Mysterious Ways Chapter One
I finally managed to do it: I have published Mysterious Ways.
Mysterious Ways is a mystery novel with a few occult elements that I wrote back in 2000-2001—though I thoroughly updated it for this edition. Back at that time I wanted to try my hand at writing mysteries. My agent and I liked it, but no editors wanted to buy it. While I wrote a few short stories featuring Merlin Bloodstone and his aide, Connor Moran, other projects kept me from following up. Yet whenever I thought about digital publishing, back in the days before the Kindle even, this was the book I wanted to get out there.
Mysterious Ways is a murder mystery. It’s old school, which you can tell from the first chapter, since we didn’t open with a body. (Perfectly Invisible, on the other hand, gives you a body straight away.) As the essay in the Delux and Super Delux editions notes, a chunk of the background is based on the work I did in the 90s keeping the religious right away from role playing games. Writing the book a dozen years ago was great fun, and reworking it was even more.
I hope you enjoy. (Details on sales and editions are after the sample.)
I’d always known this day would come. I’d kind of visualized it differently. In my fantasy, it was at midnight, with a bunch of peasants doing the whole pitchfork and torch thing outside the big, wrought-iron gates. And they had scythes, too—scythes are a must with these rabble-gone-wild things. That works in the whole Grim Reaper factor. It’s tough to feel threatened without it.
Unfortunately, what we had were retirees in shorts, sandals and t-shirts, or their Sunday-go-to-meeting best, marching mid-morning in the dust by Casa Chaos’ wrought-iron front gate. Off-key hymns replaced the requisite rumble of voices. Instead of farm tools we had placards. The best read, “Bloodstone is Satan’s Minion.” On a scale of one to sharp scythe, that’s pretty pathetic.
Bloodstone’s reaction was a bit better. “Minion, minion? Bah. I am no one’s minion.” He tried to sound gravely offended, but he didn’t even sneer when he said it. Even his heart wasn’t in it.
But, because I am a minion, when the gate intercom buzzed, I answered it. The hymns could not drown out a soft alto voice. “We’re here to see Dr. Bloodstone. Sara Piper and Julia Ellswood.”
Before I had a chance to reply, a harsh younger voice broke in. “Bite me you sanctimonious cow!” The hymn broke for a second, with astonished gasps filling in. Then the singing began again, making up in volume what it lacked in actual musical content.
I glanced to the far end of the office. “Your eleven o’clock is here.”
He didn’t even look up, but simply raised a hand and waved me off to the front door.
“Yes, Master,” I wheezed in my best Peter Lorre imitation and buzzed the gate open. I hunched a shoulder and shambled out, but got no reaction. That’s not because he didn’t notice. He did, but any pop culture reference more recent than the 19th century pretty much went past him.
I straightened up again as I crossed the foyer and opened the front door. A little blue Prius pulled into the parking spot to the left. I got a good look at the driver. Of her passenger all I saw was a single hand raised defiantly and a single finger raised emphatically. It made an impression, both on the protesters and me.
The girl attached to that finger popped from the Prius with the bristling fury of a caged tiger. She pretty much had sullen and brooding down to an art form—skinny arms crossed over her chest, brows arrowed down as she glared hatred at the protesters. Her bottle-black hair had been cut very short on the sides, revealing ears with enough piercings to let her pick up telemetry from the Mars rovers. Her lipstick and fingernail polish were as dark as her hair, though not as dark as the scowl she shot me. Both her tank-top and pants were black—which she wore because she couldn’t find anything darker. Her pale complexion was something really tough to maintain in a desert burg like Phoenix. Scuffed black combat boots completed her outfit, which she’d accessorized with silver jewelry and a Celtic knotwork tattoo ringing her left wrist like a bracelet.
Her companion, on the other hand, emerged far more serenely and even paused to lock the car, despite the gate closing by itself. A slender woman, not too tall, she wore a sleeveless cotton blouse of blue over white slacks and sandals. Her gold tennis bracelet matched a thin necklace. She’d pulled her light brown hair back into a ponytail, the tip of which ended between her shoulder blades. She gave me a polite smile as she extended her hand. The gesture blunted the heat of the emo’s stare. She had a firm grip and one not too moist despite the rising spring heat.
The girl snorted, flaring her nostrils enough that the jeweled stud in one sparkled for a second. She looked me up and down, then twisted to stalk past me. I’d half-turned to grab her, but a hand on my arm had restrained me.
“She’s a bit upset.” The woman upped the warmth in her smile. “I’m Julia Ellswood. That was Sara Piper. We came as requested.”
“Connor Moran.” I ushered her into the foyer and shut the door, both thankful that it cut off the singing and for the fact that I didn’t hear screaming from the office. That would not have been good. “This way.”
Julia stepped crisply along, then stopped in the doorway and gasped. It usually took one more step into the place to stop the first-time visitor. That’s when the full effect hits. Sara had made it a whole two steps before she halted. I gave them both points for their reactions, but managed to hide my smile as I waited at Julia’s side.
Merlin Bloodstone’s office is something of a cavernous affair—he prefers cathedral, but I wasn’t in an accommodating mood that morning. The twenty foot high ceilings and a wall of windows looking southwest toward Camelback Mountain do make it seem huge. His desk sits centered against the backdrop of the northern wall, which, like the east wall, is floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. A sliding ladder provides access to the upper reaches on the north, while a catwalk on a level with the second story floor lets you get at the upper level of books. In the southeast corner there’s a doorway that leads to the second floor corridor, and a circular, cast iron staircase to provide easy access. The books vary from old and leather-bound to new, and the sheer volume is staggering.
A bust of Edgar Allen Poe wards the room’s northwest corner, and a square, revolving book rack sits in the northeast corner. The rack is where Bloodstone keeps reference books, but I pretty much only recognize the dictionaries and synonym finder there. Everything else changes with whims. Why someone would have compiled a visual dictionary of depictions of herbs in German woodcuts, 1545-1625 is almost as much of a mystery as to why Bloodstone would need to consult it.
My meager desk is to Bloodstone’s mahogany monster what a surfboard is to an aircraft carrier. Mine occupies the southwest corner of the room, next to the wet bar. The door in the south wall leads into the foyer of Casa Chaos. Photos of Bloodstone with various celebrities, a few family portraits and a number of award plaques cover that south wall. A brown leather couch and several leather chairs, with a coffee table and a couple of side tables, fill the center of the room. That’s where most of his clients cool their heels awaiting his pleasure.
Though he knew we were there, I played his game and cleared my throat. “Dr. Bloodstone, these are Sara Piper and Julia Ellswood.”
He brought his oversized head up with the languid ease of a cobra rising from a basket. Though a small man with a slight build, he had a piercing violet gaze that shook Sara Piper when it swept over her. The protesters, were they looking at him, would agree he was no one’s minion. They likely would have gone on to describe him as wreathed in fire and stinking of brimstone, for such was his presence when he was in a mood. Fury blazed in his eyes for a moment, then he closed them.
Sara, thus released from his stare, managed only to drop her jaw.
Bloodstone moved with a fluid economy that brought him around from behind his desk and effortlessly to the leather chairs. He kept his voice cordial, but his words commanded more than invited. “You will sit. Please.”
As close as Sara’s ensemble had approached urban-trash casual, Bloodstone’s blew to the other end of the fashion spectrum. Beneath his pearl grey three-piece suit, he wore a white shirt with a high collar—so thoroughly starched it could double as armor. A black cravat had been tied in place and secured with a stick-pin featuring an oval fire-opal in a platinum setting. It matched the ring on his right hand. He seemed more attired for greeting a head of state than he was a high school student and a teacher, but Bloodstone had his own sense of decorum about such things. He based it on cosmic variables that I couldn’t even guess existed, much less assume should play a part in the affairs of men and fashion.
It didn’t matter. Today the portents had been easy to read.
Formal dress equals bad day.
Julia Ellswood accepted his invitation and slipped past Sara. Bloodstone nodded to her, using his chair as a breastwork, and pointed her to one end of the couch facing his desk. He waited for the teen to move and when she did not, he cocked his head curiously in her direction. “Ms. Piper?”
“Your place is here.” His head seemed a bit too big for his body, and his eyes a bit too big for his delicately featured face. That combination gave him an other-worldly aspect that attracted so many of his clients. The way he narrowed his eyes, however, left no doubt as to why he also attracted enemies. “On the couch, if you please.”
She moved leadenly, as if she did not please at all. Somewhere, deep down, there was enough child in her to make her comply with his directive, though the emo angst encysting that child fought it every step of the way. She slid her butt over the arm of the couch, flumping down, then crossed her arms and legs very tightly.
Impeccably groomed—clean-shaven, with his black widow’s-peak hair slicked back and glossy—Bloodstone glanced at me. “Connor, they will take tea.”
A serious scowl darkened the young woman’s face. “I’ve got better things to do than to be sipping tea…”
“Based on your conduct in this affair, Ms. Piper, I would challenge the veracity of that statement.” Merlin Bloodstone’s voice came razor-edged and very cold. “Your actions brought you here. This is my home. My life. My rules. You injected yourself into my life, so now you play by my rules. You will take tea.”
His eyes widened for a moment, then he gave out with a snort—a world-class snort. “Pu-erh for Ms. Piper, Che Sen Lotus for Ms. Ellswood. For me, Ti Kuan Yin.”
I wandered from the doorway to the wet bar, not bothering to hide my distaste for how he was handling things. “And what am I having?”
He spared me only slightly more than a sidelong glance. “Rooibos.”
I grumbled. “Lucky guess.”
Sara would have snorted one more time, but Bloodstone’s snort had already put her previous attempts to shame. She uncrossed her legs and sat forward. “I know all about you and your tea. Skip it. I want to get this over with.”
Bloodstone waited for a heartbeat, then appropriated the centermost of the leather chairs. He faced both women, studied them for a second or so, and sat. He tugged at the tail of his coat, seating himself on it so the jacket would not bunch up at the shoulders, then rested his elbows on the chair’s arms. His hands came together, pressed fingertip to fingertip, with his thumbs an inch away from his breastbone.
“Tea, Ms. Piper, is a metaphor for life. It is chosen at the right time. It is treated properly in processing. When treated properly in preparation, it is most rewarding. Tea, like life, can be spoiled by impatience. Tea also has other properties that I would imagine you can appreciate. You will indulge me, as I have been forced to indulge you.”
Her snort might have won a prize at the state fair. “Fine.”
“Having been coerced, you thought coercion acceptable?” His voice came more quietly than before and both women sat forward to hear him. “Let me see if I understand your situation correctly. You go to Saguaro High School here in Scottsdale. You’re a good student. You work hard. You post good grades.”
“I’m getting straight As. My average is high enough to make me valedictorian of my class, but only if I get at least a C in Advanced World History.”
Bloodstone’s eyes shifted to Julia. “This is not the course you teach?”
“No. Ace history is taught by Rachel Carmody. I teach English and looked Sara’s paper over before she submitted it.”
“Ah, yes, the paper.” His violet eyes glittered like moonlit snowflakes. “Tell me about the paper.”
Sara snarled harshly. “That bitch Carmody bases half our grade on our final research paper. She asked us for an analysis of the greatest philosophical movement in the history of mankind. What she meant by that was that she wanted a puff piece on Christianity, about how great it is, and how great it is that Christian soldiers are fighting terrorism in the Middle East.
“What I wrote was a paper detailing the deaths down through history due to Christianity’s intolerant attitude toward diversity and native cultures, starting with the wars against heretics, moving to the Crusades and hitting hard on the Burning Times.”
Bloodstone’s chin tilted up when she invoked ‘the Burning Times.’ “It was not the assignment your teacher expected.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
Bloodstone’s eyes narrowed. “Connor, Carmody is the teacher who has been fighting for the right to organize prayer meetings as extra-curricular activity, yes? She has been supported by the Trinity Salvation Network?”
Arranging things on a tray, I glanced toward them. “Correct on both.” I wanted to add, “As you well know,” but he was in charge, so I didn’t spoil things.
The young woman nodded solemnly and began to smile. “That’s the bitch. She’s a full fledged disciple of Thurston Thickett and has preached at his Garden Cathedral over here. She’s even angling to get a TV show on his network. Ms. Carmody thinks I’m a menace and that I shouldn’t be allowed to represent my graduating class. She failed my paper, saying it was poorly written and researched, which means I get a D in her class, which means I’m not the Valedictorian anymore. That goes to Diana Grant, one of her little followers.”
“Of course, the conspiracy against you is complete.” Bloodstone tapped his index fingers together. “Now to the heart of the matter. You knew of Ms. Carmody’s predilections before you undertook your assignment?”
“Hell, yes. I even told her I was working on a different theme so she wouldn’t forbid me from writing it.”
Bloodstone steepled his fingers and rested his chin on them. He said nothing and stared past the girl. I’d seen him go into that sort of fugue state before, which I knew could last from a second to the second of next month. I took the opportunity to start delivering tea to all and sundry.
Before I’d started working for Bloodstone, tea was something that came in a bag and was drunk iced in the summer. Not so to Bloodstone. He quickly acquainted me with the rituals of tea. The wet bar, for example, has three different hot-nozzles for dispensing water: boiling for black teas, not quite boiling for green, and somewhere in between for oolong. And the rooibos was not called tea in Casa Chaos, but a tisane, since it is an herbal infusion containing not a hint of actual tea.
I passed cups and saucers to their appropriate recipients. Bloodstone’s I put on the little table at his right hand, then left the tray with sugar and honey on the low table before the couch. Being careful not to spill my tisane, I took up the leather chair opposite the girl.
The scent of Bloodstone’s tea seemed to revive him. He looked down at the cup of the green-gold liquid on the side table, then nodded slowly. He didn’t smile, which he usually did with Ti Kuan Yin. I felt badly for Sara Piper. I’d been hoping that he might have been in a forgiving mood after reflection, but hopes for that quickly died.
Bloodstone’s voice, though remaining quiet, recovered its edge. With serrations. “You deliberately decided to provoke a reaction from her.”
“‘Duh?’ You say ‘duh’ and you are to be the valedictorian?” Bloodstone sipped his tea and nodded toward Julia. “My admiration for your dedication to your vocation swells, Ms. Ellswood.”
The girl’s blue eyes narrowed as Bloodstone’s attention shifted away from her. “Look, she was trying to use class assignments to promote her own agenda, and I wanted to show I couldn’t be manipulated.”
“No, indeed, that would not do, would it?” Bloodstone’s nostrils flared for a moment. “Realizing you made a mistake, you tried to get help. You called here for an appointment, and I told Connor to say no.”
“You say that now, but you apparently failed to comprehend what I meant by ‘no.’ I rejected your request for aid. You called a press conference, claimed you were being censored, and then added you were receiving support from the community and specifically mentioned me. You, you who sought to prove you could not be manipulated, you sought to manipulate me?”
Bloodstone’s tone ablated some of Sara’s self-assurance. “It wasn’t like that. I thought that because she was going on TSN and talking about the situation that I’d fight back. I called some reporters and they came, then there was someone there from TSN and it all got out of hand.”
“Thus always when those using fire to fight fire are irresponsible pyromaniacs.” Bloodstone slowly shook his head. “You clearly were not thinking.”
“I’m not stupid, but it got crazy and they were treating me like a kook, so I used your name.” Sara hammered a fist against the couch’s arm. “That wasn’t how it was supposed to turn out. I just wanted to tell them I wasn’t going to write lies.”
Bloodstone’s amethyst gaze landed full force to her. “Then you would deny Christianity has ever done any good in the world?”
She started to reply, then closed her mouth and looked down at her hands. “Not any good, just not all good. It has done bad things—really bad things—and it will do them in the future unless we do something to stop them.”
Bloodstone nodded coldly and set his tea down. “Never again the Burning Times, yes?”
“Exactly!” A gleam ignited in Sara’s eyes and her spirit surged fire into her voice. “If I can show that I’m a good person, if I can help break their fundie influence, I can help prevent that from happening.”
Bloodstone waved that hope away dismissively. “You have already failed on that account. You picked a fight where you did not need to pick one. You fought with an authority you could not possibly have hoped to defeat. You lost. You sought to change the results of a fight you never should have entered into in the first place. Had you come to me earlier, I would have advised against this course of action. It may seem self-serving on my part to say this, since I have the benefit of hindsight, but it is also the truth. After the fact, there was nothing I could do for you, which is why I refused to see you.
“You ignored my refusal and attempted nonetheless to coerce me into helping you.” Bloodstone rose fluidly from his chair and pointed toward the front of the house. “Your invocation of my name prompted Reverend Thickett to direct people to picket in front of my home. This intrusion upon my life is your fault.”
“Welcome to the real world.”
Bloodstone’s eyes narrowed. “Meaning?”
“Should be obvious, if you’re as smart as you think you are.” Sara stood and looked down at him. “This is a case of discrimination, Dr. Bloodstone, religious discrimination. They’re after me. They would have come for you eventually. You know that. You’re not immune. It’s the ‘Burning Times’ all over again. You have to help. You’re one of us.”
“One of us.” Bloodstone fell to stillness for a moment, as his words evaporated. “By ‘one of us’ you mean a witch, like you. A practitioner of a non-traditional, non-patriarchal, pre-Christian religious system that emphasizes life and the worship of same? It professes a belief in the ability to manipulate this world by the use of magick, following very specific laws and precepts?” The cold tone in his voice didn’t allow for the possibility that she could conceivably disagree with him.
Sara, befitting someone of her intelligence, mutely nodded in agreement.
“Please, be seated, Ms. Piper.” Bloodstone waved her back to her place on the couch but remained standing himself. His eyes hardened for a second, and I was ready to call 911 for someone to mop up what would be left of her. Maybe it was something in the way she sat, a bit meekly, that caused him to relent.
His voice dulled ever so slightly.
“Because you are intelligent and because you are young, I will explain why I am not ‘one of us.’ You, being a witch in, if the tattoo on your wrist and your jewelry are any indication, a neo-pagan Celtic, pseudo-Druidic tradition, have accepted as fact certain things I do not. You accept, philosophically, things I do not.”
Bloodstone pressed his left hand to his breastbone. “I am an occultist. I study the occult—that which is hidden—seeking knowledge and truth. I choose to delve into things that others find superstitious and even bizarre…” He glanced at me. “What’s the expression you skeptics favor, Connor?”
“Was ‘totally whackoid’ the one you were thinking of?”
“Indeed, totally whackoid.” Bloodstone let the phrase hang in the air for a moment creating a mirror to let Sara Piper see herself as many others did. “I choose to study a great deal, but I invest faith in very little; and on far stronger evidence of efficacy than you do.”
Sara blinked, then her lower lip quivered. “But you wrote that book—the grimoire. It has everything. How can you not believe?”
Bloodstone’s face darkened but the note of innocent surprise in her voice deflected him from his usual grimoire tirade. “Ms. Piper, this… book of mine that you reference was only ever meant to be a study of the various magickal traditions practiced in Europe from before and during the Christian era. For my thesis, I researched all I could, catalogued spells, analyzed them, broke them down into common elements and repeated themes, applying to them the same methodology folklorists have to faerytales. No one suggests Katherine Briggs or Joseph Campbell believe elves and faeries exist, but my cataloging of spells has somehow painted me as a practicing witch.”
“But everything I’ve read references your book.”
“Yes. New Age authors have managed to plagiarize my work rather effectively. What they miss, of course, is that their non-traditional, non-patriarchal religious systems are based on myths created out of whole cloth by bored members of the British intelligentsia a century ago when the rites of Masonry were not sufficiently exciting or lucrative for them.”
Julia Ellswood looked up at him. “You’re not suggesting there is no validity to pre-Christian religious traditions, are you?”
“To the tradition, no. Most embrace the Golden Rule in one form or another, and that they provide spiritual fulfillment to the practitioners is wonderful.” Bloodstone nodded to her. “But no religion is or should be transformed into a political movement, which is, in essence, what Ms. Piper was trying to do with her paper.”
I rattled my cup in my saucer. “As you said, she was just fighting fire with fire.”
All three of them glanced at me as I sipped my tisane, which had the rich scent of old, dried pine needles that have been nesting in the corner of a log cabin for a long time. Sara regarded me anew, as if I weren’t a moron. Julia gave me the hint of a smile—the kind you give a tennis partner after a nice kill shot.
Bloodstone just frowned. “This is a valid point, and one that should not be lost.”
I nodded. “And Carmody was really bullying her students.”
“Yes, Connor, I see that. Point taken.” Bloodstone resorted to a nose-sigh—one of those slow-speed snorts that just ooze resignation. “I am loathe, Ms. Piper, to reward your misuse of my name. I would not, in fact, do that save that Reverend Thickett is an opportunist who has used you and your statement to strike at me. This situation must be dealt with. The resolution of it may be to your benefit.”
The girl’s face brightened immediately. “I can’t thank you enough.”
“That is the most intelligent thing you have offered in my presence. Do not feel constrained to even try.” He clasped his hands at the small of his back. “Connor will inform you of the results of our consultation with Reverend Thicket. I would offer you the hospitality of the house, but I would hate to detain you further. Connor will see you out.”
Mysterious Ways comes in three different editions, with the novel itself running around 90,000 words. If you choose to purchase from Stormwolf.com, you get both the .mobi and .epub files, and don’t have to worry about DRM.
Super Delux Edition: This edition includes not only the novel and the essay about how it came to be written, but I’ve also included a novella and two short stories.
Delux Edition: As with the Delux Edition of In Hero Years… I’m Dead, I’ve included an essay that talks about the writing of the novel, it’s long journey to publication, inspirations for characters and hints at where the series will go from here. You get to read the novel, then peek behind the scenes.
Click here to join my mailing list.