This blog is mostly directed toward the readership—specifically, my readership, as nascent as it is. Today thought, I’m going to stab the right pedal, throw in a little right cyclic, and while keeping the power pegged at around 85%, exit the pattern to do something a little different.
Truth be told, I’ve always been a little pissed with authors who are always hocking their work. Back at the turn of this century, I made contact with one David Brin, the scribe who presented us with the Uplift War series, a truly fantastic science fiction serial that set the (SF literary) world on fire back in 1983 with his second entry, Startide Rising. (I’d bought his first entry, Sundiver, back in maybe 1980 but actually read it after the second book.) I’d thought back then that maybe, possibly, I’d be able to foster something of a relationship between us, author to author. Instead, I got the standard “buy my stuff!” with breakdowns of all the past works and upcoming works, and a quick “And hey, you’re from my home town!” just to ensure there was a bit of a personal connection. (At the time, I was in Los Angeles, California. I recall LA fondly, which is why I’m overjoyed to see it laid low in my series The Last Town.)
It was a turn-off, obviously. That a Big Name Author™ would respond to one of his readers in such a mercenary way kind of pissed me off. But of course, the fault is my own. What was I expecting, really? To a lot of authors, readers are just a means to an end. To this day, whenever I see an author hocking his wares on FB, or just posing holding his book out front, it sends a subliminal signal that at the end of the day, his/her target audience is just a series of dollar signs that need to be cultivated.
Lesson one: don’t do that shit.
Just kidding. We all have to mix in sales with our correspondence, because that’s part of doing business. Especially when you’re selling the fantasy of fiction; you need to lean forward in the foxhole and push yourself, otherwise you’ll be lost in the jumble. That was all Brin was doing back in 2002, trying to maintain some degree of awareness with his readership with the status of his work. While it pissed me off then, it doesn’t now.
Lesson two: Ignore Lesson One, but you need to be cool about it.
I get approached by incubating authors quite often. Taking time to read the work of others is a dicey thing; they invariably think they’re professional caliber, and you invariably think they’re not. This is an exercise in skipping across Occam’s Razor. You want to help, but in doing so you delay your own work. Sometimes, this is a gesture you should freely offer. Other times, it isn’t. Which is which I’ll leave to you to decide, but I’ll offer some tips—if the requestor’s Facebook posts are frequently misspelled, beg off. If the requestor is a fanboi who you suspect is going to offer a tired pastiche of other genres with Star Trek technology thrown in…pass. If the author is offering work that seems replicated from your own—oh sweet Jesus, find a way out of it. Legal reasons aside, you do not want to start reading stuff that’s like your own, because you never know what your wetware is going to recall years down the road, and the last thing you want is for someone to come after you for “ripping them off”. (By the way, plagiarism is only a real thing when you do what Stephen Ambrose did, and present another author’s work word-for-word as your own. Ripping off someone else’s intellectual property, such as retelling another story with different words and with different details, is a dicier proposition, but still capable of summoning legal injunction. Avoid this.)
Sidebar, yer Honor: I have about four point zillion story ideas already, yet people always approach me with “an idea” that could be a big hit if I were to write it. Sometimes, that works out, such as when Craig DiLouie came up with the idea for The Retreat series. In the most cunning of ways, he pitched the premise to me at Spark’s Steak House in New York City one summer evening, and waited to get to the pulse of the matter until after I’d consumed several glasses of wine while miserly sipping from his glass of home-brew rosé. Obviously, when a writer of Craig’s distinction comes to you with a request for a meeting, you should take it seriously. Regrettably, most of the folks vying for your attention don’t have his marquee value. So unless someone like Shawn Chesser or Hugh Howey or Scott Wolf (?) approaches you, go shields up and wait it out. Maybe they’re not nutters just looking to hitch their wagon to whatever star you might be in possession of, but be tough and analytical. This is a business. Be a businessperson, not just a glorified typist.
Continuing the sidebar, and this leads to some deep waters: I honestly write maybe nine hours a week. If I’m dedicated to it, that nine hours a week translates to six figures in writing income. In my normal daytime life, I work 40 hours a week and still make six figures, which sounds like a lot until you become familiar with New York City economics, and then you discover that makes you a near-transient member of the middle class (something New York politicians are desperately trying to stamp out; they envision a city populated by both the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor, so they can lobby the former for funds to support the latter). Now listen kids, nine hours a week isn’t a lot of time to spend on something so profitable. If my personal life didn’t include a foreign-born wife who can’t really integrate into American society and a child who wasn’t scoring a ten-point-zero on the special needs scale, I could so do that in my sleep. At my best, when I know where a story is going and I know what I need to do to get there, I crank 2,000 words an hour. In nine hours, that’s 18,000 words. In two months, that’s a long book. In theory, I should be able to pump out a minimum of six really fat books a year.
Damn me, but life just doesn’t work that way.
The boss needs you to go all in on a three million dollar project, and surprise, you’re the only smart guy on the team. The wife can’t get up before two in the afternoon for weeks on end. The kid gets sick. The truck throws a rod even though you change the oil religiously, and your mom goes into the hospital. The dog needs its shots, and the kid needs someone to drive him to therapy, and you’re the only one with a driver’s license. Then you get sick, because you’re exhausted from running full throttle for weeks at end. But sleep eludes you, because your bank has just encountered a severity one emergency, and remember, you’re the only smart guy. Your father dies, and he was penniless but somehow managed to amass a mountain of debt. The second car, the troop carrier you use for shopping and daily family errands, gets a critical recall but the dealership doesn’t have the parts in stock, and won’t for the next three weeks—so you can’t really drive it with your kid, and remember, the truck is getting repaired. You don’t own a bicycle, so it’s time to break out the Mark 1 running shoes and get busy in this thankfully pedestrian-oriented place you live.
Suddenly, that time-intensive thing called writing needs to be deferred.
Lesson three: Take care of life. The writing can and should wait.
Okay, okay. All of this should make common sense, at least to most people. If you’re already lost, you’re not one of the “most people”, so the following might be difficult for you. But if you’re made it this far, by all means–press on! The primer is over! (Warning: Mucho Foul Lingo approaches!)
THE REAL DEAL: WHAT IT TAKES TO WRITE SUCCESSFULLY (and if you disagree, blow me)
Ah, the business of writing! So much to say, so much experience to impart! These are where the real nuggets of knowledge exist, or at least those which I can present. Take note, class. Quiz later!
Listen, let me make it really, really simple. Pay attention, lads and lasses…this is a 54-year-old son of a bitch telling you what he knows. If you’re older than me, piss off, and let me know how your 401(K) is doing, because mine never included tending to a special needs kid who will outlive me by 50 years. So you think YOU have problems?
Bullet list, in my personal pecking order:
Write a fucking book. Sounds easy, but isn’t. Takes weeks, months, years. Be dedicated. Be thorough. Be able to push on past the fallacy of “writer’s block”, which is the code name assigned to your circumstances when you think you want to write, but instead want to watch America’s Got Talent or maybe check out PornHub and see what’s new. Nothing autobiographical in that last example, I guarantee. And if that isn’t sufficient, I plead the Fifth. I never knew about that rogue porn server, honest!
Get your work edited. Seriously, if you can afford to hire an editor but don’t, you’re fist-fucking yourself in the ass without lube. I learned this the hard way with The Gathering Dead, where I depended on my own editorial skills to see me through. I got very, very lucky here—the story I told was apparently strong enough to make most folks see through the maze of typos, illogic, and general asshattery that went on in the early drafts. Yes, a full-on edit of this morass of gonzo wordology cost me a thousand or so dollars, but in the end…it was worth it. Now recall, I make six figures at the outset. This means I can afford to piss away money on editorial expenses. For those who can’t, don’t release your work right away. Have it read. Not by your mother or your boy/girlfriend, but by people you trust to give you honest-to-God feedback. In the days of CompuServe, which my dear friend and occasional co-author Derek Paterson will recall most fondly, these were called “That’s Nice Dear” critiques. Meaning, these were offered by people who were afraid of offending you. Avoid these, they only prolong the agony.
And keep in mind that just because D.J. Molles managed to put out works that were ridden with typos, inaccuracies, and a Special Forces Hero™ who always got his ass beat and made the worst calls in history but still managed to score big sales, doesn’t mean that you will. More likely than not, you’ll be wondering why you make $3.42 every month.
Just ask my pal Jarret Liotta. Even my name on the cover of Dead in the City of Angels wasn’t enough. Sometimes, the story sucks, and you need to know about that before you release it. Personal experience here, folks…personal experience.
Get a real cover. Listen, I pay over a thousand bucks for most of my covers. My wife shrieks at that, but this is the first thing that people will see. Make an impression. And that impression doesn’t include whipping something up in PowerPoint using some image from the web and calling it a day. Sometimes, you have to pay it forward, and with covers? Dudes…pay it forward. Please. Because while no surveys have been conducted about home-brew covers, I’m operating under the presumption that they’re about as well received as Hillary Clinton’s home-brew email server. Which was probably running Exchange Server 5.5 in plain vanilla format, without even the benefit of ESMTP/TLS. (Though due to Bryan Pagliano’s limited immunity to prosecution, we’ll never know which best practices table was followed.)
When you think it’s ready for release…it isn’t. I came into this with a backlog of stories. City of the Damned was accepted and paid for by two publishers before ranks changed, new editors and marketing people came on board, and it was eventually tossed from the slots. I got to keep the advance money (Oh, an amazing 5,000 bucks!) because I wasn’t the defaulting party, but it still left me high and dry. My agent(s) got to keep their commissions, and after taxes, I was about $3,000 ahead per sale. But the book wasn’t published, meaning my champagne dreams and caviar wishes were once again deferred. But COTD had already been edited, so it truly was ready to do. The Gathering Dead? Not so much. I uncaged that one early, and have the poor reviews for it. Don’t be a dick like I was. Sit on your multimillion dollar, sure-fire best seller for a month or so and go over it with a fine-tooth comb. You’ll be amazed at what shakes out after a couple of rereads. “What, you don’t like that Hansel and Gretel go down on each other? You think there’s a problem there?”
Yeah, things like that.
Writer’s Block Doesn’t Really Exist. This is, like, the biggest whiny-bitch excuse to get around writing. Yeah, as I type this, I should be finishing up These Dead Lands: Desolation. Or Earthfall 2. Or the prequel to The Gathering Dead, titled Whispers of the Dead. But I’m not, so is this writer’s block at work? No, writer’s block is actually the sissy millennial’s way of getting out of work. But here I am, actually writing something as opposed to watching Magnum P.I. on NetFlix. Writing is a solitary profession, and it involves periods of the long, hard slog through your own mind and the desolate landscapes it presents. This is part and parcel of the job. Just do it, and save the excuses for another time.
Sometimes the story you came up with sucks/isn’t that awesome. Listen, this happens to all of us. I’d hoped for a major career change with Charges, a story about a guy with no special skills who manages to survive a mass EMP event. I happen to think it’s a damn fine story, because it’s one that average folks might be able to relate to…if they happened to be emerging from a skyscraper on Billionaire’s Row after the lights went out forever. While I still have enough hope for Charges to continue on with the series (next book is called Marauders and the third is called Ravagers), I’m smart enough to correct past mistakes going forward. (Look for an emphasis on action, and less on Navel Gazing, which I cover below.) And the fact of the matter is, I shot myself in the ass the moment I decided on the storyline. As someone who’s read his fair share of post-apoc stories, I know instinctively what the readers want to see: the maligned survivalist who’s at long last proven right when the hammer falls, and has to lead/defend/establish his new community in the next age of mankind. It doesn’t matter if the hero is a sixteen year old who suddenly, inexplicably, has all the depth and experience of a Marine with 35 years of service as a senior NCO or if he’s just a Joe with a bunch of guns and a gut full of fortitude down Fort Sam Houston way—at the end of the day, people don’t want to read about some New York City liberal who manages to get lucky, even if his back story is well-rounded and plausible. They want a hero who’s prepared to take on the new America.
Reread the above paragraph and learn from it, my erstwhile padawans. Sometimes, genre determines the outcome, not the author. You might actually be adroit enough to spin a tall tale that runs counter to consumer expectation, but unless your name is Cormac McCarthy not only will you be spurned, people will hate the fact you forgot what an apostrophe is.
Enough with the navel-gazing—get on with it! Sometimes, we as authors find ourselves confronted with a set of circumstances that require a lot of back story. Back story that, in the end, never becomes meaningful in the context of the story we want to tell. This results in boring text. And boring text has been typified by the oracle of writing, Elmore Leonard, thusly:
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
Yes. This. If you’ve written something long and convoluted and oh so priceless to your character’s development which he/she doesn’t actually do but only recalls in reverie, get rid of it. Then go see your doctor for a shot of antibiotics to ensure you aren’t carrying boredomitis with you for the rest of your life.
Now, if this can be sketched in a paragraph or two, then drop it in. A couple of paragraphs becomes motivation. If it waxes on for page after page—my personal standard is two, unless it’s a gritty flashback like the Afghanistan scene in The Gathering Dead, which illustrates the gulf between McDaniels and Gartell—then cut it out, or figure a way to distill it down to its bare essence. This is one of two areas where legacy publishing beats the tar out of self-publishing. The legacy guys know how to get a story moving. Well, mostly. Unless they’re editing a story by already-mentioned literary lion Cormac McCarthy, then they have to wrestle with the whole apostrophe-versus-Chicago-Style-Guide checklist maelstrom, which I’m sure had a lot of heads hitting desks over at Knopf-Doubleday.
This item ties in neatly with the following one, which is:
Get to the fucking point. You have a lean, mean story to tell, but you keep slowing it down because you’ve been infected by that disorder known as Purple Prose. Listen, really…who gives a good God damn that the draperies in the New York City penthouse apartment are wrought with actual gold filament? Who lives here, Hugh Hefner? And if so, what the hell is that crusty old fossil doing in New York City anyway, do they allow 8,000 year old Viagra patients to travel? Here’s a great example of what not to do:
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
That’s, like, one fucking sentence. Even Roger Zelazny wouldn’t have churned that out (or would he?). Become close friends with Our Pal The Period and his slutty sister, The Comma. And at least check in every now and then with their dumb cousins, The Ellipsis and The Em-Dash. You never know, they might actually prevent someone from returning your book and cursing your name in their final epitaph.
Research is fun, but it’s not writing. This actually ties in to #1, but I’ve been drinking and didn’t think to add it up there. However, in a last-ditch bid to put off going to Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s also important enough to call out on its own. While I know and follow this rule, others don’t. There’s a guy I know, smart fellow, very up on what’s happening in the world, who wants to write a book. He keeps sending me fiery bon mots about what this character backgrounds are, what this plot point would be, how awesome that scene could play out. And mostly, he’s right—he’s got some solid stuff going on, stuff that I’d be writing right now. Literally, everything is laid out except for some bargain-basement mechanics that could be straightened out in twenty-four hours.
But instead of writing it, he keeps sending me more little tidbits about the book that still hasn’t happened. “Hey, did you know that X in this circumstance could result in Y? I should put that in my book!”
Why, yes. Yes, you should, you fucking jerkoff, except you’re apparently too lazy to get to writing that book you’re talking about.
In this instance, I transcribed one of his scenes to my Blackberry (My Blackberry! Oh, the humanity!) and showed it to him. He read it and said, “Hey, that’s my stuff! I mean, it’s written pretty well and the words are all different, but that’s like, my stuff! Right?”
My response: “Yeah, it was six months ago. Guess what, it goes in my next book, and you don’t get shit. I figured since it’s been all talk up to now, that it’s free for the taking. So, really man, thanks for giving me $25,000 in first-month royalties for free. Love you, bye.”
Now listen, I’m actually not going to do this. Like I said, I have roughly eleventy-billion ideas already—I don’t really need to crib from someone else. But my aside had the desired effect. The dude is now writing, as opposed to researching and playing a bunch of “what-if” games. And I wish him well, he has some dynamite scenes out there in his head, I hope he can distill them down to a linear format that eventually finds its way to one kick-ass post-apocalypse book.
Don’t do this, people. Don’t sit around thinking about something and never making it happen—this obviously has a larger context in life than writing a damn novel. Know a hot girl/guy you want to ask out? Plan the approach, then execute. Have a few grand in a bank account but are waiting for just the right moment to enter the equities market? Listen, Brexit was your cue, so if you missed it, get in now anyway. Saw a job opening but your resume isn’t fresh enough to make an impression? Get that stuff squared away RIGHT NOW, and that means stop reading this page.
Because really…research, plotting, contemplating? None of that is writing, and writing is where the money is.
Oh my God, this book sucks—I can’t release this!
Ah, the bane of every writer. At least, every writer who has managed to progress past #4.
So you’ve written 30,000 40,000 100,000 130,000 words over many months and many revisions. It’s been read, reread, proofed, edited, and proofed again. The prose is tight, the story is dynamite, and the characters and their motivations are solid. But you’re ridden by fear. What if it tanks? What if no one likes it? What if I get bad reviews? What if it charts at #4,389,000 like that shitty zombie novel Dead in the City of Angels by Stephen Knight and Jarret Liotta?
There’s a line in a famous novel that I like to quote in circumstances like this:
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
Written by Frank Herbert in his science fiction masterpiece, Dune.
Alternately, I could offer up this sage advice from Scott Wolf, who in Army Special Forces was given one of Herbert’s honorifics from the same novel—Muad’Dib:
“Stop being a fucking pussy.”
It should be noted for those unaware, that Muad’Dib was described by Herbert thusly:
“Muad’Dib is wise in the ways of the desert. Muad’Dib creates his own water. Muad’Dib hides from the sun and travels in the cool night. Muad’Dib is fruitful and multiplies over the land. Muad’Dib we call ‘instructor-of-boys.’ That is a powerful base on which to build your life, Paul Muad’Dib, who is Usul among us.”
(The above should be read in the terse, husky voice of Stilgar.)
Both quotes basically take you to the same place. You’ve done the work, now let it run free. If it loves you, it will come back. If you’re lucky, it will come back towing a huge duffel bag full of money and the admiration of thousands, including pictures of nubile Tennessee girls flaunting their wares delivered directly to your email account. More possibly, it will just come back smelling really shitty like it’s rolled around in an open sewer outside of Shenzhen, China, and you should examine it for used condoms clinging to its matted fur before allowing it in the house. But either way, you’ll have to own up to it. Writing has never come with a warranty or a guarantee of any kind. If it did, we’d all be making millions.
And we’re not.
Keep the faith, brothers and sisters. Write, and keep writing. Success may not find you, but if it does, it will have done so only if you provide the world with the gift of your words. If not, if you only think about writing but never do it, then I can only offer the following (paraphrased from Sydney Poitier in the flick A Piece of the Action which I saw in 1977 in a theater in a black neighborhood of Akron, Ohio):
“What you’re talking about here is masturbation. It feels good, but generates nothing.”
So at least keep your happy sock handy. And use far less parentheticals than I did in this missive.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to SFC Ballantine trying to figure out how he’s going to handle Diana Li in These Dead Lands: Desolation.
For those who might be interested, the first book of my new post-apocalypse trilogy is out. I’d planned on making it one standalone, but I found I had too much story left to tell. Typical, eh? Not that it really matters, whenever I write a standalone, folks seem to ask for a sequel, so I’m basically screwed no matter which way I jump. 🙂
Anyway, Charges is a story of one man’s travels after a mass corona discharge fries all of Earth’s electrical grids. As you might expect, chaos ensues! This is pretty much my first time out writing about an everyday, average guy with no real special skills, so it was a challenge in that department. Hopefully, it works.
Interested parties can steer their browsers toward: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B012ESK1KY
Every story needs a villain, and in Charges it’s a cop-killing sociopath named Roth. While detestable and uncompromising when it comes to hunting down his quarry, Roth is also a smart guy who knows how to play people so they do his bidding. He has a cold charisma that keeps him going when killing will not. After a global EMP event, the United States of America is just the kind of place for him: A disintegrating nation where the truly murderous can finally succeed at what they do best.
After three days without power, the Pennsylvania Federal Penitentiary reeked of feces, sweat, urine, and garbage.
Even for a man of Roth’s considerable discipline, it was difficult to endure the deteriorating conditions. The heat and humidity seemed to grow daily, and the lack of running water meant there were more than a few full toilets. The guards and civilian employees had been delivering buckets of water to use to flush the commodes once a day, but that had ended when one of the inmates had tried to escape. He’d been shot dead, but the result was that the prison staff refused to expose themselves to danger on a daily basis just to flush some toilets.
So Roth and the others were subjected to the mounting stench of piss and shit. If the prison staff had thought that would make the convicts compliant, they had failed miserably. Angry shouts and taunts ripped through the cell blocks, as prisoners alternately threatened and pleaded to be given water. Several shouted that they still had rights; others yelled that they would be happy to rip off the warden’s head and shit down his neck.
Then, some of the convicts died from heat exhaustion, right in their racks. As the temperatures inside the cell blocks rose into the nineties, with humidity levels to match, the older or weaker simply expired. Roth lay in his rack, sweating and trying not to puke his guts out from the infernal stench.
Once a day, the prisoners were released from their cells for food in the equally hot and miserable cafeteria. Half the time, the chow was approaching inedible—poorly heated, definitely never refrigerated, and entirely bland. The food inside the penal system was downright lousy in the best of times, but the loss of power hit things like food preparation especially hard. Roth was sure it wouldn’t be long until he and the rest of the prison population were receiving stripped Meals Ready to Eat, which was probably a step in the right direction. Like every other man in the prison, Roth was sufficiently institutionalized to eat the mystery meats they put in front of him, but he would never learn to like it. Something like an MRE could only increase the fun factor, even if the worst entrees were served twelve months past their shelf life.
They would shuffle into the large commissary, take whatever they were given, and get thirty minutes to eat. After that, they got an hour of yard time. Before, being in the yard always made Roth feel a bit weak and helpless. He was at the mercy of the general population, which was random at best, chaotic at worst. Once, he had watched the guards shoot a white man dead as he rammed a shiv into a black man’s neck over drug money. It was wasted effort—the black man died, too. But the guards basically didn’t give a shit, which suited him fine, as Roth didn’t give a shit about them either, and if he ever had the opportunity, he would kill as many of them as he could.
On the afternoon of the eighth day after the lights went out, Roth and fifteen of his block mates were led to the commissary. As was the custom, they allowed the black inmates to enter first. There was no free seating. The protocol was you simply grabbed your meal and sat down in the next available space. The whites, blacks, and Latinos never mixed if they could avoid it. Only the Asians, of whom there were four that Roth knew of, would cross racial lines, and when they did, they chose to sit with the whites. But other than that, it was bad news for the races to mix, especially the blacks and the whites. If one white had to sit at a table of blacks or vice versa, that person was forbidden from speaking. It was the way things were. Roth knew that if he spoke to a black man during a meal, it could mean a severe beating from the other whites or worse. The pecking order had to be maintained.
The new kid, some wild-eyed murderer and drug dealer named Blackie—a funny name, since he was practically an albino—would have to sit with the black crew. Usually a seventy-seven-year-old man called Stewie would volunteer for the duty, but Stewie was one of the guys who had up and died in the heat, so Blackie was nominated. Roth was sure his name would make him popular with his new dining companions.
Meals were prepared by other convicts behind gated windows that allowed for no contact. In years past, Roth had been told that one could barter for extra rice and no meat, or an extra hair-thin sliver of corn bread. But that contact had been closed off. Unless you had a friend who knew you on sight, you got the same tired shit as everyone else did. Like the rest of the convicts, Roth worked for a living. He made forty cents an hour as a groundskeeper, mowing lawns, pulling weeds, shoveling snow, and anything else that needed doing. With that money, he was able to procure foods from the commissary that were preferred alternatives to mystery meat and unspiced fare like rice, mashed potatoes, and the absolutely revolting chicken casserole. But that had ended on day four of the power outage. There was nothing left to buy. Roth had no choice but to suck it up and deal with it.
He took his plate of cold mystery meat—supposedly chicken fried steak, but even rats and roaches wouldn’t eat it—and moved to the table next to the black sheep squadron. As he walked past, one of the black inmates, Rollo, gave him the stink eye. The rotund man with protruding eyes and a severely receding afro hated Roth for reasons that remained a mystery. Roth suspected it was because Roth had an education, a master’s degree in political science. Or perhaps it was because they were both cop killers, but Roth had murdered more law enforcement officers in three years across twelve states than Rollo had managed in a lifetime of murders in the south. Professional rivalry.
“Bitch, yo ass mine,” Rollo hissed.
A prison guard stood at the head of his table, looking down at the black sheep squadron and poor Blackie as they wrestled with the day’s feast. “Knock that shit off, or you’re headed for isolation,” the guard said.
Rollo had just come off a year of separation from the rest of g-pop, so he just stared down at his plate and tried to cut into the chicken fried steak with his plastic knife. Roth ignored the comment. If Rollo came after him, he wouldn’t leave the fight in one piece. Roth knew he didn’t look like much—six foot two and very thin, with a balding head and graying beard—but he didn’t get into the penitentiary system by accident. And he hadn’t gotten there by killing defenseless innocents, like one of his white associates did when he sprayed a school bus with a semiautomatic rifle then boarded it and finished the job with a nine-millimeter handgun. Roth had been incarcerated for killing fourteen armed law officers and severely disabling almost ten more in his spree before the long arm of the law had caught up to him.
Ah, the good times.
When the Ohio State Police managed to corner him, Roth didn’t resist. He became totally compliant and surrendered without issue. Not because he was frightened and didn’t want to die—David Elliott Roth had no issues with death. Death was going to find him one way or the other. He didn’t choose to enter into a gun battle with the state police because he knew that he would have the opportunity to kill again one day, and that was more precious to him than anything. Prison, he believed, was only a temporary condition.
As he sat down with the rest of the men at the second table, he was surprised to find there wasn’t a guard standing over them, watching them eat. He looked around as he tore open several packets of pepper and sprinkled their contents onto his food. Only the black and Latino tables had guards, which left the two tables of whites unmonitored.
“Looks like we finally get some privacy,” muttered Harley, a broad-shouldered biker with a nasty scar rippling up one side of his face. The mark started at his jaw line and finally petered out somewhere inside his bushy right eyebrow. The knotted tissue had made his eyebrow curl up like a question mark lying on its side. His long hair was streaked with gray, and Roth had learned he’d killed two men in a bar fight somewhere in Oklahoma while riding with a biker gang.
“Yeah, wonder what’s up with that,” Toombs said. He was a slow-witted southern boy from Alabama. Unlike Harley, his hair was high and tight, and on someone so pale and bone-thin, it gave him the appearance of being a dirty Q-Tip. “Heard some o’ the staff been leavin’.”
“Yeah? Where’d you hear that, Toombs?” Roth asked.
“I dunno. Just heard it.”
The problem with Toombs was that he heard a lot, and most of that was inside his head. He was bat-shit crazy, but like almost everyone in the lockup, he wasn’t a very nice person. Toombs liked to kill people as much as everyone did, and even though he definitely had a host of mental health issues and would have been better served in a mental institution, he had found his way into the US penal system. But if what the living, breathing Q-Tip beside him had said was true, it sparked a small flame of hope. Fewer guards means more chances to make it over the fence, he thought, as he cut up the chunk of tough mystery meat. He forked some into his mouth and chewed quickly so that he didn’t have to taste it for long.
“What’re you smiling over, Roth?” Harley asked, his voice a low rumble. “It’s like you enjoy the food, dude.”
Roth hadn’t realized he was smiling until Harley mentioned it, but he kept the potential rationale for glee to himself for the time being. To be free… to kill.
Despite the power failures, work still had to be attended to. Roth and his cohorts were to mow the yards inside the fence. Another group from the adjacent work camp would attend to the fields outside the wire. They were certified as lower risk than Roth and his fellows, still federal criminals but of a lesser variety: embezzlers, larcenists, and thieves who had managed to cross the punishment zone from state crimes to federal. Roth thought that they had it easy, and he chafed at the gutless wonders outside the wire receiving such light treatment.
The big Bobcat mower had an electric ignition system, but that was of no use anymore. Roth had to use the pull starter to get it going, and that worked just fine. He filled the green mower with gas, checked the oil, then primed the engine. As he was getting ready to start it, Blackie stepped into the utility shed. His face was made shiny by a sheen of sweat.
“Hey, Roth. Heard the niggers talking about stuff at lunch,” he said.
“Oh yeah? Then you shouldn’t believe whatever you heard,” Roth said. “You know they’ll say things that can lead you to trouble.”
“Dunno, man. They said that Pittsburgh is on fire. Some sort of riots going on there. And that a lot of the guards have vanished.”
That got Roth’s attention. He looked through the shed’s open door, where two armed corrections officers stood a few feet away. They were talking to each other while keeping their eyes on another group of prisoners weeding the small flower beds that surrounded the penitentiary. Usually, one guard would keep eyes on Roth as he prepped the Bobcat. After all, he had access to fuel and other chemicals, things that could conceivably be used as weapons. But the guards seemed distracted.
“Tell me more,” Roth said quietly, handing the gas can to Blackie. “Act like you’re filling up the mower.”
Blackie took the can and tilted over the opening in the fuel tank, spilling a little gas in the process. Roth grimaced. That would need to be wiped up before he could start the Bobcat.
“Three guys in their block didn’t show up for work today, and supposedly, the niggers overheard another guard saying he was taking PTO for the next few days,” Blackie said. “So that’s like an entire shift in that wing that’s gone, man.”
Roth considered that. Given that there were guards missing from the commissary, it kind of made sense. That the blacks discussed it in front of the guard standing at their table was a little odd, but meal times were one of the few times they could talk as a group. And though many of them were as dumb as bricks, Roth knew for certain that Rollo was anything but. While the balding black criminal was loathsome, he knew how to work the system, so their conversation had likely been in shorthand.
“How is it they let you hear this?” Roth asked.
“Roly-poly Rollo wants to talk to you, man,” Blackie said. “Asked me to pass it on to you.”
Roth raised an eyebrow. “Oh, really? What does he want to ‘talk’ to me about?”
“Hey, Roth! You done in there?” one of the guards shouted as he walked toward the utility shed. “What’s the hold up?”
“Blackie spilled gas on the mower,” Roth said, picking up a rag and wiping off the tank. “He’s a stupid fuck. This is what I get for asking him to do something for once.”
“Hey, I was just tryin’ to help, man!” Blackie said, sounding genuinely hurt.
“Stop fucking around and get to work,” the guard snapped. His uniform had dark sweat patches under the arms.
“On it,” Roth said. When the guard turned back around, Roth asked Blackie, “Where does Rollo expect me to meet him?”
“Yard time,” Blackie said. “Wants you to keep it cool and on the down low. Also wants you to tell the rest of the guys that this is business, nothing else.”
“Yeah, we’ll see about that.”
“Roth, move your ass!” the guard yelled. He stepped inside the shed, frowning behind his sunglasses and mustache. “What are you guys talking about in here?”
Blackie looked at Roth with disgust. “He’s just telling me what a stupid fuck I am, like usual,” the younger man said. “All I did was spill a little gas, trying to help him out!”
“Then stop trying to help, and get your ass out here!” the guard ordered. “Roth, move it! Now!”
“Sure thing,” Roth said, keeping his expression as vacant as possible though it was almost impossible for him to overcome the urge to take the guard out, right then and there. He knew how to do it, even though the man was armed. Roth could gain control of the weapon and drill the second guard in the right eye before she could do anything. But he didn’t know exactly where the tower snipers were positioned or who they were covering, and that meant he could be popped the second he stepped out of the shed. He vented some frustration by savagely yanking on the Bobcat’s pull starter. It took three hard tugs, but the green piece of shit’s engine finally sputtered to life.
Soon enough, he thought, glancing up at the guard as he grabbed the big mower’s handles and engaged the drive gear.
Roth, along with Harley and a huge white con named Chester, approached the gang of black prisoners hanging out in their corner of the yard. They came to a halt several feet away, acting as if they were having a conversation amongst themselves. It wasn’t much of a ruse, but it was the best they could come up with; Roth definitely wasn’t going to meet with Rollo alone. It wasn’t that Roth didn’t think he couldn’t handle his fellow inmate in a fight, but he knew Rollo would never try him mano a mano anyway. He’d show up with friends, just as Roth had brought a couple of his own.
After a few minutes, Rollo detached himself from the group and sauntered over to where Roth stood a few feet from his two guys. He asked Roth for a cigarette, a remarkable breach of etiquette. Roth had one last crinkled pack of Winstons, which he never smoked but used to barter with. A single cigarette could get a man a lot of things in the big house. Roth shook one out and handed it over, keeping his face blank and expressionless.
Rollo took it and eyed Harley and Chester for a long moment. “Maybe we can do this without an audience.”
“You don’t want an audience, send someone else,” Roth said.
Rollo considered that. “Heh. Okay.” He turned and looked through the fence behind him. The work camp crew had already finished their work, who were staring back at them. “We gonna make a break,” Rollo said. “World’s gone to shit. No power anywhere. Heard the sun did that shit, man.”
Roth didn’t say anything. He’d heard the same, and he understood the ramifications of a gigantic EMP burst that could have fried the entire world’s power grids.
“Guards, they be leavin’. Staff, they be leavin’. Soon, they’ll just lock us up in our cells, and that be it. We’ll starve. Or die from the goddam heat. They ain’t gonna let us go, and they can’t take care o’ us. So we need to break outta here before they put us in our cages and leave us to rot.”
“So what do you want from me, Rollo?”
“Brothers can’t do it alone. Need some help. You’re a smart fuck; you do the math.”
“So what’s in it for me?” Roth asked.
“You get to kill as many o’ the guards as you want. And after that, we go our own ways. I got people to see on the outside. Not gonna waste a second of it messin’ with you.”
Roth didn’t believe that for a second. But it didn’t matter, not right now. If Rollo and his band were able to get enough action started to make it outside, then the risk was worth it. Besides, while Rollo might make promises he wouldn’t keep, Roth would do no such thing. He’d kill Rollo the second he had a chance.
“So what’s your plan?” Roth asked.
“You good with a gun, right? I hear you’re like some kinda superman with a gun.”
“Yes,” Roth said. “I’m good with firearms.”
“You military or somethin’?”
Roth shook his head. He didn’t see the need to give the guy any more information.
Rollo shrugged his shoulders. “’Kay. Don’t matter. What if I get you a pistol? You any good with that?”
Roth slightly inclined his head toward one of the guard towers. “See that guy up there?”
“With a nine-millimeter, I can hit him twice in the right eye from where we’re standing right now, and do it on the move. Then I can turn and take out the second tower. Less than two seconds. But the ground needs to be clear. I can’t work like that with guards coming at me on the ground. Give me enough time to clear the towers, then I can clear the ground. But the towers have to go first.”
“You serious?” Rollo asked. “You’re really that good?”
“I did the same thing in Colorado, with two cops standing above me on high ground. They had me in sight, and were drawing down on me. I took them both out. Less than two seconds,” Roth emphasized. “If I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t put myself in the position where I’d have to try.”
Rollo nodded. “’Kay, man. I feel you. You let us take care of the ground work. You hit the towers. It’s gonna happen out here, obviously. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. You need to keep up with things. Get your boys lined up. We gotta work together to get control of the yard then the rest of the prison long enough for us to get out of here.”
“We gonna spring everyone?”
“You want to take time to do that?”
“No. I don’t.”
“There’s your answer, then. Stay sharp.” Rollo looked down at the cigarette for a moment then flicked it at Roth. “Here. I don’t want your cancer stick.”
“Might as well keep it, Rollo. I’m not going to touch it after you did.”
Rollo’s thick lips curled up into a feral smile. “You got nerve, boy. That’s why I come to you.” He turned away and headed back to his group.
From the corner of his eye, Roth had seen one of the guards in the towers watching the entire exchange, but he and Rollo had kept their faces angled downward as they talked. No lip reading was likely to have occurred, and without power, they didn’t have to worry about electronic surveillance.
“So what was that all about?” Harley asked as Roth sauntered back to them.
“We might be getting out of here,” Roth said.
“Well, either that, or a lot of us are just going to get killed.”
Charges drops tomorrow.
In this excerpt, Tony Vincenzo decides it’s time to leave New York City and set out to return to his family. The Big Apple has been disintegrating over the past few days, as food and water supplies are exhausted and lawlessness begins to take hold.
The morning was cool with low humidity. The scene hadn’t changed much since the previous day. The street was full of litter, from broken glass to discarded boxes and old newspapers. The tang of smoke hung in the air, along with an unpleasant after note of sewage. Without pumps powering the city’s septic system, sewage control was going to be a problem, a situation that wouldn’t improve with time.
The other folks in the lobby followed him outside. The wheels of one shopping cart squeaked as a man shoved across shards of shattered glass. Vincenzo stepped out from beneath the tower’s frayed awning. Every ground-level shop or dwelling had suffered from vandalism. The only thing that kept the vandals out of Metropolitan Tower was the thickness of the glass. The building had been constructed with an eye toward keeping out undesirables, and so far, that had worked. Vincenzo didn’t figure that would be a lasting condition, however.
“You should come with us,” the blond woman said from behind him. Her voice sounded pale and weak outdoors.
Vincenzo hitched his backpack up on his shoulders and adjusted the set of the pistol beneath his shirt. “You guys take care of yourselves.” He didn’t look back.
He set off down Fifty-Seventh Street, heading west. Glass and other debris crunched beneath his hiking boots, the sound echoing off the faces of the darkened buildings that lined the boulevard. He heard the others pushing off in the opposite direction, headed for Sixth Avenue, while he advanced toward Seventh. He could see figures moving through the gloom, pushing shopping carts or wheelbarrows, hauling wagons, or carrying empty backpacks and duffel bags. Some even had fabric shopping bags from Whole Foods, hoping to fill them at the aid station.
As he drew nearer to the intersection, he saw several NYPD officers standing on the northern corner, regarding the approaching humanity that swelled up from downtown. The officers were clad in full riot gear, and many of them had Heckler & Koch personal defense weapons. He didn’t know if they were fully automatic—in the movies they were, but he had no clue about them in real life—but they had expanded magazines that held more than thirty rounds. A few of them also held mean-looking shotguns. Those guys were ready to shoot it out, and after what he had seen the morning before, he didn’t blame them.
Vincenzo thought about approaching them for more information, but their body language indicated they weren’t open to a casual chat. They kept their eyes on the people emerging from the buildings around them, weapons held low but at the ready. Vincenzo pressed on, crossing the intersection as more and more people began to fill it. He was amazed at the volume of people, and it seemed to increase with every step he took. He had to bob and weave around individuals to get across the street. Things weren’t much better on the sidewalk. More denizens of New York City were emerging from their abodes, clogging the sidewalks and street as they moved toward Seventh Avenue to cut north to Central Park. He felt like a lone salmon swimming upstream. It took twenty minutes to make it to the middle of the next block. By then, the street traffic had thinned a bit, and he was able to get to Broadway without further incident.
A ripple of gunshots sounded in the distance. Vincenzo had no idea where they had come from, but he hitched up his backpack and picked up his pace. The pressure of the Beretta in his waistband provided a small measure of comfort, but he knew if push came to shove, he’d have to move fast to pull it out of the holster. The Pax Wholesome Foods at the corner of West Fifty-Seventh and Broadway had already been thoroughly looted, but a steady stream of people moved in to pick through the destruction. Some of them—mostly men—regarded Vincenzo with dark eyes as he hurried past. He could feel the weight of their collective gaze. He knew they were interested in discovering what might lie inside his backpack.
A young boy stood on the opposite corner, crying for his mother. Two days ago, Vincenzo would have stopped and tried to help the kid. The big city was no place for a boy to wander around by himself. But Vincenzo just kept going, trying to reconcile the conflicting emotions he felt at turning his back on a four-year-old boy clearly in need of assistance. I have to get to my family. I have to get to my family. I have to get to my family.
The mantra was enough to give him the necessary strength to keep moving, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The heavy gazes from the others in the area added enough charge to stop him from diverting course. He fairly plunged across Broadway, continuing his trek westward, trying to stay alert but at the same time avoiding any eye contact with anyone. He shot a few furtive glances over his shoulder as he headed to Eighth Avenue. No one was following him, but the crowd outside the ransacked store was growing. And then, a scuffle broke out as several men went at each other, drowning out the boy’s plaintive cries. One was a beefy Wall Street type swinging a two-thousand-dollar golf club like a knight in a swordfight. Vincenzo didn’t stick around to see how the guy fared.
Ahead, he could see the looming glass expanse of the Hearst Tower, a forty-six-story building crouched over a six-story stone base. The triangular frame had already lost a great deal of its luster, as several dozen windows had been broken. Smoke oozed from the upper floors. Apparently, Manhattan’s greenest office building had become one of its greatest polluters, thanks to a fire which had apparently broken out. He smelled ash and cooking meat, and he wondered if he might not have found a silver lining in the cloud of doom that had descended over the city: the chances of there being any new issues of Cosmopolitan hitting newsstands seemed very low.
More glass crunched under his boots, and he noticed that some of the shards were still quite large. He slowed down, checking his footing. The last thing he wanted was to slice his foot open on one of those gleaming daggers. There was blood splattered in places. Clearly, others hadn’t been as careful, and they had paid a price for it. A Mister Softee ice cream truck lay angled across the street. Ravaged by looters, the wreck reeked of spoiled milk and melted yogurt that had turned rancid in the heat. Some people were still peering inside the vehicle, despite the fact that whatever was left would likely only give them an award-winning case of botulism.
The Walgreens near the corner of West Fifty-Seventh and Ninth Avenue had been severely looted, but it still attracted a great deal of attention, despite the presence of a dozen NYPD officers at the corner. They watched as people swarmed through the store, some of them sitting astride motor scooters that apparently still operated. There was nothing left to protect—the store had been picked clean. Across the intersection, the Morning Star Restaurant had met a similar fate, as had the bodega next door. The people of Midtown West were like vultures picking away at the corpse of New York City, and the NYPD seemed either powerless or unwilling to do anything about it.
Vincenzo knew he had made the right decision. To remain in New York merely invited death.
It took almost an hour and a half to make it to the Joe DiMaggio. The roadway was clogged with cars and trucks that had been rendered inoperable from the electromagnetic pulse event. Bicyclists and pedestrians wended their way through the still river of sheet metal and fiberglass. Vincenzo crossed Twelfth Avenue and moved over the northbound lanes, heading for the Jersey barrier in the middle of the roadway that separated the northbound lanes from the southbound. His feeling was that he would make better time over there and that the sight lines would be less restrictive. All during his journey down West Fifty-Seventh, he had felt bottled up, restrained and vulnerable. In the more open areas that lined the westernmost side of Manhattan Island, he might be a bit safer. Without the shadows cast by the skyscrapers of midtown, the sun’s rays beat down on him directly. The temperature was rising, as was the humidity, especially so close to the Hudson River. Vincenzo lifted his khaki Polo cap and ran a hand over his short hair. His palm came back covered in sweat. He needed to halt his march for a few minutes to drink some water and apply sunscreen.
Hiding in the leeward shadow of a dead tractor-trailer, he started to reach for the Hydro Flask but checked himself. It was still cool to the touch, thanks to its substantial insulation. He had a long day ahead of him, and drinking the cold water now would mean less later. Instead, he reached into his knapsack and pulled out one of the plastic water bottles. Keeping alert, he unscrewed the cap and drained the water quickly, gulping as fast as he could. People moved past on the highway, heading in either direction, but they kept their distance. He rubbed sunscreen across his face, arms, and the back of his neck then took another moment to smear more on his ears and the bridge of his nose. He put the sunscreen back in the knapsack and considered the empty water bottle. Normally, he would have just tossed it. Plastic bottles probably weren’t going to be a rare commodity, at least in the short term, but not having one when he needed it might be troublesome. He placed it in the knapsack as well. Repositioning his backpack once again—his shoulders and lower back were beginning to ache—he pressed on.
He was walking past the rear of the truck when movement to his right caught his eye. Vincenzo stepped back immediately, his hand going for the Beretta, as a tall white man stepped into his path. The guy wore faded jeans, a yellow T-shirt, expensive designer sunglasses, and surprisingly, a multi-colored Rasta cap that either restrained several decades of dreadlocks or held a small immigrant family. Vincenzo realized that he could be flanked by someone who had rolled under the truck trailer, so he ducked down and checked. No one was under there. He straightened as the man came around the trailer, a huge grin on his face.
A white Rastafarian, Vincenzo thought idly. Only in New York.
“Hey, there. How ’bout sharing some of that water?” the man said. “I saw you. You got water in your bag, huh?”
“I don’t think so,” Vincenzo said. “Head for an aid station. They’re all over the city.”
“Yeah, but you’re a bit closer.” Still smiling, the man lifted his shirt, revealing the butt of a black pistol. “Let’s not make it tough now, huh?”
A bolt of fear goaded Vincenzo into action. He charged forward and rammed into the taller man, driving him into the ground. The Rastafarian tried to pull the Glock from his belt, but Vincenzo trapped his arm beneath one knee, pinning it in place. He warded off the Rasta’s clumsy attempts to strike back with his free hand then pummeled the man in the face, slamming his fists into it again and again.
“You fuck!” Vincenzo screamed with each blow, letting loose with left after left while he held the man’s free arm at the wrist with his right. He leaned forward, putting as much weight behind the punches as he could.
The Rasta writhed beneath him, blood pouring from his nose and lips. “Stop, man! Stop!” Vincenzo continued punching and swearing, as the Rasta’s head bounced up and down on his thick cap full of blond dreads. The man went slack, and his eyes rolled up in his head. Vincenzo punched him four more times then stopped, gasping and sweating. The Rastafarian wannabe gurgled a bit but didn’t move.
Vincenzo stayed where he was, trembling in fear. Holy fuck! This guy was going to shoot me!
He realized that was probably an overstatement. More than likely, the man was just flashing the Glock in an attempt to cow Vincenzo into submission. Or maybe he would have killed Vincenzo and taken everything he had.
Vincenzo shifted his position slightly and reached under his left leg. He pulled the man’s hand off the Glock then removed the weapon from his waistband. He looked around, but no one was approaching, though some people had to have noticed the fight going down, even behind the hulk of the trailer. Vincenzo put the gun to the side then rolled the man over. He found another magazine with thirteen nine-millimeter rounds in the Rasta’s back pocket. He shoved it into his knapsack then picked up the Glock. No way in hell was he going to leave an armed man behind him. He patted the man down but found no other weapons. He regarded the Glock for a moment. He’d shot one before, so he knew it was a single-action with only a trigger safety. All he had to do was squeeze the trigger, and it would fire.
He rose on shaking legs as the would-be Rastafarian drew up into a fetal position. Vincenzo gave him a light kick, nothing major—he didn’t have the energy to wind one up, anyway.
The man grunted and brought his hands up to cover his face. His bent sunglasses fell off and clattered to the asphalt beside his head. “Please, man, no more! No more, please!”
“Stay the fuck down, or I’ll kill you.” Vincenzo’s voice was as unsteady as his legs.
“Not going nowhere, man.”
Vincenzo kicked him again, out of spite more than anything else, and the Rasta responded with a satisfying yelp. Vincenzo stepped over him cautiously, Glock in hand, ready to use it if necessary. His heart was still hammering in his chest, and he could hear the roar of blood in his ears. He was almost too afraid to move, but he knew he needed to get the hell away from the Rasta before any of the guy’s friends showed up looking for him. Not only that, he’d been extremely lucky. He’d gotten the drop on the bigger man purely by chance. Vincenzo had been in about three fights in his life, including the current one, so he hardly had a wealth of experience to draw upon. Things could have gone sideways very quickly, and it wasn’t as if he’d gotten out of it unscathed. His left hand hurt like hell, but he didn’t take the time to inspect it. He could still wiggle the fingers, so nothing was broken, but his hand would likely be one big bruise before he made it to the GWB.
He backed away from the Rastafarian, who remained on the ground, leaking blood and moaning. Vincenzo kept the Glock in his right hand, trying to look everywhere at once. As soon as he felt it was safe, he turned his back on the Rasta and started running north. His pack slewed from side to side on his back, and he realized he was probably making a scene by running through the dead traffic while holding a pistol. Just the same, he kept it up until he had put a good five hundred feet between him and his fallen opponent.
Chest heaving, he drew to a halt and leaned against a plumbing van. A few people regarded him with cautious eyes. Vincenzo didn’t make eye contact with anyone, just took an inventory of who was where. Anyone could be an enemy, from a street gang to a gaggle of housewives pushing baby strollers, and there was no shortage of either.
The Glock looked a bit old, but it was operational. The pistol used the same ammunition he carried for his Beretta, so at least he now had a backup piece. Glancing back, he saw three people making their way toward the Rastafarian, who was on his feet and leaning against the concrete Jersey barrier, a hand held to his face as he tried to staunch the flow of blood from his nose. The three newcomers wore the same kind of knit hat as the one who had accosted him. Vincenzo decided it was time to put some more distance between them, so he turned back around and set off.
And that about does it for now. The book goes on sale for real on October 30, but feel free to pre-order right here.
A couple of posts about my upcoming novel Charges, which is now available for pre-order. It’s not due to drop until September 30th, but clicky the linky to get in line!
First order of business: I hope this will be an important book in my retinue, and an important book needs an important cover. After fooling around with Photoshop for a couple of weeks trying to get the look that I wanted, I finally said “To Hell with this!” and went to the grand master himself, Jeroen ten Berge. I think this was probably the fastest cover I’ve ever accepted, and here it is:
And not to diss those who like dead tree editions, here’s the paperback cover, as well! (Final product description text to come, obviously.)
Here’s the initial product description, which I already want to change a bit:
It Was the End of Days.
The world had less than seven hours to prepare. When it hit, the coronal mass ejection from the sun rolled back hundreds of years of technological innovation. Airplanes fell from the skies. Power grids crashed. Even electrical cabling was turned to slag. No internet. No cable TV. No electricity. No radio. No modern day conveniences of any kind, from fancy European sedans to smart phones to clean, running water. The entire world is plunged back into the Dark Ages in less than a second, courtesy of the most powerful Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) event in recorded history.
Television development exec Tony Vincenzo has always lived a high-society life, first in Los Angeles, now in Manhattan. As New York City tears itself apart in an orgy of violence, Vincenzo has to leave his high-floor luxury condominium on Central Park South’s Billionaire’s Row in order to return to his wife and young son in the Hollywood Hills overlooking LA. But the only way to get there is to walk, and Vincenzo is no Joe Survivalist—he’s the kind of guy used to the trappings of the good life. While society unravels all around him, he has to not only make it out of New York alive, but across the entirety of a nation descending into feral madness.
His journey becomes more complex when he commits a truly selfless deed, and winds up with two young charges: seven-year-old Daniel, an autistic boy ill-equipped for a life of hardship, and his sassy four-year-old sister, Gabriella. Together, the trio will need every stroke of luck they can find to persevere in the lawless lands that lie ahead of them…and survive the brutality of the serial killer Roth who pursues them.
Lastly, for those that might be curious, this is the route Tony Vincenzo has to take to get back to his family in Los Angeles:
In this excerpt, über-producer Tony Vincenzo has elected to leave Manhattan as the entire New York City area threatens to crumble. Roving gangs are already threatening the citizens, raping and pillaging and burning their way across the city–even in Vincenzo’s neighborhood of Billionaire Row, running from east to west across the base of Central Park. The NYPD is becoming less capable of keeping a lid on things, and after unwittingly attending a full-on food riot the day before, Vincenzo has decided he needs to get out of the Big Apple while he still can.
Some general story notes. There are no zombies in this book, and the lead character isn’t a well-trained Special Forces troop. To that end, Vincenzo’s a different kind of lead character for me. He’s not a great guy–as a matter of fact, he’s a jerk, based off a pastiche of people I’ve interacted with in Los Angeles when I lived there in 2002-2003. (If you find you might need a suitable parallel, check out the leaked emails from Sony Pictures and think Scott Rudin.) Vincenzo’s very much into himself and his work and his money and his fame. Now, for the first time in his life, he has to think of others: namely, his wife and kid, trapped in Los Angeles while he was setting up their new home in New York. Two days prior, all they had to do was board a chartered jet to join him, but that’s no longer happening. A mass corona discharge from the sun has melted all the electrical power grids, plunging the entire world into the Dark Ages. Gone are the cheap, easy luxuries Vincenzo had grown accustomed to. No airplanes. No cars. No internet. No smartphones.
The only things Vincenzo has that might see him through across the darkened expanse of the United States are an illegal pistol, a backpack, his pissy attitude, and his hiking boots.
It’s going to be a very long, long walk.
Usual disclaimers apply: first draft stuff, unedited, no guarantee that what you read here will make it into the final product.
It took the better part of an hour-and-a-half to make it to the Joe DiMaggio. The roadway was clogged with cars and trucks that had been rendered inoperable from the electromagnetic pulse event. Bicyclists and pedestrians wended their way through the still river of sheet metal and fiberglass. Vincenzo crossed over Twelfth Avenue and moved over the northbound lanes, heading for the jersey barrier in the middle of the roadway that separated the northbound lanes from the southbound. His feeling was that he would make better time over there, and that the sight lines would be less restrictive. All during his journey down West 57th Street, he had felt bottled up, restrained and vulnerable. In the more open areas that lined the westernmost side of Manhattan Island, Vincenzo believed he might be a bit safer. Though certainly warmer—without the shadows cast by the skyscrapers of midtown, the sun’s rays beat down on him directly. The temperature was rising, as was the humidity, especially this close to the Hudson River. Vincenzo lifted his khaki Polo cap and ran a hand over his short hair. His palm came back saturated with sweat. He needed to halt his march for a few minutes and take down some water and apply some sunscreen.
Hiding in the leeward side of a dead tractor-trailer, he reached into his knapsack and pulled out one of his water bottles. Keeping alert, he popped the cap and drained it quickly, gulping the water down as fast as he could. People moved past on the highway, heading in either direction, but they kept their distance long enough for Vincenzo to quaff his water and catch his breath for a moment. He rubbed sunscreen across his face, arms, and the back of his neck, then took another moment to hit his ears and the bridge of his nose, as well. He replaced the sunscreen in the knapsack and considered the empty bottle. Normally, he would have just tossed it—plastic bottles probably weren’t going to be a rare commodity, at least in the short term. But not having it when he needed it might be troublesome. He placed it in the knapsack as well. Repositioning his backpack once again—his shoulders and lower back were beginning to ache—he pressed on.
He was walking past the back of the truck when movement to his right caught his eye. Vincenzo stepped back immediately, his hand going for the Beretta as a tall black man wearing faded jeans, a yellow T-shirt, and a huge, brightly-colored rastacap that either restrained several decades of dreadlocks or held a small immigrant family. He checked behind him, realizing that he could be flanked by someone who just rolled under the truck trailer. With that thought in mind, he ducked down quickly and checked. No one else was there.
He straightened as the black man came around the trailer, a huge grin on his face. He wore expensive designer sunglasses.
“Hey there, how ’bout sharing some of the water?” the man said, with a light patois. “I saw you, you got water in your bag, huh?”
“I don’t think so,” Vincenzo said. “Head for an aid station. They’re all over the city.”
“Ah, but you be much closer,” the man said, still smiling. He lifted up his shirt, revealing the butt of a black pistol. “Let’s not make it tough now, huh?”
A bolt of fear goaded Vincenzo into action. Without thinking, he charged forward and slammed into the taller man, driving him into the ground. The Rastafarian tried to pull his Glock from his belt, but Vincenzo trapped his arm beneath his knee, pinning it in place. He warded off the Rasta’s clumsy attempts to strike back with his free hand, then pummeled the man in the face, slamming his fists into it again and again.
“You fuck!” he screamed, with each blow, letting loose with left after left while he held the man’s free arm at the wrist with his right. He leaned forward, putting as much weight behind the punches as he could, and the Rasta writhed beneath him, blood pouring from his nose and lips.
“Stop, man! Stop!” he cried. Vincenzo wasn’t having any of that. He continued punching and swearing, looking down at the Rasta as his head bounced up and down on his thick cap full of dreads. He went slack as his eyes rolled up in his head. Vincenzo punched him four more times, then stopped, gasping and sweating. The Rastafarian gurgled a bit, but didn’t otherwise respond to the temporary cease fire. Vincenzo stayed where he was, trembling in fear.
Holy fuck, this guy was going to shoot me!
He realized that was probably an overstatement. More than likely, the man was just flashing the Glock in an attempt to cow Vincenzo into submission.
Or, maybe, he would have killed him after taking everything Vincenzo had.
Vincenzo shifted his position slightly and reached under his left leg. He pulled the man’s hand off the Glock, then removed the weapon from his waistband. Putting it aside, he looked around—no one was approaching him, though some people had to have seen the fight gone down, even behind the hulk of the trailer beside them. Vincenzo rolled the man over, and the Rastafarian moaned slightly. Vincenzo found another magazine in the man’s back pocket, full of thirteen rounds of nine millimeter. He took it, and shoved it into his knapsack, then picked up the Glock. No way in hell he was going to leave an armed man behind him. He patted the man down, but found no other weapons. He regarded the Glock for a moment. He was inexperienced with that type of pistol, but he’d shot them before, so he knew it was a single-action weapon with no safety. All he had to do was squeeze the trigger and it would fire.
He rose on shaking legs as the Rastafarian slowly drew himself into a fetal position. Vincenzo gave him a light kick, nothing major—he didn’t have the energy to wind one up, anyway. The Rastafarian grunted, and brought his hands up to cover his face. His bent sunglasses fell off his face and clattered to the asphalt beside his head.
“Please, man…no more! No more, please!”
“Stay the fuck down or I’ll kill you,” Vincenzo said. His voice was as unsteady as his legs.
“Not going nowhere, man,” the Rasta said, a whimper in his voice.
Vincenzo kicked him again, this time out of spite more than anything else, and the Rasta responded with a satisfying yelp. Vincenzo stepped over him cautiously, Glock in hand, ready to use it if he needed to. His heart was still hammering in his chest, and he could hear the roar of blood in his ears. He was almost too afraid to move, but he knew he needed to get the hell away from the Rasta before any of his friends showed up looking for him. Not only that, he’d been extremely lucky. He’d gotten the drop on the bigger man purely by chance, not by design. Vincenzo had been in about three fights in his life, including this one, and he hardly had a wealth of experience to draw upon. It could have gone sideways very quickly, and it wasn’t like he’d gotten out of it unscathed. His left hand was hurting like hell, but he didn’t take the time to inspect it. He could still wiggle the fingers, so nothing was broken, but it would likely be one big bruise before he made it to the GWB.
He crept away from the Rastafarian, who did as instructed and remained on the ground, leaking blood and moaning slightly between split lips. Vincenzo kept the Glock in his right hand as he scuttled away, trying to look everywhere at once. As soon as he felt it was safe, he turned his back on the Rasta and started running to the north. His pack slewed from side to side on his back, and he realized he was probably making a scene by running through the dead traffic while holding a pistol. Just the same, he kept it up until he had put a good five hundred feet between him and his fallen opponent. Chest heaving, he drew to a halt and leaned against a plumbing van. Another visual sweep of the area revealed no one nearby, but those in sight regarded him with cautious eyes. Vincenzo didn’t make eye contact with anyone, just took an inventory of who was where. Right now, everyone could be an enemy, from a street gang to a gaggle of housewives pushing baby strollers… and there was no shortage of either.
He looked down at the Glock. It was a model 19, which Vincenzo had fired before. It looked a bit old, but when he handled it a bit, he decided it was operational. He double checked the second magazine he had lifted off the Rasta, and as far as he could tell, it was in fine shape. The pistol used the same ammunition as he carried for his Beretta, so at least he now had a backup piece.
He looked south, and saw that three other people were making their way toward the Rastafarian he had beaten down. The man was on his feet, leaning against the concrete Jersey barrier, a hand held to his face as he tried to stanch the flow of blood from his nose. The three newcomers were blacks as well, and they wore the brightly colored knit hats Rastas favored. Vincenzo decided that it was time to put some more distance between them, so he turned to the north and set off.
In my upcoming novel Charges, Tony Vincenzo is a TV producer with the Midas Touch who has left Los Angeles to return to his native New York City. Setting himself up there before his family joins him in the coming weeks, Vincenzo is caught in the Big Apple when a corona mass discharge–CMD–strikes the Earth, frying pretty much every bit of electrical equipment on the planet and turning the clock back about 150 years. In this extract, Vincenzo is finding out that New York City probably isn’t the best place to be in…even though the lights have only been off for about twelve hours.
I can empathize with the character. I was caught in lower Manhattan when the Northeast Blackout of 2003 occurred, and while the news reports congratulated New Yorkers for rallying and helping each other out, I saw fights, $25 bottles of water, and $15 flip-flops, not to mention incredible traffic congestion from non-functioning signals (resulting in many a fight as motorists slammed into each other). I don’t know who these reporters were talking about, because I walked from lower Manhattan to midtown south, and all I saw was chaos, gouging, and violence. It reinforced in me the notion that civilization is but a thin veneer, and once you take away the conveniences that keep most of us occupied, patience and understanding tend to be the first casualties.
As always, the following extract is first-draft stuff, and may not make it into publication in its current form.
As he drew nearer to Central Park, he heard the sounds of civilization—or, more specifically, the noises of many citizens. And he heard something he hadn’t realized he’d ever wanted to hear again: an electronically amplified voice. The sound drew him like a magnet, and Vincenzo hurried up Sixth Avenue, passing by West 57th and West 58th, until he finally made it to the extra-tony boulevard known as West 59th Street, which ran crosswise across the city at the base of Central Park. Real estate here was at its most prime, and consistently fetched some of the highest prices in New York City—and the world. He was joined by dozens of other people who poured out of the condo and co-op buildings on the street, all just as hungry for news as he was. In moments, Vincenzo found that we was in the nucleus of a jostling crowd. No one was being too pushy, avoiding confrontation for the moment, but he had an uncomfortable flashback to his walk uptown yesterday. The pall of dread was still in the air, but it didn’t seem as desperate as it had been before. Now, there was a sense of expectancy. Someone was broadcasting over a loudspeaker, which meant someone had news, and news meant everyone would soon know who was in charge, and who would be solving their problems.
There was a sizeable crowd on 59th Street, milling around, facing the park. Vincenzo saw a full contingent of mounted police there, their horses stomping and snorting behind blue barricades that blocked off Park Drive North, the road that cut through the vast park that formed the heart of New York City. The cops sat on their steeds and looked over the swelling crowd with nervous eyes. Vincenzo caught glimpses of more police spread throughout the area, many of them possessing what looked like riot gear: clear shields, helmets, small assault rifles, and shotguns. Missing were the police vehicles, a conspicuous absence. Vincenzo looked around, but other than some patrol cars which had been sitting in the same place overnight, there was no large concentration of police vans, buses, or trucks. While some might have celebrated such a lack of presence, it only deepened Vincenzo’s worry. Without speedy transportation, there was no way for the police to respond to crimes in progress…and judging by the areas of distress he had already seen, there was a lot of crime waiting to happen. Especially at night.
One of the officers, a senior-looking man in a white shirt, held up a loudspeaker. “Once again, there is a dusk to dawn curfew throughout Manhattan and all boroughs of New York City. Anyone out after dusk will be subject to arrest. The NYPD had been instructed by the mayor to show zero tolerance. If you’re out after dark, you’re going to jail. It’s that simple,” he officer said, to a chorus of boos.
“Tell us what’s happening!” a man shouted. “When are the lights coming back on? What about the subways and the cars?”
“There’s no food in the grocery stores, man!” another added. Similar cries were taken up by the crowd, and Vincenzo turned to look at those gathered around the police presence. Many were like him—well-heeled and probably well-to-do, sweaty from a lack of air conditioning, expressions of quiet desperation etched into their faces, flavored with liberal doses of fear. Others were more blue collar than blue blood, and they were the confrontational ones, the ones with a lot on the line, probably with more mouths to feed than food in their homes. It was from this second group that Vincenzo felt an undercurrent of simmering violence. It hadn’t even been twenty-four hours since the power failed, and already they were starting to get riled up.
“From what we know, from what Con Edison has told the mayor’s emergency management people, the lights aren’t going to come on for a while,” the officer in the white shirt said. “The power grid has been fried. I mean totally fried, people—it’s going to take months, if not years, to restore it. Everything we’ve heard from the rest of the state and surrounding communities says exactly the same thing. Long Island Power, Connecticut Light and Power, Northeast Utilities, Jersey Central Power and Light, everybody is saying all the infrastructure’s history. Same thing for mass transit, people—the only way you’re going to get around now is by foot, bike, or horse, until things get straightened out.”
“What about the food!” someone shouted.
“Aid stations are being set up throughout the city,” the cop said. “In fact, one will be positioned right where I’m standing in a couple of hours. It takes time because we have to haul everything on our backs, or by horses. If you want to help out with the distribution, see this group of officers behind me.” The cop pointed to another collection of white-shirted police officers, standing in a rough line behind him. From where he stood, Vincenzo saw they didn’t have happy faces on. No one wanted to deal with angry New Yorkers, especially when they were asking those pissed off people to man up and do something for themselves. Vincenzo considered that for a moment. In times of crisis, everyone said New Yorkers came together. The vibe he got from the crowd around him was that it was just a hair’s breadth from every man for himself.
“My kids are sick!” a woman near him yelled. Vincenzo turned, and saw a frazzled lady in black jeans and a white top, holding an infant in one of those chest slings. The child’s head lolled against her big breasts. Her hair was already frizzed out from the growing humidity, and her tanned face was a study in anxiety. A slight man with a scruffy beard stood next to her, and he put an arm around her shoulder. Beside him stood a girl of about four or five, dressed in red jeans and a wrinkled blue top. Her eyes were hollow and downcast, and she listlessly held her father’s hand. She looked dehydrated, and Vincenzo thought to offer her some water.
Then, he thought the act might make him a target.
Jesus, I’m already worried about that?
“Medicine and water and all types of supplies will be made available at the aid stations,” the officer said. “Like I said, it’s taking us time to get them set up, but believe me, the city has a lot of stock to offer you. No one’s going to without what they need. Bring a list to the aid stations, as soon as they’ve been set up, and we’ll get you what you need.”
“I want the God damn lights and telephones back!” a distant voice hollered. “Last night, the apartment below mine was busted into, and the woman there was raped!”
“The NYPD is going to remain active throughout the day and night,” the officer said, but the crowd booed him loudly, drowning him out despite his loudspeaker. It appeared the NYPD’s cachet had dropped significantly since the day before.
“Listen, the best thing for you to do is to make lists of what you need! Those who work for the city need to go to their job sites, where you’ll be assigned duties to support the city. Police, fire, sanitation, emergency medical services are all still available to you. Mounted police and bike patrols will be accessible to those who need to report a crime, and all precincts, fire houses, and hospitals are open. Things are moving slowly, but everything is still available. Be patient, everything is going to be pulled together. The City of New York is responding as quickly as it can—”
More boos rose, along with angry shouts. Vincenzo saw the line of mounted cops stir, and the posture of patrolmen in riot gear changed. Face shields came down, and their ranks tightened a bit as they quickly organized themselves. A tremor ran through the crowd, so strong it was almost palpable. Vincenzo’s guts began to tighten, and for an instant, he thought his bowels felt loose and watery as he looked around the crowd that was pressing in on him from all sides. He had heard what he needed to hear—modern transportation, such as cars, airplanes, and trains, were practically instruments of dreams now. Instant communication with other parts of the nation, so long taken for granted, was ancient history. Electricity, which had first come to Manhattan in 1882 and had formed the heart of not just the city but the entire planet, was no more. No one in any of the fancy condos and coops that rose up behind Vincenzo and on either side of Central Park would be able to get their gourmet coffee from Keurig coffeemakers or the Starbucks on the corner. Refrigerators, washers and dryers, even the vast sprawl of the internet, had been obliterated by the sun’s daylong tantrum. Things had changed, and the scope of that change was becoming known to the crowd.
And it didn’t like it.
Time to go. Vincenzo turned and tried to wend his way through the mass of people behind him, repeating “excuse me” as often as he could. He had gotten perhaps ten feet before the first roar went up, and he heard the clash of bodies and steel and wood and plastic as the crowd slammed into the police.
Look for Charges to come out sometime in October. I’ll be posting updates fairly regularly, going forward. I have to say, it’s kind of fun writing about the end of the world as we know it, even after driving through the territory before with Earthfall and The Last Run.
Oh, one last commercial message: Did you read The Last Run? If so, please leave a review! (Even if you hated it.)