Friday, December 29, 2017

CrossTown by Loren Cooper

Loren W Cooper

Genre: Fantasy/SF

Publisher: Red Hen Books

Date of Publication: Nov 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-1939096029

Number of pages: 340
Word Count: 95000

Cover Artist: Red Hen Staff Artist

Tagline: CrossTown is the crossroads of possibility.

Book Description:

Zethus is a sorcerer―a self-described spiritual thug for hire. He makes his living in CrossTown, a place where the manyworld hypothesis of modern physics manifests itself, where possibilities and probabilities overlap.

Caught up in a web of intrigue as he investigates the death of his master, Corvinus, and pursued by agents that want to erase all knowledge of Corvinus’ work, Zethus discovers that the key to his master’s murder lies in the last project he had pursued before his death. The roots of this project lie deep in the past, at the origin of CrossTown’s fractured reality.

Once he understands the stakes, Zethus must make the dangerous journey to the cradle of history. The price he must pay to find the answers he seeks will threaten everything he holds dear―including his own humanity.

“Beware the road outside your front door, for it is all at once old friend and passing stranger.” –CrossTown

“A sorcerer explores the frontier of theoretical physics.” Publisher’s Weekly

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      Dark, lush trees heavy with black fruit covered the grounds of Eliza Drake's holding.  The sun never shone there.  Only certain lichens grew under the trees, taking sustenance from the minerals of the rocks and moisture from the dew.  The trees nourished themselves on blood, or so I had been given to understand.  I walked cautiously through the trees, down a well-worn path lit dimly by a pale glow rising from the lichens.
      That landscape hadn’t occurred naturally.  Eliza could shape the Ways.  Old in the powers of the vampire kind, she could also touch the life and growth in living things and twist that life into new forms.  She had the same touch for death, or so I had heard.  I believed what I had heard, considering the size and nature of her estates and her retinue.  On the other hand, in all the time we had spent together I had never seen any sign of her overt power, though I had a feel for her considerable ability to mold the Ways.
      The path divided, one branch continuing on into the forest, the other leading to an enormous manor house, every window ablaze with light.  Music filtered out and into the night--the sounds of fiddles and pipes predominating.  Inside, I felt certain, someone would be attempting a jig.
       I had decided to be circumspect with Eliza.  Cautious but truthful.  It seemed the safest course I could live with.
      I walked up to the brick portico and gave the chain a good hard pull.  I didn’t know if Eliza would be at this particular manor or not (she had a few) but I figured someone here would let her know of my presence one way or another.  The door opened after a brief pause, letting a rush of light and music come roaring out into the night. 
      A woman stood in the doorway, dressed in crimson--even the ribbons in her hair were bright red.  The red went well with her pale skin, green eyes, and dark hair.  She looked me over disdainfully.
      “Your fangs are showing, Teila,” I told her mildly, letting Shaper’s facade slip away. 
      She laughed.  “Zethus!  It’s been a while since you’ve graced us with your presence.  It looks like it’s been a rough day.”  She smiled and beckoned me into the house.
      I wiped my feet and stepped across the threshold carefully.  “Is Eliza here?”
      Teila nodded and closed the door behind me.  “She’s upstairs.  She’ll be happy to hear that you’ve accepted her invitation.”
      I had expected that the unread missive from Eliza had contained a more recent invitation, in addition to the standing invitation she had extended to me.  She was a socialite, like most of the vampire kind, constantly sending numerous invitations of one sort or another.  Some were less dangerous to accept than others.
      I let Teila take my filthy, ragged coat and my battered hat.  She disappeared into another room.  When she returned, she paused to lay fingers on the rents visible in my clothing.  “You need a new suit.”
      “A seamstress would be cheaper.”
      She laughed, and linked arms with me.  “Let’s go inside.”
      I raised an eyebrow.  “Aren’t you planning to let Eliza know that I’m here?”
      “Already done, my dear.”  She gave me a wink.
      Teila, predictably enough, led me to the bar.  On an enormous expanse of gleaming floor a number of people, mostly human in appearance, danced to music from a band whose shapes had a tendency to ebb and flow with the harmony.  The gray horse on drums kept up a complicated roll of precision percussion, but the six-foot rabbit on fiddle stole the show, his long ears twitching in time to the rhythm.
      Teila leaned close.  “No one plays Irish like the Pooka.”
      I nodded and rested my forearms on the twenty foot long, massive length of smooth polished dark wood that surfaced the bar.  It had been a long day.  Events were beginning to catch up with me.  I forced myself to remember that Eliza Drake’s was not the place to be relaxing my guard, not matter how warm and comfortable the surroundings seemed. 
      I looked down the length of the bar, past the bartender, who gave me a friendly nod.  Couples nestled together at tables set strategically around the parlor, absorbed in the pleasure of the moment and the delight of the chase.  I wondered idly how many of the guests who wore a human guise still retained their humanity.  A lone human at a party in NightTown can quickly find himself classified as an hors d’oeuvre.
      A man wearing white ruffles under a black evening jacket sat down at my other side, and proceeded to study me in a rude manner.  I returned the favor.  Not one black hair strayed from its appointed place on his head; his features were dark, narrow, and vaguely Spanish; his clothing and jewelry were expensive and meant to look it.  When he spoke, his voice was cultured and what he thought sounded menacing.  “You’re a little out of your depth here, aren’t you?”
      I had never been fond of smoothies, con men, or ladies’ men.  Call it the thug in me.  The son of a bitch seemed to be trying for all three.  I don’t like to be threatened, and I hadn’t had the best of days.  “Who are you?” I snarled in return.  “Other than a major stockholder in Bryll Cream?”
      He flinched, then his lips curled back from his long, pointed teeth.  The Legion bristled as I sneered at him, but I relaxed as a delicate hand drifted down from behind me to pull back the sleeve of my ragged shirt.  “See those marks?  That’s a captive Swarm of Tindalans.  If you managed to get lucky and kill him before he ripped what little remains of your soul out and bound it into a pile of dog shit, where it belongs, the Tindalans would tear you apart, inside and out.”
      His eyebrows shot up as he looked past me.  “Is this to be your treat, tonight?  I hadn’t meant to poach.  Though I thought you had more refined tastes.”
      A dark woman in white eased into view, her full mouth smiling.  “I don’t recall inviting you, Emory.”
      He smirked.  “I go where I please.  I don’t have to beg for scraps from your table anymore.”
      “Then why are you here?” the dark woman asked, ice in her voice.  “There’s nothing here for you, Emory.  Find your own kind, if you can.  Hunt your own grounds.  Don’t leech off mine.”
      “Leech, is it?”  Emory’s nose wrinkled in a snarl, his lips drew back to show his extended fangs.  With his eyes smoldering like red coals, he suddenly didn’t look such a ladies’ man.  The bartender leaned across the bar, a pale light rising in his eyes.  Emory’s glance shifted between the dark lady, the bartender, and me.  Finding no sympathy or fear in any of our faces, he turned and left in a swirl of coat tails.
      A number of the people in the room stopped to applaud politely as the dark lady called after him, “That’s right, Emory--you go running back to momma.”
      She turned to look at me, her eyes sparkling.  “I’m glad to see you, Zethus, even if you are looking a little scruffy.  It’s been a while.”
      “Not so long, Eliza,” I responded gently.  “Last winter, subjective.”
      The shade of her eyes darkened.  “Here, it felt like an eternity,” she said.
      The bartender set a wicker basket on the counter. 
      “Ready for a picnic?” Eliza asked, cocking her head at me. 
      I laughed incredulously.  “You didn’t know I would show up.”
      Her smile faded.  “I’ve had a basket waiting, ready to go, every time I’ve invited you.”
      I picked the basket up with my left hand.  “Well then, we’d better not let this one go to waste.”
      The moon had the rich color of glacial ice.  Fat and full, it washed the glade with pale light.  I pulled velvet blankets out of the basket and spread them out over a bed of thick, soft lichen.  Eliza had chosen the spot, of course.  We settled there under the trees, watching the moon.  She drank wine while I ate a steak sandwich and a couple of firm, juicy apples, washed down with sweet red wine.
      As I finished, Eliza grinned at me.  “You were hungry.  You’re on the run again?”
      “It’s not an everyday thing,” I sputtered.
      “For some people it’s not.”  She ran a finger lightly down my cheek.  “For others...”
      I looked at the wine, as dark and rich and red as blood, and set the cup down.  “Corvinus is dead, you know.  I have the Fae after me and a bounty on my head.”
      “I heard about Corvinus,” Eliza said softly.  “The Whitesnakes involved there as well, do you think?”
      I yawned.  “I’m not sure yet.  I don’t know enough.”
      She put her arm around me, gently turned me, and pulled me back against her.  “Relax here for a while.  You’re safe with me.”
      Curiously enough, I was and I knew it.  I could trust Eliza.  She was a creature of her word.  My concern with Eliza wasn’t due to a lack of trust: I feared more the price I might pay for enjoying her company too much.
      I relaxed, easing down until I could pillow my head in her lap.  She rubbed the back of my neck with one hand and picked up my right arm with the other.  “And what is your answer tonight?” she asked me quietly. 
      I felt a thrill of fear and desire work its way up my spine as she softly kissed the veins of my wrist.  “My answer is the same, I’m afraid.  That immortality comes at too high a price.”
      I wanted life, yes.  I clung to life, and youth.  But I loved all that the worlds could offer, as well.  I had no desire to accept any bargain that limited me so severely.  I wouldn’t give up the sun for anyone, not even Eliza.  So she always asked, and my answer never changed.  Every choice has a price.  It’s good to understand that before signing any contracts.  I wished I had kept that in mind when I had dealt with Titania.
      Then there’s the diet.  I understand vampires don’t manage too well on blood that isn’t human.  Something about needing to nourish themselves on more than simply the blood, but the vitality, the experience, the heart, mind and soul.  I wasn’t particularly comfortable with the idea of anyone else paying the price for my extended life.  I didn’t bother myself with anyone else’s choices so long as their choices didn’t threaten me directly—Eliza had to live with herself, and made what compromises she felt necessary.  But I could control what choices I made, and the prices I paid.
      Besides, I loved the hot juicy texture of steak in my mouth, the crisp tart snap of a firm apple, the warm golden crunch of fried chicken and the cold smooth glide of ice cream.  The idea of a liquid diet for eternity didn’t appeal to me.
      In spite of all that, my breathing came with difficulty as she kissed my throat, the chill of her lips hovering over the pulse of the blood before she drew back and looked me in the eye.  “I would not be such a harsh mistress.”
      “That’s not what I fear,” I told her firmly.
      She smiled sadly.  “I know.”  Her mouth moved to mine, and time passed as we danced together, under the shade of the trees, in the light of the moon.  Later, I felt the day catching up with me, and I grinned up at her.  “No tricks, now.”
      Her eyes smoldered in the shadows.  “I’ll never take advantage of you, you know.  When you fall to me, it will be of your own free will.”
      Still grinning, thinking about temptation, I faded to sleep. 

Chapter XII

      Fear, rage and sudden isolation drove me from pleasant dreams to madness.  I reached into the darkness with all the strength I had in me, seeking to break bonds I could sense but not touch. 
      A slap shocked me awake, bringing the metallic taste of blood to my mouth.  I opened my eyes to see Eliza silhouetted above me, open hand drawn back to deliver another blow.  I rolled away from her and to my feet in one motion and looked out into the shadows and moonlight of Eliza’s glade.  I felt the ingathering power welling up from within me.  Trying to contact the Legion felt like fighting an eiderdown quilt, but I could feel the White Wolf reaching through from his side.  I stood in the tangle of blankets and gave some direction to the power surging up through me.
      That power called to the storm clouds roiling in the darkness above.  Lightning flashed down, blowing one of Eliza’s trees to splinters and nearly deafening me with the hot crackling fury of the strike.  More power rose up from the fortress of my spirit, so I molded it, the White Wolf’s paws over my hands like spiritual gloves, and hurled it from me. 
      A mighty wind rose around the mossy bed where Eliza stood next to me, whirling, rose to the clouds, then dropped back in a funnel to touch delicately to earth less than two hundred paces away from us.  The funnel uprooted trees and smashed them down against their fellows in a fearsome display of strength.  Then, as abruptly as it had all begun, the winds subsided and peace slowly descended on the forest.  A swath of destruction had been cut through the middle of Eliza’s glade.  Thick, dark red droplets seeped from split trunks and broken branches. 
      I felt Eliza’s hand run along my shoulder.  “Trying to impress me?”  Her expression and tone were light.
      I shuddered and turned away from the carnage.  I fought nausea.  “Digestion problems, I think.  It’s never been this bad.”
      She started rubbing the tension out of my neck.  “Tell me about it.”
      So we sat back under the trees, looking out over the wreckage of the lightning and the wind, and I told her about my recent encounters.  At the same time, I held a discussion with Blade and the White Wolf.
      “It’s from within.”  The White Wolf didn’t look happy.
      “But it’s not focused.”  Blade’s expression was, if anything, even less cheerful than the White Wolf’s.
      “What does that mean?”
      “I can’t isolate it,” Blade said grimly.  “There’s a single force behind it, something that would be as happy to see you dead as anything else, but the source of the doesn’t feel like one entity.  It feels spread out.”
      I thought about that.  “That would fit with the Gold’s technique: every member of the Legion absorbed a significant amount of unfocused energy when we took down the Gold’s legion.  What if it’s working through them?” 
      “It doesn’t feel like the Gold,” the White Wolf growled.  “And that’s not the only problem.”
      Blade answered first.  “I agree with the White Wolf.  It doesn’t feel like the Gold’s work.  There’s a consistent element of deception here, and considerable subtlety.  Do you remember the dream?”
      I fought back a shudder.  “Not clearly.”
      “The dream was twisted, and you were slowly cut off from your surroundings by mounting filth,” Blade said.  “Deception and decay were not tools the Gold commonly used.  The jigsaw man, Vincent’s ghost, was another story.  The attack was subtle.  The dream turned and bound you, and a barrier rose between you and your own Legion, and then something called up power from the Legion.”
      That startled me.  “From the Legion.”
      The White Wolf snarled assent.  “From myself among others.  It felt as if my own power had gained an independent will.”
      “You’re communing with your ghosts,” Eliza said.
      “We’ll finish this later,” I told the two of them, and gave her my full attention.  “My apologies.”
      “No need for apologies,” she answered.  “I can understand your concern and need to investigate.  What happened?”
      I shifted uncomfortably.  “Good question.  I consumed some considerable power lately--more at one time than I ever have before.  I think that may be causing me some problems.  I may have an internal insurrection brewing.”
      “Bad timing,” Eliza noted, her gaze sharp and attentive.  “You need to quell that insurrection before you’re too deep in the process of dealing with your hunters.  You have too many distractions now—this matter of the Whitesnakes, Fetch on your trail, and all the rest.  This time you were with me.  I felt your power rousing and woke you, which wasn’t as easy as it could have been.  Considering the damage to the trees, I’m glad that you had enough control to redirect what was called.  Next time you might not be so lucky.”
      “You have a point.”  She seemed a little stiff, a bit more rigid where her body brushed against mine.  I knew how she felt.  Neither of us had any particular inclination to reveal too much to anyone else, and what she had seen left us both a little uncomfortable.
      I spared a glance for the devastation.  Tiny, naked humanoids, their pale skin lambent in the moonlight, were emerging from the shadows to lap at the fluid seeping from the broken ends of branches with long, thin tongues.  I shuddered and looked away.
      “You should stay here until you have laid this matter to rest,” Eliza said.  “I can protect you from Fetch.  His strength is death and age--I can resist him.  I could teach you to resist him as well, if you would let me bring you over into the Night.  Together, we could face him down.  I would help you, if you would let me.  Is the price really so high?  It’s not such a bad existence.  And I would make the passage easy for you.”
      I smiled at her, thinking of what it must cost her to make that offer outright.  I traced a line down Eliza’s cheekbone from eye to mouth, and denied her gently.  “You never give up, do you?  This isn’t the way for me.  I want it all, you know.  Life, youth, enough power to be independent.  And I don’t want to pay too high a price.”
      “You don’t know what you’re risking,” Eliza argued.  “You don’t know what you’re up against.  I fear that if you chase this thing too far, you’ll find only death.  Think about Corvinus.  He was older than you, stronger, more subtle.  He staked it all and lost.  Why don’t you settle here until this blows over?  Or take sanctuary with CrossTerPol and or the Union and Emerantha Pale if you’re not comfortable here?”
      “The reason I live in CrossTown is because of all it has to offer,” I told her bluntly.  “If I can’t settle with Fetch and the Whitesnakes, I’ll have to give up everything I’ve worked for.  I’ll never be able to live freely in CrossTown, or walk the Ways without always looking behind me.  If I can’t live this life I’ve chosen, that’s just as good as dying.” 
      I thought about that.  Even if I did not have an obligation to my late master, I knew I had no choice any more.  I had to resolve this problem with Faerie, with the Whitesnakes, if I meant to go on living in CrossTown.  At the same time, I suspected that there must be some connection with Corvinus’ murder and my present troubles.
      “NightTown isn’t enough for you.”  She caught and held my gaze.  “Staying here with me isn’t enough.”

      I looked her in the eye for a long moment of silence.  “No,” I said at last. 

About the Author:

Loren W Cooper is the author of four novels, one short story collection and one nonfiction work. He has won the NESFA in 1998 and the EPPIE for Best Anthology in 2001. He is married with two daughters. He currently lives in Cedar Rapids Iowa. Favorite authors include Zelazny, Hammet, Steakley, and Catton. Loren Currently works for Hewlett-Packard.