Friday, May 27, 2011

Sexton Spice Sample--Chapters 1-3

Here are the first three chapters from Sexton Spice (Sexton Chronicles, vol. 2) You can buy it from or, or Barnes & Noble. It's available in paperback, hardcover, epub, or file download.

Chapter One

   Andy looked at the chicken frying in the pan and grinned. Not only was it browning nicely, it smelled great. The potatoes were boiling and would be ready to mash about the time the chicken was done. It was as close to an American meal as they had seen in more than five years, and if Tom and John were late, he would eat it without them. Every bite. …And run them through with a sword if they groused about it.
   He grabbed the bundle of sticks they called a broom and swept the floorboards again. With no screens on the windows and the door open to vent the heat from their stove, the city dirt came in nonstop even on the third floor. If he thought about it, he might have realized he was contributing to the problem when he swept the dirt out the door and let it fall over the rickety stairs and down to the street, but he didn’t think about it. He glanced at the stove and saw that the chicken was done. Stove, he thought. That’s a kind name for it.
   John came through the door and laughed at him. “You’ve got to be the ugliest housewife I’ve ever seen.”
   “Ever had a housewife bend, fold, mutilate, and staple you?”
   He cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. “It’s the apron.”
   “How else am I supposed to keep the grease off my shirt?”
   “Ah. The Betty Crocker defense.”
   Andy stuck a fork in one of the potatoes and flipped it John’s direction. “Hot potato!”
   John didn’t disappoint him. When he saw the white object come flying at him, he caught it by reflex. He howled and tossed it from one hand to the other. It looked ridiculous—the big guy hopping from one foot to another, his chiseled face twisted in a wince, bouncing the soft potato over his fingers. Finally, he put it down on the table. “What’d you do that for?”
   Andy stuck the long fork in a chicken leg and transferred it to a towel on a shelf on the wall to drain. “To see if you’re dumb enough to catch it, even after I warned you.”
   “Shouting something’s hot when you throw it at a guy isn’t a warning.”
   “Next time I’ll write a memo.” He flicked another potato over his shoulder.
   “Ow, ow, ow!”
   It was hard to talk and snicker at the same time, but Andy managed. Without looking, he said, “Caught that one too, didn’t ya?”
   “Now you’re just wasting food…ya bastard.”
   “I’ll bet I didn’t. You put it on the table, didn’t you?” He spun to look and cackled when he saw John reach to knock it to the floor. “Too late! Ha! I knew you wouldn’t drop it.”
   “It’s food!”
   “It was a weapon.” He winked. “That you can eat. That’s how the Irish invented mashed potatoes—they ran out of rocks and put boiled potatoes in their slings. When they hit the enemy, they burned, and smashed, and tasted good.”
   “You’re making that up.”
   “How could you tell?”
   “The question,” Tom said from the doorway, “is when can we eat?” He walked into the room and looked at John, who was blowing on his fingers. Andy looked ridiculous—sweat on his face, his thin black hair sticking up, wearing a dirty apron over a cotton blouse grease stained with spatters from the frying chicken. “I have to admit,” he said as he sat on one of the rough chairs at the table, “that smells great. I can’t remember the last time I had fried chicken, but it sure wasn’t in this world. What’s in the breading?”
   Andy grinned and started transferring the rest of the pieces onto the towel. “Stuff I got on the street. A little bit of red pepper, some leafy stuff that might be tarragon, a few miscellaneous powders with names I can’t pronounce…”
   Tom arched an eyebrow over a blue eye. Somehow, his lopsided grin made his face look thoughtful. “Spices?”
   “Yeah.” He took off his apron and bunched it in his hand so he could lift the pot of water from the stove, carried it over to the window, and tilted it. Looking out and down, he shouted, “Hot water!” None of the potatoes fell to the street, and he didn’t hear any screams from below.   
  “What’s wrong with spices?”
   Wood creaked on wood as John pulled back a chair and sat. “Feed me!”
   Andy grabbed the potato from the table—the one on the floor was too far past the three-second rule—and tossed it in the pot with the others. He mashed the ones in the pot with the back of the wooden spoon and threw in a dollop of butter and a pinch of salt, some milk purchased that morning, and a dash of pepper. He slopped the mashed potatoes on three plates at the table. “Dinner is served,” he said with a bow.
   Tom took the first bite of a leg, chewed, and sighed. “After all this time, fried chicken. Man this is good!” John pinched skin and meat from a breast and shoved it in his mouth. The look on his face showed his agreement with Tom. Andy, busy with a spoonful of mashed potatoes, didn’t miss their expressions. It was good. Especially after years of bland Sexton food.
   “So answer the question,” Tom said.
   “What question?”
   “Where did you get the spices?”
   “Actually,” Andy said through his food, “you didn’t ask the question.” A glance at Tom’s face took away his mirth. “I know a guy.”
   “You know the purchase, use, or sale of foreign spices is illegal.”
   “They’re spices, not heroin…or cocaine, or mara-gee-wanna.”
   John looked worried. He leaned toward Tom and met his eyes. “You’re not a protector anymore, Tom. …Are you?”
   The hard look passed from Tom’s eyes, and his face relaxed to its normal grin. “No. I’m an outlaw with the same price on his head as you. But you need to understand…” He pointed at the plate of chicken. “The protectors guild looks at illegally imported herbs and spices the same way cops on Earth look at illegal drugs.”
   Andy sucked the meat off a wing and tossed the bone on his plate. “Let me see if I have this right. The government of this ass-backward, police state kingdom will kill me for preparing a decent meal of fried chicken, the guy who sold me the stuff that made it a decent meal, and anyone who ate the decent meal? I should worry if they smell mustard on my breath?”
   “Sorry, pal. It’s not a decent meal of fried chicken.”
   “It’s a great meal of fried chicken.” Tom pushed his chair away from the table, put his hands together behind his head, and—to Andy’s consternation—put his booted feet on the table. “In fact, I think we owe it to the people of Sexton to reproduce this meal in a low key, off the beaten path, restaurant.”
   “I like where you’re going with this,” John said.
   “But I don’t have that much of any of the spices.”
   Tom shrugged. “So we have a little supply problem, and one or two minor problems with the law.”
   “Minor problems?” John coughed.
   “They already want us dead.” Andy grinned. “It can’t get much worse.”
   “It can’t?”
   Tom looked at each of them and winked at Andy. “It seems to me, gentlemen, that we are about to move from a life of crime, to a career of crime.” They were in; he could feel it. “…What’s for dessert?”

Chapter Two
   Corporal Cliomet brushed a piece of lint from his black cloak while another man changed the bandage on his face. Sistelli looked over their shoulders at the steps in front of the temple he was standing in. Soon he would be decorated with the Order of Sexton—the first such decorated officer in this generation of the reign of Rolof the First. It was a singular honor he felt he richly deserved. And Clio, good man that he was—the man who dragged him out of the inferno and tended his wounds until help arrived—would be decorated as well, though to a lesser extent.
   A man wearing the purple mantle of high office over his shoulders made his way to them. “In a few moments,” he said without preamble, “the crowd will be quieted and I will go to the front and call you gentlemen out. I shall read the commendation and present you with your medals.”
   “What do we do after that?” Clio asked.
   “Resume your duties and assist with the tax collection.”
 Sistelli winked at the corporal. “After that, I will buy you an ale and we can celebrate.”
   “I’m sorry sir, but I will pass on your offer…for now. With your permission, I would like to go home.”
   Bells in the tower rang. The King’s man walked out and raised his arms to the crowd. The sun shined in his face, but he could still see three lines of commoners stretching yards down the street. The were there to pay their taxes and if given a choice would probably rather just pay them and leave than watch a guild officer receive praise, but they were not going to be offered a choice.
   There were two protectors standing behind each of three tables at the top of the stairs. Behind each were chests full of coins: taxes. They came to attention as he stepped to the center. His voice rang loud and clear in the morning air. “Good citizens of Sexton, I come before you to hail two heroes of the realm. Raise your voices and hearts and cheer the presence of Lieutenant Sistelli and Corporal Cliomet!”
   Sistelli and Clio stepped into the sun. The crowd applauded, and a few managed to shout. Although no announcement was made, most knew of the fire in the warehouse, and that many died before it fell into the Bay of Sexton. Some believed the blaze was caused by renegade magic, others thought it was the wrath of one of the gods, and still others heard from those who heard from those who claimed they were there, that it was an explosion of mundane cause.
   The King’s man raised his long-fingered hands until the crowd quieted. “His majesty sent me to award these good men—your protectors—high honors for their deeds of two weeks ago. Allow me to introduce the noble heroes of the day…Lieutenant Sistelli and Corporal Cliomet!” Applause rose as the two protectors joined him at the top of the stairs. Clio wasn’t sure what to do with his hands; they sat at his sides and twitched. He stood at stiff attention and suddenly wished he was somewhere else.
   Sistelli beamed. He stood with his legs spaced to shoulder width, grinning, and raised both hands to the crowd. They responded with a cheer. His thigh ached—the wound from Viper’s thrown dagger had yet to knit. He suffered a deep cut from the point of the little bastard’s sword just before the warehouse fell. His smile almost faded when he remembered the moment he discovered that his former roommate at The Protectors Guild Academy at Misticuf was the outlaw known as Viper. Of all those present, only he knew that Tom Benton was Viper—and that Tom Benton didn't die in the blaze. That will change, he thought, when I find him and reveal him for what he is. Until then…let these fools believe him to be a fallen hero. It costs me nothing.
   The King’s man’s voice was deep and carried easily up the street. “…discovered the thieves known as John and Andy, who had the audacity to rob the coffers of your hard-earned taxes, were hiding in an unused warehouse on the wharf. He and the deceased Lieutenant Benton led two patrols to the warehouse to retrieve the taxes and execute the criminals.
   “The criminals were clever, diabolical, and not working alone. A wizard…unauthorized by the kingdom, and evil, known to some of you who may have utilized his tavern as Ambrose Bierce, assisted them. In spite of the danger, Lieutenant Sistelli and Corporal Cliomet, accompanied by Lieutenant Benton, faced fire and explosion. It is obvious from his wounds that Lieutenant Sistelli suffered much to protect you. We are assured, happily, that his wounds will heal!” He waited for the crowd to cheer. It took a moment but they complied…if with somewhat less enthusiasm than he hoped to see.
   “It gives me great pleasure, on behalf of the Grandfather of Protectors and the King of our nation, to confer upon Corporal Cliomet the rank of sergeant!” Cheers went up. Those who knew Cliomet thought him to be as honorable as members of the guild could be. Clio broke into a grin. He knew he was going to receive a medal, but never dared dream he would be a sergeant. If only his men were there to see such a thing. A few were. He could see their faces in the glare and was happy to see them smile. In spite of the pain in his chest—he was kicked by a mule in the attack—he stood up a little straighter.
   “…and know, good people of Sexton Proper, that Lieutenant Sistelli is now Captain Sistelli! A man of unquestionable, indisputable character, Captain Sistelli was gravely injured in the fight with John and Andy. He vanquished both while the wizard Bierce worked his magic to the destruction of the building. That he was unable to save the life of Lieutenant Benton is no reflection upon his skill as a fighter—Captain Sistelli, as you can see, sustained terrible wounds before emerging victorious. We take the greatest pleasure and honor in recognizing these two heroes.”
   He stuck out his hand and two boys came out. Each carried a shining medallion resting on a pillow of the finest purple fabric. The King’s man picked up the first medal and held it in the sun for the crowd to see. “Sergeant Cliomet has been conferred the King’s medal of Noble Service.” Clio snapped to attention with only a slight wince at the pain in his ribs, and bowed his head slightly to receive the medal.
   “And good Captain Sistelli, for facing two of the greatest villains of our day…and killing a rogue wizard at great personal expense, it is my singular honor to recognize you with the highest award conferred in the king’s name—the Order of Sexton!”
   At that, the crowd cheered in earnest. The Order of Sexton was rare, almost unheard of. They would be able to brag for generations that they were there to see a brave man accept it. Sistelli lowered his head and relished the shine on the medallion as it passed before his eyes, the weight of it on his chest when he straightened. The increase in status as well as pay almost overcame the stabbing pain in his leg and the dull throb of his face. He looked noble and strong, the picture of a model protector in spite of, and perhaps because of, his wounds.
   These wounds will heal, Tom the Viper. They will heal, and when they do, I will find you and kill you. Until then, and probably after, he would use his status as a hero and protector to increase his wealth by whatever means he could. Duty did not have to be synonymous with poverty. It was a lesson he learned years before.
   No one noticed when a bent man with a cane and a brown cloak with the hood pulled over his head turned away from the end of one of the lines and moved slowly up the hill. Under the hood, Andy shook his head.
Chapter 3

   It wasn't the heat of the day that bothered him, but the dampness of the air. The stench of the bay reached into his shop and almost overwhelmed the pleasant odors of his wares. He knew some passersby on the street would disagree with him. Their barbaric noses were not refined enough to enjoy the spirit of Crescens—his homeland to the south. That was fine with him. He catered to a more adventurous clientèle: those who appreciated his fine rugs, his tobaccos, his water pipes, and other parts of his culture he was allowed to sell in this backward land.
   He was about to close his shop for the afternoon and go to the bazaar and see if his younger brother was making any sales. Someone walked through the door just as he was about to lock the money box and take it upstairs. Raj tried not to watch him overtly, but kept an eye on the man while he dusted a water pipe on the counter.
   The man was small and well dressed in blue trousers and a pale blouse. His black hair was clean and cut short, as was his beard. He looked with an appraising eye at the variety, and seemed to admire the roots and herbs in the barrels by the window. When he caught Raj looking at him, he nodded and went back to looking.
    Andy bounced into the shop and shoved the open door against the wall to jangle the bell. He grinned at the startled look on the face of the proprietor and was relieved to see the look change to a happy one. His teeth were startling white in his shaved, olive-skinned face. Andy wondered if Tom knew what country the man was from based on his long white robe and brimless white cap. Probably not, he thought. The protectors guild doesn’t worry about anything outside the borders—that’s the army’s problem.
    “Good afternoon, my friend!” Raj boomed. “What does your wife think of your newly found cooking skills?”
    “You mean the ones with food?”
    Raj laughed, but his eyes flitted to the stranger behind his friend—who’s name he did not now. Something struck him as odd and he didn't like it. In light of the moment, he regretted selling this man spices against the law of this land, and was certain the fire at the warehouse—which resulted in death several times over—was caused, at least in part, by the barrels he sold to him. “I am sorry sirs, I was about to close for the afternoon. Perhaps you could return some other time?”
    Tom walked over and closed the door. He smiled at the shopkeeper and bowed his head slightly. “Relax. We’re here to discuss a business arrangement that will result in more money than you will ever see from the sale of even your finest rugs.”
    He reached under the counter and put his fingers around the handle of a long dagger. “You have my attention, but first I must know your names.” He gave the a long look. “Names your mothers would recognize.”
    Andy looked at Tom and shrugged. “He trusted me with contraband spices and illegal explosives. The least we can do is trust him with our real names.” He turned and reached out to shake the shopkeeper’s hand. “Ringo Starr,” he said. It might have worked if Tom wasn’t laughing so hard.
    “…And he has a screen door on his yellow submarine,” Tom said. The shopkeeper looked confused. “His name is Andy, and mine is Tom. As long as we’re friends… I ask that you let go of that weapon in your hand.”
    Raj let go of the dagger and brought both hands to the counter top. “How did you know?”
    “It’s what I would've done.”
    He arched an eyebrow. “You have the mark of the protectors guild on you. The stench of it, I mean to say.”
    Andy decided to intervene. “He’s not with the guild. Not anymore…I mean…uh…”
    Tom walked to the counter and shook hands with the shopkeeper. “My name really is Tom. You have a good eye. I was a protector for a while, but no longer. Now I’m afraid you have me at a slight disadvantage.”
    “How so?”
    “I don’t know your name.”
    “Raj.” He shook the proffered hand. “Are you the one known as Viper?” The grip on his hand tightened, and the little man’s eyes narrowed, but only for a fraction of a second.
    “How do you know that name?”
    He laughed and winked at Andy. “When one makes a living selling foreign goods, and a better living selling foreign goods that are contraband, one does well to pay very close attention to whispers in dark streets.” His eyes turned back to Tom. “Why do you wish to speak with me?”
    “To propose a partnership.”
    “I am listening.” The little man’s face did not change; his eyes pierced his. “You can be assured I will keep this conversation in the strictest confidence. Call it a matter of mutual respect. As I see it, you are wanted by the protectors guild…and I make more money in the spice trade than any other way. A slip of the tongue, a word placed in the wrong ear, and neither of us lives for long. I have but one question.”
    “What’s your question?” Andy stepped next to Tom. He sensed tension without knowing exactly why.
    “What happens if I do not accept your proposal?”
    Tom smiled without a trace of anything but satisfaction. “Nothing. You stated the situation very well, which is one of the reasons I think we’re going to get along. I can’t give you up to the guild—not that I would anyway. If I had a problem of any sort with spices, I would never have set foot in this shop…as a civilian.”
    “I think I like you as well.”
    “But time will tell.”
    Tom accepted the equivocation with a nod. “My friends and I are going to open a restaurant, and we’re going to use spices to make food a man with a palate can enjoy.”
    “That is not a crime.”
    Andy dove in. “Would you sell us the spices?”
   “No. That would be a crime.”
    “Exactly,” Tom agreed; his grin came back. “We need to supply ourselves.”
    Raj toyed with the mouthpiece of the water pipe. “I suppose, if it is done quietly and the price is right, I can supply you with enough for your restaurant.”
    “Thanks, but it’s not enough. The restaurant is a distraction.” Tom tapped a finger on the counter and waited until Raj looked him in the eye. “What we want to do is change the economy of this country. If people get used to food that tastes good, and we can sell it in quantity…the guild won’t be able to stop its widespread use.”
    “You seek to make something illegal, legal through popular use?” The pipe fell from his hand and bounced on the counter. “To what end?”
    “A little piece of freedom.” Tom smiled. “That’s the ultimate goal. Do you pay enough in taxes? Or do you pay too much—rather, are you expected to pay too much? We seek to get ahead of the guild’s ability to enforce the law. In the interim, there’s a lot of money to be made for all concerned. Like the sound of this so far?”
    Raj grinned. “I do, sir. I like it very much.”
    “There are details we’ll have to work out: procurement of the spices, transportation from Crescens to Sexton… We’ll need good men with courage and tight lips. And we’ll need a mechanism for distribution. Are you with us?”
    “Oh yes!”

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