A while back I wrote a violent Western novella called 'When the Man Comes Around', which is probably my most downloaded story on Kindle, although given the genre it faces a lot less competition than the likes of Murder Inc.
I had toyed with the idea of doing a sequel for a long time, but then Murder Inc started growing from a novella to a full blown novel and my six shooter sequel sort of fell by the wayside. So, I figured why not post up the prologue and intro. Feel free to praise it and tell me to finish the story.
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There was still gold in those hills, not much but there certainly was some. Not that miners ever really saw much benefit from it, the only people to see profit were the merchants, innkeepers, tradesmen, craftsmen and basically anyone else doing business during the waning years of the Gold Rush other than mining gold.
The town of Shasta was doing exceptionally well out of the boom, mule trains and stagecoaches rolled in to this hub of trade before heading further north along the Siskiyou Trail toward Oregon or back south toward Sacramento.
With all the comings and goings and the legends of rivers of gold there was inevitably going to be another type of person also attracted to the town, the grittier sort, men of spit and blood.
Two large gangs had established themselves in the surrounding countryside, engaged in a bitter rivalry with one another that more often than not came to bullets and death. Shasta was spared much of the violence as out of necessity it became something of a neutral territory, a place were either side could trade or otherwise entertain themselves without having to watch their backs.
Not that this did anything for the local population. The Oregon Regulars, a legion of deserters formerly a regiment in the Union’s Continental Army took the view that the locals were a nuisance, whilst the California Defenders simply took what they wanted.
You could not have referred to one side or the other as good, the Oregon Regulars had deserted the army for the sole purpose of making it rich off the sweat of the miners’ backs. The California Defenders on the other hand were simply carrying on the tradition of making life as difficult as possible for the Union that had annexed the territory over twenty years ago.
Where the two met, north against south, was as violent and cataclysmic as that fault through San Andreas, and embattled Shasta was the buffer zone.
For the past two months the Regulars had held the Hotel Royale as their base in the town whilst across that very same street the Defenders had claimed the saloon, marking out the borders of one another’s territory.
Carriages rolled down the street as a fine breeze lifted a layer of dust from the gutters of the busy thoroughfare, a man stood in the centre as stage coaches and wagons berthed around him casting glares in his direction but remaining silent.
Wind caught his long, navy blue coat revealing a pair of pistols at his side that gleamed as if lit by the fire of angels, the navy blue garments underneath could easily be mistaken for the uniform of a Union officer. His white hair was blown about a face that gave no clue to his age save that he was no coddled child.
Looking first to his left and then to his right he seemed at last to come to a decision.
Walking down the street ignoring the vehicles rumbling to his left and right, the brim of his hat casting a shadow over his eyes shielding him from the sun as it set fire to Heaven as it drifted toward the distant horizon. He turned north to the Hotel Royale, its red and white paint sand blasted and sun baked, stepping onto the porch he reached out a gloved hand and gently rapped the door.
This was as good a place to start as any.
He waited patiently as a barrage of cursing came from the other side before a few moments later the door was flung open by a young man in a Union uniform, clearly drunk.
“Yeah? What do you want?”
Without a word and fast as daylight the white haired man reached out and strangled the drunk silently on the doorstep.
Drawing his guns the man stepped inside and closed the door.
That same day.
The wharf of San Francisco was a forest of masts swaying with the gentle rise and fall of the sea, schooners and merchantmen that had been abandoned as their crews sought their fortune inland.
The city itself was booming, what had once been a small coastal settlement serving as a stopover for ships heading to better places was now the hub of California’s growth.
In the hustle and bustle of the area now known as Fisherman’s Wharf a young man sat on a jetty sketching the Italian immigrants toiling on their fishing boats. He ignored the crowds about him and the stares of the curious young women as he carefully etched the crooked lines of a gnarled old fisherman unloading nearby.
There was something about the old man, an adventure or strife, some hardship hidden beneath the lines on his face that gave him energy and determination. He was an excellent subject that the young man loved to try and capture, if even only the slightest glimpse he wanted to find a way to express the vibrancy under the sea-worn skin. If only he could speak Italian, the conversations they could have.
The artist, Patrick, was no more a native of San Francisco than his subject, his family were not part of the Gold Rush mania that had spread across the eastern US. Ten years ago they had been ranchers in New Mexico, but those days were long gone and would burn forever, the memory of a father and brother.
Things had been hard at first, adjusting to a new life and finding employment, but they persisted with the determination of people who refused to be defeated or browbeaten by their past.
His mother found work in an assessor’s office and Patrick when he turned fourteen found work on the docks, and in his spare time he liked to draw. And draw he did, every free moment for the past five years. He found serenity in art, being able to detach oneself from the world and observe dispassionately the ebb and flow of human emotion, to try and capture some of that energy in a single moment.
A young woman sat next to him but he paid her little heed, people always gravitated to him when he drew, he supposed that in some subconscious way they wanted to become subjects themselves.
She smiled at Patrick when he gave her a glance, he briefly returned it before lowering his eyes back to his etching. In truth he was a handsome young man, curly brown hair and green eyes that burned with intensity when he was bent over his sketch book, but he was also shy and distant in the way only a murdered family can make you.
“You’re very good,” she said, looking over his shoulder.
“Thank you,” he smiled but didn’t look up, “it’s just a hobby really, and I doubt my work will ever see the light of a gallery.”
She continued to watch him for a few minutes, sitting in silence as he smudged shadows across the fisherman’s face, his fingers making delicate strokes across the yellowed page.
“What’s your name?”
He paused in his drawing to look directly at her, curly blonde hair and blue green eyes like the ocean, she was dressed as a lady of some culture, not the sort that would normally associate with a dock hand or artist.
“Patrick,” he replied, “Patrick McElhone.”
“Patrick,” she smiled as she said his name, “that’s a nice name. My name is Patricia, Patricia Telford.”
He knew the Telford name, the family were big cotton traders from Louisiana originally but had come west when the Civil War became bad for business. They owned property all over the city and land as far out as Sonoma, including it was said a vineyard in Napa.
“Can I see your sketchbook please, Patrick?”
He handed it over without a word, struck dumb being spoken to by a woman whose family wealth was positively terrifying.
She flicked through images of the docks, the fisherman, the bay, even a sketch of Alcatraz Island before pausing at a drawing of a captivatingly beautiful woman, she looked to be in her early forties with flowing dark hair and slightly sad eyes.
“She’s beautiful,” Patricia whispered, “she looks so haunted. This is amazing work, who is she?”
“My mother,” he replied, “I drew that about a year ago, when she got engaged.”
“Why does she look so sad?”
“She has looked like that for a long time, it’s only since meeting my step-father that she has started to soften.”
“I take it this isn’t something that you want to talk about, not with a stranger certainly.”
She scanned through the remaining images, pausing to study the lines on each before moving on to the next, until at last she came to a blank page.
“May I borrow your pencil?”
Turning to the back side of the page she wrote a few brief words before closing the book and handing it back to Patrick.
“I have reserved a page in your book,” she stood and gave him a slight nod, “I would like to commission a picture when you have the time. You can find me at the address provided.”
He nodded, unsure and dumbfounded.
“Good day, Mr McElhone,” she offered her hand.
“Uh, good day,” Patrick found his feet, and taking her hand he gave it a gentle kiss, “Miss Telford.”
The exchange on the docks, between the McElhone boy and the Telford girl was watched by a figure standing in the shadows. He watched not only Patrick but everyone around, scanning from person to person, eyeing everyone, looking for something.
He had journeyed far to be here now, and it had been a journey in haste but now above all times was when he must be at his most cautious. There was far too much at stake to be reckless and impulsive now.
The Telford girl curtsied and left Patrick standing on the dock looking like a lost idiot, smiling to himself and gripping the sketch book, blissfully unaware of the imminent danger.
The man stepped out of the shadows and pushed through the crowds on the wharf keeping his hand on the knife hidden underneath his jacket.
Young McElhone was staring out to the bay, his back to the advancing figure, his mind full of wonder and new curious feelings.
The man stood directly behind him, hand still on the knife handle.
“She likes you.”
Patrick spun in shock and found himself staring at a tall Native American man with deep eyes like the heart of the earth and a tight lipped smile that only slightly curled at the edges.
Ok, so I'm taking another adventure into the Dark Souls fanon, but I've had a lot to do these last couple of days so give me a break. Also, getting that pic gave me another excuse to play.
So, when we last left my nameless sorceress she had died a few times, discovered briefly what it is like to have a willy (peeing when standing up is the only real advantage), and then found herself wandering into a dark crack in the side of a mountain.
"Oh sunlight," I was immediately suspicious. Having been sat on several times by the monster equivalent of the 'before image' in a Slimfast ad I didn't believe for a second that the game was beyond lulling me into a false sense of security.
The sound of the sea and imagined tang of salt air wasn't fooling me, although the place did kind of look like Donegal on the one day of sunlight it gets each year.
Walking cautiously along a cliff edge I came across one of those helpful messages on the ground from the weird multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls. For the uninitiated the game is technically single player but your game can be invaded by players from other realms and you can summon guys to help you, or you can invade yourself. Players can also leave messages constructed from a limited pool of words that persist across the game multiverse to give advice and hints to other players.
"Try jumping," next to a cliff edge. Yep, that's exactly as helpful as I'd heard they were.
Ahead was what once was either a vibrant town fallen to ruin or a modern village in Northern Ireland, either of which could pose a threat. The lack of flags or painted kerbs led me to believe that it was probably the former, but you shouldn't take anything at face value. Hell, despite all appearances and a complete lack of anyone willing to admit it, I'm not actually a virgin. Shocking, I know.
So anyway, back to the computer game.
Running through a picturesque crumbling arch I spotted a bonfire and figured that I would be safe for at least twenty, maybe thirty feet. Lighting that beautiful, glowing, and most importantly, safe fire I turned to take in my surroundings.
A proud war memorial stood up on the hill overlooking the sea, and a wee guy sitting next to it who must have been the local representative for the Royal British Legion. Beyond this in the distance was the ruins of a once mighty city now sunk into the ocean. That's not at all foreboding.
A ruined building with a tent outside it and an angry looking green man was some distance away from the memorial... there's another Northern Ireland joke in there somewhere, then another building. There was some kind of ruined manor with a pit in front of it and then another building to the left, with some ruins in the distance and an enormous black tower lacking only a flaming eye looming over all.
And to my immediate left was another darkened tunnel that I wasn't ready to face just yet as it seemed to lead out to a fortress battle scarred and in disrepair.
One thing I did note was a distinct lack of things braying for my still warm blood, and that made me nervous.
I did see someone standing alone by a cliff edge staring longingly into the distant ocean, you know that visual cue of a person of great depth and knowledge.
The player message on the ground behind her said "Try thrusting."
'Are you the next monarch?'
I don't know, am I? I'm just here because I apparently thought that it was a sterling idea to jump into a whirlpool and next thing I was lying in a ruin surrounded by long grass and murder.
I continued the conversation anyway as the player message had Christopher Nolan'd the idea of a possible lesbian awakening for my nameless sorceress.
Several cryptic comments later and I discovered that this mysterious lady, lets call her the Emerald Herald because that's her name, was my spirit animal and would allow me to level up.
Spending all the souls that I'd gathered and feeling newly empowered I decided to explore Majula and practice my dodge-rolls because apparently that is really important and robes are about as effective as you expect in repelling blades, arrows, maces, hammers, whips, spears, halberds, poison, fire, tusks, and being sat on.
The first ruined building turned out to be a blacksmith's workshop and the blacksmith was locked out of his own building, you should find this slightly amusing because he's a bit of a dick.
The next building I thought was empty until a cat started getting sarcastic at me, which I thought was a bit rich since she was the sorceress who'd managed to get herself trapped in the body of something that needed a litter box. She did however recognise me as a kindred spirit from the immense power of my starting level spell, which was nice.
I could hear noises coming from beside the ruin, so going for a dander around the side of the manor I saw the telltale glow of an item on the ground and three little piggies.
Ok, maybe if I leave them alone like the doggies I can-
"Oh come on," I said as I respawned at the bonfire.
Retrieving my souls I remembered that the primary character trait of any protagonist in an RPG is that you are essentially a high-functioning kleptomaniac who everyone just sort of turns a blind eye to, so I tried the door of the manor to see what items I might be able to loot... uh, turn to use in the quest to save whatever.
The message I received was effectively "Door's locked, piss off."
Dealing with my sense of rejection in my usual mature manner I considered suicide into the pit outside, however upon looking in and seeing the full spectrum of filthy green stains coupled with the foul stench of death and toilet water I thought, "Better not."
The last building had a nervous-sounding guy selling armour, but anyone dumb enough to buy armour in the starting area of a game is asking for a long journey. He did however have a chest just waiting to be looted so it wasn't a total loss.
So what were my options? There was a tunnel that seemed to point in the direction of that sunken city, but a brief exploration into what looked to be a sewer told me that I didn't really want to go that way yet.
So, that left the tunnel that looked to lead toward that overgrown ruin of a fortress... at least it would be dry.
I was struggling to think of something to write about today and then I remembered, "Oh yeah, I'm a colossal nerd," so I'm going to talk about an adventure with my nameless sorceress on her first voyage through Drangleic in Dark Souls 2, who I took to New Game+2 before discovering the usefulness of shielding. Since any attempt to write about the journey of any Dark Souls game in one post would more or less be little but incoherent gibberish (shut up) I'm going to write one post per region in the order of the odyssey, or maybe never write another because that would be bordering on fan fiction.
Ok, so that was a bit of an overlong intro sequence that didn't really tell me anything except that I don't know who I am and decided to jump into a portal for some reason that has led me to waking up in this ruin surrounded by suspiciously long grass.
Hey, what are those? Ooh, doggies. Starting enemies, alright, can't be that difficult since I don't even have a weapon yet.
Oh, and now I'm dead. That was unexpected. New rule, don't go near anything that looks hurty.
Right, and now I'm green and ugly... that's a nice touch, I guess.
So, a cabin with a bunch of creepy old ladies... ah right, I remember I'm a sorceress, now we're off to a flying start, time to go test my skills out by getting revenge on those dogs.
Hmmm, new rule, leave the dogs alone for now.
I wonder what's up this lane with all the big footprints... Oh, something big. And he has a bum! Hahahahahaha- oh, he sat on me. Right, I'd like to be able to make some sort of progress today I thought as I respawned at the ruins once more- hey, my bloody maximum health is reducing every time I respawn, oh up yours game.
Lets try that door on the other side of the cabin.
A bonfire, yes! Bonfires mean progress... in Drangleic, not Northern Ireland.
Cracking my knuckles with renewed vigour I ran through the next cave into a huge open expanse of... giant trees. Ok, so it's kinda like Teldrassil but everyone is really into Linkin Park and cutting themselves.
Fog doors, right, I'm not really sure what I'm doing here yet so I hope they just open up areas rather than dropping me into some inescapable Guild Wars Instance.
The mist eerily clears under my touch... and it's a tutorial area. Great, and I'd heard that this game's attitude to teaching you anything was 'if you want your hand held then piss off to Call of Duty'.
'Oh come one, that guy took me apart,' I thought to myself as I respawned at the bonfire.
Ok, so using my sparkly stuff fast has become vitally important as rolling out of the way doesn't seem to do shit.
So now I'm backing away and killing guys at range, this is going to take a lot of the challenge out of.. oh, I'm out of spells.
Ohshitohshitohshitohshitohshitohshit, I cursed as I led a conga line of angry undead through the boughs of the trees, oh no where's my stamina gone? Oh crap it's one of those big fat bastards! Two of them! No don't sit on me!!
This game is fucking unplayable, I cursed, gritting my teeth at the bonfire and running straight back to my pool of blood because I backtracked long and hard to get that small collection of souls and I'll be damned if I was going to leave them there for those big tubby brutes to gloat over.
'Ha, one of them walked off the edge, stupid jerk,' I thought to myself as I slowly picked off the health bar of the other ogre because I spotted a coffin down by the waterside and I want to figure out why the designers would stick that there.
Boom! Eat blue sparkly death, you walking pork scratching. I think I've got this game cracked now, so lets try out this coffin.
"Your essence has changed."
Ok, that doesn't actually seem to have done anything... hey, where have my tits gone? What the hell did that do, give me a double mastectomy?
Stripping off my robes I was in for another shock, "Heyyyy, I have a willy now. What the hell? I'm not a buff dude, I'm supposed to be a sexy lady."
So as I would later learn in real world conversation that coffin exists solely to troll new players, well played game, well played. It would be nice if such a thing existed in the real world, experience has taught me that (when it's done right) women definitely have a better time during sex than men and I'd happily sport a vagina for the weekend.
This and other asinine thoughts passed through my head as I crawled out of the coffin again and disrobed to check that my small but perfect boobies where back, and then I had to use a human effigy to restore my human state because the saggy green undead things were going to be the source of many nightmares.
After dressing I decided to light the all the torches in the area because that's exactly the kind of puzzle fantasy RPGs taught me to expect. Of course the Dark Souls box sitting in the corner of my room looking at me over the top of its glasses said "What did you waste that torch for, what do you think this is, the Legend of Zelda? Did you really think that a torch lighting puzzle would exist when there is no risk of imminent death?"
Slightly disheartened with time wasted and with a renewed sense of dread I turned to that dark cave beneath the huge crack in the mountain from where the only light came like the flash of a thermonuclear strike.
With a deep suspicion and staff in hand I walked into that cave to see what manner of death awaits me.
An old short story I wrote way back before I started writing about Fallen Angel Detectives, transvestite cat burglars, and wee girls who could change the world around her with a thought.
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A long empty blackness lay ahead, the lonely highway rumbled beneath her tyres and she sighed to the melancholy thoughts that played over and over in her mind. Raindrops fell in heavy tears upon her windshield causing the intermittent flashes of street lighting to blur as they cast their sickly yellow glow that seemed to make everything appear just a little less real.
As the flashes washed across her face in steady rhythm she wished only that the sense of unreality were a reflection of the truth, she wished it with all her heart. She was drained, both physically and emotionally she was without energy, her tired eyes had a red puffiness and she could feel the tears running down her cheeks.
Her thoughts were of those slow, tentative steps that she had taken, shuffling across the darkened hallway. She remembered how she had gently cracked open the door of the room to make sure that he was asleep.
She had picked up the chairs toppled on the kitchen floor and swept up the broken glass that lay shattered like her heart, half the night had been forever lost to a torrent of heat and rage, one night more in a long and bitter cycle of despair.
She needed to get away from here, she needed to escape, the screaming echoed in her ears, she needed more than anything to be free at last of this anguish.
Slipping quietly into the dark of night she packed up the kids into the car and pulled out of the driveway heading for destination nowhere, heading for anywhere that was away from this prison of fear.
Making an excuse for another bruise, lying to others and lying to herself, another excuse for her to make up, another cover to invent as she found herself once more on the same lonely highway in a wet, black night.
The road rumbled loudly beneath her tyres and she kept on driving, another junction, stop sign, another set of lights. She left her path to the hands of fate, so long as she just kept on driving through the rain destiny would wind out its hidden course to whatever end lay in the uncertainty ahead.
The children in the back seat slept in quiet dreams of candy and new toys, oblivious to the living nightmare around them as the car was embraced in the welcoming night. Children have such beautiful minds, so innocent and open, ready to absorb the splendour of the world, they coped because cynicism had not yet extinguished the light of optimism at the end of the tunnel that was their lives.
She let them sleep as she wondered if this was all there was for her in life. Night after night she prayed to God but so far He had given no answer, no comfort or respite, and His silence hurt as much as the bruise on her cheek.
Eventually she would have to steer a course towards home, she was aware of that in the very pit of her stomach and in the bottom of her heart.
The children couldn’t be separated from their father, not forever. They wouldn’t understand her turmoil, they couldn’t understand the torture that she faced, taking them from him would lead only to have them suffer as she did now. If there was one thing that she was sure of in all her heart it was that she did not want her babies to feel her pain.
For now all she needed was a cheap motel somewhere, it didn’t matter where the place was so long as she could feel free if even for only a short while. She wanted a place where she could cry, a place where she could imagine that the world was better than it really is, a place in which love was true and life was just.
In time she would have to go home but for now she just wanted to be with her babies, to hold them in her arms and to remember how important her family really is.
Cable and air conditioning, that’s what the motel sold itself upon with its flickering neon sign, a cheap room paid for with cash and any name would do, the last chance saloon along the highway of broken hearts and shattered dreams. It was like a thousand other dank stopovers up and down the country, the last refuge of those lost to love or fugitives from their desires and fears.
And here she was back in this horrendous situation once more, the cycle of her life repeating in its torturous reciprocation that slowly wore away at her spirit and weakened her already fragile soul.
The flickering glow of the gaudy roadside advertisement brought tears to her eyes as her heart broke once more, another argument and another cheap motel, her strength crushed and her life feeling like a void.
Out of nowhere came a clarity in her heart, that her life was not meaningless. Her children gave her meaning, she had to be there for them and she had to protect them. She had to get away from it all, she needed the change before her heart broke for the final time.
She turned at the junction looking once only in a fleeting glance at that flickering neon sign, an apparition of her past, something that would continue to haunt her years if she didn’t make a change.
And so she kept on driving, the rumble of the road, the flash of the streetlights and the lonely highway in the dark of the night like a curtain waiting to be drawn back to reveal tomorrow. Destiny could do the navigating, the future lay on that dark and rainy road before her, all she had to do was keep her foot on the peddle, her hands on the wheel and her heart on the future, a future that could be so much brighter.
She hoped that one day the children would understand.
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