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Dec 3, 2011 - Samples    Comments Off on Sample: Gears of Wonderland, Chapter 2

Sample: Gears of Wonderland, Chapter 2

Chapter 2 from Gears of Wonderland, where James finds himself in a strange new place, and makes a new “friend”. We also get to meet the current ruler of Wonderland. You can read chapter 1 here.

James landed heavily, the fall knocking the wind out of him. The overpowering smell of rotten food and other things he didn’t want to think about assaulted his nose. The sound of indignant squeaks and lots of creatures scurrying away told him he wasn’t the only occupant of whatever he had landed in. He opened his eyes, unable to believe he was still alive after such a fall, then blinked in confusion.

He lay in an alleyway in the middle of a huge pile of rotten garbage. Unfamiliar buildings loomed on either side, and past them, he could see the night sky, with no sign of the hole he had fallen down.

“Must have been dreaming,” muttered James. He suddenly remembered the events before the imagined fall and looked around urgently for the killer or the man in white, but saw no trace of either one of them.

“Cops. Gotta get the cops.” He hauled himself out of the garbage pile and shook off the few items clung to his clothes. He pulled out his phone. No service.

He cursed the phone—the only place it ever had a reliable signal was inside his flat—and put it away. Figuring there would be a pay phone nearby, or maybe an open store, he hurried toward the end of the alley.

Reaching the street, he almost collided with a woman crossing the entrance to the alley. He managed to stop himself in time.

The woman seemed as surprised to see him as he was to see her. She wore a costume that looked vaguely Victorian, dark blue, with a full skirt but tight bodice. Her long black hair and slim figure suited the costume, but the thick leather belt around her waist with the large leather pouch attached didn’t match the rest of the outfit. But it was probably the perfect place to keep her money and phone.

His brain finally caught up with the idea that she might have a phone.

“Please, I need to use your phone. My friend’s been attacked, and I need to call the cops. An ambulance, too. He might still be alive.”

The woman looked at him as if he were mad. “Phone? Cops? What are you talking about?” She looked him up and down. “And who the bloody hell are you, anyway?”

He stared at her in disbelief. She was either drunk—although she didn’t sound drunk—or stupid. He was going to have to find someone else to help him.

A loud noise interrupted his thoughts. It sounded like a steam train coming down the road. He turned to see a strange sight. Four lights, nothing like the lights of a car, hurtled toward him.

The girl grabbed him and pulled him back. “Quick! Into the alley, you idiot.”

The cry of annoyance James had been about to loose died on his lips as the source of the noise became visible. The vehicle was like nothing he’d ever seen. The shape was similar to a horse-drawn carriage, but instead of the usual wood finishes on the side, the carriage was made from a weird lattice of metal bars meshed together in a way that suggested function, instead of comfort or design, had been the overriding theme. No horses pulled the contraption. Instead, the vehicle had a huge engine on the back, with a smoke stack billowing a noxious black cloud. His nose burned as the smoke reached him. The lights he had seen were lanterns, and they illuminated the carriage enough for him to see the man sitting in the driver’s seat—a man who appeared to be wearing a ‘red coat’ British soldier’s uniform from the 19th century.

As James tried to take in the strange carriage, he began to notice other details of his surroundings. The street on which he had emerged looked nothing like the main street he expected. The light level was low, with only a handful of street lamps visible, and the street lamps had been replaced with old-style gas lamps more fitting in a museum. They created just enough illumination to make out several of the buildings opposite. Unlike the shops and flats he knew, the buildings were small Victorian terraces. No, that wasn’t right. Paying closer attention, he realized that the details were wrong. They looked more like someone’s idea of what a Victorian terrace house should look like.

“Thanks for almost getting me caught, idiot.” The woman fixed him with a contemptuous gaze. “You know there’s a curfew in this section of the city. The guard can execute us on the spot.”

“Curfew? Guard?” It was his turn to repeat words as he struggled to come to terms with the odd view.

The woman rolled her eyes. “You really are a moron, aren’t you? I should have guessed from your clothes. What are you? Some village idiot who’s come to the big city to try and make his fortune?”

“Hey, you’re the one in the fancy costume.” He’d only just met the woman, but she was already beginning to get on his nerves.

The woman opened her mouth to respond, then closed it. She stared fixedly at his left arm.

Suddenly, she grabbed his arm, and before he could react, she pulled on the sleeve near his bicep. The shirt ripped without effort. Her grip on his arm became vice-like.

He finally regained his wits. “Hey, let go!” He managed to wrestle his arm away from her. “Do you have any idea how much this shirt cost?” He looked at the sleeve to assess the damage. She had almost torn it off.

The woman said nothing. Instead, she reached for the pouch on her belt, and pulled out a gun unlike anything he’d ever seen in magazines or movies. It looked like it belonged in some sort of sci-fi TV show, but it was unmistakably a gun.

James quickly raised his hands. “Hey, now, let’s calm down here. There’s no need to get violent. We’re both adults. I’m sure we can work something out. I don’t have any money, but I have a phone. It’s the latest model. Did you want my phone? It’s all yours.”

“Who are you?”

He couldn’t interpret the strange tone the woman’s voice had taken. “James. James Riggs.”

“Not your name.” The woman waved the gun slightly. “Who are you?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

The woman stared at him, then motioned with the gun back to the street. “You’re coming with me to see my father.”

“Now, look, I’m sorry I called what you’re wearing a fancy costume.” He took a step back. “It’s really nice. There’s no need for any of this. I’ll just be on my—”

The woman’s voice was hard. “You’re coming with me to see my father right now. If you try to run, I will shoot you. Any more complaining, and I might shoot you anyway. Understand?”

He looked at the woman, at the gun, and back to the woman. “Yes ma’am.”

* * *

Lahire sat back in the throne, thoughtful as he looked over the dimly lit room. Even in the limited light, the extravagance and splendor of the throne room was obvious. Marble floors and columns, gilding, huge and complex tapestries, and more than a few inlaid gems combined to create a throne room both impressive and fitting for someone of his status. It had brought him a sense of great satisfaction when the new throne room had finally been complete, allowing him to demolish the old room where his mother had held court for the two centuries of her reign. But the joy he normally felt from sitting on his throne and looking out over his creation had faded that evening. He’d expected Taxard to return from the errand an hour ago, and he didn’t like to be kept waiting.

Finally, the door to the throne room opened, and a figure moved into the room. The light from the hallway silhouetted the figure’s tall frame before the closing door removed the light source.

The newcomer moved smoothly across the throne room floor, stopping several yards from Lahire and kneeling with a bow. “Your Majesty.”

“You’re late. I trust everything went to plan.”

Taxard straightened. “The target is dead, as you ordered.” He paused. “However, there was a complication.”

“What sort of complication?” He leaned forward in annoyance. He didn’t like complications. Complications disrupted the neat order of the society he had forged.

“A witness. A native of the world. He managed to escape.”

“You’re slipping. You’ve never left any survivors before.” He waved his hand. “It doesn’t matter. The authorities in that world can do nothing. They may even believe the witness was the one responsible for the murder.”

Taxard shifted slightly. Lahire recognized the movement. He had seen it many times from subordinates bringing him bad news. But he had never seen it from Taxard.

Lahire narrowed his eyes. “What is it you’re not telling me?”

“The witness. When he escaped… he escaped to Wonderland.”

“What?” Lahire was on his feet in an instant. “Explain yourself!”

“The witness, a male, passed through a portal. It closed before I could get a precise fix on its destination, but I managed to track him as far as this city.”

“You’re sure that it was a native of the Otherworld, and not another fugitive?”

“Yes, Your Majesty. He had the aura of a native. There was no mistake.”

“You allowed an outsider to come here? You fool! Find this man. Find him at once. Mobilize the entire guard and have them do a house-to-house search. This outsider is a threat to the society I have built, and I will not tolerate it. The last thing I need is for the rebels to find him and use him as a symbol to rally behind. Or worse.”

Taxard bowed low. “I will do as you command.”

He fixed Taxard with a steely gaze. “See that you do. Go.”

Taxard bowed again and swiftly departed the throne room. Lahire glowered after him for a moment, then turned and left the throne room via his private entrance. Taxard had made a mistake, but he knew of another who had some explaining to do.

He moved quickly through the castle’s hallways. The sounds of the Heart Guards’ frantic activity filled the castle as they carried out his orders. He was confident the outsider would be found. As long as the outsider hadn’t made contact with the terrorists, everything would be fine. The executioner would do his job, and order in Wonderland would be maintained.

At least, that was what he told himself.

He reached his destination and descended the stairs to the lab area he had first created, and since expanded many times, over a century ago. The stairs opened out at the bottom into a huge cavernous room, filled with all manner of devices and sounds. The room was hot, but for once the air wasn’t filled with steam or smoke. Electricity crackled to his left; however, he walked toward the voice straight ahead.

“No, you imbeciles! I told you to connect the dilator to the converter, not the convector. Are you trying to kill us all?” A whip cracked loudly, followed by a whimper. “Take it apart and do it again.”

Lahire strode past the tables and half-built frames of various creations to the open central area. The thin and hunched form of Dr. Keron stood in front of a large engine of some kind, while two round little men frantically worked on it. Like all of his creations, it looked like a jumbled collection of parts jammed together in the middle of a large metal frame.

He had to admit the doctor had produced results over the years. He had designed all the war machines in Lahire’s army, and his creations had been instrumental in the final war. But lately, his work had not been to the same standard. The terrorists had created a number of devices recently that had surprised and confused the doctor. Lahire was beginning to suspect that soon he would have to find a new head of research. Perhaps even the one currently working for the terrorists.

“Keron!”

The doctor stopped berating his two assistants and turned to face him. “Your Majesty! You come at a fortuitous time. In a few more minutes, I will be ready to demonstrate—”

“I thought you told me no one could travel to the Otherworld anymore. That it was now sealed off?”

“That’s correct, Your Majesty. Travel there is now impossible.”

“Then, how do you explain an outsider arriving in Wonderland?”

“An outsider? Impossible. The only way they could have come through is if another brought them while the barrier was down.”

“What do you mean, ‘while the barrier was down’?”

“Well, obviously you still require Taxard to travel to the Otherworld. While he is gone, the barrier is disabled. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to return.”

“You never mentioned this to me!”

“I thought it obvious.”

One of the assistants let out a sudden cry of surprise. A loud screeching noise filled the air.

“Take cover!” Despite his apparent frailty, Dr Keron moved at lightening speed to dive behind a large rock slab covered in scorch marks. Lahire, no stranger to the doctor’s mishaps, was right behind him.

A loud explosion caused the ground floor to shake. Smoke filled the air, causing him to cough. The doctor, apparently unaffected by the smoke, stood and moved toward what had become twisted wreckage. His two assistants lay on the ground nearby, their clothes scorched and burnt in places.

The first one sat up, apparently unharmed despite the damage to his clothes. “I told you to turn the fitting clockwise. You turned it the wrong way!”

The second one rose, staring furiously at the first. “Nohow! I was standing opposite to you, so obviously I had to turn it counter-clockwise. Besides, you gave me a wrench when I specifically asked for a spanner.”

“A wrench is much better than a spanner! It doesn’t repeat any letters in its name.”

“Contrariwise, spanner is much easier to spell. Imagine if I had to write what I wanted, instead of speak it, and you—”

Dr Keron removed a whip from beneath his coat, and flicked it at the two men. They cringed back from the loud crack.

“Enough! Another word from either of you, and I’ll cut your food rations. Get this mess cleared up.”

The two men leapt to their feet and rushed over to the wreckage. Lahire managed to get his coughing fit under control. The doctor, seemingly unconcerned, took a notebook out of his pocket and made some notes. Lahire crossed to where he stood.

Dr Keron looked up. “My apologies for the inconvenience, Your Majesty. Tweedles aren’t too bright, but as you just witnessed, their resilience to physical damage does mean they have their advantages.”

Lahire stabbed a finger at Dr Keron’s face. “I should have you executed for your recklessness. I could have been killed!”

“And yet, you weren’t, Your Majesty. You are still safe and sound. And more importantly, I have some new data that should improve the speed of our latest fliers by fifteen percent.”

Lahire stopped, impressed at the news despite his anger. “How soon can you have the improvements out to the navy?”

“The first fliers will be modified before the end of the night. The rest of the fleet can be upgraded over the next three weeks.”

He nodded. “Do it.” His mind returned to the original reason he had come down there, but continuing the topic with Dr. Keron was pointless. He had learned everything he needed to know.

Someone had known the schedule for when Taxard left for the Otherworld, which meant a spy was present in the castle.

You can buy Gears of Wonderland from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.

Nov 7, 2011 - Samples    2 Comments

Sample: Gears of Wonderland, Chapter 1

This is the first chapter from Gears of Wonderland. It’s the only chapter that’s set in “our” world, and introduces the main character (along with his not-so-nice fiancee and boss).

For what felt like the hundredth time, James glanced at the clock on the far wall of the office. The grinning Cheshire Cat plushy sitting on top of his monitor appeared to mock him as he again confirmed it was past seven o’clock.

He cursed his luck as he typed. Officially, he’d started his vacation two hours ago. Three hours ago, if you counted his plan to leave work early so he could be home in time to finish packing. But as he had shut down his computer, his boss, Ian, had dumped a pile of work on him, work that he’d quickly discovered were reports Ian should have completed.

The thought of leaving them undone and making his boss do his own work had been tempting, but he’d quickly pushed the idea aside. He didn’t want to cause any trouble.

James worked frantically, the clatter of the keyboard echoing throughout the empty office. Forty-five minutes later, he typed the final words on the last report and hit ‘Send.’ He sighed with relief. They weren’t perfect, but they would do. He’d been afraid he was going to be stuck in the office until midnight. At least he was going to have time to finish packing.

As he threw his few personal items into his bag, he glanced at the calendar on the rear wall of his cubicle. Seeing the next two weeks blocked out with ‘Holiday’ gave him a feeling of comfort. His fiancée had been pushing for the trip for months, and his agreement had changed their conversations from how much she wanted to go, to what they should do when they went—a much more pleasant topic. Then, he noticed the note he’d scrawled on the calendar for today.

‘Parcel.’

His heart leapt into his throat. The parcel! He’d forgotten all about it in the mad rush of the afternoon. The other reason he’d planned to leave early was to intercept it before Laura got home.

The bus ride seemed to take forever. A glance at his phone as he got off the bus confirmed that it was almost eight thirty. He hoped Laura had gone out with her friends for after-work drinks when he’d messaged her that he would be late. It was the only way he would get home before she did.

Rounding the corner onto his street, he breathed a sigh of relief. The lights in the small flat they shared were off. He was safe. Then, he realized he was looking at the wrong flat. His heart sank when he saw the lights of his own flat. Laura was home.

James climbed the stairs to the front door with trepidation. Outside the door, he took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax. Maybe the parcel hadn’t arrived. Maybe Laura had ignored it, seeing that it was addressed to him. Maybe everything would be all right. He opened the door, and stepped inside.

The open box on the floor of the lounge room told him it wasn’t going to be all right. Laura was sitting on the edge of the sofa, still dressed in her work clothes. She had a calm expression on her face, although she sat stiffly. His purchase rested on the coffee table in front of her.

He forced a smile and tried to keep his voice light and happy. “Hey. Sorry I’m late, Ian gave me some—”

She pointed to the box on the table. “What’s this?” Her voice had a hard edge to it.

“It’s nothing, really. Just something I bought for—”

“When we talked about it last time, you promised you would give it up. For me. For us. That you’d get rid of your childish habits and stop playing silly games. You agreed that you would put it behind you.”

He looked at the boxed chess set. He had paid a lot of money for it. The pieces were Swarovski crystal with flecks of red or white marble in the tops, and the board was made of etched glass with intricate patterns around the outside. He had stumbled across it online by accident and been captivated by its beauty. The plan had been to keep it hidden at work, so she wouldn’t find out about it.

So much for that plan.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t buy it to play, I swear. I thought the set looked pretty, so I got it to—”

“James, it’s still a chess set!”

He stared at his feet. “I’m sorry.”

“How many times do I have to tell you, James? We’ve been over this before. Chess is a game. Only children and pathetic no-hopers play games.” Laura stood and put her hand gently on his cheek, her voice softening. “You’re twenty-four now, an adult, soon to be married to a wonderful woman who wants only the best for you. It’s time to grow up and act your age. I know growing up can be hard sometimes, and we have to give up the things we loved when we were kids, but as an adult, we get lots of new fun things to do. You’ll do this little thing for your fiancée, won’t you?”

James sighed internally. His inner voice wanted him to stand up for himself and argue with her, tell her that it was his chess set, and he’d keep it if he wanted. But he knew that if he did, the fight would go on for hours. And he’d ultimately give in, anyway. He always did.

He put on an apologetic smile to satisfy Laura. “Of course I will. I’m sorry I upset you.”

“I know you’re weak, James.” She gave him a peck on his cheek. “That’s why you have me to be strong for you.” She picked up the chess set and walked toward the door. “I’ll put this in my car and dispose of it in the morning before we leave. We don’t want to keep it in the flat, do we?”

“I could always send it back and get a refund,” said James hopefully.

Laura shook her head. “No, the only way you’ll become strong enough to resist your urges is by learning that if you waste your money on things like this, it’s gone for good. You need to learn your lesson properly. It’s best for both of us if I get rid of it.” She flashed him another smile, then stepped outside.

James sighed. It had been a wonderful chess set. He would miss it. And he hadn’t even had a chance to study it.

His cell phone rang. He glanced at the number before answering. It was his boss, just the person he didn’t want to talk to.

“Hey, Ian. Don’t worry; I got your reports done. And I’ve left documentation with Al, so if you have any questions while I’m away, he should have the answers.”

“Ah, James, I’m glad I caught you before I left. Listen, I’m going to be away next week. Something’s come up, and I have to leave for Hawaii immediately. I need you to come in next week and cover for me.”

“What? But Laura and I are going to France tomorrow. I’ve had this vacation booked for months. The hotel is paid for, and I had to make a reservation six months in advance for the restaurant Laura’s been dying to try. I can’t cancel it.”

“Sorry, James, but you’ll have to put your holiday on hold. I need you to manage the Henderson project while I’m gone. Al knows the details, but I need you to provide the guidance. He can’t see the big picture like you can. I’m counting on you.”

“Ian, come on, please. Be reasonable about this–”

Ian cut him off, a hard note audible in his voice. “It’s a simple choice, James. Either you come in to work next week, or you don’t bother coming in to work at all.” Then, his voice softened. “You don’t want to be looking for work in an economy like this, especially with a wedding coming up.”

James gripped the phone tightly, then bowed his head. “Okay, I’ll get the files from Susan on Monday morning and get the project finished.”

Ian coughed. “Actually, Susan has had to take an emergency vacation. Something about a sick mother to look after. Good luck, James.” Ian hung up.

He stared at his cell phone. Susan didn’t have a mother. At least, not one who was alive. He remembered talking with Susan once about their parents, and she had told him her mother had passed away when she was very young, and she had grown up with only her dad. The lying son-of-a—

Laura returned to the flat. “Who was that?”

Trying to ignore the falling sensation in his stomach, James cleared his throat. “It was Ian. We need to talk…”

* * *

After the incident with the chess set, he had expected Laura to blow her top with the news he couldn’t go to France. Instead, she had icily informed him to find somewhere else to stay the night and think carefully about the choices he had made over the past few days.

He quickly realized that one of the choices he had made was to leave his wallet in his bag and, in the drama of being kicked out of his own flat, he had forgotten to pick it up. That made his destination options rather limited.

He decided to walk to Melvin’s house. Laura didn’t approve of Melvin—she didn’t approve of much anything James had done or enjoyed before she met him—therefore, he hadn’t seen a lot of Melvin over the past eighteen months, even though Melvin was his oldest friend. Despite the circumstances, he was happy at the chance to see Melvin again for more than a few stolen minutes during his lunch break.

The only downside was that Melvin lived some distance away, and James had little option but to walk. He was thankful the weather was reasonable—crisp, but not too cold, and with no sign of rain.

After an hour and a half of trudging, Melvin’s building finally came into view. His tiny flat was above an old bicycle shop. Melvin had lived there ever since James had known him, for reasons he couldn’t fathom. The place was a dump. Cold in winter, hot in summer, it had water pipes that spat brown-colored water, and an electrical system he was sure would cause a fire at some point. But Melvin loved the place. He claimed it had ‘character.’

“Excuse me, do you have the time?”

James jumped. He hadn’t noticed the man standing on the corner. He wore a white suit, with a wide-brimmed hat that obscured his face with shadow. His voice had a strange accent to it that James couldn’t place. To James’s bemusement, the man was looking at some sort of pocket watch.

“Er, sure.” James fumbled for his phone. “It’s just after ten. Ten-oh-eight, according to this.”

“Excellent; I’m not late. Thank you.” The man adjusted his watch slightly, then flipped the lid shut and put it back into his pocket. He gave James a faint smile, his mouth the only part of his face visible beneath the hat, and leaned back against the building.

“Yeah. No problem. Have a good one.”

Chuckling to himself, James crossed the street. The outfit the guy wore was unusual, even for London. It almost looked like a cross between what a nineteen twenties gangster would wear and a suit from Victorian times. And who used a pocket watch in modern society?

He put his thoughts about the man aside when he reached the building with Melvin’s flat and climbed the rusty stairs leading to the front door. He knocked loudly, trying to make himself heard over the loud sounds of the TV coming from within. After a few moments, the volume lowered, and he heard shuffling movements. The door opened slightly, a security chain stopping it from opening far.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s me. Sorry for the late hour, but I need somewhere to crash.”

“James!” Melvin closed the door to undo the chain, then opened it fully to let him enter. “I wasn’t expecting to see you. Come in, come in. What’s happened? Is everything all right?”

“Not really.” He entered the flat. “Laura and I had a fight.”

Melvin sighed, shaking his head, as he motioned for James to take a seat. “Was it a real fight, or did she just tell you the latest thing she thought you had done wrong?”

“Hey, it’s not like that. I broke a promise, and she was upset. Then, my boss called and said I had to go into work next week or I’d lose my job, even though we’d already booked a trip to France. So she’s mad about that, and mad that I ordered a chess set after I promised her I would give it up. She wanted to be alone this evening.”

Melvin sighed again. “You need to learn to stick up for what you want, James. One day, it will be very important that you do.”

“I know, I know. I shouldn’t have let my boss browbeat me into going to work next week.”

“That’s not what I meant. But you already knew that.”

James looked away uncomfortably, then stood. “If you don’t mind, I have to use the bathroom.”

Melvin waved his hand. “You know where it is. I’ll make us some coffee. I have a feeling this is going to be a long night.”

James stepped into the small bathroom and closed the door. After he had finished relieving himself, he flushed the toilet and washed his hands, drying them on the threadbare hand towel. He was about to go back out into the living area when a loud crash startled him. It sounded as if something had smashed through the front door.

“You!” Melvin’s voice held a combination of surprise and fear. James opened the bathroom door a crack to see what was happening. A giant of a man, almost seven feet tall, stood inside the broken door. A tarnished metal mask covered the man’s face, and he wore black leather gloves and a long brown leather coat with the Ace of Spades symbol clearly embossed on the lapel.

His heart skipped a beat when he saw what the intruder held in his hands—two large knives, almost eighteen inches long with the blades curving up slightly to end in a lethal point. They weren’t blades intended for decoration. They were blades designed to kill.

Before James could react, the man slashed several times at Melvin’s neck and torso. Blood exploded from Melvin’s body, and he let out a sickening gurgle as he slumped to the ground. The murderer stared at Melvin’s collapsed form for several moments.

James stood frozen in fear. His hand slipped on the door handle where he had been holding it after opening the door, and the handle flicked back with an audible noise.

The killer raised his head and stared directly at him.

James took one look at the man who had killed his best friend and did the only thing he could think of. He slammed the bathroom door, flung open the window, and threw himself onto the fire escape. The intruder crashed through the bathroom door, but James was already halfway down the fire escape and running for his life.

He’d hoped the killer would let him escape. After all, as he wore a mask, James couldn’t possibly identify him. But as he reached the bottom of the fire escape, the killer began to follow.

For the second time that evening, James cursed the fact that Melvin lived in such a remote area of the city. Anywhere else, there would have been other people around, forcing the murderer to leave him alone. But the deserted street offered no chance of safety. He knew if he went to one of the surrounding houses to get help, he would be dead before anyone could answer the door. That was if they even answered the door.

His legs hadn’t had a chance to recover from the long walk to Melvin’s place, and his leg muscles almost immediately burned from the exertion. With no option left, he fled down the street, hoping to reach a busier area with traffic and people before the killer caught up to him.

He spied a narrow lane he remembered Melvin leading him through once. They had used the shortcut after going out to grab some takeout food. He risked looking behind him. The murderer was fewer than twenty yards behind and closing in fast. He could see the glint of the knives in the moonlight and knew if the killer caught up with him, he would be as dead as Melvin. He threw himself around the corner into the lane.

He nearly lost his footing as he realized the man in the white suit from earlier stood around the corner. Almost casually, the man lunged forward and tackled him.

“I’m sorry for this,” the man said. “But I need to keep a promise to an old friend.”

James braced himself to hit the ground, but the ground seemed to disappear beneath him. He felt as if he had been knocked into a deep hole. Or off a cliff. The man pushed him away, then disappeared in a bright flash of light.

After a moment of shock, James screamed as he fell. Thoughts flashed through his mind, all the hopes and dreams he had held for his life.

It took him a few seconds to realize he hadn’t hit the bottom of the hole. He stopped screaming and began to take notice of his surroundings. Then, he blinked a few times, trying to make sense of what he saw.

Cupboards and bookshelves lined the walls of the hole he was falling down, along with pictures of places, people, and maps hanging on short pegs. Most of the cupboards and shelves were empty, but a few contained various small items—jars, books, even a few dolls and other stuffed toys.

The thought that he was dead and having his final hallucinations crossed his mind.

He noticed a bright light far below him. Focusing on it, he realized with a sinking feeling that the bottom of the hole was fast approaching. He couldn’t make out what he would hit at the bottom. Not that it mattered. He wouldn’t survive landing on anything after falling such a long way.

For the second time, James screamed.

You can buy Gears of Wonderland from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.

Aug 24, 2011 - Samples    2 Comments

Guest Author Book Excerpt – A Game of Blood

Today I have something I’ve never done before. It’s a book excerpt from a guest author, Julie Ann Dawson, for her paranormal thriller A Game of Blood. I haven’t read the book, but the blurb certainly sounds like it would appeal to my tastes.

What would you do if a 300 year old vampire decided that you would make the perfect Van Helsing for his own twisted game?

A series of bizzare kidnappings leads detective Mitch Grogan to the home of the wealthy and eccentric Darius Hawthorne. What he discovers there unleashes a chain of events that not only threatens his life, but also his sanity. Grogan finds himself caught up in a deadly game with a three hundred year old vampire looking for a worthy adversary. But how can a burnt-out cop with a crumbling marriage compete against a centuries’ old immortal with unlimited resources and supernatural powers?

More than boredom drives the cunning Hawthorne, however. His attempts to push Grogan to the breaking point are more than cruel entertainment. They also serve as a test to see whether or not the mortal is ready to help him hunt an even more deadly foe: one that would see the whole world burn to remove the vampiric corruption from it.

Here’s Julie’s description of when the excerpt takes places: “After Darius’ assistant confesses to the kidnappings, Mitch continues to pursue a case against Darius. His investigation has unintended consequences with his wife.”

“Would this swab help you resolve your case, detective?” Both Torres and Mitch turned to see Hawthorne standing in the doorway.  Neither had heard the door open over their argument.

“Are you volunteering to give us a DNA sample, Mr. Hawthorne?” asked Torres.

“If it will help finalize your investigation and put minds at ease, I would be happy to help.”

“Darius, I advise against that,” said his attorney.

“William, I advise you that you are beginning to annoy me,” said Hawthorne as he gave his attorney a stern look.  “Now make yourself useful and go fetch me a bottle of water.  I’m thirsty and it is too late in the evening for more coffee.”

Torres called for a CSI to come to the interrogation room and collect the swab.  Hawthorne’s attorney brought him a bottle of water.  Mitch stood in the corner, watching Hawthorne’s every move.  Hawthorne and his attorney reviewed the disclosure statement for the DNA sample while waiting for the CSI, and Hawthorne signed it over his attorney’s weak protests.  The CSI was a wisp of a girl named Kelli Ryan, the last new hire the department made before the freeze last year.  She immediately melted at the sight of Hawthorne, whose face lit up when she walked in the room.  Ryan blushed and fumbled with her kit under Hawthorne’s watchful smile.  Hawthorne either didn’t notice or paid no attention to Mitch’s glare.

“So what are you going to do to me, Ms. Ryan?” asked Hawthorne playfully as he took a negligible sip from his water bottle.

“Um, don’t worry.  This won’t hurt.  All you have to do is open your mouth. It might just tickle a bit,” she replied as she prepared the swab.

“Oh let’s hope not.  You start tickling the inside of my mouth and this could get embarrassing.”

Ryan swallowed hard as Hawthorne leaned across the table, his mouth open expectantly.  Un-fuckin-believable, thought Mitch.  He’s flirting with her right in front of us.  It wasn’t the first time Mitch had watched some perp try to make moves on a female cop.  It was the first time, however, it appeared the perp might actually be successful.  Ryan rubbed the swab on the inside of his mouth.  When she was done, he licked his lips as he sat back in his chair.

“That’s all?  How anti-climatic,” he said with manufactured disappointment.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” she replied coyly.

“You were no disappointment.”

“Thank you, Kelli,” interrupted Torres before she could respond.  “We can finish up here.”  She quickly shuffled her equipment back into its case.  Hawthorne waves to her as she left.

“Delightful young woman,” said Hawthorne as he stood to leave.  “Not that your company was uninteresting, Detective Grogan.”

“We appreciate your cooperation, Mr. Hawthorne,” said Torres as he moved to open the door.  “If we have any further questions, we’ll be in touch.”

Hawthorne stopped in the doorway and turned to Torres.  “One small thing, Captain,” he began.  “I believe your detectives confiscated my Prius.  Might I inquire when I can expect it back?  It would be terribly troublesome to have to get a rental.”

“I’m sure they will be done with it in a few days, Mr. Hawthorne.”

Hawthorne smiled and offered a slight bow.  “Gentlemen, enjoy the remainder of your evening.”  Mitch and Torres watched him leave.

“He only took the one drink from his bottle,” said Mitch quietly.

Torres nodded.  “Take tomorrow off.  Get some rest.  I’ll get on the lab to process that trace.  When you get back, we’ll talk more about our friend Hawthorne.  He knows a lot more than he is letting on, and we need to find out why Frazner doesn’t want to see that.”

Mitch didn’t spend his day off resting.  He couldn’t sleep more than a couple of hours before his anxious brain overwhelmed his dreams.  He struggled with yet another attempt to make a drinkable pot of coffee and failed horribly.  He hadn’t quite allowed the rinse cycle of the dishwasher to run all the way through, and the resulting soap film combined with the coffee left a taste not dissimilar to paint thinner in his mouth.

The local Barnes and Noble had a coffee shop inside, however, and since he planned on spending a few hours there that would do just fine.

It was a weak link, he knew.  He had attended all the required seminars and workshops on various underground cults, fads, and trends.  Usually each year there was a new “awareness” workshop that was supposed to help officers identify troubled teens.  Usually these workshops coincided with some behavioral specialist peddling a new book on the latest popular thing that was going to destroy the youth of America.  Punk culture, Goth culture, Gothic Punk culture, Neo-Punk culture, Nazi Punk culture, Skater culture, Skater-Punk culture.  The workshop leader always made it sound like this was a serious threat to the very foundation of the country.  The only think Mitch ever noticed was the number of ways kids can wear their hair badly.

One of the workshops had addressed the so-called Vampyre sub-culture, which was or was not part of the Goth sub-culture depending on which expert’s book you were reading.  A lot of talk about repressed sexuality and youth worship and other psycho-babble.  Neither of the victims fit the description of a “vampyre.”  He wasn’t even sure if finding the Vampire Diaries in Cameron’s room was even evidence or just a weird coincidence.  But Rodney had pointed out that these types of books were popular with young people, particularly girls, and it was apparent that Hawthorne had used this to his advantage.  He had told Rachel that she looked like Bella.  That had been his pick up line.  He had probably used a similar tactic with Cameron.

He wandered the horror section of the bookstore aimlessly.  He picked up and put down one book after another.  Reading the back covers and flipping through the pages, he noted a lot of not-so-repressed sexuality and whining, but not a lot of actual horror.  He began to wonder if he had accidentally wandered into the romance section.

“Have you read Blood Noir?” said a woman’s voice.  Mitch turned around to see an attractive blonde woman standing next to him.  Mitch figured she must have been in her late twenties.  She wore a low-cut peach colored blouse with a short off-white jacket and matching knee-length skirt.  Her amber eyes were behind slightly tinted glasses set in petite rectangular frames.  She conjured images in his head of a sexy librarian.  Mitch suddenly felt guilty.

“Um, sorry?” he finally managed to blurt out.  She taped the book in his hand.  He looked at the title, Skin Trade.  “Um, no.”

“You definitely should read Blood Noir first,” she insisted.

“Oh, is this a series?”

“Oh, you haven’t read any of the Anita Blake books?”

“Um, well, I’m sort of new to the whole genre and I was looking for something to read.” Mitch felt dumb, and suspected he sounded dumb as well.  The woman smiled and began explaining the series to him.  Anita Blake is a necromancer and vampire-hunter in love with the master vampire of St. Louis, Jean-Claude.  She also loves Richard, the alpha werewolf, and eventually this love-triangle becomes formalized when the trio forms the Triumvirate, which links them all together and allows them to share powers.  Mitch stood there, listening intently to the woman explain the completely absurd but arousing plotline.

“I’m married,” he suddenly stated.  The woman’s face flushed red.

“Oh, I didn’t mean to imply…you just seemed interested in the series.  And…”

“No, no.  I’m sorry.  You’ve been quite helpful.  I’ve enjoyed the conversation.  I, I just you know wanted to be clear so there aren’t hard feelings or misunderstandings.”  Mitch took a deep breath to collect his thoughts.  The woman apologized again and turned to walk away.  “Wait,” he said.  “Do you read a lot of these books?”

“I’ve read the whole series.”

“I think I could really use your help.”

For the next hour, Mitch bought Andrea Morton coffee at the café while she educated him on the books.  After he had offered her an abbreviated explanation for his initial interest in the books, the awkwardness of their original conversation dissipated.  She had read not just the series, but also all of the Twilight books, the Vampire Diaries, and a bunch of other titles Mitch jotted down in his notebook.  Lots of plots involving sexy, misunderstood female protagonists dealing with sexy, misunderstood male vampires and the occasional sexy, misunderstood werewolf.  Chick lit with a dark twist.  Escapist romances.  Despite the supernatural casts, rather mundane stuff and certainly not cultesque material.

They exchanged business cards before he left, and apologized to each other a final time for their earlier miscommunication.  As he left the store, he felt calmer and more focused.  Hawthorne might be a monster, but he was a human one.  His come-on lines with Rachel were no different than a guy pretending to cry over some chick flick like The Proposal (a movie he had sat through twice with Sylvia, the first time because she wanted to see it, and the second time because she had thought he enjoyed it as much as she had so they saw it again.)

Hawthorne was a manipulator, but being manipulative didn’t require supernatural powers, particularly when preying on teen girls.  Mitch still couldn’t explain the fact that he didn’t appear on the tapes, but there had to be a logical reason.  B-grade stage magicians pulled all sorts of tricks involving mirrors and lighting.  There was an explanation, and with a clear head he would find it.

Mitch went home and managed a much needed nap.  He woke to the sound of the phone ringing.  He looked at the Caller ID to see his mother-in-law’s number.

“Sylvia?” he said as he picked up the phone.

“Mitch,” his wife replied timidly.

“How you feeling, baby?”

She sighed.  “I’m OK.  Been hanging out with mom, catching up on stuff.  You know.”

“That’s good.  You know, whatever you need to do, honey.  Whatever you need.”

“Yeah.”

“You know, I got the rest of the day off.  We could get some dinner at…”

“That’s not a good idea,” she stated.

“Yeah, yeah.  Um, you’re doing stuff with your mom.”

“Yeah.  Um, mom and me went to lunch today at Gamberni’s and we saw Megan.”

“Yeah, oh, that’s cool,” said Mitch, trying to remember who the hell Megan was and whether or not he should be happy that Sylvia saw her.  His wife had an ever fluctuating circle of friends that included close friends, work friends, school friends, “sisters” from her breast cancer survivor support group, friends of her friends, and peripheral friends who shopped at the same stores she shopped at and whom she only saw at those stores.  Mitch had trouble keeping up.

“She said she saw you today while she was out doing errands,” said Sylvia.

“Oh? She should have said hi or something.  Guess I didn’t see her,” Megan, Megan, Megan.  Who the fuck is Megan?

“She, um, said you looked busy.”

Busy?  The only places he’d been were the OneStop to grab a breakfast sandwich and the bookstore.

Oh, fuck.

“No, I wasn’t busy.  I’m working on this case, and…”

“I thought you said you had today off?”

Here we go.  “What did Megan tell you?”

“Nothing.  She just said she saw you at the bookstore.  You were talking to some blonde.”

“Yeah, well, tell Megan I’ve been talking to a lot of fucking blondes, and brunettes.  Mostly teenage girls because two of them went and got themselves kidnapped by a pervert that rapes and kills them.”

“I didn’t say I was accusing you of anything, Mitch.”

“You didn’t have to say it.”  Fuck.  “Baby, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to yell.”

“I know.”

“I miss you,” he said.  She didn’t respond.  “When you coming home?”

“I need time, Mitch.”

“Can you at least tell me what I did so I know why I’m kicking myself?”

“You didn’t do anything, Mitch,” Sylvia sobbed into the phone.  “I’m just dealing with things you wouldn’t understand.”

“I want to understand.  I want to be there for you.  I love you.”

“I gotta go,” she cried.

“Sylvia?  Wait.”  The phone went dead.  He stood there with the phone to his ear, listening to the buzzing of the line.

If you want to read the rest of A Game of Blood, it is available on Amazon.

Jun 17, 2011 - Samples    2 Comments

Sample: Cryoskip’s Footprints, part 2

This is the second scene from Cryoskip’s Footprints. We again get to see Derek (and his travelling companions) in action, but we also start to see that Derek has changed in the years since Butch last saw him — and not necessarily for the better. You can read the first scene here.

*

Butch stared at the featureless terrain as they rode their mules slowly along the crumbling remains of the highway. The heat was unbearable, like being stuck in an oven, and he almost wished he was back at his bar.

Of course, if he had remained at the bar, he would never know whether Derek had discovered the answers they sought in the ruins of Cryoskip, the company that had taken them from their comfortable lives and deposited them in this blasted hell-on-Earth.

The traveling companions Derek had selected were an interesting pair. Sandy was riding a mule beside Butch, and was much more comfortable than he at controlling the animal. She was a small woman in her mid-twenties, with short-cropped hair, no feminine figure to speak of, and a chip on her shoulder about everything in the world. Men, the wasteland, scavengers, traders—you name it, she had a mostly negative opinion on it. But she carried the pistol on her belt and the rifle on her back, as if they were extensions of her body. Butch had seen enough gunfighters in his travels to know she meant business.

Sean was Derek’s second hired gun, and he was driving the wagon containing most of their gear. He was a large man in his thirties, completely bald and with a deep voice that would have been perfect for radio. Butch was reminded of the action heroes he had watched on TV when he was young. Butch had no idea if Sean was a hero, or anything else about him. He didn’t talk much. But Butch knew Derek wouldn’t have hired him if he wasn’t good at what he did. He hoped he wouldn’t have to see firsthand how good Sean was.

The eight days of travel had so far been uneventful. They had passed through several small towns and a trading post on the way, never stopping for more than a few hours. Butch had hoped they might spend at least a couple of nights in the safety, and comfort, of a town, but Derek had been keen to keep moving for as long as possible every day. It had been too long since Butch had spent any time traveling, and his back wasn’t enjoying sleeping on the ground.

“Don’t react, but we’ve got company ahead.” Derek’s voice cut into his thoughts. Butch hadn’t noticed him move up beside him.

“I see them.” Sandy hadn’t moved, but she suddenly seemed like a coiled snake, ready to strike.

Butch looked around while trying to act casual. “Where? I don’t see anything.”

“The three rusty trucks ahead,” replied Derek. Butch looked again. After a few moments, he caught a slight movement.

“Instructions?” Sean hadn’t taken his eyes off the road ahead from where he sat on the wagon.

Derek seemed to debate for a moment. “We stop here. Make it appear we’re having a problem with the wagon, and need to fix it. We’re too far for them to start shooting, and they won’t try to approach during the daylight. When it starts to get dark, Sandy and I will go pay them a visit while the two of you remain behind to guard things.”

“Sounds risky,” said Butch.

“Not as risky as getting close enough for them to shoot. Sean?”

“On it.” Sean began to look down both sides of the wagon, as if searching for a source of noise, then pulled the wagon to a stop. As Sean climbed down and started to look the wagon over, Butch, Derek, and Sandy played along, dismounting from their mules and helping with the ‘search.’ Sean and Derek faked an animated discussion about having to stop, and the wagon was moved to the side of the road so they could set up camp.

Butch did his best ignore the trucks two hundred yards down the road, but he still found himself watching them out of the corner of his eye. He puttered around the forming camp, helping to unload the wagon to give the impression of Sean working on it, and then setting up the tents and campfire for the night.

Time crawled by. Butch was reminded of when he was a kid, waiting for Christmas Eve to be over so he could wake up the next day and see what presents he had received.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the light began to fade.

“Time to go,” said Derek.

“Are they still there?” Butch was finishing his share of the meal Sean had cooked.

“They haven’t moved. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re getting ready to sneak up on us in the dark.”

“What!?”

“Don’t worry. Sean will be here with you. Just keep acting normal.”

Butch fidgeted as Derek got up, then did his best to carry on. Derek made his way over to where Sandy was sitting. To Butch’s surprise, Derek put his arm around her, and after a brief exchange, the two strolled to the tent Derek had been specific about positioning behind the wagon, out of sight of the trucks.

Butch again found himself sitting and waiting. He passed the time as best he could by writing in his journal, while Sean sat and stared at the campfire. Butch finished the entry and joined Sean in staring at the fire. After a few moments, he decided to break the silence.

“Where are you from?”

“Westtrade.” Sean didn’t look at him, or expand on his answer.

“That’s a nice place,” offered Butch after a few moments. “Do you still have family back there?”

Sean glanced at Butch. For a moment, Butch thought he caught a flicker of absolute hatred. Then the look was gone, and Sean returned his gaze to the fire.

“Father and sister.”

The sound of gunfire in the distance startled Butch, and he dropped his pen. The shots lasted only a few seconds; then there was silence. Butch looked toward the shapes of the trucks, their outlines silhouetted in the last touches of light on the horizon. After a few moments, a light flashed — the prearranged signal from Derek.

“That was the all-clear,” said Butch, standing. “You coming?”

Sean didn’t look up. “Someone’s got to guard the camp.”

Shaking his head, Butch started walking down the road toward the trucks. His eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light offered by the moon, and he made it without tripping over or falling into any of the large potholes.

By the time he arrived, Derek and Sandy had begun already making a pile of useful salvage from the raiders. So far, the pile contained five guns, some spare ammunition, food, water, and even a jacket in reasonable condition.

“Sean’s guarding the camp,” said Butch, as he surveyed the loot. Derek nodded as he went through an old leather bag. Butch glanced around the scene. Three men and two women lay dead. They had been well positioned in the group of trucks for attacking anyone who came too close. Plenty of cover, but with a clear view of the road. Derek had been right. If they had continued in the wagon, they would have been easy pickings for the raiders.

As Butch looked closer at the hiding position of one of the dead men, he noticed a photograph lying on the ground. He bent over to pick it up, then felt his heart skip a beat as he realized what it was.

“Derek!”

“What?” Derek looked up from the pile where he had been placing something wrapped in dirty cloth.

“Get over here!”

Derek made his way over. “What’s wrong?”

“These weren’t ordinary raiders.” Butch held up the photo, which showed Butch and Derek standing outside the gate of a small town. It had been taken several years ago, but they hadn’t changed much over the years.

Derek frowned. “Where did you get that?”

Butch waved toward the dead raider. “It was near him.” Butch stared intensely at Derek’s face. “You’re not surprised, are you?”

Derek remained silent.

“What’s going on? What have you dragged me into?”

Derek sighed. “For the past eight months, I’ve been working for Bjorn.”

Butch took a step back. “What!? Why the hell are you working for a lowlife, backstabbing criminal like that?”

“Was. Past tense. I needed information. I knew he had taken an interest in Cryoskip. I wanted to find out what he knew and watch for any new information coming in.”

Butch tried to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach. “That’s how you got the location of this research base, isn’t it?”

Derek nodded. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t prevent Bjorn from getting the same information, so I was forced to sabotage some of his equipment to delay his leaving. He wasn’t too happy about that, and put a bounty on my head. He must have figured I would try to recruit you, and put a bounty on you as well.”

Butch clenched his fists to stop his hands shaking. “How can you be so calm about this? Bjorn kills anyone who gets in his way, and he has enough money to send bounty hunters after us for the rest of our lives. Lives that are likely to be very short. He isn’t like the others we’ve pissed off in the past. Bjorn has resources.”

“It’ll be fine.”

“How can you stand there and say that so calmly?”

“Because once we have the information from the site, I’m going to hunt him down and kill him.”

Butch stared at Derek in disbelief. “What the hell happened to you in these past years? There was a time you’d never have said something like that.”

“People change. What did you expect, living in this hell?”

Before Butch could reply, Derek turned and started walking over to the pile of salvage Sandy was picking through. “Make yourself useful,” he called back to Butch. “Help us carry this salvage back to camp.”

Several thoughts rushed through Butch’s mind at once. Calling Derek back to explain himself. Calling Derek all manner of names. Telling Derek exactly what he could do with his salvage.

It wasn’t worth it. He’d seen Derek like this before. Nothing was going to get him to change his mind, or to admit he had done something wrong. Saying nothing, Butch moved to the pile and began to pick up items.

Read the rest of the story by purchasing Cryoskip’s Footprints from Amazon.

May 8, 2011 - Samples    Comments Off on Sample: Cryoskip’s Footprints, part 1

Sample: Cryoskip’s Footprints, part 1

It’s been a few weeks since I put a writing sample up, and since I have just released Cryoskip’s Footprints, it seemed like the obvious choice for a new sample. Enjoy!

Cryoskip’s Footprints

Striding into the dingy club, Derek took in the scene at a glance. It was typical of all the backwater dives he had seen countless times in his travels, full of people drinking to forget how crappy their life was out here in the wastelands. Three large men sitting in the corner took a mild interest in his arrival, but no one else bothered to look up from their cups.

He made his way to the bar.

“What can I get you?” asked the barkeep, watching Derek warily.

“A beer,” replied Derek. “And let Butch know that a friend’s here to see him.”

“That friend got a name?” asked the barkeep, as he poured the beer from the keg behind the bar.

“Tell him it’s a friend from the Pit, one he owes a favor.”

Derek saw a brief flicker of recognition in the barkeep’s face at the mention of the Pit, but to his credit, he didn’t react. Derek picked up his drink and turned to survey the room again as the barkeep stepped through a door behind the bar. As he’d expected, the three men who’d watched him enter were walking toward him. The others were all looking away, not wanting to witness whatever was going to happen next.

Derek rolled his eyes.

“Ain’t seen your face around here before,” began the largest as they got close enough for conversation. The other two had fanned out in a laughable attempt at flanking him.

Derek took a sip of his drink, then looked the leader in the eye. “That’s probably because you’re a dumb fuck who couldn’t scratch his ass without someone helping him.”

“What’d you say!?” bellowed the thug. Before the trio could work out how they were going to respond, Derek struck.

He stepped forward and kicked upward. His steel-toed boot connected with the leader’s crotch, doubling him over. Derek threw the contents of his drink into the face of the man on his left, then stepped to his right and threw a left hook at the third. He heard a crunch as his fist connected with the thug’s nose, and was rewarded with the man’s shriek of pain.

The attacker on the left took a wild swing at Derek, but the beer in his eyes must have obscured his vision. Derek ducked under the clumsy roundhouse, and delivered an uppercut to the guy’s chin. The man’s head snapped back, and he wobbled on his feet. Before the thug could regain his senses, Derek kicked his legs out from beneath him, sending him crashing to the ground.

Derek heard the sound of a shotgun being cycled behind him. He stopped moving, raising his hands slowly.

A voice he recognized said, “Simpson, how many times have I told you and your brothers not to bother the patrons? Now get the hell out of here, before I get a cramp in my finger and accidentally shoot your sorry ass.”

The three men did their best to stagger out of the bar, the two flanking thugs helping their still-crippled leader. Several others followed them, wanting to avoid further trouble. The rest of the patrons looked on with interest. Derek lowered his hands and turned around.

“I didn’t say you could lower your hands.” Butch was still pointing the gun at him.

“No. But if you’re still the same crappy shot you used to be, I’m in no danger.”

Butch remained staring at him for several seconds before he lowered the shotgun.

“You haven’t changed one bit, Derek.” Grinning, they clasped hands. “What the hell’s brought you to this hole?”

Derek grew serious. “Got somewhere we can talk? This isn’t something for general company.” He nodded toward the rest of the customers.

“Sure, sure, come on through to my office.” Butch motioned him toward the back.

Derek followed him to the crowded rear office. The room was filled with all manner of pre-war electronics, from game consoles and radios to computer parts. Among the piles of scavenged electronics were technical manuals for a range of electrical equipment.

“Any of this stuff work?” asked Derek, surveying the piles.

“Some of it.” Butch sat in a large padded chair behind a small desk. He waved Derek to a plain wooden chair on the other side of the desk. “A lot of it was trashed by the EMP bursts, or damaged by poor conditions before being salvaged, but I save what working components I can for other uses.”

“You never did want to let go.”

“And you did?” asked Butch.

“Point.”

Butch slapped the desk. “Why the hell are we rehashing old arguments? A reunion like this requires a drink!” He took out a half-full bottle of Laphroaig Scotch from the bottom drawer and poured two glasses.

“You leave this lying around in an unlocked drawer?” asked Derek as he took the offered glass. “This must be worth a fortune.”

“It is. I have certain security measures in place that will discourage people from trying to steal. Certainly from trying a second time, anyway.”

“To old friends.” Derek raised his glass.

“And past times,” offered Butch. They downed their drinks in one gulp.

“You’re a hard man to find,” said Derek, after an appreciative look at the now-empty glass.

Butch shrugged. “We both have people who aren’t too happy about our continued existence. I decided that lying low would be the best bet. I see from the incident in the bar you’re not one for keeping a low profile.”

Derek snorted. “Those losers? Please. I left them alive, didn’t I? Maybe next time they’ll think twice before trying to rough up a random stranger.”

Butch chuckled. “I doubt it. They’re too thick for any kind of thought beyond finding their next drink, or next victim. But something tells me you didn’t come all this way to discuss the local thug population. What’s on your mind?”

Derek took a deep breath. “I think I’ve found Cryoskip’s headquarters.”

“Oh, come on.” Butch slammed his glass down. “Not this again. We spent years looking for it. It was in Atlanta and got obliterated with everything else when the bombs fell. Hell, we saw the rubble that used to be Atlanta, and got the radiation burns to prove it. Face facts, it’s gone. We’ll never know why they decided to sleep us, who else they slept, or even how many people there are.”

Derek shook his head. “I know what we saw, and I agree the public headquarters were destroyed when the bombs fell. But I’m talking about their main R&D headquarters, where they developed all their technology and kept the central server with all their records. I know where it is.”

Butch looked at Derek dubiously. “And how do I know that this isn’t another of your wild goose chases?”

“You don’t.” Derek smiled. “But you have to admit, even if they are goose chases, my trips are never dull.”

Butch looked at him for a few moments, then laughed. “True, I’ll give you that.”

“So what do you say? Are you in?”

Butch was silent for a few moments. “Even if you have found the R&D headquarters, we don’t know that it’s untouched. And if by some miracle it’s untouched, you know there won’t be much salvageable on the computer systems. I’ll be lucky if I can retrieve five percent of the data they stored. The info you want might not be there.”

Derek nodded. “I know; the odds are low after so long. But in our favor, the site is an old underground military base in a remote location that Cryoskip bought and converted. If there’s the smallest chance I can learn why they did this to us, I’ve got to take it. What about you?”

Butch sighed. “Fine. You knew I was going to say yes, anyway.”

Derek grinned. “I know. But you had to realize you were going to say yes as well.”

“How far are we traveling?”

“It’s about three hundred miles. We’re traveling by mules, with a wagon for support. I hope to make it in two weeks, but it depends on the terrain.”

“Figures. How many are in the group?”

“Four. The two of us, plus two hired guns. I’ve worked with them before. They’re reliable if they’re paid, and good at what they do.”

Butch nodded. “I’ll get my kit together. I’ll be ready at dawn tomorrow.”

Derek laughed. “Excellent. Now, how about we celebrate this reunion with more of that scotch of yours?”

Read the rest of the story by getting Cryoskip’s Footprints from Amazon.

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