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Archive for June 12th, 2008

JOANOF

Joan Upton Hall taught English for twenty-eight years. During that career, she was editor and cartoonist for a teacher newsletter, The RRAFT Report, which won state and national awards. Now a full-time freelance writer, she instructs creative writing classes, speaks at writers’ conferences, is the North Texas representative for ByLine magazine, and serves for the San Gabriel Writers’ League of Georgetown as Writers’ Liaison, and is an active member of the Writers’ League of Texas (WLT).

She operates a private consulting service, listed with WLT, and wrote her self-editing manual, Rx for your Writing Ills, from the experience. The booklet’s explanations, examples, sample formats, and illustrations have helped hundreds of students, clients, and workshop participants.

Being a columnist keeps her hopping. Her monthly column, “Demystifying Writers’ Demons,” appears in several writer newsletters. For over five years, she and Janet Kilgore shared the humor column, “Hall & Kilgore,” carried by the Williamson County Sun. Joan has now switched to a monthly travel column called “Roam with Joan.” Her articles and short stories, even some light verse, have appeared in publications ranging as far away as Minnesota.

Visit her Website.

EXCALIBUR

Read an excerpt:
Shadow of Excalibur
Chapter 1 – Escape

The Rey Alliance’s Seventh Year, April, 2022, in New Camelot,known in Pre-Plague days as New Braunfels, Texas

Freedom lay within Gloria’s grasp. She stood tense before the window of her cell, moonlight framing her nude figure. She ignored the dank chill. Her flame-red hair, usually smoothed tight, fluffed out around her head and shoulders in an unhallowed halo. Well-toned muscles tensed under alabaster skin. The guard fumbled at the lock, dropped the key, and cursed under his breath.

“Knock off that noise!” a prisoner down the corridor complained. “Can’t a gal get any sleep?”

Gloria held her breath. Don’t screw this up, you clumsy bastard. If he caused her to miss this chance…

The iron door squeaked open, and she waited for him. Waited like the black widow that lived in the corner of her cell. All these seven years, the dynasty of ruthless female spiders had schooled her to forge her secret hatred into the guise of patience, the model prisoner. Inspired her to keep herself fit and powerful as a wrestler but neat as a priestess.

Every day she had crouched to watch the black widow while tearing narrow strips from her blanket or the hems of her convict uniform, shreds that wouldn’t be missed. With meticulous care, she twisted them into a tight cord—her widow’s web.

She cherished the knowledge that both male and female guards considered her an enigma–cold, more beautiful at thirty-two than ever, outwardly cooperative. On her cheek a tattoo of an ornate dagger cutting off a tear, suited her new style much better than it had when she used to spew her malice at the world. Yet they never forgot she was the murderess who conspired to overthrow the king.

Three months ago, when this particular guard, Billy Ray, came to work, she saw her chance. He stood in a doorway so she would have to brush up against his rigidness, and he said with a grin. “I don’t wanna be hard-on my prisoners. Hope we can be close friends.”

“Do that again, asshole, and I’ll report you,” she whispered. Sexual harassment and intimidation by prison guards constituted a serious offense in the Rey Alliance. But when he backed up too far, she gave him a wink and a smile. “Or maybe I’ll take care of it myself.” She swayed her hips when she walked away.

Gloria’s teasing-threatening game enticed him as she knew it would.

The first time Billy Ray moved to the night shift, she heard him grunting and panting outside her cell, saw his shadow hunched over and jerking. At last he stifled a pig-like squeal of release, and his shoulders went slack.

All the while, Gloria twisted her shreds of cloth into a cord, longer–ever longer and stronger. That night she had crept to the bars so silently he jumped when she reached out and touched his arm.

“Jesus!” Lit by the corridor’s single bulb, his pasty face was that of a naughty boy discovered in his guilt.

“Tomorrow night,” she whispered and let the light catch her face and nightshirt-clad breast pressed between the bars. She allowed the garment to gap and reveal one pink nipple.

He looked confused. “You mean…”

“Come to me then.” She had backed into the shadows, melting into her bunk, the way the black widow withdrew when a fly approached her web. Or when an unwary suitor disregarded the price of mating.

But tonight she stood and let the moonlight caress her curves, one hand concealed behind her–the hand that held her cord web and a dry biscuit, saved for this occasion.

Breathing hard, Billy Ray left the key ring dangling from the lock and stumbled across the threshold. He shucked off his britches, catching them inside-out on his shoe, almost tripping in his eagerness.

“Take off your shirt too and lie down on the bunk,” Gloria whispered. Her empty hand caressed his face while he fumbled the buttons open and complied.

“Let me play with you first.” She reached down.

Hatred seized her as she seized his scrotum. She crushed his detestable balls in her wrench-like grip. Her other hand stuffed the dry biscuit into his gaping mouth and crammed it deep. Releasing him, she sprang clear and looped her cord web around her hands. He convulsed in voiceless pain, lurching for the door.

But from behind him, she looped the cord tight around his neck. All her past strength-training concentrated on this moment. They thudded to the concrete. He rolled over on her, but pain couldn’t loosen her grip. She strained until he turned to dead weight, then longer to make sure.

At last she rolled him off her. A triumphant shout caught in her throat. Instead, she placed the black widow on his face and watched for a moment while it crawled across one dead eye.

She dressed in Billy Ray’s uniform and crammed her hair under his guard’s cap. She dislodged the key ring from its lock with a minimum of jingling, and slipped out the door. Widow’s web clutched in hand, she hurried through the corridor and down the stairs.

The unsuspecting guard at the main exit sat with his feet propped up, reading. A pocketknife lay open on the table. Mustn’t let him reach it. She came up behind him in a crouch, and this time, the chair back shielded her from his struggles. The ease of strangling him almost disappointed her. She snapped the dead man’s knife closed and pocketed it.

Freedom was hers.

All through her imprisonment, few people from outside had bothered to visit her. A preacher came several times to pray for her soul. Once a year, she got to see her son Edward on his birthday, when out of pity, his foster mother Constance brought him.

The boy’s recent seventh birthday was still fresh in her mind, his eyes round with fear as he shrank from her embrace. Yet something in his little face held such poignant appeal it awoke maternal instincts far stronger than she’d ever felt when he was a snotty-nosed, squalling larvae of a thing. That tenderness other women claimed had always seemed ridiculous to her before, but now she longed to yank back the love he gave to Constance. Gloria itched to undo the seven years of teaching her kid had undergone at the hands of those pansy-asses who stole him.

It was worth listening to all the mundane details Constance recounted to fill the otherwise silent visits. She rattled on about where they lived, about the little boy’s room and how he had once frightened them by climbing down an oak tree just outside his second-floor bedroom window. The description would make it easy for her to find the sleeping child.

Now, like a shadow, she glided between darkened houses, stores, churches–many that were boarded up or crumbling from disuse. A low chuckle escaped her lips. Capital of the illustrious Rey Alliance or not, New Camelot had yet to recover its population after the Plague.

New Camelot, hell! Who were they kidding? What fools they all were to think they could rebuild people’s lives any better than before. The idea that Art, or “Arturo el Rey” as they called him, was a reincarnated King Arthur sounded like the kind of propaganda crap his advisor Nilson would dream up. Art–a reincarnated king!

If only the Plague had finished the job and swept stinking humanity off the earth or at least wiped out Art so the people left over wouldn’t idolize him as some kind of savior king. Too good for Gloria, the woman who rode with him through battles against terrorists. Savior? He certainly hadn’t saved her!

She rounded the corner into the plaza, softly lit with street lights. No wrecked and abandoned buildings here. A brightly painted sign and the aroma of yeast bread announced “Hans’ Bakery.” Store windows bulged with shoes, clothing, cook ware, and musical instruments. A few shiny cars were parked here and there. Where were the guards armed to defend such bounty? And the cavalry?

An oval island of trees and lawn, encircled by streets, belied that anything had ever happened here but peace and harmony. On the bandstand, a pair of young lovers danced to music only they could hear. Neither carried a weapon nor watched for enemies. Was it really that safe now? The girl giggled and ran down the steps, pursued by the boy. They kissed when he caught her, then disappeared behind a hedge. A fountain splashed and gave back bits of light as if imitating the fireflies that hovered around crape myrtle and roses.

Gloria slipped past the only lighted windows, the Smitz Hotel lobby. She heard voices inside and flattened her body against the exterior wall. Her face and one palm felt the cold, embossed surface of a bronze plaque and she traced the date “1851” with one finger. A beam from the streetlight fell across a second plaque beneath the first, which noted the hotel’s remodeling in 2010, just a year before the Plague. Once more resurrected to thriving life, the hotel’s vacancy sign beckoned to survivors.

Oh yeah, they could heal a town’s scars, while they left Gloria to rot in jail.

Through the window, she saw the desk clerk joking with a janitor. She hurried past the adjoining Sweet Shoppe to the corner and caught her breath.

There stood the palace, as people called the courthouse, where Arturo el Rey slept with his bitch, “Queen Shanna.” When Gloria had been his woman, they bedded only in open air or dead people’s houses.

She knew of no other courthouse situated on a street corner. “The King” told everyone he chose it to live in because it sat in the midst of citizen life and connected with court business. Her lip curled back and she thrust her middle finger at the new annex, linked to the vintage palace building by a glassed-in walkway on the third floor. In a courtroom of that building, a judge and jury had convicted Gloria and doomed her to life imprisonment. She chuckled again. Well, she’d granted her own parole.

The limestone palace walls rose three stories, topped with a bell tower. Under carved columns, two double-door entrances tempted her. How she yearned to sneak in and strangle the monarchs in their bed. Maybe she could get in on the second floor through the columned balcony overlooking the plaza.

Too risky. Like a black widow, she must bide her time. She shrank back into the sheltering darkness. Must stick to the plan.

She knew exactly where to find her little boy, her only hope. Closer to the river, she found the house where the foster family slept. No sound broke the quiet except crickets and a lonely night bird.

There stood the tree, reaching up to Edward’s window, just as Constance had described it. Gloria climbed, hugged a limb when a dog in the next yard began to bark, then went on up after the dog lost interest. She inched across a smaller limb toward the window left open to scoop in the crisp breeze. With the prison guard’s knife, she slit the screen and wriggled through. Edward lay curled on his side, a slice of moonlight across his pale face. She knelt and inhaled the clean, little boy scent of his tousled black hair.

She hated having to pinch his nostrils shut and seal his mouth with her other hand until he fainted, but how else could she keep him quiet? If he remembered the kidnapping, it wouldn’t be her face he had seen, just a dark shape in a cap. She lifted his limp little body, surprised at its light weight, and tied him to her back with the bed sheet. Down the tree she carried the child.

The neighbor’s dog began to bark furiously. The back porch light went on. She froze.

“Max, get in here, and shut up!” a man’s sleepy voice said. The dog whined and the door slammed. Silence. The light went off.

Slithering to the ground, she listened for Edward’s breathing. Okay, just unconscious. She jogged, carrying him on her back, and he didn’t whimper until they were out of New Camelot’s city limits. A little farther and he could scream his lungs out if he wanted to. She’d get him out of Alliance territory somehow, get their crap out of his head, and find a way to live. How? She didn’t know. Weaving this new web would take time.

But whatever it took, she and Edward would make them all pay–if it took the rest of her life.

ISBN: 978-934135-00-6
Retail: $16.99

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