On Hallowed Lanes, Chapter 13

Short one today. Enjoy!

Chapter 13

Brianna expected the call days later, perhaps when one of the couple was emptying their pockets while doing laundry. But they were only an hour away from Calgary, Garrett’s mood still fixated on the fast-coming future.

“Hello?” Brianna said, tucking her book under her armpit.

“How did you know?” Jenna asked, her voice thick as syrup. Crying. She was crying.

“Know what?”

“Don’t tell me this wasn’t you. You snuck us the cash when we took the photograph, right?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

There was a long pause, and Jenna breathed so quietly she could hardly hear, “We were going to have to go to a shelter. Just for a little while, until Lorne could land on his feet or I could find something better than temp work.”

Garrett glanced at Brianna and she nodded imperceptibly. He focused back on the road again, though his eyes flickered occasionally to the back seat. His hallucinations, she thought. “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

“I know what it must seem like, us going to the park like that-”

“No. You don’t explain anything to me. Your lives are your lives. You gave your kids a good memory to hang onto. That’s not…” Brianna was crying now. “You just don’t explain yourself to me, that’s all.”

Jenna was silent for a much longer period of time, and Brianna thought she’d hung up. “If you’re really serious about heading for Drumheller, will you do it? Send our kids a picture of you with the dinos? When we’re okay again, I want to have it developed. So they have something to remember you by.”

“Of course,” Brianna whispered. “Goodbye, Jenna. God bless.”

* * *

Among the hills of Drumheller, Brianna and Garrett cozied up under an enormous dinosaur, its jaws wide. Together, they smiled at the camera as though the world wasn’t a broken place, as though the kids they were posing for would live beautiful, rich lives full of happiness, never wanting for anything, that the cash they gave their parents would sprout and grow and solve all their problems. They smiled for the lie all youth are told – that kindness and goodness are enough to change the world. Five minutes later, as they held each other sitting on the edge of a nearby fountain, a text came through, the last one they’d ever get from Lorne or Jenna. “Angels.”

Legally Blind – Shopping: The Sequel!

I’m not writing this to gain sympathy or anything like that. I’m fine. And this really isn’t about the shopping aspect at all, but something far flung I probably don’t even need to worry about. But I mentioned the difficulties of shopping when blind or low-vision in a blog a few months back, and it’s finally time for me to admit to myself – at least until I get my new glasses – I need help shopping. It’s not really an option anymore.

And that’s fine! It’s manageable. I have a cool mom who I’m with most the time when I’m out and about anyways, and she’s great about helping me. But long-term, I’m unsettled, and not really because of shopping.

But here’s the thing. Professionally, one of the most important aspects of my job is editing. I’ve never made anything remotely close to what I’d need to hire a professional editor, or even a halfway competent hack who slept through half their English courses in college (cough, me, cough). So far, my editing has been done by me, with the aid eventually of whatever beta readers I can wrangle into helping me out. I’ve been blessed to know many great creative minds, all of whom have terrific insight and have helped me clean up a lot of errors in my books. But by and large, the editing falls on my shoulders.

So, as my reading vision continues to deteriorate past the point where I can no longer actually read without the aid of super magnifiers and high contrast text and all that, what happens?

I don’t have an answer to this. I could pick up a lot of mistakes with a text to speech program, but that’s not a guarantee. And readers would expect quality, as I would in their shoes. So what happens? It bears researching. It’s the one aspect of this I don’t know I’ve ever thought about before. It’s not frightening, not exactly, but it’s something I need to plan for.

Anyways. World’s burning, so this all seems sort of petty. But it’s on my mind, and writing about it helps me think out loud. Hope everybody is well. Or as well as they can be. Just… give yourself a high five today.

Legally Blind – Shopping

It’s been a while since I wrote one of these. Nearly three years, which seems wrong. In any case, I had a disappointing experience I thought I’d turn into a positive and talk some about the quirks of shopping while legally blind.

I’m getting a new washer and dryer next week. It’s been ten long years since I’ve had a set of my own. The plan was originally for me to buy the set, but my folks, bless them, decided to surprise me and took care of it. Which is awesome, and it allows me to move ahead and buy a pair of glasses whenever it’s safe for me to go visit my eye doctor and get a new prescription.

I say all that because I was pretty excited to buy some laundry soap from Amazon, as well as some dryer sheets. Sounds boring, I know, but it’s something little I haven’t needed to buy in just as long. I kept a few Tide pods around – not for snacking, I’m not a maniac – but that’s about it. To save me money, as embarrassing as it might be, my mom has graciously been doing my laundry for a while now, so the thought of being able to take care of this myself has been a huge morale boost.

Anyways, the point is, I ordered some laundry soap and two boxes of dryer sheets. One was scented like sage, the other mangoes – dryer sheets got weird, and I love it. I like to do my dry goods shopping through Amazon Prime – more on that in a second – so that’s what I went with, throwing in a few other essentials like carpet cleaner and some assorted groceries.

Everything seemed to be fine. The box did its usual seven or so stops along the way, with two alone in Montana, one in Butte, the other Helena. On its last leg of the journey, the box never arrived, and late last night, I got an “undeliverable” message, which usually means something broke in transit or the box was too damaged to deliver.

Disappointing, but not a huge deal. Like I say, I do have some laundry soap, so it’s not like I was in a rush for this. But it makes for a good conversation piece on shopping while blind and some of the pride that comes with it.

As I mentioned, I like Prime Pantry, and it’s not just for the convenience. When I go to the store, I’m being driven. Usually that comes with an unwarranted feeling of guilt on my part, the idea that me browsing the store shelves is taking up someone else’s time. Rarely have I ever actually been rushed, but it feels like I need to hurry or else face the aggravation of people who have better things to do with their time. Again, I reiterate, this is all in my head. With Amazon Prime, I can take my time. I can browse for an hour or two. I can leave things in my cart, think about them, and come back later if I want them or not (well, generally – lately there’s been a lot of stuff selling out fast).

There’s also a more practical aspect too – a lot of times, I can’t see what’s on the bottom shelf of stores. In some ideal low vision world, stores would stack their items vertically as opposed to horizontally, so you could get a sampling of everything right at your face without kneeling down to grab five or six cans off the bottom shelf to see if they’re the ones without sodium, or whatever the case happens to be. But that’s not the world we live in and it makes far more sense to have the best sellers at face height anyways. That’s just wishful thinking.

The point being, finding specifics is hard. When it’s combined with that sense of “i need to get this done as fast as possible,” I’m often just grabbing things that approximate what I need. That’s not always ideal, but it’s generally okay. Online shopping helps alleviate that.

In bigger cities, upon request from the customer service area, you can generally ask for a shopping assistant. This is good to know not just for the blind, but for the elderly or otherly abled who might need the service. It’s a great idea, and it’s particularly ideal when it comes to bread, fruits, and vegetables. I’ve come home often with stale or moldy bread, and having another set of eyes on that sort of thing helps immensely. In my small town and in Montana in general, that’s not really an option. Employees are spread thin, and if I’m out and about, I’m generally with family anyways. Even if I mean it with the best of intentions, asking a store employee for help would generally seem rude to my family when they’re with me, as they tend to have just as much pride in helping me as I do in having pride about not being helped. It’s a vicious circle.

None of this is to complain. I’ve said this before, but apart from the hardships of this year, it’s a good time in general to be blind. People are starting to strive for accessibility, or at least realize its importance as issues like these come to light. So how can you help? Volunteering your time and assistance in driving around a blind person to run errands is a great start. Both having the patience and telling us it’s okay to take our time – and mean it – is just as uplifting. Don’t be offended if we seek help in other ways. There may be more under the surface than you.

Thanks for reading! And those of you who bear with us, thank you for your patience and care.

Square One

I have a new book launching in ten days. If you keep up with me at all, you know what it is, because God knows I advertise it every five minutes on social media. The book is going to be divisive, if beta readers are anything to go by. Two seem to like it. Two don’t. That’s fine. I very rarely split things down the middle with readers anyways – people either seem to love my writing or royally dislike it.

I wasn’t particularly nervous about Savor the Wicked throughout most of the first half of the year. The world’s troubles and issues of a personal nature have taken my attention away from my new series. But now that the release date is right around the corner, I’m starting to realize I’m coming up against this one in much the same manner as I did The Ghost at His Back. Back then, I think I could afford about fifty dollars worth of advertising for that book. I advertised it locally through a small county newspaper and through Bknights, a discount advertiser that has gone on to become a staple of my advertising, since I still work on a shoestring budget.

This time around, I’m not even working with that, not yet. I’m looking at buying a washer and dryer next month, glasses the month after that, and soon a freezer for the winter months. All of these are necessities – not urgent ones, but they have to take priority over my business expenses. I’m excited. It’s the first time I will have had a washer and a dryer for over ten years.

But from a business perspective, it’s insane. When I set the preorder date, there was no way to expect this. I am releasing a book with no advertising save for what I can scrounge up on social media. My mailing list might as well be non-existent. Most the people registered to it signed up when I first started (and before laws changed for this sort of thing) to be entered in a Kindle giveaway. The people who actually open the newsletter are largely family. That’s… pretty much it. It’s why I pulled Beast as a freebie from the newsletter and sold it on Amazon instead. In its short lifetime, it’s already sold more copies than people who have signed up for the newsletter.

Turnaround from the newsletter is also atrocious. Same with my social media advertising. I see more sales when my brother says something flippant about one of my books being out than I do with months of chapter teases, pre-order announcements, and all that nonsense. I can’t sell a book for shit. It’s easier in person with paperbacks, which has always surprised me. Generally, there, if people pick up the books, they buy a copy. I did some mental math one day during a sale and figured it came out to about 8 in 10 people buying books who read the back matter.

So why there and not online? Your guess is as good as mine. No traditional means of author magnets has ever worked for me the way it has for other writers. Part of it I know is not writing to market, but even there, you’d think I’d get SOME people reading the first chapter of a new book online or at least giving the posts some likes or shares. But apart from a couple close friends, I can’t even get that. That’s not me whining. That’s me saying things need to change.

And they will. Eventually. I’m working on something massively stupid at the moment, so stupid it should get more eyes on my work, or so I hope. And financially, things are looking up. I have some big expenses on the way, but once I’m over that hurdle, I should be able to advertise future books in a bigger way.

In the meantime, I do what I did back then. with The Ghost at His Back. I ask people to share, much as that sucks to have to do. I try to write the next two novels, which is secretly where the real money will come from (buy-throughs are my bread and butter). I continue to look forward to the day when I’ve ground out enough stories that I can eventually turn advertising into a major cornerstone, not just a “when and where I can” opportunity.

And maybe by this time next year, I can start looking at in-person sales again. Maybe. We’ll see if Godzilla doesn’t come destroy the earth or whatever the hell else 2020 has in store for us.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, whoever you are stumbling across this blog. I have maybe two visitors a month here, so if you’re one of them, much love. And please, don’t be shy. Some days it feels like I’m drowning out here. You have no idea how much a comment or a like means.

Or, God forbid, a book purchase and a review.

Okay, whining’s done. Back to work.

The first chapter from Savor the Wicked

My love and respect goes out to everyone suffering from COVID and/or who is fighting for racial equality. It seems like every day now is filled with new nightmares. I realize now is the completely wrong time to be self-advertising. The world is on fire and other causes need your help, your voice, and your attention. But if you need a few minutes away from the world, consider reading this. Savor the Wicked is out June 22nd, and available for pre-ordernow on Amazon. If this ain’t the month for you to be reading a book, it’ll be there waiting for you a better time.Book1_SavorTheWicked_eBook

Anyways, here it is, the first chapter from the first of my new series The Seven Heroes. Hope it entertains you, today or another time.

* * * * * *

Rich or poor in Rankin Flats, it didn’t matter much either way – step out onto the streets on a hot June day, the whole city was going to smell like baked horseshit. Even deep in the heart of a city of millions, the stink infused the streets and rankled the noses of everyone hurrying with their heads down to get to their boring jobs and keep up with their crap lives.

Peter Balan was one of those people. And as he stepped off the curb and around the front of his car, picking his teeth clean of the cold chicken he’d eaten for breakfast, it was the faint stench he was silently cursing when the van hit him at just over thirty miles an hour.

If it had been a field goal at forty yards, the pigskin would have sailed through the uprights. The van sped up and nailed Peter broadside, a shot that should have probably killed him. Would have, more than likely, if he hadn’t glanced up and raised his arm in self-defense. The arm didn’t save him. It was just an arm, a little too thick, a little too hairy.

But on that arm was something wildly strange, something Peter would have rather left behind with that morning’s coffee grounds in his trash can. Peter caught the movement of the van, and when the arm came up, so did a band of crystalline membrane around his chest, his stomach.  It could not protect all of him, though, and when the van hit him and Peter cruised through the air like the world’s most ungainly dart, he had one last bemused thought before his skull whacked off the unforgiving pavement and his mind took a temporary vacation.

Fucking Quincy.

* * *

He fumbled out of the darkness in fits and spurts.

When Peter first came to, the pain consumed pretty much everything. There was no pinning down what was broken or how badly he was hurt. Not yet. It was all he could do to hold onto the brief crimson flash of momentary awareness. Someone pressing cold steel on the back of his hands was all he could make out, then clicks. Bracelets, of the criminal type. Unconsciousness grabbed Peter up again, and they did a happy dance together.

Maybe another minute or two later, his feet scraped along the pavement and came up off it. Lifted. He was being lifted. Something deep in his guts hurt, but hurt was good. Hurt meant he was alive. He could still smell the horseshit. Rankin Flats. God, Peter hated the city.

Movement. Rough vibrations, occasional jostling. In a vehicle. Peter processed that much, but if it was an ambulance, why was he sitting upright? And why were his hands cuffed behind his back? The questions hurt his brain too much. Sleep. He needed just a bit more sleep.

More. Flashes of a conversation. A rag rubbing his face. A feminine cackle. Vibrations of tires on the road. Peter’s consciousness started to solidify. He was sitting sideways, not facing forward. Lightbulb flickers of traffic and buildings from the front windows. No windows in the back. Back of what? Blackness for a long while.

The vehicle jolted hard. Pothole. Pain flared in Peter’s neck and his spine, sharp, tingly shards of it scraping across bones and nerves. He wiggled his fingers and his toes. Good. He could still feel everything. No spinal damage. His nose hurt like hell and something in his chest bellowed every time he breathed. Broken nose and ribs, or bruised badly enough it seemed all the same. Scrapes all over. His whole left side stung like hell, and his face felt like it had been razor burned.

The consistency of the road had changed under the tires. Dirt road, his foggy brain mumbled. The van’s shit suspension made it feel like they were crushing cars in a monster truck. Every minute dip in the road made something new and delightful blossom in pain somewhere in or on his body. It was like a fun park of discovering just how badly hurt he was. New rides awaited around every corner. Fun times.

“Hey. Hey, you awake?” someone drawled. A guy, right across from Peter.

Peter didn’t look up. Didn’t acknowledge him. He had to figure out what was going on, then he could act. Besides, unconsciousness still clawed at him. Fighting to stay awake was his biggest priority.

“I don’t think he is,” the man said to someone else.

“Got a knife? Try to get that thing off him.” This second voice was the woman he’d heard laughing earlier. She spoke with a whistling lisp in the front passenger’s seat.

The driver said, “Don’t do that. The Preserver will take care of his mark.”

The Preserver? Who the hell was the Preserver? Peter kept his chin tucked against his chest, trying to work all this out. An errant thought that he’d be late for his job hit him, and he nearly groaned and gave away his consciousness.

The woman sounded exasperated when she said, “Yeah, but if one of us had the sleeve, he could just take it from us. We’d be gosh darn heroes and this guy couldn’t pull none of that magic crap on us.”

“I said no,” the driver said. His was a deeper boom than the other man, more commanding.

“Yeah, well, you’re not in charge, are ya?” the woman snapped.

“You’re not either,” the man across from Peter said. “Albert is. Besides, we cut this guy up, we might kill him. Albert would be pissed.”

“You two cuss too much,” the woman said in a huff.

The driver belted out a laugh. “Yeah, go fuck yourself.”

“You’d like that,” the woman said. Her emotions had changed on a dime, gone suddenly light and coy. Peter had seen that plenty before, back when he still wore a badge. If this woman wasn’t tweaking, she used to.

“I ain’t gonna say no,” the driver said.

The woman tittered and bounced in her seat. “I’m so hungry right now.”

“We just ate!” the man in front of Peter said.

“I knoooow,” the woman whined. “Don’t mean I’m not hungry, though.”

“When Albert finds out what we’re bringing him, I’ll bet he cooks us steaks himself,” the driver said.

“Forget a steak. I want like a dozen hamburgers,” the woman said.

Peter let their conversation play out in the background as he tried to focus on what they were calling his mark and his sleeve. “Sleeve” wasn’t far off the mark, actually. The mark did look like a tattoo sleeve. Well… sort of. If the tattoos became infected and engorged, like half a snake latched on his arm. But it wasn’t just decorative. Far from it.

He hated calling on the damn thing. Using his half of the Alder Chain made Peter’s mind feel like it was making out with mucus.  It didn’t have any conscious thoughts, but sometimes – okay, most the time – he could feel Quincy on the other end. Not his thoughts, not his emotions, but his presence. If Peter had been hurt, Quincy would have been too. Would he have been knocked unconscious? Peter had no idea, but he gritted his teeth and willed a heart attack on the other man for dragging him into all this.

Of course, that wasn’t how it worked, so instead, Peter set about trying to get the Alder Chain to listen to him.

It hadn’t moved much since he’d been hit by the van. Peter prodded it with his mind, willing it to life. The Alder Chain felt like a muscle inside him working on its own accord, a part of him but twitchy and sometimes uncontrollable. It was helping him heal much faster than he could have on his own, Peter knew that much. Shortly after he was blessed with the damn thing, he’d nicked himself badly enough that there should have been a sliver of a scar, but within a half hour, the only trace of the wound was a patch of missing hair.

With more shadows and less light, it would have moved faster, been more responsive, but as it was, the Chain moved like it was just coming up out of an afternoon nap. Peter willed it to create a rough shape surrounding the handcuffs. The Chain was slow to respond, but when it did, it lurched all at once, coating his hands and the metal bracelets in an otherworldly fabrication. If anyone could see it, it would have looked like a goopy liquid crystal, usually amethystine, but sometimes other colors depending mostly on the light. Never had Peter tried to do something this delicate, and he wasn’t entirely sure how to proceed, so he tested the handcuffs, feeling them out carefully with the Chain. Yep. They were handcuffs, all right.

The lock. He’d try to work it open, he decided. With another burst of effort, the Chain solidified a finger-length pick out of the goop behind his back. He wiggled around, trying to get the pick into the lock, then realized how stupid that was. What did he know about locks? Even as a deputy, he’d never done anything with this kind of finesse. He wasn’t some damn thief.

“This dude’s definitely awake now,” the country boy across from him said.

Peter eased one eye open. The guy in front of him was apparently a denim fetishist. Blue jeans, blue jean jacket, gray denim shirt. He wore a straw cowboy hat tilted back, and his mustache looked like a clump of fronds atop the barely-trimmed shrubbery of his five o’clock shadow.

“What gave it away?” Peter’s voice was groggy, muted.

“You keep clenchin’ your jaw,” the cowboy said.

Up front, something rattled against metal. Peter tried to glance that way, but pain flared in his neck, nearly driving him into the darkness again. He winced, and tried again, slower this time. The pain eased up little by little. Dividing the front and the windowless back of the van was a metal cage wall, the sort animal control might have used. Beyond it, a tall, twiggy woman with a huge hornet’s nest of unkempt auburn hair slapped the butt of a pistol against the divider.

The driver, who Peter couldn’t really see without causing himself more agony, snapped, “Jesus, put that thing away before you kill one of us.”

The woman hissed at him – actually hissed, like she was a cat – but the gun disappeared from sight. “You try anything, freak, we’re gonna gut shoot you. Reckon you’d live through something like that.”

“What do you care if I live or die?” Peter asked, wiggling the pick around in the handcuffs’ lock. Through the Alder Chain, he could actually feel the mechanisms within like he was touching them with his own skin. It disturbed him. And, God help him, intrigued him too. He hated using the damn thing. “You hit me with your van, assholes.”

“Don’t be swearin’!” the woman said.

“Asshole ain’t exactly much of a swear,” the cowboy said. He pulled something out of a holster on his lap and tapped Peter’s knee none too gently with it. A leather sap. Peter used to carry around a sibling to its kind. “Don’t be getting any dumb ideas, now.”

Peter tried to twist his head towards the driver. “They both threatened me. You got anything to add? Maybe you’ll yodel until I gouge my eyes out?”

The driver snorted a laugh, and the woman slapped his shoulder. “Shut up,” she said. “Not funny.”

“A little bit funny,” the driver said.

Peter leaned his head back against the wall of the van and regretted it. That made the vibrations a hundred times worse. With effort, he tilted his chin forward again. “Where you taking me?”

“To see Albert Coster,” the cowboy said.

Peter tried to think if he knew any Albert, let alone any Albert Coster. He’d known an Al, but he was guessing this guy didn’t mean a Texas pizzeria owner. Still… maybe. “Don’t suppose you mean we’re going to get a slice from Hogshead Pizza? Down in Dallas?”

“What?” the cowboy asked.

Peter sighed, still fiddling with the lock on the handcuffs. If he was making any progress, he had no idea. “Never mind.”

“Albert Coster is-” the driver started, but Peter cut him off.

“Because Al – that is, my Al, not whatever dingnut you three are talking about – serves up this habanero fish taco pizza, and you think it wouldn’t work, but it’s-”

The sap came down hard on his knee. Pain crackled outward, and Peter writhed, nearly falling off the bench seat he was on.

“I didn’t try anything!” he shouted at the cowboy as he righted himself.

The other guy shrugged. “Mouthing off was a dumb idea. Next up is your testicles.”

“All right, Jesus,” Peter said, leaning forward and back as his knee hollered at him for attention and urgent medical care. Pretty much like the rest of him, then – but the Chain was definitely doing its work. Apart from the knee, the neck, and the spine, almost everything else was fading to the background. Aching, but not pressing.

The woman watched all this with a brown-toothed grin. “Albert’s the Preserver,” she said matter-of-factly, as if this was supposed to mean something to Peter. “He’s going to save all us humans from your kind and help you get rid of your sin, freak.”

“It’s not so religious as that,” the driver said, almost apologetically. “But she’s got the spirit of it right. He tells us you and that sleeve, you’re going to bring on the end of the world.”

The woman bounced up and down in her seat. “You and the rest of the freaks you hang out with.”

“What?” Peter said, hardly able to think beyond the pain. Then it dawned on him, and he gurgled out a chuckle. “Oh you assholes. You got the wrong guy.”

The cowboy tapped his wounded knee again, making Peter sit bolt upright. “You have the sleeve,” he said, as if talking to a child.

“There are two of us, you idiot,” Peter said, mocking his tone. “You want the other guy? I’ll take you right to him. Seven Heroes. It’s a bar and apartments up top. Middle of Randall Street. You can’t miss the place. City full of shitholes, it’s the shitholiest.”

Silence fell among the three. The women looked first at the driver then at the cowboy in the backseat. She repeated the words less certainly, “He has the sleeve.”

“Tommy,” the driver said through gritted teeth. “Where did you hear about this guy?”

The cowboy swallowed. “Street kids. Runners. They told me, guy with a moving tattoo. They knew right who he was. Where he lived.”

The driver sucked at his teeth. “Mm. And did they say anything about a second guy?”

The cowboy – Tommy – was silent for a minute. The woman turned, her eyes huge. “Tommy?” she asked. “Say something.”

“Shit,” Tommy mumbled under his breath. “Look, I… uh… the other one, he’s surrounded, you know? He’s got all sorts of other freaks with him. But this one’s got the sleeve too. It’s all the same.”

Peter thought about his manager at the big box store Thankfull and how pissed the Doucher was going to be with him for being late again. Then he thought of Quincy, somewhere on the other end of the Alder Chain, maybe drinking at his bar or screwing that gladiator-looking woman of his. “I’m going to kill Quincy,” he said, leaning his head back again. His neck pain was getting mildly better. That was good, considering this was all about to go tits-up.

“What do we do with him?” the woman squawked. “We screwed up, we screwed up, we screwed up.”

“Tommy was the one who screwed up, not us,” the driver said.

“Hey, come on,” Tommy protested.

“You don’t get to have a say anymore,” the woman said.

The driver snapped at both of them, “Shut up! Shit.”

She yelled right back, “I said don’t swear.”

“Just take me back,” Peter said. “We walk in the Seven Heroes, I point him out to you, you can all go ride happily into the sunset with your life preserver.”

“The Preserver,” the woman said, her eyes wild now. She was the dangerous one of the bunch, Peter thought. The cowboy might get his kicks beating him up some, but she was unhinged. An addict who had found zealotry, unless he missed his mark, and he sure didn’t think he had. Nothing more dangerous than someone who substitutes a physical high with an ephemeral one.

The pick. He’d almost forgotten about it. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen now. The Chain solidified the pick again out of the shadows behind him, and he slammed the sharp end into the machinery of the lock. The Chain didn’t snap, but something in the handcuffs did, and he suddenly couldn’t make any more progress. He’d only made things worse.

The Chain. The handcuffs. The links.

“We kill him,” the driver said quietly.

Well… Peter guessed he’d been wrong about which one was the dangerous one of the bunch.

The woman gaped at him, her eyes like sickly moons. “Kill kill kill him? Ah-Ah-Ah-Ahl…”

“Albert’s not here,” the driver said, his voice cold. “We have to fix this. Nobody’s going to see us out this far. We shoot him, we leave him for the coyotes, we bury the gun a few miles on.”

The cowboy swallowed. “You sure that’s the only play? Maybe we do take him back.”

Peter formed a tiny saw out of the shadows, willing it to have a jagged edge he could work the links on the cuffs. “Listen to him,” he warned. “He’s a smart man, your redneck friend.”

“Shut. Up,” Tommy said. “Last warning.”

Peter didn’t have the room to manipulate the Chain and had to bob back and forth, working it over the links. He didn’t know what he looked like, and he didn’t care.

“What’s he doing?” the woman asked. “What the heck are you doing back there? Stop it. Stop it!”

She reached up with the gun again, and Peter saw with a sickening lurch her finger was on the trigger, the hammer pulled back. Almost as if on cue, they hit the next pothole, and the gun went off, the bullet punching through the top of the van, the boom deafening inside the tight confines. The chains on the handcuffs snapped as the driver and Tommy shouted, yelling at the woman to put the gun down, put it away. Peter brought his hands around, the Alder Chain forming a rough hammer shape in midair. It felt like silicone, looked like smoky white glass, and hit like… well, a hammer. Tommy’s head whipped sideways with the impact, spittle flying out of his mouth in a wide spray. It was a good shot, hard, clean, and he was out as he sprawled sideways.

The driver jerked the van left and corrected with a soft gesture. A pro. He didn’t panic. Peter didn’t bother with the metal gate between him and the two up front. He thought about the undercarriage of the van, willing the Alder Chain with his mind, imagining a spike piercing the left rear tire. It was about as far as he could reach with the Chain, but it would be enough, he hoped. He grabbed for anything he could to hold on. There was nothing. When the tire popped and the van lurched sideways again, there was nothing to do but tumble into the metal as they flipped.

Glass shattered. Steel squealed. Something much more human shrieked. All the injuries the Alder Chain had been healing blazed with newfound fury, and Peter dove joyously into the dark again. But the dark didn’t want him this time, and moments later he came to as he rested in a jumble of limbs with the cowboy as the van slid to a stop on its side, the engine roaring one last time before cutting out completely.

No one moved, save Peter. He rested on his back under Tommy, and lifted his head up just long enough to look around and mutter, “Well. Shit.”

Ahead of the Seven Heroes, a Rankin Flats primer

The Seven Heroes is an entirely new urban fantasy/supernatural thriller series from me in a very familiar location to those of you who have read my previous supernatural thriller series. You don’t need to have read those in order to enjoy this series – this is (mostly) an entirely new cast of characters with only a few tangential connections to the old ones.

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Coming June 22nd!

Now, that said, it might help new readers to have a primer on the fictional city of Rankin Flats and the returning organizations that will help shape the future of Randall Street. There will be very minor spoilers ahead for the Rankin Flats series, but nothing in the slightest that should affect your enjoyment of those novels – I hope.

Where and what is Rankin Flats?

Rankin Flats is a huge fictional city in eastern Montana. If you pop open a Google map of my home state, zoom in directly at the middle and look for Highway 12. Alternately, point one finger at Billings, then another at Great Falls, and bring those together at the midpoint. You should be roughly at a small town named Harlowton. Now go about fifty miles east of Harlow, and you’re looking roughly at an even tinier town named Lavina.

Lavina is what I consider to be the western edge of Rankin Flats. Now, from here, the city’s boundaries become a little looser, and I play fast and loose with eastern Montana geography depending on the needs of the novels. But you can roughly assume the city stretches northeast nearly to Fort Peck, and east about as far as Miles City. That’s about 200 miles (think San Diego to the edge of Lancaster, or thereabouts).

That makes it a big city, in more ways than one. Now, the city proper is only at the heart of that – someday I’ll digitize my maps and show you the major suburbs, such as Morristown to the northwest (which is where Garrett and Brianna live from the Rankin Flats supernatural thrillers as well as Gwen’s parents in A Shot at Us). Population-wise, it’s mentioned that it will overtake New York City within a few decades.

That brings me to the point – Rankin Flats is a hungry city. It’s spreading, and fast, and not in entirely healthy ways. Waves and waves of new chic areas are constantly being chewed up as the city expands farther south and east. Good housing is hard to find outside the city and its better suburbs, so instead, it’s dominated by housing tracts and trailer parks, particularly in the south and east.

Industry by now is largely a mix of everything, with a corporate heart (Scraper Row, mentioned elsewhere), ranching, farming, and the various arms of the service industry and the usual needs that would support a city this size. An international airport and railway shipping lanes don’t hurt either.

It’s also a wildly diverse city, especially for Montana. Latino, Asian, and eastern European communities have sprung up all throughout the city, and you can safely assume in a city this size that there would be people of all walks of life here that haven’t been mentioned yet.

But that’s not the only way Rankin Flats is diverse. There’s another, strange subset of population that has begun to emerge in recent years.

The Weird

By “weird,” I mean the supernatural or otherworldly gifted. This is a term introduced in Savor the Wicked to encompass all the various fantastical people and creatures of the world I’ve created, since just “supernatural” didn’t quite encompass everything.

Within the Rankin Flats novels, the supernatural was still hidden away from the world. Garrett Moranis, one of three protagonists in that series, could see the dead, but so far as he knew, he was an outlier until he began to encounter others with strange talents. Throughout those novels, he discovers magic is very real – and very dangerous. He fights at various points shapeshifters, telekinetics (here called catalysts, as telekinesis is not their only gift), and magicians. Things begin to get even weirder by the end of the novels, when the Tamawo – water creatures from Philippine myths – and Balor of the Evil-Eye make appearances as well. It is outright mentioned that Arthurian myths are very real, with one of the characters actually having murdered Merlin at one point for “talking too much.”

This is, then, a world of wild possibilities, where anyone and everything around you could possibly be supernatural – or weird. Thanks largely to the actions of several villains throughout that series, the world is slowly being exposed to the idea that the things they’ve read or fantasized about might be very real. The general populace still doesn’t believe, but there are those who have had to deal with the fallout of the supernatural or have witnessed it first-hand.

Numbering among them are the police, at least in Rankin Flats. They’ve just had to clean up too many messes not to know, or at least suspect. But the police arent’ the only people involved with the supernatural in Rankin Flats.

The Ranch

Led by FBI agent Annalise Fox, the Ranch is a special task force created after the events in For All the Sins of Man and Bone Carvers. They are the government’s response to the growing supernatural threat in Rankin Flats. They largely exist in a monitoring capacity, though they are slowly learning to deal with the larger threats to the city and taking a more active role to make sure the supernatural and the human worlds don’t clash too hard.

What they aren’t is naive. They’ve tried to keep a lid on the supernatural, but in a modern world of cell phone cameras and YouTube, they know it’s just a matter of time before the world as a whole believes in the existence of the weird. To prepare, they have allied themselves since their inception with supernaturally and otherworldly talented individuals, as well as unusually sharp humans with no talents to speak of, save raw intelligence and talent.

At the end of the Rankin Flats supernatural thrillers, the Ranch was largely situated out of an actual working ranch northwest of the city, with most their operations running out of an abandoned missile silo converted for their needs. Nowadays, their operations have grown. This brings me to…

Lucky Theresa

An extremely minor character in the Rankin Flats novels, Lucky Theresa has come up in the ranks since the days of working as an analyst for Annalise and the Ranch. Her past is unclear, at least for now, as is her role in the shaping of Randall Street, but this up-and-comer has a history with the supernatural, and her presence is about to be felt in a major way.

The Twin Tornadoes

Here we have the most influential incident from the Rankin Flats supernatural thrillers. Two record-shattering tornadoes hit Rankin Flats within minutes of each other in 2016, an incident that left over ten thousand people dead when the aftermath was taken into account. Even in a city this large, it was a devastating incident, and brought about a period of severe chaos before the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and the usually surly city turned out in force to help rebuild.

The tornadoes struck two areas of particular note – a financial district east of Scraper Row, the city’s heart, and a wide swath of trailer parks in the city’s southern suburbs.

Randall Street

Introduced in Beast, a horror novella unrelated to the cast of the Rankin Flats novels, Randall Street is one of the darker parts of Rankin Flats. It’s a place where you can get anything you want, so long as you’ve got the guts to venture there. During the day, find what you need in the countless shops and businesses in the area. At night, come to the night market, where hundreds of vendors set up an informal bazaar filled with everything the mind can imagine.

Randall Street is almost entirely unpoliced, and wildly dangerous to outsiders. In the events of Beast, two people are slaughtered here by a monstrous creature. This opened a lot of eyes to the supernatural, and along with some of the events of the Rankin Flats series, has left Rankin Flats law enforcement mostly aware of the weird.

The setting for the Seven Heroes, I greatly look forward to introducing you to more about Randall Street and Rankin Flats. But for now, you’re caught up. Don’t forget to preorder your copy of Savor the Wicked, coming June 22nd on Kindle with paperbacks to follow at a later date.

Thanks for reading, and welcome back to Rankin Flats.

Plague of Life is free through May 2nd!

Folks, for what I believe to be for the first time ever since its release two years ago, Plague of Life is free to readers for a very limited time. This is part of my

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efforts to help keep you entertained through the stay-at-home process. I’ve been looking forward to this one because I’ve decided to share a snippet from it, and it’s a pretty significant one. This is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes of the series, and definitely my favorite “fight scene” of the bunch. Give it a read if you don’t intend on picking up the novels. It’s not scary or violent in the slightest.

If you haven’t read Smyle or Plague of Life and intend to, STOP RIGHT HERE AND DON’T READ ANY FURTHER. IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, YOU’RE STILL READING AND YOUR BRAIN NEEDS TO CATCH UP TO THE SPOILER WARNING SO YOU DON’T ACCIDENTALLY SPOIL YOURSELF. OKAY. YOU HAVE BEEN PROPERLY WARNED. NAVIGATE AWAY NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT TO READ A SPOILER HEAVY SNIPPET. WE GOOD? COOL. LET’S GET SOME NACHOS LATER.

***

The helicopter touched down on the highway, kicking up a flurry of snow. Anywhere more populated and it would have caused mayhem. As it was, between Neihart and White Sulphur Springs on Highway 89, the only living creatures that might have raised some eyebrows were elk and cattle.

The pilot uttered no words aside from what was necessary, and when Yaro’s boots hit the ground, he only waited long enough for her to collect a duffel bag and step out of range of the rotors before he took off again, rising rapidly and heading north. She watched his progression with a shiver. Other than Daniel, he might be the last living person she ever saw, if Brianna couldn’t figure out where Yaro was hiding.

Thunder rumbled far too close. In the fall, that might not have been unusual, but not now, not when temperatures were in the high teens. Yaro pulled Daniel tighter to her under her coat, and glanced around, trying to gain her bearings. The highway cut a swath through the Little Belt Mountains. Garrett and Brianna’s cabin was nestled on the west side, just below a pine tree forest, about two miles off that same highway down two gravel roads.

The thunder again, and a wind buffeted the trees, though not so much as a breeze touched her face. The Twisted Men, letting her know they were coming, and soon. Two days. That was all she had to save Daniel and prepare. God help her.

Rather than walk, she flicked her fingers in the pattern of the teleportation spell, and popped a few hundred yards down the road, repeating the process until she was looking up a snow-caked pathway to a stout cabin with an attached garage. Stark black numbering on the side of the front door denoted it as the right place, and Yaro jumped one last time to it.

When he’d built the place, Garrett had anticipated thieves and troublesome teenagers, not magicians. The heavy-duty locks, the sturdy frame, the solidly-built walls, and the thick panes of glass might have kept out the local yokels, but for one of the world’s greatest and oldest magicians, breaking in was just a matter of a murmured few words and a wave of her hand. The locks popped open, and Yaro pushed her way inside. The interior was tidy, save for a fine layer of dust on every surface. Two couches sat opposite each other, lined by end tables loaded with books and board games. The adjoining kitchen was sparse but functional, and a single bedroom bore a few pictures of Garrett and Brianna in happier times. The mother’s eyes seemed to stare at Yaro, and she closed the door, shivering.

“I’m going to try,” she muttered, and unslung the bag of goods she’d asked Caspian to include on her helicopter. She unfolded the baby blanket on the couch, and laid Daniel down on it carefully. His entwined magical essence had faded almost entirely, and his few movements were limited to blinking and grasping with his tiny fingers. Yaro’s heart hurt to see him like this. Yet another life in her hands.

The wards would have come first if Daniel hadn’t clearly been so close to the cusp of death, but she had no time now. They would have to come after she’d healed Daniel. That would put the Tamawo right at the doorstep.

Quickly she dug out the rest of the items – baby formula, pre-mixed by one of Caspian’s people, wipes, diapers, a gas lantern, a container of fuel, matches, and a half-pound of dried sage. Quickly she arranged Daniel’s baby blanket on the ground and lined its sides with the baby’s necessities. She could cast a spell to forego her own physical needs, but the baby would need to be fed and changed every so often and she wanted everything as close at hand as possible. The lantern she filled, and left it and the sage by the door. A few words, and logs in the fireplace burned slowly, and would hopefully last through this thing.

Daniel’s breathing slowed by the second. She had no more time to prepare. Yaro knelt next to the child, kissed her thumb and pressed it to his cheek, and began to twist her fingers in the first spell.

“This is gonna suck,” she said, more to herself than the baby.

* * *

The magic she’d use was, in principle, relatively straightforward. The first spell she’d ever seen Kyrilu perform – bonding her magical energy to his own to grant him the strength to heal her brother Radomil – was basically the same thing. But Daniel was not a cognitive adult giving himself over willingly to the bonding magic, and so what Yaro had to do was gently coax his magical essence to her own, charming it away from him little by little.

Babies didn’t think in whole thoughts, but rather by pleasure and pain, comfort and discomfort, hungry and full. Those were the emotions Yaro toyed with, trying to find the easiest way to make his young unformed mind – and more importantly, his magical essence – join with her own will. It was far from easy. At first, she tried to implant images into Daniel’s mind – Brianna cradling him, his bassinet, his blanket. Apart from some luck with Brianna’s image, this approach didn’t work. His mind simply hadn’t developed enough to register images instead of feelings. Still, Yaro was on the right track – she’d managed to siphon away a little of his magical essence with the thoughts of Daniel’s mother. It was just a matter of making the baby feel relaxed, safe, trusting. She could do this – if she had enough time.

An hour gone already, but at least the child’s breathing wasn’t worsening. Yaro wiped away a trickle of sweat and tried again, this time working to conjure up feelings rather than specific images. The idea of being warm and swaddled, that was a big one. Daniel even cooed a little at that, the glaze in his eyes lessening. She worked the warmth angle until the idea produced no more results, then slowly went onto a string of other pleasantries. Being full. Napping. The sleep-inducing vibrations of a car ride (that one scored big too).

Each notion, big or small, sucked up the better part of an hour. Her legs cramped, her back ached, her hunger tore at her, but Yaro ignored all of it, focused entirely on the child, only occasionally breaking for his needs. None of her aches and pains would matter in another day, whether she succeeded or not, so she threw herself into the work, molding the child’s mind, opening it inch by inch.

Daniel’s innate power was astonishing, easily dwarfing her own. As she massaged open the invisible pathways between their minds, she struggled to take all his talent within herself. It required a fancy bit of mental deftness, making room in her own mind and soul even as she focused on the child. Yaro quaked at the dribble of power being added to her own, and as the first twelve hours drew to a close, she realized she wasn’t even halfway done. After all, she wasn’t just absorbing one baby’s magical essence, but two.

As Daniel’s subconscious began to trust her more and more, the dribble of energy became a river. Yaro could no longer focus on the physical. A three-way fight started within herself as she lay drooling on the floor, one more of dominant personalities and ability than that of human need or emotion. The baby Daniel beside Yaro beset her with basic human needs – hunger, sleep, warmth. His power was undefined, raw. Her own essence was a glittering disco ball of sorrow, mellow acceptance that her end was drawing near, a fundamental fear of what came after, a deep ache of loneliness, and strangest of all, a warm glow of maternal affection for Daniel that wasn’t hers – or at least, not the Yaro that existed now. This last part, she didn’t recognize on a conscious level – the thinking, rational part of her was taking a quick vacation – but she felt it regardless.

Yaro’s power itself was the most refined of the three, though the weakest. Her essence had to fight the hardest to stay relevant, to maintain control. Thankfully, the other two essences largely ignored her own as Yaro’s mind quietly siphoned off their power, feeding herself and growing more and more dominant.

Most unusual was the third essence, that of the Other Daniel. Everything about this essence spoke of a reckless swagger, a power so used to winning and getting its way that it just assumed it was the most dominant of the three. This parallel Daniel had the feel of adulthood, though he was nowhere near as old as Yaro. She sensed he might have been maybe a hundred when he passed away – young for a magician, but given the type of lifestyle his parents led, unsurprising.

It was that Daniel she had to work hardest to excise and draw into herself. The essence of the older Daniel was already fighting for survival when it had been left behind by… well, whatever had happened between Garrett and the ghost of his son. Now it struggled twice as hard, unknowing that it could possibly kill its host if it won this fight.

The three-way dance favored the older Daniel’s magical essence, but Yaro clung on, siphoning more and more of the two Daniels’ energy away from them. The infantile essence had to be massaged gently now and then with a little power, keeping it in the fight long enough to help Yaro finish off the older mana, but not given back so much that it overwhelmed her too. Hours slipped by. The end of the first day passed. Yaro had no idea how close she was cutting it, but when the tide finally favored her, she seized the moment, and the river of power to her mind became a roaring flood.

Daniel’s magical essences lit up one last time, pressing Yaro’s mind for control together in the end, but with a triumphant mental roar and a barely audible gasp, Yaro took the last of Daniel’s power – both Daniels – and yanked it into herself. Her eyes opened, lit with a sheen of green energy, and before the power could escape back to the baby, she severed his access to magic forever, snipping the last little cord between her and Daniel’s mind.

Beside her, on the floor, Daniel woke – and wailed for all the world to hear that he was hungry, and he was hungry now, damn it. Yaro grinned savagely as she staggered to her feet, the energy within her huge and all-consuming. Her soul wasn’t so much burning as it was exploding, and though she tried to control its release, the essence of the two Daniels – now a nameless, shapeless power within herself – blew outwards in a last wave, sending a shock through the earth for miles in every direction. What damage had been done had to wait, at least for the moment. Yaro checked the time on her watch as she snatched up Daniel. An hour. She had less than an hour before the Tamawo came for her.

She staggered to her knees to feed Daniel. Their personal physical needs had all but been cut off in the last day when their minds battled, but now her bladder shouted for her immediate attention and a desperate thirst left her throat dry and parched. Yaro forced the needs out of her mind for the moment, first letting Daniel eat before she settled him back down on the blanket, crying, as she stumbled into the bathroom for much needed relief. After, she drank straight from the bathroom’s faucet, forcing herself to stop after a few long gulps. More was unnecessary. She only needed enough to finish the next few minutes.

Fifty minutes left. Fifty minutes to live. Well, sort of. After a quick change of Daniel’s diapers, Yaro grabbed up the lantern, and rubbed its exterior with sage, murmuring an incantation as she worked. Sage worked as a simple magnifier for spells, though it wouldn’t last long. She didn’t need it to. With her fingernail, she scratched a name against the side of the glass – Brianna. Specifics didn’t matter – the magic would understand the intent. Only Brianna would be able to wade through the spell the lantern was meant to amplify. Yaro tucked the rest of the sage into her pocket, hoping in vain she’d have enough time to craft some wards around the building and amplify them with its power.

Over her shoulder, she said to Daniel, “Be right back, kid.”

The baby’s waggling arms did more to hearten her than most anything had in the last thousand years.

A Shot at Us, free until the 12th.

Hey folks! I’m running a month of freebies to help keep you entertained during these troubling times. From now until the 12th, you can grab my romance novel A Shot at Us free on Kindle (grab it here) A somber, sweet story about love, hope, and the kindnesses we share along the way, A Shot at Us is a modern retelling of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Days before Christmas, Gwen Irving faces a terrible reality. Her chronic illnesses and hospital stays have left her beloved family in abject poverty, and her continued existence costs them a fortune every day she’s alive. When she lands in the hospital yet again for pneumonia, Gwen wanders out into a freezing Montana night to contemplate helping her family out the only way she can see how.

Her husband Malcolm finds out she’s disappeared, and slowly realizes what Gwen’s trying to do. As fifteen years of their life together is lovingly remembered, Malcolm desperately tries to find his wife, because he knows the truth – her life is previous, even at the cost of her every breath. A Shot at Us is a perfect novel for the troubling times we’re facing right now. Hope, friends. And love.
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Great coffee

I have great coffee in the house again.

That seems like an odd focus for a blog, doesn’t it? Who cares if I have coffee? Except… I do. I have good coffee. Not a brand that was on a steep sale, or one I could buy in bulk at cost. I went online, I picked out the brand and flavor I liked (McCafe French roast), and I bought it at the full price.

I don’t do that very often anymore. Not just with coffee, but everything. Ever since I started writing, I’ve become a fiend for deals. I rarely buy anything anymore at full price. In a not-so-funny way, it makes me feel guilty to do so. Whatever I save can be dumped into advertising or put away towards new covers, marketing tools, or whatever else I might need for the books at the moment. Any little investment like that is potentially money for me in the future.

But this month, I wound up with a small windfall, just enough to say, hey, my needs are taken care of, so I’m going to treat myself just the tiniest bit. And that means good coffee. I don’t expect you to know what that means to me. In the long run, it’s a very minor pleasure, and after all, there was nothing actually wrong with the coffee I was drinking before. In fact, it’s very decent coffee. But this feeling, this inexplicable small joy of turning a small success into a personal treat… I hope I don’t forget it. Someday, it would be nice to look back at this and shake my head at the small things that brought me such pleasure.

But today? Today’s a pretty good day.

Quick update on Savor the Wicked

Finished up the major story edits for Savor the Wicked today. This is the start of a new supernatural thriller/urban fantasy series set in Rankin Flats, my fictional eastern Montana sprawl of a city. Centering around a bar catering to the supernatural and just plain weird in the city, this series is going to follow Peter Balan and Quincy Newman, two regular guys bound by the Alder Chain, an ancient magic that gives them each special talents they’ll need to survive one of the worst streets in a terrible town plagued by evil.

This first novel largely follows Peter as he comes to grips with his new lot in life. Trying to help keep his ex-wife and his son afloat, he takes a job with Quincy at his bar. They don’t just serve up drinks, though. Quincy serves as something of a concierge to the supernatural in the area, helping keep them hidden and safe from the general public. That safety is thrown into question when a succubus decides to make the Seven Heroes her next feasting ground.

I like it. It’s still got a little bit of the bite from the original Rankin Flats supernatural thrillers, but it’s not as out-and-out graphic, and I think the pacing’s a lot better than any of those novels. Peter and Quincy are both personable, and the side characters are quirky with a lot of room to grow throughout the series.

I’m holding off on a release for crafty marketing reasons – I’m going to release three books in this series rapid fire, either all at once or within a week or two of each other. With three books in the series, it may incense readers into buying all three right at once and hopefully both drive up sales and interest.

More to come soon. I’m starting Break the Castle tomorrow, and after that will come Cast the Shadows. I’m looking forward to reintroducing you all to the supernatural and the weird in Rankin Flats. It’ll be fun!