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Today’s Deadly Destinations takes us to Duivel, Missouri thanks to Lee Roland’s Isobel, a novice travel writer. Isobel is given a tour of the Barrows by Cassandra Archer, the heroine of VIPER MOON. VIPER MOON (already available from Signet), is the first in a new series called Earth Witches. Thanks to Lee and Penguin/Signet, five of you who comment on this post will win a copy of the book! See details below.
Unusual Destinations and Extraordinary People
My mother always gave me practical advice, so when she suggested that I go to Duivel as part of my assignment for my first job, I expected to be bored. Who went to Duivel? The only thing unusual about the mid-sized city in eastern Missouri was that no one seemed to know it existed. When I pointed it out on the map, the person I’d spoken to shrugged and walked away. My Mother insisted that I specifically go to a place called the Barrows, but she also insisted that I talk to her good friend Abigail first. Abigail politely directed me to a woman named Cassandra who could guide me. When Cassandra opened her apartment door, I politely explained what I needed.
“You’re kidding.” Cassandra’s eyes widened. Nice eyes, hazel-brown—and that hair, I always envied women with red hair. “A tour of the Barrows?” Her voice matched the incredulous look on her face. “Why would you want to do that?”
“I work for the State.” I stood straight and tried to look official. “Part of the new Tourist Development Program. Unusual Destinations in Missouri.”
She threw her head back and laughed. I wanted to be insulted, but her humor seemed genuine and not really directed at me.
“What’s your name,” she asked. “And how did you find me?”
“My name is Isobel.” I explained about my mother and Abigail. “I’ll pay you,” I offered. “Fifty dollars.”
“Abby sent you here.” Then she grinned. “Fifty Dollars? Sounds good to me. And call me Cass. Come on in and let me get my boots and gun.”
I followed her into the apartment. It was a modest place, clean and filled with obviously used and mismatched furniture. As I scanned the single living room and kitchen, my gaze locked on a light fixture hanging over a small dining table. It took a second to register. I stepped back. “Oh! There’s a snake on…”
The long, brown and black reptile turned its head toward the sound of my voice. It stared straight at me, its forked tongue flicked in and out like a tiny whip.
Cass, boots in hand, sat in a chair directly under the snake. She glanced up. “That’s Nefertiti. Never have figured how she gets up there. Don’t worry. She won’t bite.”
I scooted back more until I stood in the still open doorway, ready to bolt if Nefertiti moved in my direction. Cassandra laced up her boots, then strapped on a large pistol in a shoulder holster and belted a knife at her waist. She covered them with a jacket.
“Is this going to be dangerous?” While I really needed the job, I didn’t get paid enough to do some things. The snake alone was pushing my desire for this particular paycheck way down.
“Maybe. Come on, Isobel, where’s your sense of adventure?”
I swallowed hard. “I left it at home.”
“I’m a Private Investigator, Isobel. I find lost and stolen kids. Lost is okay, but when they’re stolen, the people taking them sometimes object to returning them.”
I followed her down to the most disreputable vehicle I’d seen outside a junkyard. Holes punched in the trunk and fenders had been patched with duct tape and a long crack splintered the back window glass. The engine did start—after she called it a few names I won’t repeat in my travel report.
The late afternoon had faded and only a faint touch of color filled the sky as she drove southwest.
“This is River Street.” Cass waved a hand at the road-side structures. “Looks pretty ordinary here. Watch how it changes.”
We passed a small shopping center, a few stores and several convenience stores with associated gas stations. The road forked ahead of us. Cass pointed to the right. “That way goes to the docks. Not much down there but warehouses. Now, we’re going into the true Barrows.”
She drove slowly past assorted bars, X-rated theatres, already shining and garish with abundant neon tubing. Shabby apartment buildings huddled together next to lairs of commercial sin. In spite of the early hour, a few prostitutes had already staked out their respective corners.
“How are you going to write about that,” Cass asked.
I shrugged. My first assignment was not going well. “Is it all so sordid?”
“No. It gets worse. Maybe you can say, ‘The Barrows will appeal to your desire for exotic personal stimulation.’” She chuckled, obviously amused at my discomfort. “I’ll park. We can walk and you can get a real feel for the place.” She wedged the car between two others in a space so small it defied imagination that she’d ever get the thing out.
Apprehension rose in me as I started down the sidewalk, but my guide strode on with contagious confidence. She was a powerful woman, and that power came from within, not necessarily from the gun and knife she carried. Derelict men in shabby, clothes loitered, but they lowered their eyes and stepped out of her way. So did a couple of more dangerous looking specimens.
She turned to me. “You’re not taking notes, Isobel.”
“Photographic memory.” A lie, but this night suddenly held the promise of most memorable sights, not to be diminished by taking the time to scribble on a piece of paper. I carried a small camera in my purse, but using it now didn’t seem to be a good idea.
As I followed her on down the street, a number of scantily dressed women spoke to her. Friendly, smiling, they called her Huntress, never Cass or Cassandra. She called each of them by name and returned their good natured greetings. Men, obviously their pimps, stood back and looked the other way. Cass nodded at them. “I’m teaching these guys that turning very young girls into merchandise is not good for their health. They need to be nice to their regular ladies, too”
I believed her.
We walked back to her car. “Time to go to the Den,” she said. “Lot of action down there.”
She maneuvered the car out of the narrow parking space only by tapping the cars in front and behind her twice.
River Street ended in a cul-de-sac, and on the left stood what looked like a warehouse surrounded by vehicles of all types and sizes. A single sign over the door pronounced it the Goblin Den.
After we parked, we went to that door where the substantial looking bouncers eyed her skeptically. One stepped in front of her. “No trouble tonight, woman. My back still hurts.”
She held up a hand. “No kids here, no trouble.”
The bouncer grunted, but stepped aside and let us pass.
“I have problems here sometimes,” Cass said as we entered. “Teens are drawn here, and I’ve had to teach management them not to let kids in.”
The Goblin Den, in spite of—or maybe because of—its name, seemed the perfect place for heavy metal addicts. Big barrel lights hung from the ceiling and illuminated the floor and stage. An eardrum busting band screamed into microphones, words never to be heard above their own instruments. Men and women gyrated on the crowded floor. Sweaty bodies, bad beer and other less definable odors oozed through the cloud of cigarette smoke, smoke laced with the more exotic aroma of marijuana. Almost everyone was on the floor—except for one couple on a table near the wall. Two bouncers headed for them. Apparently there are some rules at the Goblin Den. Alcohol and drugs are okay, but not public intimacy. The sound bounced off the ceiling creating an astounding echo as smoke thickened like heavy fog and swirled around us.
“I’d buy you a drink, but they’re five deep at the bar and someone might get knifed,” she shouted in my ear. “Has your photographic memory seen enough?”
I nodded. I couldn’t speak.
When we walked out I gasped the fresher air, trying to clear my lungs.
Cassandra laughed. “You’re holding up pretty good, Isobel. I want an autographed copy of your travelogue.” She didn’t start the car right away. “There’s a part of the Barrows I won’t show you. You’d see it, but you wouldn’t remember. There’s a spell on it.”
“Spell? Like magic?” A bit of unease stirred in me. I preferred facts to fantasy.
“Yeah, it’s a spell that hides certain things. It hides human evil, the gangs. It also hides the monsters that live in the ruins and under the streets.”
“I haven’t seen any ruins—or monsters.”
“The ruins are hidden behind the façade of River Street. The monsters, too.”
“And a magic spell covers them. Conceals them.” She made me uncomfortable then, because I knew a travel reporter needed to be impassive, impartial, and exact.
“Yes.” She sighed. “That’s mostly what the gun is for. I can usually get a kid out without much violence.
“No, you don’t. But there is some magic I can show you, an enchantment you can take home with you.”
“Then lead on. But if we happen across a monster, could I take a picture?”
“Sure.” She started the engine. “I’ll stay in the car with the engine running while you do.”
She drove back up River Street and it was the same, except for more people, more flashing lights and more cars. Prostitutes, drug deals, I saw it all. Just as we left the really tawdry businesses behind, she turned left into a parking lot. “This is the Archangel,” Cass said.
“It’s a nightclub? A bar?” The Sunday school girl in me felt slightly offended, thought I don’t know why. The Goblin Den was appropriately named as a bar. The Archangel was not.
“Oh, it’s worse than a bar,” Cass said. “It’s a health food restaurant and exercise studio.”
A neon sign on the building’s façade spelled out the name, along with a flashing representation of an angel, wings flapping like a great awkward bird. Mercedes, BMWs, Jags and other high-end cars filled the parking lot, watched over by armed security guards.
Cass whipped her piece of junk car around the lot at street speed. I hyperventilated as she slid into a space inches in front of a BMW. She jumped out and there was a lot of shouting around me as my heart rate slowed.
Finally, Cass stuck her head in the window. “Hey. Isobel. You okay?”
I nodded. I didn’t think I could speak just then. I had to climb over and get out on the driver’s side because she was so close to the next car. Unlike at the Goblin Den, the security guards opened the door for us, nodding politely at Cass.
What looked like a warehouse on the outside was a modern, upscale exercise studio on the inside. In spite of the relatively late hour, all machines were occupied and there were few empty seats health food and drink bar that stretched across the back wall.
“This is nice,” I said.
“It is, but this isn’t the main attraction. Look what’s coming across the room. That’s the real magic.”
My mind went blank.
Cass laughed soft and low. “They call him the Archangel. His name is Michael. He’s…unique.”
Unique? This man walking toward us made every other man in the room look like a barbarian, sweating, grunting, desperately seeking his perfection and never able to attain it.
A tall man, built like a classical Greek statue, Michael wore a silk shirt that clung to his golden-skinned body. His hair, white as cotton with a sheen of summer gold, was drawn back and clipped at the crown. It flowed over his shoulders, but wisps drifted free and framed his exquisite face. He should have looked feminine, but he positively reeked of masculine power and grace.
Wanting a man like that would be pure torture, a harrowing exercise in futility. He existed as an ideal of perfection, found only in novels and magazines. Those brilliant, perfectly blue eyes didn’t see me, though, or anyone else in the room. Quite obviously, at that moment, no one existed for him but Cass. Her body language, her tone of voice, all remained indifferent to him—and his so called magic.
He glanced at me when she introduced me. I managed to speak somewhat coherently, and answered questions about my visit to the Barrows. He and Cass spoke for a few minutes, but I don’t know what they said. I simply stared at him—like everyone else in the room. Eventually, Cass grabbed my arm and dragged me out. “Take deep breaths,” she said. “It will fade when he’s out of sight.”
“I hope not.” I meant that. I wanted to remember.
Cass drove me back to her apartment. I paid her, and she waved as I drove away. My mind churned with images of the evening. Why hadn’t I asked questions? Certainly, I had many of them swirling in my brain. Novice that I was, overwhelmed by the scenery, I’d followed her like a puppy.
The images finally coalesced and I was left with only two—the strange powerful woman who searched for lost children, but would also befriend and defend a prostitute, and the exquisite Archangel, the magic man.
Lee Roland writes dark, contemporary fantasies where strong, defiant women and men battle evil. Her characters are passionate in love, savage in hatred, and defy conventional mores as they pursue justice. She lives in Florida with her husband and is hard at work on her upcoming series.
Want to read more from Lee Roland?
This giveaway is provided by Lee and Penguin/Signet
Five winners will each receive a copy of Viper Moon by Lee Roland
Available on July 5, 2011 from Penguin/Signet
About the Book:
Cassandra Archer is the Huntress. She has faithfully served the Earth Mother for years, rescuing kidnapped children from monsters-both human and supernatural-dwelling in the ruins of the Barrows District. But when two children are kidnapped under similar circumstances, all clues point to a cataclysmic event on the next dark moon. Now Cass must race against the clock and prevent a sacrifice that could destroy the entire town…
Click HERE to read an excerpt
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