ProAm Tips #4

To blog or not to blog.

Many books about indie publishing and self promotion tout the importance of maintaining a blog, building a readership, and establishing a rapport with your readers, trying hard to deliver top-quality, thoughtful content and reliable updates.

They also tout the importance of building a network of contacts among peers and reviewers to get your work read.

They ALSO stress the importance of this, that and the other.

What about the WORK? I spend as much time writing every day as I possibly can. I’m a writer: I have things to do. Books to write. I have a limited life span, and too much to do already?

How do you balance all of these jobs when you’re an independent author?

God only knows. Three days ago I finished a first draft. 80k words of a book churned out as quickly as I could type. Writer’s block is not for me. And the new manuscript is already 25k. What does it mean?

It means I’ve got to choose between what I do, and being successful at what i WANT to do. I want to be popular, i want to make enough money from my books that it is my job. I want to spend each and every day doing what I was meant to.

Sometimes that means putting -off what I SHOULD do.

You cannot shortcut the work. But some work is more important than other work.

ProAm Tips #3

This one is a little obvious, but I’m going to say it anyhow- writers WRITE.

If you want to get your stuff out there, you need to write it down. You can’t do anything until you have product. No one is going to read your stuff if its sitting in a pile on your desk, a file on your computer, or worst of all, in your head. You need to get it on paper, or the screen, and get it the hell OUT THERE.

You need motivation? Here’s motivation. Do it or don’t do it. I don’t care which.

Did not expect that, did you?

I’m not here to coddle you, or pat your head, or tell you someday they’ll appreciate your genius. I don’t know you. I don’t care about you. I care about the product. The book I adored. The short story that made me think. The poem that moved me to tears. That’s what matters. The Work. Yeah, I used a capital W. Because the Work is what matters. I shouldn’t have to motivate you. You want to write, you do it.

No other job, hobby, or profession has this particular feature going for it. If you want to do it, you just DO it. You don’t need a degree. You don’t need permission. you don’t need any preparation or training. You learn by doing, and you do by doing. Get to your computer. Don’t have a computer (how are you reading this?)? Get a pen and paper. Pen and paper were invented for writing. Don’t have a pen and paper? Use a piece of rock and a square of your sidewalk.

The only thing stopping you from writing is YOU. No distractions, no complications, no family, no job takes up all of your time, one hundred percent, 24/7.

If it matters to you, you’ll find the time. You’ll find a way. There will never be a better moment than right now. Go write. Be a writer.

 

Remember, you don’t have to be better than all the other writers out there. You only have to be better than non-writing you.

ProAm Tips #2

ABC.

Always Be Closing.

If you don’t know that reference, there’s nothing I can do for you. Except maybe offer you some modified advice:

ABF.

Always Be Finishing. Finish everything. Finish every poem, every song, every snippet and sub-clause. Finish ever short story. Finish every LONG story. Finish ever book. This is the best advice there is for writers. You see, the definition of writer, to me, is one who writes. You have to write. You have to immerse yourself in the words. You have to immerse yourself in the worlds. You have to read, write, and understand. You have to NOT understand. You have to struggle to get what you don’t understand. You have to bang your head against it over and over. You need to be a writer if you’re going to write. You have to experience every part of the process, AND THAT INCLUDES THE VICTORY OVER YOUR WORK.

 

How can you keep writing if you don’t know WHY you’re doing it? You need to know what that feels like, the satisfaction of finishing a poem. A song. A short story. A limerick. A long story. A book.

The very first book I wrote I didn’t finish. Nor the second. Nor the fifth. The seventh book I started, I finally finished. Hooray for me! Now what?

I realized there are no bad ideas, only bad execution. So i went back and finished my first book. It sucked. I went and finished my second book. It, too, sucked.

Half of them sucked.

The other half I completely re-wrote… because I’d LEARNED something. And what I learned is a combination of anger, and fatigue, and stubbornness, and unruly night sand dragging days and all kinds of horrible lessons, and a divorce, and several jobs, and an long-term illness, and-

What I learned is that life goes on, no matter what you do. You can’t get any of those precious seconds back. You can’t afford any missteps. You can’t afford any mistakes. Any false starts.

And the hell of it is, you’re going to make them ANYWAY. You can’t afford them, but you’re going to make them anyway. So, finish them ALL. Train yourself to never walk away. The poet Paul Valery said “No poem is ever finished, merely abandoned.”

Sounds neat, huh? I lived by those words my whole writing life.

They’re tripe.

You finish, and you walk away. And you work on the next thing. And if you don’t want to look back at your life and see all those books and poems and songs and shit that COULD have been… you better man or woman up and fucking glue yourself down and FINISH THEM.

Do it for your self esteem. Because when you sit down, you need to KNOW, not think, not hope, KNOW that you’re going to pull a piece of work out of thin air and bring it into the world. That YOU and YOU ALONE are responsible for the life you make.

Sounds deep, right?

It’s tripe too.

At the end of the day, you’re going to do you, and I’m going to do me. Why should you listen to me? Beats me. Because I’ve written a dozen books? Maybe. Because I’m on the net? God no. Because I know how you feel?

That’s not a bad one.

Because I DO. I know how you feel. I know how you think. I know how you write. I know how you struggle. We all do. Best-selling authors, and those weird people you see cramped into booths at Starfuck’s coffee hoping against hope they’ll be the next J. K. Rowling.

Who knows?

I do. I know. I know they don’t have a fucking prayer if they don’t finish their neo-noir-steampunk-adaptation-goth-post-naturalist-modern-emo-purist-visual-novel-article-first-third-person-expository-semi-autobiographical-urban-fantasy-truism.

Or whatever.

ABF, baby. Always Be Finishing. ABF.

ProAm Tips #1

Thus begins my personal series of advice columns. Want to know what to do right? Or at least, what I’ve found to be the best ideas? Yeah, I know. What makes ME qualified? Well… I’ve been published a couple times, I’ve written eleven novels (They’re on Amazon, shameless plug) , and, I’ve been doing this my whole life. I have a good idea, if not what to do, what NOT to do. So, today’s pro tip:

Follow this link to find out how to professionally format a manuscript.

This is the official William Shunn website, wherein you’ll learn to professional prepare a manuscript for publications. It’s the site and the preparation that has become standard in the industry. Peruse the website, you can’t go wrong. But I’ll break it down for you, though, because since learning how to do this, I’ve trained myself to only write in this format.

Make a new document in whatever word processing program you favor. I happen to use Word 2007, because it’s the one I own. But it’s the same in all programs. Find your SELECT ALL command. Use it. Set the entire document as Courier New font (This or Times New Roman, I prefer Courier) Size 12.

Top left: your information. Top right: your word count.

Center Middle: your title.

Center under Title, your name.

You want to also have a header on each page. Move to the second page (You don’t want a header on your first page) In Word you use Insert, Header. I use this format:

Gallagher / Title / Page number.

Justify it to the left. This is so even if your manuscript falls off an editor’s desk, it’ll still be possible to reassemble. I assume this is less common now that Electronic submissions are more and more prevalent, but you never know. Some editors prefer to do it the old-fashioned way and print out your work. And remember, shit happens.

Save this document as something like Manuscript Template, and use it to start all of your writing. Learn to love working in a prepared manuscript, it’ll save you a ton of time later.

 

Two months (More or less)

It’s been almost two months since I put my books on Amazon.

Shameless plug for my many and varied work (Something for everyone!) :

The New Songs (Poetry)

Pros (Crime)

The Long Way Home (Scifi)

Dirty Wings and Other Stories (Horror short stories)

The Other Side of the Atmosphere (Scifi short stories)

The Veiled Earth Book 1: Magician (Urban Fantasy)

Return Fire (Crime, Espionage)

This here’s my Amazon author page that has a little about me and links as well. I also have a Goodreads author page.  Please, please, please, give my stuff a shot, and if you like it, recommend it. Review it. Especially on Amazon.

About the nuts and bolts: The Amazon Kindle Publishing site is a little awkward and takes some getting used to, but all in all, if you have the patience the wade through all of the information, do a little digging online, and generally WANT to publish a good, well-designed book, it’s possible. It took a good bit of digging to discover the correct format keys, the right size for my covers (special thanks to my wife, whose help turned out to be invaluable for getting professional pictures to use as covers from sites that specialize in that kind of thing.) I got my covers from Dreamstime, a stock photo licensing site. Luckily I was able to dust off my old copy of Photoshop and put together some decent covers. In fact, here they are:

New Songs cover Magician cover 2 Dirty Wings cover Other Side Cover Long Way Home Cover Pros cover Return fire cover

So, there’s that.

In a month, I’ve gotten about 120 downloads, which sounds amazing… until you factor in those evil jerks (I love you evil jerks… at least you’re reading!) with Prime, who can DL books for free.

But hey. I sold a copy of Magician in Europe. So, you know, there’s that. In looking at my order report, i discovered copies of my book have been pulled down at Amazon.com (America), Amazon.Uk (Britain), Amazon.ca (Canada), Amazon.au (Australia, and Amazon.de (Germany) I’m officially a world-wide… whatever the opposite of success is. I haven’t made much money, but my stuff’s out there. It’s a start.

The truth is out there. So’re my books.

 

 

Live!

My first two books are now available from Amazon!

 

Go get Return Fire, a story about former Lieutenant Elle Evans, freelance security consultant and CIA operative, forced to do the most dangerous thing she’s ever had to in her long and dangerous career: go home.

Go get Pros, a story about a jewel thief and an escort thrown together in Chicago after a heist gone spectacularly wrong.

 

Now available!

Pros

Return Fire

Trash

This one’s going out to Analog, and probably Asimov’s, and maybe even Ares. Also, it’s going to be entered in the L. Ron Hubble Writers of the Future contest.

 

Trash

 

Gently now, he thought. Don’t want to overshoot. Come on. Come to papa. Come here you little-

The impact on his helmet sounded loud, and his head rocked with the strike. Cursing, he thumbed the control to kick off the spin.

He turned and watched the chunk of steel and gold debris twirl off into the distance. Catch it? Or no?

He spun in a circle, scanning his immediate vicinity. A glint off to the west caught his eye. He used the thumbsticks on his thruster pack to give himself a kick in the right direction, correcting a wobble as he went. He got closer. It looked like most of a solar panel. He reached out and snagged it before he streamed past, moving roughly two kilometers an hour. He grabbed the tether and tugged. A mesh bag full of debris bounced with the effort and rebounded to him. He grabbed it, untabbed the opening, and shoved two feet of glass and steel into the bag. He closed it. It was almost full. Finally.

He let his arms and legs relax and he floated in a wordless star shape. He let his yaw carry him onto his belly, and he nulled the rotation with a quick blast of the compressed air jets on his thruster pack.

He sighed.

There goes California, he thought. There’s Baja. Hawaii. He watched the earth roll away beneath him. The beautiful blue ball of misery and sickness and hope and joy and sorrow it had always been. He followed the sharp edge of the Strands as they encircled the equator.

They were a compromise between a road and an elevator. Ships would start at the base of the Up Strand and the magnetic ribbon would carry it up, one full rotation of the earth, to end at the upper atmosphere. Once released from the end of the Strand, a ship would be in perfect geosync, and used no polluting fuels to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. The perfect system. And they had the Down Strand a kilometer away, for ships to attach to and ride down. Even used the momentum to generate power. Up and down, all day and all night, ships launched and returned to Earth. And in the distance, coming just over the edge of the horizon, he could see Luna Dock, the gigantic structure that served as a base point for every ship to go on its way.

He scowled at the tiny speck. Luna Dock. Bunch of jerks. He turned away with attitude jets and began hunting for another piece of junk.

#

     Three hours passed as he flitted amongst the junk, minding his altitude. The bag attached to his pack was fuller, almost topped out, and it took more work to get a straight trajectory. The thing bounced behind him like the rubber ball and string attached to a paddleball.

Jacobi Munro, adrift. He lay back to put himself on the ecliptic and stared up into and through space. Immense black nothing pressured down on him, and he fancied he could feel the weight of the universe on his chest. He gasped and reoriented himself. The job wouldn’t finish itself.

He activated the thrusters and went after another piece. It was self-defeating work. Every piece he nabbed and bagged made it that much harder to chase after the next one. The weight of his junk bag was knocking him about, causing him to use up that much more fuel. His gauges all read half-full. Another hour and he’d have to get back to the drop ship. Unless he filled the stretchy, unbreakable bag full of junk.

He’d seen the list of junk left around the orbit of Earth. Tools, a camera, broken bits of metal and sundry dust and flakes of chrome. A shield of garbage that encircled the Earth, all moving at a relative speed of almost thirty kilometers an hour.

He scanned his horizon, trying to pinpoint a piece of debris worth his time. His helmet beeped, and the UI zoomed in an orange circle over the tiny spot coming around at him. Big, to see it this far away.

He engaged his jets, and gave himself a hard burn. In a few minutes, the tiny fragment of dirt, as it had looked from afar, had grown to the size of a person, then two, and then shown itself for what it was: the remains of an old communications satellite.

His heart leaped. That was exactly what he needed! He burned a little harder, and used his eyes to roll the curser over the speck. He wanted as much info as he could possibly get.

The enhancer showed it was defunct– no power, no communications beams. Non-functional. Trash. He grinned and burned hard.

Three minutes from impact he reversed his thrust and began to jet backward, the corner jets of the big pack glowing blue as they fired, to match speed.

The huge, tumbling structure spun lazily on three axes. As it came closer he waited patiently for a good hand-hold. He grabbed at a rail and suddenly he was catapulting through space clinging to a six-ton piece of glass, metal, and gold.

He flailed about, trying to find a steady hold. His kicking boot knocked off a piece of solar collector and he caught a glimpse of the freed hunk of black and silver spinning away free.

He set his boots and his left hand. He tensed. He had a good holt and braced. With his right hand, he started to add gentle jets of thrust in order to stop the spinning.

It took him most of his remaining compressed fuel to stop the three-axis rotation and keep the hunk of garbage stable, but finally, he was shooting through the empty vacuum of space attached to the nominal front of the satellite like a desperate bug clinging to a shattered windshield.

He relaxed his grip and let his muscles go limp. He reached to his belt and took an aluminum clasp from a pouch. He slapped it on the rail and his breathing settled down. Now tethered to the junk, he could begin to explore. The comm array was a shambles– the circuit boards that handled rebroadcasting had taken a hit at some point– with nothing but a huge hole through the printed boards. There was no indication of power at all. He scrambled around to see if he could find a working readout.

The other side of the satellite was by far the pretty side. Gold-plated contacts shone brightly as the satellite rotated sunward. Jacobi smiled. Surely this– this– would be enough. He could-

A sudden, silent impact knocked him from the side of the satellite and he flew to the end of his tether. He yelped as his back arched in the wrong direction when he snapped to the end of his rope and inertia took him in the opposite direction. He flapped his arms and kicked his legs exactly like someone trying to swim. If he didn’t stop himself, he could be impaled on a sharp corner, or knocked unconscious. As his parabola wrapped him around the wide, round body of the comm satellite, he snagged a handful of wire and bounced to a shaky halt.

What in the hell had-

“Oh, shit. You had a tether. Smart. Bobby, pass me a knife,” his comm speaker crackled.

 

The Bank Job

The Bank Job is technically my first sale, to an online magazine called Espionage.com. I made a hundred bucks. It never saw the light of day because the magazine folded before publication. But hey, I got paid. I consider it a win.

Now, two years later, I looked back at all the changes that I made with the editor of the magazine. I learned a ton in the process, and I’ll always be grateful, but when I looked back at it, compared the two versions with what I know NOW about story, pacing, character, and most importantly, MY work, I realize that…

…changing it so much was a mistake.

I wasn’t confident in my voice. I wasn’t sure I even belonged behind a keyboard. Someone who actually had a semi-pro magazine thought I was good enough, and I took that as a sign that I should listen to them.

In retrospect, I should have fought harder for MY version.

As I’ve sold a few stories, had some people tell me that my work is good, and gotten paid for what I did, I noticed one thing about all my sales, my contest entries, and my feedback-

No one who does this kind of thing professionally has asked me to change a goddamned thing.

I don’t mean that literally. But the changes I’ve made are mostly spelling, and in one case, a year. Turns out wine aficionados sometimes are also editors, and they can totally call out someone who just researched wine on the net.

But no one asked me to change a word of STORY. Not to change the characters, not to reaarange the plot, not to alter the motivations. No clearing up, tightening up, or editing. Once? Fluke. Twice? Coincidence. Four times? Pattern.

What I’m doing, in my own voice, is working.

So here for the first time, the opening chapters of the ‘Lost Classic’, the Bank Job, unedited and uncut.

 

The Bank Job

1

The air was hot and flat, and no one was moving. There was nowhere to go. No one breathed, no one coughed. There was none of the typical humans-in-a-group behavior. It was as if time stood still, as clichéd as that was. Catherine watched the great clock over the door, the one the bank had installed last summer, and the hands were not moving. Then suddenly, they moved. The minute hand ticked forward, in harmony with a guttural, warbling scream. A woman letting loose as hard as she could. A movie maven scream, a slasher-flick scream. It was a high-pitched beautiful scream. It went along with the sudden movement and sound of a dozen people suddenly spurred into action, spinning in place, dropping to the floor, and in one sad instance, running for the exit. The cough was hard and flat, loud and final. It could have been a board falling on a tile floor, or a hammer missing a nail and pounding a wall instead, or even a flat smack of flesh on flesh, someone landing a good roundhouse slap. It was not, though. It was a gunshot, and those always started by sounding like anything but a gun, and always ended up sounding like nothing else.

2

            It wasn’t a typical morning, Catherine reflected. It was raining, which was odd. It had been sunny for a week, and the news had promised more. It was cold, which was terrible, because she didn’t have a coat that would stave off this particular cold. Not so much cold as chilly. Her heavy coat was too heavy, her light coat too light. Moreover, her umbrella was in the car. Well, she thought, it was going to be a flat-hair day. The humidity would crush an elaborate style, so she just brushed it back and tied it. She knew several of the women at the bank would not, and it would be an all-day complaint-fest.

            She cast a critical eye at the mirror in her bedroom, staring as her reflection looked back. It was ok. Just… ok. She felt a little crampy, but not too much. Not yet. She grabbed a bottle of pain pills to throw in her bag, but when she picked it up, it was empty. Nuts. The medicine chest was empty, too. She started to grab her keys and stopped. It was rainy, it was cold, she was out of aspirin, and she was late. She skipped back into her room for a moment, and spun in place. She examined her stockings, but they were fine. If they were going to run any day, it would be this one, but they were fine. She even found both shoes where she’d kicked them off. Well, almost. One was under the couch. The cat batted at it as she fished it out, scratching her hand. She hissed at the cat, and it looked at her with a quizzical expression on its small white face. She smiled and slipped on the shoes. At least they matched. A day like this, you’d expect to only find one, and have to change into another outfit, or else look silly. But it was fine. She stood up and headed for the door. She looked at the coat in her closet, decided to be damp rather than sweaty, and slammed it behind her. As usual, she forgot to lock it, which was fine. She opened it again, grabbed her keys off the wall hook, and locked it behind her. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, today.

3

            She sat in her car, flipping through a magazine she had forgotten. Boring, trite, dishy garbage. She bought them, even still. She checked her watch. Late, late, late. A sigh. She looked at her coffee. It smelled good, and sat there steaming at her, all warm and inviting in her special non-spill cup. She wanted that coffee badly. The caffeine would make her jump out of her skin, though, and she didn’t like the jitters. It was almost good enough just to smell it. Almost.

            The tow truck guy was on time, amazingly, and fixed the flat, getting her on her way. She was only forty minutes late by the time she got Mike, the guard, to let her in the side door. She headed for the break room. She dropped her bag in the locker, took another whiff of her coffee, and handed it to Angie, another teller, as Angie came through the door.

            “You’re late,” she said, sipping the coffee. It was cool enough to drink, and she downed it in one long draught.

            “Flat tire.”

            “Didn’t that happen last week?”

            Catherine grimaced. “Well, yes. But I have a receipt from the tow truck guy. I really did have a flat. Both times.” She checked her hair in the little mirror in her locker. Not so bad. Hard to do much when it was this humid…

            “Maybe, but you know the Boss.” Angie grabbed a mug, filled it at the pot on the counter.

            “I know. Didn’t you just have a cup of coffee?”

            “Yes. But it doesn’t count unless it’s in a bank mug.” She sat at the little table, took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, sighed, and put them away again. “Still raining outside?”
“Yes. You should quit anyhow.”

            “Thanks, Mom. By the way…”

            Catherine turned to her, still trying to get her hair to fluff. “What?”

A new voice filled the room. A big, booming voice, jolly in that false management I’m-everyone’s-friend way. James Cotton, bank manager. His loud voice and false laugh were the bane of his employees. Even when he was trying to be quiet, he was loud as a plane taking off.

“Cathy.”

Catherine turned. “Catherine.”

“Yes. I’d like to see you in my office, please.” He turned and strode off, looking like an early morning speed walker.

“Boss is coming,” Angie finished, sipping her coffee.

Catherine shot her a glare, and took her name tag out of the locker, pinning it on. She looked all right, if a bit plain. She eschewed makeup, and only paid enough attention to her hair to keep it out of her face. Her clothes were always neat, but she stuck to earth tones and muted colors. She looked, most often, like a faded photograph of a woman. She didn’t stand out in a crowd, she never stopped anyone’s breath, and men did not suddenly buy her drinks in bars. She looked at her reflection again. An unremarkable woman looked back at her.

“May as well get it over with. See you, Anj.”

“Yup.” Angie was getting more coffee.

Catherine took the elevator up to the second floor. The stairs weren’t much, but the elevator was next to the break room. Easier. She sighed internally at the closed door. Mr. Cotton new she was coming up, and still he closed the door, just so she would have to knock, and he would have to say, “Come in, please,” in his big, booming voice. She would have to poke her head in and say, “You wanted to see me, Mr. Cotton?” and he would clear his throat and say, in his extra loud, best and most officious voice, “Ah, yes. Please come in and sit down. Close the door, please.” And she would. And he would proceed to explain, in his loud and booming voice, that he wanted to speak on whatever matter he wanted. Just as he always did. And even though he insisted the door be closed for privacy, everyone on the second floor would be able to hear him clearly. There were no secrets in the Hollimer Street Bank and Trust. Never had been since Cotton had come, and never would be until he left.

She knocked on his door.

“Come in, please.”

She poked her head in. “You wanted to see me, Mr. Cotton?”

“Ah, yes, Cathy. Come in. Sit down. Close the door, this is a private matter.”

“Catherine,” She said as she closed the door.

“Indeed. Cathy, I wanted to discuss with you your punctuality.”

“I thought so, sir. I got a flat tire on my way to work. I have a receipt from the tow truck.” She put it on his desk. “I ran over a broken bottle, I think.”

“Cathy, we start at seven here. Doors open at eight. You know that, right?” Cotton stood up and began pacing back and forth behind his desk, hands clasped behind his back.

“Catherine. And yes, sir, I do. It was an accident. I’ll try to keep it from happening again.”

“I need all my people here, on time, ready to work. We have a lot of customers who expect us to open on time, and to be prepared for them. This is a business, an important business. You see, Cathy…”

Catherine sighed, and tried to look contrite and attentive and fell asleep with her eyes open.

4

            At ten, after the morning business rush had died off a little, Catherine was balancing her drawer, trying to stay up on the day-to-day. It was easier than waiting until the end of business and discovering she’d misplaced a dollar. Sifting through three or four transactions was far preferable than sifting through forty.

            There were perhaps a dozen people in the bank. A handful of tellers, a number of officers, the manager, five or six customers. And six men with guns. As the leader screamed out the old saw, “This is a robbery! Everyone freeze!” Mike Carroll, the door guard, drew his weapon. Prepared for this, one of the robbers fired his gun. It went off with a hard, loud thunderclap. Mike never had a chance to pull the trigger on his revolver. The bullet entered just below his chin and pushed its way out of the back of his head, taking with it a saucer-sized portion of the poor man’s brain and hair and skull. He toppled like a tree onto his back, stiff and twitching. As he hit the floor, Catherine pulled her drawer out slightly with her knee, and reached under the stack of twenties. She found the bottom bill and pulled it out, placing it on top of the stack. She did this by feel. The bill slid from between the contacts of the silent alarm, and it, presumably, went off.

            “Four, Five, Six! Upstairs!” the leader bellowed.  “Two and Three, round ‘em up!”

His voice was authoritative and flat. He wasn’t hysterical or out of control. He knew what he was doing. Catherine examined him as well as she could. He stood in the middle of the floor, between her and the doors. The height measure put him at six feet, give or take. He was, and they all were, wearing a black ball cap, sunglasses, and little white painters’ masks. The jumpsuits also looked like painter or janitor uniforms. Black boots and black gloves completed the bland, hopefully too-generic-to-identify look. One of them had a backpack. None of them looked up. The cameras were recording, but unless they did something remarkable, or unique, it wouldn’t be an awful lot of help. That was all Catherine could file away because by that time, Two and Three had made it behind the counter and were forcing the tellers out at gunpoint. The guns were large and black, identical nine millimeter semi-auto Berettas. Army issue, but available pretty much everywhere.

            There was a shot from upstairs. And another. And another. When Four, Five, and Six led their half-dozen prisoners downstairs, Catherine was dismayed to see none of them were the other three guards. She felt sad. All of the guards were nice men, all of them ex-police. Unfortunately, all of them were in their forties or fifties, and she imagined none of them were quick on the draw.  Hollimer wasn’t exactly a one stoplight town, but it was by no means a teeming metropolis. Hollimer was a town of maybe a hundred thousand people. Enough that people didn’t know everyone, but not so much that you could get lost. Not a Chicago or New York. Hollimer was big enough to keep you from going crazy, and small enough not to worry about gang shootings. But apparently, not small enough to not worry about sudden daylight robberies.

            At least the police would be on their way.

            “Heads down, arms up, face the wall. If anyone gives us any trouble, we will not warn you. We will simply shoot you. I’m not going to ask if you understand. I’m not going to ask you anything. You will not talk. You will follow any order we give immediately or we will shoot you. Do not ask us to repeat ourselves. Do not stammer ‘what?’ at us. Do not cry at us. Comply with every order and you’ll live to go home. Fail that simple directive, and you’ll die here.”

            Catherine and Angie stood side by side. They stared at their feet, along with everyone else in the line. One by one, the crew patted each person down, taking cell phones and keys. Once stripped of anything that could be used as a weapon, they pulled each set of hands back and handcuffed them there. They were pressured to sit, which they did. Eleven people, sitting cross-legged, handcuffed, staring at their shoes. They were remarkably silent. Angie cried softly, tears running down her face. Another voice from the end of the line whispered over and over, like a mantra, “no, no, no, no, no…”

            Footsteps now, the hard clank of keys. One of the group locked the front door, then left, presumably to check the other doors. They seemed to know the layout well. Catherine watched as much as she could out of the corners of her eyes, not moving her head. She thought only one of the six was watching the hostages, but couldn’t be sure. In an empty room with marble floors, sounds were tricky. She heard a lot of footsteps. She knew that they would be spot-checking each room upstairs, looking for hidden employees or guards. Unfortunately, they had found and killed all four of the guards on duty. Catherine wasn’t sure, but she though the whole office staff was downstairs. That meant there were none upstairs to call the police, or escape. No matter. The police would be arriving soon enough.

Gethsemane

Gethsemane is a perfect example of the incredible wrongness of my brain- and a testament to the idea that the story has to be served. It was supposed to be about six or seven thousand words. But it kind of grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go. And when i was done… it was, you know, a little more.

You know, twenty-eight thousand.

 

Also, it’s about demons and angels. I guess that’s important.

 

 

Gethsemane

 

I stared down at the mess of a blouse I still, at least technically, wore. The shreds of fabric failed as a blouse. My bright red bra, the one I wore when I felt particularly bad about myself, peeked through. It looked good on me, I knew, and sometimes the pick-me-up is exactly what I need. I’m glad I wore it, because now the guy hurtling at me down the alley can see through the tatters of my-

Babbling, even if only in my head. How embarrassing. I’ve always prided myself on being unflappable, and I usually am. Sure, in Burma I peed myself when a mortar went off near my tent. That’s understandable. In England I had a couple of minutes of a serious crying jag when I watched a man commit suicide by leaping in front of the tube train. In Russia I was almost kidnapped and sold into slavery, I think, but I’m quick with a mace canister and even quicker on my feet when my life’s in mortal peril. I bolted like a cat with its tail on fire and after in the hostel, I threw up for two hours. But other than those instances, I’m pretty solid in a crisis.

Now my blouse is a hankie, everyone can see my red lacy bra, and some freak with completely black eyes and foot-long claws sprouting from ends of his fingers is about to eviscerate me.

Sometimes I love my job. And sometimes I do not.

Rings, maybe? Or some kind of glove, like that horror movie slasher fellow? Time slowed like honey and I stared at his hands. One still arcing away with momentum after the backhand that shredded my-

Damn it. That blouse cost me three hundred dollars.

He brought the other handful of bunched claws down upon me. I stared in dazed disbelief. His hands started out pink and normal at the wrist. The skin darkened toward his palm. It grew bumpy and rough as it became fingers, chitinous and black as it became fingertips, and definitely horny and claw-like as it extended past his fingers and outward impossibly long. They angled toward the exposed white skin of my stomach.

Funny, the things you notice when you’re about to be gutted.

I wasn’t just sitting there waiting to be filleted. I wanted to be smooth about this. I watched the hand coming down. I wanted to grab it as it came down, redirect it, and bury it in my attacker’s own stomach. Use his momentum against him. Or I could throw up my arms in a cross-block that would stop him cold, leaving him open for a nice follow-up knee to the tenders. That would have been cool. I could even have heaved myself to the left or right- well, not the right. I already cracked the back of my head on the extended lip of the wall there. Not left, though. No sense in diving face-first into the side of a dumpster. What, then? Up? I’m not a ninja. Down?

I could have done any of those things. I did none of them because time ran out while I contemplated my options. See, that’s why martial artists practice so much, so when these situations arise, instinct kicks in, trained reflexes kick in. They react.

I just stared. I know. I’m a disgrace. My moment of opportunity comes, and I revert to damsel-mode. Damn it. Everyone blasts those women in the movies for not doing a damned thing except reacting like scared, helpless sheep. Well, when the fight-or-flight kicks in and the hindbrain takes over, pal, sometimes, you just do things.

And everyone knows what the helpless damsel in the horror movie who stands there screaming helplessly gets. In case you need a hint, it rhymes with Fred, bed, bled (bad choice of words), and red. If I’m going to die in pursuit of a story, fine. But like this? I wasn’t even looking for a story tonight. I just wanted a drink, damn it. And to die like…

Wait.

I forgot something. Something really important. What was it? It was on the tip of my tongue. It was… was…

The other man, the mystery man, who had come running down the alley toward myself and my creepy new acquaintance, flew through my vision field in a straight-out tackle, taking Claws with him. I blinked.

That’s what I forgot. Someone had heard my scream and come running. Funny what you forget while you’re preparing for evisceration.

They tumbled in a heap in the sludge and slime in the alley. I realized I was sitting in more of the same. My stomach rolled. I love this town, but the last thing you want to do is roll around on the ground anywhere in New Orleans.

They struggled, each trying to kill the other. I watched in awe as they pummeled and swung and blocked and gouged and kicked. I got slowly to my feet just as Claws gained the high ground. He pinned my savior to the ground with his left hand and drew back the dagger-tipped right for what would certainly be a game-ending stab to the face.

I grabbed my camera by the strap and swung it as hard as I could. The Nikon arced in a tight, fast parabola and slammed into the back of Claws’ skull.

He sagged and slumped sideways, and my mysterious new friend rolled away to his feet and prepared to leap again. Instead of rejoining the battle, Claws turned on me suddenly, and growled.

I’ll never forget that sound.

His eyes were black pools. His mouth seemed wider than possible, and his mouth was filled with razor-sharp teeth of all sizes. He crouched like an animal. Like a cat. A really, really big cat. A really, really big dangerous cat. Fangs and all. I backed up. I have no problem admitting I was terrified. But the distance would help me. The best part about being a woman is the idiots dragging a penis around on this planet who actually believe the helpless, inept female stereotype. I’m not above taking advantage of morons.

He growled low in his throat, so low I think throat isn’t the right word. What’s lower than the throat? Stomach? Can you growl with your stomach? Cockles? Are those near the heart? I bet you can growl with your intestines-

He leaped at me, claws extended, mouth wide in a snarl, and I swear to God fangs dripping with what I am pretty sure is foamy saliva. I held my ground. I’m no coward… but I’m not stupid, either. What I am is surprisingly quick, on my feet and off them.

Shut up. It’s not like that.

Just before his claws and fangs reached my supposedly helpless, fragile body I let my legs go limp. For the second time that day, I enjoyed coming in contact with the floor of a New Orleans alley, something that under normal circumstances wouldn’t be on anyone’s bucket list. Claws sailed right over me, and into the street.

He landed like that same cat, hands first, legs second, and he whirled. My cunning plan, however life-extending, did not have a follow-up. I wondered what I should do, just as my Samaritan sailed over my head.

I had one gratifying second of seeing Claw’s black, empty eyes widen with surprise before a black combat boot slammed into them and the surrounding face.

Claws reared back with a snarl, and rolled gracelessly to his feet. The Samaritan did likewise. They stood up, not unlike the good and bad guy in a western movie. Claws spread his fingers, and looked like… like… I had no description for someone holding hands full of seven inch claws. He looked feral. His lined face was drawn with anger and hatred. His eyes, if they hadn’t been black, would surely have blazed red. I could see the vague outline suddenly enveloping him. It was unnerving. The man before me wasn’t just a man. He wasn’t human. I could see the vague, fuzzy shape of… of… of I don’t know what. I’ve never seen anything like whatever this thing was. It looked like a hobbled, ancient, grim crone… with lank hair and wrinkled skin. Yellow-white pale rags hung from its desiccated skeleton. And at the same time, he was a more solid-looking man, thin and feral and creepy.

The Samaritan, however… I stared at him and suddenly could see the very same vague outline, almost an overlay of an image, like film exposed twice. I saw long white hair, and clean hands and feet. And some kind of bunched material between his shoulders, which were, as someone had once said, smooth as raven’s claws. His hands were normal hands, not masses of dagger-tipped claws. The Samaritan had no weapons, but he didn’t back down. They faced off.

This happened in the midst of a huge crowd of people. Bourbon Street at eleven o’clock on a Saturday. Doesn’t matter when. Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, New Year’s day, or just an average Saturday. New Orleans is a city that runs on tourist money and alcohol.

That wasn’t nearly as emergent a problem as you might think. Walk ten feet down any street in the Quarter and someone is doing something to draw attention. Street acrobats, tap-dancing kids with bottle-caps hammered into their sneaker treads, bucket-drumming virtuosos playing Neil Peart-like solos, half-naked guys in cowboy clothes painted gold or silver standing unmoving. Two guys having a knock-down drag-out fight? Barely registers on anyone’s weird-shit-o-meter.

I expected Claws to scream and leap. Except something happened that I couldn’t see. Samaritan did some kind of gesture or movement with his hands. Claws reared back with a hiss, and bolted, knocking drunk tourists over like ten-pins.

I got to my feet and went to him. He stood there, watching Claws recede into the distance.

“You’re welcome,” he said. His voice sounded tired.

I snorted. “Excuse me?”

He turned to me. “What?”

“What makes you think I was about to thank you?” I asked him archly. He cocked his head. It was oddly bird-like. Some people cock their heads slightly to one side when they don’t understand something. He cocked his too far to the left. It looked… bird-like.

“I…” he stammered. “Well. I did save your life.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“He would have killed you.” His voice reminded me of something that I couldn’t quite place. I’m usually pretty good at accents, but his seemed… off.

“I don’t see why. I was minding my own business. I took a shortcut through the alley and there he was, getting ready to kill you. All I did was throw a trashcan lid at his face.” I crossed my arms over my now-abbreviated blouse. “In fact, it seems like I kind of saved you, Dudley Do-right.”

He blinked at me. “Perhaps.”

“Yeah, you better believe it.”

“Thank you,” he said. “For your help. Have a good night.”

“Hold it, bud,” I said. He stopped. The crowd had more or less resumed its haphazard revelry, flowing past again like a huge tide of drunken people.

“Yes?”

“I want some answers. You don’t get to just walk away,” I said.

“I certainly can. I don’t have time to indulge your curiosity. I have to catch-” He said something… or maybe growled something. Or coughed. I’m not sure. But I caught the flavor of a name when he spoke.

“Fine. Talk while we chase him.”

He blinked. “Excuse me?”

“You’re chasing him. I’m coming.” I picked up my Nikon and sighed. It was a wreck. There was dirt and grunge from the alley all over it, and something else. It was kind of black, and sticky, and… and… it smelled like sulfur.

“You’re not,” he said. “I took time to keep him from splitting you apart, but this is where you stay. It’s too dangerous.” He turned. I ground my teeth. It’s easier to just not argue.

“Fine,” I told him. And when he took off, I followed him. I try to run whenever I can, and I’m in pretty good shape. Each year I do a story on several different marathons around the world, always from a first-person perspective. I kept up with him easily. He shot me a startled look.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going after him.”

“I told you not to follow me,” he said.

“I’m not,” I countered. “I’m following him.”

“Now wait a minute,” he said.

“No time. He’s headed for the River Walk,” I panted, and took off toward the river. He mumbled something under his breath and stopped trying to argue. We cut across Bourbon Street and headed down Orleans, toward Jackson Square. We danced in and out of the crowd, all of whom seemed to stand still, compared to us. Given the dedication with which the locals and the visitors both took their leisure in this city, they probably couldn’t see us.   I didn’t think we’d catch up to the mysterious Claws, but as Orleans dead-ended at the Place de Henriette Delille, the small, well-kept dooryard behind St. Louis Cathedral, I saw Claws. He had stopped dead in the street in front of the dooryard. He seemed to have slammed against a wall that stood at the low curb in front of the sidewalk. He looked frantically left and right. He looked over his shoulder at us, snarled, and ran right, heading down Royal Street. He shoved and pushed people in his way out of his way, causing no small commotion. I galloped after him, leaping and sidestepping the fallen party-goers. I could hear the Samaritan behind me, his footfalls echoing mine.

We chased side-by-side down Royal until Claws darted left down St. Peter Street. He pelted down the darkened street, lit mainly by shop windows and flickering lanterns. I thought I might be able to catch him, but he put on a burst of speed that carried him swiftly down the street. He suddenly button-hooked into the crowd of professional wastrels that littered Jackson Square.

Leaping between caricature artists, musicians, crystal-selling new-age hippies, and fortune-telling gypsies dressed in rags and expensive sneakers, Claws leaped clear over the fountain and headed for the far side of the square.

I tried to ignore my burning lungs and ran harder. I’m good at distance, but speed isn’t something you concentrate on when you marathon. The idea is to find a good groove and stick with it, maintaining regular strides, arm movement, breathing, and posture.

Samaritan and I pelted across the square. Stunned gadabouts were just raising a hue and cry from Claws’ abrupt appearance and interruption. I ignored them and kept running.

Claws crossed Decatur Street full-tilt-barreling. He caromed off the bumper of a south-bound car, and I swear he hissed. I wondered what he thought he was going to do when he reached the river. I stuttered at the edge of the street, judging the traffic for a good place and offered a small prayer to whatever god looks out for runaway freelance journalists.

I made it across the traffic without being crushed. I saw Claws vanish into the dark space between the tables and foliage outside the Café du Monde. I started to follow, but Samaritan somehow leaped over me. He cleared my head by barely an inch. I’m not short. Shut up.

He darted into the same spot into which Claws vanished. I might have said something unprofessional under my breath, but I hurtled after them.

I caught sight of them both as they leap-frogged over the triple train tracks between the Café and the river. Just as they were back in sight, Claws turned suddenly, planted a foot against one of the iron rails and thrust his hands toward Samaritan.

I heard the ribs break from where I was. Samaritan hit the ground without a sound. I thought I actually saw the moonlight glint off fangs.

Claws lived up to his moniker, and it seemed both of his hands bristled with dozens of razor-sharp, glittering claws. Patently ridiculous, of course. But he prepared to turn my Samaritan into a pincushion.

Samaritan struggled to regain his feet, but gasped in pain as he tried to move with what had to be a couple of jagged floating ribs digging painfully into his sides.

I gave myself into the hands of the gods of physics. Momentum is a wonderful thing. I leaped the first set of tracks, bounded over the second set-

-and slammed with both feet out into Claws’ unprotected chest.

He went over backward with a startled sound that reminded me of a hamster being stepped on. I went down in a heap of arms and legs and Claws slammed onto the rails of the third set of tracks. I distinctly heard his skull fracture as his head bounced off the hard iron rail.

I clambered to my feet, aching from where I’d landed on the bed of crushed stone. I looked at Samaritan. His face stretched, distorted with pain and anger, and he pulled a strangely curved dagger from a sheath at his waist. He gathered his legs under him and leaped directly at me. I may have uttered a squeak very similar to Claws as I tried to drop back to the railroad bed. Samaritan passed overhead again-

-and he plunged the dagger into Claws’ chest. I closed my eyes, but the sound couldn’t be shut out. It sounded like…

There really isn’t anything else on Earth that sounds like a dagger being plunged into someone’s chest. Nothing I’ve ever heard, anyhow. Thankfully.

I opened my eyes when Samaritan started speaking to him. At first I thought I simply wasn’t close enough to them to hear what he said. But I realized I could hear the words perfectly clearly, I just didn’t speak whatever language they might be in. It wasn’t anything close to a language I’d ever heard.

I watched as Samaritan leaned close to him and spoke. The words rolled over me, but I couldn’t understand the words. They… they slipped through my consciousness like water through a screen. I couldn’t grasp what I heard. I wouldn’t even be able to recall the sound, let alone reproduce it. Then I watched him cross himself and I realized he was giving Claws benediction.

The overlay image and the real one were nearly in sync. The image writhed and clawed and spat foul words. Claws snarled and spat, writhed, and tried to slash Samaritan over and over, but the Samaritan batted them away easily as Claws grew weaker. Finally, he was twitching. I edged closer and he stopped moving. The overlay image shuddered once and lay back, pain fading from the horrible features. For just a moment, the image flickered, and became like my Samaritan’s overlay. Then it changed back to the horrid, ghastly creature it had been. And then it simply faded away, evaporating from around his body as his last breath slowly rattled through slack lips.

I stood next to Samaritan. His eyes were closed, and his hands were pressed together in prayer. He turned and looked at me.

He caught me in the middle of crossing myself.

“What?” I asked, belligerently.

“Nothing,” he said mildly. “Thank you.”

“Oh, now you’re thanking me?”

“Yes,” he said. He said it without ego or preamble. “He would have killed me that time if you hadn’t interceded.”

“Yeah, well… you’re welcome,” I said, rather ungraciously.

“I have to go,” he said. “I need-”

“You need to just stand there and wait. The cops will be here any moment. You have to tell them what happened.”

“I don’t,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the police.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why don’t you tell me.”

“Thank you for your help, miss,” he said, and turned.

I chased after him. “Hold it right there.”

He looked at me, amused.

“Where are you going? I have questions.”

“I’m sure you do.”

“I want some answ- hey!” I grabbed his sleeve as he turned to go again. He stopped. He looked pointedly at his arm. I didn’t let go. I’m dumb sometimes.

“Yes?” Polite, disinterested, tone. As though I’d stopped to ask him directions.

“Why was he trying to kill you?”

“Because I was trying to kill him,” he said reasonably.

Reading by Gaslight

I wrote this about fifteen years ago. I wanted to write a story about goblins. No idea why. It came out all nineteenth century Englishy. If that’s a word.

 

Reading by Gaslight

1

“In the times before my dottage, I often engaged in the practice of travel. I have a keen interest, you see, in the faraway lands, and the mystical journeys that are told in those dusty tomes found in any proper English library. You know the ones; heavy, with gilt edges and thick leather bindings, the outside letters mostly faded off, so the impression one retains is of entering a huge, darkened room filled with books with no titles, a monstrous trove of stories, details, adventures. The joy lay in seizing randomly and plucking from the shelf a book like a rotted tooth from its socket. The mystery, the singing wonder of never knowing… ah. Pleasures of my youth. At this late date, my eyes are now so dim, and my fingers so weary that I have not enjoyed that singular pleasure for some time. I have a reader, now, a woman I pay to come and read to me from the massive books, but it is not the same, entirely, when you cannot crack the book open yourself and reveal the mystery like a gift at Michaelmas.”

            “I drift, my friend. My mind, the only aspect of my person that is truly free, has a tendency to race beyond my thoughts and out of my control. Move closer, my friend. Why must you remain in those shadows? Or are the shadows only in my eyes. Move closer! Ah. No matter. My man let you in, and said that you were a friend of my son. He is not here at the moment, but I expect him soon, and do not mind entertaining you until he returns. Shall I share with you a story? I have many stories. Many and many. It has been a long life, this life of mine, and many adventures have followed my path.”

            “Are you a friend of my son? A business partner, perhaps? Hm? No matter. He will be here soon. Have you news? Anything of note? How fares our Empire? No matter. Perhaps, while you wait, I should tell you one of my adventures, should I not?”

            “Young man, you have seen my collections. I have books scattered far and wide, through this house. I know for a certainty you had to come through three rooms that are now libraries. And every available surface and corner filled with more. Ah, books are a wonder! For an old man, they are everything, even though I can no longer focus on the print, I still enjoy the feeling of holding a book in these old hands; feeling it, heavy and  pregnant with promise. Ready to birth stories of the wonders of the world.”

            “Yes… You know, each book in this house was personally assembled here by myself. I traveled the world for them, learned as many languages as I have fingers, so I could translate them myself, rather than trust others. I love the languages. I love the ideas it can hold the knowledge it can secrete from prying, random eyes. I love everything about languages and words, and their eternal guardians, books.”

            “Yes. I am a lover of books. All books everywhere. And I have spent my life traveling to distant lands, all for the love of these books. My hands too frail to hold them up, my eyes too weak to read them, I can still smell them, and that is comforting.”

            “But one time… one time. And that’s what you’d like to hear, is it not? Did you say your name? I don’t recall, you must forgive me. Well, at any rate, young man, I’ll tell you of that time, if you so wish.”

            “India. My heart has always lain in India. The steaming nights, the exotic days filled with foreign noises, adventures aplenty… many a stout British heart has traveled to India. Not every one comes back. Some remain because they wish, some because they must. The relentless pull of the jungle, with its dark secrets, and its terrible consequences, the fakirs, the strong men, a mobile circus, India is. It is also home to many and many terrible secrets, let no one dissuade you of that. We like to think of India as just another British enclave, a taste of home among the barbarians… it is not so, my young friend, not even now. Of course, we’re close to losing our little outpost now, but then… then, in Bombay, in 1921…”