A couple of months ago I was asked if I might be interested in joining a group of like-minded mystery/thriller authors with the goal of promoting ourselves - both individually and as a group - as well as pushing each other to be better writers.
I thought about it for awhile, and -- ah, who am I kidding, I didn't have to think about it at all. I said "Hell, yes" before they could change their minds, and just like that I became one of The Twelve.
The Twelve consists of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors, award-winning authors, journalist-authors, traditionally-published authors, and…well…me. Our goal is nothing less than world domination (or World Domination, depending on how you look at it).
We have a lot of cool stuff planned for the future, but our very first project as a group is something any reader of genre fiction should be able to get behind: DEADLY DOZEN, a twelve volume ebook set of mysteries and thrillers, one book from each author, for the ridiculously low price of $9.99, or less than a buck per book.
BUT WAIT, as the infomercials say, THERE'S MORE! The special introductory price for this twelve-book set (some people call them "box sets," but as the whole thing is electronic I can't really get behind that description in any meaningful way) is just 99 cents for a very limited time.
Now, I don't have to tell you that's less than eight-and-a-half cents per book. And these aren't just any books, these are gripping tales from some of the most talented genre writers around and…well…me.
Check out this lineup:
DON'T KNOW JACK - Diane Capri
CRY WOLF - J. Carson Black
NIGHT WIDOW - Carol Davis Luce
GUARANTEED JUSTICE - M.A. Comley
STRANGER IN TOWN - Cheryl Bradshaw
BREAKING STEELE - Aaron Patterson
MOONLIGHT SONATA - Vincent Zandri
TERMINUS - Joshua Graham
ONE DAY IN BUDAPEST - J.F. Penn
DEAD CELEB - Michele Scott
FINAL VECTOR - Allan Leverone
THE GIFTS - Linda S. Prather
The individual books in this collection have racked up nearly seven hundred five-star reader reviews at Amazon, and if purchased separately, would cost more than $46, even for the electronic versions. So let's face it, you're going to kick yourself in the ass if you miss out on getting this amazing collection for less than you'd pay for a small coffee at Dunkin' Donuts.
So here are the links for what will be an indispensable collection for any genre reader:
DEADLY DOZEN at Amazon
DEADLY DOZEN at Barnes and Noble
DEADLY DOZEN at iTunes
DEADLY DOZEN at Kobo
By the way, if you'd like to hop on the express train that is The Twelve, you'll definitely want to sign up for our email newsletter. That way you'll be the first to find out about new releases, promotions, giveaways, etc.
Feel free to check us out at TheTwelveXII.com, on Facebook and on Twitter…
Thanks a lot for your interest, and I hope you enjoy DEADLY DOZEN!
A Thrill a Minute
The continuing adventures of one man's quest to achieve publication, validation, and money-make...shun...
Saturday, February 22, 2014
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
It's release day for my brand new dark thriller, MR. MIDNIGHT!
Offered by DarkFuse in three formats - ebook, paperback, and signed numbered limited edition hardcover (which I believe have sold out) - MR. MIDNIGHT has received some impressive early reviews:
Offered by DarkFuse in three formats - ebook, paperback, and signed numbered limited edition hardcover (which I believe have sold out) - MR. MIDNIGHT has received some impressive early reviews:
"Leverone has penned one of the most chilling villains in modern fiction with MR. MIDNIGHT. Unforgiving, intelligent, and ingenious, this monster is what nightmares are made of…"
- Shannon Raab, Suspense Magazine
"…at times both touching and sickening…MR. MIDNIGHT is what a horror novel should be…Leverone crafts a tightly-knit tale that keeps the reader turning the page as quickly as possible…"
- Minneapolis Books
"MR. MIDNIGHT is a thrilling, suspense, dark fiction novel about good vs. evil, family, and the supernatural…downright amazing. This is definitely movie material."
- I Heart Reading
"It is violent. It is at turns subtle and gory. If you love horror then you will love this. If you don't or are scared easily, leave this book alone and lock all your doors…"
- Liz Loves Books
To celebrate the release, and maybe even convince you to pick up the novel, here is an excerpt:
Mr. Midnight was stalking.
He trailed along behind his two targets carefully, keeping to the shadows as much as possible, staying a healthy distance while being sure to keep them in sight at all times. The girls were college students; that much he knew. Whether they attended B.U., Northeastern, Tufts, or any of the dozens of other schools in the Boston area the predator didn’t know and didn’t care.
What mattered to Mr. Midnight was that the girls were clearly from out of town, new students still unaware of the lines of demarcation the more experienced students observed automatically which allowed them to stay safe. Relatively speaking.
Mr. Midnight had been following the pair for twenty minutes, ever since observing them as they stumbled, drunk, out of a raucous apartment party on Commonwealth Avenue. He had been loitering in the dark recesses of a doorway across the street and gotten a vibe about the girls almost immediately.
Now they were lost, and confused, and just beginning to feel the first tentative twinges of apprehension. Alcohol bravery and the fact that they were together and could count on each other for support had suppressed the panic thus far, but Mr. Midnight knew it was mere minutes away from bubbling to the surface.
He picked up his pace and moved silently closer, now near enough to hear bits and pieces of their conversation. “…think we went in the wrong direction,” the one on the left was saying. She had a nice, shapely ass packed into low-rise jeans. Her crop-top blouse didn’t come close to reaching her waist and the predator thought he could see the hint of a thong peeking out over the jeans. He smiled in approval.
“…don’t recognize anything…” the other one said. She looked and sounded Asian, a slim, tiny girl poured into a red mini-dress.
“Maybe we should turn around,” the first girl said. Mr. Midnight was close enough to them now that he could now hear their voices clearly. Both girls sounded near tears and the predator felt himself becoming aroused.
The area was unfamiliar.
The streetlights were dim and spaced far apart.
Pedestrian traffic was minimal.
It was time to move.
Mr. Midnight closed the remaining distance between himself and the girls, still unsure of which one he would take, not that it mattered. They were both young and pretty, and he knew he would be more than satisfied with either.
It was almost too easy. The predator wore Nike cross-trainers and moved with a practiced stealth, and the frightened girls were chattering to each other like magpies in an effort to keep their mounting fear at bay.
They were crossing in front of a Catholic grade school, the Victorian-era stone structure looming in the semi-darkness behind a padlocked chain-link fence, when the predator struck. He used the butt of his knife to club the girl on the left—he glanced down and discovered he had been right about the thong—in the temple. She let out a low moan and dropped straight down, unconscious before her body hit the concrete sidewalk with a wet thud.
The second girl, the tiny Asian in the mini-dress, gasped and froze, trying to process in her alcohol-addled brain what had just happened. A half-second later she drew in a breath to scream, but by then it was much too late. Mr. Midnight slapped a hand over her mouth and lifted the knife to her throat, running its razor-sharp point along her silky skin like a lover’s caress. Blood immediately began welling up in the furrow.
The girl stopped struggling, undoubtedly hoping compliance would equate to survival.
She wouldn’t find out until much later how wrong she was.
The air inside the Super-K Grocerette felt pleasantly cool to Caitlyn Connelly as she waited in line at the register. A low pressure system had stalled over Tampa, the moisture in the atmosphere combining with the blazing heat to form a mushy tropical blanket over eastern Florida.
Through the plate-glass windows fronting the store Caitlyn watched as people trudged across the parking lot. They seemed to move in slow motion, as if bogged down by the weather.
The line dragged, Cait inching forward until eventually she stood behind only an elderly woman, who had placed her purchases—roughly a fifty-fifty split between food for herself and food for her pets—on the conveyor belt and now reached into a purse approximately the size of a small European car for her wallet.
Cait felt a sensation of pressure inside her skull, a wave rolling over her brain. She blinked twice and her head rocked back slightly. It was the sort of reaction a person might have if confronted with a completely unexpected sight. The image of a tiny kitchen flashed into her head. The room was shabby but spotlessly clean. On top of faded linoleum tiles which had been out of style for half a century, Cait saw a checkbook which had fallen to the floor and now lay against a leg of an ancient kitchen table.
A pair of sleeping cats sprawled on either side of the checkbook, looking like furry bookends, and Cait knew instantly what had happened. The woman had placed her purse at the edge of the table in preparation for her trip to the store—she shopped twice a week, Monday and Thursday—but she had mistakenly left it unclasped. The checkbook had fallen out of the purse when she picked it up, in a hurry because the taxi arrived sooner than expected, and it would simply be wrong to make the poor driver wait.
Caitlyn wasn’t guessing about any of it. She knew what had happened because she could see it in her mind as clearly as if it were playing on a high definition television screen in front of her. She didn’t know how she could see it in her mind, only that she could. She had been experiencing these visions—“Flickers,” she called them, due to their short but intense nature—for as long as she could remember.
The Flickers were, as far as she could tell, completely random occurrences. Sometimes they disappeared for days, the visions going silent for such long stretches of time Cait began to think maybe they had disappeared for good, only to return with a vengeance, dozens of the intense mental movies blasting into her head over the course of a few hours.
More often than not, though, she experienced one or two per day. They seemed normal and natural to Caitlyn because she had been living with them her entire life, but she had years ago given up trying to explain them to anyone else, tired of putting up with the amused smiles or exasperated looks of people who simply did not believe her.
Back in the Super-K, the elderly woman began frantically digging through the gigantic purse, looking for the checkbook she would not find, apologizing for holding up the line. The cashier, a bored teenage girl with purple-dyed hair who demonstrated her annoyance by snapping her bubble gum every few seconds, stood with one hand on her hip. She rolled her eyes at a heavyset woman standing in line behind Cait.
“Oh, dear,” the elderly woman said, “I’m so sorry. I know I had my checkbook with me and now it’s simply disappeared.”
“Listen, lady,” the woman behind Cait said, “we all have places to be. How about you step aside while you try to get your act together—not that you’ll be able to—so the rest of us,” she raised her arms like Moses parting the Red Sea, “can pay for our stuff and get the hell out of here.”
The elderly woman was now almost in tears, flustered and confused. Cait turned and stared down the woman behind her, locking eyes until the woman turned away impatiently. Cait returned her gaze to Alice—that was the elderly woman’s name, the knowledge came to Cait without warning—and said gently, “Do you think you might have forgotten your checkbook at home?”
“I suppose I must have, but I can’t imagine how. I always prepare in advance for my trip to the grocery store. I place everything on the table in the morning while drinking my tea. I do it the same way every time to avoid this exact problem. Now, where could that checkbook be?” She began digging through her purse again.
Cait put an arm on her shoulder. “I’ll pay for your things.”
“Oh, no, I couldn’t allow you to do that.”
“Of course you can,” she answered gently. “I’ll pay for your purchases and then this nice young woman behind the counter will give me a slip of paper. I’ll write my name and address on it, and when you get home and find your checkbook, you can mail me a check for the cost of your groceries. How does that sound?”
“Well, I don’t know…”
The woman behind Cait snorted impatiently and Alice said, “All right, yes, I think that would be fine. Thank you so much, young lady.”
Cait paid the cashier for both sets of groceries and then helped the woman load the bags into the trunk of her tiny car, glad to be out of the store. The incident had left a sour taste in her mouth and she felt badly for the old woman, who was obviously alone in the world. She wondered about her history. Was there a husband who had passed, leaving Alice to live out her final years alone? Were there children in the picture who visited once a week, bringing a much-needed break from the loneliness and isolation?
Cait considered the Flickers a normal part of her life. She had long ago stopped thinking of them as strange or unusual, but sometimes they were just so damned frustrating. The mental movies the Flickers provided were almost always incomplete, lacking any sense of context or cohesion—as in Alice’s case, where she learned just enough about the woman’s life to become curious—leaving her unhappy and upset.
Of course, she thought as she wheeled her bags to her car, I don’t know much more of my own history than I do of Alice’s. Someday that will change, she vowed.
Cait loaded her groceries and drove slowly out of the lot. Over Tampa the clouds swirled, becoming thicker and blacker by the minute. A storm was coming, and by all appearances, it was going to be a bad one.
Thirty Years Ago
Robert Ayers paced relentlessly, unwilling to leave his wife’s side but unable to stand still. Back and forth he walked, mopping Virginia’s sweaty brow, holding her hand, then marching to the bedroom door before turning on his heel and retracing his steps to her bed.
Shadows crept across the floor as the sun lowered in the late-afternoon sky, the hands on Robert’s watch moving simultaneously fast and slow. Virginia moaned and thrashed, screaming at the onset of a contraction, relaxing when the pain eased. Sweat poured down her face.
“This is insane,” Robert muttered. “She should be in a hospital. The days of giving birth at home ended decades ago. This is unsafe, especially if something goes wrong.”
On the other side of the bed stood a stranger dressed in grubby medical scrubs, a pair of latex gloves pulled over his hands. As far as Robert could discern, the man had done little but observe quietly as Virginia screamed and suffered. The man shot him a dark glance but said nothing.
“She should be in the hospital,” Robert repeated. He stopped pacing for a moment and leaned over, stroking his wife’s cheek gently with the backs of his fingers. Her eyes were closed and she didn’t seem to notice.
“Up to you,” the stranger said. “It’s your choice. Call an ambulance if you wish, but understand I get paid my full fee regardless of your decision.”
Robert Ayers glared at his guest. “You’re concerned about your fee? Jesus Christ, you’ll get your money, don’t worry about that.”
“Jesus Christ has nothing to do with this,” the stranger shot back, grinning darkly, revealing dual rows of yellowing teeth, irregular stumps thrusting at odd angles out of an unhealthy mouth. For what felt like the hundredth time, Roger wondered where in the hell his wife had found this man, this disgraced medical professional who had been stripped of his license to practice and now skulked about in the night, earning a living providing medical care deep in the shadows outside accepted society.
He called himself “Doctor Jones”—Robert hoped the man was better at doctoring than thinking up aliases—and when Robert had asked Virginia a few days ago where she had found him, she had been unable or unwilling to provide a satisfactory answer.
Locating and hiring “Doctor Jones” was just the latest example of the strange and frightening ability manifested by his wife on occasion. Robert had been completely unaware of her unusual gift until after they married. At times Robert thought “bizarre” would be a better description of Virginia’s ability to place herself inside the minds of other people, strangers she had never before met and would never see again.
It was creepy and unsettling.
After their marriage, Virginia had described her unusual talent to Robert to the best of her ability, begging his forgiveness for not telling him sooner but admitting she feared the knowledge might frighten him away. “And I can’t live without you,” she told him tearfully.
She described the moments of incredible insight—“brain movies,” she called them—that came upon her without warning, flashes of thoughts or mental pictures. They represented experiences other people were having, things they might be thinking or plans they might be making.
Suddenly, the strange, thought-provoking scenarios that had occurred over the course of their courtship—none momentous when considered on its own, but all quite disturbing when added together—all made sense. The empathetic connection Virginia seemed sometimes to share with random strangers, her inexplicable flashes of insight into lives and situations of which she should have no knowledge, all of it.
Initially he had been hurt and angry, even frightened. Then, after some time and reflection, Robert had decided it was far from the worst thing that could happen. Quite the opposite, actually, it was in some ways reassuring. Virginia wasn’t a freak, she was simply a young woman with an unusual, almost mystical ability; a gift she had not asked for and could not divest herself of even if she wanted to.
Hell, if you really thought about it, the gift was nothing more than a hyper-sensitivity to the needs of others. And that was a good thing.
That was what Robert told himself.
And he stayed with Virginia.
He assumed Virginia had used her gift to find “Dr. Jones.” He assumed she had experienced one of her strange “brain movies” when somewhere near him, maybe at the gas station or while in line at the bank, had uncovered his disgraced standing in the medical community in her mind and then had approached him to deliver her baby.
Virginia had adamantly refused to give birth in the hospital. Her fear of the place was something Robert did not quite understand—he found it illogical and senseless—but his wife would not be dissuaded from her insistence that the delivery occur at home.
Now, with the woman he loved suffering greatly, contractions wracking her body and “Dr. Jones” flippantly unconcerned, Robert began to feel the tug of panic in his gut. Virginia could die in childbirth; it was a very real possibility here in this non-sterile bedroom equipped with only the most rudimentary medical equipment.
Or her baby could die.
Or, God forbid, both things could happen.
The tenement was ancient, probably over one hundred fifty years old. Its red brick construction had been worn down by decades of extreme Boston weather until it now sagged and buckled as if the act of defying gravity was becoming simply too much to bear.
The building had been condemned years ago, deemed unfit for human habitation and then ignored, never renovated but never demolished, either. Now it sat, hulking and silent, its interior stripped, everything of value removed, either legally by owners who had long-since disappeared, or illegally by everyone else. Smashed-out windows had been hastily boarded over with sheets of plywood, and the building’s exterior doors drooped in proportion with the rest of the structure. The entrances had been secured with locks which were broken off within days, likely within hours, of their installation and the tenement now formed a convenient gathering place for vagrants, drug dealers, users, and the occasional hooker performing a fifty-dollar quickie.
And one other man.
Milo Cain was the only resident of the top floor, having carved rudimentary living quarters out of the empty shell of one of the apartments. In one corner of what at some time in the past had been a living room, Milo had placed an air mattress, which represented a massive improvement over sleeping on the buckling floor. A ratty wool blanket lay over the mattress, one side eaten raggedly away by moths.
In the opposite corner Milo had placed a Coleman cook stove, offering a way to heat coffee and soup and the occasional canned spaghetti dinner. There was no oven in the kitchen; that appliance had disappeared decades ago along with everything else of value.
Milo sat unmoving, butt on the floor, back against the wall. He stared across the room at nothing in particular. The electricity had been turned off years ago, and candles placed inside grimy old drinking glasses provided uneven lighting, splashing flickering shadows across the wall. A gigantic spider moved slowly and clumsily across the floor in front of Milo, its movements jerky and insectile. He barely noticed and didn’t care.
His head lolled, striking the wall behind him as he was assaulted by a series of vivid images, all different but uniformly dark and disturbing. In the first, a man dressed in a stained wife-beater undershirt screamed at a woman, consumed by a white-hot rage which Milo could feel but which was meaningless to him because the vision provided no context. It was simply a scene, picked up at random by his subconscious mind.
The next involved a drug deal going down somewhere near the tenement. Milo watched through his mind’s eye, floating high above the illicit meeting, silent and unseen. The participants were nervous, both sides tense and fearful of a double-cross and the potential for deadly violence.
That image seared itself into Milo’s brain in an instant, only to be replaced by another, in which a young child, perhaps ten years old, was torturing an alley cat, skinning its tail with a dull knife. The cat screamed, the sound remarkably human, the suffering animal writhing in pain and struggling to escape but unable to do so. The cat snapped and spit as the skin under its fur was peeled away and still the child continued.
Finally the images came to an end—for now—disappearing as if with the flick of a switch, and Milo sagged against the wall, spent. How long the break would last he had no way of knowing. It might be a precious few minutes, or maybe even a couple of hours if he was extremely lucky, which most of the time he was not. The only thing Milo knew for certain was that before long the images would return and when they did, they would be uniformly dark and disturbing and exhausting.
But there was one silver lining. When the images returned, maybe they would provide him with information he could use for his own purposes; there was always that possibility.
In the meantime he would rest while he could. Milo considered crawling to his air mattress and napping while he had the chance, but he was too fucking tired to move. The visions were so goddamned draining.
Instead, he bent down, head hanging between his spread knees, and closed his eyes. God, he was tired. Maybe he would just lie down on his side right here on the floor and nap.
Then the visions exploded into his brain, beginning anew. Milo Cain’s head snapped up, smashing against the wall, and once again he stared off into space, lost and dazed.
Cait sipped her wine, enjoying the last of the pot roast dinner and reveling in the nearly continuous stream of compliments being lobbed her way by her boyfriend. Kevin Dalton was not a hard guy to please when it came to food, but Cait wasn’t about to let that minor detail lessen her appreciation of the moment.
Both worked long hours in the hopes of building their careers, Cait as a real estate attorney and Kevin as a Tampa police officer. But their long-standing tradition was a home-cooked meal every Thursday night, and tonight it had been Cait’s turn to cook. She had purchased everything she needed at the Super-K and then had spent the next couple of hours peeling potatoes and carrots, tossing a salad and cooking the roast, before Kevin’s arrival.
“I gotta tell ya,” Kevin said, leaning back in his chair with a satisfied sigh, “this might be the best meal I’ve ever eaten.”
Cait smiled. “Like I’ve never heard that before. I think it may have had more to do with the fact that all you had to eat today was half a cheese sandwich for lunch.”
“Duly stipulated. Whew, that was quite the vigorous cross-examination, counselor. You’re really getting this lawyer thing down.”
Cait laughed and shook her head. “I do real estate law, remember? We don’t cross-examine people.”
“That’s a shame,” Kevin answered, “because you’d be really good at it. Anyway, I’ll admit it, I was beyond hungry. But I’m still not backing off my testimony. Everything was delicious. I’m stuffed.” He patted his belly and grinned.
“If you unbuckle your belt and unsnap the top button of your jeans, you’re out of here. And you better have saved a little room for dessert and coffee.”
“Note to self,” Kevin replied. “No belt unbuckling. At least not until later.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively and Cait laughed. “And as far as dessert is concerned, I’ve never passed it up yet, and I’m not about to start now. What’s on the menu?”
“Nothing. At least, for now.”
“You heard me. I’m withholding dessert—it’s your favorite, by the way, homemade strawberry shortcake—until I get what I want.”
“Ooh, kinky,” Kevin said, nodding in appreciation. “If it involves a seductive striptease and grapes being hand-fed to me by a certain sexy young woman, count me in.”
“You wish. It involves you letting me in on this big surprise you claimed to have in store for me. No dessert, of the food or sexual kind, until you spill the beans.”
“Wow, that’s cold. Lawyering’s changing you, sweetheart.” Kevin’s eyes narrowed and Cait smacked him on the arm with a laugh.
“Come on,” she said. “Give it up.”
“All right, all right, I can’t take any more. You’ve worn me down.”
“Was there ever any doubt I would?”
“Good point. Okay, you know how you always say you’d like to learn more about your past—the identity of your birth parents, where they live, why they gave you up for adoption, all of that?”
“Sure. I just don’t know where to begin. I have no idea where I was born, no idea what my parents’ names might be, no clue what agency may have handled the adoption. There’s nothing to go on.”
“Exactly,” Kevin said. “There’s nothing for you to go on. But a professional could probably handle the job.”
“Maybe,” Cait answered. “But I don’t have the money to hire a professional, you know that.”
“You don’t have to hire a professional.”
“And why’s that?”
“Because I already did.”
“Uh, Kevin, aren’t you forgetting something?”
“You don’t have the money for that, either.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. It just so happens I’ve been saving up for a while, waiting to surprise you. I have enough cash put aside to at least get started, so I went out yesterday and hired an investigator.”
Cait paused at the kitchen sink where she had been rinsing dishes. She stared at Kevin, saying nothing.
“Well?” he prompted.
“Are you surprised?”
“Surprised would be an understatement.”
Kevin frowned. “What’s wrong? I thought you’d be excited.”
Cait rinsed her hands under the warm water and dried them on a towel. “It’s not that I’m not happy, I am. I guess I just never really thought I would have the opportunity to discover my heritage. It’s going to take a little while to get used to the idea that I might be able to learn something after all these years.”
“Well,” Kevin said, “the guy has a great reputation and all of his references check out. But he told me not to get my hopes up, that it’s a long shot at best. He may not be able to find out anything.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Cait said, hanging the dishtowel on a rack. She walked across the kitchen and sat in Kevin’s lap.
“No. What matters is that you cared enough to do such a thoughtful thing for me. That was really, really sweet. It’s just one more reason why I love you.” She put her arms around his neck and nibbled his ear. “Now, about that dessert. Still hungry?”
“I’m suddenly ravenous.”
The strawberry shortcake went uneaten.
Thirty years ago
Virginia moaned and thrashed as another contraction struck and Robert’s panic bubbled closer to the surface. He decided he could no longer stand the agony of inaction. He had to do something. He just had to. He mopped his wife’s forehead with the cool cloth—Christ, she was sweating so much!—and caressed her cheek. Her eyes remained closed.
“That’s it,” he announced. “I’ve had it. This insanity has to end.”
“Dr. Jones” gave no response. It was as if he hadn’t even heard Robert speak. He seemed preoccupied and Robert wondered if perhaps he was high on some medication. “She’s going to the hospital,” Robert continued. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
He strode across the room.
Made it to the open door.
And Virginia screamed, her voice jagged and high-pitched, intense now with anger, not pain. “NO! You will not call an ambulance! I’m having this baby right here. You agreed to this and you will NOT BACK OUT NOW!”
Robert stopped in his tracks, confused, the certainty of a moment ago gone. At the foot of the bed, he thought he saw a smile flit across “Dr. Jones’s” face and disappear.
Then Virginia screamed again as another contraction struck. She sounded like she was being beaten with a baseball bat. The contractions were coming more rapidly now and increasing in intensity.
Robert rushed back to her bedside. He realized it was probably too late for an ambulance now, anyway. Something was going to happen soon, he could feel it. The baby was going to be born in the next few minutes or…well…Robert refused to consider the alternative.
Again Virginia screamed, her voice like a buzz saw ripping through a stubborn plank. She was panting and sweating, screaming constantly now, thrashing on her blood-and-sweat-soaked bed. The unlicensed doctor bent down over Virginia, somehow deciding now was the time to act. “You need to push,” he announced softly.
“I can’t,” she screamed.
“PUSH,” Dr. Jones said again, more forcefully this time, grabbing her by the shoulders, and she pushed. She screamed and cried and sweated and swore, but she pushed, and then pushed again, continued pushing when she swore she could not, and then it was over and Virginia Ayers had given birth to a baby girl.
And then to a baby boy.
Milo Cain wandered down Washington Street toward Roxbury, moving slowly, randomly. The night was still young, so he was forced to share the sidewalk with plenty of other people. Few took direct notice of him, but, as always, the majority of pedestrians gave him a wide berth, somehow unconsciously sensing menace. Mothers tightened their grips on their children, adults averted their eyes at his approach.
His face was nearly invisible, sunken deep inside the shadows of a hooded grey New England Patriots sweatshirt. Baggy jeans, desperately in need of a washing they would not receive, threatened to slip down his narrow hips, somehow defying the laws of gravity and staying up. Tattered Chuck Taylors flopped on his feet.
A group of three young black males approached, flat-brimmed baseball caps askew, sauntering shoulder-to-shoulder, forcing Milo off the sidewalk and into the gutter. One of them shot him a glance, silent and resentful. They passed and Milo waited for a sign and received nothing, so he continued on.
A small hole-in-the-wall tavern appeared on the right, flickering neon Coors sign illuminating a plate-glass window that probably hadn’t been cleaned since the Bush administration. The first one. Inside the bar, a tired-looking middle-aged waitress schlepped glasses of beer clustered atop a small round tray. As Milo watched, a heavy-set drunk lost his footing and stumbled into the waitress, sloshing beer over the sides of the glasses and off the edge of the tray in a golden mini-tsunami. No one paid any attention and the waitress soldiered on.
Two girls, white and young, blonde, clearly college students, too ignorant to realize they had no business being in this area—Milo’s favorite kind of girl—rounded the corner and turned in his direction. They chatted quietly, unaware of their surroundings, oblivious to the potential for danger.
The girls passed on his left, quickening their strides, and his head snapped back like he had been struck in the face as an image seared itself into his mind. The girls were students at Northeastern University. Juniors. The one passing closest to Milo was named Angela and she was cheating on her boyfriend, sleeping with her married Philosophy professor for no reason other than it seemed exciting and daring. She had told no one, not even her best friend.
As quickly as it had slammed into his brain, the vision vanished. The two clueless college girls continued on, moving away from Milo and he paused, stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, analyzing what he had just learned, trying to decide if the information was in any way useful. He glanced at his feet and saw sickly-looking weeds struggling through the cracks in the sidewalk.
Then he raised his head and the Northeastern students were instantly forgotten as he locked in on what he now knew he had been waiting for. Across Washington Street, a young Hispanic boy ambled along the sidewalk. The kid was perhaps ten years old, wearing gang colors, MP3 listening buds sprouting from his ears like cancerous growths.
Milo didn’t even need a vision to tell him what he needed to know. The kid was a runner, a middleman employed by local gang members to deliver product to customers and cash back to the dealers. It was the oldest scam going. As a minor, if apprehended with illegal drugs, the kid would face nothing more than a slap on the wrist, whereas the older gangbangers could be put away for years, even for life, depending on their arrest records.
What Milo didn’t know was whether the kid was carrying drugs or cash; whether he had already made a delivery or was on his way to do so. Milo had no need or desire for drugs, his reality was warped enough from the nearly unending stream of visions he experienced. Cash, however, was another matter entirely. For a man living on the farthest outskirts of society, cash was indispensable.
Milo crossed Washington Street at a jog, moving quickly enough to gain ground on the kid but not so fast he might draw unwanted attention. In this neighborhood, a sprinting young man most often suggested a felony in progress. Behind Milo a cab slammed on its brakes, nearly clipping him as it slewed to the side of the street. The furious cabdriver unleashed a string of broken-English epithets into the muggy night, his anger unacknowledged by Milo or anyone else.
When he reached the opposite sidewalk, Milo slowed. Now roughly twenty feet behind the kid, he maintained his distance. And waited expectantly.
He didn’t have to wait long. In seconds a vision sizzled into his fevered brain like a lightning bolt. It’s money, he thought. The kid is carrying the proceeds from a drug deal. It wasn’t much, only a couple of hundred bucks, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, especially when you took the expression literally. Two hundred dollars would go a long way when you had nothing but a little spare change rattling around in your pocket.
Milo picked up his pace slightly, staying attuned to his surroundings as much as possible while still absorbing the vision. The money was in the right thigh pocket of the kid’s cargo shorts, nine twenty dollar bills and two crumpled tens stuffed next to a throwaway cell phone. Milo could see it in his mind as clear as day. In the left pocket the kid carried a knife, a weapon which would wind up being completely useless to him.
It was perfect.
What was not perfect was the fact that the kid was almost back to the burned-out shell of an abandoned tenement—a building not much different than Milo’s—which served as his gang’s headquarters, only another block-and-a-half away on the left. Once within sight of that warehouse, the kid would be untouchable, as the gang would have a team of sentries posted, young men who were heavily armed and not likely to approve of their runner being taken down before their very eyes.
Milo knew he had to act now—stealth and surprise would work in his favor. He resumed jogging and wrapped his fingers around the stolen Glock 19 inside the hand-warmer pouch of his sweatshirt.
In seconds he was couple of feet behind the kid, who was still bopping along to the music in his ears, feeling secure in a way he never would again. Milo pulled the Glock from his pocket and in one smooth motion lifted his arm to smash its butt against the side of the kid’s head.
The boy had begun to turn at the last moment, some instinct alerting him to the impending attack. His reaction was much too late. He spun around and the gun caught him just above his right eye. He dropped like a felled tree, blood gushing from a jagged gash in his forehead.
This was the critical moment. Time was precious. The kid moaned and clutched at his skull, almost but not quite unconscious. Milo knelt and reached into the left pocket of his victim’s cargo shorts, withdrawing the hunting knife still secured in its scabbard and jamming it into his pocket. He didn’t really need it, owned plenty of knives already, but he had no desire to find he had misjudged the extent of the kid’s injuries by getting shanked as soon as he turned his back.
Milo pulled the wad of cash and the cell phone out of his victim’s pants, then stood and began walking briskly away from the tenement building. He made it half a block before the first rough shouts of surprise went up. He didn’t turn around, didn’t glance behind, didn’t do anything. He just kept walking.
In a matter of minutes, Milo had left the scene of the attack behind and was well on his way to safety of his “apartment.” He assumed as a matter of course that he had been seen attacking the kid, but the likelihood of being identified was almost nil between his outfit—the uniform of urban anonymity—and the fact that he rarely spent time in this neighborhood.
To be safe, Milo knew he would have to avoid Washington Street for a good long while, but the prospect didn’t concern him. Boston was a big city and there were plenty of areas suitable for hunting. All one needed was the time to seek out victims.
And Milo Cain had plenty of time.
The Private Investigator’s name was Arlen Hirschberg and he was hungry. Specifically, he was hungry for a turkey melt with crispy fries and a chocolate shake. Cait knew this because she could see it in her head; the vision exploded into her brain the moment she stepped into Hirschberg’s office. It was not exactly the sort of he-man meal Cait would have expected out of a macho private detective, but she had been on the receiving end of Flickers for her entire life and had never known them to be wrong.
Hirschberg had called yesterday and scheduled the appointment, saying only that he had some news to share. When Kevin expressed surprise that the PI had obtained results already, he laughed and said he would be happy to sit on the information for a couple of weeks if it made Kevin happy.
Now, sitting in the P.I.’s office, it occurred to Cait that her expectations of what a private investigator would look like had been inaccurate all around. She had expected to meet a gruff, burly man wearing an ill-fitting suitcoat over a leather shoulder holster into which would be crammed a big handgun. He would have a booming voice and arms like stevedores and his office would be small and Spartan, with a ceiling fan moving the air around and a metal filing cabinet in the corner behind his beat-up desk. He would be the Hollywood noir cliché of a private detective.
The reality was almost the complete opposite. The Hirschberg Investigations office was big and airy, with framed, signed prints of American sports heroes adorning the walls. To Cait’s right, Bobby Orr flew through the air, hockey stick held high in triumph, forever celebrating his Stanley Cup-winning overtime goal for the Boston Bruins in 1970. To her left, a young Michael Jordan slammed down a dunk, tongue wagging out of his mouth. Behind her, some NFL kicker she didn’t recognize was booting a football into a raging blizzard.
Instead of a clichéd cheap suit, the private detective was dressed casually but crisply in tan Dockers and midnight blue golf shirt. His weapon, if he was sporting one, was nowhere to be seen. There was no ceiling fan, and the filing cabinets weren’t even in this office, they were located behind Hirschberg’s receptionist in the waiting area. Behind his desk, the glass wall offered a breathtaking view of the Tampa cityscape, with the greenish-blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico beyond.
In short, Caitlyn realized this was no down-on-his-luck Hollywood PI. Everything about Arlen Hirschberg screamed competence and success, and Cait supposed that was exactly the point. She wondered how much money Kevin had had to shell out to secure this man’s services. She had asked him that very question on the way over but he refused even to discuss the issue.
“So,” Hirschberg said after introducing himself and seating them, “can I get you something to drink? Coffee? Tea? Sparkling water?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Cait replied, smiling. If she had held on to any remaining stereotypes about Arlen Hirschberg, the offer of sparkling water pretty much destroyed them. Her adopted father had been a devoted fan of the 1970’s TV series, The Rockford Files, in which James Garner played a down-on-his-luck private detective. As a child, Cait had watched just about every episode with him on TV Land and she was almost certain he had never once offered sparkling water to anyone.
“Okay, then, let’s get right to it. You have quite the unusual history, young lady,” Hirschberg said with a smile. “In most cases, when an adopted child wishes to unearth her history, the official records may have been sealed to protect the privacy of the birth mother and thus are not accessible, but there are records.”
Cait nodded. “I understand. But that’s not the case with me, is it?”
“No, Ms Connelly, it’s not. In your case, there were no official records, accessible or otherwise. You weren’t born in the Tampa area, I’m sure you are aware of that much. Do you have any idea where you were born?”
“The only information I ever got from my adoptive parents regarding my birth history was that I was born somewhere in the northeastern United States. That’s as specific as they would ever get. I got the impression that even they didn’t know exactly where I came from.”
“And your adoptive parents are now deceased, is that correct?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Hirschberg crossed his arms and cupped his chin in one hand. “What do you know about the black market baby trade, Ms Connelly?”
The question caught her by surprise. She paused and then shook her head. “Um, nothing, really.”
“You’re not alone. It’s not a subject that gets a lot of media attention. But it should. There is a flourishing market in this country for people who want babies but are not able to have their own and, for whatever reason, cannot or will not go through the normal and accepted—and legal—channels of adoption. This market has existed for decades, centuries probably, and continues to this day. It will likely continue long into the future.”
“Are you saying I was a black market baby?”
“It would seem logical, wouldn’t it, given the lack of official documentation regarding the circumstances of your birth?”
Cait nodded and Hirschberg continued. “This would explain why there seems to be no way to trace your adoption through legal channels. There are no legal channels to speak of.”
“But you said you had news for me. If there’s no way to trace my history, why am I here?”
Hirschberg held up a finger. “I didn’t say there was no way to trace your history. I said there was no way to do it through legal channels. I’ve worked in law enforcement my entire adult life and over the course of my career have served as a patrol officer, a homicide detective and federal agent, among other things.
“Over time I developed a fairly extensive network of contacts, as you might imagine. In your case, mining those contacts was problematic due to the fact that three decades has passed since the adoption occurred. Many people who might have been familiar with the circumstances of your case are now dead or moved on years ago and cannot be found. However, ‘problematic’ does not mean ‘impossible,’ and I was able eventually to secure the information you wanted.”
Cait shook her head, confused. “How in the world could you do that if there are no records?”
“Oh there are records, Ms Connelly. There are always records, at least in these sorts of cases. They may not be official government records, all neat and clean and notarized and legally binding, but they do exist. And those records are accurate, certainly accurate enough for your purposes.”
“So…” After years of dealing with the pain that came from assuming she would never learn the specifics of her familial background, Cait discovered that being on the verge of getting that information was more than a little daunting.
She took a deep breath and started again. “So, where am I from, Mr. Hirschberg?
The visions pounded through Milo Cain’s head, one after the other, like movie trailers playing non-stop on some cursed screen in his brain. These trailers, though, often made no sense. They were mostly short snippets of lives being lived by anonymous people Milo would never meet. Pointless visions of ordinary actions, like a woman washing the dinner dishes or a man making plans to play basketball the next day. Their very pointlessness made Milo Cain’s torture even more difficult to bear.
He sat in the tiny shell of an apartment, back propped against the wall—his usual method for riding out the storm of visions—waiting for them to take a break. They always did, eventually, just as they always came roaring back eventually as well. When they finally, mercifully, came to an end, an exhausted Milo Cain considered how to spend his evening.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Milo had survived a traumatic early childhood involving physical and mental abuse, had survived and moved on and deserved better. Up until the age of five, he had lived in suburban Austin, Texas with his adoptive parents, both executives in the nuclear power industry.
Abusive to Milo.
He didn’t remember much of anything about Texas, but one thing he did know was that while living there he could not recall so much as a single episode involving visions blasting into his head.
Milo remembered with crystal clarity the first time it had ever experienced a vision. When he was five years old, the Cain family moved to Amesbury, Massachusetts, a seaside community on Boston’s North Shore. His mother and father had both received promotions involving higher pay and additional responsibilities to work at the Seabrook nuclear plant located up Interstate 95 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The incident occurred at the end of the family’s first day in Massachusetts. Everyone was exhausted from the move, hunkered down in a motel for the night, in bed early because the following day was to be spent conducting a lengthy house-hunting search. Milo lay in the room with his father and mother, almost asleep in his rollaway bed despite the discomfort of the lumpy mattress, when into his head blasted a strange, frightening vision, almost but not quite a dream.
In the vision, his parents were lying in bed, and his father was doing something to his mother; it almost looked as though he was attacking her, hurting her somehow. And she must be getting hurt, because she was moaning, her head thrashing back and forth on the pillow. It was horrifying, and not just because the young Milo Cain didn’t understand what it meant. What made it all the more frightening was that he had no idea where it had come from.
The disturbing vision had all the qualities of the dream state, the vivid colors and the hyper-reality, but it could not be a dream because Milo was not yet asleep. Even five year olds know you have to be asleep to dream, and the moment the vision began, Milo opened his eyes wide in mute, helpless terror, mouth agape, waiting for the scene to end.
When the vision did end—thankfully, this first one was short and to the point, even if Milo didn’t understand the point—his head lolled to the side, and he found himself simultaneously comforted and horrified by the sight of the sleeping forms of his parents in the bed across the semi-dark motel room.
That long-ago night in Massachusetts represented the beginning of the visions for young Milo Cain. The family found a home and remained on the North Shore, and as Milo grew, the visions became more and more pronounced, growing ever darker and more disturbed even as his treatment at the hands of his parents became more and more twisted.
For a short time he tried to describe the horror of the visions to his mother and father, eventually coming to the realization they didn’t believe him, would never believe him, and would not care even if they did believe him.
After that Milo simply gave up. He stopped telling his parents about the strange scenes exploding into his head, the visions that now populated more and more of his waking hours. And he began to fall behind in school. His teachers assumed he was daydreaming and uninterested when his features slackened and his eyes glazed over and he stared at the blackboard or out the window, not disturbing anyone or causing trouble but clearly not paying attention, either.
He became withdrawn and sullen at home, spending all his time in his room, stretched out on the bed staring at the wall, unwilling to discuss his problem but unable to make it stop. Soon after, neighborhood pets began disappearing, mostly cats and a couple of small dogs, the occasional mutilated small-animal carcass thrown carelessly into the woods along the side of the road.
One morning in midsummer 2001, when Milo Cain was not quite eighteen years old, he walked out of his parents’ Amesbury home and never returned. Over the next decade, Milo wandered throughout New England, traveling as far south as Bridgeport, Connecticut and as far north as Jonesport, Maine, at times gaining temporary respites from the torture as the visions receded, at other times suffering mightily as they attacked with renewed fervor.
But they never completely disappeared, and Milo found it easiest to survive inside the sprawling Boston metropolitan complex, where he could disappear, losing himself in the crowds of down-on-their luck vagrants who, like himself, fit in nowhere.
There was another advantage to living in Boston. Milo’s compulsion to do things, bad things, horrible, twisted things, had blossomed as the visions increased in frequency and intensity. His need to injure, to destroy, to tear apart based on the information contained in those visions was often overwhelming, and this compulsion was fed most easily in the city. The atrocities he committed were not invisible in Boston, of course, but they were much easier to get away with in the teeming metropolis than in the wide-open spaces of a small town like Amesbury, where everyone had known him and seen him as a freak.
After years of restless wandering, Milo moved to the city permanently at the age of twenty-two, never staying in one place too long, moving around obsessively. When his compulsions began to attract the attention of the wrong people, he would simply pick up stakes and wander to another neighborhood, from Dorchester to Roxbury to Mattapan to Back Bay, thrilled that by traveling just a few blocks he could begin fresh.
There was the occasional brush with the law; it was almost impossible to be a vagrant even in a city as large as Boston and not catch the eye of the authorities every so often. But to Milo’s continuing amazement, most of the suspicion involved his appearance, his dirty clothes and unkempt hair, those superficial things that made the good citizens of Massachusetts uncomfortable.
The things that should have been of interest to the police—the abductions, the torture, now of humans rather than animals—never seemed to find their way back to him, despite the fact he rarely made more than a token attempt at disguising his activities, and despite the fact that the media had begun playing up the horrifying exploits of “Mr. Midnight,” the tag a clever television news reporter had hung on him a few months ago, when a trash bag filled with decaying body parts had been discovered behind a restaurant in Chinatown.
He supposed his visions were largely responsible for his invincibility. Thanks to the images flashing into his head, he was able to select as victims only people who would pose no more than a minor threat to him. The irony of being insulated and protected by the very visions that tortured him day after day and made his life a living hell was not lost on Milo; he appreciated it in the way an entomologist might appreciate being bitten by a particularly poisonous insect: the experience was painful and rewarding at the same time.
All of this ran through Milo Cain’s mind as he leaned against the bleak apartment wall. He savored the clarity of thought that accompanied his brief respites from the visions. The damned images spent so much time bouncing around inside his brain that when they finally subsided, his head felt large and airy, like a penthouse apartment that has been cleared of all furniture.
He considered the long night ahead, stretching dark and empty before him. His skin was beginning to feel tight and hot, and his breathing felt ragged and constricted. His obsessions were beckoning again. It was time to play.
Tonight he would find a streetwalker. Playing with hookers was especially enjoyable. Milo loved taking the hardened, streetwise bitches, with their garish makeup and their superior, sneering attitudes and turning them into helpless victims, begging and pleading for their worthless lives, suspecting but never knowing for certain until the very end what their fate was going to be.
The risk of getting caught was minimal, too, with hookers. Dealing with pros meant dealing with people who, like himself, spent their days and nights on the fringes of accepted society. Their pimps would miss them, but that would be it. There would likely be no worried husbands or boyfriends to report them missing, no concerned coworkers to alert the authorities when they didn’t report to the office Monday morning.
They would simply vanish.
So that was it, then. He would take a walk tonight and let the visions lead him to the perfect victim. The visions would be there to guide him. They always were.
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