My new novel is out! The Soul Keys is a satiric fantasy that runs a bit on the wild side. It asks vital questions such as: What if you found a flying saucer, but nobody was in it? How could a talking armadillo end up in your bathtub? Why would the Oakland Bay Bridge consider becoming a dragon? Is it the purpose of humankind to create a Heaven of Rats? And, of course, what are the three keys to unlock the soul and end the world?
In pursuit of the answers to these questions, Sander Keynes and his girlfriend, Jenny Duenckel, engage in a mad odyssey from Springfield, Missouri to a secret military base on the Big Island of Hawaii, while being pursued by the FBI,CIA, NIA, NASA (no, not that NASA), the Centers for Disease Control, the media, Jennie’s homicidal ex-husband, industrial and government spies, flying saucer cultists, mad scientists (well, pretty disgruntled ones, anyway) and someone with a French accent.
Below is a sample chapter, in which we meet another key character: Apollonasia “Appy” Duenckel, retired belly dancer, mystical advice columnist and mother of Jenny:
VII. Familiarity Breeds a Puppy
Apollonasia Brechtlein Duenckel was a good mother and a take-charge sort of person. But she had another important qualification for dealing her daughter’s current problem. Appy Duenckel believed in ghosts.
Also vampires, demons, rakshashi, angels, manitou , djinn, nixies and fairies, among others. Appy was an equal-opportunity believer. She believed in many levels of reality, and figured they all must be as richly populated as the natural world.
That went for philosophy, too. “Some folks think life has no purpose,” she’d been telling people for more than four decades. “That’s poppycock. The problem is that there are too many purposes, a lot of which we don’t care to notice.”
At age 18, when she was already supporting herself as a belly dancer at county and state fairs, she’d spent the night on the State Fairground in Springfield, Illinois (no relation to Springfield, Missouri), listening to the scurryings and rustlings after the marks had all gone home. The next day, she’d bought a small composition book. On the first page, she’d penned, very neatly:
The purpose of humanity is to feed and shelter rats.
Thus began her life’s work, her magnum opus: The Book of Purposes. On the April morning after the flooding of the Big Piney River, Appy had finished her morning chores and had just started Volume 98. She did most of her writing on the computer these days, but continued to hand write this project in composition books, just for consistency. She plunged into the first page, riding a tide of inspiration:
The purpose of Argon street lamps is to accustom us to the lighting of Hell.
The purpose of computers is to provide a warm hiding place for certain species of ants.
The purpose of paleontology is to give God a better hiding place.
The purpose of astronomy is to give God a better hiding place.
The purpose of geology is to give God a better hiding place.
The purpose of physics is to give God a better hiding place.
The purpose of God is to hide from humanity.
Of course, she’d recorded many other purposes for God, over the years. An infinite God could have infinite purposes.
She forged onward:
The purpose of Hell is to discourage humans from dying prematurely.
The purpose of Heaven is to free the gene pool more rapidly of people who can’t stand the idea of dying.
The purpose of burial is to keep things that eat the dead from accidentally eating the living.
She was interrupted by the sound of gravel crunching in the driveway, and stepped into the front dining room to look out the window. An older but well-kept blue Honda hatchback had pulled up. Doors popped open. The driver emerged: male, slightly balding, sandy-haired, late-30s or early-40s. Then Appy’s youngest daughter got out, wearing a man’s windbreaker draped over disposable hospital scrubs. The blue paper “fabric” around her bra and panty lines was crinkled and discolored, as if it had been wet. A fat white support collar hid her neck. Red welts and scratches stood out on her face and arms.
Appy went and got her .22-caliber Favorite varmint rifle from its rack over the back porch doorway, then went back to the front door and opened it.
“Hi, Hon,” she called to Jenny. Then, cradling the gun casually, she turned to the man. “Hello, there. You don’t really look like an abuser. But they usually don’t, and I’ve sort of had it. So I’ll let Jenny explain why she’s been in a hospital, and then I’ll shoot you if she says so.”
“No, Mom, don’t!” her daughter exclaimed.
“It’s okay, Jenny. I’ll just tell them I thought it was a robber. Nobody’s going to put a little, wispy 63-year-old woman in jail for protecting herself.”
“No, Mom, please! This is Sander Keynes. He’s a nice man.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“No, I mean it, Mom! I got in an accident, and Sander took me to the emergency room.”
“I’ve heard that one before, too.”
Sander stood where he was, frozen. He’d been about to say, “Hello, Ms. Duenckel. I’m glad to meet you.” His mouth was still half-open, in a slight smile, though his eyes had widened.
“No, Mom, really!” said Jenny, frantically. “I totaled the Yaris! Somebody hit me — I mean, hit the car . . . .”
Sander unfroze enough to say, “Honest, Ms. Duenckel. I-wouldn’t hurt a mouse. Literally. I use live traps. I’d never hit a woman, and I certainly wouldn’t hurt Jenny . . . .”
“I’ve heard that before, as well,” Appy said. “But I’d like to believe it. So Jenny, what are you doing here, why the paper suit, and why does it look like you peed your pants and milked your bra?” Another suspicion raced through her mind. Had she lost a grandchild before she knew one was coming?
“I got out of the car and got lost, Mom,” said Jenny. “My clothes were wet. The ER gave me these to wear.”
“The hospital wanted to admit her, but she wouldn’t stay,” offered Sander.
“Mom, we’re in trouble,” her daughter said. “It’s not Sander’s fault. Well, not much, and he didn’t mean it — I mean, it’s got nothing to do with me getting beat up — I mean, because I didn’t get beat up. Not since Harlan. It’s something different this time, and I did get in a car accident, and Sander rescued me, but he called the police and the TV station before that and — can we come in and explain?”
“I don’t know,” said her mother. “Can you do it any better inside than you’re doing out here?”
“I-I . . . .”
“Well, come in anyway. There’s still some of your old clothes up in your room. I don’t know if they fit anymore, but they’ll fit better than anything of mine would.”
“Thanks, Mom.” She walked stiffly up on the porch.
“You can come, too, I guess,” Appy told her daughter’s male companion. “But if you don’t mind, I’ll keep the .22 with me a bit longer. I always wanted to shoot a real varmint with it.”
“Uh, okay. That reminds me — I’ll be there in just a moment.”
Appy halfway expected him to get in the Honda and drive off. Instead, he opened the tailgate and pulled out a soggy-looking pink blouse and a wet pair of jeans. But he didn’t close the hatchback again. “Stay here for now, okay?” he said softly to someone inside, paused, then added, “Well, when that cop came and I had to leave you by the roadside, you didn’t go ‘pfffffft’ and disappear then, did you?”
Appy, who read lips very well — a useful skill from her “theatrical days,” as she called them — noted this one-sided conversation without comment.
“Here’s Jenny’s clothes,” Sander said lamely, approaching the porch. “Honestly, Ms. Duenckel, I wouldn’t hurt Jenny for anything. She’s a sweet girl.”
“That hasn’t kept other people from hurting her,” Appy noted, watching the car as she took the soggy evidence of Jenny’s story.
“Well, after you. Living room’s through the dining room and to the right. Hon, you find anything wearable?”
“I think so, Mom!” Jenny called down from her bedroom. “I’ll be down in a minute.”
Her male guest had perched himself nervously in the living room’s least comfortable armchair.
“Want some lemonade?” Appy asked him, without smiling.
“Uh, yes, please, that’d be nice, thanks,” said Sander.
Appy dropped the wet clothes off on the back porch, then went to the kitchen and returned, walking with the easy glide of veteran waitress, a plastic pitcher in one hand, three glasses in the other, and the .22 cradled in her left elbow. She set the glasses and pitcher down on the ring stained coffee table, then settled in the recliner. “Help yourself,” she said. “‘Fraid it’s not real lemonade, just that instant stuff.”
“Uh, thank you,” said Sander. “Shall I pour some for you?”
A few moments later, Jenny joined them. She’d found an old Missouri State sweatshirt and squeezed her lower half into a pair of faded, uncomplimentarily tight jeans.
“So, what have you two been talking about?” she said brightly, settling on the corner of the couch nearest to Sander.
“We haven’t yet,” said Appy. “Now, you were saying about trouble?”
“Lemonade, Jenny?” asked Sander, pouring.
“Sure. Uh, Mom, you know about that UFO they found in the Big Piney?”
“Sure. I do check the news sites sometimes,” said Appy.
“Well, we found it first.”
“Huh,” said Appy. “Well, tell it.”
“We went canoeing Thursday. We were the first ones on the water, and it was a weekday and early in the season, so we pretty much had the river to ourselves. . . .”
“Wait. How’d you come to be free to go canoeing on a weekday?”
“Sander had some vacation coming, and I’d covered for another employee last weekend. I didn’t get fired again, Mom.”
“We figured Bass Pro could do without me for one day,” added Sander.
“Wait another minute, Sander,” interrupted Appy again. “How can a man who can’t bear to set a mouse trap work for Bass Pro?”
“Mom!” ejaculated Jenny, embarrassed. “They sell lots of things, not just guns and fishing rods. Hiking boots, canoes, camping gear. There’s even a restaurant.”
“I maintain the aquariums, Ms. Duenckel,” said Sander. “I preserve life.” Staring at the .22 still resting in Appy’s lap, he thought of the fish that he sometimes found floating when he went to work. He gulped and added, “I try my best to keep them alive, anyway.”
Appy grunted. “I got no quarrel with selling hunting gear, per se. One purpose of life is to die and feed things. I was just curious as to how you reconciled yourself to it. Well, go on about the saucer, Jenny.”
“At any rate, we came around an island, and there was the saucer. The door was open, but Sander looked in and said nobody was inside. So we floated down to our takeout, and Sander called the police. Then, for some reason, he called the TV station . . . .”
“I just figured that if we told only the authorities, we might never hear about it again,” Sander interjected.
Appy leaned back and considered. “So you’re the ones they’re looking for, eh?”
“Yeah, I’m afraid so, Mom. And if they catch us, they’re gonna lock us up in the School of Chemical Warfare . . . .”
“We heard it on the radio. They’re taking anyone there who saw the UFO to Fort Leonard Wood. But that’s not the worst of it, Mom. That saucer — we think it may have done something to us.”
Sander cleared his throat. “We may be seeing things.”
“Or hearing things,” added Jenny.
“What sort of things?”
Sander shifted uncomfortably. “A talking armadillo.”
“And Charles Kuralt,” added Jenny.
“Didn’t he pass away sometime back?” her mother asked.
Sander nodded. “I’m afraid so.”
“And this aardvark . . . .” began Appy.
“Armadillo,” corrected Sander.
“This armadillo. What sort of things does he say?”
“Uh, mostly that he’s hungry,” said Sander.
“He’s sort of sarcastic,” added Jenny.
“Speaks good English, eh?”
Just then, the phone rang.
“I’ll be right back,” said Appy, and went into the dining room to take the call.
“So how are we doing, do you think?” asked Sander softly.
“Well, she hasn’t shot you yet.”
Appy returned. “Now, this armadillo — is he out in the car?”
“I told him to wait there,” said Sander.
Appy nodded. “Let’s go see him.”
“Uh, Ms. Duenckel?” said Sander as they followed her out onto the porch.
“Oh, call me Appy,” she said.
“Uh, Appy, if you can see the armadillo — you’re not going to shoot him, are you?”
Appy glanced down at the gun, still cradled in her elbow. “Nah. The only varmint I planned to plug, maybe, was you. But I guess I owe you an apology, Sander. That was Sheriff Schmidt on the phone. He said there’d been a car accident down in Pulaski County. He asked if I’d seen Jenny. I said I hadn’t.
“Oh God,” Jenny moaned. “They’ve found the car. You can bet they’re going to check with the emergency rooms . . . .”
“And they’ve got my name from the outfitter,” groaned Sander.
“Who’s ‘they’?” asked Appy.
“Everyone,” said Sander. “The FBI, the Forest Service, the media . . .”
“. . . and somebody with a French accent,” added Jenny.
“Hmm,” said Appy, and continued her march down to the Honda. She peered into the open hatch. “So, where’s this armadillo?”
He should be there in the back,” said Sander. “There he is. Dick? You awake? This is Appy Duenckel, Jenny’s mother.”
“You folks haven’t been fishing, have you?” Appy asked.
“No,” said Sander. “We’ve been fleeing. Why?”
Appy shook her head. “Well, I don’t see any armadillo.”
“I actually can’t see him, either,” said Jenny. “I just hear him, and sometimes feel him. Sander says he’s an armadillo, and so does Dick, so I have to take their word for it.”
“I can’t hear any armadillo, either,” said Appy.
“Oh great,” moaned Jenny. “So we are hallucinating.”
“I didn’t say that,” said Appy. “I just said I couldn’t hear nor see him. But I think he exists.”
“Why?” asked Sander, almost dumbfounded.
“Well, either he’s there, or one of you two was eating worms, and left a couple of wriggly bits behind.” Appy considered the situation. “Is Dick housebroken?”
“Uh, not exactly, but he tells me when he has to go.”
“Then we’d better invite him in. You hadn’t ought to leave an animal in the car. It could get heat stroke.”
“Okay. Come on, Dick. What? Sorry.” Sander turned to the others.
“He’s a little grumpy about being woken up. Armadillos are nocturnal, you know.”
He leaned over, picked up something invisible but moderately heavy, and lowered it gently to the ground.
“He’d make a hell of a prop for a mime act,” remarked Appy. “Let’s go up on the front porch. It’s a beautiful spring day, and your critter can do his business whenever he feels the need. ‘Good thing I haven’t replaced old Abdullah yet.
“Abdullah was the farm dog,” Jenny explained. “He died last winter.”
“Uh, could I wash my hands?” asked Sander. “Armadillos can carry . . . .”
“Sure. Through the dining room, first door to the right. I’ll put the gun up and fetch another chair.”
As she did so, Appy rapidly leafed through her mental catalogue of supernatural possibilities.
“What does this armadillo say about himself?” she asked, after they’ve all reconvened.
“Uh, he doesn’t seem to know much about himself,” said Sander. “He claims he has no memories from before I found him in the bathtub.”
“Well, that rules out a pookah,” said Appy. “Pookahs know who they are.” She sipped her lemonade and considered a moment longer. “I suspect your armadillo friend is a familiar.”
“A what?” said Sander.
“A familiar. Now, I’m no witch, but I’ve known a few and studied a little. A familiar’s a critter that becomes a witch’s psychic companion. Traditionally it’s a cat, or maybe a bat or a toad, but it can be just about anything. A lot of witches today use white rats, I understand. More portable.”
“But why can’t you and I see him?” Jenny asked.
“So what’s the connection between witches and UFOs?” Sander asked, almost simultaneously. It said something about his changing mental state that he hadn’t just snorted in disbelief.
“Sometimes other people can’t see the familiar,” Appy said. “I suppose it’s a spell or something. I haven’t been initiated, so I wouldn’t know the mechanics. Anyway, I see two possibilities. Either Dick’s a spy, sent by some witch who’s gotten interested in Sander and the saucer . . . ”
Sander winced and stared at a spot on the porch floor. “Dick’s denying that pretty emphatically.”
“. . . or else Sander has the makings of a pretty powerful warlock and doesn’t realize it. Maybe the saucer freed up something in him, and he summoned Dick subconsciously.”
Sander thought for moment. “But that’s not really an answer,” he said. “It just puts a pat name on the mystery. How did I summon him? How can he talk? How’d he get in my bathtub, and why can’t he remember anything before he got there?”
“Hey, that’s how science works,” snorted Appy. “Witchcraft, too, I suspect. You don’t solve any mystery, really. You just give it a name, describe its behavior and put it to use. We don’t really know what gravity is — just what it does.”
“Huh. So what does an invisible armadillo do for you, Sander?” asked Jenny.
“I don’t know. Mostly what any armadillo does, I guess. Eats bugs, poops, sleeps all day. Criticizes my life choices.”
“You made choices? That’s unusual,” remarked Appy.
“Well, not many, I guess,” Sander admitted.
“He’s asleep again, now?” asked Jenny.
“Curled up like bowling ball in the corner of the porch.”
“It’s not his purposes as an armadillo that count for you, I think,” said Appy. “It’s his purposes as a familiar. Familiars go where witches can’t, and find out things.”
“He offered to do that,” said Sander wonderingly. “He wanted to check out the saucer. He said the army wasn’t going to notice an armadillo. We were headed there when we found Jenny.”
“My, now, that was a huge coincidence, wasn’t it, Jenny? Were you going back there, too?” asked Appy.
“No! I was coming home to see you. But there was a traffic jam, so I got off the Interstate to find a way around, but somebody hit me from behind — hit my car, that is, and . . . .”
“I see, I see,” said Appy. “Hmm. If I remember right, a witch sends his or her spirit into a familiar to use it. The talking part of the armadillo may be part of you, Sander. Anyway, something’s trying awful hard to get you both back to that UFO. Maybe it’s something inside you, maybe something outside. But it does seem your purpose to go back to it.”
“Well, if that’s our purpose, we bollixed it royally,” said Sander. “The radio said the saucer was somewhere at the bottom of the river. We’d have to evade the whole Armed Forces just to look for it.”
“Maybe not,” said Appy. “Maybe not.” This talk of psychic familiars had reminded her of someone . . . .
“I’m too tired to go looking for flying saucers,” said Jenny despairingly.
Sander nodded. “The doctor said to take you home and put you to bed.”
“Well, she’s home now,” said her mother. “Her bed’s right where she left it when she went off to college. And I imagine you’re tired, yourself, young man, after being up all night talking to animals and rescuing my daughter. You could borrow my oldest son’s room. Why don’t you both make like your invisible friend and hibernate for a bit?”
They didn’t require much persuasion. Appy waited until she heard satisfactory sleeping noises, then got on the phone to make a call before someone bugged her line, if they hadn’t already. After all, the purpose of telephones was to let people talk without seeing whom they were talking to.
“I know,” said the phone. “Stop by. We’ll work on it.”
“Thanks.” She hung up, got the .22 down again and went out to the porch swing. As soon as Dick’s gone, I should look into getting a puppy, she thought. Maybe a Rottweiler this time.
At about 4 p.m., the FBI called — followed by CBS, CNN, Fox News, the Kansas City Star, the New York Post, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Al Jazeera, a man with a French accent and Harlan Chillingworth — the last in violation of two different restraining orders.
Appy denied everything.