Now that Speculative Horizons, the anthology edited by Yours Truly and published by the great people at Subterranean Press, will be released this fall, I felt that the time was right for an extract to be posted on the Hotlist.

I elected to go with a teaser from C. S. Friedman's "Soul Mate." Not only is it one of the strongest short fiction pieces found within the pages of the anthology, but this urban fantasy tale is completely different from what the author has offered us in the past.

If you want to help raise funds for cancer research, or if you are just curious and wish to give the anthology a shot, it's now available for pre-order via the Subterranean Press website. Otherwise, if you want to get it at a discount, it's also available on various Amazon sites: Canada, USA, Europe.


"Soul Mate"

All things considered, the arts and crafts festival was not as bad as it could have been.

There was a lot of high-end jewelry being sold, polished gold and silver sculpted into interesting shapes, and several booths featured the paintings of prominent abstract artists.. The latter was a happy surprise for Josie. A show like this usually had stall after stall filled with representational paintings, passionless renderings of trees and streams and farmhouses and ducks (there always seemed to be ducks), just waiting to be hung on the wall behind an ugly flowered couch. And of course there were always crowds of sunburned tourists standing around each painting, chattering about how wonderful the ruddy hue of that aging barn was, or how that particular beam of sunlight, trickling through the branches of a willow tree, was just the right tone of amber. At such times she was acutely aware of the limits of her own vision, and the fact that she could not perceive the same subtle distinctions of color that other people could. Abstract art, by contrast, was a purely private indulgence. It either spoke to you or it didn’t. No one else told you what it was supposed to look like, or felt that there was something wrong with you if you could not share their perspective.

She wandered around for nearly an hour before the day’s heat finally go to her, then made her way back to the far end of the festival grounds, where her friend Karen had set up her wares. The U-shaped table was located next to a vast, spreading oak tree, whose branches had offered a modicum of shade during the first part of the day. But the afternoon sun had shifted westward, moving the shade away from the display, and the beach umbrella set up to compensate wasn’t big enough to shelter the whole table. Racks of crystal earrings seemed to catch on fire as the sunlight hit them, blazing with palpable heat. Did that play up the colors in the glass, or mask them? The only hue that Josie could pick out clearly was a brilliant cobalt at the end of the rack, defiantly cool. But that was hardly a surprise. Most of Karen’s more subtle color combinations were lost on her.

“How is business?” Josie asked, settling into a small red plastic chair by the side of the table.

“As you’d expect.” Karen reached back into a cooler behind her, pulled out an ice-cold soda, and handed it other. Josie held it against her face for a moment before breaking it open, letting her skin absorb the its wonderful chill. “People don’t spend as much money in this kind of heat.” She sipped from her own soda. “Everything will wind down soon, I expect. The stained glass people have already left. How did your shopping go?”

“There was some nice jewelry. Nothing I desperately need to own. Except for Romero’s stuff, which I can’t afford.” She sighed. “He’s got a lotus blossom necklace to die for – art nouveau design, with freshwater pearls in the blossoms – but…well, you know his prices. A real work of art, though.”

“You always did liked that art nouveau stuff.”

She nodded and took a deep drink from her can, shutting her eyes to savor the cool flow of effervescent liquid down her throat. In the midst of the day’s heat, it was almost as good as diving into a waterfall.

“Hey.” Karen nudged her with an elbow. “Speaking of works of art.”

Opening her eyes once more, Josie followed her friend’s gaze across the festival grounds. There was a dirt road dividing their row of tables from the next one, where a row of couch-painting vendors hawked their indistinguishable wares. At the end of the line was a small display of more interesting work, including a few Vernon Miller prints. Bright, bold, and clean of line, they were as refreshing to her as the cool soda had been, and for a moment she forgot her purpose and just admired them. But Karen’s elbow in her ribs urged her back to the business a hand, and so she scanned the whole of the stall, wondering what it was that her friend wanted her to look at --


He stood opposite one of the larger prints, a lithograph that Josie had been admiring earlier in the day. His attention was wholly focused upon the work, as if the rest of the world had ceased to exist. The sense of aesthetic communion was so intense that it seemed almost sexual, and Josie found herself being dawn to both him and the lithograph.. Or maybe that had nothing to do with his concentration. Maybe the sight of a man that attractive admiring her favorite artist was a pleasurable thing in its own right. In truth, he was as good to look at as anything she’d seen at the festival. He had dark features and a strong build, and an aura of self-confidence bordering on arrogance which most women found irresistible. His white linen shirt was perfectly pressed, his dark hair perfectly coifed, his leather shoes perfectly polished. He was the kind of man who looked as good as he did because he invested time and effort in doing so. The kind of man you admired in magazines, but did not expect to meet in person.

“Ten bucks says he’s gay,” Karen whispered.

“You think?”

Karen chuckled. “You know the rule. The pretty ones are always gay, married, or living in their mother’s basement.”

The stranger turned towards the front of the stall suddenly, as if something on their side of the road had drawn his attention. Josie caught a flash of deep brown eyes as he scanned the fairgrounds, a hint of some exotic heritage in their depths. Not a type she normally dated, but damn, he was good to look at.

‘Or a serial killer,” she whispered back, completing the formula.

And then, unexpectedly, he looked directly at them, and met Josie’s gaze. His eyes fixed on her with the same intensity they had on Miller’s artwork, and she could feel herself shiver. Yes, it was a clearly a sexual thing this time. No lithograph to blame it on.

He left the Miller stall behind, and started towards them.

“Holy shit,” Karen whispered, and she started straightening out necklaces for cover. Josie lifted up a hand to smooth the stray wisps of her blond hair back into place. It was a hopeless task. A long day of sun and sweat had made her feel like a drowned rat; she couldn’t have looked worse for meeting a man like this, she thought, if she’d dressed for the occasion.

And then he was right there in front of her, all tan and gym-toned and looking like he just stepped out of a Bally ad. “I saw you admiring the lithographs.”

From somewhere she found her voice. “I like Miller’s work a lot.”

He smiled. “Then we have that much in common.” He glanced down at the table, and reached out to stroke a pair of crystal earrings. He wore no ring, Josie noted, nor was there any tan line to imply that he should be wearing one. Not married, then. One down. “Good art speaks to the soul, don’t you think?”

“So does bad art.” She managed to smile. “It just says things we don’t want to hear.”

“Perhaps.” His smile was winning. His own teeth were perfect. The kind of perfect that didn’t come naturally, but had to be paid for, tooth by tooth. “Is all this yours?” He indicated the jewelry.

She shook her head, nodding towards Karen, who offered, “Mine. All hand-made, sterling silver, and the crystal is Swarovski.” With a mischievous gleam in her eye she added, “Perhaps there’s something here your girlfriend would like?”

A faint smile flickered across his lips as he looked at her; he knew the bait for what it was. “I have no girlfriend.”

“A boyfriend, then?” Karen smiled sweetly. “I have body jewelry.”

Josie found she was holding his breath. But he only chuckled and turned back to her. “Forgive me,” he said, “I’m being rude. Stephan Mayeaux.” He offered her his hand.

“Josie Ballard. Josephine, that is. And this is Karen Foster.”

He held her hand a moment longer than he had to; the contact made her skin tingle. For a moment -- just a moment -- it seemed there was a connection between them, something that mere physical touch could not explain. Or was that just wishful thinking on her part? Jesus, she was thinking like the heroine of a cheap romance novel. (Not that she ever read any of those, of course.)

Suddenly the strains of a rippling piano arpeggio dispelled her reverie; it took her a few seconds to recognize the melody as a Bach prelude. He pulled the a cell phone out of his pocket, looked at the caller ID window, and sighed “I’m sorry. Please excuse me. I need to answer this”

He walked down the road a few steps and turned away from them. Josie could sense Karen trying to get her attention, but she didn’t make eye contact with her. She was too busy trying not to think about whether or not this man was really flirting with her, and what it might mean if he did.

He’s not your type, you know that. Too self-focused. Too meticulous. Probably obsessive/compulsive to boot. How do you make love to a man, if his biggest concern is that his hair might get mussed? He probably lives in the kind of house where nothing is ever out of place. Not a run-down Victorian, stuffed to the rafters with a lifetime of mementos, all in glorious disorder. Like mine. What would he think of that if he saw it?

It was a bad match. Really bad. That much was clear.

Then he snapped his phone shut and turned back to her. “I’m sorry. There’s trouble with an incoming shipment. I’m going to have to go back to the gallery and deal with it.”

“The gallery?”

“Northpoint Gallery. Out by the lakefront. Mostly I carry things for the tourist trade, but you know…there’s a new Miller coming in that I think you might like.”

The words came out before she could stop them. “Is that an invitation?”

The dark eyes were fixed on her. Their intensity was unnerving. “If I had your phone number it might be.”

Jesus. Jesus. She couldn’t date an art dealer. What would happen when he realized that she couldn’t see half the things in his world? What would they talk about?

Something small and white nudged her arm. She looked down at the table and saw that Karen was offering a business card to her, blank side up, along with a pen. After a moment’s hesitation she took them, and wrote out her number as if in a daze. Bad idea, an inner voice cautioned. “Here,” she said, giving it to him. Wondering if her smile had ever looked as perfect as his. Maybe she should look into having her teeth whitened.

“I’ll call you”, he promised. And he nodded a polite farewell to them both before heading back down the road, towards the fairground exit.

The two friends looked at each other. For a moment they both said nothing.

Then Karen sighed. “Just make sure you check out his mother’s basement before you sleep with him, will you?

* * *

A woman.

He sit in the quiet darkness of his sleek and spotless apartment, moonlight washing over him, and thinks: I have chosen a woman.

He isn’t quite sure why it happened. He certainly hadn’t planned it. But instinct, as always, was a powerful master. The moment he had felt this one’s scrutiny touch him -- the moment she had connected to Miller’s lithograph, and through that, to him -- he had wanted her. Even before he had had seen her face, or learned her name. It was not a desire born of intellect but of instinct, that burning fire deep within his soul which has been banked for far too long. Now the flames are rising up again, and they threaten to consume him whole if he does not feed them the fuel they want.

A woman.

He’s known for a some time now that a change is imminent. He is familiar enough with the soul-deep restlessness that precedes such events to know it for what it is, and has already been wondering where it will lead him. Will the next phase of his life be a comfortable and familiar thing, ushered in without effort or hardship? Or does he hunger for something more challenging this time, an experience that will set all his senses alight with fear, so that his new life is birthed in a pool of adrenalin-charged uncertainty? His last few lovers have all been men, so similar in body and mindset that they are all but interchangeable. True, he savors the subtle differences between them as one does a fine wine, reveling in delicate distinctions of taste that only a true connoisseur can detect, while taking perverse pleasure in the fact that no one on the outside can ever share his perceptions. But moving from one to another has been as effortless as crossing the street, a symphony of adaptation. One of them liks silk shirts. Another prefers linen. All movements in the same finely ordered composition.

This...this one will be different. Jazz. Cacophony.

A woman.

He has not taken on challenge like this in a very long time. Several lifetimes, in fact.

Perhaps he is overdue.

Moonlight shivers across the polished floorboards as he picks up his phone, draws out her card, and begins to dial.

* * *

Josie had never been so nervous about a date in her life. Or spent so long preparing for one. It took her hours just to find an outfit to wear -- not her usual bohemian garb, flowing with layers of embroidered gauze, but a neater, simpler style, that would hopefully appeal to his meticulous taste -- and then hours more to clean up the house to the point where, if he wound up coming inside, he would not get scared away. Not that the place was messy, exactly, but her penchant for hanging onto mementos from all the high points of her life did make for a cluttered house, and he didn’t strike her as the kind of man who appreciated clutter as an art form.

This is crazy, she thought. We probably have nothing in common. Surely he’ll figure that out within an hour, and the whole relationship will be over before dessert.

But then he showed up at her door and all those doubts vanished. Not because she’d necessarily been wrong about him…simply because she didn’t care.

He was dressed in a softer mode tonight. Maybe he had sensed that his former appearance was intimidating to her. There were even one or two hairs out of place, as if the wind had disturbed them. Was that a genuine disarray, or simply an artful affectation? She didn’t know him well enough to say for sure, but it soothed her nerves to think it might be the former. It made him seem...well, more human.

They would find common ground, she told herself. She would make it happen.

But surprisingly little effort was needed in that regard. He took her to a seafood restaurant on the eastern shore of the lake, without even knowing it was one of her favorites. She let him pick out the wine for them, and he chose the same Reisling she would have ordered for herself. He even chose one of her favorite dishes for his own meal, though she’d never said a word about liking it.

It was heartening…but it was also eerie. For a brief moment Karen’s warning echoed in her brain, and she wondered if he might not have gained all that knowledge from watching her eat on some former occasion. Would she even know what a stalker looked like, if she met one? But then the conversation turned to other things, things he could not possibly have known about her from simple observation. Passages from literature that had touched her spirit.. Musical compositions that made her soul sing with joy, or weep with sorrow. As he shared a glimpse of his own special, secret moments, she was struck by how alike they were, deep inside. As if they were twins who had been separated long ago, now rediscovering each other.

Except for the matter of art.

She didn’t have the courage to tell him about her limited vision, or how it affected her perception of the visual arts. Didn’t have the heart to explain to him that her familiarity with Jordan Miller’s work had more to do with keeping Karen company on weekends, when she sold her wares at various art festivals, than any greater appreciation of the lithographic medium. That didn’t mean that she wasn’t a creative soul at heart, but her own preferred medium was the author’s pen. Writing was an art form could understand, the subtle gradations of a finely crafted poem as real to her, and as beautiful, as any brush stroke of Da Vinci’s was to him.

He will invite me to see his gallery, she thought. With a cold fluttering in the pit of her stomach, at the thought that their strange compatibility, so fragile and new, might not survive the test of such a visit.

But for now, it was enough to eat dessert at an outdoor table overlooking the water, watching the sunset ripple across the waves. Stephan spoke in poetic terms about the color of the light, which was not the most comfortable moment for her, but while he spoke the breeze tousled his hair, and she focused on that. Sometimes she felt as if the man she was with tonight, and the one she had met at the festival, were two different creatures. Or perhaps the first one had become magically transformed, into her perfect suitor.

Really, she thought, she should start writing romance novels herself.

When the meal was over they walked along the beach together, and he kicked off his shoes to feel the wet sand squish between his toes, which was one of her own secret pleasures. They laughed and they talked and maybe they’d had a little too much wine, because they started running down the beach together, splashing through the water like kids. How strange it all was, and how wonderful! As if she had known him all her life. As if they had a thousand memories in common, rather than only a few precious hours.

And in the end she discovered that he did not really mind rumpled clothes, or getting sand in his hair, half as much as she’d expected. Which was a good thing, because neither did she.

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