Preamble

Okay, this is something I’m really excited about. I’ve got a secret project in the works (secret because I’m not quite ready to officially announce it yet), something I think you all will really enjoy. Anyway, my newsletter subscribers and Patreon supporters have already had access to this, but now, the rest of you get to catch this sneak peek into my secret project.

Enjoy!

*****

“Doctor… Lo, is it?”

Amanda Crawford tossed her glasses on top of the overstuffed file folder in front of her. There were so many files and papers crammed into the folder, it was a wonder the thing hadn’t torn yet. Maybe her advisers were right; maybe she should upgrade to a binder. But binders took up space, and space was one luxury her she didn’t have these days.

Well, her new office had plenty of space. Personal space? That was another story.

Sebastian Lo loosened his black tie for what seemed like the thousandth time since he stepped out of the limousine that had dropped him off here. Formal attire didn’t suit him in the best of situations, but with his nerves so shot that he could feel the sweat stains forming under his arms, it was a wonder the woman sitting next to him couldn’t smell him.

“Y-yes.” He gave a curt nod, pushed his black-rimmed glasses back up his nose.

“You have had quite the career,” Amanda offered with a shake of her head. “Normally, I wouldn’t give someone with a dishonorable discharge on their record the time of day, but right now, beggars can’t be choosers.”

Lo’s frown deepened. “I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t understand…”

The annoyance on Amanda’s face melted away, replaced with an exhaustion and a weariness that typically didn’t befall those in her profession until after a couple years. The bags under her eyes were darker than her brown irises, and in the harsh light of her office, she appeared so pale as to be dead.

But she wasn’t a corpse on Lo’s slab. She was the newly-elected President of the United States. And why she was bothering to meet with Lo, he had no idea. But the nausea told him whatever was in that folder wasn’t good.

“Are you familiar with the attack on D.C. several months ago?” she asked.

Lo’s frown disappeared. He quirked an eyebrow and stole a glance at the rest of the Oval Office. What was pristine in photographs, awe-inspiring, was surprisingly ordinary in-person. Sure, it looked like the Oval Office should, but the mystique Lo expected to feel wasn’t there.

Maybe it was the nerves. Sure, that was what he told himself.

“I’ve heard rumors,” he admitted, again pushing his glasses. “Not sure what to believe.”

“Well, it’s all true.” Amanda stood with a sigh, walking past Lo and staring out the massive windows overlooking the lawn. The American flag flanked her to her left, much larger than the pin she kept on her lapel. “There are monsters in this world, Doctor. Things far more dangerous than any threat we’ve ever faced. And I mean to do something about it.”

Lo blinked. “I don’t recall monster slaying being part of your platform.”

“No one will ever know,” she said, hands clasped behind her back. Her gaze never left the window. “What I’m proposing, Doctor, is completely off-the-books. Unofficial, doesn’t actually exist.” She glared over her shoulder. “That means nothing we discuss leaves this room. Understood?”

Lo nodded.

Amanda’s eyes narrowed.

“Yes,” Lo answered with a placating shrug.

“I’m impressed with your work, moral judgments aside,” she said. “I daresay that in many ways, you’ve honored Dr. Roberts’ legacy. Human prosthetics and cybernetics are as advanced as ever, and something tells me we’ll need that technology and expertise in the coming battles.”

Lo shook his head, removing his tie entirely. For the first time since entering the Oval Office, he could take a full breath. “Are you offering me a job, Madame President?”

“I’m offering you a choice.”

Lo opened his mouth. Amanda turned away from the window and took the large leather seat behind her desk. She seemed to sink into the cushion, crossing her arms over her chest and giving Lo the same sort of look the dean used to give him when he was an undergrad and spent more time chasing bottles and skirts than textbooks.

“I know what you did for David Gregor,” she said. “And I know all about your… other experiments. Rest assured that not only are they grossly unethical, they also break several laws.”

Lo pursed his lips. “I see. I either accept your offer or you throw me to the wolves.”

Amanda offered a thin-lipped smile. “So to speak.”

“What’s the offer?”

Reaching into a drawer to her right, Amanda produced another folder — this one far thinner than the first. It was plain manila, with large red letters spelling out CONFIDENTIAL – EYES ONLY scrawled along the front. She tossed the folder at Lo, and he watched it land in his lap.

“Open it.”

With shaky hands, Lo did just that. He frowned at what appeared to be autopsy photos — only these were no ordinary humans. One specimen had his mouth pried open, revealing fangs. Another looked to be an oversized slug split open down the middle, like it was a middle school science class dissection. A third photo was of a man-sized bat, half of his body scorched and rotting.

“Operation: Hellion is our answer to the growing supernatural menace,” she explained as Lo thumbed through the rest of the folder’s contents. “If the monsters are intent on invading our planet, threatening our way of life… well, what kind of president would I be if I didn’t try to protect my people?”

Lo frowned. “I’m not a monster fighter.”

“Then it’s a good thing I’m not asking you to be one.” Amanda leaned back in her chair, hands steepled together. “I could put the most capable military might at our disposal on this team, and they wouldn’t last two seconds against a nest of vampires. No, I need a super team. I need people with… abilities.”

Closing the folder in his lap, Lo sighed and shook his head. “You want to resurrect Project Fusion. Officially.”

“No. I want something better than Project Fusion. And you’re going to give it to me.”

*****

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Bounty has been nominated for a TopShelf magazine Indie Book Award! Pick up your copy today!

About J.D. Cunegan
J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

 

News and Notes

A lot of really exciting things going on. Let’s get right to it.

-For the second straight year, I’ll be at Tidewater Comicon (this weekend at the Virginia Beach Convention Center in Virginia Beach, Va.). If you’re in the area, come on out!

-On Saturday, June 9, I will be at my first reading and signing! Join me from 6-8 p.m. at Dog Eared Books in downtown Hampton, Va. for an evening of good books, good people, and help support a newly-opened independent bookstore. Visit Dog Eared Books here, here, and here.

Notna is part of a massive giveaway on Instafreebie, the May 2018 Fantasy Extravaganza. This runs through next Tuesday (May 15), and there are over 130 books involved. Check out the first five chapters of Notna for free!

-You can also take advantage of the giveaway on its own by clicking here from now through the end of May.

-If the Jill Andersen books were a comic book series, then the latest release, Boundless, would be issue #0. The best part? It’s a great jumping-on point to the series, and it’s just 99 cents! Pick it up on your favorite e-reader today.

-I’m busy working on Betrayed, the fifth entry in the Jill Andersen series (on top of a few editing projects, and a full-time job…), but I’m really close to announcing a brand-new venture. Check this space in the coming weeks for the announcement of a new project that promises to combine the best aspects of Bounty and Notna.

The Best Books I Read in 2017

Well… 2017 was a year.

Not that it was all bad. I got a new full-time job that gave me more financial freedom and the work-life balance I had been looking for. I published two novels — the lifelong labor in Notna and Behind the Mask, the latest in Jill Andersen’s saga. And I read some really good books.

As with last year, this list is not of the best books released in 2017, but the best books I read in 2017.

5. Stalking Jack the Ripper by Kerri Maniscalco

stalking-jack-the-ripperMurder mysteries are a dime a dozen (says the guy who writes his own), to the point where it’s the twist on the genre that can make or break a book. In the case of Kerri Maniscalco’s debut, Stalking Jack the Ripper, the genre is tossed all the way back to 19th-century London, and we’re introduced to a teenage girl who is studying forensics.

That twist brings with it some societal commentary (impossible not to, given what was expected of women and girls back then). Fortunately, Maniscalco doesn’t preach to us; instead, she takes us on a journey where Audrey Rose uses her wit and impressive intellect to track one of history’s most notorious killers. A sci-fi twist at the end punctuates the thriller nicely, and the historic backdrop is almost a character in an of itself.

Stalking Jack the Ripper is an exciting, intense, and surprisingly emotional tale — one that will likely be pigeonholed as YA because of its teenage protagonist. But this is a fantastic book for readers of (almost) any age, and it sets the stage nicely for future adventures (including Hunting Prince Dracula, which came out this past September).

Stalking Jack the Ripper is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

4. Beasts of Babylon by E.A. Copen

Beasts of BabylonI’m already a huge fan of E.A. Copen — her Judah Black series is some of the best mystery/urban fantasy I’ve read in recent years, and she proved she can go dark with the short Kiss of Vengeance. But with Beasts of Babylon, Copen merges the traditional western with the horror genre, and the result is her finest work to date.

Anastasia Throne is dead. Only she’s not. She’s also one hell of a gunslinger, and she’s got a tragic past that still clings to her even as she trudges through what now passes for her life. Beasts of Babylon is dripping with tension, the rare horror novel I’ve read that manages to scare without relying on visuals.

Heroes are not as virtuous as they seem, and the villains aren’t quite the monsters we might wish they were. Copen has introduced us to a vibrant, disturbing world, one I can’t wait to revisit. The monsters and the fights are matched only by deep character moments that give Beasts of Babylon more depth than one might expect at first glance.

A true must-read.

Beasts of Babylon is available in paperback and ebook.

3. Starstruck by S.E. Anderson

StarstruckScience Fiction has a problem. It takes itself too damn seriously.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with gritty, end-of-the-world, dystopian sci-fi. There’s a place for it. But S.E. Anderson has given us a sci-fi romp where the stakes are high, but laughs are still to be had. Sally Webber has her admittedly dreary life turned upside down, and she finds herself knee-deep in aliens and a life change that proves too good to be true.

Along the way, Sally, Zander, and Blayde set the stage for future adventures. Make no mistake: this is not just a frolicking journey through the cosmos. The stakes are high, the risks are real, and when appropriate, the violence is quite bloody. The humor is not here to detract from the overall narrative; instead, Anderson uses that humor to defuse the tension, to remind us that above all, science fiction should be fun.

And fun Starstruck is. The pages fly by, not just because of Sally, because of Anderson’s deft prose, and because of the action, but because all of those elements combine to create one of the most engrossing, most complete books I’ve ever read in the genre. If you’re a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fan, or you’re into Guardians of the Galaxy, this book might just be for you.

Starstruck is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

2. Grave Dealings by R.R. Virdi

Grave DealingsThe 2016 list should’ve made it clear how much I enjoy R.R. Virdi’s writing. Witty, intense, consuming… and the Vincent Graves books are perhaps the best example of his grip on the craft. Grave Dealings, the third installment in the series, takes what made the first two entries great and builds on it.

No, literally — Grave Dealings is twice the size of the first two installments. Graves has yet another murder to solve, only this time, he’s faced with distractions that threaten his safety and sanity… he faces uncomfortable truths he hadn’t confronted in the first two books… and for the first time, the carrot of potential long-term answers are dangled in front of him.

You don’t have to read Dangerous Ways in order to follow along with Vincent Graves, but having done so makes reading Dealings more satisfying. Virdi has not only crafted memorable, easy-to-root-for characters, but we’re watching him construct and round out a vibrant world that’s almost a character on its own. If you’re an urban fantasy reader, and R.R. Virdi’s not on your shelf, you’re missing out.

Grave Dealings is available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook.

1. Floor 21: Judgement by Jason Luthor

Floor 21 JudgementHorror doesn’t get better than this.

Jason Luthor’s brand of horror — on full display again in his third novel, Floor 21: Judgement — doesn’t rely on jump-scares or moments that make you practically soil yourself in fear. Rather, he prefers to toss you into a room where the tension pushes down on your shoulders, the shadows are always just out of the corner of your eye, and the walls always seem like they’re closing in.

There is no rest from the tension in Judgement, the end of the trilogy that also leaves plenty of bread crumbs for future installments. One of Luthor’s strengths is developing a vibrant, all-encompassing world — all housed within one building. The characters continue to grow and develop; not just Jackie, but supporting characters who were but bit players in previous installments.

The simple truth is this: Floor 21: Judgement is the best book I read in 2017, and if you’re new to Luthor’s work, then I suggest you devour all three installments. Few indie authors can weave a tale as expertly as Luthor, with a delicate balance of action, character, and heart. Judgement has all of it in spades.

Floor 21: Judgement is available on Kindle.

Honorable Mention: The Seekers by Cait Ashwood, Black Fall by Andrew Mayne, Alienation by S.E. Anderson, Playing With Fire by E.A. Copen, Steele-Faced by Alex P. Berg, The Kick-Ass Writer by Chuck Wendig, Finding Home Again by Mary Head

Why I Don’t Shy Away From Politics

I know a lot of authors keep their political opinions to themselves. I understand why they do this, and I do not begrudge them that choice. However, as those of you who follow me on Twitter (or hell, even those of you who actually read Behind the Badge) can tell, I’m not one of those writers.

But why?

Well… first of all, I’m not just a writer. I’m a fully-formed person with a wide variety of interests, passions, and opinions (this is the same reason every Sunday from February through November, my Twitter feed is one big ball of #NASCAR). And while I’m sure I have some followers who are only following J.D. Cunegan, the author, I’d imagine far more are following Jeff Cunningham, the person.

And part of that involves me having political opinions. Ones that need voicing, especially given the tumultuous and uncertain times in which we find ourselves (I mean, honestly, who saw that guy as president coming? I mean, other than The Simpsons). This isn’t just a case of “Oh, the president is from the other party.” I’ve already lived through three Republican presidents; that’s not really anything new.

But this guy is such a unique blend of ideologue, incompetence, and hatred that I can’t help but speak out. To sit back in silence… I can’t fathom that. Not with all of the existential threats the Crusty Cheeto represents. This isn’t just a case of disagreeing with the other side; this is the fact that the other side represents a clear and present danger to everything we claim to hold dear about this country.

I mean, seriously… Russia? The 1980s called to remind everyone the Cold War’s over.

Not only that, but there are policy battles going on that affect me — not just me as a whole, but me as a self-published author specifically. The tax plan currently being bandied about has a lot of really bad shit in it, especially for the self-employed (which self-published authors are, at least in the IRS’ eyes).

Oh, and net neutrality? I use the Internet to publish and sell my work. I use social media to promote said work. If the Internet gets sold in tiers or any of the other possibilities, it could affect my bottom line, as well as the bottom line of every other self- and independently-published author.

Not to mention… I feel like, if you read my books, you already have an idea of where I stand politically. And I don’t just mean Behind the Badge (which was far more overt than my fiction normally gets); the fact that I take great pains in making sure my fiction is racially and sexually diverse should tip readers off where I stand on the political spectrum.

So if you read my work, but get mad if I’m mean to Trump on Twitter… are you really paying attention? Besides, every time someone argues that I’m losing readers when I make a political post… the people who would get that upset over my political opinions aren’t people I want reading my work in the first place.

As for Behind the Badge… I wrote that book because a) racially-motivated police brutality is as relevant a political topic as we have today, and b) it was important for me to examine how Jill would react to such a case (and for the record, she responded exactly as I thought she would… except for the end of the book).

Part of the reason I write these books is the fact that I look at the world around me and it’s not what I was told it is growing up. Peace and justice and equality and all that are not realities, so in some ways, I find myself turning to fiction — genre fiction, specifically — to fill the gap. The real world isn’t what it’s supposed to be, but maybe by crafting Jill’s world, I can fulfill that promise in my own little way.

Real-world heroes disappoint. Hopefully, my heroes don’t.

Like I said, I get why some writers keep their yaps shut when it comes to politics. It’s not that different than the old Michael Jordan quote about how “Republicans buy sneakers too.” But I feel like I’d be doing my readers, my fans, a disservice if I didn’t let them see the complete me. And if my political views turn them away… well, no real loss, to be perfectly honest.

Notna is now available! Get your copy: Paperback | Amazon | Universal ebook Link (Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, Scribd, 24 Symbols, Indigo, Angus & Robinson)

Behind the Mask is now available! Get your copy: Kindle | Paperback | Universal ebook Link(Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, 24 Symbols, Indigo, Angus & Robinson)

About J.D. Cunegan

J.D. Cunegan is known for his unique writing style, a mixture of murder mystery and superhero epic that introduces the reader to his comic book-inspired storytelling and fast-paced prose. A 2006 graduate of Old Dominion University, Cunegan has an extensive background in journalism, a lengthy career in media relations, and a lifelong love for writing. Cunegan lives in Hampton, Virginia, and next to books, his big passion in life in auto racing. When not hunched in front of a keyboard or with his nose stuck in a book, Cunegan can probably be found at a race track or watching a race on TV.

EXCERPT: Notna

In part to celebrate World Book Day, I present another excerpt from Notna, my upcoming urban fantasy/paranormal book that will be out in paperback and ebook on Oct. 10. Bear in mind, this is a work-in-progress and that any mistakes are my own.

JD_Cunegan-72dpi-1500x2000 (6)

 

Prague, Czech Republic

St. Vitus Cathedral was visible from the Vitava River, towering over much of Prague. With the sun as bright as it was on this bright April morning, the cathedral shined, especially the sea green edifice atop the main tower. The temple of Gothic architecture was housed within Prague Castle, and it was the final resting place of many a Bohemian king.

St. Vitus was a magnet for tourists, dozens of whom were milling about the grounds. Cameras hung from their necks, and many of the visitors stared up in awe at the rose window on the front of the cathedral. Tourists not wearing cameras had instead pulled out smartphones, squinting into the sun as they tried to frame just the right shot on their screens.

One tourist who held neither camera nor phone, a brunette woman, instead sat cross-legged at the base of a fountain with a large sketch pad splayed over her lap. She stared intently at the cathedral, chewing on her lower lip as the pencil tucked in her left hand scratched back and forth over the paper. Pamela Daly occasionally glanced down at her work, making sure she was capturing the church’s architectural elements.

This may have been Pamela’s Spring Break, but she still had to nail her final on Gothic architecture at the end of the semester. These sketches were going to go a long way toward fleshing out that section of her research paper. As much as Pamela detested art history, the fact was she wouldn’t graduate from Syracuse if she didn’t pass classes such as this.

A group of children ran through the square, chasing after a dirty, ratty soccer ball. Their laughs and shouts of glee carried through the square, and Pamela couldn’t help the smile spreading across her face even though she couldn’t understand their native tongue.

A flash of light erupted from the sky, and was gone was quickly as it had appeared. Everyone briefly glanced at the sky, including Pamela. The pencil dangled between her fingers as she used her free hand to shield her eyes from the sun. A flock of birds flew from one grove of trees to the next, crossing St. Vitus on the way.

Everything appeared to return to normal.

With a shrug, Pamela returned to her sketch. The soccer ball skipped along the cobblestone ground. Tourists snapped pictures of the cathedral and took selfies with their smartphones. The sound of Pamela’s pencil scratching against the rough paper was the only sound that filled her ears, even as something in the back of her mind told her to glance at the sky again.

Mouth agape, Pamela stood. Her pencil and sketchpad both fell to the ground. Her eyes widened, and Pamela brought up a hand to cover her mouth.

“Oh, my God!”

The horror in Pamela’s voice caught everyone else’s attention, and as they looked to the sky, they saw a human figure plummeting toward the Earth. Women gasped, grabbing children as the men stared in silent horror. The children watched in wonder, a few of them smiling and pointing.

“Angel!” One of the children jumped up and down like a kid discovering presents under the tree on Christmas morning. “It’s an angel!”

The figure crashed through the top of the cathedral, and the gasps from the onlookers turned into shrieks and cries of horror. The body burst through the main tower, leaving a gaping hole and showering pieces of stone and other debris onto the ground. Tourists scattered to avoid the debris, some of them stopping just long enough to scoop up the children who were still staring.

As everyone else distanced themselves from the cathedral, Pamela ran toward it. Her body began moving before she could stop herself, and she abandoned the sketchpad lying open on the ground. She could hear the body crashing through the buttresses and the ceiling of the main worship hall as she shoved her way into the church. With a grunt, she pushed the heavy double doors open with her shoulder.

Pamela paused for a few seconds to catch her breath and allow the throbbing in her shoulder to subside. Her eyes slowly adjusted to the dim of the cathedral, in stark contrast to the bright sunlight outside. Starting to walk again, Pamela silently thanked herself for leaving the heels in her suitcase.

Pamela weaved her way into the worship hall, jumping with a start when she heard a groan from a pile of rubble near the altar. The stained-glass windows called out to her from the corner of her eye, and in more normal circumstances, she would’ve allowed her curiosity to get the best of her. Even the Mucha window, in all its colorful glory, was begging for her attention.

Pamela passed by John of Nepomuk’s tomb, giving it a passing glance before pained groans again called her attention to the altar. She dropped to her knees, tossing aside a few bits of rubble and waving the dust out of her face, only to gasp when she saw a man lying face-down on the floor. His silver breastplate shone in the sunlight beaming through the hole in the roof. His brown leggings were tattered and covered in burn marks. His dark hair was matted to his face and tied back into a ponytail.

Looking up at the ceiling, Pamela frowned in confusion. Not only was it unclear from where the man had fallen, but he had clearly plummeted a great distance. No one should have been able to survive a fall that far, especially after crashing through stone and wood along the way. In some ways, the man appeared to be in better shape than the cathedral.

But how was that possible?

The man groaned again, rolling onto his back with a grimace. More debris fell to the floor around him, the resulting dust causing Pamela to break into a small coughing fit. By the time it passed, she locked eyes with him; they were blue, impossibly so. Blood ran from his nose and a cut on his right cheek oozed even more blood.

“My God,” she muttered with a shake of her head.

The man erupted into a coughing fit of his own, rolling onto his side. Something silver caught Pamela’s eye, and she looked down to see a blood-soaked sword on the ground. Its gold hilt shined brighter than anything else on the altar, even the candle holders in the center. She squinted; an angel ascending to the heavens was carved on the handle.

“Are you…” Her frown deepened. “Are you alright?”

For the first time, the man acknowledged her. He glanced wearily at Pamela before nodding and rolling onto his back once again. Aside from the cuts on his face, the man didn’t appear to be injured, which was impossible on so many levels.

He sat up, the wounds closing before Pamela’s eyes. His eyes still held a faraway look, and the stubble on his face was at least a week old. Pamela glanced over her shoulder, confident that no one had followed her into the cathedral. Was it because they were off calling for help, or had they gone about their day assuming the man had died?

Probably the latter, which begged the question: how was he still alive? And where did he come from?

“Wow…”

Her eyes went skyward again. The man’s eyes followed.

“That was some tumble,” he muttered. “What happened?”

The man lowered his gaze, fully taking in Pamela for the first time. His lips opened, but no words came out. With his mouth agape, the faraway look returned.

Pamela frowned as dread built in her stomach.

“Well, uh,” Pamela paused. “What’s your name?”

The man furrowed his brow, chewing on his lower lip. For the first time, char marks were visible on his breastplate. Pamela’s heart sank when saw them, resisting the urge to reach out and run her fingers over the marks. If the man didn’t understand how he wound up face-down in a church in Prague, perhaps he didn’t know much of anything else.

“I,” he began, his frown deepening when the words caught in his throat. His eyes widened when they locked on Pamela’s. “I don’t remember.”

On Passion

“Passion. It lies in all of us. Sleeping… waiting… and though unwanted, unbidden, it will stir… open its jaws and howl. It speaks to us… guides us. Passion rules us all. And we obey. What other choice do we have? Passion is the source of our finest moments. The joy of love… the clarity of hatred… the ecstasy of grief. It hurts sometimes more than we can bear. If we could live without passion, maybe we’d know some kind of peace. But we would be hollow. Empty rooms, shuttered and dank. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.”

The above passage, a speech from the classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Passion,” is but one interpretation of passion itself. It’s an admittedly dark take, fitting in perfectly with a TV show in which the titular character’s boyfriend had just gone evil and began exacting his unique brand of treachery in a personal way. But I think passion is more than all that.

Though it does bear asking: without passion, what are we?

DSCN1724I have two true passions in life: auto racing and writing. Everything beyond that never really evolves past “interest.” Baseball is an interest. Video games are an interest. They’re great, they bring me happiness, but if I had to go the rest of my life without them, I could do it. Racing and writing? Without those two things, I’m not me. Without those two things, I might as well be little more than a name carved into a hunk of stone.

But how does one differentiate between interest and passion? Well, think about when you get up in the morning. When you crawl your achy, sweaty carcass out of bed, scratching at that itch buried in your dirty, unkempt hair, what’s the first thing that brings a smile to your face? What’s the one thing you have to do? Not in the “if I don’t do this, I don’t get paid” sense; I mean in the “if I don’t do this, I feel incomplete” sense.

The truly lucky among us have the same answer to both questions. I’m not quite there yet, but I’d like to think I’m on my way.

It became clear to me a long time ago that I could never actually be a race car driver or work for a race team. Despite my love for racing, I’m not what you’d consider a car guy. I can’t take apart an engine or change a transmission; I just love watching the competition and immersing myself in the sensory overload that is being at a race. Hearing the roar of the engines, feeling that powerful purr in my ribcage, smelling the burnt rubber and the fuel, feeling the wind rush by as 40 of those ad-splashed suckers roar by at 200 miles an hour… there’s nothing like it, and I’m not sure I can adequately put it into words.

Probably why I haven’t written a story about racing. Yet.

NASCAR is my vehicular poison of choice, though I’m also partial to IndyCar, Formula 1, drag racing, sports car racing… if it’s got four wheels and an engine, chances are I have at least a passing (natch) fascination with it. I can’t go through a weekend without watching a race, nor can I go a NASCAR season without attending at least a couple races. Racing is in my blood, and it will be until the day I die.

As for writing… well, I have a visceral need to tell stories. To take in stories, realize how Me at Comiconthey make me feel, then do everything I can to make others feel the same way. I’ve been a writer, in one way or another, since I was in middle school; by now, writing is such an intrinsic part of who I am that not writing would be an affront to everything I’ve built for the last… almost 36 years.

Every time I read a comic book or a really good novel, or I see an engrossing TV show or movie, I come away with this jolt of adrenaline, this need to plunk my pasty ass down in front of my laptop and make with the typey-type. Every time I write a book, or a short story, or even a blog post like this, I’m scratching an itch buried deep under my skin that never truly goes away.

Every morning, I wake up with one thought: what am I going to write today?

Rarely, the answer is “nothing.” Those days are rough.

I say all that to ask that you all find your passion in life and pursue that. For there lies the route to happiness. If you don’t know what your passion is, that’s okay. If your answer changes over time, that’s fine too. We all grow and change. What you loved at 15 and what you love at 35 doesn’t have to be the same thing. Sometimes, finding your passion boils down to realizing there are only but so many hours in the day, and you have to give up something.

That thing you can’t give up? That thing you refuse to let go of? That’s your passion.

If there’s one piece of writing advice I could give (and only one), it’s to follow your passion. If you’re in the middle of a story you’re not passionate about, stop writing it. Set it aside (but never get rid of it entirely). Find what you are passionate about, and work on that. Time is too fleeting to waste it on something you don’t feel.

Share your passion with others. There is comfort and happiness in numbers. I understand how that sounds, coming from an introverted hermit like me, but few things bring me as much happiness as sharing my joy with like-minded individuals. I don’t even just mean selling books (though that it a kickass feeling, I won’t lie). Fanboying/fangirling over a favorite book, sharing tricks of the publishing trade that worked (or didn’t)… that sense of community only fuels my passion further.

If writing’s your passion, write. If it’s art, then paint or draw or sculpt. If it’s tinkering with the innards of a computer or a 1967 Pontiac GTO, then tinker away. But don’t let the hours and days pass you by without your passion. If there’s one thing you have permission to be selfish about in life, it’s your passion. Indulging in your passion is what gives you the strength and the drive to handle the parts of life you aren’t that jazzed about.

Got a full-time job that stresses you out? Make time before or after for whatever you love. Stressful family life? Tuck yourself away in solitude and take in whatever it is that makes you tick.

Because at the end of the day, Angelus was right. Without passion, we’d be truly dead.

SHORT STORY: The Agency

This might eventually become a novel — because another book to write is exactly what I need right now — but for now, enjoy this short little tale.

Bethany was sweating.

Surrounded by pitch black, enveloped in silence, the bead of sweat trickling down her forehead and meandering between the nodes stuck to her was the only thing she could register. A soft, rhythmic beep interrupted the silence. Her heart thundered in her chest, as if it were trying to break through her ribcage. Her temples throbbed.

A sliver of light burst through from the other side of the room. Once her eyes focused, Bethany noticed a tiny red dot. She was being recorded, and her ears caught the faint whir of the zoom adjusting. That sound, mixed with her heartbeat and the beeping, created a cacophony of paranoia.

Bethany balled her hands into tight fists, her palms slick with anxiety. She tried to count the nodes stuck to her forehead, a feeble attempt at calming her nerves. But she kept losing count. She never got farther than eight. No matter what she tried, Bethany could not quiet her nerves.

The bitter taste of nausea twisted in her stomach. Her heart started beating even faster, as if that were possible. The Director could probably sense her fear without the fancy equipment he surrounded himself with. The giant gray slab housed all of the Agency’s data, and it was a constant reminder that there were no secrets here — not even in someone’s head.

If this was how the Agency treated one of its own… how did it treat its enemies?

The beeping came to a stop. The red light went out. Bethany was once again trapped in complete dark, complete silence. Next to death, this was what she imagined sensory deprivation to be like. Were it not for the constant thump of her heart, the trickle of sweat down the back of her neck, the hitch in her breath, Bethany would assume she had died.

“State your name, please.”

The booming, disembodied voice startled Bethany. She gasped and flinched hard enough that a couple of the nodes tugged on her forehead. The adhesive peeled from her damp skin, and Bethany hissed in pain before closing her eyes. Perhaps if she focused only on her own heartbeat, she could control it.

But why was she so worried? She had faced lie detector tests throughout her entire adult life; they were part of the territory in her line of work. Even before being recruited by the Agency, Bethany had constantly subjected herself to such screenings. But this was more than a mere polygraph. This machine was imprinting itself into Bethany’s brain, mapping her entire psyche and searching for the slightest irregularity. Even if Bethany answered every question as truthfully as possible, she knew there was a chance she would be expelled from the Agency.

Or worse.

In this void, time held no meaning. Bethany couldn’t tell how long she sat in silence, her brain scrambling to decide on a course of action. She uncurled her fists and latched onto the chair, hoping to keep some grip on reality.

What time was it? What day was it?

“I repeat: state your name.”

Bethany’s gasp was a little louder this time, and she instantly cursed herself under her breath. There was nothing more pathetic than being startled by her own boss’ voice.

“Beth,” she said, her voice cracking. “Special Agent Bethany Louise Harmon.”

The beeping returned.

With a deep inhale, Bethany closed her eyes again. She released the air built up in her lungs, feeling her body shudder with the effort. She swallowed thickly, refusing to let the bile tickling the back of her throat to go any further. She suddenly regretted having pasta for lunch.

“How long have you served the Agency, Miss Harmon?”

Again, the Director’s voice made Bethany jump. She could swear his voice was deeper than usual, though that was likely a trick of her surroundings. Here, his voice echoed off the walls. Were it not for the rampant paranoia, Bethany would have called the voice almost divine.

“Um.” She licked her lips, shook her head. “F-four years.”

Bethany cringed. That moment’s hesitation would undoubtedly be noted. That split second of indecision would be seen as evidence of a lie at best — the potential for becoming gun-shy in the field at worst. Bethany’s record in the field was nearly spotless, but any crumb of information the Agency could use against her, it would. The Agency demanded perfection, and loathe be those who consistently fell short.

Silence reigned again, though Bethany thought she heard a sigh. Was the Director disappointed in her response? That split second it took her to answer? The stammer? Had he already given an order?

“During that time,” the voice returned, “have you ever aided and abetted enemies of the United States of America?”

“No,” she answered in a tone she barely recognized.

“Are you sure?”

Bethany opened her mouth, but she was too shocked to form any words. The follow-up had caught her off-guard — which would also be used against her in any future evaluations. Her heartbeat picked up speed again, just as the incessant beeping returned. Her hands curled back into fists. She felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of her nose. She licked her lips and opened her mouth again, but just like last time… no words.

“Bethany?”

She flinched. The Director had never used her first name before. She had always been Agent or Harmon. His voice had almost taken a paternal quality; in a way, it felt like this interrogation was a personal challenge for him. Did the Director know something? Had Bethany slipped up somehow over the years? Her mind raced with so many questions that she forgot to answer his.

She sucked in another deep breath to steel herself, using the armrests as anchors. “I have never knowingly aided and abetted an enemy of the United States.”

Once again, the beeping stopped. The Director had no response. Bethany’s heart slowed enough that it no longer felt like it was beating itself against her sternum. Her fingers relaxed their grip and her knees stopped shaking. Glancing at the pitch black around her, Bethany counted the seconds.

The count reached sixty. A full minute without another question. This couldn’t be the end of the interrogation, could it? Was it really as simple as stating her name and affirming she had never helped the people she was tasked with bringing down? Something was off; this felt all wrong. This was oddly cryptic, even for the Director.

The room went from pitch black to blindingly white without warning, and Bethany recoiled with a gasp. Squeezing her eyes shut, Bethany curled into herself as much as she could in a sitting position, slowly blinking the stars out of her eyes before they finally adjusted to the light. Two of the nodes tore off her forehead.

When properly lit, the interrogation room was ghost white. Massive databases and digital storage units lined the walls on either side of Bethany. Their secrets were well above even her pay grade, and she stared at the machine attached to her forehead, a black monitor displaying a digital readout of her brain.

The door swung open, slamming against the wall. Before Bethany could react, a tall man in a fine-pressed Italian suit hovered over her. The scent of his cologne, mixed with all of the other sensations bombarding Bethany, almost made her gag. Still, she held her composure as best she could, looking up to see the Director bearing his gray eyes right into her.

His hair was as white as the rest of the room. His nostrils flared and his mouth formed a tight line. The Director’s hands grabbed the armrests on either side of Bethany and he leaned in closer. Bethany had only seen the look on his face once before: five years ago after a mission gone wrong. The next day, over seventy associates of a Korean crime syndicate were dead.

Bethany’s blood ran cold as she once again tried and failed to speak. She couldn’t tear her eyes away from the Director’s, despite her brain screaming for her to do just that.

“Then tell me, Agent Harmon… who is Grant Pasch?”