Friday, October 2, 2015

Friday Fricassee (When Friends Stop Asking)


Yesterday at Whole Foods, I bumped into a friend of mine whom I don't see very often.  I'm really fond of this guy--he's warm, passionate, quirky, and he and his wife sell the most amazing food at our local farmer's market every Saturday.

I've known him for almost a decade.  We go to the same church, and I first met him when he sang in a special choir that I was asked to conduct one Easter.  The funny part was that, for several years afterward, I would pass him in the hallway, and he would say hello and call me by name--and I didn't know who he was.

Because let's be honest.  When you run a handful of rehearsals and a couple of performances for a group of thirty or so people, you don't exactly remember all their faces, let alone learn their names.  It was actually Mr. A who finally said to me, "He sang with us!"

After that, I made a concerted effort to remember my new friend's name, and the rest is history.  He's a peripheral friend, not someone in my closest circle of influence.  But I treasure him, because he's one of those people who always makes you feel like you matter.

Almost five years ago, when I first signed with my agent, he was especially encouraging and supportive.  Whenever I ran into him (which was often at Whole Foods), he would ask me how things were going with my writing.  As in, every time.  He was interested, and he knew it was important to me.  He's a creative type, too, so he "gets" that part of me.  He was rooting for me to sell that first book, to get things moving.

Of course, I never had anything exciting to tell him.  Still, he kept asking, and kept offering support.

Yesterday in Whole Foods, he didn't ask me.  I wasn't surprised, because he hadn't asked for quite some time.  In fact, it's a relief to not have to continue to say things like, "Oh, we've got another book out there right now, so I'm just waiting."

Such a relief.  Seriously.

But the absence is glaring.  This man always asked.  No matter what else we were talking about--no matter where we happened to see each other.  I could count on him to always touch base with me on my writing.  In his own way, he was walking along with me on my journey.  I deeply appreciated it.  But at this point, it's much easier--much less painful--that he doesn't ask.

He's not the only one.  As time has passed, other friends have fallen gently silent.  And why wouldn't they?  After a while, it becomes awkward to keep asking the same questions--and getting the same answers.

No, I haven't sold a book yet.  End of story.

And this, folks, is the quiet valley through which you've got to push if you want to keep going.  There are no cheering crowds.  There's no one asking to interview you (those requests have died away, too), no one following you, no one insisting that you will get your break soon.  And the ugly truth is that they've stopped believing.  (And, because these are decent folks, they would never say that to you.)

And it doesn't matter.  It's not pretty, but it doesn't matter.  Because when you get to this point, you have to press on.  Despite everything.

Despite, perhaps, having stopped believing yourself.  Somewhere along the way, it stops being about the believing, and is only about the doing.  Writing because that's what you do.  Telling stories because they're in your soul, and you've worked so hard and so long to write them well, and others have confirmed that, yes, you actually have learned to turn a phrase or two, and, dad-gummit, you're not going to stop writing just because your dreams haven't come true.

Just because your dreams aren't even there anymore.

No.  It's way beyond dream-chasing.  It's set-your-jaw, sit down, take a deep breath, WRITE.  It's meeting folks you know and love, and not thinking twice when they don't ask you if you've sold anything.  (And if someone does ask about your writing? You don't have an emotional break-down.  And you don't feel like a failure, either.)

Mine was clearly never meant to be an exciting, holy-cow-her-agent-sold-the-triology-in-just-2-weeks! story.  That's not what I have to offer you.  And it's a good thing, because those fast-success stories aren't the norm.  We just hear about them a lot because, well, they're exciting.  And people vomit them out, and we slurp them up, and our spirits long for a similar story.

Heck, even sold-in-two-months is exciting.  Or sold-in-six-months.  Or her-first-book-didn't-sell-but-her-second-book-sold-in-a-week.

You get the idea.

The only way to keep going is to move past all that.  And if my role in all this is to be an example to you of what it means to JUST KEEP GOING, then I embrace that.  One of the things that has kept me going during the difficult times is remembering that you are watching me.  That you need me to carry the banner so that we can walk the walk together.

That's what I'm doing.

Press on through the hard times.  Press on when friends fall silent.  It's about you and your writing.  It's about determination and dedication and stubbornness.  It's about rising above everything -- everything -- and continuing to write.

And one day, I'll bump into my sweet friend at Whole Foods or the farmer's market or church, and I will exclaim, "Guess what!" What a moment that will be.

Monday, September 28, 2015

And We Have Winners...

From Moe's fingers:

I’d like to say thank you so much for having me on the blog and letting me be a part of things this week. I remember being involved in a Secret Agent once upon a time, but on the other end anxiously awaiting the critiques! I know how hard it is to put your work out there to be critiqued by your peers and I truly hope my advice is helpful to everyone.

As always, even if you aren’t picked as a winner, you’re still welcome to query me through the usual channels. If I said I’d read on, please mention this in your query to help jog my memory. Good luck, all, in the query trenches! :^]

And now the winners:

RUNNERS UP - Query + Synopsis + First 50 Pages:


GRAND PRIZE - Query + Synopsis + Full Request:


Congratulations, all!  Winners:  Please email me at facelesswords(at) for specific submission instructions.

Secret Agent Unveiled: Moe Ferrara

Many thanks and high fives to this month's lovely Secret Agent, Moe Ferrara of Bookends Literary Agency!

Moe's Bio:

Becoming a literary agent was fitting for the girl who, as a small child, begged her dad to buy her a book simply because "it has a hard cover." Growing up, she had a hard time finding YA books outside of Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine, and instead tackled Tom Clancy or her mom's romance novels. Though her career path zigzagged a bit—she attended college as a music major, earned a JD from Pace Law School, then worked various jobs throughout the publishing industry—Moe was thrilled to join the BookEnds team in May of 2015 as a literary agent and the subsidiary rights director.

A Pennsylvania native, she is the proud owner of one rambunctious guinea pig who is a master at stealing extra treats. When not reading, she is an avid gamer and always awaiting the next Assassin's Creed release.

What She's Looking For:

I’m still on the look out for a great adventure Middle Grade — something with humor and a lot of heart. I’d also love to find a great retelling of some ilk. Greek and Roman mythology is my soft spot, though!

Winners forthcoming!

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday Fricassee

You know the euphoria that comes with finishing revisions?  Yep.  That would be me for the past five days.  Euphoric!

Well, okay.  Perhaps "relieved" is a less inflated way to describe it.  Satisfied.  And slightly awed, too, considering that this story was an all-out poopstain to write.

I'm excited, too, to have a couple sets of new eyeballs on my reader list this time around, and they are lovely eyeballs, indeed!  You know who you are.  (I hope!)

The next round of revisions will surely be brutal, but for now, I'm enjoying this hey-I'm-actually-between-projects thing.  I'm pretty sure I know what I'm doing next, but I've given myself the week to catch up on other things and breathe a little.

For those of you who entered ON THE BLOCK:  Yes, I'm reading!  Not very quickly, to be sure--but that's why I gave myself plenty of time between submission day and notify-the-winners day.  I'm all fancy with a spreadsheet, too.  I'm seeing lots of different genres, which is fabulous.  I'm hoping to come up with a strong mix of 24 diverse entries for our agents to fight over.  I'll keep you updated on my progress!

I'm also happy to see lots of crits coming through for our current Secret Agent Contest.  KEEP THEM COMING!  This is our last Secret Agent of 2015.

Oh, and thinking ahead to post-ON THE BLOCK--will you let me know in the comment box today whether or not you'd find another Holiday Song Lyric Contest fun this year?  I love reading your entries for things like this, but I'd rather take a litmus test before scheduling.  Please take a moment to share your thoughts!

See you Monday.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Secret Agent Critique Guidelines

Guidelines for Critique on MSFV:
  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Cheerleading IS NOT THE SAME as critiquing.  Please don't cheerlead.
  • Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to say positive things about an entry that you feel is strong.  To make these positive comments more helpful, say why it's a strong entry.
  • ENTRANTS: As your way of "giving back", please critique a minimum of 5 other entries.

*I can't possibly read every comment.  If you ever see a comment that is truly snarky, please email me.  I count on your help.

September Secret Agent #50

Title: The Treasures of Dodrazeb
Genre: Historical Fantasy

When he lost sight of Kamran, cold dread washed over Rasteem, sucking the air from his lungs. He yanked his blade from the enemy’s belly. Another came at him. Rasteem kicked the weapon out of his hand and drove a sword through his heart.

He wouldn’t allow his nephew’s death to fulfill the bizarre prophecy in this strange city. Searching for the boy, Rasteem ignored the metallic stink of blood and filtered out tortured cries. A familiar voice shouted, drawing him toward an alley. He saw Kamran, backed against a wall, trapped.

Kamran ducked behind his round shield, fending off a man wielding a short sword that thudded against it like an axe chopping a log. When the shield broke in two, Kamran flung the pieces into the dirt next to his sword. He crouched and raised his fists, ready to spring aside before the defender could finish him off.

Rasteem roared as he lunged and stabbed Kamran’s foe in the back. The tip of a sword protruding from his chest, surprise in the defender’s eyes dimmed to emptiness. Rasteem pushed the body off his blade, letting it crumple to the ground.

Kamran’s face lit up. “Still haven’t taken the palace?”

Rasteem grabbed the scruff of his neck and threw him down, hard. “Can’t lead an invasion if I’m searching for you!”

He pulled the boy up by his new armor and leaned down until they were nose-to-nose. “Stay with me.” Rasteem released him and stomped away.

September Secret Agent #49

Title: Lyria
Genre: YA Fantasy

There he was again, Catia thought, halting her walk home. Her heart leaped with suppressed joy when she spotted the boy who was always on her mind. She glanced at him from across the bustling town square, hope blooming in her eyes and excitement rushing through her veins. Carriages and townspeople carried on, unaware the world revolved around him as she tried not to stare, and failed miserably. Trebian Ashware, with his sandy brown hair and blue eyes so piercing she knew they would see right to the core of her. That is, if he'd allow himself to come close enough.

Everyday Catia went about her duties, attending her mother at the healing compound and training with her father, but always the irresistible pull to see Trebian was there. She sensed when he was near, as if her heart knew where he was at all times, even when he wasn’t in her line of sight, as he was now. Trebian carried on with a friend and didn’t notice her presence.

Still standing among the throng, Catia pondered that connection. Surely, it couldn’t be one-way. There were rare occasions they locked eyes, as if he was aware of her, too. She clung to the hope he would look up, just a flicker of his eyes to assure her it was real. She almost laughed at herself. She had been playing this game with Trebian for years, but this was as far as it ever went, or ever would go.

September Secret Agent #48

Title: Chronicles of a Hollywood Source
Genre: NA Urban Fantasy

I should join a carnival, because I’m forever a freak.

It probably wouldn't be too hard to do, now that I'm graduating. And I'm eighteen, so I don't need permission; I can tell my parents I'm at college, as planned. Granted, it's not Hollywood and the fame I've wanted, but it's kind of acting. All I'll have to do is find a carnival, tell them about my visions of the future and they'll welcome me as one of their own. Probably have me bunk with a bearded lady—

“Hello? Earth to Lexi!” my best friend, Taryn turns down the music. “Your eyes are all wide, like someone caught doing something naughty and you haven’t said anything in about five minutes. What are you thinking about?”

It takes a second to grasp reality again. I’m in Taryn’s car, on the way to our school, West Palm Prep. With the top down on her blue convertible, the southern Florida air doesn’t feel damp and sticky like it usually does, the cool ocean breeze a nice change. It’s hot as it always is in June, though, so she cranks up the a.c. to combat it.

Even with the volume lowered, “So Good” by B.o.B. still blares. She’s looking at me while steering with a cup of iced coffee in one hand.

Do I always wear a face when considering my visions? “Sorry, I was, uh, thinking about who will get all my stuff after you kill us. Can you at least pretend to watch the road?”

September Secret Agent #47

Title: Love Has No Age
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Meg could feel the tension in her shoulders as she rolled her neck from side to side. A night with little sleep, and worry for her mother-in-law, was making her drive home in the early morning, a challenging one. The music blared loudly as she tried singing along. At least Mary was out of danger and was responding to treatment. The heart attack had been minor, with minimal damage.

She was a worrier, especially about her son. Since starting high school he had become increasingly belligerent. He acted out more now and his grades were slipping. She hoped he had arrived home on time. He had been going out with some new friends and she did not like him driving with people she had not met.

Meg’s thoughts were interrupted by the siren sounding behind her. Oh no, she moaned, as she looked at the patrol car behind her and its flashing lights in the rear view mirror. She hadn’t been paying attention to her speed and now she was being pulled over. She checked her speedometer and knew she had been speeding. She had never gotten a ticket, always obeying the rules of the road. She was thankful it would only be a ticket and she'd not been in an accident.

Meg signaled and quickly pulled over to the side of the road. She watched the cruiser park behind her through the side mirror, but the officer made no move to get out of the cruiser.

September Secret Agent #46

Title: The Relic Heir
Genre: MG Fantasy Adventure

Kazan Governate, Russian Empire, 1772

Ivan Kirilov threw open the warped shutters and scanned the swirling snow. Furious flurries of powder pelted his face, but beyond the grayish white of endless winter he couldn’t see a thing.

He quickly shut the window. A loud growl erupted from his belly. He didn’t like cooking, but on days like this—when his father was late from work—he knew better than to delay supper.

Ivan’s mouth sagged while he stoked the fire. Turnip stew again. The warm hearth turned his thoughts from the bland meal to the coming spring and the freedom it would give him to wander outside the village borders, to hunt and fish and gorge himself on wild berries. With a frustrated sigh he lugged the large iron pot off the table and nestled it among the dancing flames.

When he removed the lid, he was surprised to find an envelope inside. He quickly snatched it up. The wax seal had been hastily applied, and red dots trailed across the envelope like droplets of blood. Ivan sat down and ripped the envelope open. Several sheets of parchment fell onto the rough tabletop. One was crumpled and torn like it had been stuffed in as an afterthought. He read it first.

Son, forgive me. I will not be coming back.

Ivan quickly reread it, confusion clouding his face like the storm outside. It had to be a joke.

The enclosed letter will explain everything, but before you read it you must flee!

September Secret Agent #45

Title: Black Box
Genre: NA Science Fiction

I awake to the unmistakable sound of gunfire and a twisting pain in my side. There’s cold, rigid steel beneath me. Above me, a fluorescent light flickers, sizzles, then peters out. It’s a second or two before I can shake the fog from my head and adjust to the lack of light. Another moment before I realize where I am: the clean room. Only it’s not ‘clean’ any longer. A dark red, almost black puddle stains the floor a few feet away. Blood? My blood? Have I been shot? It would explain the sound, the pain.

Instinctively, I reach for my middle, my vital organs, but my hands won’t move until The metal restraints fastening my wrists to the chair open with a snap. “Move your ass,” a male voice hisses into my ear as unseen hands prod my shoulders. Once on my feet, the room begins to spin. I reach out to balance myself, slipping as my palm misses the chair I’ve just vacated, and landing in a pile upon the stainless steel floor. “We don’t have time for this,” the voice hisses again.

Hot, sharp pain radiates from my temples down the side of my face and into my neck. Craning my neck makes it worse so I can't look behind me to see his face without completely turning my body, which I can't do. I can't even manage to stand without falling, I wouldn't trust myself to pirouette.

September Secret Agent #44

Title: The B.I.M. - Basic Intelligence Model
Genre: MG Science Fiction

Something smashed against the window, and it hit hard. Daniel shoved the kitchen chair aside to get past the table and squished his nose up against the dirty glass pane.

Talk about a feathered frenzy! Outside, dozens of chickens flapped everywhere. Up and down, left and right, feathers thick as clouds. Dead in the center of it all, running around and waving his arms like a bird brain himself, was Uncle Bob.

"Dag nab it, chickens! Get back into that coop!" The old man's voice thundered in the squawking storm.

Daniel shook his head, turned around with a grunt and headed out the door. His uncle might be great with driving his tractors around and growing the corn in the fields, but when it came to animals, the old man didn't have a clue. If he waited for the old man to shoo those chickens back into their coop, they'd be sitting there all day. All week.

"I'm coming, Uncle Bob. I'm coming!" Daniel let the screen door slam closed behind him and took the three concrete stairs leading down to the cracked sidewalk in one leap. He rounded the corner of the white painted house and came to a skidding stop in the middle of the lawn.

Uncle Bob turned to face him, sweat dripping down the side of his face. He looked a lot like Santa Claus, not the clean ho-ho-hoey kind, but one that had rolled in the reindeer's straw while greasing and waxing up the sleigh.

September Secret Agent #43

Genre: YA Dark Fantasy

It was so hot outside the air smelled like charcoal. Just thinking of frozen yogurt had Kess salivating and he pedaled past Bosque Bello Cemetery trying not to pant. A rumbling sound drew his eyes to the sky. It wasn’t supposed to rain until late afternoon, but those dark clouds were heavy and low. By the time he arrived, he was soaked.

A blast of air tossed chill bumps across his skin when he pushed opened the door at the yogurt place. Yet, the scowl on everyone’s face was icier. He looked down at his dripping t-shirt and shorts and backed out onto the sidewalk.

They thought he was a weirdo—a half-born—claiming he had one foot in the world, the other in the grave. Nothing more than a walking bad luck charm, so they feared him. By third grade the kids had nicknamed him Casper. Kess pinched his skin. He was flesh and blood like the rest of them.

He stood underneath the awning and leaned against his bike, trying to wring some of the excess water from his clothes. Rain hammered the street, thunder vibrated the shop window, and lightning flared.

The storm seemed intent on drenching Fernandina Beach or more specifically, downtown. Kess squinted. In the distance, a smudge moved behind the rain that looked like smoke and an acrid scent billowed on the breeze. He debated for a moment then jumped back on his bike. He was already wet—might as well see what was going on.

September Secret Agent #42

Genre: YA Fantasy

Every time I kill a dragon, it’s like I lose a piece of my soul.

The high winds rushing off of The Colony sweep a shard of my humanity away to the Thubar Plains whenever one of my arrows dances to the slowing cadence of a dragon’s heartbeat. I am not heartless. This is the way the Dr├íkon Akademie trains me.

With a short bow in hand I narrow my eyes. The edges of the scale-less space between the Stoker dragon’s pectoral muscles and deltoids become crisp, exactly one-and-a-half inches on each side—a one-point-one-two-five square inch target. From two-hundred feet away, it’s a speck, but dragon serum coursing through my veins forces my eyes’ lenses to reshape and refocus the light. The dragon’s heart throbs beneath its thin leathery skin, the slow pulse fueled by magic.

I release the bowstring, my long braid disturbed by the fletchings as the arrow catapults over my forearm. The arrowhead cuts through the dust-infused air, the shaft quivering back and forth. The streamlined object speeds toward the metallic green dragon in my sight. My pulse kicks up a notch in anticipation of the inevitable Stoker screech when the arrow hits it target. A sound that is both glorious and heart-wrenching. The sound of death. The sound of my soul splitting. But it never comes. The arrow misses by a sliver, bouncing off the harder-than-metal scales.

Dammit, Kaliyah. No doubt this will cost me my rank.

September Secret Agent #41

Genre: YA Fantasy

I peek from behind the tattered velvet curtains at the chattering audience, their mouths full of candied pineapple and kettle corn, their pale faces flushed from anticipation and the heat. They look as gullible as dandelions, same as the visitors in the past five cities. The Gomorrah Festival hasn’t been permitted to travel this far north in the Up-Mountains in over six years, and these people look like they’re attending the opera or theatre rather than our traveling carnival of debauchery.

The women wear frilly dresses in burnt golds and oranges, buckled to the point of suffocation, billowing out into the seats of those beside them with their many tiers of tafetta. They sigh and wave their paper fans to combat the nighttime August heat, some with children bouncing on their laps. The men have shoulder pads to seem broader, stilted loafers to seem taller, and painted silver pocket watches to seem richer.

If buckles, stilts, and paint are enough to hoodwink them, then they won’t notice that the eight "freaks" of my freak show are, in fact, only one.

Tonight’s target, Count Pomp-di-pomp, smokes an expensive pipe in the second row, leftover saffron honey from the pastry he had earlier gleaming on his mustache. He’s sitting too close to the front, which won’t make it easy for Iosef to steal the Count’s ring. But that’s where I come in.

September Secret Agent #40

Genre: YA Fantasy

Sitting on the roof of her family’s shop, Teagan Proctor plotted new ways to torture her brothers. They took their witch responsibilities too far. What sort of demon was going to waltz through Salem on Samhain? Tonight was New Year’s Eve for witches, the most sacred day on the calendar. All demons should be hiding.

Yet there she sat, her AP Calculus exam long forgotten. Instead she scanned the narrow cobblestone street three stories below. Trick or Treating didn’t start for at least another few hours, yet tourists were packed into this particular side street. She didn’t want to imagine what the rest of downtown was like. That was at her back along with the rolling ocean.

What she was looking for, she didn’t know. Pointed hats bobbed on the heads of tourists while others waved wands around. A banjo twanged in contrast to the street drums banging away. The late October sun flashed off vampire fangs while a little girl in a brightly colored tutu tugged at her father’s sleeve. Teagan turned away as the father swung his daughter onto his shoulders, ignoring the tightness in her chest.

Vendors all dressed in extravagant costumes, most with black hair and some sort of facial piercing, waved tickets around. Tourists lined up, eager to learn about the evil beings that were once sentenced to death. Teagan chuckled. If they knew that one watched them at this moment, well she’d probably be set on some sort of display.

September Secret Agent #39

Genre: MG Fantasy

Being the only boggart in a forest village full of elves had its perks. They had no prior knowledge of his kind, so the boggart did as he pleased while the others went about their chores. Not that he was useless. Awkward, maybe. Overbearing, certainly.

Misunderstood...always. But Festy thought in another fifty years or so, he’d fit right in. The squirrel-sized boggart flew around the cluster of tree hole homes to slurp water from the nearby creek. A bucktooth hung out of either side of his snout as he caught a whiff of excitement—the last day of summer—a celebration with food, fun, and an extraordinary play (with only one actor).

Festy drew his bat-like wings in front of him like a stage curtain. His big round eyes peeked out as he flung his arms open for his first scene: “Hark! Who goes there?” he said in his thick British accent.

His lean blue body leapt over a fallen tree limb and landed on a pair of pointy feet attached to an irritated elf. Festy froze. Two of the elf leaders stood in his path.

Rue crossed her leafy arms. The bristly yellow flowers that grew out of her body sprung up and down impatiently as if they too were annoyed with him. “Festy, we do not have time to endure,” she paused, “that is, enjoy, your entertainment this evening.” She pruned a dead branch off of a nearby fern with one quick snap.

September Secret Agent #38

Title: The Blood Barrier
Genre: YA Urban Fantasy

The fact that there’s a Sender staring at me through the window of my door immediately makes me want to punch things. And by things, I pretty much mean any part of her body. I’m not picky— as long as she feels it then I’m winning.

Sparrow taps on the glass just to let me know she’s watching me, and disappears. I need to get out of here. Today. Now. The words tumble through my head, tripping over each other in urgency. A cadence that builds and ebbs like the tides of the sea. It’s pulling me out again. The Front’s grasp kept me locked and collared for three weeks after my last escape attempt. Three weeks without feelings.

How do you escape the only life you’ve ever known?

When I glance outside my room, Sparrow’s stupid lizard-face glares back at me. “Haley, where do you think you’re going? Mutant.”

That one word. That tiny little label, is the cause of all my grief. She’s so lame— we’re all frecking mutants here. Sparrow thinks she’s all that because she’s already part of the Elite army. Yippie-frecking-do. Her ego's gonna be her downfall. I can't wait till she's mine. Visions of her death ease me.

“Bite me, Lizard-breath.”

Sparrow’s face turns green, and I back away laughing. But my attempt to slam the door is a joke. It slowly creaks on its hinges, lessening the effect tenfold. Sparrow’s laughter echoes through the empty bedroom. “That’s what I thought, Cadet.”

September Secret Agent #37

Title: IF the GUY FITS
Genre: Space Western Rom Com

Maxine Scull grew up on a gentlemen’s farm on New Earth where her toes stretched into warm soil and her shoulders kissed the cool breeze. That was her youth, so privileged she even had a pet pony. She also had the time to stare at clouds and think acting might be a viable career choice, certainly better than studying something practical—like art history. Accounting: that never crossed her mind. Being a repo agent . . . she didn’t know what that was.

Growing up on a farm she learned about sex before she could walk, and her take on it was simple. When it came to chickens, the rooster was definitely having the better time of it. At an early age and despite her gender, Maxine Scull vowed to be a cock.

But those days were long past. The family money was gone, the soil had turned to dust, and now she knew all about repo agents, having become one herself. At twenty-five, all that remained of her youth was the dream of stardom.

In pursuit of that dream she had spent the last month as far removed from toes in the dirt as possible. Her feet skimmed across the floor lightly, unable to function well in the artificial gravity onboard the space freighter. When she tried to walk she strutted, shoulders rocking, head bobbing, and that reminded her of chickens.

The captain of this ship—who had been trying all along to push her down, jump on her back, and bite her neck—chickens.

September Secret Agent #36

Title: The Third Gift
Genre: MG Fantasy

Marisi was raised on stories that didn't have happy endings. It's what happened when you grew up on an island. Ships sank. Priceless cargo was lost. Sailors never came home. It was said the tears of grieving mothers and lost children filled the oceans. Sad laments echoed through rafters and rattled down hallways in every manor house, on every island, in the world. They were cautionary tales with lessons tucked in along the way. Everyone cried when they heard them. Which only made the water rise higher. There was something almost poetic about it.

But Marisi had learned that being the star of your own sad story wasn't so great. Certainly nothing poetic. As far as Marisi could tell there wasn't even a lesson to be learned. Unless it was to never have a baby sister.

She sat on the stone sill of her bedroom window, folding a sheet of paper in half. Then she folded it again and again until it had a pointy snout, slender body and broad wings. Her mother called it a ‘featherless bird’ or ‘sail without a ship.’ But Marisi had a different idea. She wrote ADVENTURE across its wings in bold block letters.

Her house perched on top of a tall cliff – a perfect launch site. Leaning out the window she set ADVENTURE free with one smooth motion. “May you find a current to your liking. Sail high! Sail long! Sail true!”

ADVENTURE soared over the tops of tall oaks.

September Secret Agent #35

Title: Coincidences
Genre: Fantasy

The car Luke rented looked like it had been in a demolition derby. I had to hand it to rental place—keeping the bumper on with chicken wire was some kind of sorcery.

My head hit the window as we bounced over a crater in the Mexican toll road. I rubbed my forehead, giving Luke, my partner, a pointed look.

He didn’t notice. No surprise there—he’d ignored the last three questions I’d asked. Before I thought better of it, I reached over, chose an arm hair, and plucked it out by the root.

“Hey! What was that for?” Luke rubbed his arm while his thoughts seared into my mind. One of the bonuses of our position: telepathic link. It was great for communicating while invisible, but a serious liability when it came to privacy. Unfortunately, the switch that kept my thoughts to myself shorted out like wiring chewed by a neurological rat.

I held up my hands with a grin and slipped into the non-visible realm. The air around me shifted, like I had walked into an air-conditioned room after being outside in scorching hot weather.

“Funny. You know I can still see you,” Luke said with a little tilt to his lips.

Wasn’t that the truth. Luke was the only person I couldn’t hide from. Of course, whether or not he wanted to find me was a whole other matter.

“What’s got you wound so tight?” I asked.

Luke shook his head, dark brown hair falling into his eyes.

September Secret Agent #34

Genre: YA Fantasy

“Dude.” I dragged the word out, despite not being a stoner, skater or surfer. If anything, I was a sci-fi geek, but we, as a people, didn’t really have an official word. Maybe just a scream of unadulterated joy at the release of a new movie or a shocked gasp at a revelation in a TV episode. But my Duuude was meant to soften the blow that would come next. I twisted the cylindrical glue stick in my hand, pushing the tube of adhesive up and then rolling it down, before moving on to fiddle with the other one. “I think I’m out of glue.”

Kate glanced at me from where she sat on the hardwood floor of my bedroom, her gaze flickering from my face to the sticks in my hand, only a scraped-away layer of beige remaining in each. Her fingers tightened around the paper she held, a baby-blue poster board we were attempting to decorate. “Great.”

“Don’t freak out, you little drama queen.” I dropped to my knees at Kate’s side, my tone light. If I’d said that to her with any amount of seriousness, she wouldn’t talk to me for a week. Which wouldn’t work out well when the poster was due to be presented tomorrow in our first period business class. “Maybe there’s enough here for it to work.”

“You said you had everything we needed for this poster, Aurelia.” Kate adjusted the purple glasses on her nose, giving me an unobstructed view into her blue eyes.

September Secret Agent #33

Title: Kevara
Genre: YA Fantasy

Only the desperate seek healing from the Jordi tribes.

As today is the advent of the harvest festival, I need not travel far to find them.

When the rising sun peeks above the trees, I slip from my windowsill, shrug into a dress and cloak stolen from the servants’ trunks, and step into the castle corridors. My family’s chambers, as well as the servants’ rooms, are silent. Perfect. No one will catch me sneaking into town. I smile and approach the thick door leading to the courtyard.


Karst! I curse silently. But I force myself to take a breath. Corisa doesn’t deserve my anger.

My older sister sits in a stairwell, a silk robe belted around her waist. “You’re still going out?”

I give her my most winning grin. “I’m spending my birthday with friends.”

“Truly, Adira. Can you trust those Jordi potions?”

I stop smiling. Lift my chin. “I’ll try anything.” Anything to keep from seeing the ghosts—beasts like that six-tailed fox, or a pig with antlers and a snake’s tail, or the crow who changes color when I blink. Beasts who leer from the shadows and follow me down the halls. Who mutter when they know I listen, and howl when they think I don’t. No one else sees them. Corisa insists they will leave if I ignore them. But they’ve been coming more often and draw closer each time. I can’t ignore creatures shrieking in my ear or staring me in the face.

Corisa frowns.

September Secret Agent #32

Title: Sea Strand
Genre: Fantasy

Tell him to find me an acre of land,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Between the salt water and the Sea Strand
Then he'll be a true love of mine.

English Folk Song

For the rest of her life, no matter where she went or who she became, Anna O’Sullivan never forgot she was a child of sea and shore.

Gazing at the ocean from the sunny deck of her mother’s house in Half Moon Bay, Anna’s nerves tingled with electric anticipation. Any minute. He would be here any minute. She pushed her straight blonde hair away from her face in a gesture born of long habit. Her eyes remained fixed on the surf below, but she also concentrated on the house behind her, listening for the chime of the doorbell.

The windy Northern California coast filled her senses. Anna inhaled, tasting the salt on the breeze and smelling the sea. The raucous cries of the birds and siren crash of the waves beckoned her closer. Cool depths with their vibrant greens and deepening blues hinted at locked away secrets and mirrored the questions in her mind.

Anna started at the distant sound of a car door slamming. She turned from the tides and hurried through the kitchen of her childhood home to the family room and out the screen of her front door.

She ran down the porch steps to greet the handsome man coming up the front walk. “Derek!”

September Secret Agent #31

Genre: MG Fantasy

A streak of black fur shot over the hill, her paws skimmed the lane, her green eyes keened ahead. No need to turn; she heard him panting too close at her heels. Ten whisker-widths behind her – his ears flapping, his head bobbing – was Dylan the terrier.

Cantrip sprang to clear the garden wall with elegant precision. She wove through rosebushes towards a white cottage, inhaling scented triumph.

Dylan skidded in a patch of mud, stopped inches from the wall and seconds from a flattened snout. He snorted, shook his head and darted to the wicket gate, and poked his nose through as her black tail licked the corner of the cottage for the last time. He barked as if to say – Catch you tomorrow.

Day after day, Cantrip shadowed the girl out of the cottage. Most school days were fine, but on weekends, she rarely got past the edge of the village before – Yap, yap, yap! And the chase was on.

She slipped through the kitchen door flap and paused to cool her pads on stone tiles, then leapt onto a rickety stool by the table where her breakfast lay. But as she bent her head to eat, a prickle shot from tail-tip to whiskers. They quivered. She froze and listened... no one. She dismissed the sensation and ate her bacon and black pudding.

The cottage stood solid in the morning sunlight as Dylan trotted back to the village, but shuddered on its foundations as he disappeared over the hill.

September Secret Agent #30

Title: Spaceseed
Genre: MG Science Fiction

A small blue seed with tiny red bumps floated gently to the ground, settling in the middle of the sidewalk. Then, as if uncomfortable on the hard concrete, the seed rolled until it rested in the soft grass.

* * * * * * * *

Mandy skipped down the sidewalk. Her brother, Peter, ambled along a few yards behind her. She stopped and bent down, her curly red hair falling over her face. She picked up the small seed.

“Aw, Mandy, not another seed?” Peter frowned. “All you do is plant seeds in your window box.”

"Daddy‘s always working and I‘ve got no one to play with.” Mandy looked hopefully at her brother. “You could play with me, Peter.”

"For crying out loud, Mandy. I've got my own friends. They don‘t want to hang around a six year old..." He stopped. Tears glistened in Mandy’s eyes. "I guess you don't have many friends, do you?" he said.

Mandy pushed the hair from her face. “My flowers are my friends.”

“I suppose they even talk to you.” Peter grinned. Mandy pouted. “Flowers don’t talk! Anyway, this seed is just like the one I found a few days ago.”

“How do you know it isn’t a poison ivy seed?”

Mandy turned the seed over in her hand. “Because I planted the other one and it’s growing a beautiful flower.” She tucked the seed into her pants pocket.

“Well, I don’t think it’s smart to keep planting all those seeds. What if your apple seed grows? We live on the fourth floor.

September Secret Agent #29

Genre: MG Contemporary Fantasy

The noise pulsed in my ears like an annoying car alarm. Security guards flooded the main hall below and raced past Sue, the famous Tyrannosaurus rex. I unbuttoned my coat, wiped the river of sweat from my forehead, and headed for the stairs. A janitor dressed like Indiana Jones blocked my path.

What’s going on?” I asked. “I thought my best friend pulled the fire alarm. Did someone steal something?”

“Le bleu de France,” he said.

“The blue of France.” I interpreted the simple words, the only time my foreign language class had ever come in handy. “A flag was stolen? Wait, I bet it was one of those expensive Easter eggs.” I swayed, but steadied myself. “Is it hot in here?”

His form flickered, syncing to the rhythm of my heartbeat. Whoa. Was this guy a ghost? A mob of students shoved me into the mystery man. I shot straight through him, the stairs rushing to meet my nose. He grabbed my hand, saved my face, and sealed my fate. The current snagged my fingertips, snaking up my wrist and forearm. I pried out of the deadlock and severed the connection. The crowd converged and swept him away, his image dissolving in a glimmer of refracted light.

“Wait, come back!”

An intense burning seared my upper thigh. I yanked open my jacket pocket. The deep-blue gem radiated like liquid sapphire. I understood what had been stolen—The Hope Diamond—and I was the thief.

September Secret Agent #28

Title: The Fairer Sex
Genre: Speculative Fiction


Jonas waited on his bunk, hands clasped behind his neck, counting ceiling tiles. There were sixty-four. He knew because he counted them whenever he waited for something to happen. He waited a lot.

A sharp knock at the door. He jumped to answer it, compound-issued sneakers squeaking on the linoleum. Dennis, dressed in his customary purple coveralls, stood grinning on the other side. Sometimes Jonas was grateful he was an evaluator, if only for the green threads.

"So, is it a go?" he asked, moving aside to let Dennis in.

"I may have heard through the grapevine we're on for tomorrow."

"Finally." Jonas shifted his weight on the balls of his feet--a fighter's impulse. "It's been too long."

"Orville is giving a tour to some female tomorrow, we're hoping he'll be thoroughly distracted. We're using the soundproof room on the third floor of the administration building."

It sounded perfect, adrenaline pounded through his system. Tomorrow, for the first time in months, he'd be washing blood from his knuckles.

Chapter 1

Samantha was accustomed to being early. In school she'd always been in her seat before the bell rang, and she had regularly shown up for soccer practice while the field was still being mowed. Even for her delivery, a scheduled c-section due to a breeched baby, she had shown up three hours early in full labor. No c-section necessary.

Punctual as usual that morning, she unbuckled her daughter one-handedly while balancing a briefcase between her knee and chin.

September Secret Agent #27

Title: The Captive Lord
Genre: Historical Romance

The private coach struck a frozen rut and lurched to the left jostling the three weary travelers inside. Lord Blackthorn, a suspicious man, came instantly alert. Highwaymen were rare, now, on the London road but not entirely unheard of. Instinctively, Blackthorn reached for the pistol secreted in one of the specially constructed pockets inside his greatcoat. The sudden movement wrenched the dagger wounds barely scabbed over in his shoulder and chest. He bit back the cry of pain that rose in his throat. Closing his eyes, he held his breath and sat very still until the pain eased.

For once, and not for many years, Lord Ware Blackthorn sought the comforts of his father’s house. Whether his father allowed him room was uncertain, at best. Perhaps when the Duke saw his eldest son suffering the alternating waves of fever and chill, he would relent. Yet, Shrivenham seemed so far away. For the hundredth time since he‘d left home, Blackthorn wondered if he would make it back alive.

A surreptitious shift by the occupant on the forward seat caught Blackthorn’s attention. Mere feet away, with the coach shutters drawn against the cold night, he could scarcely make out the man’s features. Why had the Prince Regent insisted so vehemently the stranger accompany him? A clergyman was hardly the kind of person awarded passage in the Regent’s private coach. Something about the man seemed off, shabby clothes but handmade boots, humble manners but arrogant eyes. Blackthorn had distrusted him at first sight.

September Secret Agent #26

Title: The Antidote
Genre: MG Fantasy

England, 1348

No one in this village was safe.

A woman sat weeping, a still man laid out on the bed beside her. His fingertips were black, rotted away. Blood crusted at the side of his mouth. An hour before he’d been coughing, hacking, rust-tinged sputum filled his soiled handkerchief. Now he was quiet. An hour before, his breath came heavy and harsh. Now there was none.

Outside the cottage, at the end of the lane, in the churchyard, a pit waited. Shrouded bodies lined its bottom. Soon the man would join them.

A hooded man stood beside the pit, looking over the scene with satisfaction. One of his greatest creations. Oh, he didn’t invent the plague, the rats, the fleas. Yersinia pestis had been around for centuries. But he improved upon it. More deadly, easier to catch. In a few years, a third of this village would be dead. In the pit.

* * *

Before that pizza day, Adam never thought twice about the windpipe.

Everyone loved pizza day. Except for Adam. The school made the pizza with whole wheat flour, but they put enough tomato sauce and cheese on to make it tasty. Most of the middle school bought lunch on pizza day. Kids crammed the lunchroom, sitting ten or twelve to a table, jostling, laughing, joking. All so easy, all so casual.

Adam didn’t jostle or laugh or joke. He sat at an uncrowded table, with a few guys he knew well enough to nod to and say, “Hey.”

September Secret Agent #25

Title: Marks
Genre: YA Fantasy

The acrid smell of smoke and charred wood assaults my nose before I see the fire.

I turn left, my heels clipping against the worn cobblestones as hatred flames to life inside me. Normally the square swirls with smells of roasting meat and the raw, earthy scent of the tannery. Not today. Nothing fills the air but smoke and ash and destruction.

The square opens before me and sure enough, bright orange flames dance on the other side. No telling what the Royal Guards have set aflame this time. Tugging my cloak tighter around me, I ease into the crowd. People cling together in front of the burning structure, mumbling out of earshot of the guards. Not that it matters. The king has a way of hearing things that haven’t even been spoken.

The smoke pools in the air, the thick November clouds blocking its ascent. Those closest to the flames cough and duck their noses behind sleeves and cloaks. I hang back from the crowd and study the burning building in front of me. A printing shop. Of course. That’s the third one this month. I creep close to the perimeter, the heat from the flames prickling my skin. Twelve of the king’s guards surround the building, making sure no one intervenes as the flames devour yet another business. Another dream.

I eye the guard closest to me. His hair, slick with grease, glistens in the afternoon light. My blood simmers, my fingers itching for a pen.

September Secret Agent #24

Genre: YA Time Travel Romance

Oh my god, it’s hot up here. Hot and beautiful. The airplane hit another thermal, and it did that thing where my stomach felt heavy and then light—all in half a second. I forced myself to look outside at the horizon instead of the airplane instruments. Watching the altimeter go up and down, and back up again was making me nauseous.

Sweat dripped down my neck, and my voice cracked. “Is this any better?”

“More right rudder, Willow!” My flight instructor, Paul frowned and mashed the rudder pedal to the floor, as if to show me how it was supposed to be done.

“Okay. Got it.” My response was quiet instead of yelling back at him. I hadn’t been this frustrated while flying since I had switched flight instructors early on in my training, a few months ago. Paul was usually much more patient with me. What was his problem? Oh yeah. We were in a small plane, 8,500 feet high, and I was screwing everything up. I needed to do this right. This had been a tough day. All of my maneuvers sucked. They weren’t to standard, and I really needed to redeem myself. Shake it off, Willow! You’ve got this. Besides, what were other seventeen-year-old girls doing right now? Walking around the mall? Lying in bed texting? Not me. I was flying a plane. I blew out a flustered breath and tried to brush away the long wisps of hair that were plastered to my neck from sweat.

September Secret Agent #23

Title: Fortress of Bones
Genre: Fantasy

Although it was only autumn, the air inside the city walls was bitterly cold. Olga rubbed her hands together as she walked and wished, yet again, that she could afford new gloves.

The cold seeped into everything, chilling and settling deep into the stones of the capital and the bones of its people. This was no natural cold; it was an ashen rime cast by the army of dead who ringed the walls. Even a cursebreaker like Olga could do nothing to halt the encroaching shudder and chill, much as she wished she could.

"Who are we meeting?" The black cat asked her as he ran along, navigating between her long legs. Raisa knew her stride so well that he never tripped her…unless he meant to.

"A new client." She blew on her hands to warm them. The brief warmth wasn’t worth the way it made her skin clammy as well as cold. For a second Olga considered grabbing Raisa and using him as a living muff. Then she shook her head and grinned as she thought how he would yowl and complain. Besides, walking would do him good. Unlike the human population, he was getting fat, thanks to the number of rats swarming the walls to break into the city.

"A new client? Tonight?” Raisa rasped. “In this part of Belis?” His voice, like his fur, had thickened with the cold.

September Secret Agent #22

Title: The Dolphin Nexus
GENRE: MG Magical Realism

A streak of iridescent silver flickered past the port side of the tour boat. Waves of eager on-lookers rushed to get a glimpse at the elusive shape. All except Irene. She shuffled starboard.

Typical tourists. She tried to forgive their silly ‘oohs.’ These in-landers didn’t observe dolphins daily like she did.

"Well, folks," said the yellow‑toothed tour guide. Locals called him Captain Crunch, but Irene reserved Jimmy’s nickname for when she wanted him to leave her alone. "That there’s a sight we don’t see ev’ry day.” His cheeks crinkled around his gray eyes as he aimed a wink her way.

I do. She offered Jimmy a tiny smirk. A pod used the cove behind her house as their private vacation spot.

Casting her gaze to the deck, she glimpsed lobster-red shins sticking out of black-socks-in-sandals. British, she guessed. Looking over her shoulder to where Jimmy stood behind the helm, she pointed to the sandals and mimed a monocle. Jimmy lowered the mic to keep from snorting into it.

Sandal-socks told his son, “Budge up, Johnny. Your sister fancies a look.”

Behind the dad’s back, she mouthed: Ten right today. Jimmy gave her a thumbs-up before resuming his usual spiel.

Seventy-eight tourists correctly pinned to their countries so far this summer. Not bad for August.

Sandal-socks held his little girl up to see over the side. “Now, Emma, stop your whinging and see the fish.”

Fish? No, that’s a mammal. Irene silently corrected him. From the Delphinidae family to be specific.

September Secret Agent #21

Title: The Ichthys Kiss
Genre: YA Paranormal/Fantasy/Romance

There’s drool on my chin. I wipe it away with the sleeve of my jacket. I’m lying in the back of a car, nose squashed against the leather seat. I sit up, stretching to ease the cramp in my neck and shoulders.

A glass barrier separates me from the driver. I see burly shoulders, a freckled neck and grey hairs poking out from beneath the rim of his cap. Our eyes meet in the rear mirror. He nods, breaking into a smile that crinkles the corners of his eyes. He has a friendly, next-door neighbour sort of face…except…

My body recoils, butt scudding backwards into the seat. Tucking my hands into my armpits I scrunch myself into a ball, careful not to take my eyes off him.

The car slows and turns off the road. I uncurl myself enough to peak out the window. We’ve stopped in front of a gate.

Something snaps inside me and I fling myself against the door, pumping the handle in a hopeless attempt to escape.

“It’s safety locked,” the driver says, without turning round. “When I turn off the engine, the locks open automatically.”

Our eyes meet in the mirror and he winks.

He doesn’t look like a serial killer or a rapist. The coils of terror spinning in my stomach make me want to throw up. I want to scream, but terror has tightened the muscles in my throat and the words come out in a whisper.

Who are you? Where am I?

September Secret Agent #20

Genre: YA Contemporary Fantasy

Without a doubt, the love letter is the most dastardly piece of literature. Something so light shouldn’t carry so much weight. My letter wasn’t ready, but it could only do so much. Besides, Jason Garvie had already kissed me.

As I made my way down the bleachers, he looked up at me. My heart thumped, and he smiled.

I could die from relief. He did feel the same way. He was just playing it cool. He held his hand to the side of his head like a phone and mouthed the words, We need to talk.

Blood rushed in my ears drowning out everything. My toe caught the edge of a seat. I stumbled but didn’t fall. His cheeks dimpled as his smile deepened.

Hold it together, Tessa. Weeks of wearing dresses and keeping my hair perfect, and all of it was about to pay off. How could this be anything but hidden love? And just before prom too!

“Can we talk?” he asked.

Sound casual, Tessa. You can do this. Cas-uuuu-aaall.

“Sure.” Oh crap, was that too casual. Damn it all, why is talking so littered with social pitfalls? “I mean yes. Talking would be good. Uh—here?”

The dimples came out again as he shook his head. “The band room. If you have time, that is.”

“Of course. For you. I have time—I mean, let me check the time—Yes!”

Curse you mouth who speaks without my permission.

September Secret Agent #19

Title: An Unconventional Mr. Peadlebody
Genre: Fantasy

Sunlight filtered into the church lobby through a stained glass window, resting on the backs of more than a hundred people. Lint and dust particles floated in its rays, polluting the air along with scents of cologne, mouthwash and body odors. Raymond held a hankie to his nose and coughed. He hated being in a crowd of strangers.

He pushed through the assembly to the far end of the room and tucked himself in a corner, hoping he'd remain invisible. Once safe from prying eyes, he scratched the stubble on his chin and leaned against the wall, folded his arms across his chest and waited, impatient on the inside though hoping to give the appearance of being calm. Drawing the attention of any of these morbid funeral goers would be disastrous.

No one visited the guest book that lay open on the desk next to him, unsigned, pen still covered and waiting. A doily adorned the linen tabletop under the leather bound journal. A silver vase with a single white rose cast a faint shadow onto its empty pages. Raymond snickered as he glanced at the parchment. No wonder the pages are empty. Do these people even have names?

Unfamiliar guests continued to walk through the entry, ushering in a wave of cool autumn air whenever the door was opened. One woman evidently didn’t feel the same way he did about being noticed. Brilliant flowers adorned the turban on her head. Red high heels raised her above the crowd.

September Secret Agent #18

Title: Aqua Marine
Genre: YA Science Fiction

The heat sensor on Jed's control panel beeped, and he flicked to the surveillance screen on his Commpod. An armed soldier clutching a blue envelope was marching stern faced towards the house.

In 2025 the only things that came hand delivered by gun wielding officials were government documents. And the only document likely to be delivered to a high school student was an invitation to enlist, an invitation that could not be refused.

Biting back his anger, Jed met the soldier at the front door.

"Jed Ryan?"

He nodded, white knuckled fists clenched by his sides.

"This is for you." She thrust the document at him.

"Thanks." Uncurling one hand, Jed took the sealed envelope and flung it on the ground.

"Pick it up wise guy." The soldier shoved her gun in his face.

"Sorry." Jed sneered. She wouldn't shoot him, not someone that Commander O wanted for his elite teen marine corps.

With the gun trained on him, Jed bent and picked the document up between two fingers, as if it was contaminated.

The woman stepped closer, so close that her starched pants scraped his face as he stood.

She paused, then prodded the gun back into its holster and strode to her car.

As soon as the courier drove away, Jed tore the unopened envelope into small pieces and tossed it down the garbage chute.

* * *

Several streets away, Ava Linley was handed a similar document. Waving her blue envelope, she ran screaming into the house.

September Secret Agent #17

Title: Through a Glass Darkly
Genre: YA Science Fiction


The paper begins to whirl as sheet after sheet is printed. No notice pops up on my screen; so this is not a fax. Um, I didn't click anything. Everyone else is already gone for the day. Who sent the print order? This is an EEP town and the government does not raise kids for nothing. Problems don't happen. That's not why we're here. What is going on?

I drag myself into a standing position, missing my friends, who have all recently been redistributed, transferred, or just busy. Not all, but enough have. We do more work than some adults I know. I, for one, am lacking particular purpose. This has been a long day and every long moment has felt meaningless. I have to keep myself from getting excited about the random printing. There is no mystery here, only a malfunction.

Usually my training is used for more advanced things than printers. Defrag. I wired this thing about a year ago, so any issues are on me. I fiddle with the screen and get into the program itself. Okay, not a printer issue. There is a clear print command, just not mine. Weird. I set my computer to be the only communicator. No one else can print here. Printer is saying that it came from me. Oh, and that is right, sort of. It came from my email. So much for a smart printer. Not just anyone could do it, but enough could. Can I trace the email?

September Secret Agent #16

Genre: MG Science Fiction

LV glided toward the monstrous columns of the Time Capsule, her skateboard careening around corners, smirking slightly as pedestrians jumped out of her way. The museum’s entrance topped a cliff that faced out over the Atlantic’s choppy waves, and the ocean brought a cold February wind that whipped at her face. She switched the e-reader from one hand to the other, the strange glowing word on the metallic cover challenging her to mock it. Ferret 229. The woman had said it was her title. Whatever. Ferret? No one better call her a ferret.

LV steered the skateboard up one of the ramps that spliced artfully through the hemisphere of grey and white marble steps spilling out from the museum’s entrance. Even at this late hour, people streamed in and out of the giant doors, which never closed. Most of them were leaving after working or visiting or eating fried foods at one of those themed restaurants LV couldn’t stand. But there were still a few entering, likely to play pick up ball or watch live 3D-projected basketball in the Sports Wing.

On her way up, LV noticed a cheerleader--Adriana maybe?--poised on one of the moving ramps. Was she really still wearing her uniform? Wasn’t she freezing? LV looked down at her own black wool jacket, black jeans, and black lace-up boots and rolled her eyes at the cheerleader’s short skirt.

When she reached the top, LV kicked her skateboard up into her right hand and swiped her membership card.

September Secret Agent #15

Title: Demonrise
Genre: Science Fantasy

The Grabrian dragon stretched on her gate, exhausted from her night’s work defending the city. Steam rose from nostrils big as Merre’s fists as she slumbered, her gray scales gleaming in the early morning light. Merre sidled from foot to aching foot, trying not to mind her proximity.

If the dragon woke, she might pluck Merre out of crowded Landin Square and devour him -- and be well within her rights to do so, for he was wardless. His nerves roared at him to run. Instead he dug in, gripped his toes along the edge of a cobblestone. Easy enough to feel through the soles of his charity slippers.

Seventy Landiners queued before Merre, if that. He might just get his spoonful of pudding before all the luck got fished out.

Up on stage, at the start of the line, the king’s cook Birtwick stirred a kettle large enough to squeeze in six of Merre and the Cat besides. The Cat, who had once belonged to Sorek, inasmuch as a cat ever belonged to anyone, crouched, saucer-eyed, on Merre’s shoulder. She dug her claws deep into his vest and lashed her tail in furious disapproval as the dragon turned her head in sleep, blasting hot carrion breath on Merre. The stench choked him, water springing to his eyes as he fought for breath. In his mind he heard Sorek screaming.

Merre pinched himself hard on the meat of his arm and looked away before the memory could uncoil. Not now.

September Secret Agent #14

Title: Paper Dragon
Genre: YA Fantasy

I knew I would find her on the wall. She often talked the soldiers into looking the other way, and I snuck up after her. She leaned there, bare-footed and loose-haired, her zhiju fluttering around her.

I pulled my coat more snuggly around me and joined her, standing straight-backed as I shared the view. A wide expanse of rocks and shrubs stretched, made into tangled shadows in the moonlight and, far away, the looming void of the mountains.

‘Enemy territory,’ I said, mother’s oft-repeated words. But it only looked like home to me.

‘Dirt and rocks.’ She said the words like a curse. ‘And always the same ones. The world is meant to be bigger than this. You and I, we’re meant for bigger things.’

I looked out at the only world I had ever known, listening to the night-sounds and torch-roar. ‘I don’t think I want to be,’ I said.

~a year before

‘This would be a lot easier if you could fly.’

Zheng Ling shot her brother a look. They were both ankle deep in dirt; Ling was the worst off, as it was up to her to push their cart. The wheels kicked up so much dust that she could feel it settling on her face. ‘A lot of things would be easier if we could fly,’ Ling said carefully. ‘But we can’t fly, because we are normal, everyday charm sellers and normal, everyday charm sellers do not fly.’

September Secret Agent #13

Title: Night Island
Genre: YA Fantasy

On the fourth and final day of night, the Dark Market rolled into Isle St. Giles just as I’d anticipated. It was a knack of mine, guessing when it would slither in each week after the sun set for its long rest. The girls had stopped betting with me ages ago when they realized it. Daiyu swore I cheated, except instinct wasn’t cheating. I couldn’t say for sure what it was, but only a fool would question small luck when it came—especially in these parts of the Saints Circle.

Somehow, I’d known those black-robed vendors would set up shop today, bringing in luxuries no one here regularly saw. Just as no one knew from where the vendors came. Or why.

I hardly cared, as long as they brought the potions that helped earn my keep. For a working girl, that’s all that matters.

“Lead the way, prophetic thief,” Daiyu scoffed, fixing the slim pearly sticks holding her curtain of black hair. It shined like a night sky under the gleam of the lanterns dangling along the tent. “Or do you prefer casual street urchin?”

“You don’t have to come with me, you know,” I bristled as a group of children ran by with stupid sparklers down the stalls.

“Of course we do,” Greer chirped at my other side. “Abbess doesn’t like you slinking off into the Market alone, especially when you’re ill.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re cagey as a cat, Sela.”

Always a mother hen, just like the Abbess.

September Secret Agent #12

Title: M0U5E
Genre: YA Science Fiction

Everyone leaves.

In the distance, the North America Space Transport lifted elegantly to the sky, causing ash to swirl through the air. It hovered over the burning city, reflecting the red flames on its gleaming silver fuselage, then shot away horizontally and disappeared in the gloomy haze. Her foster parents were gone. They would board the colony ship to Tanek in a few days.

Mouse turned away from the doomed city. She was stuck here with the other pathetic city-block residents of Pineridge, waiting to evacuate. Most of them were too numb to speak. They huddled at the far edge of the transport terminal, surrounded by rows of shipping containers, while the city burned on the other side of the charred passenger terminal.

Silent ash fell all around her like dead snow, blocking the sun. The stupid city had caught fire three months after she moved in with her new foster parents. Of course, they left her. In the scramble to evacuate twenty thousand city residents, the space authority reluctantly offered to relocate five-hundred people to Earth's colony planets.

A light tap on her shoulder drew her attention to the evacuation checkpoint. Nothing worked in the city anymore. Hastily assembled portable data units formed a barrier in front of her, limp cables looping through the containers to the distant evacuation sky-cars. They couldn't park them any closer. A woman in a white environmental suit stood with a portable scanner, ready to log her identity. She couldn't avoid the scan.

September Secret Agent #11

Title: The Knackers: Spit in the Crown’s Eye
Genre: Fantasy

It was said Mullerburgh wine was actually collected from the unfinished glasses of the king’s court, and then poured into casks built from wood meant for coffins. It was rumored that Mullerburgh women bled smoke, breathed envy and drove their men to bloody back-alley deeds. It was whispered that the lust for witchery ebbed and flowed in Mullerburgh, with one year warlocks gallivanting down the rough stone boulevards, and the next their charred teeth could be picked out of the cracks between those same cobbles.

So it was said.

“She’s a sight, ain’t she, boy?”

Pellegrin Eider twisted in his saddle. “Pardon?” His wide-chested horse snorted at the new arrival. Pellegrin knew he had been lost in reverie, gazing down from his position on the hill to view the city, but no old peddler should have been able to sneak up on him.

The peddler, dressed warmly in layers of tattered furs, eyeballed Pellegrin and his horse as if both were tradable goods. Pell fought the urge to protectively pat his coin sack. The old man grinned and his eyes, gray and merry, squinted up at Pellegrin. He said, “The cock from the country doesn't crow in the city, eh?”

Pellegrin wanted the peddler to go away, and take his jokes with him. Pell had been warned that as soon as he spoke, he would be seen as a rube, marked out as a dirt-worker despite his title.

September Secret Agent #10

Title: Olivia Boogieman
Genre: MG Fantasy

My stomach turns somersaults as the cursive letters on the white board taunt me. As I read the words “Family Day,” my lips move. My family tends to be scatterbrained at times so I hope they forgot about today even though I saw it at home this morning on our calendar, written clearly in red ink, circled, underlined, and in hieroglyphics.

A woman pulls a chair next to me. She has short brown hair that matches her eyes. “Hello, I’m Tessa’s mother. Who are you?” She pushes her chair so uncomfortably close I smell the coffee on her breath. Her tongue is stained white from the cream.

Scooting back in my chair, I give myself room. “I’m Olivia Boogieman,”

Her eyes widen and she looks at her daughter with a question in her eyes. Tessa nods and looks away from me. Of course, Tattletale Tessa Thompson told her about me; she can’t keep her big mouth shut.

“What a peculiar surname you have.” Mrs. Thompson lifts her nose in the air as if she’s sniffing out my pedigree. If she wants to see peculiar, she should meet my family.

She leans in closer with each word she speaks. “I’m a social worker. What do your parents do?”

“Um,” I stammer. What do I say? Mom is a stay-at-home mummy and Dad works nights? “Why don’t we get started?” Miss Santiago says as she leans against her desk. The words “Family Day,” appear to dance behind her on the whiteboard.

September Secret Agent #9

Title: With These Wings
Genre: YA Science Fiction

The desperate scream roused Cole from the exhausted stupor he’d been in for the last several minutes. He jerked to his feet before his eyes were even fully open. “Phoenyx!” He grabbed her wrist, but she was already moving, springing from sleep to her feet and ready to run.

“Blake!” They both spun on his sister, who somehow had managed to sleep through the chaos that had erupted from beyond the ally they thought would be safe. Blake stirred, her eyes fluttering open, but Phoenyx had her by the hand, tugging her to her feet as they turned to run.

Everyone in the alley was screaming and running and crying, desperate to get away. The girl who had woken him—Brookell if he remembered right—jerked her sister Kaydree to her feet and shoved her forward with the rest of them.

They rounded the corner, Cole in the lead, without pausing to check first.

It was the worst mistake Cole had ever made in his life.

The alien—a Garce—waited in front of him, sucking light from everything around it, drool dripping from teeth glimmering in the shadows of its mouth. Cole spun, shoving Phoenyx and Blake back into the alley. “The other way! Go, go go!”

Phoenyx was already running. Before the world had ended and the Garce had shown up, she’d been a track star. As a junior in high school, colleges had started recruiting her. Now, her speed had kept her alive.

September Secret Agent #8

Title: Shrouded Goddess
Genre: YA Fantasy

Only Uncle Hector would hang a man then go fishing.

The giant jatoba tree, where the noose is set, shades the corpse but doesn’t protect it from the heat. Winter is more merciful than the hellish summer of this land, but only slightly. Noon is fast approaching, and a stench of emptied bowels permeates the village like early morning fog. I press an arm over my nose and quicken my pace to the bakery ahead. At least there is some advantage to being forced to wear long sleeves in this weather.

Vultures circle the cloudless sky above the tree, but not even they dare to defy Uncle Hector. Why did Aryeea send me to the village now? I glance over my shoulder at the fortress’s four-story tower spiked on the Igjommi Hill. The fluttering white cloth, billowing like a sail in the valley breeze, can only be my grandmother’s skirt. Of course she’s watching me from the balcony.

I find the bakery door closed, so I shut it behind me. The warm scent of dough helps me ignore the heat. Steps approach from an inside room, and the baker’s rosy face beams at me as he ambles through the doorway.

“Lady Sophia.” He wipes his hands on his tunic. “What do you like today?”

I’d like someone to cut down that man and bury him before he rots. But if I voice the request, the baker will feel obliged to carry out the order. No need to tempt another hanging.

September Secret Agent #7

Title: The Traveler's Truth
Genre: YA Science Fiction/Romance

Instead of attending the three-hundredth anniversary celebration of the Cleansing, Cam and I are here, sitting amongst the tall grass high above Yarrow Valley. The wild horses should be here soon; they come to the valley on the eve of the first full moon every month.

Cam sighs and looks at his watch. “Can we go yet?” he whispers. Sitting here for hours didn’t bother me, but it seems too much for my impatient best friend.

“Just a few more minutes,” I plead. “They should be here any time.”

Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long. A deep reddish-brown horse with a black mane and tail appears, stepping from the shadows of the forest out into the open. The horse pauses, his head held high. Then he gives a loud snort. I press the binoculars to my face, watching as his ears flick back and forth. I’m afraid to even breathe. He must decide the valley is safe because he steps forward. A chocolate-brown horse follows, and then another, which looks like a white canvas splashed with black ink.

The trio ambles into the valley, pausing only to grab mouthfuls of the yellow-green prairie grass. Their tails swish slowly back and forth, likely swatting at flying insects. The sinking sun glistens on their backs, giving them an ethereal quality. I let out a contented sigh.

Cam nudges me in the side and I hand him the binoculars. He’s never seen the horses before.

September Secret Agent #6

Title: Tournament of Kings
Genre: YA Fantasy

Kaari pressed a hand to her neck, checking her status mark remained hidden by her up-turned collar.

Before her, the solider waved through another merchant and the line shuffled forward. The sun’s heat prickled her skin and beads of sweat rolled down the soldier’s forehead. He wiped his sleeve across his face with a groan. Good—hot and bothered men made poor guards.

Two round towers stood either side of the pointed archway leading into Bria. Each more than twenty feet high, they towered overhead. A painted statue of King Elric sat in the niche above the entrance, his face turned towards Jakin.

At the very top of the entrance was a row of blackened heads, their eyes plucked out by the birds. Kaari’s gaze swept their faces, the breath catching in her throat. She sought familiarity but their identities had rotten away with their flesh.

“Anything to declare?”

Kaari blinked.

The soldier glared at her. “Anything to declare?”

Focus. She couldn’t afford to draw attention to herself. Dropping her gaze to the ground, she shook her head.

“What’s your business in Bria?”

“I’m only here for the day. I’m going to market.” She flashed the small coin pouch she’d pocket picked that morning to verify her lie. A soft wind pulled at the loose baby hairs along her forehead and she let out a shaky breath. She’d left her re-curve bow and arrows hidden in the hollow of a tree and the small knife strapped to her right calf offered no real comfort.

September Secret Agent #5

Title: A Crown of Roses
Genre: YA Fantasy

Scattered beams of moonlight penetrated through the tree canopy barely illuminating the daunting forest. I squinted, trying to weave a pattern through the shadows and trees. My bloody breath constantly puffed into the chilly summer night air as I ran. Progress was slow, but my mind contained one thought: I must get away from Henbane Tower.

A twig snapped behind me and my head shot over my right shoulder. My eyes scanned in every direction, but nothing greeted me except for darkness. As I turned forward again, a tree had sprung up right in front of me. It was too late to miss it. My unblemished cheek collided with the bark, scraping my skin as stars wiped my vision. Grimacing, I put my palm to my face and continued on. The stinging soon subsided. It wasn’t as deep as the cut on my left cheek.

Low hemlock and elm branches barred my way. Thorns and sticks continually pierced my bare feet. Snarling vines snagged my toes, making me pause to frantically free myself.

I had stopped noticing the shooting pains hours prior, stopped thinking about how my perfect skin was marred like a commoner. My mother had always insisted I take goat’s milk baths to keep my royal skin radiant, but she was dead and I was running for my life.

Skirts raised in my filthy, sweating hands, I sprinted through the first clearing I came across.

September Secret Agent #4

Title: The Arcavians
Genre: Science Fiction

What Bud Henry and Elias Russell unearthed on October 18, 1978, in the small town of Keystone, Montana, did more to revolutionize the field of paleontology (and possibly the entire sphere of biological science itself) than any other scientific find of the twentieth century.

Which is why its discovery has been so carefully concealed.

Keystone is a little-known community on the shore of Flathead Lake. Less than a mile from that lake sits the campus of Lewis University, a college whose academic architecture is buttressed by the sciences: chemistry, paleontology, and physics, in particular. The campus is bordered on the east side by a quarry, site of ongoing geological excavations conducted by the university’s paleontology department.

It was in this quarry that the discovery was made.

The bone Elias Russell was studying was large, perhaps the femur of a sauropod like Diplodocus or Apatosaurus. Whatever it was, it was a valuable find. One that Professor Marsh would want to extract himself.

If he were here...

The problem was, with a bone this old (dating back to the end of the Cretaceous period), there was always a danger of damage. Not a risk Elias was willing to take. At least, not alone.

“Bud, come here a moment.”

Bartholomew (“Bud”) Henry irritably curtailed his labor. He was not even supposed to be working today, Wednesday. He had been called in to replace Dan Mooney, who had been sent home Monday under highly unusual circumstances.