On Sunday I’m releasing the first novelette of the Lesser Evils series, Crimson Stain. Pre-Order the Kindle eBook here. There’s a sample chapter below, so stick around.
When I finished The Least of 99 Evils I was pretty content. It’s a nicely packaged story that satisfies each one of it’s narratives in a tight package. I’ve received nearly 100% feedback with one glowing exception.
“I wish it was 1,000 pages long. You should rewrite it to be 1,000 pages long.” That was said, approximately verbatim, by my friend (and eager supporter of my literary habit), J-Vaggs. I kind of scoffed. I already wrote the damn book! To pack on any more clay would destabilized the whole structure of the novel.
But I too wasn’t ready to leave the universe set up inside that book. It provides too many opportunities to plumb through political and existential modalities not to pursue further. Yet I was hesitant to begin a sequel.
Then, before the beginning of 2018, I had a thought. What about a series of novelettes? To serve as companion pieces to the primary narrative? Longer than a short story, shorter than a novella. Easily digestible. A fun-size story to drop in the pumpkin-shaped buckets of readers knocking on my door. Everyone seems to win here. I’m able to create “anthology style” shorts to lurk through more creative alleyways and you get more content on the cheap (or free, if you’re enrolled in Kindle Unlimited).
So here’s Crimson Stain, a hyper-violent neo-western about a rural town in Texas that receives word that the Forgiveness (the zealous and equally cruel cult-like political party featured prominently in the third act of 99 Evils) is coming to “convert” their citizens. It falls to the narrator, Red, to stave off the impending massacre, or die trying.
That link again is right here.
I hope you like it.
The Lonestar Question
What makes a Texan?
I’m talking about the inalienable trait of our Lone Star Statesman, here. What makes us us.
You ask me that question twenty, thirty years ago and I would have given you some jackass answer like big belt buckles, rockin’ country tunes, big trucks, big guns, big plates of brisket. And now I’m morbidly curious. Is it our pride? Hell, not no more. We ain’t got too much to be proud of these days. Not since Clyde O’Brien. Not since the wall. And definitely not since we stooped to living like shit in shit. And it sure as hell ain’t our brisket— maybe it is in some of the bigger settlements, but by god, we can’t keep a goddamn cow alive to keep us alive. It’s chickens now. The smell of them makes me sick. There’s feathers everywhere. We tried sheep and goats, but all that did was kill a few of us after our well got contaminated with shit. I think of all the steaks I ate half drunk, unable to relish the experience. Of all the things I miss, that’s the least painful. I think about steak a lot.
“Evening, Red.” Casey tips his hat to me. He’s young. That scares me. He was born in this world. He never knew the United States. Just the New States. Makes you wonder what’s going on in his head. Makes you wonder if he understands. All them children, now grown up. I envy them. I fear them. I pity them.
“Evening, Casey. How’s we on the rounds tonight?”
“Slow and quiet, Red,” Casey says.
“Just the way we like it,” I say. Casey smirks and grips his Winchester. I get the sense he don’t like it too quiet. Casey scares me like that. I tip my hat. Casey walks along the south wall.
What’s in a Texan, the fact that we take care of our own? I couldn’t. Not then. I feel like I might be able to now. I try my best. Too little, too late, maybe. But it ain’t nothing. What else was I going to do? I jumped at the opportunity to serve something. A community in lieu of family. I was the one that suggested we build a wall around the town. Medieval like. If the New States are cloistered within a 40 foot cement casing, then so too shall we be. 20 feet in our case. Keeps the dust out. Not that I get to know the difference on nights like these. I’m outside.
We still have the guns. Can’t say I like ‘em too much, any more. I smell cordite on my hands as I go to sleep sometimes. It gives me nightmares. I keep her holstered on my belt and try to keep my jacket over it. I don’t like to think about it until I need to.
What about whiskey? Beer? That make a Texan? Shit, maybe if I hadn’t quit the hard stuff ten years ago, I’d’ve agreed with that sentiment. But as it stands, most stills went dodo, most warehouses got ransacked. Hard to keep anything in this world. Punks’ll drink sour mash or white lightning straight out of the barrel, not caring if they go blind. Probably, that’s what they’re looking for. We got a guy who makes moonshine here. Some say it ain’t all that bad. Get’s the job done. I sniffed a jar of the stuff on one of my weaker nights. Smelled like a snake died in a boot. Bootshine. I pushed it away.
I stop to remove my goggles and wipe my brow. Grit blows in my eyes. Ever since they built that fuckin’ wall down yonder, all the wind diverts straight to us. Dust storms 24/7. Ain’t too bad tonight. I can see the moon. Wish we’d get some rain our way, but then again, I know the wall brings floods as well. Maybe dust ain’t too fuckin’ bad, after all.
Bev leans her rifle against the wall and lights a cigarette. The glow of the match illuminate the creases of her worry-lines. She exhales smoke and picks up her rifle.
“Everything’s quiet on my end,” she says.
“Mine too. We like it that way.”
“Yep,” she says. “Truck back yet?”
I take my hat off and shake loose some dust. More dust blows and sticks to my hair.
“Can’t say it has. They expected?”
Bev sniffs. “You know the drill. They leave before sunrise. They’re back after sundown.”
“Any moment now,” I say. A smile catches in my beard. “You got something coming to you?”
Bev shrugs. “Nothing fancy. Shoes for the kids. Butter. You order anything?”
“Coffee,” I say. “But I told ‘em if they found a nice cut of meat, real meat, that they should fork over our whole lot so I can eat like one of them kings I hear so much about.”
Bev smiles. “Selfish old bastard.”
Bev toes the cigarette and salutes. She walks along the north wall.
Bev’s from good stock. Bev’s still young but she remembers the United States. Bev had two kids nixed seven years ago. She’s got two more in the house. Bev patrols four nights a week and it breaks my heart.
What makes a Texan? We still got the music, except we don’t play it after sundown. We still got those jackass belt buckles, but we don’t wear ‘em at night in case it gives away our position. We got a truck. A single, functioning truck. We got others we cannibalize from.
I shudder. I don’t like that word.
If you were to ask me even ten years ago what’s in a Texan, I’d’ve said the conviction of Jesus himself. Somehow, that got taken from us, too. Somehow, the Lord got scared of what his children had been up to and turned tail. I spit. Good riddance to cowards. We don’t need ‘em around here.
I stop and pull a cup of joe from a thermos. It’s got grit in it and tastes like it’s been strained through a sock, but it’s coffee, goddammit. I wipe my mustache. I put the thermos back in my duster and I walk along the only road leading outside of our town. One way in, one way out. As I’ve heard, this is the southern-most town in all of America before you hit the wall. That makes us special. That makes us isolated. That makes us vulnerable. Hence our fortification.
It’s small. I like watching it from out here. It’s peaceful. When the dust settles, I can hear the chickens sleeping. I listen to the quiet. I listen to the wind pick back up. I look for stars in the sky, but they’re all dust-fucked. So I think.
What’s in a Texan?
I’m too caught up with old Texas. New States. New Texas. What’s in a New Texan. Whatever it is, it scares me. It’s Old Texas for me, darling. I remember the Alamo. That’s the one thing you can’t beat out of me. You can’t beat it out of us. We took our town and fortified it. We figured if Clyde O’Brien’s going to box in the country, we need to box in our town. We built up walls from old farmsteads. We fortified the water tower. We’ll protect this land against God and Devil. We’ll take care of our own. And then we’ll die here.
Headlights shear the dust. Beams turn to orbs in the storm. Figure a mile off. I try and clock ‘em with my binoculars— worthless with the white-out. I jog back down the road, towards home. Bev sees me. Bev sees the headlights. Bev drops a knee and waits with her sights to her eye. I climb the water tower. Rory lies against the tank, sleeping. Rory drinks bootshine. I nudge him.
“Red,” he says. “All’s well on the western front.”
I snap his binoculars from his neck. I scan the road. Bev calls from below.
I dial in the scope. It’s our truck, alright. No mistaking the dents on that abused Chevy.
“She’s ours. Let her in.”
I hand the binoculars back to Rory. Pour him a cup of coffee and make him drink it, too. Right in front of me. He apologizes. He pleads, disgraceful. He tells me it won’t happen again. Coffee dribbles down his chin. I descend the ladder. I hear a cork pop before I hit the ground. Fuckin’ Rory. I pat Bev on the shoulder.
“I’ll greet ‘em. You go home.”
“Red,” she says. “Truck’s driving funny.” She’s still on her knee. Hasn’t let up. Bev’s from good stock.
“Who went on the run this morning?”
“Bill,” says Bev, eyes on the sights. “Bill and Sarah.”
“Poor visibility. Trouble finding the road.”
“Could be. Could be Bill got his mouth around a real beer.”
Casey sidles in. “That our truck?” he asks.
“That’s our truck.”
“Bill and Sarah, supposedly.”
“Give me those ‘nocs.”
These kids. Always grabbing for themselves. I hand ‘em over. Casey dials in.
“Hard to say with the dust,” he says. “But there’s only one driver.”
“Make sure,” says Bev.
“I’m sure,” says Casey.
Casey hits me with the binoculars. Casey drops to one knee. I scope the truck. One silhouette. The truck runs erratic. Swerving and dipping off the road. The truck pulls through a plume of sand and I see it. Old rusty blue. Dents in the hood. I see the driver. Ain’t Bill. Wait. Make sure.
“Well?” asks Casey. “She our’n?”
The truck weaves and ploughs into some Texas-dune brush.
“If he fucked up the engine, I swear to God,” says Bev.
A door opens. Broken glass spills on the ground. A figure spills on the ground. It regroups.
“Our’n?” ask the two of ‘em.
I scan him. Definitely male. Ain’t Bill. This one’s too bulky a build. This one’s been eating right for a while. Shorter than Bill, too. He’s hobbling. He’s clutching his right hand into his coat. He trips. He stumbles. He gets back up. He makes for us.
“Our’n?” asks Casey.
I say, “Ain’t Bill. Ain’t Sarah.”
Casey gives me a look. It scares me. He’s asking permission. I know the rules. Bev’ll do it if he don’t. Hate to make Bev do it. Hate to let Casey do it. Casey’s eyes plead.
I say, “Yep.”
The Winchester thunderclaps shortly after the spark. The figure crumples to it’s knees and falls backwards.
“I’ll confirm the kill,” says Casey.
I stop him with a hand on his shoulder. He’s too eager. Too young. I’ll save him this.
“I’ll do it. Might be more.”
Bev says nothing. Bev spits tobacco juice. Eyes to sights.
I walk into the wind. Grit strains through my teeth. I check the truck. She’s not even steaming. I pat the hood and put a head inside the car. I turn the ignition off. Procrastination. The man groans a few yards yonder. He lays on his heels grotesque. His features are all bent out of shape. Casey shot him in the ribs. He splutters blood. He says things. Religious nonsense. I pull the Wesson and check the chamber. Procrastination.
The man sputters, “Th-the F-forgiv-ven-ness.”
“The Forgiveness… coming…”
The man lifts his shaky right arm. It’s missing a hand. I believe him. His stump spurts.
“Whatever God might still be around, let him bless you.”
I shoot him in the head. He lets go easy enough. I want to say peacefully, but we know that ain’t true. I smooth my mustache and beard. I smell gunpowder and cordite. Nightmares tonight. Nothing compared to the nightmare coming.
Bev and Casey meet me. We stare at him.
“Get a town meeting together tomorrow. We need to discuss some shit.”
Bev nods. Bev’s on it.
Casey nods. Casey drags the body to the west wall, where all the bodies go.
I check the truck. Yep. Bill and Sarah rest on top of another months of supplies. I grab a tin of coffee. I pocket a block of butter for Bev. I look at Sarah and Bill. I watch Casey drag the man to our graveyard.
What makes a Texan?
You die here.