Following are the first three chapters of my first novel, ‘Maufrais’. I wrote it during NaNoWriMo in 2015, and have revised and expanded it a great deal in the years since. I hope to eventually find an agent, and a publisher, and a book deal, but this is the first draft I’m showing to the world. I’d love to have some folks read it and offer their feedback, ranging from typos and plot holes, to basics like “I liked this character” or “That part didn’t work for me”. Just whatever you think of it; nothing formal. If you’re interested in helping me out, try the excerpt below. If you get through what my word processor says is 18 pages’ worth, and want to read the next 362, send me an email (you can use this link if you like), and I’ll share a link to the full PDF. (If you don’t want the whole thing, and/or have feedback on just this much, I’d be happy to hear that, too.) Thanks!

v5, 1/25/20

1

The drinks and food were perfect, of course. The decor of the apartment was breathtaking. The view of the skyline and Central Park through the enormous windows was unparalleled.

But Edith’s attention wasn't on the crystal plate of sashimi she'd left, delicious though it was, forgotten on the gold-inlaid mahogany table behind her. Her attention, like that of all the hushed party guests around her, was focused entirely on the huge computer screen that dominated one end of the room. Alongside one small, unflattering picture of a man's face, the screen displayed the significant details of his life. A life that was about to be ended.

The room was the home office of the apartment’s new occupant, Edith’s colleague, Paige Walsingham. It wasn't just stunning for the richness of the antique furnishings and towering stacks of rare books, but also for the sheer size of the space, which consumed an entire floor of the apartment.

Nearly all the guests at the party that evening were her colleagues, as Edith had expected. Some of them had travelled halfway across the world to be there, which also wasn’t surprising. She knew they would have done the same to attend a favorite concert, or to eat at an elite chef’s new restaurant, or attend a gallery opening. That night’s event was a combination of all of those. The housewarming parties Paige threw for her extravagant homes were becoming known for being as over-the-top as the homes themselves. So people flew in from all over the world, some just for the evening, to see whether this brand-new bungalow in New York City would indeed “blow everyone’s knickers off”, as Paige had bragged it would. And maybe they came, Edith thought, to see whether their knickers were still able to be blown off.

They had to admit that Paige had been right. Her flat in London was beautiful, brimming with fine antiques, but its most impressive feature was its location: right by Westminster, right on the Thames. And while the one in Dubai had a fabulous view of the Persian Gulf, that was hardly an exclusive feature in that city. There, it was the size and opulent interior that really made the place jaw-dropping. What elevated this new place above the others was that it had both a perfect location in a major metropolis and a palatial grandeur that would have been staggering anywhere in the world. Even in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, where Edith spent the majority of her time lately and where real estate costs were a fraction of what they were in Manhattan, it would have been a giant apartment.

The success of the evening, from the large turnout, to how impressed everyone clearly was, seemed to have gone to Paige’s head, leading her to this performance. Or perhaps it was just too much champagne. Edith didn’t know her well enough to be sure. Klaus was the one that had actually been invited tonight, having worked on Cultural Ops projects with Paige; Edith was only there as his plus-one. She had been doing her best to be polite and feign interest, finding the whole spectacle less than impressive. What had this woman done, really, beyond being more shameless with the expense account than anyone else? Edith had been loitering on the balcony pool patio, bored and hoping that Klaus would be ready to leave soon, when he'd seen her through the open doors and hurried over to her.

“Come see this, you have to see this,” he had said quietly, his voice not matching the smile he forced for the benefit of the couple a few yards down the railing.

As they'd worked their way toward an alcove near the back of the library, he had asked, “You remember that guy earlier, the one that spilled his beer on the couch downstairs?”

Of course she did. How could she have forgotten? The poor guy had tripped and dumped a full pint of tar-black beer right across a beautiful white sofa. It was drenched; he couldn’t have coated it more completely if he’d taken aim first. The fit Paige had thrown when she saw the mess was as vicious and nasty as the rest of the evening had been lovely and elegant. The poor woman who’d brought him as her date, that’s who Edith really felt sorry for. She worked in Paige’s section, and would never hear the end of it. The couple had been all but thrown out, and Paige had ranted about the damage, going on and on about her ‘hand-made antique Lexington settee’ for the rest of the night. As if the raving bitch couldn’t just request another one tomorrow, Edith hissed at Klaus, and nearly said to Paige. The one small mercy, she’d thought, was that the oaf wasn’t a Patrician himself. As long as he was never dragged along to another party with Paige in attendance, he’d probably never see her again.

And that was still true, she considered, as she watched the commands scrolling by on the huge computer screen in Paige’s library. He’d never see her again, but it appeared that he wasn’t off the hook, not by a long shot. At first she thought Paige was kidding around, being dramatic, setting up the job to show off for the crowd, but wouldn’t really send the final order. She glanced at Klaus, expecting to see a smile, or a wink, some sign that this was all just in fun. But the set of his mouth was grim and there was no humor in his eyes.

“She’s really going to fucking do it, isn’t she?” she said, almost laughing in disbelief. “She’s really going to wipe him!”

That would be the last time that son of a bitch spilled his beer at a fancy party. That would be the last time that son of a bitch did a lot of things. His life was about to change drastically. It was about to instantly drop from the humdrum, average normalcy to which he was accustomed – to which most people are accustomed – to a joyless, scrabbling nightmare of desperation and, possibly, madness.

“This is what happens to blokes who can’t hold their drink,” they heard Paige cackle tipsily to the small group of guests gathered around her at the keyboard, who all laughed uproariously in response. What did they care about him, or the millions like him that made up most of the world? Regular people like him – plebs – run things in this world about as much as the little kids at DisneyWorld run that amusement park. If one of those thousands of brats misses all the fun because he’s in the clinic with a tummy ache, who really gives a rat’s ass? Because in the bigger picture, there are so many of them. So many. One or two who miss out – even if they happen to miss out expressly because one of the people who run the park stuck their vindictive foot out and tripped them as they ran to the next ride – what does that amount to, in the end? Not a hell of a lot, Edith knew.

Her thoughts sharpened back into focus from this reverie, and she scowled. This was, after all, a man’s life that was about to be burned down, not an imagined kid in some dark analogy, no matter how apt the comparison felt. This wasn’t a brat sitting gloomily in an amusement park first-aid room for an afternoon, this was a guy who was about to lose everything but the shirt on his back – his job, his home, his accounts, his “identity” – at Paige’s whim. He might claw his way back to a semblance of a normal life, someday, though it was much more likely that he’d end up incarcerated. Or he might just end, period. And all because he spilled his drink at a party that he probably hadn’t wanted to come to in the first place.

Paige dramatically clicked “send” on the orders she’d coded up, and the room surged with cheers and laughter. Shaking her head, Edith turned with a wry smile to see Klaus’ reaction, but he was gone. She stepped around the alcove’s marble statue – a Bellona, she thought in passing – and saw him striding away down the hall, toward the elevator. She hurried after him, catching the closing door just in time, and slipped in. It was empty except for the two of them. He’d seen her coming, but hadn’t held the door.

“What the hell was that for?” she demanded, though she knew.

“I don’t like what she did to that guy,” he replied. “Or the way everyone egged her on like that. It’s sick.”

She sighed. She knew he was like this sometimes, sentimental about the pleb world. She figured it was because he’d had a pretty great life before coming to the Institute, before becoming a Patrician. Maybe if he’d been surrounded by assholes his whole life, like she had, he’d have fewer fucks to give when one of them finally got what they pretty much all deserved. This kind of spectacle wasn't uncommon at the Rue Morgue parties she used to frequent. She may have even clicked the button herself once or twice, before her transfer.

The worst part, she thought with a sigh, was what a drag he would be about this the rest of the night. As the elevator doors opened, she decided it was time to start working on an exit strategy.

2

As they stepped out of the elevator alcove and into the expansive first floor living area, Edith saw to her unpleasant surprise that it was even more crowded than when they’d arrived. She’d thought most people had gathered in the library, and that the evening was winding down. Despite the late hour, that was clearly not the case. Barely audible over the din of the party, she caught the notes of a beautiful classical sonata. Peering around the room, she saw the violinist, accompanied by piano, both musicians surely among the best in the world, being completely ignored. Getting out of here any time soon would be harder than she’d thought. Klaus might be sulky, but he hated leaving early, afraid of missing out on something.

She turned and saw that he was heading for the bar, without a word to her. After a stop in the bathroom – which was nearly the size of the apartment she’d grown up in, and probably cost three times as much – she caught sight of him on the far side of the formal dining room. She saw what he was drinking, and who he was talking to, and sighed. He had switched to whiskey, from his habitual beer, and fallen in to conversation with Jacques Laflamme. If the first wasn’t sign enough that he would wallow in gloom the rest of the night, the second surely was.

Klaus knew Jacques from the Institute, where they’d met in shared classes their first couple of years. They hadn’t seen each other as much in later years, as they’d each specialized more, Klaus in macroeconomics and Jacques in Occult Sciences & Research, but they'd remained friends after graduation. Jacques was dressed, as ever, in head-to-toe black. She wondered if he were wearing that hideous gleaming silver skull ring he used to love so much. Not exactly the party pal to cheer up her friend, she scowled.

“Edith? It’s Edith, right?” She was startled by a warm hand on her arm and turned toward the voice. It was… what was her name? Dark hair pulled back, round face, brick red lipstick that perfectly accented a conservative but expensive-looking midnight blue dress suit. She was definitely familiar, but in her surprise Edith couldn’t quite place from where, or when. “I’m Andiara, I work with China?” the woman prompted, clearly seeing the question in Edith’s quizzical smile.

“Andiara! Of course, how are you? Good to see you, when did you get in? Isn’t this place amazing?” Edith rushed, feeling somehow that overdoing the polite inquisitiveness might make up for not remembering who she was right away. The woman granted her a small smile and nod that seemed to say she didn't mind. But it faded quickly, her brow knit and one side of her mouth turning down.

“Have you heard anything from her? From China, I mean?”

“No, I haven’t talked to her for a week or more,” Edith answered.

“Ah, I see. We've been working together in Düsseldorf, and had planned to share a plane over for this little soirée tonight. But then this morning I had a text from her that she couldn’t come. She didn’t give a reason, and I don’t mean to pry, but I know you’re her friend, so I thought maybe you’d heard something.”

“I know she's been super busy lately… well, you'd know that better than I would! Maybe something came up at the last minute? That kind of shit happens all the time to you guys, right?"

"Yes," Andiara laughed awkwardly. "I’m sure that’s it. And I should just count myself lucky to have escaped it, no?”

They made smalltalk for a few more minutes before Andiara excused herself, saying that she hadn’t seen the rest of the place, and was eager to look around.

Edith made her way across the room to Klaus and Jacques, admiring the lavish foods arrayed along the beautiful antique dining table in spite of herself. Jacques was facing her and saw her approach. He broke off from Klaus, holding his arms open to her as for a welcoming embrace. She smiled and nodded in response, but avoided a hug by grasping his right hand in hers and giving him a firm handshake instead. Why the hell people thought it was okay to hug acquaintances they barely knew, she would never understand. Jacques handled the switch better than most people, the worst of whom felt compelled to make a big deal about it. He returned her smile with his usual placid, impossible-to-decipher expression. It wasn’t unhappy, or unfriendly, but it wasn’t their opposites, either. She didn’t think she’d ever seen his emotional range go beyond a mild smile or a faint scowl.

His extreme, all-over paleness didn’t help the impression that he was somehow apart from the realm of human feelings. His wan complexion and nearly white blonde hair – she didn’t remember it being that light at the Institute, she thought it had been closer to brown – contrasted dramatically with his black wardrobe. No, wait, what's this? Up close, under the brightness of the chandeliers, she saw now that his tie was not quite black, but actually darkest gray. He was really cutting loose tonight, she smiled to herself. At least, she thought with relief, he was in normal, if monochromatic, clothes. It wasn’t unheard of for Patricians from his division to wear capes, top hats, or even robes, sometimes.

In long sleeves and with his collar buttoned, she could barely make out the edges of the tattoos that she knew now covered most, if not all, of his body. By the time they graduated, most Occultists had gotten on the tattoo bandwagon in a major way. China told her once, after dating an occultist briefly, that the cryptic symbols and intricate designs they covered themselves with were supposed to boost their power or aid their work in some way. Ward and charm inscriptions, he'd called them. Cool ink, China had called them, and Edith thought that was closer to their true purpose.

“Edith! So nice to see you again, I did not think to expect the two of you tonight.”

“No? I guess you’re off your fortune-telling game lately, eh?” she smiled.

“Edith, don’t,” Klaus muttered.

“It’s fine,” Jacques said, without changing his unreadable expression. “Of course learning to divine the possible courses the future may take, that is one of the primary focuses of our work. One that I myself happen to be delving into ever deeper of late. However, we do not typically turn those techniques of divination to questions about the guest list of Paige Walsingham’s latest house party.”

Edith thought she saw a glint of a smile in Jacques’ eye, but wasn’t sure.

Klaus and Jacques resumed their conversation, which was about Jacques’ current research focus: numerology. He was enthralled by all the ways plebs believed in various numbers that they ascribed with mystical meaning, and with how these beliefs could be leveraged to move them in whatever cultural, political, or psychological directions the Patriciate needed to move them in. But to Edith it seemed that he really thought there was some actual truth to those beliefs, too. He talked about how people since ancient times recognized “sacred patterns”, and were able to “augment the auras of mundane objects”, and that was about when she tuned him out.

She never really got the whole deal with the Occultists. They spent a lot of time and energy in the pleb world promoting their zany beliefs and practices. Sometimes that was as mundane as establishing New Age bookstores full of crap like healing crystals, and sometimes that was as exotic as orchestrating actual UFO sightings, haunting buildings, or putting Jesus’ portrait on someone's toast. All of these activities served to preoccupy and distract an impressively large number of people, but even beyond that was the effect it had on others who claimed to be above believing in such things. At some level, perhaps a subconscious one, even the most skeptical people have some doubts. Questions that nag at them, about the mysteries of life that don’t have a ready, scientific explanation. Some of them may even try to ascribe the influence to their own religion, deciding it’s a miracle, so even if it’s a mystery, it reinforces their faith anyway. But even then there's a tiny crack of uncertainty: maybe there really are aliens, or ghosts, or Bigfoot, or psychics.

And that's what Edith really thought the main point of the Division of Occult Sciences & Research was: distraction. Just like with the Religiosities Division, promoting the Big Five world religions and their various fairy-tales of similar fictions: miracles, angels, heavens, hells. The more the merrier, as they’d had drilled into them in their divide-and-conquer cultural training. But although she couldn’t imagine that palm-reading and horoscopes were as important to as many plebs as the major world religions, word was that staffing for OSR dwarfed that of Religiosities.

That was because the larger proportion of the division's work was in actually, seriously pursuing research of exactly the kinds of things they were purveying to the gullible masses. This had always made Edith’s head hurt, when she thought about it for too long. On the one hand, they peddle this patent bullshit just the same as all the other distractions like religion and celebrity gossip and fad diets. But on the other hand, they treat it as a real, researchable area. Are there really people doing research with crystal balls, and dissecting the Loch Ness Monster in a lab, and studying astrological charts? Was it real, or wasn’t it?

Klaus had explained it to her once, as he understood it from Jacques, that it had a lot to do with the traditions at the heart of the organization. That the mysticism that was central in the earliest days of the Patriciate – Eleusinian Mysteries, Lombards, Templars, all of that hokey bullshit they'd had to study at the Institute along with global economies and political systems – was still considered important by the highest of the higher-ups, even down to the present day. Studying those areas, researching them, was more a way of keeping the spirit alive, like a living history, than an actual attempt to make advancements in "occult science".

Though she kept it to herself, even from Klaus, she had just about come to the conclusion that the whole division’s existence was an elaborate practical joke. Some ancient prank that had calcified into officialdom ages ago, and now nobody wanted to admit that the emperor's ass was showing.

3

“If it isn’t three of my most perfectly average surveillance systems students!” A woman’s clear voice from behind Edith brought her back to the moment. The Hispanic accent helped her identify the speaker immediately, even before seeing the flash of schoolboy dread on the faces of both her companions. She turned to greet the woman who had been one of the first at the Institute to really draw back the curtain on how staggeringly extensive the Patriciate’s global monitoring facilities were.

“Ms. Monica! How are you? I didn’t expect,” Edith started. She’d wanted to be friendly, but suddenly realized her first thought, already halfway out of her mouth, might sound rude. Then, having halted, she knew she’d made it worse, and her feeling of awkwardness spiraled quickly in the long few seconds of silence that Ms. Monica let hang between them. Jacques and Klaus were no help, their eyes wide and stiff smiles frozen on their faces.

“Didn’t expect your musty old professor to leave her books and chalkboards and venture out among the beautiful people?” Ms. Monica said, smiling wickedly at each of them. “Is this what you were not expecting?”

Dressed as brightly as always, in a flattering dress the color of a yellow pepper, with a chunky, bright blue necklace, “musty old professor” was certainly not the way Ms. Monica’s former students thought of her. She laughed and cut them off as all three fell for the bait and rushed to deny her accusation.

“No! No, of course that is not what you meant,” she said. “But I know it is funny, to run into your old teacher in a social situation. I am only here, to be very honest with you, because Paige works for me, and I will be hearing about this new bungalow of hers from everyone in her division for a week. I thought it would be best to see for myself, no?

“Ah, and it is a grand one, isn’t it? But really,” she confided, her expression darkening slightly, “Why? All of this, so extravagant, and nobody to live here but her. I'd bet my right hand she won't even be here more than a few weeks a year. What a waste!”

Edith exchanged a glance with each of Klaus and Jacques, guessing they felt the same. Ms. Monica wasn't wrong, but they'd never heard that kind of indignation about an extravagant new bungalow.

“You don’t see it that way, I know, I know,” she said, patting Klaus on the arm. “You come from backgrounds that were closer to this, maybe, than mine in Mexico City. It is fine, of course. I do not mean to spoil the party. It’s beautiful, certainly. But for me, I would be uncomfortable in a place like this. When I order a new place, I pick the city, and I tell the lovely people who will prepare it for me a few things that I like, and a few things that I do not like, and then I take what they give me. I have not been unhappy with the results yet!”

“Interesting,” said Jacques, who seemed relieved to finally have an angle from which he could approach this conversation. “For us, the particular location of the dwelling within the city is often of utmost import. Usually, in fact, we choose a particular existing building. The energy inherent in the history of a place is much more useful to us than,” he gestured dismissively, “a large kitchen, or a swimming pool.”

“Well, yes,” nodded Ms. Monica. “Occultists’ real estate needs are… unique, no? ‘Haunted house, two bedrooms, three basements, must be near graveyard and dark forest,’” she smiled. “For most of us, something comfortable near an airport, with a good connection to the main network, is all that's needed. Newly built or renovated, doesn’t really matter.”

Jacques’ expression didn’t change, but his voice tightened. “Though it amuses people, some of us do indeed benefit from habitations with high levels of historical spiritual activity, as well as proximity to cemeteries. There are forces in the world that cannot be heard with your wiretaps or seen with your surveillance cameras. If you’ll excuse me, I’d like to see the rooftop gardens I’ve heard so much about.”

He nodded his head politely and stepped away. Klaus, looking somewhat abashed, glanced back and forth at Ms. Monica and Edith, mumbled that he thought he’d join Jacques, and followed his white-haired friend through the crowd back toward the elevator. Edith felt stranded, but was comforted at least by the knowledge that in abandoning her like that, he’d lost any grounds for being pissy to her for the rest of the night.

“You go along with your boyfriend, it’s all right. You don’t have to be stuck with me,” Ms. Monica said, smiling, sincere. “And please tell Mr. Laflamme that I only meant to tease, I did not mean to be rude.”

“Oh, no, that’s okay,” Edith waved an uninterested hand in the direction the men had gone. “I’ve already seen the ‘rooftop gardens’,” she said, rolling her eyes. “And Klaus isn’t my boyfriend anymore,” she added hastily. “Hasn’t been since after we graduated, four years ago.”

“Four years! You’re kidding me, it’s been four years? No. Are you sure?”

“Yep. Well, almost. Our quadrennials are coming up, is how sure I am,” Edith smiled weakly.

“Oh. My goodness. Four years! But the quadrennial, don’t worry about that. You’ll all be fine, dear. Is that a patio door over there? I am melting in here, I think.”

They moved through the crowd, Edith secured another pint of the fine ale she'd had earlier, and took an appreciative sip. The rich caramel color and malty flavor seemed familiar, and she assumed it was something from the British Isles, but she couldn't place it. She made a mental note to ask Paige about it, and they went outside.

The cool, fresh night breeze made Edith realize how close the air had been inside. The pool glowed with soft lavender lighting, casting rippling reflections along the half wall that surrounded the patio. The few other people there were seated at the perfect little tables and cushioned chairs that surrounded the shimmering water. The two women wandered past them across the tile floor toward the wall, Ms. Monica giving a Edith a sardonically raised eyebrow as they passed the pool. Edith set her beer down on the broad, flat top of the wall, as they silently took in the sight of the park and the city beyond, spread out before them as if it were all part of the evening's buffet spreads.

Edith took a breath and asked her former instructor a question she’d wondered about for years, especially recently.

“Is it true, what people say about if you fail the quadrennial?”

Ms. Monica, who had been looking out at the skyline, looked at Edith beside her, without moving her head. “Are you truly asking me that?” she asked evenly. When Edith nodded, she gave a quick huff of mirthless laughter.

“Yes, Edith. It is true. If, after several years of observation and recruitment, and five years of intensive training, and four more years of immersion and work in our world, someone is found to be incompatible, then they must be removed. If they have gone that far – that is, all the way! – then a return to the life they knew before is just,” she shrugged. “Impossible.

“I really don’t understand why this information is treated like such a taboo. It is like women’s periods in that way.” Edith nearly spit out the sip of beer she'd just taken, and involuntarily shot a glance at the people near the pool.

“It is just a thing that happens!” Ms. Monica said. “It is part of who we are, and how we work. It is natural! We could not continue as a species without it. Yet for some reason, it is too gross or too uncomfortable for anyone to ever talk about. Is it pleasant? Does anyone enjoy it? Of course not. But there is nothing to gain by pretending it does not happen. Anyway, to your question, there are many, many processes in place to prevent ever getting to that point. Removals happen very infrequently, I promise you.

“Take my word. It is my organization that carries them out.”

The brisk air that had seemed so refreshing earlier felt cold then. Edith shivered and tried to hold herself together. “Is it really vivisepulture, then?” was all she managed to blurt out.

This earned her another sideways glance. “Why are you so upset, when you seem to already know the answers? Yes. It is a kind of live burial. That sounds gruesome, but it is handled in a way that is as humane as any. It is truly not intended as a punishment. And this is the tradition. I’m sure you recall learning the importance of tradition.

"This drink," she frowned. "Is a bit too strong for me." She delicately poured it out into a planter built into the wall. The ice cubes clinked and then were muffled in the soft soil.

She continued. “Edith, dear. Do not worry. I am sure you have nothing to fear. There are also less severe courses of action if one’s Landrecht result is less than ideal. Return to training, reassignment, what have you. There has been a great deal invested – and entrusted – in all of us. That is never discarded lightly. Your performance at the Institute was good, no? Why are you so concerned about this?”

Edith grimaced. “I don’t know. I've already been reassigned once, you know. It’s just always been a scary thought. The world’s most severe pass-fire job. And then with what Paige was up to,” she stopped abruptly. “Shit. Umm.”

Ms. Monica held up a hand to stop her. “I know all about what Paige was up to. You haven’t ratted anyone out to me. Directors at my level are notified whenever our people apply those protocols. Also, no fewer than five of her loyal colleagues have contacted me about it.” Glancing quickly at her phone, she chuckled. "Make that six. Such actions cannot become common, and the way she went about it was a bit wanton, a bit too conspicuous. On the other hand, some allowance is made for occasional demonstration of our position in the world."

They moved on to other, lighter subjects. Ms. Monica was just returning from her own new bungalow, a high-rise unit in Singapore, and chattered on about how the visit had been her first stay in that city. Edith listened politely, trying her best to stay engaged in the conversation. As they made their way back inside, she tried to keep her expression relaxed. But her worries hadn't been quieted by Ms. Monica’s reassurances. Doing okay at the the Institute, and getting by in her job since then, those were exactly what she’d always done, and in fact how she’d been recruited into the Patriciate in the first place. None of it was earned, all of it was just dumb luck. She knew she was a phony, and soon everyone else would know, too.