Monthly Archives: September 2014

Guest post by Rachel Smith

There are some people out there who think telepathic aliens are a cop-out and shouldn’t qualify as real science fiction. To which I say: hogwash! My aliens, the Loks Mé, are telepathic. The men anyway. Women tend to be empathic. There’s a third kind too, ones who are both and can also be telekinetic.Blog headshot

Disclaimer: While writing this book I was devouring Doctor Who and Fringe. I’m also a longtime Star Trek: TNG fan. All three series have telepathic stuff in them.

I didn’t consciously set out to make my aliens telepathic. I’m a pantser, which means I have no idea what’s going to happen next. In the first draft I discovered A’yen was telepathic, but wasn’t able to successfully use it. It took me a bit to figure out all the mechanics of it and what was going on inside his body.

Every sound we hear is an electromagnetic wave. Our eardrums and the bones of the inner ear absorb these waves, translate them into electrical signals, transmit them to our brain, and our brain decodes them into something we can understand. Brain waves and our neurologic systems are also electric. These signals can be translated and recorded via an EEG, electroencephalogram. Our hearts are electrical circuits. When a heart is beating wrong or has stopped, electricity is used to fix it in the form of a pacemaker or defibrillator.

We’re walking electricity. So are my aliens. But their bodies process it very different from us.MNIA small version

The story takes place in Earth year 5231. A’yen’s species has been enslaved for 2,000 years. Humanity is afraid of them, and has spent centuries tinkering with their genetics to produce a body perfect for physical labor. Average height for a Loks Mé male is 6’4”. They’re imposing.

To control this strength, humans created a type of magnetic ink that interferes with the way their bodies process EM energy. And it’s only used on males, but the Loks have no idea why only the males are marked. Because of this ink most males are never able to use their telepathic abilities. A’yen is one of the lucky few who knows his exists, but doesn’t really know how to use it. As the novel unfolds he learns more about it and gets a degree of control over it.

I’ve had a lot of fun playing with these psi abilities. I put some research and thought into this to make sure I have a solid scientific foundation for these abilities. It’s something familiar to paranormal readers, but grounded in science instead of the supernatural.

I hope all the readers will give the book a try. It’s different, in a good way. That’s my opinion anyway.

Thanks so much for having me, Margaret. I do have a question for the readers, so please keep scrolling to see it and enter the giveaway.

Bio: Rachel Leigh Smith writes romance for the hero lover. She lives in central Louisiana with her family and a half-crazed calico. When not writing, which isn’t often, she’s hanging with her family, doing counted cross-stitch, or yakking about life, the universe, and everything with her besties. There may also be Netflix binging . . .

She blogs sporadically at, can be found on Twitter @rachelleighgeek, and hangs out on Facebook, You can sign up for her newsletter here.

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They’ve taken everything from him. Except his name.

The Loks Mé have been slaves for so long, freedom is a distant myth A’yen Mesu no longer believes. A year in holding, because of his master’s murder, has sucked the life from him. Archaeologist Farran Hart buys him to protect her on an expedition to the Rim, the last unexplored quadrant.

Farran believes the Loks Mé once lived on the Rim and is determined to prove it. And win A’yen’s trust. But she’s a breeder’s daughter and can’t be trusted.

Hidden rooms, information caches and messages from a long-dead king change A’yen’s mind about her importance. When she’s threatened he offers himself in exchange, and lands on the Breeder’s Association’s radar. The truth must be told. Even if it costs him his heart.

Question for readers: Who is your favorite romance hero?20140905_135705

Rafflecopter code: <a id=”rc-b8ecc1882″ class=”rafl” href=”; rel=”nofollow”>a Rafflecopter giveaway</a>

Sept 20 interview with Kenneth and Anne Hicks

Tell us something about yourselves.Melange pic 2

We met at a college mixer when Anne was a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College and Ken was a junior at Haverford College. The next year we persuaded a Haverford professor to supervise a project course in which we wrote a children’s story called A MOON AND A TUNE. That book was never published, but we have been writing together ever since.

Tell us something about your newest novel.

Our newest novel will be published by Melange Publishing on October 3, 2014 and is called PRAISE HER, PRAISE DIANA. It is the story of a woman who seeks revenge for a rape by killing and castrating seemingly random men and, in the process, turns New York City upside down. The book centers around Maggie Edwards — a well-known author — who is serializing a book about a man-seducer and killer named Diana. As Maggie’s book appears in magazines, someone begins to imitate the action in real time.

How did you get the idea for this book?

The story evolved from many sources. We wanted to write a book that dealt with issues of violence against women and the effect of such violence on the daily lives of all women. We also wanted to describe the way the media can take over an incident and make it into more, and sometimes less, than it should have been. Themes of love in its many forms are intertwined in the novel as well.

You write about New York. What is your tie to the city?

We have lived here since 1973 when Ken was entering his first year at Columbia Law School. Anne was working as an editor at a small publishing company. Those were the days when we could easily live on the salary of a young editor. We had a one-bedroom apartment on East 79th Street for $300 per month. It was great! Since then we have moved to a slightly larger apartment on East 92nd Street and raised three children.

The two of you collaborate on your novels. What is your method for working together?

We start off talking about an idea in general. We take a lot of long walks and discuss basic plot outlines and themes. Then we might try to write a preliminary outline. After that come more long walks, bench-sitting, and occasional drives and eventually, if it still seems like a good idea, one of us will write a draft. At that point, the other person will tear that preliminary work to shreds and put it together again, generally, but not always, in a recognizable form. We go back and forth many, many times until we have something that we both like.

Do you ever disagree about the writing, and if so, how do you settle the arguments?

In our youth, when we first met, we were impetuous, and Anne would tend to yell or pout, depending on mood. Ken just looked brow-beaten. Now, as mature adults we talk through our differences. One of the things we have both learned is that even if a criticism of a piece of writing is not correct about what exactly is wrong, the criticism always unerringly points to the fact that something is wrong. We keep working and reworking until we are both comfortable with the finished piece of writing. We also have learned to pay attention to that feeling in the pit of our stomachs when we know something we have worked on still is not right.

What’s the best thing about working with a collaborator? The worst?

The best thing about working with a collaborator is that we are never alone when a rejection comes in the mail or the e-mail. Also, if one of us is nearing the end of his or her rope, the other is there to give a good swift kick in the rear, or maybe a hug, to get back on track.

The worst is that people don’t understand how it’s done and seem to want to know who is responsible for what part. We tell them that it is a process and there is no reason to try to divide things up, even if we could. Still, some individuals remain suspicious of the arrangement.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got? The worst?

The best piece of advice we ever got is to put your head down and keep writing. But that is probably the worst advice as well. The point is that writing is hard. No measure of success is guaranteed. If it is not something that you are really compelled to do by some force inside, you probably should not get started. It will eat you alive from the inside out.

Who are your favorite authors in your genre?

If the genre is mystery, Janet Evanovich and Mary Higgins Clark are at the top of the list. But PRAISE HER, PRAISE DIANA is a hybrid of mystery/suspense and mainstream. Therefore the list broadens considerably to include Jeffrey Archer, Ken Follett and, for the mainstream element, John Irving.

What do you want readers to take away from your book?

We would like to think that we have created a group of very compelling characters, some of whom will be remembered for a long time. Also, it would be great if this portrayal of sexually based violence has the effect of informing people about other sorts of violence that occur in the daily lives of people and raising consciousness to help stop these incidents from occurring. Love in its many aspects is on the opposite side from violence, and we hope to bring some new appreciation to that as well.

What are you working on now?

We are working on a family epic called Minister. It follows the lives of two brothers from a small town on that Eastern Shore of Maryland through about twenty years of their lives. We plan for it to be about nine hundred pages in all and we hope to publish it in three or four parts, depending on how it develops.

Where can readers find you on the web?

Our Facebook author page is here

Our web site is

Where can readers buy your book?Diana_Cover

The book will be published by Melange Publishing on October 3, 2014. It will be available on the Melange web site as well as on Amazon and most other outlets as well.

Blurb for Praise Her, Praise Diana

A woman going by the name of “Diana” has begun to kill and castrate men in New York City. Her modus operandi is sweet seduction and then a knife to the heart at his moment of climax. These tactics imitate the recent novel by Maggie Edwards, a famous author of women’s fiction who was raped a few years before but had never disclosed that traumatic experience. Diana becomes a heroine to women who have suffered violence or the threat of violence and these women start to fight back in imitation of Diana while the police try desperately to find out Diana’s identity. Jane Larson, a high-powered New York matrimonial attorney, represents Maggie and a women’s group called Women Protecting Women. Jane makes the mistake of falling in love with her client and soon finds herself at the center of the action.


Anne Rothman-Hicks and Kenneth Hicks have been married for a little over forty years and have produced about twenty books and exactly three children so far. At press-time, they still love their children more.

Their most recent novels have been set in New York City, where they have lived for most of their married lives. Anne is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College where, in nineteen sixty-nine, as the fabled Sixties were drawing to a close, she met Ken, who was a student at Haverford College. They don’t like to admit that they met at a college mixer, but there it is!

Together their books include Theft of the Shroud, a novel; Starfinder, a non-fiction book about the stars for children; a series of books on individual names for children (for example Michael’s Book, Elizabeth’s Book, John’s Book, Jennifer’s Book, David’s Book, Amy’s Book); and, most recently, Kate and the Kid and Mind Me, Milady, two novels, and a middle reader/tween novel, Things Are Not What They Seem.

Ken and Anne have a website with the address set out below. There they have links to some of their books and display images that they hope will be used in future efforts. In case you were wondering abut the website address, “R” is for Rothman, “H” is for Hicks, and 71 is the year of their marriage. No secret codes or numerology anywhere. Sorry.

Contact Ken and Anne at:

or on their Facebook author page

Or, follow them on Ken’s Twitter Account @kenhicksnyc


Slow down,” I say.

He obeys.

I am his leader now. It is simply a matter of time.

I glide forward and am strangely gratified that he gasps as he enters me while I feel nothing. I may as well be a plastic mannequin. A nerveless receptacle.

Don’t pity me!

I move my hips with exquisite skill and he gasps again. Soon his breathing reaches a rhythm matching the movement of my body on top of his. It is a rhythm that carries him away to a new place. His eyelids flutter closed as he concentrates on the pleasure that I am causing to well up inside, ready to explode. And when his moment arrives and my anger can no longer be contained, I remove the knife that was hidden inside my leather boot and the blade strikes past his naked ribs to his heart, buried to the hilt in his muscle, bone and blood.

Sorry,” I say. “Did that hurt?”

His eyes open, displaying disbelief. And pain, of course.

Remember me now?”

But no sound comes from his gaping mouth. Death follows quickly, instantaneously, it seems, although I hope with all my heart that the instant of agony is long enough for him to understand that he has been tricked, and to experience the same gaping loneliness and fear that I once did.

Writing a LGBT-friendly series by Stuart West

You know, I never set out to write a LGBT-friendly series. It just sorta’ accidentally happened. That’s a good thing, I think.TexWitchBoySeries

As a straight 53-year-old, bald, “pleasantly overweight (talk about painting a cactus pretty),” Kansas man, you’d think I’d be the last person to do so. My wife either needs new glasses or has really, really bad taste.

But I digress. When I first began the saga of Tex McKenna, I wanted to detail a series of funny, sad, dramatic murder mysteries (light on the supernatural, despite the title) that pulled on my high school miseries. The first book, Tex, the Witch Boy, deals with the topic of bullying, somewhat of an on-going theme throughout the series. I needed a cool police detective to help/hinder Tex. Detective Cowlings appeared. It didn’t take long for me to figure out he was gay. He practically told me he was, demanding his orientation. Plus it dovetailed beautifully with the bullying theme. I mean, an extremely astute, gay police detective in conservative, uptight suburban Kansas? He screamed to come to life.

In the second book, Tex and the Gangs of Suburbia, I thought it’d be daring to introduce a bisexual character. Even more daring (or so I thought), I plopped the character into the center of a “love triangle” involving my protagonist and his girlfriend. Again, the characters practically wrote themselves. Look at Margaret’s books, an inspiration. She deftly handles mixed gay, straight, bi, and different species romances, for crying out loud. Unsure of myself (my usual state-of-mind), I ran the potentially controversial storyline by my daughter who at the time was struggling through her own tenure on the battle-lines of high school.

She said, “Dad, nobody cares about that anymore.”

Huh. Cool. We’ve come a long way since my high school incarceration. Back in the day (and I won’t say when), I remember only one gay male in a student body of 1,500. That was it. And, man, did he take a verbal whipping (I don’t think he was ever physically bullied like I was, but I can’t swear to it). Anyway, I ran with my mixed sexually-oriented comedic farce. Tons of edgy fun.

The final book of the series, Tex and the God Squad, centers on the mysterious death of a closeted lesbian cheerleader. The villains, by the way, are “loosely” based upon the heinous Westboro Baptist Church. When I read about them, I knew I had to tackle them. Truly ugly. When I first envisioned the tale, I never set out for it to revolve around a lesbian death. It just sorta’ happened. The pieces of the puzzle came together, and since I was tackling the prickly topic of religion in Kansas, gay issues couldn’t be ignored. Oh, I also Elspeth 200x300introduce a gay Asian—possibly the most well-adjusted member of my increasingly sprawling cast—who returns in the spin-off, Elspeth, the Living Dead Girl.

My newest book, Godland (a dark adult suspense thriller, out September 16th), also Godland 200x300features a gay hero. Just seemed right. Take that (Im)Moral Majority! Doing my best to bring Kansas out of the dark ages.

I’d like to think I’m a liberal humanitarian bringing issues of the under-represented to light. I really would. A little of that’s true, maybe. These characters wrote themselves. And I tried not to cliché the crap outta’ them. But if I can help any bullied kid—gay or straight—with positive messages, well, it’s the best reward a writer could hope for.

Here’s an excerpt from Ted and the God Squad

Disappointed I couldn’t find a diary I spotted her computer on a desk. I powered it on, to be met with the password prompt. I typed Dwight and was shut out. I tried Pink to no avail. Looking around the room for clues, I unsuccessfully attempted several more passwords. Finally, out of desperation, I typed in Brittany. The reassuring musical cues brought the computer to life. Really, Brittany?
In the corner of the screen, a folder sat with the designation Brittany’s journal! Keep out!  Feeling somewhat like a ghoul preying upon the memories of the dead, I mentally apologized to Brittany and lamely reassured myself she’d allow me to read it.
I began with an entry from two months previously. Brittany’s writing consisted of happy, inconsequential malarkey, expounding upon how jealous she was of another girl’s hair or how nice a smile a boy had. Although she was still dating Dwight at the time, she pulled no punches in announcing his many faults, including stupidity, halitosis, and gross masculine hygiene. She wrote at great length about how being in YAC filled her with hope—a new purpose almost—a zest for life amongst her Christian friends.
Then something odd happened. Her entries became shorter, more urgent. The everyday vanity that filled prior entries was gone, replaced by a more introspective tone, very self-reflective. And seemingly self-loathing.
Brittany Gerlach developed feelings for a fellow cheerleader. A female cheerleader. At first she wrote of her extreme confusion. She didn’t understand these feelings, didn’t want these feelings. They frightened her. Soon, she grew to despise herself. She wrote how her new feelings weren’t natural—several of her later entries appeared to be addressed to God himself as she asked him why he’d made her this way, since He hated homosexuals. She felt abandoned, rejected, let down by God.  And I felt awful for Brittany. How terrible it must’ve been to go through this by herself, not letting anyone into her secret. And to have found such joy in the YAC group, only to have it snatched away from her…because she felt she wasn’t worthy of God’s love.
My heart pounded as I read her final entries.
I never should have told him, she wrote. He was the only one I trusted with my secret, and now I KNOW it’s him sending me the hateful letters, making the late night callsthreatening to tell the entire school about my secret. He can disguise his voice all he wants, but I know it’s him. And he keeps telling me the same awful thing! GOD HATES PEOPLE LIKE ME!
The day Brittany killed herself, she wrote, I can’t do it anymore. All because of something I can’t help. God doesn’t love me anymore. There’s nothing to live for.  And that awful, pain-filled sentence was the last thing Brittany Gerlach would ever write.
My stomach churned with misery. Poor Brittany. Now I was pissed. I was going to find out who sent her those letters. I was going to do it for her.
Check out Stuart’s author page on MuseItUp Publishing:
and Stuart’s blog:

Mythic Scotland: Highland Vampires, Magical Beings, and Mysterious Places by Suz deMello

suz w name venice maskMythic Scotland: Highland Vampires, Magical Beings, and Mysterious Places by Suz deMello (#Scotland #vampires #romance #myths)

I’ve enjoyed writing my Highland Vampires series for a number of reasons—I love the characters, for one thing, and I love writing historicals. I love to research the way people lived, what they ate and wore.

And because I’m writing about supernatural creatures I’m able to incorporate a great deal of Scottish lore and legend into my work.

Banshees, kelpies, red caps and other fae creatures populate mythic Scotland. It is said that the banshee wails at the riverside before a death. Other interpretations have the baobhan-sith as blood-sucking female fae. Kelpies, or fingals cave2water-horses, are ponies which appear to the unwary by the side of a stream or loch. Appearing to be an unclaimed, wandering animal, the kelpie entices the innocent to mount. When ridden, the kelpie plunges into the water, drowning its victim.

Red caps are small fiendish creatures who kill travelers and use their blood to anoint their hats–hence the name. It is said that if the hat dries, the red cap dies. Thus, the red cap is forced to murder often to ensure survival.

Perhaps the many mysterious places in Scotland inspire such fanciful dreams. Fingal’s Cave is located on Staffa, an island of the Inner Hebrides off the western coast of Scotland. It’s a sea cave entirely composed of hexagonal basalt pillars, the product of a long-ago igneous upthrust. Matched by the Giant’s Causeway in northern Ireland, Fingal’s Cave is famed for its natural beauty as well as the melodic sounds made by the sea inside the cave. It inspired music by Felix Mendelssohn as well as a set of myths, mostly involving a Bunyanesque giant called Finn MacCool.

And, of course, there’s the most famous mystery of them all:

The Loch Ness Monster
Sightings of the world’s favorite fake monster started in the sixth century, when the Irish saint Columba scolded the monster and sent it scurrying back to the water. Almost certainly a hoax, its most famous sighting was captured in a bad photo in 1934, which was revealed as a hoax in 1999 by one of the plotters.

The believers think that Nessie is a lost pleiosaur. The rational among us believe that Nessie is, depending upon the nature of the sighting, a large otter, a seal, or even an oddly shaped tree trunk.

Even so, few places on earth can compare to Scotland. Its wealth of magical places and mythical creatures has enticed generations of travelers…and enchanted thousands of romance fans.

Here’s a selection from Desire in Tartan about an encounter with the evil baobhan-sith. The set-up is that the heroine, Alice, is traveling with the hero, Desire in TartanDugald Kilburn, through the Highlands. She has just awakened.

A chill raced up her spine, lifting the tiny hairs at Alice’s nape. Something wasn’t right. The odd, greenish light wasn’t right. Their excessive sleepiness wasn’t right.

Dugald?” She looked around again and saw him.

He was standing at the opposite side of the clearing amidst the strange lights, which wavered, coalesced, then broke apart into writhing figures that surrounded him.

Dugald!” she screamed.

He didn’t turn, didn’t make any gesture that showed that he heard her.

She ran across the dell, stumbling over tree roots and once falling over a body—Archie’s. She rolled him over then saw that his mouth was partially open. He was mumbling incoherently, “Baobhan-sith, baobhan-sith.” A long tendril of drool escaped from the side of his mouth.

Bava what? She didn’t know, and babble wouldn’t help their predicament, for she had become certain that something terrible and dangerous was taking place.

She stood and, gripping her long skirts in a shaking hand, advanced upon Dugald and the mysterious green glows. The shifting lights resolved into women, white-faced women with red-rimmed mouths. Alice was reminded horribly of Malcolm and Blain with the street whore, and of Dugald’s manner of killing the Beans. Their mouths had been red-rimmed, also, rimmed with red blood.

The women surrounded Dugald. One seized his head and dragged it to one side, exposing the big artery; Alice was now close enough to see his pulse.

The creature bared its teeth, its shiny, white, sharp teeth. Two were pointed like fangs.

She…it…sank them into Dugald’s neck.

Not my husband, you…you monster!” Alice sprang at the creature, grabbed it by its glowing green hair and hauled it off him. Dugald fell to the ground and rolled over, panting, black blood dripping from his neck.

The creature turned and laughed, the eerie cry unforgettable. It extended clawed fingertips toward Alice, reaching for her hair. She clenched her fist and socked the creature’s midsection.

Already surprised by her own ferocity, Alice was doubly stunned when her punch seemed to shatter the creature’s icy body. She gasped and shook her hand, which felt as though it had been plunged into a frozen stream.

The creature screamed, bent over like a broken twig. Alice gave it a firm shove toward the pool. It tumbled in, shrieking. As she watched, it seemed to dissipate as though the water had dissolved its icy core. A green stain spread over the pond’s clear water.

Who’s next?” Alice advanced toward the rest of the strange creatures, which seemed to melt into the forest.

If you like what you read, get the book here:

About Suz: Best-selling, award-winning author Suz deMello, a.k.a Sue Swift, has written seventeen romance novels in several subgenres, including erotica, comedy, historical, paranormal, mystery and suspense, plus a number of short stories and non-fiction articles on writing. A freelance editor, she’s held the positions of managing editor and senior editor, working for such firms Total-E-Bound, Liquid Silver Books and Ai Press. She also takes private clients.

Her books have been favorably reviewed in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus and Booklist, won a contest or two, attained the finals of the RITA and hit several bestseller lists.

A former trial attorney, her passion is world travel. She’s left the US over a dozen times, including lengthy stints working overseas. She’s now writing a vampire tale and planning her next trip.
Find Suzie’s books here: (publisher’s site)


Sandy, dry, and hot

It’s been in the nineties here in New England this week, but on the alien planet Aleyne, where Keth, the main character in my novel Relocated finds himself, it’s sandy, dry, and even hotter.

When Keth’s father accepts a new assignment as assistant to Major Brad Reynolds, head of the Terran Federation base on the alien planet Aleyne, Keth is jerked out of comfortable, secure world on Terra — Earth to us provincial types who have never left the planet — and exchanges an apartment in Washington, DC for the planet Aleyne. Brad is worried about the terrorists, who have been blowing up supplies and running drugs, and he’s convinced they’ve penetrated the computer network on the base as well as that of the Aleyni. But Brad is no computer expert, and that’s where Keth’s dad comes in. He’s an expert in both computers and the Aleyni.

In fact, as Keth learns, his father grew up on the planet and studied with Ardaval Namar, a noted Aleyni scholar. Keth becomes acquainted with some of the alien youths. When his friend’s father is kidnapped, Keth attempts to free him. Will Keth succeed or will he be captured himself? And will he be able to figure out who is behind the information leak and stop the terrorists?

Relocated is the first in the Novels of Aleyne series. Read all about them here

Relocated, a science fiction novel by Margaret Fieland

When fourteen-year-old Keth’s dad is transferred to planet Aleyne, he doesn’t know what to expect. Certainly not to discover Dad grew up here, and studied with Ardaval, a noted Aleyni scholar. On Aleyne, Keth’s psi ability develops. However, psi is illegal in the Terran Federation. After a dangerous encounter with two Terran teenagers  conflict erupts between Keth and his father. Keth seeks sanctuary with Ardaval.  Studying with the Aleyne scholar Keth learns the truth about his own heritage. After Keth’s friend’s father, Mazos, is kidnapped, Keth ignores the risks and attempts to free him. Little does he realize who will pay the cost as he becomes involved with terrorists.




Amazon Relocated ebook:

Amazon Relocated print:RelocatedPrintSCALED



I wasn’t scared, since Dad told me about the need to take a psi exam. The Aleyni checked for any plant or animal, or whether we planned a terrorist attack. Dad said Federation anti-psi fanatics attacked a couple of times recently, so I understood why they checked carefully.

The examiner set me in a chair. He asked me again if I consented to the exam. When I said yes, the examiner put his hands on the sides of my face, looking into my eyes.

His hands burned hot against my skin. A thousand ants chewed through my brain and a voice whispered questions I couldn’t quite make out. I tried to take a breath, but my throat tightened, and I gasped aloud. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to stop shaking. I shook my head, trying to make the voices go away, and the examiner removed his hands and stared into my eyes for a moment. The buzzing voices stopped leaving my head feeling as though it would burst open. The examiner smiled at me and passed me through the checkpoint. A couple of minutes went by before my stomach stopped heaving, but hammers still pounded inside my head.

Afterward, we walked through the spaceport. I stopped short and stared. I’d never seen a more beautiful place. The flowers planted around the gray port buildings waved in the light breeze, and the air smelled like cinnamon and cloves. Warm sun beat down on my head, and the sound of birds cawing reached my ears. I took a breath of spicy air. The twist in my gut relaxed.