Monday, March 19, 2018

ALL THE FUN To Celebrate Miss Snark's First Victim's TENTH BIRTHDAY!

Ten years, my friends. On April 4, 2018, it will be AN ENTIRE DECADE since I wrote my first BLOG POST here.  Naturally, I want to celebrate!



When: Thursday, March 29
What:  50 pitches to be posted for public critique and possible requests from agents


*Submissions will open Monday, March 26 at 9:00 am EDT and will close on Tuesday, March 27 at 9:00 am EDT.
*After the close of submissions, the bot will randomly select 50 entries to be posted on the blog.
*ALL CATEGORIES AND GENRES--except erotica or erotic romance--will be included.
*Your entry should consist of a tight, 75-words-or-fewer pitch for your completed, polished novel. (Do not enter this contest if your manuscript is not agent-ready.) Remember--the fewer words, the better.
*Submit your entry HERE.
*The 50 winning entries will post on Thursday, March 29.


Two wonderful things!

1. Your pitch will receive critique from this lovely blog community AND several published authors.

2.  SNEAKY AGENTS will also be reading the pitches! If they see anything they like, THEY WILL MAKE REQUESTS IN THE COMMENT BOXES.

So basically, if your entry is chosen for this blogpitch round, your pitch will be read by agents who are currently open to new clients. The agent response to my invitation to this contest has been delightfully positive so far!

If you have any questions about this contest, please leave them in the comment box below.

2. Q&A WITH ELAYNE BECKER, Associate Editor at Tor Teen

On Wednesday, April 4 -- MSFV's 10th birthday -- I will share an exclusive interview with Elayne Becker, my fabulous editor and rising star at Tor Teen and Tor/Forge Books.  In the comment box of the interview, Elayne will field your questions! The comment box will be open for 24 hours, during which time you may post your questions to Elayne. She will take up to 3 days to answer ALL questions posted!

Note: This is a GREAT opportunity to get insight from the inside. Mark your calendars!


Elayne will be giving away a box o'books from Tor to one lucky winner. YOU DON'T WANT TO MISS THIS!  Details on the giveaway are forthcoming.

I hope you'll join us for the celebration! I'm thankful for these past ten years, and I'm glad you've been a part of them.

Monday, March 12, 2018


From Joanna:

I’ve read the entires and have picked my winners. I’m sorry that some of the comments might not be as expansive as others, but a few were hard to pin down.

#50 She Dances In Blood - this was just a great opening with nice backstory and great action
#41 The Year My Mother Ruined My Life - such a cute and well executed hook

The prize:

A 100-page read for each!

Winners, please email me at facelesswords(at) for specific submission instructions.


Secret Agent Unveiled: JOANNA MACKENZIE

Many thanks to this month's Secret Agent, Joanna MacKenzie of the Kristin Nelson Literary Agency!

Joanna's Bio:

Joanna joined Nelson Literary Agency in 2017 after a decade with a Chicago-based agency, and is currently building a list of adult and YA titles. She enjoys working with authors who embrace the full publishing process (read: love revising) and is committed to the stories her clients want to tell both with the words they put on paper, as well as with the careers the build. Joanna is looking for the epic read that, at it's center, beats with a universal heart. In particular, she’s drawn to smart, character-driven mysteries and thrillers - both, ideally, with a little edge. Originally from Poland, and by way of Canada, she’s all about narratives that deal with the themes of identity and the immigrant experience as well as those that delve into all aspects of the relationships that make us who we are – parents, siblings, best friends, and first love.

What Joanna is looking for:

On the YA side, I’m looking for strong, confident voices and characters I can’t stop thinking about. I’d love to find a Veronica Mars-ish character I could really sink my teeth into; or be swept-away into a Bone Gap world; or enthralled by characters like those in I’ll Give You The Sun. On the adult side, I’d love to find a great Tana French-esque mystery (no more girls on trains or wives between us for me) and also a book featuring Sarah Paulson’s character from Ocean’s 8, aka seemingly perfect suburban mom with a secret life, think the first season of Weeds.

Winners forthcoming!

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Secret Agent Contest: Critique Guidelines

And here we go!  Jump right in, and keep your eyes open for the critique from this month's Secret Agent.

Guidelines for Critique on MSFV:
  • Please leave your critique for each entry in the comment box for that entry.
  • Please choose a screen name to sign your comments. The screen name DOES NOT have to be your real name; however, it needs to be an identifiable name.  ("Anonymous" is not a name.)
  • Critiques should be honest but kind, helpful but sensitive.
  • Critiques that attack the writer or are couched in unkind words will be deleted.*
  • Cheerleading IS NOT THE SAME as critiquing.  Please don't cheerlead.
  • Having said that, it is perfectly acceptable to say positive things about an entry that you feel is strong.  To make these positive comments more helpful, say why it's a strong entry.
  • ENTRANTS: As your way of "giving back", please critique a minimum of 5 other entries.

*I can't possibly read every comment.  If you ever see a comment that is truly snarky, please email me.  I count on your help.

March Secret Agent Contest #50

TITLE: She Dances in Blood
GENRE: YA Fantasy

In moments like this my blood dances through me, pounding out a rhythm with my heart. There is no better feeling. The night is dark and quiet except for the song of death within me as the two vampires flee from us. The female pulls ahead, leaving the male behind as a sacrifice. He shouts, but she doesn't break her stride. He flings a look over his shoulder at me and grimaces. With a burst of speed, he darts onto a side road, jumps on a dumpster, then vaults onto a roof.

Like a shadow, I follow.

“Ivanka!” my partner, Romero, shouts. “You're not supposed to engage vamps alone!”

A fact I’m fully aware of. But I never let vamps escape. He knows that.

Romero continues to yell as I put on an extra burst of speed and race along the roof. I pull a stake free from my combat belt and lunge forward. My knees drive into the vamp's legs as I plunge the weapon into his back, aiming for his heart. It feels like slamming into a concrete wall, but the force sends the stake ripping through flesh to reach its target.

Paralysis claims the vamp, sending him into torpor, and he collapses beneath me. Together we roll down the roof and fall, the ax strapped to my back throwing me off balance and forcing me to land on all fours on the dirt road.

I rise and look down at the vamp. Why would anyone ever choose to become such a creature?

March Secret Agent Contest #49

TITLE: Mimic
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Getting past the Protector was all a matter of timing. The time of day, first of all. Dusk, after most of the sunlight was gone but before the torches were lit. Then the trick was to slip by at the exact moment someone else was passing through the gate, while the Protector was occupied with drawing blood from the next one in line.

The form was also crucial. Issa had gotten through a few times in the guise of a small child, so short that the Protector never saw her as she toddled in the wake of someone’s billowing cloak. The stubby legs, though, made it harder to move quickly. She couldn’t afford to stumble and be caught. Last time had been too close.

The other likely choice was taking on a limber body that could scale the wall in the space of a single breath. Issa hadn’t dared that before. She’d practiced leaping the lower walls at the edges of the Den for the past month, and Yeril swore her swift movement was hardly visible if he wasn’t watching closely. She almost believed him.

She’d already wondered and worried too long, resolving every evening that this would be the night, only to lose her nerve and slink back from the wall. Tomorrow most of the farmers would pack what remained of their wares and leave the city. Then her chance would be gone for another season.
It was already nearly sunset. “Now,” she whispered, pulling on the black, threadbare tunic and tugging out its wrinkles. “Do it now.”

March Secret Agent Contest #48

TITLE: One of the Lucky Ones
GENRE: YA Contemporary/coming-of-age

"Okay, guys, you remember the rules." Dad was doing his best to look stern as we stood outside the door to the library on a warm Saturday afternoon. It was not a convincing performance. He sounded like he was talking to all three of us, but he was watching Millie and especially Owen. He uncrossed his arms and waved a hand in an "I'm-waiting" motion until we all answered.

Yes, even me. I might have been sixteen, but I knew if I didn't play along Owen would start yelling, "Annie's not saying it!" and the rest of the morning would be a lot less fun. At three, he had very strong ideas about what was "fair."

"No running, no fighting, no yelling," we chanted. "We don't pull all the books off the shelf,"—I muttered "Owen" under my breath—"we use our indoor voices, and if we want the same book we have to take turns."

Dad nodded and opened the door. The kids didn't quite run to the children's section. Ms. Davis smiled and waved as we came in, skinny gold bracelets clinking and glowing against her dark skin.

Oh good, I thought. That'll make it easier.

Ms. Davis was the new children's librarian, and already had my siblings wrapped around her perfectly manicured little finger. Owen acted much better when she was there, but Dad and I still made sure one of us stayed close by. Millie was five-going-on-twelve; I didn't worry about her unless Owen made her mad.

March Secret Agent Contest #47

GENRE: Adult Mystery

Wiry and strong as a rod of rebar, Lamar Gallivant was gifted with an uncanny aptitude for math, baseball—and burning shit down.

He hung out behind a shoe store until the black Mercedes rolled up at exactly 10:20. The sleek four-door, with tinted windows and Georgia plates, slowed to a crawl as the passenger lobbed a disposable cell phone into leaves piled near the curb. Once the sedan was out of sight, Lamar retrieved the prepaid burner and powered it up. A text message spelled out his target’s address.

Lamar hiked his baggy jeans and tore through the heart of Charleston’s river-carved peninsula. Blowing past college chumps. Dodging tourists. Sidestepping businesswomen. At East Bay Street, he zigged north alongside the Cooper River. Property values and fashion sense nosedived with each stride. Rainbow Row gave way to sun-bleached blah. Broken street lamps replaced copper carriage lanterns. Seersucker couture morphed into overstuffed stretchy pants.

Nine blocks later, the road forked at the dilapidated row houses and subsidized apartments of Fleet Landing. The east-side neighborhood, less than two miles from the opulent Battery and South Carolina’s most stately antebellum homes, was almost dead—close enough to call the coroner. Lamar plopped on a bench to retie his boot laces and shake off a flicker of unexpected jitters. He longed for the inky darkness that’d made him invisible on his previous jobs.

He should bolt—call it quits.

But fifteen grand was a lot of money.

The trouble with trouble…

March Secret Agent Contest #46

GENRE: YA Thriller

A three-year-old kid missing for a decade. A fourteen-year-old brunette lost last month. The missing persons poster pinned to a board in the dollar store has been there forever, though the faces on the poster change every month. The teen’s face must have been recently added; I don’t remember seeing it the last time I came here. The girl has thick, wavy hair and large dark eyes. Just like Mimi.
My throat tightens. I have searched through hundreds of similar pictures and news articles over the past five years, hoping for information on my cousin. Something that’ll prove that she ran away. That she’s alive and safe somewhere.

That I’m not a murderer.

I force my gaze away from the poster and text my aunt: at the store.

Ever since my cousin disappeared, Auntie and I follow a routine. I make sure she’s always aware of my whereabouts. It’s become second nature, as familiar as breathing.

Her reply pops up an instant later as expected. Good. Be safe.

After gathering the stuff on my shopping list, I head down a narrow aisle.

A tall man in a frayed black leather jacket and faded jeans stands in my path, his back to me, leafing through a stack of magazines.

“Excuse me,” I say

He glances over his shoulder. The brim of his baseball cap shadows his thin face and part of a dirty, blond beard. His eyes lock on me, and he goes still.

March Secret Agent Contest #45

TITLE: Just One Day
GENRE: YA Contemporary

My vovó is dead. I buried her in the backyard, deep. Just like she told me.

Before she went, she explained that she’d been told she was dying a month ago. But it was last week when she finally believed it and started to make a plan for me. This plan where I don’t tell anyone she’d dead. Seven days. That’s all it took for my life to be over because I am not me anymore despite my chest continuing to rise and fall with the breaths I cannot stop taking. Seven days. Though I guess all it ever takes is just one.

A week ago

Pulling the strap of my bag over my head and onto one shoulder, I move down the stairs as quickly, the thuds making the family photos quiver on the wall.

            “Meu coração?” my grandmother calls from her room, a whisper question that also means ‘where are you going?’ I have been home for three days straight, since the never ending cold she’s got started keeping us both up at night. She says it will pass.

            I start to go out the door, to pretend I didn’t hear her but then she coughs, an awful, deep chested noise. So, I trudge back up to her door at the top of the stairs.

            “Sim?” I stand in the doorway looking into to her tidy peach flavored room. The warm honey wood of her headboard, dresser, and night table each with some flowery something on it.

March Secret Agent Contest #44

GENRE: YA Fantasy gaslamp

Hilda stood behind the impossibly heavy red velvet curtain, waiting for it to open or, perhaps, fall from the coiled mechanism holding it up and crush her. She didn’t particularly want to be crushed, but at least it would be something different. An adventure of sorts. Something other than performing over and over without an end in sight. Well—she swallowed the too-painful thought away—there was an end, but not one she cared to think about. 

“Miss Hollow, a moment!”

Hilda turned toward the unnecessarily loud voice, her silk ruffle overlay flapping against the smooth velvet of her skirt like a smothered scream.

One of the sound operators raced up to her. He held out a silver micro-trumpet then quickly pulled it back against his chest before she could remind him, again, that chanters of illusion didn’t need amplification. 

She clenched her fists. This was only her fifteenth time singing here on her three-year tour of opera houses and grand hotels. However…he was merely trying to do his job. Besides, perhaps he was new. She took a moment to really look at him. Thoughtful eyes. Sweaty brow. Disheveled jacket collar. Yes, definitely new. She relaxed her hands but didn’t answer. He wouldn’t have heard her anyway, not with the silencers—large brass discs—over his ears. Tiny cranks in the center of the circles could be turned and tightened to stamp out sound. The opera house required all employees to wear them. The proprietors said it was because they didn’t want the workers to be drawn into an illusion.

March Secret Agent Contest #43

TITLE: Seeking Sara Sterling
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Twenty-One Pilots blares from my car stereo as I stare out at the parking lot next door. The music has a way of numbing my mind, taming the roiling emotions inside me. I can’t bring myself to get out of the car just yet.

    A skinny, unshaven man emerges from a beat-up pickup truck and flicks his cigarette to the ground. He starts toward the entrance of the One Dollar Store but then looks my way, the music escaping my partially rolled-down window likely catching his attention. His eyes lock with mine. I want to look away, but they’re the same bright green color as Bryan’s. The man smirks, as if he knows all about what happened last night. My jaw clenches tight, and I look away.

    When the song ends, I shut off the engine and push out a sigh. Time to face my new reality.


    “Hey Sara.”

    My manager’s voice pulls me from a daze as I walk through the door. He’s at my post—the front desk of Alejandro’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant—straightening a stack of menus. I force my mouth into a smile, but it feels all wrong.

    “Hi, Ramon.”

    I wonder if everyone can see the trauma written all over my face. Ramon doesn’t. Or at least, he doesn’t let on that he does. I’m nearly an hour late, but I’d called earlier to let him know I would be.

March Secret Agent Contest #42

GENRE: YA Fantasy

Something wasn't right with the sea.

Evren scrutinized the batch of red-eyed fish that hung from her long silver wire, their bellies bloated. That morning she had gone down to the edge of Ionoke Island’s best fishing nook, and found more fish washed ashore, limp and pallid.

She gazed out at the glittering sapphire water surrounding the island. The breeze flurried off the sea like invisible threads, tickling her face. White foam lapped at her black boots. Glistening silver and white granite rocks gathered around the corner of the island. Everything looked fine from the outside. The fish told a different story. Their home was in trouble.

“What is she doing to you guys?” Evren bit the bottom of her lip. The Sea Queen wouldn’t curse her own kingdom, would she?

She shivered and gripped the wire so tight that it cut into the middle of her palm. As she watched the blood trickle down her hand, she felt her thoughts spiraling. Why was the sea warming? What would that mean for her? If she couldn’t fish, how was she going to make money? Captains weren’t exactly looking for the navigator who had a death wish stamped to her back.

The murderous invisible pirates - the Naja - were looking for her. Why? She still didn’t know and she had been asking that question for years.


All I need is enough money to fly across the seas and leave this wretched place and the Naja behind. 

March Secret Agent Contest #41

TITLE: Alaska: The Year My Mother Ruined My Life
GENRE: YA Contemporary literary YA

First, there was a note on the fridge in Mom’s barely legible scrawl: “Family meeting. Living room. 4 p.m. Tuesday.”

I wrote neatly beneath it: “No can do. Fencing match. 3 p.m. Tuesday.” She never attended my matches—they were just club matches—so it was no surprise she was clueless.

Later, there was a new note: “Familll neeting. Livi— rom. 4 p.m. Wed.”

Once again, I answered: “No can do. Volunteering for Mrs. Coates. 1–5 Wednesday.” Mom wouldn’t know about this, either, unless she looked at the wall calendar in my room, which, mind you, she was free do.

Note #3: “Fam m--t. LR. 6 p Wed.”

Gah! “No can do. Neither can you. Women’s dinner at the club, 6 p.m. Wednesday. Make sure your purple dress is clean.”

Then there was a fourth note: “Fam met. LR. 12am. Wed. Midnight. I’ll wake u.”

And there it was: Mom’s insanity on display. She was totally serious. And it would work: My schedule was wide open then, though my eyes wouldn’t be.

I couldn’t imagine what was up. We’d never had a family meeting. Given Mom’s flair for crazy and dramatic, I figured it wasn’t worth trying to guess: It could be anything, eensy or enormous, important or unimportant, brilliant or ridiculous. If I saw her between now and then, I’d ask, but chances were good our paths wouldn’t cross. She’s busy. I’m busy. Hence the notes.

March Secret Agent Contest #40

GENRE: Adult Mystery


Majid Jaber was ascending the flight of four verde-green steps in his way to step up the podium. He got stung back with the fresh memory of the, nearly similar, yet wider, lengthier, lush covered steps he had recently scaled.

He felt like a debilitating old man experiencing a heart attack. That was not entirely unfathomable as he sensed he's got much older at the impact of the last year's blood-curdling events when he was only forty-seven.

Ascending another couple of leveled steps on the uplifted stage, Majid drifted back to reality from the agonizing recent memory he will carry into his burial. He caught the sight of the two far men settled at the panel over his head to the right.

He nodded appreciatively at the new president for the seventy-second session of the United Nation's general assembly, elected by the countries of Eastern European Group. The head of the gavel –recently handed over to him by the previous president– peeked over Majid's head; threatening to keep order; something that the greatest multi-national entity has been failing to do to the world.
The furthest man at the hefty wooden-lined, verde-green marble encased panel was none other than Danielle Medicci, the UN Secretary-General and Majid's childhood friend. The Italian, highest UN rank official was peering over at his friend with maddening concern that the entire capacity filling the UN general assembly hall –of officials, reps and media contingents– were failing to notice. All because they had been all following Majid’s striding up for the speaker’s podium with not much lesser fervent looks.

March Secret Agent Contest #39

TITLE: Absolution
GENRE: YA Contemporary

I can’t believe she brought him here.

I noticed him standing next to her right before kickoff. The smug asshole who stole my mother away from my father. During a free kick a few minutes ago, I pointed him out to Kevin. We’ve been dominating this game, but I’ve been terrible at finishing these chances we’re creating. I have one job on this team: score goals. I’ve already hit the post, the crossbar, and skied a sitter. It’s their damn fault.

The ball gets passed to my feet from Desmond and I feel their defensive midfielder lean into my back. I chip the ball out to Kevin and try to turn towards the goal. Kev passes it to Cody who keeps it moving quickly to Spencer who has made a run forward. We’re definitely dominating if he’s coming out of the defensive line to help break down their lines. I catch his gaze and point to where I want the ball. If I meet it there, I can play in Pete for a shot. Soccer is nothing is not an artistic game of angles and force.

Most people don’t consider athletes artists. But the only time I’m close to being an artist is with a soccer ball at my feet. When I’m not-quite-dancing, but weaving, sprinting, almost-flying beneath bright stadium lights like fingers across a fretboard. That’s art I understand. Sure, they appreciate the all-time greats: Jordan, Serena, Messi. They’ll always get recognized as master artists, pillars of perfection.

March Secret Agent Contest #38

TITLE: Never Say Never
GENRE: YA Romantic Comedy

True love is bull****.

I grew up in a home built on the belief in true love. As I headed down the stairs for breakfast that Monday morning, I witnessed the wondrous majesty of true love, right there in my kitchen.
Sitting at the table, Dad stared blankly at his newspaper, holding it up like a wall between himself and Mom, who drew her spoon absently through her cereal. He might as well have drawn a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the side of the newspaper that faced her. Interruptions from his daily reading of the news were strictly forbidden--if you were Mom.

“Good morning, Mom. Good Morning, Dad. What’re the important headlines of the day?” I flopped onto my chair, and intrusively peeled back the corner of his newspaper.

“Good Morning, Brynn,” Dad said with a faint smile, shaking his newspaper until it was standing straight up again. He was dressed in his usual shirt and tie with slacks, the required uniform for his job as a mid-level manager at a communications firm near the city.

“Yes, rather nice of you to join us.” Mom’s empty eyes stared at the back of Dad’s newspaper, her lips twisted into their semi-permanent frown. Mom was still wearing the long blue t-shirt she slept in. Her shift at the grocery store started later in the day.

I somehow managed to suppress an eyeroll. “I stayed up late doing homework. Had some trouble waking up.”

March Secret Agent Contest #37

TITLE: The Company of Old Ladies
GENRE: Adult Upmarket women's

The two old ladies sit in the Panera Bakery Café near downtown Denver. Plump Pansy, gray hair in the French twist she’s sported for years, sips a small, Equal-sweetened, hazelnut decaf. Despite her life-long battle with weight, she makes a face and adds two packets of sugar. Friend Esther, tall and bony and strung together loosely as a starved cat, drinks a soy milk latte.

           Pansy resumes the women’s customary discussion, a courteous—if heated—dialogue over the benefits and burdens of advanced age. At sixty-eight, she struggles to accept her deteriorating exterior while her interior still feels about thirty-five. “I simply don’t care what’s proper or improper any more. If I want to be blunt and opinionated, I am. I’m willing to look foolish. A big bonus that compensates for discomfort like the hemorrhoids plaguing me.” She shifts on the hard chair to search for respite.

            Clamp! Instead of rebutting, Esther squeezes Pansy's arm, halting her mid-thought.

            Pansy knows she must freeze in obedience to Esther’s silent command. Esther, the elder by fifteen years, likes to lead in pointing out items of interest, perhaps an especially dirty homeless man, or a newspaper headline blazing panic over a new environmental danger. Pansy slowly sweeps the room with her gaze, never moving her head. Then she nods to indicate she’s seen the curiosity.

            And there it is. At the table next to them. Something truly strange and wonderful. Whether male or female Pansy can’t tell immediately. Starting at the top, a Mohawk.

March Secret Agent Contest #36

TITLE: The Case of the Cat Crazy Lady
GENRE: Adult Cozy Mystery

Cathy stood before the tiny tombstone, a bouquet of spring flowers clutched in her hands. She bent down, tears in her eyes, as she read the inscription: “Here lies Floppy, beloved cat of Catherine Carter. Until we meet again on Rainbow Bridge. 2003-2015.” She placed the flowers on the ground in front of the stone and wiped her eyes with a tissue she took from the pocket of her blue cardigan. Growing up with an abundance of pets and now being part owner of a pet cemetery, pet loss was a constant in her life. However, the handsome gray and white tuxedo cat she’d had since the age of twelve left special pawprints on her heart. She would never forget Floppy.

Cathy turned as she heard a low rustle. At first, she thought they were footsteps and that another visitor was joining her to mourn a pet. Glancing behind, she saw it was Oliver, the elderly Siamese she adopted two years ago after his ninety-year old owner passed away.

Oliver approached on his cocoa paws. He let out a loud meow, typical of Siamese cats. It echoed through the quiet cemetery. Cathy knew he only wanted her attention. She patted his head as he rubbed against her calf. She felt his touch through the legs of her jeans.

“What are you doing out here, Oliver?” She was sure she’d closed the door behind her of the small house she shared with her grandmother.

March Secret Agent Contest #35

TITLE: For the Love of a Child
GENRE: Adult Suspense

My fingers tapped against the neck of the whiskey bottle that had saved my life. I wanted to pull it out and toss down a little more liquid courage, but I knew I’d only be putting off the inevitable. The door in front of me wasn’t going anywhere.

If I knocked, I honestly believed he’d kill me. Not figuratively. Not the cute ‘he’s going to kill me’ I hear other women use when they go shopping. He would literally end my life.

A cartoon image of a tombstone floated in front of my eyes.

Betty Miller. Died September 20th, 1998. Knocked on the wrong door.

My fingers traced the swirls in the wood grain. Much like the grey siding of the apartment complex around it, this particular rust-colored piece of wood didn’t appear to be anything special. But if I went through with this, knocked on this specific door, my life would change forever.

I stood there for a minute or two, staring at the door while my body swayed back and forth as if the wooden deck belonged to a ship in a storm. The bottle had somehow found its way back into my hand. I brought it to my lips, and part of me welcomed the warmth and euphoria the amber liquid ushered in on its way down my throat. The other part of me wanted to throw up.

March Secret Agent Contest #34

TITLE: Head Case
GENRE: YA Science Fiction/Fantasy

“I wish that I had a better prognosis for you, but these are the facts.”

He speaks as though he truly regrets the information he’s about to give, but the tone of his voice tells me otherwise. He lacks the sincerity someone about to tell the parents of an only child that their child will probably never wake up needs. I’ve never seen his face, but I don’t have to. I’ve learned to read people’s tones. Especially his. There is very little he cares about.

The child that will never wake up is me.

“Are you saying she’s going to be like this forever?” Mom’s voice trembles. I try not to imagine her reaching up to wipe tears gathering in her eyes. I wish that I could comfort her, but I can’t. I’m stuck inside my own mind.

Doctor Zaid clears his throat. “There is no way of knowing. Our tests prove that there is brain functionality. Which is good. It means that her brain is still functioning. It isn’t just a stem. By all counts, she should have woken up months ago, but here we are. Whatever is keeping her in the coma simply won’t let her go.”


My eyes are shut. With my eyes closed, I can’t see the doctor or the hospital room. I can’t see my parents faces. Nine months that I’ve been confined to the corners of my own mind.

March Secret Agent Contest #33

TITLE: Eight Minutes, Thirty-Two Seconds
GENRE: YA Suspense

L had forgotten how many times she’d died.

           Then, after resurrection, withdrawal kicked in with shaking and seizures, making it impossible to pretend she’d not become addicted to dying. Craving the life discovered in those brief moments of oblivion before being reborn.

            Once more. Her eternal promise to M: just one more death. Please.

            L’s fingers shook where they rested on his arm, trying to pull the injector closer to the port in her forearm. “Just one more.”

            “One more, for you,” he said. “Leaves the rest for me.”

            M pressed the plunger.

For a moment, she wanted to curse him. Damn him for injecting her, for wanting the rest of the doses, for reminding her that after she died she’d forget her empty promises of never doing this again.
            He’d heard it all before. He’d hear it again the next time he killed her.

            But the moment was fatally brief as the heat reached her heart. Fire tore through her left arm, to her jaw, into her ears with the banshee wails of flatlining.

            The pain overwhelmed. Until there was no pain at all.

The first seconds after dying were a vertigo death spiral, when the brain shuts down in a cascade of agony amid the inescapable sound of the last beat of her heart.

            Seconds later, other memories return. She’d died before. She’d die again. On purpose.

            Death had a reason.

March Secret Agent Contest #32

TITLE: Light on Glass
GENRE: Adult Women's Fiction

The dog refused to poop.

            That's what my life had come to. Standing on the sidewalk at an ungodly hour of the morning, wearing a fuzzy, pink robe and sheepskin boots over mismatched pajamas, watching a twenty-pound dog search for the perfect place to poop. Poop that I would have to pick up or risk the wrath of the homeowners association.

            Designated poop picker-upper. That’s my job. I sighed in the crisp, morning air. I don’t remember circling that option on my career aptitude questionnaires.

            After visiting three patches of grass and a fire hydrant, we headed home. I walked into the kitchen and headed straight for the coffee maker. As I sipped my way through my first cup of coffee, four year old Jack and seven year old Ella wandered in looking for breakfast.

            They were picking their way through waffles and juice when my husband came rushing through the door.

            “Keys. I need keys.”

            “Under your wallet on the counter.” I didn’t need to look up from my coffee to know where they were.

            “Yes. Thank you!” Rick scooped up the keys. “I’m running so late. I totally forgot I told Charles I’d meet him before work.”

            I poured a cup of coffee into a travel mug for him and held it out.

            He saw it and stopped mid-stride. “You are the best.”

            “So I’ve been told.”

            Rick shuffled through the disorganized stack of papers on his section of the kitchen counter. “Oh, I forgot,” he handed me a padded, yellow mailer.

March Secret Agent Contest #31

GENRE: YA Fantasy

It takes twice as long to go through an airport when your passport has to be read in Spanish. My time in the US had taught me as much.

The security officer at LAX eyed every page of my passport like he was reading a psychological thriller. I checked my watch again: 14:45. The gate closed at 15.

For the love of Einstein, I just wanted to make my flight.

I had to make that flight.

“Are you sure you want to go?” Behind me, my father tightened up the straps of my backpack, sliding yet another tissue pack into my outer pocket. You know, no emergency Kleenex can’t solve. “I mean, it’s Cairo. It’s so unsafe.”

“We live in Los Angeles.” I scanned the line of people taking off their shoes and belts in front of us as the giant analog clock on the wall struck 14:47. At this rate I would miss my flight, which meant I’d miss my chance to change the world.

“So?” he said.

“So we live in—” I sighed, waving my hand in front of his face. No use explaining this. Every place on Earth was unsafe for his not-so-little daughter, traveling without him for the first time. “I’ll be fine. It’s only for a couple of weeks. I promise I won’t join a militia.” My father smiled a weak smile.
The comment earned me a grunt from the officer. He uncapped a red pen and scribbled on my tickets. Hell if I wasn’t seconds away from being deported.

March Secret Agent Contest #30

TITLE: Daydreams
GENRE: YA Fantasy

A jolt of static electricity pulled me from the beach and back into my high school psychology classroom. I gasped as another course shot through my right shoulder. My eyes flew open, only to lock on the teacher in front of my desk.

“You wouldn’t happen to have been sleeping my class would you, Miss Danner?”

“No,” I said slowly. I hadn’t been sleeping, not exactly, but my daydream had been deep and detailed. Still, the front row of Mr. Michaels’ class probably wasn’t the best place to zone out.

“Then would you care to summarize the lecture?” he asked, sounding annoyed.

His irritation paled in comparison to mine though. The public humiliation of being asked questions in class was usually reserved for other kids; the kids who didn’t get straight A’s or mainline textbooks in their spare time.

I glared at Mr. Michaels for breaking this unspoken rule. He had fast become my favorite new teacher. His brand of dry sarcasm was exactly what I needed to keep me interested enough to pay attention in class. Most of the time.

“The whole thing or just the last few minutes?” I asked. It was almost the end of the hour, wasn’t it?

He glared right back as he said, “Describe the brain chemistry of falling in love.”

Well, that gives me something to go on at least, I thought, mentally reviewing everything I’d ever heard or read about neurochemistry.

March Secret Agent Contest #29

TITLE: The Monster Waves
GENRE: Adult Literary Fiction (Family Saga)

WE LOST MY LITTLE BROTHER on the day before Christmas.

Bud had been playing with his toys just after breakfast, there in the living room of our small house. And then he wasn’t.

No one knew if he’d wandered away or was taken by somebody, whether he was snatched violently or ran laughing to someone who smiled and held out a Hershey bar. He was only 4, but he wasn’t a shy kid. There was no way to know the exact circumstances.


SINCE IT WAS CHRISTMAS, that day in 1940, I didn’t have to go to school. About an hour later than usual, I poked a foot out of covers, just a small gesture before fully committing to verticality. And already, something was off. The room temperature was comfortable, almost too warm. We lived in Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland hard against the shore of Lake Erie. Late in December, you could count on winter’s full conceit, icicles, snow, the kind of cold that bit lips, froze the snot in your nose, sent your pecker and balls into deep hiding. Our house, old like all the ones around it, had a basement furnace, boxy and solid as a freight engine. The heat managed to reach the main level pretty well, but the second-floor bedrooms were another story. On school mornings, when I had to be up by 6:30, it wasn’t all that rare to see my breath, steaming white like Seabiscuit’s stamping in the gate at Pimlico.

March Secret Agent Contest #28

GENRE: YA Horror

The toe tag on the decapitated body read: IF FOUND, CALL (512)555-1212, so Del pulled out her iPhone.

Her favorite television shows portrayed dead bodies as a one-way ticket to life in jail, not a prerequisite to salvation. But life wasn’t television.

Life wasn’t that simple.

Del spied a turkey vulture gliding around the body. “Get the hell outta here! He’s mine!” she said, snatching a piece of gray limestone from the dirt and hurling the rock skyward. The irritated vulture voiced its displeasure before settling into the field’s lone oak tree which masqueraded as a kickstand for her ten-speed bike. For now, sixteen-year-old Del owned her prize uncontested.

The burning Texas sun played spotlight for the headless body starring center stage.

“I’m not afraid of you—” Del circled the shirtless decaying corpse. She maintained a perimeter outside the buzzing flies and fluid-soaked ground but breathed easier knowing it wouldn’t answer. “—I’ve seen other dead people, you know.”

Seen. Created. Collected. Same difference.

The option to call the cops had long since passed. They would canvas the field. Talking her way out of one dead body seemed plausible, but not a half-dozen. While her underground fort kept the bodies out of sight, their putrid scent would undoubtedly betray her.

Besides, if this was what she thought it was, there wouldn’t be a need for anymore collection. Time had come to collect on her handiwork.

She chewed her last unbroken nail to a jagged nub before dialing.

March Secret Agent Contest #27

TITLE: DEVASTATION: a Toronto Island Mystery
GENRE: Adult Mystery

June 1968

     Policewoman Christine Marsh reached for the passenger door handle of her police vehicle as she watched the two boats beeline a collision course to Ward’s Island Dock. The ferry's horn bellowed as it plowed through the lake, frothing water curling away from its prow. The eight-person water taxi raced the ferry from the periphery, peppering the air with its staccato horn.

     “Stop the car!” yelled Christine to her sergeant behind the wheel.

     Sgt Bard slammed his heel into the brake pedal. The Bronco jerked to a halt in a spray of gravel stones two hundred feet south of the dock.

     “They’re going to crash!” She shouldered the car door open, not waiting for her sergeant to ease his portly body out of the vehicle, and hurtled across the grass toward the ferry dock, hiking her skirt higher so she could run faster, her police-issue purse bouncing against her hip.

     She thumped onto the wide wooden dock. “Slow down!” she shouted, waving her hands above her head to get the attention of the ferry captain.

     Taking his eyes off the other boat, the captain spotted her, and slowed down fractionally.

     The water taxi emitted a jubilant beep as it cut in front of the bigger boat and steered toward the side dock allocated for small watercraft.

     Christine staggered as the ferry butted the row of tires lining the dock, its engines churning in reverse as its wake slopped over the worn rubber treads.

     These boat drivers were crazy! They had passengers on board, for goodness sake.

March Secret Agent Contest #26

TITLE: Banished
GENRE: YA Fantasy

I stare at my reflection, noting how the anger simmers just below the mask of my indifference. I grimace and try to dampen down. I will need to add extra whorls today, a distraction I hope. When the minders get a look at my face this morning I want them to see arrogance and disdain in my embellished tattoo… not the expression of someone fighting for control. My sixteenth birthday isn’t here yet, I reminded myself. Today is not my day to die.

I stab the metal tip of the ink scribe into the small black glass bottle. The red ink is the most expensive as it comes from the roots of the rubia plant, known for it’s finicky growing needs. It had cost me nearly two weeks worth of lunch credits, but it is well worth it. The deep crimson color stands out like fresh blood. I tap the edge of the bottle to remove excess ink and proceed to add extra whorls to my tat, pulling the design up past my eyebrow and nearly into the hairline. I watch, always fascinated, as the metal tip of the ink stylus gently scours my flesh, drawing tiny beads of blood that mix neatly with the color of the ink. I am one of the few that don’t try to hid the stamp of shame society has placed on us, I flaunt the mark, make it my own.

March Secret Agent Contest #25

TITLE: Garrett Gordon vs. The Cyberians
GENRE: YA Fiction

Garrett was bored out his mind at home alone, trying to read his assigned Lord of the Stupid Flies book with one hand and frisbee-tossing old CD-roms into a waste bin with the other until he decided to break the monotony by having a little fun at his old middle school’s expense.

He bolted to the window and scanned his driveway and up and down the sunlit street to make sure he saw no signs of his mom’s car before he typed the five-digit password into her laptop on the first try. 21096: her wedding anniversary.

Next, he'd need to break into the middle school’s computer system. He could do it the old-fashioned way and just hack the router from outside the school, of course, but that would require him getting on his bike and riding the few hundred yards to the school’s gate, possibly breaking a sweat, and possibly running into Thomas and his gang of goons, skipping class out by the abandoned sports equipment shed. He glanced back through the open curtains. And it did look pretty hot outside.

So, that only left guessing the sixteen characters disguised as asterisks in the area labeled “Password.”

He cracked his knuckles and leaned close to the screen.

He tried “RichardCarlBixby,” the principal’s real name.


He tried it again, all lowercase. Again, password error.

Just then, an idea came. He typed “WildcatsFootball.” The screen opened onto a black and gray webpage that looked like it hadn’t been updated since phones had curly cords attached to them.

March Secret Agent Contest #24

TITLE: Ferry to Brenton
GENRE: Adult Upmarket contemporary

James wasn’t actually reading the newspaper—he was hiding behind it. Hiding from the blinding reflection of May sun on a glassy harbor. Hiding from the rock-hard bagel on the round table in front of him. Hiding most of all from that empty ferry dock.

If only the flimsy paper could block out sound as well. His stranded commuters perched at three tables against the Brenton Bean’s outside railing, and their worries hammered against his hangover like a seagull feeding frenzy.

“Think the ferry'll get here like the mayor said?”

“Boss is gonna kill me.” 

"I've gotta get off this island, or I'll…”

James should've delivered them to Newport just over two hours ago. Right now he should be steaming back to Brenton Island again, sunlit spray flying and diesels rumbling, already tasting his daily bagel-and-coffee reward. But yesterday he'd been fired. So instead of clutching a wooden wheel, he was crushing limp newsprint.

Every time he checked the empty dock, someone would try to catch his eye. The regulars over at the big table knew to leave him alone; even Mayor Frank hadn’t tried to strike up a conversation this morning. The others, who’d all deserted their Wednesday morning routines to drift down here in search of news, speculated about him in voices pitched to carry. What had really happened to James yesterday afternoon? Could the ferry even run without Captain James? Each time he heard his name, the scar on his left temple throbbed.

Though that could be last night’s beers.

March Secret Agent Contest #23

TITLE: In Jake's Shoes
GENRE: Adult Southern Contemporary

November 28th
Khost, Afghanistan

I knew the chow line would be long, so I stayed behind to let it shorten. No one wanted to stand or eat too close to anybody serving in the Mortuary Affairs Unit, anyway. Working around dead people left a smell.

I lay still as a bird dog on point. My eyes were open, but I couldn’t see a thing. I had taken off my boots and socks, because I wanted to feel the smoothness of the plastic under my heels and on the tops of my toes. As the plastic settled over my body, its heaviness was comforting, like the thick wool blanket mama used to lay across me on cool nights when I pretended I was asleep. I felt its weight and coolness where it touched my naked forehead, nose, cheeks, heels and toes. I tried not to let my chest heave too much, so I took deep, slow breaths. It didn’t matter. Each breath heaved my chest enough to crinkle-crackle the plastic, as if bone beetles scurried across the outside surface, searching for ingress.

Time stood nearly as still as I lay. No red dirt swirled up my nose. No fingers sweated inside my blood covered gloves. No dog tags lay crumpled on the ground to collect and catalog. No tattered pockets to search for hidden “I love you,” notes from wives. No wrinkled, bloodied photographs of unseen babies to smooth and place in plastic baggies. No leg-less, foot-filled boots to un-lace to remove the ragged stump.

March Secret Agent Contest #22

TITLE: Ruby, Ruby
GENRE: YA Historical, Thriller

The visions have stopped, for now. Not having to see a corpse in over a year I’m free to perform again.

Jonathan doesn’t think I’m ready, but I’m ready to show our professors what jazz music could do, like the Swingjugend in Germany, dancers my age, who defy the Nazi crackdown that calls swing the music of the enemy.

If I pass the final grade tonight, I can join the swing circuit with my band. Proving to my brother, he didn’t have to watch me so carefully.

Taking a deep breath, I fix an alabaster shield with a puff of powder and straighten up, even as my stomach wretched with preshow giddiness.

The door flies open and Samantha steps inside, flouncing her blue tulle dress she sits next to me. “Jonathan let me pass.”

Not surprising. Samantha could convince a rock to roll over. “How is it out there?”

 “Swoony! Everyone’s dancing and I think the parents are finally leaving,” she says, smearing rouge on her cheek. “Your brother’s waiting, cute as a bug’s ear.” Her eyes hold mine in the mirror. “Too bad.”

I smile politely and stand up. “Alas, Harold’s his new flame.” Turning, I align the back of my dress appropriately. “I do hope he’s careful this time.”

“I have one favor to ask you,” Samantha asks, curling her lips into a bass clef. “Do you think, tomorrow, you could help my little brother? He’s dying to play piano again, and he loved your company so much."

March Secret Agent Contest #21

TITLE: Next To Me
GENRE: YA Young Adult

A newspaper cutting slid noiselessly out of the folder and landed gently on the tiles at my feet, making a slight rustling noise as it hit the marble floor. I read the heading: Haulage Magnate’s Daughter Recovered Barely Alive and sucked in a deep breath, clasping my hands tighter, turning my head away to focus long and hard at one of the diplomas on the wall. A sloppy mistake from her part. My trauma journey has been long, agonizing, and very painful. The last thing I needed right now was a reminder of the past my parents were paying for me to forget.

Realising her gaffe, Dr. Stone hastily reached down and snatched it up. I ignored the twinge of pain that soared up my hand as I realised that I’d accidentally dug my nails into my finger so hard that it had begun to bleed. I took out a tissue from my jeans pocket and wrapped it tightly around it, watching as the red permeated the whiteness. Pretty.


“Midnight. You know, the same. No changes there,” I said, fighting hard to not cry.

“Talk me through last night.”

The noise is piercing. Its shrillness resonates shock waves through me and I open my eyes. I am standing at my bedroom window facing the garden. My heart is battering angrily against my chest cage and I instinctively place my hand over it to stop the pain. My heart hurts and I feel nauseous. I want to vomit. It’s fear. I’m terrified.

March Secret Agent Contest #20

GENRE: YA Contemporary

I love this porch, especially on a warm summer afternoon. It’s screened, it’s shady, it belongs to my best friend Zoe. It’s more like home than home, these days.

Zoe sits by my side, her laptop perched on her knees, scrolling through her senior pictures. Even in black and white, her smile jumps right off the screen like a big hug. “You’re a real pro, Bits. My parents will love these.”

I would hope so. Zoe’s parents covered two month’s rent for Dad and me paying for something I would’ve gladly done for free. There’s something about photography. Lines, shapes, colors, stories captured for posterity. It’s how I frame the world, and I’m pretty good at it. I wish I wasn’t, but lately it’s my lifeboat.

Zoe clicks back and forth between three versions of her wading in City Lake, the warm dusky light dancing in the ripples around her ankles. “You’ll get into Rochester for sure.”

“They’ll have to give me major bucks.” I don’t have the heart to tell her I’ve given up on my dream school. “Waiving the application fee wouldn’t hurt either.”

“Your dad will find a job.” Zoe throws and arm over my shoulder. A wayward strawberry blonde curl tickles my cheek.

Before we’re homeless, I hope. It would be way too pathetic if Dad and I were evicted from our tiny garage apartment.

“New York is too far, anyway. I’d only be home for Christmas. If I get in at Colorado State, I can live at home.”

March Secret Agent Contest #19

TITLE: Hangman - The Guesser
GENRE: YA Romance, adventure

The Executioner pulls the metal structure from the brick wall. It’s morning. I hope this is the only hanging today. The sun hits the dangling rope noose, shimmering the gold and yellow in the thick braid. The wind moves it like an invisible mouth is exhaling. I blink and look away. Shift my attention to the digital timer built into the structure’s top arm. At the ready, it reads 00:00.

On a bench near the structure, I sit and open my notebook to write the date and time. I’ve been keeping track of every hanging I’ve been to since I was ten. My dad always told me how important it is to know how the hangings work. I’ve been studying by watching and making notes.

A burst of laughter floats over my shoulder. I turn and look. It’s a few students from my school. My spine immediately straightens, bracing for a barrage of insults. I can’t wait to graduate from high school and get away from everyone. A guy points his finger at me, then spins it in a small circle beside his temple. Justin Ryman. Athlete asshole with a head full of nothing.

“Coo-coo, Jason!” he yelps. The others follow suit - bunch of lemmings.

Every town has a square with a gallows in it. Our square is also an open market. Blooming flowers, ripe fruit and fresh-cut meat, sharing space with the hangings. I don’t know, lately it’s feeling…not right.

March Secret Agent Contest #18

TITLE: The Shoemaker's Daughter
GENRE: YA Retelling


   Shouts of delight mingled with his name quickened Phillip down the hall, propelling his bulk toward her office. Eyes alight, she grabbed his hand, pulling him through the doorway toward the water clock.

    “I’ve just had a message from Eli. He obtained the goblet!”

    He followed reluctantly to stand before the clock, water flowing down its face. It came to his chest, the falling water moving the gears, gravity marking the passage of time. In the bowl at the base, the last strands of steam silently curled upward. He stared with his wife at the remnants of the dissipating message, but he could read no meaning. There was, for him, only the monotonous trickle of water falling through the clock. It would have been soothing but for the contradiction of receiving a message.

    She squeezed his hand in both of hers. “I have been so unsettled about the Coming Out Ball.”

    He frowned, pulling his hand free. “Well, if you hadn’t thrown the goblet in the first place! Besides, you promised you wouldn’t involve Cole.”

    Shaking her head, she took his hand again. “I only said I would leave him out of it until after the ball. Somewhere, there is a young man capable of dancing as Cole could have. And with the courage to do it. I will see the dance I should have had with Cole.”

    “You set too much expectation on this ball.”

    “I will see that dance. Otherwise, the princes will go to the island.”

March Secret Agent Contest #17

TITLE: What We Were Missing
GENRE: YA Contemporary

I can’t remember the day my dad left.

Those twenty-four hours yawn like a black hole in the story of my existence.  A blind spot between total happiness and familial unraveling.

It’s been six years and I still catch myself sipping coffee and googling memory retrieval.  Therapy.  Hypnosis.  Optogenetic technology.

But I don’t pursue any of it.

Successful retrieval of lost memories hinges on one common factor.  You have to want to remember.  And believe me.  I don’t.

I’m standing on the front porch when Jo’s black SUV swings into our short driveway, two steaming cups of coffee warming the palms of my hands.  Tiny Christmas lights wrap around the railing, lending our house a cheery glow in the late afternoon fog.

“Um, you do know it’s November?” I said earlier as Mom hunted the extension cord.  

“Riley, let it go.  They look inviting.”  

Your house tells a story, after all.  And we need ours to be a happy one.

The engine shuts off and I bend back my thumb, snapping it forward with a loud crack.  Nervous habit.  Jo emerges first, her blonde hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail.  The twins, pent up from the four hour drive, shoot like rockets from the car the moment their buckles pop open.

“Aunt Riley!”

I set the mugs on the small table next to our porch swing and hug them tight, spinning around with one pint-sized human tucked neatly under each arm.  I like the way the world blurs around me, softening at the edges.

March Secret Agent Contest #16

TITLE: Doggedly Dead - A Killer Dogz Mystery
GENRE: Adult Cozy Mystery

I stared at my pristine white bathtub debating to bath bomb or not to bath bomb. My best friend and now business partner had insisted on rectifying the situation when I’d confessed to never partaking in the craze. She’d bought out half the selection Wal-Mart had on offer.

A knock on the bathroom door was followed by the one sentence that brought sheer terror to our entire neighborhood.

“Mrs. Rogers wants to talk to you.”

Placing the bath bomb on the vanity, I wondered what offense the kids or I could have done to incur the wrath of our next door neighbor. I opened the bathroom door and found my oldest sitting on the edge of my bed, twisting a strand of Auburn, today, hair.

“Where’s the phone?”

“Sorry, she’s on the porch, not the phone.”

Ignoring the smirk on her face, I grabbed the fuzziest robe I had ever owned and stuffed myself into it, covering my pajamas. “Just great,” I muttered.

Dropping the strand of hair, she offered to send, “the wicked witch” on her way.

“Hailey Ann Harrison, stop calling her that.” Even if it was true, I couldn’t risk such impolite behavior making its way back to my parents. I shuddered at the thought of their reactions.
I walked down the hall and sighed before opening the front door. A scowl on her face was the norm, I’d come to learn but her normally hairspray lacquered hair stuck out at odd angles as if even her hair was angry with me.

March Secret Agent Contest #15

TITLE: Konadai
GENRE: YA Fantasy

“If it can be created, it can be destroyed,” I mutter, staring at the data filling the holographic panel above my crowded desk. Then again, I’m sure the gods said the same thing about us.

A loud beep from the intercom snaps me from my thoughts. The voice is calm, almost robotic, as it pages one of the many doctors in the hospital. The small lab is isolated on the sixth floor, away from the sick patients and buzzing medical staff. I prefer it this way. Cultivating a cure for the virus ravaging our island city is far less heartbreaking than watching people die from it—especially people I know.

As I settle back into studying the data on the panel, another sudden noise draws me back to reality. This time it’s from the door swinging open. Anette strolls into the lab, focused on the digital tablet she’s carrying, with a manila folder tucked under her arm. Her unbuttoned lab coat reveals a red silk blouse, its color in stark contrast to her dark skin. As I straighten myself in my chair, she drops the folder onto my desk. It’s another unwelcome addition to the ever-growing mountain of assigned labor. My chest tightens as I glance down at the stack of papers.

I didn’t sign up to be buried under mundane work. I’m here to be a virologist, not a secretary.
Blowing my bangs out of my face, I move the papers aside and grab my notebook from the drawer.

March Secret Agent Contest #14

TITLE: Strange Occurences
GENRE: YA Fantasy

Something brushed Spooky’s elbow. Luke, it must have been Luke, slipped a piece of paper into the palm of her hand.

A note.

Pens were restricted-use items, so notes were rare. More importantly, notes were risky: you couldn’t change your story once it was in writing.

Spooky smiled a little, and squeezed the scrap in her hand. Luke had thought ahead about giving her this. She wanted to read his face as much as the words he had put on paper, but she kept her eyes trained on the front of the cafeteria.

“And that’s our inspirational quote for this evening!" Izeah Dodgson continued into the mic. The shine of his head matched the lacquered wood floors, which Spooky herself polished twice a week. "Now, I have one more announcement, and I don’t want anyone to be alarmed: last night's patrol spotted an animal inside the fence. Now, now,” he raised his hands as if to quiet the room of campers, none of whom had made any sound. “This is exactly why we have the fence in the first place. A thorough search of the camp tells us that our visitor didn’t stay.”

“It was a bear,” someone whispered. 

“Two Scuffs,” came the echo from a counselor. No one got away with talking during announcements.
The fence wasn't really for the animals. Spooky had seen the exposed bars and chain-link on the exterior when her parents brought her through the gates. The plastic sheeting that made it impossible to climb only ran along the inside.

March Secret Agent Contest #13

TITLE: A Limb of the Sweet Tree
GENRE: Adult Historical Family Saga

Northern France, Summer, 1918

           Hundreds of fireworks exploded, illuminating the night sky. Walter couldn’t help but smile. It was the Fourth of July. He’d come here for one reason and one reason only. Weasel had said there was a bright-eyed, swell girl Walter just had to meet. Her name was Adele, from over in Brightwater. A blonde with legs longer than an unwound skein of yarn and deep blue eyes the color of a cloud-free summer sky. Walter hoped Weasel wasn’t setting him up with some old nag his friend had already passed on. His smile faltered. After all, Weasel was known for talking up a girl only to find out later she wasn’t someone you’d want to introduce to your mother, let alone grow sweet on.

            Walter shoved his hands into his pockets and rocked back slightly on his heels. The fireworks grew louder as the display progressed. The thick, choking scent of gunpowder filled the air. He was just waiting for his friend to return. And that girl. They had to be around here somewhere. Even with the light show, the pavilion was chock full of dancers. Weasel had gone that way. Walter wandered over to the stairs. He mounted them two at a time and then looked out across the sunken dance floor. He searched every laughing face, every flounce of hair that whizzed by him. His smile slowly slid from his face when he realized he didn’t see Weasel or the mysterious girl anywhere.

March Secret Agent Contest #12

GENRE: YA Fantasy

My first memory is of running.

It was hot daylight, and the air was choked with dust. My tiny legs burned with exertion as my feet pounded against an earthen track. I was terrified, although of what, I don’t know.

Sometimes I think that moment shaped every moment to come. My life began in a burst of speed and fear. I was never safe—but at least I was fast.

I’m flying down another dirt road today, but this time I feel certain of myself. That confidence comes partly from the horse beneath me. I named her Starlight in a fit of whimsy, although she’s a plain bay dun with lopsided ears. She’s strong and lean and loves to run, and on her back, I’m no longer a creature bound to earth, but something with wings.

I let out a whoop and give the mare her head, standing in the short stirrups while we gallop down the path. I nudge her off the track, into the grass, and pull an arrow from my quiver. The grass doesn’t slow her, but it’s short here, the silvery stalks only reaching to her knee. The fox is a barely visible streak of brown in the distance, but as I sight down the arrow, I know it’s mine.

The beat of hooves behind me softens as my companion’s horse also plunges into the grass. He’ll be too late, though. My arrow is already singing through the air. It strikes the fox in the side.

March Secret Agent Contest #11

GENRE: YA Contemporary

A Native American legend says this forty mile stretch of river, from the far edge of Lake Ontario northeast to Quebec, has a current flowing through it that can heal a broken heart. I don’t know if it’s true, but I want to believe it. I’m willing to try anything to stop my world from falling apart. It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since Mom, Dad and I last made this boat ride, when I was just eleven. Back then, I happily went along with Dad’s old story that a dunk in the Silver Head River could wash away life’s messiness. But I’m sixteen now, practically a grown up. I should be too old to trust matters of the heart to fairy tales or folklore. Here’s the thing, though: It’s not my heart I’m trying to heal.

I didn’t wake up today intending to steal Gramps’ boat. From the tiny upstairs bedroom of my grandparents’ cottage, I was perfectly content to spend the afternoon drawing while Gran and Gramps went to some boring river development meeting in town. I only walked down to the dock for fresh air and to stretch my limbs. Gramps’ faded gray runabout was pointed away from the cottage. It was a straight shot off the dock, like the boat had been waiting to lead me somewhere.
The runabout charges forward, bobbing up and down. It takes me a good few seconds to get a feel for the jump on the throttle. I nearly choke on a wind gust.

March Secret Agent Contest #10

TITLE: Forget It!
GENRE: Adult Mystery/Crime

When Althea turned her back and pulled up her shirt, Mary choked off a scream.

I forced myself to not look away. The keloid scars stood bold and angry, red worms tunneling through Althea’s chestnut skin.

Red worms driven by a serrated hunting knife, forming a hakenkreuz. A swastika. A symbol of hatred, inscribed in the small of Althea Dorrell’s back. A taunt the size of a salad plate, carved – hacked, really – into her flesh.

“You can put your shirt down.” Wendy’s voice, calm, soft but commanding. A doctor counseling her patient, except that Althea wasn’t her patient, but an old friend of Mary, and thus, more recently, of Wendy.

“There’s… more.”

Her face still turned toward the paneled wall of the trailer, Althea struggled to lift her shirt further. I couldn’t decide if the limitation lay in her arms, or in her willingness – her ability – to share her pain with us.

Or in Althea feeling like the subject of an interrogation. On the tired couch, alone. Mary and Wendy in wooden chairs around the small dining table, facing her. Me in a third chair, pulled away from the table, so I could see Althea, study her, with nothing between us but the ghosts of the bastards who’d attacked her, nearly killed her two years ago.

Mary whispered, “Let me help.”

Althea looked over her shoulder. Staring at her old friend. She swung around, fixed her eyes on Wendy, then focused on the stranger in the room.


March Secret Agent Contest #9

TITLE: My Education in Crime
GENRE: Adult Crime / Mystery

The crowd around the baggage carousel was three deep, but I'd found a position just behind a short man in a good haircut and tailored suit. I was satisfied he was traveling on business. The rules were; no students and no grandmothers. Only business travelers. Only people who could afford the loss.
I made one more check of the porters and the lone police officer in the baggage claim area. None were paying any attention. In 2003, Baggage Claim was the last official use of the honor system in American life.

Pretending to watch the luggage coming down the conveyor, I studied my businessman, waiting for a tell.

My mobile phone—a Palm Treo 750, which I loved—was in a pocket of my cheap Old Navy jacket, the phone’s battery in another. Not because I didn’t want to be startled by an unexpected call, though that was also true, but so that there’d be no way that any sort of law enforcement would ever be able to prove—based on cell tower records, at least—that I’d been anywhere near the airport during a rash of laptop computer thefts.

The tell showed. When business-guy spotted his bag, his posture changed, his breathing relaxed and he eased just a little closer to the belt of passing Samsonites. I figured he owned one of the suitcases that had just appeared all jumbled together, probably the black roller. It matched the laptop case leaning against his leg, and besides, he wasn't the duffle bag sort.

March Secret Agent Contest #8

GENRE: YA suspense

   My fingers grip the handlebars of my bike. Pebbles fly from the pavement. If anyone asks (which they won’t), I’m barreling toward the Battersall Pass Bridge. My path to purging a rotten school year from my brain.

     Okay, that’s only partly true.

     I have a plan.

    The bridge in sight, I slide off the bike and head toward the pedestrian walk that hangs under the actual bridge and leads to the scenic observation deck where hikers and birdwatchers flock in good weather. More than likely they’ll be out today. Not a problem. They’ll be looking up. I won’t.

     The high concrete walls and ceiling tremble from the rumble of heavy tires overhead. The place smells of brine and stale, forgotten food. Guide lights along the bottom edge of the pathway splay light in the gloom. Not a place to linger. I shiver a little and move along quickly.

     Finally, the walkway gives way to the deck. Today, shadows from the bridge girders hide most of the sun, but the water below sparkles with bracelets of sunlight.

     I stand on the bottom rung of the railing and lean over. Fifty feet down the water glides in lazy swirls. An invitation. I hold out my arms like a heron ready to fly…

    A raven swoops. Not a good sign. Ravens are bad luck in my family. I want my jump to be perfect. To impress the swim team.

    One of the birdwatchers moves toward me. I step down and shrug.

    Not today, I think.

    Not yet.

March Secret Agent Contest #7

TITLE: Plagiarism
GENRE: Adult Thriller

In terms of cryptic instructions from an angelic presence, You need to be made a man had to be oddest. Skylos presumed it wanted him to lose his virginity.  Dutifully, he hobbled through the alleyways among closed business in downtown Los Angeles.  Was he in the right place to find a prostitute? You couldn’t Google those kinds of things from the library.

The wetsuit, green rubber gloves, and goggles had him sweating.  After rounding a corner he rested on the windowsill of a convenience store.  He discarded a shard of amber glass from his bare foot and wondered how many hours he’d been walking.  At least two.

He trudged on through the throbbing cramped muscles in his crippled left leg.  The angel had been adamant he complete the task. Above him a poorly illuminated street sign read Temple Street.  He recited the route back to the homeless shelter.

“Temple, San Pedro, Adams, Central, Sixth…” He swallowed after each word, doing his best not to stutter.

"**** off!" yelled a voice ahead.  As a car’s tires squealed Skylos hurried to the corner.  Ahead a group of women waved their middle fingers and shouted.  He slicked his hair back with the rubber kitchen gloves and sprang forward, revitalized by the sight of them.  Wincing he jogged to their corner. The wetsuit clung tight to his lanky frame and creaked like a cricket as he walked. He held his head high, out of pride and necessity; the goggles covering his face had fogged from his shallow, panting breaths.

March Secret Agent Contest #6

GENRE: Adult Mystery

I was waiting in the wings with cold, soaked cotton trapped under my arms, staring out at a live studio audience with seven million viewers behind them, and like everything that had ever happened to me worth mentioning it was because of Near Death.

Bone dry under blaring, thousand degree spotlights and fourteen-million eyeballs, Collin Prestor – sorry, Sir Collin Prestor – made a tuxedo look like casual wear. There was acting and there was acting and then there was being able to control when you sweated. Whether it came with British blood or was the product of a Shakespearean theater pedigree I would never know. Lawndale wasn't exactly London.

Despite being thirty years behind his colleague, Niles Endsworth matched his mentor blow-for-blow, making up what he lost in polish with panache. He was the same vintage, bottled in a different generation, sculpted by a strict regimen designed to produce a physique like a special effect. Don't blame Niles. He was only giving the modern audience what they demanded in a hero. Unlike some narrators, only a thin sheen betrayed the junior man’s nerves, but that was the point. You'd be nervous too, said Niles’s wavering jawline, if you had been chosen to be the next Jove Brand.

They played their roles to the hilt, master and apprentice, with casual grace absent any trace of pretense. The production assistants could have ditched their que cards and grabbed a sandwich for all the good they were doing.

March Secret Agent Contest #5

TITLE: Complex Solutions
GENRE: YA Contemporary

Whether I’m running to remember or to forget, it doesn’t matter.  

    When I open the front door, the October wind gusts in, wanting to sweep me forward, stirring the hunger in me. The hunger to feel my heart thrum, my muscles pulse, and my lungs burn.

     I shake myself out of my thoughts, crouch down, and lace my running shoes.

    Bailey sits on the mat, his feathery blonde tail brushing back and forth. I stand, zip my hoodie and grab his lead.

    Gram steps into the foyer, her flowered robe cinched tight. She tucks the morning paper under her arm. “Off for your run?”

    “Yeah, down to the beach.”   

    “You’re so much like your mom,” Gram says, her mouth quivering.

    Like my mom? How? My motivation? My stamina? Or the way I burn with intensity to feel something real, causing me to destroy?

     Stop. Running. The beach.

     I shove down the guilt and turn toward the door.

    “Is everything okay, Alexandra?” Gram touches my sleeve and I wince, the bandage underneath rubbing against my raw wound. She arches a brow. “You haven’t—”

     “No.” I stare at the crimson roses on Gram’s robe.

     Outside, the grassy hill is slick with morning dew as I slip-slide to the street. Lying to Gram churns my stomach, but I need her to believe things are better.  Or they will be as soon as I start to run, set my mind adrift and forget, before I have to face the day.

March Secret Agent Contest #4


I time my laugh to spill perfectly from my lips.

Except, the sensation rises from my abdomen like gravel tumbling through my mouth. Stacy turns in her seat with her lips pursed tight. She shakes her head. The other girls stop giggling. Their purrs of laughter in deep contrast to my piercing cackle.

They frown in unison - everyone but Stacey. She has an ‘I’m sorry I got you into this mess, Hun’ look on her face. Though lacking in most social skills, I’m easily able to read their expressions: ‘What the hell was Stacey thinking bringing the schizoid?’

I’m painfully aware something is off with me. On a scale of weirdness, I’m not Pinhead. I’m more Carrie, without the powers. I’d change this perception of oddness I convey, but I don’t know where to begin to work on myself.

So I don’t.

Glancing around the table, I attempt a quick recovery. “I have a dog, too. He’s the cutest little Pomeranian.”

My words are met with oohs and awws but Stacey shakes her head once, slightly. I don’t know why she does it. I’ve hit a cord with these girls. I block her shaking head and the bombardment of senseless information streaming through my mind and continue talking. “He’s a handsome little fur ball.”

“I love dogs,” One of Stacey’s friends says.. “My Jax is too freaking cute.”

 “My little FeFe is too adorbs. What’s your dog’s name, Elizabeth?” Melissa, the closest girl to me asks.

“Norman Bates. He’s a  -”

March Secret Agent Contest #3

GENRE: YA Fantasy

Ebba’s soaked dress clung to her skin as she ran through the moonless night. The lake water left from her near-drowning had crystalized into icicles. If she fell, she might not get up again. Keep moving. Get far away from the witchfinder, may he be reincarnated as a drunkard’s chamber pot.

Heedless of direction, she climbed up the mountain, away from her village. A wolf’s cry pierced the air. Ebba froze.

The forest was dead silent again, eerily devoid of owls or bats. An ancient demonic invasion had left this place magic-cursed. Ebba shivered. Most wolves avoid humans. Except for the red-eyed ones living deeper in the forest. Anabiel help me.

She refused to be devoured like her mother. Perhaps she could sneak back to steal a knife and some food. She’d been too panicked in her flight, afraid the witchfinder might wake up…

First, he’d poked pins into the mottled red birthmark covering her left cheek. Giant hands had held her down, his nails filthy and his liver spots as big as spiders. His too-close breath had reeked of onions.

“Confess,” the witchfinder had ordered after every pin. Each time, she’d refused. They’d kill her once she confessed.

The second day had been the hot iron. This morning, the dunking. Through a blur of watery suffocation, her most distinct memory was, peculiarly, the smell of the sausages. Mad Gill had sold them to bystanders. Her pleas with her neighbors had been met with disdain or bloodthirsty fascination.

No, she wasn’t going back.