Monday, April 10, 2017

Aaaaaand Our Winners!

Here are Nicole's picks:

Honorable Mentions: Query, synopsis, chapter summaries and first 15 pages

Entry # 35 - Frigid
Entry # 41 - Vailen House and the Maraydon Seal
Entry # 44 - This Isn’t Shakespeare

Runners-up: Query, synopsis, chapter summaries and first 25 pages

Entry #9 - In Her Own Skin
Entry #23 - A Beastly Beauty
Entry #40 - Divine Architects

Grand Prize: Query, synopsis, chapter summaries and full manuscript

Entry # 1 - Saving Emmaline
Entry # 16 - Hidden Agenda

Congratulations!  Winners, please email me at facelesswords(at) for specific submission instructions.

GREAT round, everyone!

Secret Agent Unveiled: Nicole Payne

Huge amounts of thanks and applause to our lovely and gracious Secret Agent, Nicole Payne of Golden Wheat Literary!  

In case you missed it, we had an "imposter" Secret Agent leaving feedback this time, and Nicole was right on it, pointing out each time when the feedback was not actually from her.  It's difficult for me to keep up with the amount of comments that come through during contests like this, so I'm especially grateful that Nicole took the time to sort this out for me.

(Incidentally, I don't think our imposter had any malicious intent.  I'm just a little baffled as to why someone else decided to take the Secret Agent moniker--it's never happened before!)

Nicole's bio:

Nicole Payne is a new literary agent at Golden Wheat Literary. She has a B.S. in Biology and a M.S. in Forensic Genetics. Maybe that’s why she now uses her background to investigate for new books. It must be in her DNA.

What she's looking for:

She’s particularly interested in YA, NA, and Adult in Speculative Fiction, Romance, Romantic Comedy, Mysteries, Contemporary, Suspense, and Thriller. However, if the writing and story are amazing, she’s quick to snatch up exceptions, so if you think you’re a good fit, send her a query and see if you can convince her likewise.

Thanks again, Nicole!  Winners forthcoming.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Friday Fricassee

I've gotta say -- you've ROCKED the critique for this month's Secret Agent Contest!  It's so encouraging to watch my inbox continually refill with all your comments.  WELL DONE.

If you've been meaning to leave feedback but haven't had time yet--no worries!  You can continue to leave your comments throughout the weekend.  I'll unveil our Secret Agent and announce the winners on Monday.

For several years, I ran 10 of these contests a year, every month except June and December.  It got to be a little much--I needed to feel less pulled away from my writing, for one thing, and for another--well, I think I was feeling a bit of blog burnout!

Truth is, when I started this blog (9 years ago this month!), there wasn't much out there in the way of online contests for writers.  I forged new ground, and people were excited!  After a while, though, more and more other contests popped up--some fantastic, some not so much--and it felt like such a contest glut that I wasn't sure I wanted to keep swimming in the overcrowded pool.  Scheduling became an ever-increasing issue, as it seemed there was always something else going on whenever I scheduled something of my own.  I didn't have the time or the wherewithal to try to keep track of everything going on out there, just to keep from double scheduling something.

I mean, that sort of thing can be exhausting.  (But I did just use the word wherewithal in a sentence, which is kinda cool.)

So I cut back, and it felt great.  Then I cut back even more, and I find that I've lowered my "writing stress" (because, yes, blogging is writing).  Still, I sometimes wistfully look at the list of past Secret Agents on my sidebar, and I feel like a slacker.  I've got a gang of over 60 success story authors who landed their agents through one of my contests, and that's an awesome feeling!  I want to see more of that; I want to add new names to our Success Story Facebook Group.

But.  I've got to stay with this truncated version of the contest schedule.  And I'm grateful that this week's Secret Agent Contest generated so much energy and participation.  I have always loved the community that sprang up around this blog almost from its inception.  KEEP BEING YOUR WONDERFUL SELVES.

I've still got a few Secret Agent Contests up my sleeve.  And of course I'll keep hosting the in-house critiques.  But the glory days of monthly Secret Agents surrounded by nearly-incessant crit sessions are over.

HAVING SAID THAT: I'm still, as always, interested in hearing what you'd love to see here in the upcoming months.  Is there a particular critique round we haven't done in a while that you'd love to throw your work into?  Is there something we've never done that you think I should consider?  Let me know your thoughts in the comment box!  This blog is for you, after all.

Thanks for reading...thanks for being here.  Some of you are oh-my-goodness-long-timers.  I so appreciate you.

And now I'm going to wrap this up and go have coffee with my sister, who now lives here.  We haven't lived in the same state since I graduated from college, which was ages ago.  I'm still pinching myself that she's actually here!

How's that for a happy, feel-good sendoff?  :)  Blessings on your weekend, my friends--and remember to shoot me your thoughts and ideas!

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

For Writers: My Premiere Critique

It's been a while since I've posted information about the critiques I offer.  In addition to my normal, 30-page critique for $95, I occasionally open up a slot for a Premiere Critique, as time permits.


Premiere Critique:

  • detailed line edit of your first 75 pages
  • editorial letter
  • guaranteed 1-week turnaround
  • $260 payable in 2 installments (via Paypal)
  • no first drafts 
  • all genres except erotica/erotic romance
  • all categories (MG, YA, NA, Adult)
  • specializing in science fiction, fantasy, and YA
These slots are always filled on a first come, first served basis.  If you are interested in the current opening, please email me at authoress.edits(at)

Secret Agent Critique Guidelines

It's actually been quite a while since we've had a Secret Agent Contest!  We've picked up a lot of new readers lately (*waves to new readers*), so here's a quick overview:

  • Once the 50 entries have posted, all readers may leave critique in the comment box of each entry.  
  • While the critiquing is going on, our Secret Agent will appear and also leave feedback--for ALL 50 ENTRIES!  This is great not only for the folks who entered, but for everyone who takes the time to read through to see how a literary agent responds to various opening pages.
  • Next Monday, I will post the identity of our Secret Agent AND the winning entries.
    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.

April Secret Agent #50

TITLE: The Wizard
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

I stared at Heath’s face hovering above me as I lay there on the gentle slope of my roof. The almost black night sky behind his head made him look as if he was floating in space. I let my fingers run across his cheek. I was so warm my skin was almost sweaty. My cotton shorts bared my legs to the air outside, and a quick, cooler breeze swept over us. I shivered, but still felt hot to the touch.
“Cold?” Heath asked me, sliding one hand across the skin on my waist under my shirt. The other reached up, and his fingers were in my hair. His legs between mine. I couldn’t answer him. The sound of my own voice would make things too real.

Heath and I were friends in name, but not in action. Because when he kissed me I forgot we didn’t belong together. Not in that lovey way. We meant not to. But we sometimes collapsed together into that brain-numbness of lips on lips and body pressed to body. Lately, I found myself waiting for the next time.

A loud screech cut through the air.

I froze.

The strange noise filled all the dark silence, a shrieking wave of sound slapping against my house.

Heath pushed up onto his knees. I sat up, craning my head.

“What was that?”

April Secret Agent #49

GENRE: Adult Contemporary

An ocean wave was coming to devour the Isle of Man.

Eoin Wade waited on the Tower of Refuge ramparts. The stout, neatly bricked fortress glowed red and green under artificial spotlights. It sat on a patch of stone and sand four hundred yards from the shoreline of Douglas, the Isle of Man’s capital city. On the horizon, the jagged outline of the English coast peeked through the mist above the approaching wave. Every breath brought the tide a meter closer. Sixty more breaths to go, if Eoin was lucky.

At Eoin’s back stood a line of three-storey Victorian guesthouses. Vacancy signs creaked on their hinges. Pigeons shuddered under flake-painted eaves. The pre-dawn sky was salmon flesh in colour. There was still time until silver-haired shoppers and leather-clad motorcyclists filled the promenade behind him. Provided that the ocean didn’t fill it first.

Black hair trailed from Eoin’s oilskin hood. Salty air rushed through his trimmed beard, making his face itch. Heavy metal screeched from the earbuds hanging from his shirt collar. To think there was once a time, a long, yawning river of time, when he couldn’t stuff his head with Motorhead or Thin Lizzy. Was it from so distant an age, when letting music leak from little sponges into your ears would’ve been considered witchcraft? Of course, the centuries had flown by since Eoin’s longship first caressed these sands. Too many.

The most pointless thoughts stirred in Eoin’s head when he was afraid.

April Secret Agent #48

TITLE: Bits and Pieces
GENRE: YA Romance

My biggest failure is being born. My second is not mailing Mitchell Dobson’s birthday card. Two years ago, it was enough knowing that a guy with the collegiate world at his feet also felt crushed by doubt. No need to ruin a chance moment being a fangirl. He knew my photographs, said he liked them. Why not? His antics on the football field filled many of the frames. He seemed convinced that if I really loved photography, I should major in it in college.

Maybe. Until that day, I did love photography. For now, we tolerate each other because a sudden split would prompt questions I don’t want to answer, even with my best friend Zoe.

“You’re a real pro, Bits.” Zoe sits by my side in the afternoon shade of her screened-in porch, her laptop perched on her knees. “My parents will love these.” She scrolls through the images from her senior picture photo shoot. Even in black and white, her smile jumps right out of the image to wrap the viewer in a big hug. “You’ll get into CalArts for sure.”

“They’d have to give me major bucks. Waiving the application fee wouldn’t hurt either.”

“Your dad will find a job.” She throws an arm over my shoulder. The scent of her strawberry shampoo tickles my nose. “He just has to find the right one.”

Before we’re hungry and homeless, I hope. It would be too pathetic if Dad and I were evicted from our tiny garage apartment.

April Secret Agent #47

TITLE: A Complex Solution
GENRE: YA Romantic suspense

     With my hand poised over the knob, I stared at the door to room 104. My thudding heartbeat was the only sound in the silent hallway. Yesterday, I swore it was the last time. But here I was, late again. I just couldn’t make it here without a detour.

     I blew out a breath, pulled back on the doorknob and poked my head in.

     “Come in, Lexi,” said Mrs. Conti, a petite, stylishly dressed woman, who wore her dark hair in a bob. She had a soft, pleasant face and smiled as I closed the door.

     Eighteen pairs of eyes turned towards me as I took my seat in the back. I kept my head down, crossed my arms over my chest and sank low in my seat. Steadying my breath, I tried to imagine that the wave of whispers rolling through the room had nothing to do with me, the freak-girl who was late again. Could they see through me? See my scars? I wasn’t going to be friends with any of them, but I had to get through my time at this place. I’d made a promise and I had to keep my word.
    I sat with my head bowed for twenty agonizing minutes, counting the seconds to the bell.

    At the end of the period I jumped up, but before I could run out, Mrs. Conti appeared at my desk. “Tomorrow, can you be on time, Lexi?”

     I tugged my sleeves over my thumbs and winced. "Yeah."

April Secret Agent #46

TITLE: A Maiden Innings
GENRE: Adult Romance

Rose knew she shouldn’t have tweeted. What a big mistake! It was supposed to be a joke. Now they were including his lawyers? It was a senseless risk she’d taken. And she knew it the moment she had typed it and sent it into the Twitterverse.

Dressed in a formal suit, the only one she owned, the same one she wore to funerals, interviews, school dinners, she sat examining her nails, restlessly tapping her foot on the shiny mahogany floor. All she’d done was proved him wrong. He wasn’t generous, kind or any of the things he claimed.
The men in tailored suits came in and Rose knew from their pinched faces she was in trouble.
“Miss Cavendish, I’m sure you’re aware that we can bring a defamation suit against you for what you tweeted a week ago.”

Rose felt the sweat trickle down her back. “Look, it was done in jest. I didn’t mean to hurt him. Tell them,” she nudged the only lawyer, she knew, her friend and co-member of the catechist’s association at church. She couldn’t afford legal counsel. Damn it, she was only a teacher for heaven’s sake.
“What my client is trying to say Mr. Gleason is that no harm was meant to Mr. Anderson. There’s no question of defamation, it’s not that he’s got a stellar reputation to begin with,” her portly friend, said with her shrill voice.

April Secret Agent #45

GENRE: YA Dark Contemporary

The starry sky above weighs heavy as I skate along the roadside, dodging cars. This overpass has a magnetic force that draws me to it. Especially this time of year.

In seven days, I’ll trek to that painful patch of dirt where my parents died, hoping to see them once more. It's a walk I've made every November for the past five years that's gone from hope to hopelessness. I mean, to be honest, I’m only doing it because I think it'll bring me peace.

It hasn’t yet, and from where I stand tonight, peace is about as far away as Orion’s Belt.

In real life, the patch is a three-minute walk from my back porch that I take because the book I keep under my mattress says leaving my dead parents gifts will give me the chance to say I'm sorry. Yet every year, my hope of that happening wanes like the moon, so tonight to take my mind off the dirt, the sky, and my parents, I’ve dragged my buddy Jase onto the overpass for a Friday night skate. Broken street lamps here mean we can hide beneath the stars, doing whatever we want.

“Guy, come on, dude, let’s go to the Skatey P instead,” Jase whines. "This place is a speedway death trap. The park's gotta be more fun, plus everyone'll be there."

“And it'll be so bright, we'll have to stare at everyone's zits.” I razz my buddy, skating a fine line between sarcasm and apathy.

April Secret Agent #44

GENRE: YA Romance

Our last night together we sit on the hood of my Taurus and gaze at the endless summer sky.  He won’t be back for three weeks. Maybe it wouldn’t seem so awful if we hadn’t spent every spare minute together since we made up in July. Or if he was allowed to be part of the new millennium and have a cell or a laptop.

“Make a wish,” I say when the first star of the night winks at us. I wish for him to have a great first week at college and turn my eyes to the pale, crescent moon.

Twenty-one days. Four hours away. 
I can’t think about that though. I can’t even imagine it. My body rises and falls as he breathes and I lose myself in the perfectness of being here in this moment, feeling his heat flood my back. A moment that tastes of forever and happily-ever-after.

Then I ruin it.

“How can you look at that sky and not believe in God?”

He’s twirling a strand of my long brown hair around his finger. “Stace…” There’s a tiny warning there. He won’t be dragged into that conversation again.

The reminder starts to crimp the edges of the perfectness.

Before the frown has time to fully form on my face, he kisses my shoulder, then slips his hands beneath my shirt to my bare stomach and the moment is all poetic again.

Then he ruins it by sliding his fingertips inside the waistband of my shorts.

April Secret Agent #43

GENRE: Adult Women's

Kynelle Harris was born, triggering anger simply because she existed.

New father Russ knew how his boss would react when he heard of the impending birth. Boss threw a paperweight at Russ and snapped, “I can make sure that brat never interferes with your work.” New mom Evie's boss said, “Well, I can always hope you’re just packing on fat.”

None of that mattered now.

A voice: “How did you get here without a car?”

Another voice: “Hitchhiked. It’s safe, now.”

­­­­Flowers appeared. Outfits and blankets and stuffed toys rose out of paper bags. The Parker grandparents rescheduled their flight another week. Child cousins arrived with uncles and aunts and Ky was passed around like a championship trophy.

Ky’s parents didn’t check for text messages from their bosses: they knew what they’d find. They could escape the cruel talk until they returned to their cubicles.

Evie appeared as one would expect: disheveled, short of energy, yet glowing.

Russ had the common male look of amazement, a hint of sheepishness at not helping more. This may be why men do what they do in the way of work; it's a hard-wired sense of nobility to build a better world with their labor, a best attempt to make up for the fact that they cannot give birth to a new human being. Families of disparate races and religions were more united in the name of Kynelle Rania Harris.

April Secret Agent #42

TITLE: Vision
GENRE: YA Thriller

Something slithers down the back of my neck. I swipe at it, expecting a mosquito, but pull back a wet hand. “Why is it so hard to breathe?” I wonder, but my eyelids are too heavy. Just as my lashes dust my cheeks, my waist buzzes, jolting me awake. I kick off the quilt that’s suddenly suffocating me and make myself roll over. Two AM. Ugh, I’m too tired for this. I unclip the insulin pump from my pajamas and look at the screen. Thirty-two. Uh oh. I press the graphing button. My blood sugar’s been falling for over an hour — why hadn’t I woken up sooner? I reach for the juice box on my night table. Empty. I fall back onto the bed and fight against my eyes — they want to close so badly. Nope, gotta get up. I strain to lift my leaden head from the pillow. Blood is pulsing at my temples and I feel the thud of each struggling heartbeat vibrating in my chest. The tip of my tongue is already tingling with a numbness that would slur my speech if there was anyone here to talk to.

I listen for footsteps running down the hall, but no one is coming. Right, I remember, I’d made my mom turn off the pump alerts on her phone last week on my birthday. It was my present to her, although she didn’t see it that way.

April Secret Agent #41

TITLE: Vailen House and the Maraydon Seal
GENRE: YA Contemporary, Adventure

Calden scribbled out Euler's Identity for the third time that morning. Even with a hundred students swarming around, searching anxiously for a seat in the high school auditorium, he kept with the equation and continued rearranging the variables:

e^πi + 1 = 0

The formula represented his family—at least his father said it did—with ‘π and ‘i’ denoting his two younger sisters, ‘1’ his father, Calden as the ‘e’, and his mother as the addition sign that held the family together. The identity was considered humanity’s most beautiful piece of math, and yet with the simple exclusion of the ‘1’, the entire equation fell apart. Calden thought up ways to balance it out, though without his father there, it seemed unlikely.

“Yo, anyone sitting here?” A familiar voice called from above. Calden looked up to see his friend Lorne, though in all honesty, they hadn’t said a word to each other all summer.

“Hmmm, can you at least say hi?” Lorne shifted Calden’s books off the adjacent chair and sat down.

“Simon, Carol, Mia—we all worried about you man. You get our calls?”

“I guess.” Calden kept at the equation, scratching out the ‘1’ several times over. Why’d the whole identity break down with one person gone! He drew lines and circles all over the page, burying his work in dark strokes of lead.

“Hey!” Lorne grabbed hold of his hand. “You okay man?” He leaned in and threw an arm over Calden. “Can we please talk about this after school?”

April Secret Agent #40

GENRE: YA Science Fiction

The first time I traveled through time, I overshot by three minutes.

Instead of the hum of the subways in New York and the 14:12 train to Brooklyn thundering by, laughter greeted me. When I finally managed to catch my breath, I forced my eyes open. I’d also apparently missed my target by four kilometres, landing slap bang in the middle of the bushes of Central Park where anyone could have noticed me pop out of thin air.

A stellar performance, if I did say so myself. The exam board would be thrilled.

I willed my legs to move before anyone became suspicious. The lingering lurch of Control’s simulator struggled to settle in my bones. The moment the world stopped spinning my head gave an almighty thud of protest. My Duty Sergeant hadn’t thought to mention ‘by the way Sara, when you travel through time you’ll get the world’s worst migraine’. She’d also missed out the part where my tongue went numb, and every atom in my body tried to find itself again.

This was not how I’d planned my first visit to the twentieth century.

Back in the days when I allowed myself to imagine good things, the city of New York held nothing but possibilities, Broadway shows and endless pretzels. I’d never thought of it as a map with a moving target, a test for me to prove myself worthy of joining an elite time traveling crew. So far, I was pretty sure I’d failed.

April Secret Agent #39

TITLE: Insignificant
GENRE: YA Speculative

The dust is by far the most interesting thing in this store.

An antique globe creaking in the corner and the crystal wind chimes swaying by the door can’t compare with the elegance of the motes. For a moment, I’m envious of their freedom, the way each speck is careless and ready to defy even the most fundamental laws of gravity while swirling in the sunbeams. But then there’s the tiniest drop of movement, a breath of air or the nearby steps of a body, and it’s too much for them to handle. They scatter, completely at the whim of their surroundings.
That’s why I’m fascinated by them. At first glance they’re defiant, but it turns out they’re just as powerless as the rest of us.

Footsteps thud against the hardwood floor. I turn as Trent snaps his pocket watch shut, the holographic interface sucking back inside the brass case. “The target should be out in eighty-five seconds.” He pauses next to a cabinet of fine china and looks at me as if I’m as fragile as one of the gold-trimmed plates. I can’t stand it. “You ready?”

His words settle in my ribcage, bringing with them a dull, aching pain. After years of assignments together, I can read Trent better than anyone, and his steady gaze tells me this question—the one that’s been lurking unsaid for weeks now—isn’t about the next few minutes. Once we achieve this final match, there’s no going back. My debt will finally be repaid.

April Secret Agent #38

TITLE: Freedom's Chains
GENRE: YA Speculative - Fantasy

Today is special. Today we get apple slices. It always gets kind of crazy around here on an apple slice day. Rule number one of this rare treat-of-a-day: once the fruit is placed in your hand, immediately shove it into your mouth and chew as quickly as possible. Rule number two on apple slice day: do not, for any reason, drop your fruit—if you want to keep all your fingers. I saw rule number two broken twice during my fifteen years of life, all of those years lived here inside Wormwood Tower. I plan to never, ever, break rule number two. Three months is a long time to wait for a chance at another apple slice and all their sweet and delicious goodness.

“Line up,” shouts the orange-uniformed guard, breaking my gaze from a tiny cockroach scurrying across the floor. “Hurry. Or else don’t plan on eating anything—even cabbage—until tomorrow morning. Or if that threat doesn’t work, I’ll kick you out into the wild, where you can expect to be dinner.” He repeatedly pokes his wooden club into every drab, gray linen-gowned child and adult, forcing us to scoot and scamper faster, just like the cockroach, while lining up in the usual order to accept our apple slice. I hate the orange guard. The green guard is much nicer.

We hurry to our positions in line with all the wee children first, those after progressing in age and last but not least, the caboose: Nan. Scar-riddled Nan is always last.

April Secret Agent #37

TITLE: Kilroy Was Here
GENRE: YA Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction

Allow me to present you with two options for how to spend your prom night: 1) You spend the evening captivated by a warm and intelligent sandy blonde named Marlene Summers who is the essence of wholesome beauty; 2) You guard your post on the bank of a river, protecting the Earth from an alien invader because that’s what you’re paid to do.
Likely, you are saying to yourself the choice is a real no-brainer. You’d pick Marlene in a heartbeat. No questions asked. Only a person of suspect mental stability would choose alien combat over Marlene.

Yet, as I’m standing on this river bank instead of dancing with Marlene, I tell myself I’m a responsible human being who honors his commitments and follows through on a job. Most likely, though, I’m a person of suspect mental stability.

But, a job is a job, and I had been hired by a company called Corporate after answering an ad on Craigslist. Some kids flip burgers to make some cash in high school. Others deliver newspapers or mow lawns. I work security guarding what is known as a soft spot in the space/time continuum that can be breached by aliens who wish to invade Earth. Cool gig. Dangerous. Also very mysterious. The only name the company goes by is Corporate; even on the business cards. They didn't give me business cards. I really want business cards.

I get to play with cool toys, too, but you have to read the manuals first.

April Secret Agent #36

GENRE: YA Fantasy

The fishing net caught the stitches on the back of her hand with a stomach-lurching jerk. Synne bit off a curse and hauled the empty net in, blood trickling down the crook between her thumb and finger. There were only five stitches, but three had torn free, and the puckered flesh was even uglier now. Her mother had stitched it up only the night before, and she kept a tally of the scars on Synne’s calloused fingers. All scars and no ring.

Synne sighed and ignored the school of cod flashing in the water. Swaying in her perch on the prow, she pinched the cut together, wrapped a bit of cloth around her palm, and knotted it.

She glanced to the stern, but, thankfully, Captain Cam wasn’t watching. He didn’t allow her to swear like the crew did, but then again, he was her father. Rough hands were a fisherman’s trademark, but he still fussed over her every time a hook marred her fingers or the ropes burned blisters into her palms. Probably because his wife only gave him an earful over Synne’s marriage prospects.

She picked up her casting net and rubbed the wet fibers between her fingers. Her shadow stretched past the bow and over the waves, and she could look east without squinting. It was the end of the day.
The boat was her second home. She’d spent half of her seventeen years on it.

April Secret Agent #35

TITLE: Frigid
GENRE: YA Speculative Fiction

I count the flakes, trying to discern between white and gray, ice and snow. I long for the warmth of the sun that has yet to wake the new day. The frigid bite of the cold enters my bones. The knots on my skyn as I loop, ring, pull, loop, ring, pull tug at something deep within. When I get to the end, I untie loosen, pull, release and start again. The cloud of my breath is as close as the northern air enveloping me. Far off on the frozen icefield, I yearn for the warmth of my mother and sisters as I wait for my father to return and accompany him home.

The horizon is a thin line bumped with silver, illuminating the Nouluiv—the northland. This is where creation begins, on the blank canvas of ice, the wind whispering life into being. The pale dawn kisses my cheeks awake; cozy in our home, my mother does the same to my little sisters. "Rise and shine my little dream makers. Let sleep keep the moon until the sun sets." Her voice echoes in recent memory as she eases us to waking, warming water and our furs as she keeps the fire stoked. Now I'm of age to set out onto the ice alone, and today I'll be the first one to greet my father.

The wind whistles shrilly, whipping up snow like dust, my only company on the lonely white plain...

April Secret Agent #34

TITLE: Letters of a Dying Misanthrope
GENRE: Adult Romance


            Red and blue lights flashed across my blurry vision, like a macabre, dripping watercolor. The lights reflected in the floor to ceiling glass doors of the ER, reverberating into my head with a harsh pulse.  My mouth opened and shut several times, any words I had hoped to speak died on my tongue. The pulsing grew louder, so loud that I could barely think. This wasn’t real. None of this was real.
            A loud, manic, guttural scream burst through my chest, a banshee’s heartbreaking wail curling into the damp, night air.

            My heart thumped painfully against my chest as I woke up drenched in sweat, my throat completely raw. Shaky hands fumbled with my water glass, spilling it all over my nightstand, all over my brand new paperbacks.

“Crap,” I croaked as I scrambled for socks, my comforter, anything to clean up my mess. Frustrated tears fell as I managed to rake my hands through my hair as my eyes scanned for the red and blue lights. Another sob broke through my pained throat as I fought to make the nightmare fade away.


Did everyone in Berkmore get together and decide to go to the post office at the same time? My palms started to sweat as my gaze slid across the parking lot, taking in all of the cars, the old men still shooting the breeze while propped up against their pickup trucks, the women loaded down with packages going exactly where I needed to go.

April Secret Agent #33

GENRE: YA Fantasy

           I closed my eyes.  When I opened them, my old life had vanished.  The new one is unrealistic, fueled by fear and amazement.  She is the one who fills it with amazement and helps me face my fears.  What happened was horrible, but it brought me to her, the only person I could ever truly love.

            It’s only been a few days, but already I seem to be losing memories of what my previous life was like.  I can only faintly remember getting up, going to school, and not having a care in the world.  My life was unremarkably normal and easy, full of the happy faces of those who loved me.

            I try not to dwell on what I have lost, except for the last few hours before it happened.  Those hours are vividly clear, seared into my brain, rewinding and playing nonstop.  Dad was making coffee, the strong stuff, always the strong stuff for him.  Mom was cracking eggs and yelling for my sister to wake up.  My fingers slipped five slices of crisp bacon from the plate on the stove.

            “Jacob!”  Mom’s voice was scolding, but her eyes were smiling.  “This bacon is not for breakfast.”  She pulled the plate out of my reach.  “Did you take your shot?”

            “Bacon should always be for breakfast.”  I grinned, crispy crumbs clinging to my lips.  “And yes; my butt is sufficiently pricked.”

            Mom shook her head.  “Don’t be a smart mouth.”

April Secret Agent #32

TITLE: TOSOM: Freshman
GENRE: YA Paranormal Romance

I’m not a bald freak, Amarea thought.

A boy searched the crowd. He found her eyes and stared at her.

Amarea walked between her parents. Maybe that would make her less obvious. She noticed him across the courtyard, big brown eyes and messy brown hair. She blushed when she looked at him. She knew even the top of her skull would be pale pink; that’s the trouble with being a bald freak.
Stop looking at me, she thought. The boy looked away.

The gaggle of freshmen and their parents were squashed into the gym. The gym smelled of losses, victories, and week-old socks.

After a stimulating twenty minutes of welcomes from the principal and assistant principals, students were corralled into their homerooms, girls on one side of the hallway, boys on the other. The parents remained for more information on how to be a parent.

Once inside the classroom, no one said anything to Amarea. She sat by herself in the corner. She could see people glancing back at her, whispering about her.

She was used to the whispers. Cancer treatment doesn’t play nice with anyone and she’d been playing with treatments for a long time. Amarea looked down at her body. She looked more like someone who survived a concentration camp than a high school freshman.

I’m not contagious, she thought as a girl carefully placed a piece of paper on Amarea’s desk. The paper contained her schedule, locker combination, and vague instructions on how to open the lock.

April Secret Agent #31

TITLE: Off Pitch
GENRE: NA Romance

I stood back to watch my handiwork as the soccer ball soared gracefully into the top-right corner of the goal, and a whistle blew from somewhere near the sideline to signal the end of practice. I sighed with contentment at my own spectacular skill, and jogged toward the net to help clean up the mess of balls that littered the goal area. My bedeviled locks clung to my sweaty forehead as the summer sun beat down from the clear, August sky and reflected off Lake Michigan, bathing the soccer field in a double-whammy heat wave.

"God, Adds! Do you ever let up? The season hasn't even started, yet," Jessica whined from her position inside the goal.

"After 14 years on the pitch together, I thought you'd have learned the answer to that question.” I gave her chestnut ponytail a playful tug, and she glared at me while she leaned casually against the goal post.

"Well, there was that one time in first grade when we sat down in your living room and watched a movie," Jessica said with unbridled sarcasm.

"Ha. Ha." I rolled my eyes. Jessica Strobel and I had been best friends since first grade. Now, going into our junior year at Northwestern University, our relationship subsisted entirely on sarcasm and caffeine.

"I’ll tell you what. Since you managed to block almost 10% of my shots, and I know what a sore loser you are, I'll take you out to coffee after we're done here."

April Secret Agent #30

TITLE: Trowel and Error
GENRE: Adult Contemporary romance

Random gusts of wind buffeted the rental car and raindrops spattered the windshield as Eleanor Blake gripped the steering wheel. When menacing clouds first gathered on the horizon, she considered her options. She hated the thought of driving through a storm, but delaying her carefully planned journey was worse. Now that those clouds were dumping torrential rain, she regretted her decision. Her driving experience was limited and she was keenly aware that every mile she traveled must be retraced before she was home again.

Red lights glared on the car ahead of her and she tapped the brakes. The traffic slowed, then stopped. But something was moving up ahead, along the shoulder of the road. The windows were fogged and pebbled with raindrops, making it hard to see. A lone figure, hunched under a backpack. Jeans. A pair of hiking boots. Eleanor was sympathetic, but every warning she ever heard about hitchhikers clamored in her mind. Offering this stranger a ride might be kind, but that didn't make it smart. Or right. Not for her. Still, she couldn’t look away from the unfortunate traveler. Water dripped from the end of a ponytail and ran down the back of a denim jacket. A woman! Her sympathy was rekindled, the sense of danger faded. She pressed the button to lower the window.

“Can I give you a ride?”

The walker turned and Eleanor's eyes widened as a jolt of adrenaline flooded her stomach. The person looking back at her was a man.

April Secret Agent #29

TITLE: Death is Fleeting
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Gym socks. Floor polish. Pencil shavings. Teen agony. The smells of Cannon High School. Probably any high school. But Millie Krup only knew this one.

She walked down the corridors through nearly visible electrical currents, the charges zapping and crackling between hundreds of amped bodies.

She was headed to Homeroom on a Tuesday, her craziest day of the week. Even though she’d scribbled her schedule in her planner months earlier, she knew it by heart now:

7 a.m. Bus to school
7:40 a.m. Homeroom
8:00 a.m. Chemistry II  :-P
8:55 a.m. Algebra II  :-P
9:50 a.m. Advanced Spanish !!!
10:45 a.m. Study period
11:40 a.m. Lunch
12:15 p.m. English Lit  :0)
1:10 p.m. Art History   :0)
2:28 p.m. Spanish Club  !!!
3:42 p.m. Bus to the Pearl District
4:00 p.m. Work (at NorthWest Dispatch to earn money for the Spanish Club’s Barcelona trip)
6:35 p.m. Bus home
7:00 p.m. Dinner/Homework

It was sixteen hours of speed living. She normally loved the full day with every activity neatly filed into its time slot. Her mom had always called her “busy girl”. It was true. Frenetic schedules helped fill certain hollows in her life.

And she had dreams, big dreams: College, an awesome job, travel (SO much travel), for which she needed an impressive high school resume.

This particular Tuesday, though, dreams or not, her throat was scratchy, her slight body sluggish as if she moved through a wetland, her arms and legs catching on tendrils of aquatic plants while water filled her lungs.

April Secret Agent #28

TITLE: The Traveler
GENRE: YA Time Travel Romance

People say you won’t know your power until it arrives. That unless a Seer or a Glimpser tells you, you’ll have no way of guessing what it will be. But ever since I was a little girl, I couldn’t shake the strange sensation that I could somehow travel through time. Like if I really wanted to, I could disappear inside myself, fold inside out, and end up somewhere else.

    I just wasn’t exactly sure how to make it happen.

    Of course, I also believed time travel to be an absurd idea, so I never said a word to anyone.

    Then, one night when I was eight years old, I climbed into bed and fell asleep only to awaken terrified, outside on the frozen ground. In the inky blackness of night, I peered up at the sky, desperate for guidance from the Stars. But the only thing visible was a yellow-white sliver of moon. I stood, wondering if this was what it felt like to be dead.

    Wearing only my light sleeping clothes, I wandered aimlessly through the frigid darkness. My teeth chattered uncontrollably and no matter how tight I hugged my arms around my chest, no trace of warmth remained. If I wasn’t dead, it certainly seemed like I might freeze to death now.

    When faint yellow lights appeared in the distance, I urged my numb feet forward, following their glow. In time, I came upon an unfamiliar cottage nestled in the bare skeleton trees.

April Secret Agent #27

TITLE: The Truth About Darwin
GENRE: YA Romance

His name was Arnie Crandall and his naked body was two feet from my naked body. There was no way this was a coincidence. The shower was running. Steam saturated our tiny bathroom. My silhouette had nowhere to hide behind the transparent shower curtain and yet here he was, stark naked himself, urinating right next to me.

    I tried not to panic. My mind searched for an exit strategy and yet my towel, hanging several feet away on the back of the bathroom door, offered none. What did I really know about this Arnie guy? Virtually nothing. My mother’s new boyfriend was so uninteresting; I had forgotten to take an interest.

    To my credit, he’d only been living with us for 18 days. Barely enough time to run him through the registered sex offender database and search his profile against America’s Most Wanted.

    “Hey,” he uttered as he stuffed a toothbrush into his mouth, attempting some kind of oral hygiene.
    Hey. Did he just say hey to me as if it was completely natural that a 48 year-old man was free balling it in front of a 14 year-old girl? Where the heck was Valerie? Although my mother’s parenting style could best be described as “hands off” this was absurd.

    “I guess we’re going to have to get used to close quarters around here, huh Meagan?” Arnie stated with a chuckle.

    I backed up into the corner of the shower and covered my vagina with a bottle of Head and Shoulders.

April Secret Agent #26

GENRE: Adult Fantansy

The frigid metal plank leeched all the heat from her body, sucking it up and destroying it without a trace. The table didn't get any warmer, and she only got colder. But today, Essence didn't care. Her mind failed to register anything that happened to her strapped-down body. It raced and worked, amplifying the noises of the outside world, cataloging the technicians’ activities, prioritizing her escape.

Hollowed screams bounced down the concrete hall outside her cell. An unforgiving march as soldiers dragged a new inmate along. Another captive like her, but also not like her.

Essence’s ears perked, hearing the scrappy push and pull of resistance. Quieting the urgency of her mind, she tried to see if she recognized the woman. The unit stopped at an empty cell. The woman shrieked again as metal batons shoved her in. The heavy door rattled closed, scratching at its hinges. A jarring sound, and never a good thing. Either they captured someone new, or they extracted someone old. Neither would ever be seen again. An icy shiver ran through Essence’s body.

The woman called out. Grief—more than pain, more than fear—filled her cries. The voice sounded young, too young. Shaking her head, Essence’s eyes clouded over and she plunged back deep inside. The new inmate wasn't the one she searched for, the one that led her to this place, the one that got her caught.

But the woman didn't have to worry. In a few minutes, Essence would set her free.

April Secret Agent #25

TITLE: The Witch and the Demon
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Ebba ran into the moonless night. Her soaked dress clung to her skin, wind and wetness competing to freeze her into a corpse. Tree roots banged her feet and fatigue crept up from her shaking limbs to numb her brain. If she fell, she might not be able to get up again. Keep moving. Get as far away from the witchfinder as possible, may he be reincarnated as a constipated drunk’s chamber pot.

In the darkness, directions blurred. She focused on climbing up the mountain, away from her village. Faster, faster, faster. Her lungs took on the weight of iron balls.

Her left knee finally gave out—right when another root caught her ill-fitting clog. Her ankle bent sideways with a crack. She hit the dirt.

Waves of agony crashed over her. Mustn’t stop moving. But her body refused to rise. She wanted to scream or cry. Instead, Ebba took a deep breath. To focus her mind, she pinched her face, right on top of the scabs from the witchfinder’s pins. The itching behind her eyes from too long without sleep, the burning of her throat, the blistering sores on her hand—everything faded away.

Heartbeat steady, she groped for a tree root. Her right hand oozed pus from the burns on her palm, so she used her left one to pull herself into a sitting position. The merest touch to the swollen lump was torture. Through the pain, the rational part of her noted this felt worse than a sprain.

April Secret Agent #24

GENRE: Adult Thriller

Thursday – Day Two

Sometimes it’s wiser to forget a day than to try remembering it, but being wise was the least of Jeffrey Blake’s worries. He clenched his fist, fearing the knife at his throat would prick his skin. Again! Or worse—kill him. He wanted to get out, run away, run for his life. He couldn’t move. I don’t want to die.

A blunt voice rattled him, crawled under his skin. “You’re responsible.”

Blake cracked his eyes open, stifled a cry, and shot up in bed, his body covered in cold sweat.
The seasons’ first brisk morning breeze streaming through the window raised his hair, but he still felt as if his head had collided with a concrete wall at full throttle: his brain—derailed. A memory gushed back—the knife. Instinctively he threw a hand to his throat. He pushed out his breath, but couldn’t shake off the uncanny feeling that something wasn’t right.

He tilted his head to the side. She was asleep, purring next to him. Last thing he needed was throwing his wife into the same panic he felt streaming through him. With care he peeled himself out of the blankets and sneaked to the spacious granite en-suite bathroom.

His body cried out for water, reminding him of times when he’d had too many drinks, but the water he gulped straight from the tap didn’t kill his thirst, nor did splashing it in his face help lift the fog.
I’m alive. How?

April Secret Agent #23

TITLE: A Beastly Beauty
GENRE: YA Fantasy

My night of freedom had arrived, and I wasn’t wasting a moment. The gate clicked behind me. At last I was on the right side of our estate walls again—the side where the rest of the world awaited. I nudged my horse’s flanks, and he snorted.

“All right, Domino,” I whispered. “Let it out.” My heart leaped as he broke into a gallop. We were going to town.

If I could kiss the full moon with gratitude, I would. Once each month, the curse was contained. Between moonrise this morning and moonset tonight, I looked like a human instead of a nightmare.
The wind whistled through my hair as I urged Domino on. He was likely as sick as I was of trotting in sedate circles around the courtyard like a tethered pony.

He leapt over a log, bouncing me in the saddle. My stomach flipped at the feeling, but this wasn’t a night for nerves. It was a night for dancing and billiards and… Maybe this night would be the night. The night I had grown up dreaming of.

The night I’d find a way to break the curse.

Once Domino and I made it off the crest of the hill, I glanced back at our estate. Inside the stone wall, the castle's upper windows were dark. In a few minutes my father, the frosty Marquis of Molinas, would settle into his bed for the night. But his secret cursed daughter, the invisible Isabella? I was already gone.

April Secret Agent #22

TITLE: Tightrope
GENRE: YA Contemporary Thriller

The living room curtains block the early morning sunshine, shrouding the threadbare sofa in shadow. It’s been more than a year since my mother slept in her own bed; months since the cancer allowed her more than the briefest moment of comfort. She has retreated inside herself, a ghost of the woman who raised me with love.

“You’ll be okay, Mama?” I hesitate in the doorway with her steaming cup of tea, holding still until I see her stir. My greatest fear is finding her in this hell-hole of a room on the day I wake up and she doesn’t.

Her breath fills her lungs on a loud inhale, rough at the end. The room smells like old food and cigarettes, blended with the ripe odor of a withered body and blankets that need washing.

“Is it morning, Toni?” she asks thickly beneath the pain and the ever-increasing dose of meds that do nothing to mask it. I frown as she reaches for a pack of cigarettes on the coffee table. “Heading to school?”

I set the tea on the table within her reach, covering the rings from past cups with the pristine white mug. “Yes.”

She adjusts her hips on the concaved sofa cushion, hissing through her teeth. “Be careful, mi chica.”
I smile sadly at her pet name for me. Mama used to live in Mexico, as a nanny and teacher for a wealthy family. It was where she met my father, but we don’t talk about him.

April Secret Agent #21

TITLE: Borrowed Time
GENRE: Adult Science Fiction

            What is my name?

            The slash of a longsword accompanied each unspoken word, as if the question’s answer lay behind the morning mists. Exhausted, frustrated, defeated, the unarmored knight drove the blade into the dirt at his feet, panting and glaring at the sun-drenched leaves all around. Had it been this difficult before? Was remembering his name so problematic yesterday? He couldn’t remember that either. “Yesterday” was already fading away. Disgusted, he turned, spotting his shield where he’d left it propped against a tree trunk. He spun the metal triangle around, letting the concave inner surface show him his reflection. Longish blond hair, intelligent blue eyes, scruff of beard on chin and cheeks—precisely the young man he knew would greet him when he woke earlier.

            But it wasn’t his face. Nor was yesterday’s. Nor would tomorrow’s be.

            And the name… the name eluded him. Immersing himself in today’s vocation hadn’t helped draw it out of his tangled mind, even after the other shards of knighthood had fallen into place. The two-day carriage ride from his home in Dunham Massey to Stamford Castle. Arriving too late last night to greet his host, Baron Fitzwalter. Collapsing on a straw mat in his dark chambers. It all happened, the memories crystal clear in his mind. It just hadn’t happened to him. He couldn’t even be certain he was present for the recurring nightmare that woke him mere hours ago.

April Secret Agent #20

GENRE: YA Contemporary Magical Realism

My heaven is a dive bar, and I’m the only patron. I’m not lonely. Robert, my bartender, is good company and provides me with an endless supply of vodka tonics.

I decorated the inside of my bar top to bottom with rainbows, smiling faces, and stick figure sisters holding hands. I drew them from memory. They’re exact replicas of my little sister’s drawings. But lately I’ve noticed something’s wrong with the paper.

“You okay, Mary?” Robert asks. “You don’t look good.”

I point at a drawing. “I wish I could crawl inside a picture. Be back then. Be a sister again.”

To keep tears back I focus my eyes between the amber bourbon bottles. When I stare in that exact spot, the mirror reflects gold onto Anjuli’s rainbow painting and makes the sun glow. It reminds me of the way sunshine smelled on her skin. Wait—now there’s a hole in the picture where the sun used to be. It looks like a cigarette burn.

That can’t be good.

“You have the entire universe at your disposal and this is what you do with it?” Robert asks.

“The only flaw with this heaven is I can’t turn off my brain.” I tap my temple and take a sip. “Today I can’t stop wondering what made an otter ever eat an urchin? And why do I keep going over my locker combination?”

“Ninety-nine, eighty-seven, sixteen.” Robert spins an invisible dial right, left, right.

April Secret Agent #19

TITLE: Lunatic Squad
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

I pounded the last nail in the coffin. Just another day’s work getting the pretend dead bodies ready.

            “Only ten days until opening night,” Scout muttered as she unfolded one of the many bloodstained sheets we had. She tossed them from the back of my cousin, Kincaid’s, pickup truck.

       Kincaid sat his lazy carcass on one of the lawn chairs in front of the porch. The house was soon to be the fabulous Nightmare Lane. Our family’s haunt or better yet reason number eleven I was an inconvenience to them.

            “You know, this would go a lot faster if you got off your ass.” I smiled at him with all the lovely sarcasm I could muster. I huffed and puffed. Pushed sweaty pieces of my ginger hair aside.

            “Why don’t you just use your powers?” he sighed. “It’s such a waste of time doing this the normal way.”

            “Because Grandpa’s gonna know,” I said, resisting the annoying urge to add “duh.”

            “Duh,” Scout said as she hopped out of the truck’s bed and wiped her hands on her ripped jeans.

    We may have been fraternal twins―Scout had all the color while I had zero―but our heads were always in sync no matter what. I could count on it.

            “The moon’s full. And you promised, Salem,” Kincaid pointed out as he took a sip of his bottle of coke, sitting up taller in the lawn chair with that stupid smug look on his face. I guess he wasn’t tall enough already.

April Secret Agent #18

TITLE: Run or Be Dragged
GENRE: Adult Romantic Suspense

As much as I’d like to blame my boyfriend and the stupid fight we had, it’s my fault I’m lost in the woods with no flashlight and only a denim jacket for warmth. He’s the adventurous one, this camping trip to the Adirondacks was all his idea. In my defense it wasn’t dark when I stormed away from camp and it should have been only a five minute hike to the lake.

The early autumn wind cut right through me as I tried to get my bearings in the dark. Even though the moon was full, I couldn’t see any sign of the lake. A dense canopy filtered out all but the weakest light, leaving just enough to give me false confidence.

Loud male voices made me pause. Was there a campsite this far from the others or had I been hiking in a big circle? Dry leaves shuffled over my ankles as I jogged forward and caught a glimpse of the moon reflecting off the lake.

“We can’t just leave her there!” a man shouted.

His plaintive tone stopped me in my tracks. Crouching low, I peered through the branches of an evergreen and saw two men in leather jackets sitting at the edge of the lake.

“We can too,” another man said, in a thick Brooklyn accent. “It ain’t none of our business Nick, so don’t start going soft on me now.”

“She’s unhappy,” the first voice, Nick, insisted.

“She made her own decisions,” the second voice said flatly.

April Secret Agent #17

TITLE: Bury Me First
GENRE: YA Thriller

Her lips were the kind guys like me doodled on folders. Full, voluptuous masterpieces worthy of description and honor. Every curve, every delicate change in texture sent tingling sensations through my fingertips. Her lips were perfectly imprinted in my mind. I stared at them in class and in the halls. Everywhere I saw her. I could describe them in my sleep. And I was about to taste them.
I had closed my eyes out of an awkward habit, but as I drew close enough to feel her breath, I dared myself to open them. Her eyes were open, too, and that startled me enough to pause.

“Are you going to admire me or play?” she asked, lifting the edge of those perfect lips into a subtle grin.

My legs weakened. “I—”

Before my words could form, Rebecca Royal grabbed the back of my head and pulled me into her. I could have died at that moment, and might have, had she not filled me with enough satisfaction to occupy every dream for the rest of my life. Hers were the juiciest lips I’d ever tasted. They were moist and sensational. I massaged her mouth the best I could, but she was in control. Complete control. I was the prey and she was the huntress, encircling me with her strawberry taste and enough of her tongue to keep me reaching for more when she pulled away.

April Secret Agent #16

GENRE: Adult Suspense / Thriller

I never dreaded having to testify in court until today. The defendant is someone I have known since birth. To my knowledge, no one involved has any clue of the link that exists between us.

I focused on six photographs of murdered women spread out on the small desk in my Denver hotel room. Grey shades of death. Each image displayed the finality for six beautiful-in-life females, ages twenty-three to twenty-seven.

They reminded me once again why I agreed to testify in the trial of the accused thirty-six-year-old, Clay Bascomb.

In a little more than two hours, a bailiff will ask me to place my hand on a Bible and swear to tell the truth before a judge, jury and two at-stake parties. No ipse dixit. It is not my say-so. The court demands all expert opinions maintain certain requirements.

I will tell the truth.

I hope I will not regret it.

The sky had lightened enough to let me know each moment of delay threatened my string of sunrises. The sunrise this morning reminded me of the day’s importance, in addition to how much I missed my parents.

The sound of paper rattled at the door. I turned my head in time to see a single sheet come to rest on grayish-brown carpet. I figured someone slipped the receipt for my stay under the door.

I discovered otherwise when I picked up the paper and turned it over. The unsigned message read, “Dr. Warner, you are being watched.”

April Secret Agent #15

TITLE: Worth the Risk
GENRE: YA Contemporary

            Turn Three rushes at me. I blow the entry, swerve way to the outside. The concrete barrier looms on my right like the wall of doubts I’ve built in my brain. Maybe Dad’s right, maybe I should’ve waited till next year to move up to Juniors.

            I’m driving my worst practice laps ever.

            I pound on the wheel. Focus! I’ve got to show these older drivers that just-turned-sixteen doesn’t mean I can’t blow their doors off.

            Sure, these laps have zero effect on tomorrow’s race. But if I don’t nail the groove today, I’ll end up at the back of the pack tomorrow before I can say “Chase Elliott.” I need a top ten finish in each of the next four races or my first Junior Circuit season ends before it’s half over. I am not gonna spend the rest of the summer at home and count the days till school starts. I’ve dreamed of this for way too long.

            “Everything 10-4?”

            My brother Rick’s voice over my two-way radio startles me and I jerk the wheel, skid through Turn Four. The smell of scorched rubber stings my nose as I fight with the wheel, the brake, the clutch, finally drag my Pontiac back in line. Stupid, blowing a turn I’ve nailed all weekend.

            “Jessica?” Rick asks again. “Did something happen?”

April Secret Agent #14

GENRE: YA Contemporary

There were some things in life I would never understand. How some people thought you could like eitherStar Wars or Star Trek, but not both. Why chocolate milk gave me the hiccups. And most importantly, why Alan Merkel,über-goth and total hottie biscotti, had yet to fall hopelessly in love with me.

The last of these had been on my mind for months, ever since Alan had complimented my vintage X-Men shirt at my best friend Madison’s birthday party. It haunted my dreams and waking moments. It crept in at the most inconvenient times ¾ like, say, when I was trying to make important purchase decisions in the back of Cool Comix, Northwest Florida’s finest purveyor of nerd accoutrements.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “What do I have to do to snag him? Put on a Bauhaus-theme song and dance routine?”

“Try actually talking to him, Thea,” Madison said as she browsed through the shelf of trade paperbacks.

 “I can’t just go up and talk to him,” I said, rifling through the back catalogue of manga sitting in boxes on the floor. “He’s a guy. I have no experience socializing with them. I’m afraid I might puke all over him. In fact, I know I will. I’ll totally yack all over his combat boots and then I’ll find out if it is possible to die of humiliation.”

"You do too talk to guys,” Madison said. “You talk to William.”

“William is Caroline’s boyfriend. Talking to my friend's boyfriend so does not count," I said.

April Secret Agent #13

TITLE: Sea Scope
GENRE: Adult Psychological Thriller

     Glen and I were at the lighthouse by Sea Scope. Even though part of me knew I was dreaming a scene from my childhood, I watchedmy ten-year-old self and my brother. My hair was drawn into a ponytail, and I wore scuffed sneakers and a Cinderella t-shirt that clung to mysmall but budding breasts. I followed eight-year-old Glen who was wearing jeans and a Mickey Mouse shirt, into the shadowy interior of the castle-like structure.

     I looked up at the winding stairway that seemed to lead to infinity but was actually 167 steps to the gallery outside the glass-enclosed Lantern Room, according to Michael, a college student visiting the inn that summerMichael, who was studying lighthouses and their history, also told us the lighthouse was 132 feet high.

     Glen was already a few steps up. “What are you waiting for Sarah? Let’s race to the top.”

      I felt the iron steps under the soles of my sneakers. It was cooler in the lighthouse than outside on this ninety-five degree July day. There was no calendar in my dream, but I knew the date. I’d dream about it for years until Glen suggested I see his psychology professor who also had his own practice. Talking about the dream did nothing to eradicate it because it wasn’t a dream. It was the memory of the terrible thing that happened that summer nearly twenty years ago.

April Secret Agent #12

GENRE: YA Fantasy

As I hurried down the castle’s vast stone corridor to meet my half-brother for the first time, his name echoed around me, uttered like a curse: Mordred.

The vaulted doorway of the Great Hall loomed ahead, hewn from stone older than the ages. Squaring my shoulders and forcing my spine straight as a sword, I marched toward the raised dais, careful to keep my pace steady—calm and collected as a Prince of Camelot should be. At least I hoped I looked that way. My muscles strained as my legs urged me forward. Every step was too fast, yet the dais still seemed far away.

Armored knights and soldiers filled either side of the high-ceilinged hall. I passed them and focused straight ahead on the three thrones, though as hard as I tried, I could not block out the poisonous words infusing the room, burning my ears.

“How is that bastard Mordred still alive?” A knight to my right sneered.

“Vermin never did die easy,” another said.

I bit my tongue, not for the first time that day. Such disrespect, all because of an unfounded—and unreliable—prophecy made decades ago.

My heels clipped against the stones. No point in arguing with them. They wouldn’t heed me, prince or not. In terms of garnering respect, Mordred and I stood on almost equal ground. Though I was King Arthur’s legitimate son, my rank did not erase the years he spent avoiding me.

Or the lies the queen had spread about me.

April Secret Agent #11

TITLE: The Social Season
GENRE: Adult Speculative Fiction

I was pacing in my father’s office, searching for an escape route from this horrid conversation. He’d doubtless spent many hours crafting this particular speech. It had been lingering at the edge of our meetings for months now. My hands clenched into fists.

The wood floor creaked as I made another turn. I tuned it out, focusing instead on my father’s words.

“Son, it’s time for you to choose. I’m not saying it has to be this season. I’ll give you…let’s say…three seasons. But you will attend each one until you’ve claimed a mate. Do you understand?”

He was just barely speaking, his voice a bit louder than a whisper. He didn’t need to yell. I’d spent enough time with him to know when to argue. But I’d no interest in a wife; I didn’t need a woman following me around, groveling at my feet.

“Father.” I planted my feet. He was reclining in his chair, staring up at me expectantly. He looked perfectly calm.

I swallowed heavily, trying to find a solid argument. “I’m only twenty-five. I’ve been training under you for five years now. I shadowed you for a long time before that. Don’t you think I should be able to relax for just a bit before I take on a wife? And if I’m going to be the next Lord of Dolfian, do you really think I should be distracted? Why don’t I go through a season looking for a servant or a mistr-”

April Secret Agent #10

TITLE: Plaid Package
GENRE: Adult Romance

Whisky flavored condoms? Marie laughed as she reached in her purse to snag a few coins for the vending machine. Her first day in Glasgow and she already found the perfect souvenir. Flavored prophylactics in festive packaging almost made up for the dismal state of the pub's bathroom.
She admired the red and orange tartan cardboard packets as she exited the ladies’ room. The top of her head slammed into something hard. She looked up and nearly combusted as a fast-moving burn spread across her cheeks. "Excuse me. I'm sorry, I-" She had head-butted a wall of muscle.
A curly-haired hunk stared down at her with a playful glint in eyes the color of well-worn denim.
Her first thought? She wanted to jump up and wrap her arms and legs around him.

Second? Don't. That's inappropriate behavior.

Third? Wuss.

She stared back and watched his eyes lower to the ridiculous handful of condom packets pressed into his stomach.

"Hoping to pull?" he said with a toe-curling brogue.

The undiluted power of that accent should be criminalized. She scanned the hallway for a fainting couch. "Pull?” Marie ran through her vocabulary of UKisms to translate. “No, these are souvenirs." A laugh bubbled up and escaped like something far too close to a squeak. "Back home the condom machines don't have anything as fancy, or hilarious, as this."

He grinned down at her. "The flavored ones are only in machines. I prefer the plain ones."

"'ve tasted them?"

April Secret Agent #9

GENRE: YA Contemporary Fantasy

If Coach says one more good word about me, I may scream. But it's inevitable. Coach thinks reading our top scores every week is motivating. I just want to crawl into a hole.

Every time she says my name, I wait for the team to glare at me with jealousy.

"Emily Mulligan, first place, ahead by a full second."

Instead, the girls whoop and clap for me, because my points are their points and we are winners. Their cheers bounce around the pool and I catch David grinning at me from the other side, not paying attention as the boys' coach does the same reading. When his score is announced the guys thump him on the back and chant, "Ecklestein! Ecklestein!"

We're a pair of winners, a matched set, the perfect couple.

So why don't I enjoy any of it?

I make myself smile for the other girls. I'm not competitive, but I don't want to hurt the team either.
I jump in for warm-ups, the water swallowing me. I rush downward, the bottom twelve feet below me. When I slow, I open my eyes and gaze up through the jelly-like water to the lights of the gym.
Emily, you don't belong here.

It starts as a prickle on my arms. Then I want to rub my eyes. They're gritty, like I haven't slept. Just as I'm thinking how weird that is, the pain kicks in. I gasp water.

I'm the best swimmer in the state and I'm drowning.

April Secret Agent #8

TITLE: Murderous Justice
GENRE: Adult Thriller

Carl stopped and assessed the younger guy standing between him and the general store’s back entrance. The guy’s name was Steve. Carl knew this the way everyone knows everybody in a small town. In contrast to Steve’s shag, Carl kept his hair cut short and his whiskers shaved close. Fat didn’t hang on him, but his middle-aged metabolism gave him more girth. Pulling wrenches eight hours a day provided endurance. Carl figured he could hold his own against these kids that lay around shooting people in video games all day and night.

Drugs? Carl stood before the guy unnoticed. He had just closed his shop, wanted to buy a gift and then be home. No biggie to say, “Excuse me.”

Steve did not change his stance but did say, “Oh, hey, Carl. How’s it going?” His speech sounded clear enough.

“Sure, sure. It’s all good. Need to get past you is all.”

“No problem.” He shook out a cigarette and slipped his lips around it. “Light?”


Steve dug through his jacket pocket. “I know I’ve got a lighter here somewhere. Oh, here we go.” Steve sucked the flame into his cigarette. He let out a plume of smoke slowly. He went for another puff.

Carl stepped forward. “Steve, it’s cold out here.”

Steve didn’t take that second drag. Instead he looked at Carl with menace in his eyes. Must be drugs, Carl thought. That was the only explanation for this weird encounter.

Steve squinted and stepped to the side.

April Secret Agent #7

GENRE: YA Contemporary

I sat behind you in world history. That Monday, when everyone assumed you were absent, home sick or whatever, I remember staring at Jahmil's hair. I usually couldn't see the back of his head since you were always there in front of me, but that day you weren't and we were discussing battle dates, so I let my mind wander to the dreds Jahmil was growing. I wondered how long he was going to let them get and imagined what my mother would say if I wanted to do dreds. The salon on Third, they'd probably do a good job--I could check them out. Later I wondered if that's when you did it, while I was sitting in class thinking about Jahmil's hair.

The next day when the rumors caught and crackled down halls, smoldered at lockers and ignited in classrooms, your empty seat was wildfire. We couldn't stop staring at it. Mr. Lucas tried to ignore the distraction, but his eyes kept darting nervously over to your desk while he explained the assassination of emperor whoever. Finally Evan raised his hand. We all knew he wasn't going to ask about anarchists.

"Yes, Evan," Mr. Lucas exhaled uneasily. He knew what was coming.

"Um, Emily's not here, and people are know."

Mr. Lucas looked at Evan, then uncomfortably around the room at the rest of us. He coughed into his fist. "Yes, we've all heard the rumors, but we don't have the facts."

April Secret Agent #6

TITLE: Black Butterfly
GENRE: YA Thriller

When my cab pulls up in front of the café, I’m 20 minutes early to meet Zhang, who will be here soon. Punctuality is in his nature, but my training insists I be in control of the situation at all times. I picked this location, and I’ll pick the spot where we sit.

I step out of the cab and New York City hits me like a right hook to the kidney. I soak it all in for the last time. The wail of sirens a few blocks off underscored by the constant whir of traffic, the pungent whiff of garbage offset by sweetness of honey-roasted nuts. It feels like home, though I only pretend to live here. It’s more of a home than my mother’s shitty trailer park ever was—or my sterile room at headquarters, which isn’t really mine but Agency property. I suppose I’m their property, too, though they use the word “asset.”

A woman and her two young children practically fall out of the café. Warm, yeasty air pours out, along with the bitter scent of stale coffee. A glance through the glass windows confirms I’ve arrived before Zhang.

“Do you know the best way to get to Radio City from here?”

It takes me a moment to realize the question is for me. The woman’s eyebrows plead with me. The two boys cling to her hands, fidgeting like they can’t wait to get out of there.

April Secret Agent #5

GENRE: YA thriller

   A siren’s sound in the night woke her from a deep sleep. After the sound faded, Taylor fell back into a fitful doze, and when her alarm buzzed in the early morning, she started awake, her tongue gritty, her left cheek mottled from the imprint of her pillow.

     Scramble time.

     She grabbed a wrinkled sweatshirt, pulled on the same jeans she’d worn yesterday, and twirled her hair into a messy knot. No way she’d wow with her beauty, but it wasn’t as if this day would be any different from any other day at Wayne County High. After almost six weeks, she was still New Girl Nobody.

     She stepped from the wide veranda turning headphones on full blast. Even though she hated the local broadcast called “The Mouth of the South,” she tuned in every morning because she couldn’t help her fascination/irritation with the blather the DJ spewed to a half-awake world.

     “… a monogramed handkerchief left behind, the name Terry spelled out in blood-red stitches.”  A long pause.  “Terry?” the DJ said, acting surprised at his own story. “The infamous Terry Waller?

     Taylor ripped the headphones from her ears and shook her head. Stupid.

     A shoe scuffled on the gravel path. She listened, alert for the slightest sound.

     A throat cleared.

     A branch cracked sending goosebumps up her neck.  She whipped her head around, her hair loosening from its knot, flying in her face. She walked faster, holding her breath until the gravel drive turned to smooth asphalt.

April Secret Agent #4

TITLE: Porcelain Monkeys
GENRE: YA Science Fiction/Fantasy

Callie paced furiously back and forth, and tried to ignore the stares as people trickled in to the open-air marketplace on the outskirts of Perpetuity City. She wiped her cheeks dry and snatched a rusty red leaf as it fell from a maple tree, then crushed it to dust in her hand. As if falling leaves actually meant winter was approaching. The endless autumn was almost as disturbing as her love life.

Moments earlier, Callie had been at Blacwyn’s, delivering his weekly pile of freshly pressed white t-shirts, and anticipating an amorous welcome. She threw open his bedroom door and instantly regretted it. 

 He wasn’t alone.

She blinked into the dimly lit room. The white sheet was not enough to conceal the long, slender figure that clung to Blacwyn like a leech, and it didn’t hide the luxurious spray of black hair on his adjoining pillow.

Callie stood, frozen, in the doorway. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to scream or cry, but slinking away without being seen was an option until the woman sat up. She took a long, appraising look at Callie. She smiled.

Blacwyn wasn’t just cheating again: This was a betrayal. A betrayal with the worst possible person.
She dropped the stack of Blacwyn’s crisply folded white t-shirts that were tucked under her left arm, and ran.

April Secret Agent #3

TITLE: Curse of the Nine-Tailed Fox
GENRE: YA Fantasy

If I’d known from the start that home was a feeling instead of a place, I could’ve saved myself years of suffering. But a wise-ass once said—like the stupid prick knew the secrets of the universe at the ripe old age of nineteen— “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”

Uh huh. Sure.

As a fox-spirit who spent the first seventeen years of my life hated by the rest of my kind, who grew up in the slums with hunger for a friend and violent street gangs for enemies, I knew firsthand those words were a steaming pile of cow dung. The journey sucked, and from where I stood, the destination wasn’t much better.

I scrabbled along the rooftops of the palace, hurling myself from one red, shingled awning to the next. There was nothing elegant or graceful about the way I skittered across the roof like a demented crab. My black fox ears twitched backwards, listening to the pursuit of thundering footsteps, and my bushy black tail lashed to keep my balance. It wasn’t exactly easy to scale a five-story palace in the heart of winter, with a layer of ice covering everything, snow numbing my face, and nothing but a dirty, tattered, threadbare kimono to keep myself covered.

The snowy courtyard blurred twenty feet below me, and my heart rose into my throat with every jump.

April Secret Agent #2

TITLE: Virtual Space
GENRE: YA Science Fiction

Kade straightened with pride as Tamika pointed suspiciously behind him.

"Am I nuts?" she said. "Tell me that door wasn't there yesterday."

He attempted a casual shrug, something that veered away from mad scientist territory. "Technically it was here. But it had a clever disguise." He stepped aside, fully revealing the metal door embedded in the orange mountainside behind him. With a few pre-programmed hand gestures, the virtual reality image he'd so painstakingly disabled came back into place. The door's color shifted, looking more and more like the surrounding creamsicle-colored rock until it blended in completely. When Kade ran his hand across, he couldn't even feel the door's edge.
Tamika stepped up and ran her brown human-looking hand alongside his clawed gray one. "Impressive."

"It's the same technology that makes Venusian trees look like they've got actual leaves and you look like you have actual hair and skin," he explained. "Only this time, instead of hiding your robotic body, it's hiding a room built right into this hill." He motioned again, and the metal door reappeared. "A jarking awesome room, if I may add."
She raised an eyebrow. "And just what's inside this 'jarking awesome room'?"

"Now, if I told you that, I'd ruin your birthday surprise." Another wave, and the door slid open with a screech.

Tamika didn't move. He couldn't blame her. His last bright idea, programming a robo-hog to rampage through school, had landed them both a week's detention. But circumstances this time were 137.2% different.

April Secret Agent #1

TITLE: Saving Emmaline
GENRE: YA Contemporary

The Dialysis Treatment Center has had the same depressing statistic on the wall for the past three years.

There are roughly one hundred thousand people awaiting a kidney transplant in the United States.

And of that vast pool of Unfortunates, approximately seventeen thousand of us will hit the jackpot each year. I was not mathematically gifted. I was actually an aspiring author. But my dad had done the math for me, and apparently my odds weren't great. Another Treatment Center fact:

Thirteen people die a day waiting on a kidney.

My rookie year I worried a lot about that one, so I started doing things like counting heads at the center. Thankfully, our facility had five that kicked it by June. My mom said it had a lot to do with the mind. That most of the Unfortunates in here were older and had already given up on life. So every morning on our way here, she would fire up the car, put on some Gloria Gaynor, and we’d both sing at the top of our lungs, but mostly I would, about Surviving my dying ass the whole way here.
Three years in this place and I have yet to hit the jackpot. So I quit thinking about stats and outliving Rose, the sixty year old widower across from me, who had brought me an apple every day for the last year, and started focusing on more uplifting things, like my hot Nephrology Nurse, Donald.