Now available for pre-order at Amazon. Release date: 16 December.
Now available for pre-order at Amazon. Release date: 16 December.
“OFFICIAL REPORTS” – Is up at my fiction blog.
Hope you enjoy.
Have a good weekend.
Wanted to use the Holiday season to say ‘Thanks’ to everyone who stops by the blog and comments on my toy soldiers. It’s much appreciated. I write fiction in my spare, spare time, so here are links to three NF, SF shorts. All free at Amazon this weekend.
(There’s another in the works: a very Mil-SF piece titled Zombie Six. I’ll let you know when it’s released.)
I’m only posting this here, not on my writing blog, but it’s fine pass this on to any interested parties.
Thank you and take care.
The Stones Remember at Amazon
Hard Kill at Amazon
Sozo at Amazon
A near-future mil-action short about NATO units caught in a massive Russian invasion of Poland and the Baltics. (It’s fiction, right?)
Doing the final proof read now. It should be available at Amazon end of the week.
Have a good day.
An original short story, ‘Sozo’. Illustrations by Tim Teague.
Taking a piss and there was a pistol in the sink. A wedge of dull slate black on shiny white porcelain. It was big – sexy in an ugly way, like a Tijuana hooker. Curves that snuggle in your palm and jack you all up. A quick bang now for a metric shitload of misery later. Guaranteed.
“Mostly metal,” Rask called through the door. “The new polymer junk feels like a toy.”
Booker hefted it. Walther clone. Heavy. Pebbled grips like a cat’s tongue. Big ‘blow-a-hole-through-a-wall’ caliber, with a laser under the barrel and an extended magazine. He spied a tiny bright rectangle on the slide where the serial numbers used to be.
Rask again. “How can you trust a gun that’s got no metal? Fucking things don’t work.”
Booker didn’t reply. He’d seen the end result of the ‘new polymer junk’ during the Detroit Pacification. Didn’t hear any Peacekeepers whining over reliability that day at Martius Park. Too busy mowing down protestors.
Rask took his silence for agreement. “There’s three more clips in the drawer,” he said. “It’s business but you can’t trust Chinks, right? Which is why we’re setting up early.”
Booker flushed the head, fished out the extra mags, then went into the living room gun in hand. Its weight pulled toward the floor. He flicked on the laser, watched the red dot tremble on the carpet.
Rask loped in from the back bedroom pulling a black turtleneck over a chest that was all muscle and Volksfront ink. Black fatigues, a shoulder holster, and Bates duty boots completed the faux tactical look. He saw Booker studying the gun, sensed hesitation.
“You’re not punking out, right?” He stepped up to Booker’s shoulder, breathing on his neck. “You said you could do this.”
Booker turned. Rask’s breath was fast, vaguely mint and metallic. Rinsed blue eyes glittered in his shaven head like diamond chips in the sockets of a jungle skull idol. Images of Indiana Jones running from a giant bowling ball boulder flashed in Booker’s head.
“Yeah,” Booker nodded. “I’m in.”
He nudged the laser off and slipped the pistol into his right jacket pocket. The clips went in his left. “Let’s go.”
They were in an old van like a cop-show stake out: grimy windows, one door primered gray, dented hood, rust gnawing at every edge. The back was all computers and cables and screens with a pudge named Melchet in orange camo-print Goretex hunched over a spread of I-Pads, uttering alphabet talk into a microphone. Rask called him ‘tech support’. Apparently, Melchet had rigged a couple of Radio Shack quad-copters with Sony cams and cut-down Ruger .22s to provide air cover for the upcoming meet. Booker hadn’t seen them, which Rask said proved how stealthy Melchet’s redneck drones were.
“Hell,” he snickered.”You can’t spot ’em, the slant eyes sure as shit won’t.”
Rask was intentionally sketchy on what exactly they were picking up and who else would be there. Said as a former jarhead, Booker should know he couldn’t compromise ‘operational security’. Rask liked tossing off Call of Duty speak. Thought, like the outfit, it made him hard. Soldier-iffic. Every couple hours, when Melchet stepped outside to drain his bladder, Rask even had Booker stand guard.
Booker would slide out the passenger door, stretch his legs, and keep his hand in his right pocket, wondering if he was supposed to watch for attackers or keep Melchet from running away. Maybe the Provigil had him wired too tight, but after twelve hours, Booker was ready to slash his wrists just for something different. But Melchet always climbed back in, poured another cup of coffee from a green thermos the size of a howitzer shell, and got back to his techno-nerd muttering.
Half a day in the same spot outside a crumbling warehouse, how the hell they weren’t obvious wasn’t obvious to Booker. The van was the only vehicle in sight. If Rask’s ‘Chinks’ had the common criminal sense of gravel, they’d spot them in a heartbeat.
Operational Security, my ass.
Booker dropped that thought with a sigh and did a sweep of the weeds and graffiti and the gaping eyes of blown-out windows, looking for someone looking at him, and tried to remember how he wound up outside a decrepit factory in the Rustbelt with Neo-Nazi, meth-head militia.
In SERE training, the instructors said when people stay up too long, their brains start sneaking ten-second naps to maintain alertness. He said they weren’t even aware of them, that chronic insomniacs lost hours. Booker tried to imagine slices of life riddled with amnesia wormholes. Something like netting came to mind – catching big things but letting all the small shit through – and Booker decided, given the last year of his life, it might not be such a bad thing.
Then again, the big things were probably what brought him here.
After Afghanistan and Pakistan, Booker de-mobbed back to a nation coming apart at the seams, much like the ones he’d just bled in, only with better fast food, mega-malls, and coast to coast 5G coverage.
The United States wasn’t in the middle of another Civil War so much as a Really Ugly Divorce. Lots of people screaming about money and neglect and rights, refusing to speak to each other except through lawyers. Whole swathes of the country had seceded, gave themselves names like Christian Republic of American Southern States and Mid-Western Regional Alliance. New governments and tollbooths sprouted overnight like mushrooms in a field of bullshit.
A couple of his Marine buddies had made the jump to the private sector, pulling triggers for Warden Global, the latest iteration of corporate American mercenary power. They dropped his name to HR, and despite a Severe PTSD eval, his service record and battlefield commendations snagged Booker a signing bonus that was more than his four years in the Corps. He could care less that he dropped a rank; an extra zero on the end of each paycheck was a net gain as far as he was concerned. More money, less responsibility.
At the time, Washington was playing nice with the ex-states, trying to woo them back with big, expensive gestures. The Detroit Renewal was the latest, fresh out of the box. There were big plans, big talk about new airports, highways, industry, cleaning up Lake Michigan, low-income housing… Important people’s faces smiled down from huge ads, rappers did benefit concerts, models went topless, music videos and blogs and talk shows and newsstand glossies told everyone how bright and bling the new Detroit would be.
Thanks to government outsourcing, Booker found himself in the summer of ’22 deputized to enforce the law, protect private property and limit civil disorder during what the press was calling Detroit’s ‘Pre-Reno Spring Cleaning’. Combat vet to metro cop, skip the Academy.
The first six months were easy: the same up-armored ‘hearts and minds’ routine he and Joker company had run for Uncle Sam in the ‘Stans. Every day, blue and white Warden Global MRAPs patrolled the Motor Town ‘hoods, did meet-and-greets with local headmen, and doled out government care packages and shiny promises to the natives. Aside from the occasional gangsta who mistook Booker and the other vets for rent-a-cops, everything went down smooth.
Then Senator Watermeyer happened.
One routine audit turned all the sugar to shit. What began as an ‘unspecified number of discrepancies’ morphed into a five-month investigation. In the end, the Oversight Committee found the Detroit Revitalization Commission hadn’t just skimmed the cream, they had butchered the cow. Three-hundred and seven counts of fraud, conspiracy, misuse, and misappropriation. Two point three billion dollars, evaporated. The DRC’s perp walk was live-streamed; a match for a house of cards over a puddle of gas.
Detroit didn’t riot, it hemorrhaged insanity.
Mobs raged through the streets, looting, screaming, breaking, burning anything and anyone. By night, the fires made the skyline the suburbs of hell. By day, it was a city smashed by giants. At first, Police, Fire, and EMT’s tried to staunch the wounds, but after four days they gave up and barricaded themselves in.
Fearing contagion, Canada’s Parliament sealed the Windsor-side bridges and tunnels with tanks. Next, they called the U.N.
Washington was damned if they did – damned if they didn’t. Another steaming pile of domestic scandal, the Chief Executive pulled a Pilate. Belgian Peacekeepers rolled down Woodward Avenue forty-eight hours later.
The rest of it, the internment camp at Ford Field, the bombing of the Penobscot Building, the Martius Park Massacre, is, as they say, history.
Day Seventeen of the Pacification, Booker climbed out a second-story window at the precinct. With his sidearm, a Remington 870 12 gauge, and a sack full of protein bars and bottled water, he made his way out of the city. Four days and nights on foot, the things he saw made Islamabad look like Disney World.
He met Rask three months later in a bar outside Steubenville. After lots of talk and more than a few beers, Rask floated this temporary ‘security gig’ past him. Offered half the cash up front, no questions asked. Even hungry, drunk, and aimless, Booker smelled trouble. Some still-thinking, feeling part of his brain flashed a dashboard full of warning lights.
But the rest of Booker, the numb part, stuffed the wad of hundreds in his pocket and jumped into Rask’s F-250.
Numb. That was the operative word.
Occasionally when he sobered up, Booker inventoried like the docs had told him to when he got out. Ten fingers? Check. Ten toes? Check. Another day above ground? Check. It was supposed to put things in proportion. But seeing himself from even that short distance, he could tell some part of him was gone. Missing – as in ‘traumatically amputated’.
Near the end of his last tour in Pakistan, one of his squad mates, Sal Denucci, lost both legs to an IED in a market in Daman-e-Koth. He and Booker emailed back and forth while Sal was recuperating.
“It’s the strangest shit, bro,” Sal told him.”I still feel my toes sometimes. Doctors call it Phantom Limb Syndrome. Believe that? They say my mind remembers what used to be there.”
Booker admitted the brain could pull deep weirdness sometimes.
Sal went on. “They tell me the twinges’ll stop.” There was a pause. “Don’t know if I want them to, though. Like if they did, that part of my soul would be gone and I’d be half a man. And fuck that.”
Fuck that, Booker agreed.
After he got out, Booker spent some of his WG bonus on a visit to Walter Reed Rehab. He found Sal in the Romper Room struggling in the Monkey Bars, a pair of smoking hot aides on either side.
“Check me out, dude.” Sal had grinned, then lumbered toward him like a toddler. “Pistorius got nothing on me. These are Terminator shit. They’re even injecting me with frog DNA. I’ll be hopping like a mo-fo soon.”
The brunette tapped Sal’s plastic thigh, explained for Booker’s benefit. “It’s his own stem cells mixed with amphibian-based fibroblasts. It helps the nerve endings bond with the micro-fibers on the internal processors.” She flashed Sal a huge smile. “He keeps at it, he’ll be able to run marathons.”
Sal winked. “Salamander magic, bro. Do enough hundred-proof shots, my legs will grow back.”
“Yo!” Rask’s twang jarred Booker. “Get in. The Chinks are coming. We gotta roll.”
Booker climbed in the van, wrenched the door shut as Rask floored it. Tires squealed, gravel sprayed. Oldies Beat Billy thumped through the blown speakers, something about Daisy Dukes and white Chevrolets.
They bounced over the ruined asphalt toward the long husk of a building with a brick chimney and a facade of plywood-blind windows. A ghost name, ‘Titan Tires’, stretched across one end, tall painted letters faded as old skywriting. A low autumn sun hung above the roof’s field of patched and sagging corrugated tin. The sky was gold and rust and blood, scarred with jagged black clouds
Rask drove with his knees. He had his pistol out, a chrome-plated nine millimeter that would have made a Latin King proud. He dropped the mag into his lap and started racking the slide again and again like he was jerking off. “Melchet picked ’em up on I-64. Two Hyundais and a Ryder box truck. My boys’ll be here in ten. They’re gonna secure the perimeter so we can make the trade.”
“Buy for a dollar and sell for ten, that’s the American way, right? My brother Loyce is bringing the cash. We’ll haggle with the head Chink. You to hang back, watch for ambushes.”
Back of his mind, Booker admitted he had known all along Rask was white powder as much as white power, but any remorse vanished in the sinkhole of numb, the place some other part of him used to be. Booker found that more curious than sad, and wondered which was worse.
Corner of his eye, he saw Rask waiting for a response. “Hang back, watch for ambushes. Got it.”
Rask nodded approvingly. “The Rules of Engagement are they try anything, waste the little fuckers. Just don’t hit the rental truck, right?”
“No shooting the truck. Got it.”
“Fan-fucking-tastic, man,” Rask said. “Knew I hired the right guy. You watch my six, let Loyce and me do the deal. This comes off, I’ll give you another five-hundred danger pay, OK?”
Danger pay. Booker shrugged, wondered how much bus ticket five hundred bucks would get him.
The meet was inside an old loading bay, a big cavernous space with a slimy concrete floor and garage doors at either end. Rask drove in one side and pulled in line with a pair of wide-ass dually pickups. Each had a horse trailer hitched on the back. Five minutes later, the Chinese rolled through the opening at the far end and squared off, leaving twenty feet of Checkpoint Charlie open space between them.
Both sides exited their vehicles at the same time and Booker had another bad TV moment; Rask’s backup was Hillbilly Spec Ops: four guys in realtree camo with Tractor Supply ball caps and jet black Oakleys. The Chinese wore Ray Bans and cheap suits. Everyone was fondling some flavor of gun.
Booker was tempted to let off a couple rounds just to see this peck of pickled posers go all Counter Strike in the Gloomy Garage. He had to shove that thought away. He checked the angles and corners, entrance and exits, instead. Job’s a job. Best get this one done and gone.
Brother Loyce waddled up to Rask with a duffle bag. He looked like he spent his life in tree stands waiting on ten-point bucks. Lump of chew in his lip, he spit several times while Rask rummaged around. Then the two of them strolled out to meet a pair of dumpy, nervous-looking Chinamen.
There was a bit of posturing and pleasantries before Rask passed the bag. Whatever was in it sure got both Chinamen excited, though. After a minute, one of them whistled, and the next thing Booker knew, kids were pouring out of the back of the box truck. Chinese kids.
Booker counted automatically. Twenty teenagers, ten boys, ten girls, all of them blinking and thin and scared. The Triad impersonators herded them across the open space between the vehicles, toward the horse trailers where two rednecks sorted males in to one, females in the other. Rask and Loyce shook hands with the two Chinese. The swap was over.
Rask sauntered back to the van, tight little smile on his skull face. Booker held up his hand, nodded toward the nearest trailer. “Who are they?”
Rask rolled his eyes, dug a wad of cash out of his jeans. “That’s ‘need to know’ only.” He peeled off five bills and held them out.
Booker’s chest throbbed. “Seriously. Who are they?”
Rask tried a Clint Eastwood squint. It didn’t hold. After a second, he clapped Booker on the shoulder. “Fucking-A, man. Simmer down. They’re mules. They’ll be gone in the morning.”
He stuffed the money in Booker’s shirt pocket. “Here, you earned this. Now let’s roll.”
Booker hopped back in. Melchet was sitting there, watching the two sedans and the Ryder on a screen. When they pulled onto the highway, he leaned over his microphone. “We’re clear.”
The two pickups immediately pulled out, Rask taking up the rear. Booker felt the wad in his shirt pocket, the gun in his jacket, and stared as the trailers switched and swayed.
Adult colons held more, that was fucking obvious, but back in the ‘Stans, Jihadists had given kids AKs and sent them in waves. Joker Company had even cleaned up after a couple junior suicide bombers hit a school one miserable, sweltering afternoon. In Detroit, Baby Booking was a full-time gig, all the grade-schoolers running errands for street gangs, even shooting up competitor’s corners. About time the narco-cartels caught on. Kids drew less suspicion, had no record to get flagged by Immigration or Homeland. A couple runs for some drug thug was more money than most of them would make in their entire life.
Fuck it, Booker thought. Cash is king all over the world.
Their little convoy passed through Jacob’s Creek: a two-light town with a gas station and an aluminum Winnebago-style diner that looked it had been dragged down a hundred miles of bad road. Vacant, peeling, jilted, Jacob’s Creek was a good place to be from. Or have a zombie apocalypse.
The only signs of life were Bubba’s Sultry Lounge and The Holy Light Pentecostal Mission, a bar and a church bookending Main Street. Harleys lined up outside Bubbas, suits and buns outside the Holy Light.
The second traffic light hung red over the hump of railroad tracks that sliced off the end of town, and the convoy pulled up just as the gates dropped and the warning bell started. A gaspy whistle sounded ten seconds later, then a long-ass freight train wheezed past, car after scabby car of goods bound for anywhere but here.
Booker gazed at the church as they waited. The gable end was covered with hand-painted cursive, a Bible passage, a line on each length of clapboard like giant white-ruled paper.
Another time, Jesus entered the synagogue and a man was there who had a withered hand. The Pharisees watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. The Gospel of St. Mark 3: 1-5
Seemed to Booker the Pharisees were assholes and Jesus did a miracle show-and-tell. Guy with the mangled hand happened to be in the right place at the right time, is all. He wondered what Sal would think about that bit of salamander magic.
Sure beats the wrong place at the wrong time, he’d probably say.
Like that day in the market. Booker walked past that cart not two minutes earlier. Fucking difference a hundred and twenty second makes.
Eventually the gates lifted and the trucks rolled on. Booker popped a Zoloft and let the trailer taillights hypnotize him, let the numb spread until he floated on nothing. At some point, the convoy turned onto a dirt road, stopped to let one of Rask’s guys open an iron bar gate. It screeched as he swung it. Booker came to and looked around.
The hi-beams were framing a big red barn. A metal silo shaped like a giant round-nose bullet stood at the far end. Old MacDonald was nowhere to be seen.
They pulled up and started hustling the kids inside. Rask, Loyce and the other three yipping and yelling like they were herding cattle, like they’d done this before. Small faces flashed in the headlights like deer on a highway. Rask watched them hunch and hurry into the barn, clinging to each other. Their fear beaded on him, rolled right off. Raindrops on wax.
Once the kids were inside, Rask leaned in the van and exchanged a few words with Melchet. Moments later, two shapes buzzed over Booker’s head: the drones. They dropped out of the sky and settled in the grass in front of the van, skeletal contraptions like broken black bicycles. Melchet slid the door open, inspected them briefly, then slid it shut.
Rask belched and turned to Booker. “You check the perimeter, make sure we’re secure. We’ll hold up here ’til sunrise.”
“The fuck I gotta explain everything for?” he growled. “What happened to ‘Yours is not to reason why’? I paid you, so do what you’re told.”
Booker threw up his hands. “Whatever.” Then he spun on his heel and headed for the silo. Twenty paces, Rask said something else, but it was lost in the wind.
Booker strode into the dark, the ground crunching underfoot. He kept going until he hit a wire fence edging an empty field. The dirt smelled spent, dusty, the wind brittle and tired. An old shed hunched on his right, leaning like a drunk. The bankrupt ass-end of nowhere.
Sounds drifted from the barn- thump of music, coarse laughter. Booker let them drift through him, looked up into the enormous sky.
It was north-west Pak all over again.
The north-west territory was Jihad Central, every pass and cave infested with Mujis like ticks on a goat. Joker Company had multiple contacts every day, sometimes all day. They lost forty-nine guys the first five months. Booker came to loath the sunrise.
But night scared the absolute shit out of him. Tribal areas had no cities to speak of, so no ambient light. When the sun dropped behind the Hindu Kush, night swallowed everything and the sky came down ancient, immense, and deep. Made you small, all those stars.
Sal used to say it was a proportion thing. A reality check. Locals said it was ‘the Robe of Allah.’ When they weren’t screaming ‘Death to America’ and shooting at them.
It was the reason he accepted Warden Global’s Detroit offer: neon and car horns and skyscrapers. None of that proportion shit.
Booker turned, started back toward the barn. Tomorrow he’d Russian Roulette the bus schedule, go anywhere far from here. Somewhere warm maybe, with people whose family tree didn’t look like a telephone pole.
An owl screeched and something changed in the wind. Without thought, Booker continued on the worn footpath that led to the backside of the barn.
The back door was open and Rask and Loyce stood outside in a pool of floodlight, smoking. The music was louder, bouncing around the sheet metal inside of the barn. He could hear the rednecks whooping it up. Booker smelled dope, thought he heard crying. He stopped in the hard shadow of the silo.
Rask’s voice carried. ‘-isses me off, fucking candy ass,” he was saying. “Whiny little bitch if ya ask me. Shouldn’t a signed up if he can’t handle it.”
Loyce mumbled and Rask near choked with laughter. “Figured the Corps’d be more choosey these days, but ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, right?”
Loyce took one last drag, stomped the butt under his boot. He turned and went back inside.
“Keep her warm for me,” Rask cackled. “Be right in.”
Something inside Booker lurched. He stepped fast out of the darkness. “Perimeter’s clear.”
Rask flinched like a cat, but recovered. He clutched his chest mockingly. “Fucking-A, man. Near gave me a heart attack.”
“The perimeter’s clear,” Booker repeated.
He waved his hand. “I heard you.” He pointed the glowing end of his cigarette at Booker, swaying as he did. “Look man, sorry ’bout earlier. Wrapped up tight about the operation. You know, right?”
“You’re high,” Booker said. The music blasted out the door now. He heard the rednecks chanting. Definite crying.
“Fuck yeah, I’m high,” Rask grinned.”Big money tomorrow. Cash with a capital C.”
Booker motioned toward the open door.”What’s going on in there?
“Fuck you think?” Rask grinned wider. “Post-op decompression. You want some? Little perk of the job? Little peck on the knob?” He laughed at his own joke. “There’s a girl in a red top that’s eminently fuckable.”
A chill knotted in Booker’s gut. He stared. “What?”
“Hey,” Rask protested. “Not like they’ll be selling the pussy, right? Who gives a shit if there’s a little wear and tear?”
The knot tightened. “Those fucking kids are probably smuggling that shit for their families, and you’re raping them?”
Rask leaned forward, eyes hard and glittering again. “They got no families, dipshit. They’re orphans.”
He giggled like a hyena when Booker didn’t get it. “There’s no drugs.”
“You said they were mules,” Booker insisted.
“They are,” Rask crowed. “Not heroin – organs. Why the fuck do you think I told you not to shoot the truck?”
“Kidneys, livers, hearts, eyes. Chink kids are worth thirty grand apiece, wholesale. Hell, I bet some of your old Marine buddies are walking around with Chinese Take-Out. Extra spicy spicy.”
Booker’s chest was taut. He could barely breathe. “But they’re children.”
“No, dumb ass,” Rask shook his head. “They’re spare parts. Commies got a One-Kid-Only policy. Not that the little yellow fuckers listen, humping like rabbits. One point three billion of them now.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “Beijing is cracking down though. They’re a drain on the system. Who the fuck you think we got them from?”
Rask crossed his arms across his chest and tried to look serious. “Used to be bleeding heart liberal faggots would adopt Chink orphans, but now, economy in the shitter, guess all America can afford is pieces.”
Things inside Booker snapped like guitar strings. Gaping edges sharp and raw.
Rask cackled again, took long drag on his cigarette. Face wreathed in smoke, he looked at Booker one eyed. “So you want a free sample, or not?”
A gunshot boomed.
Rask dropped, the top of his head smashed open like a melon. Booker flinched at the warmth speckled on his face. Smoke curled out of a hole in his jacket pocket. He couldn’t remember putting his hand in there.
The music stopped. A call through the door. “The hell’s going on out there?”
Booker drew the pistol and stepped inside.
He put the first two down without thinking: cammies around their ankles, mouths little round ‘O’s of surprise. Junk deflating faster than pricked balloons.
Booker’s reflexes took over. The laser’s dot fixed center mass. Target One. Target Two. Double-taps rolled like thunder in the closed space.
The girls huddled on the ground started wailing. One, spread face down on the floor, lay there and sobbed.
In his head, he heard Sal say “Clear!”
Gun up, Booker stepped around a stall into some kind of wide aisle. Adrenaline was kicking in: he had tunnel vision, his heart pounded like surf in his ears. But he moved forward, gun up and steady.
Redneck three charged out of a side room, eyes wide, fat face quivering. “Cops. Is it cops?” he asked Booker.
Booker shot him. “No.”
He stepped past the body, peered into the room. Chinese boys cowered in the corner, hands up. One held a younger one to his chest, glared at Booker defiantly.
“Good for you,” Booker muttered. Then louder, “You all stay here. Got me? Stay in here.”
Might as well be speaking Swahili, Booker mused. Backing out of the room, he stepped on the fat guy’s hand, stumbled. There was a crack like lightning, and he spun, fell on his back, shoulder burning.
Loyce came charging down the aisle from the other end of the barn, hunting rifle straight out. “Mother fucker, mother fucker, mother fucker…”
Numbness swept across Booker’s chest, down his side, through his leg. He reached for the pistol as the second shot seared into his thigh. Electric shock. The promise of pain hammered him to the floor, punched the breath out of him.
But something inside Booker screamed and wept, wriggled, fresh and bloody as new birth. His hand closed around the butt of his pistol. Loyce was twenty feet away, standing still, aiming. “Mother fucker–”
Booker wrenched himself around, fired until the slide locked back. Loyce fell in several parts.
Booker lay back, panting. The bite of smoke and shit and blood in the air. Melchet tumbled through the front door like a frantic orange penguin, stupid look on his face, phone in hand.
Booker thumbed the slide release. It slammed forward with a loud clack. “Dial 9-1-1”
Booker pointed the pistol. “Now,” he ordered.
Booker kept the gun on him but let his head fall back. Guy was too fat, too scared to run. The barn lights overhead were going dim, warmth spread under him. The numbness was gone though, replaced by an almost delicious throb. He felt his heart beating.
Just a little longer, Booker told himself. Eventually, sirens approached.
A little Chinese face peered around the doorpost, tears on his cheeks, a tiny frown at the blood drenching Booker’s clothes, the floor.
Booker smiled, “It’s OK. Really. I’ll be fine.” He reached out to stroke the boy’s face. “I can feel my hand.”
Still deciding which fiction project to pursue in the new year. In the meantime, this is the latest from my post-apocalyptic fantasy piece. Hope you enjoy.
The mine’s entrance was little more than a low, round cave lit by flaming torches. Inside, it turned into a narrow passage that ran roughly fifty paces before opening abruptly to a second, larger cavern. From there, three more passages led to different areas of the mine; the North, West and South shafts that dove into the gnarls of cramped shafts, caves and grottos carved in the mountain’s heart. A forth opening next to the main entrance led to the Chief’s Grotto. Guarded night and day by a pair of heavily armored brutes from his warband, no one went into Largash Goretusk’s presence unless specifically summoned. Anyone who tried otherwise was butchered on the spot.
Addas had only met the Chief once, the day Chalk presented him to the clan as his drudge and apprentice scavenger. Addas remembered the orc’s sinuous bulk, how he’d leaned forward in his throne of bones and fur, a huge hand adorned with iron rings closing around his throat, yanking him closer. Goretusk had looked him over and shook his head, laid a blade on Addas’ throat. Addas remembered hard, bloodshot eyes narrowing in a flat slab of a face, yellowed lower tusks curling up in a snarl, the stench of cruelty. The sinews in the Chief’s arm had coiled and Addas squealed, certain he was about to die, and pissed himself. Goretusk’s nose had wrinkled in scorn and he started to laugh. He threw him back at Chalk’s feet. “You want this piglet, you feed him. He stays useful and stays out of my way or he gets slit. Clear?”
Chalk had nodded without a word, cuffed Addas on the head and dragged him out. The memory still made his stomach knot.
Stretches of each section in the mine were claimed by different orc families, yards of dank burrows guarded fiercely, bitter rivalries measured in inches. Scorch the world, orcs still found a way to fight over territory. Stronger, bigger families lumped near the surface, outcasts and the weak were shoved deeper where the air was foul and the light dingy. Addas guessed hundreds of greenskins, orc and goblin, lived like pale blind maggots in the deep dark below the main shafts. He only saw those he scraped past in a tunnel, gaunt faces illuminated by guttering, stinky torchlight. The rest he calculated by feel, and smell.
Except for a council in Chief Goretusk’s grotto, the central cavern was the only place one could see more than a dozen orcs at a time. Before the Fall, a gathering like it wouldn’t be worth a pitcher of spit, more riot than anything else, but now it was the height of greenskin endeavor. It was the Swap, the clan’s one and only marketplace. More than that, the Swap was the Black Sand’s lifeblood and lifeline; their source of food, goods, news, and their only contact with those outside their walls.
Addas hesitated, picked his path before plunging in. He wanted to get through as fast as he could, hide in the crowd’s convulsion and noise. The wide cavern floor was a maze of crude stalls, threadbare awnings, and vendors’ tables. Most were iron-mongers offering weapons, tools, or armor, but several advertized rough-stitched hides, mangy fur capes, even bowls of lumpy gruel and sticks of greasy mystery meat. Dozens of small braziers spit and flickered, emitting more oily soot than warmth, their brume mixing with the roar of orcs arguing, bartering, bellowing in their guttural tongue. Smaller, faster goblins scurried through the sea of burly bowed legs carrying goods, messages, picking pockets… Addas counted as many brawls going on as trades. A few worn paths wove through the mess to the far side of the cavern where the main shafts were. Addas stepped into the flow of chaos and despite the clamor, immediately sensed a strange pressure in the air. Thicker than smoke it was, and ready to pop.
Another dozen steps, Addas saw the reason.
Stunties. A dozen of the little bastards.
A veritable troop of Dwarves stood guard over a string of ponies and pack-mules on the north side of the cavern. The track-makers.
Twenty paces of open space separated the Dwarves from the greenskin mob, and Addas felt the ancient grudge between the two races seething around the cavern. Even felt it stir in his bones. If it weren’t for the Treaty, there’d be blood soaking the dirt right now, sure as shit stinks. Still, desperate times need desperate measures; however surly, both sides were abiding by the terms.
Tired and hungry as he was, Addas took the long way to the hole that led to his burrow. Wasn’t every day he saw outsiders in Black Sands territory, let alone Dwarves.
Their usual stoutness long since burned off, the Stunties were gaunt and looking serious as a knife in the belly. Their armor was black, gleaming and smooth like it was new from a forge. Every Dwarf held a naked blade at their side, casual but ready. Addas thought about his one good javelin head and wondered what it would take to get his hands on steel like theirs. More than he could scrape together in a lifetime, probably.
Of all the races, the Dwarven folk had weathered the Fall the best. It was said their Gods warned them by rune and seer, that they sealed the massive doors to their underground cities and feasted until the fires burned out. Some even whispered a Dwarf God or two survived, hidden among their people, and the Stunties were scheming to take over what remained with the help of their housebroken deities. Addas figured that was a steaming pile of envy and rot-gut hooch talking.
The Gods were dead; ashes and bone scattered across the Three Worlds.
Besides, who in their right mind wanted to reign over a scorned and broken land?
The Dwarf leader was an odd one, easy to pick out. Taller than average, maybe up to Addas’ chest, he radiated authority like a white-hot coal. With flaming red hair to match his attitude, and sharp green eyes, the strangest thing was the thorn tattoos coiling across his clean-shaven cheeks. Addas had never heard of a beardless Stuntie. Must be some kind of Fall sickness, he thought. Or a punishment.
Big Red had a wicked double-head axe head standing upside down beside his right leg. His fingers caressed the handle like he was itching to snatch it up and put it to use. Addas spied runes on the broad steel, chunky marks marching below the edge. Chalk used to boast he could cipher Dwarvish scratchings, and a bit of Elvish too. Addas never learned the whole truth of that claim, but the old bastard did live long enough to beat a few runes into his head. Which was why Addas started when he saw the icon on the buckler that rested against Big Red’s other leg.
An anvil: a Dunak dwarf from the White River. A long way from home, these Dwarves were. He wondered what, by Gruumsh’s Shattered Balls, would bring them all the way here in the dead of winter?
Big Red caught Addas staring and gazed back. The look was more curious than hostile, but Addas turned away quickly anyway. If the Chief caught wind of him eyeballing visitors, he’d get a kicking, no doubt. Lifting the sledge like a shield, he went straight into the South hole. Stunties were trouble, and he had enough of that in his life already.
Deeper in the mine, each turn, each drop, the stale air grew heavier, rank with damp, mold and piss. Caves yawned off the sides of the main tunnel, wretched dens filled with squabbling orc families. In an especially wide stretch, the rock walls were notched floor to ceiling with sleeping cubbies like human tombs, studded with guttering torches and rude lanterns.
Stepping aside for oncoming traffic, none of the orcs greeted him or gave a second glance once they saw he wasn’t carrying food. Addas’ place in the pecking order long since fixed, the piss-soaked sledge warded off any other problems as well. Everybody had their own stink to worry over.
The shaft sloped down and down again, deep into a new section of the mine, ending in a tiny chamber bristling with limestone devil spikes. Addas twisted through them, ducked into a partially collapsed tunnel on the far side, then slid down a length of loose shale to his burrow.
Snat had found it for him the day after Chalk went in the dirt. Little more than a stone ledge with a ratty hide for a curtain, the best thing about it was it difficult for full-size orcs to reach.
Addas misered his lamp oil worse than a Dwarf with silver. Deep and isolated, the place was syrupy dark when you snuffed out your wick, thick and heavy enough to choke you if you thought on it too hard. But the air was cool – a touch cleaner somehow. Sometimes as he fell asleep, Addas even heard the sound of rushing water echoing in the hard black. There was a tall fissure in the granite face a few paces past his shelf. He studied it once with a candle stub, saw that he might squeeze through in a pinch, but never found the time or inclination to explore further.
Lighting a battered tin lamp, Addas began the careful removal of his armor and gear. First he set the cleaver, javelin and skinning flint aside. Next his belt, the pack with its carefully wrapped horn, and his vest.
Finally, he began to undo his mail shirt.
He winced as he tugged the buckles open, the pain shooting across his chest, ribs. The dried blood pulled his skin, the gash weeping as he pulled it off. The undershirt was ruined, little more than a rag to start. Definitely one now. He’d have to scrub the mail straight away if he wanted to keep the iron rings from rusting any more.
Get to it now, he heard Chalk say. Fight don’t let you sharpen your blade once it starts.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know,” Addas murmured. “‘Take care of your gear and your gear will take care of you.'”
It took several painful tries, but eventually he held up the mail shirt and studied it in the feeble light. Thin, dull brown with age and use, the front glistened where the rings were severed and still sticky with blood. Odd loops of copper or tin, even leather cord, betrayed half-a-dozen older repairs. A pair of kidney-low holes in the back must have done in the original owner. Mark of a hellspike, Chalk claimed, Hades’ minions known for being backstabbing little feckers.
Chalk had bequeathed it to Addas the morning he died. The old tracker could have paid off a debt, the Chief’s boys already gathering like vultures to divvy up his gear. But Chalk passed it to Addas on the sly, the warty old brute bubbly-blood whispering he should tuck it out of sight.
Worth more’n you, runt. Smith could melt a dagger or three out of it.
He’d grabbed Addas’ shirt. No one gives a runny shit to saving your skin. You’ll have work harder, smarter. Earn the right to keep it. Make yourself valuable so they think twice before they gut you. Gotta be worth more alive than dead.
Addas set the mail shirt down, emotions tearing him two ways. Cruel old bastard was worm food – good riddance. But what did it mean when a ghost’s scorn was the only kindness left, and letting go looked easier than going on?
No answer came to mind. Even Chalk was uncharacteristically silent.
“Might as well pray to the dead gods,” Addas growled, and jabbed his fingers in the wound. He probed his side, ignoring the pain that seared along his ribs. He cuffed back the welling in his eyes.
“Less think – more work.” That had been Chalk’s solution for near everything.
The edges of the gash were raw, and Addas could see the purple-brown bruising starting to spread. At least the bleeding had stopped. He looked at the rent in the shirt again. “I’m gonna get gouged in more ways than one, getting patched up here.”
But there was no choice at all, not if he wanted to stay alive. Poor armor is always better than none.
Setting the mail shirt aside, he picked up his vest, his pouch, belt, water skin, and skinning dagger one by one, and inspected them in turn. Only when he had gone over every inch, edge, and seam and was satisfied at their condition, did he allow himself to look at the horn.
Carefully, quietly, he fished a slab of jerky from under his bed mat, tore off a hunk, then began to unwrap the rags.
“Ooooh…izzat what I think it is?”
There was a scrunch of gravel and flap of cloth as a small goblin dropped into his burrow.
Addas spun, reflexively jabbing with the horn. “Feck me, Snat. Stop the sneaky devious. I’m gonna shank you one of these days.”
The goblin grinned. “Sneaky devious is what I am.” He yanked the horn out of Addas’ hand. “Besides, shank me, and who’d flip your smuggle?”
Addas clawed for the horn but Snat clambered up on his bed shelf and began earnestly scrutinizing the horn up and down its length.
The goblin was typical of his race; small, about the size of an older human child with pale green skin and a wiry body. Everything about him looked sharp: his cheeks, pointed chin with an arrowhead goatee, hooked nose, pointed ears. Even his bright amber eyes were narrow and slanted. Snat, whose full name was Gezwill Snatterwaul of the Slowshiv clan, was like a cutpurse dagger: short, ugly, and sharp. And occasionally very handy to have around.
He’d been a shaman’s apprentice before the Fall, one of Bargrivyek’s faithful, ironically devoted to peace between the ever-quarrelling goblin tribes. But the treacherous gods being dead, and devotees of any stripe killed out of spite, Snat hid his former vocation. Disavowed it, in fact. Now, instead of spells, poisons, and potions, Snat lugged a goatskin bundle of hand tools. Addas didn’t know how he did it, but the goblin had everything in there from a maul to lock picks. Snat claimed there was nothing mechanical he couldn’t patch up or make better. For a price.
Truth be told, in Addas’ experience, he was annoyingly right. If it weren’t for the little goblin’s expertise, he’d be scrounging beyond the walls with nothing but rags and a wood cudgel.
There was nothing Snat couldn’t find either, seeing as he was the boss of the Nick; the goblin black market. Given enough time and money, if it still existed in this wreck of a world, he could get it. “Keep the silver coming, I’ll find you a bridge to the broken moon,” was his favorite phrase.
Snat kept up the chatter as he inspected the horn. “You see the stunties? Of course you saw ’em. How could you miss ’em? Bold as balls up there in the Swap. I mean I know they’re short and easy to overlook but they’re stirring up shit, big time. Chief Lard-Arse is–”
“Largash,” Addas corrected. “Chief Largash Goretusk.”
“–Lard-Arse is fielding their embassy right now. One of the bearded little feckers is even some kind of Prince. Making demands, he is. ‘Course our Chief is acting all frothy and monstrous, flogging his dog at ’em like he knows shit from porridge and he’s got muscle to do anything other than bend over and take it. Feck no. Stunties got everyone by the short and curlies these days. Still…Dwarves in this weather? Coming here from the White River? What, by Maglub’s hairy sack, what do you make of that?”
“Nothing to make,” Addas said carefully. “Got nothing to do with me.”
Snat was still scrutinizing the horn, but he nodded like he’d heard Addas and agreed. After another second, the goblin cocked his head and eyed him suspiciously. “Slap me stupid. This is real. Where’d you get it?”
“From a unicorn,” Addas said.
“From a unicorn, he says. Smartarse. Where?”
Addas said nothing, held out his hand for the horn.
“Fine.” Snat slapped it back in his palm. “Tell me later.”
“You will.” Snat spied the mail shirt. “Shit me blind! Prancey pokey pony do that?”
The goblin whistled appreciatively. “Using up all the luck left in the world, aint’ ya?”
Addas let out a bitter laugh. “Making my own.”
“The horn for a patch job, half a pound of jerky, half a loaf of barley and an ounce of salve for that slice,” Snat said quickly.
Addas laughed again, less bitter. The post-run haggle was a ritual between them. “Half the horn for a full pound, full loaf, the salve, and iron rings for the mend.”
The goblin grabbed his crotch. “Iron rings,” he scoffed. “Want my stones too? Two-thirds of the horn, new copper rings, half jerky, half a loaf, and a javelin head out of the final third.” He leaned towards Addas. “You know that iron head won’t last forever.”
Addas hesitated for a split-second and the little Goblin smiled. Addas lifted his arm and bared his injured side. “What am I going to do about this though?”
Snat’s amber eyes radiated mock sympathy. “Suffer silently?”
Addas held his gaze. “Throw in half an ounce of salve.” He’d reached bottom. Addas needed everything he could get for the horn, but pus and a fever from infection were out of the question.
The goblin spit in his hand and held it out. “Done.”
Addas spat in his own and they shook.
The horn and Addas’ mail shirt vanished into Snat’s tunic. The goblin winked. “Now to see if me and the boys can’t pinch one of them ponies. Cooks’ll pay good for horsemeat.”
“Talk about stirring up shit,” Addas exclaimed. “Chief’ll bust his gut, embassy horse goes missing. Breaks the Treaty. ”
Snat shrugged, started climbing the shale. “Hey, joke ’em if they can’t take a f—” Suddenly a bellowing started echoing off the rock, down the slope from the mouth of the tunnel above. An orc’s voice.
“Hey Piglet! Crawl your hairy little arse out here. Chief wants you in the Grotto. Now!”
Quick ask here – if anyone’s read and enjoyed any of my fiction – The Barrow Lover, Running Black, Shift Tense (Red Flags, Soldier Dreams, Angels) or Clar1ty Wars 1: One Bad Apple – would you do me a favor and fire off a short review at either Amazon or Goodreads? Reviews and review numbers are critical to sales and awareness, especially with indie novels, and an honest review is invaluable. I’m uncomfortable pimping my work and sock-puppets aren’t my thing, but I’d like to raise my review numbers a bit before the year ends.
Writing-wise, a short story about a combat vet will finish this year’s releases. Titled ‘Sozo’ it will be out end of the month.
Next year brings the next Clar1ty Wars collection, ‘Under Strange Stars’, as well as the dark post-apocalyptic fantasy novel “The Grim Fall”, and a lighthearted project set in ancient, mystical China.
Drop me a line if you have any questions. Thank you very much.