First Chapter: The Cycle of the Shen

TCOTS cover 200x300Book Ten in The River series, The Cycle of the Shen, won’t be available until September 5, 2015 (although it’s available for pre-order at Amazon now).


If you’d like to get a jump on the next installment of Steven and Roy, here’s the first chapter, free!



Chapter One


Steven felt the earthquake; everything rocking back and forth. Something fell, hitting his shoulder, pinning him down.

He began to wake up, prying his eyes open. His father, Roy, was standing over him. Roy looked worried, and he had his arm out, shaking Steven.

“Wake up!” he whispered. “Wake up!”

“Stop that,” Steven mumbled. “You’re hurting my shoulder!”

“You need to get up! There’s someone in the house!”

Steven sat upright and quickly wiped the sleep from his eyes. Roy stepped back from the bed and waited for him, a mug of steaming coffee in his hands.

“What?” Steven asked groggily. “In the house? They snuck in?”

“I don’t know how he got in,” Roy replied. “But he’s downstairs. We don’t have the place to ourselves anymore.”

Steven pushed back the covers and stood. “Him? Just one? Where is he?”

“He’s standing in the objects room,” Roy said. “I heard a crash and saw him when I passed with my coffee. I don’t know what he’s doing.”

“Did he see you?”

“I don’t know. I came right up here to wake you.”

Normally he’d spend his morning wandering downstairs in a robe, enjoying a slow, leisurely breakfast with his father, followed by some reading on the back porch, where the light breeze of Eximere air would gently rouse him. Now, he struggled to find clothes, slipping them on as quickly as he could. His body groaned in protest at the unaccustomed acceleration, his muscles not ready for the exertion or the adrenaline.

“Is he big? Threatening?” Steven asked.

“You mean threatening other than that he’s invaded our place?” Roy asked, irritated at the question. “I don’t know. I didn’t look for long. Once I realized he was there, I left quickly. Came up here.”

“We need some protection,” Steven said.

Roy reached behind himself and pulled out a revolver that he had stuck in his belt.

“So my bedroom wasn’t your first stop, I see,” Steven replied. “That’ll work as long as this guy doesn’t have powers like Michael.”

“It’ll shoot him dead if he’s a common trespasser,” Roy answered.

“Don’t pull the trigger unless absolutely necessary, alright?” Steven replied, grateful that Roy had the weapon, but slightly worried about Roy’s delight in using it. “If he found his way down here, he’ll be anything but common.”

“All the more reason,” Roy replied.

“Should we go down and confront him?” Steven asked.

“Either that,” Roy answered, “or we slink around the house all day. I vote confrontation.”

Steven walked out the door and into the upper hallway, making his way to the stairs landing. When he stopped suddenly and felt the barrel of Roy’s gun graze his back, he decided to switch places with his father and have Roy go first.

At the bottom of the stairs they turned into the east hallway. The room full of objects was just ahead on the right. Inside, hundreds of items that James Unser had stolen from the gifteds he’d murdered were on display, collected in glass cases. Steven tried to angle himself behind Roy so that he could see as much of the room’s interior as possible through the door.

Roy was right. A man was standing by one of the cases, looking into it.

“Hold it right there!” Roy said, walking into the room, the gun prominently leading the way. “Hands up!”

The man turned to look at them. He stood just over six feet tall, wearing a suit that looked fashionably outdated; it reminded Steven of a look he’d seen from the earlier twentieth century. His face was hollow, the skin having collapsed almost to the bone. He stared back at them; he didn’t raise his hands in obedience to Roy’s command.

“Who are you?” Roy asked.

“Where am I?” the man asked. He didn’t sound confused, he sounded angry. Steven noticed he had a small silver spoon in his right hand.

“You answer our question first,” Roy replied seriously, the gun aimed steady at the intruder.

“This is not the Victor building, is it?” the man asked. “I should be at the Victor building. Tell me where I am.”

“You’re at our house,” Steven said. “Its location is private. And you’re trespassing.”

“You moved it,” the man said, looking down into the glass cases. He began walking, looking at the objects inside. “Why did you move it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Steven replied.

The man held up the small silver spoon to Steven, not raising his head from his examination of the cases. “You moved this. Did you move the others, too? I presume they’ll be here, somewhere.”

“We didn’t move anything,” Steven replied. “All of these things were already here. They were collected by someone else.”


“We’re interrogating you, buddy,” Roy said, “not the other way around. Who are you, and what are you doing here?”

“My name is Conrad,” he said, still walking past the cases, looking at each object inside carefully. “I’m looking for the parts of the catarigour.”

“The what?” Roy asked.

The man looked up. “The catarigour. You obviously don’t know what that is.”

“No, I don’t,” Roy replied. He cocked his head to Steven without taking his eyes off the man. “Do you know what he’s talking about?” he whispered.

“No,” Steven answered.

“I have a short period of time to construct it,” the man continued. “Normally, the parts are in the chest with me and the others. Today I find myself standing in a shower of glass, and none of the parts in sight. So you tell me, where are my parts?”

“You need to understand something,” Steven said. “We live in this house. It’s filled with stuff from a collection we didn’t assemble. This morning we wake up to find you wandering around. That’s all we know.”

“You have no idea where all of this stuff came from?” Conrad replied, motioning around the room with his arms. “You expect me to believe that?”

“It’s the truth,” Roy said, still aiming his pistol squarely at the man.

“Ah, Solomon!” Conrad said, sliding the glass doors open on the case in front of him and removing a small object. It was white and shaped like a cone with some printing on its side. It looked like a small souvenir salt shaker. Conrad lifted it to his face, examined it, and then placed it on top of the case. He set the spoon he’d been carrying next to it. “So the rest are here.”

“The rest of what?” Steven asked.

“The rest of the things in the chest,” Conrad replied. “How did they wind up here?”

“That’s not anything we intend to share with you,” Roy said.

“Listen, old man,” Conrad replied, “and listen to me very carefully. You need to help me find the other items. Quickly.”

“How about I take that spoon and shove it up your ass?” Roy replied.

Steven took a step toward Conrad. “If you want our help, you’re going to have to fill us in on why you’re here and what you’re doing.”

“I’m here because I’m forced to,” Conrad replied. “It’s what I signed up for. What I am doing, as I’ve already said, is looking for the parts of the catarigour.” He picked up the two objects and slipped them into his jacket pocket.

“Put those down!” Roy said.

Conrad looked up again. “Please, shoot me. If it would work, I’d be in your debt.” He turned his eyes back to the cases. “The families of several people who are about to die, however, will probably hate you for it.”

“Lower the gun, Dad,” Steven said.

Roy didn’t lower it.

“Look, Conrad,” Steven said. “If you’ll tell me what’s going on, exactly what you’re looking for, perhaps we can sort this out. I’ve spent some time with this collection, and I might be able to help you locate your items faster. Then you can be on your way.”

“I’m not letting this shyster leave with our stuff!” Roy said.

“I have been nothing but truthful with you,” Conrad replied. “You, on the other hand, have been less than forthright with me. The objects of the catarigour are not yours. That they are in your possession now does not mean they rightfully belong to you.”

“He has a point, Dad,” Steven whispered.

“Forthright my ass!” Roy said. “You haven’t told us how you got in here, or what this cata-thing is, either. For all we know, you’re just here to raid us. Nuh-uh, buddy. Not gonna happen. Take them out of your pocket and put them back on the case.” He kept the gun aimed squarely at the man.

Conrad reached into his pocket. Roy straightened his arms, ready to pull the trigger. Conrad pulled the spoon out, holding it up.

“This is how I got here,” Conrad replied. He slipped it back into his pocket.

“The spoon?” Steven asked. “You got here by…the spoon?” He was completely confused.

“Yes,” Conrad answered. “And all you need to know about the catarigour is that it belongs to my contract holder. That’s a lot more information than you’ve shared with me.”

“Why don’t we go sit in the other room and talk this out?” Steven said. “Dad, lower the gun. Conrad, come on. Let’s discuss this like gentlemen.”

“I’ll not be leaving this room,” Conrad replied. “Not until I have the pieces.”

Steven dropped into the River. Conrad’s shape changed dramatically. He was over a foot taller and much darker. His facial features were obscured by a dark mist that clung closely to his skin. The fingers of his hands were longer, and covered with a spiny shell that reminded him of a crab’s leg.

He dropped from the flow. “Dad, you need to check him out in the River.”

“Here,” Roy said, passing Steven the gun. “Hold it on him.”

Steven took his father’s pistol. He aimed it in Conrad’s general direction, but not with the pin-point intent Roy had used. After Roy dropped into the River and returned, he took the gun back.

“So what are you?” Roy asked. “Not human, obviously.”

“I was,” Conrad replied. “This is how I looked when I lived.”

“You’re not a ghost,” Steven said.

“I am,” Conrad replied, giving a snort. “I am most definitely that.”

“Not any type of ghost I’ve ever seen,” Roy said.

“There might be more things in heaven and earth than you’ve ever seen,” Conrad replied. “The fact that you keep that revolver aimed at me makes me think you live in a very small world, old man. Either that or you’re stupid; the way you talk, I suspect the latter.”

Steven heard Roy mutter “motherfucker!” under his breath. He kept the gun up.

“You’re both wasting my time,” Conrad said, and faded from view.

Steven dropped into the River and saw the tall, thin creature still in the room, moving between the glass cases, continuing its search. Then he dropped from the flow.

“Come on, Dad,” Steven said. “Let’s go.”

“Motherfucker’s still here,” Roy said, fuming.

“I know he is,” Steven replied. “But you don’t really think that gun is going to do anything to him, do you?”

Roy slowly lowered the piece. “Guess not.”

Steven turned and walked out of the room, heading to the kitchen.

“Any coffee left?” he asked.

“A full pot,” Roy replied. “What, are we just going to leave that guy in there?”

“What else can we do? I tried talking to him.”

Roy sputtered as he followed Steven into the kitchen. “We’ve got to force him out, that’s what we can do!”

“How do you propose we do that?”

“We figure something out.”

“Good. What?” Steven reached for the coffee pot and poured himself a mug.

Roy tucked the gun back into his belt. “I don’t know. There’s got to be a way. You don’t seem to be taking this very seriously.”

“He’s here,” Steven replied. “He now knows about the place. There’s nothing we can do about that. He’s obviously not very happy about being here. If we can find out what he wants and help him get it, I think he’d rather just move along.”

Roy looked nonplussed.

“What, you want to kick his ass, right?” Steven asked.

“I sure as hell do,” Roy replied. “To Sunday and back.”

“How? You saw what he looked like in the River. We don’t even know what he is, let alone how to deal with him. At least he takes on a human form and communicates. We can work that to our advantage.”

Roy was still nonplussed.

“He’s intent upon finding objects he thinks are his,” Steven said. “I say we let him find them. What do we care? Unser stole all this stuff. They might very well be his, in which case he’s entitled to them, just as those books in the library belong to their rightful owners, not us. Maybe after he finds what he’s after, he’ll leave.”

“And what if he doesn’t find what he’s after?” Roy asked. “What if the objects he wants are downstairs? Are we going to let him roam the house?”

“How will we stop him if he wants to?”

Roy sputtered again. “I don’t like this.”

“I don’t either, but I don’t know what else we can do about it. You can tell he knows your bullets won’t do anything to him. Have you ever seen anything like that? Those hands?”

“No. Never have. Doesn’t ring any bells from books I’ve read, either.”

“Kinda reminded me of a slender, but three-dimensional. And of course the hands. And the appearing as a human in the real world. I think I should try to talk to him more. He was obviously willing to communicate until he faded out. The more we know, the better.”

“Well, I have no interest in talking further to that putz,” Roy said. “Asshole can search the whole place if he wants. I hope he goes upstairs and gets sucked up into oblivion. Hey — maybe that’s where he came from!”

“Tell you what,” Steven said. “I’ll go back there and see if he’ll talk. You stay here and have a refill. You calling him names and pointing a gun at him probably won’t help me land more intel.”

Roy sat at the kitchen table, irritated. Steven placed a hand on his shoulder to reassure him, then he left, heading back to the object room.

“Conrad?” he called as he walked into the chamber filled with cases. “Conrad? I’d like to speak to you. I’d like to see if we can come to some type of arrangement.”

No one appeared.

Steven dropped into the River. The tall, thin figure loomed over a case in the back corner of the room, inspecting the contents. It didn’t look up.

Conrad? Steven repeated. Can we talk?

No reaction.

He moved toward the figure, a little unnerved by the dark, indistinct nature of it. When he got within a few feet, it turned to look at him, the fog around its face clearing for a quick moment. Its eyes turned red and it snarled, exposing a large mouth full of sharp teeth.

Steven stopped in his tracks and took a step back. The black mist swirled in and out of the creature’s open mouth, partially obscuring its lips and tongue.

Alright! Steven replied. I won’t come any closer. I just wanted to talk.

The creature remained silent, its eyes still bright red, staring him down with an animal warning to not approach.

As I said, I might be able to help you find what you’re looking for, Steven tried. If you can describe what the objects look like, I might know where they are.

The creature ignored him, returning its gaze to the glass case in front of it.

Steven dropped from the River. Conrad was still invisible. Guess that’s not going to work, he thought.

He walked back to the kitchen.

“Won’t talk,” Steven said, sitting down next to Roy. “When I walked up to him, he snarled at me.”


“Yeah. Wasn’t happy. The guy is pissed and has written us off, I think.”

“When you asked him how he got here,” Roy said, “he held up the spoon. Do you think he used it to transport here?”

“That would be my first guess.”

“And when he placed that salt shaker on the case, he said, ‘Solomon’.”

“Yeah, no idea about that, either.”

“Was that spoon here, before?”

“You mean, as an object in the cases? I honestly don’t recall.”

“Hmm,” Roy replied, taking a sip of his coffee.

They spent an uneasy day speculating about Conrad. Occasionally they’d check on him; he remained in the object room the entire time. When they retired for the evening, Roy pointed out to Steven that Conrad had amassed a collection of five or six objects that he’d segregated on a side table. They included the spoon and the salt shaker.

“Maybe one of us should stay up,” Roy said. “Keep watch.”

“He doesn’t seem interested in us in the least,” Steven replied. “All day long he’s stayed in that room. This is going to be like the Aka Manah thing. The objects are the issue, not us.”

“But Aka Manah didn’t know about Eximere,” Roy replied.

“He knew I had the objects somewhere he couldn’t penetrate,” Steven said. “Conrad here has already entered the place. The cat is out of the bag.”

Roy stared at him. Steven could tell he wasn’t going to budge. “You want the first watch?”

“I’ll set up a chair in the hallway,” Roy replied.


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