Saturday, September 24, 2022

Chapters 1: Artist, Bartender and Caregiver

You will have noticed I'm posting chapters 1 from my books (TINSAL and ILFIN so far), and here's 3 more. As these are excerpts from shorter stories, some are parts, other full chapters. Enjoy!

Alyria is sleepless in humidity, her thoughts in turmoil. Going to her studio to paint, she discovers that someone has broken in and stolen her art, and the thief may still be in the house. Brandishing a paintbrush as weapon, she prepares to defend herself …


Somewhere in the South


 Alyria Marn could not sleep. Not only was it too humid, but her mind refused to release her to rest, if only the intermittent kind of respite. How was it possible for thoughts, so terribly random, to swirl round and around as if on a goddamned tilt-a-whirl and at full bloody speed too?

Heaving out a cross between a growl and a sigh, she kicked the thin sheet serving as covering – covered only because one had to hide from mosquitoes in this sticky weather – and padded barefooted to the bathroom.

Faint glows from the streetlight further along meant she wouldn’t stub her toe on something unseen. Jenna, her housemate, tended to drop stuff as she dashed about, and left whatever it was exactly where it fell.

Allowing darkness to cool her, without much success, she tinkled into the bowl, leaving the door open. Summer needed to surrender to autumn soon; this humidity drove her insane. A storm to release the expectant energy in the air would be most welcome, too.

Snorting as she washed her hands after, she became aware of the fact that her mind had now calmed into a rolling pattern. Mostly about the weather. Even wishes for snow, as if that was likely here.

Funny that. Trying to relax, her thoughts went all carnival freak show on her, but awake and on the move, everything settled. It bloody should be the other way around, but then her whole life worked inside-out, so why expect a smidgeon of normality as due to her?

Moving along the dim passage to the kitchen Jenna invariably left in a mess, the urge to paint overcame her. Despite her raging thirst, she knew if she ignored the prompting she’d definitely regret it in the morning. These days the compulsion came rarely; time to use it or lose it again.

A few weeks back, preparing for a job interview, she ignored the urge in favor of preparation – bloody needed that job – and later that evening stood before her easel with no insight at all.

Yeah, she got the job – doing layout at a local printer – but it merely paid bills. It certainly did not challenge her. She knew her way around the software and was hired because of that, not for any artistic input. It bored her into numbness.

Art was her life, her passion. Emphasis, though, needed to go on the ‘was’. Art was her life. After catching Cole in bed with Jenna’s cousin, everything that made her, Alyria Marn, the person she grew up to be, vanished.

Harry leads a solitary existence, tending bar because it allows him to interact with people without becoming involved. His life isn’t a normal one, after all.

When the woman perfectly dressed and groomed takes a seat in the shadows and asks for wine, something about her calls to him. He answers that summons and it changes everything, for they have something extraordinary in common.

His dreams, and hers, will never be the same again.

Chapter 1

 Tuesday Night


GIVING THE GLASS a final swirling polish, Harry studied the brunette seated near the end of the counter, where the shadows hid her somewhat from general view.

Lifting the vessel, he checked for marks. Beer guzzlers didn’t worry much about fingerprint smears on their robust glasses, but wine drinkers were finicky. And, by the looks of the woman - perfectly groomed - she’d definitely take offense to a less than shiny goblet.

Grabbing the house white and holding the glass in its polishing cloth, Harry ambled to the curved end of his domain. She wanted to see the bottle before accepting the wine, so he chose the more upmarket one, not the cheaper plonk generally on offer.

She barely glanced at him when he presented the opened wine - fortunately this one came corked and she’d know that from the bottle’s neck - but did study the wine glass for a few beats, before nodding.

He poured the obligatory taste test volume, but she waved a manicured hand in dismissal, and thus he filled her shiny vessel. Technically he poured into a red receptacle, but she’d asked for a large white, emphasis on large. His boss wouldn’t mind; fact was, if she didn’t finish the bottle, it would go to waste. Well, it wouldn’t really, because he, Harry, would take it home at the end of his shift, but as a sale it would go to waste. Few ordered wine in this place, and those that did opted for the cheap stuff.

Having done his duty, Harry retreated. Glancing over his shoulder as he moved away, he noticed how the woman stared at the golden liquid.

Uh-oh. A potential alcoholic about to fall off the wagon? In her case it was tripping from a chariot, but the result would be the same.

He swung back, swiftly setting the opened wine down on the counter. His sister had fallen a few times and each time she reached out for help again, the standing up had been harder for her to achieve.

His duty was not only serving customers; he was here to discern who could and who should not drink. His empathy and his keen eye was the reason he’d held this job so long. His boss told him that, and he knew it as a facet of his inner self as well. Many thought little of his bartending - especially his sister - and yet he found it fulfilling. In this shadowy place he encountered personalities from all walks of life, and had, years ago, discovered that each had something to teach him.

Without a doubt, he knew people.

He knew how to listen.

“Ma’am,” he said as he stopped opposite the woman.

She ignored him to continue staring at her fermented brew, leaving him with no opening in which to move forward. Not a talker, then. Most patrons loved the sound of their own voices, but not this one.

“Perhaps a water is more to your liking?” he offered, thereby obliquely making reference to her potential chariot status.

Her long eyelashes fluttered up and blue yes speared him. Contrary to his expectation, amusement lurked there, borne out when her mouth lifted at one corner.

“Thank you for your concern, but I am not in trouble,” she murmured.

By God, she had a voice able to churn the guts of even a gay man. Husky, gravelly, filled with nuance, super sexy. Her voice was the lie to her appearance. On the outside, every dark hair was in place -a bob cut - and every crease of her formal suit was in its ironed position, but on the inside, man, on the inside she was something else entirely.

Harry inclined his head. “I’ll leave you to it, then. My apologies.”

As he moved away once more, she lifted her wine, and sipped. For some reason that subtle slurp, barely audible, set his hands to shaking.

Hauling in a self-admonishing breath, he glanced around the bar. On a Tuesday it was usually quiet, and now, with forty-five minutes to closing, only two men sat over beers at a far table. Those two were regulars; they’d up and leave once their drinks were consumed. He knew they never drank more than three each, and both were on their third.

No one needed him right now.

Harry turned back to the woman.

“Folk tell me I’m a good listener,” he said.

He’d used that line many times and it usually worked. Truthfully, many came in here not to just drink their problems away; some simply wished someone would hear them, and therefore started talking when he offered a willing ear. It was also true that sometimes they didn’t know when to shut the hell up, but he suspected this woman wasn’t one of those.

She proved it when she lifted one perfect eyebrow. “Does that work for you?”

He grinned. “Usually.”

“Curiosity gets you into trouble,” she murmured.

“And occasionally curiosity can get you out of trouble, too,” he rebutted.

She inclined her head but said no more.

Harry leaned forearms on counter to narrow the space between them. “Let me guess; you’re in finance or you’re connected to the law. Either someone’s crooking the books or you have a difficult case.”

Sipping, she shook her head, amusement climbing into her gaze once more. Setting the glass down with exaggerated care, she offered, “You shouldn’t judge a woman by what she wears.”

Interesting. Women generally dressed according to that kind of judgement. They sought to make a clear impression with what appearance was able to sell.

“Someone needed to believe what it is you project?”

“Bingo,” she said, almost inaudibly.

“Boyfriend? Husband?”

Again she sipped her elixir first. “Neither. You’re fishing and I am in no mood for guessing games.”

Harry straightened. He was being boorish. Curiosity wasn’t part of his job description, and it certainly wasn’t in his nature to force something from someone unwilling to share.

“I’m sorry. Enjoy you wine.”

Moving off, he inwardly berated himself, because, this once, he had to admit he was curious. He wanted to know her story. Mostly, he desired to hear her speak. Her voice was something else, did things do his innards.

“I filed my Will today,” he heard from behind him, and her statement was utterly devoid of all emotion.

Inhaling, Harry casually turned. “Will? As in Last and Testament?”

She nodded, staring into her golden elixir. She’d barely touched it, despite requesting the large glass. “The law firm needed to see me as a woman with a long life ahead of her, an affluent one simply dotting an i and crossing a t.”

He closed in carefully, afraid to spook her. “But you’re not?”

Smirking, she lifted her glass and gulped down a huge mouthful. Once she had swallowed, she said, “I’m affluent, make no mistake. It’s the long life that may be an issue.”

The manner in which she stated it caused a shiver to run throughout his body. “Are you ill?”

Pressing her hands flat on the counter - he noticed how her skin there lost all colour, as if she forced all her strength into the action - she stood. “Forgive me. This has nothing to do with you. I don’t know why I said anything.” She reached for her purse.

“Told you I’m a good listener,” he said quickly, giving her a cheeky smile. “Consider me your confessor. I have no other business tonight.”

That was true. The two regulars were waving their way out as he said it. All he still needed to do before heading home to his lonely cottage was to wash the final glasses, tally the night’s takings - a matter of five minutes - and lock up.

He found himself praying that she’d stay, that she’d talk to him.

A caregiver acts as confessor to an infamous patient.

Emma Reed is Ward Sister at a frail care centre. When Celeste Harwood is admitted, she is suspicious of the woman’s motives. Has Celeste come to hide from the world? If so, that is not right; her bed is needed for someone deserving.

When Emma sees how wary the nurses are of Miss Harwood, she understands something else is at work. Her doctor arrives and tells a tale of murder, of a woman about to suffer a terrible death, and Emma’s curiosity is aroused.

Fortunately, Celeste wants to share her story …

Chapter 1


AS THE MORNING chorus of birds sounded, before proper light had arrived to herald the new day, Emma, in her small kitchen, already sipped her coffee.

Her shift was seven to seven for the next three days, as ward sister at the local frail care centre, and that meant long hours on her feet, and early mornings out of bed. Luckily, she was an early riser anyway. The progression into Spring made it more bearable also, as by the day the days grew longer, and light now accompanied her to work.

After finishing her black brew - instant because she had no time for filtering - she rinsed her mug, grabbed her lunch box filled with healthy snacks, checked that her phone and sunglasses were in her bag, found her car keys, and headed out, locking her flat’s door behind her.

No-nonsense shoes barely made a sound on the threadbare carpeting in the corridor as she strode swiftly for the block’s main exit. No doorman here, not even a buzz-in system; the door was never locked, a state most residents bemoaned, given their rundown neighbourhood. That, however, was not her present worry.

In the grey light, Emma went to her small car, glancing around to see the parking spaces of their dedicated lot all filled. Most only left for work in about two hours, and she had to admit she preferred the silence as it was now. No need to greet folk; no need to interact with anyone.

The streets, though, were not as quiet. Shift workers were going on and coming off duty, and trucks and vans were already about the day’s deliveries. Busses ran also, although not yet as full as their later counterparts would be.

Twenty-three minutes later she pulled into the centre’s parking lot. In rush hour traffic it would take more than an hour, another reason she preferred the early hour.

She noticed the younger nurses arrive, as well as two doctors. No one called greeting, moving instead with purpose to relieve the night shift.

The first sunbeam hit the windows as she strode up the ramp to the staff entrance, creating on the two-storey building multiple mirrors. Averting her gaze, Emma entered. The patients would soon be awake.


AROUND 9:30 A.M. the bustle of breakfast, medication and rounds finally died down enough for Emma to pay attention to her list of new patients, those arriving later in the day. Part of her duty was to see them settled.

Three longer term ‘residents’ had died during the night before last, and thus were three places available, and would be filled today. A list of those seeking final care before passing on was consulted every time a death occurred, and beds were allocated according to need.

One, she saw, was a cancer patient, a man in his seventies. Another was a teenage girl on life support after a car accident; her parents had not yet found the courage to let her go and her bed in the hospital was needed for other patients. The third was a woman in her late thirties with a degenerative disease …

Emma frowned over the notes accompanying that patient’s identity. She could find nothing on the woman’s condition, only that she had been waiting three months for a frail care bed, signed off by various doctors as necessary, no recovery likely.

“Hannah, do you know more about this woman?” she asked the older nurse at the station with her.

Hannah peered over her shoulder. “Harwood? Nay, love. Guess we’ll soon find out. I’m off for coffee and a sandwich. Want something?”

Emma smiled her appreciation. “Tea, if you don’t mind.”

“Back soon.” Hannah winked, and left.

Sighing, Emma withdrew her lunch box to nibble on an energy bar.


PUNCTUALLY AT 1 P.M. the first ambulance arrived, bearing Mr Rivers, the cancer patient.

Despite his obviously weakened condition, he was in good spirits. “Call me Pete,” he told everybody, and, as he wheeled down the passage to his final bed, Emma already knew Pete would be a favourite.

It also meant his death would hit the staff hard.

1:30 saw the arrival of the teenager, a beautiful girl with blond hair and unblemished skin utterly unmoving on the trolley leaving the ambulance. Emma swallowed on seeing her; the girl - Cathy - had already moved on. What remained now to transfer to the bed she would inhabit until her parents signed the consent forms that allowed her to go was only a vessel.

Silence accompanied the teenager to her room. Many nurses suspiciously blinked. Yes, it was harder when the young came here to die.


AT TWO, MISS Celeste Harwood entered the precincts of the frail care centre, and her arrival instantly created unease.

In a wheelchair pushed by one of the paramedics, she sat bolt upright, her every hair in place, her makeup flawless. With red hair cut short, sleek curls hugged the woman’s thin face, and pink blush lent her cheeks the guise of health, and coral lipstick her lips a robust appearance. She wore a colourful robe, shimmering silk, with matching slippers on her feet. This wasn’t hospital garb, but it was bedwear, if of the kind one found in the boudoirs popular in historical romance novels.

Emma noticed that the paramedic seemed uncomfortable, handing his charge over with haste and few words. Hannah, who accepted the paperwork, glanced down, then looked up swiftly to gape at the woman as if she could not believe her eyes.

“It’s Miss Celeste,” a young nurse whispered to the other beside her.

Someone famous, Emma reasoned, and moved to put all speculation to bed. “Let us get Miss Harwood to her room,” she stated, snapping her fingers when the nurses were tardy in their response.

Not one to read gossip-type magazines and hardly ever on social media, Emma had no idea who the woman now in their care was and did not care either. Rich, poor, famous or not, here it was about the final days, not about personalities and celebrities.

The woman’s large green eyes swung to Emma, to study her in some amusement, but her expression was otherwise neutral. She allowed the nurses to wheel her away without saying a word. As she disappeared, Hannah approached, her mouth already open to spill the gossip.

“Not now,” Emma frowned. “I need to have a word with her doctor.”

Hannah’s lips glued shut briefly, but then she whispered, because she could not help herself, “That’s Miss Celeste, the Seer.”

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