BOOK REVIEWS: Part VIII

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

the-5th-waveThe 5th Wave is by far the most intense book I’ve read so far this year.

And “intense” is really the best way to describe it. I’ve not read many “alien invasion” sci-fi books, but I’m guessing most of them don’t start mid-invasion. But by the time we meet Cassie to open this book, we’re already three waves into this. Hearing the waves described after the fact doesn’t sound great, but… wave #3 alone is gruesome in hindsight (so much so that I’m glad we don’t really get it in real time).

The intensity is so thick that it keeps you turning the pages — and when you finally come up for air, you feel it in your gut. Even midway through the book, as we’re introduced to different characters and things are truly unraveling, the intensity never wavers. This book does not give you a breather — which makes sense, because that’s how it is for the characters.

Some of the exposition is mind-twisting. It’s hard to know what’s the truth and what’s not. That can be frustrating, but I think Rick Yancey did that on purpose. The characters, after all, no longer know who or what to trust — so what better way to engage the readers by ensuring they’re not sure what to trust, either?

This is not a book for the squeamish, because of the intensity and the fact that we’re exposed on more than one occasion to child warfare. That can be a difficult subject to stomach, and there were times when even I had to pause and walk away.

But The 5th Wave is incredibly engrossing, written in such a way that you cannot stop reading. The size of the hardback edition can be daunting, but the story is so intense, so all-encompassing, that hundreds of pages fly by in the blink of an eye. Not every character worked for me — Evan, in particular — but I say that understanding there are still two books in this trilogy I’ve yet to read.

But Cassie and Sammy alone are worth the price of admission.

I’ve read a lot of really, really good books in 2016, and The 5th Wave is definitely near the top of the list. The Infinite Sea and The Last Star have a high bar to climb.

Rating: *****

Buy The 5th Wave on Amazon

Bounty by Michael Byrnes

bountyI’ll be honest: I only picked this book up because it shared a title with my debut novel.

And while both my Bounty and Michael Byrnes’ Bounty share a title and open with a grisly murder, that’s where the similarities end. At its heart, Byrnes’ novel asks the fundamental question: when traditional justice fails, is it right for people to take matters into their own hands? This is hardly the first work of fiction to ask that question — I’m reminded of the League of Shadows from Batman lore, and even Batman himself — but Byrnes explores that question amid the backdrop of the Internet and our digital-dependent culture.

Along the way, the bodies pile up worldwide as numerous law enforcement agencies are chasing their proverbial tails. Murder victims aside, there’s little violence in this Bounty — this is more of a psychological thriller than anything — and yet this is a page-turner as fast-paced as anything else I’ve read in the genre.

The technical jargon is overwhelming at times — far more so than the scientific jargon peppered throughout The Martian — but I don’t think my level of knowledge had any bearing on how much I enjoyed the book. But there are a few occasions where a reader might come across a passage that leaves them a little confused, so it bears mentioning.

Readers might also find themselves occasionally backtracking in order to remind themselves of a certain character, and this book seems to end on a little bit of a cliffhanger; there is not 100 percent resolution, and it feels like there’s a potential sequel in the offing.

I hope there is.

The biggest gripe, to me, is the sheer number of characters. Byrnes does his best to give them all their unique quirks and personalities and what not, but there are so many of them that more than a few don’t come across as well as they probably should. The scope of the plot likely necessitated the sheer number of players, but if there is a sequel, I hope Byrnes trims the roster a bit.

All in all, Bounty is a fantastic mystery/thriller that features a disturbingly plausible storyline. To me, the best novels often posit the question “What if…?” and this novel certainly delivers.

Now… any chance Byrnes might read my Bounty?

Rating: *****

Buy Bounty on Amazon

Forget Tomorrow by Pintip Dunn

forget-tomorrowIf you could see into your own future, what would you do? Especially if you didn’t like what you saw.

Callie Jones saw the worst possible future for herself, sending Forget Tomorrow into an intense, frantic, and emotional journey that often wadded waist-deep into the philosophical divide between fate and free will. An unexpected ally joins Callie on her journey, and despite some missteps midway through, Pintip Dunn offers up one of the more emotional books I’ve read in 2016.

The immediate aftermath of Callie discovering her future is fraught with tension, fear, and the unknown. Though she spends many of the early chapters by herself, or surrounded by those she isn’t sure she can trust, those chapters fly by… and then she finds herself on the run, confronted with possibly the last person she wanted to see, and then… Harmony.

I’ll be blunt. Most of the love story between Callie and Logan did nothing for me — but that’s because of my own bias against romantic subplots as a whole. They often feel out of place, though I will give Forget Tomorrow credit for not shoehorning in a love triangle like so many other YA novels.

And I did enjoy the fact that of the three potential romantic entanglements among those in Harmony, the spectre of their respective futures stood in the way. Aside from that, though, Logan and Callie as a romantic item did nothing for me.

However, Logan’s overall importance to the plot still worked for me. I have this odd ability to separate the romantic from everything else, so a book still works for me even if the romantic subplot doesn’t.

(And if my distaste for romantic subplots makes me a coldhearted curmudgeon, then… guilty.)

The end of the book seems to build to an inevitable conclusion, but there is a twist in the final moments that even had my mouth agape. I flipped through the final chapter thinking there had to be a way out of it, and I even had my theories on that, but I did not see the move that was made. Perhaps, in hindsight, it should be obvious, but still.

My issues with some of the middle notwithstanding, Forget Tomorrow is a fantastic read, almost impossible to put down. The beginning and end are that strong, and I am eager to pick up the next installment.

Rating: ****

Buy Forget Tomorrow on Amazon

BOOK REVIEWS: Part VII

In which I review a pair of gems each from Rose Montague and Alex P. Berg.

Jade by Rose Montague

JadeJade is the first in a trilogy of supernatural thrillers and a lot of fun to read. The titular heroine is called a “magical mutt” in the blurb, and for good reason — she’s part witch, part vampire, part faerie, and part shifter… and that just scratches the surface. There is even more to Jade than that, and I really hope future stories dive further into her backstory, which is only hinted at in the second half of this book.

But as much of a badass as Jade is — and you all know my love for badass heroines — she has a softness and a vulnerability to her that keeps her from feeling like she’s too strong or too powerful. Her chemistry with Jane is clear from the instant they meet, and that chemistry is one of the reasons I’ll be diving into the second book, Jane, very soon.

There are a few slight quibbles that kept me from giving Jade five stars; this book couldn’t used one more pass-through in editing, and the pacing does dip on a few occasions. But what starts as a supernatural murder mystery quickly devolves into something deeper and darker, something that promises to show us much more of this vibrant, dark world Jade inhabits.

But more than anything, Jade is a fun read and a strong introduction to the trilogy.

Rating: ****

Buy Jade on Amazon

Jane by Rose Montague

JaneJane is the sequel to Jade, but this time we see the continuing tale through the eyes of London Jane, a vampire to whom Jade struck a relationship with in the first book. This second novel sees Jane and Jade jetting across the world trying to kill the Devil, and in a lot of ways, this is a cleaner, more adrenaline-packed outing than the first book.

The two vampires’ bond is more than emotion or physical attraction; they are linked to each other in ways that help them in their quest and serve the plot. This story is simultaneously self-contained and has an effect on the world at large, and while I found myself occasionally wondering about characters I met in Jade, Jane is such a fun ride that those quibbles are minor.

The editing issues that plagued Jade are largely absent from Jane, though there is the occasional plot point that seems to come out of nowhere (one major one in particular is the only thing that keeps me from giving this book five stars).

Still, this is another fun read from Rose Mantague, one that has me eager for the third installment, Jill (and you all know how I feel about badasses named Jill).

Rating: ****

Buy Jane on Amazon

Red Hot Steele by Alex P. Berg

Red Hot SteeleIn a lot of ways, Red Hot Steele is your typical murder mystery, down to the at-times stereotypical hard-nosed Detective Daggers — who is equal parts cynical, not as funny as he thinks he is, and sexist. But it’s the little tweaks to the formula along the way that ultimately turn this book, my first read from Alex P. Berg, into an engrossing, fun read.

We open with Daggers losing his old partner and having to deal with a new partner — a female with seemingly unique psychic abilities named Shay Steele. Their interactions are typical and predictable at first, but as the book progresses and they learn each other as detectives and as people, they develop a chemistry that I look forward to exploring further as I dive deeper into the series.

Oh, and there’s a nice twist on Steele’s character at the end that I particularly enjoyed. For me, it was a far better payoff than actually solving the murder.

I’m a fan of murder mysteries that don’t take themselves too seriously — it’s one of the reasons I was such a fan of the TV series Castle. Red Hot Steele unfolds in the same manner; sure, there’s dark material here, but this book never forgets to have fun. The laugh-out-loud moments can be counted on one hand, but there’s plenty of whimsy and chuckle-worthy moments to keep the macabre from getting lost in itself.

Berg has a way with words, and his sentence flow is some of the best I’ve read — particularly among indie authors — this side of R.R. Virdi. He’s also done a fine job of slowly introducing us to a world that resembles ours, but is just different enough. The supernatural and the occult aren’t huge factors in Red Hot Steele, but something tells me that will change as we dive deeper into the series.

There’s nothing particularly revolutionary here, but Red Hot Steele is still a fun, entertaining read that introduces us to a world full of promises and co-protagonists who have the potential to grow as individuals and as a pair. If you get me to care about your characters, I’ll go along for just about anything, and Berg has done a good job of getting me invested in what happens to Daggers and Steele going forward.

Rating: ****

Buy Red Hot Steele on Amazon

Cold Hard Steele by Alex P. Berg

Cold Hard SteeleIn a lot of ways, Cold Hard Steele is a worthy follow-up to Red Hot Steele, taking what worked so well in the first installment of Alex P. Berg’s supernatural mystery series and building upon it.

For one thing, Cold Hard Steele places a brighter spotlight on the supernatural aspect of the world Daggers and Steele inhabit. What was background dressing in the first novel takes the spotlight with aplomb in this edition, and though it featured possibly my least favorite supernatural creature in werewolves, the mystery is crafted well enough that it hardly mattered.

I enjoyed watching the further development of the partnership between Daggers and Steele — though I can certainly tell where it’s going. But it almost has a Castle season 2/3 feel to it, and the lighthearted nature of so much of this book is a strong counterbalance against the mayhem and the murder surrounding everyone.

There’s even a fictitious novel that features prominently in the book.

The only thing that keeps this book from receiving five stars is the ending. Not the solving of the mystery itself, but the fact that it’s revealed in a big info-dump conversation between Daggers, Steele, and the other detectives (Rodgers and Quinto) — instead of unfolding through the interrogation of the character who ultimately wound up being the murderer. I would’ve loved to have read that scene, rather than have everything recited to me after the fact.

Still, Cold Hard Steele is a fun read, a fantastic supernatural mystery, and a worthy follow-up to Red Hot Steele. As of now, there are four other novels available in this series, and I can’t wait to devour them as well.

Rating: ****

Buy Cold Hard Steele on Amazon

Nominate NO SAFE PLACE on Kindle Scout

No Safe PlaceLast year, indie author Mary Head released her debut novel, The Only One, a romance that undid many of the genre’s less savory stereotypes and told a touching and entertaining story. Now, she’s ready to publish her second novel, a thriller titled No Safe Place, and you can help.

Click here to nominate No Safe Place on Kindle Scout. If the book is selected, everyone who nominated it will receive a Kindle copy for free.

You like free books, don’t you?

No Safe Place is a fantastic read: frenetic, fast-paced, packed with tension, and full of relateable characters. What Head did for romance novels, she’s bound to do for thrillers.

So please, click the above link, nominate No Safe Place, and help out a fellow indie author.

About No Safe Place
Hannah Cole, a young graduate student, and her father David Cole, a senior FBI agent, enjoy a happy life together, until Hannah is kidnapped from their home one night, turning their world upside down. With the force of the FBI behind him, including his best friend Juliet Grayson, trusted partner Chris Tyler, and rookie agent Eli Shaw, David rushes to find his daughter, while Hannah struggles to stay alive, both of them racing against a deadline that could mean the end of Hannah’s life.

SHORT STORY, Ghost of a Life, Chapter 5

I glance up at the ghost hovering over Grayson, hoping against hope that he’ll give me the answer I’m looking for. But the spirit remains silent, inching closer to the cowering man, relishing in the way Grayson flinches when its tail brushes up against his leg. The small blue stain on Grayson’s pant leg is prominent, and Grayson is curling up against himself to the point where he’s in the fetal position.

If I don’t do something soon, he won’t make it out of this plane of existence alive. For all I know, I might not either. There’s no telling what the spirits will do at this point.

“Hey,” I call out, extending my arm in a futile attempt to touch Grayson’s ankle. “Who’s Ben?”

The ghost turns its attention to me. Which… unnerving much?

You mean you don’t know?

Considering the sheer volume of things I didn’t know coming into this… note to self: do a better job of vetting your clients from now on. I shake my head and offer a shrug, not trusting my words when the pissed-off spirit is now glaring in my direction. At least, I think it’s a glare; kinda hard to tell when the spirit’s eye sockets are empty.

Grayson opens his mouth, but I can’t hear anything outside of panicked wheezing. His eyes are too wide for my liking, but at least he hasn’t gotten any paler. If I play this just right, he might make it out of here. Sure, he’s a prick and I can’t stand what he did, but he’s still a human being and I’m not comfortable with the idea of playing judge, jury, and executioner.

“Who’s Ben?” I try again.

The ghost lowers itself to my level, though it still towers over me by about three feet. But slowly, the figure begins to morph, its ethereal tendrils and wisps of… whatever it is changing form until I find myself staring at a boy. A child, perhaps no older than 11. Maybe 12. His eyes are sad, the left darker than the right, and his head lists to the left. The sadness shifts to anger when the child glances up at Grayson floating several feet above us.

I’m Ben… and Daddy must pay!

Oh, lovely. I’ve stumbled upon some supernatural Dr. Phil shit. I follow the boy’s gaze up to Grayson. The fear in his eyes has been replaced with a sadness that can only be explained away with guilt. Whatever Grayson did, it had to do with a son I didn’t even realize he had. Yep, definitely doing more homework before taking on a new client from now on.

“Grayson…” I get back to my feet. “What did you do?”

A tear rolls down Grayson’s cheek, gravity be damned. Another follows soon after, and within seconds, he’s this close to bawling his eyes out. He doesn’t even register the other spirits hovering around him anymore, which have appeared to given him some distance. But they’re still circling him, wisps of their ghostly frames coming close to contact with him.

He’s staring at the child, shaking his head and straightening himself. Gently, the spirits place Grayson back on his feet, but he immediately drops to his knees. Eyes red and puffy, tear streaks on both sides of his face, Grayson doesn’t notice when I approach and place a hand on his shoulder. He’s too busy staring at the translucent child in front of him.

“What happened to your son?”

He left me with those monsters! They did things to me… bad things…

I glance at the ghost boy, shuddering to imagine what he might be talking about. I turn my attention back to Grayson, who is now staring at his hands in his lap. I really need him to rejoin the land of the sane right now. I squeeze his shoulder and drop to my knees; maybe if I’m on his level, it will help him open up a bit.

“Grayson…”

“Before Ben was old enough for school,” he starts, “we started noticing things. He was… quieter than most kids. Wouldn’t respond to his name. Had trouble keeping eye contact. We thought maybe it was nothing, but…”

He shakes his head and I can see the emotion welling up inside him again. I need to keep him calm, keep him here.

“Ben was autistic,” I offer.

Grayson nods and sniffles before straightening his posture. “We tried everything we could to get him help. But… he was almost better off not being able to walk, you know? Doctors would’ve known what to do then. But since it was my Ben’s brain that was…” I watch as Grayson’s hands curl into fists. “It was like they didn’t even try.”

I couldn’t go to school. I couldn’t make friends. So Mommy and Daddy shipped me to this hospital. It was a dirty place, full of bad people.

A smile creeps onto Grayson’s face, which I find odd until I realize that is probably the most he’s ever heard his son say at one time. “It wasn’t Merciful Souls, was it?”

Grayson shakes his head. “It was A New Day, on the other side of the state.”

I vaguely remember hearing about that place on the news a few years ago. A lot of disgusting shit apparently went on in that place. Doctors and nurses using their positions in the facility to take advantage of their patients, doing some truly despicable things for which they deserve to spend lifetimes behind bars. I can’t even repeat some of the allegations without my stomach turning inside out.

I turn my attention back to the boy. “What did they do to you?”

They wouldn’t give me my medicine. They told me I was there because my parents didn’t love me. One of the nurses… one of the nurses would spank me until I couldn’t even sit anymore…

My stomach churns and I have to cover my mouth. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s people taking advantage of and abusing a child like that… especially in a place that’s supposed to help them when no one else can. I still don’t have all the pieces, but if I connect the dots correctly, I’m starting to view Grayson in a different light.

Why did you send me there, Daddy?

“Because your mother and I didn’t know what else to do.” Grayson shakes his head. “Nothing we were doing was working. Nothing the doctors told us was working.”

You left me with bad people… I died in there!

“I know.” Grayson’s crying again. “I know, and I’m so sorry…”

I’m fighting back tears of my own at this point, though it’s more out of anger than anything. The rage is so strong that I can feel my hands trembling. I have to ball them into fists to keep them steady. “But what does this have to do with Merciful Souls?”

“The same group that ran A New Day ran Merciful Souls,” Grayson explains.

I nod. “So you assumed the same things were happening there, too.”

“Before our divorce, Frances sued the management group responsible for A New Day. Bled them as dry as she could. It was a victory, but without Ben, it rang hollow.”

“So… what?” I shake my head. “You decided more needed to be done, so you pulled the strings to bankrupt Merciful Souls and left a bunch of mentally ill people with nowhere else to turn?”

“No! I –“ Grayson turns his gaze to the young boy in front of me, swiping under his eyes to catch any more tears. He’s pretty much cried out at this point, but the emotion of the moment is so thick and raw that his body can’t help it. I’m even a little choked up at this point, even if I still think what he did was fucked up.

“It wasn’t supposed to go down the way it did,” he admits.

Liar!

The boy stretches his arm skyward, pulling Grayson back into the air and twisting him until he’s rightside up again. But when one of the spirits passes through his back – without coming out the other side – I have to turn away. His scream is enough to turn my stomach, and the thought of a spirit shacked up inside the body of someone who’s still alive… I can’t think of anything worse at the moment. The physical pain is one thing; I can only imagine what’s going on in Grayson’s head.

Sure enough, when I look up, Grayson’s clutching his temples with both hands. His eyes are scrunched closed in agony, and he’s gritting his teeth. When the boy clenches his fist, Grayson’s eyes fly open and he clutches his chest. His mouth hangs open, as if there’s a scream begging to be set free, but no sound comes. Desperate to not watch Grayson die – why, I’m not entirely sure – I lunge for the spirit, swiping my arms as if to scoop him up into my arms.

And much to my surprise, that’s exactly what happens. I shudder and gag at the rush of ice cold against my body as I hold onto the child. But the surprise that I’m actually able to affect the noncorporeal has registered for both of us. The child glances down at my arms with wide eyes… before his face morphs into something sinister, bearing three rows of sharp teeth and snarling at me as if I were an uncooperative meal.

I stumble backward and lose my grip. The boy, having now shifted into full-on monster mode, with talons and everything, swoops into the air and grabs Grayson by his chin. The snarl is louder this time, and Grayson is trembling. His eyes meet mine, and all I can do is give him a sad smile to let him know I wish there was more I could do. I’m not equipped to handle spirits that get violent… mostly because this is the first time I’ve had that happen.

One of the translucent tendrils swipes across Grayson’s midsection, and he doubles over with a scream. I cup my hands over my mouth, watching his dress shirt stain with blood. It’s a shallow cut, meant more for instant pain than lasting damage, but if his son’s spirit has gotten to the point of physical assault… then I don’t see how this ends without one of us in a body bag.

Do they have body bags out here?

“Hey!” My voice echoes in the abyss.

Another invisible force hits me in my stomach and sends me teetering backward. I double over and wrap both arms around my midsection, desperate not to vomit again. And you know what? I don’t care if this ghost is actually some child who died because of neglect or maleficence at the hands of those who were supposed to care for him. He’s starting to get on my last nerve, and I can’t let him kill Grayson.

He swipes at Grayson again, and this time, I see the blood trickling from the side of his neck. Adrenaline takes over at this point, pushing me back to my feet and running full-speed until I tackle the spirit to the ground. Which, considering we can’t see the ground, it comes up quick and hurts like hell when we land. I wrap my hand around the ghost’s neck to pin it down, using my body weight in the process.

The ghost reverts back to its child form, as if to elicit sympathy from me. But I only tighten my grip, my jaw clenching. “Look,” I practically growl. “I’m sorry for what happened to you. I really am. But it’s not your dad’s fault. Whatever he did, whatever made him take Merciful Souls, he did it out of love and grief. For you.”

The spirit shakes its head and its lip curls into a sneer. “No… if Daddy loved me, he never would’ve put me in that hospital in the first place!”

A thud to my left tells me Grayson’s no longer hovering in the air. Instead, he’s on all fours, looking as if he’s about to wretch at any moment. And he does – but instead of food, the spirit that had shoved its way into his chest spills out of his mouth. Drops of blood also follow suit, and I shudder in disgust at the whole display. I can only imagine how terrible that felt. He collapses face-first, sweaty and out of breath. His eyes are barely open, and he turns to look at us. Swallowing thickly, he opens his mouth to speak… but no words come.

“Grayson?” I quirk a brow.

“I-I’m sorry,” he whispers. “We didn’t know what else to do, Ben. Nothing we tried worked.”

So you just abandoned me?

“No! We-we thought we were helping!”

Do you have… any idea what they did to me in there?

“No, he doesn’t.” I tighten my grip even more on the ghost, and its face begins to shift again. “But that doesn’t give you the right to torment him like this. What happened to you was out of his hands.”

And what about the others?

“Those are on me.” Grayson’s voice is just barely above a whisper now. He cringes with every other word, cradling within himself and cupping his right hand over the wound in his gut. The bleeding has subsided, but I doubt the pain has. “I was wrong. I should’ve found another way to secure a building for McGuinnis.”

“Even so,” I chime in, “what gives you the right to torment those students?” The ghost looks at me in confusion. “You’re pissed at your dad, I get it. You want him to suffer, I get that. But why haunt the students living in McGuinnis? What did they ever do to you?”

The students are just a means… a way for us to get to him.

“You’re causing undue suffering,” I argue. “In your thirst for vengeance, you’re hurting innocent people.”

For the first time, the child actually looks incredibly childlike. Almost as if it had never considered what I just said. I can see the reality of what the spirit was doing dawning on it. I’m trying to ignore the hissing of the spirits still hovering above us, monsters eager to strike when next commanded. They’re among the most gruesome creatures I’ve seen in my short time doing this, and after all this is over, I’m gonna start reading up on how to handle hostile ghosts.

Because this shit ain’t cool.

Then, with a wave of the boy’s hand, the other spirits disappear. I blink in surprise, reluctantly releasing my grip on the ghost’s neck. He blinks up at me and gives a sad smile. I then stand, hands still cocked into fists just in case. But the spirit only floats into the air and hangs its head.

You’re right.

I… I am?

I mean, of course I am.

The boy hovers over Grayson. Its tiny hands glow white for several seconds, and I can see the gash on Grayson’s neck closing. The same happens to the wound in his midsection, and slowly, Grayson scrambles back to his knees. He’s pale and sweaty, and he’s having a hard time catching his breath. His eyes are red and bloodshot, and he occasionally sniffles.

“I’m sorry, son.”

So am I, Dad.

Then, with a snap of the spirit’s fingers, we’re no longer surrounded by pitch black. It takes me a few moments to gather my bearings, but once I do, I realize we’re back in Grayson’s office. It’s a simple place, all things considered. The desk only houses a computer and two framed photographs. One depicts the day Grayson married his wife; the other is a Christmas photo of a younger Grayson and his wife with a baby on her lap. The baby is smiling, but it’s not a full-on grin and it doesn’t reach the child’s eyes. It’s a sad sight, particularly in light of what had just happened. Grayson is sitting on the floor, staring at his hands in his lap.

“It’s over,” I offer, because really, what else is there to say?

“Thank you, Ms. Blanchard.”

I shake my head and crouch down to Grayson’s level. “I have half a mind to report you to the authorities, but something tells me the statute of limitations has already passed. So I’m just gonna have to be comfortable in knowing you’re a miserable wreck over what you did.”

Grayson lifts his gaze. “You hate me.”

“Can you blame me? First of all, you hire me under false pretenses. Then all that mess… look, I’m sorry about what happened with Ben. I can’t imagine what it’s like for a parent to lose a child. But… making others in need suffer because of your pain is no way to go.”

All he can do is nod and go back to staring at his hands. With a sigh, I reach into my back pocket and pull out the check he had written for me when he first hired me. I place the check in his hands and give a soft smile when he looks up at me in confusion.

“Keep it,” I say.

“But… but you earned this.” He swallows. “And then some.”

“And believe me when I say I could really use it.” Because it’s a lot of money. Far more than I normally charge. I didn’t realize a college president could be so loaded, but the evidence is right there in front of us. “But there are others who need it more.”

Grayson frowns at me. “I don’t…”

“You wanna make it up to your son? To those you displaced when you bought McGuinnis?” I smile when he nods. “Use that money to honor them. Donate it to a mental hospital. Start up a charity of your own. Better yet, use that money to form the Ben Grayson School of Mental Health. What better way to memorialize your son than to turn your school into one of the nation’s best in mental health?”

It’s like a light bulb goes off in Grayson’s head, and for the first time since he uttered his son’s name, I see a smile on his face. It’s a sad smile, but it’s also full of purpose. He scrambles to his feet and approaches his desk, frantically scribbling all over the yellow legal pad sitting next to his mouse. He then grabs his checkbook and begins scribbling again, even as I approach the desk and shake my head.

“Oh, no, that’s not necessary.”

“Nonsense.” He rips the check off and hands it to me. My heart leaps into my throat when I look at it, because it’s the same amount as the other check. Just how loaded is this guy? And if he’s this loaded, what’s he doing in academia?

Ah well, you know what they say. Gift horse. Mouth. Yadda yadda.

“Consider that an apology,” he says. “And a thank you.”

I pocket the check with a nod, pursing my lips. “Well, no offense, sir, but I hope we never see each other again.”

I turn to walk out of the office before Grayson can say anything, because I’m beat and just wanna go home and crawl into bed. This might a nightlight situation, given I just spent much of the evening in a pitch-black plane of existence and would rather not be somewhere that dark again any time soon. I also remind myself that the next time I catch a case, it would behoove me to vet the person hiring me just as much as I vet anything else.

I don’t want any more surprises like tonight. Because surprises like this are emotionally draining, and it’s disheartening just how often the supernatural and the spectrum of human emotion collide like this. All of this madness and suffering because one father didn’t know what do about his son who needed help.

Still, I hope Grayson finds peace. Likewise for his son and those whose lives he ruined.

~FIN~

Read Chapter 1 | Read Chapter 2 | Read Chapter 3 | Read Chapter 4

SHORT STORY: Ghost of a Life, Chapter 1

I realize I have a buttload of manuscripts in various forms of production right now, but apparently, I’ve also got this short story that’s just begging to be told. So, as a treat to you loyal readers, I’m offering Ghost of a Life for free, right here on my website, broken up into chapters. There’ll probably be about five or six chapters total. Please feel free to share and give feedback as you see fir. Enjoy!

 

They say once you lose one of your senses, the others make up for it.

I don’t know if that’s true, but as I peer down the pitch-black hallway, my heartbeat pounding in my chest, I swear I can sense the walls closing in on me. Every creak in the overhead pipes fills my ears, and it’s all I can do not to turn around and go back. My eyes eventually adjust to the dark, a dull speck of red on the far end of the hall signaling an exit. That’s my destination, but who knows what lies between me and that light.

A week ago, I got a phone call from the president of Mountain Oak College informing me of a potential haunting in one of their dorm rooms. What President Grayson had failed to mention at the time was that the dorm in question had at one point been an insane asylum. Just hearing that made me glad I decided on attending Somerset University instead.

Sure enough, here I am on the third floor of the freshman dorm with as serious a case of the heebie-jeebies as I’ve felt in my six years as a paranormal investigator. I just sorta stumbled upon this career. I once longed to be Samantha Blanchard, detective… or Samantha Blanchard, federal agent. I never expected to be Samantha Blanchard, wannabe Ghostbuster.

I don’t even have a photon pack. Or a zapper. Or a trap. Or any of those kickass gadgets you used to see in those paranormal mystery stories back in the day. I barely have the budget for office space, telephone access, and what scientific gear I do own looks like something I picked up at a RadioShack clearance sale.

One step and my shoes find something cold and sticky. I grimace in disgust, knowing exactly what I stepped in before turning on my flashlight. Sure enough, a pile of blue gunk sits on the floor, looking like some spine-chilling combination of snot and tree sap. In my experience, if this slop is lying around, then supernatural beasties can’t be too far behind. It’s their trail, for lack of a better term, almost like if I had left a line of footprints on a sheet of snow.

But snow is pretty. This stuff is anything but. It’s a lot like sand. If it gets on you, it’ll wind up in places you didn’t realize you had. Don’t ask me how I know; that’s one story that will never get told.

Fortunately, this pile of goop decided not to latch onto my foot. Peering down the hallway, flashlight illuminating my narrow path, I see more of the stuff on the walls. It oozes down a silent trail that makes me shudder, and my eyes travel to the ceiling. Just then, a large drop of the stuff falls from an off-kilter ceiling tile and onto the floor, not six inches in front of me. One more step and that stuff would’ve been in my hair.

Remember when you were a kid, and you wound up with bubblegum in your hair? Yeah, it would have been a lot like that.

I’m about midway down the hall when I hear this screech. I flinch and cover my ears, gritting my teeth and hoping desperately for the shudder in my bones to go away. No sooner do I uncover my ears, the ungodly sound returns. It echoes along the hall and I find myself cowering into a fetal position, even though I’m still on my feet. I can’t tell if it’s a cry of rage or agony – oftentimes, in this line of work, the two are interchangeable.

I look up just in time to see a ball of that gunk heading straight for me. I duck just in time, whirling around to see it splatter against the white walls.

Get out…

Oh, good, they spotted me. Whoever they are.

Wherever they are.

Get out!

Well, that’s just rude. I’m here to help, and these things are basically throwing supernatural monkey poo at me. It’s a good thing the school’s offering me five figures for this job; otherwise, I’d just turn around and tell them to deal with the haunting themselves. Then again, this isn’t a case of cockroaches run amok. If left unchecked, hauntings can lead to mass hysteria, psychological problems, and even suicides or murder. Naturally, the school would like to avoid that; the word of mouth alone would be damning.

Hey, did you hear about Mountain Oak? That dorm the freshmen stay in used to be an insane asylum, and now the ghosts of the deranged haunt the place and drive the students batty.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

This is no place for you, little girl

My mouth hangs open. Can ghosts be sexist?

Go back from whence you came, or else you’ll not see the coming day

Oh, good, we’ve reached the cryptic riddle portion of the festivities.

“Well, come on out and it won’t get that far,” I say, reaching for logic even though it has not worked for me once when dealing with these things.

This is our home! I can almost hear the anguish in the spirits’ collective voice. It’s almost enough to make me feel sorry for them. They have no right being here!

More often than not, hauntings are the result of a spirit that can’t quite move on to the next life. They’re stuck, either because of some external force holding them back or because something related to their previous life was left unresolved and they can’t break free until there’s closure. Sadly, mental institutions are some of the most vulnerable places for hauntings for just that reason. Decades, if not centuries, of mental anguish and emotional torment create an environment thick with hate and fear – and the living are often the targets.

Given that Mountain Oak is itself 150 years old, there’s no telling how long these ghosts have been here. Hauntings that last centuries tend to end violently for everyone involved – living or not – and I’m not sure I have the delicacy or the patience to see this through to a non-violent conclusion. Then again, these spirits aren’t corporeal, so really, how much pain can I inflict?

The spirits, on the other hand… one of the arms appears from the wall and swipes across my chest. It goes straight through without touching a thing. Even as cold air compresses and rises around me, all I feel is a nasty chill take over my entire body. I am nearly frozen me in place, except my knees buckle and I drop to the floor, mouth agape. All color has left my face and it’s a wonder I still have a hold on my flashlight.

The arm swipes again, passing through the top of my head this time. The shock and cold overwhelm me to the point that I gag, hunched over myself in anticipation of my lunch’s return. Yet I regain my composure and eventually scuffle back to my feet.

Every instinct is telling me to turn around, go downstairs, and get back in the car. To say screw the outlandish payment and let Mountain Oak deal with this on its own. But student safety is paramount; if I bail, and these spirits keep haunting to the point where students start hanging themselves in the showers or slitting their wrists in their beds… wouldn’t that make me worse than the ghosts hidden in the walls? Wouldn’t I, theoretically, be making more ghosts?

“I feel like we got off on the wrong foot,” I offer, even as I wonder if these things actually have feet. “I’m Samantha.”

Slowly, the beam of my flashlight dances along the wall. If I can find the source of the spirits, where that gunk is at its highest concentration, I might have a chance of drawing a few of them out. I just hope there aren’t too many. I work alone, and there aren’t many others like me around. I’m pretty much it, and I am not about to take on an entire dorm full of spookies. Not without a significant rate hike.

The source is across from me, just underneath the red exit sign. The flow of that substance is constant, a large puddle on the floor that keeps growing. I keep my distance; just because I’m wearing old, beat-up sneakers, that doesn’t mean I want them submerged in light blue slime. There’s no telling what’s actually in that stuff, so the less of it that actually finds its way onto my person, the better.

The spirits haven’t answered, and I can’t tell whether that’s a good thing. They haven’t flung any more of that stuff, so I have that going for me. Still, it’s not a fun feeling dealing with a bunch of supernatural beings when armed with little more than a flashlight, night-vision goggles, and a temperature gauge. No crossing the streams here.

“Please,” I try again, “please, whatever is causing you pain, I need you to let it go. Okay?”

If I sound like a shrink, it’s because that was I originally went to school for. Got an undergrad degree in psychology and was all set to start working on a Master’s in counseling. Only the idea was always to counsel the living; something tells me there aren’t many programs in this country for dealing with the emotionally disturbed once they’re dead.

So how did I wind up a ghost hunter instead?

Funny you should ask, and I promise it’s a riveting tale, but… can I save this dorm from being haunted first?

There’s a wooden door to my right. I reach for the golden, rusted knob, but the shock it gives me causes me to recoil. The goop-covered wall in front of me hisses, like a snake pit one might find in those old Indiana Jones movies. Snakes never have bothered me the way they did ol’ Indy, but I gotta tell you… that hissing sound is not helping my nerves right now.

No!

Okay… apparently, that room is off-limits. What, are they afraid I’m gonna find ghost porn or something? Is ghost porn even a thing? How would that work, exactly? And why am I standing here, in the dark, pondering the logistics of ghost smut when the wall in front of me is practically a waterfall of supernatural mucus?

I’m pretty good at this job. I swear.

I’d be better with a partner, but… oddly enough, no one wants to work for no pay. Not even slapping the word “internship” onto the job description got any hits. Because let’s be real: where would this internship be of use? It’s not like the Ghostbusters are just down the block, a big NOW HIRING sign on the door.

“Sorry,” I say with my hands out, hoping the international signal for I mean no harm crosses over to the other side. The hissing dies down to the point where it’s no longer fraying my nerves, but the sound is still there. “I just – kids live here, and it’s hard for them to learn when you’re all scaring the piss out of them and –“

This is OUR house! THEY are the intruders!

Oh, boy… pissed off, territorial ghosts. This isn’t just a case of lost souls on their way to the ether. We’re talking poltergeists who feel some type of way about being dead, and feel even worse about the fact that they have to watch the world around them evolve over time. It’s a terrible way to not-live, and the sympathy pangs tug at my heart again. These ghosts are potentially bad news, but that’s just because of the craptactular situation in which they find themselves.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see another arm reaching out from the wall to swipe at me. I jump back with a start, holding my breath as those ethereal, skeletal fingers barely miss. Again, I have to remind myself these things can’t actually touch me. But they don’t feel that great passing through me, and I’m loathe to experience that again.

Remembering the bag hoisted over my right shoulder, and the notepad within, I roll my eyes and fish for it. I really should’ve consulted this thing before entering the dorm, but hey… it’s not like there’s a manual for how to do this sort of thing. Flashlight clenched between my teeth, I grab the notepad and flip it open and suddenly wish I’d taken more care of my penmanship when I was in elementary school.

Before I get to the page in question, a mind-numbing chill reaches my left leg. My brain tells the leg to move, but a weight comes down over it and the rest of my body shivers in response. Closing the notepad, I glance down with a furrowed brow, only to curse under my breath when I see one of those boney, sinewy arms latched onto my calf. This… this is not supposed to happen. Ghosts are not supposed to be able to affect our realm like this. They are not supposed to be corporeal!

“Hey!” I whack at the arm with my notepad. Bits of bone fall to the floor, but the grip on my leg remains tight. “Let go!”

Instead, the hand around my leg tightens even more. The numb sensation has now spread over both legs, and I can feel it crawling up past my hips and into my midsection. My stomach almost lurches at the sensation, but because my brain can’t stop sending signals to my legs to move, I fall forward before anything else can happen. My chin hits the hard floor, and my teeth come within less than half an inch of biting off the tip of my tongue.

I lose my grip on the notepad, and the bag on my shoulder has slumped all the way down to my wrist. Black spots form in front of my eyes and I have to shake them out. Now my arms are numb, as is my chest. I can barely gasp for air to fill my lungs, let alone fling a series of expletives at the ghosts who have managed to break the laws of physics.

Now I’m moving. Toward the wall. This ghastly thing is dragging me toward a brick wall that’s covered in blue slime. Great, so I’m going to have a concussion and the unshakeable need to shower for the next week and a half. I flash back to my Harry Potter-loving friends, the ones who fantasized about taking the train at Gate 9 ¾… only to have me burst their bubble by telling them they would smash face-first into the wall and lose enough teeth to be drafted by an NHL team.

Now here I am, with a one-way ticket to How many teeth do I have left? And it’s not like I can lift my arms to protect my face, because hello? I’m numb. Not comfortably numb, just… numb.

But then a strange thing happens. Okay, another strange thing happens. I pass through the wall. I legit pass right through the wall, slime and all. None of it’s on me, unless you count the stain on my favorite pair of cargo pants from where the Cryptkeeper wannabe tried to cop a feel. If I get out of this, I’m sending that bastard a bill.

Ghosts get snail mail, right?

So… I’ve traded one pitch-black hallway for another. At least… I think this is a hallway. I can feel a floor beneath my feet, but damned if I can see it. I check my pockets, belatedly realizing I must have lost my flashlight sometime before crossing over. But what, exactly, did I cross over? Am I still alive? Did I just… slip through a portal I didn’t realize was there?

I check my phone. No service. Because of course.

“Hello?” My voice echoes, but that’s the only response I get. Still, it’s a cool effect. If I ever get out of here, I might try to learn how to get back, just so I can talk to myself and listen to the echoes.

I amuse easily, alright?

But this isn’t so funny. I don’t like my question being greeted by nothing more than a fading memory of my own voice. So, naturally, I try again. “Hello?”

Ugh, what’s the definition of insanity again?

Having my bag with me would be nice, not to mention that notepad. I suppose I could keep all my notes and everything on my phone for instances like this, but why suck up all that storage space and drain my battery even more? If I’m gonna be stuck somewhere unfamiliar with no way out, I need my phone to last.

A small flicker in the distance catches my eye. For a moment, I think I’ve imagined it, but it returns. Almost like a lightning strike miles away signaling an incoming storm, each flicker is accompanied by a low rumble. Each rumble is louder than the last, until I begin to feel them in my ribcage. The light is almost blinding now, and I tell myself it’s because I’ve spent the past however many minutes in near-pitch black conditions.

Naturally, I shield my eyes – as if my arm is going to do any good.

But just like that, the light is gone… replaced by a floating apparition with a tail almost as long as I am tall. Its limbs are gangly and over-stretched, and more of the blue gunk that surrounded the walls of the dorm coat its ethereal frame. Its face is empty save a hole where a normal person would have a mouth, but something tells me this thing isn’t much of a talker.

Greetings…

Or I could be wrong. Again.

“Um… hi?”

Forgive Merle, he’s not used to having guests.

I arch a brow, because… Merle? I’m standing at the precipice of the biggest supernatural discovery of my young career, and I got snatched into a different plane of existence by a spook named Merle? What is this, Supernatural meets My Name is Earl?

“Where am I?” I ask, because it’s really the most obvious question at the moment.

This place has many names. I believe your kind call it Purgatory.

Oh, that’s splendid. I mean, I guess I should be glad this isn’t Hell, but… Purgatory’s not exactly a winding field of roses. I glance at my surroundings, frowning at the fact that I’m still surrounded by pitch black. If I make it back home after all this, I’m sleeping with a damn nightlight. I don’t care if I’m 28 years old.

“What am I doing here?”

You have stumbled upon one of the many gates between our realms.

My nose crinkles and I shake my head. This is so much more complicated than I was originally led to believe. I might have to charge double if I get out of this alive. “There’s a dimensional rift in a college dorm.” Sure, because that was the most normal thing ever.

The rift has weakened over the decades… we cannot come and go as we once did. Many of other brethren are stuck on the other side.

“So they’re not haunting the place,” I theorize, “they’re just… stuck?”

Precisely. We wish the students of Mountain Oak University no harm. We merely wish to return to our realm as we please.

Okay, this complicates things, especially since some of the voices on the other side shouted about the students being the ones who didn’t belong. I came into the job thinking the poltergeists were my adversaries, for lack of a better term. To this point, I had been operating under the assumption that the students of Mountain Oak needed my help. How… alive-ist of me? Like, racist but against ghosts?

However… we are glad you are here, young Samantha.

I frown. I generally don’t like dead things knowing my name without me telling them first. Another one of those icy chills runs down my body, this one almost powerful enough to make me topple over, and I dread the answer even before asking the question.

“Why?”

Because you are the one who will set us free.

Read Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5

BEHIND THE BADGE Launch Day Sales

Behind the Badge ebook coverWhen Behind the Badge, the third installment in the Jill Andersen mystery series, goes live in Kindle and paperback on Wednesday, June 1, readers will be able to celebrate by picking up the earlier installments at a reduced rate.

Bounty, the first novel in the series — which was released one year to the day before Behind the Badge, will be available for free on Kindle from Wednesday, June 1 through Monday, June 6.

Blood Ties, the second novel in the series, will be available on Kindle for just 99 cents from Wednesday, June 1 through Wednesday, June 8.

It is also my hope that Boundless, the Kindle short, will be free from June 1-6 as well.

You can pre-order Behind the Badge for Kindle here. Click here to read the first five chapters.

Casting Bounty

I’m fairly certain I’m not the only author who has, on occasion, daydreamed about his or her stories winding up on the screen — be it silver or otherwise. Honestly, I think my fictional universe — currently inhabited by both Bounty and Blood Ties — would be better served as a Netflix series (a la Daredevil), and that hasn’t stopped me from thinking about who I would cast for each role.

So here’s my all-in-my-head-totally-unofficial-will-never-actually-happen dream cast for a Bounty Netflix series:

Det. Jill Andersen/Bounty: Stana Katic (I was reluctant to choose her, because of typecasting, but several readers, unprompted, said they envisioned her in the role when reading my books, so… plus, you know she’ll knock the role out of the park).

Det. Ramon Gutierrez: Diego Boneta (I’m honestly not sure who he is, but he has the look I want for the character).

Captain Daniel Richards: Keith David (just give him a pair of black-rimmed glasses and there ya go).

David Gregor: Jeremy Irons (Irons is actually my second pick; I originally wanted Alan Rickman, but alas… Irons is still a damn fine choice, though).

Det. Earl Stevens: Brian Thompson (a little-known ode to the Buffyverse with this pick, not gonna lie).

Det. Hitori Watson: Steve Yeun (see what I wrote above about Deigo Boneta).

Det. Whitney Blankenship: Nicole Beharie (She’s a lot shorter than Whitney actually is, but by the magic of TV, we could just borrow Gillian Anderson’s box from The X-Files).

Dr. Juanita Gutierrez: Natalie Martinez (yet another actor I’m not familiar with, but has the look I want for the character).

Paul Andersen:: Callum Keith Rennie (who looks a guy that could play both the goody-goody and the ruthless killer… probably at the same time).

Brian Andersen: I’m struggling with this one, cause I wanted a scruffy-looking Heath Ledger for the role, but alas… (ADD: Someone suggested Elden Henson).

BONUS — Ezekiel (for those who have read Blood Ties): Serj Tankian (from his Mesmerize/Hypnotize days).

So… thoughts?