Saturday, May 5, 2018

Mars' Wrath, or Death by Greek Fire.

The second of the Decimus Julius Virilis novels is in the hands of my publisher. The first book in the series, While the Emperor Slept, has been holding up very consistently in the historical detective slot on Amazon and a few other ebook sites. So I'm thinking the publisher is going to send a contract out for the second book and build on the momentum for the series established by the first offering.

The premise for the second books rests on a controversial historical point. The first chapter has Decimus, third in command of a brand new legion, escaping with his life after a massive eruption of fire and fury, wipes out the entire officer staff and the legion's first cohort in one fiery blast. Approximately 1100 men dying instantly. The shattered remnants of a new, and already understaffed legion, has to, after the explosion, confront another threat when Dalmatian rebels by the thousands try to overrun what's left of the hillside in a bid to wipe out the legion entirely.

All of this meticulously planned by a madmen bent on revenge.

Everything hinges, for the reader, on the concept called Greek Fire. In 9 AD, could a Greek engineer concoct a bomb using Greek Fire, using the fire basically as an igniter, which would light up a cavern underneath the hill filled with methane gas, thus causing the hill itself to explode violently.

I say 'Yes, it can and does hold up.'

Although the concoction known as Greek Fire (a formula of mixing a petroleum product, or naphtha, with other liquids, creating a fiery mix of burning flame which could not be extinguished with water or anything else) is usually associated with the Byzantines, circa the 670's AD. The formula is unknown. Soon lost, or religiously kept secret, by those who knew how to brew it up effectively. And rarely used in battle.

But . . .

In the Peloponnesian Wars between the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta (around 420 BCE) the Athenian general, Thucydides, mentions a battle where a weapon very similar to Greek Fire was used against enemy troops. In fact, he describes its application on the battle field exactly as the Byzantines used it on the battle field a thousand years later. A large metal cannon-like device strapped onto a carriage is wheeled into battle, and a column of fire is squirted out toward the enemy with devastating consequences.

So, if the Greeks had this weapon long before before the Fall of Rome, I say it's historically possible for it to happen.

Either way, it makes for a hell of a beginning for a novel.

 (I think, somewhere in my old blogs, I've posted the first chapter. Find it and read it. I think you'll like it. And you can order the first novel of the series if you look to the right and scan the books.)


Friday, April 27, 2018

Irritations and other irrational thoughts

Okay, something's bugging me. And I want you to put your two cents in (translation; I want your opinion).

Last September I finished the first full-length Smitty novel entitled, Dark Retribution. Now, for those of you are not familiar with Smitty . . . think of a dark-eyed hit-man with a rigid set of code of conduct rules. A genuine killer who only hunts, and removes, bad guys. 

I know, I know; it already sounds like a bad cliche.

But what's a cliche? It's an oft-quoted reality of life that continues in perpetuity. It's a cliche because it's true---only applied too often. Yes. Smitty is a hit-man. But he's a cliche only if he just mimics what other hit-man characters have already done.

But if he captures your attention and holds it until the bitter end . . . is he still a cliche?

Okay, this is what's bugging me. I finish the novel. I sent it in to a new publisher who specifically likes this genre. I thought the book would be a perfect fit. It was rejected. Why? Because he couldn't believe the set-up on why a hit-man would want to work with a cop in finding a serial killers. So this is what I want you to do. Read the first chapter. And then tell me if it pulls you into the story. Or, if it doesn't, tell me why it doesn't.

Convince me to change it. If it needs changing.


One

            Nerves.
            Twisted to the breaking point. Wound so tight he could barely keep his hands under control. He sat in the booth of the small diner and directly across his partner he tried to act calm. Tried to look normal. Impossible. Even when he lit his cigarette it was obvious. The hand holding the cigarette lighter danced the flame around at the tip of the cigarette like he was beating a drum. But flipping the old Zippo closed with a loud snap he slid the shaking hand into a pocket and sat back in the booth. Eyes filled with worry, he turned and stared into the gloom of a foggy night.
            Nerves.
            Fear.
            Knowing he was doing something wrong. Knowing that, if caught, it would be the end of his career. The end of everything. Ten years. Ten years as a cop. Flushed down the tubes and forgotten.  If he was caught.  If. . .
            “Artie, you all right? You feeling sick?”       
He blinked a couple of times, his partner’s voice bringing him out of his dull reverie of the night’s fog and forcing him to turn and look at the red nosed cop sitting in the booth opposite him.
            His partner for the last two years, an Irishman by the name of Joe Gallagher, sitting across from him, lowered his cup of coffee and looked at him with eyes of concern. All night long on their shift he had barely spoken three words. But then the call came to go out and check on the report of a body lying in the street down in front of Pier 86. It was another victim. Another butchered woman.  Number five for the maniac the papers had dubbed ‘The New Jack Ripper.’
            “I’m . . . fine, Joe. Fine. It’s just that, well . . . it’s the fifth prostitute killed. The fifth one on our beat. Cut to pieces like she was a piece of fine beef fresh from the slaughter house. Jesus, what a mess. And what a crowd we had to hold back. I mean, people everywhere. Reports and cameramen. Everywhere. Down to get a glimpse of the body. Sick. Just sick if you ask me.”
            His partner frowned, set the coffee cup on the table, and nodded. Yes. It had been a bloody mess. Always is when someone is eviscerated.  Just thinking about the gory mess the two of them had stumbled on made him shiver involuntarily. 
            “Listen, the shift’s over. We can write our reports tomorrow. Let me drop you off at your house. Get some rest. Drink a beer or two. Try to forget about it.”
            “You go on home, Joe. I’m supposed to go over to a friend’s house and drink a couple of beers with him. I’ll just call a cab and wait for it here.”
            Gallagher’s brown eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he sat in the booth and looked at his partner. Artie Jones was a good cop. A very good cop. Slightly bald, getting a little paunchy around the middle, always a smile on the man’s face. Yes, a good cop. But one who thought too much. Cared too much. Maybe, maybe tried too hard in trying to make the world a better place. Not that there was anything wrong in that. The trying. The caring. But sometimes it got to you. Sometimes the meanness of humanity becomes overwhelming. 
            Sometimes, to be brutally honest, it was best to not care so much and just do the job needed to be done. Better that than driving yourself into an early grave trying to save the souls of those who didn’t want to be saved.
            “All right. But get some rest, Artie. Jesus, but you look terrible. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
            Artie nodded, waved a hand, and smiled as his partner slid out of the booth and walked to the diner’s entrance. He turned and watched Joe unlock the door to the black and white patrol car and slide in. It was almost one in the morning. Dark. The street lights glowing a dull orange yellow, filling the wind-swept street with an eerie feeling almost palpable.
            What if the sergeant found out? The Louie? What if someone sees him talking to him?   Hell! Was he even going to meet him tonight?  I mean . . . come on! He was a cop. He was supposed to stay away for this guy unless he was arresting him for a crime committed. But hell. Everyone knew they needed a break. His discreet phone call to the phone number Smitty advertised in the paper, done on a landline in an office building where no one knew him, asking for help, could get his ass fired if anyone found out. Everyone knew Smitty. Supposedly the very expensive security consultant/private detective who worked out of a small set of offices over on Brewer Street. A one of a kind professional who hired out at top dollar, usually to large corporate clients who needed his kind of specialty, i.e., meaning industrial espionage, yet he also worked for individuals. Rich individuals, but not necessarily always rich individuals. But there were the rumors as well. Every cop in the city knew the rumors. He was supposed to be the mob’s top hit man. He was supposed to be invisible. He wasn’t even really known by those who employed him, for chrissakes! No two mobsters brought in for questioning ever described Smitty in the same fashion. He was tall. He was short. He had shaggy brown hair. He was a blond with a flat top crew cut. He was heavy built. He was a slim as a toothpick. Whenever a victim of a contract killing was found there wasn’t a single piece of evidence linking Smitty to anything. No video. No witnesses. No prints. No residual evidence. 
            Crazy. Just crazy.
            No one could pin anything illegal on this guy. All anyone could say for sure was the guy was an absolute merciless killing machine. He somehow could slip in, silence his victim, and slip out and no one would know until hours later. And he had connections. Knew everyone who was anyone to be known on the streets. That was the deciding factor. That was the single point for him to get this wild idea. Ask Smitty for help. The police department, the entire city, was baffled. Scared. Frozen in indecision. This madman left no traces. He left no evidence behind. He left no DNA material behind. It was like, like he was a ghost who prayed upon those who practiced the oldest profession in the world. No one knew why.
            So maybe it would take a ghost to find a ghost. A killer to stop a killer.
            A shaking hand ran across his lips as he looked down at his coffee cup. With the cigarette between his fingers he reached for the cup just as he heard the noise of an approaching car through the plate glass window beside him. Lifting the cup Artie turned to look outside.
            He froze in mid motion. Eyes almost popping out of his head with a mixture of surprise and horror.
            A cab–an old Ford Crown Victory–battered and abused, sitting parallel to the curb in front of the diner, its right rear door open. Waiting. Waiting for someone to get in. The clatter of his cup slipping out of his fingers and bouncing on the table top made everyone in the diner turn and look at him. Blinking a couple of times, color draining from his face, he stared at the taxi for a heartbeat or two and then turned to look at the eight or ten people sitting in the dinner.
            They were staring at him. Faces puzzled. Or bemused.
            “Hey, buddy!” the guy behind the diner’s long counter said, holding a phone up to one ear and staring at him irritably. “It’s the cabby outside. He’s says the meter’s running. So how about it? You want him to take you someplace or not?”
            Artie Jones stared at the diner’s chief cook for a moment in shock and turned his head back to look out the window and at the waiting taxi. He hadn’t called for a taxi. The story he told his partner about going over to see a friend tonight in a taxi was just that. A story. So how . . . how . . . how . . ?
            “Hey, Mac! Some time tonight, okay? I got orders to complete.”
            Artie felt himself nodding. Moving his hands and his body to slide out of the booth. He felt himself walking down the length of the diner and out through the entrance into to the hot night. Like an out of body experience he saw himself walking down the sidewalk toward the open door of the cab and folding himself up and sliding into the back seat. He saw himself close the cab’s rear door. Felt the cab accelerate away from the curb rapidly.
            Saw it all. Experienced it all. Yet couldn’t believe it. Didn’t want to believe it. It was so surreal. So bizarre!
            The car accelerated hard down the street and then made a sudden right-hand turn. A block later it turned again sharply, and turned again straight into an alley. The headlights went off as the car bounced and rolled down through the alley rapidly and came out on the opposite street. The lights snapped by on as the car slowed down.
            In front of him all he saw as the back of the head and the upper shoulders of a man wearing a cabbie uniform. Glancing down at the back rest directly in front of him he looked for the small plastic pocket which was supposed to show the cabbie’s license and photo. There was no license. No photo. But there were eyes. Cold black orbs staring at him. Reflecting off the rear-view mirror whenever a sliver of street light flashed past.
            Cold eyes. Hard eyes. The eyes of a killer.
            “I hear you’ve been looking for me.”
            A surreal, almost rasping harsh whisper. Coming out of the darkness of the front seat.  Unnerving.  Making Artie involuntarily wince.
            “Smitty?”
            “That’s what some people call me, Artie. But I answer to a number of different names.”
He felt a cold chill run down his spine. He tried to swallow. Tried a couple of times. But he was so scared there was nothing to swallow. He lifted a hand up to his face. Almost. But he stopped suddenly when the whisper exploded in the darkness. Like a scalpel flashing out of the darkness. 
            “Make sure you keep you hands away from your gun, friend. Away from any pockets. Understand?”
            Artie hesitated, looked at his hands, and then back up at the rear-view mirror and nodded.
            “Good. Now tell me.What does an honest cop like you want to talk to a man like me?”
            How was he going to do this? How was he going to ask for help? He was a cop, for chrissakes. Cops go after the bad guys. Cops solves the murder cases. Cops are the ones who are supposed to protect the public from madmen like, like this new Jack the Ripper. Or from the likes like Smitty.
            “Well, you see, we’ve, we’ve got a problem. There’s man we’re after. Crazy. Insane. A fucking madman. He’s going around killing women. Prostitutes. And we’ve got nothing. Absolutely nothing. He’s been killing for the last four months. We know about as much now about this guy as we did when we found the first body.”
            The cab flew down empty streets. Never staying on one street for more than two blocks. Swift, hard turns right and left. Mostly right-hand turns. A few left. But in general Artie got the feeling they were traveling in one twisted, jagged, clockwise circle. Somehow he knew that when this conversation was over he would he would not return to the diner.
            “So what is it you want me to do.”
            It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t a statement. It was decision time. For Artie. Say what had to be said, Artie. Say it firmly and without hesitation. Let the Angel of Death, as some people whispered this man actually was, decide if he would help or not.
            “We’ve got to take this guy off the streets. We’ve got to stop him. Stop him before he kills again.  So, so I’m asking you to help us.”
            Silence.
            Slivers of light exploding in the interior of the cab momentarily as they slid underneath a street light. Explosions of light. Followed by enveloping, inky darkness. Surreal. Down the empty streets the cab flew. Streets walled in on both sides by long rows of old apartment buildings and brand new apartment complexes. Sitting in the back seat of the cab Artie waited. Waited for some kind of response to come out of the front seat. Waited.  And waited. Each passing second working like a carpenter’s file sliding across raw nerves.
            When the dark figure in front answered the man’s harsh whisper almost sent Artie screaming out of his seat. But somehow, somehow, he controlled his urges and tried to react calmly.
            “Why would I want to help you, Artie. You or the police.”
            He blinked a couple of times. He opened his mouth to answer. But nothing came out. He realized he had no idea why this man would help him. Why would a killer hunt a killer? The only thing he could do was shrug his shoulders and shake his head in despair.
            “I can’t answer that,” he admitted and smiling weakly. “I don’t even know why I came down here. Desperation I guess. If my desk sergeant or the task force lieutenant found out I was in this cab with you I’d been suspended indefinitely. Maybe even arrested. Certainly fired.  But something tells me we’re not going to find this guy. Not by our normal methods. It’s like this guy isn’t human. He makes no mistakes. He disappears into the night. Leaves nothing behind. So I thought, I thought, you might be our best hope. Our only hope to nab this guy.”
            Silence. Again.
            The car rocking and swaying as it moved. The flashing explosions of light. The shadows of parked cars and SUVs whipping past them. The rows upon rows of town homes and apartment buildings. All of that painted in layers upon Artie’s hyper active conscience as the figure in front remained silent and drove.
            “How do you know I am not this madman? You’ve heard the rumors. You know what I sometimes do for a living. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? So tell me, why not consider me as a prime suspect?”
            He shook his head no. Silently. Vigorously. The one thing Artie was sure of was this; the guy known as Smitty wasn’t a homicidal maniac. He didn’t kill for some sickly thrill. Some perverted pleasure. Smitty was a professional. A master at blending in and out of a crowd. Of taking out his assignment with a cold efficiency a lot of his fellow police officers grudgingly admired.  And so far, so far as he knew, this dark eyed man had never killed an innocent victim. Each of his kills had been someone from out of the crime world. Someone who deservedly needed to die.
            “I know it’s not you. I know this. These murders don’t fit your MO. They don’t make sense. Your hits always make sense. You hit someone for money. But your targets are slime balls who need to be put down. Uh, no offense, by the way. About the slime ball thing.”
            A flicker of a smile flashed across the dark eyed man’s thin lips. But the eyes never blinked. They kept moving. Watching. Calculating.
            “What do I do with this man if I find him. Do I kill him? Do I hand him over to you?”
            “I dunno, Smitty. I dunno,” he answered.
            Truthfully.  He didn’t know.
            If suddenly a street cop came walking into the precinct house with this guy cuffed what would he say? How could he explain to everyone this miraculous nab when the entire detective division was completely stumped.  How could he explain this to his partner? Joe would have a thousand questions to ask. Questions he couldn’t possible answer. Not in a hundred years. Not in a thousand years.
            “You’re asking me to find this guy and take care of him. You don’t necessarily want me to kill him. But you can’t bring him in. And I can’t reveal myself to your bosses. Interesting. What we have here, Artie, is a conundrum. A social intersection of impossibilities. A most curious dilemma.”
            It was as if he was a giant balloon filled with helium and a kid came along with a big needle and stuck it in him. All the energy, all the worry, the fears, the emotions, dissipated out of him and into the night like escaping helium out of the balloon. Dropping his head in defeat he stared at his hands silently. Blinking back tears of frustration.
            “This is what you’re going to do.”
            The voice. Not so harsh. Still a whisper. But softer. Almost gentle.
            Looking up Artie’s eyes flashed to the rear-view mirror and saw the black eyes of the killer staring at him. A flicker of hope burst into his gut. And he waited. Waited to hear what Smitty had in mind.
            “Tomorrow night at exactly a quarter to midnight you’ll leave everything the police have in a folder in the back seat of this cab. The cab will be parked on the corner of Fourth and Elmore. In front of a liquor store called Bud’s Light. You know where it’s at.”
            Artie nodded. He knew the place well. Been there several times to buy a bottle or two of good wine on the way home from work.
            “Everything, Artie. Forensics reports. Photos. Everything. Even the doodles the detectives scribble on the note pads. Can you do this for me?”
            Yes. Absolutely.
            “Do it by yourself, Artie.  Don’t involve your partner in this. Don’t tell anyone else about our little meeting.  Don’t make me start thinking this might be some kind of trap. Just a friendly warning. If I think you’re trying to screw me, Artie, I’ll come for you. And I’ll find you. Understand?”
            Gulp. Yes, he understood. There would be no one else he’d talk to. There would be no traps. Smitty had nothing to worry about in that department.
            Silence. A long stretch of terror filled silence.
            And then the screeching of brakes and the car rapidly decelerating to a stop so suddenly he was almost thrown into the front seat. When his momentum threw him back into his seat he looked up and out of his door side window. And blinked a couple of times in amazement. His house. The small ranch house sat back deep from the street, a carpet of thick green grass between him and the house. The lights to the house were off. Except for the front porch light. The front porch light was always left on. His wife always left that on for him to see his way to the front door.        
            He threw the back-door open and started to get out. But the whisper froze him in his seat.
            “Remember what I said, Artie. About not making me worried. I know where you live. I know where your wife works. I know where you hide the spare key to the house. I know about the gun you keep under the mattress on your side of the bed. I know, Artie. I know everything about you.”
            He barely had time to slam the back door closed before the cab took off down the street. Bright red tail lights lit up the night momentarily before disappearing around a street corner, leaving him standing almost in the middle of the street. He was shivering like a kid straight out of a cold shower. Shivering uncontrollable.
            How the hell did he know about the gun underneath the mattress?  About the spare key?  How?
            Jesus.
             Jesus.
            He was scared. More scared than he had ever been in his life. Eyes staring into the void of the empty street in front of him he kept asking himself the same thing. Over and over. The same thing.

            What the hell have I done? What the hell have I done? What the hell have I done?


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A re-write of Roland of the High Crags

I've been tinkering. I've been re-imagining the story line of an old book/series of mine. The book, Roland of the High Crags, has been around for a dozen years or more. Self-published, it suffered the fate that the vast majority of self-published novels go. That being maybe seven or eight people read it and it died a quiet death in oblivion.

Well I want to resurrect the series. So I've added about a hundred more pages to it. And I've changed the beginning, and frankly, the entire arc of the story line. To me the rewrite makes it darker, more foreboding, and altogether better all the way around.

I hate giving up on an interesting character.

Of course, I still have one problem; how will it be published? Since it was self-published, practically no agent or big publishing house will touch it. So do I self-publish again.

A conundrum to be worked out.

But I thought I'd share the new opening to y'all. Maybe you would so kind to let me know what you think of it. Enjoy.


In my Own Hand I write the History of the Great Struggle



The moonlight streaming through the narrow slit for a window is strong tonight. Its eerie silvery light filled with mysteries yet to be discovered and the ghostly whispers of voices yet to be heard.  And peace.  A breath of quiet, still, peace I have not felt for quite some time. I have been in this cell for oh, so long. Years.  Decades.  Perhaps centuries . . .I cannot say.
But it's time, brother.
Time for me to leave the confining space of this narrow dungeon cell.  Time to elude my captors and again take up the sword and shield. The fight will continue.  What was . . .  will be again.  The promise of futures lost perhaps ready to be born again.  There is no escaping the cycle.  Years of solitude, of captivity, have only made me stronger. Aye, brother . . . my body is old and frail.  White is the color of my hair now.  The wrinkles of age on my face too numerous to count. My bones creak and groan every time I stir from my bed. But the soul, brother . . . the soul within this ancient casket of flesh and bone remains strong! And for as long as my soul lives . . . 
How long have I been in this dungeon cell I cannot say.  I gave up counting the days and years long ago. Suffice to say it has been at least one life time.  Perhaps two.  This narrow slit deep in the bowels of some ancient fortress long forgotten, its walls made of stone streaked with a rare metal which limits my wizardry powers, has counted with me many summers and winters passing.  Patiently I have waited for this day.  I endured. I survived.  I fought back the pain of my captor's torments. I fought the long hours of unbelievable silence which pushed me close to the edge of the abyss called insanity.  For years I heard not the sound of a human voice. I endured in this cell of infinite solitude.
I gather strength standing in the light of a full moon.  Now, in my old age, it is the white light of a full moon that soothes the troubled waters of my soul and quietly infuses me with a sublime, almost sensual, feeling of strength hard to describe.  Years ago, while still a young man, I would never have admitted such a truth.  My training, my religious order, would have frown upon these words and would have forced me to recant.  But not now, faithful servant.  Not after all these years of abandonment and solitude.
Know you, pilgrim, I am, or at least at one time long, long ago, a Bretan monk. A Bretan warrior-monk.  I wear still the yellow robes of that ancient order with deep humiliation and love.  Even though . . . even though in the eyes of my kind, both brothers and sisters of the order, I am an Apostate. A feared and loathed disbeliever who has taken up the sword against his faith.  Against the teachings of the Bretan.
They will tell you, my Bretan brothers and sisters, that it was I who brought this Great Evil among us.  It was I who, when given the chance to destroy this Great Evil long before she became what she is today, I failed in my faith and allowed her live. To not only live, Pilgrim, but to thrive!  To grow in her strength and powers of the Netherworld through the training and technique of a Bretan wizard.
For she is indeed a formidable power.  Her command of the Netherworld magic is beyond comparison.  She lives in both worlds.  Both here in the Middle Kingdom where all our souls still wrapped in these caskets of flesh and blood reside in, and in the World of the Dead as well. The Netherworld. Lives in both at the same time. Aware of both; interacts in both dimensions, all at the same time. No mortal wizard or witch before her has ever accomplished such a feat.
How many have died because of Her?  How many empires have fallen?  How many loving families ripped asunder?  Millions.  Hundreds of millions. And she still reins over the many.  Because of her, a great imbalance permeates throughout the Great Cycle which both the Neatherworld and the Middle Kingdom revolve around. An imbalance that must be corrected. Must be corrected if this Universe as we know it is to remain intact and operate like the great mechanism it is.
But she is, Pilgrim, not the She whom I raised. She is a different soul.  A She from some far distant Past who, when the opportunity was offered to her, stole the one whom I raised with love and tenderness and patience and imprisoned her as well.
Aye brother . . . aye.  It is something beyond knowing, beyond belief, that which I scribble hurriedly on this parchment.  A She from a different Past, you say?  How could this be?  What Dark Magic is being laid bare here? How could someone from the Past, someone long since dead, return to the Now and replace the living?  But it is so, Pilgrim.  It is so. And it falls upon my shoulders to rectify this Great Schism and bring back the Laws of Order and Tranquility from the Rules of Chaos and Darkness.
It begins tonight, my brother.  Tonight . . .when the full moon hurls its first bright beams of pure light through the bars of this narrow dungeon cell. When the shaft of soft silvery white light touches the stone floor I will step into its sweet embrace I will . . . I will . . . 
But before this happens.  Before the struggle begins anew, I will hurriedly scribble a few lines of what took place before.  I will write a short History of the Struggle with the forces of Chaos and those entities whom reside in the Netherworld.
I am Bretan, brother.  Once known as an honorable warrior-monk and wizard.  I am Roland.  Known as Roland of the High Crags. 
This is my story.





One


The devout know the terrible truth.  Evil cannot be destroyed.



- From the Book of St. Albans-




Holding a large burning torch held over my head and slightly in front of me I slowly moved up the stone steps of the monastery’s ancient East Tower, disregarding the frigid winter’s grip whistling through the tower’s massive stone walls in some somber summoning of the dead. Outside a winter storm screamed and moaned and howled in rage. Snow, in vast clouds of white fury so thick one could be buried from nape to toe in a matter of moments, would soon add another four or five feet of snow to the already prodigious amount which filled the narrow valley below the monastery.  Winter in these mountains were deadly. Neither man nor beast dared to leave their warm hovels or protected caves when such a storm slipped over the ice capped mountain tops and sank down into the valley. Even here, in this ancient Bretan monastery built on the side of a tower cliff, clinging to the hard granite walls of the cliff like some ancient monster refusing to die, the ravages of the storm outside could be heard clearly.
But I was not ascending the spiraling stone steps in the East Tower to observe the storm. Another dread compelled me to leave my cubicle, warm and comfortable with a brazier filled with glowing red coals for a fire. The mass of blankets and coarse cotton sheets which softened the hardness of the cold slab I had been sleeping on moments earlier, a cold stone slab like that all Bretan monks slept on in their cubicles here in the monastery, nevertheless had been warm and luxuriant to me.
For you, Pilgrim, the idea of sleeping on hard stone only marginally softened with blankets and a thin pad, may seem barbaric as you read these words sitting in the comfort of your favorite chair beside a burning fireplace. But for a warrior-monk like myself, sleeping quarters which I had only moments earlier occupied, was a luxury rarely experienced by me. It had been years since I last slept in his monastery. The premonition which stirred me out of my deep sleep and compelled me to dress and find my way to the East Tower suggested I might never have the opportunity offered to me again.
In the clinging darkness of the tower, the oldest bastion of strength built in the Bretan monastery called The Knave, the feeling of approaching evil pulled me out of my slumbers and sent me here. Above my head the large burning torch hissed and sputtered glowing embers into the darkness yet created a large enough bubble of illumination which enveloped like some protective coat of armor. Together the torch and the bubble of light slowly ascended upward toward the deserted top most chamber.
In my chest I felt the stirring. So faint, I told myself I might be imagining it. But no, Pilgrim. I was not imagining it. Far away some great Evil was stirring. A powerful force of dark malice a Bretan warrior-monk and wizard such as myself could not dismiss. All my life my Bretan training, the teachings of this ancient order, compelled me to confront Evil whenever its viper’s head revealed itself from out of the darkness. For years I roamed the snowy crags of the High Kandris, and dwelled among the clans of the foothills, placing myself in front of those too weak, or too old, or too young to stand before Evil themselves. That is the way of a warrior-monk. A warrior-monk of any religious order. Their calling, their sworn sacred oath, compelled them to protect the weak and the helpless from those who wished to prey upon them.
But this Evil, Pilgrim. This stirring of dark fury awakening itself in some distant land felt like no other Evil I had ever encountered. My wizard’s Inner Eye sensed a power of immense strength. A fury based in not of this world, this world of the living. But instead I felt the threads of otherworldliness, of the Netherworld, entwined into this fury.
A specter of Evil escaping from the Netherworld and immersing itself into the land of the living? A vile creature of immense power. Such a force would be cataclysmic in nature for both Human and Dragon kind. If my fears were true, this creature of the otherworld had to be found and destroyed as quickly as possible.
At last I stepped onto the wooden flooring of the upper tower’s upper chambers and paused. The head of the stairwell was a long but narrow alcove used now for storing heavy crates filled with whatever flotsam a massive monastery as large as The Knave needed to store. But the greater half of the floor was walled off from the stairwell with heavy timbers. A large half-oval shaped door of ancient oak usually sealed off the rest of the floor from the curious and the foolish. But now, as I stood with torch in hand, I saw the heavy door was partially open. From within the large room on the other side of the wall I saw the distinctive flickering light of torches such as mine cutting through the room’s darkness.
And in the dust which had gathered for generations lying on the flooring I now stood on I saw the distinct clutter of footprints, three sets of prints in total, informing me I was not the only one to make this solemn journey in the dead of night. As least three people were standing in the room on the other side of the open door.
I felt their invisible auras burning brightly in the invisible spectrum and recognized them instantly. Clovis, the monastery’s eldest Magi and abbot of the monastery. Malinitrix, the monastery’s Master of Arms and Keeper of the Faith. And a younger, brighter, aura. That of a recently sanctified warrior-monk by the name of Golida of the Golden Hills. Without hesitation I ducked underneath the rounded entrance of the open door and stepped into the large room with my fellow Bretan monks.
It seemed as if the abbot, master of arms, and the young warrior-monk had been expecting me. All three held torches such as I held over their heads. All three nodded silent greetings to me as I stepped into the room. Clovis, in a heavy robe of deep yellow trimmed in dark blue and belted around his waist with a blue and silver thread sash, smiled faintly as he nodded toward me.
Malinitrix was dressed the regalia of a typical, but simple, Bretan warrior-monk. A half coat of fine chain mail underneath a heavy yellow full length surcoat. Leather trousers with fur lined boots on his feet. Around his waist a wide belt of thick leather needed to hold the typical Bretan forged straight sword. Golida, the youngest member of this troika, dressed very similarly as the master of arms.
“Roland, I knew you would come. I see in your face the same concerns we have. A powerful force journeys toward the High Kanris. A force which does not bode well for those who are misfortunate enough to stand in its way as it moves through the night.”
The abbot’s voice was soft yet filled with resonance. The voice of a man in full mastery of his mind and body. A voice of a seasoned warrior. A seasoned general. Once, years back, this man and his monastery, protected me and hid me from those who wished to destroy me. Another time. Another dark moment for anyone who claimed to be Bretan.
But what I felt in my soul was a danger far, far greater than any I had ever felt stirring in me before. This danger was so intense. So powerful. It could mean only one thing. Old enemies had risen from the grave and were now gathering their force to descend upon us. Descend on not just we of the Bretan faith. But upon all of Mankind. As I gazed upon the faces of each man standing around me I could see they too felt the same.
“We have not seen their kind this close to the High Kanris in generations,” Clovis spoke in a strong voice filled with worry. “The Dragon clan, our ancient foes, have decided to gather again under the banners of a strong leader. Their desire, of course, is to fulfill Dragon prophecy.”
“Who, Blessed Father?” Golida asked, his young face of untested youth glowing in the flickering torch light
“Clan Hartooth,” I said, frowning. “The First Clan.”
The man-child, for in truth Golida was but a young warrior yet to be to be sent out into the Middle World, this land of the living we humans currently occupied. He had just completed is training here in The Knave. A promising, skilled, young warrior-monk. But who had yet to face his first life-and-death battle with the creature of the dark who inhabited this realm.
“I thought the Hartooth had been destroyed long ago?” he whispered, growing pale, as he glanced first at the abbot and then at me. They still exist?”
“Yes, my son. In growing numbers. Like a living plague they have decided to come out of their ancestral lands and consume any and all who stand in their way. Dragon clan, or Human kingdom, it does not matter. I fear they are marching toward the High Kanris. The last bastion of Humanity.”
“To defeat us and make us into servants and slaves?”
“No, Golida.” Malinitrix growled like a bear as his dark eyes lifted up and stared at me. “To fulfill prophecy as Roland has said. To destroy us all.”
Goldia’s eyes widened. What color drained from his face drained. More ghost than human, he stared at the monastery’s abbot in despair.
“We feel their growing strength. We are aware of their desires. We must make preparations. Each of us know our duty. But first, before we can truly plan, we must know of their strengths. Their intentions. And if any, their potential weaknesses.”
The eyes of the three monks fell onto me. I felt their auras. Each had raging emotions within their chests which they could barely contain. Anger. Fear. Rage. Hate. And loss. Infinite loss at what was to come. Especially the raw color of genuine loss as they stared at me.
` “Roland. You are our most celebrated warrior-monk. You are also our most powerful wizard. What few of your kind are left to the Bretan are scattered far and wide across the High Kanris. On your shoulders must fall this responsibility. We must know our enemy. We must confront this Evil. We must gain time in order to rally our strength. You, my son, must find us a way to fulfill all these requirements.”
“I understand, Blessed Father. I will leave just as soon as the storm breaks.”
A wave of immense pain swept across the vibrant but invisible aura of the powerful Bretan warrior. He knew what he was asking me to do. He knew what perhaps would be my ultimate fate. But it had to be done.
I smiled. Unexpectedly. Spontaneously. 
Surprising both Malinitrix and Golida. They too understood what my fate would ultimately be. They knew my mission was a journey toward death. What challenges were waiting for me to confront no man, not even a wizard of some modest renown as I, for some reason held in esteem, could withstand. The Hartooth were coming. The First Clan. Their military prowess and Dark Magic legendary. They were, as tradition dictated, supposedly invincible.
“What will come, will come.” I quipped, quoting an old Bretan saying, yet still smiling.
The Blessed Father smiled weakly. Stepping forward he placed a calloused, dry hand on my shoulder and squeezed it fondly.
“You have always been the quite rebel within our ranks, Roland. You have questioned almost every tenet we Bretan have professed as true. Challenged almost every master and teacher whom you have encountered. Others in our ranks have always looked upon you with suspicion. Are you a true Bretan monk? Or someone who chants the mantra but believes none.
But I have never doubted you, my son. Your service to our cause has never been doubted by me. Your commitment to our cause unflagging. I fear for you, my son. What lies before you is filled with terrors and danger incomprehensible to any of us. But I also know this. If there is any Bretan monk who could face the impossible and survive and survive, it is you. Go with my blessing, my son. Confront the ancient enemy and defeat them. Survive, Roland. Survive and return to us. Our fight is just beginning.”
Clovis smiled sadly and then, slipping hand from my shoulder, stepped around me and quietly made his departure and left the room.  The two Bretan warriors stepped up, laid hands on my shoulders, smiled, and silently departed as well. Alone in the large room, the rage of the storm clearly audible seeping through the stout stone walls, the artic cold of the room gripping me more firmly with its cold fingers, I was left alone with nothing but my own thoughts to keep me company. 
War was coming. War of unimaginable destruction and death. And Evil. An old, ancient Evil whom the gods, both Human and Dragon, foretold would arise from out of the dim memories of both species. An ancient Evil with bloody fangs and the stench of Death wrapped around its hideous body like some Cloak of Invisibility. A prophecy no Human nor Dragon would be able to turn aside or defeat.
What was I to do? How could I, a monk and warrior, trained in the arts of Bretan magic, supposed to defeat this abomination? Prophecy clearly said no magic of Human nor Dragon could possibly stand before it with any glimmer of hope in defeating it. This Evil was older than the first Human. Older than the first Dragon. All these years it had laid dormant. Bidding its time. Waiting for the right moment to lift itself up out of the Darkness and fulfill its prophecy. Humanity would perish. Dragonkind would reign over this land from pole to pole. And, if you believed in the prophecies, there was nothing . . . nothing . . . powerful enough to defeat it.
Nothing, Pilgrim.
If . . . if you truly believed in the prophecies.
Which, silently, acknowledging it only to myself, I did not.
But we would see. Ultimately, the test would come. Were the prophecies true? Or did yet a glimmer of Hope still beat in the hearts of those who were trained to defy Evil in all its forms.


Monday, March 12, 2018

Chapter Four of new novel, Lenny

So I told you a few weeks ago I was working on a new mystery novel/character/series called Lenny. I'm about 150 pages into it now and hope to have it done in late May or early June. Or maybe August. Oh hell, I'll get it done before December . . . you can bet the house payment on that.

But today I thought I'd share Chapter Four of the novel. The first time we see Lenny (full name, Leonard Leonidas) in action. Now you have to remember something; this novel is set in the mesquite country of West Texas. If you're never been to Texas, just remember this. That part of the world is basically flat semi-desert country filled with mesquite bushes large enough be considered trees, Texas Longhorn where the bulls come equipped with a set of horns that can measure up to three meters from tip to tip. And oil.

But damn few people. Its wide open and empty out there. So murder is rare out there. Mostly.

Here it is. Chapter Four


Two piercing shafts of white light cut through the inky night like surgical scalpels, revealing an alien world of vast loneliness. West Texas flatland surrounded the fast-moving truck as it rolled down an arrow straight country road, the truck’s high beams barely able to cut through the clawing darkness. But the driver in the heavy Dodge short-bed crew cab knew where he was going. Knew the territory. It was a quarter to midnight and he was eight miles south and west of Ballard, traveling down as county maintained dirt road at high speed, throwing up a massive dust plume behind him in the process.
Inside the truck with him was Maria Fuentes and her three sons, Mark, Rafael, and Daniel. Maria was a third or fourth cousin. Hell, nobody in the family was exactly sure how the family tree twisted and turned in connecting her familial ties with his. And frankly, it didn’t matter. Maria was family. She, and about thirty other members of the family had all come together at the Leonidas house to welcome him back.
Now, almost midnight, he was taking Maria and her boys back to their ranch out into the county. Down a dirt road hardly ever used and about as empty as a West Texas road could get at this time of the night.
Glancing over at sleeping Maria Lenny couldn’t help but smile. In high school she was the best-looking girl in her class. Now, some twenty odd years later, and even after having three boys, she still was the best-looking girl he had ever laid eyes upon. She had smooth, dark brown skin. Flowing brown hair falling just to her shoulders and the largest almond-shaped brown eyes he had ever seen. Tonight, slumped down in the first seat, her head turned toward him and resting on the backrest of her seat, part of her hair partially hid her lips from him in the glow of the truck’s instrument lights. She was still something special to look upon.
Behind them, in the truck’s rear seats, her three boys were all splayed out across the backseat, somehow defying gravity as they slept but still buckled up in their seat belts. The boys were ten, seven, and five years in age. All full of piss and vinegar. All with naturally infectious grins which lit up their faces every time someone looked at them.
Their husband and father was missing. Missing for over a year. Maria married a high school sweetheart by the name of Donald Parker. Donald and his parents had a big ranch out just south and east of Ballard. A ranch close to three thousand acres in size. One Sunday morning Donnie saddled up a horse so he could ride out into the ranch’s backcountry to check some cows who were calving. Rode out smiling and waving at Maria and the kids. Riding high in the saddle proud and strong and full of life. But never came back.
His horse came back. But not Donnie.
There was a smear of blood on one of the stirrups. Apparently, the horse came back wet and lathered up as if he had ran for miles in panic. The sheriff’s department and about twenty ranches around the country mounted up and rode the back country in search parties hunting for Donnie. But nothing was ever found. Donnie disappeared as if the sage and mesquite country of West Texas just swallowed him whole, leaving nothing behind.
Donnie’s disappearance devastated Maria and the boys. Maria became a recluse. She hardly ever drove to town. Rarely answered the door when neighbors came over to visit. She stayed in the rambling ranch house, taking care of the boys and making sure they got on the bus and went to school. She hired three of her cousins to come in and run the day to day operations of the spread for her. Older cousins, seasoned vaqueros, who knew the ranching business forward and backward. But Maria rarely left the ranch.
Until tonight.
Tonight she and the boys drove into town in the pickup to attend Lenny’s homecoming. Tonight, for the first time in a year, she found herself laughing at old family jokes and enjoying long conversations with the family as her boys, along with about a dozen or more of their cousins, romped around the house playing all kinds of crazy games. And tonight, for the first time in a long time, she drank some wine. Too much wine. When the party began to break up, Lenny volunteered his services to drive her and the boys home in their pickup. Maria agreed, telling Lenny he could use the pickup to drive back the thirteen miles to town. She’s send her cousins over to pick it up later.
So Lenny, in the silent of the pickup’s cab, sat behind the wheel of the Dodge and drove while Maria and the boys slept the sleep of tired souls.  The dirt road ahead of him stretched out straight and true for miles on end. In fact, it was said, all the way to Mexico. It was an empty road. Rumored to be used by Coyotes, professional human traffickers, smuggling in Mexicans sneaking into the US. And various drug cartel runners bringing in shipments of cocaine and heroin.
Of course, it was obvious. If the rumors were true, as most suspected they were, everyone knew what happened to Maria’s husband. He rode off into the back country of his ranch and saw something he shouldn’t have seen. Probably drug smugglers bringing in a shipment. Saw them. And died for it. His body would never be found. No one would ever know for sure what happened to Donnie. But everyone in Ballard County was pretty sure what happened to her husband.
Thoughts like this occupying the moment, Lenny drove with one hand on the wheel and stared off into the night. Come over a hill something caught his attention. A flash of light sweeping vertically across the sky. A streak of light which lasted only a half second before disappearing. Off to his left. Off the road and out in the mesquite bushes. Unconsciously slowing down he stared off toward his left waiting to see if he caught another glimpse of the strangeness.
He did. Just a fraction of a second. But this time the beam of light was horizontal. The light moving from the south and sweeping around to the north. As if someone with a flashlight was looking for something in the thick darkness. Automatically he let up on the accelerator and stabbed lightly on the brakes, slowing the big truck down. He also stretched forward and clicked off the headlights. Bringing the truck to a slow halt he stared off to the left, a severe frown on his face.
“Lenny? What’s wrong?”
Maria’s voice, thick with sleep, as she stirred from her seat and sat up half in alarm.
Lenny glanced at her and smiled, a hand reaching out naturally and brushing some of her hair off her cheeks.
“You up to driving home? Think you and the boys came get home tonight without too much trouble?”
A curtain of panic slid across Maria's brown eyes as she sat up straighter, glancing first at her boys in the back seat, and then back to Lenny. She wanted to ask questions. Wanted to hear what had spooked her cousin enough to stop the truck in the middle of the road. But she didn’t. She saw Lenny’s face. Saw the server slash of lips set firmly on his lips. So she just nodded silently to Lenny as Lenny reached down and for the door latch and opened the door.
“Drive for as long as you can without turning on the lights, Maria. Drive without lights until you go over that little rise in the road. And then go home. I’ll call you tomorrow. Okay?”
Maria, looking at her boys again for second, looked back at Lenny and nodded. Hurriedly she opened her door and got out of the truck and hurried around the back end to the other side. Lenny held the door open for her and closed it after she slipped in behind the steering wheel. He waved as he stepped back. Maria, very frightened, looked pleading at Lenny and then looked down the road and reached for the truck’s gearshift.
He watched her drive away. Without headlights. Only the black shadow of the truck’s mass in the darkness disappearing down the road. Not even the tail lights revealing her presence.
Only when the truck went over the slight rise in the road and disappeared did he turn one hundred eighty degrees around and stare off into the darkness.
            Someone was out there in the darkness with a flashlight. Someone who shouldn’t be out there at this time of night with a flashlight. He wanted to know who it was and why were they stumbling around in the darkness so awkwardly. Stepping off the road quickly he bent down and slipped through the prickly stubbing’s of barbed wire fence and stood up.

            Someone was out there in the darkness. Someone who possibly needed help.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Introducing Lenny Leonidas

Well, it's a New Year. 2018. In the Chinese calendar, it must be around 20,580.(I don't know). In the Hebrew calendar, maybe they haven't invented a number yet. Who knows?

But whatever year it is, we should have new goals scoped out for us. What's yours?

I've got a general road map outlined in my mind. Subject to change, of course. But outlined, and if all things being equal, maybe even doable. Let's start with goal number one.

Goal No. 1. Find an American publishing house who will accept the full-length Smitty novel called, Dark Retribution. One that will pay me a little upfront money. Money I plan to use to purchase a goodly amount of advertising for this book and a few of my other efforts.

Goal No. 2.  Write more novels in the two series Endeavour Press of London already have of mine. (The Turner Hahn/Frank Morales police-procedurals. And the Decimus Julius Virilis Roman series)
Endeavour is a small indie, so the only money I make is from whatever they sell. Thus, Maynard, the more money I have the more I can advertise.

Goal No. 3.  Create a new character that is a cross between a Jack Reacher loner and a Walt Longmire  western sheriff who lives and work out in the middle of nowhere. Make the character a little more three-dimensional. Give him a personality and a family (of some kind). And instead of being the drifter that can't stay in one place like Reacher is, make him stay in his old home town and load him up with a lot of cop work which may or may not involve his extended family.

With Goal No. 3 in mind, let me introduce you to Lenny Leonidas. A good ole' Texas boy who comes from, and lives in, the fictional county of Ballard County, Texas. Below is the first chapter of the novel, Lenny.  Tell me if you think it's good enough.



Lenny

            The side door of the Ballard County jail door banged open loudly, spearing the pre-dawn darkness with a shaft of white light pouring out from within. A shadow partially blocked out the shaft of light momentarily just as a heavy canvas tote bag came sailing out of the open door and slapping down onto the ground in a puff of dry, hot dust. Soon after that a man appeared in the doorway. An average height man dressed in old blue jeans, a dark cotton long sleeve shirt underneath a threadbare blue jean jacket, wearing boots favored by lumberjacks.
            Some unseen force behind the shaggy haired, unshaven creature put a hand in the middle of the man’s back and shoved him violently out the door. The shaggy haired man went flying out into the night, stumbling, with one leg buckling underneath him, but just catching himself before sprawling face first into the dirt beside his canvas bag. Behind him two large-framed, muscular county sheriff officers stepped out of the door and lined up shoulder to shoulder and glared at the smaller man.
            “Lenny, I’m not shitting you here. The sheriff’s fed up with your horseshit. Get your ass arrested again and the sheriff’s going to throw the book at you. They’ll haul your ass off to the state pen for at least three years. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep your nose clean and stay off the goddamn booze for a while!”
            With those deeply Socratic words of profound wisdom the two monsters for sheriff deputies turned around and slipped back through the jail’s side door, banging the door closed rudely and using keys to lock it behind him them.
            Standing up, turning to face the low slung, flat roofed cement dungeon for a county jail, he eyed the place with a smolder look of animosity for a few heartbeats, and then turned and reached for his canvas bag lying in the dirt. Bag in hand, he stood up again and looked to his right. A ribbon of already hot cement, the county highway, disappeared off toward Amarillo seventy miles away. A straight shot through miles and miles of endless mesquite bush and roaming bands of jack rabbits and coyotes, with barely a house around and not a tree in sight. Rubbing a hand across his lips and jaw, feeling the weeks’ worth of hard stubble on his face, he slowly turned and faced his left.
            A mile away he saw the twinkling lights of his hometown. Ballard, Texas. The county seat. Populating just a notch over five thousand souls. Mostly old cowboys and ranch owners. With a large portion of oil field trash thrown in for good measure. And Mexicans, along with a smattering of Native Americans. Mostly Comanche with a few Apache in the mix. A third of Ballard were old family Mexicans. Been here as long as there been a county seat. As long as there had been Texas. Before the first cowboy stumbled into town half dead of thirst and filled with half a dozen of arrows from a Comanche war band.
            His great, great grandfather. That cowboy. Leto Leonidas. More Greek immigrant than a real cowboy. But a cowboy he was when he fell off his horse, half dead, in the middle of Ballard’s only dirt street.
            Been a Leonidas family member in Ballard since before the Civil War. Most of the Leonidas gene pool produced good people. Hard working, respectful, blue-color people who paid their taxes, went to church on Sunday, and rooted for the Longhorns of the University of Texas when it came to college football. But every family has their weird second cousin or crazy uncle lurking in the background. The black sheep in the family who, for any number of reasons, cannot get along with the majority of the family. Nor with normalcy in general.
            He was that one. The crazy Leonidas uncle who couldn’t help himself in stirring up chaos around him and who, in the end, was cast out of the family like some leprous monk being cast out from his monastery, shunned by all of humanity.   For the first seventeen years of life he was a holy terror for the family. Fights, getting kicked out of school. Scrapes with the law. Staying out all night and stumbling home drunk. The works. Finally, when his eighteenth birthday rolled around, his birthday celebration was anything but celebratory.
            His father disowned him. Told him to get out of the house and never come back. Wasn’t even allowed to pack a suitcase. Left with nothing but the clothes he was wearing. For the next seventeen years he never saw his home town. Never talked to any of his family. Got on a bus for Amarillo and left at three in the morning. Never uttered a word for the 70 mile trip to the West Texas city. Got off the bus and strolled two blocks south of the bus station and walked into an Army recruiting office.
            For the next twenty years his family became the U.S. Army. Fought in the country’s many wars from the Middle East all the way to the Caribbean. The Army taught him well. He learned how to efficiently kill people. Became a Ranger. Learned how to jump out of airplanes. Learned how to put a .308 caliber bullet into the brain pain of a poor bastard 700 yards away and not bat an eyelid in the process.
            Left the Army with the rank of sergeant-major and realized he had nowhere to go. So he got on a bus in Amarillo and rode the 70 miles back to Ballard. He didn’t know what, or who, he would face when he arrived. Had no idea if any of the family would even recognize him. No one did. No one did because no one in his immediate family remained, except for eighty-seven year old grandmother. She was the only living Leonidas in Ballard. Everybody else were either dead, or moved away. Far away from Ballard and never coming back.
            Of course, he had cousins. First cousins. Second cousins. Both White and Mexican. Frankly it was said, with some veracity, he was related to about half the people in town. The Monroe’s. The Winston’s. The Garcia’s. The Moreno’s. The Sanchez’s. The Gladstone’s. But only one direct family member. An old lady living in a big house by herself on 5th and Aims Streets. His father’s mother.
            Gazing down the almost empty highway toward town he swept a hand over his lips and jawline a second time and squinted his eyes. Coming down the road in the growing twilight was a pickup truck. A Dodge pickup truck. As it approached he thought about throwing up a thumb and hitching a ride. Maybe it was headed for Amarillo. Maybe it was time to take the sheriff’s advice. Maybe it was time to leave Ballard for good.
            Funny how shit happens. How half-baked plans get tossed out the window.
            The brown Dodge slowed and swerved toward him. For a moment he was bathed in the pickup’s low beams before the pickup slid to a stop a couple of feet in front of him, Standing there, Lenny watched the passenger side front door window slide down. In the semi-light he had to step closer to see who was sitting behind the wheel.
            “Hello, cuz.”
            A voice he recognized. Even after all these long years away.
            “Hello, Miguel. Good to see you.”
            Miguel Luiz Sanchez. His mother’s sister’s oldest son. Same age as he was. The oldest of four boys and three sisters. But that was twenty years ago. He had no idea who was alive today. Who was dead.
            “Come on. Climb in.” Miguel grunted, waving a hand in a gesture for Lenny to open the door and get in.
            “Where we going?” he asked.
            “Been in town for two weeks, cuz. Getting drunk and getting into fights. The whole family knows your back in town. Time to clean up. Dry out. Time to go home.”
            Time to go home. Like a hammer blow right between his eyes. Time to go home. Home? Here in Ballard? After all these years? After what happened in the past? Home? For a few seconds Lenny stared into the darkness of the pickup’s interior and at the dark silhouette of his cousin sitting behind the wheel. He hesitated. Turning his head, he looked toward the town, its lights beginning to wink out because sunrise was starting to kiss the flat roofs of main street. Go home? He turned and looked off toward Amarillo. Saw nothing but mesquite bush and sage and flat grassland stretching out as far as the eye could see. But his soul’s eyes saw cheap, smoked filled, drug infested bars lining both sides of the streets deep in the heart of Hong Kong where no round-eyed foreigner should have been. He saw, and felt, the incredibly warm, almost hot, deluges of monsoons in Thailand and Vietnam. The gooey, slimy mud. The bodies floating down rivers overflowing from their banks. He saw shivering children standing in terror as bombs and grenades exploded around them in Vietnam and Iraq.
            He saw tall Muslim women, dressed in heavy black garb. Their entire bodies hidden from view. Only a slash across their faces opened so their eyes could stare out at the world. Eyes filled with silent pain. He remembered looking into the faces of hundreds of Afghani mountain tribesmen and realized he was seeing Death staring back at him. Dark complexioned, sun weathered, hard men dressed in traditional Afghani attire, cradling AK-47’s lovingly in their arm as they sat on their haunches around small campfires knowing they were going to die violently sooner or later, as had all their relatives in the past, and quietly accepting their fate.
            He’d seen the world. Been just about everywhere. Did a lot of terrible things. And maybe, if he was lucky, a couple of good deeds along the way. But he never saw a place he could say was home. His new home.
            There was only one place he remembered using the word home. And that was right here. Here in Ballard. A sour grin played across his thin lips, last for only a second or two. The Prodigal Son has returned. He could see his father’s face glaring at him, that hard look of unforgiving brown eyes staring at him. His lips set in a permanent frown. The muscles in his jaw extended and hard as stone. Standing with in front of him, towering over him, arms folded across his chest. As silent as a Sphinx. And as unforgiving.
            Well, Dad. I’m back. Whether you want me or not. Hope the fires in Hell are a lot hotter for you, making you stew in your bile and hate for me little more intensely. I know you never missed me once I left. But that’s okay. To tell you the truth, once I got on that bus twenty years ago I never thought about you, either.
            Lenny’s head turned and looked at the dark figure of his cousin sitting in the truck as he tossed the heavy canvas bag in his hand into the pickup’s bed and reached for the door handle.

            “Sure, why not. Let’s go home.”