‘Corruption’ Is Out

Corruption (The Corruption Cycle, #1) is out today on Kindle.

There are a few loose thoughts in my brain that I want to get out there concerning the three-year journey it took to write this book. But first –

Celebration!

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What a celebration looks like in Bavaria. Also what every day looks like in Bavaria.

Thought #1: This wasn’t always an easy book to write.

I started writing Corruption back in early 2014, before I ever sold a story, when Lurk was still a twenty-page first draft kicking around on my old Alienware laptop. It took me about six months to finish the first pass on Corruption once I picked it up and really committed in late 2015, and almost a year to rewrite and edit it to a point where I was comfortable showing it to friends and family.

Corruption contains three nested stories: the story of Dan, an expat running from his past who flees America to find a new life in Eastern Europe; the story of the Night Country, a fallen, post-apocalyptic world where an evil king has stolen the sun; and finally, the fictional story of a good knight on a mission to save his kingdom in the epic poem Dan is translating at work.

Balancing these three story lines gave me some trouble in the early drafts. As usual, the best advice I received came from my dad. He was my first reader, and while he really loved the story once he got into it, he struggled with the big initial splash. So I rewrote Q1. Not completely. Mostly, I added a POV character that ended up being my favorite character in the book. I love me a bastardly villain, and the Ratkeeper (the guy in the spiral mask pictured below) is in some ways as bastardly as they come.

Thought #2: You can grow even from the harshest criticism.

On the subject of the cover… the second-best advice I received in the production of this book came from /r/selfpublish, who took me to task when I posted the crappy “cover” I made in Gimp, which in my tunnel vision looked awesome, but in hindsight, would’ve killed this book in the womb. Check out that side-by-side for reference. I tried to do this part myself, not for egotistical reasons, but because I wanted the challenge.

Wrong.

Dudes, we should only try to climb the mountains we are meant to climb. I am not a graphic designer and never will be. I scrapped what we will now refer to as the “mood-setter” cover (in real English, the shit one), and ended up working with J. Caleb Clark on the final cover the book has now. He was a godsend. He created an image that was not only beautiful and eye-catching, but also captured the essence of the story better than the best-case scenario I had in my head.

Lesson learned: don’t try to do everything yourself, and always trust your professionals.

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Thought #3: This book isn’t for everyone.

I have no illusions about the fact that Corruption will be a difficult book for some people. There are no Elvish musicals or handsome, square-jawed saviors. When I classify this book as “dark fantasy” I am not doing so in an attempt to ride George R.R. Martin’s diamond coattails. There is some graphic sex and violence – more of the latter than the former – but the darkness I chose to write about in Corruption is, if you couldn’t guess from the title, primarily of the social, human variety.

As with Lurk, I wanted to write about ideas and people that I find interesting, and those typically gravitate toward the fringes. The uglier parts of this story include hate, loneliness, dysfunctional relationships, mental illness, alcoholism, Eastern European geopolitics, weird internet subcultures, sex curses, a solar apocalypse, and beyond.

Is a fantasy novel the right place to explore these subjects? I don’t know. This is not the book that I thought I should write for other people; it’s the book I wrote because I wanted to read it. Art is always a mirror. Sometimes it is a mirror we hold up to other people, and sometimes it is a mirror we hold up to ourselves. To me Corruption is a bit of both.

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Thought #4: After three years, it is time to do like the homegirl Elsa and let it go.

Whether you adore Corruption, hate it, finish it, don’t read it, five-star it, one-star it, devour it in one sitting or nibble it to completion, fantasy readers of the world… Corruption is yours now.

Thank you to everyone who helped along the way, and especially, to Hannah.

CORRUPTION Gets a Cover and Release Date

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A young man running from his past…
A city shrouded in dark magic…
A girl with the key to a nightmarish otherworld…

Daniel Harper was champion, until a tragic mistake ended his martial arts career. With no future to call his own, he flees to Eastern Europe, where he can start over–where he can be someone else.

But in that ancient, mystical Country, Daniel meets two people who will change his life forever: the beautiful but broken flower girl Kashka, and the enigmatic street magician Ink.

As Daniel plummets into a vodka-drenched downward spiral of hedonism and dereliction, he begins having macabre visions of a distant world known only as the Night Country, a frozen wasteland in endless darkness where an evil king has stolen the sun, and Visitors inhabit the bodies of the recently deceased…

***

CORRUPTION, Book One of the Corruption Cycle, launches April 13th. You can read the first chapter here.

Fiction: Russian Roulette

If you intend to be more than a one or two-time player, Russian roulette is a game with only one winning strategy: you must learn to secretly palm the round. This was the best advice I could give her. She did ask for it… in those exact words.

Her name is Gina, but she goes by G. She’s eighteen and has green eyes and a good tan. We’re driving in my car, top down, seats back, Beach Boys blaring. It’s just before dusk and LA is coming alive as the lights flicker on through its steel veins. The freeway is conspicuously thin of traffic.

G says she’s going to “Chicaco”. She has a hundred thousand dollars cash and her daddy’s gun. She says she got it off of her dead boyfriend, who died in a shootout after a drug deal gone wrong. The piece is a Colt 1911, all chrome.

“So, why Russian roulette?” She says, considering my advice aloud as she thoughtfully plays with one curly lock of blue-brown hair. “Why not Hold ‘Em? Only a idiot tries to kill hisself.”

“Because,” I say, “it’s a game you can play with city people. All sorts. And if you’re good, that is, if you know the necessary deceits, you’ll never be without a place to stay or a meal to eat in this whole wide world.”

“You do that?” She asks me. “F’real? Just play other people so you can stay at they place and shit? Sounds like one helluva gamble.”

“Maybe you’ve just never done it.”

“And maybe you not a woman.”

“No. You’re right, actually. But it’s usually the friends who put you up, not the people you beat at the game. The ones you’ve just impressed by scaring their buddies out of a few bucks are usually more willing to help. People aren’t so inclined to show you much hospitality after you’ve just won all their money. I learned that in Iraq. Among other things.”

“You was in Iraq? F’real?”

“Real as the Reaper.”

“Is that how you lost yo’ leg?”

I know she’s been trying to avoid looking at it since she got in the car. I nod. “I lost my leg to an IED outside Baghdad. I was the only one in the truck who survived.” Then after a long pause I add, “There were six of us.”

“And you and yo’ buddies used to put pieces to yo’ heads at lunch time, or what?”

It is a bittersweet recollection to remember the games we used to play.

“We always knew we were playing with blanks,” I say, “until one night, in the shit, when we played for real. If I hadn’t hid the bullet in my sleeve I’d be less some gray matter. And I never forgot it, not over one foot of this great country, from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Monica.”

G says, “Is that how far you got to drive?”

And I say, “That’s how far I already drove. Now I’m goin’a turn around and do it again.”

“So tell me more about this game,” she says. “Shit, maybe someday I’ll find myself in a situation where I got to play it, too. Might come in real handy to know the tricks.”

“Well if it’s tricks you want, I got ‘em,” I tell her. “First thing’s first, never play it with your friends. You won’t win as much but the risk is the same. People always risk more around those they think they’ll never see again.”

“What happens if you get caught cheatin’?” she asks.

“On the rare chance you do get caught, you simply make a show of good faith and put the round in the cylinder where it belongs – in everyone’s sight – then put the gun to your temple and pull the trigger for real. Worst case scenario is nothing goes through your mind at all, because the lead’s already been there and you’re dead.”

She raises an eyebrow in what I think is approval, but remains silent.

I chuckle. “Sister, you get your leg blown off in the desert, then wake up and spend a month getting dosed with combinations of every painkiller under the sun because the morphine and oxy ain’t enough… you’ll consider hanging yourself from the edge of the hospital bed with your own IV. And c’mon, don’t tell me you’ve never thought about it. A girl like you from a neighborhood like the one I picked you up in?”

“Whatchu tryinna say about my neighborhood?”

“Nothing, sweetheart. Just that it looks a little rough.”

She nods in agreement.

We spend a little while talking about nothing important. The conversation is nice. Usually I’m alone on these long drives. Now that I’ve hit LA, I was planning on heading up to Washington – lots of open country up there – but Chicago works just as well.

She asks where I’m from, how old I am, why I’ve spent the last three years on the road. I tell her Texas, twenty five, and I’m traveling across the United States because I made a promise to a musician buddy of mine who died that I would play a song on his guitar at a famous street corner of every major city in these United States. My mission brought me here to Los Angeles, where I met G in the parking lot behind a Von’s in Torrance trying to hitch a ride, a golden sun child with a gun… a real California girl.

“I could have been a serial killer, y’know,” I remind her at one point. “What would you do if I was? Did you have a plan?”

“That’s why I have the gun,” she says, defensive. “I don’t need no plan, bruh. Girl carry a heata when she don’t wanna make a plan.”

I laugh. “But do you think you could use it? Do you think you could actually shoot someone?”

“Psh. I will actually put a bullet in yo’ ass faster than a pig spots a donut shop if you so much as try to lay a hand on me, bruh.”

I shrug. “What if I pinned you down?”

“Man, you axe some stupid ass questions.”

“What if I was strong? Let’s say I had both my legs and I overpowered you.”

“Shit, you may have lost yo’ leg but it doesn’t seem to have set you back none. I ain’t tryin’ to bump and grind wit you, dude, I’m just sayin’. You look like you work out.”

“Thank you. But what if I took the gun and drove you somewhere secluded, so I could pull you off the side of the road and kill you? To eat you, or somethin’?”

“Well, you betta not be plannin’ on it,” G says, eyes still fixed on the sunset. “You really creepin’ me out. I thought we was talkin’ about a game. Tell me how to win.”

“Alright, fair enough,” I say. “I want you to do something for me. It’s better if you get it over with now. Take the gun out,” I instruct her.

She looks at me oddly. I repeat myself. “Take the gun out and put it against my temple. Do it.”

She reaches under the glove box for the gun case and when she comes back up a beautiful Colt 1911 is filling her fist, barrel high polished and grips clean as a cheater’s lie. I see in her eyes the hint of an old look I once knew well, that fear that comes before one does it, puts their finger inside the trigger housing. I suddenly wonder if she’s ever handled a piece before. She looks nervous.

She goes to check the chamber, proving my previous assessment about her experience with the steel to be wrong, but I tell her: “Don’t open it.” She complies. We both know her daddy was the kind of man who kept it loaded. The question is: was the road paved recently? “Put it against my head,” I say. I feel the ring of frigid steel touch me there, light. “More.” It presses and bites into the skin. I sigh. “Gina.”

Her eyes dart wildly to and from the road, but her mouth is a rigid line. “What do you want me to do?” I can barely hear her over the whip of the wind and Barbara Ann bellowing through the speakers, but you learn to read lips and gestures like a sixth sense when your hearing gets blown out of your head by an IED and you spend the next three weeks terrified that it may never come back.

“You see, if you shoot me, we crash and you die too. Nothing goes through your mind but the lead. But if we survive what I’m about to do next… well, then you pass.”

A long beat. “Pass what, you crazy bastard?” G says.

I glare at her from the corner of my right eye. “I’m going to take my hands off the wheel now. You’re going to count to six, and if you take the gun away from my head or your finger off that trigger before I reach six, then I’m going to crash us and we’re going to die.”

“This is bullshit,” G says. “This is some bullshit.”

Then, after an eternity of waiting I hear that old, familiar click. I pull my hands away from the wheel. Then I lift my one good foot off the gas and curl my leg up so it rests on the dash. She gasps and shuts her eyes. The traffic around us is moving steadily but she sees a curve coming and reaches for the wheel. I tell her no.

“You should be counting,” I say.

“One!”

I feel the wind in my hair.

“Two!”

Barbara Ann.

“Three!”

Bar Barbara Ann.

“Four!”

The curve is close.

“Five!”

We’re on the shoulder.

“Damn – six!”

I grab the wheel and correct our path, barely making it back into the lane. The blaring of horns creates a cacophony everywhere. An old man in a Dodge pickup flips me the bird. I smile at him and shrug.

When I look, G is sweating, washing her hair with dry hands. The gun is tucked under the seat again, far from sight. “What the hell was the point of all dat?” she says. She sounds furious, terrified. But a part of her voice sounds triumphant, too.

“We almost died,” I say with a grin.

“No shit!” G yells at me. “You are one crazy ass fool. I never seen such a crazy ass fool in all the days of my life. You coulda got us kilt.”

I say, “Remember what I said about palming the round?”

G recoils. “Man, you are rollin’ on me right now. This ain’t even a revolver!”

“But you believed I was ready to die. Whether or not I really was willing to let us crash or to have my brain eat a bullet if we hit a bump, you believed I was.”

“Yeah, ‘cuz you were,” G says. “Crazy ass bastard. How ‘bout you let me drive from now on?”

“You asked how to win at Russian roulette,” I tell her. “Now you know.”

 
(First published in the Bumps in the Road anthology from Black Bedsheet Books)

My novellette ‘The Lich’ is free this week on Kindle

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This tale about the fall of an undead wizard, told in his own words, was my first foray into fantasy, originally published in last year’s “Ancient Enemies” monster anthology. If you like grimdarks, not-so-sympathetic villains, or fringe characters in general, check it out. Cover art by the incredible Laura Hollingsworth.

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Fiction: The Girl in the Blue Dress

This letter is for the girl in the blue dress. You know who you are and that I’ve wanted to contact you. My name is Rider. My handle on the BrickLog is RK466. You can contact me at #1107381980085.

However, since I know this letter will have far more readers than just you, the following is for all those who are not the girl in the blue dress. Blue, you can skip to the end.

Everyone else, I want to tell you a story. It’s about love, and longing, and the childish games Watchers play—at least one in particular—in the service of those first two things. I’m hoping my story will convince you to help me with something, because I desperately need your aid.

The first time I saw her was in Pompeii. She was walking towards me, up the sloping street, wearing a blue dress. She carried a basket of olives on her hip, which was swaying, her eyes locked on the mountain behind us. When she noticed me noticing her, she recognized me instantly as a Watcher, like herself, and asked me: “Are you enjoying the show?”

I said “Yes”.

“Me too,” she said with a smile. “This one’s my favorite.”

That city in its prime is more beautiful than you can imagine without seeing it firsthand. It’s an old Schwarbrick (sorry, Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show, if that wasn’t clear), so the ticket only costs a few dozen seconds. The streets are vigorous, still brimming with life, hundreds of people all passing along their kinetic energy in a crashing, haphazard fashion. And when the mountain finally blows, and the jet black streams darken the sky in an instant and that sound—oh God, that terrible sound—penetrates you so deep it could bury you, you know why we do this, why those few dozen seconds of our lives are nothing for the joy of witnessing a Schwarbrick like this.

You think: This is why we watch.

The advertisements all push the war shows these days, but I prefer natural disasters. The heroics are better, more organic. If you’ve never seen one of the Natural Crisis ‘bricks, you don’t know what you’re missing. I consider myself an addict. It used to be because of my morbid fascination with all the blood, the fires and the suffering. But these days it’s because of her.

I won’t give up searching until I find her.

During every great catastrophe in human history there has always been someone standing by, laughing. And when I first laid eyes on her, loitering up the stony road in Pompeii with her basket of olives towards the place at the top of the rise where she would have the best view of Vesuvius, the vantage clearest of vineyards and tombs, I knew she was the type to laugh, not out of sadism, but because to her this really was just a show.

Then the caldera cracked and my eyes were drawn away from her to the eruption rising to cover the sky with obsidian dust, and by the time I thought to look for her again, she was gone.

The next time I saw her was in Rome. It was 217 AD. Most show-goers watch in marathons: a week in Ancient Rome, a week in China, a day or two on a certain stretch of the North Atlantic of a silent, iceberg-laden night, because buying ‘bricks in bulk is cheaper, costing only a few minutes for each show rather than the hours or days they would cost to purchase tickets for individually.

She was watching the Rome shows this week, same as me. It was the evening of the Coliseum fires.

We were both exploring the hallways outside the arena as workers prepared for a gladiatorial match that was to take place the following day. A low blanket of charcoal clouds belched murmurs of thunder through the dimming sky.

I don’t recall how many people died that night, if there was even a record. But I recall their faces well, so placid and unaware.

I found myself walking suddenly behind a woman whose stride and swaying hips seemed familiar. But I couldn’t place exactly where from.

Then I saw the blue dress; the same she was wearing in Pompeii.

She strolled casually, not making much effort to fit in, because she knew she didn’t have to. She was still carrying her basket of olives. I assumed it was her immersion prop, to make her presence in times that were not her own more convincing. Mine is a pair of rope sandals, uncomfortable as a plague, but they fit well (enough) in most historical ‘bricks.

The girl looked back at me and smiled. She had vibrant freckles, amber hair that fell in slow-moving curls, olive skin so smooth it appeared oiled under the torchlight. I knew it was her as soon as our eyes met.

She kept pace with me and eventually said, in a language distinctly not Ancient Latin: “Hey, you. Fancy seeing you here. You like this type of ‘brick, huh?”

I told her I did.

“Natural Crisis week is my all-time fave,” she said. “When you’re done here, though, you should skip the Titanic and check out the S.S. Sultana instead. It’s a much better ‘brick, and a lot less crowded.

I saw her wink as we entered the glow under a lantern. I stopped, taking her arm gently. “You know, these are always more fun with another person. Would you like to watch this one together?” I asked her.

A sudden snap of thunder spooked a pack of hyenas in one of the cages nearby. A crowd of people gathered to watch the handler desperately trying to sing them calm again. Non volo! He cried. Non volo! Non volo, non volo

“No,” she said over my shoulder. “Sorry, but I like to watch alone.”

When I looked again, she was gone.

We all saw the finger of lightning and heard the deafening cries. It was no surprise for me, as I knew it was coming. But when the bright flash licked down against the top of the Colosseum, and the flames budded from the wood supports and spread and scattered, it was suddenly as if the whole world had ended.

I felt a hand brush my back, soft and reassuring. A flash of blue passed my peripheral vision. But when I tried to find her, I could not.

I went to the S.S. Sultana next. I was young, could afford to shave a few more days off my life to buy another Schwarbrick ticket, and it was one I had never seen.

I stood on the main deck and brushed her shoulder with mine. She looked stunning. She wore a fur coat over her blue dress, for the night was frigid and the surface of the Mississippi caked with drifts of ice.

It’s a short show, the Sultana; only a few minutes to view. We didn’t have much time.

She smiled at me and took my arm, said, “Boom,” and pointed toward the boiler. We were knocked apart as the true sound of the explosion split the frosty night, and somewhere among the din, I heard her laughing.

“That always gets me!” She chuckled as we found each other again amid the chaotic screaming of the crowd. She propped herself steady on the rail as the deck tilted and people began jumping overboard, screaming.

“This is great!” I said, shouting over the noise. “I’ve never seen this one before!”

“I know!” she said, and grinned.

The fireball ascended above us like a beacon, and in that crimson light I saw something about her I hadn’t noticed before: she had a scar tattoo of a star under her eye that bunched up as if it was twinkling when she smiled.

“Let’s go to the Egyptian Plague,” I said.

“What?”

“The Egyptian Plague!” I repeated. “Come on! It’s great!”

She left my arm, turned and made fast for her extraction line on the second deck. “I’ve gotta go,” she said.

“Wait! What’s your name?”

Then my own extraction point out of the Schwarbrick opened, and I exited back into the present, disappointed, but still flying off the feel of her touch. Many centuries in the past, the Sultana’s second deck began to sink beneath the lapping freeze of the rough-and-tumble Mississippi.

I didn’t see her in Egypt, nor in Babylon. I snuck up on someone I thought was her in California at Donner Lake, hiding in the snow drifts behind a thermal shield, but I was mistaken. That watcher was an older woman, brunette and irritated I’d crashed on her show. She made a joke that this was a bad time to be sneaking up on people, and that if I’d done it to the wrong party I would probably get eaten. We started talking and ended up getting along, shared a bowl of soup and watched the cannibals devour each other.

When I finally saw my girl again, it was in the Anasazi Famine of 1299. She was walking among the corpses, holding a fox skin over her nose. The sweet smell of rot lingered like an echo over that doomed city. She was wearing her blue dress. I could see it from all the way across the dust-bitten valley, like a single drop of color on a gray, apocalyptic canvas.

Neither of us spoke. She only took my hand, and we walked in silence among them, an entire civilization dead to starvation. The few Anasazi who were still alive picked through the ruins and the streets in a last desperate attempt to find food. The dead offered no complaint.

History has come to know them as The Old Ones. That is what Anasazi means, a name they surely did not call themselves. Their language is lost and cannot be learned even by the most dedicated Schwarbrick aficionados—one of the few such languages the fandom has yet to crack (I know, because aside from being a Watcher, I’m also a Cracker; meaning, I dedicate the vast majority of my free time when I’m not ‘bricking to solving the lost languages of the past we hear in the ‘bricks; it makes the experience richer).

But in their places, dead or alive they looked no older than us—smaller perhaps, rougher, harder—but no older.

I didn’t see it as a good time to ask for a second date. There would be another time, I told myself. There always is.

I now must apologize, dear reader, if I have misled you thus far. Even thinking about her makes it difficult to write. I’m writing all of this to you because I need your help. What I ask is simple: if you see her, you must show her this letter. I need to see her again.

You must give her this letter. She’ll know who I am by reading it and, I hope, will seek me out, since my efforts to find her have been haphazard at best, and most of the time, altogether fruitless.

I’m not some creep in the bushes, you see. I know my feelings are mutual, even if she does play hard-to-get. I’ve known ever since she kissed me above the flooded valleys of the Yangtze in 1931 AD, the last time I saw her.

Three million people died that year in the floods. She came to the show drunk. She sat close to me on the hillside, her arm entangled in mine and her soft head resting pleasantly on my shoulder. We both speculated on the horror of losing one’s home to the rising black waters, or one’s family, then suddenly, she kissed me.

Her lips tasted of wine and the gray, forgotten future. When she pulled back she had rain in her eyes and a smile caught between her dimples.

“I know we’re not supposed to interfere when we watch,” she said. “But haven’t you ever wanted to?”

“What’s your name?” I said.

“That would be interfering.”

She slid a finger along the top knuckle of my right hand, softly wiping away the raindrops gathered there.

“We’re not interfering at all! And who cares? You some sort of BrickLogger?”

“Loggers aren’t the only ones who care about all the innocent people who get killed when we interfere.”

“How do you know anyone does? All that’s been proven is it creates a failed timeline.”

She squeezed my hand and stood up on her heels, kissing me deeper than before. “I gotta go.”

Someone screamed on the river below, a man clinging desperately to a raft made from doors wound together with chicken wire, the pregnant black waters fighting to pull him under.

When I looked up again, she was falling back through her extraction point into her own time.

“Wait! How can I contact you?” But she wasn’t there.

And again, after our picnic at Fort Point in 1906, as we watched San Francisco collapse to the malicious arithmetic of the quakes; and the bombing of Hiroshima; and the time we stood with hands clasped tight as the women buried their children at Wounded Knee.

She’s playing games with me.

You must find her, dear reader. Whoever, whenever you are, there is a significant chance she is nearby. I know, because she told me this week is her favorite. I’ve left copies of this letter in every ‘brick currently being shown.

She isn’t hard to recognize. She wears a blue cotton dress, a simple garment that could fit easily anytime, anywhere. Sometimes she carries a basket of olives as an immersion prop. Her hair will be done up in whatever style is trendy in your time. She will be close to wherever you find this letter. She always knows where to get the best views.

In return for your help, I will help you. I know I am only a stranger to you—some words written on a piece of paper. But have you not also loved and longed for one who toyed so indecisively with your heart? Would you not do anything to secure their love, so you might be happy?

If she isn’t there, the advice I’m about to give you will still be useful. By law and the terms of the Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show user agreement, I must be purposefully vague in what I am about to say. But it is monumentally important that you listen, and listen well. Your life depends on it.

For My Blue: Call me already. I’m running out of time and can’t keep chasing you around through the ‘bricks like this. I know you’re in just as much time-debt as I am. You’re being childish by pretending to be interested; either you’re interested, or you’re not. If so, just call. I hope your answer is yes.

For everyone else: Very soon, you should put down whatever you’re doing and start to run.

*First published in Nonlocal Science Fiction, December 2015

(Want to read this story on your Kindle? Download it here)