Nov 26, 2011 - Interviews    2 Comments

Interview With Ty Johnston

Fantasy author Ty Johnston’s blog tour 2011 is running from November 1 through November 30. His novels include City of Rogues, Bayne’s Climb and More than Kin, all of which are available for the Kindle (http://www.amazon.com/Ty-Johnston/e/B002MCBQRU/ ), the Nook (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/ty-johnston ) and online at Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/darkbow ). His latest novel, Ghosts of the Asylum, will be available for e-books on November 21. To find out more, follow him at his blog tyjohnston.blogspot.com.

JGA: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got started writing?

TJ: I’ve been writing in one form or another since I was five years old. I started with comic books, reading and writing them. Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four. Those were my earliest fictional heroes. I wrote a couple of very short novels when I was in elementary school. In my late teens I began writing short stories and one horror novel. In college I studied journalism, then I spent the next 20 years as a newspaper editor or designer. During all that time, I kept up my short story writing, with a handful of sales here and there. A few years back, like many today, I found myself looking for a new career. I decided to turn my love of fiction writing into that new career, and so far I’m doing alright. In the last six years I’ve written five novels, four novellas, two screenplays and so many short stories I’ve lost count, the majority of that written in the last couple of years.

JGA: How do you go about the actual process of writing?

TJ: Not much is set with me when it comes to writing. I mostly write at home on an HP desktop, but often enough I travel to a library or book store and write on a laptop. Sometimes I write on a ten-year-old Mac I’ve got in a corner. It really depends upon the project. I use the Mac for screenwriting and graphic design because I’ve got the appropriate software there, even if the computer is old.

I have no set schedule for writing, though when in the depths of a novel I do set daily word counts for myself. Sometimes I write early in the morning, sometimes later in the day. Sometimes I write in the middle of the night, like I’m doing now.

Every once in a while I write using a pencil and notebook pad, but that’s rare, and I usually just do it for a change of pace and/or when I’m starting a new project.

JGA: How do you personally like to read books you buy these days?

TJ: I’m all over the place. I have hundreds of e-books waiting for me on my Kindle, but I also have a stack of about 50 books waiting on a shelf above my main writing computer. I enjoy both digital and paper. I buy both. If I’m at home and think about a particular book, usually I pop onto my Kindle and buy it. But sometimes I’ll be out in a book store and I’ll find something I want; in that case, I go ahead and purchase it.

Of late, I’m growing more fond of shorter novels. I believe that’s because I’ve spent much of the last couple of years reading longer works, including the Malazan Books of the Fallen by Steven Erikson and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I think I need a break from the longer novels.

I do tend to prefer novels more than short stories. Short stories have to work much harder to impress me.

As a writer, I enjoy working in both short and longer forms. Each brings different skills to the forefront for me. When I’m writing short stories, I’m much more emotional about it, and experimental. When writing novels, I tend to fall into a working routine that’s almost mechanical.

JGA: Which authors (or books) have had the most influence on your writing style, and why?

TJ: I tend to like writers who can convey much in few words, and I try to do the same. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the more flowery writers out there, nor the ones who spend pages upon pages dwelling on the inner turmoils of their characters, but that’s not for me. In writing, I like action and dialogue, and if done correctly, I feel those alone can show much.

As for writers who have influenced my own style, coming from my generation, I’d have to say Stephen King to some extent. Almost any writer under 50 has been influenced by King, directly or indirectly, even if they don’t realize it, because of the influence King has brought to so many other writers, even outside the horror genre.

Hemingway to some small extent has influenced my style, as has Ed McBain. Of fantasy writers, my own style is probably closest to that of the late Fred Saberhagen, and perhaps a little close to the late David Gemmell. The likes of Andrew J. Offutt, Robert E. Howard and Robert Asprin have also had a big affect upon me.

JGA: How do you go about planning your writing?

TJ: For short stories, I do very little planning. I usually have an idea in my head for a few weeks, then one day I sit down and start writing. If the plot is somewhat complex, I might make a few notes on characters or some such.

For novel writing, I usually have tons of notes and computer files containing notes. Right now there is a small notebook, nearly every page filled, and a handful of torn-out sheets sitting in front of my keyboard for my most recent novel, Ghosts of the Asylum. And then there are a half dozen computer files on my main writing computer, with some back-up files elsewhere.

My notes usually are broken up into several different types. One set of notes will focus upon characters, their names and mannerisms. Since I write a lot of epic fantasy, I also usually have a good number of notes about places, their names and characteristics. Then there are scene notes in which I break down everything important that needs to happen in a given scene. I’ll also have notes with a broader approach, reminding me of what is supposed to happen in the next few chapters.

Rarely do I find myself trying to do a complete outline for a longer project. I usually have a basic outline in my head, but most times I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen beyond the next three or four chapters. Whenever I’ve tried to completely outline a novel, it all falls apart by the time I’m halfway through writing the book, and I never like the results.

JGA: Why did you decide to write your novel, Ghosts of the Asylum?

TJ: Ghosts of the Asylum is a sequel to three earlier novels of mine, my Kobalos Trilogy. There were events in that trilogy, especially in the first novel, that brought forth the potential for much change in one area of my fictional world. Basically, the underworld in the city of Bond had lost its overlord, leaving a vacuum for someone to fill. Ghosts of the Asylum deals with that situation while returning some of the characters from the trilogy. Also, Ghosts of the Asylum and the Kobalos Trilogy are part of what will be a much longer work, perhaps as many as 40 to 50 novels, which I tend to think of as my Ursian Chronicles. If ever finished, these chronicles will cover about 2,000 years of time, looking at particular events. Some of the stories will be relatively small in the overall picture, but others will be much more huge, have a broad and epic approach.

JGA: That sounds like a very ambitious plan! Can you tell us a bit about the main character, and some of the challenges they have to face as the story progresses?

TJ: Kron Darkbow is the main character in Ghosts of the Asylum, and in the Kobalos Trilogy. To describe him in the shortest manner possible, think of Batman in the early Renaissance. That basically sums up Kron. Family deaths at an early age urged him into a life of vengeance, and he received training under the tutelage of his uncle, a border warden in the Prisonlands, as well as dozens of other wardens. Kron learned to fight in many different forms, to use a variety of weapons, but he also learned some alchemy, multiple languages and various other skills.

In Ghosts of the Asylum, he finds himself a marked man. In the Kobalos Trilogy, Kron had been involved in the city of Bond losing the leader of its underworld. Now a year later, there are elements of that underworld who want Kron dead for little more reason than they believe his murder would be a good notch on their belt, so to speak. Of course Kron isn’t going to sit still for that. There are also riots in the streets, and then there’s the matter of ghosts haunting the Asylum, a place where a hundred died during my novel City of Rogues.

JGA: Who are the readers would enjoy Ghosts of the Asylum the most?

TJ: I think those who enjoy action-oriented fantasy with some dark intrigue would like my novels. Modern readers of David Gemmell, Steven Erikson and George R.R. Martin might enjoy my works, though admittedly I’m not as talented a writer as those three, and I don’t get as indepth with my characters and backgrounds as does Erikson and Martin.

Also, those who enjoy R.A. Salvatore and Fred Saberhagen should find something to like in my novels.

JGA: What other items are you working on at the moment?

TJ: I’m not set on what my next novel will be, but I’ve got at least a hundred ideas floating around in my head. I do know what the next Kron Darkbow novel will be about, but I’m not sure yet if I want to tackle it or try something else. I’ve not written much horror in a while, and I’ve kind of been feeling the need for that. Also, I’ve got several ideas for literary novels, plus I’d like to expand and give a thriller a try.

Right now, the future novels currently at the front of my thoughts are tentatively titled Demon Chains, my next Kron Darkbow novel; Splintered Shields, a fantasy novel about my Belgad character; Day One, a horror zombie novel; and Nevermind, a mainstream more literary novel about three former college buddies who run into one another at a wedding in their forties.

JGA: If you could somehow change reality and become the author of any published book instead of the person who originally wrote it, which book would you make your own and why?

TJ: That’s a tough question because I could probably name a couple of dozen books, at least. Coming to mind is Watership Down by Richard Adams, for a variety of reasons. It’s a truly excellent novel, but it’s also a great, epic story that ranks right up there with the best of in the fantasy genre. Some readers might pull back from the novel because it is about rabbits, but they are missing out on some superb story telling. Other books that come to mind are The Stand by Stephen King, Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson and World War Z by Max Brooks. Just about anything written by Alexandre Dumas causes me a little jealousy.

JGA: Is there anything else you would like to mention that I haven’t asked?

TJ: I’d just like to thank you for this interview, Jason, and to thank my readers.

You can find all of Ty’s many many novels on Amazon.

Nov 19, 2011 - General    1 Comment

Guest Post: Explorer, Scientist, Guide by Eric Zawadzki

Today I’m stepping back from the podium, and inviting fantasy author Eric Zawadzki to take the stage. Eric is the co-author of the novel Kingmaker, along with Matthew Schick. You can find out more about Eric, and Kingmaker, on his website, Four Moons Press.

I want to first thank Jason for hosting us today. To express my gratitude, I’m going to rant, er, talk about world-building – why I think it is so important and what it involves for Matt and me and the books we write.

Matt and I read science fiction almost as voraciously as we consume fantasy. I love watching science fiction authors create incredibly detailed worlds. Yeah, the characters and story are important, but I want a network of ubiquitous, faster-than-light travel devices (Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series) or maybe an age of nanotechnological wonders and horrors (Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age).

I love to feel like I’m reading about a world that has been thought out. The technology isn’t just some MacGuffin or collection of tropes from other, better science fiction. The author has clearly thought about the implications of each technological marvel. What made it possible? Why was it made? How has it affected society? I don’t have to know the answers to all these questions, but I want to feel convinced that the author does.

I’ve seen authors (and even more often, movie-makers) do science fiction the other way – the lazy way that I call just-one-thing sci-fi. Just-one-thing sci-fi starts with a piece of technology or a clever premise for “this is how the world is now” and just expects the reader to accept that it makes sense. Some company finds the brain of a killer robot and unwittingly uses it to make the killer robot future possible. The Terminator. Good action movie. Terribly lazy science fiction.

I’ve often joked self-deprecatingly that fantasy is science fiction written by authors who are bad at math. This is patently false (um, Lewis Carroll?), but there are certainly reasons why fantasy and science fiction are often put on the same shelves. Both genres involve high levels of suspension of disbelief, which effective at world-building makes easier. Where science fiction builds worlds on the history and cultural implications of science and technology, fantasy builds worlds on the differences between our world and the fantasy world – meddling gods, non-human sentient beings, endless winters, a thousand flavors of magic, and so forth.

As with science fiction, there are immersive, carefully considered ways of building fantasy worlds, and there are lazy ways. A bunch of you just yelled something about stealing from Tolkien. Fantasy that borrows tropes from well-known exemplars of the genre instead of coming up with something new are engaged in lazy world-building. However, equally lazy are fantasy books that can’t get past “Middle Ages Europe, except magic/dragons/unicorns/faeries are real.” I’m not some kind of expert on Middle Ages Europe. I’m just saying that if the Roman army had access to fire-breathing dragons and legions of undead, history would have had a few twists you rarely see reflected in these kinds of books. It just drives me crazy.

If you like these kinds of fantasy and science fiction, I’m not trying to pass judgment on you or anything like that. I know it’s a matter of personal taste, one that underscores how important world-building is to me as a reader and provides a glimpse of how I approach it as an author.

For us, fantasy world-building happens in three steps: Explorer, Scientist, and Guide.

In the Explorer step, we’re just wandering around, writing whatever comes to mind. Cool image? Stick it in. Weird cultural quirk? Describe it. Fun character? Give us a couple scenes of him. We usually have a vague idea of a plot, at this point – fetch quest, epic, heist story, etc. – but what we’re really doing is collecting a scrapbook of ideas. Making notes about the world isn’t enough. We have to get its dirt under our fingernails.

By the end of the Explorer phase of Kingmaker, for example, we knew Turu children had amazing magic powers that suddenly stopped working when they became adults, but we thought maybe there was a way they could retain it.

In the Scientist step, we’re studying each of these scraps and looking for patterns and possible explanations. If it doesn’t make sense, we cut it. If it fits together with the rest of the world, we make it part of the canon. We also have a much clearer sense of plot and characters, at this point.

During the Scientist step of Kingmaker, we decided that not even the blood priests actually had magic, but the object of the quest could restore magic to just one adult, who would then be king.

In the Guide step, we’re bringing in the reader. The Scientist tends to be wordy, prone to long blocks of exposition where dialogue would be better, and too eager to include every idea and world-building detail. In the Guide step, we’re cutting out the parts that don’t matter.

An earlier version of Kingmaker had a pretty detailed explanation of how the golems that protect very young Turu act. Children still have guardian golems, but we don’t get into the particulars anymore.

Does that mean all that extra world-building is wasted effort? No. Those details come in handy when we write other books set in the same world, which we do a lot and intend to do a lot more. More importantly, though, without the time we spend in the Explorer and Scientist steps, the world would either be flat, ordinary, and heavily reliant on fantasy tropes. It would not be the kind of book we would enjoy reading, and that is probably the greatest writing sin any fantasy or science fiction author and commit.

You can find out more about Eric, and his new fantasy novel Kingmaker, on his website at Four Moons Press.

Nov 10, 2011 - Interviews    3 Comments

Interview With Cidney Swanson

Today I have an interview with Cidney Swanson. Cidney currently has two books out, making the first two books in The Ripple Series. Both books have been getting impressive reviews, and Cidney certainly seems to be an author to keep an eye on in the future!

JGA: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. To start with, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got started writing?

CS: I’ve been a reader and writer since the time I could do those two activities on my own. I wrote only for myself for decades before waking up one day and deciding I’d write a book to share.

JGA: How do you go about the actual process of writing?

CS: I say on my twitter profile that I type my ideas into whatever device is at hand! Phone, kindle, laptop, desktop . . . I’ll write on paper, but only if I have to. I currently stick to a couple-hours-every-morning schedule for my actual writing time which usually happens at my dedicated desk. I save afternoons, when I’m drowsy, for things like fan mail and marketing. Oh, that sounded bad. But I actually picked that schedule because fan mail inevitably cheers (and wakes) me up. Afternoon is a good time for that, right?

JGA: How do you personally like to read books you buy these days?

CS: I still love getting a hardcover of a much-anticipated release (especially signed at an event!) But I have to admit it is so much more convenient to read on my kindle or even iTouch. I’m seeing myself switching that way more and more. I mostly read novel-length works. I like really, really, long books because I get to spend more time with the characters. I feel sad when I read a short story. For me, it is like a too-short visit. (Assuming I like the guests!) But I have read some amazing short stories. And I like poetry.

JGA: Which authors (or books) have had the most influence on your writing style, and why?

CS: Hmmmmm. For influence, definitely Tolkien was huge. That is, my work is neither derivative nor similar, and yet his world-building made me comfortable (from a young age) creating and inhabiting imaginary worlds of my own. Jane Austen and George Eliot just get humanity and being human so well. I read a ton of Ray Bradbury as a kid, and I know that’s where I fell in love with SciFi/speculative fiction. And as an adult? I love the poetry+storytelling to be found in YA authors Maggie Stiefvater, Nova Ren Sum and writing team Kami Garcia/Margaret Stohl. Love me some Audrey Niffenegger for the same reason, although she’s not YA.

JGA: How do you go about planning your writing?

CS: A story usually starts with me hearing a character talking in my head. If the character (and his or her situation) sticks with me for a couple of days, I’ll start writing or at least jot down the ideas for later. Action ideas and story arc come to me when I’m in motion. (Go figure!) So I walk a lot when I’m working out details. I used to drive, but then gas got expensive and the polar caps began to recede.

I definitely plan where my story is heading long in advance. I often outline. I knock out a rough draft first which usually needs a lot of polishing. I edit in stages, going through about five complete passes (word by word) before I call something “done.” (And then there’s outside editorial input, rewrites, etc.)

JGA: What gave you the initial idea for your novel, “Rippler“?

CS: In my mind, I saw a girl sitting quietly beside a calm section of the Merced River. As I watched her (she was staring at the river), she faded and became invisible. I had to know why. Also, it bugged me that she didn’t notice she’d turned invisible. I had to figure out how she could possibly not know that she’d vanished. The story rose from that image.

JGA: Can you tell us a bit about the main character, Samantha Ruiz, and some of the challenges she has to face as the story progresses?

CS: Sure. Sam (who’s fifteen) starts the story having recently come out of a shell of seclusion and depression that’s lasted eight years. She’s at this great spot in her life now with friends and freedom from depression. Then she finds out she has a strange gene others would kill for. So, her real challenge is to keep an ability—which she can’t control—hidden from others. But she moves from merely hiding to assuming a more active role in protecting her life and the lives of those she loves. She definitely has a character arc of increasing kickass-ness.

JGA: Who are the readers would enjoy “Rippler” the most?

CS: YA stories are enjoyed by a much larger audience than teens, so you can be ten or sixty and still enjoy YA. RIPPLER is usually categorized as Urban Fantasy or Sci-Fi. Readers who enjoy character-driven plots and well-crafted internal logic in their speculative fiction will probably enjoy RIPPLER the most. Also, to enjoy RIPPLER, you need a tolerance for peeks at some of humanity’s darker angles. And you should enjoy stories that have a dominant message of hope within the darkness.

JGA: What other items are you working on at the moment?

CS: In terms of fiction that I’ve completed at least a first draft manuscript of and that will actually see the light of day? Well, I have Book One of a futuristic Sci-Fi series cooling its heels at the moment. Also in the “fermenting/aging” stage is a stand-alone paranormal romance with ballerinas and goblins. At the moment I’m focused on finishing up the Ripple Series, however. (See? I’m awake when I read my fan mail! And I listen!)

JGA: If you could somehow change reality and become the author of any published book instead of the person who originally wrote it, which book would you make your own and why?

CS: Oh, easy-peasy. I’d be the one who wrote THE BOOK THIEF instead of Markus Zusak! It’s that thing about hope piercing through really dark moments and places. And that thing about poetry scattered upon each page. When I want to remind myself to be a better writer, I just open that novel to a page. Any page. I jump in and swim around a bit, and after I get out and towel off, my prose comes out better. Oh, and I almost forgot: Death as a narrator? Come on. Why didn’t I think of that? Seriously.

You can find Rippler, and the sequel, Chameleon, on Amazon.

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.

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