Tag Archives: novel

Diffraction Free to Read on WattPad

It’s the Winter Solstice, the shortest period of daylight during the year. For various reasons, my mind ties that dichotomy of darkness and light to Lyllithe, the protagonist of my fantasy novel, Diffraction. 


I completed the revisions and final copy on the Solstice last year, then published it on CreateSpace and Kindle Direct. It’s been available for purchase for the last year, and I have deep appreciation for those who bought a paperback or e-book copy. That option is still out there (and the e-book is reduced to the minimum price I can choose based on the royalty plan).

I’ve also made the book free on Kindle from December 22nd through Christmas Day, so if you know someone who might like a free fantasy novel, point them that way.

However, the real point of this post is to call attention to the full book available to read on WattPad. Though I appreciate every purchase, what I need more than a buck from an e-book sale is a body of readers–and maybe some love on social media. Reblogging this post or sharing the WattPad link among your circle of friends might put Diffraction in the hands of interested readers.

Winter isn’t coming… It’s here. What better way to start it than curling up under a warm blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and an invasion of bloodthirsty zealots?

Wishing you and yours all the best this holiday season.

Not to the Swift on WattPad

Having just finished my third National Novel Writing Month, I revisited the manuscript of Not to the Swift as the first book I ever completed and a departure from my sci-fi/fantasy norm. I forgot how much I love those characters and the conflicts between them.

I’ve made the whole book available for free reading on WattPad today. I know the joke is that site is full of sparkly vampire and One Direction fanfic… but there are kids engaged in reading, and reading a lot. Also, while purchases on Amazon or Kindle put a buck or two in my bank account, what I really need is readers who might buy future books. (I’m so selfish.)

To that end, if you read Not to the Swift and enjoyed the book, more than a purchase, I’d love an honest review on Amazon or Goodreads. Thank you.

As a personal aside, chapter 16 is my favorite. I had a lot of fun as a writer trying to emulate a middle schooler’s style and level of poetry while hopefully making it meaningful to the story content.

More than that, I think it was in the middle of NaNo, and I was struggling to get the words on page as well as dealing with the constant inner doubts of “is it even worth writing?”

Renee telling her students that everyone goes through that sort of thing was just supposed to be a little personal pep talk to myself and something it sounded like a decent, encouraging teacher might say to address kids’ fears of sharing their work in public.

When she comes back into the room after the encounter with LaTasha Washington, in the moment of writing it struck me that Amir could respond with some of the same advice he’d just been given. I love when those moments come up later, sort of a bookend or resonance within the writing. I probably try too hard for that in other places, but here, it seemed to happen naturally.

Over the last few months, I’ve been mulling over what I wrote back then, contemplating the characters and where they might be “today.”

It’s a challenging but fascinating exercise to imagine what another person’s viewpoint or argument might be, especially on such charged and divisive subjects. I feel like if I can write a remotely convincing point of view from someone whose ideas and beliefs I may strongly disagree with, then I’ve hopefully learned more about that sort of person and their perspective–learned to see them as a real human being with feelings and emotions, and not just as the butt of a joking Facebook meme.

I don’t feel like there’s enough of that going on in America today, but the only person I can really change is me… so this is part of my ongoing attempt.

I fully intend to write a sequel to this book, Not to the Strong, perhaps as next year’s NaNo effort. I have included a preview of one scene here:

Maria shook Bishop Simms’ hand and smiled, then gestured toward the seats at the front of the sanctuary. “This should be fairly quick,” she said, “but feel free to answer at any length you choose. Any long, awkward rambling can be edited out later–thank goodness, or I’d have been fired years ago.”

“I just hope the editors are careful to preserve the content of the dialogue instead of looking for the right sound bites.”

“We’re not like those types of news agencies, sir. We won’t put words in or take words out of your mouth.”

Simms laughed, a full-bodied and amicable sound. “You know, Miss Melendez, I believe that’s what all the others would tell me too.”

The cameraman placed lights on posts and set up diffuse panels to soften the shine, then made final adjustments. Maria shuffled in her chair and checked her watch. “You about done with that?”

“I just–there’s a glare coming off the bishop’s head that I’m trying to reduce.” He looked at Simms with an apologetic shrug. “Sorry, man.”

“Son, no need. Been bald for the last thirty years. I’ve wished I could reduce that glare too.”

Maria flipped through notes on her cell. “Okay, Bishop, the obvious topic of discussion will be the question of reparations, so we’ll knock that part out right off the bat. Sound good?”

“I’m at your disposal, and all too happy to talk. Ask my parishioners.”

Maria smiled. “So I’ve heard… Hence my warning about the editors.”

“You’re good, Maria.” The cameraman gave her a thumbs up and hunkered down behind his device. “Ready? Five, four, three…” He waved his finger twice.

“Good morning, Stapleton,” Maria said, her face a picture perfect smile. “I’m Maria Melendez, and this is Today on the Town. I’m sitting in the sanctuary of New Hope Tabernacle, a place of worship that has developed an intermittent relationship with the local news in the last few years. You may remember this sanctuary from the funeral of young Chris Washington, an unarmed black teen inadvertently killed by Officer Chris Mason while responding to a shoot-out between rival gangs–with Pulaski High School just a couple blocks away.”

Bishop Simms waited, hands folded in his lap, a slight upward turn to his lips, the sort of smile looking for a boot to drop or a knife in the back.

“Since then,” Maria continued, “Bishop Henry Simms has been a prominent voice on the subject of racial tensions and race relations in the Stapleton area. But in the last year, his platform skyrocketed into national attention when his slogan and position on the subject of reparations came up in the Presidential Debate.”

She turned toward Simms, whose face maintained that gentle cautiousness. “So, Bishop, let’s talk about your efforts. Since finding yourself under national scrutiny, have you reconsidered any of your more aggressive or challenging stances on policy?”

“If I changed my views just because of the spotlight,” Simms said, “that would imply that I wasn’t fully convinced of them to begin with. My positions are the same as when you stepped into my church that sad day as we mourned Chris’s wasted life.”

“So you’re not backing down on the issue of reparations, or the messages you’ve given condemning the rampant white privilege you claim affects so much of American politics?”

“No. Why should I? Though I’m not sure I used exactly those words.”

Maria scrolled through the text on her cell screen. “In a sermon on–December Twelfth two years ago, you’re on record asking how we can rightfully expect God to bless our nation while at the same time allowing corruption to grow and fester throughout all levels of government.”

“A valid question, in my opinion.”

“And later in that particular message, you brought up the disparity between how whites and blacks experience police intervention in Stapleton and across the nation. To a lot of people across the country, this doesn’t sound like Sunday morning sermon material.”

“Throughout the Old Testament,” Simms replied, “we see God concerned with His people and their societal expressions of righteousness. This word, in the Hebrew, goes straight to the modern concept of justice and equality–whether we’re talking about the courtroom, the locker room at the police station, or the break room in your work center. God doesn’t change, so I believe that justice and righteousness must still stir up His passions and holy anger just as much as when He sent His prophets to condemn abuses back then.”

“Do you see yourself as a prophet in a sense, Bishop?”

“Nothing so lofty as that. I’m a watchman on the wall, looking out over my city and my nation with concern. There’s so much–”

“A watchman on the wall,” Maria interrupted. “Interesting choice of words, given the divisiveness and the spectacle of the last election. A lot of talk about walls during the debates and the run-up to Election Day, wasn’t there? Are you supporting policies to build walls?”

“Again, I harken back to God’s holy Word,” Simms replied, “far more than I do the brash words of one man or woman. In the days of Joshua and King David, they built walls not to separate their own people, but to protect the community. I’m willing to stand on that kind of wall and call attention to the problems I see weakening our society. And like many times with the children of Israel, I don’t see the big problems coming at us from the outside, but within our walls, within our communities, our cities.”

“And your answer to that appears to be a mutil-billion dollar reparations program many call a bold-faced socialist redistribution of wealth, with some even leveling charges of reverse racism and discrimination.”

Simms leaned forward. “You ask why I talk so much of reparations. Is the concept far fetched? Perhaps. It certainly is a difficult and challenging question, whether–”

Maria shook her head. “Bishop, the conservative estimates on what it would take to attempt such a program are staggering.”

“Maybe,” Simms replied. “But it gets people attention, and it should. What African slaves went through is mighty staggering as well. And while we have made so much progress in the last several decades, we cannot sit idly by and declare ‘Mission Accomplished,’ all is well in the racial divide in America.”

“Well, it is a divisive view you’re espousing, Bishop. You can understand why people might disagree.”

“Might be we could have a much different conversation if there was acknowledgment that there’s cause–There’s a grievance in our past, as yet unresolved, where reparations could be in order. I wouldn’t presume to speak for every person in the African American community, nor do I think you can speak for all Latinas, or your cameraman for every white male. But I think that it would be a huge step to hear certain vocal leaders on the other side of the debate simply acknowledge it. Acknowledge that the grievance exists.”

“Bishop, I have to ask, what of forgiveness? Christian leaders and especially your detractors have often responded based on your own religious beliefs. “Simms is a preacher of the gospel,’ they say, ‘so he more than others should know Christ called us to forgive, not judge. Because He–Christ Jesus–already forgave.’ That’s a quote from the Reverend Jerry Turnbull, a megachurch pastor from Saint Louis.”

“Oh, I have heard those kinds of arguments before,” Simms said, nodding. “Yes, indeed, that sounds pretty good when you’re preaching to your congregation. But I look to no less than the Apostle Paul for my answer to Reverend Turnbull’s query.”

“Saint Paul?”

“Paul indeed wrote that nothing now separates us from the love of God, and there is now no condemnation in Christ Jesus, so I understand where my brothers and sisters on the other side of this issue are coming from.”

Simms curled his hands toward his heart and continued. “But Paul had a broken and contrite heart about his sin. He wrote at length about his failures, his crimes against the church, his rebellion against the Lord. ‘I am the chief of sinners,’ he said, ‘I am the least deserving.’ Paul knew the power of grace because he recognized the depth of the evil he had done.”

He pointed his finger to the south side of the sanctuary. “People on this side of the Twenties would be much quicker to forgive if we heard some of that recognition of wrongdoing from those fine believers on the south and east sides of Stapleton.”

“Yes, but–”

“Maria,” Simms continued, “I think of what one of my parishioners told me the other day. ‘I don’t hold my brother’s death against anybody… but I still hold that pain inside. That’s part of who I am. And while I know God forgets the sins of others and binds up my wounds, I don’t think that means I should forget the hurts or pretend they didn’t happen.’ So it is with our nation and our past. Too many folk want to pretend it didn’t happen, or, you know, ‘well it’s all over and done with now, let’s dust ourselves off and move on.'”

Maria opened her mouth to respond but said nothing.

“We still remember the Alamo,” Simms said, “and the Revolutionary War… and rightly so. We must remember our history, both the good and the bad. The good, so we can emulate the heroism of those who came before, and the bad, so we don’t forget and become doomed to repeat their mistakes.”

“Hard to argue with any of that, Bishop,” Maria finally said. “But when you slap a bill for several billion dollars on a weakened economy, people are still going to balk.”

“I’ve long heard it said that freedom isn’t free,” Simms replied. “Believe me, we know. We paid for our freedom over centuries of abuse and maltreatment. So perhaps my response to my detractors comes down to this: you talk a good game about freedom and justice. Let’s see you put your money where your mouth is.”

Victory of a Sort

I made it. 


50,000 words of a brand new novel, all written in the month of November. I crossed that finish line today during the All-Japan Virtual Write-In. Good thing too, since my next three days at work are wall-to-wall busy.

Update: I added up my efforts today and realized I also crossed 200K words for the year… which may sound impressive, but consider that a full quarter of that happened in the last four weeks. Such grand plans I had… But I digress.

Of course, the blog suffered as a result of NaNoWriMo efforts. #sorrynotsorry and all that.

This is my third NaNo and third victory, so I’m quite pleased. It’s a wonderful chance to play around with something different from your normal writing style or genre. This year I went with 1st person present tense urban fantasy, something I’ve never tried prior to the preparation for this novel.

On top of that, I found an awesome site that spurred me toward that ever-increasing word count: 4thewords

They’re a NaNoWriMo sponsor, so I wanted to help them out. The site is a writing system that incorporates game elements like an RPG. You create a character and go on quests against monsters that have word count goals instead of health points. The gear you find and equip gives you bonuses to attack (counts additional words written), defense (gives you additional time to fight the monster), and luck (increased chance of finding better items).

While the short burst style of writing in sprints of 250 – 1500 words has its drawbacks in the form of continuity problems, poorly thought-out ideas, and plot holes, I would have those in a first draft no matter what I do. What matters to me is, does it get me writing more? I could be wrong, but I definitely feel like the game elements encouraged me to write more than I might have if I was depending on internal motivation alone.

I still have a good chunk to finish on the first draft before I can type “the end.” It’ll be a long while before this one hits the streets, and it might be with a pen name. Also it’s a partnership with a friend in the States, so there’ll be more back-and-forth in the refining process than if I was just going to self-publish.

Meanwhile, Blog Battles have taken a hiatus, so there also won’t be any Grant & Teagan popping up until next year.

That said, I have some plans for December that I’ll call attention to here, and I hope to continue using 4thewords to see if it will keep me moving forward on Diffusion (fantasy book 2) and God’s Shooter, an Old West project involving a gambler prophet. The latter will probably start popping up in scenes on WattPad and WordPress before the end of the year.

And of course, I’ll post the occasional rant or update on my life, because hey, it’s my blog and I add those into my overall word count. Plus I need something to distract me from politics on Facebook. 

Hope your holidays thus far have been restful and productive.

NaNo Number Three

Friends and readers, it’s that time of year again: NaNoWriMo, a.k.a National Novel Writing Month. All over the world, lunatics dedicated writers are setting off on a one-month journey toward a 50,000 word novel. 


My first year out, I wrote and completed my first novel, Not to the Swift. Prior to that, I had written over 100,000 words on a single fantasy book, but I never quite reached the point of typing “The End.” NaNoWriMo helped me complete a novel from start to finish, which in some strange way felt liberating when it came to my pet projects. I was able to finish and release Diffraction a few months later.

My second year, I had the thrill of serving as a Municipal Liaison. Basically, that’s a person committed to facilitating meetings, handing out swag, posting encouraging notes, and representing NaNoWriMo in the local area. I plowed through 50,000 words of a sci-fi military novel very loosely based on my job experience… Which eventually led to a required review of the draft to make sure I didn’t say something or release information I shouldn’t. So that year’s project is on hold for an unknown length of time. 

In between, I’ve put some effort into the sequel to Diffraction, and completed a novella on WattPad called Echoes. I’ve started a few projects I hope to turn into books or novellas down the line, and I’ve had a blast writing BlogBattle entries using a recurring duo of characters. 

But all that goes out the window for a month, in the hopes of cracking 50K once more. 

Got a story to tell? It’s not too late to jump in and catch up.

Revamp

I’m excited about the new look on this page. Apparently I’ve had this going for four years or so. (Thanks, WordPress, for making me feel old.) But I kept with the same theme for the better part of that timeframe.

I played around with my original theme’s sidebar widgets to see if I could display book covers with the pages giving a preview of those books’ contents. No dice.

So eventually I chose a new theme, moved things around, supplied some new links, and clicked “Save & Publish.”

Yay!

I know, I know. Good job, Dave. You did the basic things necessary, things that probably every blogger has to figure out sooner or later. Would you like a high-five or a cookie for all your hard work? TOO BAD.

One thing I’d like to point out is that I’ve added a link to my WattPad profile on the right hand sidebar. In addition to similar previews of my self-published novels, it also has a collection of some short stories posted on this blog as well as the ongoing adventures of Grant & Teagan from my BlogBattles entries. Those are compiled in:

explorer
The Ginger of Galway on WattPad

On top of that, I have an almost-finished WattPad novel that’s only available on that site:

Echoes
Echoes on WattPad

Hooray for linking social media together!

I Like to Make Drawrings

So I got the first part of Chapter 1 of DIffusion critiqued in my writers’ group. And while I am pleased with the feedback, the magic confused one reader who hasn’t read book 1. (Diffraction, available here, shameless plug!) 

The primary magic is Refocusing, where the four Aristotlean elements (earth, water, air, fire) are transformed from one into another. Some elemental shifts are complementary – air turns into fire pretty smoothly, with minimal loss of energy. Others are contradictory – fire to water and vice versa, for example. These conversions waste significant energy, so the amount of the end result is the amount you start with, cut in half or more.

Additionally there are two secondary elements produced by combining two primaries: magelight (fire and air), and shadow (earth and water). 

The impression my crit group member got was that I had written something like Avatar, where one learns to bend a particular element only. I obviously have some clarification to do in the writing so that the idea of transforming one element into another comes through clearly.

But I thought there might be other ways to convey this information.

I love books that include art or “scholarly perspectives” on aspects of the story. Sanderson has been doing this with his Stormlight Archives, and it’s awesome. To me, that level of detail helps reinforce the idea that this is a coherent world.

One of my favorite hobbies is drawing to pass the time. So I took a couple hours and whipped up an artist’s rendition of sorts for the elemental continuum in my fantasy series.

Starting from the top left, Aqua, Aera, Flagros, Terros, with Tenebrae on the left side and Lux on the right (plus Lyllithe’s strange Void in the center)

I still have some annotations to add… maybe a couple arrows or connections showing which elements are contradictory… and I’ll have to fix the parts where the top sheet of paper sticks up from the bottom layer. (The perils of drawing with pen instead of pencil, I suppose. I finished the outer parts without any deal-breakers, then totally botched the magelight on the right side and had to start those parts over. 

Still, overall I’m happy with this and intend for it to be close to Chapter 1 in the eventual print version of Diffusion. 

Not to the Swift – Preview Chapter 8

This is the eighth and final preview chapter of my novel, Not to the Swift. You can find the original post describing the novel here, and the novel is available on my Amazon author page.

 

“This way,” Jamal called. Chris followed the big teen through the warehouse. They’d kicked open a locked door when the gunfight broke out. With no way of knowing which side was winning, and with sirens going off heralding the arrival of the cops, they decided to make a break for it through the building.

“Get away from the window, man!” Chris yanked on Jamal’s hoodie pulling him to safety as bullets punched through the thick glass. The boys dropped to the ground and crawled deeper into the dark building.

“What about Lamar?”

Chris shook his head. “Dude, screw Lamar, screw the Kings and the Pinoy and whoever else. Let’s just get outta here!”

He ducked low and hustled in the shadows between shelves stacked with boxes. Jamal chased him. “Where you goin’ man?”

“Tryin’ to find a safe spot to hide.” Chris pulled out his cellphone and tried to get a signal. There wasn’t anything Mom could do, but she was close and he was desperate.

The sound of glass shattering and distorted shouts echoed across the wide warehouse. Jamal grabbed Chris’s arm. “They comin’ in here for us. No witnesses. Or maybe they think we got some of the Kings’ product they can steal. Either way, ain’t safe here. We gotta leave.” He rose and looked around the dim room.

“Exit light that way.” Jamal tugged Chris and ran.

Chris followed, panicked, furious at Jamal. Jesus, let him figure out how stupid this is so he gets out of it for good.

They ran up a flight of stairs and found the fire escape door. Shouts below spurred them on. Jamal shoulder-checked the door and it burst open, leading to a wrought-iron walkway and railing that stretched around the building. Sudden sunlight blinded the teens.

Chris ducked through the doorway and squinted. A siren warbled nearby. Frequent gunshots snapped on the other side of the warehouse. Chris held up his hand—clutching the phone—to block the brightness. He spotted a ladder to the ground at the far end of the balcony. “Jamal, follow me, there’s a way down.”

He hopped down onto the second rung and hooked his feet on either side, hoping the move worked like in the movies.

It almost did.

Chris hit hard, crumpling on the ground next to the ladder. Someone shouted from the street, but Chris couldn’t make out the voice through the pain. He struggled onto a knee and thrust his hands up when he saw the flashing lights of a cop car.

 

 

The gunman in the alley fired three shots at the other gang further down. Mason took aim on the gunman’s cover. Pop up again, punk. See what happens.

The radio chirped inside the cruiser. “Ambulance ETA three minutes. Backup enroute. Car Seventeen, say status.”

Something thumped to Mason’s left side.

Mason spun, staying behind the cover of his cruiser door, pistol ready. A thin-frame teenage suspect lay on the ground next to the fire escape ladder. “Freeze!” His voice squeaked at the end of the full-throated roar.

Another one—a bigger guy—ran along the balcony, heading for the ladder down.

The thin guy rose to one knee and extended his hands toward Mason. Something black in his right hand caught the light.

Gun! Mason double-tapped the trigger.

The teenager fell, his weapon scraping across the concrete. His partner hit the ground at the bottom of the ladder then dropped to his knees next to the suspect Mason shot.

“Oh Jesus! Chris!”

Mason did a double-take at hearing his name, but the chaos and panic drove the thought away. Training kicked in. Gain control of the situation. Hunkered down behind the door, Mason took aim and shouted. “Hands behind your head! Get down on your knees!”

He is already.

The new suspect complied. But his eyes seethed and his muscular body shook with anger. He swore at Mason. “You shot a kid! He done nothin’ wrong.”

More gunfire from the alley. A scream.

Mason kept his weapon trained on the kneeling suspect, tuning out the tirade. He took quick glances checking for the gunman in the alley.

A body slumped against the bloodstained wall behind the dumpster.

Tires screeched in the distance and an engine roared. Mason hopped to his feet and ran to the car where Kaz lay. He pointed his gun down the alley and caught sight of two suspects sprinting from the far side of the warehouse, fleeing on foot.

Mason almost gave pursuit, but Kazsinski groaned. Those guys are long gone, and my partner needs me. “Kaz, hang in there, man. Ambulance is coming.”

He moved back toward the cruiser to check on the subdued suspect. You never actually subdued him, idiot. The big guy was gone.

Mason checked for threats, found none, and ducked into the cruiser. He snagged the radio and called in. “Car One Seven status: Shots fired, officer wounded. Two armed suspects fleeing east on foot, one vehicle fleeing scene.”

The radio chirped and the female voice replied, sounding relieved. “Good to hear you, Car One Seven. Ambulance should be there any second.”

Mason heard the sirens approaching.

“How many you got in need of medical attention?”

“At least four suspects wounded in gunfight. Plus two armed suspects neutralized by responding officers.”

He looked over the scene to confirm his facts. One gunman that had Mason pinned down, taken out by the rival gang. At least two bodies at the other end of the alley, probably shot early in the fight. The dead guy by the driver’s side door of the black sedan. The gunman Kaz took out. And the thin guy Mason shot, who lay unmoving on the concrete…

Next to a black smartphone, scuffed and cracked. That’s no weapon.

Mason stared at the device. Oh my God oh my God oh my God.

He tried taking deep breaths to slow his panicked heartbeat. What do I do? “Oh God, Kaz… what do I do?”

Be courageous. Own up when you’ve done wrong.

His voice cracked as he keyed the mic. “HQ, Car Seventeen, correction. Unarmed possible civilian shot on scene by responding officer. Need that ambulance stat.”

The handset thunked in the floor of the cruiser, next to his discarded body cam. Mason scrambled to the kid on the ground, clamping a hand over each bullet wound to staunch the blood flow. Through tears, he barely saw the medics rushing toward Kaz and screamed to get their attention.

“Civilian down over here, I need help!”

 

 

Author’s note: Thanks for reading this far, but the novel is really about the aftermath. If you like what you’ve previewed, you can find Not to the Swift at my Amazon author page here.

Not to the Swift – Preview Chapter 7

“Oh my Lord,” Kazsinski ranted as he steered the cruiser out of the parking garage. “You believe that load-a-crap the Captain foisted off on us?”

Mason said nothing, watching the shops and houses pass by.

Kaz took on a mocking tone. “She’s all ‘How many people trust you? How many people want to hug you? How many times do the people in the Twenties bring you flowers?’ God. Whadda tool.” He laughed and punched Mason’s arm. “At least she had a nice rack, right?”

Kaz ignored Mason’s silence and kept venting. “I got an idea for how we change things. Throw a few more in prison. Stop pussy-footing around and bring some SWAT gear down here, maybe clean out the gangs. Can’t be on the street committing crime if they’re in a cell at the pen. Or in a damn box.”

He turned a corner and pulled up behind a driver. “Looks like a tail light burned out, don’t it?” Blue and red lights flashed with the flip of a switch. “Let’s see what this guy’s up to.”

The driver’s Hispanic. Surprise, surprise. Mason sighed. This is ridiculous. Kaz can’t be the face of the police force in this community. Evidence or no evidence, I need to talk to the Captain about this.

 

 

“We don’t need to do this, J. Maybe they ain’t coming. Let’s get out of here.”

Jamal hunkered down with Chris Washington in an alleyway between Madison and Nelson. “They’ll be here. Trust me.”

Chris scoffed. “I trust you. I don’t trust them. What time they s’posed to get here?”

Jamal showed Chris his phone and laughed. “Four twenty, man.”

Chris shook his head. “Figures.”

A car pulled into the alley from the east end. Jamal watched them for a moment, then rose. “They here. Let’s go.”

It’s not too late to leave. Chris looked to the other end of the alley. The sunlight on the street looked like freedom beckoning. He almost made a break for it.

But I can’t leave Jamal behind. Chris turned and followed his friend to the meet.

Two Hispanic guys with a bouncer’s physique stepped out of the car. A blocky bulge revealed the outline of a gun tucked into one’s waistband. The other had something bulky in his pocket. A thin black man with narrow eyes and a scowl stood between his guardians. He scanned up and down the alley as Jamal approached.

Jamal extended his hand. “Lamar, my brotha, what up!”

Lamar ignored the greeting and nodded at Chris. “This the kid you told me about?”

Jamal paused. “Yeah, I’m tellin’ you man, he don’t look like much maybe. But dude is a beast with numbers. He could keep your cash flow straight, help you figure out, y’know, some fool stiffin’ you on profits or something.”

Lamar folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t like this. He looks risky.” He turned to Chris. “You look risky to me, kid. Like someone who will fold if he gets caught. Someone who’ll cry to mama and spill details to every cop that’s listenin’.”

Chris should have been happy to be excluded, but a touch of pride rose up within. Man, you don’t know me.

Jamal waved his hands to get Lamar’s attention. “Hey, dawg, nah, it ain’t like that. Look, you give us some product to store for you, I keep it at my place, not his. You know me, man, you know I’m good for it. No risk.”

Lamar cocked his head at Jamal. “Then why is he here?”

“Man, he gotta learn somehow,” Jamal said. “Someone need to take him under the wing, be his mentor. That’s me, a’ight? I know he ain’t what you need right now, but gimme some time an’ he will be.”

Lamar considered the suggestion.

Jamal pressed it further. “Did you ever have someone come alongside and teach you how to hustle, how to get by on the streets? I want to be that guy for Chris.”

“A’ight, we’ll try it out,” Lamar said. He handed Jamal a black duffel bag. “I’m givin’ you two brick for you to hang onto until we get some permanent arrangement set up. And I got half a brick for you to push in your set. Chris can help you sell it if you want, and get some of the profits—on one condition. The part you’re sellin’ on your set—that doesn’t stay with the part you’re storing for us.”

Chris stepped forward. “Wouldn’t spreading it around increase risk?”

Lamar glared at him. “I don’t want it all in one spot. You fools get caught sellin’, they’re gonna check Jamal’s house before they give you your phone call. If you lose a few bags of my goods, it won’t be hard for you to replace that. But if you lose whole bricks… that ain’t all you gonna lose, let’s just say that.”

Jamal nodded. “Sure, dawg. ‘Course. We can use Chris’s place.” He shoved the bag toward Chris.

Chris stared at Jamal and took the duffel. You know I can’t store nothin’ at my house. What are you doin’, J?

“Now about my set, I was thinkin’ if I could cover—”

A car squealed to a halt in the other end of the alley. Gunfire and shouts erupted, and Chris pulled Jamal to the ground.

 

 

“All vehicles, Headquarters,” the woman’s voice blared from the cruiser radio. “We got a two forty-five in progress between multiple four seventeens. Two suspected gangs in an alley between Madison and Nelson on the southside eighteen hundred block.”

Kazsinski spun the wheel. “That’s us, man. We’re almost on top of it.”

“Multiple shots fired,” the radio squawked. “Possible injuries on scene. Any available officers, please respond.”

Mason grabbed the transceiver and keyed the mic. “Cruiser One-Seven is on it.” Oh God, oh God, this is really happening. Shots fired.

The lights danced on buildings and reflective surfaces as the cruiser tore through the streets, siren blasting. The police car caught air on a downhill. Eyes wide and intense, Kaz let out a “Whoo!”

Mason checked over his equipment. Body cam secured. No helmets, can’t help that. Weapon loaded, safety off. The double-action trigger wouldn’t misfire even if dropped. He reached in his door panel and donned his ballistic glasses. These aren’t stopping a bullet, but every little bit helps, right?

In the distance, Mason heard soft popping sounds like firecrackers going off in clusters of two to four. Kazsinski barely slowed as the cruiser sped through the school zone of Pulaski High. It’s after four. All the kids should be long gone. I hope.

Kazsinski slammed on the brakes near a black sedan blocking the alley. The driver’s door hung ajar, its window shattered. A body lay on the ground among the glass shards. Gunfire echoed around the corner.

Mason looked to Kazsinski for guidance, but Kaz burst out of the car as soon as he hit the emergency brake. He rushed to the wall of the nearest building then slid toward the alleyway, his Beretta held level, clutched to his chest.

A young man’s voice resounded in Mason’s ears. “This is Pinoy turf now. Run home an’ tell the Kings.” More gunshots punctuated the demand. Someone wailed for help out of sight.

Kaz thrust his pistol around corner as he leaned to get a view. “Police,” he screamed. “Drop your weapons, hands above your head.” He whirled back into cover. Brick chips and dust sprayed past Kazsinski’s shoulder as bullets riddled the other side of the building.

Laughing voices swore in English and some other language, but Mason could make out “pigs” among the curses. He hunkered down and hustled over to where Kaz stood.

The vet swore. “That was close. Shoulda just let them shoot each other up a while and arrested whoever survived.” He tapped his temple with his left hand. “File that plan away for another day.”

Two more gunshots rang in the alley. Footsteps of tennis shoes on gravel sounded as the gang members sought new cover. Mason drew his weapon and checked the safety once more. “What’s the plan?”

Kaz pointed the pistol toward the car. “I’ll move behind there for another view while you cover me. We can’t both be at the same position and overlap our fields of fire. Ready?”

Mason and Kaz traded places so Mason could lean out to fire down the alleyway. He took a deep breath to steady himself. It didn’t do much good.

“Now!” Kaz dashed behind Mason, seeking cover behind the sedan. Mason stepped to the side and thrust his hands out, supporting his weapon and searching for a target.

Gravel sprayed and bullets whizzed past as the gang members fired at Kaz. Mason popped off two shots at one of the assailants before spinning back behind the corner. Kaz ducked behind the sedan’s trunk.

“Looks like two left in the middle,” Mason called. “Three or four at the other end of the alley. At least one wounded there too.”

“Ain’t worried about how many wounded,” Kaz said. “Gonna make some more of them before this is over.” He popped up, fired off two shots, and dropped back into cover. Someone in the alley screamed in pain.

More gunfire broke out at the other end of the alley. They’re distracted, still trying to kill each other. Mason poked his weapon around the corner—scraping his body cam across the wall. He found a target and took a shot.

One of the big guys at the other end jerked with a hit to the shoulder. His weapon fell in the rocks, and he dove to retrieve it.

Someone in the middle loosed a burst of bullets that riddled the man Mason wounded. The body flopped into the gravel and twitched once before going still.

A twinge of guilt struck Mason. Did I just get someone killed? He shoved the thought down. The guy was clearly a threat looking to be neutralized.

Kaz fired a couple more rounds, alternating fire from the left and right sides of the car. Then another gunman sprung from the corner of the building across the alley from Mason. With a clear view of Kazsinski, he cracked off three shots with a pistol. Kaz spun and returned fire, striking the shooter in the chest and head. But he fell to the ground, blood soaking through the shoulder and side of his uniform.

“I’m hit!” He writhed on the ground and swore repeatedly. “Oh god, it burns.”

Mason froze. He almost ran to Kaz, but more gunfire down the alley cut him off. “What do I do, man?”

“Get to the radio. Call for backup and an ambulance. Son of a—what are you doin’ standin’ there? Go, dammit!”

Training kicked in. Mason ran to the driver’s side door and ducked inside, snagging his body camera on the doorframe as it swung open. He keyed the mic as he grabbed the transceiver. “HQ, officer down at Eighteenth and Madison. Officer is responsive but bleeding heavily. Situation still in progress with sporadic gunfire and multiple offenders. Send backup.”

A woman’s voice crackled through the mic. “Hold position, drag officer to safety if able, backup enroute. Ambulance support will be dispatched.”

The body cam swung loose and rattled with Mason’s every move. He ripped the thing off, left it in the car and called out to Kaz. “I’m coming to get you, man. Hang on. Ambulance on the way.”

Kaz lay still, the gravel and dirt beneath him stained red.

Bullets struck the hood of the cruiser, and Mason dropped to the ground behind the open door. One of the gunmen tried to flee the alley but got pinned down behind a dumpster on the other side of the sedan. Concrete shattered as bullets sprayed the wall above the dumpster. The gunman whipped back and forth between keeping Mason in cover and shooting at his enemies down the alley. He fired again, creating a spider-web in the cruiser’s windshield.

Mason held his gun at the ready and tried in vain to calm his racing heart.

 

Not to the Swift – Preview Chapter 6

This is the sixth preview chapter of my novel, Not to the Swift. You can find the original post describing the novel here, and the novel is available on my Amazon author page.

 

 

The Precinct bustled with activity at the start of the workweek. Captain McCullough pulled in every available officer for a morning training session, due to kick off in half an hour. Kaz hit the gym set up on the second floor, leaving Chris on the operations floor alone.

He sat at one of the few available computers filling out a soft-copy document with the details of the Friday patrol and the encounter with Mister Shuttlesworth. The report already reflected the seeming racial bias behind Kazsinski’s methods when conducting a traffic stop. But the main incident description held Chris’s attention.

Intentionally drew weapon on unarmed non-threatening civilian.

Chris deleted “intentionally” and tapped the desk. I need a word with less blame, maybe. I don’t want to crucify the guy. I just want to make sure he learns the lesson.

He highlighted the text for later revision and moved on.

One of the boxes read, ‘Video clip media number.’ Chris paused and looked for a veteran for guidance. “Hey O’Neill, how do I track down a cut of body cam footage?”

O’Neill laughed. “You gotta talk to Hannigan up in Records. If any of the footage is marked to save, he’ll have it.”

“Thanks.” Chris saved the document, pulled his access card, and headed for the second floor. If any of it is saved? What does that mean?

He found Hannigan behind a desk in the Records office, wasting time on his computer until the training session. Cat videos? Are you kidding me?

“Hey man, I need to get a media number for a clip from our patrol on Friday.”

Hannigan glanced at Mason and returned to his computer. “New guy? I don’t take requests from new guys. Tell Kaz to come by himself if he wants something.”

“Come on, this is serious. I need to file an incident report, so I need the footage number.”

“Incident report? What are you talkin’ about? Wasn’t no incidents on Friday.”

I don’t need Hannigan looking into this. Better watch my mouth. “Look, I just need to see what you’ve got off our body cams from Friday morning.” Chris paused. Maybe I can play it off as rookie hazing to get him to cooperate.

“Kaz has me doing a stack of paperwork before we go on patrol today. New cops push papers, he says. I’ve been at it for two hours now,” Chris lied. “It’s killing me.”

Hannigan smiled wide, his sadistic streak apparently satisfied. “In that case, I’ll help you out with something. Kaz sent you on a wild goose chase, kid. He does that with all-a you scrubs. You shoulda seen the crap his first partner gave him when he was a rookie. Oh man, it was good times.” Hannigan chuckled. “Anyway, ain’t no video recordings from Friday.”

What?

Chris didn’t have to fake a look of shock. “So what happens to all the footage from the body cams? What’s the point of them?”

“Every day, end of the day, we purge the previous day’s videos if they ain’t marked to save. Jeez, few dozen officers all wearin’ cameras on patrol, can you imagine the storage space that would fill up on the network drive?”

Hannigan shook his head and added, “If somethin’ bad happens and we really need the video, we’ll know about it before it gets purged, right? No reason to keep a bunch of clips of driving down streets for hours.”

Chris fumbled for a response. I have no proof of what I’m accusing Kaz of doing.

“Besides,” Hannigan said with a shrug, “a lot of the guys, they don’t want someone listening to their conversations. Lots of stuff you share with your partner that you wouldn’t prob’ly share with anyone else, y’know?” He laughed. “Well, you don’t know yet, but one day you will.”

“I see,” Chris said. “I guess I’m done here. Thank you for your time.”

“Yeah, man, you bet.”

Chris wandered down the hall past the gym. Several policemen worked with free weights, watching form in the numerous mirrors. Two guys took turns on the bench press, spotting for each other and adding plates. Kaz sat on an incline bench, pressing two thick dumbbells into the air above his chest. Do I talk to him about what happened? Do I still file the report, without any evidence to back up my claim?

“Quit checkin’ me out, scrub,” Kaz called from inside the gym. “Bad enough the Captain stuck me with a rookie, now I gotta worry my rookie partner’s a homo tryin’ to stick me too.”

The others laughed and sneered at Chris. He shook his head. “Dude, you’re ridiculous.” You’re also the only one who knows about Friday. And I doubt you’re going to help me request an incident review. No one’s going to believe a rookie.

A thought struck Chris. But would they believe a civilian, if a rookie corroborated his account?

Chris strode to the stairwell and checked the time. Five minutes until the training brief. He returned to the computer and brought the incident file back up. Then he looked through the record of traffic stops uploaded from the mobile computer in the police cruiser. He found the entry he needed, and copied details into his report.

Driver: Benjamin Shuttlesworth. 4215 West Garrison Street.

The Captain made an announcement and called everyone to the briefing room. Chris clicked save and logged off. I need to pay you a visit this week, Mister Shuttlesworth.

There was still time to do the right thing.

 

 

René waved goodbye and bounded up the sidewalk into Franklin Middle School. George pulled away from the curb and licked his lips, looking for words.

“Dad, I can walk,” Chris complained. “Do we really need to do this?”

“Do what? I’m just dropping you off at school.”

“You only do this when you want to talk,” Chris said. “But you already talked to me last night about Jamal and drugs and gangs and everything else. I’m not doin’ any of that, Dad.”

“I’m concerned, son.” George pulled the car away from Franklin and headed south. “I need to know you’re thinkin’ about what I said, what happened to Clarence, what you wanna do with your life.”

Chris stared out the window. “Jamal’s my friend, Dad. I ain’t gonna lie, he wants to get into some stupid stuff, dealing with the Kings. I told him that’s not me. I’m tryin’ to tell him that ain’t him either. You gotta believe me.”

George stared straight ahead, driving on subconscious autopilot. Hadn’t thought of that, you tryin’ to talk sense to your friend the way I feel like I need to talk to you. I want to believe you. I think I do. But I love you too much to ignore this.

They sat in silence. Say something, George told himself. Tell him you trust him. Tell him you’re proud. Anything.

George forced a joking tone. “Sometimes I think all them superhero stories goin’ to your head, son.” That the best you got? Come on, George, man up. Say somethin’ real.

Chris laughed once, but said nothing.

Pulaski High loomed ahead. You runnin’ out of time. George slowed the car to a stop along the sidewalk. Don’t be distant like Dad was to you. Most of these kids don’t got a father at home—your son does. So make sure that means something.

George parked the car near the corner of the school grounds. “Look, son, I trust you. I do. You got a good head on those shoulders. You’re smarter than I was at your age. You got a future, somethin’ to hope for. But it’s not gonna happen by itself. You need to strive for it. When all your friends cuttin’ class, smokin’ joints or gettin’ drunk or God knows whatever crazy stuff they get up to, you can’t go with them down that path. That path dead-ends right here in the Twenties.”

“I know, Dad,” Chris nodded. “I get it. You don’t have to tell me again. I gotta go.”

“Okay,” George said. He extended a fist toward Chris, but the teenager exited the car without noticing. Chris rushed toward the front door and disappeared into a crowd.

Was that Jamal next to Chris? George couldn’t make out the face among so many others. Then the teens entered the school. No telling now. Just gotta hope he listens.

George sighed and checked the clock on the dash.  Need to get to work at Eastwick before they drop my contract. He left behind a cloud of smoke as he pulled away, headed for the Stapleton suburbs.

 

 

Chris glanced back through the crowd and saw the tell-tale fog of his father’s car. Jamal kept talking, and Chris tuned back in to the conversation.

“—three of them asked me to. So this afternoon, I’m gonna meet up with Lamar’s associates and store some of their product at my crib. My gramma’s old, she won’t have any idea what’s goin’ on, even if she find a brick under my bed.”

“This is bad mojo, man,” Chris said. “You come up with some plans over the years, J. Some of ’em been aight, but some of ’em just all the way dumb.”

“Bruh, I got this. No way this one goes wrong. An’ I told Lamar I was bringin’ you along.”

“You crazy, fool. I ain’t gettin’ involved in this.”

Jamal’s face twisted in rage. “Man, I’m lookin’ out for you. Hookin’ you up. I’m not sayin’ you gotta bring their stuff to your place. That’s the dumbest idea. Your mom and dad be all over you. So I’m storin’ all the product. That means I’m takin’ all the risk, stickin’ my neck out for you.”

He really is trying to do this smart, and he’s doing me a huge favor. Chris struggled at the thought of rejecting Jamal’s unexpected kindness. He’s doin’ this as a friend.

“You in or out, man? Or are you in, but you’re gonna choke again?”

If I say no, he’s not gonna listen to anything else I tell him. A small hope bloomed in his mind. Maybe I can still talk him out of this—but that’s only gonna work if I go with him.

“I’m not committing to anything, dawg,” Chris said. “But I’ll come along.”

“Yeah, boy!” Jamal bumped Chris’s fist. “That’s all I’m sayin’, give me a chance.”

“Sure, J. But you need to give me a chance too, listen to some reason. I don’t know what, but somethin’ botherin’ me about this—more than just the drugs and the gang.”

The bell rang, and teachers patrolling the halls started yelling at stragglers to get to class. “Gotta go man,” Chris said. “Can’t afford more detention.”

“Yeah, bruh.” Jamal laughed. “You got an appointment with me this afternoon you don’t want to miss.”

Chris turned and entered his classroom, his fledgling hope choked by dread. Maybe detention—and facing Mom afterward—would’ve been a better choice.

 

 

Ms. Stafford, a petite blonde in a business suit, moved about the briefing room, engaging the gathered officers. “If I asked what percentage of Stapleton’s population strongly agrees with the statement ‘I trust my local police force,’ what would you say? You there.” She leaned close to read his nametag. “Bridges.”

Bridges cocked his head and smirked. “I don’t know, twenty? Twenty-five?”

She smiled. “Lower. Who’s next?” The captain raised his hand, and she waved him off. “I can’t let you answer, sir. You’ve read the results of our polling. How about you, Whalen?”

He shrugged. “Sixteen?”

“Close. It’s six. If I lined up sixteen random civilians, odds are only one of them might strongly agree that you all have earned their trust.”

Outbursts of swearing or dismissal erupted throughout the room. Ms. Stafford raised her hands to calm everyone down. “To be fair, a majority of people answered ‘Agree’ on that one. Combine the two positive groups, and you’ve got a trust factor of sixty-four percent.”

Then she pointed to a map on her screen. “What do you think the trust factor is in the Twenties?”

“Who cares,” someone called from the back.

“You should,” Ms. Stafford said. “That’s your area with the highest crime, the highest incidence of drug use, and high rates of both unemployment and recidivism. You’re fighting the same battles there, week after week, and what do you have to show for it? They say doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. So are you guys nuts?”

A light grumbling murmur spread through the crowd.

Ms. Stafford raised her voice. “We tried to get good survey results in the Twenties. Most folk slammed the door in our polling staff’s faces and told them to eff off.” She ignored the muffled laughter and continued. “So the results we have are only from the people who were willing to talk with us about their relationship to the police force. These stats I’m about to tell you? The reality is probably worse.”

She surveyed the room and repeated the question. “What’s the percentage of people in the Twenties who think their police force is fair and balanced in their approach?”

No response.

“The answer is less than thirty percent. You lose more than half of the trust others have earned just by driving past twenty-hundred east. And not one participant answered ‘Strongly Agree.’ Still don’t care?”

More outbursts sprang up throughout the gathered officers. Some blew off the speaker, some told off their peers. “Fair and balanced? We ain’t Fox News,” O’Neill shouted over the din. “We’re there to enforce the law, not to be their friends. They want better lives, they can stop doing illegal things.” Many officers nodded with him.

“I know, I know,” Ms. Stafford said. “Statistics can tell whatever story the speaker wants, right? Maybe I’m spinning all this to make things look worse than they really are. A girl’s gotta get paid, you know.

“But maybe I’m telling the truth, and I’m here to help you all see something easily overlooked about the nature of your relationship with the community.”

Captain McCullough cleared his throat and the murmuring ceased.

Ms. Stafford moved on to a new slide. “We know that an increasing unemployment rate and a surge of crime can sometimes be related. It’s no news that the rail yards shutting down years ago put this city—or at least the downtown part of this city—into a tailspin.”

She pointed at Mason. “You. Give me a guess. What’s the unemployment rate in this precinct?”

Chris fumbled for a number. “Uh… maybe twelve percent?”

“Try thirty to forty on average since the rail yards closed their doors. The numbers on paper look better because after a while, people get written off and no longer factor into the unemployment calculation. The rest of you, do you think it’s relevant that a third to almost one half of the community has no reliable, steady income? People need to eat; they still need clothing for themselves and their kids. That means making money somewhere, wherever they can in some cases. And despite what your teachers taught you, crime does pay.”

She clicked to the next slide. “Do you see how some of this is coming together? What many people are going to see is that it’s your job to stop them from getting money to survive. It’s your job to shut down whatever method they’ve got to put dinner in front of a hungry child. You can understand, perhaps, why you’re not welcomed with open arms on patrol.

“Let’s try one more question. What percentage of your populace in the Twenties have a nuclear family member who has been arrested and sent to jail for any length of time?”

“Not enough,” someone shouted, and laughter exploded in clusters around the room. Not everyone’s laughing, Chris noted. Most of the minority officers sat in silence watching the presentation. Sergeant Bristow, the shift scheduler, watched the reaction of her peers. Though her face remained calm, her eyes trapped a piercing anger behind her glasses. She glanced his way and their eyes met for an instant. She seemed pleased to note he wasn’t amused.

“Stop the wisecracks,” Captain McCullough ordered. “I called Ms. Stafford here because what we’re doing every day isn’t working. We’re fighting the same battles, and we’re not making headway. We break up a drug operation the Kings set up, and then the Disciples start a new one the next week. We seize a stash of guns on the north side, and they shoot each other up on the south side. We gotta do something different.”

Ms. Stafford nodded. “The body camera initiative last year was a step toward the progress your captain is talking about. Research on traffic stops with visible body cameras shows an increase in civility and a decrease in escalation toward violence—both by officers and by those stopped. It forces everyone to play nice.

“Today, we’re talking about why we need to play nice. Back to my question, who’d be willing to believe that one third of the population of the Twenties has had a nuclear relative spend time in jail?”

Several hands raised. Chris shrugged. Sure. Sounds possible. He raised his hand.

“What about one half?”

Most hands fell. Chris followed suit.

Ms. Stafford leaned forward. “It’s sixty eight percent. Two out of every three people have a family member you’ve put in jail for some length of time—or they’ve been there themselves. Do you get why you might be looked at as the enemy? Do you see why these people don’t believe you’re on their side?”

Mason raised his hand, and she paused for the question. “So, how do we change that?”

Ms. Stafford smiled. “Glad you asked. I’m in discussions with your Chief of Police about how best to proceed. My organization started working in New York City ten years ago and saw tremendous results—you can find those online, no need to toot our horn here. We built relationships with families, we started mentoring programs with individual kids. We challenged them to stay in school, or to go back and finish their education—Never too late to educate, that was our slogan. But those steps all involved long-term investment into the community. What I’m doing here right now, that’s how we change things in the short-term.

“In other words, officer, it starts with changing how you see others.

Not to the Swift – Preview Chapter 5

This is the fifth preview chapter of my novel, Not to the Swift. You can find the original post describing the novel here, and the novel is available on my Amazon author page.

 

The mirrored glass windows of Stapleton Baptist Community Church gleamed in the morning sun. An usher with white gloves directed Chris Mason’s four-door hybrid to a spot near the front door in a section marked “First Time Visitors.” Laura unbuckled Hailey, who jumped from the edge of the car door with a cheer, unconcerned for Sunday best propriety.

Laura took Chris’s extended arm, holding Hailey’s hand in hers. “Where’d you hear about this place, hon?”

Chris shrugged. “Biggest ad in the phone book—for a Southern Baptist church at least. They have a TV show and post sermons online. Pastor sounded pretty cool. Not sure how I feel about the music.”

A smiling elderly greeter in a long floral dress held the door and shook their hands. She gave them a visitor gift package and showed Hailey a huge grin. “Hello there, pretty!”

The aroma of fresh brewed coffee filled the foyer. Two young women served up lattes and mochas behind a counter set up on a patch of tiled floor. Churchgoers carrying iPads occupied the tables and stools provided, laughing and chatting before the service if their eyes weren’t glued to the screen of a smartphone.

Another usher inside led the Masons through the sanctuary’s double wood doors to a comfortable spot in the middle of the rows of padded chairs. Chris took in the church’s massive size, with a balcony level and seating all along the sloping sides of the bright room. A slideshow presentation scrolled on three large screens near the front, informing congregants of upcoming events and opportunities to serve. A countdown ticked two minutes and seven seconds until the start of the service.

Chris received several kind but distant smiles and a couple quick handshakes. A pastor’s wife hugged Laurie and responded in kind to Hailey’s silly face. Apparently this church had several associate pastors, each in charge of some facet of ministry.

The lights faded throughout the sanctuary. Colored flood lights and banks of high-power LEDs flared up front. The drummer started thumping out a driving bass beat, and an electric guitar wailed out a high note. The worship pastor marched out to center stage, clapping his hands, calling out into the mic, “Welcome to Stapleton Baptist! You all ready to praise our King?”

The band launched into a full-instrumental chorus as the congregation found the beat and clapped in time. “What can wash away my sin,” the pastor recited, cuing the first verse. “Nothing—nothing—but the blood of Jesus! Let’s sing it out!”

Words superimposed on smooth background effects flashed across the screens. Chris frowned at the modernized rock version of a sacred hymn. I’d trade all this for Grandma Keating on the organ any day. But at least I know the words.

Then they jumped into an added chorus, and Chris stood silent, hands clasped on the pew in front of him.

Jesus, righteous Lamb of God

I’m purchased through the shedding of Your blood

Now I will make my boast in Christ alone

The sinless Son of God

Oh, how I thank You for the blood.

Chris suppressed a smile. How hard is it to use the same rhyming pair over and over? Stop trying to be new, stick to being true.

At least Laura seemed to be having a good time. She met his gaze and gave him a curious look. He winked and she smiled, returning to the song she picked up easily.

Great. She likes it, so we’re probably stuck.

The band switched to a slower song about the intimate sweetness of God’s love, broken up with a one-line chorus they sang two dozen times or more. Chris checked his watch, frowned at how little time had passed, and stared dutifully into the screen, forcing a smile.

 

 

Decked out in an earthy brown suit and a lime green tie, George walked with LaTasha on his arm as the Washington family entered New Hope Tabernacle’s cozy foyer. A thin middle-aged man in long black robes with a maroon mantle laid over white stood at the door to the sanctuary. His horn-rim glasses hung down over a gold cross stitched into the mantle.

“Brother Washington,” he called, his face bright and inviting.

“Bishop Simms,” George replied with an extended hand.

“Welcome to the house of God! Good morning, Sister. Thank you once again for the service you and your children provide. The church was positively gleaming this morning when I unlocked the doors.”

“You’re welcome, Bishop,” LaTasha said, beaming. “Gotta teach these two the value of hard work. We’re glad to help out any time.”

Henry Simms laughed. “How about same time this Saturday?”

LaTasha chuckled. “We’ll be here.”

George suppressed a snort. Like it ain’t already been figured out for months in advance. Every able-bodied member had a month or two on the list in the church office. LaTasha volunteered the kids for two months to keep Elder Henry from throwing out his back scrubbing toilets and sweeping the floor.

Bishop Simms straightened up before Chris. “Good morning, young man. Isn’t it good to be in the house of the Lord?” His deep voice spoke with precision and gravity.

That’s what LaTasha liked best when Bishop took over. No “Lawd” or “Jeezus” or traditional “chu’ch” preaching here. Not for the first time, George longed for the passionate Gospel services he’d grown up in. Messy sometimes, but folk were real.

They found their usual pew, three rows from the front on the left side. LaTasha’s mother already occupied her spot at the outside aisle. With salt-and-pepper hair pulled into a tight bun underneath a sunhat to match her Sunday dress, and a stern glare as hard as oak when needed, Nana’s thin frame showed no signs of frailty. She hadn’t grown weaker over the years, just tougher. “Good mornin’, Nana,” George said.

LaTasha hugged Nana, then the kids followed. Nana snuck René a pink buttermint from a metal case in her purse, and René beamed.

Henry Simms’ wife, First Lady Evonne approached with a notepad. Her long hair had been relaxed then curled into a pristine style that shimmered in the light. She wore a dress splashed with luscious rose reds and maroons to complement her husband’s colors. “LaTasha, my, you’re the picture of beauty. I’m taking down names for our Thanksgiving potluck, and I wondered if you can provide a side dish.”

George tuned out the women’s voices and headed over to lay a hug on JJ—who sat alone—and Thomas, whose wife wrangled their three unruly boys into their pew.

The guys engaged in small talk as the rest of the congregation filed in. Services started at ten, or so the sign said out front. Truth is, fellowship starts at ten, and the service starts whenever. And that’s fine by me.

Then George saw Clarence and Dre slip into the back pew. Dre looked respectable in dark slacks with a bright button-down and matching tie. Probably from his Mama. After the divorce, after Clarence landed in the pen for the second time, Nadine found comfort with a wealthy doctor she met in her job at the hospital.

Clarence wore his best too, such as it was. A loose denim jacket covered a clean monochrome T-shirt hanging loose over the waistline of his slacks. He caught a few disapproving glances from other members. In the small congregation, where everyone knew everyone else, there was nowhere to hide.

I better go give him a greeting, let him know he’s welcome. But the anger from the night before surged back up into George’s chest. His feet stood still.

The choir filed in from the back room, their Sunday best covered in simple black robes. Dottie the choir director took her place near the front and nodded to the Bishop, seated next to the First Lady in the two large chairs behind the pulpit, under the great wooden cross.

Bishop Simms rose and approached the pulpit. “Welcome to New Hope Tabernacle, my brothers and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ. The Tabernacle—the tent of meeting.”

Damon, the organist, struck some riffs between each phrase as Bishop Simms gave the call to worship. “And we are gathered here on today for that purpose. To meet with the Creator who made us and gave us air to breathe this morning. He didn’t have to do that. He could’ve withheld His breath from us. But He gave us the gift of this day, to give Him praise.”

The choir hummed out their harmony and the organ music shifted to a staccato Gospel number. Aimee brought in a light drum beat with a tap-tap-tap on the crash, laying out a clear beat. Some of the worshipers softly clapped and stepped side to side with the music.

Simms continued in prayer. “Almighty Lord Jesus, all of us as families are gathered into Your one great Family, to meet You here, and to praise You in the light of Your glory.”

Dottie repeated that last phrase, and the choir voices boomed out.

In the light of Your glory, in the light of Your face.

In the light of Your holiness, I am changed.

“In the light of Your goodness,” Dottie prompted. In the light of Your goodness.

“In the light of Your holy face,” she shouted. In the light of Your face.

“You know every trouble that holds me.” Every trouble that holds me fades away.

George clapped and made his way back to his pew, sliding in between Chris and LaTasha, then slipping an arm around his wife and swaying with her to the rhythm of the song.

Dottie continued calling out the next lines and the choir and congregation followed the familiar tunes with ease.

Can’t stop praisin’ His name, I—can’t stop praisin’ His name, I—

“In the light of Your glory!” In the light of Your glory…

René tugged at LaTasha, and she leaned away from George to listen to her daughter. George edged his ear closer so he could make out the words.

“Mama, why Miss Dottie always sing everything twice?”

“Don’t talk like a thug,” LaTasha corrected. “Why does Miss Dottie—”

René sighed. “Why does Miss Dottie always sing everything twice? And why do we have to sing the same lines so often?”

“Probably so they can take root in your thick skull, heathen child.” LaTasha squeezed René’s shoulder. “Or maybe more for your brother’s.”

René giggled and belted out the tune with off-key enthusiasm.

George glanced at Chris and noted for the first time that he could almost look Chris in the eye without turning his head down. The young man stood, hands folded on the pew in front of him, mumble-singing the song. How you have grown, son.

Chris noticed and flashed George a smile that warmed the older man’s heart. George placed his right arm across Chris’s narrow back and rested a hand on his son’s shoulder. His other arm held LaTasha close, and he saw René’s hand in her mother’s. This is not bad, not bad at all. You doin’ good, George.

Nagging doubts picked at his sense of peace, remnants of his conversation with Clarence at Poker Night. But he banished them and joined in the song. “In the light of Your grace, every trouble that holds me fades away.”

 

 

“Saints, tell me, if I offer you a plate of food or a glass of water, and I poured poison into it, how much poison would you be okay with? Because that’s what we’re doing when we flirt with sin. Think about that a minute.

“Listen to the words of the Teacher as we work our way through the book of Ecclesiastes.” Bishop Simms held up a black leather King James Bible with gold-edged pages as he read. “Chapter 8, verse 11 and 12 tells us, ‘Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil. Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God.’

“Poison is deadly serious. You ingest a large dose of it in your food or water, you breathe it in, and you’ll feel the effects real fast. They’ll come carry your body out in a box. No one’s looking to drink a bottle of poison, right?

“And yet, if it’s in small doses, your body adapts. It grows strong, builds up a tolerance. Your body decides this isn’t so bad, I can survive this, I’m all right. Tell me, how do smokers get lung cancer? Is it from one cigarette? Or from years of poison building up? How does an addict develop that craving for drugs? How does the alcoholic come to love the bottle?

“In the same way—think about this, saints—there’s no quickness with spiritual sickness.  Sometimes we do what we know is wrong. But it seems for a time that everything is going all right. So we tell ourselves we can keep doing it.”

Clarence’s comments about Chris pricked at George while the bishop preached. It might seem everything’s goin’ right. But if Chris is hangin’ with someone connected to the Kings, could he get hisself sucked in to the trouble they involved in?

“I’m preaching it straight,” Bishop Simms declared. “If you want to win, you’ve got to keep sin from getting in!”

Several members gave an “Amen” in response.

Bishop Simms lifted a finger in warning. “But if you choose to excuse, you’ll lose.”

Nana and others said a cautionary “Well!”

George found himself nodding. I can’t ignore this. I gotta confront Chris about it. He looked at his son, and found Chris sitting forward, chin resting on his fist. Maybe this is just what he needed to hear. George patted Chris’s shoulder and the young man smiled.

Even so, he’s gonna hear it again from me.

 

 

“There was a squad of soldiers in Afghanistan,” the senior pastor began, his keen eyes engaging all sides of the room in turn. The cameras feeding images to the two side screens zoomed in on his face and followed him as he paced the stage. “Their convoy carried vital supplies needed at a Forward Operating Base—or FOB—surrounded by the enemy on all sides. Their mission? To punch through the enemy resistance and get those resources into the hands of their comrades in arms, whose own provisions ran low.”

Pastor Nate kept his hair short, brushed forward, with a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, flecks of silver sprinkled throughout the auburn. Though he wore a suit coat, his unbuttoned polo gave off a casual air.

“Already, the team has taken small arms fire and even an attack with a rocket-propelled grenade. The soldiers are nervous. They haven’t even reached the enemy’s position yet, and somehow they have to advance through it. The convoy hunkers down, sets up a defensive position, and tries to regroup before the final, dangerous push.”

His hands rested on the plexiglass pulpit holding a smart tablet. “Consider that moment,” he said. “They can’t retreat. Their allies need these supplies. But they’re outnumbered and under fire. They can’t stay put for much longer. They’re a stationary target, a sitting duck.

“Do you ever feel that way? When you face your place of work or school, does it feel like you’re walking into a war zone?”

Chris pursed his lips. You don’t even know, pastor.

The incident with Kazsinski drawing his weapon filled Chris’s mind with doubts. He was wrong that time. But is he wrong all the time? Is this something I need to report?

Yet how would it look for a rookie to report his partner on the first day on duty? Who would believe me if I said anything? Who’s going to take my word for it? And how is Kaz going to respond?

Another fear rose in his heart. Is that what working in the projects does to a person? Is that what’s going to happen to me?

Nate went on. “Perhaps the overwhelming odds are the bills, the expenses, the mounting debt that you can’t ever seem to conquer. Or maybe your ‘enemy’ comes in the form of a blessing—the constant needs of small children, always demanding your attention to keep them out of trouble or clean up the mess when they find it despite all your efforts.

“Maybe your emotional convoy has been ambushed, hit with an RPG—the death of a loved one, a pink slip from your job, or bad news from the doctor. Life can be an insurgent sometimes, striking where we feel secure, creating fears where once we were at ease.”

A couple voices called out an “Amen” in agreement.

“But let’s go back to our convoy in Afghanistan,” Nate said, resuming his pace. “One of the soldiers is ready to give up. He looks to the squad leader, asks ‘What are we gonna do, Sarge? This looks hopeless.’

“Hopeless. I think all of us can relate to what that word means. If I asked you all to raise your hand if you’ve ever felt hopeless at some point or another, I’m pretty sure every hand in the room would go up.

“But we’ve learned to project a perfect image, an ‘everything is awesome’ story we tell the world. We act like the pretty life we show on social media tells the whole truth about what’s really going on.”

Chris leaned forward in the seat. That’s what I’m doing with Kaz, isn’t it? If I don’t report reckless drawing of a weapon on a civilian, I’m acting like everything’s okay when it’s not.

“And the sergeant tells his soldiers, ‘This is not hopeless. Be courageous. We are going forward, pushing through to our friends.’ Because what the junior troops don’t know is that the sergeant has the radio. He hears calls and chatter over the net, and he knows that his convoy is not alone out there.

“In minutes, as their vehicles race toward danger, they hear the roar of air support flying overhead. Enemy positions take direct hits. Insurgents scatter and flee. The line breaks. The convoy reaches their destination.”

“That command, ‘Be courageous,’ or some form of it, shows up twenty-six times in Scripture. Mark Twain is credited with saying ‘Courage is not the absence of fear, but the mastery of it.’ Courage is defined as…”

Chris tuned out and thought about Monday morning. I have to file the report so that the body cam footage gets reviewed. If I do nothing, and Kaz does something like that again, the responsibility would be mine too. It might suck, but I’ve got to do the right thing.

Nate continued his sermon, exhorting the believers to do what they deemed right in the face of resistance or fear. But Chris needed no further persuasion. He sat back and smiled, confident and ready for the next day.