I. The First Crime Scene
The suspect toes the ground resentfully, tight-lipped, shrugging in response to the Magistrate’s queries. Evincing probity and incomprehension, but also giving the impression of barely concealed insolence.
The man is a pitiful liar.
Again the Magistrate demands that the creature divulge the circumstances of his crime and reveal the location of the body. Corpus delicti. Yet despite Supreme Jurist’s obvious frustration and rising anger, the guilty party continues to fend off his remonstrations with hostile silence.
And then, miracle of miracles, the accused mutters something, a curt, sly rejoinder, sotto voce, practically inaudible.
The wretched beast actually raises his eyes, no longer cowed and obeisant, meeting the Magistrate’s gaze directly. “I said, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’”
The Magistrate is stunned. Everything abruptly freezes, a complete cessation of sound, movement extending across twelve dimensions and countless timelines; the equivalent of a collective, celestial gasp.
Oblivious to the dismay he’d wrought, Cain is washing his hands in a nearby stream, immersing them in the pure, clear water.
Frowning at the stubbornness of the stain.
II. The Last Crime Scene
ARU-2466/TLS-13 spots a glint of white at the base of the escarpment, near a recent slide or rock fall, descends to fifty feet, hovering.
It looks like…could it be…
There are mandatory protocols to follow, the ARU unit knows this. Any evidence of the Ancestors must be recorded and transmitted, the site left undisturbed. After all, this is sacred ground.
But the drone lingers, awed by the scale of its discovery, observing at once that the skeleton, though well-preserved, shows indications of massive trauma. The legs shattered, spine and skull split and sundered. An accidental fall from the precipice above?
A series of rapid, almost instantaneous calculations. Answer: unlikely.
Like many of its counterparts, ARU-2466/TLS-13 is aware of the legends surrounding the End Days. The Ancestors, once a great species, reduced by war, famine, disease and deprivation. Squabbling over increasingly scarce resources, raiding and killing until they were all but extinct.
Could this be one of the last survivors? Isolated, forsaken, appalled by the poisonous wasteland its kind had made of the planet?
Remorseful, perhaps, capable of one final act of contrition, a form of ritual self-slaughter.
The evidence is persuasive but hardly definitive.
ARU-2466/TLS-13 drops a beacon, dipping its wings respectfully as it makes one final pass.
Others will investigate the site, draw their own conclusions.
The drone returns to its regular search pattern, a virtual grid superimposed over a bleak, exhausted terrain.
Continuing an eternal, seemingly fruitless search for signs of life.
© Copyright, 2015 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
“That’s him. That’s our guy.”
“You kidding? You’re taking the piss, right?”
“Look, I’ve been up all night, you wanted to see what I got, this is it.”
“But what is it?”
“It’s a, waddaya call it, a screen capture.”
“Like they take a picture, a still frame. Enhanced all to fuck but that’s what they came up with. There’s your perp.”
“I still don’t get it. You’re saying that’s taken from the hallway camera—”
“Yeah. What you’re looking at is, like, a single fucking frame. That new guy, Panda or Pandra, whatever the fuck, he spotted it. And, man, how he managed it, I’ll never know.”
“So he’s zipping through the footage and something clicks and he goes back and slows everything down—”
“Right, exactly. And this thing is there for a flash, right outside the fucking door, and then it’s gone.”
“Fuck that. Nothing fits. This is a locked door mystery and the two of us are hanging out to dry here. In less than an hour I gotta go upstairs, smile ever so nice and show them…what exactly? This? This fucking—”
“It’s all we got.”
“Nine of our best standing around with their thumbs up their arses while the guy we were supposed to be babysitting—“
“No one got in or out. You said so yourself.”
“No one but this guy. That’s what you’re telling me, right?”
”The question is, what are you going to tell them.”
“I’m not going to tell them anything. I’m just going to show them this. The best evidence we have.”
“Then? Then it doesn’t matter. Because it won’t be my problem any more…”
© Copyright, 2014 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
But according to the forecast, the temps will hover around -6 or -8 for most of the coming week. Balmy weather, compared to what we’ve been enduring up ’til now. Frankly, I always feel better once the first of March rolls around—I can practically hear the crocuses stirring, even under four feet of packed snow.
A flurry of e-mails and communications after my last post and I guess I should have known better. Even by alluding to my novel-in-progress I was opening a can of worms. Now everybody wants to know details about the plot, genre, etc.
Now, you folks ought to know me better than that. I know some writers talk about their on-going projects, post excerpts, furnish plot details and teasers, seeking feedback from fans and readers.
How not Cliff.
Kids, not even my wife knows more than the absolute bare bones of my current project. I keep my books, stories, poems under wraps until I’m ready to release them to the world. I want her to be surprised, amazed at my audacity (or, just as likely, dubious of my sanity). I seek no editorial input until a project is very near completion…then I’ll pass it on to Sherron and let her pick at it for errors, oversights or continuity problems. As much as I respect my small cadre of dedicated readers, they have no say in any aspect of my work…nor will I make adjustments to a book or story with the aim of pleasing them (or anyone). I don’t write “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, y’know?
Here’s what I will tell you:
My novel is tentatively titled Based on a True Story and it will clock in at around 220 pages (60,000 words). About the same length as my western, The Last Hunt. Genre? Mainstream, crime fiction (of sorts), an old mystery coming to the surface. No fantastic elements whatsoever.
Let’s see, what other questions have people been asking…
Is it a personal project?
Huh? All of my work employs my odd, personal take on things. And while much of it might contain incidents from life, very little of my writing is strictly autobiographical. Characters and situations entirely the product of my fertile and perverse imagination. You wanna write about yourself? Start a fucking diary…
Is it another case for Zinnea & Nightstalk?
Will there eventually be another Zinnea and-–
Yes. When it’s time and I clear some of the other stuff off my desk.
Other projects? Like what? Can you give me an example?
Aha. Good for you. Not a chance.
Why do you take so long to release your books?
Because I want to get them right.
Why are each of your books so different?
I don’t want to get stuck in a rut. Look, my own tastes are wide-ranging and eclectic and I want to see that reflected in my literary efforts. I disdain writers who author the same book over and over again or explore the same universe in a ridiculously long and convoluted series, milking their invented world for all it’s worth. That’s why I’m not pounding out one Zinnea & Nightstalk mystery after another, even though, God knows, that would delight many people out there. I’m not a hack, I’m a creative artist who wants to challenge himself, push the limits of a very finite and modest-sized talent. That’s the way I’ve approached literature for the past thirty (30) years and I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Is this latest book cinematic like the others? Your stuff always seems like it could easily be adapted into movies.
Hmm. Yes, definitely. I see what you mean. And a number of my efforts have been optioned…but it never seems to go anywhere. Last month a film-maker contacted me about one of my novellas and it ended badly. I wrote about it over on my RedRoom blog. It isn’t pretty. Hope it serves as an object lesson to other writers out there who might be going through the same thing. Stand up for yourself and remember: until you sign that contract, you hold all the power. Do your homework and work your ass off to get the best possible deal. Don’t get screwed because you’re humble, shy and/or dislike confrontation. People like that get eaten alive.
That’s it for now. Still have a full day of editing ahead of me. Should be finished this latest run-through (draft #3) in the next three or four days. Then some time off (it’s been 32 days straight of 10-12 hour writing sessions), do some background reading and research and then…on to draft #4.
And each time I’ve tried to explain that I after I finished So Dark the Night, I fully expected to write more accounts of my partners in crime…but it just didn’t happen. I could no longer hear Nightstalk’s voice and, after awhile, moved on (with regret) to other things.
But a few weeks ago, my old friend Evgeny Nightstalk dropped in for a visit. Not an extended stay, I could only pry a short story out of him, a case from their first months together, an affair (wouldn’t you know it), set around Christmas time. Maybe Nightstalk was cutting me some slack for his long absence.
Here’s the first part of “Finding Charlotte”…if you’d like to read the rest, click on the link and you’ll find the complete PDF. Free reading, I should add: read it, download it, share it with friends. And if “Finding Charlotte” strikes your fancy, have a look at So Dark the Night. It’s a grand adventure, my two supernatural detectives involved with all manner of Lovecraftian monstrosities and occult-oriented schemes. A fast-paced yarn, I think you’ll love it.
* * * * * * * *
Finding Charlotte (A Zinnea & Nightstalk Mystery)
Cassandra Zinnea called them “C.O.N.C.s”. Cases of no consequence. She could be snooty like that sometimes. I told her once, hey, even Sherlock Holmes realized they can’t all be Studies in Scarlet or whatever. When you get handed a lemon, y’know, make lemonade.
She didn’t buy it. She got bored pretty easily. Very Holmes-like that way. Only she had different diversions than a seven per cent solution of cocaine. It’s debatable if they were any healthier in the long run but, well, that’s a discussion for another time.
The affair involving the disappearance of Charlotte Bednarski didn’t have a promising beginning and you’ll have to decide for yourself if everything worked out for the best in the end. I’m not what you would call big on analysis. That’s my partner’s domain. Smart and gorgeous, the complete package. Miss Marple and a Victoria’s Secrets model all rolled into one. As kind and decent a human being as you’re likely to encounter this side of Heaven. And that’s why it was nearly killing her giving the Turnbulls the bad news.
“—so terribly sorry,” Cassandra said, standing in front of our shared desk, her voice quaking with emotion. “It’s official policy and I’m afraid there are no exceptions. We don’t handle missing persons cases or divorces. We’ve found they both involve too many…complications. You say you’ve already been to the police—”
Dennis Turnbull snorted. “Fat lot of good they were. Wouldn’t give us the time of day, would they, hon? What’s this world coming to?” He was chubby, forty-ish, some kind of nerd. Baby fat and large, soft features. Likely cried during sappy movies and was good about helping with the washing up. A “girly man”, as my buddy Arnold would say.
I was hearing warning bells. The cops in Ilium may not have been top drawer in many respects but they tended to ramp up their game when there were children involved. “How long did you say your kid’s been missing? Two days?” They nodded, tired and discouraged, leaning into each other. The wife seemed older, utilizing a full palette of makeup to disguise her true age. Offhand, I’d say she applied it with a trowel. But they were nice people, just addled, desperate. “You gave us the impression she was quite young…”
“Around nine, I would say,” Cheryl Turnbull confirmed, “but small for her age.”
That sounded funny but at that point Cassandra jumped in. “So this isn’t any ordinary runaway. She’s under-aged, alone out there…” She choked up. Mrs. Turnbull nodded, the two of them close to blubbering.
“That’s what we tried to tell the police,” she croaked, “but they wouldn’t listen.”
I could see my partner wavering and decided enough was enough. “Yeah, that’s, uh, definitely strange and if I were you I’d, uh, definitely go back there and get them to put out an A.P.B. on your daughter and—”
Dennis Turnbull was shaking his head. He tapped his wife’s leg and they rose together. “We’ve been humiliated enough, thank you very much. That Detective-Sergeant or whatever he said he was. Snowden…” I glanced at my partner. “You must know the man. He’s the one who told us to come down here. ‘The court of last resort’, he called you.”
“He’s an idiot,” Cassandra said.
“What she says,” I added.
The Turnbulls helped each other on with their coats. We could only stand there and watch.
“I have to correct you on one point, Mr. Nightstalk.” Dennis Turnbull tugged brown leather gloves over his thick fingers; it was a cold night, a week ’til Christmas, the wind off Lake Erie downright lethal. “Charlotte wasn’t our daughter. My wife and I are childless by choice.” She offered us a thin smile. Not entirely by choice, it seemed to say.
Now I was really confused. “So…she was a niece? A neighbor–”
“Oh, no, she lived with us.”
Cassandra and I exchanged befuddled looks. “Adopted?” she ventured.
“No, she was there when we moved in.” She saw our bafflement. “She came with the house.”
Nope, still didn’t get it. But Cassandra did, I could tell from her spreading smile. Suddenly the case had become much more interesting.
I blundered on. “She was living there? Like…squatting?”
“No, Nightstalk,” my partner corrected me. “She’s always lived there.”
The Turnbulls smiled at each other. “She’s the reason we bought the place,” Cheryl Turnbull confided. “The location is nice but the backyard is far too small for our tastes.”
“We both like to garden,” Dennis chimed in.
“But once Charlotte made herself known to us…we knew we couldn’t let it go.” They were standing by the door. “It’s been ten years now and we’ve never regretted it a moment.” They clasped hands. Forming a common front.
Cassandra’s demeanor had undergone a radical transformation; all at once she was in full hunt mode. “Now that we’re more fully apprised of the situation,” checking with me for confirmation, “I think we might be of service to you after all.”
“Just don’t call her a ghost,” Cheryl Turnbull pleaded, crossing toward us, holding out her hands, a big purse looped over her wrist. “That awful Snowden man kept saying that. I hate it. Ghosts are feeble and sad and pathetic. Charlotte is none of those things. She has a personality, a—a—”
“Easy now, dear,” her husband coaxed her, “we’re among friends here.” He regarded us hopefully as he patted her shoulder. “It’s nice to be with folks who don’t make you feel like you’re, y’know, coo coo.”
“We’ve lost friends, even our families won’t come to visit.” Cheryl Turnbull managed to look hurt and defiant. “Just because we set an extra place at the table or put on her favorite show when it’s time. What’s that to any of them?”
I could only manage a sickly grin so they focused their attention on my lovely colleague. She, in contrast, gave off waves of understanding and empathy.
“Come over here and have a seat. We’ll start again.” Signaling me. “My associate, Mr. Nightstalk, will take down the particulars. Give us a bit of background and talk about the day she went missing. All the details you can think of, no matter how inconsequential they might seem.” I found my steno pad and a pen. “Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this…”
To read the complete story, click here: Finding Charlotte
Last night we had the official launch of my new novel Of the Night at the North Battleford Library.
A heartfelt thank you to Wendy and all the hardy souls who braved the first serious cold snap this winter to celebrate the birth of my latest literary offspring. Sherron and my two sons handled the lights and tech and made sure everything went off without a hitch. Thanks, guys!
Naturally, I over-prepared, endlessly rehearsing my introductory remarks and the three excerpts I had chosen to read. Ah, well. I think it went off well and the good vibes bubbled over into the book signing afterward.
Speaking of those remarks:
I’ve decided to post them, since they’re a good, concise description of my experiences over the past two decades as an independent author and publisher. I hope these words will inspire others while, at the same time, providing insights re: some of the difficulties and frustrations I’ve endured for choosing the less-travelled path (my essay “Solace of Fortitude” covers similar territory, albeit at greater length).
To all the indie authors out there, struggling to make themselves heard: write on!
* * * * * * * *
What do you do when you’ve written a good book and no one wants to publish it?
Twenty years ago, when faced with that dilemma, I made the somewhat irrational decision to go ahead and print it myself. I knew nothing about what went into producing a physical book but, to my mind, that was beside the point. Getting that book, that gruesome little book, into the hands of readers was paramount.
Because the alternative—giving up, throwing in the towel—means that a good book never even has a chance at finding a readership. It languishes in a box somewhere, years and perhaps even decades pass and it doesn’t see the light of day. It might be a lost classic…or a piece of garbage. We’ll never know. Book-lovers aren’t accorded the opportunity to render their verdict.
And let’s take a look at the recent track record of the folks who decide what gets published and what doesn’t. Hardly encouraging, to say the least. Sales figures are dropping precipitously, bookstores and chains all over the U.S. and Canada are closing or seeking bankruptcy protection; independent bookstores have almost entirely disappeared. Venerable publishing divisions have been lopped off or dramatically downsized, layoffs announced, the demise of the book predicted, onset of a post-literate culture looming—
Doesn’t sound like publishers and retailers have succeeded at capturing the contemporary zeitgeist, does it? Why have so many people, apparently, stopped reading or scaled back to the point where a substantial number of respondents in one poll indicated they hadn’t read a single work of fiction in the past year?
Could it be that the industry is printing and selling books that nobody wants to read? Perhaps in their efforts to meet the lowest common denominator, rehashing the same types of books over and over again, scraping the creosote off the bottom of the barrel, traditional publishers have alienated serious readers; worse yet, bored them with formulas, derivative prose, copycat covers and cookie cutter authors.
Publishing today has been debased by celebrity and dumbed down to attract people who normally wouldn’t tackle anything more demanding than the back of a cereal box. This mentality is abetted by greedhead agents looking to nab their 15% of the pie and corporate editors who know full well the suits upstairs want big numbers, bestsellers…and if they don’t deliver, they’ll lose that rent-controlled apartment, all those sweet perqs and per diems that make their lousy lives bearable. Shit, let’s face it, the markets take one more big dip, the guys in the boardroom start getting nervous and anyone could end up in the street. There are more than a few ex-CEOs and executive vice-presidents living behind 7-11’s, begging spare change so they can get their Blackberrys out of hock.
So let me ask you something: why should I, as an author, defer to anyone affiliated with an industry that publishes godawful tripe by the likes of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, Sophie Kinsella and…well, feel free to fill in the blanks with your most detested hack of choice. Those inept scribblers aren’t better writers than I am: their prose has all the symmetry and grace of someone slipping on a wet floor with an arm-load of pots and pans. Understand, I don’t resent their big money contracts, but I sure as hell detest them for taking up valuable shelf space and making mince-meat out of the printed word.
I love good writing and revere authors who trust and respect their audience enough to break away from convention, fearlessly leading readers into strange, unknown terrain. But it’s getting harder and harder to find work that seems fresh and exciting. You have to look farther afield, to some of the small and micro-presses out there…because traditional publishing is a wasteland of zombies, vampires, tepid romance and poor-me memoirs. It’s enough to make a book-lover weep.
But there are alternatives. Those small presses I alluded to…and a growing number of independent authors who, taking a cue from their musical counterparts, have gone their own way, demanding total autonomy over their career and creations. Seizing control of the means of production, refusing to be exploited and humiliated by a system as ancient, obsolete and calcified as a dinosaur turd.
Independent authors…like me. Back in 1990 I knew I had a good book, a cool collection of short stories that counted among its fans none other than the great Timothy Findley. How could it fail? But that volume, titled Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination, was turned down by literally every press and publisher you can name. So I released it myself. We sold out the entire print run in 4 1/2 months…and I was hooked. I loved the sense of empowerment the process of self-publishing gave me, loved how every decision–from the selection of cover art to the choice of interior font–was left completely up to me.
This year, 2010, our imprint Black Dog Press is two decades old and it’s my 25th anniversary as a professional writer. Usually I’m not one who displays much interest in birthdays or anniversaries but I felt compelled, on this occasion, to do something I hadn’t done before, which is release two books in one year—just to prove my oddball micro-press is still alive, still kicking.
I think the books in question, So Dark the Night and Of the Night, are representative of the best of what independent presses are capable of producing. Thrilling, literate, original fiction; books for readers who still treasure a well-told story.
And aren’t they beautiful? For that, credit belongs to our long-suffering cover designer, Chris Kent, working his magic with lovely artwork created by Ado Ceric and Adrian Donoghue. I also want to say special thanks to Sherron, for the invaluable role she has played in the conception, creation and release of literally every single thing I’ve written for the past quarter century.
So…what do you do when you’ve written a good book and no one wants to publish it?
D.I.Y. Do it yourself. Use new technologies like print-on-demand and e-books and blogging to get your work out there. Let your readership decide if your prose is worthy…or not. Write as well as you can and edit your work carefully; do a better, more conscientious job than your traditionally published, over-paid counterparts. Help defeat the impression that the indie movement is nothing more than a haven for amateurs and never-will-bes. Most of all, don’t let anyone deny you a voice, your rightful place at the campfire. Your story is important. It’s part of a long tradition, a Great Narrative as timeless and enduring as the very fabric of Creation.
“In the beginning was the Word…”
And don’t you ever forget it.
Every year my birthday rolls around and I do my level best to ignore it, dismissing its significance. This drives my wife crazy (that awful epithet “fun-killer” fired at me like a curare-tipped dart) but, on the other hand, it definitely simplifies gift-buying.
“Anything you want?”
And so forth. But this year, okay, I have to admit, there’s a lot to be thankful for. We had a health scare in our family recently and that really put things in perspective. My daily mantra of “health, happiness and wisdom” assumed new relevance…and poignancy. Fortunately, it turned out to be a false alarm and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. But we had a renewed appreciation for the frailties of the flesh and the bonds of family.
Then there are the two books I’ve released this year—yeah, sure, the e-books had been bouncing about for awhile, but to walk into a bookstore and see my work sitting there, waiting for some curious reader to happen along…well. Sends a shiver through me just thinking about it.
Yeah, it’s official. We’ve cleared the proof and Of the Night is good to go. For sale as of…NOW. You’ll find pricing and shipping info in my Bookstore. Click on the book cover (above) and ogle the artwork, browse the jacket copy. If you order your copy from me, I’ll be happy to sign it. Otherwise, you can get it through your local bookstore, from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
I love this book–it’s a fitting companion piece to So Dark the Night. Scary, darkly humorous, a short novel you’ll zip through in one or two sittings.
To accompany the release of Of the Night, providing a kind of fanfare, is a CD worth of new instrumental/ambient music I’d added to my Audio page. I call this selection of musical oddities Language With No Vocabulary and I’m making it available to you free—play it, download it to your heart’s content.
Here’s a sample cut, a luvly little number I call:
(Photo by Jason Minshull)