“Where do you get your ideas?” [shrug emoji]

Where do writers get their ideas?

I’ve heard this question a lot, not always directed toward me, and there are a couple of good answers to it. I’ll save the best one for a second.

My friend Aprilynne has always replied to that with “I go to the Idea Store and if they’re having a sale, I get two.”
(I’ve always understood that as her way of saying “It just happens.”)

The real answer is actually a lot simpler than that: daydream, and ask yourself “what if?”

Kind of like when Stephen King cleaned high school locker rooms during his summers as a teen, and when he saw the girls’ room, he was confused at the feminine hygiene product dispenser on the wall. It was explained to him, and he filed that knowledge away. Later in life when he was reading an article on human telekinesis, he learned that it allegedly manifested during times of heightened emotional duress, for example, a teen girl’s first menstrual cycle.
Those two things together formed the beginning of his first big best-seller, Carrie.

For a less graphic idea, take Leigh Statham’s “Not-So-Innocuous-Girl” books. Statham was studying some family history, chanced upon the tale of a transatlantic ancestor, and decided to retell it in a steampunk vein. My wife devoured those books.

Or when Stephenie Meyer wrote Twilight, she was probably thinking “What if I did vampires, but to be really meta about it, the book ITSELF sucked?”

(Yeah, she made a billion dollars off the series and I read them all, don’t @ me)

The point is, you play with things. Change it up. Ask yourself questions about how to make it work, and then you keep doing that. Soon you’ve built a whole world, and you can drop some characters into it for a rip-roaring good time.

Like an American Revolution, only where the British use magic, so the Americans use tech.

Or Beauty and the Beast, with Gaston as the hero.

Or a superhero cheerleader Amazon warrior adventure.

It’s about that easy. The idea isn’t the hard part. It’s sticking it out to the end that really wrecks your head.

So get to work.

Plans for Fall 2017, plus I’m considering Patreon.

Hi gang,

Things have been busy as always, but here’s an update on what I’ve been doing this summer, plus a look at the next few months:

  1. I have three more drawings to finish for The Hero Next Door, which many of you helped me fund via Kickstarter. The week of Labor Day, I expect I will finish the final one.
  2. After that, it’s a bunch of technical stuff that remains in order to finish the book.
  3. While that’s going on, I’ve finished a manuscript for a different book, a middle grade fantasy called The Korbadell Job. I have high hopes for this one. Imagine a Tolkien quest/adventure, only with trucks and explosives in addition to monsters. I should be sending that to my publisher of choice around mid-October.
Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, sky, cloud, outdoor and nature
From the work trip where I got the idea…

After that? Well, the slate’s already full:

  1. In October (I’ll post dates when it’s official) I’m contributing at the League of Utah Writers conference, having been invited to speak about explosions and the like. I’m very excited for that. In two weeks I get to test-drive my presentation in front of a small group.
  2. I’m also taking some online training courses so that I can make a bit of a career change, but that’s far enough out that I won’t bother with any details. The important thing is that once I’m done with the above manuscripts, I won’t be delving into anything new for a few months. I’ll have published 2 books this year, in spite of moving out of state and buying a house. I need a break.
  3. All the same, I’m picking at an idea I had two years ago, where I would write my first-ever nonfiction intended for publication. It’s a summary of my career as a truck driver, including some of the deeper life lessons I’ve learned in the industry. I expect it will be more interesting than it sounds. It won’t be overly long, as I intend to publish it one chapter at a time here on my website, then put the final edition out on eBook.
  4. I know what I’m doing after that, but that’s enough for now.

Which brings us to the final part of the update:

For a while now I’ve considered whether or not to do a Patreon account. If you don’t know what that is, Patreon is a service where people can subscribe to your content, usually for dirt cheap–like, $1 a month cheap. My goal to start out would be getting about $100 a month in support, just for things like art supplies, shipping materials, ISBNs, and more.

My only hang-up is that I’m not entirely sure what to offer. I’ve seen other artists (who post their content regularly) that give their content to subscribers a few days before it’s normally scheduled to go live. I’d want to generate content that’s exclusive to supporters, but still geared toward my ultimate work of publishing.

If you’re keen to weigh in on this, let me know in the comments. If I were to set up support levels between $1 and $5 a month, what kind of stuff would you be looking for? Unique illustrations? Your name as a character in a future book? Maybe a comic that can only be accessed by supporters? Let’s hear it.

Thanks guys and gals.

Now get back to work.

I promise there’s a good reason for this.

CENT

I was perusing old drawings in my folder and found this one from several years ago–maybe 2012, I unfortunately didn’t put a date on it–and realized I had forgotten about it.

It was one of my first attempts at combing a few regular images I’d traced in CorelDRAW, which was the poor Canadian attempt at re-creating Adobe Illustrator at a lower price and higher bug count. For reasons I cannot feign to recall, I attempted a fusion of Clint Eastwood and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, called (wait for it) “Clint Eastwood Ninja Turtle.”

But Graham! Why did you do this? You monster!

The manuscript I was working on at the time was, I think, called RESOLUTE. It was about high school football in Oklahoma…with gargoyles. (I have scrapped this idea and occasionally think of ways to salvage it, but I am not hopeful.) Anyway, I kept coming to certain scenes that got wildly distant from the story I was trying to tell, and I had no idea how to corral them back together. So I drew for a while to clear my head.

C.E.N.T. was the eventual product of one of these brain-clearing sessions, and suddenly I had a thought: I knew where I wanted the story to go, I just didn’t always know how to get there. When I reached those junctions on the story-map, Clint Eastwood Ninja Turtle would arrive on the page, take my main characters by the hand, and escort them through that scene or chapter (with a brief paragraph, highlighted in red so I could find it) and tell them where to go from there.

This is a terrible thing to do in final drafts, but a very nifty trick for early drafts. Good Old Clint hasn’t shown up in any of my early drafts for a while now, but he was there in spirit when I worked on THE KORBADELL JOB a few months ago.

Since Clint Eastwood is a real person and the Ninja Turtles are a copyrighted property, there’s no way in hell I can lay any sort of legal claim to either of these figures, nor do I really care to. I’m just putting him out there for my fellow writers to use as needed. If you’re bogged down in an early draft, let Clint Eastwood Ninja Turtle save the day! Write him into that paragraph!

Fade in. “And then C.E.N.T. showed up to grab Bella by the hand and said ‘You’re gonna keep trying to hook up with that sparkly, wimpy vampire, even though that hot shirtless wolf-dude isn’t trying to kill you, punk.’ And he led her to Edward, for…reasons. ‘We’ll come back to that. Cowabunga.'” Fade out.

Or, more likely, you’re a better writer than I am and this doesn’t happen to you in draft one. So leave him here and go enjoy your uncomplicated, unfrustrating writing life, you terrible demon you.

Carry on.

Wednesdays and the Work-in-Progress: 7 June 2017

kickstart cover

Hey gang.

I notified the KS backers last week that the manuscript went to my editor, who will be tinkering with it for the next month. In that time I have two big responsibilities to juggle:

  1. Getting the artwork done for those who paid for it
  2. Moving my family 400 miles away to start a new job and buy a house

“But Graham! But Graham! Why would you do this all at the same time?!”

Because I make poor life decisions many times a year, and this time I made two of them at once. (Or rather they are both great life decisions, and doing them at once was the poor decision, and I just cut my poor decision rate by 50%. Woo-hoo, #adulting.)

Anyway, that’s where I’m at. Waiting on edits, working on art. I did a drawing of The Spartan for the bookmarks, and didn’t like how it came out. I will re-do it so that it does not suck.

I anticipate that by this time next week, I will have some more art to show you. Just know that all of the personalized stuff for the Kickstarter will have to be seen by each individual backer, first.

6 Things Writers Get Wrong About Trucks (and you won’t believe #6!) 

They say “write what you know.” I know a couple of things about truck driving, so if you decide to write about it in one of your books, maybe these details will help.
1- Blowouts don’t automatically make you crash. Your average tractor trailer has 18 wheels (10 on the truck, 8 on the trailer.) the five axles are called the steer, the drives, and the tandems. The steer axle is the only one with just two tires on it.

If you lose a drive or a tandem tire, you will most likely hear it, but it won’t destabilize the truck because you have three more tires across the same axle, plus more tires in front or behind. However if you blow a steer tire, that can cause you to lose control and steer abruptly to one side. Hold the steering wheel steady and don’t hit the brakes if this happens–come to a controlled and gradual stop if you can.
2- You can’t drop a trailer while driving. The trailer has a metal pin on it called the kingpin. It locks into the 5th wheel plate on the truck and is held there by super strong locking jaws. Even when you’re parked, you can’t pull the handle to release the jaws of their is any pressure on them, which there definitely is when the truck is in motion. Even trucks with buttons in the cab that release the locking jaws will not do so if the truck is driving. And even if you somehow bypassed that control, you still couldn’t do it while the truck is no if and the kingpin is jammed against the locking jaws.
3- There are two ways you can jacknife a truck. Both ways involve locking up the brakes. If the brakes on the tractor lock up, the trailer will keep pushing it, causing the tractor to turn left or right. If the brakes on the trailer lock up, the tail end of the trailer will swing out to the left or right. It depends on where the brakes lock up.
4- Trucks are more worried about stopping than going. You have three ways to brake in a tractor-trailer: the pedal, the knobs, and the trolley handle. The brake pedal engages whenever it’s pushed. Pulling the knobs (yellow for truck, red for trailer) is like hitting the e-brake in your car, it will lock them up (so this is for dire emergencies only.) The trolley handle (a.k.a. the Johnson bar or trailer brake) only engages the brakes on the trailer. Use this if the tractor brakes get too hot (from overuse, which is a form of bad driving…). But be careful because too much pressure on trailer brakes can cause a jacknife.
5- “Waaaah! Two trucks are going uphill and one is barely fast enough to pass the other one! Waaaah! Truckers are jerks!” Surprise: YOU’RE the jerk. Long distance truckers are paid by the mile, not the hour, and their daily driving hours are limited. If they have a long way to go, and mountains to climb in the process, they are worried about keeping their average speed high. This means momentum. If a truck slows down while climbing, he is never getting that momentum back. So if a heavy guy can go 50 and a heavier guy can only go 45, it doesn’t matter if you want to go 75. Mister 50 is going to get around Mister 45 to maintain his 50, or else he will cost himself money. It’s either 5 minutes of inconveniencing a motorist who can go faster and drive longer, or 1/2 hour of lost drive time because he touched the brakes–and lost money for it. Granted, there are guys who are irresponsible with this, but they are the exception.
6- AIR LINES! CUT THEM, AND YOUR BRAKES LOCK UP. This is the biggest mistake in Hollywood!!! License to Kill, Terminator Genisys, The Flash, and Pete’s Dragon are just a few off the top of my head that get this wrong.

With cars, yes, you lose brake pressure if you cut the brake line. That’s because car brakes use liquid pressure to close the brake pads on a disc, or open them against a drum. Without that liquid pressure, the pads won’t press.

But air brakes are the exact opposite. The default position for air brakes is the locked position, where brake pads are pressed against brake drums and will not let the wheels turn. Once you start the truck and let the air compressor fill up, it pushes those brake pads off of the drum so that the wheels can move. If you cut the air line, all the air bleeds out and the brakes engage within seconds, and there is NOTHING you can do about it while in motion.

Trucks are built this way for a reason: if the air system fails (how or why are irrelevant), it’s better for the truck to stop than to be a runaway. A 40-ton missile does more damage than a 40-ton roadblock around which you can drive.
This is my biggest pet peeve about trucks on tv and in movies, because it is so basic to truck engineering. Trucks are not cars. Don’t ever write it this way or I will find you and bludgeon you with my textbook from trucking school.
That’s all, folks. Happy writing!

Wednesdays and the Work-in-Progress: 4/12/2017

Hey gang! This week’s update is twofold: I decided to take a break from THE KORBADELL JOB (“Blast crew goes to Mordor”) so I could get my bearings. I was just too bogged down in it, I couldn’t make any headway without looking back and knowing I would have to delete or change 80% of the night’s work, every night that I worked on it.
One thing that helped was reading DRAGONWATCH by Brandon Mull. He’s a champion of middle grade and writing. I realized most of his writing is dialogue, not narration or blocking, and that’s what makes it read so well. I want that same flow for TKJ so it was good that I reset my head at this stage.
The other part of this week’s update is something I mentioned on Facebook, namely that I launched a Kickstarter for a paranormal superhero romance, THE HERO NEXT DOOR. My wife helped me make a video to explain it.
Thank you to those who have backed it so far! We’re almost halfway there and it’s only a few hours old! That doesn’t mean I won’t still be nervous until it actually funds (the goal is low, just $550). It’s my first venture into crowdsourcing so I want it to do well. We shall see.
That’s it for this week. Y’all take care.

Wednesday and the Work-in-Progress: 3/8/17

At least once a week, I’d like to take a minute to update you guys on the story I’m working on for the time being. One of my struggles as a writer has been to focus on just one thing at a time, and give it the attention it needed. (In the summer of 2009, I tried to write three books in as many months. They each turned out about as well as you’d expect.)

So if you’ve been following me on Twitter or Instagram, you know that the book I’m doing right now is called THE KORBADELL JOB. I haven’t yet settled on a name for its intended series, but the working name is Brimstone’s Boomers. It’s about a drilling-and-blasting company in a fantasy setting, and they’re hired to do a stealth incursion into an enemy nation and blow up their headquarters.

I got the idea from the place where I work. Back in October, I was dispatched up to Northern Nevada, where my brother-in-law and I were to do an ANFO shot at a gypsum mine. I’m not allowed to post videos of our shots online, but here’s one I found on YouTube that demonstrates what our shots look like:

My BIL, Austin, slept for most of the drive, and I was listening to Harry Potter on my headset, having fantastic little daydreams about books and whatnot, when the idea struck me: what if, in the standard-issue Fantasy Quest Novel, instead of sending a team of ragtag farmers and non-fighters into the heart of the Evil Empire to destroy a Super Powerful Artifact…someone hired a blast crew to do it instead?

The fact that I was driving through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation at the time probably helped to feed this fantasy.

(photo courtesy of Davemeistermoab)

Anyway, it was just a sarcastic little idea that I had. I still had plenty of book ideas to tackle…but a conversation with an author friend of mine steered me back to this idea. Adapting it as a middle-grade fantasy seemed like the smartest take, and since I hadn’t yet developed it too far in my mind, I wasn’t resistant to the idea of making it a kids’ novel.

Thus, here we are.

In November, I got the chance to worldbuild the whole thing while I was pulling a late night at work. (This is pretty meta, actually.) The company I work for had loaded a shot in the ground, stemmed it, all that–essentially it was ready to fire, but it couldn’t be set off for some reason, and the law dictates that we can’t leave explosives unattended or unsecured, so I volunteered to do it, knowing that I had writing to do.

No automatic alt text available.

There I was, figuring out my fantasy blasting novel, whilst doing real blasting work.

Right now I’ve almost got the outline dialed in. I tried writing the first chapter last night but I was tired, and it came out poorly, so I didn’t push it too far.

The ultimate goal is to send it to Shadow Mountain, my publisher of choice for youth fantasy. (Other than, yanno, DreadPenniesUSA.) I’d really like to get it in the mail to them by May, but I won’t force it if it’s not ready. I want them to love it as much as I do, and I think it’s got a much better chance than the work I’ve sent them in the past (mostly old versions of SIDEWINDER.) I mean come on, middle-grade fantasy with STEM and a colorful spread of multispecial characters? I just…might…make it.

I’ll keep you posted 🙂

A Stealth Affirmation at LTUE

Something happened at LTUE this weekend that I wanted to share with y’all. It’s hard to quantify it because–unlike the ethereal fantasy run-in with a Big Cheese Editor-it’s unlikely to lead to a huge publishing deal or anything like that. It might not even lead to name recognition down the road. It doesn’t give me an “in” with a future submission. It was just something affirming, something great for its own sake, and aside from my wife, nobody else saw it happen.
Friday night, I had just set up the signing table (along with maybe thirty other authors) and put my books out, comprising the entire Engines trilogy plus KILL THE BEAST. Before things had really gotten underway, a bearded gentleman who was probably in his fifties came over and started flipping through a copy of REBEL HEART.
He asked what DreadPennies was, I told him it was just the name of my operation. The books were printed by CreateSpace but I did the layouts myself. He said he was impressed by the quality, not just of the materials but of the work–margins, gutters, stuff a publisher would recognize, stuff that a lot of indies get wrong. It makes the finished product look bad when it’s overlooked.
I thanked him and asked him if he had anything at the show, if he was a writer or artist, he said no, he was an editor (and I initially couldn’t hear the name of the publisher.) He’d worked at Tor and Del Rey for long stretches, but had been at his current spot for over a decade.
He left, and I looked up his name tag in the program, because it kind of sounded familiar. Then I found myself dumbstruck; it was Jim Minz, head editor of Baen books, a publisher for with whom I would shed human blood to be published.
(Small amounts, and my own, from like, my nose or something, but still.)
Again, here’s the thing: this happenstance encounter didn’t net me a huge publishing deal, or a get-out-of-slush-hell-free card, or even a recommendation to submit to them later. It didn’t give me a tangible perk of any kind.
It was just extremely affirming to be a low-totem-pole guy with a whopping four books to my name, and receive an approving fist pump from the best of the pros.
I still have to sweat and grind and crank out books. This changes nothing. But it tells me I’m at least doing it right on the “quality” side of things. And that’s huge.
This is not the last time I will present my work to that man. Baen is one of two publishers I want to work with. I hope the next time impresses him even more. We shall see. 
Back to work.

“The Darkest Friday”, a short story

The Darkest Friday

 

They hire me for the savings. I do it for the money.

I never wanted to be one of these people. Hard not to feel like a trained circus monkey, poised on the balls of my feet, looking skyward at that cookie that’s dangled just out of reach, and there’s only one cookie, but I’m in a box surrounded by other monkeys that see it too, and here we are, armed to the teeth, ready to jump the moment the master of ceremonies says “GO!”

You know what the sad thing is? Out of a hundred people, I bet only two or three of us is really cold-blooded enough to go through this process based on initiative. Not that many people are sick enough in the head to elbow a stranger in the teeth so that they can save fifty bucks on a plasma screen. That’s how humans are, though. Oh look, I see a few people over there! They’re fighting! What for? I don’t know, let’s check it out. Ooooh, a sale? Well, they’re fighting, so it must be worth it. I’d better join in or I’ll miss out!

Monkey see, monkey do.

That’s the sentiment that’s at the core of all this. That’s why I’m standing in front of DigiLoad at two in the morning on a Friday, the Friday, the most notorious and feared Friday on the calendar. It’s why I’m armed Matrix-style under two layers of sweaters and trench coats, with enough automatic weaponry to bring down a federal bank building.

The fact that it’s twenty below gives me a good excuse to bundle up. Let the layers conceal my toys. I know there are others in the crowd who are packing like I am. I’m counting on it. So are my sponsors.

I sigh, letting the mist cloud up in front of my face. Last year I had to do this with riot gear on, and breathing heavily just fogged up the mask. Fifteen, maybe twenty guys in the crowd are rocking those masks right now. I don’t feel bad for them. I was in their shoes a year ago because I was stupid and thought I needed the money. I don’t pity the stupid.

That stupidity is what made me the star of the feeds. I had sponsors pouring offers in all December long, trying to get me aboard for this year. Initially I told them all to get bent. Said I wasn’t doing Black Fridays anymore. But in the end, I took the money. We always do. That’s how it is with Friday Fighters: you get desperate enough to try, and you either die, end up in the hospital with bills stacked to the moon, or worst of all, you succeed, and well, there’s no such thing as just one, is there? The money’s too good.

And besides, my stupid uncle needs help. He’s got medical bills to the moon.

A commotion ripples through the crowd like the first wave of an incoming tide breaking across the soft sand of a flat beach. I saw a nature doc on the streams once, said that humans still pick up on changes in their surroundings like prey do on the African savannahs. I can’t speak for the prey. Can’t afford to think like them.

I’m the predator in this environment.

The commotion is due to the lights flickering on inside DigiLoad. Green-shirted employees scramble to get in place; they’ve been prepping their joint all night long, ten acres of the newest digital gadgets and gizmos that have been the stuff of ad campaigns since June. “Hottest” this and “gotta-have” that. Bah. It’ll all be outmoded in two months, but there are still enough rich folk out there with spoiled grandkids that they have to please.

I take a final sip of coffee, drain the Styrofoam cup, crush it, and toss it onto the frozen parking lot surface. Law says the companies only have to salt the pavement ten feet from the door. Guess it makes the spectacle more interesting for the streams. I look up at the lampposts and pretend I can see the micro-cams watching us, see the invisible streams broadcasting to the towers all through town, up into the satellites in space, then back down into the pay-per-view boxes of homes all across America.

It’s sick. But it’s legal. You get enough money in the right criminal senator’s pocket, and it’s all legal. Black Friday’s critical to Q4 GDP stats, and previous attempts to legally curb the violence ended up hurting those stats in an election year a few cycles back. An incumbent president lost when he should have won. I mean, that’s not the only reason, but it don’t gotta be true for people to fall for it. The dumb ones called their congressmen, the laws were passed, and well, here we are. It’s Black Friday. Anything goes, including televising the mayhem, so long as there’s a price, and a fee, and a tax. Sure, there’s piracy, and they factor that into the taxes on the streamers, who then factor that into the low prices of their goods. Rumors go out into the darknet, hyping up the prospects of this store and that store. Imagine the 1849 Gold Rush, only everyone knows where the gold is, and everyone’s got guns with motors on them, bullets with uranium tips on them, and operators with no morals on them.

Gentlemen, start your engines.

The doors open. The greenshirts jump back clumsily, dressed in little more than baseball pads, like fat catchers with boxing gloves on. There’s no law dictating their apparel, but no big-box store would allow its employees to come to work armed on Black Friday. Defensive gear only. Yeah, they get hazard pay. That’s why they’re here. I’m here because I get paid to make the hazard, and because the folks with money gotta have their stuff, they just don’t want to stick their necks out to get it.

Time to please the bosses.

I tear off my outer trench coat. It snaps apart perfectly along the breakaway seams, revealing the first layer of my arsenal. A slap on my chest activates my personal force-field, and a click of my heels sends my Zero-G boots into high gear. The first three seconds are what separate the men from the boys.

I vault up into the air, six, eight, ten feet, clearing the heads of the crowd by a solid yard, and land right at the edge of the crust of salt, rolling perfectly to lessen the impact as I come to my feet. The force-field keeps me from getting covered in that nasty blue salt, and conveniently burns a path through it for the crowd behind me. I notice four other shoppers who are similarly outfitted, but they land half a second after I do. We’re the first five through the door.

I shut off the shield and yank my goggles down into place. A remote sits in my mouth between my back molars and I chomp down on it to activate my shopping list, which pops up on my HUD in full color.

First item is a set of haptic gloves with a neural headband that beams video games directly into the wearer’s mind. I remember hearing about these—the first several tests killed their subjects, miked their brains right out of their heads. The second generation only gave the subjects chronic nosebleeds. Third gen worked, but were hackable, and well, some embarrassing stuff happened to those subs. These are fourth gen, supposedly the bugs are worked out. Not my problem. I just know they’ll fetch me eighty large a pair, and the boss man wants six of them.

Two more hops, and I’m in the right section of the store. There’s a table stacked with the gaming system, all boxed up, but there are only ten of them. Idiots. But at least I’m first. I touch down next to the table, shove four into my bag, and am reaching for the other two when a blast of kinetic energy upends the table and sends them all flying out of my reach.

One of the other shoppers drops down next to me, wearing the same pair of ZG boots, but a flash-scan from my HUD tells me he’s not wearing a force-field. I trigger mine back on and in an instant I’ve got a full-auto machine pistol popping rounds into his chest armor, throwing him back across the tile. Before the clip runs dry I put four into his left boot, hoping I hit something critical. I can’t afford to give him any more attention than that—scruffier shoppers are showing up to grab the gaming system and I’m still two short. I ditch him, hop over to the scattered boxes, and pick up the last two, then chomp on the remote.

Second item is this year’s model of an AI for a self-driving car. It includes a holo-projector that plays movies in the cab of the vehicle. I’ve never used one, mainly because I don’t own a car and I’m not rich. I’m just a guy who fights people for toys, for money. This gizmo isn’t where the HUD said it was supposed to be, and as the plebs start to fill the ten-acre store, I’m getting a little frustrated. I keep having to jump high, rapid-scan the bar codes on several shelves with my HUD, and then hop into a throng of consumer zombies who only clear a path when I bludgeon them with my ForceFist 290s.

Hey, not every problem needs an AK-47 solution.

Finally I spot the shelf where the AIs are stored…behind a locked case. As I fall toward it, I test the glass with my machine pistol, and yeah, it’s bulletproof. I stow the gun and draw my vibro-knife, thumbing the trigger as I press the edge of the fat blade against the glass. It takes a second to heat up, but then it cuts like butter.

I don’t waste time slashing the whole thing out like the apes in the movies; instead I cut a half-moon around the latch and rip the glass aside. I’m reaching in with my other hand when four guys run past my aisle, see the case open, and charge toward me, anxious to get what I’ve opened up for them.

Part of me wants to shoot them. A larger part of me wants to finish the list and get out of here.

I drop a foam grenade, grab two AIs—Boss Man only needs one, but I’ll need the distraction in a minute—and bounce into the sky, kicking the ZG boots into overdrive so that I can hover a minute while I get it all stored away. My fellow high-tech competitors are all over the place, like ninja grasshoppers, picking the best things for their sponsors. I have a few generic things on the list, but I bump them down to the bottom—I can always take them from someone in line, and the plebs are gathering up the easy stuff like chumps. The final big-ticket item is actually a newer model of the ZG boots I’m wearing, but they come with a belt, bracers, and a vest, plus a substantially longer battery life. The tech isn’t the main appeal of this year’s Hot Item, but rather the fact that it flaunts its defiance of the FAA’s anti-personal-aviation laws, allowing the wearer to travel up to a hundred miles on a single charge. From my vantage point in the air, I scan the floor and spot the ZG Suit in the center of the store. There are three of them.

And each one is locked in its own safe. A big safe. A safe big enough to fit me inside it.

I chomp three times on the remote. My earpiece chirps, and the Boss Man comes on the line.

“What is this?” I demand. “Why are they locked up?”

“Streams are on. Make it a good show,” he says flatly.

“You gave me a vibro-knife, not a laser-blade! I’ll never cut those open.”

“I didn’t hire you so you could make excuses, Harvester,” he says, using my radio-safe call sign. “There are excuses and there are facts.”

“Look at this man,” says Boss Man. New info pops up on my HUD, tagging one of the other four high-tech shoppers. The tag identifies him as ‘Jester’. I narrow my eyes, and I can practically hear Boss Man grinning in my ear.

“You knew he’d be here,” I hiss.

“Heard it from a friend of a friend. There’s an extra five hundred large in it if you take him down, and make it worth watching. I have it on good authority that the combo to the safe is the same as the serial number on his force-field belt. Get to it.” The line goes dead in my ear.

I drop, bounce, and shoot all the way to the ceiling, where I tie my loot bag to the rafters, arming it with a pressure-sensitive grenade. Of the remaining three high-tech shoppers who could reach it in the next few minutes, one will be too busy fighting me, and the other two will be too busy shopping. The loot’s not worth their lives.

I hope.

I drop down just as Jester reaches the safe in the middle of the room, riding a wave of gunfire and broken bones. He could easily hop over the crowd, but it’s not his style. He doesn’t just sell his services as a shopper; he sells the spectacle of his style. People pay good money to watch him inflict real pain on other people for their greed.

He’s looking down when I land behind him, reading the serial number on the back of his belt buckle as he spins the dial on the safe. I don’t wait for him to turn around before I draw my machine pistol and my AK, level them at him, and squeeze the triggers until they run dry.

Naturally he’s got his force-field up when he’s on his feet, but the force of the bullets shoves him against the front of the safe. More importantly, it wears down the power of his shields, and they’ll take precious time to regenerate. I discard my guns and reach behind my back to grab the handle of my Beating Stick.

Jester turns around and does a move I’ve seen him perform a hundred times on archival footage of Black Fridays immemorial: he throws a spider-mine at me, but I bat it away with the force of my Beating Stick. It soars up and away before it explodes in a tangle of electrical bolts, designed to fry whomever it lands on. Then I’m closing in on him with the Beating Stick, coming down on him with the force of a rockslide with every blow, wearing down the integrity of his shields. Unfortunately the effort of repeatedly swinging tires me out, even though I’m in good shape, and after a half-second lull in between swings, he plants one ZG boot in my stomach and fires it off. He’s up against the safe, which is bolted to the floor, so he’s not going anywhere. The force throws me backward, and I activate my own shield as I fly back, smashing into merchandise and greedy shoppers all the way.

“Harvester, huh? I knew a man with that tag once. I retired him, by force. You’re tough, but you’re no Harvester,” he says, his voice the same gravelly growl that it’s been for years on the archive footage.

“Oh, he’s retired all right. Still suffers from the bio-chem sauce you doused in his eyes. Has night terrors at random times of the day. Doctor says his liver is slowly melting away, too,” I say.

“I don’t care. I needed that holoscreen,” Jester says, all haste gone. He’s circling me. He’s allowing his shields to recharge.

A crowd has gathered around us, giving us space, but wanting to watch. Rookies. Anyone with more than one Black Friday under their belt doesn’t hesitate. Grab stuff, grab stuff, grab stuff. That’s the first rule of Black Friday.

“So you’re family of his, I take it?” Jester asks.

“Nephew. But he’s like a father to me, since mine’s dead,” I spit.

Jester taps his chin in thought. “Harvester had a partner, that’s right. I never learned his handle. Funny you didn’t take it.”

“He never had one. It was his first Black Friday, and you killed him.”

“Ask me if I feel bad, kid. It’s just a job.”

“You got that right.” With my left hand I punch a button on the back of my right wrist. Jump-jets explode on my shoulders, launching me suddenly forward at a hundred and fifty miles per hour. Boss Man calls this toy the “gate crasher.” There’s no crowd in the world that can hold you back when you engage this beast. Jester’s good, the veteran of twenty Black Fridays, but he’s not invincible, and his shields aren’t even back up to thirty percent. I smash him up against the safe at full power. The jets die out seven seconds later. He’s not dead, but I hope I broke his ribs. Then I back off and twirl the baseball bat-sized Beating Stick in my right hand, and draw the Vibro-Knife with my left.

“I’ll make you an offer, Jester: you tell me the serial number on your belt, and I’ll only paralyze you from the waist down. You’ll live to watch many more Fridays from your wheelchair until you die, but at least you’ll live,” I say.

At this, the veteran shopper pauses. “Sounds like there’s a leak in my employer’s organization. He won’t like that.”

“Better hurry, this offer is good for Friday morning only, and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever,” I say, imitating the old adverts.

“Pass,” Jester says coolly. “You’re not on my shopping list.” He draws a ray gun from behind his back.

I throw the Vibro-Knife. I know I won’t hit the ray gun. It’s not a throwing knife and I’d be no good with it if it was.

But I know I broke his free hand with the Beating Stick. And what’s the first rule of Black Friday?

Jester, by reflex, drops the ray gun and snatches the knife by the hilt, realizing too late his error. I’ve already thrown the Beating Stick right at his torso, and it’s too big to miss. Just as he lashes out to kick the ray gun away, the fully-charged Stick catches him in the groin, and even with his shields on, he’s folded in half and thrown backward half a meter. I somersault forward for the second time this morning, snatch up the ray gun, and rise to my feet, pointing the weapon at Jester’s face.

“For the record,” I say, “Dad’s name was Jim. Better than any handle he might have taken.”

“For the record,” echoes Jester, gasping as he clutches at his ruined groin with his broken hand, “I did regret ending him. I’ve never enjoyed taking a life. It’s just…part of…the job.”

Those end up being his last words. When it’s done, I discard the ray gun, take his belt, and retrieve my cargo from the safe.

This is what Black Friday makes us. As I grab my loot bag from the ceiling and battle my way to the checkout stand, part of me agrees with the late Jester, as I too don’t enjoy taking a life. I have plenty of time to mull that over on my walk through the parking lot, back to the car, back to the rendezvous point with Boss Man. I hand over the goods, take my pay in digital credit, and return the gear he lent me for the job.

“Keep it. Most of it will be good for next year. I’ll send you the latest models in the summer,” he says.

“No. I’m out,” I say.

“Excuse me? You don’t have that option.”

“Legally, I do. In fact it’s the only law in all of this that’s still ironclad. See, the lawmakers thought this whole thing had to make some kind of sense, have some kind of rules, so they put in the Impulse Purchase Clause when they drafted the Black Friday Establishment Act. I’m sure a smart man like you recalls the details,” I tell him.

Boss Man snarls, but knows he’s beaten. “Jester wasn’t on your shopping list.”

“And you made money off of my fight with him. That makes him an impulse buy. Whole world saw it. So I’m out. Don’t call me again, and have a Merry Christmas.” I get back into my car without awaiting a reply. As I start the engine, he calls out to me.

“Believe it or not, it was a pleasure doing business with you, Jim,” he says.

“It’s James,” I say. “Jim was my father’s name.”

And that was the last time I ever took part in Black Friday.

 

__________________________________________

Copyright 2016 by Graham Bradley, DreadPennies USA, All Rights Reserved

Need a Title? Just Run it Out.

One of the things that has helped/hindered the success of my book, REBEL HEART, is that there are a lot of other books out right now with that title. (I actually pilfered it from an instrumental by The Corrs, and it still screwed me.) I mean it helps because people who are searching for the other, more well-known versions might discover mine, but what if it hinders me  because they’re ticked that my book isn’t the one they thought it was?

This vexes me. I am terribly vexed. Maybe I should only use one popular word in a title and make the rest unique. Yeah! That’s it. Okay, let’s see…”Runner” sounds cool. Plenty of action in that word. All right, we’re on track. Just gotta make sure it’s not taken.

The Runner

Crap. Okay. I’ll just check the rest.

Blade Runner

That looks weird. Where’s Han Solo?

The Kite Runner

Stupid–kites don’t run.

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner, #1)

Okay, sure. Cool. I’ll keep looking.

6795756

Grrr, that would have been a great title! Maybe I’ll riff it. Switch the words or something.

2203825

Seriously?

Night Runner (Night Runner, #1)

Well…I can tweak that a little bit…

375541

OH, REAL MATURE.

Runner Runner (2013) Poster

Runner Runner

Runner. RUNNER.

I officially give up.

Maybe there are some, like, vampire ideas that haven’t been taken yet.