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Excerpt from Hometown Boys, a Kelly Durrell thriller

The following is an excerpt from Hometown Boys, a work in progress featuring Kelly Durrell. Kelly returns to the Midwestern town where she grew up to attend the funeral of her aunt and uncle. They’ve been murdered by her ex-boyfriend from high school, Troy Ingram, a meth addict destroyed by chronic drug abuse. Kelly is unwillingly drawn into the case when Troy’s lawyer asks her for help. The lawyer has evidence that Troy was coerced into committing the murders, but Troy refuses to talk about it. The lawyer hopes Kelly can persuade him to open up and reveal who wanted her aunt and uncle deadand why.

In this flashback she remembers meeting Gene Countryman, one of Troy’s friends from their high school days. Now a successful businessman, Gene may not be as respectable as he appears.

In the dark he became a stranger

Certain moments stayed frozen in her memory. Like photographs, she thought with a pang. She warded off thoughts of Day Randall, her murdered friend and a talented photographer, whose body was still missing. Memories decayed faster than photographs. A lot faster. But the vital details, the ones whose emotional charge held the memory in place—those never changed.

It was her second date with Troy. Or maybe third. That unimportant detail had decayed. He picked her up down the block from Steph’s house, where she was supposed to be sleeping over. He pulled to the curb in a pumpkin colored Buick, a carriage waved into existence by a fairy godmother with a twisted sense of humor. The bucket seat sagged beneath her weight. Smells haunted the interior—marijuana and cigarette smoke and something like vomit. The engine made odd choking noises, and when they headed out of town, Kelly worried that the car might break down and leave them stranded in the country.

“What’s wrong?” he asked. “You look uptight.”

“No, I’m fine.” She peered beyond the reach of the headlights and ignored the uneasiness that hollowed her out. “Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” In the dark he became a stranger. He could pull the car to the side of the road, strangle her, and roll her body into a cornfield. For a moment she wanted to go back to Steph’s house, pop some popcorn, and watch TV. Then she summoned the image of his lucid blue eyes and knowing smile, a smile that intimated life was a joke and nobody got it but the two if them. He was dangerous, but not to her.

Somewhere along the highway leading to Uncle George’s place, Troy turned onto a side road. Gravel crunched under the Buick’s tires, and the headlights played over milkweed and a drainage ditch. Treetops emerged from the darkness of the sky, then windows illuminated with bluish light winked into view. She couldn’t see much else of the house, only the silhouette of high eaves and a front porch, its roof slumped with age. The Buick jolted over a rutted driveway and arrived in a small clearing where several other vehicles were parked. Smothered music drifted from the house.

“What is this?” Kelly asked.

“What’s it look like?”

A party in the country. Obviously. Yet, for reasons she couldn’t pin down, the place seemed furtive and sinister.

Troy got out of the Buick, slammed the door, and strode toward the porch. Kelly scrambled to catch up, so young and smitten that she accepted his rudeness. And he set the pattern. The boyfriends who followed him differed only in degree—until she met Cash, whose old-fashioned father taught him to open doors for women, not because they were weak or helpless but out of respect. Kelly wondered now why she’d valued herself so little, why she’d taken so long to move beyond her teenage insecurity.

I am the passenger

Inside the house Iggy Pop crooned, “I am the passenger, I ride and I ride . . . ,” the song’s bass notes booming like distant thunder. The raw smell of mud drifted from a field. They stood for at least a couple of minutes. She was fretting that no one had heard Troy knock when the door swung wide. A skinny man stood in the threshold. His hair ebbed from his domed forehead and hung in greasy dishwater strands to his shoulders. Later she found out he was twenty-eight, but lines scored his face from his nostrils to the corners of his mouth. His irises, almost colorless, were ground zero in a bloodshot explosion so intense that he seemed about to weep blood.

Troy leaned forward and said something. The skinny man’s gaze jumped frenetically between her and Troy before he finally nodded.

Troy grabbed her upper arm and pulled her toward the door. “Say hi to Gene.”

She mumbled a hello.

Gene raked his fingers through the stringy hair. “Troy says you’re cool. Is that right? He’s not full of shit, is he?” He sounded like a clarinet with a bad cold.

“No. I mean, I am. Cool.”

“How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” She fudged her age by fifteen months. Lying made her nervous, but he wouldn’t ask unless he needed to hear the magic number.

Gene’s mouth twitched. “Yeah, right.” But he let them in.

As Troy shepherded her through the entryway, she noticed a mahogany hall tree, the varnish on the bench top cracked and bubbled where liquid—someone’s drink, maybe—had been spilled and left. To Kelly, who loved old furniture, it seemed like desecration.

They went into a front room where a dozen or so partiers lounged on a couch and chairs and huge pillows scattered over the floor. Everyone there was older than her. Some were way older—not quite her parents’ age, but almost. Troy dropped into a chair and patted on its wide upholstered arm, indicating that Kelly should sit there. Pretending not to notice, she sat cross-legged on a Persian rug. Several burns pocked its glossy pile. She stroked the rug with her fingertips as if to comfort it.

Most people don’t feel much of anything

A nearby table was also scarred with burns and littered with an overflowing ashtray, a couple of metal pipes, and the leftover butts of smoked joints. “Look at them fat roaches,” Troy said. “Can’t let ‘em go to waste.” He picked out the longest roach and held it to his lips. He removed a book of matches from his T-shirt pocket, opened it, and struck a match—all with one hand in a single fluid motion. The feat of dexterity had impressed her at sixteen. Remembering it at forty, she wondered how many hours he’d wasted perfecting the trick.

He sucked on the stub and blew out acrid smoke, then offered the smoldering butt to Kelly. She shook her head. He gave her the knowing smile. “Come on, don’t be a narc.”

She pinched the roach gingerly, its heat a millimeter from burning her fingertips, and brought it to her lips. Maybe if she pretended . . . She barely inhaled, but she sucked in the smoke anyway. Her throat closed like a fist, and pressure backed up in her chest. She hacked and coughed loud enough to be heard over the music. An overweight woman guffawed. A man with a wispy goatee snickered. Kelly felt trapped in a cartoon where it was her fate to do one stupid thing after another.

She  braced for anger or disgust from Troy, but he asked, “Are you okay? Want something to drink?” She might have started loving him at that moment. It was a slight kindness. Basic courtesy. Yet . . .

He left the room and quickly returned with a can of soda. It was already open and not cold enough to have come straight from the fridge. She guessed someone—Troy, she hoped—had already drunk from the can. She didn’t care. Its fizz soothed her parched mouth and throat.

When he passed her a lighted joint, she took a drag to make him happy and gave it back. A minute later, he offered the joint again. She shook her head. “I’m new at this. In case you haven’t guessed.”

Troy smiled and stroked her cheek. “You’ll be okay. Most people don’t feel much of anything their first time smoking.”

She took another drag. And a few more.

She leaned against the chair where he sat. She listened to Iggy Pop snarl the lyrics of “Lust for Life.” The music had a depth and shape she’d never experienced before. She pictured the drummer twirling his drumsticks like batons and pounding drums the size of trampolines. The silver pinwheels of the drumsticks spun before her eyes. She bounced on a giant trampoline, soaring high—higher with each bounce, more weightless. Time froze. She became the silvery sticks between the drummer’s fingers. Spinning and spinning. Her stomach pitched and her mind reeled. Vomit soured her throat. She needed a toilet before—

The darkness in their faces

Hand clamped to her mouth, she staggered down a dim hallway into the harsh fluorescence of the kitchen. Several men leaned against an old-fashioned oak dining table and a counter cluttered with beer cans and gallon jugs of wine. The men turned and stared at her. Something about their faces. A darkness.

Gene Countryman held a small metal pipe between his thumb and fingers. A pistol was jammed into the waistband of his jeans, snug against the small of his back. Had it been there when he let them in? Kelly struggled to think. Many of the grownup men she knew, her father included, owned guns and hunted deer and birds. None of them stuck pistols down their pants like a movie gangster. Show off, Kelly thought, but she couldn’t let go of the darkness in their faces.

Gene noticed her, and his mouth curled in a sarcastic hook. He nodded toward a door. “Over there. And try not to miss.” Scattered laughter chased her into the tiny windowless bathroom.

She raised the toilet seat and lowered her head over the bowl. Someone had peed and forgotten to flush, and shit smeared the porcelain just above the water line. Her stomach contracted. She’d thrown up her half-digested dinner, and the sour reek had triggered more vomiting.

All these years later, she carried an image of Gene Countryman’s gun in her memory—the black textured plastic of its handle and the way it wiggled when he straightened his back, as if trying to escape from his too-tight waistband.

Later, driving back into town, Troy had reassured her. Lots of people barfed the first time they smoked and—who knows?—the weed could have been cut with something.

“Like what?”

“Who knows? Meth or angel dust.”

Kelly never wanted to smoke weed again, and he would keep insisting. She hoped she could say no to his impish smile, his blue eyes shaded by dark lashes. It didn’t matter. After the way she acted, he wouldn’t ask her out again.

Only he did. And Kelly said yes for the stupidest of reasons. He was giving her another chance after she embarrassed him. How could she do any less for him?

 

 

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Excerpt from Darkroom – Day meets her soulmate

The Dangerous Darkroom tour is drawing to a close. If you hurry, there’s still time to enter the drawing for special prizes including a $25 gift card and autographed copies of Talion and Daemon Seer. Darkroom will also be on sale for $s0.99 through this coming weekend.

Meanwhile, I hope you’ll enjoy this brief excerpt from Darkroom. The story centers on assistant art curator Kelly Durrell’s search for her friend Day Randall, a talented bipolar photographer who mysteriously goes missing. This section relates how Day meets Gregory Tyson, the dangerous man who becomes her lover.

At the top of the stairs, Day stopped and listened to the voices. They boomed in the open space above the white geometric walls of the museum. The building’s shape molded the sound. A blind person could hear it and know the height of the ceiling and the steepness of its vault. Another kind of sight. But Day was all eyes. Give her scaffolding and she could shoot the maze of gallery walls, the sophisticated rats nibbling snacks and sipping chardonnay. Not her kind of shot, though. She was more the up-close-and-personal, whites-of-their-eyes, breath-to-breath type, going for that flicker of an instant before the lens fogged.

She kept standing there, breathing funny. She couldn’t be scared of those fools. Not her, the woman who’d flipped Baba and lived.

She’d felt sorry for one of his child whores and called the girl’s parents. He chased her through the house with a blade until she locked herself in the bathroom. He slammed the door, yelling that he would cut her throat, bleed her in the tub and carve her like a chicken, wrap the chunks in newspaper and toss them in a dumpster behind the supermarket with the other rotten meat. She was too scared to feel herself, like her body had turned into air. Baba had a way with threats. He might have carried them out except for Shawn, his half brother. Shawn calmed him down and told Day to get the fuck out, warning her that if she stuck her hook nose into their business again, he would personally waste her skinny ass and save Baba the trouble.

That was an occasion for terror. This was just a crowd of art snobs. No blades here. Just voices, diamond-sharp.

“Going to the party?”

Day whipped around, startled.

Stocky guy in jeans and a lumberjack shirt, not much taller than her. Dark hair streaked with gray. Life stamped in his face, deep impressions around his mouth and eyes. Irony in his smile but no trace of cruelty. He held out a gnarly hand. “Leonard Proud.”

She reached out with caution. Not that he seemed like the type who gave women crushing handshakes, but he looked strong. “Day Randall.”

His hand closed over hers—no squeeze or shake, but firm—and then let go. “Kelly says nice things about you,” he said.

“You’re her friend?”

“More like colleague. I’m on the board of the museum.”

She reached for the scuffed Pentax hanging from her neck, the first and only camera she’d owned, her longtime crutch and trusty third eye.

He waved his arm. “No.”

“It’s, like, official. Photos for the newsletter.”

“Even worse.” But he squared his shoulders and turned his face to stone. Ready for his close-up.

“Dude. I’m not a firing squad.”

Leonard clamped his mouth to keep the laughter in. His cheeks puffed a little and his eyes crinkled in amusement. She saw the moment and took the shot. Snap, snap. What she did best. Kelly would never use the photo in the newsletter—members of a board were supposed to look more dignified—but Day might add it to her portfolio if he agreed.

“Let me send you a print,” she said. “What’s your address?”

He gave her a business card, a plain one with a block font.

“You make Native American art? What kind?”

“Weaving and painting.”

“I’d like to see it.”

“There’s a couple of my pieces back there.” Leonard nodded toward the rear of the museum.

“Show me.”

“Some other time. I wanna get the meet-and-greet over with.”

Day followed him into a gallery of Inuit art. “Would you, like, do me a big favor? Point out the other board members so I’ll be sure and get shots of them. You and Joyce are the only ones I know.”

“How much is Joyce paying you?”

“She’s not.”

He snorted. “A new low, even for her.”

A glass case imprisoned several small totem animals carved from stone, including a curled-up seal so smooth and dark Day yearned to feel its coolness and weight in her hand. “It’s for Kelly. I mean, I’m not paying rent or anything, so I try to help.”

“You live with Kelly?”

“Yeah, for almost eight months. She’s in Chicago at a conference for curators, so I’m, like, helping her. It’s a surprise.”

Leonard raised his eyebrows. “You’re here without an invitation.”

“Do I need one?”

“Hell, no. You’re with me.”

Day followed him into the reception area, drafting in his wake like she sometimes drafted behind a semi in her Corolla to save fuel. She needed his forward energy to make her entry. She hated coming uninvited among these people wrapped in cashmere. Not hated—feared. You have to tell yourself the truth because these people are going to lie. Their smiles were rubbery, like masks.

Leonard veered toward the refreshments, tidbits of food on trays and glasses of wine lined up on the tablecloth beside them. Wine the color of pee after you drink way too much water. Day stopped. Too many people were crowded around the refreshments. She would catch Leonard after he got his food.

She felt something, turned, and caught Annie Laible staring from across the room. She smiled and waved and got a sour smile back. Annie had new and wilder hair, hennaed and spiked. Months ago, Day had asked permission to hang a few photographs for sale in her gallery—she needed money bad—and Annie had blown her off. Just a blunt “No” without saying why. Now it was like Annie still blamed her for asking.

Joyce was talking with two men in their forties. Older than Day, but not by much. Day was thirty-eight, though she tried hard to forget it. The short guy was wasted, face bright pink, eyes shining and empty. The other was tall and gaunt. His cheekbones drank the wind. She remembered the line from a poem she read growing up. She forgot what poem. Anyway, it described this guy. He turned his head as if he felt her stare. Their eyes met. Locked. She recognized him. Not personally. More like she was an alien species who finds another of her kind among strangers.

She lifted her camera, zoomed in, and took his picture. Then zoomed out and got the whole group. They were probably important if Joyce was talking to them.

He walked over to her. “You’re Day Randall. I bought two of your prints.”

Day knew which ones. Soon after she came to Boulder, she submitted her portfolio for an exhibit at the museum. Joyce turned down the portfolio but said she had a buyer for the prints at $350 each. A fortune for Day. Of course, Joyce never gave up the buyer’s name. She wouldn’t want Day selling to him and cutting her out of a commission. Now here he was, this guy whose cheekbones drank the wind.

“What’s your name?”

“My friends call me Gee.”

She grinned. “Am I your friend?”

“I don’t know. Are you?”

“I feel like we’re the only ones from another planet.”

Gee reached out and stroked her cheek. His fingertips set off a tingling that reached down to her core. “Let’s play Find the Magic.”

“What’s that?”

“This exhibit is called Magic and Realism.” He pointed to a painting. “What’s magical?”

The painting showed a bird and a cat, the tension between prey and predator. The bird’s beak was open in frozen song. The iridescent feathers, intense cobalt and silky green, burned into her mind. “It’s like a window into someone’s dream.”

“We’re doing analysis,” Gee said. “Notice how the details aren’t realistic. The color of the feathers, the way they glow. Not like any finch in the real world. And the proportions are skewed. The finch is ten times bigger than the cat. It fills the whole room.”

“But it’s afraid of the cat anyway.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.”

“Maybe because the finch is hunched and the cat’s kind of batting at it. Check out these claws. The tips are red.”

“Yeah, like with blood.”

“Exactly.”

Day shook her head. “I don’t have to take things apart. I see them whole.”

“There’s nothing whole. Everything is pieces.” Gee’s gaze played over her face and started her tingling just like his fingertips had. “The universe blew up a long time ago.”

Darkroom Cover

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Join the Dangerous Darkroom Blog Tour

The moment finally comes. The first copy of Darkroom arrives from the printer. Excited and anxious, I tear away the cardboard shell and behold the cover. It’s even more striking and sinister on the paperback than on the computer screen.The colors are deeper . The man lurking at the cover’s edge looks more compelling and mysterious. The designer has done a terrific job. I run my fingers over the glossy surface. Oh, it feels good.

Darkroom

I feel a bit shaky as I open the book. The interior is entirely my work, and although the PDF has been proofed by a professional and I’ve been over it  a dozen times, I fret that I’ve overlooked something so blatant and stupid that I’ll want to crawl into bed and hide beneath the covers. I thumb through the pages. The margins are right. The chapter headings look exactly as I’d envisioned, and none of them is out of place. The headings haven’t mysteriously vanished from any of the spreads.

Finally, my anxiety dies down. There’s probably an error lurking in there somewhere, but not a major error. I can relax and celebrate the launch of my newest novel.

Be sure to join me for the Dangerous Darkroom Blog Tour May 2-6, organized by the lovely people at Novel Publicity. You’ll get sneak peaks of the novel, interviews with me, and exclusive insights to the story and characters that make Darkroom a novel you won’t soon forget.

Enter the blog tour drawing for a shot at winning these special prizes:

  • A paperback of Larry Clark’s famous photo essay Tulsa. Darkroom features a talented photographer whose photos, like Clark’s,”uncover the secret of a face, its elusive life, so it becomes the portrait of an intimate you have yet to meet.”
  • A set of 10 custom note cards with envelopes, featuring a photograph of Boulder’s iconic Flatirons by moonlight. Photograph by Charles Pfiel.
  • Autographed copies of my dark fantasy horror novels Talion and Daemon Seer.
  • A $25 Amazon gift card.

Darkroom is a suspense thriller with a noirish atmosphere and unexpected twists. Art curator Kelly Durrell goes looking for her missing roommate, talented photographer Day Randall, and becomes entangled in a demimonde of powerful people who will stop at nothing to protect their secrets. Here’s what advance readers and reviewers have to say about Darkroom:

“. . . tight, compelling, and convincing writing.”  — Jon A. Jackson, author of Hit on the House and No Man’s Dog

“A thriller with unexpected plot twists and suspenseful action.”  — RT Source

“Kelly Durrell is a deftly-drawn, intelligent, and likable heroine.”  — Daiva Markelis, author of White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life

“A solid mystery that involves a satisfyingly diverse range of characters.”  — D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

“[Maddox’s] prose flows with beauty and clarity.”  — Tahlia Newland, author of The Locksmith’s Secret

The paperback is now available through Amazon and will soon become available through other online sellers. The Kindle edition is coming May 3, and you can preorder a copy right now at the special launch price of just $0.99. The price is going up at the beginning of next week, so don’t wait too long!

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Help me choose a cover for my new novel

My new novel Darkroom is coming out next year. It’s a noirish suspense tale about a woman who searches for her missing friend, an old school photographer who has taken photographs that threaten some dangerous people. Here’s the description that will go on the back cover:

There’s plenty of room for another grave in the mountains . . .

Talented but unstable photographer Day Randall has been living rent-free in Kelly Durrell’s Colorado condo for eight months. Day needs someone to keep an eye on her. Kelly needs someone to draw her out of her stable but not spectacular life . The arrangement works for both of them.

Then Kelly comes home one day to find Day gone. There’s no note, no phone call. Day’s car is still parked out front, but her room is starkly, suspiciously spotless.

No one seems to care. The police certainly aren’t interested in a missing bipolar artist, but Kelly knows something is wrong. Day wouldn’t just leave.

Alone, Kelly traces Day’s last steps through shadowy back rooms of Boulder nightclubs and to a remote mountain estate, where the wealthy protect themselves behind electric fences and armed guards. Along the way, she uncovers a sinister underworld lying just below the mountain snow, and a group of powerful people who will do anything to protect the secrets hidden in Day’s enigmatic photographs.

If she trusts the wrong person, Kelly herself will be the next to disappear.

Graphic designer Pete Garceau has created some terrific images for the cover of Darkroom. Please take a moment and let me know which one you find most eye-catching and intriguing.

Include your email address if you wish to receive  announcements of exciting special offers and contests and be entered in the drawing for a $20 Amazon gift card. This part is optional. I’d love to have your feedback either way.

Click HERE to help me choose the cover for Darkroom.

CATALYST – Free eBook by Mary Maddox

What would you do to stay young and beautiful?

Melissa will do whatever it takes.

She has the wealth to buy eternal youth and destroy anyone who challenges her. Then she meets a young artist with a secret . . .

I’m offering my new short story Catalyst free to all subscribers of my newsletter. Here’s a short excerpt:

The young man in Melissa’s parlor stank of mildew and tobacco. The stench kept her from inviting him to sit, but she couldn’t stop looking at him. He was beautiful. His black hair fell in loose curls around his face. Wide blue eyes, sculpted cheekbones, full lips — an angelic face. “Do you smoke?” she asked.

“My girlfriend did.

“She quit?”

“We’re not together anymore, but the smell gets everywhere.” He studied the painting on the wall above the sofa. “That’s a Rothko. An original?”

“My husband acquired it not long before he died.” Melissa smiled. “You know something about art.”

“I’m a painter.”

Which explained why he needed money. The artists and writers were the saddest of all those Gerard brought to her. Doomed to awaken from their dream in a dark place, youth and hope gone. Nobody cared about their creations except family and a few friends. She felt a stab of sorrow for him. “What’s your name?”

“Chad. What’s yours?”

“You’re twenty-two, is that correct?”

“Yeah.” He cleared his throat with a phlegmy rattling that alarmed her.

“Are you ill?”

“No, it’s just sinus. Allergies.” He spoke too fast.

“You’re sure?”

“That and the pollution. The air feels good in here. Pure.”

Something in his voice, a mix of bitterness and yearning, twisted her heart. She stopped the pity. It was one luxury she couldn’t afford. “I want you to take a hot shower. Would you like that?”

“Yeah, why not.” His nonchalance amused her, touched her a little. He couldn’t possibly afford a place in the city, not on his own. No doubt he lived in a cramped apartment with several others, and they all shared a slimy little bathroom half the size of her shower stall.

“Then Gerard will —”

“First I want to know what I’m getting.”

“Twenty thousand. Cash. Didn’t he tell you?”

“Not the money. The blood.”

Melissa studied her hands. Emerald polish gleamed on her shapely fingernails. No freckled spots yet, but the skin was starting to crepe. The hands of a middle-aged woman. The treatment would plump and smooth them. “Standard, from a blood bank. The donors were screened for disease.”

“How old were they?”

“I have no idea,” she said. “All ages, I suppose.”

Both of them knew better. The young sold to a more lucrative market than blood banks. Only the old and desperate traded a measure of their precious lives for a few dollars.

“So I should bounce back pretty fast?”

To read the rest of Catalyst, just subscribe to my newsletter using the button below or the form on the sidebar. Within 24 hours you’ll receive a message with a link to the download, available for Nook or Kindle.

I hope you enjoy the story!

Subscribe Button

 

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Autobiographical fiction: I was there when none of this happened

Fiction writers often begin with autobiography, especially young writers. Life is painful and incomprehensible. Their stories cry out and struggle to comprehend the world. My early fiction was cathartic in this way. But I soon figured out that personal experience is limiting. The characters in autobiographical stories are distorted fragments of the people on whom they’re based, and what happened is often less significant than what might have happened.

There’s a sea of darkness beyond the uncertain light of memory. The truth is somewhere out there, and once my imagination enters the darkness, I abandon any pretence of autobiography. I’m not writing about actual people or events anymore. I’m writing about ghosts and dreams. The story can become anything.

I’d reached that point when I wrote “Mandarian Training School.”

Although rooted in experience, the story is fiction. Most of the events never happened, and the characters only loosely resemble people I met at a summer school for high-school students with mathematical ability at San Diego State University. The distinction matters. The story reflects my imagination, not any kind of objective reality.

At fifteen I was a year younger than most of the participants. People who know me now might be surprised that I applied and even more surprised that I qualified. My friends at Charleston Scrabble Club will tell you that I’m not exactly a whiz at keeping score. My interest in math is mild at best, and I’ve forgotten most of what I learned. These days I can barely solve a binary equation.

Mathematics is an elegant and challenging language. It expresses concepts that cannot be understood in any other way. As a child I loved math. The summer in San Diego changed that. Emotionally I was unprepared for the workload or the competition. I worked my butt off and felt like the stupidest person in the program. But when I received our class rankings some months later, my name appeared in the middle of the list. I wasn’t a failure. Only mediocre. Somehow that seemed just as bad.

“Mandarian Training School” chronicles my emotional struggle during that summer long ago. And yes, writing it was cathartic. In retrospect, it marked a milestone for me as a writer, the point where I broke away from personal experience and learned to see in the dark.

Read the story here.

 

Image from fotolia.com

Excerpt from the noir mystery DARKROOM

My new novel Darkroom follows museum curator Kelly Durrell as she tracks her missing friend, Day, into a demimonde of drug traffickers and sexual predators. In this flashback, Day’s lover remembers his older brother.

When Gee was sixteen, Renny showed him how to do business.

He remembered the kids skateboarding in the darkening street, their raucous shouts joined to the chorus of starlings settling to roost. The scent of lilacs wafted from somewhere, too sweet. Gee hung back on the porch steps. Renny swaggered to the door, his thumb hooked in the front pocket of his jeans. No one answered the bell. He stepped to the window, cut the screen with his jackknife, and sent Gee inside to unlock the door.

Dougie was taking a shower. Light from the bathroom shined on Renny’s rapt smile. Gee heard the shower curtain rip, hooks popping off the rod, and a croaked “What —?” Thumps and scuffling. Then a louder thump and a scream.

They dragged Dougie into a bedroom and hogtied him with twine. He was a small dude with a hairless chest and not much pubic hair. He curled on the dirty carpet, wet hair pasted to his face, bleeding from his mouth and panting like a dog.

“The shit I tasted was rock,” Renny said. “The shit you delivered was stepped on.”

“The suppliers —”

Renny slammed his fist into Dougie’s face. “I bought from you, not them. Ain’t my fault you trusted a bunch of fucking spics.”

“Basement,” Dougie jabbered. “Third shelf up. Cinder block.”

“Check it out, Gee.”

Gee found the basement door where he expected it to be. Same with the light switch. As if the floor plan of Dougie’s house was burned into his brain at birth. As if he never had a choice. The shelves held the usual clutter — a busted toaster oven, a couple of bowling trophies, a glass jar of pennies. The money was stashed in the cavity of a cinder block. Not enough. Gee brought the pennies too.

The bedroom stank of urine. “Nine hundred seventy.” Gee tossed the roll of bill to Renny. “Plus change.” He shook the jar of pennies and placed it on the floor. Doing things like that — provocative things — made him less afraid of his brother.

Renny grabbed a sock from the floor and stuffed it in Dougie’s mouth. Shadows warped his smile into something monstrous. “You owe me seven large. I want my money, bitch. You gonna give me my money?” When he struck the first match, Gee looked away. A scream gargled in Dougie’s throat. The bedroom carpet was green and littered with tiny pebbles and burnt-out matches. The useless details stuck to Gee’s memory like lint. He wanted to bolt. But Renny would be waiting at home and their parents wouldn’t protect him. Dad thought weaklings deserved what they got, and Mom was just a slave.

“Where should I burn the cocksucker now? I’m thinking his balls.”

Gee tasted vomit. “He’d probably like it, the faggot.”

The hogtied body thumped like a landed fish. Dougie made an urgent whimpering noise. He had more to say. Renny yanked the sock from his mouth.

“Cl-cl-closet.” Dougie’s gaze jerked upward. “Sh-sh-shoe box.”

Gee pulled shoe boxes from the top shelf of the closet. In two of them he found Dougie’s real stash. Hundred-dollar bills and fifties and twenties, sorted into piles and rubber-banded. He showed his brother the money and began counting out loud. “Two hundred, three, four, five, six . . .” The diversion worked. Renny came and stood over him while he counted the money. Nine thousand, two hundred and thirty dollars.

“Asshole could’ve just paid me.”

Gee hoped it would end there, that his brother would be satisfied with a 3000-dollar profit and let Dougie keep his life. But Renny strangled Dougie with a belt from the closet and then tossed Gee the car keys. “There’s a can of gas in the trunk. Bring it.”

The firefighters showed up fast. Their station, it turned out, was two blocks away. Dougie’s body was mostly unburned, and the cops lifted a partial fingerprint from the belt. It wasn’t a certain match, but a neighbor IDed their car and Dougie’s friends testified to Renny’s psycho reputation.

Gee never rolled over. He was handcuffed to a table for hours. He begged for the toilet, but the two ugly cops just laughed. They laughed more after he pissed himself. They claimed a witness saw his face and showed him a drawing that looked like him. But Gee wasn’t stupid. It had been too dark for anyone to make him. The cops yammered on and on about their solid case and how he would be so popular in the slammer his asshole would be looser than his mama’s pussy. Now and then they changed tactics and called him a good boy, straight-A student, and promised him Renny was going down so he’d best cut a deal while he could. Through it all Gee kept the guilt and horror locked inside. And finally they had to let him go. They had nothing.

Renny was confident he would walk free, too. Gee had been in the courtroom when the jury came back. Had seen his brother’s face when the foreman spoke the word guilty — the rapt smile, like the moment he sailed into the bathroom to take Dougie down.

Darkroom will be available early next year.

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Flying Spiders: Brief Excerpt from Talion

The second chapter of Talion includes a flashback of Lisa and her brother  visiting their father in Chicago. She receives a locket that becomes significant later. For readers wanting an entirely plot-driven story, the flashback might be an annoyance, but unless they understand who Lisa is, how will they care what happens to her?

Flying Spiders

He was nowhere in the crowd of faces at the airport gate. The other passengers swept her and Randy forward like a powerful river. A crash of voices and distant music echoed from the cavernous airport walls. Lisa searched the endless stream of faces. She desperately had to pee. They passed restrooms, but she couldn’t ask Randy to stop. He grabbed her wrist so hard she yelped in pain. “Stay with me!”

He dragged her through a huge terminal building to the United Airlines counter. They waited in a long line. When their turn finally came, the uniformed woman behind the counter was writing something. Randy drummed his fingers until she said, “May I help you?” Her eyelids drooped as she listened to him, then she lifted a phone and punched some buttons. “I got two kids here’s supposed to meet their daddy.” She pronounced the name, Murray Duncan, so precisely that it sounded like contempt. She hung up and started checking suitcases as if Randy and Lisa weren’t there anymore. Another uniformed woman told them to step aside so the line could keep moving. Squeezed between the ticket line and the baggage line, they got jostled and drew curious stares.

Randy’s face turned red and knotty, like when he lifted his stupid barbells. What if he started a fight and ruined their vacation?

“Dad probably just went to the wrong place,” Lisa said.

“Well, they’re paging him right now.”

A loudspeaker drifted above the noise in the terminal: Murray Duncan, please come to the United Airlines ticket counter. Murray Duncan. . . Something about the sound, hollow and distorted, made Lisa feel the awful moment would keep happening forever. Dad would always forget to meet them, and his name would drift through the airport terminal like a ghost.

Lisa saw the girl coming. She hurried along in snake-skin pumps with ticking steps that made her boobs jiggle. Lisa might have laughed except the girl was gorgeous. She looked like a model with perfect hair and makeup and a flashbulb smile.

“You’re Randy, right? You’ve got your dad’s sexy eyes.”

The swollen anger drained from his face like air from a popped balloon. The girl tossed a conspiring smile over her shoulder. That’s how you handle men, it said. She introduced herself as Angelina and apologized for not meeting them at the gate. The traffic on the expressway had been insane.

Randy carried their suitcases out to the car and stowed them in the trunk, putting lots of effort into lifting so Angelina could see his biceps. Lisa snickered but kept her mouth shut. She wanted his good mood to hold. Breathing the grit and fumes of the airport, she felt excited and a little queasy. Her whole life would change from this vacation, she just knew. It didn’t even matter that Randy took the front seat and stuck her with sitting in back.

“Where’s our dad?” Randy asked once they were on the expressway.

“In a meeting.”

They waited for Angelina to explain further as hundreds of cars spun past, the people inside glowering or desperate or laughing wildly. Compared to them she seemed cool and perfect. Her hands rested easily on the steering wheel, the car just another accessory like her gold bracelet and pink nails.

“Are you his girlfriend?”

“Yes. And I work for him as well. I’ll be staying with you while he’s at the office.”

“So he’s paying you to stay with us?”

“Should he be?”

Randy scowled. Though he teased Lisa without mercy, he hated being teased himself.

The condo, in a high-rise by the lake, was like a picture in a magazine. Everything down to the empty flower vase fit the decorating scheme, but nothing reminded Lisa of Dad. It felt like a hotel. She and Randy watched TV and drank bottle after bottle of orange and lemon Pellegrino.

She felt bloated and grouchy by the time Angelina drove them to a restaurant with pastel tablecloths and napkins spread like fans. Dad sat alone at a table drinking a foreign beer and reading a newspaper. He looked different than she remembered. Didn’t he used to have a tan? Now his skin reminded her of mushrooms. It was stretched too tight over his cheekbones, but under his eyes the wrinkles gathered like cobwebs.

Then he hugged her and said, “How’s my beautiful girl,” and Lisa told herself everything would be OK.

The next day Angelina took them shopping. In a jewelry store Lisa found the locket. She knew right away it was what she wanted — a smooth hunk of 14-carat gold with a thick chain. Inside, Dad’s picture would fit beneath a crystal. Angelina slapped down a credit card without asking the price.

That evening they had dinner at an Italian restaurant too fancy to serve pizza, and Lisa asked Dad for a picture of himself.

“You don’t need my picture.”

Lisa was too surprised to answer.

“Can’t you give a picture to your own daughter?” Angelina said, careful not to presume. She was just asking.

“I don’t have one.”

“I’ll take one,” Randy said.

“No. If there has to be a photograph, I’ll get it done professionally.”

At the end of their visit, he’d given each of them a photograph that looked like it came from his driver’s license.

On the plane home Randy said, “What an asshole. He’s paranoid of his own kids.”

“What do you mean?”

“He doesn’t want pictures of himself floating around for the cops to get a hold of. He scams people. He talks them into phony investments and steals their money.”

“He does not.” Lisa yelled so loud the flight attendant frowned a warning at her.

“Ask Mom if you don’t believe me.”

“Mom hates him.”

“Because he’s an asshole. He spent more time with Angelina than us.”

On a bright Sunday afternoon, Dad and Angelina had taken them to the John Hancock Center. They rode an elevator at breakneck speed to the observatory on top. It was swarming with tourists. Everyone jockeyed for a spot at the windows. Luckily Randy was big enough to elbow past the adults, and Lisa was small enough to stand in front of him without blocking his view.

Sailboats drifted across the lake in dreamlike silence. Lisa imagined sailing out there, the sun on her shoulders, the waves lifting her with the promise of excitement. She imagined diving into the jeweled water of the pool on the roof of an apartment tower. Knowing her father lived in just such a building, she felt like a princess. When she was older and ready, he would bring her into his world. She would dedicate herself to preparing for that time.

She realized Dad and Angelina were gone. They had to be somewhere in the observatory, but she felt anxious. She turned to Randy. He was staring, not at the lake or buildings but into the vacant sky.

“What’s up there?”

“Spiders. On the outside of the window.” He pointed to some darkish specks Lisa had dismissed as dirt. But they were spiders. “I wonder how they get up here. And what do they eat? Probably insects that come flying along. And if the wind blows them off, they’re so light they float along on air currents to another skyscraper.”

“You can see spiders anywhere,” she said. “Where’s Dad?”

“Who cares.” His eyes never left the spiders. “You go find them.”

The observatory’s corridor followed the outer windows to form a big square. On the opposite side she found Dad and Angelina. They were each leaning a shoulder against the inner wall, touching foreheads as if sharing secrets through telepathy. His arms circled her waist. Lisa knew then he wanted to be with Angelina. His kids coming to visit was a pain, and he could hardly wait for them to leave.

They never heard from him anymore. The child-support checks were signed by his lawyer. The birthday and Christmas presents were certificates from upscale catalogs, but Mom still made them send thank-you notes. “Your actions show who you are,” she said. “And if he’s got any shame he’ll help pay for your college.”

 

MaryMaddox-Talion

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Daemon Seer available on NetGalley

If you’re a blogger or book reviewer interested in horror or dark fantasy, my new novel Daemon Seer is now available on NetGalley, a site where you can find review copies of books from mainstream publishers, small presses, and university presses as well as indie authors. It’s an impressive collection of new works. You’ll find it worthwhile to register for an account whether you choose to review Daemon Seer or not.

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Countdown to Daemon Seer

On February 24 my new novel Daemon Seer will be available in paperback and in the Kindle store. Daemon Seer picks up Lu’s story ten years after the events of Talion. Now twenty-fiveshe and Lisa still suffer from the trauma of being taken by serial killer Rad Sanders. Talion is back, too, but he’s no longer the kind spirit who helped Lu survive the kidnapping . . .

Lu owes her life to the daemon Talion, and now he demands repayment — she must bear him a child.

As a teenager, Lu Darlington attracted national attention when she and her friend Lisa escaped a sadistic killer known as the Professor of Death. She never told anyone about the daemon who saved her life that day.

Ten years later, Lisa shows up at Lu’s door, fleeing another psychopath stalker. But Lisa’s not the only one seeking Lu after all this time. One by one, the daemons descend:

Voracious Chama. Sinister Black Claw. Beautiful Talion.

Chama wants Lu, but Talion claims her. The women of Lu’s family have always belonged to Talion—and they’ve suffered deeply for it.

As the human threat draws closer, Talion demands that Lu bind herself to him in a harrowing ceremony that will destroy an innocent man and change her forever—but might save Lisa’s life.

Can she navigate the violent intrigues of the daemon world without being consumed by its terrible, all-consuming demands?

Now available for preorder in the Kindle store.

Buy the Book Button

 

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My short story appears in anthology

Late last year, Awesome Indies published Awesome Allshorts: Last Days, Lost Ways, the first of a series of planned anthologies. Last Days, Lost Ways contains stories by 21 authors, including Tahlia Newland, Dixiane Hallaj, Bill Kirton, Shauna Bickley — and me. I’m honored to have my story “Smilin’ Mike” published in the company of stories by so many accomplished indie authors.

“Smilin’ Mike” is one of several stories I wrote about a nine-year-old girl whose life is disrupted when her parents divorce. The girl and her mother move in with Nana, her eccentric paternal grandmother, in a quiet suburb of San Diego. (The stories are set in the 1950s, when San Diego had quiet suburbs.) Nana harbors the hope that her son will come to his senses and the family will reunite, a hope shared by the little girl but not her embittered mother. Caught up in the tension between two adults who love her, the child must negotiate a world far more complex and uncertain than the one she has known. When Nana meets one of her favorite TV personalities, Smilin’ Mike, a professional wrestler known for his humor and geniality, the girl discovers that people aren’t always what they seem and even adults can be fooled by a false image.

Last Days, Lost Ways is available as a paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online booksellers.

 

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Norlene – hard to love, easy to kill

If a writer must mark a character for death, it’s safer to choose one that readers hate. In my novel Talion Norlene Jakes falls victim to the sadistic serial killer Rad Sanders, the Professor of Death. Rad kills her to make an impression on her stepdaughter Lu, for whom he has special plans.

Norlene is hard to love. She boozes and does hard drugs and cheats on her husband. She feels endlessly sorry for herself. Listen to her bemoaning a hangover:

Used to be you could have a few Coke-and-whiskeys without paying for it with this torment. Not anymore. You’re old and worn down by life. Sex is like taking a shit for all the pleasure you feel. Wake up every morning with a truckload of shit piled on your chest. A loser husband and a crazy stepdaughter and just enough money to scrape by. Might as well put a bullet in your brain.

Oh yeah, she has a mouth on her. I blame Norlene for all those readers who complained about the bad language in Talion.

She vents her rage on Lu, abusing the poor kid emotionally and physically. Norlene is not very bright, but her real problem is lack of self-awareness, which isn’t the same thing as intelligence. Self awareness requires the honesty to look within yourself and understand how you came to be who you are. Only once does Norlene have a flash of insight that she abuses Lu because she herself suffered abuse as a child:

Today Lu knew better than to answer, “It’s not a house, it’s a trailer,” or some other backtalk. She needed a smacking now and then to make her behave.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Lu obeyed with her face showing there was no sass on it. Norlene used to face her own mother in the same humbled way. The recognition stabbed like a needle. Why should the girl be anything to you? You ain’t blood.

Norlene immediately dismisses the parallel because she and Lu aren’t “blood.” It never occurs to her that the biological connection never stopped her own mother from beating on her.

Later in the story, after giving Lu a whipping that will leave scars, Norlene puts on a dress that hides her thick waist and shows off her still-shapely legs, and goes off to turn a trick with Rad. Readers know what’s coming. I doubt many of them care what happens to her, but in case they forget Norlene is a human being, there’s this:

Norlene started walking along the highway’s narrow shoulder. Meeting down the road from the lodge was his idea. “We don’t want to compromise your reputation,” was his excuse, but most likely he was scared of Duane. The high roadside weeds tickled her arm with stalks and pods and shriveled flowers. Grasshoppers jumped up and rasped her legs. The weeds were thick with them. When she was little, Norlene thought grasshoppers grew inside weed pods and hatched out like birds. Kids got some strange ideas.

Poor Norlene. Maybe things could have been different.

MaryMaddox-Talion