Friday, August 21, 2015

Excerpt from Surviving the Dead Volume 6: Savages


“That was nice back there.”

I looked at Hicks. We were on our way to the town’s central square and the residence of one Bailey Sandoval. “What?”

“Flirting with the vice president of an enemy country.”

“I wasn’t flirting.”

“She seemed to have a different idea. I think she was sweet on you.”

Sweet on me? Who says shit like that? What are you, an old west cattle rancher? Did I put a hitch in her giddyup?”

“Don’t try to change the subject.”

I sighed. “It was not my intention to flirt with her. I was trying to get information. I can’t help it if the ladies love me.”

Hicks snorted. “They love you back in your Coke-bottle glasses days?”

“Especially then. I was so hot they couldn’t stand to talk to me. Just walked away or asked me to leave them alone. I didn’t hold it against them. There’s only so much chiseled manliness a woman can handle.”

“I’m beginning to wish I brought my entrenching tool.”

“For what?”

“To shovel my way out of your bullshit.”

There was movement a few blocks ahead. Dark shapes ghosted through the shadows in a walking crouch. I saw hand signals pass back and forth, and the figures were clearly armed. I stopped and grabbed Hicks’ shoulder.


“What?” Hicks froze and peered into the darkness. He had long ago learned to trust my eyesight. “You see something?”

“Yeah. Let’s get off this street.”

We moved to an alley two blocks over and waited next to an overflowing dumpster. “What did you see?” Hicks asked.

“North Korean special forces, unless I miss my guess.”

“Shit. What are they doing out here?”

I shook my head.

We stayed still and quiet. Every second that ticked by grated against my nerves. We did not have all night.

“Okay,” I whispered. “You take that end of the alley, I’ll take this one. Use your night vision scope. Look for movement. You see hostiles, take them out.”

Hicks checked his suppressor was firmly attached, made sure his scope was activated, and tapped me on the shoulder. He was gone in an instant, no noise, no wasted movement. I stared after him and wondered what secrets his past held. No infantry grunt I'd ever met had half his abilities.

Questions for another day.

I crept to the edge of the building and peeked around the bricks. The black shapes were still moving toward me, closer now. My instincts told me to step back, but the corner where I hid was dark. The short, fatigue-sporting soldiers seemed not to notice me. So I stayed, and watched, and whispered into my radio.

“Incoming on my side.”

The radio crackled, and Gabe spoke up. “Everything all right?”

“Tell you in a minute. Stay off the net.”

“Copy.” Gabe’s voice was strained, but he understood the necessity. Hicks chimed in. “Clear on my side.”

“You sure?”


“Get back over here.”

I did not hear him approach. One second I was alone, and the next I felt a tap on my shoulder. 

“Stacked up behind you.”

“Stand by. I’m going to leapfrog the alley. Be ready to engage.”

“Roger that.” 

Not for the first time, I detected a note of excitement in his voice. I looked back.

“You like this shit, don’t you?”

A grin. “I do. I really do.”

“Sometimes I worry about you, Caleb.”

“Worry about crossing the alley.”

“Right. Okay, here goes.”

There is nothing a man can do to prepare for the maneuver I executed. You just go as fast as you can and hope for the best. In my case, it worked out. I flung myself from cover, stayed low, ran on the edges of my boots to minimize noise, and stacked up at the corner of the next alley over. No shots fired. No shouts. No explosions. I keyed my radio.

“Hicks, see anything?”

He had pied out the corner with his night vision scope. I checked mine, found it dark, and activated it.

“They don’t seem agitated, but they’re still moving in our direction.”

“Tactical movement?”

“I suppose so. Their version of it, anyway.”

“Prepare to engage. Leave no survivors.”

“You sure about this? Maybe we ought to slip out of here.”

I stuck my scope around a narrow sliver of corner. “No time. They’re almost on us. On my mark.”

“Standing by.”

I called to mind everything Gabe and Captain Steve McCray taught me about close quarters combat. Accuracy. Speed. Violence of movement. Silence.

The shapes grew closer. Thirty meters. Twenty. Ten.

“Three, two, one, mark.”

I slipped enough of my torso from cover to aim from a stable shooting platform. By the time I lined up on my first target, Caleb had already loosed three rounds. A dark black head snapped back, and the figure attached to it collapsed without a sound. In the same instant as I mentally praised Caleb for his marksmanship, my finger squeezed down on the trigger. Another head snapped back. I made a follow up shot and resisted the urge for a third one. I was firing 6.8 SPC after all, not standard 5.56 NATO rounds. Which meant I did not have to shoot a man five times to make sure he was dead. Twice to the head was enough.

As often happens in combat, my training took over and I was firing again before I knew what was happening. Another dark shape dropped. Caleb’s rifle coughed twice and a fourth man died. Only two left now.

The one closest to me noticed something amiss, or maybe caught a dim muzzle flash, and started to shout something. He got out half a syllable before two rounds from my rifle tore his throat to shreds. Blood flew from his lips as I ended his misery with a third shot between the eyes. He went stiff, shuddered, and toppled like a felled tree.

Caleb let loose a final salvo of four shots. Two hit center of mass, and two blew holes in the diminutive commando’s upper sinus cavity. He died without a sound. Caleb and I looked at each other, nodded, and waited. No more sounds. No movement. I let a minute go by. It appeared the high-quality suppressors had done their job.

Static. “All clear.”

I gave Caleb a thumbs up by way of acknowledgement. Then I remembered Gabe was listening in and keyed my radio. “All clear. Let’s move out.”

“How many tangos?” Gabe asked over the net.

“Six. All down.”

“You compromised?”

“No. Proceeding on mission.”

“Roger.” Gabe sounded relieved. Hicks gave a ‘move forward’ hand signal, to which I nodded, hid my rifle beneath my bush jacket, and followed.

I spotted another patrol shortly before arriving near the town square. They were not North Koreans, but were nonetheless heavily armed. One even carried an RPK light machine gun with a bipod and drum magazine. I grabbed Hicks’ arm and led him down a side street. We stopped under an awning and stood in near total darkness. One of the guards carried a small oil lamp that let us see their outline as they passed.

“These fellas ain’t messin’ around,” Caleb said. “Think they know something’s up?”

“Could be. Doesn’t change anything. Let’s go.”

We approached the building from the rear. It had once been a hotel, but had been repurposed to house government officials. Sandoval’s residence took up three rooms, all connected by open doorways. He was on the second floor at the easternmost corner. There were two entrances, both manned by a pair of armed guards. If Lena Grimsdottir’s intel was correct, there would be four more guards posted inside, also heavily armed.

“Mission lead, alpha team,” Hicks told his radio. “We are in position, standing by.”

“Roger alpha team. Stand by, will advise when it’s time to start the party.”

“Roger. Alpha out.”

I checked my weapons for the tenth or eleventh time. Good to go. “So now we wait.”

“I’ll move to the corner of that building over there.” Hicks pointed. “Have a better shot at the guards on that side.”

“All right.”

Hicks moved. I waited. And waited. Ten minutes passed. I saw no patrols, no citizens conducting late night business, no voices, no music from the bars or taverns, no sign at all anyone was alive in Carbondale. The streets that were so busy earlier were now empty and silent.

I thought once again about the pervasive silence of the post-Outbreak world, and how it was so hard to get used to. No drone of planes overhead, no Doppler hum of cars on the highways, no news or traffic helicopters, no buzz of air conditioners or power lines or street lights. Over three years had passed since the Outbreak, and it still bothered me. I was beginning to think it always would.

Static. “Mission lead, Bravo team in position.”

“Copy. Stand by.”

“Roger. Bravo out.”

More time passed. Charlie team checked in. Gabe and Great Hawk’s group were still en route to the president’s mansion. I closed my eyes and visualized a map of Carbondale in my head. I traced imaginary lines from where I was to the east gate. There were several possible routes I could take. Hicks and I planned to split up and proceed separately. That way, if one of us was caught or pinned down, the other could attempt rescue. Failing that, it minimized the risk we would both be caught. Better for the Union to lose one operator than two.

The radio stayed silent. I thought about the target, visualized his face. There had been several photos in his dossier. He was tall, approximately six foot four, bald head, goatee, narrow features, a casual arrogance in the eyes that screamed ‘hatchet-faced prick’.

It would have been a lie to say I was entirely comfortable with the idea of carrying out an assassination. I had killed before, but always in self-defense or defense of others. Reminding myself of the danger this man posed to untold thousands if he lived lessened the dread, but only marginally.

All the other times I had killed—the Free Legion, raiders and marauders, Alliance insurgents, etc.—I had made it a point not to look the enemy in the eye. Better to focus on hitting center of mass, or make a quick head shot. I rarely dialed a scope to more than four power and that only at very long range. I did not like it when I could discern a man’s facial features, his expression, and watch the shock and disbelief and pain overwhelm him in the moment before he died. The few faces I had observed in those final seconds still visited me in the quiet hours of the night when sleep refused to come. And when I finally did sleep, I saw them in my dreams—bloody, angry, eyes accusing.

On the nights when they woke me from slumber, I disconnected my mp3 player from the solar charger, put in the earbuds, and poured myself a drink. Al Green, Jimmy Cliff, Buddy Guy, and Johann Sebastian Bach usually did a pretty good job of keeping the demons at bay. Mike Stall’s finest moonshine didn’t hurt either.

The earpiece crackled, and Gabe said, “All stations are in position. Everybody ready to go?”

The teams responded in order, Hicks speaking up for the two of us. All stations were as ready as they were going to be.

“Very well. Good luck and Godspeed, gentlemen. If it all goes south, it’s been an honor. Engage on my mark.”

I eased out from cover and peered around the corner. Raised my rifle. Sighted in. The guard in my crosshairs looked bored. They’re not expecting trouble.

Static. “For freedom. For the Union. For our nation’s future. Take ‘em out.”

The coldness inside me rose to a burning crescendo as icy heat coursed through my blood. The fire lent strength to my limbs, firmed my resolve, and burned away the last tremblings of fear. I went still inside. My hands were sure and steady. My mind, and my conscience, were clear.

I let out half a breath and fired. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Excerpt from Savages: A Surviving the Dead Novel


Things would have been a lot worse if not for the helicopters.

To the north, the steady phoom, phoom, phoom, of artillery thundered through the morning air, while to the south, shells exploded in flashes of fire and black smoke. Hollow Rock—my town, my home—was in flames. I was too far away to hear the screams and shouted orders and desperate calls of people yelling for loved ones. Too far away to hear the cries of the dying, of parents trying to find their children, of those same children sobbing in fearful, choked voices.

I wish I could say it was for them I wept, but it was not. It was for Allison, my wife, the mother of my unborn child, the only woman I had ever loved. She was down there somewhere, probably running for her life the same as everyone else.

If she’s not already dead.

I tried to surge up from the ground, but Hicks grabbed me across the shoulders.

“Don’t,” he said. “You’ll just get yourself killed.”

Ignoring him, I struggled to get my feet underneath me. Hicks rose up and snaked an arm through one of mine in a wrestler’s wrist tie-up. Unable to use the arm he controlled, I tried to sit through and twist out with my unencumbered arm. He stopped me by putting his full weight across my back. Hicks weighed much more than his lanky appearance suggested; he probably had me by thirty pounds.

“Stop, Eric,” he said into my ear. “You can’t do anything for her right now.”

Still, I struggled. If I’d had my wits about me, I could have gotten out from underneath him. Even pinned as I was there were still techniques I could have used to wrestle my way free. But I was not thinking straight. So instead I bucked and thrashed and called Hicks names I knew I would later regret. All the while, he kept talking to me, telling me help was on the way, it was going to be all right, Allison would get to safety. Finally, he grabbed me by the hair, jerked my head up so I was looking him in the eye, and said, “Listen!”

I stopped fighting. Hicks pointed to my old friend, Staff Sergeant Ethan Thompson. Above the din of explosions and the increasing volume of rotors spinning overhead, I heard Ethan speaking into his radio.

“Copy,” he said, “Apache engaging, maintain position and stand by for orders.” He turned his head toward his squad. 

“Did you hear that? For now, we hold position. Be ready to move.”

“Let the chopper do its job,” Hicks said.

I went limp and nodded. “Okay, okay. Get off me.”

His weight left my back and I could breathe easier.

I lay with my face close to the dirt, pine needles shifting beneath me, pulse thumping in my ears. The Apache flew directly overhead, gaining altitude and banking northward until it went out of sight.

A few moments later, Thompson said something I did not quite hear as the hiss-BANG of a Hellfire missile sounded from less than half a mile away. Seconds later, the chatter of a 30mm cannon reached my ears, firing in bursts. After the eighth or ninth burst, the cannon stopped and the Apache flew back in our direction. The artillery was silent.

“Roger that,” Thompson said into his radio. “Will approach from the south and spread out to envelope the target area. Second Platoon will approach from the east and advise when in position. Over.” He turned his head and said to his squad, “Check your weapons and follow me.”

Out of habit, I looked to my carbine. Tugged back on the charging handle. Round in the chamber, magazine seated firmly, safety off, trigger finger pointing straight down the lower receiver. I pulled my Kel-Tec from its holster and checked it as well. Ready to go.

Thompson led the way as Delta Squad emerged from the treeline. The other three squads from First Platoon emerged at other points, one north of us, two others to the south. We had split up when fleeing our transport truck to make ourselves a harder target in case the enemy artillery had zeroed our position. Evidently, they had not. I would ordinarily have considered this a good thing, except all the rounds they fired had hit Hollow Rock. A glance over my shoulder showed me a breach in the north gate wide enough to drive a tank through. Black smoke rose from the buildings behind. I hoped none of them was the clinic. Or my house.

Shoving thoughts of Allison aside for the moment, I followed Thompson as we met up with the rest of First Platoon.


There was not much for us to do.

Burned bodies lay in death poses near three smallish artillery cannons twenty yards apart. To my left, less than twenty feet away, a charred corpse lay on its back, the skin and clothing burned so badly as to be unrecognizable. Its legs were crossed as though it were lounging on a bed, one hand reaching skyward, the arm bent at the elbow. I wondered if it would fall off if I went over and kicked it.

The cannon in the middle lay on its side, burned and blackened and misshapen from the impact of the Hellfire. Made sense. As close together as the cannons were, hitting the middle gun would do the most damage to the men operating them. An artillery piece is just a big ugly paperweight with no one to shoot it.

The 30mm cannon on the Apache Longbow had taken care of the enemy troops, save for a handful who ran away. The recon team from First Platoon, along with a few scouts from the Ninth Tennessee Volunteer Militia, had gone after them. Hicks and Holland went along.

After reporting to Echo Company’s commanding officer, Captain Harlow, we searched the bodies for identification. As expected, we found none. Chinese AK-47s, side arms I did not recognize, and Russian hand grenades. No hand weapons. Plain black uniforms with no body armor, black tactical vests with no manufacturers tag, flashlights, spare ammo, and an array of tools common to Outbreak survivors. Bolt cutters, crowbars, flat pry-bars, machetes, entrenching tools, that sort of thing. No food, though. Must have cached it nearby.

The bodies recognizable as human all shared the same ethnicity: Asian. They were short, wiry, and save for the fact they were dead, in supreme physical condition.

“What do you think?” Sergeant Isaac Cole said standing next to me. “KPA?”

“Could be,” I replied. “Although technically we should call them ROC.”

Cole snorted. He sounded like an angry bull and stood almost as big as one. “Call ‘em whatever you want, they North Korean. Buncha brainwashed-ass motherfuckers.”

“Goddamn suicide troops,” Private Fuller said behind me. “Gotta be. No other explanation. They couldn’t have expected to get out of here alive.”

I said, “Tell that to the ones who ran away.”

For a while, nothing happened. My eyes strayed anxiously toward home while I stood with the rest of Delta Squad waiting for Ethan Thompson to tell us what to do. On a salvage run, it would have been the other way around. But this was official military high-up muckety-muck business, so I deferred to the federal types. Ethan looked relieved when his earpiece finally buzzed to life. He pressed two fingers to his right ear and listened. A moment passed before he clicked transmit and muttered, “Roger that.”

Turning our way, he said “We’re moving out. Walkers closing in from the north and east. We’re moving east to intercept. Second will maneuver north. Let’s move.”

“What about the rest of First?” Cole asked. He was the second most senior man in Delta Squad, so the question begged an answer.

“They’ll catch up. Captain Harlow still has Charlie and Alpha patrolling the perimeter. Not sure where Bravo is.”

“Right here,” Staff Sergeant Kelly called out behind us. His squad followed behind him. Once again, Thompson looked relieved. Kelly had more experience than almost everyone else in First Platoon, and was next in line to be platoon sergeant. Like him, his squad mates were all seasoned veterans. Good men to have around in a fight.

“You with us?” Thompson asked.

“Yup,” Kelly replied. “Horde’s moving in fast. We need to get going.”

“You heard him,” Thompson called. “Double-time.”

It was nearly a mile to where the Chinook’s spotters directed us to intercept the incoming horde. At the top of the rise, I could see there was not just one, but three hordes coming in. One directly in front of us to the east, one descending from the north, and another closing in southward. Both the eastern and southern walls were still standing, but the north gate was a wreck. I watched the Chinook and the Apache turn in that direction to render air support.

“Okay, men,” Kelly said. “Let them pack in against the wall, then we surround in standard crescent formation from behind. Stay low and quiet. The last thing we want is to lure them toward us before we’re ready.”

The soldiers nodded, most holding their arms above their heads to catch their breath. They were in good physical condition, but running a mile in full combat gear is a strain. Kelly gave them ninety seconds to rest, and to their credit, all were fresh and ready to go when he gave the order to move out.

As they departed, I took a moment to dial my VCOG scope up to its highest magnification and look over the horde. Watching them, I got the sense something was not right. I had seen hundreds, maybe even over a thousand hordes of varying sizes over the years, and something about the way this one moved puzzled me. So I perched my rifle on my Y-stand to steady the image and slowly scanned the mass of walking dead.

And nearly had a heart attack.

Shit, shit, shit.”

In a low scramble, I scurried up to Ethan, stage whispering the whole way for him to stop. When he finally heard me, he radioed up to Kelly to halt the column and waited for me.

“What is it?” he asked irritably.

I handed him my rifle. “Look carefully,” I said. “Pay close attention to their midsections.”

He did as I asked. His brow furrowed as he looked through the scope, then a moment later he paled and pulled the rifle away.

“Holy shit.” He keyed his radio, voice shaky. “Kelly, we got a problem. Those walkers are rigged with explosives.”

A moment of silence. Thompson’s earpiece was loud enough I could hear Kelly’s reply. “You’re shitting me.”

“Afraid not. You want to call it in?”

“Yeah, I got it.”

While we waited, I said, “Those bombs must be on remote detonators. No way a timer would work, the infected’s movements are too unpredictable.”

“Yeah, I figured that.”

“So what are we going to do about it?”

Thompson looked at me sternly. “Wait for orders.”

I hissed in frustration and sat down, checked my rifle for the fifth or sixth time, made sure my grenades were securely in their pouches (the deadly little things had always made me nervous), and verified all my P-mags were in the proper position for combat reloads. Same for my pistol. All ready to go.

Just as I was about to say to hell with it and volunteer to lead the horde away, Kelly’s voice sounded in Thompson’s earpiece. I stood up and leaned in to listen.

“Good news and bad news. Bad news, all three hordes are rigged. Looks like every ninth or tenth walker has dynamite or something strapped to it. Probably on remote detonators. If they reach those walls, they’re coming down.”

“Perfect,” Thompson replied. “What’s the good news?”

“Howitzer en route to our position. Bradleys and Abrams deploying north and south respectively.”

“Any chance the Chinook can air drop some mortars?”

“No time. Right now, we’re to flank the horde, whittle their numbers, and try to lead them away from the wall. Have all designated marksmen concentrate fire on the Rot rigged with bombs and have SAW gunners aim for the legs. And tell your grenadier not to be shy with the ordnance. We wanna disable as many of these things as possible. We can always pick off the survivors later.”

“What about the detonators? There have to be spotters watching from somewhere.”   

“Recon team and the Chinook are searching for them. They’ll have to be somewhere relatively close. There’s no cell connectivity around here, so they’re probably using a portable RF transmitter to send the detonation signal. But right now, that’s not our concern. Our concern is diverting that horde and killing as many as we can.”

“Roger, wilco.” Thompson turned and explained the orders to Delta Squad. After a brief conference among fire teams, we followed Kelly’s squad in the direction of the horde. 

On the way, Cole said, “Ghouls rigged with IEDs, man. What will these assholes think up next?” 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

New Release!!!

The origin of The Darkest Place is a strange one.  

Sometimes I write a supporting character, and I think his or her story is compelling enough to warrant its own novel. Caleb Hicks is just such a character. He appeared in two of my previous novels, The Passenger and Fire in Winter, in the latter of which he played a major role.  

Now, this is going to seem non sequitur, but stick with me. During my tenure on a VBSS team (Visit, Board, Search and Seizure) in the Navy, I had occasion to do a couple of training exercises with the Navy SEALS. The first thing that struck me about them was how young they were. Most of them did not even look old enough to buy a drink legally. The second thing that struck me was how well trained they were. And unless I miss my guess, the initial training a SEAL undergoes after BUDS is somewhere around a year and a half to two years. (I could be wrong about the timeframe there, and if I am, I apologize.)  

But think about that for a moment. In roughly two years, the Navy can take an ordinary civilian, and if that civilian is properly motivated, turn them into one of the world’s elite warriors. I remember the question occurring to me, What if these guys started training when they were very young, like, five years old? What would they be capable of? 

In Caleb Hicks’ character, I get to explore that possibility. And that is about all I can say about him without giving away any spoilers.  

As for the novel itself, let me be clear on an important point: This is not Surviving the Dead Volume Five. The Darkest Place is a standalone novel set in the Surviving the Dead universe, much like The Passenger, although I wrote this one on my own. 

Eric Riordan, however, does feature in the novel, and his actions are important to the next volume in the series: Savages.  

So I guess it would be fair to call The Darkest Place Surviving the Dead 4.5. Or you could call it a companion novel to Savages. Either way, I hope you all enjoy it. The Darkest Place was supposed to be a short novel, no more than 60,000 words (about 200 pages), but it took on a life of its own, and even if it is not well received, I am proud of it. I think it is a good book. At 165,000 words (over 500 pages) it is a long read. It was written during the most difficult time in my life, and I think that will be plainly obvious to anyone who reads it.  

I wish you all the best, my friends, and as always, thank you.  




Friday, October 10, 2014


Hello all. 

Just a quick update. Don't want to take up too much of your time. 

First things first, I am doing much better. It's been a week since my last post (in which I revealed I am a raging booze-monster), and I can't believe the difference in how I feel. For the last few years, I have been either drunk, hungover, or suffering from withdrawal symptoms. I can't remember the last time I actually felt good. I am not completely over the withdrawal yet, but I am more clearheaded and have more energy than I have had in years. And it has only been a week. 

Which is not to say it has been easy. It has not. The first three days, I felt like a shit pancake smothered in misery sauce. Shakes, heart beating in my chest a mile a minute, anxiety, cold sweats, headaches, nausea, the works. Then on day four, horrible things stopped pouring out of me and I began to feel better. By day five, I could eat a full meal without losing it. The shakes stopped. I even went to my son's t-ball game. 

The last couple of days, I actually got out of the house and ran errands. Who am I? 

I'm going to take it easy the rest of the week, eat regularly, drink lots of water, and spend time with the family. On Monday, I'll get back to writing.  

Before I go, I want to take a moment to thank all of you who took the time to offer your support and encouragement. Honestly, I expected to get some nasty comments and deal with a heavy dose of trolling. But so far, that hasn't happened. Your responses have been overwhelmingly supportive, and I can't tell you all how much it means to me to read your kind comments. Many of you have shared your own stories of addiction and recovery, and it gives me hope. If others can do it, so can I. 

With everything I have and with everything I am, thank you. 

The last few days have served not only to redeem my faith in humanity and demonstrate just how many people out there are concerned about me, but also to reveal the challenge that lies ahead. Anyone who has ever been an addict knows what I'm talking about, but for you sensible, careful souls who have wisely avoided such things, let me explain what being an alcoholic in today's society is like. 

Just for a moment, imagine you are a cocaine addict. You realize your problem, you go to rehab, and you get clean. Then you come home, and everywhere you look, you see cocaine. When you watch a football game, every other commercial is advertising cocaine. They depict fit, attractive people dancing and snorting blow up their noses and having an awesome time doing it. 

You walk into a restaurant and half the people around you are snorting cocaine from little mirrors as they eat their meals. Bottles of cocaine line the walls. The waiter comes over and hands you a menu listing their exceptional cocaine selection. She offers to pour you a little sample of the house Colombian White. 

You go to the grocery store and there is a massive cocaine section, an endless variety, every kind of blow you could possibly desire. You go to the convenience store to buy a bottle of water and have to walk by the cocaine cooler to do so. It is everywhere, all around you, tempting you, you can't ever get away from it, and it will always, always, be this way. 

That's what it's like to be an alcoholic. 

But you know what? I don't care. I'm tired of booze. I feel better than I've felt in years, and I'd like to stay that way. I don't want to go back. I don't want to fall into that trap again. I've been down that road, and I know where it leads. 

It's nice to reside in normal town again. I think I'll stay here. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Confession Time

My name is James Nathaniel Cook, and I am an alcoholic.

There. I said it.

I’m not talking about a ‘have a few beers before bed’ kind of problem, either. I’m talking about a ‘drink an entire liter of hard liquor a day’ kind of problem. Seriously. About a liter.

Every. Single. Day. Sometimes more. Can’t remember the last day I didn’t.

Let that sink in.

The last couple of weeks, I have been having my first drink at around 10:30 in the morning, and I’m usually passed out in my armchair by 1:00 PM. I wake up hungover, I drink water and tea to get functional, and after dinner, I start up again until I pass out. For the second time in a day. Usually before nine PM.

I haven’t written a word of new material for The Darkest Place in nearly two weeks. I’ve been too drunk. That is the real reason it is taking so long. Hell, that’s the reason all my books take so long. It’s hard to write when you’re so inebriated you can barely string a sentence together.

I didn’t get here overnight. I think I became addicted to alcohol at the age of 21. For a long time there, I could maintain. I could work. I was functional. But I can’t tell you how many times I went to work hungover. I should have been fired a hundred times over from every job I ever worked. It’s a wonder I never was. Maybe I just showed up resembling a pile of hammered dog shit so many times they just figured that was how I looked. Kind of pathetic when you think about it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not looking for sympathy here. I did this to myself. I’ve spent the better part of 13 years in the bottle, and I have no one to blame but myself. It’s my own fault things have gotten this bad.

What I’m looking for here is accountability. Sooner or later, all my family and friends are going to see this, and the secret will be out. Once I post this, there is no going back. If I’m honest, I think I’m just tired of trying to hide it. I simply do not care about keeping up appearances anymore.

I have had many successes in my life. I served my country for six years with honor and distinction, and I have the service record and medals to prove it. I am the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree (finance major, just in case you were wondering). I have a wife who loves me, two beautiful children, and plenty of people in my life who care about me.

Nonetheless, I feel like a failure.

I failed my family. I failed my friends. I failed you, my beloved readers. But the thing about failure is you can learn from it. You can choose a different path. For too many years of my life, I have walked the path of anger and depression and addiction.

No more.

I cannot live like this. It’s not a life. It’s barely an existence, and unless I make some serious changes, I won’t even have that. I’ll be dead before I’m forty.

I turned 34 years old last month. I don’t know how many years I have left. Maybe forty, maybe five, maybe a few days. But for whatever time I remain on this Earth, I refuse to spend it as a useless drunk. My family, and friends, and you readers who have given me the career I always wanted, you all deserve better from me.

And by God, I intend to make it happen.

I’m in a pretty low place right now. I woke up at three in the morning last night from alcohol withdrawal, shaking like a leaf in the wind, and I knew I was in trouble. All I wanted to do was have a drink. So instead, I stumbled downstairs on shaky legs because I haven’t been eating lately because my stomach can’t handle it, and I got every bottle of booze in the house and poured it down the fucking sink. Then I went upstairs and woke my wife up and told her I needed help. She’s staying home with me today.

The withdrawal is pretty terrible right now. My hands are shaking badly as I type this. But I know I can get through it. It’s easy when you don’t have a choice.

And that’s why I am posting this. I want everyone in my life who has ever given a rat’s ass about my existence to know what I’m going through and hold me responsible for fixing it. I’ve let a lot of people down, but I will do everything I can to make it right.

We all make mistakes. We all strive and fail. I'm no better than anyone else. Being willing to admit it is the first step to correcting the problem. 

I may be down, but I’m not out. Not by a long shot; I have too much to live for. I’m going to take some time and get myself sober and functional again, and then I’ll work on picking up the other pieces of my life. I probably won’t get much writing done, so as far as a release date for The Darkest Place, you’re just going to have to be patient with me. I want to make it the best book I can, but that’s not going to happen if I spend most of every day drunk off my ass.

Enough is enough. I’m going to beat this thing. I’ll post again when I’m feeling a little stronger.

Wish me luck. And as always, thank you. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Another Excerpt From The Darkest Place: A Surviving the Dead Novel

“It looks like a settlement,” Mike said, handing me the field glasses. I peered through them.

At the highway junction, there was a gas station, a farmers market, and an RV park, all separated from the forest by a broad asphalt parking lot. The fireproof buffer zone had kept the structures and recreational vehicles safe from the fires that had come through not long ago. From where Mike and I lay at the top of a rise near the treeline, we could see the people below had moved the RVs so they formed a ring around the two buildings. They had also packed the space beneath the vehicles with dirt and were using the wide trenches left behind as latrines.

Now that’s what I call multi-tasking.

I counted a couple of dozen people, some of them standing guard, others engaged in menial tasks, and still more doing nothing much at all. There seemed to be an even dispersion of men and women, even a few children here and there. I gauged the size of the small compound and the amount of work that must have gone into securing it, and decided something did not add up.

“There’s not enough people,” I said.

“I was thinking the same thing,” Mike replied.

“All that dirt, the number of RVs, there must be others somewhere.”

“Or maybe there were, but they moved on.”

I put the field glasses down. “Could be.”

“Let’s give it a while. Keep an eye on them, see what we see.”

“Good idea.”

We settled in.

It was nostalgic, in a way, lying there among the torched foliage. During the years when Mike was imparting the lessons he had learned from his days at Quantico and on the battlefield, we had spent countless hours in the wilds, lying motionless, waiting, just like we were doing then.
In the early days, my targets had been javelina, deer, and coyotes. Those initial hunts were organized so Mike could teach me the basics. He figured since animals had better senses, better instincts, and are generally more perceptive than humans, if I could get close to them, I could get the drop on a man with no problem. Mike’s lessons took hold quickly, and it was not long before he decided I was ready for phase two.

Next, he began setting up targets in open fields and had me try to shoot them while he watched for me through a spotting scope. By the time I was fourteen, I could consistently fire two shots on target undetected from two-hundred yards.

When I could do it from eighty yards, Mike decided it was time to up the ante with mock sniper duels.

I took on all of them: Mike, Dad, Tyrel, and Blake. Even a few of their students who wanted to try their luck against me. We would start on opposite ends of various landscapes in the Texas hill country, make our way to one of three pre-established destinations, and try to spot the other guy in the distance. If we did, we fired at a steel target hung above and away from them to stop the match. If the shooter hit the right target, he then had to walk a spotter via radio to where the other sniper lay hidden. If he was successful, he won. If not, we reset and started over. The match went on until one of us was victorious, or it grew too late and we had to call it.

Mike was the only guy I never beat.

He taught me, after all, so he knew all my tricks.

The others, I had much better luck with. Which is not to say I bested them on a consistent basis—I didn’t—but I got them enough times to know my skills were well above average.

So despite the heat, and the smell of charred wood clogging my nose, and the slowly building pressure in my bladder, I lay still and watched. Mike did the same, but he was not as still as I. There was the occasional twitch and fidget and shift of torso, a surplus of unnecessary movement. The untrained eye would never have seen it, but to someone who had seen Mike lie still as a stone for hours on end, it was like watching him pace around wringing his hands. After a while, I grew tired of it.

“What’s wrong with you?”


“Something’s bothering you. What is it?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.”


There was a rustle of fabric as he turned his head. “I’m fine.”

“Mike …”

“Okay. You want to know what’s on my mind? I’ll tell you.” He leaned close so he was right next to my ear. “Did you fuck my daughter, Caleb?”

My face turned to ice. “Um …”


“I wouldn’t put it in those terms, exactly.”

“So you fucked her.”

“Mike, it wasn’t like that.” I met his gaze, and what I saw there made me want to back away slowly and avoid sudden movements. It hurt to see it; Mike was almost as much a father to me as my real one. I blurted out, “I love her, Mike.”

He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Caleb, you’re only eighteen. You don’t know what love is.”

“Look, maybe I haven’t been around the block like you have, but I know how I feel. You talk about what’s between me and Sophia like it’s some sordid, tawdry thing. It’s not. We care about each other. I’ve had feelings for her a long time, and she told me she feels the same way. We just never said anything to each other about it.”

Mike looked at me again, much of the hardness gone from his gaze. “Do you really care about her, Caleb? You’re not just taking advantage of her?”

“What? No, Mike. I would never do that. You know that.”

“She’s been under a lot of stress lately. That kind of thing can make a girl vulnerable, make her do things she normally wouldn’t.”

“I told you, Mike. I would never do that to her, or any other girl for that matter.”

He sighed and turned his face back down the hill. “Sorry, son. I didn’t mean to … listen you have to understand what it’s been like for me all these years. Guys have been coming after Sophia since she was eleven years old. Fuckin’ hordes of them, an endless parade. All this time, it was all I could do to keep her from ending up like my mom—barefoot and pregnant with me by the time she was sixteen. I don’t want that to happen to Sophia.” 

“You don’t think she’s smart enough to keep that from happening?”

“I think she’s a kid,” Mike said. “I think she’s made some bad decisions along the way. The partying, the drugs, the crowd she hangs out with … well, used to hang out with, anyway. For a while there, I thought I was gonna lose her.”

“But you didn’t, Mike. She did some crazy teenager shit like most teenagers do, and she got over it.”

“You didn’t.”

“Didn’t what?”

“Do a bunch of crazy teenager shit.”

I gave a small shrug. “I’m not like most teenagers.”

Mike laughed slightly. “Yeah. I guess not.” He grabbed the field glasses and peered down the hill again, sweeping slowly from left to right. I lay next to him, chin on my hands, thinking about Sophia. Enough time passed that I thought he had dropped the subject, so when he spoke, it startled me.

“I guess if there’s any guy I would want her to end up with,” he said. “It’d be you, Caleb. Just make sure you take good care of her.”

I looked at him, surprised. There was a lump in my throat, and a blurry stinging touched the backs of my eyes. I had to swallow a few times before I could speak. “Thanks, Mike. That means a lot to me.”

He grunted and continued staring down the hill. We left it at that.

Nothing much happened in the settlement below as the sun stretched the shadows into afternoon. I was beginning to consider suggesting we head back and get the others when I heard the sound of a car approaching.

“Hand me the eyes,” Mike said. He had given me the field glasses so he could take a rest. I passed them back.

We watched a car pull up to the compound, a GMC pickup, loaded with supplies, two people seated in the cab. It stopped in front of a low-rider Cadillac that served as the settlement’s main gate. Two men climbed over the Caddy and approached the truck. There followed a brief conversation, then one of the people in the truck handed something to a man at the gate. He ran into the main enclosure, disappeared into an RV, and came back out with a small box in his hands. After handing the box to the man in the truck, there was a quick round of conversation—thank-you-and-goodbye by the look of it—and the truck was off.

“Huh,” Mike said.


“Looked friendly enough.”

“Sure did. I’m thinking I might have an idea.”

The big Marine glanced at me warily. “Caleb …”

“What? These people might be able to help us. And I’m a lot less scary looking than you. Besides, if anything goes wrong, you’ll be up here on overwatch.”

He thought it over. “All right. But approach from the road. If things turn bad, signal me by scratching your right ear with your left hand. Got it?”

“Right ear, left hand. Got it.”


I let them see me coming a long way off.

After backing down from the shallow hillside, I circled around in defilade and emerged at the base of another hill, standing on highway 281. The lookouts at the settlement didn’t see me until I topped the rise and skylined myself.

I could see them in the distance, eyes peering through binoculars, rifles hung over their shoulders, faint echoes reaching me as they called to one another. Their posture seemed neither aggressive nor overly relaxed. They wanted to make it clear they were aware of my approach, but had no plans to get in my way.

I stopped in front of the Cadillac—a purple one, lots of after-market modifications, barely four inches off the ground—and waved at a guard standing atop an RV.


The man nodded in my direction. He was a little shorter than me, heavyset, late thirties, big bushy moustache. He said, “Howdy.”

“Don’t suppose you have any water in there, do you?”

“Depends. What you got to trade?”

“What are you looking for?”

He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a list. As he did, a light wind kicked up, sending streamers of ash across the soot-stained parking lot. “Got any feminine hygiene products?”

“Um, no.”



“Pain medicine?”

“Afraid not.”

“Toilet paper?”



I chuckled at that one. “No.”

He stuffed the list back in his pocket. “Well, I guess that just leaves ammo.”

I patted the mag pouches on my vest. “I can spare some five-five-six and nine-mil.”

“How many rounds?”

“That depends. How much water are we talking about?”

One corner of the man’s mouth twitched upward. “You’re pretty sharp for a young fella.” He made a motion over the Caddy. “Come on in. Just hop right over the car there.”

As I obeyed, the guard turned and shouted to someone I couldn’t see. My feet hit the opposite side of the gate just in time to see several men and two women emerge from RVs, all carrying weapons. My hand tightened on the grip of my rifle, but I stayed relaxed, letting it dangle from its tactical sling. If things went south, after I signaled Mike, the rifle would be a distraction. While all eyes were focused on it, I would quick-draw my pistol and start gunning people down. At this range, the sidearm would be easier to bring to bear.

“What’s your name?” one of the men said. Tall, about my height, salt-and-pepper hair, mid to late forties, strong build, moved and spoke like a cop. By the way the others gravitated toward him, I figured him for the leader.

“Caleb Hicks,” I said, seeing no harm in giving my real name.

“Who are you with?” The man said, coming to a halt a few feet in front of me. His tone was not entirely hostile, just authoritarian, like he was accustomed to being answered when he posed a question, and being answered quickly.

“Me, myself, and I,” I said, looking around casually. “What is this place?”

“I’ll ask the questions.” I returned my gaze to him. He had dark brown eyes, focused and intense.

“What are you doing here?”

“Passing through. I need some water.” I lowered a hand slowly to my canteen and gave it a shake. It made a light splashing sound, indicating it was almost empty. I had actually drank most of it earlier, planning to use the empty canteen as an excuse for approaching the settlement. “Came across a house a day ago that hadn’t burned down, found a few liters left in the hot water heater. But I’ve just about worked through it by now. If you have any to spare, I’m more than happy to trade for it. Can’t drink bullets, after all.”

“Where are you coming from?”

I hooked a thumb over my shoulder. “San Antonio. Or what’s left of it, anyway. When Houston went up like a road flare, I saw the writing on the wall. The highways were choked by then, so I left on foot. Had to hide out from the fires for a while, and now I’m trying to make my way to Colorado.”

The man looked from me to the guard standing on top of the RV. “We don’t normally let people inside the gate,” he said pointedly.

“Aw, come on, Travis,” the guard replied. “He’s just a kid. Stop being so damn paranoid and let him have some water. We got plenty, for Christ’s sake.”

The leader, Travis, glared a moment longer, then returned his attention to me. “I suppose Jerry’s right. Leave your rifle and your sidearm at the gate, then go with Mabel here.” He gestured to a frumpy, fiftyish woman behind him. “She’ll get you some water.”

Travis walked off and disappeared into his RV. The others with him cast me a final, curious glance and then did the same. Mabel stepped closer, offering a doughy hand. I shook it.

“Nice to meet you Caleb.”

“Same to you, ma’am.”

“You’ll have to forgive Travis. He’s a good man, but a bit overprotective.”

Jerry climbed down from the RV and took my carbine and pistol, but didn’t ask for my ammo. Mabel began walking toward the gas station in the center of the ring of campers. I followed a few feet behind.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.

“Well, let’s see … it’s been a little over a month since what happened in Houston. Most everyone around these parts evacuated long before then. There were a bunch of us came up from San Antonio with the National Guard. Stopped here for gas, but while the soldiers were fueling up their trucks, they got orders to head back south. Commanding officer apologized, but said he had no choice.”

“So they just left you here?”

She nodded. “Sure did.”

“You don’t sound angry.”

“My husband was a soldier, God rest his soul. I know what orders are. Besides, we had Travis. He organized us, had us scavenge around for food, medicine, weapons, things like that. It was his idea to circle the campers and fill ‘em in with dirt. Does a good job of keeping the infected out.”

Mabel led me behind the gas station to an old-fashioned hand pump. She put a small metal bucket beneath it and began pumping out water. “Back about a week ago, some folks got together and decided they couldn’t stay in this place any longer. Said it was unsustainable. I believe that was the word the fella eggin’ ‘em on used. Name was Thornton, used to be a state senator. Slimy little snake of a man. Convinced all those folks to head west for Arizona. Said there was some kind of bunker out there he knew about, place where they were taking a bunch of folks part of some secret government project. Sounded like a bunch o’ hooey to me, and I told him as much. So did Travis, and those other folks you see here. But they wouldn’t listen. Lit out, and took most of our food with ‘em. God only knows if they made it or not.”
She finished pumping the water and held up the bucket. I tilted the mouth of my canteen beneath it and held it steady while she poured. 

“Seen anyone else come through?” I asked. “Travelers, other survivors, the military, anything like that?”

“Had a few folks pass through, lookin’ to trade, most of ‘em wantin’ bullets or water or both. Offerin’ food or whatever else they had. Travis don’t normally allow folks inside the wall. I imagine him and Jerry will have words about it later.”

When my canteen was full, Mabel withdrew the water bucket. “How about ten rounds of rifle ammo?” she said.

I cocked an eyebrow at her. “How about four. Looks like you won’t be running out of water any time soon.”

She smiled. “Five?”


I pulled a mag from a carrier, counted out the cartridges, and handed them to her. “Thanks, Mabel. Best of luck to you.”

“Same to you, darlin’. Be careful out there.”


She stayed by the pumps as I walked back toward the gate. I looked around along the way, trying to get a sense of the place. There were almost as many campers forming the perimeter as people, a solid white wall dotted at regular intervals with shatterproof glass. The residents themselves milled about in various states of solemn dejection, dust in their hair, eyes squinting under the hot sun as they stared at me from under hat brims and outstretched hands, a few of them lucky enough to be sporting sunglasses. Glancing to my right, I saw the dirty faces of a few pre-teen children pressed against a window trying to get a better look at me. The closer I came to the center of the enclosure, the more acutely I felt the weight of all those staring eyes. The attention was disconcerting.

I had hoped the people here could offer us some measure of assistance, but from what I could see, they needed help more than we did. It would probably best for my group if we just bypassed this place altogether.

About ten feet from the gate, Travis’ voice stopped me. “Mr. Hicks,” he said. “Might I have a word with you for a moment?”

I turned and squinted. The sun was at his back, forcing me to shield my eyes to see him. “What about?”

“Please, it’ll only take a minute or two.”

I didn’t move. “So come out here and let’s talk.”

He stepped down from his RV and approached, hands held out to the sides. His gun was notably absent from its holster. A few steps brought him around so I didn’t have to squint to see him. “I just have a few questions for you, and I would prefer to ask them in private. It will only take a few minutes of your time. After that, you can be on your way.”

I read his face. He looked calm, radiating sincerity, but there was an intensity in his eyes I didn’t like, an unblinking steadiness that made the hair on my neck stand up. Falling back on my training, I did a quick assessment.  

He wasn’t armed, but that didn’t mean anything. He still wielded the most dangerous weapon of all—authority. All he had to do was shout, and I was a dead man. I could decline and try to leave, but if he decided to press the issue, things would escalate. And out here in the open, with only my knife and hand-to-hand combat skills, I didn’t stand a chance. Not unless I got extraordinarily lucky, and I was not about to bet my life on luck.

My left hand twitched as I thought about reaching up and casually scratching my right ear. I could see where my rifle and pistol lay on the ground only a few feet away, Jerry standing next to them. He seemed oblivious to the tension between Travis and me, but he could be faking it for all I knew. If I gave the signal, it would be the end of Travis’ life, and the shock factor would very likely buy me the time I needed to cross the distance to Jerry, incapacitate him, and retrieve my weapons.

But what then?

My best bet would be to run for the southeast side of the encampment, staying low and hugging the wall of campers, and serpentine my way through the dead trees there, hoping none of the residents here were expert marksmen. I knew I could count on Mike to cover me and take out anyone who stuck their head up too far once I was outside the gate.

But did it really need to come to that? What if Travis sincerely just wanted to ask a few questions and send me on my way? Furthermore, if he tried to break bad on me, we would be in the confines of his camper at hand-to-hand range. Travis was strong looking, but I’m no weakling, and I sincerely doubted he could match my skill level in a strand-up fight. Few people I had ever met could.

I was also still at the point in my life I thought it was best to avoid bloodshed whenever possible. I have since become a far less sentimental person, but at the time, I conceded, thinking it was the sensible thing to do.

“Lead the way,” I said, holding a hand toward Travis’ RV.

He walked ahead of me a few feet and disappeared through the door. I followed him in, blinking at the sudden dimness of the camper’s interior. If the afternoon had been overcast instead of blindingly bright, I would have noticed him hurrying to the small table in the kitchenette sooner. But my eyes were still adjusting, and by the time I blinked away the sickly green film obscuring my vision, I found myself staring down the barrel of a .45 automatic.

“Where are the others?” he asked.

I blinked in confusion. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Don’t bullshit me kid. We both know you didn’t come here alone.”

My hands came up to shoulder level, palms out. “Listen, I don’t-”

“Do you want to know what I did before all this happened?” he interrupted, tilting his head at the wasteland outside the window.

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

He frowned, shifting the gun so he held it at hip level. “I was a detective with the San Antonio Police Department.”

“Okay. So if you’re a cop, why are you threatening me with a gun right now?”

“Because a detective notices things. Take your boots, for example.”

I looked down and felt a twist in my stomach. I knew what he was about to say, but it hadn’t occurred to me until just that second what a gaping hole they put in my cover story. 

“They’re too new,” he said. “They fit you perfectly, which means you bought them from a store, not found them along the way. There’s no way you crossed all those miles between here and San Antonio with no more wear and tear than that.” He gestured at my feet with the gun.

There was a moment of silence. I got the impression he was waiting for me to say something, an old cop trick. I didn’t take the bait. Finally, he said, “Then there’s your face. You’re not tan enough. If you had been out in the sun these past couple of weeks, you’d be brown as a strip of bacon. Not to mention you’re clean-shaven.”

He took a couple of steps closer, but stayed out of arm’s reach. “Now tell me, kid. Why does a man facing the prospect of dehydration waste precious water on something as unnecessary as shaving?”

My mind raced. The barrel of Travis’ gun was only forty-five hundredths of an inch wide, but from my perspective, it may as well have been the size of the moon. I kept my hands up and eased back a step.

“Don’t move again,” Travis growled.

“Okay, fine,” I said, playing for time. “Just take your finger off the trigger, okay?”

“No. I asked you some questions, boy. If you want to leave this place alive, you better start answering them.”

“Okay, I will, I’ll answer all your questions. All I ask is you take your finger off the trigger. Just so you don’t shoot me by accident.”

I was scared at this point, and didn’t have to fake the tremor of fear in my voice. Travis glared a moment longer, then eased his finger off the trigger, keeping his fingertip poised just above it. “There, happy now?”

“Thank you.”

“You’re very fucking welcome. Now talk.”

I took a deep breath. “When I left San Antonio, I had two pairs of boots,” I said. “One of them wore out. This is my second pair. That’s why they look so new.”

Travis seemed to consider this. He made a small motion with the gun. “What about your skin?”

“I had a hat, but I lost it a couple of days ago. There are a couple of bottles of SPF 70 in my backpack, the spray-on stuff. It only takes a little bit once or twice a day. I put it on my face and hands. My clothes protect the rest.”

It was true I had the sunblock, but I had only used a little of it. The part about the hat was a lie, but there was no way for him to verify that. My clothes did indeed cover most of my exposed skin, being that my shirt was long-sleeved, and I was glad I had not rolled the sleeves up.

I waited for Travis to say something, but he remained silent. His expression was stoic, but I thought I detected a hint of uncertainty in his posture. “As for my beard,” I went on, “I hardly ever have to shave. When it starts to grow out, I smear it with olive oil and shear it off with a straight razor. Doesn’t require water, just a cloth to wipe the razor on.”

“And I suppose if I search your backpack I’ll find a bottle of olive oil and a straight razor?” Travis asked.

“You will.” It was true. I carried the oil as part of my fire-starting kit, and the straight razor had been a gift from Blake when I turned fourteen. I kept it for sentimental reasons.

Travis’ expression softened, growing regretful. He lowered the .45 and took a few steps back until the kitchen table was between us. “Okay. Sounds plausible enough. If you would be so kind as to empty your backpack.”

I almost did it, then remembered the two grenades and the radio within and kicked myself for bringing them along. Should have left them behind, idiot. What the fuck did you think you would need them for?

If Travis searched my bag, the game was up. I lowered my hands. “What the hell for?”

“So I can verify you’re telling the truth.”

“Fuck you, cop.” I said, growing angry. “I'm not letting you search my shit.”

His eyes narrowed, his face darkening in anger. “What’s wrong, kid? Got something to hide?”

“Me? What about you, motherfucker? Why are we doing this bullshit in here and not out there?” I pointed out the window at the courtyard in the center of the compound. Something crossed Travis’ face, just a flicker, but it was all the confirmation I needed.

“What’s the matter, don’t want those people out there to know what you’re doing in here?” I started backing toward the doorway. “Why do I get the feeling they wouldn’t approve of you shaking me down for no good reason?”

Travis squared off with me, but kept the gun at his side. “Stop where you are, kid. Don’t take another step.”

“You know what,” I said, affecting a tone of indignation, “I already answered your questions. I’m done explaining myself to you. It’s time for me to go. You want to stop me? Shoot me.” And with that, I turned my back and began walking toward the exit.

“Stop!” Travis shouted. I ignored him and kept walking, not hurrying my pace. The kind of thing a man would do when he felt he had done nothing wrong. As the light through the doorway grew brighter, I felt a burning, itching sensation between my shoulder blades. I wondered what it would feel like if a .45 hollow point mushroomed against my spine before blowing my heart out through my sternum. Would there be pain, or would there just be an impact, a moment of breathlessness, and then darkness?

Luckily, I didn’t have to find out. The doorway came and went and there was no thunder of large-caliber death along the way. I stomped angrily toward the main gate, head down, stride determined. Behind me, I heard Travis scramble after me.

“I told you to stop!”

“I told you to go fuck yourself.”

“Jerry, don’t let him out of the gate.”

The guard who had been so kind to me earlier obeyed immediately and aimed his rifle at my chest. I stopped. 

“What the fuck, Jerry?”

“Just doin’ my job, kid.”

Footsteps crunched behind me, then stopped. “Listen,” Travis said. “Just calm down, okay? There’s no need for this to go any further. Just let me search your pack. If you’re telling the truth, this whole thing will be over with and you’ll be free to go.”

I looked around and saw people begin to emerge from campers and stand up from seats in the shade. They wandered closer, eyes wide, no doubt wondering what all the excitement was about. Slowly, I turned and faced Travis, once again forced to squint against the sun’s glare. Shading my eyes with my right hand, I could see his pistol was holstered, but his fingers dangled close to the grip, the retaining strap unbuttoned.

Slimy son of a bitch.

“This is the last time I’m going to tell you, kid,” he said. “Drop the bag.”

I shook my head. “I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.”

My right ear didn’t itch, but I reached up with my left hand and scratched it anyway.