Friday, November 16, 2012

EXCERPT: From Out in the Cold

Title: From Out in the Cold
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Loose Id, LLC
Format(s): ebook


I hated the walk home from my grief counselor’s office, especially this time of year. It was the second week of December, and the evening was cold the way only a winter evening in Chicago knew how to be. That windy, dirty chill that threw grit in your eyes just before it climbed under your skin and into your lungs. Nights like this, only an idiot would walk anywhere he didn’t have to.

Especially when that idiot didn’t have to walk the fifteen blocks from his counselor’s office to his apartment with the “L” rumbling down its tracks below his feet and sometimes above his head.

I walked, though, because I still couldn’t get on the train. I hadn’t been on it in just over a year—God, has it really been that long already?—and didn’t see that changing anytime soon. My counselor told me again tonight not to push myself. That I would get there in time. How much time was anyone’s guess.

And I couldn’t smoke on the bus, so I walked. I made it about two thirds of a block before, wind be damned, I took the wrinkled pack of Marlboros out of my jacket. I pulled off my glove and freed a cigarette from the pack, then fished my lighter out of another pocket.

As soon as the smoke was lit, I shoved the lighter back into my jacket and my hand back into my glove. It was a pain in the ass, maneuvering a cigarette to and from my mouth with my fingers tucked into thick ski gloves, but the night was too damned cold for bare hands. Bring on some emphysema with a side of lung cancer, but fuck frostbite.

In between inhaling and exhaling smoke, I paused to cough a couple of times, wincing at the ashy bitterness on my tongue. I was slowly getting used to the taste, faster now than I had the last few times I’d taken up smoking. Usually I quit before I got used to it. This year I’d started early, and though it still wasn’t my favorite flavor in the world, it wasn’t so bad now. At least it tasted better than cold car exhaust.

As I walked and smoked and tried not to freeze my ass off, I let my gaze slide up the tall buildings towering above me, because looking at long-memorized buildings was easier than thinking about my conversation with my grief counselor. I’d been here almost a decade and wondered if I’d ever feel at home in this place. Chicago wasn’t like cigarette smoke, something that would choke me at first but eventually went in and out of my lungs with ease. This city was crazy. Buildings so tall they could step on you. Streets so long they could strangle you. The whole damned thing spread out so far in so many directions I sometimes wondered if it would fold in on itself and swallow me whole. Days like this, I wondered if it already had.

So leave already, Neil.



And go where, exactly?

I flicked the spent cigarette into a pile of dirty snow and stuffed my gloved hands into my coat pockets. I buried my face in my parka’s high collar and walked a little faster.

The nicotine hadn’t helped. I was still as tightly wound as I’d been when I left Jody’s office. My mind was still scattered, my concentration all over the fucking place. I always felt so goddamned lost after an appointment with her. Sometimes I wondered why I kept going back, but being lost was better than…than whatever it was I’d felt before a coworker finally convinced me to make an appointment six months ago.

“It’ll take time, Neil,” Jody had assured me today and every week since June. “No one’s expecting you to have a handle on all of this overnight. Be patient.”

Said the woman who got to close her file folder at the end of our hour and be done with it while I went home and tried not to sleep so I wouldn’t dream.

I almost took out my cigarettes again, but I was only half a block away from home. If I started smoking now, I’d have to stand outside at the base of my apartment stairs while I finished it, and it was too cold for that shit. Maybe it was just as well I only smoked in the wintertime. Nothing kept me from staying out on my balcony and chain-smoking like a relentless, fume-flavored Chicago wind trying to freeze my balls off.

I crossed the last street and walked a little faster toward the stairs leading up to my apartment. A homeless guy shivered at the base of the stairs, huddled beside what looked like one of those green bags they issue in the military. Probably another vet who’d come back from a war—maybe Vietnam, maybe the Middle East; one seemed as likely as the other these days—and wound up on the streets.

I felt for him. I really did. I felt for all the people living on the streets, especially in this kind of weather.
These days I was also scared to death to engage anyone with whom I wasn’t already well acquainted, so I tucked my face a little deeper into my collar and started up the steps.


I stopped with one foot hovering over the next step. Habitual fear made me want to run like hell into the building, but curiosity slowly turned me around.

The homeless guy craned his neck, looking up at me from under the bill of a Dodgers baseball cap. He had a good two or three days’ worth of stubble on his face, and he was gaunt, pale, and exhausted, but as soon as the streetlights illuminated his eyes, my heart stopped.

“Jeremy?” I hurried down the stairs, completely forgetting about the ice and nearly winding up on my ass for my trouble. I regained my footing, and when I had my feet beneath me, found myself eye to eye with Jeremy Kelley, my childhood best friend.

“Thank God,” he said through badly chattering teeth. “I was hoping you still lived here.”

“Yeah, I do. And—”

“Look, I know this is out of the blue,” he said quickly. “I can explain, but please, don’t—”


He stopped, and his eyes were terrified as they locked on mine. I didn’t have to ask why. The last time we saw each other hadn’t ended all that well, and he probably wondered if I was going to leave him out here, though I hoped to God he knew me better than that.

I looked him up and down, wondering how the fuck he hadn’t died of hypothermia in military-issue boots, a pair of jeans, and a parka that wasn’t made for any winter north of the Mason-Dixon line. Whatever had sent him to my doorstep, he was desperate and in no shape to be out here another minute.

I gestured up the stairs. “Let’s get you inside before you freeze. Come on.”

He released a cloud of breath. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Jeremy reached for his bag. His hand was bare and bright red, and his fingers couldn’t quite grasp the frayed green straps.

“I’ll get it.” I pulled off my gloves and handed them to him. “Here, put these on.”

“Thanks.” He took the gloves and, with some effort and swearing, managed to get them on his hands.

I hoisted the heavy bag onto my shoulder. “Jesus, man, what do you have in here?”
The Jeremy I’d known most of my life would have had some sort of snarky retort or called me a pussy for groaning under the bag’s weight. This Jeremy just lowered his gaze and murmured, “Pretty much everything I have.”

I didn’t say anything. I gestured up the stairs, and we went inside. His gait was stiff and slow, probably from being so cold, but he didn’t seem hurt or sick. Still, I worried about him more and more with every floor the elevator creaked and groaned past on its way up to the fifth, and every step we took to my apartment door.

The bag’s strap bit into my shoulder through my parka, and I shifted my weight to balance it while I dug my house key out of my pocket. I found the key, put it in the door, mused silently to myself that this was what I got for not telling the landlord months ago that my deadbolt was sticking, and finally got the fucking thing to turn.

Inside I eased Jeremy’s bag onto my couch and turned to him as I unzipped my parka.

He hugged himself tighter, still shivering in spite of the heat in my apartment.

“How long have you been out there?” I asked.

“Awhile,” he said, obviously trying still his chattering teeth. He unzipped his jacket with badly shaking hands. “Listen, I hate to drop in on—”

“Dude, don’t worry about it.” I nodded down the hall. “If you want to grab a hot shower and warm up, I can put on some coffee.”

He met my eyes, and something in him deflated. No, relaxed. Like he’d been bracing for something and had finally dropped his guard. “Thanks. I really appreciate it.”

I held his gaze. “What did you think I would do? Just leave you out there?”

He opened his mouth to speak but hesitated. “I just, after the last time…”

“It’s in the past,” I whispered, and I was sure he saw right through to the part of me that still thought about him like I did the sweaty night before we parted ways. “It’s in the past, which is where we should leave it.”

Jeremy swallowed. “Right. Agreed.”

And at least for now, the subject dropped.

He draped his jacket over the back of a chair, and after I’d started the coffee, I helped him with his bag. I showed him to the bathroom at the end of the hall, and while he got in the shower and the coffeemaker did its thing, I slipped out onto the balcony with my cigarettes. This was my eighth cigarette today, which was a lot for me. A hell of a lot. Especially this early in December. The annual bad habit, the one I always started on Black Friday as I counted down the days until I went home for Christmas, had started early this year. No surprise there, according to my counselor. At this rate I’d probably be chain-smoking by Christmas Eve. I wondered if I’d be able to kick it the week after New Year’s like I always did, or if it might hang on until February or something.

Whatever. I cupped my hand around the end of the cigarette to block the wind and flicked the lighter. I’d deal with quitting after I dealt with all the reasons I’d started again. Just like I did every year. This year more than any before it.

I pocketed my lighter, and for a moment I concentrated on nothing but taking in and releasing a few deep breaths of smoke. Once the nicotine had started working its magic on the very edges of my frayed nerves, I leaned against the half-rusted railing and looked into my apartment.

Jeremy and I had lost touch a few years ago, around the time he was going back to Iraq. Well, no. We hadn’t lost touch in the sense that we drifted apart and meant to stay in contact but didn’t. The silence of the last few years had been by design. Or at least, the first few weeks of it had been. I didn’t know that either of us thought it would drag on quite this long. I wasn’t really sure why it had.

But five years later, out of nowhere, he was here. Why now? And why at the bottom of my steps at eight o’clock at night when it was freezing cold outside?

My gut twisted into knots. Jesus, what if I had stopped to get something to eat? Or I’d gone back to work to put in some overtime? Or gone out drinking like I did last week, despite having to work at seven in the morning? How long would he have waited for me?

And why was he waiting for me?

He’d been in the military just about eight years now, since a few months after graduation, and last I’d heard, his second enlistment was for four years. So there was a good chance he’d just gotten out. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in about two days, maybe three, which happened to be how long it took to get from where his family lived in Florida to Chicago via train or bus. There were hotels, motels, and hostels all over this city, not to mention shelters if he was desperate, but no, he’d apparently come straight here from whatever mode of transportation had brought him into this godforsaken town.

Whatever had driven him here while he was dressed for anywhere but here, it wasn’t just an impromptu visit with an old friend. Something wasn’t right.

I had a feeling he’d also had neither the time nor the money to eat along the way, so I smothered my cigarette and went back inside. I opened the pantry and realized just how long it had been since I’d gone grocery shopping. My mother would have shit kittens if she’d seen how little I’d been eating over the last year. Of course, the minute I tried to tell her why, she’d have shut down and said she didn’t want to hear about it.

But I was hungry now, and Jeremy was probably starving. There wasn’t a lot in here, though. Money wasn’t exactly bursting out of my wallet these days, so hopefully Jeremy wouldn’t mind something simple and cheap. I could order takeout, I supposed. Maybe cut into those funds I’d put aside for my upcoming annual holiday visit.

As I grabbed a box of macaroni and cheese off the shelf, double-checking the date to make sure it hadn’t been in there too long, I wondered if I should have used my sparse bank account as a “get out of spending Christmas at home” card.

Sorry, Mom and Dad. Can’t afford to come visit this year. Counselor’s co-pays are eating me alive, and cigarettes aren’t cheap. Maybe next year.

Yeah, right. Like I’d ever live that down.

I checked the fridge to make sure I had butter and milk. Shockingly, I did, and they weren’t expired either. A pre-Christmas fucking miracle.

I laughed softly at my own silent sarcasm as I put a pot of water on the stove.

About the time the water had boiled and I’d added the noodles, Jeremy came into the kitchen. He had on a clean pair of jeans and a slightly wrinkled US Army T-shirt, and some color had returned to his freshly shaved face. His almost black hair was longer now than the last time I’d seen him. Still short, but definitely not army severe anymore.

And I still didn’t know why he was here. If not for the heavy circles under his eyes or the deep furrows between his eyebrows, I might have fooled myself into thinking he was just here for a visit. Except we also had a history that had kept us apart for almost five years, so “just a visit” wouldn’t be on his agenda or mine unless there was some hatchet burying involved. Or at least trying to stumble through an awkward conversation that was half a decade overdue.

“Coffee?” I asked.

Something in his shoulders visibly relaxed, and he nodded. “Please.”

I pulled a couple of cups out of the cabinet. “I figured you were hungry too. I hope this is…” I gestured at the pot.

“It’s fine, believe me. I’ll eat anything that’s in front of me right about now.” In spite of the worry and exhaustion in his eyes, he smiled. “Thanks.”

As I poured our coffee, I said over my shoulder, “You still take it black?”

“Black as I can get it.”

I handed him one of the cups of coffee. I preferred mine polluted, as Jeremy had always called it, and poured some milk into my cup before returning the carton to the fridge. Neither of us spoke for a long moment, just sipping our coffee and waiting for our food.

After a while he said, “Man, I can’t thank you enough for this.”

“You didn’t think I’d leave you out there, did you?”

Jeremy sighed. “Not really, but I kind of didn’t think my parents would either, so…”

My heart dropped. I set my cup on the counter with a dull tap. “Your parents found out, didn’t they?”

He wrapped both hands around his own cup like he still hadn’t gotten warm yet. “Yeah. They did.”

“You told them?”

“Nope.” One syllable had never contained so much bitterness.

I raised my eyebrows. “So…what happened?”

Jeremy ran a hand through his short hair. “They didn’t show up when I came home. They were supposed to meet me at the airport, but they…” His eyes lost focus. More to himself, he said, “They weren’t there.”

“You were coming to visit them?”

He shook his head. “I was coming home. To stay.”

“So you’re out of the army? Permanently?”

“Yeah. Few months ago I was coming up on my reenlistment date, and I just couldn’t do it. I…” He shuddered, fidgeting against the counter like he thought that might keep me from noticing, and cleared his throat. “If I put in another four years, I’d be over halfway to retirement, so I wouldn’t be able to justify getting out then, and I am not giving the army twenty goddamned years.” He drained his coffee cup like he was throwing back a shot of something much stronger. “Dad and I, we talked a few months ago about me getting out and coming to work for him. Figured that would give me a good ten or fifteen years before he retired so I could really get the hang of the company before he turned it over to me.”

“Sounds like a pretty sweet deal,” I said.

“Oh, it was.” He rested his hands on the counter and let his head fall back. “Should’ve been, anyway.”

“What happened?”

“One of my exes, this guy I dated a couple of years ago, saw on Facebook that I was getting out of the army.” Jeremy swept the tip of his tongue across his lips. “So he e-mailed me and asked if he could see me again before I left town. You know, for a couple of beers. I thought he just wanted to say good-bye since I was leaving, but apparently he wanted to get back together. I said no. He got pissed.” Jeremy sighed. “So he waited until the day I was flying home, and he dug up every e-mail we’d ever exchanged, and forwarded them to my parents.”

I cringed. “I’m guessing those e-mails were…”

“Yeah. That kind of e-mail.”

“Oh shit.”

Jeremy rubbed the back of his neck as his cheeks darkened. “So not only did they find out I was gay, they found out about some of the…” He paused, shifting his gaze to the narrow strip of floor between us. “They found out a few more details about my personal life than I would have wanted them to find out if they weren’t insanely homophobic.”

I grimaced. “No kidding. I’m guessing you called them or something when they didn’t show up at the airport?”

“Yeah. They told me to get a cab and give the driver any address but theirs.” He stared into his coffee cup as he thumbed the handle. “I don’t know anyone else in Miami, and I had just enough money for a bus ticket, so I came here.” He met my eyes, and the desperation in his was unmistakable. “I’m sorry to drop in on you like this. I just need a place to crash for a little while. While I find a job and get on my feet.”

“You know you don’t even need to ask,” I said. “My apartment’s not that big, but you’re welcome to it for as long as you need.”

He searched my eyes, a hint of skepticism deepening the crevices between his eyebrows. I thought he might ask if I was sure, and maybe reopen the subject we’d never even started to resolve five years ago, but he just lowered his gaze and whispered, “Thanks.”

I finished making our food and scooped the steaming macaroni and cheese into a pair of bowls. We moved from the kitchen to the living room, since my table was half-buried under mail and various other crap. I tried not to let my place turn into a stereotypical bachelor pad, but since no one else ever ate here but me, the table had become more of a storage space than an eating surface.

I was starving, and I could only imagine how hungry Jeremy was, so it was no surprise that there wasn’t much in the way of conversation until we’d both gone back for seconds and returned to the couch.
Jeremy set his empty bowl on the coffee table. “So I haven’t talked to you in a long time.”

Damn it. Apparently we are going there tonight.

“It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” I cleared my throat. “I kept meaning to e-mail you or something, but…” But I don’t know where I stand with you. And even if I did, I’m lucky I can get my shoes on these days.

“Me too,” he said. “Life’s just been so…”

“Yeah.” My stomach twisted itself into a knot. “Life happens.”

“It does. How have you been?”

I looked into my bowl and absently chased a noodle around with my fork. “I’ve been…all right.”

Jeremy’s coffee cup clicked on the table. “Is that ‘all right’ like everything’s really fine, or ‘all right’ like you were after—”

“Don’t,” I said softly and met his eyes. “Please.”

Alarm pushed up his eyebrows. “Neil, is—”

“It’s really not something I want to discuss,” I said.

They rose a little higher. “That bad, huh?”

I set my jaw. “It’s not something I want to discuss.”

“Okay, sure. But if you need to, you know—”

“I know,” I said quietly. “Thanks. Just…not now.”

He didn’t push. Though I was sure he tried to hide it, he looked hurt, and I supposed I didn’t blame him. There’d never been anything Jeremy and I couldn’t talk about besides that last night we spent together. We’d carried each other’s deepest, darkest secrets for years—in some ways we were each other’s deepest, darkest secrets—and swore we’d take them to the grave if we had to.

But this time I just couldn’t go there.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

EXCERPT: The Left Hand of Calvus

Title: The Left Hand of Calvus (part of the Warriors of Rome collection)
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Riptide Publishing
Format(s): eBook, Paperback


So this is Pompeii. The prosperous city at the base of Vesuvius.
I’ve heard the tales about this place. Quiet. Warm. Near the sea. Until recently, with the rudis of freedom so close I could almost feel its wooden hilt in my hands, I had considered coming here to make my home once I was no longer a slave. That is until Fortune decided I should remain in bondage. I’d had perhaps three fights left, but now I, along with two other men from my familia gladiatori, are on our way to the Pompeiian politician who’s now our master.
In spite of the fact that I’d lost my chance at freedom, the rest of the men in the familia had been envious.
“A nobleman? In Pompeii?” One had slapped my arm. “You lucky bastard!”
“Agreed,” another had said. “You won’t be in the arena anymore, and if you’ve got to stay a slave, Saevius, you could do worse than to live out your days as some rich bastard’s bodyguard.”
A third had added, “Pompeii? I hear in that place, the wine they pour in noblemen’s houses tastes like the lips of Venus herself.”
The other men traveling with me had been thrilled by that notion. Me, I’m as enthusiastic about any woman’s lips, including Venus’s, as I am about spending the rest of my days a fucking slave, so I’d simply muttered, “I’ll be sure to give my regards to Bacchus.”
What servant drinks the same wine as his masters, I can hardly imagine. But never mind, because the wine here is probably no different from what flows in Rome. After all, Pompeii doesn’t seem much different from Rome, if you ask me. A great deal smaller, yes, and much less crowded. At least in this part of the city, though, it’s all the same terracotta roofs and limestone walls and, as we near the market, people dragging unruly livestock down stone streets past lumbering carts and clouds of buzzing flies. Smells like bread, sweat, fish, and dung, just like Rome, with chickens talking over the shouting bakers, fishmongers, butchers, and vintners while hammering and banging come from workshops behind shop fronts and booths. Perhaps I should have considered retiring to Herculaneum instead. Then again, if Pompeii isn’t in life what it is in stories, then Herculaneum likely isn’t the luxurious place it’s said to be either.
Not that I have a choice now. Pompeii is my home until I’m sold or I die. Or my new master sees fit to free me when I’m no longer of use to him.
Ectur, the monolith of a Parthian tasked with bringing the three of us down from Rome, leads us deeper into Pompeii’s stinking, bustling market. With every exhausted step, our chains rattle over the city’s noise. Though the streets are crowded, people move aside to let us pass. Some give us wary looks, standing between us and their wives and children. Even those struggling to move carts down these difficult roads stay out of our way. They’re especially wary of Ectur. We certainly look the part of gladiators—scarred, tanned brutes, all of us—and since Ectur’s unchained, people probably think he’s our lanista. No citizen with any sense wants near a lanista.
The market must be close to the Forum. All over the place, noblemen strut like cocks and sneer at slaves and citizens, just like every one I ever saw in Rome, as though the gods themselves should fear them. Would’ve liked to have met one of them in the arena during my fighting days; he’d have wept to the gods for mercy, and that pristine white toga would have been stained in shit before I’d fully raised my sword.
But, gods willing, my days in the arena are behind me forever.
Just beyond the market, where the streets fan out toward clusters of high-walled villas, Ectur approaches a squat, balding man in a tunic that’s far too clean to belong to a common laborer. The man’s attention is buried in a beeswax tablet resting on his arm, and he’s muttering to himself as he scratches something into it with a stylus.
He glances up at us, and I realize he only has one eye. Dropping his attention back to the tablet, he grumbles, “Thought you’d leave me waiting all bloody day.”
“Longer journey from Rome than it is from your master’s house,” Ectur mutters.
Without looking up, the one-eyed man says, “I’ll need to look at them before you leave. The Master Laurea will be unhappy if they are not up to his standards.”
Ectur stands straighter, narrowing his eyes. “Caius Blasius doesn’t deal in faulty goods.”
“Then he’ll not mind if I inspect his goods to be sure.” The one-eyed man gestures at us with his stylus. “Whereas I have a beating waiting if I bring to my master slaves who are not to his liking. So he’ll—” He stops abruptly, his eye widening. “Where is the fourth? Master Laurea specifically selected four men, not three.”
“The fourth fell ill. Terrible fever, and the medicus can’t say if he’ll live.” Ectur pulls a scroll from his belt and hands it to the one-eyed man. “Caius Blasius gives his word your master will be compensated.”
Glancing back and forth from the scroll to Ectur, the man sighs heavily. “The master will not be happy. It was the fourth in particular who interested him.”
Ectur sniffs with amusement. “That scrawny Phoenician is hardly worth the sestertii your master paid for him. An entertaining gladiator, maybe, but he’s worthless outside the arena.”
I can’t help a quiet laugh. It’s true enough; the idiot Phoenician is only alive—assuming he still is—because he’s less afraid of his opponents than he is of the punishment for being a coward on the sands. A man bred to be a bodyguard, he is not.
“The master selected his men for a reason,” the one-eyed man snaps at Ectur. He sighs and shakes his head. “Never mind, then. If he isn’t here, he isn’t here. The other three had best be in good condition.”
Ectur doesn’t respond. He folds his arms across his chest, watching with a scowl as the man with the stylus inspects us each in turn, tutting and muttering to himself in between jabbing us with his finger and etching something into the tablet. He pokes at scars and bruises, eyeing us when we flinch, and then checks our teeth and eyes. Since I was a child, I’ve been through more of these inspections than I can count, and still I have to force myself not to put both hands around his throat and show him I’m as fit and strong as a gladiator—or bodyguard, in this case—ought to be.
Finally, he grunts and slams shut the leather cover on the wax tablet. “They’re all well.”
“Good,” says the Parthian. “Give my regards to your master.”
“And yours.” The one-eyed man gestures sharply at us. “Come with me.”
Without a word from any of us, we follow the man. His legs are shorter than ours nearly by half, but he walks quickly, his gait fast and angry, and with heavy chains on our ankles, it’s a struggle to keep up with him. Ectur doesn’t come with us.
Soon, we will meet our new master.
By name, Junius Calvus Laurea isn’t unfamiliar to me. I’ve heard Caius Blasius mention him—usually with a scowl—and he’s apparently bought gladiators from my former master before. I don’t know his face, though, and I know nothing of the man whose life I will be sworn to guard. Only that he isn’t a lanista and my existence no longer includes the inside of an arena. Freedom may not be in my future, but Fortune be praised a thousand times over anyway.
The one-eyed servant leads us down a narrow road between the enormous villas lined up in ranks just inside the wall along the northern edge of the city. In spite of our chains, my fellow former gladiators and I exchange smiles. A villa instead of a ludus gladiatori? Indeed, this will be a new life. The existence of a bodyguard isn’t safe per se, but unless our master has an unusual number of enemies, we’ll protect him with our presence more often than our fighting skills. We’ll more likely die from boredom than a blade.
On our way out of Rome, we’d passed through the shadow of the nearly completed Colosseum. As the immense structure’s cool shade rested on my neck and shoulders, I’d whispered a prayer of thanks, in spite of the chains on my wrists and ankles, for my good fortune. Rumors abound about what’s planned for the Colosseum, and some say the games there will be far greater and more brutal than all the Ludi we’d barely survived at Circus Maximus. Another year or two, people say, and it will be complete. Perhaps I’ll never earn my rudis and the freedom that accompanies it now, but any gladiator should be grateful for the chance to serve a nobleman rather than set foot in that place.
We stop in front of one of the countless villas. There, two massive, heavily-armed guards push open the tall gates, and we walk inside. Our one-eyed guide takes us through the luxurious home to the garden in the back. Here, within the high walls covered in trailing ivy and in the shade of a massive cypress tree, servants and statues surround our new master.
As soon as I see him, I recognize the Master Laurea. I’ve seen him at the ludus before, watching us train and inspecting us the way his servant did today. I didn’t know at the time he was the one called Calvus Laurea, but I never forgot that face. Carved from cold stone, sharply angled, with intense blue eyes that always emphasize the smirk or scowl on his lips.
He lounges across a couch, cradling a polished cup in his hand as a servant fans away the day’s heat with enormous feathers. A large bodyguard stands behind Calvus Laurea, as does a black-eyed servant with a wine jug clutched to her chest.
The man who led us here stops us with a sharp gesture, and all three of us go to our knees, heads bowed.
The master gets up. His sandals scuff on the stone ground. “Stand, all of you.” As one, we rise to attention.
“I am Junius Cal—” His brow furrows. He looks from one of us to the next. Narrowing his eyes, he turns to the man who brought us. “There are three, Ataiun. Where is the fourth?”
The one-eyed servant bows his head. “My apologies, Dominus. There were only three. The fourth was stricken with fever and unable to travel.” He pulls out the scroll Ectur had given him. “His master sends this promise of compensation.”
Master Laurea scowls. “Very well. I suppose it will have to do.” He waves a hand at his servant. “See that it’s accounted for.” To us, he says, “I am Junius Calvus Laurea, and I am your new master.”
Once again, he looks at us each in turn. I try not to notice how his gaze keeps lingering on me longer than it does on the others, but his pauses are too conspicuous to ignore.
At last, he speaks: “You’re the one called Saevius, yes?”
I square my shoulders. “I am, Dominus.”
Without taking his eyes off me, he says to his servant, “Show the others to their quarters.” He gestures at me. “This one stays here.”
The men who accompanied me bow their heads sharply, and a moment later, they are gone.
Master Laurea steps closer to me, still looking me squarely in the eyes. “Welcome to Pompeii, Saevius,” he says with a slight smile. “You may call me Calvus.”
His request for familiarity sends ghostly spiders creeping up the length of my spine.
Without taking his eyes off mine, he snaps his fingers. “Bring us wine. Both of us.”
The servant holding the wine jug obeys immediately, and the spiders are more pronounced now, my breath barely moving as the woman pours two cups of wine. She hands one to our master, and then the other to me.
“Leave us,” Calvus says. “All of you.”
Gods, be with me . . .
In moments, I am alone with my new master, a cup of wine in my uncertain hand. Calvus brings his cup to his lips, pausing to say, “Drink, Saevius. I insist.”
I do. I can’t say if it tastes like the cunt of Venus, but it’s as sweet and rich as Pompeiian wines are said to be, if slightly soured by the churning in the pit of my stomach.
“You won’t be my bodyguard, Saevius,” Calvus says suddenly. “Not like the two who came with you.”
I suddenly can’t taste the wine on my tongue. With much effort, I swallow it. “Whatever you ask of me, Dominus.”
“I have two tasks for you, Saevius.” Something about the way he says my name, the way he keeps saying my name, sends more spiders wandering up and down my back and beneath my flesh. “One simple, one less so.”
I bow my head slightly. “I am here to serve, Dominus.”
“Calvus,” he says. “Call me Calvus.”
I slowly raise my head. “I am here to serve . . . Calvus.”
He grins. “Much better.”
He’s playing a game here. He has to be. What game it is, and what role I play, I can’t work out.
I take another drink of tasteless wine. “What are my duties?”
“There is a ludus gladiatori on the south side of the city.” The mention of a ludus twists something in my chest. Calvus continues, “Your first task is to present a gift to the lanista of that ludus. A gift of five hundred sestertii from Cassius, the city magistrate.” My skin crawls as an odd smile curls the corners of my new master’s mouth. “Cassius deeply regrets he could not present it himself, but”—the smile intensifies—“I promised I would take care of it for him.”
In spite of Calvus’s expression, relief cools my blood. Delivering monetary gifts instead of fighting other gladiators for the entertainment of a roaring crowd? Even if it means setting foot in a ludus again, I’ll be there only as a messenger, not a fighter in training.
Gods, I thank you. Again and again, I thank you.
“Let’s discuss your second task.” He tilts his head just so, like he’s looking for answers to questions he hasn’t yet asked. “Blasius spoke highly of you, Saevius. And your reputation precedes you all the way from Rome.” He raises his cup. “A tremendous fighter, but also a loyal servant.”
He’s quiet for a moment. It’s a silence I’m certain I’m supposed to fill, but I don’t know how.
“Thank you, Dominus,” is all I can think to say, and quickly correct it with, “Calvus. Thank you, Calvus.”
He lowers his wine cup. A different smile forms on his mouth, one that’s taut and unnerving. I’m less and less comfortable as the silence between us lingers.
At last, he speaks, and there’s something in his voice this time, an edge that prickles the back of my neck. “After you’ve delivered the money to the lanista, you will remain at the ludus.” His eyes narrow as one corner of his mouth lifts. “As an auctoratus.”
My heart beats faster. “Dominus, with respect, an auctoratus? I am not a citizen. I’m not even a freedman. How can I be an auctoratus if I am still—”
Calvus puts up a hand. “You will remain my slave, of course, but until such time as I tell you otherwise, you will live at the ludus. Train as a gladiator.” He inclines his head and lowers his voice. “To everyone but us and the gods, and according to the documents that will accompany you, you are a citizen voluntarily submitting to be owned by the ludus and its lanista. Am I understood?”
No. No, what are you asking me to do? And why?
But I nod anyway. “Yes, Dominus.”
He moves now, walking toward, then around me, circling me slowly as he continues speaking. “While you train and fight, you will keep your eyes and ears open. Listen and watch the men around you.”
I sweep my tongue across my dry lips. Every familia gladiatori is already rife with dangerous rivalries. To spy on my brothers within the ludus? Especially when I am the newest blood? I should cut my own throat now and be done with it.
“As an auctoratus,” he says, still walking around me, “you will be able to leave the ludus of your own free will, so long as you return and you don’t leave the city. When I wish to speak to you, I will contact you. Understood?”
“I . . . yes,” I say. “What am I looking for, Dominus? Er, Calvus?”
“You’re a gladiator, Saevius,” he says. “Surely you know how women feel about men like you?”
I nod again. Women were no strangers to the ludus where I trained before. Many of them married, plenty of them noble; my lanista took their money, the women cavorted with gladiators, and the husbands were never the wiser.
“A man of my stature cannot afford the embarrassment of a wife’s . . .” He pauses in both speech and step, wrinkling his nose. “Of a wife’s unsavory indiscretions. Especially with creatures so far below my station.” Calvus resumes his slow, unsettling walk around me. “And when word begins to spread of a woman doing these things, a husband, particularly a husband of my political and social stature, has little choice but to put a stop to it.” He steps into my sight and halts, looking me in the eye. “Which is where you come in, Saevius.”
Oh, dear sweet gods, help me . . .
“You will listen, and you will watch.” Calvus comes closer, eyes narrowing. “Learn the name of the man who keeps drawing my lady Verina into his bed. Am I clear, gladiator?”
In all my years in the arena, my heart has never pounded this hard. What woman doesn’t have slaves as lovers? Gladiators fuck married women as often as we fight amongst ourselves.
Unless Calvus thinks his wife isn’t involved with a slave. One of the freedmen working as trainers? Perhaps the lanista himself? Or one of the munerators renting fighters for some upcoming games? No citizen, especially not a public figure such as Calvus, tolerates that kind of insult from his wife, and for some, divorce isn’t nearly punishment enough.
Regardless of Calvus’s reasoning or what he plans to do once he knows the name of his wife’s lover, is there any place more dangerous for a man than the middle of games played between a wife and the husband she’s scorned?
“Am I clear, gladiator?”
I swallow hard. “Yes, Calvus.”
“Good.” He steps away and lifts his wine again. “I will have your papers drawn up tonight. Tomorrow morning, you will be taken to the ludus owned by the lanista Drusus.”
Drusus. Gods, any lanista but him. I silently beg the ground to open up beneath me. Drusus’s reputation extends beyond any reach Master Calvus could dream of his own doing. No gladiator who’s heard the stories about Drusus would ever volunteer to fight for him.
Calvus looks me up and down, his brow furrowing as he inspects my arms, one then the other. “These scars are . . .” He meets my eyes. “You’re left-handed, aren’t you?”
“I am.”
He grins. “Excellent. I’m sure Drusus will be doubly pleased with you.” The grin widens. “Perhaps I should have chosen you in the first place over that Phoenician. After all, a left-handed fighter like you belongs in the arena where he can make his lanista rich, yes?”
I resist the urge to avoid his eyes.
“You’ll be his left-handed moneymaker, and you’ll—” Calvus gives a quiet, bone-chilling laugh. “Well, I suppose in a way you’ll be my left hand, won’t you?”
“I suppose I will, Dominus,” I whisper.
Calvus puts his hand on my shoulder. The amusement leaves his expression. “Listen closely, gladiator. This is very important. The money you’re giving Drusus, the five hundred sestertii, is from the magistrate called Cassius. The same one who will be providing your auctoratus documents. Is that clear?”
My mouth goes dry as I nod.
“You will not mention me or our arrangement,” he says. “Not to anyone within the ludus under any circumstances. Understood?”
“Yes, Dominus.” I hesitate. “Calvus.”
“Be warned, Saevius. I do not tolerate treachery or dishonesty.” He leans in, lowering his voice so I’m certain no one but me and the gods can hear him, and he presses down hard on my shoulder. “Give me a single reason to believe you’re not doing precisely as I’ve ordered, or that you’ve breathed my name within the walls of the ludus, and I will see to it the magistrate asks Drusus if he received the full seven hundred sestertii. Am I understood?”
With much effort, I swallow. With even more, I nod. “Yes, Calvus.”
And silently, I beg the gods to send me back to Rome to fight in its Colosseum.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

EXCERPT: By A Thread

Title: By A Thread
Author: L. A. Witt
Publisher: Amber Allure
Format(s): Ebook


“More iced tea, sir?”

I smile up at the waitress. “Yes, thank you.”

As she walks away, I check the time on my phone. Six forty-five. Two minutes since the last time I checked.

Patience, Leon. Patience.

Yeah, right. I just want to get this evening over with because I’m pretty damn sure I know how it’s going to end.

I drum my fingers on the table and look out the window in search of a temporary distraction. The restaurant overlooks the bustling pavilion where the city’s most touristy boardwalks intersect. One extends for miles along the beach in either direction, the other bisects Old Towne, and they meet here amidst the trinket shops and funnel cake stands.

It’s Saturday night and tourist season is in full swing, so the pavilion is packed. Naturally, every street performer in town is here. Steady streams of people throw coins and bills for magicians, mimes, and musicians, but most of them are crowded around two sorcerers who are trying like hell to outdo each other. One of the two is obviously a water sorcerer, and he waves and gestures as the contents of a small metal bucket at his feet rise up and twist and contort into different shapes. At one point, the water takes on the form of a child standing in front of it, mimicking her movements and facial expressions to her great delight.

The sun is sinking behind the ocean, though, and the fading daylight gives the water sorcerer’s rival a distinct edge, making his fire tricks appear brighter and more impressive by the minute. He stands on top of an overturned milk crate, and foot-tall flames dance on his upturned palms, taking beautifully human forms and moving in time with the faint music that’s made its way from one of the musicians to my ears.

Suddenly, the fiery dancers disappear in a puff of smoke, and the water sorcerer throws his head back and laughs as the drenched fire sorcerer glares at him over the heads of the roaring crowd. Undeterred, the fire sorcerer conjures another flickering orange figure, and with a wave of his hand, sends it strutting across the cobbles toward his rival.

His rival, whose watery avatar has leapt from its bucket and is prepared to stand its ground. The two figures face off, circling each other like wildcats, and I have to wonder if the sorcerers are rivals after all. More like performers who’ve figured out exactly how to work a crowd together.

My gaze drifts from the battling avatars to the fire sorcerer. He’s smoking hot, and I don’t just mean his fingertips. He’s got a smile that’s probably attracting as many people as his magic, and he’s not wearing a shirt over his washboard abs, which is also almost certainly helping him draw in a crowd. They say sorcerers are dangerous in bed—something about losing control of their powers—but if I’m up against a body like that, I’ll take my chances.

I pull my gaze away and take a long drink from the iced tea that showed up while I wasn’t paying attention. I’m on a date, for crying out loud. Well, sort of. I glance at the shirtless sorcerer again.

Guess it doesn’t hurt to look. After all, I’m getting dumped in T-minus… T-minus…

I pick up my phone to check the time. Five minutes till seven.

I fold my hands on the table and look out the window again as I blow out a sharp breath. Andrew’s not late, but I’m impatient. As impatient as I was just before our first date, oddly enough, but for entirely different reasons this time.

It’s disappointing, I’ll admit that. Three months of e-mailing back and forth and chatting on the webcam, three dates with sizzling hot chemistry that was just about visible to the naked eye, one almost kiss, and now “can you meet me tonight?” and “we really need to talk” in that quiet “this is about to be over and we both know it” tone.

That sorcerer out in the pavilion is looking more tempting by the minute, with or without the danger of a concussion or a third degree burn. Or maybe I’ll go find the nearest willing body, non-magic or otherwise, for a one-night stand. It’s been six months, for God’s sake, and after I’ve invested this much time, excitement, and anticipation into things with Andrew, only to have it blow up in my face before even making it past a kiss? To hell with it.

I should’ve known when that kiss almost happened, but then didn’t. Right up until that moment in my car, I was sure things were going great. Spectacularly. I wasn’t in a hurry to get into bed, but in the back of my mind, going by the way we kept looking at each other and the things he kept doing to my pulse just by smiling at me, I knew the sex would be amazing when we got to it.

My heart sinks a little deeper. Who am I kidding, thinking I can leave after this inevitable conversation and go find a one-night stand? I want Andrew. Yes, I want to sleep with him—with a body like that and chemistry like this, who wouldn’t?—but it’s more than that. So much more.

Sighing, I take another drink. Well, better to end it now before we’ve gone there. At least then, when I’m banging my head against a wall wondering how I fucked this up and wishing I hadn’t gotten my hopes up, I won’t also be craving another go-around with him in bed. Cold comfort or something, I guess.

Outside, the pavilion is thick with people, some of them still, some of them in motion, but a subtle flicker of movement catches my eye. When I look, my heart skips in the same instant my stomach drops. I’ve known for a while I’m hooked on Andrew, but didn’t realize just how much until now, when I’m watching him work his way through the throngs of people, eyes down and hands in his pockets, to tell me it’s over.

I try to convince myself maybe he’s not really here to call it quits, but his posture doesn’t do much to help my argument. His shoulders are tightly bunched, his gait hurried but stiff, and when he looks up just before he starts up the restaurant’s front steps, his expression is blank. For someone who’s usually relaxed and quick to smile, that’s not promising.

My heart keeps beating faster and faster as he disappears from my view, and my mouth goes dry when he reappears across the restaurant from me. He zeros in on me in an instant, and a half-hearted smile flickers across his lips. I take a long drink as he makes his way from that end of the room to this one.

So here we are. This is it. This is where it ends.

God, Andrew, I’m going to miss you…

He offers a polite but forced smile. “Hey.”

“Hey.” I hope my own smile is half as convincing as his.

“Thanks for coming.” He slides into the bench opposite me. “Sorry I kind of dropped it on you at the last minute.”

“Don’t worry about it. Sounded like you wanted to do this sooner than later.”

He chews his lower lip and doesn’t look at me. “Yeah. The sooner the better.”

He doesn’t elaborate. I don’t even know what to say, and in spite of my eagerness to get this over with, I’m not so sure I want to encourage him to get started. So I just keep my mouth shut and surreptitiously watch him while the waitress drops off some ice water and gets his order for another drink.

The man is stunning. Seriously. His dark hair is just long enough in the back to tickle his collar and in the front to get in his eyes from time to time. From the beginning, it’s been more than a little tempting, more times than I can count, to brush that unruly fringe out of his face and tuck it behind his ear, just because it’d be an excuse to touch him. I’m the kind of man who can and does proposition someone for sex halfway through a first date, but with Andrew, I haven’t been as aggressive. I haven’t been aggressive at all, by my standards or anyone else’s. When his hair falls into his eyes, I let him take care of it with a casual swipe of his slender fingers—he’s fine-boned and slim, more so than most guys I usually date, and it’s sexy as hell—and never make a move myself.

“So.” He clears his throat and wraps both hands around his glass of ice water. “I, um, like I said, wanted to talk. There’s some things that…” He pauses, releasing a breath, and his shoulders slump as much as their visible tension will allow. “It’s hard to explain, and maybe I should have said something sooner, but I hope you understand this is…” Once again, he pauses, and he bites his lip as he drums his fingers rapidly on the condensation-covered glass.

“Whatever it is,” I say in spite of my dry mouth, “I’ll understand.”

“That’s easy to say now.” He doesn’t look at me. “But the thing is, we’ve known each other for a while. We’ve been out a few times, and I’ve really enjoyed it. I—”


He stops, and looks at me through his long lashes. Holy fuck, I love those blue eyes.

I fold my hands on the table and lean forward. “If you want to call time on this, I’ll understand.” No I won’t. God, I want you. “Just…say the word.”

“Call time?” He blinks and his spine straightens. “I…no, that’s not where I was going with this.”

“It isn’t?” I raise an eyebrow. “Because that’s what it sounds like.”

Andrew sighs and lowers his gaze. “I’m sorry. That wasn’t my intent. I just… I’ve had this conversation a few times, and apparently I still suck at it.”

This isn’t what I expected. Not at all. “Well, just say what’s on your mind, and we’ll figure it out from there.”

“Okay, well.” He drums his fingers on the table.

Right then, the waitress reappears with his soda—Coke, though I’m surprised he didn’t order something much stronger—and a moment later, she’s gone, leaving us to our progressively less comfortable, not to mention predictable, conversation.

“Just give it a go,” I say. “Whatever it is.”

Andrew takes a long drink. Then a deep breath. “Look, I’m really attracted you.” He’s almost whispering now. “Like, really attracted.”

I’m not sure whether to be flattered by the comment or even more worried about what’s coming next.

He goes on, “And especially after the other night, it’s kind of hard to ignore the direction this is…” He meets my eyes briefly, but drops his gaze. “Where this is going.”

“We don’t have to go there,” I say quickly. “Not yet. If you’re not ready.”

With a dry laugh, he sits back. “It’s not quite that simple.”

“What do you mean?”

He keeps his gaze down. His hands are in his lap, and from the subtle movement of his upper arms, I’m guessing he’s wringing his hands. The tension in his shoulders is more pronounced now, working its way into the sides of his neck.

“Whatever it is,” I say, “just say it. No sense beating around—”

I’m a sorcerer.”

My lips part. “I beg your pardon?”

He leans forward again, rests an elbow on the table, and lowers his head as he scratches the back of his neck. “I’m a sorcerer.”

Okay, that wasn’t what I expected. Holy shit.

My eyes dart toward the pair still battling it out with their magic creations out in the pavilion. Andrew’s one of them?