Chapter 7 (first draft)

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This is my first draft of Hunters Chapter Seven for comparison, and for an example of the extent of changes during the editing process.

I worked on a lot of blocking issues from the first Chapter Seven draft, and also added a few more details that I was not explicit enough on before. The incident with Eugene is also shifted to be more logically consistent with what would have really happened. You can check out the current version of Chapter Seven here.

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Chapter Seven

Garrison

 

“You drew aggro from a couple of heavyweights, bro,” Eugene said over my earbuds. “And this Jesper dude is no slouch in the pain-in-the-butt department, either.”

“Tell me,” I said. Streetlights shimmered off the sheets of water that rippled down the steep hills of the city. Mist hung suspended in the cool night, fresh and salty with the scent of the Sound. Distant horns and sirens rebounded from the buildings, their sounds hollow and flattened by the drenched air.

“Let’s start with Mr. Hoodjink. Born in Finland in 1990. His family moved to St. Petersburg when he was six. He was an amateur MMA fighter until he joined the Russian mafia. I watched a couple vids of his fights. Guy seems to get off on getting hurt.”

“Forward me the links.”

“On the way. He’s been with the mob full time for the past five years, so I can’t say what other training he has.”

“He’s at the King’s Inn, room 220?”

“Room 212. Not even under an alias. You okay?” Eugene paused long enough to take a deep draw from a straw. “Your voice sounds, I don’t know, slurry.”

“I’m fine. What about the Filitovs?” As he talked, I watched the pixelated videos of Jesper’s fights on my phone. Beneath his tight black shorts, his skin looked dusted in flour and cut with networks of pale blue veins. He seemed heedless of opponents battering him, appearing to enjoy the pain, even inviting it. Then he would twist them to the ground with his long limbs and either fracture bone or choke them out. None of them left the ring under their own power.

“Ursula and Vasily Filitov are legends. Most people think they’re code names or titles or something. A pair of Filitov siblings have been in charge of St. Petersburg for a century. We’re talking both the spy and mob circles. They’ve been involved since the Cheka days, back during the Bolshevik Revolution and Lenin. It would make the Filitovs one of the first connections between government espionage and Russian organized crime. Fascinating stuff.”

“Don’t get sidetracked. Did you go any further back? We know it’s been the same brother and sister the whole time.”

“Hold on, they’re not brother and sister. They’re like eight decades apart. Like, she’s his great aunt or something.”

“But they look like twins.”

“That’s the funny thing about genetics. Dominant genes get passed down through generations. Even with long breaks between offspring, grandchildren can share up to fifty percent of-”

“Eugene.”

“Right. I’ve got more info on the guy. Vasily was born in 1871. During St. Petersburg’s capitalist boom he was in the thick of the subsequent crime wave. But there’s a decade between his last record there and when I found him again. Get this, he was a captain in the Imperial Russian Army during the Russo-Japanese war.”

“How did he get to be a captain with no records?”

“Probably destroyed. He only shows up because he deserted. He disappears again until he shows up with Ursula in the Cheka after the Revolution. He was her liason to the city’s crime bosses.”

I did a quick mental calculation. “He looked like he was in his thirties. He must have been Cursed around when he deserted. What about Ursula?”

“She did a better job staying out of the spotlight. I found a birth record that might be her from 1788, and a few investments through the 1800s. She doesn’t really stick her head up until the Revolution. Her connections to the State since then are well documented.”

“She’s over two hundred years old.” I shuddered and unscrewed the top of my flask. “So why do they care about me?”

“No idea. Their interests seldom leave Russia. Hopefully Jesper knows something.”

“I can only hope.” I took a pull from the flask and slipped it back in my pocket. “212?”

“Yes. Watch yourself.”

“Call you back.” I slipped my earbuds out as I reached the parking lot of the King’s Inn.

Whether by luck or design, Jesper’s hotel was only a few blocks from mine. The King’s Inn was a three-story dive wrapped in a U around a mostly deserted parking lot. The lot’s mouth was the only way in or out. The room windows, most dark, looked down on the lot from a railed walkway that ran the length of the entire hotel. No great exit options. The exterior lights threw rainbow halos into the mist.

I slid the Lamat from my arm holster. The whole hotel would hear if I fired it, but it was menacing enough to intimidate and heavy enough to break bones. I kept out of the pools of illumination from the parking lot’s lights and made my way to the nearest stairwell.

A scarred and dented legacy of violence marked the door of room 212. The drawn curtains hung motionless over a cracked window framed at the corners by spiderwebs and gray stains. A Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob rocked quietly in the breeze. I gripped the Lamat with both hands as I pressed my ear to the metal. Passing cars, the whisper of wind thickened with rain, but no sound from within. I took a step back and smashed my boot into the door.

The door shrieked open. The doorframe exploded, the lock and deadbolt tearing through wood, to reveal a room swallowed in darkness. Pale shadows of furnishings rose along the corridor of light that spilled from outside. I kept my gun raised and reached around the inside of the door to flick on the light.

“Jesper, it’s time for us to-” I said, then stopped. Blood pooled on the crumpled sheets of the bed. It took a moment to make out Jesper’s pale body sprawled atop the stained piles of bedding.

I swept my gaze over the room, the Lamat following the path of my eyes. The room was still and empty of anyone else. I looked back to the body.

Jesper was tied to the headboard by towels, but his face appeared peaceful despite the skin flayed from his glistening chest. Blood splattered his teeth and lips under gray-blue eyes that stared at the ceiling. No restraints held him in place. The cool air kept the scent of the carnage at bay, but Jesper had died too recently for the smell to thicken. Not even flies had begun to congregate. Even if he had been killed the moment he reached his room, he couldn’t have been dead more than twelve hours.

I took a cautious step into the room. A shape darted from the bathroom. No time to catch any thought. Something made a popping sound in his hand. Two tugs of barbs snagging my pants, and the first click of a taser discharge. Lightning crawled through my veins and dragged agony with it. Every muscle in my body clenched. Vision sparkled, flared. Body rebelling. Gun dropping. Floor. The taser’s metronome beep counted the seconds of agony. Five seconds of mind-numbing agony. On the second beep, my only thought through the pain was that I had three more to go.

A boot kicked my gun into the shadows under the bed. Whoever had tased me stepped over my body – I tried to see what kind of shoes, but my muscles refused to obey any commands – and the deadbolt and lock crunched shut in the shattered frame behind me. Springs squeaked on the bed as he sat down on its corner. I clamped my teeth together and through force of will drug my head around. The short, bristling carpet scraped against my cheek.

The man staring down at me wore combat boots, camouflage shorts, a stained T-Shirt and torn blue Seahawks windbreaker. A matching sweatband circled his bald head. His braided white goatee, the only indication of age, glared against his black skin. The taser rested on his lap while he dug at his nails with the tip of a foot-long army knife. Islamic symbols were tattooed across the knuckles of each hand.

“Who are you?” I grunted, my words muffled against the carpet. My muscles twitched every time I shifted my body.

The man said nothing and swept his dark eyes over me as if inspecting a slab of meat.

“Why did you torture Jesper, Antoine?” I asked.

Antoine grinned. He nodded to Jesper’s corpse. “He said you read minds. Maybe he weren’t full of shit. The demon tale he spun true, too?”

“Vasily didn’t ask you to torture him.” My fall had pushed one of the taser barbs deep into my calf, and it throbbed. “You did it anyway.”

“Yeah, that was me time.” Antoine snorted. “This Vasily guy don’t care what I did. This – Jesper, was it? – cared lots, but in the wrong way. That was sick, man. I stopped after awhile and he just jawed till he bled out.”

“What did Vasily want, then?”

He stuck his newly-manicured thumb back over his shoulder at Jesper’s body. “Beyond whitey there dead and you caught? Fuck if I know.”

I sighed. “Vasily had you kill Jesper so I couldn’t learn more from him. And you don’t know anything.”

“Oh, I know plenty. Like I know Vasily don’t care what condition you’re in, neither, long as you’re still breathing when he gets here. Which might be awhile. Hope you didn’t knock the sign off the knob.”

An emotional fist clenched my stomach. “You mean, you assume.”

“Fine, I assume he don’t care.”

“Are you willing to take that risk?”

“I assume,” he overemphasized the word, “he’ll do the same thing I’m gonna do when he gets hold of you anyway. I’ll just be saving him the trouble. I got my own mind reading powers, and they work damn good.” He tucked his middle finger under his thumb and flicked it against the blade of the knife. The metal sent a cold ring through the air.

The moment his finger struck the blade, I grabbed at the taser wires and rolled. My awkward fingers tangled in the wires, but my momentum was enough to drag the taser from Antoine’s lap. The electrodes popped free as the weapon clattered to the floor. I rolled twice more in an arc, stopping with my feet facing him.

Antoine leapt from the bed. An incoherent snarl erupted from his lips. He leveled the knife and dove at me.

My feet caught him in the chest. I rocked backward and kicked. His momentum carried him over my head in a graceless tumble. He smashed into the dresser, tipping the TV on top of him. His knife buried itself in the floor beside my head.

I tried to stand and toppled in the tangle of wire that wrapped me. I looked up just as Antoine dragged himself to his feet from the wreckage of the dresser.

“Vasily gonna get you back alive,” he said, “but not in one piece.”

He made it two steps. I stomped my boot heel down on his instep. He yelped and stumbled to one knee. I hauled myself up by the edge of the bed, the wires still snarled around my legs.

Antoine grabbed the knife hilt and started to yank it free of the floor. I drove the heel of my hand into his forearm. His arm went limp and he let go of the knife. In the same move I smashed the heel of my hand into his nose. His eyes flooded with tears. Blood gushed in a fan down his face. He fell backward, cradling his shattered nose with his good hand.

“Broke my arm,” he groaned. The limb dangled motionless against his chest. His good hand was cupped under his nose with a puddle of blood forming in his palm.

“Sprained,” I corrected. “Stay down.” I pulled free of the coiled mess of wire and tossed it aside, then tore the barbed electrodes off my pants. The knife remained upright in the floor. I studied it before tugging it free. “Nice knife. You ex-military, Antoine? Let me guess, Desert Storm. A sergeant, really? Too bad about the dishonorable discharge. Life would have been very different if you’d finished your twenty.”

“If I finished my twenty no drunk guy woulda put me down.” His voice was wet and slurred from the broken nose. “I smelled ya before I heard ya.”

I grimaced but didn’t answer, pulling out my phone and punching in Eugene’s number. “Hey, Eugene, change of plans.”

“I hope Antoine is still alive.”

I froze. The voice was not Eugene. Deeper, less emotion. Thick Russian accent.

“Vasily Filitov.” My heart pummeled my ribs. Millions of questions flooded my mind, but one screamed the loudest. “Where is Eugene?”

Antoine started to laugh, a ragged, slurping sound. “You’ve gotta be shitting me.”

“Antoine is alive, then,” Vasily said. “Let him go.”

“Not until I know Eugene is-”

“The only thing you know is Eugene will certainly be dead if you don’t let Antoine go.”

I clenched my fist and pounded it into the bed. I tried to will Eugene to make a sound, give any indication he was still alive, but nothing. Antoine kept laughing and had pulled himself to a sitting position. Blood stained his white beard a brilliant crimson.

God damn it. There was no sense belaboring the only choice open to me. I nodded to the door.

“Get out of here,” I said to Antoine.

His laughter dribbled away as he pulled two Kleenex from the box lying next to him. He twisted the ends and slid them into his nostrils, then stood and held his hand out expectantly to me.

I glared at him, but flipped the knife hilt outward and thrust it toward him.

He plucked it from my grasp and spun it once in his hand. “Well, I should get, then.” He winked at me, then whipped the pommel at my temple.

His thoughts telegraphed his plan before he moved. I slid to the side and felt the breeze from the hilt’s handle as it passed.

I tapped my temple. His scowl could have melted concrete.

“See you around,” he said, and opened the askew door. In moments he had disappeared into the night.

I watched the darkness for a second to confirm he was gone, then clutched the phone to the side of my face. “Now where is-”

I heard a thump as Eugene’s phone hit the floor.

“Eugene?” A beat, and nothing. “Eugene!”

Something dragged across carpet, then the sound of someone picking up the phone. “Good lord, that guy is fast.” His voice sounded weak and unsteady, but it was Eugene.

I let out a long sigh. “Thank God you’re okay. Where’s Vasily?”

“Gone. Like I said, he’s fast. I’m not too quick but he’s, like, ridiculous Flash speed. He just appeared next to me while I was surfing and bam, I’m on the floor. He didn’t even ask me anything, just sat there till you called.”

“You’re sure he’s gone? You’re safe? Because I need you to look up an ex-Army sergeant named Antoine Golden.”

“Yeah, sure. Who’s Antoine… holy wow there’s a lot of blood all over the….” His voice faded.

Silence on the other end of the line.

The stubble prickled on my scalp. “What’s the matter? What happened?”

“Um. All the fingers on my left hand are gone. To the knuckle. He must have cut them off. I didn’t know he did that. When did he do that.”

I pressed my eyes closed. “Listen to me. Hang up and call 911.”

“I’m going all Jackson Pollock on the walls. Hey, aren’t you supposed to put fingers in milk or something? To save them for reattachment.” His voice was slurred, like he was half asleep. “I don’t want prosthetics, how hard would it be to type with a fake hand? Damn, when did he do this? I don’t remember, his sword must be really sharp-”

“You’re going in to shock. You have to hang up and dial 911, now. Text me when you’re at the hospital, but… don’t contact me after that until I tell you, okay?”

“But how will you find out stuff? You can’t find out stuff. I can find out stuff. I need to find my fingers and get them in milk. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

“Eugene. 911. Don’t contact me. Repeat it.”

“911. Don’t contact you.”

“Do it.” I ground my teeth together. “I’m sorry. Goodbye, Eugene.”

I hung up before he could say anything else.

God damn it. There was no way I could risk Eugene, or any of my other contacts, with Vasily on the loose. I had to assume he was targeting my support network of rescued thralls. Until I could make sure none of their lives were at risk, I couldn’t drag any of them into this.

Sirens sounded over the hiss of mist outside, getting nearer. Antoine had probably stopped at the front desk to report Jesper’s body. Not only was I in a room with a corpse, but I had about half a dozen chemicals in my body and no believable explanation of the situation. No time to dawdle.

I dropped on all fours to retrieve the Lamat, scooped up the taser and wire and slipped out the door. Once I was out of the danger I could think about my next move, but that would have to wait. Right now I had a crime scene to leave and cops to escape.

Chapter Three (first draft)

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This is my first draft of Hunters Chapter Three for comparison, and for an example of the extent of changes during the editing process.

As the first introduction to Garrison, I felt it started too slowly. I also added an additional Cursed to deal with in future drafts to better show the difference between types of Cursed. You can check out the current version of Chapter Three here.

Back to Hunters

Back to WilliamReidLit.com

Chapter Three

The Telepath

 

The worn flask felt warm and comfortable in my gloved hands. It had been my constant companion through miles and years and wars, and my fingers traced the stories held in every dent. The vodka within, just as warm and comfortable, but the past dimmed with each swallow, an amnesia as fleeting as the heat it brought. Watered down, the vodka aroused my thirst more than quenched it. Still I stopped while it remained half full. Even the predawn cold and the sour bromide aftertaste on my tongue couldn’t justify draining it.

I knew I would need the rest once I was done here.

A patina of ice glittered over the bronze R on the carved double doors in front of me. I pulled my coat tighter around my throat and shivered in the chill. Rough cement lions, covered by a carpet of frost-brittle leaves, flanked the long low steps leading to the doors. I knew from Lilly that a multitude of entrances existed to the upstate manor, but all were heavily secured. Not unbreakable, but a time waster. Better to be welcomed in.

The doors swung open. I couldn’t see what lay past the hulking man who opened them. Eduardo. His bleached hair and eyebrows made his mahogany skin all the darker. Tattoos peeked from under his collar and cuffs. He moved with a deliberate grace that belied his size, of a height with me but with fifty pounds more muscle.

“Mister Decker,” he said, in a voice an octave higher than I expected. “Lady Rothchild isn’t expecting you.”

Brazilian accent, which explained the capoeira training. Eduardo was not employed based on any butlery skill. I plucked other details – number and general location of security, basic layout – that were on the surface of his thoughts in case I caused problems.

I smiled and took off my cap. I felt steam curl off my bald scalp. “I’m sorry to call so early, but can I speak with Lilly? It’s urgent.””

“Lady Rothchild does not entertain visitors without an appointment, even at a sensible hour,” Eduardo said. His mind blossomed with images of the doors to Lilly’s study. He had never been inside, but she was there now, and seldom left when home. As far as he knew, she never slept.

The other two members of the Rothchild family had equally inexplicable eccentricities, though I already knew what I was up against from Lilly’s thoughts.

Eduardo started to close the doors, but his eyes lost focus as he listened to his earpiece. His expression changed, as if any concern over my presence had evaporated. He nodded once and swung the doors wide.

“Lady Rothchild will see you. She is waiting for you on the balcony landing.”

He stepped aside to reveal an elegant foyer. The intricate marble floor, inset with a coat of arms and another stylized R, reflected a cascade of light from the chandelier overhead. Two broad staircases swept up to the overlooking balcony. The still air was warm and smelled like leather and old books.

I hung my satchel on the coat rack beside the door, clicking the locks as I did so, and walked toward the stairs. My footfalls resounded on the marble. Eduardo’s eyes followed me the whole way. He was accustomed to people showing up to see his employers at odd hours, and he assumed that I, like many guests, would quite possibly never leave.

Poor guy had no idea what he was part of.

Lilly stood at her open door when I reached the landing. Slim, auburn hair pulled back in a bun, face ageless and smooth. She wore a crisp gray business suit with a light blue blouse at four in the morning, with a microphone at her lapel to summon staff at any need.

“Garrison,” she said. “Our next session is not for six hours. And I do own a phone.”

Her voice held the lazy southeastern accent I knew well from my childhood, and held no displeasure at seeing me.

“I prefer to do business in person,” I answered, letting the same easy drawl touch my words. “And the opportunity you alluded to sounded far too lucrative to pass up.””

“I thought that might be what drove you here.” She smiled and gestured for me to follow her into her study. “Money never rests, does it?””

I could feel her hunger crash in waves, nothing like I’d sensed in our sessions. She had been feeding, and cradled the thought that she already had me. I fingered the metal loop on the inside of my jacket. I needed a minute more, at least.

Her study looked out over the frozen grounds of the estate, shadowed blue and gray in the cold dawn. Decadence draped the room, illuminated by lamps and a flickering fireplace. An antique and well-stocked bar spread below oil paintings that would break millionaires. Her massive cherry desk held no paper, pens or a computer, just a desk lamp and an ancient wooden globe. Greek statues stood vigil in the recesses. The only nod to technology glowed on the wall behind the desk, a massive screen that tracked the indices of every market on the planet.

Light crept from under the solitary door opposite the desk, muting murmurs and the clack of keyboards.

“What is it you want, Doctor?” She said. “What do you desire?”

“A glass of your Balvenie Fifty.”

She chuckled and gestured toward the bar. “I feel you’re thinking a little too literally.”

“Not at all. I seldom get fifty-year-old scotch.” I filled a rocks glass with two fingers and swirled it under my nose. “This would set me back six grand.””

“Six thousand dollars is nothing. What is it you really desire?”

“To hear more about the opportunity you mentioned in our therapy sessions.” I took a sip and let the flavors explode on my tongue. It was the first thing that managed to cut through the bitter taste of the anti-nerve agent that clung to my throat. ““This is good.”

“I should hope. You’re dancing around the question.” She leaned against her desk and crossed her arms, regarding me. “The investment requires one million initially.”

“I would have to liquefy everything I own. That’s quite a risk.”

“We both know that’s not true.” Her lips curled into a smirk. “You could pay for it all if you cashed your wife’s life insurance policy.”

The hook. I grimaced as I touched the bump of my wedding band under my glove. “How did you know that?”

“It’s my business to know. You could come up with the money quite easily.” She took a step toward me. “And you would never again want for anything.”

The nearer she came, the more real the temptation became. Mansions, women, cars, jets, drugs, every vice imaginable. It could all be mine.

“It’s been two years,” Lilly whispered. “Whatever your reasons, they don’t matter. What is it that you most desire, Garrison? Anything could be yours. Everything.”

I shot a blatant glance at the door opposite. Her eyes stayed on me, but her thoughts went right where I wanted them to. Laptops manned by empty-faced men and women, wasting in their endless pursuit of wealth, draining family savings and sacrificing friends in pursuit of one more million. One more dollar. One more penny. Their avarice sated Lilly’s hunger, so she was free to cultivate other more difficult – and satisfying – manifestations at her leisure.

The keyboards had stopped clacking.

I smiled at her, my clenched teeth betraying my anger. “I want my wife back, bitch.”

Lilly took a step back in surprise. She watched me with her dark eyes, calculating, severe. Her mind scrambled, unsure why I was there. What I intended to do.

“Eduardo,” she said into her lapel, “send in my uncle and aunt if you would be so kind.”

She waited a beat for a reply. Her brow furrowed.

“Eduardo.”

She shoved past me out the door of the study, and stopped at the edge of the balcony. In the center of the marble floor, highlighted by a sea of reflected light, lay the prone body of Eduardo.

I ripped the garrote wire free from my jacket lining and charged her. She had just started to turn when I looped it around her neck. She tried to scream and choked on her own blood. I planted my knee in the small of her back, pressing her against the marble balcony rail. A red fog sprayed out from her neck.

“Tell my wife Helen that I will avenge her, demon.”

I sawed the garrote back and forth. Lilly struggled, gurgled, went limp. The wire snapped free. Lilly’s head, a twisted and horned green reflection of its human guise, rebounded off the marble below before disintegrating in a smear of ash. Her body crumpled, imploded.

The nerve agent in my satchel would have dispersed through the entire mansion by now. I pulled out my pistol – a refurbished LeMat Confederacy revolver – and backed into Lilly’s study. Everyone here would be unconscious except for me and the two demons that still remained.

I had never taken on more than one demon at a time. They seldom worked, let alone lived, together, especially not ones of different types. But these three came from the same corrupt mortal family. Lilly was the youngest, untrained in fighting and new to her powers. Neither of the remaining would be as simple.

Angus Rothchild was a sadistic rage demon. Lilly had been terrified of him, even after her transformation. The Carolina slave master was the eldest of the clan, and might have been the patriarch if his grandniece Aissa didn’t control him.

I knew intimately well the power a succubus could wield. I touched my flask, then frowned and left it in my pocket. After.

Stillness and silence draped the mansion. From behind me, a grandfather clock beat its steady rhythm. I breathed the warm air, forcing my heart to match time with the clock, and edged toward the doorway. Back against the doorjamb, I darted my head out onto the balcony to make sure the floor was still clear.

Hands the size of turkeys clamped the sides of my head and dragged me out of the study. A nightmare Colonel Sanders with baleful eyes stared at me as I dangled in his grasp. Then he threw me. My stomach crashed into the balcony rail and I cartwheeled over. Floor rushed at me. Instinct kicked in. I tucked and rolled and tumbled onto my back. My flattened lungs refused to drag in breath. I lurched to my knees and grabbed for my pistol as it skidded across the floor.

Angus smashed into the marble in front of me. His white hair and moustaches glowed stark against skin the color of hot coals. Two wicked horns twisted up from his temples.

I finally managed a trembling breath. I raised my pistol, trained it on the demon’s chest, then dropped it and gasped. I collapsed to all fours as a wave of euphoria clenched my midsection.

“Why, you do not want to fight at all, do you?” A soft voice whispered in my ear. “I hardly had to try.”

I kept gulping air, trying to will my sluggish limbs to respond through the afterglow haze.

“He beheaded Lilly!” Angus snarled. His Appalachian twang was so thick I had trouble understanding it.

“You would have done that anyway, like you’ve done to all of the rest but me.”

I made a clumsy swipe for my pistol. Then another orgasm seized me, more powerful than the first. I felt cool marble against my cheek as I writhed.

“Stop it, you harlot!” I felt the floor rumble as Angus neared me. A constant growl churned from the depths of his barrel chest. “I’’m gonna kill him.”

“Oh, Angus. This doesn’t mean you don’t get yours.”

The rumble of the floor stopped, the growl changed to a soft mewl.

Aissa crouched over me. Her creamy bronze hair, the same color as her eyes, cascaded down in graceful curls to her shoulders. The light passed through her gossamer white gown to reveal her slender body, her delicate curves, her tattoos and piercings.

“I can make him come as easily as I can you, old man.” She laid a smooth, cool hand on the side of my face. “You’ve been the minion of a Cursed before, haven’t you?”

My mind screamed for me to pull away before she killed me, to grab my gun and shoot her in her lovely face. My lips brushed her palm, tasted her silken flesh as I raised myself toward her.

“Do you want another?” She cooed. Her lips were the color of raspberries. “Those were so rushed. So… weak.”

No, God no, get away from me. No words escaped my lips.

She patted my cheek. “Not yet. You did kill my niece. Angus will make you pay for that. But I want you to enjoy every minute of agony.” She leaned closer, curling her finger under my chin. “I want to make you beg for every minute of it.”

Our lips touched, first a casual brush, then deeper, my arms were around her and rapture filled me until her mouth became bitter ash. She screeched and tore herself away from me.

“What did you do?” She shrieked. Smoke belched from the blistered skin around her mouth, her skin now black with fiery red cracks and hair a mane of flame. Her talons clawed at her sizzling lips.

I ground my teeth together in fury. Emotions seethed through me in a torrent. I saw what she wanted to do to me. I saw my own weakness through her eyes. I felt disgust at my own vulnerability. At least in my haze I had managed enough self-control to grab my gun.

Most infuriating of all, I saw Her in Aissa’s mind. The one who corrupted Aissa. The same one who corrupted Helen.

The pocket of my jacket ripped as I tore the vials of holy water free. I mixed enough of it with my vodka that my urine would consecrate any toilet I used for a week. Before I could lose my determination, I hurled the vials at Aissa.

They shattered against her skin, fried like napalm. Shards of chandelier rained down on us, shattered by her shriek. Light flickered and died. She twirled and collapsed and bucked on the ground and dissolved into a smoldering heap.

Angus smashed into me like a boulder. His momentum carried us across the room, crashing into the far wall.

The demon could barely make a coherent sound. He clamped his meaty hands around my head and squeezed.

I fired the shotgun barrel of the LeMat, inches from his heart, loaded with rock salt.

The pressure on my head disappeared. Angus stared stupidly at the burning crater in the center of his chest, where his heart should be. His body shattered like leaves as he toppled to the ground.

I stood trembling in the again silent mansion. The pistol dangled from my limp hand. Sweat drenched my face, my clothes. I fumbled the flask out of my pocket and drained the last of the holy vodka in one long swallow. The horror never left.

On shaking legs I walked up the stairs to the balcony, back into Lilly’s open study. I took the Balvenie Fifty from the bar, not bothering with a glass, and collapsed into the leather chair behind the desk.

Lilly had shown me the existence of three demons, and their weaknesses. In my arrogance I thought I could destroy all three, but one succubus had brought me to my knees.

While showing me the one demon I had been hunting since my wife was taken from me.

I swallowed deeply from the bottle, but a gnawing need had grown since Aissa’s touch. The same insatiable need that had plagued me since Helen’s corruption, the need I could never satisfy. My hand went for my inner pocket. Empty. For an instant, panic gripped me, then I remembered I left my works kit at home when on missions. With everyone in the mansion waking up within the hour, I couldn’t dose here and risk capture.

But there was one thing I had to do, while the images from Aissa’s memory were still fresh. Taking another pull of scotch, I slipped the wrinkled slip of paper I kept always close to my heart and smoothed it out on the desk.

I had updated and redone the charcoal drawing countless times over the years, every time I saw her more clearly in a thought or more precisely in a memory. The demon had hung ephemeral since Helen, appearing in memories when I least expected it. And my rendition was all I had to go on.

Aissa had given me the piece that might lead me to the end of my journey.

The scotch had steadied my hand enough for me to draw in the simple wooden cross that hung around her neck, and sketch the faint outline of the Space Needle overshadowing her.

I’ve looked for you for two years, I whispered as I stared at her striking burgundy eyes. The one that destroyed my world, the one that took everything from me. And now I knew where you were.

I am going to destroy you, Tricia Priest, and finally, truly, avenge my wife.

Amp Up Your Conflict Four: Throw a Rock at the Planet

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Amp Up Your Conflict Four: Throw a Rock at the Planet

A great way to raise the stakes in your story is to add something that’s beyond anyone’s control.

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The title of this post is a bit facetious. Hucking an asteroid at the Earth does not make PLOT! appear, contrary to what Armageddon would have you believe. I am not a fan of making natural disasters the antagonists in your story. (This does not mean the man vs. nature conflict is invalid. The story still has to be about character, and giving your antagonist a face keeps that focused.) However, as both a setting and a crisis, natural disasters can add urgency and suspense to your story.

Think about any story set against the backdrop of greater calamity (Gone With the Wind, Slaughterhouse Five, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Postman, The Stand). All of these use various disasters like war and disease outbreaks as the setting and much of the conflict in the story. Natural disasters can add tremendous conflict and add tension to normally mundane tasks like day-to-day survival. But we still remember Scarlett O’Hara and Billy Pilgrim. It’s their struggles against these disasters that give them conflict and drive their characters. Even minor disasters like a power outtage, a flood or an unfortunate storm can drive forward a plot that doesn’t have the disaster as a central theme.

The Odyssey is popularly characterized as a man vs. nature story, and in a way it is. Odysseus is struggling against nature to get home. However, nature has a “face” through the Gods, which make it a struggle of Odysseus vs. the Gods more than nature.

Disasters (like an impending asteroid!) can crank up the tension in your story. Just remember that the disaster isn’t the point of your story. Be sure to keep your characters in the forefront and disasters can add an unexpected twist to your tale.

Amp Up Your Conflict Three: Don’t Forget The Flipside

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Amp Up Your Conflict Three: Don’t Forget The Flipside

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Any narrative you write always has two stories it’s telling: the story of your protagonist(s), and the story of your antagonist as well.

A good antagonist thinks they are the hero of your story. Their motivations should make sense to them (and eventually the reader) and their actions, in their minds at least, should be the right thing to do. This still gives you depth to make them as evil or depraved as you need, but they should never do anything just because it’s evil or because it furthers your plot.

A well developed antagonist like this gives you as author tremendous opportunity to amp up tension – by throwing your antagonist some difficulty. Remember, most events in your plot are going to go the antagonist’s way. But that doesn’t mean they can’t suffer some setbacks of their own.

You can use these conflicts (a rebellious employee, or a past jilted lover) to give opportunity to your protagonists. Or you can also use them to build some sympathy for your antagonist, which adds depth to your narrative. Think Cersei from Game of Thrones. In every way she’s an antagonist, but when she’s captured and ridiculed, we feel for her. Not enough to forgive her of her past actions, and perhaps mostly satisfaction that she got what was coming to her, but at some level we have sympathy. Now our feelings toward her are more complex.

Every story has a flipside. Don’t forget that side when you’re looking to amp up your story’s conflict.

Amp Up Your Conflict Two: Make Everything Worse

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Amp Up Your Conflict Two:Make Everything Worse

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 In every scene you write, always think about how you can make the situation worse. Making your moments of crisis as dire and emotionally charged as possible will keep the tension ratcheted up and your narrative moving.

It’s important that nothing ever goes your protagonists’ way. They should succeed through their choices and actions, not luck. Readers will spot luck and deus ex machina the moment it appears, and they won’t buy it. However, those same readers won’t question if something bad happens. That gives you as the writer the freedom to make the situation as awful as possible.

Start with your base conflict. Your protagonist wants to flip gender stereotypes and propose to her boyfriend. She plans a dinner at his favorite restaurant and secures the best seat in the place. But the restaurant loses her reservation. They have to wait for an hour to get a seat, which is in the back of the restaurant near the kitchen. Their waiter never remembers to check in on them, and a leak starts dripping onto the center of the table.

You have the scene set up with plenty of conflict. The night is a disaster, and not the right mood at all to propose. But now think of just one additional crisis to make the scene even worse:

Just as the leak stops and dinner is finally served, giving your protagonist hope she can salvage the night, her boyfriend’s ex walks into the restaurant with her date. Maybe they get the table your protagonist originally wanted. And it upsets her boyfriend so much she can tell he still harbors feelings for her.

Not only did you tease the readers with a satisfactory resolution and then rip it away, you also opened up new plot possibilities. Does the ex share in the lingering feelings? Does your protagonist know and like or dislike her? Is her new date the jealous type? With one additional crisis, you’ve introduced a Pandora’s box of potential conflict. You can follow all, some or none of these new possibilities, but regardless of your decision, you’ve just heightened the tension in your story.

Whenever you write a scene, always think about how it can get worse for your protagonists. Never let anything come easy for them. You’ll keep your reader turning pages, and when your protagonists do succeed, their victory will be all the sweeter.

 

Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: You Edited

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 5: You Edited

Remember in my first Why I Fall In Love post when I said I don’t reject submissions for bad grammar, poor prose or faulty construction? In reality, I reject submissions for these things all the time.

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Your goal above all else is to share your story with your readers through the language you type on the page. I can forgive a few misspellings or misplaced commas. I can accept a submission that meanders a bit before getting to its heart. These are errors that editors are here to help you fix. I can see the story I’m going to fall in love with through these faults and help you polish it into the story it wants to be. But this isn’t a free pass to forego the rules of written language or storycraft. Polished submissions with clean declarative sentences, few spelling errors and a command of storytelling basics sing to me.

You have to edit your work. Send me the best you can offer. Let your manuscript rest for a few weeks or even months, then take a look at it with a fresh eye. Make sure to catch all the spelling errors you can (especially those pesky errors that spell check misses), clean up your punctuation and cut as much unnecessary words/digressions/fluff as possible.

Give me your best. Then I will help you to make your story the best it can be.

This is not an exhaustive list of reasons I fall in love with a manuscript, but it covers 95% of them. And I would wager that most every editor would agree.

Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript: Your Characters Breathe

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Why I Fall In Love With a Manuscript 3: Your Characters Breathe

Unless, of course, they happen to literally be suffocating.

When I hear your characters’ voices in what they say and see them in what they do, I can’t help but fall in love.

Characters need strong identities. As an editor, I need a sense of who they are early on. I need to see their personalities in their actions and speech. Dialogue should be so personal no other character could say it, and actions so unique only one character would react that way.

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This is where good preparation comes in. Characters are like icebergs. We only see ten percent of them above the water, but we can sense the ninety percent below that moves them. A character’s background informs what they know, how they speak, and how they react to situations. Remember all that work you put into backstory but never got to tell us? This is the part of the iceberg that shows through. Say your character walks by a homeless man on the street. Did your character grow up poor, or was she raised demonizing the homeless? Did she grow up in a military home, which explains why she gave a homeless veteran money while she passed by a dozen others? With one simple encounter, her actions and words reveal her character and make her feel real and alive.

Another often overlooked element that brings life and dimension to characters is the little nuances, the nervous ticks and dialogue tags the character has. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight is one of the finest acting performances in years. So many elements went in to his character, but the most important pieces might have been the most minor. He made the Joker real by constantly flicking his tongue out and licking his lips. Playing with his ratty, greasy hair. Moving his hands in a subconscious, jittery flow. All of these nuances added to the chaotic insanity of the character.

THE DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger as The Joker, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

THE DARK KNIGHT, Heath Ledger as The Joker, 2008. ©Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection

Be sure to add these details to your own characters to reinforce their personalities. Maybe your protagonist chews his fingernails to the quick, plays with the brim of his hat, strokes the edge of his chin or jogs his leg when he’s sitting. Perhaps he runs his hands along everything he encounters or doesn’t look directly at anyone when he talks. These elements are small, maybe a few words of description here and there, but these small, unique quirks speak volumes.

Take a great character (say, Sherlock Holmes) and analyze him. Would any of Sherlock’s dialogue or actions feel comfortable coming from John Watson or Moriarty? Would any of his actions? Of course not. Make sure your characters are just as alive.