Inspiration is all around us and sparks uniquely in each person. That is the beauty of individualism and creativity. So when I read an article about a Roman poisoner, I’m guessing I’m the only one who envisioned her in Tudor England.
Locusta was a female poison assassin from Rome (Gaul) and is considered to be the first serial killer. Days of research later, I discovered there is not much known about Locusta, but that only incited my imagination. The fact the first serial killer was a woman also struck me. As a female engineer, I relate to the challenge of going against traditional stereotypes. I imagined the challenges Locusta must have faced and wondered if her gender ended up being an asset in a field where surprise would provide an advantage. And with the little historical bits I could find, a story began to weave in my mind.
During this time, my priest gave a sermon about how easy it is to fall into a cycle of sin and penance. How often we realize our actions are incorrect and then feel guilt and perform penance. But after a while the guilt wears and it becomes easy to commit the sin again. Of course he was talking about minor offenses, but as a matter of reductio ad absurdum, I applied this concept to a murderer. My main character, Lavinia, believes she can continue to murder because confession forgives the sin.
Inspired by the notion confession could provide a source of false permission, I lifted Locusta’s inspiration out of Rome and placed my novel at the height of the Catholic church in Tudor England, my favorite period of history. The exact year is open within the book, but I imagine it to be ~1520. During this time, the priest was a powerful official at the local level and the historic practice of “indulgences” helps bolster why Lavinia may (falsely) think she can simply go to confession to be forgiven for mortal sin.
APRICOTS AND WOLFSBANE follows Lavinia’s career as a poison assassin, however Lavinia could never justify her skill to the magistrate she loves. When the magistrate uncovers her ruse, he pressures her priest into breaking her confessional seal. Lavinia must decide between the magistrate or her love of her craft, but the betrayals are just beginning. This Historical Novel Society Editor’s Choice novel was also shortlisted for the 2018 International Chaucer Award for Historical Fiction, among other awards and honors.
If you do decide to google Locusta for yourself, you’ll discover she was ultimately executed for her crimes. I do not believe the lore she was raped to death by a giraffe, but I’ll leave that up to your imagination . . . (Now you want to google her, don’t you?)
K.M. Pohlkamp is a blessed wife, proud mother of two young children, and an aerospace engineer who works in Mission Control. She operated guidance, navigation and control systems on the Space Shuttle and is currently involved in development of upcoming manned-space vehicles. A Cheesehead by birth, she now resides in Texas for her day job and writes to maintain her sanity. Her other hobbies include ballet and piano. K.M. has come a long way from the wallpaper and cardboard books she created as a child. Her award-winning historical fiction thriller, Apricots and Wolfsbane, is published by Filles Vertes Publishing.
Lavinia Maud craves the moment the last wisps of life leave her victim’s bodies, to behold the effects of her own poison creations. Her morbid desires are balanced with faith since she believes confession erases the sin, though she could never justify her skill to the magistrate she loves.
At the start of the 16th century in Tudor England, Lavinia’s marks grow from tavern drunks to nobility, but rising prestige brings increased risk. When the magistrate suspects her ruse, he pressures the priest into breaking her confessional seal, pitting Lavinia’s revengeful instincts as an assassin against the tenets of love and faith. The dilemma distracts her struggle to develop a pledged tasteless poison and avoid the wrath of her ruthless patron.
With her ideals in conflict, Lavinia must decide which will satisfy her heart: love, faith, or murder, but the betrays are just beginning.
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Ever since I was a kid in Upstate New York, the magic of going to a baseball game was something I’ll never forget. We had a AAA team in our town and they were the farm club of the New York Yankees. The post World War II stadium was small and quaint. It was also a bit rundown.
I remember opening days when snow had to be plowed from the tarp so the game could take place. I also remember humid summer nights where the mosquitoes were so dense, you had to brush them away from your face.
When I set out to write Extra Innings, I wanted to capture the feeling of that magic, but add another element to the story. What emerged is a story of a sad man, Joe McLean, who’s trying to capture some of his youthful memories as his beloved baseball stadium is being demolished to make way for a new one.
He buys a piece of memorabilia and receives more than he bargained for. He then sets off on a journey, using his newfound power, to change his life and undo some of the mistakes he made in his past.
The results are surprising.
Please enjoy Chapter 1 of my new book, Extra Innings. If you enjoy it, you can purchase a copy by clicking HERE.
Triple–A baseball is just one step below the majors. For Joe McLean and his family, being fans of the Langerton Chiefs was a legacy passed down through multiple generations.
Langerton is located in a no-man’s land part of Pennsylvania that forms a small barrier between Western New York and Eastern Ohio and butts up against Lake Erie.
Langerton’s sports scene consists of baseball during the all-too brief Spring, Summer, and Fall along with minor league hockey during the seemingly endless winter. Hockey was a great diversion in the winter, but it was baseball that added a special magic to the brief period of warm summer nights.
The Langerton Chiefs had a long history going back to the 1940s. The United States was hungry for normalcy after the horrors of World War II. The wholesomeness and pure sensibilities of the American spirit that baseball offered were just the cohesive forces the country needed to pull itself together.
The minor league system for baseball, with its A, AA, and AAA teams, gave fans an outlet for inexpensive entertainment that showcased talented players before their potential ascent to the Major League. Many of the stars of the AAA Chiefs went on to be well-known players. Also, players on the mend or those looking for a comeback, often made appearances in minor league parks to sharpen their skills with the farm team before, hopefully, heading back to their major league clubs.
The parent clubs of these teams tended to shift from time to time. Joe McLean remembered, with great fondness, the days when the Chiefs were a New York Yankees farm club. The Yanks would come to Langerton each year for an exhibition game. Joe and his brother, Mike, had stood in line for autographs from greats like Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield and other stars of the 80’s and 90’s. Joe’s dad had a baseball card for Thurman Munson that had the late, great catcher’s signature.
Now, as Joe passed into middle-age, the Langerton city council had voted to tear down the old Maxwell Stadium and replace it with one of those brand-new but old-fashioned venues that had become popular when the Baltimore Orioles built Oriole Park at Camden Yards in 1992. Joe was not happy with this development.
“I can’t believe they’re going to tear the old place down,” Joe said to his brother Mike as they downed a huge breakfast at the Little Star Diner.
“It’s just progress. Maxwell is a dump.”
“A dump? It’s the place where we saw some great players and some great games. How can you call it a dump?”
“Yeah. We did have some great times there back when the Yanks were our team instead of the Blue Jays. They’re not even an American team.”
“How many Americans make up a team these days, anyway?” Joe half-joked. “You’re right. Most American kids play soccer now. I don’t understand a game where, after three hours, there’s no score,” Mike said.
“Sounds a lot like baseball?”
It was different though, the brothers agreed. A scoreless baseball game was a nerve-wracking event where, with each pitch, a million different outcomes were possible and strategic decisions could turn the momentum in a game. Both McLean brothers believed this to be true.
“I’m going to miss those old metal and wood seats. Something about that place made me feel at home,” Joe said.
“The new place will be fine. It’s the game that counts,
not where it’s played.”
“I know, but still, the ambiance is going to be missed.”
“Ambiance? Look at you Mr. Fancy College Boy. If you miss it so much, why don’t you go grab some pieces of the stadium and put them in your apartment?”
Mike was the older brother by eight years. He was approaching fifty, but looked older. He had a husky build with a strong upper body balanced out by a substantial beer gut. His grey curly hair topped a roundish head with an Irishman’s ruddy complexion. He was taller and wider than his younger brother, but they had the same piercing blue eyes inherited from their mother. Mike went to work in the local auto plant right out high-school. Joe had gone to college and was now a CPA.
Joe was silent.
“I don’t like that look, little brother. I was joking, but your face says you didn’t get the joke.”
“Well, what are they going to do with the seats and the signs?”
“Trash them. After they salvage what they want, they’ll come in with dozers and backhoes and tear the place down, load it in dump trucks, and haul it away.”
“So what’s the harm in taking a seat or some signs if they’re going to just dump them?”
“There’s no harm if you don’t mind the breaking and entering or the theft charges that go along with your plan.”
“Listen to you. You always had a drawer full of candy bars and cigarettes in our room when we were kids. Did you pay for those? Besides, I was going to ask if I could take something, or even buy it.”
“Hey, we were kids back then and, even though Mom and Dad dragged us to church every Sunday, I didn’t know any better.”
Joe smiled at his brother’s comment. He remembered those Sundays when Father McDougal would give a homily filled with parables about the evils of money and material goods. This was always followed by the passing of the basket so that the church could collect some of that evil money.
“I’ll call the team office and see who I need to talk to. You never know, they might just let me take some stuff,” Joe said.
“Well good luck with that. I’ll be looking forward to those padded box seats in the new Price Choice Stadium.”
The stadium was to be named for a grocery store chain owned by Lackawanna Specialty Services, a holding company with rumored ties to the mob in Western New York. LSS owned the land that the stadium was on and
decided to name the stadium after its discount grocery store chain and obliterate Maxwell name that the stadium carried for nearly 70 years honoring a World War II hero from the area.
“I’ll be there too, but I sure will miss old Maxwell with its leaky roof and smoky field.”
The concession stands that sold burgers, hot dogs, and other grilled items were close to the field at the third base side. When the wind swirled off of Lake Erie, it often took the smoke from the old-fashioned grills and covered the field in a thick, wonderful smelling, carcinogenic haze.
The brothers finished their breakfast and went their separate ways. Mike, to one of the few remaining auto parts manufacturers in the northeast, and Joe, to the accounting firm of Romano, Provenza and Bianchi. The brothers got together for breakfast every Tuesday morning and had done so every week of their adult lives barring sickness, vacation and holidays. The Little Star, a 55 year-old greasy spoon was always their destination.
Joe pulled into his firm’s parking lot. The building that housed R, P, & B was a circa 1960 cinder block box with plate glass windows. Joe had worked here for 20 years. He was a hard worker and would have made partner in any other firm by now. Nepotism and the lack of an Italian last
name, however, kept that from happening in this firm. He was content. He lacked the drive and the nerve to strike out on his own. R, P,& B was the only accounting firm in town and virtually every business and many individuals in Langerton made up their client base. Joe walked past the offices along the wall to his half-walled cubicle.
It was Johnny Provenza III, one of the new junior partners that was just one year out of college and the son of one of the partners.
“Good morning, John.”
“How about those Steelers last night?”
“I missed it. The Yankees were playing the Red Sox in the ALCS last night.”
“Baseball. What a snooze fest. Does anybody watch that anymore?”
“I still do,” Joe said feeling his age more than ever.
“Oh yeah, of course. By the way Joe, do you have the Healthway numbers for me yet? Dad’s been asking for them.”
“I’m just checking some last minute figures and should have it to you by the end of today.”
John noticed others in the firm beginning to watch the exchange between him and Joe.
“See that you do, Joe. I won’t tolerate missing a deadline,” the young Provenza said in a voice that had doubled in volume.
Healthway was one of the accounts that Johnny had been handed when he joined the firm as a junior partner. It was a lucrative medium-sized account with minimal complexity, but was way above Johnny’s abilities. Joe had offered to help and found the account totally dumped on him. He was doing all the work and would receive none of the credit. He wondered if John Provenza II. knew the work was not being done by his son. Joe would never tell. He just did his job without passion day after day. He was content. His only passion these days was baseball.
Baseball was an obsession that led to Joe tracking every statistic of every player on the Langerton team as well as the Yankees. He went to every Chiefs home game and weekend away games when they were within a three hour drive. It the game was more than three hours away, he was at home glued to the radio with a baseball score book recording every pitch, swing, score and out. And now, they were tearing down old Maxwell Stadium. The place where so many of his memories were made. He needed to get a piece of those memories for himself before they hauled everything away, but how?
Joe put it out of his mind. He had the Healthway numbers to finish and he had to focus and set aside his childish notions. He didn’t think about it again until lunch time.
What is the draw of magic in stories? Why does it attract us? What does it say about the human condition that no matter who or where we are in this world, we so love a story with magicians and witches, elves, dwarves, and various monsters causing mayhem?
Magic is the potential of dreams and desires. We wish for our heart’s desire as we blow out candles and after a successful hunt for a four-leaf clover. No matter how much or how little we have, we wish for more. More of whatever we feel a lack of in our lives. Prettier looks, money, success, and, of course, love. We wish pain would go away and that our enemies will suffer. Because we wish, our minds are open to stories of magic. We are well-prepared to suspend disbelief and enter worlds where wizards walk and witches sing and dance around cauldrons. A good many of us desire interaction with fantasy worlds so much we dress up, plaster our surroundings with symbols, and memorize words of power.
From our birth, when wishes and prayers for a long and healthy life rain over us, to the first time we are instructed to make a wish, the longing for magical or divine intervention is ingrained into our psyche. It is no surprise then that as we grow we are often transfixed by stories where people are helped by magic-bearers and secret wishes are granted by faeries. Our life, physically and emotionally soars and dips. Having magical stories to escape to helps us cope with change and tension – even if only to distract us and give our minds a rest.
The magic used in Keeper of the Way is from a time when magic was everyday, concocted over the kitchen hearth, and used for the well-being of all. Rosalie Ponsonby and her friends use beans on their runners, honey fresh from a hive, bread baked with fine-ground flour, and specially prepared herbal teas. This is hidden magic – where the ordinary can be used to create something extraordinary. Black salt (salt mixed with ash) and lavender is used as protections from evil. Lemons are cut and left by doorways and windows. We may think of these as “old wives tales” today, but this is merely another way of hiding magic.
Sigil-craft is also used – the manipulation of written words to request a blessing or boon from the Spirits. The women start with Chaos-magic – simplified spells using the quickest means and easiest tools (pencil and paper) and will work their way toward intricate designs with ink and air and mist as their ability grows. Their tools also become more assertive; from pencils to craft basic sigils and a wooden spoon to stir their cauldrons to swords, daggers, and wands.
But we also require balance and we can’t have good without some bad. We wish and wish, and are told to be careful what we wish for – we must think about the things we are asking for or the wish outcomes may not be as we expect. Faeries are ever ready to play tricks on us. Magicians, wizards, and witches may not be as they seem, and monsters lurk in every dark crevice of the mind.
The antagonists in Keeper of the Way, Algernon and Clement Benedict use blood sacrifice and dark rites to align themselves with malignant spirits. They misuse tools of power to infect malicious energy into the home and sanctuary of Rosalie and her family, and are prepared to commit murder to further their own needs. They have stolen relics guarded by the MacKinnon Clan for millennia and corrupted their purpose, deliberately opposing the morality of the Ponsonby family, their friends, and their ancestral spirits.
Fairytales of our youth drip with warnings, symbols, and moral lessons. Often these lessons have helped shape our moral compass without us realising. In Keeper of the Way and throughout the Crossing the Line series, we will see how easily this compass can be disrupted as the Benedict men continue to act in opposition to the beliefs they profess to.
If you’ve grown up on a steady diet of speculative fiction, everything from fables and fairytales to Lord of the Rings-style high fantasy, and Harry Potter-esque teenage adventures then you’ll be ready to believe in magic everywhere you see or hear of something otherwise unexplainable. Even in the kitchen pantry.
Keeper of the Way is published by Odyssey Books.
Patricia Leslie is an Australian author with a passion for combining history, fantasy, and action into stories that nudge at the boundaries of reality.
Southern-born Victoria Clapton is no stranger to writing. She completed her first book of poetry at age eight and her first novel at age thirteen. Multilingual, friend to all creatures, Victoria is a forever curious world traveler with a mysterious knowledge of things and places that encompass many lives ago, an avid collector of saga books, a practicing vegetarian and yogini with her feet well balanced in earth’s splendor. She and her cat companions enjoy all things Viking, faery, vampire, new writing instruments, herbology and anime.
Melanie Stanford writes romance and YA of different genres. Her first novel, SWAY, a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen’s PERSUASION, debuted December 2015 from Samhain Publishing and was shortlisted for the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. Since Samhain’s closure, Melanie decided to republish SWAY herself, along with the rest of her Romance Revisited series: CLASH, a Romance Revisited novella, COLLIDE, and a third novel coming 2018. She also has short stories featured in the Austenesque anthologies THE DARCY MONOLOGUES and THEN COMES WINTER.
Melanie reads too much, plays music too loud, is sometimes dancing, and always daydreaming. She would also like her very own TARDIS, but only to travel to the past. She lives outside Calgary, Alberta, Canada with her husband, four kids, and ridiculous amounts of snow.