“Starter Kit” was my first pro-rate sale, my only connection to an award-nominated collection (Lucy A. Snyder‘s chilling tale “Magdala Amydala” won the Stoker Award for best short story that year), and the first time I ended up in a table of contents with some writers I’d admired growing up and continue to admire. That the anthology came out through Apex Books also makes me unreasonably happy.
For all of these reasons, and maybe more, “Starter Kit” is one of two short stories I receive frequent comments (overwhelmingly positive) from the public (the other one will be discussed Monday when this series resumes after the weekend) so it’s appropriate that these two stories close the collection.
I share a bit more in the actual introduction to the story in my collection, so no need to repeat myself here. And so, without further delay, here’s the first couple hundred words of “Starter Kit.”
Rodget stepped into his foyer after a long day at work. He hung up his coat and gave his waiting wife a quick kiss. Already, he sensed something wrong, and when he saw Little Belljy looking at him with expectant, wide eyes, a sense of dread fell over him.
“It’s the tank,” his wife said.
Rodget squatted down, meeting his seven-year-old son eye to eye. “What’s up?”
“There’s no movement. I can’t see anything. Mom says it’s ruined, but I don’t think so.”
Rodget sighed. “Let’s take a look.” He followed his boy into the bedroom. The pressurized glass tank took up one entire wall. Unlike the tank he grew up with years ago, Belljy’s offered a backlit night monitor, computerized zoom, and other modern upgrades.
Rodget stepped up to the tank and squinted through the glass at the thick, milky white swirl contained within. From here, everything appeared normal. Glowing. Thriving. Hauntingly beautiful in its own exotic way. But the real damage wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye.
Rodget leaned over the tank’s mini-computer and called up the first set of coordinates. Frowning, he pulled the magnifier screen up to eye level and glanced at the numbers on the readout 357, 285, 13—one of hundreds of coordinates identifying growing civilizations. Two days ago, several had progressed to the space-exploration stage. From there it would only be a few more hours to faster-than-light travel. Just yesterday, Belljy ran into the room, excited to tell him that three of his planets had discovered each other and opened negotiations for trade.
Bracing himself, Rodget slid the magnifier left. The screen showed flashes of gas giants, rocky terrain, black holes, blinding suns. He synched the numbers in the upper-left corner of the magnifier to match… 357, 285, 13.
A smoking black ruin of a sphere centered on his screen, and Rodget couldn’t hide his disappointment. He stabbed the magnifier button several more times, closing in on a major city, hovels still smoking from the radiation, the bodies of tiny specks piled atop each other—broken, blackened, torn apart.
“Backstage Pass is, on one hand, a deeply personal story. Released as a “Seventh Star Single” (a 99 cent short story you can still order here, though buying the collection is a much better deal) just a few weeks before Haunting Obsession in 2012, the story was inspired by my encounters through the years steeped in pop music fandom. I tried to channel the general friendliness and surrealism of that group, some of the wacky personalities one can encounter whenever the obsessed gather together to…well…obsess together.
Although I call this a personal story, the tale is full of inaccuracies, exaggerations, and outright lies. The protagonist writes for Rolling Stone, lives in New York, and is part of the publicity staff of the object of his admiration (a southern rock belle named “Fiddle Dee-Dee”).
It was a challenge to capture the tone of these escapades and use those episodes in a sci-fi tale, and I even included cameos of real people by name in what I hope they find flattering representations (“Mary Kay,” whom I told you about in my Fade excerpt, appears in this excerpt) but the story is pure fiction beyond the general truth that people can get lost in their hobbies and obsessions.
However….that said….I thought, for this excerpt, I’d pick the moment from the story that happened very much as depicted (and recalled as best that I could). Though still fictionalized, much of this scene really did happen, with minimal fictionalization to hide the name and identity of the guilty party. I suppose “Tony Stoker” may one day want to speak to me, but probably not. The lesson remains true–don’t act “cray-cray” around a fiction writer. We just can’t help ourselves.
The Setup: In the hours following the brutal murder of pop star “Fiddle Dee-Dee,” avid fan Jared Price discovers, to his horror, that he’d actually met and interacted with her murderer months before. As the realization hits him, Jared flashes back to…
Ten months earlier—Chicago, October 29, 2010
Jared stood near his friends, Mary Kay, Jamie, Rick and Michelle, still seated at the table where they’d viewed the track-by-track live performance, essentially loitering in the club after Dee’s jazz album release party. While Dee handled the official press backstage―such as it was―they waited for the coast to clear to hold a private meet n’ greet with Dee.
Tony Stoker (dubbed by Dee’s fans as “Stoker the Stalker”) also waited, his camera with its telescopic lens hung from one shoulder while he cradled a huge scrapbook against his chest. His gaze darted to their table, around the room, and back again. Tony frequented the newsgroups, so he knew their names. And he knew they had special access.
But they knew his name, too. And they knew he didn’t have special access. At this stage in her career, Dee often showed her few devoted fans incredible consideration, but if she bothered to keep a blacklist, Tony Stoker’s name would occupy the top slot.
Jared knew Tony Stoker by name, but not on sight. As they shook hands, Tony exclaimed, “Oh, you’re Jared Price! I’m Tony Stoker. You’ve been doing her website, right?”
Jared broke eye contact and stared into his drink. Damn! Now what? “Dee … Fiddle Dee-Dee … is just one of my clients. I write a syndicated music column. Recently, Rolling Stone and Billboard invited me to submit some reviews.” He braced for Tony’s next question.
Tony didn’t disappoint. “So … you guys going to meet with her tonight?”
“Nope, definitely not,” Jared answered, hoping he didn’t sound as much a liar as he suspected.
Tony’s arm fell across the back of Jared’s shoulders. “Buddy, can I tell you something?”
Jared flinched at the man’s piercing, brown-eyed stare―the look of someone who operated on a different plane from the rest of the world. “I think Dee-Dee is a goddess,” he oozed. “Her voice has the power to heal, to hurt, to affect our world. Maybe that’s intense, but that’s how I feel.”
Unfamiliar with how to handle whack jobs, Jared hoped understatement was the proper way to go. “Yeah, uh, that comes off a bit intense.”
Stoker the Stalker thrust the scrapbook at him. “I’m a professional photographer, but this book is just my Fiddle-Dee-Dee shots.”
Opening to a random page, Jared saw eight consecutive shots of Dee on stage, virtually an identical pose, taken rapid-shot. Why display so many shots of the same moment? Because he’s a whack job. Still, can I really judge another’s level of fanaticism?
Jared flipped the page. “Here’s one of her coming out of her hotel in Wisconsin last year. I waited in the lobby for six hours.” His finger dropped to a photo of Dee, a large canvas hat over her head and dark glasses hiding her eyes. Tony caught her mouth open in a frozen snarl aimed at the cringing blonde next to her. Lisa.
Jared knew about the fight, but few others did. He wanted to slug the slimy leech.
The Stalker’s voice droned on. “After about four hours, the bellboy asked me if I wanted something to eat. I told him I was fine.…”
“Everything okay here?” His “date,” Mary Kay, wandered over from their table. Though Mary Kay was “very gay,” they play-dated at concerts.
He read the questioning look in her eyes. “Just fine, MK. I was telling Stoker here,” he emphasized the name, “that Dee’s calling it an early night.”
“Yep!” She ran with the lie. “We were talking about hitting a dance club. Chicago’s got a wicked night life, and we wanted to do something positively sinful.” She flashed a mischievous smile.
Jared took her hand. “I like how you think. But first, I need to find the restroom.” He turned toward Stoker, who looked miserable. “Want to go clubbing?”
“No … I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll hang out for a few more minutes.”
“Suit yourself.” He headed for the Men’s Room.
Once alone, he pulled out his phone, found the D. Pat Cell entry and hit Talk. He kept Fiddle Dee-Dee’s name entered under an abbreviation of her little-known birth name, Deana Patterson. Last thing he needed was to lose his phone and for someone to find her name and number.
“Hello?” A familiar southern drawl.
“Dee? It’s Jared. Sorry to bother you.” He always apologized. Fiddle Dee-Dee deserved the proper respect. “We’re down here, but a guy named Tony Stoker latched onto us. He’s not taking the hint. Tony is―”
“The creepy photo guy?”
“Uh … yeah. Should I tell him we’re meeting later?”
He heard her sigh. “Shit, no! I don’t need to deal with him tonight. Look, I’m almost done with the reporters. I’ll send the bouncer down. He’ll pretend to kick everyone out. You wait behind, and after Stalker-man leaves, the bouncer will escort you upstairs. The bouncer’s name is Lenny. He knows your name. I told him he can trust you to point out who’s in our group.”
She trusts me. A childish flush flowed over him. “Sounds good.”
The ploy worked.
Inner Strength (subtitled for this collection “A Rebecca Burton Short Story” referencing the recurring character of my paranormal thriller series) was the second story written for Strange, Weird and Wonderful magazine. Whereas the first time, Able Bodied was selected from a slush pile, this time D.L. Russell invited me to write an original story for an issue in which I would be featured. Being a naturally humble person, I took him up on his invitation immediately.
This is also the only story where I recorded an audio version of me reading the entire thing. I have no idea where that file is now, and thinking back, I’m fine with it being lost forever. Few things are more awkward than trying to read a bedroom scene that you wrote yourself. Now you know.
The story was later reprinted in the magazine’s Best of collection A Big Book of Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Volume II. I am very proud to have been a part of that magazine’s short history and lament its passing. Fortunately, D.L. continues his efforts as the editor in chief of Black Books Publishing and as a brilliant author in his own right. I look forward to seeing what’s next for him.
Setup: This scene is the second one in the story. Todd Burton had his daughter “Becky” Burton for Halloween overnight as part of his visitation arrangement, and it’s the next morning. (During the first scene, Becky dances to a Fiddle Dee-Dee song and that’s not the last time you’ll hear about Dee n this series) He must now drop her off at his ex wife’s house, and as he does so, he is wallowing on his failed marriage and current circumstances.
Todd Burton maneuvered the van down the narrow side streets of their neighborhood. Her neighborhood. He had not so much as stepped up to the front door in eleven months, but he still often thought of it as their home. If this was still our home, I wouldn’t be dropping Rebecca off in front of the house and heading on to run errands on my own. I’d gather everyone up and we’d head off to a movie, just the three of us. He shook his head, clearing the melancholy. He spent little enough precious time with his daughter, and he hated when runaway thoughts dampened that time. He adjusted the reflector attached to the rearview mirror, allowing him to look all the way to the back of the van. Rebecca no longer sat in the middle row of seats. Since the separation, she preferred to go all the way to the back of the van, the couch-like seat at the rear, and stretch along its entirety, eyes locked on her video screen.
Rebecca caught his gaze upon her and smiled. She wiggled her fingers lazily at him and returned her attention to the game in progress. At least she seems happy. He pulled up, parallel to the curb, and stared across the lawn to the modern suburban home. Two stories, three bedrooms, plus a loft, the perfect home in which to grow a family.
Todd sighed. He just wished he knew what he could do to change things. He heard the words, heard the excuses, watched the love of his life shake her head and shrug. “I just don’t love you anymore.” How does that even happen? He always figured there was someone else, though he never saw any indication, and Rebecca never revealed anything about a new “Daddy” in her life. But the alternative—that their life together was a lie from the start—was too devastating to face.
Todd released a deep breath, swung open the driver’s side door, and stepped onto the street. His gaze traveled across the front porch, over the driveway. The gray Ford Taurus sat peacefully in the two-car driveway, the usual oil stains spotting up the pavement of the space next to it, without so much as a telltale drop of fluid or tire track to indicate the comings and goings of someone new.
Eyes still on the house, he stopped in front of the passenger door and popped it open. He thought perhaps the blinds behind the windows shook just a bit, indicating someone inside had noticed their arrival. He braced himself to hear the familiar voice of his soon-to-be-ex wife offer some sort of awkward greeting from the porch.
Todd flashed back to another time, long ago, when Olivia normally drove the “Errand Runner,” a name Todd had affectionately dubbed the reconditioned green van during one of his geekier moments. Settling into the passenger seat, Todd channeled his best Harrison Ford voice. “Firing up the sublight engines on the Errand Runner, honey.” Olivia would roll her eyes and shake her head, inserting the key and waking up the grumpy engine, but she always flashed him an affectionate smile that warmed his heart. The same smile that made him fall in love with her in the first place.
Now, Todd waited for Rebecca to emerge, knowing she needed a few extra seconds to disengage herself from her Nintendo DS, but time stretched beyond the norm. Annoyed, he called into the dark quiet of the van. “Come on, Rebecca, save your game and let’s go!”
He knocked insistently against the solid steel siding, knowing the noise would penetrate her concentration, even through headphones. He listened for any answer.
“Becky?” The silence alarmed him. No thumping of feet from the back of the van, no telltale “bleeping” of electronic noise to indicate the obvious preoccupation of his little “nerd in the making.” Not even her usual cry for patience, “I’m saving, Daddy!”
“Hey, string bean, save and quit, girl! Now.” Though relatively roomy, Todd hated struggling his 6’2” and 240 lbs of bulk around the middle row to the back of the van. Maybe she just didn’t hear me? Did she fall asleep?Maybe she found it a bit too comfortable today.
Todd placed a foot onto the first step and shoved his head into the compartment for an un-obscured view to the back.
Or so he thought.
Instead of the back seat, he saw a fantastic, unreal image—and froze.
Hovering in mid-air was a large, gaping “maw” of a portal, surrounded by a border of green glowing energy. The wavering oval gaped open about four feet high and perhaps two feet wide, encompassing what looked like the mouth of a cave, lit from within.
Special Investigations agent Rebecca Burton took her usual spot within the Café Expresso coffee house, a corner booth, where she could face the door without being conspicuous. She removed her dark fedora from atop her head and shook loose her long hair. Several bright red strands fell in front of her eyes. She brushed them over with an impatient wave of her hand.
The café catered to college students attending Butler University. Though Rebecca was several years older, she loved the energy. The youthful creativity released itself into the room, auras that rejuvenated her without hampering or tampering with the energy of the people around her.
This was why she scheduled most of her more problematic appointments here. The Café Expresso proved itself a great place to meet new clients and size them up before taking on their cases. Meeting here put people off their guard. Much less formal, people tended to open up to her more quickly.
It was also a good place to meet when she didn’t trust someone not to try something stupid or dangerous if they were in private.
As if on cue, a dumpy, middle aged woman stepped through the door. Sparkle. Such a drama queen.
Sparkle’s tacky dyed blond hair–so blond as to look yellow–was outdone by the purple cloak. The upraised hood extended into a cape that flowed behind her when she walked. As she adjusted the cloak, Rebecca noticed a streak of purple in the dyed blonde. she wore beneath the cloak a tattered black dress that may have been quite formal a couple decades ago.
Rebecca shook her head. Such a disgrace. Hard to believe at one time they’d apprenticed together under the same master as young neophytes learning white magic within the Kelranian Order.
Sparkle’s gaze swept the room until she spotted Rebecca. Bright red-glossed lips parted into a smile to reveal crooked teeth. “Hello, honey!” Sparkle called from across the room and started toward her. “So good to see you again.” Rebecca cringed. Where did this witch go wrong, Rebecca mused, even as she figured Sparkle was probably thinking the exact same thing about her.
Sparkle sat herself in the booth across from Rebecca while Stella–a college-aged waitress–approached. “Hi, Rebecca,” said Stella. Rebecca counted Stella Templar as part of her inner circle. Besides serving a great cup of coffee, Stella kept her eyes and ears open for anything she thought Rebecca would want to know. Stella and Rebecca had developed an understanding. When Rebecca entertained a guest, Stella’s job was to make sure they remained undisturbed. “What can I get you and your,” Stella hesitated, “friend?”
“The usual for me,” said Rebecca, referring to a mocha espresso, extra hot.
“Hot tea for me, black, three sugars,” said Sparkle. At Stella’s startled look, Sparkle added, “I like devouring sweet things….you sweet thing.”
Stella turned to Rebecca, her confusion obvious.
“Just order a drink. Sparkle, don’t intimidate the help.”
“You’re no fun.”
Rebecca shrugged off the comment. “Actually, that’s why we’re meeting. In spite of my warning, you’re continuing to have way too much fun. You keep using your magic for personal profit and to cause mischief.”
“This again? What’s the matter? Don’t you like cheap gas?”
“I was referring to the North Korean internet crash.”
“Oh, honey,” Sparkle waved a hand. “No one paid me; I did that one for fun.”
“Sooner or later, your shenanigans could expose all of us, including those of us who are trying to actually do some real good.”
“Oh, give it a rest.’ Sparkle folded her hands in front of her, exposing knuckles covered in costume jewelry. “Don’t you have a demon to fight or something, Tesh Ke Ra?” She snarled Rebecca’s Kelranian title at her.
Stella returned and deposited the two steaming mugs. While Sparkle still ranted, Rebecca gripped hers by the handle without glancing Stella’s direction.
“Seriously, Rebecca, we’re on the same side here. I swore my allegiance to you years ago. Now mind your own business and let me get back to mine.”
“You’re allegiance is irrelevant if you continue to flaunt your powers.”
Sparkle scoffed. “I never figured you’d turn out to be such a coward.”
Sparkle leaned across the table and glared. “If you’d just take the fight to the real enemy and stop all this secret agent nonsense, you and I would be sitting here today drinking a toast to your victory.” Sparkle waved a hand over the lip of her mug as she steeped the teabag by its string. “Instead, you’re whining about actions I’ve taken while you continue to be too scared to do the same.”
“We can’t risk exposing ourselves, Sparkle. If you continue to use your magic in front of normals, they’ll hunt you down and expose you. And I don’t know if I can protect you if that happens.”
“Nonsense, honey. Didn’t you get the memo? Science is in, magic is out. I’m a charlatan. A fraud. And those comments are from my satisfied clients. I do something miraculous right in front of them, and I’m not a witch. I’m not a sorceress. I’m a ‘masterful entertainer with impenetrable slight-of-hand’.” She sighed. “I love my adoring public.”
“You can’t count on that.”
“Oh, no? Maybe you need a demonstration.”
Rebecca bristled. “Don’t even think about it.”
Sparkle chuckled and raised her mug. Again, she tugged on the tea bag. “Just as I said. You’re a coward.”
The retort Rebecca had prepared stopped short as a wave of dizziness overcame her. At the same time, a sickly cinnamon aroma permeated the air. Too late, she realized her mistake as Sparkle removed her teabag from her mug and set it on the saucer.
Rebecca found her voice. “Aero…magic? You’re using Aero-magic…on…me?”
“Oh, don’t fret, honey. I wouldn’t seriously hurt the Tesh Ka Ra. That would be disloyal, not to mention….unkind. But I’m not above some…what word did you use…shenanigans, to prove a point.”
Sparkle chuckled, reached out, and set Rebecca’s coffee to the side. “No spilling,” she chided. “That looks hot.” Rebecca fell forward and the room faded to black.
Stella took care of the other two occupied booths. She tore off the guest check from the printer. Rebecca’s entertaining a real whack job. I hope they finish up quick before she scares off the dinner rush.
She closed in on the table and stopped. The creepy bag lady sat in her spot, sipping her tea. Rebecca’s drink had been set off to the side, but Rebecca herself was gone. Odd. Rebecca would have had to walk past her to go to the restroom. She deposited the guest check. “Uh….I’ll just leave this.”
The creepy lady smiled. Stella wished she hadn’t. “That’s fine, sweet thing.” She didn’t want the creepy lady to call her “sweet thing.” either.
“Did she….leave something out in her car?” Something smelled funny, pungent. Was it the woman, or was that some strange tea flavor she’d never noticed before?
The creepy lady raised the cup to her lips. “I don’t know where she went, sweet thing.”
Hey, there’s an image on our mug. I never noticed that before. She looked at the rectangular art print. Looked like a red haired mermaid of some sort, like that cartoon. But….wait, the mermaid looked an awful lot like Rebecca Burton.
Without waiting for an invitation, Stella seated herself across from the creepy lady and squinted at the image. “What…the….that can’t be real.”
The mermaid image had Rebecca’s red hair and even wore Rebecca’s fedora. Mermaids don’t wear fedoras. Stella realized how particularly stupid that sounded, and so she chose not to say it. Instead, what came out was “How did you do that?” She pointed at the mug.
The creepy lady turned the mug around to look at the print, a frown on her face. “Wow, that look’s a lot like Agent Burton, doesn’t it?”
“Quit kidding with me.”
“But it can’t be, can it? That would be absurd.”
Stella shook her head, and the cloudiness cleared. What had they been saying? Rebecca a mermaid on a coffee mug? How ridiculous. What was she thinking? “That’s awesome, lady. What a great trick. Enjoy your tea.” Stella stood. Best not to waste this nice woman’s time.
Finally, she could move again!
Rebecca slumped in the booth, furious. Images filled her mind of what she would do to Sparkle as soon as she regained her senses, even as she cursed her own stupidity. She commanded her body to get up, grab that witch by the hair, and throw her out a window, but her legs and arms couldn’t obey.
She just laid there, spasming, as she waited for the toxin to wear off.
She’d been trapped, frozen, held in place behind a barrier, her body twisted into a bizarre still image, her eyes unable to close, unable to talk or move. Behind the barrier, Stella gawked at her, but Rebecca couldn’t respond. She realized through their dialog what must have happened, though she had no clear idea what she might have looked like.
She found her voice. “You dare…to mock…me?”
“Oh, don’t be that way, honey. We’re still friends, aren’t we?”
Sparkle was no longer sitting across from her. She’d come around to Rebecca’s side of the table and now sat next to her in the booth. Rough hands grabbed Rebecca by the collar and lifted her up. “Oooh, you are angry, aren’t you? You have your cranky face on.”
“I’m going to—”
“Watch yourself, Agent Burton. You don’t want to do anything conspicuous that will draw attention to yourself, now, do you?”
Rebecca slumped, but caught herself with her arms. She could feel strength return by the second.
“Look at you. Pathetic,” snarled Sparkle. “We’re gods among sheep. And yet you prostrate yourself to blend in. Why? You can walk above the clouds. No one would stop you. No one would even notice. There are ‘explanations’, honey.” She held her hands out to mimic quote marks. “I’m proof of that. I’m your best friend, and you don’t even know it.”
“You’re nothing of the sort. I want you out of my sight and out of the state by tonight. Or nothing will keep me from finding you, and then you don’t want to know what will happen.”
Sparkle shrugged. “Well, that’s gratitude for you. But remember what I said. One day, sooner than later, you’ll need my help. Because I’m willing to do what you’re not. And when that day comes, I’ll just have to try to forget all the indignities you’ve caused me.”
“That I’ve caused you?” Rebecca’s voice failed, but not because of any toxin.
Sparkle grabbed the receipt and called out, “Oh, Stella! Come here, you sweet thing.”
The waitress appeared. “Yes, ma’am?”
Sparkle handed Stella the receipt, along with a crisp green bill.
“Wow, thank you, ma’am.”
“Oh, you earned it, sweet thing.”
“Hey, that was a neat trick with the mug.”
Sparkle flashed a smile at the waitress even as she held Rebecca’s eyes with a gaze of her own. “You liked that? Oh, that’s an old trick, but it’s still a crowd pleaser, don’t you agree, Rebecca?” Sparkle exaggerated a frown. “Oh, Rebecca’s not feeling very well right now. I’ll leave her to you, Stella.” Sparkle rose to her feet and headed toward the door. “How about getting her a nice cup of tea?”