Excerpt



People once marveled at the fact that Liliane Harkness’s mother Margot had consented to marry Edgar J. Harnkess, Jr. After all, Harkness may have been the most eligible bachelor in the city and a financier worthy of the Harkness & Co. name, but he was also notoriously ugly, with a port-wine stain birthmark and a bad case of rosacea to go along with his legendary temper. Margot Harkness has been one of the city’s preeminent beauties at her coming-out, courted by everyone from captains of industry to starry-eyed bellhops, but she had chosen perhaps the unpleasantest man in the pool to become her husband.

But their daughter knew differently. “That isn’t your real daddy,” Margot would whisper sweetly to Liliane during their long walks through city parks, “but don’t tell him, okay?” She saw a parade of suitors, undiminished even after years of marriage, coming and going to her mother’s room. And young Liliane learned the value of absolute discretion in those stolen moments.

For his part, E.J. Harkness Jr. doted on Liliane, and associates remember her visits as the only time they ever saw the man smile. He arranged for only the finest tutors and schooling for his daughter, sent her on tour to European capitals, and generally tolerated her whims and occasional affectations. If Margot had any illusions about how the old banker felt about her, they were shattered when Harkness died of a coronary thrombosis just short of his 70th birthday–leaving his entire estate to Liliane, then aged only 19.

As if to announce her arrival in the select sorority of women wealthy in their own right, Liliane’s first act of business was to have her mother taken away. A state board certified Margot Harkness as “dangerously insane and hysterical” less than a year after her husband’s death, and she was remanded to the upstate House for Invalids and the Mentally Ill by court order. There, she was treated with the newest and trendiest cure-all currently making the rounds: a total frontal lobotomy.

Freed from any and all restraints, gossip expected Liliane to move into a dissolute and spendthrift lifestyle, and her regular appearance at society balls in expensive furs and with an ever-rotating cast of handsome but vapid young men did encourage such an opinion. However, she also took an active role behind the scenes at Harkness & Co., running it through a figurehead president and board of directors. Growth was through the roof, and there was some whispered talk that J.P. Morgan & Co stood to buy–or be bought by!–Harkness.

That is, until Liliane Harkess’s feud with Mercedes Ryann got out of control.

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Of the humans, what can one say about this youngest of all peoples? It is said that they arose spontaneously in the far-off land of Daqin, and their presence disturbed the great symphony that had up until that point dictated the harmony of peoples. Unlike their elders, it is said that the humans arose fully formed and set to organizing their society and empire immediately through war.

The account of Admiral Chao Ban, who spoke to the elves of Seres on behalf of the human empress Ying Gan, was for many years the only information on this people, in their own words, available to the elder cousins.

“Filled with sentiments of awe and thanksgiving, at the welcome I have enjoyed in this, the land of Seres, I wish to speak of my home, the land of Daqin, home of the humans. Firstly, I must speak of my liege, the Empress Ying Gan. Unlike you elves of Seres, whose kings elect from among their number a High King, our Empress is selected by the heavens themselves to rule over all men. Thus she resides in the great city of Eo Oc, my home, where all my kinsfolk pay her homage. Of course, should the heavens wish to withdraw their permission, they may do so–at which point our Empress may find herself replaced.”

Upon being asked about towns and population, Admiral Ban replied:

“Our towns are larger than yours, with strong walls to guard them against attack. This was especially crucial during the years–now thankfully ended–when an Emperor of the North and an Emperor of the South fought for primacy. I understand that two worthy elvish claimants fought over the title of High King but a generation ago, so this may be another place where we are in common. But our cities are large, walled, and teeming; not nearly so pleasant as yours, but with magnificent cuisine and artisans to make up for it.”

Pointedly asked who would win a war between the humans and the elves, Admiral Ban was diplomatic:

“I think that it would be a hard-fought battle. For while we do not want for troops under arms, our numbers mean we must fight in large groups–vulnerable groups. Your jaegers could defeat any but our most skilled, and were the battle in a wooded area, surely you could prevail. But upon an open plain, my countrymen would surely triumph. Let us hope that it never comes to thus.”

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On the night of August 11, 2010, a cargo steamer was struck by lightning on the Nile river south of Memphis and sank with all hands. An area with a huge concentration of Nile crocodiles, it was assumed that everything was lost–including the steamer’s precious cargo of foam Crocs™ shoes destined for laborers in the Sudan.

However, what the authorities failed to predict was that the lightning strike would impart a charge to the many foam sandals bobbling aimlessly amid the river waves, drawing in and binding the mystical essence of the crocodiles as well as the ancient river civilizations. For just a few hours, the Nile south of Memphis was charged with an incredible and mystic power.

And it was during those few hours that Dr. Omar Ghanem, vice-head of antiquities at the Memphis Mueseum of Cultural History, happened to be kayaking along that same stretch when he was upset by a massive Nile crocodile known locally as Firawn. Omar survived, but emerged from the reeds with incredible powers: the strength and resiliency of the Nile waters themselves, the brute cunning and toughness of the Nile crocodile, and the imperviousness and lack of fashion of Crocs™ foam footwear.

Thus began both the legend and the crime-fighting career of THE CROCONILE, mild-mannered professor by day, and avenger of fashion and footwear related crime after nightfall!

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Is YOUR car was possessed? Are YOUR brakes screaming in ancient, dead tongues no sane being may utter? Has YOUR timing belt had been invaded by demonic forces? At Headley Automotive Exorcists, we know that demons inhabiting silver or lead are easy to disperse, but automotive-grade plastic is another thing entirely. These modern plastidemons are not biodegradable in the least; long-chain polymers make them strong and resilient to old-fashioned interventions. And don’t even get us started on tempered steel and automotive enamels as homes for the unholy!

That’s why we here at Headley Automotive Exorcists are ready to give you the FULL force of our 17 years’ exorcism experience and FULL authorization from the Pope in matters spiritual and automotive! Whether it’s a simple banishment or our full $1000 exorcism package with included engine fluid blessing, Headley Automotive Exorcists stands ready to serve YOU.

And while many of those “cut-rate” exorcists will allow the demons to escape to other areas of the car, leading to an evil tire blowout or worse, Headley includes a full cloistering of your car, and imprisonment of the demons in the pure salts of evaporated angels’ tears, with every purchase!

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Kia Eurydice
Slogan: “Never look back.”

Toyota Catbus
Slogan: “Your neighbor Toyotoro.”

Hyundai Icarus
Slogan: “Fly high.”

Renault Vichy
Slogan: “Never surrender.”

Mercedes Oedipus
Slogan: “The mother of them all.”

Mitsubishi Lemming
Slogan: “Take a leap of faith.”

Chevrolet Steer
Slogan: “One ballsy ride.”

Ford Black Widow
Slogan: “Love at first bite.”

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Sam ran the gum over the scanner. It beeped twice, and two transactions appeared on the screen:

-1 HPY DY GM – $3.00.00.00

“Hm. $3 for Happy Day Gum? I guess they’re just having a sale.” He thumbed the scanner pad, approving the payment and agreeing to all terms and conditions without reading them, as per usual. The same old ‘overdrawn alert’ appeared, but that was to be expected–Sam was usually in the red until his paycheck arrived.

After he got off the train and up to his one-room apartment, though, he saw that there was a drone in Metromart paint waiting at his door. “Hello sir or madam!” it chirped. “Thank you for your purchase. Unfortunately, there were not sufficient funds to cover it. Metromart asks that you return its property.”

Sam popped a bubble with the gum and sucked it back in. “It’s not that much,” he said. “They’ve never sent a drone before.”

“Collections drones are used for amounts in excess of $1000 ND,” came the response. “Are you refusing to return the item?”

“I can’t. The item is damaged. It’s been opened and destroyed.”

“Metromart is sorry that you have refused to return the item.” The drone whirred and printed out a receipt. “We have remanded your case to a local collection agency for settlement. Have a nice day.”

Sam looked down at the receipt, which spelled out his purchase in slightly more detail than the POS screen had:

1 Happy Day Gum – $3,000,000.00 ND ($300,000,000.00 USD)

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As the mystery frigate pulled alongside Harris’s barque, it ran up a fresh set of colors: all black, with a grinning skull above two crossed needles and a spool of blood-red thread.

“Fiber pirates!” Harris cried. “Full sail! Get us out of here!”

It was too late, though. The pirates fired a shot across the bow, and from the quarterdeck Harris could see the enemy guns being run out before his men even had a chance to man theirs. The pirate deck also bristled with armed corsairs, nearly all women, and an unruly mix of humans, dwarves, orcs, and even elves with the occasional halfling.

“Ahoy there!” A strong voice called from across the shrinking gulf between the two ships. “This is Short Joan Silky aboard the good ship Armscye, and I bid you welcome!”

Taking up his glass Harris looked across the waters to the pirate quarterdeck. A dwarf woman, bedecked in finery and bearing a double brace of pistols, and a cutlass besides, stood on a box addressing him with a speaking-cone, likely one lightly enchanted for extra projection. From what he could see, Harris guessed that Short Joan was, true to her name, clad in expensive silks and a custom-tailored garment that was part peacoat, part petticoat, and all style.

“You will surrender to us all of your fabric and thread, all your garments and jackets, all your boots and leather!” Short Joan continued. “In exchange, we will leave you with your undergarments and your lives, taking only the materials we need for our trade and a few vittles for sustenance! Refuse, and we will run up the red flag and the black thread: all will be cut short and we will take what is our anyway.”

“Run up the white flag,” Harris muttered.

His mate balked. “But sir…!”

“Do it!” the captain snapped. “While there’s still time.”

His colors hauled down, Harris watched as the fiber pirates swarmed aboard, taking every piece of cloth, thread, and clothing that wasn’t sail canvas or underwear. In his skivvies himself, he was sat down opposite Short Joan in his own great cabin. The dwarf pirate kindly provided him with bread and water, but he winced at the sound of the fine bolts of runecloth being plundered from his hold.

“Tell me,” he said at length. “What do you do with all of your prizes?”

Short Joan laughed. “My crew is full of seamstresses, haberdahsers, and milliners. We make fine outfits and sell them at our ports of call, for fancy ladies and game fops, all while keeping the best finery for ourselves and our grand and secret balls on Topstitch Island, our home and port of call. Perhaps we will see you and your crew in some distant port, Captain Harris, and we’ll sell you our wares with no ill will.”

“I would report you as pirates and corsairs rather than see us sold our own clothes back,” Harris replied.

“Oh, captain…who would be able to look their lovely spouse or sweetheart in the eye after turning us and our products away forever? No, lovers of fine tailoring are always powerful, and they know not to trifle with us or risk us boycotting their ports.” Short Joan’s voice darkened a register. “And you’d best not cross us in any event, captain, lest we decide to make up a shortage in supple leathers from your very hide.”

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