Tag Archives: Fiction

The Scribe’s Arcanum: Anatomy of Writers of the Future Honorable Mention—Blade of the Vagabond Part 3

For Part 1, click here. For Part 2, click here. 

Realizing I could resubmit Blade of the Vagabond to the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest, I set out to put the 8,000-word version through a final polish. I uploaded the manuscript into ProWritingAid and began making my prose lean and mean. With an even cleaner manuscript, I went through the process outlined on the Writers of the Future website and submitted it through their web-portal. 

WOTF-35-Front-Cover

Writers of the Future Volume 35

There was nothing else to do but wait and keep working on my current project. After facing rejection a few times with this story, I had no expectations. In fact, I sent it off only to keep the manuscript circulating. I didn’t feel the story in its shortest form, grabbed a top spot, and I didn’t have time to re-edit the longer version to make the submission window. Truly, I would need to add back between 1,000 and 1,500 words to sand down what I felt was an awkward transition. 

Imagine my surprise when I received this email: 

Dear Entrant,

Your story has been judged and is an Honorable Mention for the 3rd quarter of the L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. (You entered between 1 April and 30 June <2019>).

Congratulations!!! You were in the top 2% of all entries. 

Getting an Honorable Mention from the Writers of the Future contest is a big deal. There are no figures on how many enter the contest each quarter. It’s a very large number. From the information I had, we could estimate something like 14,000 entries! I’m not sure if that number’s accurate, but if it is, it’s understandable why they wouldn’t want to make it public. They want you to send in your story, and if that number intimidates you, you’ll be less likely to submit. Probably the largest and most prestigious contest in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre. If you want to get any recognition—bring your A-game.  

Receiving the Honorable Mention was a nice pick-me-up during a long dry period in sales. It showed I was on the right track, encouraging me to redouble my efforts. 

It also made me reevaluate my writing career direction. Previously, I’d been submitting mostly short horror stories and writing a combination of novel-length thrillers and horror thrillers. After the Honorable Mention, I began not only working on an Urban Fantasy novel but reevaluated some of my unpublished short fiction to market it as dark fantasy or rewrite it as Urban fantasy. No matter which, I’ll probably work on more fantasy and Science fiction as I go forward. 

A list of all the Honorable Mentions and Winners for that quarter can be found here.

A great post with tips on writing for the contest can be found here. 

So, that’s it. That’s the full story of how I got an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. If you enter, and I hope you do, I wish you the best of luck. Keep plugging away.  I know I am!

IMG_0437

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Black Magic Bullets: Chapter 17

 

I have finally returned to Black Magic Bullets. This chapter is very short, but after so long a wait, I wanted to post something. I’m sorry for the delay. Before I present this next chapter, let me explain what led up to the previous chapter.

I had no idea what would happen when Kenzi and Harrison entered the basement. Usually, I’d just write out of order and go to a scene a little further along in the narrative, but since I’m posting the first draft publicly, I didn’t want to leave the audience hanging. By moving on, the next scene usually tells me what needs to come before. In that way, I can become unstuck and move on. Since I wasn’t going to do that, I had reached an impasse. Luckily, an idea arrived quickly.

Everything I read, watch, and experience tends to inform how the story develops. Black Magic Bullets is no exception. 

Interestingly enough, we ended up putting on Bright with Will Smith on Netflix one night. Not a great movie, even when just streaming in the background.

Bright

Bright reminded me of Alienation meets Lord of the Rings in an Urban Fantasy world. I thought it interesting how close the orcs and elves were to J.R.R. Tolkien’s creations. After the movie ended, I realized I wanted to put orcs in the basement level of the building in Black Magic Bullets. I was intrigued but didn’t want my story to be derivative of Tolkien’s world.

LOTR

The Lord of the Rings*

Then I remembered Ogre, Ogre by Piers Anthony, a novel set in his Xanth series. I hadn’t thought of that novel since the mid-80s. Using an ogre appealed to me more since they’re derived directly from world mythology.  And that’s how ogre’s ended up in my manuscript.

 

Ogre

Ogre, Ogre (Xanth)

Now, without further ado, here’s the 1st draft of Chapter Seventeen.

 

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

Chapter Seventeen

The next location went much the same way as the first, this time—thankfully— with no ogres. That was a relief. But all this searching was eating up time. 

Cyber contacted us not long after we dejectedly left the second abandoned structure. She had an idea for a place to check out that I would never have imagined. I supposed that was why Dreadstone employed her. She had thought through the situation and trusted her, but I still didn’t have much hope of finding Dedra’s body. 

When we arrived at the maze of small buildings, the sun had reached its zenith. 

“Take another hit,” Kenzi said. 

I already hated this part of the job. I couldn’t wait until my mystical abilities matured. 

I took the hit of the gas and stepped out of the BMW. 

Entering the maze, we snaked our way through squat metal buildings. Kenzi followed my lead. Each unit painted blue reminding me of the identical prefab houses in the culdesacs of the middle-class and the ubiquitous brick government housing of the underprivileged.  

Then I saw the signature and told Kenzi as much. I wish I hadn’t. 

The storage locker looked the same as any other, but this one was different. Would the locker contain Dedra’s body? I didn’t want to know. 

Kenzi stepped in front of the locker, raising a crowbar. 

Metal struck metal. Once, twice, a third time. Finally, the padlock gave way. Plucking from its resting place, Kenzi tossed it. The padlock bounced once off concrete and came to rest. 

Squatting, Kenzi lifted the gate and immediately turned her head. 

Foul air escaped the confines. Now I knew the odor of the dead. 

Kenzi turned her head as if slapped. I suspected once we found the body, I’d turn green and throw up. Unlike the male body in the basement, this one had succumbed to heat and cold and was generally worse for wear. 

Although I felt queasy, my stomach didn’t betray me. I was grateful. The last thing I wanted was to lose my cookies in front of Kenzi. 

“If this is her,” Kenzi said, examining the body. “We won’t be needing that shovel.” 

“How will we know?” 

Kenzi grabbed a body bag from the trunk and then returned. 

“The body’s female,” she said. “We bring her back to Dreadstone.”

“And if it is her?” I asked. 

“Then we have a murderer to find.” 

To be continued… 

 

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The Scribe’s Arcanum: Anatomy of a Writers of the Future Honorable Mention—Blade of the Vagabond Part 2

In part 1, I examined the  inspiration that led to writing Blade of the Vagabond (you can read that here). In Part 2, we’ll continue as I turn BOTV into a novelette and send it out to the  L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest. 

Originally, Blade of the Vagabond had a subtitle. The first 20,000-word version was called Blade of the Vagabond: Heaven, Earth, and Woman. The subtitle is a play on a Confucian concept of Heaven, Earth, and Man where, in very simplistic terms, man acts as the harmonizing force between the spiritual and material realms or perhaps between the opposites of Yin and Yang. The place in-between where truth resides. That’s close enough for a laymen’s understanding, but I’m sure I’ll get some criticism for it.  If you have a more succinct explanation, feel free to post in the comments. I welcome your thoughts. 

Heaven-Earth-Man

Anyway, I changed Man to Woman in the subtitle as my main character is female. 

I was introduced to the term through my martial arts practice and have been fascinated ever since. The concept became the central focus of the story. 

Once I had finished the first draft, I put the story away, awaiting a viable market. As I mentioned in Part 1, the open submission period  ended before I completed the first draft.  Luckily, soon after, the original publisher reopened for submissions. 

I edited my draft and then gave it to Patty for a proofread. After reading the initial draft, Patty dubbed this story her favorite of any I had written.  After a polish edit, I felt satisfied enough to send it and await a response. 

Feeling this story represented my best work,  I was convinced it had a good chance of selling. I sent it to them with high hopes. What happened next would change the course of how I submitted the story. 

The editorial team from the publishing house contacted me and their response surprised me. Originally, the story had a prologue. In the opening, we see one villain, a henchman to the Big Bad, not the protagonist, as he prepares for infiltration and assassination. It was a long opening filled with action and intrigue.  The idea was to pull the reader into the action before we reached the first chapter and met the protagonist. I felt this high action opening increased the danger and tension, setting up the story for the final confrontation.

The editors, however, had mistaken my prologue (which was clearly labeled) with the first chapter and the villain’s henchman with my main protagonist. They felt too separated from the  “protagonist” as if watching a movie and weren’t fully engaged by the writing. I found this odd since my story’s subtitle was Heaven, Earth, and Woman,  how could they mistake my male antagonist for my female protagonist?  

Here’s what they wrote:

I appreciated how this began in media res, watching someone on a mission , but there was a lot of action with no motivation. Movies often open this way and perhaps it works better in cinema because camera angles and music can create emotional sensations in the audience, but with prose our connection is a little more difficult to forge. I spend too much of this story following the protagonist without sharing the feelings, which hamstrings our ability to anticipate or experience true tension. This is subjective and another editorial team may feel differently, so I wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere.

Pro Tip: Editors are overworked and if they’re confused by your submission, they’ll reject you. They won’t give you the benefit of the doubt. They don’t have time.

Yet, there’s more to learn. Many wannabe writers base their stories on films and TV shows and use a cinematic technique throughout the whole book. Because of this, the cinematic technique may brand you as an amateur. It’s unfortunate but understandable. 

Also, there’s an important reason I didn’t share the antagonist’s feelings: he doesn’t have any. Using a potion and mind-altering meditative techniques, the antagonist blots out his feelings. 

What I thought was obvious wasn’t. Would every editor feel the same? There was no way to know. Removing the Prologue didn’t hurt the story. With a few tweaks, I annexed it. Cutting the story lowered the word count making it more marketable. 

Pro Tip: Novellas and novelettes are a harder sell for newer and less established writers. 

I also wondered if readers who liked the prologue would enjoy the main story and vice versa. Both sections had a different tone. 

Next, I sent a modified version to a top pro magazine.  The response I received was encouraging. This editor enjoyed the writing. He wrote, “some really good writing here,” personalizing the rejection letter. 

Pro Tip: Getting compliments from professional editors at top magazines is a very good sign. It may mean you’re writing at a professional level or are close. 

Here’s the thing: did I think a top magazine would buy a 16,000-word novella from a virtual unknown? No, but it was worth a try and gave me valuable feedback. You can’t win if you don’t play. 

Encouraged by the pro editor’s response, I sent the story to L. Ron Hubbard’s Writers of the Future Contest. The 16,000-word version didn’t win. 

Then I heard about another contest at a very large and popular SF and Fantasy Independent press. The problem? Their upper word count was 8,000 words. If I wanted to send them Blade of the Vagabond, I’d have to cut the story in half. Could I trim the story to its essence, reducing it to the low end of novelette form, while keeping enough plot for the story to make sense? That was a good question. Some poignant moments and a subplot or two would need to be removed, but I believed it could be done. I set out on a mission. 

I whittled it down to 9,000 words without losing the main plot, but I had to do without some poignant moments and some of what made the first two versions of the story unique. 

Now to shave the manuscript to 8,000 words, I had to lose a connector scene. The story still worked well enough, but I wasn’t happy with the transition between one chapter.  If I wanted to submit to the contest, I’d have to live with it. 

Once sent, I returned to my novel (working title: The Tower) already in progress. 

When the contest ended, and they announced winners,  it was time to send Blade of the Vagabond somewhere else. 

WOTF-35-Front-Cover

L. Ron Hubbard Presents Writers of the Future Vol. 35*

I received an email notification from the director of Writers of the Future that there was still time to submit a story for the 3rd quarter. Could I send a different version of the same story to the contest? I’d have to find out. If allowed, I figured it was worth a shot. 

Next time I’ll tell you what happened, how I edited my manuscript into shape, and what I learned in the process. I’ll see you then.

*As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. 

The Scribe’s Arcanum: Anatomy of a Writers of the Future Honorable Mention—Blade of the Vagabond Part 1

 

Today I’d like to discuss how my story, Blade of the Vagabond, was created and how it was ultimately awarded an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. 

The idea to write Blade of the Vagabond came when I noticed an open call from a major science fiction and fantasy publisher. They were looking for fantasy novellas inspired by non-European cultures. An idea hit me so powerfully that I stopped work on my novel in progress to focus on this new project. 

At the time I had no hope of making the deadline, but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I put everything aside and pushed on. 

The first inkling of a concept for this story began to sprout while taking an Arthurian Literature class at UMASS Lowell. The professor, Dr. Archer, assigned a paper where we were to write about any topic on the Middle Ages we wanted to explore. I knew exactly what I wanted to research and became excited by the prospect. 

Having been a martial artist all my life, and having years of training in a system centered on Japanese Feudal combat, I decided to research Medieval fighting systems. My focus was on sword schools as there was ample woodcut evidence through surviving woodcuts that depicted the techniques. 

I used books like Sigmund Ringeck’s Knightly Arts of Combat: Sword and Buckler Fighting, Wrestling, and Fighting in Armor by David Lidholm. 

Knight

Knightly Arts of Combat: Sword-and-Buckler Fighting, Wrestling, and Fighting in Armor

As I crafted the paper, I thought about how interesting it would be to include realistic combat dynamics into fantasy fiction. The concept stayed in the back of my mind but remained just a potential idea jotted down in my notebook. 

When I learned about the open call for non-European inspired fantasy fiction, I thought it would be fun to create a world based on ancient Japan. Although, I also drew from ancient Korea and China. 

Conan

The Comming of Conan The Cimmerian*

Wanting to create a swashbuckling sword and sorcery epic fantasy drama, I drew upon many inspirations including Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and Kull the Conquer series of stories. Inspiration also came from the Seven Samurai (1954) and the Jidaigeki (period dramas) and chanbara (sword fighting Amurai cinema). 

Samurai

Seven Samurai*

However, I didn’t want to include the samurai or the ninja as this had been done to death. Instead, I used an obscure book as my inspiration for a fighting wizard character: Leung Ting’s Skills of the Vagabonds. The book had capitalized on the 1980s ninja boom comparing the  Chinese Vagabond assassins to Japan’s ninja assassins. Marketing at its finest! The glowing eyes on the cover of the book had stayed with me over the years and I thought it would be great fodder for fantasy fiction. 

Skills

Skills of the Vagabonds 

Delving deeply into Japanese mythology, I began to craft the story into a 20,000-word novella, the low end of the word count required for submission. 

For the title, I decided on a mixture of Skills of the Vagabond and a variant of the “Swords” titles prevalent in the fantasy genre like Swords against Wizardry (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser sequence) by Fritz Leiber and Sword of Destiny (Witcher Saga) by Andrzej Sapkowski.  Blade of the Vagabond sounded like a fantasy story to my ear. 

Witcher

Sword of Destiny (The Witcher)*

Despite the open call ending before I finished, I soldiered on completing the first draft and then shelving the project until, six months later, they opened for submissions once again. 

Next time, I’ll delve into the submission process that led to receiving an  Honorable Mention. I’ll also reveal the original title and how and why it changed. I hope you’ll follow my blog to find out what happened.

*As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. 

 

Black Magic Bullets: Chapter 16

Moving right along… Here’s the first draft of Chapter 16. NaNoWriMo might be over, but the show (novel) must go on.

 

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

Chapter Sixteen

I bent my knees. Absorbed the impact, and still felt electric pain in my soles as I landed. 

An intense light blinded me. Defensively, my hands rose to my face. Kenzi turned, pointing the flashlight away from my direction.  

I blinked away orange stars, yellow moons, and green clovers. My retinas were none too happy with being attacked by a flashlight as bright as the sun. 

“Let’s move,” Kenzi said not waiting for me to recover. The thin beam led the way, parting the darkness in front of us, dust particles creating the appearance of walking through a snowstorm. 

From what I could see, and I couldn’t see much, the area looked like a concrete storage room that had long ago fallen into disuse. 

“I smell something,” I said quietly. That was an understatement. Somewhere in the blackness, just out of view, a putrid pile of refuse, or perhaps a dead body, (I didn’t know what a carcass smelled like at the time) had been left to ripen. 

Had we found Dedra’s body? Dread overcame me and I hoped it was just a pile of trash. 

Kenzi hushed me. She already had her weapon drawn and was scanning the shadows with lumens to the power of 1,000. 

Then the shadows moved toward us—surrounding us—closing in. 

“What the hell?” I asked. My brain couldn’t make sense of what my eyes were seeing.

“Ogres!” was all Kenzi said before pandemonium broke out. 

Here’s the problem with non-human anthropomorphic races: most are not magical in origin and as such, are not as easily manipulated or inured through the Collective. Not at least immediately. More on this later. 

Ogres stand just about as tall as humans, are ugly as sin, and sport a musculature that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger jealous. As aforementioned, they also stink. Masters of stealth, sometimes their tell-tale odor is the only sign that you have come across an ogre raiding party. 

Kenzi didn’t tell me to cover my ears before she squeezed the trigger in rapid succession. The report of the firearm deafening as decibels echoed off concrete. The muzzle flash all but blinded me and created a strobing effect strong enough to give all but the strongest a seizure.

Jaring impact and my head snapped back. I stubbled in the same direction. Yet, I regained my footing. Tunnel vision made me lose sight of Kenzi. My lips swelled and my jaw ached. Luckily my head and body hadn’t betrayed me. Moving with the blow had allowed me to keep my teeth.

Momentum facilitated an ill attempt at retaliation. Letting my body turn, I sprung into the air and completed a jumping turning sidekick. Contact made, I pushed the ogre back but a kick that would have broken an ordinary mortal’s ribs didn’t even faze this overgrown oaf. 

Meaty hands grabbed me as he reached forward, and then I was sailing through the air wishing I had learned better how to receive the ground in my training. 

Landing on my back, I sucked wind. Pain arrived along with the feeling of suffocation. Panic followed. I had to get up. At least I got a reprieve from smelling the walking trash canister. 

My eyes continued to function even though my lungs had fled the scene. I watched as Kenzi fired two blasts and then turned and moved, effectively throwing an ogre who had penetrated her defenses. I envied the smoothness of her movements. 

The ogre who had come for me wasn’t done yet. 

I still couldn’t breathe and could do nothing but writhe in agony. 

Bending over me, the Ogre reached out one final time. This was it. My time had come. I resigned myself to peering deep into the darkness of whatever abyss awaited. 

Another report and the ogre hit the deck, mortally wounded, just as I took my first greedy breath. 

I coughed and then breathed again which brought on more coughing. Once started, I couldn’t stop and it took Kenzi dragging my ass off the floor to get moving again. 

I can’t express to you how much this changed my training. Failure will do that to you. Unfortunately, I went about everything the wrong way and in the end, my training would make me weaker, not stronger. You’ll see how that happened soon enough. 

“Let’s get a move on,” Kenzi said. “There will be more coming.”

Finally, the bronchial spasms subsided and normal respiration returned.

“I need to know where the body is,” Kenzi said and then for emphasis and to get my ass in gear screamed: “Now! 

A staircase led upstairs and I found myself scrambling up it, using my connection to the Collective to lead the way to the deceased. 

In a closet on the 2nd floor, we found the body. 

Kenzi examined it while I looked away, pretending to be guarding our six. I hoped I developed the stomach for this type of work. But then again… Maybe I didn’t hope for any such thing. 

“The body is male,” Kenzi said. 

“Are you sure?” I asked. 

”Do you want to see for yourself?” Kenzi asked. I didn’t. 

“No, I believe you,” I said. Forcing myself to give a cursory look, I recognized the remnants of the psychic cord that had given me a false positive and told her as much. “What do we do with the body?”

“We don’t do anything,” Kenzi said. Dreadstone doesn’t have the facilities to store the body and we certainly don’t want his DNA on us. You want to have an overzealous DA charge you with murder? I didn’t think so.  

“And we can’t give the information to the police. They wouldn’t last long if they came into contact with the ogres. I can assure you, they’ll run into them if we send for them to search the premises. 

“What do we do then?”

“Get in the car and check the next location. Hopefully, find something before we run out of time. 

To be continued… 

NaNoWriMo – The Aftermath

If you’ve been following my blog, you know I started a new novel called Black Magic Bullets (working title) for NaNoWriMo. I thought it would be fun to participate this year and dove right in,—-albeit a little late. 

I wasn’t expecting to write 50,000 words in a month, and I knew I couldn’t do it while sharing my first draft with the world. I’d have to write slowly enough that the prose was readable and made logical sense.  As such, I only got down a little over 13,000 words. Still, not bad for a busy month while trying to finish up the 3rd draft of another novel. 

Stephen King warns about writing with the “door open,” but this has been an enjoyable exercise and I’ve had some fantasy readers reach out to express interest in the story. That’s always heartwarming and encouraging, since most of the time we write in isolation, without any input until we finish and release it to the world. 

I haven’t decided what I want to do yet. I know I’d like to continue Black Magic Bullets and post my first draft (at least up to a point) on this blog. I’m planning to share at least half the book, but If I decide to stop at any time, I’ll put up a notice and give you a chance to contact me. I’ll then send the rest of the first draft, in installments, to you directly. I wouldn’t want to string you along and not give you an ending. 

If I go beyond publishing half the book on this blog, I worry I’d have trouble selling it once completed.

 Anyway, thanks for reading. I plan to get back to Black Magic Bullets soon. I also want to talk about the Honorable Mention I received from Writers of the Future before year-end. Then I’d like to get back to my regular Scribe’s Arcanum posts. I’m also determined to finish the 3rd draft of my horror thriller. It must be completed by the end of this year! I’ve worked on it too long already.  Also, stay tuned for my year-end report where I list everything I’ve accomplished this year. It’s going to be a big one! 

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ll continue to take this journey with me. 

Best, 

Dave 

NaNoWriMo – Chapter 15 – Black Magic Bullets

 

In the last chapter, I realized that I needed to continue the chase that I had resolved in Chapter Thirteen. I’m still not sure who is chasing Harris and Kenzi, but that doesn’t matter yet. I’m sure it will all be revealed in time. That’s how the subconscious works. Chapter Fourteen works as a way to keep up the tension while world-building. We now know there are safehouses, so to speak, throughout the city, and I’m sure this will play a role later in the story.

I also spent some time working on The Tower, a 74,000-word horror thriller, and polishing a short story to send to another open call.

Chapter Fifteen came very slowly, and I have a reason for including it in the grand scheme of the narrative. Again, this is just a first draft and is still very rough. Will I be able to make 50,000 words by the end of November. To me, it doesn’t really matter. Writing good words and keep a coherent story structure is more important to me than word count. That’s my way of saying: probably not! Haha! Thanks for reading.

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

An Urban Fantasy

by

David North-Martino

Working as an Inhuman Resources Recruiter is no walk through the cemetery, especially when you’ve been cursed and your head is filled with stollen secrets from one of the most powerful occult groups in Boston. To survive, you might just need a few…

BLACK MAGIC BULLETS

 

Chapter Fifteen 

We spent over an hour and a half scouring abandoned property in Boston.  The effort exhausted me. Looking into the Collective, I had either seen nothing of interest in and around the buildings or things that confused me. Strang creatures prowling about, invisible to all but the most sensitive of psychic mediums, and those, like myself, who used some sort of enhancement. 

Then there were the phantom structures that stood psychically where a building had been torn down long ago and a new property erected. Those were the hardest to make out, needing to tune out all but the freshest vibrations. 

Kenzi tried to convey what I was looking for, the signature of a corpse with no soul, but yet somehow attached to whatever remained of the consciousness of the deceased. 

A serpentine cord would still be connected to the body, snaking its way psychically to the Lemure. So far, I didn’t believe I had seen anything close to what Kenzi had described, but how could I be sure? How could I be sure she could even describe it correctly. Kenzi didn’t even know. She didn’t have first-hand observable knowledge. 

Then at the third building, I found something I thought promising, a faint signature that might be the connection to Dedra we needed. 

“You think, Harris?” Kenzi asked when I relayed my impressions. “Or are you sure?” 

“It’s the best I can do,” I said. “The closest I’ve seen so far. No guarantees.” 

Kenzi sighed. Thought for a moment. Her eyes darted to the rearview mirror. She was doing double duty, acting as a lookout while also trying to lead the operation. 

I didn’t envy her position. Going inside could be dangerous. If this was a false lead and either of us got hurt or were killed… Then again, this was the most promising lead we’d had all day and who knew how long it would be before our tail returned.

 If I were leading the operation, I’d have made the call to go inside. Yet, I could understand why she might not. Either way, I’d abide by her decision. She had way more experience than I had at the time. 

“What else are you seeing?” Kenzi asked. “Anything that concerns you?” 

“I’m having a hard time differentiating between threats and old psychic impressions,” was all I said. She was really asking a lot of me. 

“Let’s go,” she said as she exited the vehicle. She had disabled the dash light and the door chime and although it didn’t matter in the pre-dusk hours, I still found it a little disconcerting especially with the BMW being so new. 

Kenzi popped the trunk and then grabbed a derringer in a thigh holster. After loading each chamber with a black bullet, She strapped it on just above the hemline of her skirt. 

I looked down at the ground, averting my gaze. 

“The Derringer was my dad’s,” Kenzi said, and then to explain why she was carrying a weapon that wasn’t on the AG’s approved roster and then added… “It’s pre-ban and so technically legal for me to carry.”

I hoped the cops thought the same if we got caught breaking and entering. The odds were high that someone would see us and call the police. How long it would take the cops to respond was beyond my operational knowledge. I didn’t want to ask Kenzi. I’d just trust she had all her bases covered. 

“Don’t worry,” Kenzi said playing mind reader once again. “Cyber will be monitoring all police channels, even the ones the public doesn’t know about.”

Around us stood a multi-zoned area of both residential and industrial structures. On one side, double-deckers and duplexes, paint fading from harsh weather and sea salt, waited for their owners to return home after a long day of work.   

In contrast, old brick factory buildings with lime green window sills, boarded up to discourage vandals and squatters, waited for a time when the work would return. I wasn’t sure that time would ever come. 

Looking around, the street appeared deserted and a cursory glance at the occupied homes gave no tells, blinds stayed in place, not even a breeze moved the drapes. 

Still, I was afraid that there were eyes on us——even if I couldn’t feel them. I knew of practitioners of both martial arts and occult sciences who could hide their intentions. 

As Lao Tzu said in his famous Tao te Ching:

Temper your sharpness…

Mask your brightness.

Be at one with the dust of the earth.

Fully armed, Kenzi grabbed a pry-bar from the trunk before closing the lid with a satisfying thunk. 

I returned to the passenger side of the car, took another hit of the ethylene gas mixture, tossed it back on the seat, and then reluctantly followed her. She trudged onto the industrial side of the street and into the un-manicured lawn that surrounded the abandoned structure.  

Despite the length of the grass, it looked like months had gone by without a mowing, each strand had taken on the color of straw, making me wonder how long it would take before the whole yard was dead. 

As we disappeared behind the old factory building we practiced the old maxim: out of sight, out of mind. 

Back here, Kenzi went to work prying off a protective board and then took off her jacket and used it to cover the small window hidden underneath. The jacket suppressed the noise of the bar smashing the window. A few quick blows and the glass was mostly dislodged. Tossing her jacket inside, Kenzi scraped the jagged glass that remained attached to the frame with the bar. Again, the jacket muted the tinkling of the glass. 

Kenzi slipped inside before I could protest. I was having second thoughts. 

“Harris,” she whispered. “Get down here.” 

I looked around. We appeared to be alone. Still, I didn’t like the idea of descending into the depths of the building one foot in the real world and the other in the Collective. Nothing good could come of it. 

Sliding inside, I dropped to the floor without another thought. 

To be continued…