This week is the Summer/Winter sale at Smashwords. There are thousands of books on sale, many of them free. This of course, includes most of my books. Visit www.smashwords.com.
I’ve just updated Blood Trade, my vampire novel. It’s a horror story set in an alternate Las Vegas, one falling apart from the combined influences of vampires and the mob. It features some of my favorite characters, from a goth model/detective to a dirty cop to a vampire going “vegetarian.” I would really appreciate it if you would give it a try, and so until January 4, 2021, you can get the ebook version from Smashwords for free. Just use the coupon code: CE26Q at checkout. Thanks for your support.
“Are you going to Detroit this week?”
“I have to,” said Gloria. “I wanted to go to Puerto Vallarta for Spring Break, but Mom says she misses me or something.”
“And you’re too young to go to Mexico for Spring Break.”
“She might have said something along that line too.”
“So, when are you going to Detroit?” asked Astrid.
“Tomorrow at 10:00 AM.”
“Do you mind if I catch a ride?”
“It’s a free country. I mean, I don’t mind.” Astrid could almost hear the strain of trying to be pleasant in her cousin’s voice.
“Great,” said Astrid. “See you then.”
“Plans?” asked Kate Maxxim.
“I’m shooting up to Detroit for a couple of days.”
Her mother raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything.
Astrid arrived just before ten at the Maxxim airfield, with Priyanka Sharma in tow, and stepped up into the cabin of the Starcraft 170 commuter plane. Gloria was already seated about mid-plane, and standing in the aisle was Maxxim Industries pilot Carl Williams. Agent Sharma took a seat by the door.
“You’re flying us, Carl?” asked Astrid.
“No, you are.”
“I don’t know,” said Astrid. “I haven’t flown anything bigger than my hoverbike since my brain surgery.”
“And you crashed that,” added Gloria.
“Time to get back onto the horse,” said Williams. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right there next to you the whole way. I’ll make sure everything’s fine.”
“Please do,” said Gloria. “If we crash with her, your name probably won’t even make the papers, and mine will be at least a half column down.”
Feeling her stomach growl, the girl inventor looked up to see that it was almost 1:00 PM. She decided that rather than visit the cafeteria there in the R&D building, she would go on home. Chef Pierce could fix her something light that wouldn’t spoil her dinner that evening with Toby.
The weather was warm for late March, though it was a bit windier than one might have wished, flying fifty feet above the ground. Zipping down low, just over the tops of the saguaro cactuses and zooming back up and over the high red rocks, made Astrid smile. When a few strands of hair slipped from beneath her helmet and down onto her forehead, she broke into a laugh. She finally had hair long enough to get in the way!
Suddenly the gentle humming, which was a constant companion to anyone flying a hoverbike, went silent. The flying scooter dropped toward the ground like a brick, and Astrid went with it. She tried to steer toward a spot of soft sand, but the vehicle was completely unresponsive. There was no time to do anything else. Pushing herself away from the no longer flying scooter, she landed in the soft desert sand, just as the hoverbike crashed on a slightly firmer patch of gravel.
It was a minute before Astrid could suck any air back into her lungs. Though her entire left side hurt, there were no pains that stood out from the others. Carefully checking her legs and arms, and then feeling over the rest of her, Astrid decided that she hadn’t broken anything, at least not too badly. She sat slowly up and looked at her hoverbike. It was sitting about ten feet away. Though its frame was intact, the hoverdisks on the bottom were smashed to pieces.
Astrid tapped her Maxxim Carpé watch computer with her finger. Then she looked down at the device. The screen was shattered and there was a dent. Retrieving her phone from her pocket, she pressed the speed dial to her father.
“Hi, Dad. I’ve had a bit of a hoverbike crash. I’m alright, but I’m stuck out in the desert.”
Getting to her feet, the girl inventor looked at the landmarks all around her. Ahead of her, she could see the low rise of hills between her and Maxxim City. To both the north and south were large sandstone hills. She was north of the Saguaro Cactus Park and miles northeast of Pearl Lake. If she walked downhill, she would run into one of the many dry riverbeds in the area. They all flowed toward Pearl Lake, and between it and her was the monorail line.
“I think I can walk to the monorail from here,” she said. “It may take me an hour or so.”
“Astrid, stay where you are. How’s you’re phone battery?”
“It’s fine… um, seventy-four percent.”
“Good,” he said. “As long as it’s on, we can track you by GPS. Wait where you are.”
Astrid flew her hoverbike to the Maxxim Industries infirmary the next morning just before noon. The small but ultramodern medical facility serviced the emergency needs of the airfield, the spaceport, and the rest of the 180,000-acre campus. Dr. Crawford was waiting for her. She was just as Astrid remembered her, thin with straight red hair. She guided Astrid through an x-ray and CAT scan before meeting with her in an office borrowed from the infirmary’s regular doctor, Dr. Martinez.
“So what’s going on?” asked the neurosurgeon.
“I think that is for you to tell me,” replied Astrid.
“I don’t see anything medically to be concerned about. How is your memory?”
“Pretty good, I guess,” said Astrid. “I have found a few things that I couldn’t remember.”
“That’s to be expected. Your mother says you’ve been a bit cranky.”
“Only when people are annoying me, or you know… being dumb.”
Dr. Crawford smiled.
“Next to you, I’m dumb, and I was at the top of my class at Johns Hopkins. I suspect your irritability has less to do with your injury and more to do with the everyday stress you put on yourself. I only know what I read in the papers, but you might be pushing yourself too hard. You have a lot going on between high school and running one of the largest corporations in the world.”
“I don’t really run it,” said Astrid.
“Plus, you’re a teenager and teenagers are notoriously moody. I imagine your mom has not had much experience with teenage rebellion. You don’t strike me as a particularly rebellious young lady.”
“That’s not true,” said Astrid. “Two months ago, I went into space without asking anybody. I got grounded too.”
It was only a few minutes by hoverbike to Austin’s home. He lived with his grandmother on the southeast side of Maxxim City, just two blocks away from Joyland, the local amusement park, now closed for the winter. The Tretower home was a stone block colonial that, like a number of houses in town, had been brought from back east. A good portion of the front was covered in ivy that stayed green even through the winter, thanks to its new surroundings.
“Good morning, girls,” said Mrs. Tretower. “I wasn’t expecting company.”
Austin’s grandmother had her silver hair cut almost as short as Astrid’s. She was trim and athletic and was the youngest-looking grandmother that any of them knew. She was wearing a red tracksuit.
“We were invited,” said Valerie.
“Oh, I have no doubt you were. I’m sure Austin just forgot to tell me about it. That boy would lose his head if it wasn’t screwed on…” She stopped and looked at Robot Valerie, no doubt wondering if comments about parts being screwed on were appropriate when talking to a robot. “He’s in the back room with his video games. Go right on in. I’m off on my run.”
The girls went in the front door and then Mrs. Tretower went out, leaving them at the entrance to a cozy living room. They could hear loud explosions and gunfire coming from beyond. Following the sounds, they found Austin in the family room, sitting in a recliner and attempting to defeat a string of zombies in Cannibal Apocalypse.
“No!” he shouted as digital blood splattered across the screen, indicating that he had lost.
“You know,” said Astrid, “eventually the zombies always win. There’s really no point in even playing.”
“I could say the same thing about Ms. Pacman,” said the boy, looking over his shoulder. “Eventually the ghosts get you.”
“Yes, but Inky, Blinky, Pinky, and Sue are a lot less horrifying that your game’s monsters.”
“If you say so,” said Austin, flipping the game control first to the main menu, and then selecting Ms. Pacman. “Grab a controller off the coffee table and have a seat.”
They played Ms. Pacman, followed by Tetris, Mappy, and Burger Time. Ms. Pacman was Astrid’s favorite game, and she set a new high score on Austin’s system, though it wasn’t her highest of all time. Robot Valerie excelled at Tetris. By the time they worked their way to the other two games though, they weren’t really paying attention to who won. They simply enjoyed playing, and laughed as the cat and mice chased each other around the screen in the former game and the chef raced to build burgers in the latter.
“I wish you guys would play some of my new games with me,” said Austin. “I just got Psycho Bloodbath and Deathknight: The Gruesome. I bet you’d really enjoy Ninja Deathwish Armageddon. The main character’s a girl.”
“Hmph,” said Regular Valerie. “I’ll bet she goes around slaughtering people, half naked.”
“No,” he said. “She’s half naked, but the people she kills mostly have their clothes on.”
Grabbing her jacket, she was out the door and halfway down the block, before she slowed and put it on. It was chilly, and the unusually moist air made her breath form little clouds. Pulling her hood over her head and yanking the strings down, she tightened it around her face.
Why had she yelled at her mother? She only wanted to make sure that Astrid was healthy. Maybe there was something wrong with her brain. Maybe she had some kind of brain damage. What if her IQ really had dropped to 184? What a nightmare!
Suddenly Astrid heard a sound behind her. She glanced quickly over her shoulder, but didn’t see anything. She began walking a little quicker. She heard another sound behind her. Somebody was following her. Even as she wondered who it could be, she wondered whether she had noticed the noises because the humidity in the air. She knew that dry air absorbed acoustical energy more than moist air, since air was more dense than water vapor. She was sure she heard a footfall.
Speeding up her stride, Astrid passed the large evergreen shrub on the corner of the Trent family yard. Then she dived behind their hedge and ran around behind the corner of their old-fashioned front porch, peeking out at the sidewalk. Seconds later, a tall figure in a black trench coat walked by, looking left and right, no doubt trying to figure out where the girl had gone. The growing darkness left him little more than a silhouette even near the glowing streetlights.
There was something very familiar about the straight back and the tightly-wound energy of his stride. Astrid smiled. Retracing her steps beside the hedge, she jumped up behind the dark figure.
“Are you on Astrid-watch again?” she asked.
“Well, it seems that someone has to be,” said a cultured English accent.
The figure turned, revealing the handsome features of Mr. Charles Edward Toulson, Interpol agent. Mr. Toulson had watched over Astrid in the past, most recently the previous May, when he had foiled a group of terrorists attempting to kidnap the girl inventor.
“Do you want to walk me home and tell me why you’re here, or would you rather stand out here in the cold?” she asked.
“I think it’s quite nice out, actually,” he said, looking around. Then he touched his earpiece. “Alice is returning to Wonderland. We’ll meet there.”
Astrid’s face turned dark.
“Don’t like your codename?” asked Mr. Toulson.
“Alice was mentally deranged, you know,” she replied in a low voice.
They walked the carefully cultivated sidewalks that led gently down the slope of the hill. The trees were still empty of leaves, but the grass remained green thanks to irrigation. A slight breeze whipped around their feet, but they were warm enough in their school blazers. At the corner of Acacia and Fourth, Christopher waited for them.
“Where’s Denise?” wondered Astrid, pointing to her best friend’s house. Denise usually waited with Christopher.
He shrugged. “She decided it was too cold and had her brother drive her.”
“That girl is too skinny,” opined Toby. “She doesn’t have enough body fat on her to keep warm.”
“I was going to say she was too cold-blooded,” said Christopher, “but I agree with you.”
“On or off?” asked Astrid.
“You and Denise.” Christopher and Denise were famous for their on-again off-again dating relationship.
“Um, on, I think,” Christopher replied. “I asked her to the Spring Fling, and she said yes.”
“Oh my gosh, I completely forgot about the Spring Fling.” Astrid looked at Toby, but he didn’t say anything.
The three friends walked down the short, sloping block to Fifth Street to the Diaz home. Robot Valerie stepped out the door as soon as they arrived. Except for her silver-blue metallic skin and her electric blue hair, she looked just like any other high school student, with a uniform blazer and skirt just like Astrid’s. The girl inventor of course now remembered that her friend was a product of her own RG-7 project, which had set a new technological standard for robotics and cybernetics.
“Valerie will be out in a minute,” said Robot Valerie. “She’s still working on her hair.”
The others nodded knowingly. After nearly ten minutes, the human Valerie Diaz emerged and hurried to join her friends.
“You look nice,” said Astrid.
“Thanks. I think Bud might ask me to the dance, so I couldn’t go out with my hair sticking any which way.” She put her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry Astrid.”
The girl inventor’s face fell.
“I knew I looked hideous,” she sighed.
“That’s not what Valerie meant,” said Robot Valerie, casting an angry eye at her human twin.
“Of course not. I just meant… oh, I don’t know what I meant. You’re very cute Astrid, no matter what your hair looks like, and in a short time it will all grow back anyway.”
“This is one of those situations when everybody should just stop talking,” said Christopher. “Let’s get to the monorail station.”
Everyone else agreed. It took them only ten minutes to walk from Valerie’s house to the monorail station on Main Street. The top of the raised platform was where they usually met Austin, but he wasn’t present that morning. They did however run into Bud Collins and his younger sister Dot. Astrid now recognized Bud as the tall, thin boy with black hair that had visited her in the hospital.
“Hey Bud,” called Toby.
“Hey guys,” said Bud, but his eyes were focused clearly on Regular Valerie, who batted her lashes at him.
“Hello, Astrid,” said Dot. “I’m glad you’re okay. Your hair looks cute.”
“Thanks,” replied Astrid, elbowing Valerie. “That makes me feel welcome.”