Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Transmissions from Agent J

Another JSH Book Club wildcard to be released sometime this year: Transmissions from Agent J!

It's a book which takes excerpts from my dream journals and presents them as straight cut-up fiction (?), in a manner reminiscent of what William S. Burroughs did with his dream book, My Education. However, I'm finding that explaining the context of some of these dreams to the reader in passing is necessary, to the extent that the book is also shaping up to be the closest thing to an autobiography you might ever get out of me.

I put the question mark after "fiction" because it's something of a conundrum: these dreams really occurred, so does that make the book non-fiction since I'm merely reporting the facts as they happened inside my skull? But since the events in the dreams are, of course, imaginary (depending on your interpretations of quantum physics, morphic resonance, and Jungian consciousness), would fiction not to be an apt way to describe them? It depends on where you're standing, I suppose.

Since the book relays both the private bric-a-brac of my subconscious dream life and personal details of my waking life, you might even find yourself mentioned within its pages, dear reader. (To keep some of the juicy gossip contained in the tome semi-curtailed, I'm thinking that it'll be released in print form only, no e-book, unless I change my mind between now and then.)

The ultimate Jeffrey Scott Holland book, no compromises. Pre-order your copy today!

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Excerpt from "The Invisible Ranch"

Coming soon from the JSH Book Club: The Invisible Ranch, a pulp-fiction novel of western adventure and intrigue set in 1870s Arizona!

Henry Rohaugh is a sort of industrial saboteur of the pre-industrial age, and when he's hired by a scheming dairy company to put their competition (a new brand of milk that claims to impart magic Native American spirit powers to those who drink it) out of business, everyone involved starts to realize they're in for a wilder ride than anticipated.

A rough first-draft excerpt is offered here:

It didn't take long for the man to plummet to the ground from the roof of the hotel; it was only four stories tall. The crowd gathered below didn't make a sound, and no one looked away from the awful sight. Well, a couple of women looked away for a second, then darted their eyes back, not wanting to miss the big finish.

It was anticlimactic. He landed flat on his back and his head bounced once against the pavement. It didn't make a dramatic sound. Not the sickening thud you would expect, nor a soul-stirring splat. It was more like the sound of someone punching a pillow. Maybe it was all the heavy winter overcoats the man was incongruously wearing in this summer heat. The audience on the street quickly disassembled, now that the show was over. The man had been raving like a lunatic while dancing along the edge of the hotel's roof. Everyone was already murmuring about suicide, but he didn't jump. He simply wasn't a good dancer and he fell off.

No one seemed to know who he was or why he was on the roof. No one much cared either, it seemed.

Henry Rohaugh sucked on a cigarette across the street, outside the offices of Merriman Dairies. It was a beautiful day in Phoenix and he knew he should be in a good mood, but he was uneasy. Not about the dead man, but about this interview he was about to undergo for a new job offer.

Rohaugh was a professional criminal for hire. He was quietly known among certain circles as the best of the best; a man who could penetrate anyplace and get any dirty job done. It wasn't nice work and it wasn't pretty. Had his life taken a different direction, he could have been a top-notch detective or even worked for the Secret Service. But he took the hand he'd been dealt, and had been sweeping all the chips to his end of the table ever since.

Why a milk company would be interested in enlisting his services, he had no idea. He tossed the remainder of the cigarette down and marched up the stairs to find out.

"Good to see you, Henry," said a stubby bespectacled cigar-chomping man waiting to shake his hand at the top of the staircase. "I'm James Cox, President of Merriman Dairies. Come right this way."

Henry was led into a small, cramped, very dimly lit office. Eight men, some sitting, some standing, were silhouetted in the dark by the light of the lone unshuttered window.

"You boys playing Spin The Bottle in here?" Henry wisecracked. Some of the men chuckled and some of them didn't.

"This is my associate, Melvin Ridgway", said Cox, pointing to a nervous-looking obese man standing by the desk.

"Melvin!" exclaimed Henry, "How the hell are ya, buddy? I ain't seen you since we was at the carnival in Prescott!"

Henry began to hug Mr. Ridgway profusely, to everyone's confusion, especially Mr. Ridgway's.

"Have we... met?"

"Lord God, Melvin, we painted the town red that night, don't you remember? We went bobbin' for apples and I pulled your head out of the water when you dunked down drunk and didn't come back up."

"You have me confused with someone else, Sir," he replied meekly, trying to disengage from Henry's hug.

"Must be my mistake, then," said Henry. "Sorry, fat boy."

Henry suddenly turned to another man. "And who might you be?"

"You can call me Ned."

Henry gave him a vigorous two-handed handshake that enveloped his entire arm, like those a politician would give.

"Ned," he said, "you got a real weak handshake for a milkman. Ain't you built up no muscles squeezin' them teats?"

"Mister Henry.... I'm on the business side of things," Ned replied with a condescending sneer. "I've never actually milked a cow in my life. I leave that to the farmers."

"Oh-ho!, laughed Henry. "One o' them unmarried marriage counselors."

Henry whirled to the next man. "What's yore name, podner?"

"Let's skip the introductions, shall we, Mr. Rohaugh?" sighed Cox, weary of this routine. "All you need to know is that the men you see here before you all have an interest in the continued success of Merriman Dairies. And we're wondering if you're the right man for the job."

"Whut is the job, ezackly?"

"You've heard of Lucky Milk, I take it?"

"Nope." In fact, Henry did know of Lucky Milk; everyone in this part of Arizona did.

"They're a new upstart dairy farm that's just sprung up from nowhere outside of town. In just three months they've become the only milk anyone wants. They're lining up around the block to buy it! I've never seen anything like it. It doesn't make sense."

"So," said Henry, pacing in circles around the room, "you want me to steal some of their cows so's you can git in on the action."

"No, even if we did that, we can't compete. People think Lucky Milk is better, and even if we offered the exact same milk in our own bottles, no one would try it. They're presenting this milk with the preposterous idea that the milk has magic powers transferred to it by a sacred Indian spell, or some such mumbo-jumbo. But everyone has fallen for it. The gullible public seriously thinks the milk is making them happier, healthier and luckier!"

Henry glanced out the window as he paced. The dead man's body had been hauled off, and an old woman with a bucket and a brush had been sent to scrub the blood off the sidewalk. She seemed to be doing little more than spreading it around and making a mess.

"I guess that feller didn't drink none, huh?" said Henry.

"This damned Lucky Milk is all anyone's talking about," said Ned. "I simply can't believe you've never heard of it."

Henry sat down behind Cox's desk and plunked his dirty cowboy boots right up on the blotter.

"Mister Ned," said Henry, mocking Ned's voice, "I'm on the whisky side of things. I've never drunk milk in my life."

"What we need from you," interjected Cox, "is for you to put that farm out of business, permanently."

"You mean like one o' them there tragic unexpected fires that wipes out all the buildin's on the property, and helps cover up the fact that ever'body in the place was stabbed to death?"

"Well," cringed Cox, "spare us the details..."

"It's gonna cost ya, hoss", said Henry as he leaned back and twirled one of his six-guns around his finger. I don't know if you boys can afford me."

"Hey, that thing's not loaded, is it?" someone said.

"Course not, fool. There ain't nothin' more dangerous than a loaded - "

BANG!!

The pistol went off and shattered part of the chandelier. Everyone went scrambling for cover. Henry leaped up from the desk, grabbed a broom that was leaning against the wall and got in amongst the frantic bustling group of men in the small room with it, recklessly sweeping broken glass to and fro.

"Hold on, pards! I'ma clean this up! You're lucky I know a glass man in Tucson who can fix that all up fer ya! I'll pay fer the damages - outta the money you give me, natcherly."

"Mr. Rohaugh," said Cox sternly. "I think this concludes the interview. I'm sorry, but..."

Cox had reached for the ashtray on his desk where his cigar had been parked. The cigar was gone. He looked back at Henry to see he suddenly had it in his hand, taking a long draw off it.

"In all seriousness, now, Mr. Cox," said Henry, whose voice was suddenly low and eloquent instead of the high-pitched wheezing hillbilly voice he'd been affecting, "a man such as yourself should be able to afford a better cigar than this. Remind me, when all this is over, to give you a tutorial on the finer points of selecting a cigar."

He tossed the cigar in the wastebasket and pulled out a pocket watch.

"Melvin and Evelyn's tenth anniversary," he read from its inscription.

"How the hell did you get that??" cried Melvin, patting his vest.

"The same way I got this," said Henry, producing a silk handkerchief upon which a woman had left, as a souvenir, a kiss-print with her lip makeup.

Melvin grabbed both items from Henry and started a volley of cursing in his direction.

"The monogram on that handkerchief doesn't match your wife's initials," intoned Henry quietly, "and I'm willing to bet your wife doesn't wear that kind of makeup."

Melvin got quiet and sat back down.

"You there," said Henry, motioning to one of the men, "I believe this is yours." He pulled a billfold from his coat pocket and hurled it at him with some force. "And you, Ned, are missing some cufflinks, I think."

Ned checked his right cuff and looked back at Henry, astounded. Henry tossed the cufflinks to him, but he failed to catch either of them and so went scrambling on his hands and knees for them.

Cox was stunned, but not nearly as stunned as when Henry took out a stack of money, neatly bound in the middle by a bank's paper band.

"If this is the money you were intending to give me, I hope you understand this is only a down payment. You're going to need nine more of these."

"How did you do that??"

"You were all looking right at me when I did it," said Henry. "But your eyes were on my muddy feet on your desk and not my hand. You shouldn't keep money in your desk drawer like that, it's the first place the janitor looks when you lock up at night."

Cox just stared at him in shock.

"Which," Henry continued, "you'll have trouble doing without this."

He handed Cox his office key.

"Mr. Rohaugh," Cox mumbled slowly as he looked down forlornly at the key in his hand, "you've got the job."

Monday, December 29, 2014

Literary Grindhouse

When I first published The Devil and Daniel Boone in the summer of 2012, it had been my intention that The JSH Book Club would quickly start cranking out these primitive, shoddy, low-budget literary crumbs on a monthly basis. Though four books in the year between summer 2012 and summer 2013 was admirable, it wasn't quite what I'd planned; nor was the almost year-long hiatus after The Bartender.

Now, having moved to Naples, I'm revitalized by the swamps of southern Florida, Ernest Hemingway style, and also perhaps anointed by having made my pilgrimage to the bar in St. Petersburg where Jack Kerouac had his last drink. I'm now announcing that, come hell or high water (both of which do in fact occur here) I'm putting out a book a month, making this a real, honest-to-gorsh book club that will deliver a fresh fruit to your mailbox every month.

January's selection is, of course, Toulouse-inations, which reared its ugly little head day before yesterday. I haven't yet decided what the next volume for February will be, but I have a whole raft of almost-finished projects cluttering up that desk. The genres run the gamut from historical romance to hard-boiled detective to voodoo thrillers to science fiction, but the greater overarching genre is "pulp fiction", that glorious world where ineptitude meets exuberance at the corner of inscrutability and expedience.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Toulouse-inations

My play Toulouse-inations, staged by Catclaw Theatre Company at the Kentucky Center For The Arts in 2008, is now a novel from Wakeling & Harbour and the JSH Book Club! The book will be available in paperback and Kindle e-book edition before year's end.

Toulouse-inations is about the declining fin de siecle days of Parisian nightlife in the 1880s, as seen through the green absinthe-drenched visions of painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

T-L spends much of his time propping up the bar, and in an adjacent brothel where he spends his nights consorting with prostitutes - but as a friend and lover, not a client. One of his polyamorous love interests is Eugenie, a blonde ingenue who aspires to become a playwright.

In addition to the fascinating women in his life, a number of other peculiar characters weave their way through the woof and warp of T-L's struggling art career. That career is imperiled continously by his bohemian lifestyle and alcoholism, which threatens his health and his sanity as his hallucinations increase in severity.

Toulouse-inations combines a lighthearted and breezy tone with darker elements of Steampunk and Grand Guignol horror. As with my previous historical novels - The Seventeenth Island and The Devil and Daniel Boone - if you're the sort to get bent out of shape over severe liberties being taken with historical accuracy, I caution you to stay away. Far away. The hell away. Run.

Submitted here is a brief excerpt:

Two nights later, I found myself once again leaning against the bar in the company of that Francis Tumblety fellow. He was wearing the exact same clothes he'd had on last time I'd seen him. (He probably thought the same of me, but I happen to have many white shirts and black vests.) Dr. Tumblety was in a slightly more erratic mood on this occasion, given to long stretches of brooding. He was also tossing the shots back at triple my pace.

Our conversation so far had been fairly normal and interesting. He hadn't really said anything truly obnoxious or weird this time. There came a lull in the talk, though, and we both sat silently, staring out at the crowd of people. He lit a cigar, which made copious amounts of thick gray smoke that he exhaled through his nose.

"Isn't smoke a funny thing?" he asked, dreamily and philosophically with a faraway look. "It's been inside our bodies, and yet we casually fill the air with it and breathe each other's. You would cringe at the idea of touching my lung, and yet you have inhaled particles from my lungs into your sinuses. Disquietingly intimate when you think about it, eh?"

"I must say I had not thought of it in that light. And let us proceed to stop thinking of it now."

Tumblety laughed, and blew more smoke in my direction.

It just goes to show you never know what might happen next in Montmartre: at that moment, a tall and lanky clown in a cerulean blue jumpsuit came staggering and stumbling towards the bar, as if disoriented. Usually people exit here in that state, not enter. He plopped down in the chair to my left and then began staring at me with what seemed to be awe.

"Are you part of the show?" I inquired.

"Show..?" he said, dazed. "No....."

"What'll it be?" Petra the bartender asked him, with total nonchalance. I guess she gets all kinds in here.

The clown looked around nervously. "Ahh... I'll have what he's having", he said, indicating me.

"Absinthe it is," said Petra.

"Absinthe?" repeated the clown, eyes widening with excitement. He turned to me. "Say, friend, um, what year is this?"

"1888."

He looked crestfallen, as if that was not the answer he expected and not an answer he liked. Petra sat a glass of absinthe down, and the clown chugged it in one gulp.

"Thanks, brother," he whispered to me, patting me on the back as he stood up and walked away.

"Well, that was odd, wasn't it?" I said to Tumblety.

"Odd? What's that?"

"The clown, of course."

"Clown?" he looked puzzled, then his face brightened. "Hey, I brought something to show you. Hold on, let me fish it out of me gladstone." He rustled around in his big travel bag and produced a jar with a sealed lid, containing something that looked like a piece of lasagna floating in alcohol.

"Have a look at that, then, ain't she a beauty?"

"What IS it?"

"It's a uterus", he beamed like a proud parent.

I recoiled, then thought it must be a joke and got closer to peer at it, then recoiled again.

"Whu.... uh... *why* do you carry a uterus in a jar around with you?"

"Wouldn't you?"

I just stared at him in horror.

"Never know when you might need one," he grinned.

We sat in silence awhile longer. I swallowed back some more absinthe and then chased it with cognac while he puffed away at that infernal cigar that smelled of scorched wheat, like if someone burns toast.

"I save 'em after operations, you know," he finally said. Little keepsakes of my livelihood, and theirs. Someday when I'm old and gray I'll have a whole trophy room full of these memories."

"I never met a surgeon who wanted to keep such mementos."

"I take pride in my work, sir. Great pride."

Petra wandered by and did a double take looking at the jar.

"What is that?" she said.

"A uterus", Tumblety and I said matter-of-factly and simultaneously.

"Alllllllllrighty then," she mumbled, shaking her head and walking away as we clinked our shot glasses together.

Just then, Marie took the stage in a gold sparkling dress which she quickly proceeded to strip off in a dance routine. She never looked more beautiful than she did just this moment. Part of me was filled with pride to associate with her, while another part of me felt great sadness that someone with so much talent should be wasting it on the miscreants in this place - and that includes me.

"See her?" I said to Tumblety. "That's another of my love interests."

"Confound it, Hansel," he replied, "How do you do it? I have *got* to start following you around and picking up your bread crumbs."

(Above: Erin Mann as Petra, Erik DeCicco as Dr. Francis J. Tumblety, and Sidney Hymson as Toulouse-Lautrec in the 2008 stage premiere of "Toulouse-inations".)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Tropical Depression

What I learned after spending a year in Florida: I can't write in Florida.

Something about the nonstop permanent-yet-impermanent chaos of the Sunshine State, coupled with the biorhythm-altering utter lack of seasons, can make a man confused, spinning his wheels, distracted by shiny things, buttered all over, reaching out in the darkness for something stable amidst the whirlwind of data.

Of course, that's not to say it isn't a blast. If one must be distracted from the Great Work, at least it's by awesome piano bars, steak and absinthe, bubble tea, beachcombing, birdwatching, fine cigars, oysters and island-hopping. That, and keeping busier than ever with all those little things I quietly do in the background.

So, here I sit in paradise, thinking, ever thinking, about those four in-progress novels sitting on my desk. One of them - The Alternation of Night and Day, is technically finished but I keep tweaking on it. And tweaking. As I've noted before, though, I'm not one to rush these things, even if it is tawdry little Kindle pulp fiction novellas and not War And Peace we're talkin' about here. They'll be finished whenever they're finished, deadlines be damned. But it's my fondest hope, dear reader, that at least two of these will manifest before year's end:


The Alternation of Night and Day. I couldn't decide if I wanted to write a boxing novel or a voodoo novel next. So I did both. An Irish boxer living in Louisville in the 1930s decides to seek an occult solution to his personal and career woes.

Solar Station A. As mankind just starts to get to the point where ordinary citizens can get their own personal small crafts to go zipping around in space, one of the early adopters gets out there and discovers that we have not been told the truth about what's really going on in our solar system.

Matilda Heron. An actress with a 17th century theatre company becomes entangled with a strange secret society, and increasingly finds herself having difficulty differentiating the events of her life from the events her characters experience onstage.

The Tract of Blood. A sequel to The Moleskin Checklist, in which Jack has become a compulsive gambler and golf club hustler in an Arizona resort town. Jack is traumatized by the theft of his precious "Tract of Blood" notebook. Sappy and his mysterious new exotic mail-order girlfriend aid Jack's quest to get it back, whether he wants their help or not.


Ernest Hemingway did some of his finest work in Florida, and so I must ask myself how better to follow in his flip-flopped footsteps. I'm thinking I need to drink more rum. In an effort to better assume the beingness of ol' rockin' Ern, I plan to pack up stakes and head to a remote group of islands in the near future. Here, I believe, I will slap out my finest work.

Then again, Hemingway died depressed and blew his brains out. Maybe I should be more like Fitzgerald and just go back to guzzling gin rickeys at Louisville's haunted Seelbach Hotel?

Sunday, February 2, 2014

JSH Book Tour 2014

Watch this post, as it will be continually updated with the latest JSH Book Tour dates!

Although I'll be sticking closer to home this year, I plan to double last year's number of personal appearances. With Solar Station A, Matilda Heron, and The Alternation of Night and Day all lined up for release this year, plus new specialty hardcover editions, plus a couple of secret projects not to be spoken of yet, plus further musical performances, PLUS everything else I do in life that doesn't concern you, it's gonna be a busy year, my dears.

Tour dates vary from simply making an appearance at a venue at a table, signing autographs and handing out coupons for the Kindle edition of the book (plus surprise gifts), to actual readings and speaking engagements. This year there will be more and more of the latter; more formal events. Even so, as with everything in my life, it all essentially runs on a "the event starts whenever I show up" basis. Find me.

Sometimes impromptu appearances occur on the way to, or on the way back from, any given event. These dates will be added to the list retroactively for archivism's sake. Need more specific info? E-mail me or keep an eye on my Twitter feed.

February 3: Ocala, FL.
February 4: Orlando, FL.
February 5: St. Petersburg, FL.
February 26: Silver Springs, FL.
March 3: Tampa, FL.
March 20: Tallahassee, FL.
March 27: Ocala, FL.
April 2: Tampa, FL.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Excerpt from "The Alternation of Night and Day"

Coming this winter in paperback and Kindle edition from the JSH Book Club: The Alternation of Night and Day!

It's a story set in 1936, with an Irish boxer from Louisville named Danny O'Corbin who seeks an occult solution to his personal and career problems. The quest takes him to New Orleans to meet a man who, he's been promised, can help him become a more powerful being.

More details on the book, and how to win free copies, will follow in the weeks to come!

The science fiction epic Solar Station A, originally scheduled to be the next book club installment, has been postponed a few months. One of the good things about calling the shots of your own book distribution is the ability to extend your own deadlines infinitely, or even just throw up your hands and say, "you know what? It'll be out when it comes out." The other upcoming novel, Matilda Heron, will also appear early next year.

---------------------------------------------

Helen Ward and the Benny Goodman Orchestra played on the truck radio. "Just like the sting of a bee, you turned the tables on me..."

Daniel munched from a paper bag of salt-boiled shrimp he'd bought from a roadside vendor, and gazed around at the swampland. Trees heavy with Spanish moss, with exposed roots and tentacles, lurched against each other like drunken Arsenal teammates covered in mud after a football game in the rain. This sort of scenery was new to him; except for a childhood visit back to his ancestral home of Waterford, he'd rarely left Louisville in his life. And even then, it was to visit other big cities like Cincinnati and St. Louis. In this rural setting, feelings of anxiety were welling up within him, and he couldn't say exactly why.

Ahead on the left he saw a group of people and some sort of commotion. A man was holding onto another man, and forcing him down into the swampwater to drown. The rest of the mob, many of whom were women, were cheering and joyous about it.

Daniel started to hit the gas, but then found himself hitting the brake. He pulled over.

Being an exceptional fighter sometimes made Daniel feel obligated to step in and help others whenever he saw them being attacked and bullied. It made him feel to good to help people in this way, but it also made him feel like an intruding busybody. He often tried to come up with a philosophical stance that would make him feel more comfortable with the contradiction, but he never succeeded.

"Hey!" cried Daniel, flinging the truck door open. "What goes on here?"

Everyone stopped and turned to look at him in surprise. The man, still holding into the other man in the water, said something but Daniel couldn't hear it.

"Let him go! I said let him go!" Daniel shouted as he strode up, and then in a quieter voice as he got to the water's edge: "What the bloody hell are you people doing to him?"

Suddenly everyone burst out laughing, including the man being drowned.

"I'm being baptized, brother," he grinned.

Daniel was stunned. He'd never heard of someone being baptized in a swamp. His own baptism had occurred when he was a baby, and took place in the baptismal font at the door of the Cathedral of the Assumption.

"Come and join us! Have you been baptized?" called out the attacking man - who Daniel now realized must be a Pastor - who motioned with his hand for him to enter the murky water.

"Thanks anyway," mumbled Daniel, "I'm not really a religious person..."

A cloud crossed the Pastor's face, both literally and figuratively. "Oh, son, thou hast let thy prideful ways bring you down to the level of man's world and not God's world, haven't you?"

Daniel hated it when people talked that way. Just because people said "thou hast" in the day of the King James Bible didn't mean Jesus talked like that, and there sure wasn't any reason to talk like that now. No wonder so many people can't tell Shakespeare quotes from Bible quotes half the time.

"Maybe some other time," Daniel said nervously. "Look, I'm really sorry to have disturbed you..."

"Thou fool!" the Pastor suddenly intoned melodramatically. "this night thy soul shall be required of thee!"

Daniel just stared back.

"That's Luke 12:20," said one of the women, cheerfully and helpfully.

The free-floating irrational fear in Daniel's head, simmering before, now came to a full boil. He felt his face go flush and his temples go numb. It became difficult to breathe. Daniel struggled to sort out the mental and physical components of it, but his mind was racing too fast for his thoughts to monitor themselves. At that moment, all he wanted to do was run - preferably all the way back to Louisville - and this was a sensation he'd never had before.

Shaking, he turned and hurried back to the truck without another word. The women in their white dresses waved to him as he sped off.

Daniel turned the radio on and off a number of times. He tried to eat a shrimp and then spat it out the window. He thought about happy things and then thought of unhappy things, trying to flip the dials and levers of his nervous system until he came up with a combination that calmed the overwhelming anxiety. Finally he felt his blood pressure go down enough to breathe freely, and decided it must be the shrimp making him feel weird. He tossed the bag out the window. Through his rear view mirror he could see vultures had come from nowhere and swooped down on the discarded shrimp in an instant.

He turned the radio on again. Harriet Hilliard's "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" was playing. He turned it off again.

The marshlands gave way to a wide grassy expanse of small farms and houses, some of them quite nice. Not at all the sort of neighborhood you'd expect a voodoo priest to be living in. Daniel studied the directions on the back of the placemat. Gray house with a big cactus out front, it said. And minutes later, there it was. A fancy two-story farmhouse, painted Confederate gray, with a tractor tire painted white in the yard, a very tall humanoid cactus standing within it.

The truck crunched gently into the peastone driveway. Could this really be the place? Aside from the cactus, it seemed so... normal. Daniel stepped out of the truck and walked up the steps of the veranda. A ceiling fan of a type he'd never seen before, with wide brown blades like leaves or insect wings, slowly rotated above him.

His hand was poised to knock on the door when a black woman pulled open the curtain on its window. He flinched with surprise, then felt embarrassed for having done so. He heard a series of locks, chains and bolts being undone, then the door opened.

"Hi, I'm Daniel O'Corbin. I'm here to see Joachim", he said, pronouncing the name phonetically.

Her face made no expression. "Joachim will be with you in just a minute," she replied, stressing the name and pronouncing it wa-keem. "Come in. Sit down."

The house was like a bewildering carnival inside. The walls were covered from top to bottom with all sorts of pictures and strange items. Pieces of tree branches and palm fronds were affixed to the walls making patterns. Newspaper clippings in French, some of them in little gilt frames. A hideous rag doll was nailed to a doorpost. Other dolls, some made of twine and sticks, others of corn shucks, also hung on the wall with beads draped around them. Ornate multi-sconces held scores of candles that smelled of camphor and oranges.

Daniel saw some Catholic icons displayed on a shelf, and stood staring at them as a stable factor in the room's rococo chaos. This worked fine for a bit, until he realized there was a dried, shriveled, human finger with a long yellow fingernail resting on the shelf as well. Daniel decided perhaps it was best to just go across the room and take a seat.

The woman wheeled a tea caddy into the room. Daniel stood up courteously. She placed two teabags in a delicate china cup and poured the water over it, then turned to leave.

"Oh, thank you, Miss, ah..."

She turned and stared. Daniel waited for her to take the hint to introduce herself but it wasn't coming.

"Yes?"

"I, uh, didn't get your name," he smiled.

"You can call me Variola," she said stonily. "Joachim will see you shortly."

Daniel sat down and shifted uneasily in his chair. He felt like he was waiting at the doctor's office. Except the doctor's receptionists were a lot nicer and they had better tea. Daniel wasn't a tea drinker anyway. What was this stuff? He reached for the tea package. Oolong. Oolong? Daniel had never heard of such a thing. He was starting to feel like there were a lot of things he'd been ignorant of, and was about to get an education.