ExcerptMIDNIGHT MAGIC anthology
Mass Market Paperback
Publisher: Tor Romance
Pub. Date: May 2006
Chapter One from "Ulterior Motives"
They'd found her.
Merline Sullivan tilted her rear-view mirror, spied the zoom camera lens of the paparazzi in the car behind her and pressed the gas pedal toward the floorboard. Her snazzy Corvette responded with a satisfying surge of acceleration over the Maryland highway and put distance between her car and the one pursuing.
Could she lose them before she ran out of gas? Her gauge registered almost empty.
She hung a left, then veered right, pulled behind a dry cleaner shop and parked. After taking a moment to wipe her sweaty palms on her faded jeans, she scratched the itchy skin beneath the cast on her wrist, broken during a roller blade fall, and wondered exactly how long she'd have to be out of the limelight before the press stopped hounding her.
As the white sedan in pursuit screeched to a stop behind her Corvette and the stench of burned tires filtered through her AC, she realized that, although the two months when she couldn't work had seemed an eternity to her, not enough time had passed for her adoring public to forget herhence the stalkerazzi.
With a frown Merline pulled back into traffic, carefully and slowly, as if she didn't care that they'd found her. As if she didn't care that the one thing she was good at, the one thing she loved, the one thing that made her happyhad been taken from her. Merline might have been born with her big voice, but she'd honed it with long hours of practice and discipline into a finely tuned instrument, and after years of performing in hick bars and rinky-dink towns, she'd hit the big time, becoming an "overnight success."
Along the way to becoming a superstar, she'd lost her last name. And her small town midwestern accent. Madonna might have been her personal hero and Sheryl Crow a friend, but Merline's talent had soared her right to the top of the pop charts. And she'd stayed there. Platinum album after platinum album. Grammy awards and movie offers. A-list parties, plus a bulging bank account, she'd had it all.
Her workaholic tendencies had been praised in the press. No one had understood that she worked to keep the fear at baythe fear that one day, everything she'd struggled so hard to achieve would be gone. And now the worst had happened. Without her voice, she couldn't sing. And if she couldn't sing, she didn't know what to do. Singing was who Merline was. She needed to sing to be happy, needed to sing to remind herself she'd mastered at least one aspect of her life.
Knowing she wouldn't be able to lose the paparazzi and adhere to the speed limits within the small town of St. Michaels, Maryland, Merline resisted the urge to speed. Instead, she searched for opportunity and when she spied an empty parking spot, she signaled with her blinker and pulled over.
The sedan pulled right behind her, smashed her rear bumper. Her front passenger side tire slammed into the curb. Metal crunched. The airbag opened, and from the loud popping, she surmised her tire had just blown out. Damn. Luckily Merline hadn't yet removed her seat belt. She wasn't hurt.
She reached around the airbag, turned off the engine and cracked open her door to spy a long camera lens aimed at her face. "Merline. Look over here."
Jerking back into her car seat, she slammed her door shut and gripped the wheel tightly. It wasn't enough Alfred Cusak had crashed into her. The sleezebag who'd been hounding her for a month wanted to take her picture, capture her at an embarrassing moment. Sheesh. A normal person would ask if she'd been hurt and apologize for crashing into her car. Damn parasite.
Perhaps she could drive away on the bad tire. The motor revved but the groan of metal told her she was hung up on the curb.
She might be trapped, but maybe she could outwit Alfred. All she needed was a local tow truck to come for her carpreferably with her inside it. Pressing charges barely crossed her mind. She didn't need the hassle of the accident showing up on the evening news with the inevitable rumors she'd been drinkingor worse. Even if it was ten o'clock in the morning, viewers might believe the rumor mill, and her agent, manager and publicist would be on her case.
Intent on calling AAA, Merline plucked her phone from her handbag. When her call wouldn't go through, she refrained from banging her fist on the air bag. Instead, she released a sigh of frustration and called Lilly, her personal assistant.
"Merline Sullivan's office." Lilly's upbeat voice came over the line from LA to Maryland as clear as the photographer's view of Merline through the front windshield.
Merline swore and she imagined Lilly's frown into the phone. "Merline? Is that you?"
"God makes artists. The devil makes paparazzi." Merline complained, realizing that her very plush, very slick red Corvette was heating up in the morning sun. A decade of practice avoiding the flash of cameras, of hiding behind big Gucci sunglasses and bigger Ferragamo hats grew tiresome on a good day. And today was far from good.
Lilly's voice sounded vibrant, annoyed. "If it weren't for your photographs in the rags, I wouldn't even know you're still alive. We never talk anymore."
"I'm calling now, aren't I? Besides, I'm on vacation." Merline had no idea how long she could maintain the front that everything was fine, that she was merely taking a career break. She'd canceled her world tour, claiming her broken wrist prevented her from playing guitar, but rumors had started. And when the paparazzi had caught her sneaking out the back door of a world-renowned voice specialist who'd diagnosed her partially paralyzed vocal cords as a reaction to the anesthesia during her wrist surgery, the rumors had escalated. It wouldn't be long before the entire world knew for sure that pop-sensation mega-star Merline could no longer sing a note.
Avoiding the tinted side windows, flashbulbs popped through the front windshield, the bright lights warning of the blinding attention she'd receive if she reopened the door. The damned paparazzi seemed to travel in packs and at least five cameras now pointed her way. Sometimes the price of fame was more than she wanted to pay.
So far, Merline had kept her career-ending disaster from her friends, co-workers and recording company. Not even Lilly knew the truth. No one didexcept her doctors. Luckily the business world mostly ignored celebrity rumors. Her recording studio hadn't called her to make a statement. Yet. But word would break soon. Someone would hack into a computer. Or overhear a nurse talking about her doctor's famous client. Word would get out that Merline was washed up. Ruined.
"You don't answer my calls."
"I've been busy."
Merline had no idea how long she could keep hiding. From the paparazzi. From her life. From the truth. From her fans. While the medical experts had given her little reason to hope, Merline hadn't given up. In her short twenty-eight years, she'd been stepped on often, suffered numerous setbacks, and had learned to fight to keep up a brave front.
"You're supposed to be resting after surgery."
"I am. Or I would be if my car didn't have a flat." She refrained from giving more details that would require more explanations. After all she was supposed to be resting her throat. From the nifty GPS on her dashboard, she ascertained her address and passed on her current location to Lilly. "Send AAA?"
Locals and tourists had exited the shops and gathered on the sidewalks. Likely the sound of her blowout had initially attracted their attention and then the paparazzi had increased everyone's curiosity. People milled, all waiting to see who would exit the corvette.
Let them wait. Merline had no intention of budging until her tow truck showed. As perspiration beaded her upper lip, she reconsidered starting the car and running the AC, but even if her gas tank hadn't been low, she had no idea what kind of damage she'd sustained and the possibility of starting a fire terrified her.
From a local shop with a sign that read "Second Chance," a woman gestured to her with an open palm, clearly inviting Merline to come inside. Slim, with shoulder length blond hair and a tattoo on her ankle, she possessed intelligent blue eyes and a kind face.
Merline's phone rang. Caller ID told her it was Lilly. "What's up?"
"AAA can't tow you for another two hours. The truck's already out making a call."
"Give us a head shot, Merline." One of the paparazzi shouted. "Open up. Come on." He pounded on her window.
"What's going on?" Lilly sounded worried. "Should I call the police?"
"I'll be okay, Lilly. Thanks."
Merline changed her mind about exiting the vehicle. After grabbing her guitar case from the back seat, she pulled her hat low over her sunglasses, opened the door and exited, using the case as a shield. Although the crowd surrounded her, experience told her if she walked quickly, people would move aside. Ten steps later and she was inside the shop.
Second Chance appeared to be a combination antique store and art gallery. The woman sold paintings, furniture and vintage clothing. And her store smelled of fresh coffee and pastries. Even better the cool air conditioning helped dry the sweat on Merline's palms. Towering urns filled with ferns and tiger lilies the color of lemons and ripe bing cherries soothed her. Deep green vines crawled over a brick walled fireplace that looked so old she wondered if the store had been built around it. As if waiting for customers, nooks and alcoves were filled with paintings and overflowing with big leafy plants, bronze statues and delicate miniatures flanked wall sconces. A silver tea set and a collection of ivory-handled canes rested on an antique sideboard.
When the woman locked the door behind them, Merline knew she'd found a friend. "Thanks."
"You're welcome. I'm Sara," she smiled warmly. "You can stay as long as you like."
The paparazzi knocked on the door. Sara lowered the blinds over the store's plate glass windows, and after her kindness, Merline decided to buy a paintingeven if she didn't like any of them. But as she spied a Linda Lekinff and then an original oil on canvas Tarkay, she relaxed further.
"You have beautiful artwork here."
"Feel free to look around. Would you care for a soda or coffee?"
"Something cold, please." Merline appreciated how the owner didn't ask personal questions, not even about the frantic paparazzi still knocking on the front door. "What about other customers? Aren't you worried you'll lose business?"
Sara grinned. "I own this place and profit isn't everything."
"Besides, after you leave, the town newspaper will publish a story about you hiding out in my store and tourists will flock in. I'll make a tidy profit . . . so you needn't feel obligated to make a purchase." Sara held out an icy cola.
Merline accepted, figuring either Sara was uncommonly perceptive or she'd read her mind. "Thanks. Are you always so kind to strangers?"
"Only to superstars." Sara's blue eyes twinkled, letting Merline know not only that Sara recognized her, but that she was teasing.
"So you get a lot of us superstars here, do you?" Merline sipped the icy drink between parched lips and it tasted like heaven.
"You'd be surprised. I enjoy guessing which art will appeal to which customers. Now, you haven't even glanced at the Peter Max but Lekinff calls to you."
"I own several of her paintings." Merline admitted. "I like the mood she setspeaceful, yet independent, and she's a good investment."
"Liking a piece is the only good reason to buy. There's an artist whose work I hung in the back that I believe you might enjoy viewing," Sara suggested. "The painting is called Midnight Magic."
Merline hated pushy sales people, but Sara honestly seemed more interested in her opinion than in making a sale. As Merline wandered toward the rear of the store, careful not to let her guitar case knock into any of the paintings, Sara picked up a feather duster and lovingly ran it over one picture frame after another.
The paparazzi finally stopped banging and Merline actually felt safe. The piranhas might be waiting outside, but for the moment, she was free. Taking her time, she roamed through the gallery, admiring old masters and up and coming artists, as well as the work of several talented locals.
But when she reached the back room, her breath caught in her throat and she held tight to her guitar. Something about Midnight Magic drew her. While she wasn't an art expert, she recognized the technique. The painting was abstract, pointillism. Colorful. Filled with tiny dots of thick oil paint in primary colors, the technique caused the eye to blend the images until Merline saw secondary colors which were brighter than the original paint. The slashes of color were stunning.
Sara joined her. "The painting is very old, and legend says a broken-hearted magician painted it with magical paint."
Merline couldn't stop staring. It was almost as if she'd been meant to blow out her tire, stop in front of this store and find this painting. "How much do you want for it?"
"Sorry. It's not for sale."
Disappointment washed through her. She would have enjoyed hanging the painting in her studio and marveled that the more she stared, the more her eyes blended the dots. "I understand why you want to keep it. Are there any other works by the Magician?"
"Just this one. The legend claims that the painting has magical qualities that cause some viewers to travel to the right place at the right time to cure what ails them. When the painter finished, he traveled into the world he'd created on canvas and never returned."
"Now, that's a fanciful . . . idea." Merline gazed at the pinpoints of clouds swirling into the dark sky. She stared harder. Was that a star, a planet or a satellite?
She felt light. As if she was being pulled into the painting. The effect startled her. Merline liked art. She owned a bunch of paintings. But never had she felt this connected. How had Sara known? And why did she feel as though the painting was calling to her? Beckoning her?
Almost as if caught in a magnetic force, one moment Merline was standing in the art shop talking and breathing normal air, the next . . . she floated right into the painting . . . and she was . . . in a vortex of spinning light, swirling sound.
Oh God. Was that her screaming? Had her mind finally snapped?
Merline had left the gallery and Sara's antiques far behind. Sucked like a cork into a powerful whirlpool of purple slashes and pink ribbons of light, she tumbled and fought for balance. But she had no leverage. There was no gravity. No floor beneath her feet. No up. No down. Only Merline and her guitar wildly spinning.
Gyrating, wildly, she suddenly popped through the fantastical tunnel. And her eyes widened in shock.
Frantic to find something familiar, she looked around some kind of busy domed building with large windows that let in . . . star light. She blinked, trying to erase the images of beingssome of whom sported blue skin. Others had tails and wore feathers. Some floated, one snaked and another crawled across shimmering gray metal that looked like no substance she'd ever seen. She felt as though she'd transported onto the set of The Outer Limits or Star Wars.
Had Sara put a hallucinogen into her cola that she still held in one hand? So why was the liquid rising from her glass, bubbling away into the . . . atmosphere?
When she noted her own feet were no longer attached to the deck, she screamed again. Surely not even LSD could make her float above the gray metal like an astronaut in space? What the hell was going on? Why couldn't she breathe? Was she hallucinating from lack of air? Or having a panic attack?
Her stomach roiled and she swallowed hard to keep down breakfast. This couldn't be happening. The stress of the last few weeks must have caused a complete nervous breakdown. She'd gone insane. She'd heard of pulsing blue lights causing mental instability, could the points of paint have caused an imbalance in her brain?
Alien humanoids couldn't be staring and pointing at her. They weren't there. She closed her eyes. Attempted to draw deep breaths. But still couldn't draw air into her lungs.
Don't panic. It's all in your head.
But when she again tried to refill her lungs, there still was no air. Her eyes flew open. The alien world was still there. And she'd floated dizzily higher.
She needed oxygen. Her lungs burned. She released her glass and it traveled upward, end over end. Her vision narrowed, tunneled on a large man who'd floated into the air and who grabbed her shoulders.
She clutched his shirt. "I can't breathe."
He answered in a deep and melodic voice, speaking a foreign language she couldn't understand or identify. While his big brown eyes set in a suntanned face and framed by long dark hair looked concerned, she read puzzlement in his gaze. Obviously she didn't belong herewherever the hell here was.
Her vision narrowed to a pinpoint of light. And then the light went out.