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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Blog Tour- BEING FREE by @BeingFreeBooks With An Excerpt & A #Giveaway!

I am thrilled to be hosting a spot on the BEING FREE by J.H. Lyons Blog Tour hosted by Rockstar Book Tours. Check out my post and make sure to enter the giveaway!

 

About The Book:

Title: BEING FREE

Author: J.H. Lyons

Pub. Date: November 1, 2023

Publisher: J.H. Lyons

Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, eBook, Audiobook

Pages: 273

Find it: Goodreadshttps://beingfreebooks.com/

Based in part on the author’s own spiritual journey, Being Free: On the Inside is a magical realism novel of hope and redemption.

Corey Astin is a lawyer who will spend the next six years in prison.  He knows he did wrong, and wants to make amends, but needs guidance and protection.  The nature of his crime makes him an instant target for other inmates.  As you might expect, county jail offered only a tiny preview of the harsh environment in the maximum-security state prison.  Corey arrives in shackles in the middle of the cold Maine winter, to a poorly-heated cell block, knowing only one person, Carl, from his time in jail.  Corey soon meets Dalton, a man who will become his mentor and teacher of a special way of seeing and using energy called The Choice.  Being chosen is a great honor, but Corey doesn’t know it yet.  He is just beginning to understand what kind of magical world exists within for those who can manifest it.  Told from a first-person perspective, Corey explains his experience in the prison, and his growing friendship with Dalton.  He tells the story as if you are with him, listening to his concerns, and baring his soul.  Get ready to experience the first part of a private and perilous journey into a world that few have ever known.

  

 Chapter 1

           

There was a time in my life, not too long ago, when the one thing I wanted more than anything else in the world, was to die.  I was standing in a courtroom in my best tan suit, taking off my watch, my ring, removing my lacquered pens from my coat pocket, and putting them into a little pile for my lawyer to present to my mother.  The judge gave me fifteen years in prison, of which I would serve six, with good time.  Life as I knew it ceased to exist.  I consider the experience a blessing now, because losing everything and practically everyone, cleared the detritus of my greed-inspired life.  Only after I found my slate wiped mercilessly clean, was there room to see truth; and what I saw scared the hell out of me.  One man who helped me see it changed my life forever.  His name is Dalton.

Dalton McCormack does not approve of this book.  I have told him my plans to share the story with anyone who will listen.  He just laughed.  “No matter how many times most people look in a mirror, they still don’t really see themselves.”  I found it mildly amusing given the mirrored sunglasses he always wears and what I eventually saw in those mirrors.  But appearances are deceiving.  I take what he says seriously, because I know he is one of the very few who does see.  I’m going to tell you about him but first I need to go back and fill in some details because there was a time when I didn’t believe anything he said.  I didn’t even believe my own eyes. 

The first night I spent in the maximum-security state prison scared me half to death.  Noises of grinding, rusted metal permeated my tiny cell.  By tiny I mean that you could stand in the middle and touch both side walls with your fingertips.  The walls shook constantly, reverberating every time a barred door slammed violently shut.  Small flecks of paint and dirt fell from the ceiling.  They filtered like fine silt onto everything I owned: my hair, my clothes, and my books.  I had already spent six months in the county jail, but be advised, there is virtually no comparison between the two.  If jail is boot camp, prison is war. 

The day I arrived at the prison the property officer dispensed a pile of four molting woolen blankets to me that smelled of urine.  He topped them with two stained sheets.  The sheets were too small to fit the mattress and were not fitted so they came up around the corners and ended up in a ball in the middle by daybreak.  Some guys had a way of knotting them so it wouldn’t happen, but it took me years to figure out the trick.  As I stood six-feet tall, the mattress was barely long enough.  The smoke, during most waking hours, was so thick I had to fashion a makeshift ventilator from the dirty sheets to avoid inhaling it directly.  I looked into the mirror over the sink, saw my sunken brown eyes, my copper-colored, unkempt hair, and wondered how I would survive.  It took me several days to get a decent night’s sleep.

Especially during those first few weeks, the place was downright scary.  When I’m scared I can’t even think straight.  Sometimes I pretended to read a book so I didn’t have to listen to the slurs that some of my fellow inmates delighted in delivering on the way by.  One of my first major purchases was a large pair of ear-hugging headphones that I employed frequently to squelch the insults and other feral grunts of terminally angry men.  Although it had limited utility as a muffler, being ostensibly engrossed in music convinced most people to lose interest in taunting me after a few minutes.

My first friend on the inside was not Dalton.  Carl was a well-educated man with anger management issues who I had met in county jail.  He’d arrived at the prison about a month beforehand.  I found it ironic that we became such fast friends since he pathologically hated lawyers, and I was one of them.  He visited me briefly on my second day at the prison, looking surprisingly well-acclimated.  He stuck a small, brown, wrinkled paper bag through the bars of my cell.  “Can’t talk.  Take it.  I’ll try to come by later.”  Then he was gone.  I looked inside the bag and found a package of instant soup.  I am now convinced that the ramen soup people must have some kind of kickback in place as they are so popular in prison.  I added some hot water to the noodles and made the soup in a small white bowl he had also thoughtfully provided.  My first week passed slowly.  I read the Bible, wrote some panicked letters to my remaining friends, and generally became emotionally numb.

My first job assignment at the prison was in the kitchen.  I was issued a nice blue baseball cap and a bright white uniform, at least two sizes too large, even though I carried a little extra weight.  I felt shamed having to wear them at first.  People stared because they knew the lawyer was now the pots and pans washer.  I slowly devolved into a shadow of my former arrogant self.  I knew in some way it was good for me, but I resisted nonetheless.

Permanently discarding my infallible self-image is a first step toward living life in the real world.  I think it’s important to put some of what Dalton says into words here.  He sums it up this way:  “Some people live their entire lives in the cloud.”  Perhaps I should explain what the cloud is, since it is a metaphor I use a lot.  The cloud is an imaginary place that Dalton keeps talking about with rancor in his voice.  It is a rosy world where there are no felons, no crimes; nothing at all to disturb the calming fantasy that much of America prefers to live in every day.  “You shouldn’t stop with America,” says Dalton when I start talking politics with him, “it infects the entire planet.”

Every afternoon I have rec.  I can choose to go to a number of different places.  Most of the time I go to the library.  I have also been up to the prison Chaplain’s office quite a bit.  But sometimes, like when I have to buy something at the prison store, I have to go to the yard.  The yard is the place where people congregate, talk, show off, yell, lift weights, play pool, and make general assholes of themselves.  I do not use that word lightly; there are plenty of them in prison. 

The yard is also the place where I first noticed Dalton.  He was carrying a large grocery bag of stuff back to his cell from the prison store.  As he walked past me up the hill, he said “hello” for no reason at all.  If you haven’t had the experience, saying “hello” to someone you don’t know is a big deal in prison.  It can lead to a fight, ostracism, being strong-armed, being told to mind your own business, or just being harassed.  Personal space is at a premium on the inside and hello can be expensive.  I took it as a gift, returned the favor, and kept walking.  But I didn’t even really notice him before he said hello to me.  This too is part of the gift.

He was wearing a red bandanna, blue jeans, and a black jeans jacket.  His trademark mirror glasses hid his eyes, and, as I later found out, made it difficult to tell whether he was kidding.  He walked confidently and smiled.  When I began to see him around the compound more and more, I noticed that he smiled almost all the time.  It wasn’t a stupid smile saying, “I’m in prison and I like being here,” but a gentle smile that said, “happiness is a choice.”  I decided to ask Carl about him.

“Don’t know him.  What’s he look like?”  Carl wasn’t much help.

I first heard about the meditation group over the intercom.  The prison had acquired a large number of scratchy and garbled-sounding army surplus bullhorns, but seasoned cons could decipher the metallic, unsquelched announcements with all the alacrity of an NSA code breaker.

“Mdtashn ad dis dime, mdtashn.”

“What did they say?” I asked the guy in the box next to me.  I really had no idea.

“Meditation.  They shou’ finish chewing before dey use dat microphone.”  Ed was a very cool guy who occupied the cell next to mine.  He loved to talk.  When he wasn’t playing handball down in the yard he was working on college courses.  He grew up in New Jersey and everyone knew it from the moment he opened his mouth.  He also had a very open mind.  I thought about his translation for a minute.

“Maybe I should go.”  I was thinking aloud, but in prison no one notices.

“Go.  I went, dit’n do much for me.  You migh’ like it dough.”  Ed sounded genuinely encouraging.  That was another reason I liked him.

“OK.”  It took twenty minutes to coax a guard to descend one flight of stairs from his office and unlock my door.  I didn’t know all the rules yet, but I sensed that patience would edge me closer to the room where the people were meditating faster than any other strategy.  I thanked the guard.  He looked at me as if I was being rude.  Ok, so, I still had some things to learn.

I took the small white slip of paper that was my pass and hurried to the building where the group met.  I opened the metal door and stepped into a large, brown-paneled room that also served as a sanctuary for church services.  Metal chairs were arranged in a circle.  Ten to fifteen men were already seated there.  A few chairs remained empty.  I took one.  As I calmed down and let the tiny modicum of freedom permeate my being, I looked around to see whether I recognized anyone.  Carl had come, and so had Dalton.  They both nodded to me.  I nodded back.

The only woman in the circle was a volunteer.  She was a gentle person with brown, curly hair, who brought her own tire-sized dark-purple pillow to sit on.  The other men looked like they had all been coming to this group for a very long time.  The volunteer explained that I was to clear my mind of all thoughts, noises, and distractions.  Anything that caught my attention should float away like a cloud.

“Start by focusing on your breath.”  I closed my eyes, trying to relax and listen.

“Breathe in, I know I’m breathing in, breathe out, I know I’m breathing out.”  She repeated this phrase over and over and lulled me into a very peaceful state.  At first, everything around me seemed orchestrated to disrupt the class: people yelling outside, a phone ringing in the next room, a guard taking very little care to muffle squeaky door noises as he completed his rounds.   I kept returning to my breath.  The volunteer had become silent and I decided to open my eyes.  When I did, I got a shock that to this day gives me chills.  Dalton wasn’t there.  He had been there when I closed my eyes, but now his seat was empty.  Had I gone to sleep?  It made no sense to me.  I looked all-round the room and saw nothing out of the ordinary.  I decided to close my eyes again and tried to return to my peaceful state.  After a few minutes of trying I heard him whisper.  It came from directly behind me.  He very clearly said, “Look again.”  I opened my eyes and there he was, sitting right where he was supposed to be, a very peaceful smile on his lips that was also part smirk.  I opened my mouth to speak, but then, without opening his eyes, he shook his head ever so slightly to stop me.  A wide range of emotions ran through my mind: fear, excitement, panic, curiosity.  I remained silent.  To signal the end of the first sit, the volunteer took a small mallet and tapped a long metal chime three times.  It resonated gently through the room.  The others began to open their eyes slowly and stretch a little.  I looked around to see if Carl had noticed anything peculiar.  If he had, he wasn’t giving it away.  Then Dalton winked at me and smiled.  I almost leapt right straight out of my chair.  I couldn’t concentrate very well on what the volunteer was saying.  But I was dying to ask Dalton what had happened.  As it turns out, I didn’t get a chance to right then. 

“McCormack?”  A guard in a blue uniform was at the door.  Dalton got up.

“Yeah?”

“Visit.”  Dalton picked up his jacket and followed the guard out of the room.

“This time, try to really focus on the breath.”  The volunteer was leading us all back into another twenty-minute sit, but it was nearly impossible for me to sit still.

 

The next day I looked everywhere for Dalton but failed to find him.  Carl and I decided to go walking in the afternoon, even though it was cold.  It was probably twenty degrees out and the clothing I had on really wasn’t warm enough.  Still, we kept up a good pace and tried to act nonchalantly despite the fact that there was an armed guard walking the wall above us with a high-caliber rifle.  He, on the other hand, looked very warm.

“Did you see anything strange yesterday at meditation?” I asked Carl after a while.

“Just you.  You looked like you’d seen a ghost.”

“I might have.”  I remembered closing my eyes and focusing on my breath.   Everything seemed normal, until it wasn’t.  “Did you get a chance to see the guy I was talking about the other day, you know, the guy they took to visits?”  My brown state-issue shoes were not insulated and my feet were getting cold.

“Oh yeah.  That’s the guy who said hello to you, right?”  Everybody was painfully aware of the hello thing.

“Right.  Did you notice anything weird about him?”  I liked Carl well enough, but I was still unclear about how open-minded he would be if I told him that one of the guys at meditation had spontaneously vanished, even if it were just for a few minutes.

“No, not really.  He struck me as pretty quiet.  Looks like he’s been in a while and has figured out how to do time.”  I wasn’t sure if he knew it, but Carl had given me another piece of the puzzle.  How to do time.  I had heard inmates talk about doing time as though it were a job: the fine art of turning something that should normally take five minutes into an hour.  The institution provided their own version of doing time by needlessly complicating things, in typical military fashion, and so most inmates found alternative ways to get the things they needed.

“Wonder what he did?”

“Probably murder,” said Carl.   “Anybody who’s been in that long must have killed somebody.”  He was right about one thing: Dalton looked as though he’d been in prison for twenty years.  There was no sense of shame about the man.  At first his serenity irritated me because it ran against the grain of what I had always been taught about criminals: that they should be ashamed for the rest of their lives.  I didn’t really believe that everyone was guilty, but I knew most were.

“What did you think was so weird about him?”  Carl asked the question before I had made up my mind.   I still debated whether to reveal what I saw.

“He winked at me.”

“Oh.   Yeah, well, there are a lot of guys like that in here.”

“No, not sexually, he just gave me a wink like he knew something I didn’t.”  Carl looked confused and decided to change the subject.

“You heard anything more from your girlfriend?”

“Nope.  I think she’s given up on me.  I don’t blame her though.  Who can wait six years for someone to get out of prison?”  Carl knew how unhappy I had been when I got my Dear John letter.  It was my own damn fault for lying to her.  I had told her I was innocent.  Technically true as a presumption, but in fact I was guilty.  There are some things that sorry just won’t cover, but I still keep saying it as if she can hear me.  I knew better than to ask Carl anything about his ex-wife.  Their divorce was epic in its devastation and had left him virtually penniless.  Small wonder he had such a deep hatred for lawyers.  We left the walking track and went back inside to warm up.

 

When I heard the call for meditation the following week, I was ready.  I had already secured my pass and reminded the guard that I wished to go.  He pressed the button for my door and it sprang open a hand-width.  I locked it behind me and walked quickly to the chapel, trying not to look at anyone along the way.  Even looking at someone could be as risky as hello. 

This time I was the first one there, except for the volunteer.  She introduced herself as Pam and apparently didn’t remember I had been there the previous week.  It made very little difference to me at the time since I was more concerned with talking to Dalton.  It amazed me how little contact I could have with some people in a prison that held just under five hundred men.  I didn’t know my way around well enough yet to visit someone intentionally.  That was a skill I would develop over time however, and I was doing the best I could.  Most people immediately recognized my status as a fish out of water (though perhaps a shark), and for some it was an opportunity to con me.  Others, like old Ronnie who lived on my cellblock, called me a “civilian” and gave me latitude when I failed to discern all the subtle nuances of the infamous inmate code.

Dalton came through the door and approached me as if we were old friends.  “Glad you decided to come back.”  He patted me on the back and went to take a seat in one of the metal folding chairs.  I was, once again, speechless.  I chose a chair next to his and he seemed pleased.  Carl didn’t show up, but I knew he might not since the group met during his shift in the laundry.  Attending programs was always encouraged by the institution, so he could go if he wanted to, but he still had a certain amount of work to complete; unless he found someone else with whom he could trade.

“Let’s begin.”  I tried to relax.  The volunteer struck the chime and closed her eyes.  I had been breathing rhythmically with my eyes closed for about ten minutes when I heard Dalton whisper.   “Can you hear me?”  I nodded.  “If you want to talk, then meet me at the gym tomorrow afternoon, right after lunch.”  I peeked around.  No one else seemed to have heard him.  I don’t think he had moved at all.  It was a little eerie, but I made the decision then and there that I wanted to know more, that I would go.  I whispered back to him, “Ok” and the whole group seemed to hear me.  Several men gave me sharp, disapproving glances before they resumed their meditating.  Dalton just grinned.

 

The next day passed very slowly for me.  I managed to get pretty much soaking wet while washing the pots and pans in the morning.  I also took much longer than any of the other inmates thought I should.  I never liked doing dishes for myself, much less for an entire prison.  But I had some help and although it became fairly cumbersome to organize the ever-growing pile of dirty pots, plastic tubs, and vats of doughy gunk, I did make it through.  When I came back to my cell, Ed nearly ran me over, hoping to ask me a legal question.

“Hey, Corey!  Can you still file an appeal after you take a plea bargain?”  I told him I couldn’t give him legal advice because I was suspended from practice, but I could tell him about my personal experience in dealing with the issue in Maine.   He seemed interested but disappointed I couldn’t give him a solid answer.  I also told him to write to his former lawyer.

“Well she’s da one who I t’ink screwed up!”  This was actually a fairly typical conversation for prison, and even more typical for me in county jail, but I did my best to ease people’s frustrations.  He saw I was getting frustrated and eased off a bit.  “So how’s dat meditation class goin’?”

“Good.  One of the guys in it wants to talk to me about it this afternoon actually.  It seems to be helping.”  I wasn’t lying either.  I had started using the time when I couldn’t sleep to meditate.  It was really doing wonders for my peace of mind and was a stark contrast to the Bible debates that seemed to preoccupy most of the otherwise gentle religious types in prison.  I had ongoing arguments with various fundamentalists who not only thought my newfound meditation un-Christian, but in some cases, satanic.  My fondness for Gregorian chant also led the resident Pentecostals to cast aspersions on my faith.  It was difficult for me to accept the lack of logic among people who were so completely rooted to literal interpretations of Bible passages.  Being an “intellectual” was a sin for them because it somehow separated you from God.  The theory is this: if you think for yourself, then how can you let God think for you?  Somewhat mind-boggling!

Ed excused himself and resumed his studies.  I changed out of my kitchen whites and got back into more comfortable clothes.  The typical uniform for that prison was blue jeans and either a t-shirt or a flannel shirt.  Most people wore sneakers and had their own clothes.  I hadn’t gotten enough clothes to be entirely comfortable yet, and so I wore state clothes on days when I ran out of clean clothes.  Carl managed to help me out with laundry though.  It was generosity on his part that I respected and admired.  There are actually a substantial number of people in prison who can manage to do something for nothing, even though it countermands the inmate code.

I got to rec and found Dalton standing outside at the end of the beige-colored, cinderblock building that served as a gym.  He was looking at the clouds.

“Beautiful, aren’t they?”  He seemed transfixed.  I looked at him and then at the clouds for a moment and wondered whether I had made a big mistake.  “Do you know that there are some prisons where you can’t even look at the sky?”  I knew what he was talking about.  During my six-month stint in county jail prior to the transfer to the Maine State Prison I had been in a cell where the sky was a tiny patch between two buildings that I could only see if I craned my neck all the way into a corner of my skinny cell window.

“I do.  It makes you appreciate it all the more.  Even grass.”

“Yes!  Grass is a luxury in here.  People take it for granted every day.  They curse it, cut it, make it grow faster, shorter, taller, wider, thicker, straighter.  There is no end to lawn care (especially for golfers), but how many people really appreciate grass?”  He certainly had a point.  Before I experienced life in prison, I had limited patience for appreciating the little things in life, and grass seemed quite insignificant.  Sure, I liked walking barefoot in the grass, but I always assumed I could do it if and when I chose.  The freedom to enjoy it was never an issue.

“I want to talk to you about meditation.”  I was trying to be as patient as possible, but the questions were nearly bursting.  “How do you do that?  I mean, what, exactly, did you do?”  I wasn’t being very clear, but I was nervous as hell.  Dalton motioned with his head for me to follow him and we walked a little way down behind the gym.  It was the area where they played handball in good weather, although now there were little patches of ice on the ground.  The sun kept the temperature bearable.

“What did you see?”  He was a man who answered a question with a question.  I stopped myself from saying something snide about being a lawyer and tried to calm myself down and listen.  There was a gracious plenty of the Socratic method in law school so it wasn’t actually unfamiliar territory.  But I was on his turf now, and I needed to learn and listen.

“You vanished.  Gone, poof, no more you.  Then when I looked again you were right where I thought you should be.”  I kept eye contact with his mirror glasses for a while until he looked away.

“I thought you might have.  You have the gift.”  He was smiling broadly, a proud, comfortable smile that belongs to someone who has traveled a long way and found what he wanted there.

“What gift?  What are you talking about?  I’m not the one who disappeared; I’m not the one who whispered in my ear without letting a whole room full of people know.  You couldn’t hear a pin drop in that place when you spoke to me.  I don’t think anyone else heard it.  What’s going on?”  I was getting riled up and trying to mask it, but my adrenaline was winning.

Dalton cleared his throat.  “Some people, when they have gone through a major loss, like you have, experience a change in perception.  It is a gift, and it brings with it a way of seeing the world in its raw form, untainted by the lies we are told and the assumptions we make about what we see.”  Deep inside, I had a fleeting feeling I knew what he was talking about.  When I was on the evening news for example, as opposed to watching it, when I heard my name, reality shifted for a moment.  The ride stopped.  I found myself at the top of the Ferris wheel, looking down, wondering if all the people below really knew how small they looked from there.  I certainly didn’t think of it as a gift though.  It kind of made me sick to my stomach.  Dalton was making me relive some of that feeling and it was uncomfortable.  I decided to sit down.  I walked over to a little retaining wall that was part of the building’s foundation and sat down on it.  I felt light-headed and flushed.  Dalton began to look concerned.

“When you begin to wake up from the dream we all live in, it is very scary.  You will begin to see things you won’t believe.  But these things are real.  They have been there all along.  When you see them for the first time, you may panic.  Your mind tries to take you back to the easy lies of the world you are comfortable in.

“Your body reacts: you sweat, you hyperventilate, you fear death.  What you saw was real.”  Dalton took his large hands and placed them on my head for a moment with his thumbs on my forehead.  I let him, as though he were my father, checking my brow for a temperature.  I experienced such an immediate calming sensation that I started to fall asleep, right there, in broad daylight, in the middle of the prison rec yard.  A black veil covered my eyes and I fell asleep.

 

Everyday life in a prison is far more time-consuming than you might think.  Remember, I have to live by two sets of rules: the guards’ and the inmates’.  Notice that I didn’t say the institution’s rules, because every officer decides which rules he or she will enforce.  The same is true for civilian police, but in prison the problem is in your face, every day, for every small decision you make.  Some things are Catch-22’s and there is no right answer.  You have to violate somebody’s rules.  In those circumstances, if you want to survive, you choose to live by the inmate code.

The next time I saw Dalton, he was walking into the dining room.  He had his tool bag with him.  Dalton’s job at the prison is maintenance.  He says it’s spiritual maintenance.  I believe him.  He has the air of someone who can fix anything.

“Are you allowed to be in here right now?”  I was very naïve for the first few years I was incarcerated.  Dalton sat down at the same stainless-steel table where I was sitting.  The table seated eight people and had the appearance of a giant metal mushroom bolted securely to the porcelain-tiled, blue-and-white floor.

“This bag is my pass to any place in the prison I want to go.  Guards don’t ask me much anymore.  They know me.”  I was eating lunch early, as was my privilege for working in the kitchen.  There were several inmates eating at other tables, but for the most part the large room was empty.

“Want something to eat?”

“Nope.  Just thought I’d come by, see how things were going.  Got my lunch right here.”  He showed me an apple.

“That’s all you eat for lunch?”  I was beginning to wonder whether Dalton was really from this planet.

“Today it is.  Got a lot to do.  I’ll be starved by supper, but that’s the way I like it.  I treat hunger like a friend.”  Hunger like a friend.  I liked that.  “So what do they have you doing now, more pots and pans?”

“Yeah.  Never ends.  Listen, Dalton, about yesterday in the yard.  I don’t remember what happened much after I fell asleep.  What happened?”

“I knew you needed some rest, so I helped you get some.  You had some real sleep, dreamless sleep, sleep that doesn’t drain you.”

“But how…?”  I couldn’t even formulate the question, but he knew what I was asking.

“All in time.  I told you; you have the gift.  But even if I told you how I gave you sleep, even if you understood what it meant to unplug your consciousness and really relax to the point where you feel free, you wouldn’t understand.  The bigger question is this: are you willing to learn?”  I was about to answer him, but he stopped me.  “I mean really learn how to change your perception in a way that will also change your life?  You’ve already had the first, the biggest, step taken for you.  You’ve lost practically everything.” He paused and took off his glasses.  “You’re Christian, right?”

“Sure.  Are you?”

“I believe in God and Christ.  But I believe there are many paths to heaven.”  He stopped for a moment and closed his eyes, breathing deeply as he did so.  He appeared to be consciously centering himself in the moment.  It looked refreshing.  “Do you remember what Christ said to us about having to lose everything?”

“Of course.  He said you have to lose everything to enter the Kingdom of God, or something like that.”

“He said that if you give up everything for him, then you will surely go to heaven.  That’s what the apostles did.  Things are not important.  People are important.  The easiest way to understand that is to lose everything.  How many people have you seen who live only to buy more things?  They accumulate massive hordes of stuff, and then have most of it thrown or given away when they die.  Nothing goes with you.  Consider that space in your head where you go when you meditate and find serenity.  Nothing goes in there with you, and yet it’s the most peaceful, calming, place you can go on earth.”

“I really do want to learn,” I said.  “What do I have to do?”

“You are in training, as of now.  You can walk away any time you like, but there may be consequences.”  I raised my eyebrows.  Was the meditation mafia going to come get me in the middle of the night or something?  Was Guido going to put me on his hit list?  Focus on the breath or I break both your legs. 

Dalton continued.  “Consider it like an operation for your soul.  If we end the operation before I’ve sewn you back up, you won’t heal and you’ll be in more pain than you can imagine.  It is very important that you go into this with the understanding that there are risks, great personal risks that you will need to take.  I’m not talking about anything illegal, but it will certainly be very scary at times, and very painful.  You have a lot of good in you Corey, and I wouldn’t have chosen you if I had any doubts whatsoever that you could do this.”  I had been feeling very serene all morning.  The sleep he had somehow induced on me the day before had given me energy I hadn’t felt in at least six months.  Now I was feeling scared again.  I didn’t know if I could do it.  Was I willing to give myself over to something as magical and amazing as what Dalton taught?  I have to admit the faith he professed had also reassured me.  I trusted God and opened myself in prayer to him for an answer.  I felt that accepting Dalton’s offer was what God had in mind for me.

“Ok.  I’m willing to do this training you’re talking about.  But how much can you tell me?  I don’t mind telling you that I’m scared.”

“I know you are.  I hope you are.  Fear is the one thing that you need to be aware of in every aspect of your life.  It can cripple you if you let it.  Just breathe with it for now.  Do not ignore it, feed it, minimize it, or try to turn it into anything else.  I will tell you nothing more today.  But tomorrow I want you to tell me what you are afraid of.”  He got up, patted me on the shoulder, and left.

What am I afraid of?  I wondered to myself.  The real question should be: what am I not afraid of?  I took my tray up and stacked it with the others waiting to be washed.  I knew there was something very strange going on, but I doubted that it was just my “perception” as Dalton called it.  He seemed so clear, so calm to me.  Sure, he looked a little rough around the edges as my mother says, but then, so do most of these guys.  What intrigued me most about him was that he was challenging me.  He aroused my competitive instinct and dared me to go further, to learn more about the secrets of life, the secrets of faith, and the contents of my soul.  An operation on my soul?  Was it really ailing so badly that it needed an operation?  I went to see the guard at the desk and got a pass to go back to my cellblock, still lost in confusion and fear.

 

I almost missed meditation the next week because my television arrived from the repair shop.  I had gotten it lobotomized at a local electronics store.  Prison regulations do not allow speakers in televisions or radios in order to cut down on noise pollution.  Fifteen minutes before the group was scheduled to begin, my door opened mysteriously. I knew that usually this meant I needed to come out and report for something.  The guard at the end of the corridor told me I had to go to the property room and pick up a package.  They didn’t know what it was, and looked irritated if not irate that I should even get a package. When I got there the officer made me sign a receipt and I carried my television back to my cell.  I was delighted.  News is very difficult to get in prison and current affairs are not popular topics.  The most important issues were always who ratted on whom and who committed a sex crime.  One’s reputation depended entirely on recognizing these people and ostracizing them.  It virtually guaranteed the survival of the inmate code.

After I had thrown my television on my bed and locked my cell again, I went up to the Sergeant’s office for a pass to meditation.  The trip to the property room had complicated my plans.

“Didn’t you just go somewhere?”

“Property room.”

“Now you want to go somewhere else.”

“Yes sir.”

“Medi-fucking-tation huh.  Well, if you think it’ll do you any good, go ahead.”

“Thank you.”  I left.  Not all guards were like this, just most of them.  As I later found out, the only topics that were universally entertaining to the officers were guns and pay increases.

Carl had gotten there before me and I decided to sit with him this week.

“Where’s your friend the guru?”  I had tried to tell Carl a little bit about what had happened to me and the conversations I had with him. Carl was skeptical at best.

“Don’t get me wrong, I think meditation is soothing, calming, and helps me live in this God-forsaken hell-hole.  But do I think you can levitate, have little outer-body travels, or enter an altered state of consciousness, like that movie where the guy turned into a monkey—no!”  He wasn’t angry, just very energetic when he argued about things.  He still had a big smile on his face and it always seemed to grow wider after he uttered the critical words “No, I think you’re wrong.” 

Dalton walked in at that point and put his tools under one of the literature tables that the chaplain’s office kept stocked at the back of the room.  Then he took the same seat he had the previous week and nodded to both Carl and me.  I said “hello.”  The volunteer corralled the group’s attention and began the sit, once again ringing the chime three times at the beginning, but this time she added a little prayer by Thich Nhat Hanh about inviting and listening to the sound of the bell. 

I let the words wash over me, bathe me in the sweet serenity that was so difficult to find in prison, but I considered God’s greatest gift when I could find it.  I recognized that this woman’s prayer was healing to me, welcoming me back into the fold from which I had been banished.  It gave me both comfort and purpose.  I began to clear my mind of all thoughts and just remain with the feelings of acceptance the words had left in me. 

 

 

About J.H. Lyons:

Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, but raised in New England, J. H. Lyons now lives in rural Maine with his husband, their Mini Aussie dogs, and a cat in a "big house, little house, barn" farmhouse. He holds degrees in law, political science, computer science and French.

Website | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon

 






Giveaway Details:

1 winner will receive a finished copy of BEING FREE, US Only.

2 winners will receive audiobook codes for BEING FREE, International

Ends April 30th, midnight EST.

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Tour Schedule:

Week One:

4/15/2024

Writer of Wrongs

Excerpt

4/15/2024

Comic Book Yeti

Excerpt/Twitter Post

4/16/2024

Two Chicks on Books

Excerpt/IG Post

4/16/2024

@darkfantasyreviews

Excerpt

4/17/2024

Karma Zee Readz

Excerpt/IG Post

4/17/2024

A Dream Within A Dream

Excerpt

4/18/2024

Fire and Ice Reads

Excerpt/IG Post

4/18/2024

nerdophiles

Excerpt

4/19/2024

#BRVL Book Review Virginia Lee Blog

Blog Spotlight/IG Post

4/19/2024

@evergirl200

IG Review

Week Two:

4/22/2024

Lifestyle of Me

Review/IG Post

4/22/2024

Rajiv's Reviews

Review/IG Post

4/23/2024

The Book Critic

Review/IG Post

4/23/2024

One More Exclamation

Review/IG Post

4/24/2024

Books and Zebras

IG Review

4/24/2024

GryffindorBookishnerd

IG Review

4/25/2024

@dana.loves.books

IG Review/TikTok Post

4/25/2024

Country Mamas With Kids

IG Review/TikTok Post

4/26/2024

Brandi Danielle Davis

IG Review

4/26/2024

The Momma Spot

Review


Monday, April 8, 2024

Blog Tour- THE MARK OF THE SALAMANDER by @JustinNewland53 With An Excerpt & #Giveaway! @bookguild

I am thrilled to be hosting a spot on the THE MARK OF THE SALAMANDER by Justin Newland Blog Tour hosted by Rockstar Book Tours. Check out my post and make sure to enter the giveaway!

 

About The Book:

Title: THE MARK OF THE SALAMANDER

Author: Justin Newland

Pub. Date: September 28, 2023

Publisher: The Book Guild Ltd.

Formats: Paperback, eBook

Pages: 256

Find it: Goodreadshttps://mybook.to/MarkofSalamander 

1575: Nelan Michaels is a young Flemish man fleeing religious persecution in the Spanish Netherlands. Settling in Mortlake outside London, he studies under Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer, conjuring a bright future – until he’s wrongly accused of murder. Forced into the life of a fugitive, Nelan is dramatically pressed into the crew of the Golden Hind.
Thrust into a strange new world on board Francis Drake’s vessel, Nelan sails the seas on a voyage to discover discovery itself. Encountering mutiny, ancient tribes and hoards of treasure, Nelan must explore and master his own mystical powers – including the Mark of the Salamander, the mysterious spirit of fire.
The Mark of the Salamander is the first in The Island of Angels series: a two-book saga that tells the epic story and secret history of England’s coming of age during the Elizabethan era.

 

Book Trailer:


1

The Fire

The village of Mortlake, near London, England

31st March 1575

Nelan stepped carefully over the planks of the wooden jetty, moist  from an early morning shower. He boarded the wherry bobbing in  the flow of the spring tide. The wherry master grinned, showing  a tranche of rotting black teeth behind a ragged salt-and-pepper  beard. As far as Wenceslaus was concerned, this passed as a morning  salutation. 

Wenceslaus let go of the rope and kicked the jetty with the sole of his tattered boot, shoving the boat into the flow of the River Thames.  As usual, the wherry master’s breath stank of ale, and to enhance the  delights of the morning, he let out a huge fart. As with everyone else  in England, more vacant air than solid food filled the wherry master’s  guts. Well, it was Maundy Thursday, the last day of Lenten fasting.  Wenceslaus eased out the oars and bent his back to the task, and with  each pull he emitted a low grunt, like the wild boars that roamed the  woods near Nelan’s Mortlake home. 

“Tide’s on the full, little master,” said Wenceslaus. 

“’Tis that,” Nelan said. 

Reaching the middle of the flow, Nelan glanced back at his house.  

Next door and nestling on the bank was their neighbour’s place – a  large, rambling house just west of the church between it and the river.  The natural philosopher and celebrated astrologer to the court of Queen Elizabeth, Dr John Dee, lived there. Dr Dee was a great friend  of Nelan’s father Laurens, who had encouraged Nelan to visit Dee’s  house for private tuition in matters both sacred and secular. Just the  other week, Dee had agreed to cast Nelan’s horoscope, but before he  could reveal his findings, Dee’s second wife had died. And on the day  of her funeral, the Queen herself had paid him a surprise visit. How  Nelan mixed with such exalted company! 

Today was a special day: the last school day before Easter. Nelan  

pulled out a crumpled broadsheet that Dee had recently given him. It  was dated March 1575, and depicted an elegant city with tall spires  protruding into the heavens. One more term at school, and Nelan  would be off to university and strolling down Oxford’s alleys. The time  was ripe for him to make his own way in life. 

They passed wherries tacking upriver, and avoided ferries crossing from bank to bank. Wisps of mist rose from the glassy  swell. Wenceslaus stopped by the hamlet of Sneakenhall to pick  up two other boys from Nelan’s school. Dressed in doublets of  fine Spanish cloth, leggings, and leather shoes, they stood behind  their stepfather, St John of Southampton, or San Juan de Antón in  Spanish. They sniggered and pointed their fingers at Nelan, but that  wasn’t unusual. The brothers climbed into the wherry. Nelan had  been born in Sangatte, Picardy, Northern France, while Guillermo  and Pedro harked from Seville, Spain. They attended the same school  and were of a similar age. They had that in common. But Nelan  couldn’t stand the boys; nor they him. They had that in common  too. 

Wenceslaus disliked their rivalry. “Now, be civil to them both, young Nelan,” he warned. 

“I’ll try,” Nelan murmured. 

“You do just that.” 

Nelan said, “Good morrow, Guillermo, Pedro. The Lord be with you both.” 

“I want nothing to do with your Lord!” Guillermo snarled. “Now move over, you stupid!” He pushed Nelan off the seat. 

“Oi!” Wenceslaus intervened. “Stop it. Hell’s teeth. Every mornin’, every month, every year. Always the same. You two spar like a pair of  fightin’ cocks. An’ old Wenceslaus gotta keep yous apart.” 

He was right, Nelan thought. But what could he do? In Queen Bess’s England, the law compelled ordinary folks to follow the  new Protestant religion and forgo the old Catholic one. Nelan was  Protestant. The brothers were Catholic. He and they were like oil and  water. They fought in words on the wherry, just as their respective  armies warred in Europe and clashed all over the New World. 

A pall of silence shrouded the rest of the trip around the Barnes– 

Chiswick oxbow. As Wenceslaus grunted and groaned, passing more air  from his orifice, he rowed the wherry past Putney and then Battersea  Fields. Nelan stretched his legs. He was a shorty, and they barely  reached half the length of Guillermo’s, who sat, arms folded, avoiding  eye contact. Pedro mimicked his older brother, brooding beneath a  dark, forbidding frown. 

As the wherry moored by the Westminster jetty, Nelan and  

Guillermo stood up at the same time, rocking the boat. Wenceslaus  scowled at them, which annoyed Guillermo, who took a leap. The jetty  was still moist from the overnight rain, and he slipped and smashed  his knee. 

As Guillermo winced with pain, Wenceslaus passed comment and more air. “Silly boy. Serves you right; it does that.” 

Rubbing his knee, Guillermo snapped at the wherry master, “Me,  

I am Guillermo. You ferry me and my brother to school and back. You  speak to me like that again, I tell my stepfather. You know he is very  important man, ¿cierto?” 

“Beggin’ your pardon, young master,” Wenceslaus said, doffing his cap and clutching it to his chest. 

As far as Nelan was concerned, this was more respect than the boy deserved for his rudeness and arrogance. But Guillermo’s stepfather  was a senior figure with influence at Elizabeth’s court. A word in the  local constable’s ear, and Wenceslaus could easily have spent the day  battened down in the stocks at Putney market. 

Pedro jumped out of the wherry and helped his brother hobble along the landing quay. Passing the woodshed, they headed towards an imposing  brick building boasting tall, graceful spires and elegant stone etchings:  Westminster Abbey. Next to the abbey lay the entrance to the newly  formed Westminster School. There, the school’s steward, a burly man with  a black beard and black cap, stood by and greeted them one and all. 

Nelan joined the rest of the school for the church assembly.  

Pastor Christopher, the school’s minister, conducted the morning  service, which concluded with the singing of Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is  My Shepherd’. Nelan mouthed a silent prayer to the Lord. If only He  would shepherd him to the place where he could deal with Guillermo.  Because of late, the Spanish boy had grown increasingly hostile towards  Nelan, and it frightened him. 

After Mass, Nelan attended lessons in Greek, Latin and French.  

Then came rhetoric, astronomy, and classical studies touching on the  School of Athens and the philosophers Plato and Aristotle. 

On another day of fast, Nelan’s stomach rumbled like the eruption of Vesuvius. Dusk drew in its gentle wings. To celebrate the end of  term, all the boys ran out of class and jumped in the air with elation.  Nelan said a prayer of thanksgiving in the abbey, then headed towards  the river to find a wherry to take him home. He spotted Guillermo  talking to Pastor Christopher by the school entrance, and then the boy  turned and headed Nelan’s way. To avoid any confrontation, Nelan  darted into the woodshed. 

In the shed stood a solid oak table. Its numerous scratches and indents bore testament to a life of long and dedicated service. It was  as old as King Henry VIII, the father of Elizabeth, the present Queen.  In the middle of the table was a ceramic bowl, like the fruit bowl on  the cedar table in Nelan’s home, except that this one had no fruit in  it. Twists of straw and a scattering of dead leaves bedecked the top of  the table. The shed was crammed on both sides with logs, kindling and  twigs, various tools, saws and axes. 

Nelan’s right palm itched. He scratched the source of the irritation: three wavy vertical lines beneath his middle finger. His father had  scolded him when he was a child, saying that, because he never washed  his hands, the lines were like three wisps of smoke rising from his  smelly paws. Nelan was unconvinced. Either way, he scratched his  palm. He’d always wondered how he’d got the lines. Were they a kind  of birthmark? His father had never told him. And what did it mean  when they itched at certain times, like now? 

From outside the shed, he heard the distinctive sound of Guillermo’s limp. His heart sank. The door squeaked open. Nelan ducked beneath  the table. 

Too late, because he heard a voice crow, “Come out, muchacho!” 

Nelan crawled out from under the table. Guillermo lurked on the other side. 

“I’m not a baby. I’m a man!” 

“You not a man! A man, he stand up like a pole. He face the world.  

Insects, they creep along the ground!” Guillermo thundered, smashing  his fist on the table with so much force that it shuddered under the  impact. 

“What’s got into you? Are you possessed by a diablo?” 

Guillermo put his palms on the table and leaned towards Nelan, his eyes glaring like fire. “My stepfather says all Protestants are heretics,  and we must cleanse the world of their sin.” 

“You Spanish do that anyway. All around the world you spread torture and cruelty! Spain is pain.” 

“No! Spain is top, highest country in world. You, you’re a low  

country boy. You’re from the nether regions. Ha!” Guillermo laughed  at his pun. 

“Yes, I lived in the Netherlands… until you Spanish invaded, forcing my family to seek refuge here!” 

“Bah!” Guillermo gritted his teeth, rubbing his forefinger and thumb together. “You are a flea, a tiny flea, and I, Guillermo de Antón,  am going to squash you!” 

“I may be small, but I’m not that small,” Nelan said, trying to make light of the insult. 

“You’re – how you say? – seventeen years old. I meet you when you come here six years ago. But after that, you never grow. Not like me  and Pedro. We big, strong Spanish boys. For King Felipe, we build a  world empire.” 

The spite flowed thick and fast. As much as he wanted to fight, Nelan swallowed his bile and lurched around the table. 

“Ha! You cobarde!” Guillermo sniped, blocking his way. 

Nelan faced his nemesis. “Enough! I’m no coward!” 

Quick as a flash, Guillermo pulled out a small canvas bag from the pouch hanging from his belt. He emptied its contents,  a brownish powder, into the ceramic bowl. The powder whiffed of  sulphur. 

“What on earth are you doing?” 

“You’ll see, amigo,” Guillermo scowled. With both hands he scooped up the twists of straw and dried leaves and dropped them on  top of the brown powder. 

“Wait. You’re not going to…?” 

Guillermo pulled two strike-a-light irons and a flint from his pouch and brandished them in front of Nelan’s face. “, amigo. I am,”  he said with a mischievous grin. 

“Let me out!” Nelan cried, and tried to push past the Spanish boy again. 

With a demonic expression on his face, Guillermo shoved him aside, and Nelan fell against the log pile, but got up as quickly as he could. 

“It’s gunpowder! You’ll kill us both!” 

“No! I run out the door. You heretic, you die! It’s Easter. It’s the time to cleanse the world of sin!” Guillermo crushed an iron against the  flint. A solitary spark leapt from the flint, but didn’t catch the strands  of straw and leaves. He shoved one of the irons back into his pouch,  then crunched the other against the flint, squeezing out another spark. 

Thankfully, the gunpowder failed to ignite – or so Nelan thought.  

But he smelled burning. A spark had lit a piece of straw next to  the ceramic bowl. Again, he rushed at the madman. Flint in hand,  Guillermo raised his fist. Nelan ducked to avoid the blow. Guillermo  lost his balance and fell, dropping the iron and flint. He winced with  pain as he clutched his knee, then crawled along the floor. 

The door was flung open. Two men stood there: the school’s steward and Pastor Christopher. Nelan swept up the iron and flint. The  gunpowder was going to ignite. The men blocked the exit. A small blue  flame leapt from the straw across the open space and, as if drawn to the  bowl of gunpowder, dropped into it. The shed was about to explode.  Think. Quick. Nelan crawled across the floor and dived between the  men’s legs before scrambling through the open door. 

The world ground to a shuddering halt. Everything slowed, like the actor he’d seen at one of those new theatres in the city who moved  at a snail’s pace. A burst of flame followed a massive explosion. The  force of the blast threw him backwards. Winded and half blinded, he  crawled away from the scorching heat. Hungry flames devoured the  kindling, sending orange-yellow embers into the dusk. Had it not been so frightening, it would have been beautiful. The flames crackled and  spat as the logs caught fire. Nelan’s ears were ringing, but the sound  was muted. His head spun like a top. The burning seared into his  mind’s eye. 

As the flames engulfed the shed, it rained hot embers, covering the steward in soot. The pastor crouched on the ground, holding his  head. The explosion must have thrown them clear. The blast had also  ejected Guillermo, but only just. Smoke rose from his ruined clothes  into the dry, early evening air. The Spaniard lay on the ground near the  blazing shed, his mouth open as if he were shouting or crying. Nelan  could hear no sound coming from his mouth. Pedro hared across the  yard towards them. 

Dazed and confused, Nelan hugged his knees, rocking back and forth. It eased the pain. Because in his imagination, he saw painful,  destructive pictures from his past. In this vision, he was in an earlier  time, another town, a different country altogether. It felt strange,  unreal. It was as if he watched the scene unfold from a distance. He  stood at the edge of a crowd. They yelled and shook their fists. They  shouted, but not in English. He was young and small. Even on tiptoe,  he couldn’t see over the tops of the heads of those in front of him.  He climbed on top of a barrel to get a better view. Before the heaving  crowd, soldiers lashed two men and a woman to three wooden posts.  They tied the woman to the middle one. She wore a black headscarf  from which a loose strand of brown hair protruded. Nelan yearned to  tuck it into her scarf, but he couldn’t. Tears rolled down her cheeks.  Her chin trembled. She glanced towards him and then turned away.  She moved her shoulders, wrenched her arms, and twisted her legs, but  then fell as still as a scarecrow. Had she accepted her fate? No. She must  never do that. She must keep struggling to get free. Nelan desperately  wanted her to escape and take him with her. 

A wooden crucifix hung from the top of each post. Perhaps Jesus peered down from the cross at what was about to transpire. Did He  know that this was being done in His name? Why didn’t He stop it?  A crow glided over the heads of the crowd – once, twice – and then  squatted on top of the woman’s post. Black wings, black beak, black  squawk; an omen that the woman’s soul was about to fly off into the  beyond. She was going to surrender her soul. But was it to Jesus or to the black crow? No one answered that question. Nelan wished they  would. 

A military cohort appeared from behind him. Pikes pointing up and frowns pointing down, the soldiers pushed through the crowd.  Following them came a man wearing a black cloak. A pair of narrow  eyes looked out from two tiny slits in the hood. The cohort stopped by  the woman tied to the pole. Nelan stared at the pole and the woman.  It was no ordinary pole. She was no ordinary woman. Kindling, logs,  bits of rags, and curved struts from broken barrels nestled at the base  of the post. It was a fire in waiting. This was an auto-da-fé or an act of  faith, though he doubted there was much faith involved. 

The image of the woman and the pole shattered, and he was jolted out of his reverie. 

“Nelan! Nelan Michaels!” someone called. 

Nelan turned around. 

“Hell’s teeth,” the steward said. “What are you doing sitting there like a stone?” 

The huntsman accompanied him, along with a clutch of schoolmasters and a legion of boys drawn by the roar of the explosion  and the spectacle of the fire. The huntsman’s wife tended to Guillermo.  Pastor Christopher got down on his knees and prayed for the boy.  Pedro cradled his brother’s head in his hands. Wisps of smoke rose  from Guillermo’s jerkin as he shrieked in agony. 

“Quick. Move the boy to the infirmary. Get a hand cart,” the steward said to the huntsman, and then added, “Boys, get in a line.  We need water.” 

They passed buckets from hand to hand, scooping water from the river and dousing the fire, then sending the empty vessels back to be  refilled. The woodshed resembled the burning bush; an eternal flame,  a testament to the Lord’s fury and His power to cleanse the furious and  bring down the proud. From where he stood, at twelve paces, Nelan  felt the heat of the fire. He didn’t move as wave upon wave scorched his  face and arms. The flames were a marriage of reds, yellows and golds.  Deep within the inferno’s inner sanctum, they were coloured a lithe  violet blue. 

Pedro confronted him, his face a picture of anguish. “You. You let my brother burn!” 

“I did?” Nelan murmured. 

¡Sí! I saw it with my own eyes. My own brother. His clothes burn. And you. You did nothing to help him. You wanted to give pain to my  brother!” 

Guillermo screamed and writhed on the ground. The flames didn’t  care. They burned anything and everything. They were ravenous, with  neither mercy nor pity. 

Nelan shook himself and said, “I-I don’t know. I-I would’ve done.  

I didn’t mean it. I don’t know what happened to me.” 

“You always hate him,” Pedro said, jabbing a finger at him. “You want him to suffer. Happy now?” 

The huntsman approached with a rickety handcart and said, “You boys, help me get the lad onto the cart.” 

Nelan went to help. Pedro blocked him. 

“Let me help. I want to.” 

“Stay away from him!” Pedro said, staring him down. 

Carefully, the men lifted Guillermo. He yelled as they loaded him onto the cart. Nelan had heard screams like that before – from a fox  snared in a trap. 

“You will pay for this!” Pedro growled. 

Nelan shrank back. I defended myself. And that dreadful vision… Why doesn’t anyone understand that? 

The huntsman hauled the cart across the courtyard towards the infirmary, followed by his wife and Pedro. 

“How could you ignore the boy’s distress?” the steward said. 

“It… It wasn’t my fault,” Nelan stammered. “Guillermo’s mad. He wanted to blow me up. He lit the gunpowder and wanted to leave me  in there.” 

“Is that what you saw, Pastor?” the steward asked. But before  

Pastor Christopher could answer, the steward added, “Because that’s not what I saw.” 

“But… he started the fire. He wanted to kill me,” Nelan murmured. 

“No! When I arrived, you stood over Guillermo, who lay on the floor. You’d hit him!” 

“I didn’t. You must believe me.” 

“I saw you clutching the strike-a-light iron and flint. You must’ve started the fire.” 

Nelan bit his lip. A silent scream rose from the depths of his being.  

“No! It wasn’t like that!” 

“Go home, and don’t come back!” The steward shooed him away like a fly. 

“What d’you mean?” 

“You’re expelled.” 

“But I’ve only one more term before—” 

“We don’t want the likes of you at Westminster School.” 

Nelan slouched off towards the river, as low as he’d ever felt since arriving in England. He found Wenceslaus and slumped down on the  wherry seat. Plunging his hands into his purse, he fingered the iron  and the flint – a lot of good they’d do him now. 

By the time they pulled into the jetty at home, the cloak of sadness and misfortune weighed heavily on his shoulders. He hauled himself  out of the wherry. He felt like a creature dredged up from the ocean’s  depths, thick with sludge and bound with seaweed. Now he had to  gird himself to tell his father. With hard steps on grassy soil, he trudged  along the path from the jetty to his house. 

The maidservant told him that his father had gone to the city on business and would return early the next day. Nelan waited in his  room. His clothes stank of fire and smoke, evoking memories of the  explosion. Images of the woman tied to the stake flashed through his  mind. Her screams beat against his ears… or were they Guillermo’s  yells of pain? From his north-facing room, he could hear the swishing,  gurgling sounds of Old Father Thames as it raced towards its destiny in  the estuary. The river had ferried him to Westminster School and back  for nigh on seven years. And in this, his last school year, his dream to  attend university in the autumn had gone up in flames. His head sank  low. The Lord was pitted against him. For this to happen to him, he  must have committed some awful sin. Either way, he needed justice  and a pardon, and quick. Damn Guillermo. And once and for all, he  needed to know the identity of the woman tied to the Inquisition’s  stake, lest her image haunt him for the rest of his days. 

He must have dropped off to sleep, because when he awoke, the first  slithers of dawn slanted across the river, and he heard his father’s booming  voice echo around the rafters of the house and the front door slam shut. 

Nelan knocked on the door of his father’s study. Laurens Michaels was a bulk of a man; as tall as an oak tree and just as thickset. His  bald head showed his years. Dressed in his favourite dark green velvet  doublet, he dominated his desk. 

When Nelan had explained what had happened, his father got up and adjusted his flat, black Anglican hat. Pacing the floor, he asked,  “Nelan, what’s happened is terrible. But why did Guillermo threaten  your life? Tell the truth, as God is our witness.” 

“He said his father wanted him to cleanse the world of heretics.” 

“So, it concerned religion. I might have known,” Laurens said with a sigh. “I’ve always tried to be neighbourly to the St John family,  but to no avail. By coming to England, I hoped we’d escape Spanish  persecution. I was wrong.” 

“We left the Netherlands… what about…?” For a moment, Nelan’s  

head spun. He turned away from his father’s gaze and instead stared at  the painting behind his father’s head: the hamlet of Sangatte with its  white, sandy coastal dunes. It brought back memories of his mother;  her smell and her touch. He felt her staring at him from one of the  cottages in the painting. He jerked his head away and looked through  the study’s solitary window. On this cloudless day, he could see all the  way to the bank on the other side of the river. 

“What about what, Nelan?” his father repeated. 

Once and for all. Nelan’s voice broke in his throat. “Mother.” 

“What about your mother?” 

“What happened to her?” 

“I told you already. She was English. Her maiden name was Pickford. She fell into the arms of Our Lord before we left the Netherlands.” 

“Yes, I know, Father. But you’ve never told me how she died.” 

This time, his father averted his gaze and studied the wainscoting. 

“I’m seventeen; you don’t need to protect me anymore.” 

“I’m going to tell you—” 

There was a loud rapping on the front door. The door opened,  

squeaking on its hinges. Footsteps marched up to the study door. The  footman hauled it open. 

“Sir.” 

“Yes? Who is it?” Laurens asked. 

“Dr Dee.” 

“Dr John Dee?” 

“Yes, sir, the same. He’s on the porch.” 

“It must be important for him to call at this time of the morning.  

Well, don’t stand there, man. Show him in.” 

“Sir.” 

Dr Dee had a milk-white beard and was a tall, wiry man with the stare of a lighthouse. He wore a black cap and a long black gown with  hanging sleeves, crisp in the morning’s rays. “Good morrow to you  both,” he said in a husky voice. “May the Lord be with you.” 

“And with you, Dr Dee,” Laurens replied. 

“I cannot stay long; I must return to my experiments,” Dee said.  

He appeared to drift around the room, touching the spines of the books  on the shelves and then examining a portrait of Laurens attending a  Low Church Calvinist meeting. 

“Our condolences over the demise of your dear wife,” Nelan’s father said. 

“Thank you. I’ve been in mourning these last days.” 

“She’s resting in the arms of Our Lord,” Laurens said. 

“Have you been able to cast my horoscope, m’lord?” Nelan asked.  

“I’m so excited to hear your interpretation of it.” 

“Yes, I’ve just finished it, and that’s why I come bearing urgent news,” Dee said. Every word he spoke sounded like a Sunday sermon.  “I’m here to warn you that over these two days – yesterday and today  – the planets Mars and Saturn figure prominently in your chart. Has  anyone in the family recently died violently?” 

“That’s extraordinary! No, not in our family,” Nelan said, “but yesterday evening an explosion badly hurt one of the St John boys.” 

“I see.” Dee nodded. “There’s also an unfortunate opposition in  

Libra, the scales of justice.” 

“What does that mean?” Nelan asked. 

“I suspect it means that the law is now involved in this case, and that there’s a warrant out for your arrest.” 

“What? That’s not justice; that’s injustice,” Nelan yelled. 

“So, we’ll wait for the constables, then,” Laurens said. 

“Father, they can’t arrest me. Only the pastor and the steward witnessed the incident. On their evidence, they’ll hang me. I’m sorry,  but with the news Dr Dee has brought, I must leave.” 

“If you’ve not sinned, the Lord will protect you.” 

“The Lord might, Father, but the law might not. I must clear my name.” 

There was a loud knock at the front door. A cry rang out: “The Queen’s constables here. Open up in the name of the law.” 

“Well, that was prescient, Dr Dee,” Laurens said. “They’re here already.” 

There were voices at the front door, and then a knock at the study door. It was the footman. 

“What is it?” Laurens asked him. 

“The constables are here with a warrant to arrest Master Nelan for murder.” 

“Let them in,” Laurens said. 

“No, don’t!” Nelan cried. 

“Let. Them. In,” Laurens snapped. 

The footman left the study. 

“Then I must go,” Nelan said. 

“No,” his father replied. “We are visitors here. Refugees. England is renowned for its adherence to the law. You must surrender to the  constables.” 

“Quickly, Dr Dee, what do I do?” Nelan asked. 

“There are other significant elements in your horoscope that suggest you have a part to play in the future of this country. That’s why  I’m here to help you escape: because you can’t do that while confined  within a prison. So, you must run away and avoid capture for as long as  possible. Then you can absolve yourself of this unjust accusation. Now,  you must go,” Dee said, pointing to the window. 

Nelan opened it. 

“Do not go,” his father said. “You must defend yourself, and my honour.” 

“Father, I must. The constables—” 

Laurens squeezed himself between Nelan and the window. There he stood, legs astride, arms folded, glaring at him. At times, he had a  fearsome presence. This was one of them. “You are staying here,” he  said through gritted teeth. 

“But, Dr Dee, even if I run, they’ll catch me,” Nelan said. “It’s broad daylight outside.” 

“Not anymore,” Dee murmured, nodding his head. “Look out the window.” 

Outside, a mist as thick as pea soup hung over the river. Where’s that come from? Did it arise naturally, or did Dr Dee conjure it out of the  ether? 

“Where is he?” an unfamiliar voice boomed from the corridor. 

“Nelan, be a man,” his father said, “and account for your actions.  

If you flee, you will dishonour the Michaels’ family name.” 

Nelan clenched his fists. “Father, I have to find another way to clear my name. I’ll not end my days in Newgate or Marshalsea for a  crime I didn’t commit. Besides, if anyone’s guilty, it’s Guillermo. Now,  move, please!” 

“I will not!” 

“This time, I’ll not bow to your wishes. I’m innocent and disappointed that you don’t believe me. I beg you, get out of my way.” “No.” 

The study door burst open, and Laurens glanced towards the intruder. In one swift, agile movement Nelan darted between his  father’s legs and came out the other side. He scrambled onto the  windowsill and jumped down to the ground outside before his father  had time to stop him. Finally, he’d found an advantage to being small.  The ground was moist and soft from the mist. A light breeze swirled  vapour around him, adding a ghostly effect to the scene. From the  study he heard muffled voices: those of the constables, his father, and  Dr Dee. 

He knew the paths leading to and from the house like he knew the course of the river. He felt invisible to the world, and in a way, he was.  Leaving one life behind and taking the first frightened, tentative steps  into a new one, he concentrated on every footstep. He could barely see  the path, but he knew that the river flowed by some fifty paces in front  of his house. 

There he met an extraordinary sight. He stepped out of the swirling mist and into broad daylight. Apart from his house,  everywhere was clear: the north bank of the river in Chiswick, the  monastery of Syon Abbey to the west, and to the east the city of  London, where filaments of woodsmoke snaked into the dawn skies  on the horizon. The mist had settled around his house, but nowhere else. He’d never witnessed such a strange phenomenon in all the years  he’d lived there. 

He still didn’t know the identity of the woman in his vision. During  the fire, she had made him freeze at the crucial moment. Providence  had spoken. So had Dr Dee, and so had Nelan’s horoscope. Dee had  told him that he had a part to play in England’s future. What on earth  did that entail? If only he could have had more time with Dr Dee.  But time was the one thing he didn’t have, so, after one last Parthian  glance at his old home, he set off along the riverbank away from the  mysterious cloud of mist and into a new life. 

 

 

About Justin Newland:

JUSTIN NEWLAND’s novels represent an innovative blend of genres from historical adventure to  supernatural thriller and magical realism. His stories explore the themes of war and religion, and  speculate on the human’s spiritual place in the universe.  

Undeterred by the award of a Doctorate in Mathematics from Imperial College, London, he  conceived his debut novel, The Genes of Isis (Matador, 2018), an epic fantasy set under Ancient Egyptian skies.  

The historical thriller, The Old Dragon’s Head (Matador, 2018), is set in Ming Dynasty China  in the shadows of the Great Wall.  

The Coronation (Matador, 2019) was another historical adventure and speculates on the genesis  of the most important event in the modern world – the Industrial Revolution.  The Abdication (Matador, 2021) is a mystery thriller in which a young woman confronts her faith  in a higher purpose and what it means to abdicate that faith.  

The Mark of the Salamander (Book Guild, 2023) is the first in a two-book series, The Island of  Angels. Set in the Elizabethan era, it’s an epic tale of England’s coming of age.  His WIP is the second in the series, The Midnight of Eights, the charting of the uncanny  coincidences that led to the repulse of the Spanish Armada.  

Author, speaker and broadcaster, Justin appears on LitFest panels, gives talks to historical  associations and libraries and enjoys giving radio interviews and making podcasts.  Born three days before the end of 1953, he lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip  Hills in Somerset, England. 

 

Website | Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Goodreads | Amazon | BookBub

 

Giveaway Details:

1 winner will receive a finished copy of THE MARK OF THE SALAMANDER, US & UK Only.

Ends May 7th, midnight EST.

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Tour Schedule:

Week One:

4/8/2024

Two Chicks on Books

Excerpt/IG Post

4/9/2024

@darkfantasyreviews

Excerpt

4/10/2024

Comic Book Yeti

Excerpt/Twitter Post

4/11/2024

Lady Hawkeye

Excerpt/IG Post

4/12/2024

#BRVL Book Review Virginia Lee Blog

Excerpt/IG Post

Week Two:

4/15/2024

A Dream Within A Dream

Excerpt

4/16/2024

YA Books Central

Excerpt/IG Post

4/17/2024

Fire and Ice

Excerpt/IG Post

4/18/2024

Country Mamas With Kids

Excerpt/IG Post

4/19/2024

nerdophiles

Excerpt

Week Three:

4/22/2024

The Momma Spot

Review

4/23/2024

@evergirl200

IG Review

4/24/2024

The Book Critic

Review/IG Post

4/25/2024

GryffindorBookishnerd

IG Review

4/26/2024

MoonShineArtSpot

Review/IG Post

Week Four:

4/29/2024

Kim's Book Reviews and Writing Aha's

Review/IG Post

4/30/2024

jlreadstoperpetuity

IG Review/TikTok Post

5/1/2024

More Books Please blog

Review/IG Post

5/2/2024

@pagesforpaige

IG Review

5/3/2024

@stargirls.magical.tale

IG Review


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