as a novel. Think of it in terms of a television series. This is series one, consisting of seven episodes. The stories feature Trick Molloy, a magick-using, ex-cop who left the force because he was framed for being a dirty cop. He now works as a bouncer in a strip club, helping friends, solving murders and dealing with an insane family, most of whom would like to see him dead or worse. It’s available for the Kindle, and for sale directly off my website for any epub compliant ereaders.