Excerpt: Guilt and Gangsters

I promised excerpts in my last post, and I’m a woman of my word. Choosing a scene to share, however, presents manifold challenges. If it’s too prose-heavy there’s no drama, just pretty descriptions of things in my head. If it’s all dialogue, it reads like pages torn from a bad SyFy channel script. Besides all that, it has to make sense out of context. Rather unforgiving criteria!

With those considerations in mind, I give you the opening of chapter twelve. In addition to meeting the above requirements, it complements my recent post about the character Paul. This scene occurs after he and his bodyguard-cum-father-figure, Fitch, venture into a rough neighborhood called the Shore (a refugee camp on the heavily receded bed of Lake Michigan) to meet with an informant. The encounter turns ugly. Fitch covers Paul’s escape, but doesn’t make it out, leaving our protagonist alone with his guilt and the gangsters….

*

The bar was little more than a plank and some oil-drum stools set up beneath a thin tarpaulin roof. A dozen gadgets for pirating satellite signals sprouted from the pile of televisions in the corner. On one of the few functioning screens, a local news anchor—powdered to cartoonish perfection—rattled off the headlines.

“The vice president of the Nilak Polar Hydrology Corporation has now been missing for three days. Paul Hayes’ family released a statement saying they have not received ransom demands….”

“Enough of that drivel, could you change the channel, please?” Paul asked the bartender. The woman raised a crudely pencilled eyebrow at him before complying.

Watch the fancy words, and don’t be so damn polite, Paul admonished himself. Such a giveaway. He tried to assess his reflection discreetly in one of the dead screens. A few days of stubble and grime disguised his face from that of the shiny, grinning boy on the news. At least if no one looked too closely.

The bartender switched over to a national news network, some afternoon filler piece about skirmishes over a pond in rural California.

“Can I getcha another drink?” she asked Paul. Ropes of plastic beads clattered at her throat when she lowered her face near his ear. “I got fresh. Not the local stuff, the good kind. Nilak blue label, cap still on.”

“No,” Paul said quickly. “No water. Just another soda, thanks.”

He took the bottle, laid a few bills on the bar and slipped outside. High noon had passed—he’d escaped the sun’s blistering apex beneath the bar’s canopy—but the heat still threatened to overwhelm him. Dizziness made a buzzing cloud of flies inside his head. The drink tasted cloying in his dry mouth, carbonation firing against his cheeks, but he drained it anyway.

Better than nothing, he told himself. Juice was nearly impossible to find on the Shore, and he knew alcohol would only dehydrate him further, although that hadn’t stopped him the first night. He’d ended up in a nameless den, taking shots of a harsh, clear liquor that had the bouquet of landfills on a summer night, and his neck still ached from passing out inside a cement pipe.

You’re lucky that’s the worst that happened. You could be meat-flavored water by now. Like Fitch.

Remembering his bodyguard renewed Paul’s determination to avoid all water out here on the Shore—no telling where it came from. The scene at Angler’s played in his mind for what felt like the millionth time.

I shouldn’t have left him there, I should’ve done something.

He turned up one the alleyways between tents, so sunk in self-loathing he almost collided with a group of uniformed men. Nilak private security guys, all decked out in kevlar and hydration backpacks and ostentatious tactical pants. They were showing photos to a nervous woman who clearly didn’t understand much English.

“Have you seen this young man?” the officer asked her, confining each word to its own breath for clarity. The woman shook her head.

You know who’s in that photo, said the persistent, logical voice in Paul’s brain. All you have to do is tap that guy on the shoulder and he’ll take you home. You can have a shower, and gallons of clean water, and sit in the pool until the sunburn goes away.

I don’t deserve that, he responded firmly.

You’re being irresponsible and stupid. Go identify yourself to those men and go the hell home.

“No!”

One of the officers turned; Paul realized he’d spoken aloud. Compulsively tugging down his hat brim, he scurried away from the interrogation. This was the second sweep he’d encountered today; he needed a hiding place. A quarter mile down the strip, he passed an engee center swarmed with people. East coasters, judging by the snatches of accent flying past his ears. Some still had that stunned, fresh-from-the-airlift look about them. Others were more aggressive, practically tackling the volunteers as they handed out food and bottles.

Probably water from one of our charity write-offs, thought Paul. Maybe I should get up there and give a cute speech.

The center’s sign, a sheet of presswood cut into a boat shape and spray-painted blue, cast a pool of shadow on the sand. Paul sank into the shade and let the clamoring people swallow him. He didn’t realize he’d nodded off until a large hand began shaking him awake. Instantly he started. The crowd, his shield, had dissolved. Paul’s gummed eyes refused to focus on the stranger, a hulking silhouette against the low sun.

An officer? Some thug from Hammerhead’s gang? Either way, I’m—.

“Paul, you okay?”

The familiar gruff tone twisted Paul’s stomach.

“Fitch?” he murmured, the sound sticking in his dry throat.

*

Hope you enjoyed the sneak peek. I’m looking forward to your comments. (If you want more of Blue Karma, the first six chapters are available on WattPad.)  In the meantime, it’s back to the manuscript for me. Chapter fourteen is done; only seven more and the epilogue to go!

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