Austin Comic Con

This weekend I tabled at Wizard World’s Austin Comic Con with my friends Max Booth III and John Wayne Comunale. Between meeting readers, we talked all the joys and frustrations of this writing life. We also debated Midsommar and the new Creepshow series, caught up on small-press gossip, and talked shop in general.

We met a ton of new people, some of them aspiring writers themselves and others just excited about books. I thought about giving shout outs, in case some of these wonderful folks drop by my blog but I’m bound to forget someone and don’t want anyone to feel left out.

It’s been a tumultuous eighteen months for me. Talking to my buddies reminded me I’m not the only one who’s struggled. Due to lots of ongoings in our scene and my own mental health issues, I’ve reevaluated who my friends are and who I intend to keep as mere acquaintances. When I first got into this writing scene, I wanted to be everybody’s close friend. As I’ve continued doing my thing, I’ve been reminded of how unrealistic such a goal is.

At the end of the day, you’ve got to decide whose flaws are worth tolerating and whose aren’t.

But the ones who you really gel with and don’t prove themselves toxic are goddamn priceless. I never expected to get rich doing this writing stuff but I did expect to make some of the best friends I’ve ever had. That expectation has been exceeded over and over.

I’m happy to see John Wayne doing well for himself. He’s one of the hardest working writers I know and it’s nice to see it pay off. The two secrets to his success, I think, are his positivity and his nearly militaristic organizational skills. I work hard and I’m positive. Organized? Not so much. That’s something I intend to work on once National Novel Writing Month is in the rearview.

Speaking of. That’s going well. I’ve got 21,000 words on a new manuscript and had a major breakthrough that allows me to combine two narratives I really enjoy into one book. I won’t say much except it’s a coming of age cosmic horror novel. I think there’s a lot to explore by marrying those subgenres. Lots of cool opportunities to play with opposing themes.

I grabbed and already read the first issues of Chaotic Flux, Kinetic, and Lady Frankenstein and the Mummy’s Brain, plus an old issue of Marvel’s Chamber of Chills and the first trade of a series called Cover of Darkness. I don’t read comics often but when I do, I tend to enjoy them. Indie stuff seems to be where it’s at these days, as in literature as well.

I’ve been able to write the books I want to write thanks to the small press. I hope eventually I’ll get to do this for a living but that’s still a ways off. And honestly, things are pretty good. The reviews for Saint Sadist reflect exactly what I wanted the book to do. I’ve got a decently paying screenplay gig in the works. I’ve got two releases slated for next year.

Also, this anthology just went up for preorder: The Big Book of Blasphemy, edited by David G. Barnet and Regina Garza-Mitchell, it features stories by Brian Keene, Ryan Harding, Wrath James White, Monica O’Rourke, myself, and many, many more. My story, “Sister Scar,” is basically a Hemingway-esque WWI story but nunsploitation. You preorder The Big Book of Blasphemy right here.

Last but not least, Blood and Brimstone, the sequel to Flesh and Fire has come to an end. It’s serialized on my Patreon the last few months. You can read it in its entirety here.

That’s it for now, gang. Take some time this week to appreciate the people in your life. You’ll be glad you did.

Blood and Brimstone, More Pages

Here are 25 more pages of Blood and Brimstone, the sequel to Flesh and Fire. We’re coming up on the end. If you want early access to the final two entries, you can have it by becoming a patron for as little as a dollar. Enjoy!

———-

Windom watched the woman spill into the black, fire-encircled hole. Less than a second after she disappeared, the fire blinked out, leaving the room in darkness and no sign that fire had touched the walls at all. No burns. No stink of smoke. Not even any heat.

Of course, this didn’t bother Windom any. He knew all about this sort of thing. Fires that burned steadily, but never consumed. Black portals to dark dimensions. When you’re the son of the devil, you’re privy to all sorts of strange information. Like knowing how to dispatch men twice your size and crazy enough to tattoo KILL on their foreheads. Like knowing about the groove and how to follow it.

Windom stood at the threshold of the room. Even saw those books he’d been charged with retrieving, stacked on the bedside table. His mission objective rested on a table less than ten feet from him, but he didn’t move.

While the mysterious fire intrigued him none, the woman who disappeared into the black, naked and in the throes of ecstasy, haunted him in her wake. She had seen his world before. She had seen his world and survived. Living had made her desperate. She smelled like ghosts. Everyone had ghosts, but she had a lot for someone her age, and the stink of one spirit, one demon, in particular clung to her good. Windom couldn’t mistake the scent. It was too pungent. Too distinct.

Samael, surrogate son of the devil. A badass dude, for sure, but that didn’t make the fact that Old Meat and Magma gave him special treatment any less painful for a flesh and blood hell spawn like Windom, like Windom’s estranged brothers and sisters.

Windom didn’t even meet Daddy Devil until his fifteenth birthday. The night after the failed baptism, a clay-skinned giant came to warn him about the Guards of Christ. The devil’s minion then collapsed into a dozen two foot tall reptilian humanoids. The creatures scrambled toward Windom’s bedroom window, and the imp bringing up the rear turned and beckoned with a clawed, three-fingered hand for Windom to follow.

The imps led him to a safe house where he met other kids like him. Apparently, Windom’s father got around.

The safe house didn’t stay safe for long. A hitman for the Guards torched the place. Windom escaped but still didn’t know how many of the others did. He was ten when it happened. He drifted for five years, learning to survive on his own as he went from town to town, from unsuspecting caretakers to abandoned shacks where he could squat until someone noticed him.

Daddy Devil contacted him face-to-face only when Windom reached the age of fifteen because, at that age, the devil deemed him able-bodied and useful. In return for a respite from the pursuits of the Guards, the devil needed Windom to retrieve a lion-headed amulet found in the Afghani mountains. Daddy Devil loved his magic artifacts. He didn’t use them. Contrary to popular lore, he had no aspirations of overthrowing heaven or causing earthly tribulation. He just liked making deals that benefited him, collecting shiny objects and fucking, not at all unlike the people who feared and demonized him.

Collecting shiny objects was Windom’s specialty; that and staying alive. The devil’s other kids had their own skills that their father exploited.

But Old Meat and Magma and Samael got themselves a paranormal bromance.

Windom walked to the wall where just moments ago the black hole had been. He touched the surface. It was cool on his palm. The groove pulled at him, wanted him to turn around and grab the books, but he closed his eyes and did his best to ignore it. There was something more important there, beyond the wall, through the recently closed portal.

Windom dug a stick of chalk out of his pants and drew a spiral over the spot where the hole had been. The groove wanted him bad. It felt like a hand had dug into his back, locked its fingers around his spine and was tugging at him to go to the books.

He glanced from the symbol on the wall to the books, groaned and tromped to the night table. He gathered up the tomes and walked back to the wall. He put his hand on the spiral and waited for the portal to reopen.

———-

The two bullet holes in the front door of Ruthanne’s house froze Jake in his tracks. He thought about calling the police but decided against it. If those bullet holes were recent, someone in the neighborhood would have already called and the street would be packed with officers. His gut warned him otherwise, but he kept moving forward. Even though his gut was usually right, his curiosity always overrode it, usually by convincing him that everything would be fine if he just trod lightly.

The front door, hanging ajar, made him pause again. His hand went to his pocket. Fingers closed around his phone.

“Ruthanne?” He pulled out his phone, hovered his thumb over the ‘9’ button. “Ruthanne, if you’re okay, say something.”

Several seconds passed. Jake’s gut clenched. An awful dread came over him. He imagined entering the home to find Ruthanne murdered. Blood everywhere. Her corpse sprawled across the living room. Maybe in pieces. He considered his phone. Thought again about calling the police.  

“Jake?”

Her voice shook him from his morbid reverie. He pushed through the door. The living room had been ransacked. An armchair leaned on its side. Coffee table glass littered the area rug. Pictures hung askew.

“Ruthanne?

She stumbled out of the hallway, wrapped in a bathrobe. Her hair was wet, her eyes dark. Her bottom lip trembled when her gaze met his.

“What happened here?” he asked.

She collapsed to her knees. He ran to her, took her in his arms without thinking about it. He said her name over and over, asked if she was okay, if she was alert.

“Do you need me to call an ambulance?”

She shook her head. “No, I just…can you just…let me go. I’ll be okay.”

He glanced at his arms, encircling her, withdrew them and backed away. She rose to her feet, took a slow, stabilizing breath. He followed her to the couch. This had shaped up to be a weird fucking day. He used to see his life as a Scrabble board, filled with tiles that spelled out new words. While he didn’t see the game as finished, he viewed it as a gradual process, each word an experience. When things started to fall apart with Katie, as she withdrew, and then disappeared altogether, he felt as if, little by little, tiles had fallen loose, leaving misspelled, incomplete words. Today, with Katie’s reemergence and bizarre behavior, and now sitting in the devastated living room of Katie’s therapist, he felt as though unseen hands had taken the Scrabble board and shook, spilling every tile, dismantling everything he knew to be true.

“So, which one of us starts?” he asked.

Ruthanne looked down at her hands, then moved her gaze to the shattered coffee table in front of them. She took another breath and began to speak. 

———-

“So you nervous?” Lyle asked. “I’m fucking nervous. Always fucking get nervous the night before a gig.”

Lyle puffed on an unfiltered cigarette. Dale had never seen him smoke.

“I mean, a little, but I don’t know. Playing out is what we do this for, right?”

“Guess so. I had a rhythm guitarist who fucking hated playing shows. Didn’t even really like recording. Just stayed in his room all the time. He’s dead now.”

“Jesus.”

“Yeah. Oh well.” Lyle laughed, took a heavy drag from the smoke.

“Hey, maybe you should take it easy.”

Lyle shook his head. “I’m good.”

Dale somehow doubted that. He even thought Lyle’s brushing off the mention of his late friend was a sign his friend was in a bad way.

“You sure you’re okay?” Dale asked.

Lyle snuffed the cigarette in an ashtray. He shrugged one shoulder.

“I don’t know. Maybe we can jam out. Run through the songs again.”

Dale considered this. “All right. No way some extra practice is going to hurt.”

“Maybe we could even write something new.”

Now Dale got nervous. For months, he and Lyle had worked at perfecting his father’s songs, rehearsing what were, essentially, obscure covers. He had never tried to write a song. Doing so had occurred to him, but the idea of sitting down and composing something new daunted him. He stood.

“Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

Dale slid open the glass balcony door and stepped into Lyle’s apartment. They didn’t want to risk any power outages the night before the gig, so Dale had come over in the afternoon to rehearse and spend the night.

Lyle shuffled in behind Dale. “Fuck it, man. You never know. It might be fun.”

Dale picked up his guitar and put it over his knee. He shot Lyle a half-smile. Lyle shouldered one of the many guitars leaning against the wall and nodded.

“Come on, man. Play something. First thing that comes to mind.”

“But…”

“Come on, man. Nothing puts my nerves at ease like writing.”

“All right,” Dale said and exhaled.

Dale strummed a chord and hit another immediately after.

“Okay, two chords. One more to go and we’ve got a starting point. How many awesome songs have just three chords?”

“About as many bad ones,” Dale said.

Lyle gave another nod of encouragement. Dale strummed each chord again, found a third. The two men exchanged smiles. Dale followed the same progression, this time picking single notes. After a few measures, Lyle’s bass picked up a groove and for a good ten minutes, they played through something resembling a song. When they finished, Dale looked up at Lyle.

“Well, that was good, right?”

Lyle laughed. “Nope, but that’s okay. Let’s try something else. Fucking, you know, get mad or something.”

Dale thought about Melissa. He thought about how she up and left him without so much as a warning. He thought about her shitty attitude the entire weekend of his father’s funeral. He thought about the boy, whose name he didn’t recognize, who she texted. Dale loved her. He missed her. Sometimes, though, he wanted to confront her. Fantasies played through his head. In some, he embraced her. In others, he told her how badly she’d hurt him. He imagined her kneeling in the rising tide and smiling at him.

He wanted to scream. He wanted to hit something. He chewed his lip and fingered the frets of the guitar, trying to find the perfect chord to express the maelstrom of emotions churning to life within him.

Lyle kept his gaze fixed on Dale, but didn’t speak. He let Dale have total concentration.

Dale’s hand drifted up to a B minor and started playing muted eighth notes. He strummed at an urgent pace. He slid down to a G, keeping the tempo quick. Lyle nodded when Dale returned to the first chord. The two-chord melody possessed a certain energy Dale liked. He stopped chewing his lip and felt a smile form. Lyle joined, the bass throbbing beneath Dale’s riff. 

They played the verse until it got tight. Dale improvised lyrics, a line here, a word there. Dale switched things up, incorporating a chorus: a bar of E minor, a bar of C, and two bars of G.

Lyle had a hell of an ear and combined with standing close enough to see Dale’s actions on the fretboard, he managed to catch up without losing a step. Soon, the song came together. Dale’s images grew clearer, and he improvised vocal melodies. He found a chorus he liked, screamed it over the frantic strumming. He went to repeat the words and the room darkened.

“Fuck,” he said and stopped playing.

“Damn, guess I got faulty wiring too,” Lyle said. “Let me check the fucking, what do you call it, the fuse box.”

Lyle’s lanky shadowy figure stomped to the kitchen. Silverware clanged together as drawers opened.

“Shit,” he said. “Dale, where do I keep my flashlights?”

“How should I know where you keep your flashlights?”

“Ah, what good are you?”

More rummaging. Dale leaned back on the sofa, closed his eyes. Heat thrummed beneath his skin. His hands shook. The song he had written played over and over in his head. The rush that accompanied composing his own song far exceeded the excitement of learning how to play his father’s songs, but dread flowed below the surface of his elation, and the dread brought questions bubbling to the top.

How did the lights go off here?

We weren’t plugged in, so it couldn’t have been a case of too much power.

But what if it’s the wrong kind of power?

What did that even mean?

He thought he knew, and that scared him. 

Lyle switched on a flashlight in the kitchen. He held the beam of light under his chin, illuminating his face. He stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes back in a mock death face, giggled, and marched to his bedroom.

Dale thought about the night he first learned one of his father’s songs. How he could have sworn his father materialized in front of him. How Melissa disappeared while he played.

His phone rang. The screen lit up, bathed the end table in soft blue light. Dale shifted to the end of the couch and picked up the phone. Melissa’s name and phone number displayed themselves underneath of a photo of her standing on the beach in a purple bathing suit, hair blowing in the wind, full lips parted and showing her white smile, eyes dark and bright all at once. He pressed the ANSWER button and clutched the phone to his ear.

“Hello?”

A burst of static, then, “Dale, it’s me.”

“Melissa?”

More static filled his ear, mostly white noise, but the occasional voice whispered through the sharp fuzz. They spoke too quickly or in a different language, and Dale couldn’t decipher the words. Melissa’s voice broke through again.

This time, she said, “Find me.”

Find me.

The call ended.

“Melissa? Melissa!”

He called her back and got a message that said the number had been disconnected. The heat under his skin intensified. Crawled up his neck and filled his face. He broke out in a sweat. He dropped the phone as if someone told him it had belonged to an Ebola patient.

The lights came back up.

“Fuck yeah,” Lyle yelled from the other room.

Dale blinked, gazed in his friend’s direction, but said nothing. The trembling in his hands increased.

Find me.

Lyle strode into the living room and stopped in front of Dale. His brow creased with concern.

“Dude…dude, you good?”

Dale tried to find the words, but only a dry croak escaped his lips. Lyle stepped closer, put a hand on Dale’s shoulder.

“You need a fucking drink or something, man?”

Dale opened his mouth to speak again but nodded instead.

Lyle went into the kitchen and returned with two beers. He handed one to Dale.

“Heard your phone ring. Want to talk about it?”

Dale shook his head. “N-not really.”

“Fair enough. Some shit about us losing power here, too, huh?”

Lyle walked toward the armchair opposite from Dale.

“Hey, uh, can you, um, do you mind sitting next to me?”

Lyle turned and raised his eyebrows. He considered, shrugged, and said, “Sure.”

He plopped down next to Dale and took a pull from his beer. They sat in silence for a while. Could have been three minutes. Could have thirty. Dale lost track of time.

“So,” Lyle said, “you sure you don’t want to talk about it? You can. I’ll fucking listen. Bandmates are basically family, bro. Y’know?”

Dale downed half his beer in one pull, belched and set down the bottle. Fuck it, he thought, and he told Lyle everything. He started with getting the news his father had died. He told Lyle about their strange relationship and how it had led to Dale joining the Marines. He talked about Melissa, how both intense passion and emotional distance characterized their romance. He talked about the funeral. Katie’s episode outside the church. Cleaning out his father’s house and finding the album full of songs that now made up his and Lyle’s setlist. Teaching himself how to play “Blissfully Damaged,” and hearing the scream right before Melissa disappeared. He concluded with the phone call, received as he sat in the dark moments ago.

Lyle opened his mouth to respond and closed it, not a second and a half later. He raised his arm closest to Dale and lowered it in even less time. He sighed, raised his arm again, and wrapped it around Dale’s shoulders.

They sat there like that for a moment, staring ahead, saying nothing. Lyle took a swig from his beer. Dale nuzzled into the embrace and closed his eyes. In the darkness, he heard her speak again:

Find me.

———-

“Well, fuck,” Ruthanne said after Jake told her about the botched sex ritual.

“Pretty much my reaction.”

“I didn’t realize she was so far gone.” Ruthanne shook her head. “I should’ve known.”

“There was no way you could’ve.”

“It’s my job to know these things.”

Jake thought about everything they discussed and his head spun. The notion that Katie, a woman he had spent the last two years of his life loving, had gone off the deep end overwhelmed him. He wanted to crawl inside a small dark place and never return. He wasn’t used to feeling helpless, which was why he left her in the first place.

“What do we do now?” he asked.

She shook her head. “I don’t know. I mean, I can start with Carlyle and try to find out why the hell that man came and…”

She couldn’t finish her sentence and Jake nodded. She had to know the prospect of someone stealing her thoughts and memories through some kind of magic sounded crazy. He couldn’t blame her for not wanting to repeat it. Part of him didn’t even believe her. Part of him thought maybe she had imagined it because whatever else the man had done to her was too horrible to recall. She believed it, though, and Jake felt certain the man’s attack had something to do with Katie. That being the case, he wanted to do everything he could to protect Katie, but he worried he was in over his head.

“Maybe we should call the police,” he said.

“What would we even tell them? Anything we tell them will make them think we need to be checked in on.”

Jake lowered his gaze. “Guess you’re right.”

“I mean, we could just have them check on her. Leave out the part about the strange man and just talk about her strange behavior.”

“Yeah, but I don’t want to shame her.”

They stared at each other for several beats, not speaking. 

“Okay, you’re right,” she said. “How about you check on her, and I’ll go visit Carlyle? We can meet up later and compare notes.”

“This Carlyle guy, do you think he’s dangerous?”

Ruthanne got up from the couch and marched to the kitchen. She dug a pistol out of her purse and brandished it for Jake. Something like a lead ball dropped to the pit of his stomach. His cousin had accidentally shot herself dead when she was eleven, and ever since, he’d always had an aversion to firearms. Ruthanne put the gun back into her purse.

She tried to harden her features, but her lips trembled and redness flooded her face.

“For his sake, I hope he’s not.” 

———-

They drove to the gig without either of them mentioning the previous night’s embrace. Dale didn’t even know what to make of it, of what it meant, or if it meant anything at all. What he did know is that it felt nice. It had been so long since he had experienced intimacy with another person. Even with Melissa, there had been intense moments of passion, particularly in the bedroom, but not a lot in the way of intimacy.

Dale and Lyle had held each other all night. There had been some hair-stroking, and for a little while, after the lights came on, some hand-holding. Dale wasn’t sure if Lyle was gay, and Dale didn’t feel anything immediately sexual in their cuddling. In a way, that was what had made it feel more special. The time spent in Lyle’s arms brought a peace like he hadn’t experienced in months, maybe even years. All-day, questions ran through his head. Will we cuddle again? Do I want to cuddle again? What does this mean?

On the ride to the gig, they just blasted a playlist made up of Judas Priest, Death, Queensryche, and Slayer. Dale wasn’t much of a metalhead, but the churning guitars and screeching vocals got his blood pumping. Helped propel him further away from his conflicting emotions. Helped amp him up to perform.

Lyle pumped his fist as he drove, screaming along to the occasional verse. Dale turned to stare out the window, concealing the smile his friend inspired. He never worried about laughing or smiling at Lyle’s behavior before, but now, it was weird. He closed his eyes, and let the music surge through him.

The club was called The Boot. Redbrick structure. Front wall decorated with a purple neon cat peeking out of a blue neon cowboy boot with red neon eyes. They pulled around back to unload their equipment. When they finished they stepped back outside and Dale leaned on the back wall while Lyle paced and smoked.

“Can’t believe you’re not fucking nervous,” Lyle said. “This is your first show. I’d be pissing my pants.”

“How do you know I’m not?”

Lyle laughed at that. “Thought your pants looked a little dark.”

Heat filled Dale’s cheeks as he joined Lyle in laughter. He was nervous, even if he didn’t show it. He had never played in front of anyone but Lyle. What if the crowd hated his dad’s music or Dale’s singing voice? Memories of the previous night and its implications also lingered. On top of that, he missed Melissa.

And then there was the matter of the ghosts. It was one thing for his apartment to be haunted, but another thing entirely for the haunting to follow him to Lyle’s house. He found himself thinking of a book he read, Come Closer by Sara Gran, where a malevolent spirit follows the protagonist from childhood and into her adult life, eventually possessing her and causing her to do terrible things.

If he only had the suspicious power outages to look to as evidence, he thought he could dismiss any notion of the supernatural. However, his dreams as of late had been troublesome and very vivid. In them, sleep paralysis gripped his body. It felt as if a multitude of hands held each of his limbs and the sides of his head, pinning them to the bed, and one large hand pressed against his chest, keeping his torso planted. Melissa would appear. She’d come up from the floor, splinters, and sawdust sticking to her naked flesh in a honey-like goo. Her once dark eyes burned with blue fire.

Dale had never been the type to stress himself over dreams, but these nightmares had an intense vividness to them. He could feel the heaviness on his extremities. Smell honey and charcoal.

Suspicious noises had also taken up residence in his apartment. A scratching sound on the walls made him think the place might be infested, but the landlord had called in an exterminator who’d found no sign of rats.

The occasional crying that interrupted his solo practice sessions disturbed him much more. He thought, at first, that it was a neighbor, but the sobbing sounded too close as if it came from somewhere in his apartment. Sometimes, he thought the cries sounded like Melissa.

He considered moving, but breaking his lease would cost him twenty-five hundred dollars. Besides, he thought now, if the haunting could follow him to Lyle’s house, it could probably follow him anywhere.

Ghosts or no ghosts, what about last night’s damn phone call?

Find me.

What the hell did that mean?

One of the bar employees stuck his head out the back door and told Dale and Lyle that they were on in ten minutes.

They were the third act of a bill featuring multiple bands. If not for Lyle, who had a good reputation from his previous projects, they would have gone on first. Dale was glad they weren’t going on first. The idea of opening a show wracked his nerves, even more than the idea of playing a gig at all.

Dale took the stage with his guitar slung over his shoulder and gripped the microphone pole to steady himself for a passing moment in which he thought he would faint. He closed his eyes and remembered his reasons for wanting to play. The anger. The pain. The need to discover.

He began the set with the opening bars of “Blissfully Damaged.” Once he was playing, he couldn’t stop. An energy filled the club, surged through him. By the third song he felt a sense of cosmic synchronicity, where even the chaos, even the mistakes sang in harmony with everything else. The sweat pouring from his hair into his eyes and over his lips. The strain in his throat as he sang words written by his father. The throb of Lyle’s bass a cosmic heart beating at the music’s center. And the crowd, dark silhouettes against the dim, pale bar lights, a sea of swaying shadows.

He closed the set with the as-yet-untitled new song he and Lyle had written the previous night. Images of his father and Melissa danced in his mind’s eye. He played and sang, no longer sure which of them he hoped to find, wondering if it no longer mattered, wondering if he could now move forward and heal, only calling on these wounds when he needed to create, to shape something that resonated. If he could finally put ghosts to rest. If he could drive all restless spirits from his house.

He leaned over the edge of the stage, clutching the microphone, guitar hanging from the strap around his shoulder. He sang the final words of the song in a howling refrain.

“Now, sleep. Now, sleep. Now, sleep.”

———-

Carlyle lived like Ruthanne expected he would. As one of the rare people to make money in academics, his house sat on several acres in the sloping foothills of Tucker County. Several trees lined the long driveway leading to the front of the house. Judging from the red Jaguar parked next to the west wall, she guessed the professor was home. He still hadn’t returned any of her calls.

She rang the doorbell and banged on his front door. No one answered. A minute and a half passed. She hammered on the door again. Heavy footsteps approached the door from somewhere inside and stopped on the side opposite Ruthanne.

She glanced up and noticed the peephole.

“Shit,” she said and tried to step out of its view. If Carlyle hadn’t been answering her calls, of course he wouldn’t open the door for her.

The door flung open. The man that stood in the entrance was a withered version of the confident professor she had once known so well. Bags under his eyes, dark as bruises. His hair stood up in tangles. The scruff on his cheeks indicated he hadn’t shaved for days. The body odor emanating from beneath his wrinkled shirt indicated he hadn’t bathed in just as many.

But she didn’t get to examine him for long. He grabbed her elbow in an iron grip, yanked her over the threshold, and slammed the door behind them. 

———-

When she didn’t answer the door, Jake used the key Katie had given him after her father passed away. He knew she was home. Her black Corolla was in the driveway. He stepped inside and closed the door.

“Katie?”

He almost didn’t go forward. The quietude unsettled him. He feared he’d find her dead. Given all her bizarre behavior as of late, compiled with the grief from her father’s death, he worried she might have done something to harm herself. Though he had always thought of her as a strong person, even the strong sometimes got overwhelmed and lost their battles with themselves.  Even with suicide out of the equation, he worried Ruthanne’s attacker could have gotten to Katie by now. While Jake doubted psychic abilities were employed, he had little doubt the man had extracted the information needed to find Katie. Ruthanne had made that much clear. Though he didn’t like guns, he now wished he had brought some kind of weapon. A baseball bat. A handful of rocks. A Molotov cocktail. Something.

He felt pretty confident his fists were useless. He hadn’t been in a fight since middle school and lost most of the ones he entered.

Jake stepped deeper into Katie’s house and called her name again. With no signs of a struggle in any of the downstairs rooms, he relaxed a little. He climbed the stairs and headed for her rooms.

The bathroom sink held burned remains similar to what Katie had left in his sink. The same strange symbol was drawn on the mirror in red lipstick. He checked the bedroom and found the sheets rumpled but no sign of Katie. No sign of the books either, he thought. Wherever Katie had gone, she had taken them with her.

Of course she did.

He plopped down on the bed and folded his hands. His shoulders fell into a heavy slump, as if he had a thick log balanced across them. He clenched fistfuls of the sheet. He and Katie had fallen asleep together in this bed more times than he could count. They made love under its blankets on multiple occasions. Sometimes they read to each other, which was something he liked best of all because it held a special kind of intimacy.

Jake released the sheets and put his face in his hands. Too exhausted to cry, he just sat there, losing himself in the spotty darkness as the heels of his hands pressed into his eyelids. As a child, he used to imagine the exploding pale shapes were ghosts screaming silently in a forever black chasm. Sitting on the edge of the familiar room, weighed down by grief and uncertainty, he imagined himself and Katie as two of those ghosts. Lost forever. Screaming without sound. Unable to find each other in the blackness.

Jake dug out his phone and dialed Ruthanne. The call went straight to voicemail.

———-

“Let. Me. Go.” Ruthanne jerked her arm out of Carlyle’s grasp and reached behind her for the door handle.

He reached over her shoulder and slammed his palm against the door.

“Don’t,” he said. “It’s not safe for you out there.”

She crossed her arms and stared at him. “What do you mean by not safe?”

“I’ll tell you. Just come in, okay?”

“Why should I trust you? I scanned you that symbol, you never call me back, and then someone I’ve never met before attacks me in my home because he’s looking for books.”

“You were attacked?”

“Yes.”

“By who?”

“I have no idea, but he… never mind. You know something. Otherwise, you wouldn’t tell me it wasn’t safe out there.”

Carlyle pushed away from the door, backed away from Ruthanne. He heaved a sigh and pressed his lips together. His eyes darkened.

“I didn’t…I didn’t think they’d leave you alive.”

“Yeah, well, he did, and I have a gun. Unlucky for you.”

“Don’t be foolish, Ruthanne. We all have secrets we need to protect. I wanted to call and warn you, but I couldn’t risk endangering myself. I’m glad you’re alive.”

“If anything happens to my client…”

“Spare me the action hero dialogue. Let me make you a drink.”

“Not thirsty, but you can have one if it will get you talking.”

He nodded. “Follow me.”

They came to an open kitchen with high ceilings and marble countertops. Carlyle stepped behind the bar and began making himself something that looked like a martini.

“So, who are these people? The ones who want those books.”

“I don’t know enough. I guess none of us really do. But there are groups who operate outside of everything. Behind the scenes, if you will. Allegiances vary, but they all want the same thing: power.”

“What’s your association with them?”

“Until the other day, I didn’t think I had any. I sent that symbol to an old colleague. I recognized it, but I wasn’t sure what it was. He called me immediately, asking me where I got it. When I refused to tell him, he threatened my children. Recited their names, addresses, where they worked. I had no choice.”

“You could’ve gone to the police.”

“He assured me his network was so vast that if I did call the police, it would stop nothing.”

“You believed him?”

“What choice did I have?”

“Right. Family. I get it. So, what now?”

“What now? Now, we move on with our lives. Forget this whole thing ever happened.”

“I can’t do that. That man, whoever he was, got inside my head. I don’t know if I’ll ever recover from what he did to me. Even if I could, I have a friend who’s in danger, if everything you’ve said is true.”

“Maybe he’ll leave her alive too. You said he got inside your head?”

“He took my thoughts, things I knew, just by touching me. Having your secrets stolen is painful.”

“I’ve heard of people with such ability. Usually one of their parents is…well, I don’t want to sound crazy.”

“My definition of crazy isn’t what it used to be.”

“A demon. One of their parents is a demon. Or they learned the skill over centuries in the underworld, which I suppose would make them a demon themselves.”

Ruthanne’s head spun. Demons. Here she was, a woman of science, considering the existence of demons. The whole thing sounded bonkers, but she couldn’t deny the things she had been through. Even if there was a scientific explanation for how a man could steal her thoughts, it was far outside the realm of what modern science understood. Science fiction, she thought, though the sensation of having her thoughts torn away fell more within the confines of horror if she absolutely had to place the events of the last twenty-four hours in a literary genre.

“All right, so you’re not the bad guy,” she said. “Do you have any idea what this man or these men might do to my client if they find her with those books?”

Carlyle shook his head. “I haven’t the slightest.”

“I have a friend checking on her.” She dug into her purse. Carlyle tensed, thinking of the gun she mentioned. “I want to call him and see if he’s found anything.”

“Be my guest.”

“Maybe I’ll take you up on that drink after all.”

He nodded and went back to the kitchen. Ruthanne dialed Jake’s number. He answered on the first ring.

“Ruthanne. I tried calling.”

“I’m sorry I missed it. What’d you find?”

“A whole lot of nothing. Her car’s here, but she’s gone. Those books too.”

Ruthanne tensed. “Does it look like anything happened?”

“Not really. I mean, it looks like she tried another ritual, but nothing else. Maybe we should just try the police.”

“I don’t know yet. I’m talking to Carlyle.”

“How’s that going?”

“Either he’s playing his cards close to his chest, or he’s full of shit. I haven’t figured it out yet.”

“Well, figure it out soon. At this point, reporting her missing feels like the only right thing to do.”

“Just hold off a little longer. I want to see what else I can get out of him.”

“All right, fine, just…if I don’t hear from you soon, I’m calling the cops.”

“That’s fair,” she said and disconnected.

Carlyle handed her an extra dirty martini. She slammed half of it, winced against its salty burn.

“She’s not at home. Her car’s in the driveway. She tried some kind of crazy sex ritual. Twice. What happens when these people find someone who has their precious books?”

“I always assumed ritual murder, but if she’s missing, I don’t know what to think. What kind of rituals was she performing?”

“I’m not even sure.” She told him what Jake found in his bathroom after Katie tried to cut herself during sex. “You ever hear of something like that?”

“That ritual can be used for any number of things. Usually based around whatever the performer wants. Do you know what it is your client wanted?”

“I’m not sure. She was pretty far gone last I saw her.” Ruthanne killed the rest of her drink, forced herself not to ask for another. “Is there any way we can figure out what she was up to?”

Carlyle’s face tightened. Almost a ten count passed before he said another word. Finally, he sighed. “Maybe there is. I just don’t know if it’s wise for me or you to go down this path.”

“Well, if they didn’t kill her, they surely aren’t going to kill your family. I mean, right?”

“If they had killed her, we surely would have known. From what I know about these people, they’re obsessed with ritual. Your friend not only would have found your client dead, but the body would undoubtedly be arranged in some bizarre display.”

“So helping me won’t get you into any trouble, will it?”

“Perhaps not. At this point, I do feel like I owe you. I’m sorry you got caught in the middle of this.”

“Way it sounds, you’re caught in the middle too.”

“This is true, but I should’ve known better.”

“So how are you going to help me?”

“Let me make a quick phone call. In the meantime, call your friend. Tell him not to involve the police yet. Tell him you may be onto something.”

“Who are you going to call?”

His features brightened. He suddenly looked decades younger.

“Ghostbusters,” he said, winked, and left the room.

Extinction Peak-A Novel of Dinosaur Horror

I’m about to make what will likely be one of my final passes on Extinction Peak, my dinosaur horror novel. Some of my work comes from my subconscious and flows rather easily. This book was not one of them. I wrote the first draft almost five years ago. The version that exists today has only the title in common with that old draft.

Weirdly, this book will likely be more fun to read than some of my other titles. It relies heavily on world-building and action, not symbology and style. That’s not to say it lacks depth. If you’re looking for it, my thesis will present itself. That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

Jeff Burk made it official the Monday after Killer Con, so I’ll announce it here: Extinction Peak is set for publication in 2020 by his new press Section 31 Productions.

Blood and Brimstone, Chapter 13 – Free Serial Novel

When she finished sessions for the day, she gathered all her notes and her laptop. She flipped to the first page of her legal pad so it would sit more comfortably in her bag. The symbol Katie sketched that morning caught her eye and made her pause. She studied the image, its curves and angles, the herd of animal impressions spiraling toward its center. There was something undeniably captivating about it, though she was sure she had never seen it before. She traced the angles with her index and middle fingers. The paper hissed at her touch.

Having studied the occult during college, she had a hard time believing she didn’t recognize the symbol. She thought of Dr. Carlyle, the professor who she interviewed for her thesis, and wondered if he would know something about the symbol. A part of her wanted to let it go, but she was worried about Katie.

Every once in a while, in her profession, a client came around who she felt connected to. Something deeper than a patient-therapist relationship existed between them. The first time it happened, she fell in love with a patient named Arthur. She had just graduated and Arthur was close to her age. When they spoke, it reminded her of good music, each instrument a complement to the other, shifting between each voice in perfect time. After one particularly passionate session, he kissed her, and she let him. She even returned his affections. Realizing her error, she recommended him to a colleague and told him they couldn’t see each other personally, or professionally, because it just wasn’t right. Six months later, he committed suicide. Hanged himself in the foyer of his parents’s house.

While Ruthanne had no romantic feelings for Katie, she did think of the young woman as a friend. She had a personal investment in Katie’s recovery. Because of this, she had no qualms going above and beyond to figure out ways to help. She would never let Katie go, not like she let Arthur go. Sometimes a therapist lost a patient, but she refused to lose another she cared for this deeply, especially not when a possible answer lay before her. If she could find out more about the symbol, she might better understand what Katie was going through.

Ruthanne reopened her laptop and looked up Dr. Carlyle’s phone number. She dialed, not expecting him to answer. On the third ring, he picked up.

“Dr. Carlyle? It’s Ruthanne. Ruthanne Weiss.”

“Ruthanne, well, hello. How are you this evening?”

“I’m okay. I’m sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you could look at something for me. Can I scan it to you?”

“Sure, you still have my email?”

She read it back to him.

“That’s the one.”

“Great, I’ll send it right over.”

“What are you sending me?”

“It’s a symbol one of my patients drew. I… don’t recognize it, but I thought you might.”

“Still chasing spirits, I see.”

“Did you ever stop?”

“No, I don’t suppose I have. Go ahead and send me the image.”

“Will do. Thanks.”

“So long, old friend.”

They hung up and she went to the office scanner, typed in his email, and sent the sketch of the symbol. She waited, sitting still for the first fifteen minutes, and then she started pacing. When he didn’t call back a half hour later, she tried calling him. No answer.

It’s okay. Just give him time. Maybe he’ll call tomorrow.

She took the sheet from the scanner and stared again at the symbol. It hypnotized her, until she made herself stuff the paper into her bag, and finally left the office.