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.