Sunday, March 31, 2019

THE WRITER'S LIBRARY


To be a writer, you must have a love of books or the very least, stories or composition. After all, the work of other writers, whether we want to admit it or not, serve inspiration for our own wild musings. I have a modest library of books that I have carried from place to place decade to decade that has grown with travel. In it, you will not find most classics, although I do have a beat-up copy of Dickens A TALE OF TWO CITIES. But where my Library and that of most writer’s collections meet, whether its signed first editions or mass market paperbacks, the two most important things are the authors and the tale they weave.

The authors? Really, I thought it was all about the story?
Yes, but with each author comes a separate style and molding of a tale in a specific voice. In my library that can be the New England voice of Robert B. Parker, the southern fantasy of Robert R. McCammon or the Midwestern quirkiness of John Sandford. Each of these authors gives a voice to their demographic and geography. My library is not limited not to International bestsellers but wonderful works by independents like B.E. Scully who hales from Oregon or the Californian known as Gene O’Neill. Writer’s like these are the hidden gems in the mass market we now live. Sadly, shrouded by the mediocrity that surrounds them. But here’s the thing, once you push past the Stephanie Meyer-Stephen King wannabes and see all the original ideas out there by so many talented storytellers, you will find yourself bowled over by the wealth of new and exciting work. Oh, and if you’re a follower of Stephen King's rantings about Stephane Meyers, you’ll understand why I put their names in the same sentence. Take that Steve.

As if he’s actually reading my blog. Ha!

Back on track. I have picked up a lot of my books over the years, many signed, from the charming F. Paul Wilson to the brilliant  Joseph Boyden and the equally brilliant R. James Steel. I love most genres, although I’m not much in romance or young adult. I confess that I have no interest in reading Harry Potter, although I acknowledge J.K. Rowling is a treasure brought to this world through perseverance. Young adult falls into a category of which I just don’t relate, but now that I am a grandfather, on more than one count, I will probably jettison that particular prejudice.

In my library, I have horror science fiction, mystery, true-crime, history, and anthologies. In writing my two upcoming books, I have become friends with the true-crime writer and Ted Bundy expert, Kevin M. Sullivan. I think after you write three books on a subject as dark, enigmatic, and monstrous as Ted Bundy you get that status. Sullivan has written four. This guy knows his stuff. If he’s not chasing down information on a new project or road tripping the movements of a serial killer, he’s offering his expertise in documentaries.

My library consists of three bookshelves and only the books I love stand there waiting to be picked up, drawn open and revisited. Maybe not the whole book but a chapter one morning before a stint of writing. Maybe that piece of storytelling where Virgil Flowers breaks up a dognapping ring in John Sandford’s Deadline. Oh, and I must remember to check back on the naked Ross Delvin who stands before a television playing a future reality game. Poor Ross, wondering whether his bowels are going to eject the previous evening's bean burrito meal and thwart his chance of getting to the next level of competition in B.E. Scully’s, THE EYE THAT BLINDS.

Yes, treasured stories, those books kept for love, memory, laughter, horror, escape and even research. I am not going to drop every name I have in my library, but like my fellow book junkies, I have affection for the ones I keep.

As I tie up this rather short blog which is really just a tête-à-tête about books, I would like to pose a challenge to all of you out there who are going to read this. Go to your personal library, pick something that you have held onto for the reasons I have stated and crack it open. This should be something you read and kept, and it can be in whatever genre. Yes. Even romance. And, if you feel like sharing, drop me a line and tell me why.

I’ll leave it there, with a shortlist of some my favorite authors and some of their works. Some friends, some strangers, but there’s always an intimacy when they tell you a story. So, are they really strangers?

Catch you next time.
M.J. Preston 


In no order or specific rank or category, but none the less enthralling and absolutely incomplete because there are so
many more I can’t list for lack of time and pixels.

Michael Connelly – Angels Flight
Jack Olsen – The Man with the Candy
Gregory L. Norris - Tales from the Robot Graveyard
Dean Koontz – Odd Thomas (all of them)
Joseph Heller – Catch 22
F. Tennyson Jesse – The Saga of the San Demetrio
Silvia Pecota – In Remembrance of Our Fallen (Poetry and Art)
Firbolg Publishing – Birthing Monsters 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley (Poetry and stories)
Gord Rollo – The Crucifixion experiments
Joe R. Lansdale - Jackrabbit Smile (Hap and Leonard)
John Douglas and Mark Olshaker – Mindhunter
Richard Bachman – The Long Walk
Stephen King – Apt Pupil (My first King book)
And I could go and on…




Thursday, August 30, 2018

TALKING ABOUT THE MOORE HOUSE BY TONY TREMBLAY


I just finished a book I received from a fellow author, not for review but for pleasure. That’s what writers often do, they exchange books. I’ve known Tony Tremblay for a few years now. I first met him face-to-face at an anthology conference, aka ANTHOCON, in Portsmouth New Hampshire. Pretty much every author I know that writes in the horror field I met at that conference. Almost everybody ended up on my friend's list, but Tony Tremblay stuck out for a couple of reasons. 

   First off, and this is a no bullshit statement, he is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. He loves where he lives, loves the people who surround him, including other writers, and he has an aura of positivity that is neither forced or fabricated. Tony Tremblay is the real deal. A proud resident of Goffstown, NH and a huge supporter of the horror community. But that’s not all. He’s passionate, talented and yet he remains humble. So, now I’ve buttered you up and you might think, “Look, he’s plugging a novel for his buddy. Isn’t that nice?” But here’s the thing that writers also do. They tend to go silent when the material doesn’t taste right. As to exchanging books, writers pass each other books, but many end up in a slush pile of To Be Read that is sometimes compromised when said writer goes whoring with a favorite bestselling author. There is also the time factor. I’m not a fast reader, never have been and even if I was my TBR pile is in the 100’s. And yes, writers I like to get bumped up the line. So, it didn’t take long before I wrapped my hands around a signed hardcover of THE MOORE HOUSE by TONY TREMBLAY. The look and feel of a professionally bound hardcover are a great introduction to any book.  The cover is simple leather brown with even simpler artwork. An ancient cross. The feel adds to the invitation, the matte cover feeling like a thin skin of raw leather.
As I opened the book, I read Bracken McLeod’s introduction and upon finishing, I thought, “Now what the hell am I going to say to top that?”
With McLeod’s foreword in my rear-view mirror, I started reading…
The Moore House is thought to have a black soul, based on its history and reputation. It is the nucleus of evil acts. Suicide, disappearances, murders that include dismemberment, can all be connected to the Moore House. But no one gets convicted of these crimes. The murders that are discovered and investigated are predestined to become cold cases.
And then there is that other school of thought. Perhaps the house itself is the killer, inhabited by an evil, not of this world?
Catholic Priest, Father MacLeod leads a team of three excommunicated nuns, Nora, Agnes, and Celeste, to investigate the Moore House at the behest of a local businessman, Kevin Lewis. Lewis’ granddaughter has been missing for some time and he believes that the house has something to do with it. With connections in the Vatican, Lewis uses his influence to send MacLeod’s team to the Moore House to explore the possibility that the dwelling might be possessed.
That is what they do, with each woman possessing an ability to pinpoint the presence of paranormal or demonic activity, they sweep the property with zero results. Satisfied, Father MacLeod departs, while the three women stay on and are compelled to go into the house following a uniformed police officer who thinks he sees the missing Lewis child and requests their assistance.
What ensues is imprisonment and a web of trickery on the part of the houses demonic presence. The sins of the team itself are inventoried individually as the devil’s disciple casts its influence on the trapped women. Meanwhile, Father MacLeod returns to save the women and brings help, including the businessman, Lewis and a local pawnbroker who seems to know more than is letting on.
In the Moore House, Tremblay revives the demonic possession tale with purity and strength.  A melding of Ghost Story meets The Exorcist is what is suggested. Having read both books I can understand the analogy. But this story reminds me of another of demonic possession book, John Farris’ SON OF THE ENDLESS NIGHT. Not so much because of a similar storyline, there isn’t, but the style of the writing feels the same. That’s a compliment. Tremblay remains true to the legend surrounding exorcism and has researched the subject matter for which he uses as his backdrop. His non-villain characters are flawed, forgivable, and even likable. His villains are to be despised and feared. And of course, there is the house itself. Impervious to arson, able to change and cloak its victims using its black soul while playing host to a top-tier demon.
I’m not going to tell you anything else about the plot, I’m not going to ruin it for you. I am going to tell you that I enjoyed this story a lot. Even though I stated only weeks ago that I was “so over” haunted houses. Tremblay gets a pass on that complaint because he tells a wicked story and his characters easily become your characters. I even felt a little twinge, because it reminded me somewhat of my debut novel, THE EQUINOX. Again, not because the stories are the same, but the writer of Moore House has the same feeling I was trying to portray in my first full-length novel. That is also a compliment.
This is Tony Tremblay’s debut novel with Twisted Publishing, an imprint of Haverhill House Publishing. He has also published a short story collection called SEEDS OF NIGHTMARES. This debut novel is worth checking out. If you’re a fan of John Farris or classic King, you won’t be disappointed. Also, there is a bonus at the end of this book. Tremblay leaves you with an introduction and a short tale, dessert after the main course. That is THE REVEREND’S WIFE.
It is available in hardcover, paperback and on kindle.
Get it on Amazon
Enjoy.
MJ Preston

Thursday, July 26, 2018

THE HOLLOW MEN


The Hollow Men

By M.J. Preston



US Route 25, Dixie Highway
North of Lexington, KY

Rudd would never have come alone to a meeting like this―only a fool would―but, he was desperate. The clubhouse had been raided, there had been gun battles and explosions, and in the end, the Mercs who hadn’t been killed were taken away. Those lucky enough to miss the melee, like him, were now in the wind looking for shelter.
How many was that?
Him, Gene, Wink, and Alex.
“Fucking four,” he grunted under his breath, and then louder. “Out of forty-four.” There had to be a hard-luck song in there somewhere. Started with forty-four and ended with four. Johnny Cash could’ve sung it, but the Man in Black was dead, had been for 13 years. “Okay, what about Bob Dylan?”
He gave the throttle a twist. The hog grunted and surged into the road, seemingly pulling the asphalt toward him like a tablecloth from a banquet table. He twisted a little more, and the exhaust let out a succession of fiery pops. His odometer was edging up over ninety, and he could feel the shimmy between his legs. The bike didn’t balance well after 90 mph, it became unstable and dangerous. Like a bucking horse determined to throw its rider. He backed it down to 85 mph and the Fat Boy leveled out. That was better, except for the odd bug hitting him in the face. He would have loved a face shield, but that wasn’t in club protocol.
The Mercenaries were an old-school club. No Indians, no Triumphs and definitely no fucking rice burners. Harley Davidson only. In celebration of that, the club would have annual bike burnings and BBQ. Last time it had been a Honda American Classic, a poser bike if there ever was one. Wink had acquired it from the hospital in Lexington.
“Easy pickings,” Wink said. “Best of all was the name on the parking spot. Dr. Fucking Payne.”
Twenty-four Mercs were sitting in the hanger that day, and all of them broke into laughter. Rudd had laughed too. Mostly because he’d seen his fair share of these posers running around with their Sons of Anarchy patches and hoodies. He used to laugh at the guys who wore Harley Davidson gear. Now, the Sons of Anarchy idiots made the guys wearing the Harley gear look halfway acceptable. He’d met a lot of these turds. Some were at the odd intersection, rumbling up beside them and giving their bike a quick inspection. Purposely gunning the throttle and then penetrating the rider with his steely eyes.
If the guy had a Harley, he’d say, “Nice bike.”
To which the rider replied nervously, “Thank you.”
“Wanna join a club? We’re looking for prospects.”
Most were polite, giving another ‘thank you’ coupled with ‘I’m afraid I don’t have time, my job.’ But two of these idiots actually had the audacity to try and strike up a conversation about Harley Davidson.
“How long you had that fat boy?”
Rudd ignored the question. “Wanna join a club?”
“Um uh…”
“Ever kill anybody?” Rudd pushed.
In the end, they all ran like the scared yuppies they were.  He never saw them down here after that. Figuring they went home, he parked the bike in the garage next to the mini-van and ditched the poser gear. They probably had the bike for sale on Craigslist before they went to bed.
Wink came up to him after that last one. “You love fucking with them don’t you?”
Rudd didn’t smile. “They don’t belong out here. The road would swallow ‘em whole. I’m doing a public service, Wink.”
“You sure are, brother,” Wink said.
Rudd cracked a smile. The memory overshadowing the disaster that hit the Mercs was not forgotten but pushed aside as the tarmac rolled beneath him. Those had been good times. Before the business with the Reverend and his family. Before the war started with the Wraiths. Before the ATF raid. Rudd was the quintessential sociopath, able to compartmentalize predicaments. He could place each instant, no matter how insane, into its own file. This was how he got through, how he managed to work under pressure and ignore the things that would drive ordinary men nuts. But in the whirlwind of insanity, there was one unshakable pillar that could not be compartmentalized or moved to the back of his mind.
Angie, he thought. What she must be thinking.
The gunfight would be all over the news and streaming across the internet. She would have caught it by now. His daughter was the only good thing he’d done in his life. The only thing he’d kept separate from this life. She was in Ypsilanti, two states away from the firestorm. That would shield her from the sensational expose that would be spilling out onto CNN and Fox News.
“Fuck,” he grunted and tightened the throttle.
The bike shook.
There’d be reports of dead ATF Agents, Mercenary Bikers, and mass arrests. It was just a matter of time before the Feds would have his mug, along with the others, filling the television screen of every household in America.
Until this morning, he’d been holed up in a rundown motel on the north side of Williamstown, planning his exit strategy and setting up the meeting. He cut his shoulder-length hair right down to the wood using a set of clippers, and then he shaved off the decade-old beard and mustache. He switched his colors for jeans and a button-down plaid shirt but kept the motorcycle boots. It was checkout time.
“Wow, I hardly recognized you,” the male desk clerk, not more than 21, said. “You checking out?”
“Yes,” Rudd said. Then he raised his gun and shot the kid in the face. Blood sprayed against the peeling wallpaper. The kid dropped like a stone. “Sorry, kid. Couldn’t take a chance.”
He walked around the counter and emptied the register, netting himself a whopping $187.00. He’d paid $85.00 up front, so it was really only $102.00. There’d been no else staying at the motel. No other witnesses. No other killings necessary. With any luck, it would look like a random robbery.
Fifteen miles.
He reached back and padded the saddle bag that he hoped would buy his way out. Inside that leather bag was the reason for the meeting he was about to attend. Two kilos of crystal meth. He needed some traveling money, enough to find his way into Canada. He could go straight up I-75 into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, ditch the bike, and find a gap in the unprotected border. He had a cousin up there. He’d have to call him and set it up. He could’ve run for Mexico. The money from glass would last longer, but Rudd was thinking about the big picture. If he were captured, Canadian prison would be a lot easier to handle than Mexico. Also, the Mexicans would be more apt to turn him over than the Canucks, especially if the death penalty was involved.
Get a burner phone, he thought. Soon as the meeting is over.
He would do just that. He just hoped that his cousin Charlie hadn’t moved or changed his number. It had been a few years. Lexington was 72 miles behind him, and that meant that the cutoff for the Quonset had to be up here somewhere.
“It’s like an old airplane hangar, but it’s light blue and made from wood instead of steel,” Wink had said. “I had Watson check him out.” Watson was a state cop. Their state cop. “He said the guy is right. He’s been buying Crystal, but he’s not on the police payroll.”
“Any idea where he’s from?” Rudd asked.
“California, I think.” Wink was his right hand. When the Mercs needed something taken care of, Rudd used Wink. He knew how to organize, to get shit done. Wink was as rigid as a Marine Corp Gunny and twice as mean. He had looked at all the angles and risks, and after finishing his query, he reported back to Rudd, the President. A meeting had been called and, after being thoroughly briefed, each member put in their two cents.
When that finished, Rudd gave his judgment and then called for a vote. “If we go in, we go with force. I want twenty Mercs minimum. That will give anyone thinking about an ambush second thoughts. If this dude? What was his name, Wink?”
“Aspen.”
“Yeah, Aspen. If he becomes a regular, he’ll see who he’s dealing with. I say we do it, but I want the highest security.” Rudd gazed around the table, met every man’s eye. “That’s where I stand. Let’s put it to a vote.”
The vote was unanimous.
Rudd dropped the hammer.
The turnoff was up ahead. A small jug handle on the east side of the northbound lane. It cut out into a dirt lot and tucked back about 40 feet was the Quonset hut. That was the meeting place. The place where the unknown named Aspen was going to buy the two kilos. There was a single car parked in that lot, a white ‘71 Camaro. 
Idiot, Rudd thought. Apparently, Aspen had never heard the word: Inconspicuous. A thought came to him. If he killed this Aspen, he could keep the meth, the money and would have a new ride.
He could roll the bike into the woods, hide it, and maybe even get a hold of Westy to pick it up in a day or two. Westy ran a body shop for the Mercs, he was a hang-around. He was a good guy, Rudd even offered for him to become a prospect, but Westy declined with respect. “I don’t mind doing some stuff for you guys, but I got kids.”
Rudd took no slight and respected Westy’s honesty. Riding with the Mercs wasn’t family friendly. They were in a perpetual state of war. The latest takedown by the Feds, surprising as it was, was just the end of it. He tapped the brake and eased into the jug handle, feeling the beaten asphalt chatter beneath the rubber of his wheels. He weaved around two potholes and veered right into the gravel lot. Dust kicked up into the air, obscuring him as he rolled down the left of the Quonset and to a stop near the back. Crouched behind a scattering of four-foot diameter conduit pipe, he was hidden from passing vehicles.
But that Camaro, he thought.
Yeah, the hot rod looked completely out of place here, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that. Except make this meeting quick. He reached into the saddlebag and pulled out the dope. Then he grabbed his gun.
 “I’ll be the only one there,” Aspen had said over the phone. “Meet me inside the hut and we’ll make it a quick exchange.” That worked for Rudd. He had a Desert Eagle 9 mm tucked into the back of his jeans. The clip was only missing the one round he’d put into the motel clerk’s head. He hadn’t been in the firefight at the Mercenaries clubhouse; if he had, he’d be dead or in jail along with the rest. Wink, Gene, and Alex hadn’t been there either.
Wink had called him. “Broken Arrow!”
That was all he needed to hear. Broken Arrow was a military term that meant the enemy was in the perimeter. None of the Mercenaries had ever been in a broken arrow situation. Not in that other life, when they served in the military or even when they got out and joined the Mercs.
Rudd and Wink had formed the club after the Second Gulf War. They left the Army Rangers behind and formed the Mercenaries. There were three rules. You had to have served in the Army and had to have seen action. All 44 Mercs were combat veterans. The third rule was that you pledged yourself to the Mercenaries and never spoke about your military service.
Within two years the Mercs were in the sights of the ATF and the FBI. They moved drugs, sold guns, and ran a prostitution ring that was a major cash cow. There had been competition, a local gang in Lexington, The Wraiths, had tried to take them on in the first year. It had gotten bloody—Rudd killed their President in broad daylight. They responded by grabbing Gardner, who was the 45th Merc, and dragged him behind a bike until he was dead. Gardner was in Mogadishu, Somalia when that pussy Clinton was president. He’d been closer to a broken arrow than any of them. He’d been with the Rangers who were under siege, the ones Ridley Scott had made that movie about. Blackhawk Down. Rudd had gone to see the movie with Gard. In the end, Gard’s eyes had welled with tears, Rudd didn’t bother asking if he thought the movie was realistic, the tears had been enough.

***

Some might have wondered if the Mercs had abandoned their military honor when they traded in the army rank for outlaw status. Rudd was a pragmatist; honor was in the eye of the beholder. The Mercenaries had honor. To each other anyway. Everyone else was fair game. Most knew what it meant to kill another human being; those who hadn’t done it in combat were first pick when the deed had to be done. Their honor was saddled among their fellow thieves and killers.
He was around the conduit pipe, gazing back to make sure the bike was obscured. It was. The sun had set, the sky was darkening, and the highway was a silent wave of emulsion.
Good.
Rudd rapidly passed one of the two windows that bookended the wooden man door. He removed the gun from his back jacking the slide to make sure the round had chambered. He squared himself on the left side of the door. “Aspen?”
There was a pause.
Then, a man’s voice replied, “Yeah, come in and make it quick.”
Rudd took a breath. In his right hand was the gun, in his left, two kilos of glass. He sighed and put the gun into the back of his waistband. His right hand free, he turned the doorknob and pushed. A dry smell flooded out and over him. He gazed in and saw a man standing below a single incandescent bulb in the rear of the hut. He was standing beside a six-foot folding table. On the table was a duffle bag.
“I don’t have all day. I caught the news.” Aspen said. “Can we get this over with?”
Rudd investigated the shadows for looming threats. “Kind of dark in here.”
“Look, I’m taking a hell of a chance here. How about you show me yours and I’ll show you mine,” Aspen said.
Rudd took another breath. Aspen didn’t look like the drug dealing kind. He looked like a doctor or a lawyer or even a politician. Or maybe a cop. Something smelled funny. “I’m feeling a bit exposed here. How about you throw up a bit more light.”
“This is it. I don’t own this joint. We're lucky the place has any electrical. If you’re so freaked out, just back out the door and fuck off. I can get my crystal elsewhere.” Aspen reached for the bag as if he intended to storm out.
“Hang on there. I’m just taking precautions.” Rudd reached around and pulled the gun from his waistband. He brought it around to dangle at his side. Glancing left and right, he saw nothing. Aspen was staring down at the duffle. As he marched forward, he kept his eye for anyone who might jump from the shadows. By his fourth step, he heard the metallic clank and snap. He was mid-stride and heard it a second time. The two clanks had been leghold traps. The snap had been the splintering of bone on both legs just above the ankles. The pain had been delayed, but only for a nano-second before it exploded up his legs like hot molten lava. Both his hands dislodged causing him to lose his grip on the crystal but worse, the gun. He heard screaming and was positive it wasn’t him, but he was wrong. By the time he realized it, Aspen was out with a gun of his own.
He took aim and fired.
Rudd prepared himself for the end. The spikes dug into his right cheek and the hard cartilage of his Adam’s apple. He legs shrieked with pain, but when the electricity hit him, he forgot all about the shattered bone and broken tissue. He danced clay foot to the rhythmic shock of the Taser. Rudd looked like a child’s toy, quivering, unable to fall over. He thought it would be better if he could fall down—writhe in pain—contract into a fetal ball of exquisite pain. This would not happen unless he could detach himself from his ankles. He collapsed in the upright position, retreating from the pain, but it didn’t last.
The Merc went into the murk.
***

“Wake up, Rudd.” The man’s voice was steady, calm. “Come on, we’ve got to get down to business. I haven’t got all day.”
He was coming back, the pink Gaussian blur of his eyelids failing to shut out the light, tugging him into consciousness. His ankles ached in an intense circular pulse of agony. They’d been broken. He wouldn’t be doing any forced marches on them anytime soon; if ever. He opened his eyes to find himself sitting before the very table Aspen had been seated behind. His arms were bound to the chair by duct tape, his legs, although useless, were also strapped in. He turned his head and saw the silhouette moving to his right.
“Good, you're awake. Our time together is pretty limited.” The man walked behind him, patting his shoulder gently. “We have a few things to talk over.”
“Talk over,” Rudd whispered. “Do you have any idea what kind of hornets’ nest you’ve stirred up? You obviously know who I am. Are you that stupid?”
The man moved around him and took a seat behind the folding table. Rudd couldn’t make out his face. The light had been strategically placed to obscure it. “Get it out of your system, Rudd.”
“You’re a dead man.”
“You’re right, I am dead. I’ve been dead for the better part of two years.”
Rudd thought about this. “What do you want?”
“Two years ago, you waged war with a rival gang called The Wraiths. It was a bloody war, you personally killed their leader, they killed one of your longstanding members. It wasn’t until the purge that your organization got the upper hand. How many Wraith’s did you kill, Rudd?”
Rudd said nothing. Was this guy a Wraith?
“Five were executed in a dive bar called Rascals, outside Florence, Kentucky. In broad daylight, a van pulls up. Six men, armed to the teeth, get out armed and shoot the place up. Along with six from their side, you folks also managed to kill a 23-year-old-barmaid and 44-year-old man whose only sin was doling out saturated fats in the form of pub grub.”
“You a Wraith, Aspen? Is this what it’s about?”  Rudd was eying the corner of the table; his desert eagle was out of reach. If this asshole intended to torture and kill him, maybe he could get him close enough to… He twisted his wrist, feeling the tape pull at the hairs on his forearms.
“As you’ve probably guessed, my name is not Aspen.”
“What is your name, then?”
“Soon enough. You murdered Bobby Baden, the President of the Wraiths in Cleveland. That left eight of their foot soldiers, who then got a hold of one of yours and dragged him to death. That sound about right?”
“I don’t need a history lesson.”
“Yes, yes you do.”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“The Wraiths just wouldn’t give up that territory in Lexington. Your club was much bigger, you outnumbered them by more than four to one, but they just wouldn’t give it up.”
Rudd knew what was coming, but he still didn’t know who the stranger was.
“It was raining that morning when you drove up to the Wraith clubhouse and parked a 2001 Honda Prelude just outside the main entrance. I’ve been wondering, did you learn to make car bombs from our enemies in Iraq?”
Rudd was starting to realize who the man was but stayed silent. He moved his wrists, trying to loosen himself, eyeing the desert eagle, stretching the tape.
“The bomb ignited at 10:30 am, killing four of the Wraiths and two bystanders, plus injuring one. That was when the FBI and ATF turned their sights on your club, but you didn’t leave any evidence. There was no surveillance and people who saw you sitting in a van a block down, they were killed in the explosion. A family.” The man turned the light upon himself. His face was marred by a winding railroad scar than ran from the bridge of his nose under a deformed, dead-gray eye. The skin on his face had been graphed below the chin in a patchwork of three triangles. He looked like a modern rendition of Mary Shelley’s monster. “My family…”
Rudd felt his blood thin, his pulse quicken as the name came back. Reverend Benjamin Price, the lone survivor in the Lexington bombing, husband to deceased Andrea Price, father to Jeremy Price. The boy was eight years old.
Price brought a hand up, set it on the table. It looked more like a lobster claw than a hand. Only the middle and ring finger remained, and each was swollen and deformed. “You know me now?”
“Yeah.” Rudd looked into his eyes. “I’m not going to beg, so if you’re going to kill me, let’s get on with it.”
Then from behind, he heard a cacophony of whispers. Like lizards hissing? “Benjamin, is it time?”
“Not yet,” Price answered, turning toward the shadows.
Rudd twisted in the direction of the shadowy calls. “Who else is here?”
“After I came to that first time and they told me that my wife and son were gone, I prayed for God to take my life.” Price had both hands on the table now, the other, uninjured, set the two acquired bags of meth side by side.
“We’re hungry, Benjamin,” came another lizard buzz, almost female, and from a different part of the hut. More voices followed. “Yes, hungry. Feeding time.”
Price reached into the duffle, pulled out a switchblade knife, and popped it. He gazed at Rudd and smiled.
A third whisper, male and more aggressive. “You promised.”
Promised what, Rudd thought.
“Okay, I’ll give you a taste.” He deliberately hesitated, holding Rudd’s gaze, and then cut open the first bag. The glass was in stable form, straight from the pan. He took the handle of the blade and brought down on the rectangle. It shattered into spiky pieces too big for any pipe.
“Hungry,” a fourth voice whispered.
“Who is that?” Rudd said, his head darting left and right, straining to see into the darkness. What lurked there?
“I’ll just be a minute.” Price stood lifting the one bag and walking around the table. He roamed around the room behind Rudd. “Here you go,” he said as if talking to a dog being offered a treat. Rudd couldn’t see the takers, but he could hear them moving in the darkness. They made slithering sounds, their breathing harsh and… Unsatisfied.
As Price handed out the chunks of meth, Rudd wondered if they would all light up at the same time, but more importantly, how many there were.
Price came back around, padded him on the shoulder, and again took his seat. “Where were we?” All around him, Rudd could hear slurping sounds. “They don’t have any teeth. They have to suck on it like hard candy.”
Rudd twisted his arms, but the tape was bound too tight and wouldn’t give. Although he didn’t want to admit it, he knew that there was no way out. The gun still held his gaze. His voice shaking, he said, “What are we doing here, Price? You gonna torture and kill me?”
“That’s exactly what I’m going to, but first, I’m going to tell you about the Hollow Men.”
“You’re going to quote poetry to me?” Rudd let out a defiant laugh. “That really is torture.”
Price smiled, anger bubbling just below the surface, but he maintained his composure. “I have to give it to you, Rudd. You don’t scare that easy.”
But he was scared. Not of anything Price might do, but the things making those sucking sounds. They didn’t sound human, and he supposed they weren’t. Meth addicts shed their humanity like a reptile shedding skin.
Price reached into the duffle bag and pulled out a minister’s white collar stained copper and lightly scorched. He set it on the table. “I used to be a man of God, Rudd. In fact, my ministry was just down the street from the Wraith clubhouse. That was where we were going in the morning you pushed the button. It was my idea to walk. Even on that rainy morning when we passed you parked beside the telephone pole on the east side of the street. I saw your face in the side view mirror. I saw you holding a cell phone. Was that the trigger?”
Rudd remained silent, glancing at the collar, listening.
“When I came to…when they told me that they were gone, I lost my faith. Lost my ability to do what God commands of us all. Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord, but I would not be cheated. I turned my back, and waiting for me in the darkness was the one who would pay a high price for my soul. And that price was them.”
“Feeding time.” They said from the darkness.
“Not yet.” Price looked past Rudd. “Soon.” He stood and widened the duffle bag. “I thought you’d like to know what it was you did, so I’ve prepared a little demonstration for you.”
His dread intensifying, Rudd began to squirm.
Hungry whispers. “Benjamin. More.”
Price reached into the bag, grabbed a handful of glass and tossed it to Rudd’s left and then another to his right. Out of the corner of his eye, Rudd saw a long gray arm come out of the darkness and reach for a chunk of glass.
“When the bomb tore that little car apart, jagged pieces of metal and plastic exploded in every direction. I lost my thumb and two fingers.” He reached into the bag, pulled out a mason jar and set it before Rudd. Floating in clear liquid were a thumb and two fingers. They were ragged, already turning gray in the formaldehyde.
Rudd wondered who owned those digits.
Wink? Gene? Or was it Alex?
“My wife lost her ear and right eye.” He pulled out a second jar and sat it next to the other. An ear and an eye bobbed in the clear fluid, membranous strands wrapped in crimson tendrils dangled from the stalk.

Rudd’s heart beat heavily in his ears, but outwardly, he maintained his composure. “You think I haven’t seen a mutilated body, asshole. I was in Afghanistan and Iraq picking over the worst of the worst.”
“I’m sure you have. To become so cruel and without empathy is either a born or a learned trait. Were you always a sociopath, Rudd?”
“Benjamin,” came more whispers. “Hungry. Feed us.”
Rudd twisted his head.
“Silence!” Price cut the second bag open, smashed the glass plate and tossed the chunks out to his pets. There was a scuttling as they snatched up the pieces. In his peripheral, Rudd caught sight of a dried bald head coming into the light and snatching up a chunk of meth. He did not see the face before it retreated, and then came more sucking sounds. The meth was all gone. “Where were we,” Price said.
“What are they,” Rudd cried. “What the fuck are they!”
“They are the Hollow Men, I will tell you about them, but first…” He reached into the bag to grab another jar. “My son was decapitated by a piece of the hood. You could have waited, waited until we walked by, and aborted the assassination. But you were so bent on revenge that we were nothing to you.”
Rudd felt the anxiety rise. The sucking sounds were dwindling. What would they want next?  Whose head would be coming out of that bag?
Price reached in and pulled out a large lab jar and placed it on the table. The head inside was turned away, but Rudd already knew who it was and lost all control. “No! No! No!”
“I waived my service to God and embraced the darkness like you.” He turned the jar, the head slow to follow the traverse of its glass cage. “I gave up everything for this moment, but to take her apart piece by piece, as she begged and screamed would mean giving over to them.”
The head rotated around to face him. He hardly recognized her. The eye and ear removed, her brown hair floating around and obscuring her face like seaweed.
“Angie,” he cried. “You bastard, she…”
“She did nothing to me? Is that what you were going to say?” Price laughed. “That’s pretty fresh, Rudd. How many people have you struck down? How many innocents?”
Rudd fell silent. Hot tears stung his cheeks, rolled over his lip and into his mouth. He wanted to look away, but couldn’t. This is was what he had wrought. Final payment for a life of killing.
“It was a noisy affair; the screaming alone should have been too much for any man to bear.” Price was unbuttoning his shirt. “But I am not the man I was, nor will I ever be again.”
Rudd brought his eyes up to meet his captor. They were red and angry, but what little humanity remained in his heart had been burned away.
“Benjamin… Hungry…”
“I had to give the master my heart.” Price opened his shirt and a scar cut diagonally across his sternum. “He pulled it from my chest and ate it before me. That was the trade. My eternal soul for the hollow men.” Price smiled and looked out into the shadows. “Soon my children. Feeding time is soon.”
Broken, Rudd muttered, “Get on with it. Just kill me.”
Price took a deep breath. “They don’t like the direct light. Do you know what they are? Some call them the black-eyed people, takers of souls, but they have no eyes, nor soul, only hunger. The master calls them the hollow men.”
He stood and moved over to the right of Rudd, who followed him with his eyes. There was a click, a breaker being flipped over. Above, four rows of fluorescent black lights buzzed to life. Pale silhouettes were now faintly set alight in the shadows. Balding, naked entities with hollow sockets for eyes.
There were so many.
Rudd began to cry, to beg, to shake the chair to its foundation. “Just kill me! I’m sorry, Benjamin. Please! I’m sorry!”
Price came back. “Goodbye, Rudd. I’ll see you in hell.”
He turned off the light and the hollow men came. Latching onto him like parasites, sucking the soul from his pores. It was agony. Eternal suffering.
When Price got into the Camaro, he could still hear the screaming as they swarmed and took him apart. He pulled from the lot and set out down the highway. He tossed the picture of Angie Rudd from the window. This was only the beginning. There were many people to call upon Many Mercenaries still alive. When they were finished, the hollow men would follow.
They always did.
He punched the accelerator

-End-