Forever Lands forever gone?

I keep thinking about removing Forever Lands from being offered on Amazon. I don’t know why, except all the times I roll over that novel when I’m looking through my sales figures, it sorta depresses me. I think that book and its failure to invite any readership whatsoever was the start of my current two-year long bad mojo.

I don’t know. It doesn’t really hurt anything being in circulation, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Let’s face it starting off a book with a child being transformed into a monster probably wasn’t the smartest move. And I seriously misjudged people’s desire to read a fantasy novel that was both a little different and a whole hell of a lot slimmer. Plus, it’s also just kind of bad.

In any case, if you want it, grab it now. I keep leaning in the direction of taking it down, and I think I’m one bad mood from doing it.

Second why of the day

Why oh why in Mare of Easttown are the chief and the sergeant sitting around talking about details of the case like the other wouldn’t know the missing victim was a drug addict? They’re both obviously very well aware of the specifics.

Just start the show from an earlier point. Or have this conversation with someone who is new to the case. Or… literally anything other than this strange exposition dump.

I’m off Twitter and Facebook so… hello!

The title pretty much spells out the bulk of this post. I’ve left Facebook and Twitter (and am in the long, tedious process of cleaning out those dead links from my ebooks, so apologies for that). There’s no real drama to the decision. I just hate logging in and being miserable for the time I’d spend browsing. There’s only so much deliberate ignorance I can stand, and boy, it’s been layered on pretty thick over the last five years or so.

That said, you’re probably going to see more of me here. Follow along, if you like. It’s probably going to devolve into a blog about what I’m watching and reading, which is pretty much what I used Twitter and Facebook for in the first place.

As for the books, Break the Castle is coming along slowly, and my horror collection End Pieces slightly less so. I seem to have lost some mojo in the last year and change, but it’s coming back. Hopefully I’ll have more to share about both soon! Until then, high five, cool person.

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.”