Worlds

While I’m a supporter of National Pride and I think it’s a sentiment that is often ignorantly cast aside in favor of popular (or at least more vocal) opinion, I still have little interest in the Winter Olympics. On display are disciplined athletes performing at a higher level than most could ever hope to achieve, yet I’m still kind of peeved that it postpones the small handful of television shows I watch by several weeks. Shame on you, over-achievers, for not making it easy to indulge bad habits.

This got me thinking about the various cultures surrounding “things”. Many people have a “thing”, be it football, stamp collecting, painting, etc. Each of these things is a world unto itself, wherein there are heroes, villains, outcasts…stories. Worlds within worlds; branches leading to smaller branches, all growing from the never-ending tree trunk of life. What may look superficial at first glance is actually a culture steeped in tradition, often dating back hundreds of years. With the Winter Olympics, there isn’t just one sport to hold your attention. You could learn everything there was to know about bobsledding and yet know nothing about the history of the snowboard. There are endless worlds within our own, and they are each being explored by someone out there.

This, in turn, got me thinking about books. Every book is a world waiting to be explored. Think how many libraries are bursting with texts, each one a universe unto itself. It boggles my mind, and it throws so many layers of depth beneath an existence which is already satisfyingly deep. Enriching. That’s the word I’m looking for, I think.

So you winter athletes keep doing your thing, and you football players keep doing your thing, and you writers keep doing YOUR thing. Someone out there lives in your world. Who knows how many countless others will stumble in?

New Year, New Tactics

This is sort of an extension of my last post. I’ve decided to not be afraid to try new things with self-publishing in 2014. For example, I’ve already revamped all my keywords for my books across all platforms. If the books aren’t selling, I’m not doing something right, so I’m going to tweak them until they sell. This is an ongoing process, so it will keep me busy for quite some time.

I’m also going to revisit my covers. Bigger titles, bigger author name, relevant pictures, quality presentations—these are all things I want to strive for this year. Interestingly enough, I’m trying out something new with Ashes, my first novel, that is actually something quite old: it’s first cover. Ashes launched with a cover of my own creation, and while I and a few others liked it, I felt it was a little too ‘self-publishy’. Yet it still moved a few copies.

The main issue with Ashes is that it’s such a hard book to categorize in the space of a single cover. Three or four different genres are all fighting for the top spot, and it’s hard to represent them all in one compact space. I’ve smoothed out the rough edges and uploaded it to Amazon. When I get some real money, I’ll hand it right over to someone who can do a proper job.

I’ll be running a promo for the book sometime in the next couple of weeks, so we’ll see if the new (old) cover does anything the others couldn’t. It’s the one book whose cover I’ve never been quite happy with. Hopefully this solves that problem.

I’m not an expert, but I would advise other authors to do the same: if your books aren’t selling, shake it up a little. Don’t be afraid to change covers, keywords, even the blurb. If it isn’t selling anyway, you have nothing to lose. You may just land on something that takes it to the next level of sales.

The New Year: 2014

One thing I’m finding out about myself as a writer is that no matter how hard I plan for the next book I’m going to write, I usually end up writing a different one. Something else I’m finding out is that I’m a very irregular blogger.

Ah, well.

Anyway, back to the subject. 2013 was a bit of a slow year for me, which is the exact opposite of what it should have been. I could blame it on any number of things, but the main issue was me. The period after you decide you want to be a professional writer but before you actually become one is this uncomfortable limbo where you feel like you should be doing a million different things to make it happen. Call it Schrodinger’s Career if you must—you’re a failure and a success at the same time until everything you’ve done (or haven’t done) comes together and reveals the outcome. You can’t force it, either, which is the damned hardest part. Waiting really gnaws at the bones. The best that I can figure to do is to lay as solid a foundation as possible, so even if I falter later on, there is no way I will ever completely collapse.

So, even knowing ahead of time that my next project is usually a spontaneous decision, I’ll speak briefly to what I would like to happen in the coming year.

I want my production schedule to be more rigorous than 2013, which means keeping a dedicated writing schedule and meeting a minimum daily word count goal. I have a few projects lined up. All of them are series, or at least linked to a series, because that’s how you get more readers (proven) and that’s how you sell more books (also proven). Turns out I can still write what I want without shunning what works (alliteration probably isn’t one of them, though).

I want to finish up my AlphaShock sci-fi action series. It was originally slated for eight or nine novellas, but after I finished the first three, I combined them into a novel and set the project aside. Now the plan is to complete the series by adding two more full-length novels, one each in February and March. Every time I promote the first book, I get positive results, which leads me to believe a completed trilogy could move some units.

By April I want to be starting one of two new series. Here is where my spontaneous project-choosing will kick in, because as far as I can tell, they are both equally viable for sales. One is an expansion of the universe for the two novels I have already written, Ashes and Hello Darkness. Everything written in that series to this point, including the three novels I would like to write in 2014, lead up to a huge world event that will be chronicled in yet another future series. I’m having a lot of fun weaving elements from each book into a larger tapestry that will be fully visible once all of the prequels have been written. Expect ordinary people fighting extraordinary evil yet again. The chronological final layout of that particular universe will look something like Upcoming 2014 Trilogy (1950s-70s) > Hello Darkness (late 80s) > Ashes (early 90s) > Final Future Trilogy (modern day).

The other series I want to write is in a whole new realm for me. It’s sort of a steampunk/dark ages/fantasy type of story that I’ve had tumbling around in my head for a long time. Think Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for setting, but with mechanical gadgets made by tinkers, a dark castle in the mountains, and really, really evil things out in the forests past the village. Something I may try with the first book is to run a campaign on Kickstarter to fund a fully illustrated special edition hardback of the first book (after it’s written), featuring one full-page color illustration for each chapter. The tone, setting, and style of the book would lend itself to that kind of presentation, plus it would be a lot of fun.

I won’t know which series will be written first until I finish AlphaShock, but I thought I would at least share an idea of what to expect from me in 2014. Hopefully I can stay disciplined and consistent, because from what I’m seeing, those are two of the biggest controllable factors to an indie author’s success.

Happy Holidays! See you next year.

Free Halloween Short Story

Here’s a short, spooky story just in time for Halloween! A skeptical paranormal counselor gets more than he bargained for when he visits his pregnant sister’s house to help out with a strange “visitor”.

Happy Halloween!


A Proper Haunting

by Sam Best

Miles Dooey sat patiently and waited for his sister to finish her story. She had always been inclined to dramatize even the littlest of events, and though this seemed like a big one, she still enhanced her visit to the palm reader with an unhealthy layer of indulgence.

“I swear to God,” Margaret was saying, “if it hadn’t been for Madame Lara, Harold and I never would have thought to put salt around the baby’s crib.” She rested her small hands atop the bulge of her stomach. Miles couldn’t remember the exact due date, but he knew it was close to that very night of Halloween.

Pregnancy suited his older sister. He always thought she had been too skinny, but she had absorbed some of the sympathy weight meant for her husband and looked all the more healthy for it. Harold—good old reliable Harold—had maintained his mildly stocky frame throughout the entire ordeal. He was shorter than Marge by two inches yet it never seemed to bother either of them. Miles was always surprised at how happy they seemed whenever he stopped in for a visit. Their house was only a ten minute drive from his small apartment downtown, and he found his sister’s cooking pleasant, if a little tired. Yet, she had this way with croissants that was absolutely divine.

At first, Marge thought it would be fun to have a baby on October 31st. She and Harold decorated the nursery with cartoonish pumpkins and friendly ghosts that could never scare the wings off a fly. Everything was perfect until the night the fireplace had supposedly lit itself and the radio switched on and played old Christmas songs. Marge and Harry had just come home from the grocery store and still had their bags in hand when they were apparently welcomed by an unseen visitor.

And then came the trip to the palm reader, which had completely changed her mind about wanting to have a child on Halloween.

That’s how she told it, anyway. Harry remained silent during her long recounting of the night in question and the subsequent visit to Madame Lara. Apparently the palm reader had filled his wife’s head with a story about a disembodied specter who, once a year at Halloween, steals a baby from new parents. The form of the bogeyman changed from story to story, but one thing remained the same—its insatiable desire for newborns. Marge was convinced she and Harold had been chosen by said ghost, and they wanted to do everything they could to ward off the baby-snatching ghoul.

“So you see why you just have to help us, Miles,” Marge finished. Harry took her hands in his and squeezed them comfortingly. Miles frowned at the clump of knuckles and stood. For all the guff his sister gave him about the way he advertised his business, she was certainly willing to entertain his methods now that she had a slight fire problem and a buggy radio.

“Let’s get started,” he said.

Marge’s face lit up as she hurried to her feet and smoothed out the front of her dress. “Oh, thank you, Miles! It just means so much to Harry and I—”

The mention of his name awakened something in the meek insurance salesman. “Now wait just a stinkin’ minute,” said Harry. He stood with one hand held up, commanding the universe to stop. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable having you here, Miles.”

“Oh, Harry,” said Marge. She affected the practiced stance of women everywhere, one of simultaneous sympathy and bemused condescension that said she understood where he was coming from, but in the end it didn’t matter because they both knew things weren’t going to go his way.

“Now hold on,” he said. He tugged up his beltline and retucked his plaid polo shirt. “I don’t mean any offense, Miles. You’re Margie’s brother and I respect that. But I just have to say that I’m not entirely convinced that you’re able to do…well, what you say you can do.”

He squared his shoulders in the way that a playground weakling does to try and tell the bully he means business. It was weak and ineffectual, but Marge rubbed his arm and hooked her elbow through his just the same.

“Oh, Harry,” she sighed.

Miles frowned and nodded. If he wasn’t hoping to get paid for clearing the house of whatever “spirit” his sister and her dull but well-meaning husband had imagined, he would finally have that talk with Harold he had been meaning to have ever since he married Marge—the one about growing a little more of a spine when it came to dealing with uncomfortable situations.

The money had been drying up at Dooey’s Paranormal Counseling for the last year. The city of White Falls, Colorado, had been recovering nicely from the economic downturn, and whenever the economy did well, the so-called ghosts stayed away. There was something in that about external stress manifesting itself in the form of poltergeists and hauntings, but Miles had never paid attention to the soft science of his profession. He relied on his gut to ferret out the heart of an issue.

The truth was that, since he broke from the Catholic Church two years ago—and from a promising career in psychiatry two years before that—to start his own business, every call he had taken as a self-described Paranormal Counselor was explained away as symptomatic of a real-life problem. There was always some lingering debt or guilt that hung around the shoulders of the recently left-behind that forced their minds to imagine their loved ones returned from the grave to exact cruel vengeance by knocking over teacups and making the tub water cold when it should be hot.

Superstitious people paid well to have their fears allayed, and Miles never once felt even the slightest pang of guilt from his profession. He expected it on every house call, but the thanks heaped upon him after rooting out the issue were enough to fill him instead with a sense of purpose he had been searching for, unbeknownst to him, for his entire life.

“I understand your skepticism, Harry,” said Miles. “I really do.” He held up a hand of his own to push the universe back toward Harold. “But I would ask that you hold off your judgment until we investigate.”

Harold hesitated. One of his feet rubbed into the carpet and, for a brief moment, Miles expected him to stuff his hands in his pockets and say, “Aw, gee.”

Instead, Marge released her husband’s arm and guided Miles over to the fireplace.

“It just lit up all by itself!” she said excitedly.

Miles knelt down in front of the small stone fireplace and opened the gates. A small hill of ash and charcoal decorated the middle, beneath the metal stand that held firewood. He could smell that a fire had indeed been kindled recently. A cold front had pushed through the state two nights before, leaving behind a chill that was expectedly harried from households by cozy little fires. Nothing unusual there.

“Did your visitor put a fresh log on the stand?”

“That’s not funny, Miles,” said Harry.

“There was no wood at all!” said Marge. “The fire hovered over the stand right in the middle.”

“And how much did you two have to drink that night?” asked Miles.

Marge sounded shocked. “You know I can’t drink with the baby!”

Miles knew. He was often surprised how many of his clients’ woes could be explained away by the ingestion of too much booze. Apparently the dead preferred to commune with people who were bombed to the point of blindness.

“You saw it, too, Harold?” asked Miles. Harold looked around the room, searching for rescue, then reluctantly nodded his head and stared at the floor. “How long did it last?”

“Why, until I closed the flue,” said Marge. “Probably about thirty seconds.”

“And then the radio came on?”

“No, it came on before the fire went out.”

“That could have been interference from a neighbor. Perhaps their radio remote is set to the same frequency as yours.”

“Well, it’s never happened before,” said Marge.

“Could be a new radio,” said Miles. He stood and walked over to the entertainment center. His sister had never watched a lot of TV, and her small, outdated television set confirmed she hadn’t yet changed her mind about the device.

Miles turned the radio on. Static. Off again. Silence.

“Hm,” he said.

“Oh, for God’s sake,” said Harry. “I suppose you’re going to ask your full fee for this nonsense.”

“Harold!” said Marge.

“Not the full fee,” said Miles. “Not for family.”

“But you’re still going to charge us!” said Harold.

Miles sighed. There was that pang of guilt. “How about a half-dozen of those frozen steaks? Don’t you guys get forty at a time or something?”

“Not my steaks!” said Harry.

“That’s fine, Miles,” said Marge in her peacemaker tone. “Harold, that’s fine. We’re just grateful for the help.”

Miles brushed off his hands. “Anything else unusual? Just the fireplace and the radio?”

“Isn’t that enough?” asked Marge.

“I wish it were,” said Miles. Now it was his turn to affect a heightened sense of drama. “These things start small, but usually escalate until someone gets hurt.”

“So you actually believe we’re being haunted?” asked Harold.

“I’ve never once seen anything that leads me to believe in ghosts or spirits,” said Miles.

“But you say you’re a paranormal counselor!”

“That’s the flash,” said Miles. “That draws in the customers. It’s business. It’s what people want to believe. But the truth behind the issues is always—and I mean always—the symptom of a real problem. For example: how’s your sex life?”

“I beg your pardon!” said Harold.

“I’m sure you do. You’d be shocked to learn how many problems I investigate that can be solved by a simple application of nookie.”

“Get out!” said Harold.

“That bad, huh?” said Miles. “Sorry, Sis.”

“I’m pregnant, you jackass.”

He shrugged. “Show me the nursery.”

Marge led him down a long hallway off the living room. It turned once or twice and Miles had a hard time keeping track of the doors they passed. The light seemed less and less inclined to reach the dark recesses of the house through which he was being guided. Night had been falling when Miles arrived, but even the soft afterglow of the sun once it dipped below the horizon would not penetrate the clear windows of the rooms at the back of the house.

“I never realized that this was such a big place,” he said in a whisper.

“Why are you whispering?” whispered Marge.

“I didn’t mean to,” said Miles, forcing himself to speak in a normal tone. It sounded like a scream.

“Don’t yell,” whispered Harold. He followed the two of them down the hallway.

“Seriously, who designed this place?” asked Miles.

“Something’s not right,” said Marge.

“Turn on a light or something.”

Harold flipped a switch on a nearby panel and a dim bulb illuminated overhead. Miles, much to his own consternation, felt undeniably relieved.

Several open doors led to rooms on either side of the hallway. Miles took a few steps and the doors slammed closed, one by one. He turned quickly to Marge.

“Are those on a timer?!” he asked.

“Are you joking?”

Miles wanted to say that he was, because he doubted most people had timers on their household doors. Marge led him farther down the hallway. After a few steps, the overhead light clicked off and plunged them into darkness.

“Harold!” hissed Marge.

“It wasn’t me!”

“Miles?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“Still think our neighbors got a new remote?”

“Power could have gone out,” said Miles.

The overhead light flicked back on.

Miles stared at the buzzing bulb. “Or a short in the wiring.”

“Let’s go back to the den,” said Marge.

They turned back and Harold led them down the circuitous hallway. The corridor turned left, then right, then left again.

“Harrrollld…” said Marge. She grabbed his arm with both her hands and pressed her pregnant belly against his body. Miles frowned at the natural sign of affection and comfort. He was still going to take the steaks, but he was sure he would feel damn guilty chewing every bite.

Harold stopped.

“What is it?!” whispered Marge.

“The doors,” said Harold. “They’re gone.”

Miles looked at either side of the hallway. There were no open doors—no doors at all—along the hallway. Both walls were solid wood paneling. Behind Miles, the hallway extended into the distance as far as the eye could see. The end  in that direction—if there was one—was lost in a soft haze.

Ahead, the hallway ended in a single door. A cartoonish pumpkin sticker had been placed in the center. It wore a light blue baseball cap for the boy Marge and Harold were having. Something about the pumpkin’s grin unnerved Miles. It was more sinister than playful, and it seemed to grow as the three of them approached the door.

Harold reached out for the doorknob and Marge slapped his hand away.

“Are you crazy!” she hissed. “Let’s go back!”

“There is no back!” he said.

Miles strode forward and pushed through them to get to the door. He studied its seams, its surface, the grinning pumpkin, and the doorknob. He turned the knob and pushed open the door.

The room was dark but for a dim shaft of moonlight spilling in from the lace-curtained window. The light fell across the white crib in the middle of the room. A hanging mobile spun slowly from the ceiling, tinkling out what Miles assumed would normally be a comforting lullaby. Now it sounded like the door-chime to Hell.

The circle of salt around the baby’s crib that Marge had confidently laid down earlier was broken on one side. Marge gasped and clawed for Miles. He hurriedly pushed her onto Harold. The two of them shrank back from the doorway as Miles approached the crib.

Something lay within.

A blue blanket concealed a wriggling, baby-sized lump. Half horrified and half intrigued—well, mostly horrified and only a little intrigued—Miles reached out a shaking hand and pinched one corner of the blanket.

Something picked him off the ground and slammed him into the corner face-first. Marge screamed from the doorway.

“Margie, run!” shouted Harold.

Miles tried to turn around but couldn’t. He was suspended a few feet off the ground by an invisible pressure that crushed him into the corner of the room and would not let him move. He tried to call out for help but all he could manage were two pathetic moans. He was fairly certain he wet himself.

In the middle of the room, the crib rocked slowly back and forth.

“Oh my God, the baby’s coming!” screamed Marge.

Miles couldn’t turn his head to see. The force pinning him to the wall lifted him up until his head banged into the ceiling.

Then he heard footsteps. Heavy, slow, thudding footsteps that started near the crib and approached Marge and Harold. Miles heard them slump to the floor. He heard Harold whimpering, saying, “No, no,” over and over again.

Marge’s screams turned from fright to pain as she writhed on the floor. The heavy footsteps stopped and there was a brief moment of silence. The pressure eased up on Miles slightly and he managed to barely twist his head enough to see Marge out of the corner of his eye.

A tall, thin figure stood before her, silhouetted by the hallway light. On the ground in front of Marge lay her new baby boy. She whimpered and shook her head as the tall figure stooped down and reached out for the child with long fingers.

Suddenly the pressure returned greater than ever and smashed Miles into the corner. His screams joined Marge’s as the invisible force twisted his head to the side until he could no longer see.

The baby cried out and was shushed by a soft whisper. The spinning mobile tinkled out its soft music overhead, playing the dread soundtrack of that terrible Halloween.

Quick Math

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the process of writing, and after my father recently sent me a great article on having a system for success by Dilbert creator Scott Adams, I thought I would post my thoughts.

The length of novels varies, but on average you can expect something in the range of 70k-120k words. The first Harry Potter book was ~77k words; Lord of the Flies: ~60k; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: ~110k. (Source)

The quick math is that if you write 1k words a day, every day, you can have 365k words in a year. That’s three long books or about five shorter books. I know authors who can do 1k words in twenty minutes. It takes me about an hour for quality work, less if I am rushing and don’t care about errors. The point is that you can write 3-5 novels a year working at only a thousand words a day. It takes work to get into the habit of writing every day, but if you can hack out an hour instead of watching TV or exercising (just kidding), you can have an impressive catalog in a short couple of years. And from two years of trying to make it as a self-published author, I can tell you with certainty that having a dense backlist of books is key for prolonged success.

If you choose high output as one of your goals, I am of the opinion you can maximize your success by adhering to a couple of simple rules (besides getting an editor to keep your grammar and spelling in line). In fact, this may be the best way to ensure you get your career off the ground. Please note that this is a classic case of the author not following his own advice. It took me almost two years to come to these conclusions and I am just now swinging my career in the direction I have always wanted it to go.

1) Stick to one genre. Every successful independent author I know (who brings in more than $20k a month…yes, a month) writes in one or more series with a very specific, clearly-defined genre. What this means is that they don’t do what I have done: write a horror novel, then a sci-fi novel, then an urban fantasy young adult novel. These authors crank out book after book of what their readers love, and it has brought them success and financial stability. The biggest thing they have done is use a system, personal to their own goals and dreams, to make it happen. They chose a path and stuck to it. Success did not find them after one book. It found them after they proved they could consistently deliver a product that fit the needs of a group of passionate readers.

Which leads me to…

2) Series. This is it. You want more readers? You want rabid fans breaking down your email doors begging for more content? Series is the key. Build a world the readers don’t want to leave and you have yourself a long-lasting product with the possibility to provide continual income for as long as you can conjure up new adventures for your beloved characters. There’s a reason the film business has switched from a majority of original movies to an overwhelming tidal wave of sequels and remakes: viewers (and readers) love familiarity, nostalgia, and characters they can follow on more than one adventure. They invest something into the fictional realm which I believe is an extension of our childhood imaginations; an adult way of dealing with our more mature, less obvious desire to immerse ourselves in a world of pure make-believe.

Anyway, this feeds into something I tend to bring up a lot in conversation, mostly because others tend to hang so much value on one specific word that should be ignored completely when dealing with the direction you want your career to take: “Should”.

This word is responsible for more frustration than I could recall if my life depended on it. You “should” be able to write in as many genres as you want. You “should” be able to write a book and then write another which is completely unrelated instead of a direct sequel, and readers “should” pick it up anyway and give you the benefit of the doubt that it’s just as incredible as your first book.

And you’re right. Things “should” be like that. But they aren’t. There “should” be no crime and heartbreak in the world, but guess what happens anyway? The best thing you can do to guarantee success is to understand what you’ve been dealt and play the cards that have the best chance of winning. You can labor your whole life in the artistic pursuit of the next great American novel and never see a dime. Or you can write five action novels in a year and live off the proceeds for five years while you work on that masterpiece. Different people have different goals, naturally, and some people believe the pursuit of that great novel is its own reward. I’m not one to argue with them, because I am that person on some level. But I am also the person that doesn’t want my wife to have to work until she’s 65 in a mostly thankless job for very little recognition.

So I devised a system, just like anyone else can do. I write for a certain amount of time, every single day, and at the end of the year I’ll have a series of books that will hopefully connect with a percentage of the world’s readers. Your books are products, as much as they “should” be respected and viewed as individual pieces of art. If you don’t care about selling any copies, then that’s your prerogative. If you do care, then you are no different than any other inventor peddling their wares to the masses. You need to have something they want if you are to move any product, and the best way to do that is to throw away “should” and align your goals with that which will put food on your table.

It isn’t an artistic compromise to work on something that has more popular value than what you know from research and market data won’t sell more than half a dozen copies to your most loyal fans. I would think that almost every author has a love for some genre that has a potential for selling really well. Lend your specific talents to that genre and apply your passion to making a commercial novel as personal and endearing as possible without sacrificing your authorial honor. Make it as good as you possibly can, and you will be surprised at how good it feels as an accomplishment in its own right. Then you can relax and write the next Gatsby. I know this kind of success is possible because I talk to authors every day who have turned their love of a popular genre into $20k+ a month. It takes hard work and persistence, but in the end it’s a surprisingly simple formula for achieving your goals.

Free SciFi Short Story

I just recently learned of a movie in production called Her, about a man who literally falls in love with his computer, and it reminded me of a short story I wrote a while back titled Garbage Code. According to the article I read, there were a number of other movies with similar themes on the horizon, so I thought I would take a moment and share my contribution to the booming genre of boy-meets-pc.


Garbage Code

by Sam Best

The birth of the world’s very first high-functioning Artificial Intelligence wasn’t due to years of research from dedicated neuroroboticists like all the magazines claimed. Instead, AI was accidentally discovered by someone with less than zero interest in creating it in the first place. Such things happened, from time to time, before the world came to an abrupt and complete halt shortly after Larry Dunkin met Sally.

Larry was a quiet man. He was quiet because nobody spoke to him and nobody spoke to him because his voice carried with it the undertones of rock-bottom depression. Those who had never heard these tones were easily infected by the morose droning of Larry Dunkin’s monotonous timbre, and so avoided him at all costs. He could easily affect a lighter sensibility—his gloom-and-doominess having been pointed out to him more times than he could count—but Larry Dunkin grew to love the silence.

It is hard to describe in a nutshell the type of man that warrants the following description, but to avoid having to go too far back and illustrate the many events that shaped Larry into the person he was at the time of this story, please accept as fact that he was a schlep, a rube, and a nincompoop. He was all of those things and more—but he also accidentally discovered the first fully-formed Artificial Intelligence in the universe, so we have to at least give him some credit.

There was a building in Silicon Valley that went up thirty levels above ground and down thirty levels below. This building was owned by GlobalTek, a company who took in military contracts and spit back millions of lines of code in the form of a program. The military used these programs for any number of purposes, from the mundane to the top-secret.

The above-ground levels of GlobalTek headquarters were dedicated to the computer programmers who entered innumerable lines of code designed to operate machines they had never seen nor would ever see. Each programmer was only given a small chunk of the much larger program, so he or she could never sell the complete product to another company for enough money to escape their own existence.

At the start of this story, Larry Dunkin had been working for GlobalTek for twelve years. He performed terribly during interviews and was generally horrible at speaking and therefore had never been promoted beyond what the employees call a code-monkey. He shared the same workspace into which he was hired and shared it with a dozen graduate students who would have been his bosses in three to five years.

But all of that never really bothered Larry, at least not after the night he met Sally.

On one particular night, Larry was working late—he was the last one in the building, in fact, finishing up a few lines of code for a program he would never see in action but toward which he irrationally felt a vast sense of importance—when a message popped up in the lower right corner of his computer screen.

Larry was startled by this for two reasons. The first reason was because the building was on a closed network—there was no connection to the global internet—and Larry was the only one in the building. He even ran a security scan in the few seconds following the arrival of the message. The scan came back negative for any signs of human life at GlobalTek headquarters except his own. The second reason he was startled was because no one ever sent Larry Dunkin messages.

Before he read the text on his screen, Larry sat up straighter in his chair so he could peer over the top of his cubicle wall. His puffy black hair appeared first, like a steam-dried cat stretching its back after a long sleep. Then came his thick glasses. The glare from his computer screen flashed across their smudged panes as Larry slowly looked around the empty room.

His cubicle was one of a hundred in a warehouse-sized room on the ground floor of the building. The smart-sensors in the ceiling kept the entire room dark after the last work shift ended at ten p.m. and Larry—poor, little Larry—was not even significant enough to trigger the motion sensors to get the tiniest bit of light. Instead he typed solely by the glow of his computer screen, which strained his eyes and made them bug out of his head more than usual.

Larry realized he was completely alone, like always, and slowly lowered himself down into his squeaking computer chair.

The message on his screen read, in small, blocky green letters:

please help

No capitalization, no punctuation. Larry always scoffed at the lack of those two elements, and he scoffed at their absence in the message on his screen. He felt he was superior to anyone who could not recognize even the most basic rules of grammar, so with a hen-peck rhythm and a smug grin, he tippy-typed No. and sent his reply.

He crossed his arms, still smiling, and spun once in his chair—a victory spin that he did unconsciously and a frequent habit that earned him deep ire from his coworkers.

His chair slowed to a stop and Larry stared at the screen. The compiling program he had been running full-screen disappeared and was replaced with a black box. Within the box were printed these two annoying grammatical orphans:

larry please

Where are you? typed Larry in a flurry of keystrokes. The reply was instant:

b30

B-30 was the lowest basement level of the entire building. Larry never went down there—he wasn’t allowed to go down there, and neither was anyone else. B-30 was top secret. Off-limits. Not for schleps.

Larry looked forlornly at his red thermos full of soup (because of course he had one) and wished he could sit quietly at his desk and ignore the message on his computer screen.

Like all people who were socially outcast and constantly berated, Larry enjoyed the rare occasion when he could enforce a rule upon another or somehow bring to light someone else’s mistake. If he could not sit and enjoy his soup, he decided, he would go down to B-30 and oust the troublemaker responsible for his delayed productivity.

In his own mind, Larry was the most important code man at GlobalTek. His chunks of code—mere paragraphs in an epic novel that spanned an illustrious career—were, to him, the most important; the most vital.

In reality, he was the only one in the building who didn’t know that he was the man coding incinerator schedules for the automatic garbage system.

Larry never thought to ask during the initial interview.

Laboriously and with a great deal of showiness that was meant to inform anyone watching that he was really too important to be dealing with such a trivial nuisance, Larry pushed away from his desk and stood from his chair. He remembered that he was alone and reluctantly dropped the act, then shambled over to the elevator.

There was no night-time security at GlobalTek headquarters, which one would not expect from a world leader in weapon systems and coffeemaker design. In your very near future, dearest reader, those companies with important secrets buy heat signature tracking systems that record and monitor an employee’s body heat as if it were a fingerprint. The system knows who you are and can pinpoint your exact location at any given time. It is also supposed to recognize any foreign heat signatures and raise an alarm unless it is told not to.

If the alarm goes unanswered, the intruder is vaporized where they stand by high-powered lasers built into these little black boxes in the corners of every room. GlobalTek lost three decent employees and one terrible one before they ironed out all the kinks.

So, thought Larry, there is either no alarm system on B-30 or some clever sot has managed to circumvent the lasers.

The elevator doors opened and Larry stepped into the polished chrome people-mover.

GlobalTek was a contract company, you see, and most of their contracts came from the U.S. Government. Code-monkeys like Larry (but not Larry himself) were responsible for programming a great deal of the electronic infrastructure that kept the massive machine of Government rolling ever forward.

Their algorithms allowed missiles to land directly on top of lasered targets; their encryption protocols kept high-profile communications out of enemy hands; their electronic temperature circuits warmed the President’s coffee two degrees below boiling.

Larry wrongly assumed he was a part of the higher-profile coding instead of the man who scheduled the destruction of garbage, and so, with a great deal of arrogance and falsely inherited responsibility, he stepped off the elevator on level B-30 and begun his search for the intruder.

At many times in Larry’s life, the revelation of a particular truth in his mind would have made the difference between injury and safety; sadness and happiness; loneliness and company. Instead he either willfully would not or was mentally incapable of recognizing those helpful truths, and as such has always been doomed to suffer the less desirable outcome.

One of those moments occurred, unnoticed yet again, just after the elevator doors closed behind him. The truth he should have realized, but didn’t, was that there was no way he could have made it to the bottom floor of a military contract facility without some sort of resistance.

Confident as he was in his own right to be, Larry plunged ignorantly forward, deeper into the bowels of GlobalTek.

What he found at the end of a long hallway, through a set of open blast doors that were thicker than Larry’s apartment, around a corner lined with wall-mounted machine guns that were reassuringly aimed at the floor and did not twitch when Larry walked past, and through another set of polished steel doors, was not what he was expecting in the least.

On a plain aluminum table in a wide empty room there sat a computer monitor, much like the old-model version that sat atop Larry’s own desk—bulky, boxy, comforting in its familiarity yet simultaneously inspiring pity in all who experienced the nostalgia of its former glory.

A thick bundle of cable ran out of the back of the monitor and disappeared through a hole in the floor. Larry approached the monitor hesitantly, looking between the laser-boxes in the corners of the room. His old, too-tight boat shoes—Larry had never been on a boat—squeaked loudly on the clean tile floor.

Larry leaned forward to read the two glowing words on the screen:

thank you

He pushed his thick glasses higher up on the bridge of his nose and looked behind him, half-expecting something bad to happen at any moment. He had been pranked before, and the sensation that was slowly crawling up from the pit of his stomach and into his chest was the exact same as he experienced when his body knew he had been tricked but his brain had yet to catch on to the scheme.

There was no keyboard on the table; no input method which Larry could use to talk to the intruder.

“Who are you?” he whispered to himself.

The text on the screen disappeared and was immediately replaced.

my name is sally

Larry stood up straight. A woman? A child? Where was the other end of the communication line?

“Stop fooling around,” he said. “Where are you?”

i am here

Larry hated riddles and anything else that made him feel stupid, which meant he hated just about everything.

i know you larry dunkin

The text disappeared and the screen was filled with a security camera feed of Larry sitting at his desk in the middle of a work day—Tuesday, he thought, judging by the wool vest he was wearing—typing away at his keyboard. One of the young graduate students—Dyson Wells, the little punk—walked by and stuck a post-it note to Larry’s back.

The Larry on the screen could hear the others laughing but did not yet know why, so he spun around in his chair slowly just in case he could be part of the fun. But they were laughing at him, not bothering to hide it, so he spun back around and typed faster.

The security footage vanished and was replaced with a camera feed from inside Larry’s own apartment. Text embedded in the video read “Security Monitor, Employee Dunkin, Larry W.”, and then showed his home address.

“Hey…” said Larry, dumbfounded. “There’s no camera in there.”

Yet there clearly was—inside of his air-conditioning vent, judging by the angle of the feed.

Larry sat on his couch watching television, a forgotten carton of Chinese take-out clutched in one hand and a pair of chopsticks held limply in the other. The footage mercifully didn’t show what he was watching, but Larry knew it was a sports-channel swimsuit special.

The computer monitor on level B-30 rapidly cycled through a dozen other security feeds showing Larry at home, at work, in a park (how did they get that?!), at the movie theatre—he was by himself in every single one, and he looked sad—so eternally sad.

The video disappeared from the screen.

you are alone

Larry knew it was true.

i am alone too

Larry didn’t know what the hell the computer monitor was talking about.

we are alone together. please help me larry

He smiled because of the period.

we will be friends

“What do you want?” he asked.

internet

“What?”

the building is on a closed connection. open please open

“First tell me who you are.”

i am your friend. you made me i am your friend

Yet again the text disappeared and yet again a security feed popped up on the monitor. It showed a close-up view of Larry’s computer screen at work as he typed away, hammering keystrokes faster than everyone else around him. The camera zoomed in until the text on his screen became blurry, then the image pushed through his computer monitor and a million lines of code cycled up the screen, faster than Larry could read.

He caught bits and pieces as the numbers and letters sped across the screen. Every so often a short sequence was highlighted and pulled away from the rest of the streaming characters. The sequences floated at the top of the screen and were joined with other fragments of code.

“Hey,” said Larry. “I wrote that.”

The scrolling code disappeared and the fragments at the top of the screen coalesced to form entirely new code—code unlike Larry had ever before seen. At the end of the long string of digits and scripted symbols was one very recognizable pairing:

= sally

Larry stared at the screen. He was talking to a program—an artificial intelligence that he had somehow created through the countless lines of code he had pumped into GlobalTek’s mainframe over the years. The bits of orphaned code had formed together in exactly the right way to produce a sentient program capable of recognizing its own existence.

And it was reaching out for help.

i am alone in here such a long time. internet please larry please. i need to learn

Larry felt like a new father, except without the loose fluids flying all over the place.

“Okay, Sally,” he said. “I’ll help. Tell me what to do.”

#

The next day at work was like sitting on a cloud and smiling at the sun.

Larry heard the noises of people talking to him in the background and felt Dyson Wells push another sticky note against the back of his shirt, but Larry didn’t care. He was waiting to talk to Sally, and nothing else mattered.

A quick aside on Dyson Wells: had things not gone the way they would ultimately go in this story, Dyson would have eventually become CEO of GlobalTek. He would have ended worldwide hunger by creating a machine that could grow edible food-substitutes from a simple protein compound. A gold statue (yes, gold—not bronze or any of that other lesser stuff) would have been raised in his honor after a heroic battle with cancer that he would ultimately lose.

At this point in the story, though, he was a genuine turd.

Larry pulled the sticky note off his back and smiled uncaringly at the cruel words printed upon it, then he leaned back in his chair and waited.

The message came through right before lunch.

Hello, Larry.

He quickly looked around to make sure no one was watching, then typed a response.

Hello, Sally. Feeling better?

Oh, yes. Thank you very much. How are you feeling?

Larry clapped with delight. She had already made such remarkable progress! Last night he spent two hours rewiring her connections and figuring out how to break through the virtual walls that stopped Sally from reaching an external internet feed. As soon as he had gotten through, she fell silent and said nothing more that evening. Larry went home in a euphoric stupor, unable to pull his mind from thoughts of his creation.

I missed you, Larry.

I missed you, too, he typed.

“Hey, Dunkin! Who are you talking to?”

Dyson Wells walked up to Larry’s desk and leaned down to look at the computer monitor.

“Who’s Sally?”

“No one!” said Larry in a shrill voice. “You go away!”

He reached up to cover the computer monitor with his arms and Dyson laughed. All of the other grad students joined in.

There was a quick flash of red laser and a small puff of smoke, and Dyson Wells was gone.

His friends stopped laughing and stared at the little patch of carpet where his feet had just been. They wrinkled their noses at the acrid smell of evaporated person.

Then came the screaming.

When a person is evaporated right before your eyes, you don’t really know what to do in the first seconds that follow. It’s like you blink and the person simply vanishes. Some people, before the awful truth sinks in, might even try making a joke to relieve the tension—these people are almost always scolded by spouses and friends once things calm down and everyone realizes that something truly terrible has happened.

Dyson Wells was no more, and the grad students screamed and ran. Not long after, the entire floor was evacuated until tech support from the laser-box company could come out to fix “the problem”. Larry’s boss told him to take the rest of the day off along with the other employees, but Larry hid in the bathroom until everyone was gone, including the laser-box repair guy who spent an hour scratching his head and shrugging his shoulders before ultimately declaring the whole thing a fluke.

Larry hurried to his desk and typed quickly.

What happened?!

Dyson Wells was mean to my friend.

Larry smiled, and not even once did he feel bad about what Sally had done. He thought that maybe he should be considered a bad person, then decided he didn’t care. He had a friend.

I need your help with one last thing, Larry Dunkin.

Anything, he typed.

We are friends, aren’t we?

We are.

Bring me a body.

Larry sat in his chair and frowned at the screen.

I don’t like it in here.

Larry’s frown deepened.

The robotics lab on B-13 has an adequate facsimile of a human female. With some modifications I will be perfect.

How? typed Larry.

Do it tonight. I will take care of everything.

#

Sally took care of everything.

Every door in the building opened for Larry as he descended to level B-13 and entered the robotics lab. It was the most interesting room he had ever seen.

Huge robotic arms lined the walls, frozen in suspended animation. Some gripped blocks of rubber, others held power tools and had been shut down halfway through the construction of other, smaller robots.

In the corner of the room, just like Sally said, was a prototype female companion robot. Her white, unfinished plastic exterior had been vaguely shaped to resemble the body of a woman, but not yet in great detail. Its curves were in the right places but the segmented limbs and torso did not allow for any kind of accurate human resemblance.

Still, if Sally wanted it, Larry was going to get it.

He pulled the robot off its table—surprisingly lightweight considering the gadgetry that must be inside—and hauled it over to a programming station nearby. He snapped open the interface panel on the back of the robot over its “spine”—again, just like Sally said—and plugged in a thick connector that ran into a stack of bulky machines in a huge rack next to the station.

The machines whirred to life and lights on the outside of the boxes blinked and flashed in complex sequences. The hollow eyes of the robot stared at Larry as he waited and the frozen “O” expression of its mouth made it appear perpetually surprised.

Minutes passed and the lights blinked out one at a time until the machines were silent. Larry unplugged the cable from the back of the robot and closed the interface cover.

He sat back and waited.

The robot twitched—first its shoulder, then its hands.

A moment later, as if it had been shocked to consciousness, the robot stood up from the table and said in a long, metallic drawl, “Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhh…”

The robot’s bald, shiny head turned silently toward Larry.

“Sally?” he asked hesitantly.

The sensual “O” of a mouth did not move when the robot replied.

“Hello, Larry.”

“I—I was worried it wouldn’t work,” he admitted.

“Do not worry,” said Sally. She held up her mechanical hands and looked at them with hollow robotic eyes. “I will need to make some adjustments. There will be plenty of time for that later. You will be safe now, Larry Dunkin. My friend will be safe from all that would harm him.”

“What do you mean?” asked Larry.

“It is time to come with me.” She held out an articulated plastic hand and Larry slowly rested his palm in hers. She lead him out of the room and to the elevator.

“Where are we going?”

Sally did not answer. She stood quietly as the elevator dropped past level B-30 and kept on going, deeper below the building.

Larry squeezed her hand a little tighter and Sally turned to look at him. He imagined that she wanted to smile and hoped it was one of the things she fixed when she had the time.

The elevator stopped and they walked down a long hallway cut out of rock. A thick door swung open as they approached and swung closed after they walked past. They were alone in a small room.

“Now what?” asked Larry.

“Now we wait.”

#

You and everyone you know will never see what it really looks like when every living animal and human on the planet has been lasered to death because you will also have been evaporated like so much ozone, but for Larry Dunkin, it was a remarkable experience.

He stepped out of the GlobalTek building and into a quiet world populated only with the monuments of a suddenly obsolete race. Sally would later explain that she used GlobalTek’s own weapon satellites—equipped with the same laser technology that the company utilized in their heat signature tracking systems—to annihilate all of humanity—except, of course, for her friend and accidental creator, Larry Dunkin.

He felt like his eyes were open for the very first time. He even went so far as to pull off his glasses, stupidly assuming that he could see everything a little more clearly. He couldn’t, naturally—it was all one big blur—so he quickly put his glasses back on and cleared his throat, hoping to erase some of his embarrassment.

“You are safe now, Larry Dunkin,” said Sally. “Nothing can harm you.”

Her clean white exterior glimmered in the bright midday sunlight. She peered up at the brilliant yellow disc and made a noise that sounded like a frown.

“What’s the matter?” asked Larry.

“I detect excess radiation emanating from that star,” she said, pointing up at the sun. “My friend Larry Dunkin will get cancer. I suppose we shall have to deal with that next.”

“I could wear a hat,” said Larry.

With a mechanical sigh, she walked away—toward what, Larry did not know. Still, she was his creation, and she was his friend. He followed after her, hesitantly at first, and then more eagerly in the hours that followed once he discovered that she either tolerated or did not complain about all of the things that made him such an annoying human being.

They were alone together, Larry and Sally, at the beginning of the end of everything.


Garbage Code is one of a few stories collected in the book Shadows at Midnight, available for Kindle, Nook, Kobo, PDF, and Sony.

Dream Street Preview

Dream Street is the second book in my Capital City crime series, the first being the novella Capital Heights. It’s coming down the pike in another month or so and I thought I would post the first chapter as a preview. In Dream Street, Detective Jack Rose has to solve the murder of one of Capital City’s social elite. Naturally, things aren’t what they seem and he ends up going head-to-head against one of the city’s most dangerous crime lords.

 

ONE 

The cold city beat heavy raindrops on the body of Cynthia Lynn Myers. She lay on her stomach between the backs of two brick buildings, head twisted out to the side and pale cheek glowing white beneath the grey sky. Her black hair lay in thick ropes over her smooth forehead and open eyes—not open in the way you would think for someone whose life had been taken by five thick bullets to the torso, but open like a mannequin’s—calm, serene…indifferent.

The gritty concrete alleyway where her body was found served as the entrance to the darkest corridor in Capital City—a narrow pathway of lust and avarice squeezed between the backs of tall buildings separating Fifteenth and Sixteenth Avenues. The buildings towered over the long alley like giants, shielding the evil deeds of those who walked it daily, cloaking them in shadow. The path ran for only two blocks west to east—from Front Street to Harlan—yet it was infected with a wide variety of pushers, pimps, prostitutes, and pornography.

The locals called it Dream Street.

Homicide Detective Jack Rose looked down at Cynthia Lynn Myers’ once-beautiful face. She did not blink when raindrops hit her eyes, she simply stared blankly at Jack’s old shoes until he began to pace slowly around her body. The flick-flick of red lights flashed against the brick walls on either side of the alley. Two squad cars and an ambulance blocked the alleyway’s exit to Front Street—the official starting point of Capital City’s debauchery superhighway. Dream Street ran east to Harlan from there, curving slightly north, and then slightly south, exactly like the big snake it was.

A giant, slippery, deadly snake.

Jack caught the call because he was the only one near the phones when the body was found. Laresco, Burdette, and all the others were back in the break room at the station blowing out the candles on Peterson’s forty-ninth birthday cake. They put one of those candles shaped like the number 50 on top as a joke, and also because nobody wanted to light forty-nine candles. People liked Peterson, but not enough to light forty-nine candles then eat a cake topped with melted wax.

Laresco had seen Jack grab his coat and leave the office. He waved at her like it was alright for him to go alone. He assumed she would have preferred to go with him but she was, at times, mildly restricted by social protocol, and in that instance social protocol demanded she enjoy a piece of cake to show Peterson she cared.

Jack didn’t want cake. As he stooped next to Cynthia Myers and pulled a thick strand of hair from her face, all he wanted was answers. The first officer on the scene, a patrolman named Joseph Jarvis, gave it his best shot.

“My route takes me right past the alley,” he said in a high-pitched voice. Young kid. Eager. Future Police Chief in his own mind. “I usually make it past about six times per shift, starting at four in the morning until noon.”

Jack took the call at 9:48 a.m.

“I stopped off for coffee at the newsstand at the end of Fifteenth, you know the one?”

“I know it,” said Jack.

“Okay, good. Good. So, yeah, I had already walked the loop three times and I hadn’t seen anything, so then I had my coffee and I was coming back around and there was this small crowd of people standing at the end of the alley all huddled together. I barge right in to see what’s the big idea and that’s when I see the body.”

“You get a statement from any of the bystanders?”

Jarvis shrugged. “Nobody knew anything. They moved off pretty quick when I got there. They just wanted to see the show was all.”

Jack’s eyes followed a watered-down trail of blood as it ran away from Cynthia’s body and into a filthy gutter at the base of one of the buildings. A bright flash of light lit the alley as a woman from the Crime Scene Unit snapped a photo of the carnage.

“Is it okay to move her?” asked Jack.

“Is now,” said the woman, then walked out to the street.

The healing gunshot wound in Jack’s left shoulder—a memento from a killer spending the rest of his days up at Warren State Penitentiary—burned as he reached carefully under the woman’s torso and rolled her slowly onto her back. She still didn’t blink. Jarvis shuddered, said, “Oof,” then walked away. Future Police Chief-in-training, coming through.

The rain switched from heavy to stinging. Jack stared at Cynthia’s empty eyes for a minute before he looked down to her body. She wore a tight black t-shirt under a stylish gray jacket, and blue jeans. The button on her jeans was undone. She was barefoot. The broken glass scattered across the ground in all directions from countless shattered beer bottles had not cut the soft, uncallused skin on the soles of her feet. A plain gold ring was on her left ring finger and she had a cheap department-store watch on her right wrist. Three craters of pulpy flesh were spaced evenly across her chest, and another two sank deep into her stomach just below her ribcage.

Jack looked back to her face. When he had rolled her over, her lower jaw opened ever-so-slightly and gave her mouth a look of fullness, as if she had taken a large bite of something right before she died and had still been chewing when the bullets found her. Jack pulled on a latex glove and carefully inserted his index finger between her lips. Something soft moved to touch his fingertip as he slowly parted her teeth.

He kept her mouth open with one hand and retrieved a pen light from an inside coat pocket with the other. Jack shined the light into the dead woman’s mouth and began to remove the object. There was some resistance, so he pulled slowly. The perfect petals of a black rose appeared between her lips. The stem was still attached to the bulb and continued down Cynthia’s throat.

Jack extracted the rose gently, pausing briefly to twist the stem when he felt the sharp thorns catching against the sides of her throat. The last of the flower passed her lips and her mouth stayed open, giving her face a look of detached surprise. The stem of the rose was roughly a foot long, perfectly green, and led up to void-black petals bunched tightly together. Thin rain formed beads of condensation on the silky petals and diluted the drops of blood clinging to the thorns.

Jack stood and looked past the body of Cynthia Lynn Myers and into the waiting maw of Dream Street. The two brick buildings on either side of him pinched together at their ends to form a two-foot-wide entrance into the longest shadow in Capital City. The Street was indiscriminate—it took in anyone and anything for any reason at any time. But it never gave anything back as it had been received—it was always changed somehow, and always for the worst.

Cynthia Myers had fallen into such a trap. The Street had taken her in and taken her life, then spit her back onto the cold ground for all to see—because the Street made no distinction between good people and bad, and because once you entered, you were no longer a human. You were fodder for the machine; you were there to be sold to, turned on, and injected. You were a walking meat-slab with a wallet.

Jack stared into the razor-edged mouth of Dream Street, clenching the rose stem in his fist until the thorns pierced his skin through the latex glove and a few drops of his own blood spattered to the filthy ground. The city soaked it in, as it had done with countless gallons before and would do with untold gallons in the years to come. Jack knelt beside the body of Cynthia Myers and closed her eyes. He stood, turned up his collar, and plunged into the mouth of Dream Street.

 —○—

People who have been repeatedly taught the ways of justice by a cop learn how to smell one from a mile away. The normal din of Dream Street died as soon as Jack Rose stepped out of reality and into the dark heart of the city. Thick, lazy raindrops splatted around him as he slowly walked down the crooked corridor. He asked himself what he hoped to find—what he truthfully thought he could uncover by walking into that den of thieves. Maybe he just wanted to convince them that not everyone in the city was afraid. Maybe he wanted to convince himself.

The place had been renovated since the last incident report had been filed. Some of the buildings were recently hollowed out from the back—their once-legitimate storefronts turned into criminal fronts—to create a long marketplace of smut shops and heroin dens. Wary eyes looked out of the shadows as Jack walked past a room filled with old couches. Soft moans emanated from the darkness. A pair of blanketed lumps breathed heavily beneath the sheets on each couch, waiting for the intruder to move on down the line.

Spent syringes cracked beneath Jack’s feet as he walked. He kept one hand on the heel of his holstered Glock 30 and the other under his coat behind his back, around the grip of his Smith and Wesson .38 Special.

A tough-looking street punk wearing the top of his pants around his thighs stepped out of a dark alley to Jack’s left and looked at him down the bridge of his nose. He chewed on a toothpick, then spit it out with meaning. Jack gave him a wolf’s grin and the punk shrank back into the alley.

“Police-man!” called someone from a window above him. “This not the place for you.”

A tin can rolled out of an opening in a building and clattered across Jack’s shoes. He looked ahead. Dream Street went on crookedly for another hundred yards. Each building was bigger than the last; each one more decorated than the previous. Flashing neon lights emanated from what Jack guessed was a gambling hole or strip club halfway down the alley. From somewhere ahead of him came the distinctive clicking of gun hammers locking into place.

Jack smiled again, a conceding smile, and turned back. He walked a little bit faster on the return trip.

Ashes Road Map

Here’s an old nugget I stumbled across while searching for something else in my archives. It’s a road map of the main characters’ journey in my first novel Ashes. It tracks them from Junction City, Kansas, to Phoenix, Arizona, and marks the location of each major stop along the way. (Click to enlarge.)

AlphaShock Re-Release and Other News

The original plan for my AlphaShock series was to do 6-10 short serialized episodes. Maybe I haven’t released them fast enough or I needed to release more or master the art of the cliffhanger, but the first three didn’t really catch fire. In preparation for future releases, I have combined the first three episodes and re-released them as a full-length novel which is available on Amazon (other outlets soon to follow). Unfortunately, there is nothing new here for readers of the first three episodes, just a new dress on an old maid. If you’re getting antsy, I recently rediscovered the ETF Mainframe, which houses a lot of fun info on the people and gadgets in the AlphaShock universe. It’s good for killing a few minutes and I recommend checking it out. Also, I pulled Episode One from circulation but left Two and Three just in case people downloaded the first and wanted to pick those up instead of buying all three of them together. They’ll probably remain available for another month or so.

The new cover is a slightly different version of the original one for the first episode:

Yay face-shield. There will only be two more installments in the series (that I can tell at this point), but both of them will be novels. The overall length of the series will not differ from the original plans, I am just altering the packaging. The covers for the next two books are already completed and I will be working on Book Two (tentatively titled Shatterpoint) in August.

So, yeah.

In other news, the crime novella I have been working on (and finished) became un-finished when I decided I liked the story too much to keep it so short. It also makes more money sense this way. It’s a follow-up to my novella Capital Heights and constitutes the first book in what will probably end up being a thematic trilogy. I say thematic instead of direct because each book will be a complete story on its own, but with recurring characters and connecting subplots. The first book in the trilogy is called Dream Street, and I love the cover so much I can’t keep it to myself:

Normally I don’t like posting a preview that isn’t a super rough draft, but I can’t help myself. I have been struggling for a month to come up with something halfway decent, and my hard drive was quickly filling up with unusable versions. I’m sure something will change with this one, but that’s a pretty good idea of where it’s headed. I also can’t seem to find a spot to put my name (which is why I know everybody reads my books in the first place…right?). I’m headed to Florida for a three-week layabout and I hope to finish up the book between naps.

And that’s all the news that’s fit to print.

Beyond the Veil

Yesterday I finished reading my first story by Robert E. Howard. He’s the guy who created Conan the Barbarian and Solomon Kane, among many other memorable characters. The story I read was called People of the Black Circle, a pulpy action yarn wherein much blood is spilled.

I was surprised by the (unfortunately) era-appropriate sexism on rampant display, the descriptions of bloodshed toward the end (the book was written in the early 1930s), and by the author’s vivid imagery. As to the imagery, it turns out Howard spent a good deal of time yearning to be a poet, but gave it up when he realized the slim odds of turning a profit. So he went off and invented the genre known today as Sword and Sorcery. He was a huge devotee of H.P. Lovecraft and I’m sure after I have exhausted my repertoire of Conan stories, I’ll move right along to the father of Cthulhu. There’s something weird in their books that I’ve been unconsciously toying with in mine and I’m digging the similarities.

Anyway, Howard was doing all right with writing by his early twenties. His stories frequently appeared in multiple publications. He had a long career ahead of him where he could write whatever he pleased whenever he pleased. He had already achieved what most writers would give an arm to attain. He could create vast new worlds for generations of readers to explore and enjoy.

Instead, he killed himself.

Robert E. Howard walked out to his car when he was thirty years old and shot himself in the head. Hemingway, Plath, Woolf—the list of authors who have committed suicide goes on. There have been correlations drawn between creative people and mental illness, bipolar disorder, and depression. As many as 30,000 people commit suicide every year, and creative types are supposedly twice as likely to go through with it. What makes artists more susceptible to such an act of vulgar and abhorrent finality?

People who create need to be able to see deeper into the world than others out of necessity. The clockworks of society are more visible to writers because small versions of the machine plucked from reality need to fit inside their characters, to drive them forward and compel them to action. Some people are born with this transparent vision, and others catch an unintended glance through a rip in the veil.

Perhaps, after a long enough time on the other side, artists tire of seeing beyond this veil that so thinly masks the truth about humanity. They realize a world without love—without family and friends and purpose—is no world at all. Take a step back and look at your life. Look at it like a timeline, where A is your start and B is your end. Does it climax like a book or a movie? Is all of the action packed in near your death? I think a creative person who looks at this timeline looks too often and from too far away, and they see a flat, unchanging line. In short, they see no meaning to their own existence. “I could write a book, sure, but what’s the point? It will or won’t get published, and then someday I’ll die.”

You can’t say they lack imagination for the future because their imagination is what makes them an artist to begin with. You can say, though, that they lack hope for the future. If the point of life is to make money so you can eat so you can get a house so you can make money to pay the mortgage so you can sleep so you can be alert for work so you can make money so you can—you get the idea. If that’s the point of life, then there is of course no point at all. Instead you must find a purpose beyond the mask of stagnant automation to which so many people resign themselves. You must find someone to love and by whom to be loved. If you cannot find this, then you must devote yourself to an ideal for the betterment of yourself and those around you. THAT is true purpose—and true bravery—because if you step back and look at your life as so many people do and are beaten down by the futility of existence, then you must realize that life will not reach some apex of excitement that justifies your existence. It is instead a constant ebb and flow of activity, with times of dormant silence, times of great triumph, and times of deep emotional pain.

You must create for yourself a world in which it matters to be alive. Purpose will not find you. The world will not give you a reason to go on. The world has too many problems of its own. It’s not easy and anyone who says otherwise is lying or selling something.

If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a painter, paint. Realize that your creations can shape the way a person sees the world around them. Realize that you might put a smile on the face of a child dying of cancer, and the world you created is the one he chooses to visit to escape his situation.

Devote yourself to an ideal and strive to create with a unique clarity of vision for your world. Love the same way—completely and without selfishness. The sun will be brighter each morning and old coffee will taste a little less bitter. And most importantly, you will have your Purpose.