Sunday, June 3, 2018

Keep It Brief: Writing Short Stories


Dark and Distant Voices, my fifth short story collection, has just been released. All told, I’ve published over 150 short stories in the thirty-six years since I began writing seriously at the age of eighteen. But when I started writing, I had no special fondness for short stories. I preferred reading novels, and that’s what I wanted to write. But I figured if I wanted to become a professional writer, I should be skilled at writing different types of fiction, so I decided – somewhat grudgingly – to begin working on short stories as well as novels.
Short stories didn’t come easily to me then, and after all this time, they still don’t. They make my brain hurt when I write them. My imagination feels cramped and constrained, and it’s an uncomfortable experience. But you know what? The limits of the short story help focus my imagination and keep it controlled. My imagination – like that of so many artists – is a wild thing that wants to run as fast as it can in all directions at once. Short stories keep it from doing that. And the focus I’ve learned from writing short fiction has helped me write more focused scenes in novels. Plus, short fiction allows me to experiment, to try different narrative approaches and explore different themes, both of which sometime find their way into my novel-length work.
I think it’s fair to say I’ve learned a few things about writing short fiction over the years, both from doing it myself and teaching others how to do it. What follows is an overview of what I think are the most important considerations when it comes to writing short fiction. Whether you’re a beginning writer or you’ve been doing this for a while, I hope you find something of value below. (And I’m quite aware that there are exceptions for every bit of advice I give. As I tell my students, “The only real rule in writing is that you have to use written language to express ideas. Everything else is simply custom, ways of doing things that in general work most of the time for most readers.”)  
Some Basic Advice
Length: As a rule of thumb, short stories tend to be around 1000-5,000 words (4-20 pages). They of course can be shorter or longer, but this is a solidly marketable range, as well as a good range for beginners. It’s long enough to practice the basics but not so long that writers are too intimidated to revise.
Keep it Simple: Keep your ambitions in check when learning to write short stories. Avoid massive research or worldbuilding. Elaborate research and worldbuilding can make a story so complicated that you can’t properly tend to the basics of characterization, dialogue, etc.
Story Content: Use violence, sex, politics, profanity, religion, etc. when necessary to serve the needs of the story. Don’t try to shock readers with naughty words and sexy scenes or beat them over the head with political or religious messages. The story is what’s most important. But follow market guidelines, too. If a magazine says that it will not publish a story that portrays violence against children, don’t submit that story to that particular market. Editors say beginning writers ignore their guidelines all the time, and it’s a sure way to receive a fast rejection.
Short Time Frame: One way to keep a short story under control – as well as to maximize its intensity – is to limit the events to a relatively short amount of time: minutes, hours, maybe a day or two at most.
Limit the Number of Characters: Only have two or three main characters, and don’t add too many supporting characters. There’s not a lot of room in a short story (obviously), and because of this, you don’t have the opportunity to fully develop more than a couple characters, and there’s only enough time for readers to become emotionally invested in one or two. If you have too many characters in a story, it makes the story too complex for its length and makes it difficult – if not impossible – for readers to connect emotionally.
Limit the Setting: Another way to maintain focus in a short story is to confine the action to one setting. This can be as limited as one room, one house, one street, one town, etc. The fewer settings there are in your story, the fewer times readers’ imaginations will be yanked from one setting and plunked down into another. Such transitions can be jarring for readers, and unless you’re looking to create a such jarring effect, keeping the setting limited works best. 
Point of View: In general, stick to one character’s point of view in a story. As I said above, too many shifts in a story can be jarring for readers. Readers need to time to attach to a point of view in a story, and while novels have plenty of room for readers to become attached to multiple viewpoints, a short story doesn’t.
Simple Story Problem: Stick to one main story problem. Again, novels have room for multiple – and major and minor – story problems. Short stories do not. Stay focused on one story problem, and your story will have more impact on readers.
Scenes: In general, try not to have more than two or three scenes in a short story. Again, for the same reason I keep mentioning: short stories don’t have a lot of room.
Obstacles: Avoid having too many obstacles (because . . . you guessed it: short stories are short). There’s room for a number of simple obstacles, such as a locked door or a character who momentarily doubts another. There’s less room for major obstacles such as an earthquake or a kaiju attack.
Begin Close to the End: One way to keep a story short and focused is to begin telling it as close to the climax as you can. If I was writing a story about a person trying to defuse a bomb, I’d begin with the character already in the process of defusing it, and then I’d work in whatever backstory was needed, probably in the form of short snatches of memory that pass through the person’s mind, distracting him or her while working. Not only is this a great way to keep your story focused, it can maximize story tension as well.
Character
Show Don’t Tell: Don’t tell us your character is an angry person. Show us who the character is through the character’s actions and thoughts, as well as the dialogue of central and supporting characters.
Who Cares About Their Hair?: Describe the physical aspects of characters only when necessary. Again, there’s not a lot of room in a short story, and unless it’s important what color eyes a character has or what sort of clothes he or she is wearing, these details may not only be unnecessary, they may slow the pace of the story.
Background Check: Limit the amount of background information you present on a character’s past. If it doesn’t matter to the story if a character had a poodle named Bitsy as a child, then don’t mention the damn dog.
The Most Important Aspect of Character: A character’s personality – his/her psychological make-up – is the most important thing for a writer to know. How does a character meet obstacles, try to obtain goals, react to people, places, changes, challenges, etc.? What is this character like under stress? If you know all these things, then you’ll know what your character will do in a given situation, which will help you plot your story.
Vivid Fiction
Sensory Detail: Beginning writers usually rely on sight and sound in their stories for two reasons. One is that these are the strongest senses humans possess, and therefore we pay the most attention to them. The other reason is because all our visual media is made up of sight and sound, and that’s how we’re used to experiencing stories. No matter how much you read, you’ve probably watched far more movies and TV shows, and played more video games, than you’ve read fiction. So don’t forget to evoke the other senses – taste, smell, and touch – in your fiction. And here’s an important tip. Since taste, smell, and touch are weaker senses for us, we have to be in close proximity (sometimes very close) to whatever it is that we smell, taste, or touch. This means that these three senses are far more intimate than sight and sound and have a greater emotional impact on people. They’ll do the same for your readers.
Don’t Hide What’s Inside: Visual media can’t get inside a character’s head, but written fiction can and should. To make your fiction more vivid and help readers more deeply identify with and attach to your main character, portray his or her internal world, their thoughts, feelings, physical reactions, memory connections. Also use psychological comparisons: similes and metaphors. When your main character watches the sun rise, does he or she mentally compare it to anything? “Bob thought the sun rose like a giant orange lollipop in the sky.” That’s a terrible simile, but it tells you something about how Bob perceives the world.
Anchors Aweigh!: We experience the world as an ever-shifting deluge of information that comes from both outside and inside us. To create a sense of this for your readers, use what I call Anchor Points. Use a blend of different techniques – a sense, a thought, a bit of dialogue – to help anchor a scene in reality for your reader.
Conflict
Conflict = Story: Characters can directly deal with conflict, indirectly deal with it, try to avoid it, try to ignore it, but they are always reacting to it somehow.
Conflict = Plot: The character dealing with conflict is what gives the story its shape and forward momentum.
Exposition
Use Only as Needed: Don’t let your stories become bogged down with too much unnecessary information. Include only pertinent background information. Try to blend exposition in smoothly, in different places, using varied techniques, and avoid expository lumps. If you’re unsure how to do this, write your first draft without any exposition at all then have someone read it. Ask them to mark places where they have a question about something. Any place they marked is a place where they need more information. Add the least amount of information necessary to answer that question and no more.
Dialogue
Straight to the Point: Dialogue must be purposeful, and each line of dialogue should advance the story. Not just the plot; dialogue should advance our understanding of each character. 
Keep It Real: Remember how people really speak – in fragments, simple words, slang, and they interrupt each other.
He Said, She Said: Keep dialogue attributions simple and to a minimum. Bad: “Look out!” he articulated with great passion. Good: “Look out!” he shouted.
Lights, Camera, Action!: Avoid having action and dialogue take place simultaneously. Bad: “Look out!” Bob said as he fired six shots, hid behind a dumpster, reloaded, stood, and fired again. Good: “Look out!” Bob said. He fired six shots then hid behind a dumpster. He reloaded, stood, and fired again.
Format: Start a new paragraph whenever you switch speakers. Use italics and no quotation marks for internal dialogue. EX: “Hi, Sandra!” God, I can’t stand this woman!
Event-Centered Plot
The event-centered plot is the classic and most commonly used plot design (but this doesn’t mean it’s always the best).
It begins with a character who has a goal.
Character takes steps to reach the goal.
Character encounters obstacles on the way to reaching the goal.
Obstacles force the character to work harder to meet the goal.
Obstacles get worse; the character works even harder to overcome them.
At the climax of story character either . . .
Achieves the goal completely.
Fails completely.
Succeeds or fails partially.
Succeeds or fails in an unexpected way.
The classic plot design is useful for novels because it allows for expansion. Keep the goal relatively simple the obstacles fewer in a short story.
Character-Centered Plot
If the story is intended to focus on a character, then the purpose is for readers to get to know the character and gain insight into that character. Create the character first, then write detailed character notes. Look for aspects of character’s life that will show character at his or her best and/or worst. Search for problems and crisis points. Use these problems and crisis points to develop a plot that reveals character through story action.
Organizational Patterns
Chronological order: This is an obvious one, and as I said earlier, consider beginning close to the climax. Also, it’s okay to skip stuff that’s not important. You don’t need to show your characters arguing for twenty minutes about where to go out to eat. You can just say: Jill and Sam argued for twenty minutes before finally deciding to get pizza. Or can end a scene and begin the next one with Jill and Sam already at the restaurant eating pizza.
Flashbacks: These can be overused. If you’re a beginning writer, I’d suggest keeping them to a bare minimum or leaving them out entirely. But one or two in a short story can be a good way to present exposition in a dramatic way instead of through dry narration.
Alternating Timeframes: I’ve used this technique a lot over the years. I’ll have a present-day story that alternates with a past story featuring the same character which provides insight into the present-day story. Sometimes the pattern will be fifty percent Present and fifty percent Past, and sometimes it’s more like seventy-five percent Present and twenty-five percent past. Whatever seems to work best.
Snapshot Technique: If your story covers a long time period, you can’t cover every moment. So instead, choose several key moments of the story to dramatize in detail. It’s like pictures in a photo album. The album might be labeled Christmas 2017, but it doesn’t have pictures of every single moment of how you celebrated the holiday. There might be ten photos that, taken together, create a collage that communicates what the overall experience was like. At a guess, you might have anywhere from three to five scenes like that in a short story written in this manner.
Point of View
Generally Speaking: Stay in the same person/point of view for a short story. Point of view shifts within a scene break the illusion of reality for readers. While it’s of course possible to alternate point of view in a short story, such back-and-forth shifts tend to be jarring in a short piece.
Emotional Core
I Heart You: At the heart of a story should lie a strong emotional core. This emotional core is what connects an audience to a story; it’s what makes a story matter to them – and writers neglect this all the time (and often leave it out entirely). For short fiction include an important emotional relationship between two characters and use this relationship as a foundation upon which your story rests. The emotional core doesn’t have to be between two people. In Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea the emotional core is right there in the title. Can the fisherman still do his job – can he still master the sea – or is he too old and weak? The man’s struggle to catch a swordfish and bring it back to land is only the surface action. The story is the emotional core: the man’s physical, mental, and emotional struggle against mortality and Time itself.
Hopefully you’ve got a few new tools, or at least a different perspective, on writing short fiction. Now go out there and write short fiction that will knock readers on their asses and make them say, “Damn! Now that was a story!”
DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION
My latest story collection Dark and Distant Voices is now available in both print and eBook editions. Here’s what people have been saying about the book:
"Hell is other people," Jean-Paul Sartre tells us. "Especially the one we see in the mirror," implicitly says Tim Waggoner. Both give us the theme of Waggoner's splendid Dark and Distant Voices. Our children we don't quite recognize, colleagues not all that collegial, ghosts who silently speak the Truth ... They're all here and more in Waggoner's brilliant story collection. – Mort Castle
"This is every card in the horror deck, played by someone who knows the game better than most of us ever will." – Stephen Graham Jones
Tim Waggoner's Dark and Distant Voices is quite the short story collection. Bizarre, weird, and utterly intriguing, the stories found here will get under your skin. – Horror Novel Reviews
And now that you’re dying to get the book, here’s some Amazon linkage:

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Try, Try Again




Some writers know exactly what sort of stories they want to tell right from the start of their careers. The love romance novels, have read a shit-ton of them, want to write romances, and they never want to write anything else. And if that makes them happy and leads to a fulfilling career – however they define fulfilling – that’s fantastic. But even if you have a strong preference for writing a certain type of thing, I’m here to suggest that maybe you’ll learn more, and perhaps stumble onto a wildly satisfying career writing stuff you never imagined you’d write, if you spread your wings a bit and try something new from time to time.

Writers are bombarded constantly with advice on how to market their writing, and often this advice begins with the “proper” selection of what to write in the first place. Romance sells more than any other type of fiction. So if you want to increase your chances of publication, you should write romance novels. Nonfiction earns writers far more money than fiction or poetry, so if you want to make money, why would you write anything other than nonfiction? Even if you’re determined to write in a genre you love – in my case, usually horror – you’ll be told to write this kind of horror and not that kind of horror if you want to get published and gain a readership.

This advice is awful from an artistic standpoint, but it makes perfect sense from a business point of view. But regardless of whether you’re aesthetically or monetarily-minded (or like most of us, some combination), trying new genres, new techniques, reaching out to new audiences, experimenting with new ways of getting your stories to people not only can add new and different skills to your writer’s toolkit, you might very well discover a type of writing that you not only enjoy, but plays to your strengths in ways you never imagined.

Consider Ramsey Campbell and Robert Bloch. Both started out writing Lovecraftian fiction, but they also wrote other types of stories until both of them evolved into their own type of writer. Hell, I’d argue that they even became their own subgenres of horror and suspense. Their subject matter and styles are so distinct, it’s quite possible to write a Campbellian or Blochian story. John Jakes started out writing science fiction but became famous for his novels using American history as the setting. Lawrence Block started out wanting to write the great American novel, ended up writing softcore porn in the 50’s and 60’s, and eventually became one of the best mystery and suspense writers around. Tom Piccirilli first gained success writing horror, but he tried mystery and westerns, too, before finally coming to write award-winning noir fiction. A colleague at the college where I teach, Rebecca Morean, visited by Writing to Publish class the other day, and she spoke about a friend of hers who was a fiction writer who eventually found success writing narrative nonfiction – a genre he didn’t even know existed before he stumbled into it. If these writers had stuck with what they were doing when they started out – stuck with what they knew – they never would’ve had the chance to grow, and readers would’ve been the poorer for it.

At twelve or thirteen, I wrote and drew my own superhero comic. At eighteen, I began writing fantasy and science fiction (more of the former than the latter), although I did try a few horror short stories. From eighteen to thirty, I tried writing medieval fantasy, humorous fantasy, humorous science fiction, urban fantasy (before it was called that), contemporary fantasy, absurdist fantasy, mystery (serious and humorous), suspense, romance (only one proposal that an editor didn’t buy), young adult, middle grade, nonfiction, humorous nonfiction, articles on writing, and more. None of the books I wrote during this time were accepted for publication. My short stories tended to stick to fantasy and horror, though, and I sold a number of these by the time I was thirty, and I sold a few articles, too.

I started selling short stories regularly to anthologies Marty Greenberg edited. These anthologies were usually themed, and I got to write stories about Merlin, alien pets, elves. Civil War fantasy, and so many more. I could’ve written stories about any of these topics on my own, but it never would have occurred to me to try until I read the submission guidelines and thought, “I wonder if I can write something like that.”

I tried writing media tie-ins, too. I had success with writing for Wizards of the Coast and White Wolf. I started writing horror novels and had success publishing them with Leisure Books. My horror novels grew out of the subject matter, themes, and approaches I explored in my short stories, and that’s how I developed my horror “voice” – by trying stuff. Media tie-ins have led me to write a choose-your-own adventure book, a couple “nonfiction” books set in the Supernatural TV show universe, and three novelizations of films.

Not everything I’ve tried has worked out, though. I’ve tried to get gigs writing Star Trek novels several times over the years, pitching to three different editors. No go. I’ve tried to get gigs writing Star Wars. Same result. I’ve tried writing for the Warhammer game setting, but it didn’t happen. I tried establishing a couple urban fantasies series, but the publisher discontinued the series after only a few books. I’ve tried to get other publishers interested in bringing out the series, but I’ve have had no luck. I’ve tried to get a fantasy series going as well as a supernatural thriller series. Both were failed attempts. For whatever reason, series success eludes me.

I tried to sell proposals for Mack Bolan novels for men’s adventure publisher Gold Eagle, but they were ultimately rejected. I did get a two-book contract with Gold Eagle to write adventures in their spy series Room 51, but the line was canceled before my books could come out. I was allowed to keep the rights to the books – if I changed the details Gold Eagle created – but I haven’t been able to get them published. (Yeah, I know I could self-publish them, but I like the challenge of traditional publishing. Maybe one day I’ll jump into self-publishing, but right now, this blog is pretty much the extent of my self-publishing ambitions.)

Would I have liked all the above failures to have been wild successes? Hell, yeah! But there’s no way for me to know which things I try will work or how well they’ll be received by readers. But if I don’t try, I don’t grow, and trying all kinds of different things increases my chances for successes. So don’t be afraid to write outside your comfort zone or try that story you’ve always wanted to write but have been afraid of. You never know where it will take you, and you may end up becoming the best writer version of yourself possible.

Just for fun, I’ve included the two chapters for my proposed Mack Bolan novel below. For those unfamiliar with the series, Bolan is an ex-cop and ex-soldier known as the Executioner who fights bad guys as a one-man army. I’ve filed the serial numbers off the chapters, meaning I’ve changed some details so it’s now a Curt Macon the Warlord story (because I don’t want to get sued). But before you read it, it’s time for . . .

DEPARTMENT OF SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION

My prehistoric monster action thriller THE TEETH OF THE SEA is still available. It’s a good example of me trying something different. I’d never written a monster-chomps-people book, but I enjoyed them as a kid, and I thought it would fun and challenging to try my hand at one. Reviewers seem to think I did a good job, so why not buy a copy and see for yourself?


Crossroad Press has been bringing out new e-editions of some of my horror books. If you haven’t read them before (or even if you have), check them out:



THE LAST MILE: https://www.amazon.com/Last-Mile-Tim-Waggoner-ebook/dp/B078R1M2RQ/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517533959&sr=1-4&keywords=tim+waggoner

And now, without further ado . . .

DEATH GAMES
BY TIM WAGGONER

CHAPTER ONE

On a pleasant autumn Saturday at precisely 12:37 pm, Death came to Grigsby, Ohio.
Ironhorse Park was located on the south side of town, a ten-acre stretch of land surrounded by upper-class suburban neighborhoods where dentists, lawyers, architects and their families lived the good life. The park was home to baseball diamonds and soccer fields, oak trees and swing sets, even a meandering creek that ran through the middle of it all. The grass was always neatly trimmed and parking spaces were plentiful. Good thing, too, for this Saturday afternoon every soccer field was in use as the Grigsby Soccer Association’s five to ten-year-old divisions battled it out in the season-ending tournament. All the parking spaces were filled, and more than few mini-vans had been pulled onto the grass by parents who refused to park on the street and walk all the way back just to watch their little Johnny or Susie kick a white ball up and down the field.
But there was one person who didn’t mind walking. He strode across the parking lot, his open black trench-coat billowing in the late autumn breeze. He was in his early twenties, with short brown hair moist from styling gel. He wore a Slipknot T-shirt under his coat, faded jeans, and worn tennis shoes. The young man’s face was devoid of expression, but his gaze was clear and sharp, and his eyes gleamed with anticipation. He carried a pump-action shotgun in his right hand, and his coat pockets bulged with extra shells. More than he’d need probably, but it paid to be prepared. As he set foot on grass still damp from last night’s rain, his lips stretched into a cold smile.
Showtime.
The first person to notice the gunman was Gayle Simmons. She was a radiology tech and a single mother, and though she always came to her daughter’s soccer games, she got bored quickly and spent most of the time sitting in her canvas chair yakking on her cel phone. Today she’d gotten her daughter to the park just as her game was about to begin, and so she’d been stuck setting up her seat down by the goal, as other parents had already claimed the better spaces alongside the field. This meant that Gayle was the closet person to the parking lot, and the closest to the gunman as he made his initial approach.
She was talking to her supervisor – who also happened to be her lover – when she caught a black flash of movement out of the corner of her eye. Without pausing in her conversation, she turned to see a man in a trench-coat raise his right arm and point something that looked like a long metal tube at her. At first, what she was looking at didn’t register because it was so far removed from her everyday reality. But somewhere in the back of her mind, an alarm went off and adrenaline flooded her system. But it was too little, too late. The gunman squeezed the trigger, the shotgun roared, and Gayle Simmons no longer had a face.
Gayle’s blood sprayed nearby spectators, along with shreds of meat and shattered bits of cel phone. Her body slammed into an overweight mother sitting next to her, and the woman screamed as the impact knocked her onto the ground. The gunman ejected the spent cartridge, aimed, fired, and silenced the fat woman forever.
A moment of quiet followed as children stopped playing and adults stopped watching them. All heads turned toward the gunman and then panic flashed through the crowd like wildfire. Parents leaped out of their seats and ran onto the soccer field to get their children, some of who were already running in the opposite direction. Many children stood frozen, though, staring at the man in the black coat who had just killed two women – two mommys – before their uncomprehending eyes.
The gunman began firing at will. He aimed for adults, but not because he was reluctant to kill children. Meat was meat as far as he was concerned – young, old, what was the difference? He fired upon adults out of simple pragmatism: they were larger, slower targets. The gunman continued walking forward, firing and pausing to reload as necessary. He tried to keep track of his kills as he went, but with all the people running, screaming, and sobbing around him, he lost count. It wasn’t important, though. The entire country would eventually know his final tally, and that meant his friends would too. That was what truly mattered.
A couple of men came at him, obviously intending to play brave husband and Daddy and take him out. But this wasn’t the movies, and all their attempts at heroism got them was an early and very messy death. He had just finished putting down the last would-be hero when he heard a man shout.
“Freeze, you sonofabitch!”
The voice came from the gunman’s right, and from its commanding tone, the man wasn’t merely another hero wannabee. He was probably an off-duty cop come to watch his kid play soccer, just another devoted parent who happened to be at the right place at the right time. The gunman grinned. A cop meant extra points.
The gunman whirled and fired off a blast from his shotgun. In the same instant he caught a brief image of a man holding a pistol – a 9 mm most likely – just before a sledgehammer blow slammed into his chest. The impact spun him sideways and knocked him off his feet. He fell to the grass and landed hard on right side. He hadn’t heard the cop fire his weapon, but he knew that’s what had happened.
The gunman rolled over onto his back and lifted his head to look down at his chest. There was a hole in his T-shirt directly over his heart. His chest hurt like hell, and he was having trouble catching his breath, but he saw no blood and assumed his Kevlar vest had stopped the bullet. He had to admit it had been a damn good shot, though. His realized his right hand was empty, and he knew that he must’ve dropped his shotgun as he fell. He turned his head to look for he weapon as he started to rise.
“Don’t move, or I swear to Christ I’ll blow your goddamned head off!"
The gunman turned toward the cop. He got a better look this time and saw the man was in his forties, balding, with a bushy black mustache and a burgeoning pot belly. He was dressed in a yellow polo shirt beneath a blue windbreaker. The left shoulder of the coat was a ragged, bloody ruin, and the gunman was gratified to see that he’d at least wounded the cop. But wounded or not, the man still had hold of his 9 mm and the barrel was trained on the spot directly between the gunman’s eyes.
He looked around and saw clumps of people gathered around the prone bodies of his victims. Some attempted first aid, while others simply stood and cried, unable to believe their loved ones were gone.
The gunman smiled. Not bad for a day’s work.
Ignoring the cop’s warning, he propped himself up on his elbows until he was in a half-sitting position. The cop kept his pistol trained on him the entire time, and though the man had to be hurting from his shoulder wound, his aim never wavered.
The gunman stared into the cop’s eyes for a moment before speaking.
“This is just the beginning.”
Then the gunman nodded once, and a split second later the top of his head exploded. As he slumped to ground, the cop could only stand and stare at the corpse in confusion, for the final shot hadn’t been fired from his weapon.

CHAPTER TWO

At the same moment the trench-coated gunman’s heart beat its last, Curt Macon was driving west on Interstate 80 in central Pennsylvania, trailing a black Jaguar. The overcast sky and heavy rain rendered visibility poor, but that made little difference to Macon. Though the Ford Acura rental he drove was hardly built for speed, all he had to do was keep the Jag in sight, and Macon had done so for close to a hundred miles. So far the Jag’s driver had been scrupulous in following the speed limit. The man obviously didn’t want to draw the attention of any state troopers, but Macon knew the driver’s caution had nothing to do with the large highway signs posted alongside the road detailing the various fines for speeding.
Ninety minutes ago the two men in the Jag had paid a visit to an eye, ear, nose and throat doctor who office was located in the well-to-do Philadelphia neighborhood of Chestnut Hill. There’d been nothing remarkable about either of the men. Both were Caucasian, in their thirties, trim instead of beefy. But just because they weren’t muscle-bound didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. They carried themselves like pros, scoping out the area with practiced eyes as they headed for the entrance to the ENT’s office. Both wore leather jackets – one black, one brown – and the coats were roomy enough to conceal shoulder holsters. Macon had no doubt the men were armed, and he wouldn’t have been surprised if they had more hardware in the Jag.
They two had gone in empty-handed, but when they came out ten minutes later one of them carried a brown briefcase. Macon had been parked at the curb watching the office, and when the two men got back into their Jaguar and pulled out, the Warlord followed. He’d been tailing them ever since.
If the intel Jack Solomon had passed on to him was correct – and it almost always was – the briefcase contained a half dozen vials of a genetically engineered superflu virus that would make the global pandemic of 1918 look like a case of the sniffles.
The ENT’s wife worked in a medical research lab at the University of Pennsylvania, where she’d either created or stolen the samples – it wasn’t clear which – and then passed them on to her husband. The husband had in turn made some discreet inquiries of drug companies via the Internet hoping to find a buyer for his deadly wares. A pharmaceutical company could make a fortune by studying the virus, developing a vaccine for it, then releasing it into the general population. The fact that thousands, perhaps millions might die in the process would simply be a few broken eggs on the way to making one very tasty omelet.
The doctor had received multiple offers, but the high bidder was an outfit calling itself Pharm-Tech Industries, based out of upstate New York. The cyber-warriors at Garrison HQ constantly monitored the Net for the slightest hint of terrorist activity, and Pharm-Tech was on their watch list. The company was a front, but for whom was as yet unknown. A corporation that wished to remain anonymous? Terrorists? A private buyer? Hence the reason for Macon’s road trip on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It was his job to follow the errand boys back to their boss, discover the buyer’s identity, and find out what he, she or they wanted with a genetically engineered virus. And if the Warlord left a few bodies along the way, that was just par for the course. After all, he knew how to break eggs, too. In fact, he was an expert at it.
Instincts honed on a thousand different battlefields warned Macon that something wasn’t right. He glanced at the Acura’s rearview mirror and saw flashing lights behind him. A state trooper’s vehicle, he guessed, approaching fast.
Thoughts raced through Macon’s mind as he shifted from surveillance to combat mode. Neither he nor the delivery boys in the Jag were exceeding the speed limit, and there was no way local law enforcement could’ve gotten wind of the deadly cargo the Jag carried. Outside of the Garrison, Macon doubted that a half dozen people – the President included – were aware that a genetically engineered superflu virus was being transported across the great state of Pennsylvania.
Macon looked in the rearview again. There was no vehicle fleeing from the statey, so that left only one possibility. The trooper was responding to some emergency that had nothing to do with Macon and the virus. He just hoped the men in the Jag really were pros, because if they were jumpy, they might overreact at the sight of a patrol cruiser coming up fast on their ass with lights blazing. And if that happened – 
Macon never got to finish his thought. The patrol car had almost drawn even with him now, and that was too close for comfort for the delivery boys. The driver of the black Jag tromped on the gas and the high-performance sports car surged forward, rear fishtailing on rain-slick asphalt. For an instant Macon thought the driver was going to lose control and go skidding off the road. The man managed to keep all four tires on blacktop, but unfortunately he overcorrected in the process, and the Jag slid into the left lane – directly into the path of the speeding police cruiser.
It’s a simple principle of physics that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time, and Macon was about to get a first-hand demonstration.
The trooper tried to avoid hitting the Jag, but it was too late. The cruiser struck the left side of the Jag’s back bumper and both cars started to swerve. Macon swore and took his foot off the gas. He knew better than to slam on the brakes in rain this heavy. The Acura dropped back as the cruiser’s rear spun around to the right, and the Jag’s front end swung left. It looked as if both cars were going to collide, but despite his earlier jumpiness, the driver of the Jag proved he had some skill behind the steering wheel. He momentarily let off the gas, swung the Jag’s nose back toward the front, then stomped on the pedal again. Once more he Jag fishtailed as it leaped forward, but it cleared the spinning cruiser and roared off down the interstate.
Macon had been conducting his private war on evil for more years than he liked to count. And during all that time he’d held tight to one inviolate principle: civilian casualties were unacceptable. He’d failed to prevent them far too often, but he was only human. He hadn’t forgotten the names and faces of those honored dead who had fallen along the way, though, and he never would.
But as much as he didn’t want to see any harm come to a cop who’d been simply trying to his job, he couldn’t afford to let the black Jag and its lethal cargo get away. He pressed down on the Accura’s accelerator and yanked the steering wheel to the right so that he could pass by the spinning patrol car. Still, just because he couldn’t stick around didn’t mean that he couldn’t give the statey a quick hand.
As Macon’s Acura drew near the out-of-control police vehicle, he edged left and with split-second timing tapped the car’s right front fender with his bumper. The nudge helped turn the cruiser forward again, but the maneuver proved to much for the trooper to handle, and he swerved toward the grassy strip of land that served as the interstate’s median. Macon continued driving and watched in his rearview mirror as the patrol vehicle slid to a halt in a shower of mud and flying sod. Satisfied the trooper was unharmed and relieved that the man would no longer by part of the pursuit, Macon focused his attention on catching up to the Jag. The car hadn’t gotten very far ahead of Macon in the few moments it had taken him to give the statey a love tap. The red glow of the Jaguar’s taillights was still plainly visible, although receding fast. Macon would have to haul ass if he were to have any hope of catching them.
Time was of the essence now, for the trooper was undoubtedly already radioing in to headquarters and reporting that a black Jaguar had run him off the road. Before long the interstate would be full of police all looking to serve up some payback for their fellow officer. Macon needed to intercept the Jag before that happened.
The rain was still coming down hard and heavy, so much so that the Acura’s wipers could barely keep the windshield clear. But in one way that worked to Macon’s advantage. The errand boys in the Jag would be looking for the flashing lights of state troopers – not a Ford Accura that was hard to spot with visibility so poor. Especially if he made it even harder for them to see him. He flicked off his headlights and the road ahead of him went dark. The interstate was a straight stretch here, and there was no one between him and the Jag. All he had to do was keep his eyes on their taillights, keep the gas pedal pressed to the floor, and try not to hydroplane himself into oblivion.
The Acura’s engine whined loudly and the car shuddered as if it were in danger of shaking itself apart any moment, but Macon didn’t slow down. The thought of what might happen if whoever took delivery of that flu virus decided to use it spurred him on. He’d catch the Jag or end up crushed in a makeshift coffin of twisted metal, but he wasn’t going to back off.
Luckily for Macon, the Jag began to slow down a bit. Most likely the driver had either witnessed the statey ditching his vehicle in the median, or perhaps he’d simply noted the absence of flashing lights in his rearview mirror. Either way, the Jaguar was still moving at a good clip. The delivery boys had to know other officers would soon be looking for them, but it seemed they’d calmed down enough to decide not to risk driving all-out in this weather if they didn’t have to. That gave the Warlord the chance he needed.
The Jag was driving in the left lane, and as Macon came up on the vehicle’s tail, he switched to the right. The incident with the state trooper had convinced him that the errand boys were too erratic for him to simply follow anymore. Macon intended to stop them and retrieve the briefcase full of death before it could cause any harm. Solomon wouldn’t be happy, and the people in Washington he reported to would be even less thrilled, but that didn’t matter to Macon. He was a soldier, not a politician. He did his duty as he saw it, consequences be damned.
With his headlights still off, Macon pulled even with the Jag. He thumbed the button to lower the driver’s side window, then drew his Beretta 93R from its shoulder rig. A quick glance in his rearview mirror showed the road behind him was clear, at least for as far as he could see. No need to worry about anyone else becoming involved in what was about to happen.
As soon as the window was two-thirds of the way down – cold rain pelting him in the face like bullets of ice – Macon aimed the Beretta at the Jag’s passenger window and fired a three-shot burst. Safety glass exploded inward as the 9 mm Parabellum rounds penetrated the Jag’s interior. The vehicle swerved violently to the left and its driver’s side tires went off the road and caught hold of the grassy median. That was more than the driver – assuming he was still alive – could compensate for, and the Jag whipped around, flipped into the air, and came crashing down on its top.
Macon hit the Acura’s brake, sending the car skidding, but he managed to keep the vehicle under control with only one hand on the steering wheel, and brought the car safely to a stop on the shoulder. Still holding onto the Beretta, he threw open the driver’s door, grabbed a metal object shaped something like a soup can from the canvas bag on the passenger seat, and then plunged out into the storm. He ran to where the overturned Jag had slid to a halt, tires still spinning, wipers slapping back and forth. Macon was soaked to the skin by the time he reached the car, and he saw that the driver – the errand boy in the black leather jacket – had already managed to crawl halfway out of the shattered driver’s side window. The man’s face was covered with blood, either from one of the Parabellum rounds, as a result of the crash, or both. The specifics didn’t matter to Macon. All that mattered was that the damage had been done.
There was no sign of the man who’d been riding shotgun, but Macon wasn’t foolish enough to think that meant the man was no longer a threat. A kill was only a kill once it was confirmed. Until then, a smart soldier assumed all unfriendlies were still alive and dangerous.
Macon drew a bead on the driver with his Beretta.
“Give it up! The race is over, and you lost!” Macon had to shout to be heard over the wind and rain. 
“Fuck . . . you.” The man’s voice was weak, and Macon had to read his lips to make out what he was saying. The errand boy waggled his right hand then, and Macon saw that he held a glass vial sealed with a rubber stopper.
The man called the Warlord knew he was looking at a killer far deadlier than he could ever be. The fluid inside the vial was clear, but Macon didn’t delude himself into thinking that meant it was harmless. The most effective killers always came silent, swift, and unseen.
“Stay back or I’ll . . . break it.” Bloody froth bubbled past the wounded man’s lips, and Macon knew he was near death.
Macon had no idea whether breaking the vial would release the superflu virus, but even if it did, the rain should keep it from becoming airborne. But Macon hadn’t survived as long as he had by taking chances. He lowered the Beretta and brought the thermite grenade up to his mouth. He bit down on the pull ring and yanked the grenade away. He spit out the metal ring, crouched down, let go of the release lever, and quickly tossed the incendiary weapon past the dying man and into the Jag’s interior. As he did so, he caught a glimpse of the other man inside, still buckled into his seat, blood-stained body limp. If the man wasn’t already dead, he soon would be.
“You sonofabitch!” the driver said, loud enough to be heard this time.
Macon straightened and started running back toward the Acura. He thought he heard the sound of the glass vial breaking, but he couldn’t be sure. He felt a wave of heat roll over his back as the thermite bomb ignited, but he was far enough away that he wasn’t burned. He stopped and turned back around to watch.
The crumpled remains of the Jaguar were engulfed in white-hot flames. Rain hissed as it was instantly vaporized by the 4000 degree heat. The fire would only last for 30-45 seconds, but during that time it would burn hot enough to reduce the car to molten slag – assuming the gas tank didn’t blow first. Regardless, the samples of superflu virus would be completely destroyed. And as for the two men inside the car, as far as Macon was concerned, when you played with fire, you got burned.
The Warlord holstered his Beretta, then turned and began running toward the Acura as the Jag’s gas tank exploded with a sound like the thunder of final judgment. His work here was done.