Title and Synopsis Reveal!

Hey everyone! I’m super excited to start sharing goodies about my upcoming release. So excited that I’ve decided to drop the title and synopsis here, now. I don’t actually have a definitive release date, but I can say SOON. Very soon. There are just a few more details that need to fall into place, so I feel confident in putting this out there.

Let me start by saying this book is a long time coming. About twelve years. After a brief, failed publication when it was still a young story, these words have been quietly waiting for me to release them to the wild once again. Since then, I’ve been steadily working on sequels, among other series. This is a modern fantasy story that borrows elements from myths and magic of all kinds.

So without any more delay, I give you book one in the Order of Crows series, The Murder Meets at Dusk.

Synopsis:

The Order of Crows has existed for generations to protect the magical and divine community of New Verona. The current Order is mostly young and untested, having lost their parents in a tragic and mysterious event. Not surprisingly, they don’t get along very well.

Aleister Corigan is at the heart of the discord. The Murder’s planar-walker black mage, he has made it a point to alienate himself from the others. He is rude and stand-offish at best when they meet. That is until an obviously powerful enemy makes an attack on the city’s protective shield. As the enemy remains in the shadows, Aleister’s domain, the Corigan is forced to put aside his natural distrust of others and step into the spotlight. Just as he has to learn to put some trust in them, they must do the same for him.

As the Murder finds some footing in their cooperation, they also begin to uncover an ominous bigger picture. It’s not just one enemy at their doorstep but seemingly an army. They are the ones who have to make the choice, do they willingly put their city in the middle of a war, or do they try to avoid the enemies who won’t back down so easily? Can they trust Aleister in his element or will they crumble from within before they ever get a chance to defend the city and the plane as a whole?

Stay tuned for more details on cover reveal, release date, and availability!

Home for Wayward Writers: Ascension

It’s late. It has been a long day. I’m not exactly feeling inspired. I find myself sitting in an overstuffed chair, staring at a fireplace that never seems to run out of fuel. 

I can smell the books that line the shelves around me. There are infinite worlds here and they are constantly changing. The writing tables are empty now, but they’re not neglected. Admittedly, it has been a while since I visited this creation of mine.

I’m not sure how long I’ve been here when I notice the mist creeping along the floor. I make a small smile. I guess it’s not surprising that he would notice me first.

“All this time, I imagined my muse to be…something else, but you’ve been around longer than most. It might as well be you, wizard,” I say quietly.

I feel him pause somewhere behind me to my left. The air shifts and a slight chill surrounds me despite the fire. There’s suddenly a glass of white wine in my hand. My fingers are cold.

“I know, I left you again,” I add without looking for him.

“You used to fear me,” he says, his deep voice like a haunting lullaby.

“That’s true,” I say then take a sip. The wine is crisp, just a little dry, exactly the kind of white I like.

“You don’t anymore,” he says.

He’s still playing in the shadows. Maybe he thinks I’ll search for him. I won’t. I don’t need to. I say, “Not at all.”

The tiniest laugh comes from him. The sound sends the usual chills through me. He’s confident if a little forlorn. He steps into the edge of my field of vision. There was a time when that would have seemed menacing. Now it just seems coy in an entirely different way from the Genie.

“It may be true that you haven’t been here in a long time, but I’ve been everywhere that you’ve been,” he says.

That’s enough to garner a turn of my head. I realize he’s not wearing his robes and I can’t quite stop the little gasp that results. His black curls shiver against bare shoulders, and his olive skin is cast in flame-and-shadow variance. There are silver runes glowing along his arms, across his chest, and along his stomach until they disappear beneath a pair of black pants. It’s so fitting I’m not even surprised.

“So no brooding this time?” I ask with a smirk.

“Not exactly,” he answers. His eyes finally slide sideways to land on me. He doesn’t match the sentiment.

“Did you come to offer me the moon yet again?”

I don’t know why I’m teasing him. He just looks so serious. He usually does. It shouldn’t be so jarring.

“You keep taking it,” he says with a shrug I know is exaggerated.

“That’s true,” I say again.

I draw my legs up into the chair. I’m barefoot. Of course. I haven’t had much to drink but my head already feels a little fuzzy. My gaze trails from him to the fire.

“The same words on the tower walls run along these shelves,” I say.

Is that me sounding so far away? It’s a thought that bypasses all filters and comes straight across my lips. They have the feel of an epiphany.

The Muse chuckles and says, “That’s true.”

There’s the sly boy I’m used to. Of course I recognize his echo of my own words. The motion of him stretching out his hand inevitably steals my attention from the dancing flames. He looks from me to the fire as silver script extends along the floor from him toward the fireplace, then it scrawls up the mantel. The symbols on his skin glow brighter. 

He’s beautiful and mysterious, his midnight curls framing his slender face and the intensity in his silver-green eyes. The light of a full moon shines from him and, suddenly, I can hear whispers as though the books themselves are speaking.

“You wrote a novel since I saw you last,” he says. His eyes slip back to me.

“Another beginning,” I answer with a half-shrug then take a sip of wine.

“A lesson in discipline,” he says and his lips twerk at the corners.

I cock my head to the side and angle toward him so there’s no mistaking that I’m looking at him. I deposit my wine glass onto a table I just decided should be beside me. I reach my chilled, damp fingers toward the floor.

The curl in his lips falls. Now his attention is calculating. Could it be I’ve surprised him?

A thread of script veers away from that which is moving toward the mantel. The tight cursive snakes across the floor in my direction. The words are moving too fast for me to read. They weave through my fingers then twine up my arm. They make it to my shoulder before they start to absorb into my body. It’s my turn to smile.

“Yes it was,” I answer.

One of his eyebrows slowly lifts.

“Allow me to do the honors this time,” I say. “Dear readers, for this prompt I bid you talk to your muse. Literally. Write out dialogue with your muse. Do you want to ask why you have writer’s block? Maybe you want to discuss a certain character who’s misbehaving and doing his/her own thing. Perhaps you just want to chat over a drink at a fictional bar. It’s up to you. Or should I say it’s up to you and your muse. Have fun with it. Happy writing.”

I lift a questioning eyebrow in his direction. How’s that? I don’t need to actually say it.

He lowers his arm and the script flowing toward the fireplace slowly grows faint, then fades. He doesn’t retrieve the cocky smirk either. His eyes glow a pale green. They have me pinned in place. The words flowing from him to me get brighter.

“Not bad,” he says.

Exciting News!

Wow, it has been a while since I posted anything here. What can I say? Life is full and some things fall through the cracks. The good news is that I spent the last five months feverishly devoting any time scrap of free time to writing a new book in a brand new Urban Fantasy series. That book is currently waiting out its mandatory down time and I’ve redirected my attention to another exciting project.

Fantasy in general was really my first love despite the fact that my Cadillac Payback series is decidedly non-magical. Urban Fantasy, though, was where I really found myself at home some twelve…thirteen years ago when I got really serious about my writing. That’s why I’m ecstatic to announce that I’m currently working on releasing the first-ever book that I finished writing and the first in my oldest series. First round revisions are finished on Order of Crows: The Murder Meets at Dusk. I’m working now with the fabulous Genie Rayner at Magic Lamp Editing as I await the cover from extremely the talented Illustrated Author Melissa Stevens.

I don’t have a definitive release date just yet but keep your eyes open early next year for this dark and far-reaching tale of a magical Order who must step up to save their world. As an added bonus for the future, this is a series that already has two sequels and one in progress. These books have a little bit of everything from vampires to gods and the Fey. Stay tuned for news, teasers, and an inside look at the characters from this series.

Happy holidays, folks! Don’t forget, especially this year, to consider your indie authors and local artists when doing your Christmas shopping.

Random Acts of Poetry: Dark Greens

Occasionally, I write poetry. It’s mostly just exercise for my brain, but why not share it. Enjoy!

Dark greens make clean lines around the bend

In my vision.

Shade-addled blurs of browns,

A little fuzzy around the edges.

If I reach far enough

The ground speaks,

A rumbling teacher who seats me

Front

And

Center.

The light splinters far away,

Refracting parts of a day

That’s finally fading.

The echoes are shrouded in blues and purples,

Pink shaded dusty,

A brief lust ending in a lightning storm

On a horizon still not clarified.

I tried.

At least that’s real.

The wheel never stops.

It doesn’t matter the angle.

Impact can still shatter

A face set in stone.

The Fox, an excerpt

It has been a while since I shared anything in blog form. I’m not much for journaling and I don’t have any exciting news (yet). So I’ve decided to share an excerpt from a WIP that I don’t actually work on much. It’s a piece I wander back to every once in a while, write a little, and wander off again. It may never see completion and probably won’t see an actual book page, but it’s a fun(?) side project. The setting is futuristic, sort of post-apocalyptic in that the human race has depleted our home set of planets and colonized others. Seven mega-corporations have funded the big move, privatized literally everything, and also function as government. Most people are just happy to still be alive, however and of course, there are dissenters. Our story begins on a prison moon called Oberon. I love this character so much and I hope you enjoy him, as well. My only disclaimer here is that it IS a work-in-progress and has NOT been through an editor. Yes, mistakes and commas abound. Happy reading!

Part 2 The Fox

Muffled cries and heavy breathing are all I can hear of the others, running somewhere ahead. Running, that’s all we ever do. There’s a pain in my side that’s a grand mix of hunger, dehydration and overworked muscle, and it makes breathing hard. If I stop, though, I’m a goner.

Behind me, the soldiers are chasing us, flashlights and laser sights searching the ruins of what was once a school. The noise of helicopters above is crushing. It distorts what’s left of my senses, the tiny part of me that hasn’t given in to panic.

The small cell of free people that I’ve gathered, they’ve looked to me for leadership, for calm in the midst of chaos, and I’ve led them here. I’ve failed them. Sleep deprivation and starvation are stacked against me. Everything is falling apart.

The Hope Academy has been abandoned for decades, like most of the cities on Pan, forsaken planet of red sand deserts and eroding rock formations that stretch for miles of nothing. There were thriving colonies here once, but they were obliterated by a natural, particularly nasty predator beast. The Jakka 

Still, Pan is a last ditch haven from the conglomerate, who rarely sends the military here except for the occasional training drill.

“There’s one!” a soldier shouts somewhere to my right.

A spatter of gunshots rings out into the darkness. Just a burst before a second voice calls a halt order.

“We do not shoot at children, soldier!”

No! Nealie! She’s only six. She’s the only child I’ve seen survive this planet in the year I’ve been here. Where is everyone?

I veer toward the sound of the guns without a conscious thought. I can hear her crying as the pounding of boots draws closer. God damn this cursed planet, and all the other planets that have been raped and left for dead by the corporations.

I dump all remaining strength into my legs. Each step forward feels like an earthquake threatening to shake me onto my face into the still-warm dirt. Just as I scoop her off the ground and pivot to the left to run, a spotlight glares down onto us. Gun shots ring out again, and again they’re ordered to stop. They don’t want us dead, they want us for the bodies in work camps.

Still, it’s enough to kill my momentum. All around me is light and darkness, the noise of the chopper blades beating the air, and distantly, screams. I put myself between the child and the hundred tiny, red dots that dance around me. As if my body would shield her from a hundred speeding bullets. I lift the tonfa in my right hand like a shield.

Maybe it’s nerves, or maybe it’s my blood sugar taking a nose dive, but a full body buzz makes me feel like puking. Not that there’s anything in my stomach to come back up.

“Drop the weapons!” a loud speaker booms.

The men with the guns are advancing. Nealie wails behind me, terrified more than I’ve ever seen her. There’s nothing I can do to try and save her without getting us killed. There’s nothing I can do. The tonfa hit the dirt and in the spot light, I can see the cloud of sand that rises when they land.

I think I’m falling from exhaustion before anyone touches me. Someone smashes me with the butt of a rifle anyway. All I see are stars, but I feel myself crash to the ground.

I sit up with a rasping gulp for air that feels like drinking ground glass. My chest heaves like I’ll never get another chance to breathe. I scrub my hands down my face and a lance of pain answers me, a reminder that there’s a deep tissue bruise on my left cheekbone. It might be fractured.

My thoughts rattle against the inside of my skull like dice in a cup. The bruise, the pain, it’s so reminiscent of something older. Another life – just three months ago and yet it feels like forever – on another planet. An actual planet and not this pathetic chunk of moon they call Oberon. I’d take my chances with the jakkas over this, hands down.

It was a dream. A dream that was also a memory. I haven’t thought of Nealie in weeks, of how I let her down. Her and the rest of the group. I shake my head hard, hoping to loosen the hold of that nightmare, but it just makes my brain tissue hurt.

I can feel the imprint of the tonfa against my palms. They were already ancient weapons when I found them, and I fitted them with blades, the flat of which paralleled my arms. They worked so well fending off the vicious jaws of the jakkas that hunted us on Pan. Their throats were the only part of them where their natural scales were thin enough to use a blade.

Those beasts are the kind of nightmare that make you wonder why educated people would choose to use their credit account to colonize that planet. Sure, the atmosphere is almost perfectly fit for human life. Except for the giant fucking reptilians with the poisonous venom and also the really sharp teeth.

I sling my legs over the edge of the slab of concrete they call my bed. My eyes are still adjusting to the gloom. I’m stuck somewhere in the small hours of morning when the air is deathly still and always slightly used. It’s a quiet, tepid time when I wish nothing more than that I could sleep through, just once. Except like clockwork, the dreams come, sometimes worse than the present. This was one.

Pan. I spent a long year there trying to scrounge up survivors for the cause. I found them and got them out of there. I saved a few, watched with a twinge in my gut as they slipped away into the night on a stealth-modified transport ship that only dropped every few weeks. I sacrificed my own desires and responsibilities to the cause, for the cause. Audacity got me caught. Maybe I got lazy. Now my face is in the system and I’m as good as dead to the fight.

Meeting Norna – Hawk – and the strange circumstances surrounding her, has brought it all back. I bite down on a groan just before it escapes. The worst thing about this place is the hopelessness, the fact that I’m powerless against every turn of the minutes, every little fucking detail about my days. I go where they tell me, stay where they tell me. I eat when they say I can, shower when they let me. Rage is all I have left, and it only gets me in trouble.

Once upon a time, in my distant past, I was a shining scholar. I attended medical school on a conglomerate funded grant, which, in short, meant they bought me. I’m something of a genius. I aced every test I ever took. But by the time I graduated young, I was so inundated with their doctrine that I couldn’t shit without thinking of how it affected the great masters in the sky. 

It never sat right when they taught me that my working class parents would be beneath me if I just followed their rules. I was destined for the best corporate hospitals, tending to the prolonged health of the wealthy. I could have a nice plot of land on a properly terraformed planet, make the big credits, have a cushioned life – that never would really belong to me.

It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t suit me now. But now, all my rebellion gets me are bruises. Then, I chose to say fuck it all, took what money I could and disappeared. Vanishing from the eyes of the conglomerate isn’t easy, but I’m a genius. Mostly. I guess a true genius wouldn’t get caught. Maybe a really smart guy wouldn’t fight. I guess I’m a working class genius.

Three loud clangs on my cell door make me jump. Breath catches in my throat and the fetid air around me reverberates the sound. What the fuck? What could these assholes want before the red sun even dawns?

With a heavy sigh, I shove myself to my feet and half-heartedly lift my hands in the air. Seconds later, the door screeches open and the harsh, artificial light clicks on above me. I squint despite myself as the washed-out brightness blinds me. A gush of fresh – well, fresher – air blasts me from the corridor beyond my pathetic living quarters. The sound of heavily booted feet in the hall sends shivers through my limbs, calling back to the dream I just woke from.

“Laborer number zero-three-five-zero-gamma-seven-Medic, assume position for transport!”

Transport? All the muscles and liquids in my gut somersault. My back teeth grind together. What holy hell is this? I haven’t done anything particularly disobedient since they beat the shit out of me for talking too boldly. 

“You are to be sanitized. Comply.”

I frown even as I turn toward my bed and put my hands behind me. It’s not my bath day, not unless I lost a chunk of time somewhere. I glance at the tally marks I’ve carved into the wall every day since I arrived.

One of the guards advances, so heavy-footed I wonder how he doesn’t trip on himself. I hear the jangle of the thick shackles before he clamps them on my wrists. Then there’s a beep that tells us they’re locked.

“I don’t know why the Captain cares to see him so fuckin’ early,” he mutters, maybe to himself, maybe to the other guards. Like I’m not even here.

My nerves do another messy roll. There’s not much in my stomach, so I do my best to ignore it. I cock half a grin that they can’t see, though the sentiment doesn’t scratch beneath the surface. I don’t know for sure, but I have a good idea why. Maybe if I can put on a good enough show, he’ll never know more than I want him to. Maybe I can do my part to save the Hawk, and the good Captain will never be the wiser.

Regardless of what I told her – Norna, the name still feels strange – it’s better to save one of us than neither of us. She has more of a chance to work her way back to the fight, and remain unknown. She’s smart enough to do it from the inside, if she hasn’t completely lost the will to make it back. I don’t believe that she has. It’s always been my fate to save someone, even if – no, especially if it’s not the way the conglomerate snakes had in mind.

She couldn’t believe I knew her face. Those crazy, golden eyes gave her away. I wasn’t completely honest when she asked how they got me. I left out where they got me, and the reason I went there at all. I didn’t tell her that I signed on for the Pan gig because I was a field operative in a campaign to find her. A campaign funded by the very upper echelon of the resistance, and one kept extremely hush-hush. The leaders in the fight have been missing her something fierce, for tactical reasons: and if I have my guess, funding. I’ve seen rare pictures of her, I’ve seen those eyes before.

She wasn’t quite honest with me, either. Like her name. It’s another alias. I know all her aliases, though true to protocol, I don’t know her real name.

I’d gotten several leads that said she was last seen on Pan, doing exactly what I signed up to do. It’s funny – in a ha, ha, blow your brains out kind of way – that I got picked up on a mission, doing something other than my mission, to come face-to-face with the real reason all this shit went down. A fat chance. It’s almost too coincidental to be called luck.

My half-grin hurts my bruised face. It’s gone by the time I turn to be led out of my cell.

Decontamination is more or less as unpleasant as it always is. Maybe it’s worse, because this time I’m fighting with a churning mass of panic deep down in my gut. For the first time since they nabbed me, I’ve identified some goals beyond to stay alive. Adversely, the more contact I have with anyone of rank, the more of a chance of them figuring out why I disappeared.

I’d like to say the prospect of a slow, torturous death doesn’t scare the shit out of me. I’d like to be that hero I played on Pan, but it’s not me. That’s partially why I developed skill in slipping out of reach at the last minute. That and I’m smarter than most people I meet.

My eyes clench closed in anticipation of the sensation of being sand blasted by hot bits of glass. The decon machine whirs and buzzes around me. As someone medically trained, I know this part of the process is not strictly necessary. They could just as easily give us a shower.  This “dry” method saves time and water that they don’t want to waste on prisoners.

Next comes the antibacterial, antifungal, catch-all mist. I hold in a long breath. I learned the hard way that the stuff tastes like cheap brake fluid. Air hangs suspended in my lungs, and all I can think is that I have to pull off this performance or I’m a dead man.

The hiss of the chemical spray dies. My chest is tight, but I hold it is as long as I can. If I passed out, would I somehow get out of this? Not likely. I’d just feel like a bigger pile of shit.

An ear-splitting alarm blasts my skull. Moments later, the chamber door slides open. I stumble out into the holding area where a set of clean pants, shirt, and underwear wait folded on a bench. They’re grey, and without fail, too big.

My mentor in the resistance taught me meditative breathing damn near as soon as I was assigned to him. Everyone who joined up had to become a shadow, to learn protocol and basic survival. Old Crow was the only name I ever knew him by, which was how it was supposed to be. He died a few years back. Shot himself so he wouldn’t be captured. 

I force my breaths in through the nose, slowly out from the mouth. It’s such an old habit now that the jitters in my limbs are immediately soothed. It’s no new thing, either, to appear perfectly calm on the surface when a giant storm rages within. Crow used to say, “Ya got nothin’ if your poker face is shit.”

The guards rush in to slap the shackles back on then we’re out into a corridor. Offhandedly I wonder why they fuck with the hand cuffs. The entire prison could riot and win, but not a single one would survive outside of the prison walls – not without the oxygen generators and the poisonous gas purifiers. If anyone escaped, they would die out on the raw moon.

By the time I’m sitting in the back of a transporter, I’m as rocky as the brown and grey landscape. My eyes feel like I’ve been face-first in a desert, and I have to really concentrate to force my hands out of fists. We’re hovering along at something like ninety-miles-an-hour, but the scene outside my window is so vast and barren that it hardly looks like we’re moving.

I have to admit that it was smart to build a prison on an uninhabitable chunk of space junk. It completely negates the chance of an uprising. That’s why we have to travel to get to the base. They keep themselves at a distance from the “camps,” remotely controlling life support. Smart.

My gaze drifts to the big, empty entrails of the transporter. It’s a bunch of benches and me. And I’m pressed against the cold wall and window. Why would the military spring out of their purse for windows on a prison transport anyway? Like everything, it must be a way to crush the spirit.

I’ve never seen Oberon from outside the walls and fences that surround each work camp. It’s a shit show. Everything is grey rock and dust, craters and jagged mountains in the distance that remind me of the gnarled mouth of a jakka. I watch the morose scape glide by from the back of the cruiser, on the way to see Captain Deep Pockets. I could have lived forever without having seen Oberon and it would have been great.

I’m feeling some kind of way. It’s not really nervous. Maybe. It is. But it’s the kind of nervous an actor has before a live performance. Step into character. Remember the lines. If shit goes awry, lie, lie, lie. Be the artist and the art. Don’t get myself killed.

The only real reason Redding would want to see me is a report on Norna. His initial rescue of her is a mystery to me, but his interest in her body’s response to the chemical was clear. My nerves hit a patch of static at the thought of that pompous prick’s hand on my throat.

He’s a decorated captain. Decorated in what? There hasn’t actually been a war since he’s been alive, since all of human-kind had to accept the terms of seven galactic corporations in order to survive.

There’s a fantastic light storm on the distant horizon. There’s no thunder. The view is nice, because those roiling clouds are the only thing around with a little color. They’re just beginning to feather with a dusty pink, accented in blood red.

It doesn’t take long to arrive at the base. Not long enough for me to gain complete control of my nerves. My face, at least, is cold. Impassive.

When they come to get me, they blindfold me.

Motherfuckers. My jaw tightens and my stomach flips. They drag me forward by a grip on each arm. There’s no grace to be had. I feel like a lamb or a calf, freshly dropped into the mud by my standing mother. Panic makes a play for my self-control as my legs shake beneath me.

Suddenly, I can hear too much at once. Beeps, and buzzes, and a din of voices at different frequencies. At any moment, anything could hit me and I’d never see it coming. I bite back on the urge to fight. That would a good way to get dead. 

The time that follows feels like a mix of forever and parts of a second. All the noise becomes a slur, until the only thing I’m sure of are the hands gripping my arms. Breathe in through the nose, out slowly from the mouth. In, out. In. Slowly out.

We stop. There’s some talking. Military jargon. I recognize my prisoner number. Then we move forward and it’s quiet. The blindfold comes off roughly.

I don’t dare move but my eyes are everywhere. It’s an office. There’s a window that must let in a considerable bit of natural light when the sun is up. And there’s the captain, parked behind a starkly kept desk, reading a projected screen. He sits so straight that he can’t be comfortable.

I just hope my expression isn’t quite as wide open as it feels. I’ve worked past the point of trying to bolt, but there’s still an unpleasant jitter in my limbs. The last time I was blindfolded, I was hanging by my bound wrists from a chain. Then they used the tried and true method of electrocution. I didn’t talk, just screamed a lot. Somehow, I didn’t die either.

I think of her, as I seem to be doing a lot lately, when she told me they’d rape me, too. She was trying to warn me away from the fire-fight attitude that was so celebrated in our old lives. And I think of the white-hot fear I saw in her eyes when she realized I knew her. I understood her then, though she couldn’t know it. I can relate.

“Uncuff him,” says Captain Redding as he clicks the screen away.

The three seconds of hesitation that pass between the guards are apparently unacceptable, because the captain’s eyes snap to them and they jump into action. It isn’t much, but that tiny detail tells me that it’s not exactly standard protocol to remove the cuffs inside the base. Of course, the first question is why has he chosen to break the rules. 

I was a fool to believe I ever had any ground with this money’s son. I’m so far beneath him I couldn’t reach him in a long-range cruiser transport. I couldn’t catch him in a fighter ship. I’m sure as hell not stupid enough to speak first, so I continue to not move as the pressure disappears from my wrists.

Strategy. That’s what I was talking myself up to on the ride here. I sure did. That doesn’t mean I have one. 

“Dismissed,” the captain says in a tone that sounds honed on twenty years of telling servants to fuck off. He doesn’t even look at my guards as he says it.

He doesn’t look at me either. He’s picked up a hand-held and is pecking some sort of directives or notes into it with his thumbs. He could be talking dirty to some trophy trick from the conglomerate’s upper wrung of debutantes. He could be activating troops to certain places. They both sound about as equally dry.

The guards hesitate again, maybe for only two seconds this time. They salute and their boots make heavy thuds as they leave. He doesn’t look up, so I do a quick scan of the room.

There are no decorations. No digital pictures of anything, no Academy graduation or family. There’s nothing. This guy is four walls and a desk that he looks like he owns, but at which I don’t believe he spends much time.

When the door closes, Captain Redding sets down the hand-held and nails me with a level gaze. Strategy. Don’t give him more than he asks for. Don’t give him exactly what he asks for. Don’t fuck up.

Was he quick enough to realize I was staring at the window?

Don’t move. Don’t speak. What the fuck is he playing, just staring at me? Of course, it has to be a tactic of some kind. I’m staring back, thinking I’m about to get myself killed because this is going to be an epic stare-down.

“The first question is why?” he says.

Why? There are a million becauses and no answers I want to give him. Wait it out, don’t be a dumbass. I’m concentrating so hard on not looking away that I let my right eyebrow inch upward; an implied echo. Why? Why fucking what?

He says, “Justin Makara. You were the top of every class. You earned everything you could ever want because of academic scores alone. Yet you ran.”

Some fucking strategist I am. I never considered we’d be talking about me. I haven’t heard someone say my name in so long that it sounds strange. I’ve spent the last few months being extremely relieved that they didn’t know my ties to AnCon, completely ignoring the nightmare that comes with my legitimate past.

Lie, or scrape some hide off of the truth? More importantly, don’t make a face. In the nose, out the mouth. 

I say, “I guess helping old, rich people live longer wasn’t my style.”

Well, there it is. I can’t say I thought that response through. You know what else isn’t my style? Strategizing. Sometimes, I wish I could be patient enough to think through a situation, be more like Old Crow. Except I never do. I just run with it.

For another agonizing stretch, we stare at each other. At least I took something from my old mentor. I developed a mean poker face and a knack for bullshit. Something tells me it’s a good thing. I bet the good Captain plays chess for fun.

Finally, his eyes narrow just the slightest. He says, “Your parents participated in a multi-conglomerate program that paid for the genetic engineering of thousands of children. The money they received from that program allowed them to live more comfortably than a lot of people at their income level. In exchange, you graduated medical school, which they still couldn’t afford despite the program. Here you are, because old, rich people funded everything.”

Several reactions fire at once: My body feels like the bottom end of my esophagus drops into the lowest pit of my gut; cold, familiar rage rears its head and roars; and my inner dialogue says, “He’s good.”

The rage is directly related. My parents basically sold me to the system before I was even born. They were paid so that the conglomerates could breed a doctor. Then they followed through and sent me to med school. I lived most of my life not knowing that, thinking I was naturally intelligent. When I found out…he has the gaul to ask me why.

“They funded a system that gave them slave labor, I doubt it hurt that much,” I say. I hear myself form every word in an even enough tone, while my brain screams in horror at each one.

Maybe he never rushes to speak. He watches me with open calculation, so straightforward that I’ll knock myself off-balance if I don’t focus on something. I’m not even sure if he’s blinked since I walked in, his expression has changed so little.

He says, “That sentiment earned a hefty sentence for you.”

For all my bravado, the truth is raw and bleeding at this point. There’s another little lie I told to Norna. Resisting Arrest was my initial charge when they picked me up on Pan. Once they figured out I had a record, the list rolled out like a red carpet. That spot-lit, dusty moment spawned a field of regrets.

Strategy. If I had planned anything at all, I might have noticed how stupid it was to volunteer for such a high-profile gig. I might have really thought about the fact that if I got caught, it would be a death sentence. At this moment, I wonder if she might have a similar story. All that time spent mending her broken wings, and I didn’t ask once about the useful facts. How did they get her? Who was she before? How did Captain Miloh fucking Redding become so involved in her recovery?

This is not an argument, so I say, “Yes, it did.”

Humility is not a hat I try on often. I’m pretty sure my tone doesn’t match. Anger flashes in my eyes brighter than the standard super nova. The anger is painful, in a way. There’s no outlet for it. I can’t fight, can’t even raise my voice. I sure as hell can’t fuck the pain away. The truth at the bloody bottom of it all is that I’m never leaving this rock, not unless they take me to another “prison planet” – as they optimistically call them.

Redding is still watching me. His person as a whole hasn’t moved, but now I believe there’s a hint of amusement, or something akin to it, in his eyes. Time ticks past and my belief that he’s testing me grows less ethereal. If he’s read my record, he knows I’m smart, so what’s his deal now?

Finally, he moves. He rests his arms on the desk in front of him, and his hands slide together. He reminds me of some old, old school gangster, except for all the decorations that adorn his uniform.

He says, “So we’re back to the first question. Do you have a better answer?”

Into what fresh hell have I woken? I don’t even give a shit that I’m giving myself away. I let my eyes drop to slits of suspicion. It’s as open of a reaction as his heavy, silent attention.

There’s only a certain degree of intelligence to which I’ll stoop. By his rules, I’m already less than him. I’m not in the mood for some beginner intimidation. Mostly, I don’t actually have myself together to withstand a direct onslaught.

Do I have a better answer? What is this, some kind of interview? I think I will presume my silence is enough of an answer.

Once, lawyers were required before you were sentenced for crimes. Now, only people who can afford them get a defense. Everyone else is simply guilty. I don’t have a lawyer and I don’t have a better answer. That one was perfect. This is a fine mess of shaky nerves and stubbornness. 

He takes a slow, inaudible breath that I can only trace by the slight movement of his shoulders.  He says, “I don’t have the time to waste on this child’s game of wits. The ultimate truth is that it’s a waste of ability to have you here, treating hopeless prisoners, when you were born for the medical arts.”

For an indefinite stretch of time, my thoughts chug slowly like a stern wheel – spewing out the back as the rest get caught in the momentum. This feels like the beginning of what you could call a bad time. Comply or die. That’s what we said in the – 

“So you have a better idea.”

I say it. It could have been a question. It sounds more like a challenge. What am I doing?

“Yes, I do,” he says, as flatly as he’s said everything else.

When he doesn’t continue, I bite my tongue. This is the part when I’m supposed to ask what his grand scam is. I hold my scrutinizing gaze, as least I hope my expression is what I think it is. I don’t believe him and I don’t want him to think I do. If this were a game of Faces, I’d have a bunch of low number cards to his royal run.

If I had pockets, I’d casually slide my hands into them and wait. But I don’t even have pockets. That’s what my life has amounted to. I’m feeling a little awkward, standing here with hands hanging useless at my sides.

He says, “I’ve petitioned to reassign your sentence duties. I don’t have the official approval back, but let’s say I have it on good authority that I will not be denied.”

He’s spoon feeding me, still baiting me even after he said he didn’t have time for such things. Most likely, he’s trying to get a good read on the real me, not the idiot upstart who ran his mouth at all the wrong times.

Nobody gets off this rock. Yesterday, I said that. What had she said? You do if you make a deal with the devil. Does anyone even believe in omens any more? It’s not those words that bring the goose bumps to the surface of my skin. It’s what else she said. A true enemy of the establishment would take the chance to attack from within.

“You will be under my supervision, tending to soldiers. We’ll start small, and if you can handle it well, maybe I won’t send you back here to the mines,” he says, unperturbed that I haven’t even wiggled close to his trap.

Thoughts fire like scatter shot. How many could I let die without repercussion? How much information could I gather about the inner workings of the military, and how useful would it really be? Now how am I going to keep my word about getting her out of here? How would I reestablish communication with those who sent me to find her?

I think I love and hate her. Why did I tell her my real name? She didn’t tell me hers. Maybe it was her raspy voice, or those startling eyes. Or the way she’s broken, but a stubborn beauty still clings to her.

“What’s the catch?” I say.

“The catch is that if you don’t screw up, you get to serve your time nobly,” he says without missing a beat.

This is happening. On the surface, his move is real fucking stupid. Why would anyone trust a guy who shook the system to suddenly turn coat. Of course, they don’t know what I’ve been up to since I scooped. Inevitably, I wonder what the odds are of escape.

“When do I start?” I ask, carefully keeping the sarcastic edge in my tone. I don’t want him to think I’m eager. I also don’t want him to think I’m reluctant. If I can scale back on the attitude just a bit, not lose it completely but slip it in here and there, I’ll get a good idea of what I can get away with.

There’s a tiny twist playing with his lips. It could almost be a smile, and not a friendly one.

He says, “When I get the approval the process will begin. There are certain precautions we will take to prevent escape attempts, and some psychological examination.”

Shit. Well, there’s that. How to handle this with a little finesse?

He has a level gaze out of brown eyes that haven’t shied from mine since the guards left. It’s unnerving and I’m sure that’s the point. He says, “I’d say you’ll have just enough time to see your last patient back to her yard.”

The breath I’ve controlled so well to this point hangs in my throat. My eyes widen despite myself. I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring her up and he’s just beat me to it. Finesse be damned. If it’s the real me he wants, I might as well give him a little. Just a glimpse of the fury that sparks at his nonchalance.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to save her if you’re just going to send her back to the same place,” I say. That feels like something a doctor would say, someone who cares about helping people.

His eyes narrow and his head cocks an inch to the left. He’s still holding the damn eye contact. Maybe that’s why his slight reaction is so glaring. I’ve caught him off-guard, even if just the smallest bit. It’s impossible to know in what way. Again, I’m wishing I had at least gotten a few details on how or why the captain is involved in her recovery.

“That … is not of your concern, nor mine,” he says. The hesitation is so slight I could have imagined it.

Bullshit. Send me in to put my eyes between some broad’s legs, knowing immediately that she would die if you don’t act fast, then tell me I shouldn’t care what becomes of her once I’ve saved her. My teeth grind.

“Then why save her at all? Why not let her bleed out? Surely it cost more in medical supplies to treat her than it would to toss another body into the incinerator,” I say. My voice is strained from my effort not to let it get louder.

He’s quiet long enough for me to start believing that I’ve already made a grave mistake. It’s harder than ever to be still. Any sudden movements could get me shot, and any other outlets for anger can’t help me now. When he stands and walks slowly around the desk until he’s in front of me, I’m waiting for the blow to fall.

He’s half a foot taller than I am, so he’s looking down at me. His expression seems more or less the same, but his eyes have hardened.

That is something you either understand already, or never will,” he says, soft in volume, but firm of word. “It comes down to moral code, Justin Makara. I don’t believe rape is ever ok, but it’s not my responsibility for whatever charges landed her out here. You would do well to remember in the future that there will never come a time when I need to explain myself to you.”

I seem to have struck a sore spot. If I’m not mistaken, that’s defensiveness in his reaction. My inner fox smiles. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful thing if he’s so hard on the surface, yet soft inside. It would make sense. He’s young to be so ranked, probably hasn’t seen a lot of real action.

I don’t know if he expects me to start driveling like a soldier – yes sir, no sir, whatever you say, Captain. It will never happen. I won’t cower in his presence, though it takes a considerable amount of self-control not to step backward.

I told myself I wouldn’t give him much of the real, but the words are a big, smoking locomotive that force themselves out into the high-quality air of his office.

“My moral code says most of the people I’ve met in here were grabbed for minor infractions that were hardly worth the harsh sentences handed out. My code wonders how many women did bleed out because some degenerate piece of shit got off on shoving a rifle inside of them? My gut says those guards will be gunning for her.”

I find that I’ve clasped my hands behind my back to keep them out of trouble. Don’t want the captain getting spooked. He could beat the holy hell out of me for less. I think he might, if he weren’t such a control freak.

“You are surprisingly idealistic, perhaps a little naive,” he says, regaining that sharp, calculating look.

That’s not exactly right, but I can play the fool. I’ll let him believe that’s what fuels me.

“I have a heart, that’s all,” I answer with a shrug.

“As I’m sure they will be missing your heart at the infirmary if I keep you too long. You are dismissed to await further direction.”

That’s his answer to my grand performance? I’ve definitely hit a nerve.

I don’t say another word as he retrieves his hand-held and presses a few buttons. As the guards put the shackles back on, I keep my eyes on the captain. He watches me, too, and I feel like his gaze is a little softer, maybe more speculative. Maybe that’s my expression.

I don’t believe I’ve made any kind of step toward getting her out of here. That’s when it really sinks in that soon, if I can’t figure something out, I’ll never see her again.

When they blindfold me this time, I don’t even flinch.

A New Idea

I haven’t written a blog in a while. Life got a little hectic after my book releases, as you might expect from life at times. I don’t have much to share now, but it’s been so long that I wanted to leave something here. I had this idea the other night, the first fresh story idea in a long time. It’s only a handful of paragraphs right now, but I would love any thoughts on this little scrap of an idea. Here goes:

When I round the corner to the backyard, I have to sidestep to avoid running directly into Gabney. I bite back a curse. The aggravation chokes in my throat when I realize she’s staring at the sky and the water hose is hanging in her right hand. There was a time when I would’ve made fun of her for looking so dumb, but after she warned us of the last storm – the one nobody believed and then a lot of people died – I don’t bother her.

The hose has a nozzle on it but it leaks. For a moment, all I can hear is the water dripping on the sand. I follow her gaze upward, trying my damnedest to find something significant. She always watches the sky and trees like she sees something else. As far as I can tell, it’s a little windy, there are some clouds, and it’s hot even though it’s fairly early in the morning.

“The winds have changed direction,” Gabney says in the measured way she says most things.

“You mean-“

“They’re coming from the sea,” she cuts me off like I didn’t even speak. Likely, she didn’t notice that I did.

I try to treat her like a kid, like she’s eleven, but then she uses that tone when she says stuff like that. I check her sideways. Her ash-blonde, wispy curls are tossing around her long, sun-browned face, and her eyes are the same color as the sky is whenever the clouds break.

My stomach churns when I look up again. I don’t want to, but I wonder, “Should we be worried?”

She’s quiet for a while. I’ve gotten used to it when she does this, but she still claws at my impatience. I hear the water drip become a spray, then the spray hit the plants in the back bed. She says, “Not yet.”

Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide Excerpt

I hear voices behind me, but I don’t have room for any more bodies in my space, so I ignore them. When I look back to Maria, she flings her eyes past me. She’s mad, too, that much is easy to see. But then the tension melts, her eyes drop impossibly wide, and her mouth silently opens.

Her obvious shock is like a PTSD trigger, and it blindsides me so that for a moment, I can’t move either. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that look on her, and somehow I expect that if I turn around, I’ll see her brother risen from the dead.

Josh moves closer to her, so that he’s almost touching her, and he glares past me. The voices behind me die, and so does the movement. Abruptly, I’m right in the middle of a silent firefight that I don’t comprehend.

I step to the side as I turn around, so that I’m at her other shoulder. Abuela’s directives be damned, I will always be her right hand. I fight the urge to draw arms within these walls as my vision lands on the offending party. 

For a moment that lasts longer than I would ever admit, he looks like just another guy – an uppity thirty-something in a snob’s clothes, not packing any heat on his hip or shoulder. But the moment passes, and those angular cheeks and broad jaw are too familiar. He’s barely been gone long enough for me to forget that I took his seat only because he left.

He’s a bit thinner, a lot browner, and all kinds of dressed up. I can’t say I was torn up when he left us, but he did leave us. He turned his back on what was supposed to be his crew. Never mind that I was willing to do the same thing, on one tiny difference of condition. I wouldn’t leave without her, but he did. It made sense, but that didn’t make it OK.

Then the details begin to click into place like a well-oiled machine. The man beside him is Jorge, our most recent heroin hero, on the scene with a deal to end all deals. The guy worthy of a family dinner in his honor.

Jorge is skinny, greasy, and appalling in a general sense. He wears his long hair in a slick, low ponytail, and sports a long, equally greasy goatee. At the moment, he’s standing half a step behind Isaiah, openly assessing the threat that hangs vaguely between the other four people in the hallway.

Isaiah, here, in one of the most guarded and secret locations under Abuela’s extensive network. With Jorge, who just made a really impressive connection and got a pat on the back. What the fuck has Izzy been into this past year? 

Isaiah isn’t armed, so there’s no threat, but Josh and I are formed up on Maria as though a SWAT team is about to storm the windows and doors. Whatever internal hang-ups we have be damned, nobody from the outside will ever get a glimpse of that. We stand together.

Except this isn’t even my division anymore.

Izzy’s eyes scan over the three of us, slow and methodical as one might expect, and brave. He looks each of us directly in the eyes. He doesn’t shove his hands in his pockets. He doesn’t walk away. There’s no cigarette in his hand. He just stands his ground. He’s different in his stature, more comfortable, less cautious. 

He was always the best among us at reading people, but he was only barely better than me, and that’s just because he had a little empathy where I had no time for that shit. It only takes me a moment to see what Maria did to him.

She destroyed what little he had left, from whatever life he had before. He’s more like me than ever, and all it takes to tell me that is the reckless gleam in his eyes. Maybe for the first time, I can relate to him, and no one has said a word. I think he wants someone to say something. I think he wants to snap. 

What righteous hell is this?

Rising Tide available on Amazon in paperback, Kindle, and KindleUnlimited April 15, 2021.

Cadillac Payback Crew: Charlie

I have been completely up in the air about what to share in the Caddy ‘verse today. I was undecided until about an hour ago. I have chosen, because I’m the author publishing my own stuff and I can make this decision, to share with you a glimpse of the only member of the crew you won’t meet in the books. Charlie, the central force, big brother, and leader.

My disclaimer here is that what I’m sharing has not been through an editor. It’s a raw piece of history I wrote a while back. If I’ve learned anything from past experience it’s that if you start a story with a dead brother, you will write him eventually. I’m surprised it took me as long as it did. I love him even more for it.

So without anymore delay, I give you Charlie.

I’m staring at a gun barrel. It’s pointed at my chest. Outwardly, I haven’t moved since he drew on me. Internally, all I can hear is my heart pounding.

“What are you doing, Warren?” I ask. When I lift my eyes he shifts his weight.

“He’s hustlin’ me, Charlie,” he says. There’s sweat breaking on his forehead.

When I look him in the eye he shifts again.

“Of course he’s hustling you. He’s obviously a rookie. I don’t remember that being punishable by death,” I say.

Warren’s eyes cut from me to the kid he was threatening just minutes before now. If I really thought Warren had it in him, I’d choose now to draw. But his heart isn’t in it. He turned his gun on me before he recognized me.

“Do you really want to draw on me, Warren?”

“I didn’t mean to,” he mutters, his attention flitting back to me.

“I know. Put the gun away. I’m not going to retaliate,” I tell him. The whole time I’m consciously relaxing the muscles in my shoulders, in case this gets ugly.

Warren looks at me like a dog who has been kicked too many times. He knows he fucked up and he doesn’t quite believe me that I won’t kill him if he takes his aim off of me. I get it, honestly. As his internal conflict rages, his gun slowly lowers to his side.

“Put it away, Warren, and we’re done here,” I say. I still haven’t moved.

He holsters so I gesture toward the building with my chin.

“Time to go,” I say.

He nods and shuffles away inside the bar’s back door. A long breath slows my pulse. I pull my smokes from my pocket, lip one, and light it. I hear the stranger move again and release a shaky breath. I take a drag and angle toward him.

He’s young, maybe my sister’s age. His eyes are wide. He’s wearing jeans and plain black t-shirt. He probably goes to Tulane.

“Close one,” I muse, slightly lifting an eyebrow. I don’t smirk at him, but my tone is definitely goading.

“Hey man, thanks,” he says in a rush. The hands hanging at his sides are shaking. He’s scared shitless.

“A word of advice, rookie, this territory is taken. If you want to hustle, go back to the playground,” I tell him, casually sliding my free hand in my pocket.

The movement catches his attention. He freezes, waiting to see if I’m going to draw on him, too. Now I let a small smile play on my lips.

“You’re not even strapped, are you?”

His shoulders deflate and he kicks at a wadded up paper bag on the ground.

“No,” he admits quietly.

I take another hit from my cigarette and shake my head. This guy is gonna get himself killed.

“Can I buy you a drink, you know, as thanks?” he says, his tone more hopeful than I would have expected.

“You got a name, rookie?”

“Josh.”

I pull my hand out of my pocket and extend it.

“I’m Charlie.”

He stares at it warily, then accepts. His handshake is firm despite his obvious fear. I flick my cigarette at the ground and add, “Come on.”

I head back in the bar without waiting to see if he’ll follow. Where else is he going to go? When the door swings wide, there’s someone poised to open it. My hand twitches toward my gun, but recognition stops me.

“You OK?” Isaiah asks, his eyes skipping over my shoulder to the new kid.

“Gravy,” I say with a grin.

He nods and turns back inside. I’m on his heels and Josh brings up the rear. He follows us to the semicircle booth where we’re posted up.

“Did you finally find a boyfriend?” Noah asks around the cigarette hanging from his lips.

“I thought he was more your type,” I tell him, sliding into the booth. I tip up my PBR, drain it, then add, “Anyway, next round is on him.”

“You’re right, he is my type,” Noah says with a big smile.

“I think shots are in order,” Jack weighs in.

He has one arm slung over the back of the booth, and he’s sizing up the new arrival with a passive expression. His dark hair is hanging against his shoulders and he has a hand on his Budweiser bottle.

Josh is standing awkwardly by the table. His eyes are bouncing among the rest of us as we candidly volunteer him to buy us liquor. When he realizes what I’ve done, his expression becomes a scowl that tugs at the corners of my lips.

“Tequila all around,” I say with a nod.

“Good call!” Noah says.

“Go help him carry them,” Jack says to his younger brother.

“What? Why do I have to go?” Noah protests.

“So he doesn’t spill them all on the way back,” Jack says, lifting an eyebrow. His expression is enough to let us all know this won’t be an argument.

“Oh, what the fuck,” Noah says with a groan. Still, he stabs out his smoke, scoots out of the booth and mutters, “Fine. Come on, new guy.”

Josh gives the rest of us another calculating glance then follows Noah toward the bar.

Jack watches them for a moment then locks eyes with me. He raises his eyebrows expectantly. After years of being friends, he doesn’t need to put a voice to the questions in his gaze.

“I found him out back about the get himself shot. He hustling something. Doing a shitty job, too,” I say.

“So that’s why Warren came through here sulking,” Izzy says, lighting a cigarette.

I nod, grabbing Izzy’s pack off the table and shaking one out. He watches me do it, his lips pressed in a thin line, but he doesn’t say anything. He lifts his lighter, flicks the flame to life. I duck the end of the smoke to the flame and light it.

“So you invited him to join us?” Izzy says in an unamused tone.

“He offered to buy me a drink,” I answer with a shrug. “You know, for saving his ass.”

“What a hero,” Izzy says flatly.

Jack snickers and brushes some wayward strands of hair over his shoulder. There’s a fresh burn on his forearm in the shape of a grill grate. He looks back toward the bar and I know he’s tracking his brother.

“You’ve been watching that kid since he walked in here,” Izzy says.

“So have you, I’m not stupid, Iz,” I answer. My tone is nonchalant, but he’ll know better than to think I’m taking the situation so lightly.

“Apparently he is,” Izzy answers.

“I don’t know about that,” I say, catching Izzy’s frown in my periphery. “Stupid and inexperienced are different matters.”

“Looks like Noah is making a friend out of him,” Jack says, his eyes still on his brother’s back.

“Noah would make friends with a snake after it bit him,” Izzy says. One of his hands is idling on his amberbock as the other transfers his cigarette to his lips.

“That’s not entirely true,” Jack answers, side-eying Isaiah. We all know that though Noah can – and usually will – talk to anyone, he’s a damn fine judge of character.

When the younger two return, Noah has two shots sitting on the palm of his left hand and one shot in his right hand. Josh is holding one in each hand. Noah reaches his left hand toward Izzy and me, and we both take one. Josh hands one to Jack and waits for a cue.

“To Charlie. Not all heroes wear capes,” Jack says snidely.

A laugh tumbles out of me as we clink glasses and toss back the shots. I watch Josh over the rim. He grimaces, but he keeps it down.

“Everyone, this is Josh,” I say, drawing attention to him as he battles the tequila gods.

Noah is also watching with a one-sided smirk as Josh tries to handle the liquor. Noah points when he says, “Jack, Charlie, Isaiah. And I’m Noah.”

Josh just nods at us. I can still see uncertainty in his eyes. He’s either not sure how to handle the dynamic among us, or he’s not sure if he measures up to our league. It’s a strange thing to think, but I have this feeling that with the right guidance, he’d fit in just fine.

“I sure could use a smoke break,” Izzy says grimly.

I watch Josh’s eyes bounce from the cigarette in Izzy’s hand to me, then get wide as the words seem to make sense. He’s quick minded, I’ll give him that.

“That’s a damn fine idea. Who brought the blunt?” I say.

“Got it,” Noah answers, patting his pocket.

Without any more directive, we start sliding out of the booth. The others head toward the back door. Josh just stands there, watching us. I meet his eye from over my shoulder and say, “You coming?”

His eyes brighten and he nods.

Cadillac Payback Crew: Frederick

I’ve always been the kind of guy to instigate action. Call me a catalyst, but if you want to do something, don’t fuck around about it. I’m also the kind of guy who gets the same half-cocked response from a sleek and functional weapon as I do from a hot bitch. That’s why I always work guard duty. 

It’s why I’m sitting in the cool of the first hours of morning, feet propped on the railing of Noah’s balcony, my .50 cal Desert Eagle resting in my lap with its silencer lodged comfortably against my thigh. It’s why I’m up here sitting in the open, darkened doorway instead of downstairs, behind drawn shades with a bunch of really dangerous assholes who I’d rather fight than talk to. 

“Lighten up,” Noah says beside me, setting his lips in a grim line. He makes a dramatic pause, waits for the scathing look that is my reaction. Then he laughs.

I hold the serious expression just long enough to make his smile fade. Then, just as everyone always does, I fall victim to his charm. I grant a dry laugh at his questioning gaze. If it were anybody else, he’d be knocked out already or defending himself, depending on his reaction time. But it’s Noah, so I sneer into the early morning.

“I’m high as a damn kite,” I scoff, watching him produce a cigarette from a pack of Camel Turkish Royals. “Doesn’t get much lighter than that.”

He, too, has been fettered to this guard post. We are strange company, my temperament too salty for negotiations, his far too lighthearted. Noah is the type who’d just as well stay out of that shit. Generally, so am I, if for different reasons. This time, though, I’m pissed that she didn’t take me. 

“Don’t you have faith in our girl?” he asks, pushing back the brim of a black, tweed Trilby hat with the barrel of his Glock 9 mm as he closes his lips around a smoke.

“Faith doesn’t stop itchy trigger fingers.” I wave away the pack he pushes in my direction, his arm like a muscled art exhibition. He knows I don’t smoke. 

I look to my own tattoo, a red-banded daisho on my left forearm, the handle of the katana starting at the elbow and its sheath running to my wrist. I’m supposed to be her guard, but she ordered me here, where I can’t do a damn thing. I won’t say that shit to Noah, though.

The cigarettes linger in the space between offering and rebuke, and his features crunch in suspicion. I’m used to it, nobody ever really believes me when I say I don’t smoke. The weight of the street life that keeps our heads above water also drags life to a sluggish halt in moments like this. Then he sighs and the haze of introspection clears.

He pockets his smokes and lights up. A haunting, urgent tune drifts from the stereo inside, a song of hot grunge guitar and a high-hat-punctuated beat. My knee bounces with the aggravating rhythm, but I won’t react on base response. I opt for the cold truth that’s been nettling at my resolve.

“Josh doesn’t know dick about protecting her.” I shrug, eyes latching onto a shiny black Crown Victoria below, which creeps into view near the store front. The windows of it are darker than the shadows that hide us.

“Josh is good,” Noah points out, exhaling a thin stream of smoke. 

The Vic rolls on down the street and I turn my blatant “beg to differ” on him. The smoke curls against his shoulder like his thick hair, both of which upset as he laughs at the ferocity of my reaction. 

“He’s a joke, can’t take anything seriously,” I spit, pulling my legs down and leaning forward anxiously. I nail Noah with a humorless stare and my tone flattens. “Like you.”

“And you’re a dick, Freddy, but they keep you because you’ve got a good eye. That and some twisted fetish with weaponry.” 

He leans forward, too, flashing his little boy smile in my direction. That’s Noah: never gets angry over the small hitches in the road, has a penchant for the truth. 

It’s not the whole truth, really. They keep me because I have connections they never could. They keep me because I’m a walking arsenal with a need to intimately know the tools that will keep me alive. When you grow up in swamp country, you gain a little respect for personal protection. 

There’s humor in Noah’s eyes, but his voice is serious when he says, “That’s why you’re here, it’s what you do.” 

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Noah cut the clown shit and lay it down. 

“Besides,” he sniffs, taking a drag, “Jack runs a good meeting and Izzy’s there, too. They’ll be fine.” 

I stubbornly stare at the street below, and say, “Yeah, great, so Izzy can shove his hands in his pockets and shrug at them.”

It doesn’t matter who else is there – if it’s not me, it’s not good enough. I’ve got the best gun, fastest, most accurate. We all know it. And I’ve got rank. Josh doesn’t know his gun from his ass.

I stand just to move. I lay the black piece against the railing with a clang as I lean on it. Just as several potential nasty replies surface in my thoughts, the Crown Vic glides back into view. I freeze, glaring at it, and so does Noah. 

“Still wish you were inside?” he wonders with a hint of sarcasm.

“Negative,” I grunt, straightening and training my barrel on the passenger window just in case. 

Frederick is, by far, the most tragic character I’ve ever written. He comes with a hard past, a strict personal code, and a mind like a machine. There’s no gray area with him. He doesn’t play nice for anyone, not even the other men in the crew. He is also my favorite of the four if you rank them on total product.

I feel like the first book really only gives you just a taste of his personality, even the chapters from his POV. He totally steps it up in the sequel. He gave me a view from under the surface, and we get to see his brilliance in action.

Without giving away too much, I will say (for me) he is one-hundred percent the MVP of Rising Tide. His narrative truly drives the story. His decisions push the line. He may also break your heart a little. He did mine. Of all the characters in these two books, he is the one who makes me wish the story weren’t over so I could write more of him. Who knows, maybe I will someday.

And now, for an excerpt from Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide:

I roll the Indian into the garage lot, and park it. I let the engine growl for a bit before I shut it off. The only time I enjoy turning heads is when they hear this streamlined beast coming. This bike came back from the dead. Only true fans could understand.

Josh is already here, the garage door is up, and so is his hood. A greased-up Cajun by the name of Spanky is checking out the car’s guts. I think that’s his name, anyway.

Spanky is one of the few associates of mine whose interest lies almost solely in a legal trade. He knows where to get old parts for real cheap, and though sometimes I don’t know what the fuck he’s saying to me, he’s reliable. He owns the place, and for a fat sack, he lets me use his space when he can. He’s used to seeing the Caddy. The Challenger is a new treat.

I swing a leg over my bike, then replace my road goggles with my wire-framed glasses. The days are fading earlier the closer we get to fall, and the air has cooled from the mid-summer shroud of humidity and heat. The ride over was nice, wind against my face, carrying what last bits of aggravation lingered from the earlier part of the day.

Everything changes tomorrow, but tonight, I’ve agreed to do a tune up on Josh’s Challenger. He offered me money, but I won’t take it. I just want to get elbow deep in that machine.

I’ve dressed down in a pair of stained jeans, my old motorcycle boots, and a pristine white t-shirt. It’s something of a ritual, the process of getting a clean shirt dirty. I can hear Spanky jawing at the engine in an appreciative tone, and I smirk as I approach. Josh is watching Spanky’s backside with a look of confusion, which he turns on me, like I can somehow explain.

I say, “She’s a damsel, eh, Spanky?”

“Daaaaayum straight,” he answers, with a drawn out “Wooooooeeeeee” as punctuation.

He straightens and gives me a half-cocked grin. The grease on his cheeks makes what’s left of his teeth seem almost white. Somehow I think under that layer of muck, his skin is pale as a newborn, and he never sees the sun without a solid mask of grit.

He points at a large dirty cooler full of ice and clear beer bottles, and says, “Youawnt’un?”

I shake my head and hand over a rolled-up fast food bag, which contains a few flat, oozing burgers and his weed. His eyes light up when he sees it. As much as he’d love to stay and drool over Josh’s toy, he’d just as rather go get high and down some disgusting food. He nods to us, and disappears into the bowels of the garage.

“What the fuck?” Josh mutters under his breath as he snags a beer for himself.

He eyes the label, Miller High Life, and his expression turns down in distaste. It’s so haughty that I almost give him shit for being such a picky bitch. He pops the top anyway and takes a swig. 

I’ve been riding for a while, so there’s already a layer of road dirt on my face. It was the best way to find the space to breathe after everything clicked just out of place at the Garden District house. That moment has been carefully boarded up and stored for later inspection.

There’s a strange ease in knowing the secrets are out, at least as far as our inner crew is concerned. The mandate has been passed, all applicable parties have been notified. Effective immediately. Except not really. Tonight I’m a free agent, floating too far from the ground to control my landing. 

Freddy’s songs on the Rising Tide playlist:

You Lied by Peach

You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine by Death From Above 1979

When I Die by The Heavy

View the whole playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSgJKLWWisA-ZmHhzzvPOacwXC485gR4c

Cadillac Payback Crew: Joshua

Business is slow at the restaurant. Today is the top of the week, two hours to close, and I’m standing behind a bar shaded by neon blue lights. It’s Jack’s first night open since Noah got jumped, and whether it’s because it’s Monday, or the rumors of the shooting, the place is dead.

I haven’t had to do much other than pop the tops off a couple beers, and make change a few times. That may be a good thing, since I don’t know dick about bartending. Right now, it takes everything I have not to fidget. I’m not used to being confined to a small space, surrounded by glass bottles that more or less look the same. The blue light is still nice, even from this side of the bar, but this wasn’t what I had in mind in assuming the role of the diplomat.

It took me halfway through this day to realize that when Maria said Jack might need help, that I could literally help him keep his books. She sent me, the son of a banker, the one who had followed in his father’s footsteps until his arrest.

I know numbers, know the right columns and decimals. Without ever having to ask, I know that Noah is the math kid, and Jack is the creative kid. I’ve always known that Maria is smart, but still I’m impressed with her directive – as much as I hate it.

I hate it, because I hate numbers. I hate it because it made my dad a cold, greedy bastard. 

I hate it because she’s so far from me, with only Izzy to protect her, and maybe I hate it that she was right. 

I’ve never had a real job, just a lot of school. Somehow this is not what I imagined.

I’m staring at two men boxing on the TV screen, when movement in front of me catches my attention. It takes me a moment to swim out of my introspection, and to register the blonde female who has just sat down. She makes an easy smile that knocks my thoughts off-kilter.

“Hi,” she says when I don’t.

“Uh, hi.”

She laughs, and my brain finally tells me what a dipshit I’m being. Time to flip the switch before I completely burn. I let her laughter ring out for a moment before I crack a half smile, that innocent grin that always gets the first hit. I shove my hands in my pockets, and shrug.

Her smile softens, and she says, “I’m Eva.”

Nailed it.

She’s wearing a low-cut black tank top that begs me to look, a nice curve, green eyes, dark red lips. I don’t make it past those eyes. When I don’t answer, she continues. “I wanted to introduce myself earlier, but you seemed scared.”

Scared? Some choice words race from my brain to my mouth, but I shut it down. Now is not the time. I’m just a friend of Jack’s, helping him out. Cute and dumb will do.

“Earlier?” I say.

She giggles, and there go her eyes, softening to me just a little more. I learned at a young age that girls will pity a stupid boy, take him under their wings, and fuss over him.

She says, “I work here. I just got cut.”

I widen my eyes, glance away. Even I am surprised at the shame I can fake. I say, “Wow, I’m so sorry. You look…I didn’t recognize you.”

Her smile shortens. “That’s what they all say.”

Shit, change of direction. I lost that round. Not too much too fast. Stupid, basic. “I’m Joshua.”

Her eyes flick back to me, warming a shade. I learned it from Maria, to own my name. I could be Josh – any idiot douche bag on any university campus. But to be Joshua, well, that carries a little more weight. I figured it out the first time she didn’t shorten it, because when she says my name it’s like a command.

Meanwhile, Eva gives me a smirk, amusement at my seeming ineptness. So I give her a real smile, full-fledged, dimples and teeth, and say, “What can I get you?”

Oh, Joshua. I went back and forth about which excerpt to share of him from the first book. I finally decided on this one. Josh definitely takes the most shit from the other guys in the group. Charlie aside, everyone else completely underestimates him – including Maria. I chose the above glimpse of him because I think it’s a perfect representation of the way he can flip the switch between acting like he’s a bit stupid when it’s beneficial, and engaging his criminal mind.

Josh isn’t stupid, not in the least, but he has perfected his act to the point where he fools even those closest to him. When the story starts he has been around for about a year. He hasn’t had the chance to harden off like the others have, who have lived the crime life for much longer. However, he rises to each new challenge and he wants nothing more than to belong.

His transition between books is, perhaps, the most predictable. He’s emotionally harder, bordering on bitter, and he doesn’t exactly take shit from anyone anymore. I think one of my favorite dynamics in the sequel is the tentative and unlikely friendship that has developed between Joshua and Frederick. As far as character evolution goes, I think Josh gives the best look into how and why he has changed. I will say this, he’s definitely not afraid to stand up to Maria anymore, and his sex appeal is super amped. You’ll have to read Rising Tide to get the full gist of what I mean.

Meanwhile, an excerpt from Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide:

The Challenger growls as I wait for the light to change. It’s dark, but I can still see the woman in the car next to me staring. I ignore her. The sound of the engine is haunted by the last thing Freddy said to me before he started his bike.

You should probably check on her. She’s a mess by now.

I’ve never heard that tone from him. It was . . . sad. All this time, I guessed he would have stepped up and been her man. Now I think I was wrong. What a dick, seriously, to have such an unchallenged piece of her heart, and to leave it wanting. For him to turn over so easy, to give me his place without a fight, it doesn’t sit right. Maybe that’s why I’m driving toward her place instead of mine.

The light changes. I punch the gas and shift her up.

I’m moderately buzzed from the beer and the second joint, but it doesn’t calm me much. If Freddy’s right, I’m on my own. It’s Maria, a ledge, and me. I have no idea what I’m doing.

I shift the Challenger into the lot, and the sight of the Caddy in its spot is a bloom of relief. At least she’s safe if she’s home.

I pull into the space beside the ’73 Calais, white paint covered in a coat of dirt. She’s no good at keeping it washed. Charlie would shit a brick of weed worthy of the garbage we’ve managed – miraculously – to move lately.

Goddammit. Once upon a time, he told me to stay away from her. We partied together. He knew I never invested in a woman for the long term, knew me for the smooth operator that I was. I always thought that was the reason he said that shit. I never was sure of his reasoning, but I can damn well guess that he didn’t imagine I’d be the one to show up when no one else will. 

I kill the engine, and for a long time I just sit there. What the fuck am I doing? Is this smart, or really stupid?

My gaze tugs toward the Caddy again. Too many memories ride in those seats. Too many ghosts. One memory in particular plays like a dream that won’t let go. A roadside moment, a desperate Hail Mary, and my very first experience with a Molotov cocktail. It’s the only time I’ve seen something blow like that, a thought that threatens to turn bitter.

I slip my phone from my pocket, bring it to life, and hit her name. My thumb hovers over the call icon. Freddy’s intuition is damn near infallible. I’d be doing him a wrong by ignoring his advice.

The phone rings long enough that I’m sure the voice mail will pick up. It doesn’t. All she says is, “No more bus’ness today, Joshua.”

“Are you OK?”

She laughs, but it’s not an amused sound. She says, “Soy la reina de Mexico.”

Freddy was right. This is bad. Her words are slurred, but her Spanish is second nature. I wonder if she thinks I don’t know what she just said.

I say, “Are you drunk?”

She doesn’t say anything for a stretch. I can hear music in the background, punk, so I know she didn’t hang up. 

Finally she says, “No. It’s all gone.”

And something large shatters.

Josh’s songs on the Rising Tide Playlist:

Blue on Black by Kenny Wayne Shepherd

It Ain’t Right by the Red Stick Ramblers

Howling At Nothing by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats

View full playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSgJKLWWisA-ZmHhzzvPOacwXC485gR4c