Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Excerpt: THE ANGELS' SHARE, Chapter One

Kirkland, Maine is a town with many secrets. When reporter Alex Whittaker discovers a Kirkland High student beaten and left for dead on the eve of a contentious local election, she is determined to unmask the girl's assailant. Soon, Alex is plagued by memories that are not her own, and dreams too terrifying to contemplate. Her investigation reveals a town rife with scandal and corruption, and she finds that there are some who'd go to any lengths to silence her. As her dreams bleed into her waking hours, Alex is forced to make a choice: face off against a vicious killer, or risk losing herself completely.


It’s morning, early. The sun hangs low above the treetops, backlighting the skeletal smokestacks of the old Kirkland Paper mill. My footfalls crunch against the loose gravel of the shoulder, a jarring counterpoint to the throbbing in my temples. The cold October air burns in my lungs, but the copper taste like pennies in the back of my throat can’t mask the lingering scent of whisky that clings to my tongue, my lips, my skin. As I come around the bend in the road, I quicken my pace. Just one mile further. One mile, and then I can rest.

I pass the turn-off to Fort Abrams, the gate above the uneven dirt drive swinging open in the morning breeze. As I jog past, I hear something. A girl, crying.

I break stride, coming to a halt doubled-over and panting a few yards past the turn-off. Fort Abrams is one of many battlements that dot the coast of Maine – built in the early eighteen-hundreds to defend against the British, its crumbling ruins now serve as a site for keg-stands and date-rapes. I’d been there once in high school, an ill-fated date with Tom Bradford. I later heard you couldn’t keep him off you with a stick, but it wasn’t true – I knocked his old Datsun out of gear parrying his drunken advances, and it rolled fifteen feet down an embankment, coming to a forcible stop at the trunk of a rather large oak. As he cried over the smoldering wreck of his pick-up, it occurred to me that my presence was no longer required, so I left.

It’s a shame he never called.

The roar of my pulse in my ears subsides, and I can hear her, clearer now. Sounds like her guy drives an automatic.

“Hello?” I call. There’s no reply. I step off of the shoulder and into the shallow, weed-strewn ditch. Dew bleeds through my running shoes as I peer into the forest beyond, but there’s no one there. I glance back toward the turn-off. Nothing. I turn toward town. That’s when I see her.

She’s lying face-down in the ditch, cans and wrappers and cigarette butts strewn around her as if she’s just one more unwanted item carelessly discarded. Her clothes are filthy, and she’s lying at the end of a broad swath of disturbed earth cutting through the thick carpet of pine needles that blanket the forest floor. Her right arm is extended toward the road, and her fingernails are broken and bleeding. One of them is missing, the raw skin beneath glistening in the morning air.

I call to her. She doesn’t respond. I place my hand on her shoulder. Still no reply. I shake her, gently at first, and then harder when she doesn’t react. She must be unconscious, I think. Hurt. I roll her over. I wish I hadn’t.

Deep gashes furrow the flesh of her hands and forearms, black from dirt and grime. Her stomach is in tatters. There’s blood everywhere, its metallic tang catching in my throat and making me gag. Her shallow, hitching breaths seem more labored now, and I brush the hair from her face to help her breathe. Her eyes are closed, her eyelids fluttering, and her brow is furrowed in pain. A single tear slides down her dirt-streaked face. I kneel beside her – paralyzed, helpless.

Suddenly, she begins to shake. Her limbs rattle violently against the bed of dead leaves beneath her. Her chest hitches, and she stops breathing. My indecision evaporates. I tilt her head back and lower my mouth over hers, holding closed her nose as I force air into her lungs. Six summers and a lifetime ago, I’d lifeguarded at a local beach; now it seems so distant, those half-remembered classes in a quiet corner of the empty high-school gym. I pray that I’m doing more good than harm as I feel her battered chest rise beneath me. I check for breath. Nothing. I try again. She’s convulsing now, struggling beneath me. I can taste her blood on my lips, and as I press my face to hers I realize she’s cold, terribly cold.

I press down hard on her chest, open palm to breastbone, a steady rhythm. Fresh blood wells up from her stomach, surging as I bear down. It soaks my hands, thick and black as ink in the long morning shadows of the ditch. So much blood. I squeeze my eyes shut tight against the tears and force myself to breathe deep, again forcing air into her lungs, her head cradled in my arms.

The girl’s tremors surround me now, a low rumble that seems to rise up from the ground itself. I open my eyes, startled – my vision is blurred, and my teeth rattle together uncontrollably as I try to hold her still, taking another breath and expelling it into her mouth. I can actually hear the sound of her vibration now, and my heart leaps when I realize that the noise is a scream, building in her throat like a wave capping and breaking against the shore. I try to pull back but she rises against me – a hand grips my hair at the nape of my neck, holding my mouth to hers. The sound is deafening, a guttural animal roar that blots out all other sound. I struggle against her grip, panic coursing through my body, but she holds me fast. Her eyes are open now, her back arched up toward me as I try to back away. My legs piston against the ground, my arms flailing as I lean back precariously against her grip. My head swims, my vision darkens, and still, she won’t let go.

Then, suddenly, it’s gone. Her hand loosens its grip on my hair and falls away. I’m off-balance, still pushing away from her, and without her resistance I pitch backward. My calf connects with the shallow lip of the ditch and I fall, hard. My head cracks against the unforgiving blacktop with a dull thud, its rough surface scraping the flesh of my elbows raw. I’m dazed and shaken and my head is pounding.

Only too late do I recognize the growl of the approaching engine.

It’s an old Ford pick-up, coming fast. I don’t see anything but the yellowy stare of its headlights and a blur of chrome bumper as it approaches, the driver cutting the wheel sharply to avoid me. As it passes, wind buffets my hair and face, and kicks up dust that stings my eyes and skin like needles. The pick-up continues past me toward the opposite shoulder, leaning dangerously to the left as though it might tip. The driver corrects, cutting sharply back across the road and coming to a screeching halt in the right-hand shoulder. The door is open before the truck stops moving.

“Jesus – are you all right?” he asks.

“Phone,” I croak through the cloud of dust that still hangs like fog over the roadway.

“I could have killed you,” he says, quietly, more to himself than to me.

“Phone,” I repeat, stronger this time. “I need a phone!”

“There’s a cell in the truck,” he replies, confused. “Ma’am, are you all right?”

“I need you to call nine-one-one,” I say, ignoring his question. “There’s a girl in the ditch. She’s dying.”

He sizes me up for a moment, and then turns wordlessly and runs back to the truck. I collapse back down onto the pavement as I watch him go. My head is heavy, and I can feel the beginning of an angry knot where it connected with the ground. I watch as the man leans across the seat of the truck, snatching up his cell and pressing it to his ear. His truck stopped just inches from the sign that’s marked the edge of town for as long as I can remember, and probably long before. I’d sworn to myself a long time ago that I’d never see that sign or its idiot command again, but as I lay here now, I feel an odd sense of relief to see it’s still standing.

Welcome to Kirkland, Maine, it says. Enjoy Your Stay.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Excerpt: DEAD HARVEST, The First Five Pages

Sam Thornton collects souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Once collected himself, he's doomed to ferry souls to hell for all eternity, in service of a debt he can never repay. But when he's dispatched to collect the soul of a girl he believes is innocent, Sam does something no Collector has ever done before: he refuses.


Light spilled through the window of the pub as I watched them, casting patches of yellow across the darkened street but conveying no warmth. It had been three rounds now, maybe four, and Gardner had yet to pay for a drink; his reading tonight went well, and they were falling over themselves to share a pint with Britain’s Greatest Living Author.

I fished another Dunhill from the pack, lighting it with the dwindling ember of the one that preceded it. The ground around me was littered with cigarette butts – I’d been standing there a while. But the moon was high overhead, and the night was getting on. I wouldn’t have to wait much longer.

Finally, midnight rolled around, and the last straggling patrons were ushered out into the chill spring air, the barkeep locking up behind them. Gardner headed up St. Giles, listing slightly. I took a last long drag off my cigarette, and then pitched it into the street, falling in behind him. I kept some distance between us, in case he looked back.

He didn’t.

A few blocks later, he ducked into an alley to take a leak. I gave him a minute, and then followed. He was leaning one-handed against a wall, pissing behind a Dumpster. The toast of Oxford, or so I’d been told. From here, it was hard to see.

He turned toward me, zipping up his fly. When he spotted me, he started, and damn near tipped over. “Who the bloody hell are you?” he asked. “What are you doing here?”

I stepped toward him. My hand found his chest and reached inside. He knew then. Who I was. What I was doing here.

“Sorry,” I told him. “It’s nothing personal.”

I yanked it free then, that light, that life. Gray-black and swirling, it cast long shadows across the alley, and its song rang bittersweet in my ears. Of course, if anyone had happened by, they’d have seen nothing, heard nothing. No, this show was just for me. For Gardner, too, perhaps, though even then I couldn’t be sure.

Gardner’s body crumpled to the ground, whimpering as it hit the pavement. I paid it no mind. It was already dead, or near enough. Sometimes it takes a minute for the meat to get the message.

I removed from my pocket a bit of worn cloth and a small length of twine, wrapping my prize in the former and binding it tight with the latter. The whole package was scarcely larger than an acorn. I slipped it into my inside coat-pocket and then set off down the street, whistling quietly to myself as I disappeared into the night.

***

Sorry – it’s nothing personal.

I wish I could tell you I have no idea how many times I’ve uttered that phrase. That I have no idea how many bodies I’ve left crumpled and inanimate in my wake. I wish I could tell you that, but I can’t.

The truth is, there’ve been thousands. Some, like Gardner, are so damn surprised, they never even see it coming. Some spend their lives in fear of the moment, and catch my scent a mile away; they beg, they plead, they scream. In the end, it doesn’t matter – I always get what I came for. And I remember each and every one of them. Every face. Every name.

I collect souls. The souls of the damned, to be precise. Not the most rewarding gig, I’ll admit, but I didn’t choose it – it chose me. Once upon a time, I was a man named Sam Thornton. I paid my taxes. I went to church. I didn’t litter. I was a model fucking citizen, and then it all went to shit. That business with Gardner? Sixty-odd years ago, that was me, and believe me, my collection was nowhere near as pretty.

The River Cherwell glimmered in the morning sun as I strolled along its bank, the path before me empty but for the occasional enterprising Oxford student out for a pre-class jog. By noon the place would be packed – couples strolling hand-in-hand through the gardens, tourists poling rented punts up and down the river – all manner of lively good cheer I’d just as well avoid. Now, though, I’d done my deed, burying Gardner’s soul deep beneath a patch of dog’s-tooth violet, and I thought that for a moment, at least, I could wander in peace. I should have known better. That’s the bitch about being damned – things rarely shake out your way.

“Collector!”

Her call came from behind me, carried like a song on the breeze. “Morning, Lily,” I said, turning. She was a few paces back on the path, her red hair cascading down over a whisper of a summer dress, her bare feet leaving no prints on the dirt path as she approached. “Aren’t you up a little early?”

“When I rise is no concern of yours, Collector. And I’ve asked you not to call me that.”

“Right,” I replied. “Must’ve slipped my mind.”

She cast an appraising glance my way, the faintest of smiles playing across her face, and despite myself, I flushed. “You look like shit,” she said. “Why you persist in eschewing the living in favor of these rotting meat-suits, I’ll never know.”

“The living give me a headache.”

“That is what they do best.”

“This a social call?” I asked, shaking a Dunhill from the pack and striking a match.

“Hardly. Are you going to offer me one of those?”

“No,” I replied, taking a long drag and slowly exhaling. “So who’s the job?”

“Her name is Kate MacNeil.”

“Contract or freelance?”

“She struck no bargain. Her actions are to blame.”

“What’d she do?”

“As I understand it, she slaughtered her family.”

“Christ,” I said, noting her disdainful glare. “Where is she now?”

“Manhattan,” she said. “I trust that’s not a problem?”

“It’s a place like any other,” I replied.

“Of course it is. But as you well know, failure is not an option. I simply thought that, given your history there…”

“I’ll get the job done.”

“Yes,” she said, “I expect you will. You should know that there’s a timeline on this. It seems she’s caught the eye of some rather influential… people. I wouldn’t dally.”

“I never do.”

“No,” she said, “You never do.” She caressed my cheek, a teasing gesture, and then strolled northward past me up the footpath. A warm breeze kicked up from the south, and her sundress clung to her beautiful frame.

“Oh, and Collector?” she called, glancing backward.

“Yes?”

Do try to enjoy yourself, won’t you?”

And suddenly she was gone, replaced by a teeming swarm of butterflies, left to scatter on the warm southern wind.

Like those little spoons at Baskin-Robbins, but for murder.

I've been thinking lately. Thinking about why I started writing in the first place. Thinking that as much as I enjoy reading and writing short stories -- and I do -- my first and greatest literary love will always be novels.

I love reading them. I love writing them. And I feel my novels are a better reflection of where I'm at, and what stories I really want to tell, than my short stories. That's not a knock on my own shorts, or shorts in general; it's just the nature of the beast.

To that end, I've decided that over the next week or so, I'll be posting excerpts from my two completed novels, Dead Harvest and The Angels' Share. Uber-agent Jennifer assures me a short snippet isn't going to screw up anything submission-wise, and the truth is, I'm kind of dying for these stories to get out into the world.

So yeah. The excerpt from Dead Harvest will go up today, preceded by a short description so's you don't go in blind. The excerpt from The Angels' Share will be up sometime mid-week. Kindly ignore any formatting hiccups; the old cut-and-paste from Word to Blogger is far from perfect.

Anyways, enjoy. (Fingers crossed folks actually enjoy them.) (If I hide my raging insecurity in parentheses, no one else can see it, right?) (Oh, you can? Never mind, then. Move along. Nothing to see here.)

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sometimes, cliches work.

It was quiet. Too quiet.

Cliche? Probably. But it's not an excerpt from my novel. It's an excerpt from my life.

See, my recent layoff means a lot more time at home. Time with no one else around. Time I foolishly thought would result in hundreds of pages' worth of smoothly flowing prose.

I was wrong.

Problem is, when I'm home, there's stuff to do. Laundry. Yard work. A basement in need of cleaning. And that's not to mention the soul-crushing time-suck that is the job hunt. And it turns out all of those things are pretty persistent when it comes to being heard. They fill the silence. They never shut up.

That, to put it plainly, sucks. See, for me, writing fiction is all about quieting my mind until I can hear the story, and when my mind is cycling from one practical matter to another, that quiet's hard to come by. And add to that the fact that, without a day job, I've had little in the way of input of the actual living, breathing person variety -- the richest source there is for character mannerisms and matters of voice -- and the story-signal in my head gets even harder to hear. So what's a frustrated writer to do?

Well, this frustrated writer packed up shop and headed for the coffee house.

Seriously, is there any bigger cliche than that? I always used to roll my eyes at the self-important jackasses clacking away on their laptops with a latte at their side; they always looked to me like they wanted the world to know that they were capital-W Writers. Now, I guess I'm one of them.

Granted, I tend to tuck myself off in a corner, and I take my coffee strong and black and don't you even think of offering me a fucking caramel whip. But there I am, clacking away. A stranger in a strange land, I tell myself, as if every other writer in the room isn't thinking the same thing.

Turns out -- for me, at least -- it's not a matter of self-importance, it's a matter of psychology. Home was once a refuge, but now it's my place of work. Getting play done there ain't easy. And until this writing gig gets a hell of a lot more lucrative than it is, it falls solidly under the heading of play. (Hint, hint. Anybody out there got a book deal for me? No? Okay then, moving on.)

So I leave home behind. I surround myself with chatter -- with people. People whose every word, every laugh, every weird-ass tic is grist for the fiction mill. (Grist For The Fiction Mill. That would've been a better title for this post, I think. No matter.) Is it cliche? Yes. Is it a lazy writer stereotype? Oh, hell yes. But is it working? So far, also yes.

And as long as my fiction doesn't wind up filled with self-important latte-sipping jackass writer protagonists, I'll take it.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

"She's dead. Wrapped in plastic."

Ian Rogers and the good folks over at Biff Bam Pop! tipped me to the fact that today is the twentieth anniversary of the initial broadcast of Twin Peaks, my all-time favorite TV show, and perhaps the single greatest pop-culture influence on my life. (Yes, ahead of Star Wars.) Biff Bam Pop! is commemorating the occasion with a series of posts dedicated to all things Twin Peaks; you can read Ian's contribution here. And on that post, you'll find my comment, which I've reproduced below, because it encapsulates my love for this tremendous, tremendous series (with, okay, an edit or two. I'm a writer; I can't help myself.) Anyways, here goes:

I grew up a fan of mysteries, mostly handed down from my grandfather, a city cop. But I spent my youth in the country, and as a kid I realized there were no mysteries that I felt did justice to small-town life. Grit was for big cities; small-town crime was always portrayed as straightforward and quaint.

Twin Peaks was a revelation for me. It captured the darkness and weirdness that lurks beneath the surface of any small town. It synthesized something new from the detective tales, horror, and fantasy I held dear, and it did so with a sense of humor and offbeat charm too often lacking from television. And my exposure to it at an early age shaped my fiction, my musical tastes, my sense of humor, more even than I probably know.

I watched the full run when it was on. I've owned the show on VHS, the pilot on import-only European DVD, and now the complete DVD series (mostly thanks to the gift-giving acumen of my lovely wife). I introduced it to said lovely wife on VHS, and then to my roommates years back in Virginia when Bravo aired it in its entirety. And I've never tired of it, because watching it's like coming home.

And I do believe I'll watch me some today...

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

On Writing and Not Writing

Lately, I've had a little free time on my hands. Okay, a lot of free time on my hands. Getting laid off will do that to you. As a result, I've been listless, unfocused, and the words have been slow in coming. So in an effort to get my head right, maybe kick-start a little writing mojo, I've started running.

There was a time, several hundred years ago it seems, that I could run a mile in just a hair over five minutes. Now it feels closer to an hour -- slightly less, if you subtract out all the vomiting and crying.

I kid. Even without the vomiting and crying, it's still about an hour.

Once upon a time, I was a runner. Not competitively or anything; I ran to get in shape for soccer. A shame, really, since I was probably a better runner than a soccer player, but whatever. The point is, I was a runner because I ran. And, due to injuries and laziness, I stopped running, at which point I was no longer a runner. Now, for the past few days at least, I'm a runner again. A much suckier one than I used to be, maybe, but a runner nonetheless.

Sounds like a trivial point, but I don't think it is. See, once you see your name in print a few times, maybe finish a novel or two, you get to thinking maybe you're a Writer. Like Writer is some mystical title the universe bestows upon you.

Crap, I say.

A writer is someone who writes. If you don't write, you're not a writer -- it's as simple as that. I'm not saying it has to happen every day, but it has to happen. And these past two weeks, this so-called Writer hasn't felt much like a writer.

Maybe I should go a little easier on myself. Accept this recent bout of Not Writing as part of the psychological fallout of joblessness. But again I say crap. I wanna be a writer, I've gotta write. It's the only qualification for the title, after all -- or at least the only one that matters.

Today, I'm glad to say, I'm a writer. Got ten new pages to show for it, too (and yeah, I'm counting the all-caps notes I left for myself so's I know where to pick back up tomorrow; what of it?) More important than the page-count is the fact the gears are turning. For the first time in a while, I know what the next ten pages look like. And maybe even the ten after that.

And for now, that's all I need. 'Cause to hell with being a Writer; what I really want's to write.