(With Author Notes)
“We gotta run okay? We need to get out of here.”
(Yikes! This is me trying to go for a killer first line. They always say that – write a KILLER first line. So important, so they say! Personally I think the first ten pages are a lot more important than a single line, even if it is the first one. Who gives up on a book after one sentence? This one’s not bad, I don’t know if it’s KILLER though. At the very least, I want to make the reader curious or unsettled enough to read on.)
Cody MacLeod kneeled in front of his daughter and squeezed her gently on the upper arms. She felt fragile, like a china doll. “Whatever happens, we can’t let the bad woman catch up with us,” he said. “She makes people do bad things. You know that don’t you?”
“Do you understand Rachel?” Cody said.
Rachel nodded her head.
“We’ve got to stay one step ahead of her,” Cody said, pushing a few loose strands of blonde hair off Rachel’s face. “Two steps, three steps.” His voice was shaking and he took a deep breath before saying anything else. This wasn’t a good time to lose it and even if he was on the brink, he couldn’t let Rachel see.
(Bad woman. Her. No names given. Who is Cody talking about? This is me trying to be all mysterious and not give too much away. What do they call it – intrigue? Something like that? I’m still trying to reel you in. Thing is, if you’d read the blurb (and most readers would have before buying) you’ll know who/what is being referred to here but if not, great. I’m writing to you people!)
They were in the hallway of their house in Spring Branch, Texas. Cody turned towards the front door where two bulging backpacks were sitting. One of them was plain black and the other featured a rainbow colored sky with two silver ponies grazing in a field of green grass.
(Why Texas? Ehh, why not? It went like this – I had an idea about a burned out actor living a reclusive life far from the mad temptation of Hollywood/Celebrityville. I wanted somewhere that it would be easy to disappear. Texas is big and there’s a lot of room there. It could’ve been Alaska too – that would’ve been cool. Shit, it might have been better. Anyway, I googled for ages before I landed on Spring Branch. It felt right and yet not too far from San Antonio, which I also felt drawn to. Might have been the Alamo thing. By the way, Google Maps is incredible. A writer’s dream.)
“All we gotta do is walk out the door,” Cody said.
“Are we leaving for good?” Rachel said. Cody saw the confusion in his daughter’s indigo blue eyes – the same indigo blue eyes that he’d possessed as a child before the years had dulled them.
He nodded. “Yeah I think so.”
Cody heard the Black Storm blowing outside. The wind was howling and moaning – a crude B-movie sound effect that had escaped from the big screen into the real world. Still it was relatively calm, at least compared to the gale force winds that had been blowing the night before when Cody had made the decision to leave home. It was a decision that would either save their lives or seal their fate.
There was doubt in the little girl’s eyes. Cody could tell that she wasn’t sure he was making the right call and Jesus, who could blame her? He wasn’t sure about it either.
“Geez kid,” Cody said. “Don’t look at me like that. You’re looking at me the way other people used to look at me back in the eighties and nineties. That’s Grandma’s eyes I see in you right now. You don’t trust me? You don’t think we should go?”
Rachel managed a lazy shrug of the shoulders.
“I’m not on drugs honey,” Cody said. “I swear on your Mom’s soul.”
(A note on former child megastars. I chose the name Cody because it’s close to Corey. The character of Cody was conceived as a cross between Corey Haim, River Phoenix and Robert Downey Jnr. Troubled former child/teen stars, all of them. If Black Storm the movie ever gets made you’re up Downey Jnr. The role of Cody is all yours. Unfortunately the other two aren’t around to contest that anymore RIP Corey and River.)
“I know Dad,” she said. I’m just scared.”
He pulled her closer. She was so beautiful and innocent – the only perfect thing in his life. And she’d remained perfect – thank God for that. Had Cody stayed in Hollywood to try and claw back his career, the industry would have noticed her. It would have sunk its teeth into Rachel and ruined her like it did for her mother, Kate. No chance – that was one of several reasons that Cody and Kate moved to Texas ten years ago. Cody would die before he gave those bigwig assholes in LA the chance to get their hands on his daughter.
He smiled at Rachel.
“I’m scared too,” Cody said. “But we have to go. You’ve watched the reports on TV. You’ve heard it on the radio. You know what people are doing to themselves, to each other out there. You know how dangerous it is and you know how dangerous she is.”
(Still haven’t said who she is…tension and all that. This chapter probably reads better if you haven’t read the blurb. It’s like going into a cinema and knowing nothing about the film you’re about to see.)
Rachel didn’t blink. Despite her saying she was scared, she looked calm –older than her ten years. Sometimes Cody thought, kids did adulthood better than most adults.
“Is it the woman in the long black dress?” she said.
“Yes honey. It’s the woman in the long black dress.”
“I saw her in my room last night,” she said.
Cody’s hands fell off his daughter’s arms. His mouth hung open and the cold air that haunted the MacLeod residence slid down the back of his throat. He looked at Rachel, his eyes racing over her blue denim dungarees and the white long sleeved t-shirt that she was wearing underneath. He ran a finger down her blue and white basketball shoes, not sure what he was looking for. Damage – but what sort of damage?
With cupped hands, he touched her face.
“She was in your room?” Cody said. “Last night? Did she say anything? I mean, did she try and talk to you – to make you do anything? Did she tell you to hurt yourself?”
Rachel shook her head.
“She was just standing at the edge of the bed looking at me,” she said. “Her face is like a mannequin. That’s what they said on TV. She looks like a giant doll with silver lights instead of eyes.”
(Dolls scare the hell out of me. If ever you want to give me the creeps, just show me pictures of dolls. Please don’t ever bring one to my house though. Dolls are my evil clowns…)
“Weren’t you scared?” Cody said. His heart was pounding.
“No,” Rachel said. “Well, not really.”
Cody buried his face in the palm of his hand.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, almost losing his balance and toppling over onto the hardwood floor. “Tell me something kid,” he said. “This is really important. Is that the first time you’ve seen her?”
“Well then it’s definitely time to go,” Cody said. “She’s starting to pay too much attention to this family for my liking.”
Rachel’s eyes were wide open. “You’ve seen her too?”
Cody nodded. “Yeah.” Several times.
“They’ve been talking about her on the radio Dad,” Rachel said. “People are seeing her everywhere. China, Europe, Australia, Brazil and lots of other places that I’ve never heard of.”
“Yeah I know,” Cody said. He was itching to leave. He wanted to grab Rachel and get her out of the house immediately.
“All the people who see her end up dead,” Rachel said. “That’s what they say, isn’t it?”
(Where did the Black Widow come from? It’s a vague memory to be honest. I read an article online somewhere about a woman in America who’d been spotted walking the streets dressed in old-fashioned mourning clothes. I can’t quite remember the context but the article made it sound like she was almost ghostly – or perhaps that was just my interpretation. It was weird and that’s why sometimes I think it was a dream. I can’t find anything about it on Google and yet it struck me as noteworthy. I can’t remember, honest! Whatever it was, it gave me the idea of this phantom woman walking not just across America, but across the world, dressed in black, punishing us for our wrongdoings. The Black Widow. It developed from there but that’s where this entire trilogy started – with an article that might not have even existed.)
Cody squeezed tight on her hand.
“Not everyone,” he said. “Like I said, I’ve seen her too.”
“In the house?”
“Yeah, in the house. That’s why we need to go.”
Rachel looked thoughtful. Her eyes darted around the living room before returning to him.
“Is she chasing the world? The whole world?”
Cody straightened the collar of his black cotton shirt.
“Yeah honey,” he said. “I think she’s chasing the world. And that includes us – you and me. We’ve got to get away from this house because I’m not going to let anything happen to you. Okay?”
Cody was glad to see that Rachel could still smile.
“Okay,” she said.
Outside the Black Storm grumbled. It sounded like it was an angry giant sitting on the roof of their house, waiting impatiently for them to come out.
Cody tugged gently on Rachel’s arms. She didn’t move.
“Where are we going?” she said.
It was a good question.
Cody nodded. “You remember my friend?” he said. “A big guy called Nick Norton?”
Rachel shook her head.
“Sure you do,” Cody said. “You met him once. He works on Alaska Airlines, flies out of San Antonio all the time. He’s an old school buddy of mine from LA. He was in the movies too when he was a kid, just like your old man.”
(I might have chosen Texas but I managed to get Alaska in there somewhere. On a side note, if I ever lived in America, I’d choose Alaska. Yes it’s cold but it’s so beautiful.)
“I don’t know,” Rachel said.
“Big black guy, all mouth and muscle. He was over here about four years ago. You must remember – it’s not like we have a ton of guests or anything like that.”
“What about him?”
Cody leaned in closer. He felt the need to whisper.
“He’s got a plane,” he said. “It’s a big plane – Boeing 737-800, fully fuelled and ready to go. He’s invited us along – some of the other pilots and their friends and family will be there too. I got a text from Nick about fifteen hours ago – the plane is at the airport right now, waiting for everyone to arrive. You understand? We’re going to drive down to the airport and get on Nick’s plane.”
(Airplane stuff! Having flashbacks to some seriously boring moments looking up info about Boeing 737-800 planes. Capacity, that kind of thing. Some research is fun. This wasn’t. Zzzzz…)
Cody’s face darkened.
“Only problem is I can’t get in touch with Nick anymore,” he said. “My phone keeps jamming up.”
Rachel’s eyes lit up – a mixture of fear and curiosity.
“Because of the Black Storm?”
“Maybe,” Cody said. “But it doesn’t matter, not as long as we get to the airport in good time. He’ll wait for us, I know he will.”
Rachel’s expression was grim.
“We’re going up into the black sky?” she said, pointing to the ceiling. “What’s up there?”
Cody followed her finger towards the ceiling. Kids and their questions, damn it. Who knew what was up there in that black shroud that had wrapped itself over the Earth? Something, maybe nothing. Everything was black these days – even the inside of the MacLeod residence. The curtains were pulled over all the windows, shielding them from the sight of the Black Storm, the mysterious force that had come out of nowhere and robbed the world of sunlight.
(Going back to names for a second, I chose MacLeod as the family surname because…wait for it…I watched Highlander for about the fortieth time just after starting the book. The characters even talk about the film at one point so I was definitely on a Highlander buzz. What a film. That soundtrack! I miss the 80s so much.)
“It can’t all be bad up there,” Cody said. “We gotta try. Anything’s better than staying down here on the ground while people go mad and do bad things. I’ll bet you it’s safer up there. Yeah?”
Rachel looked down the hall towards her bedroom.
“I want to take Bootsy with me,” she said. “If we’re not coming back.”
(Sticking with names – Bootsy the bear was named after Bootsy Collins, the great funk and soul bass player who worked with James Brown and Parliament. Didn’t that teddy bear just get a little bit cooler?)
Cody sighed. He couldn’t hide his growing frustration any longer. They should have been gone already. He didn’t want to hang around the house one second longer than he had to. He tugged gently on her arm, with more urgency this time.
“You’re too big for that teddy bear,” he said. “You’re ten.”
The look on her face stopped him dead.
“Mom gave him to me,” she said. “Remember?”
Of course he did.
“I’ve packed a ton of photos of Mom in the bag,” he said. “Lots of photos. We’re not going to forget her.”
“I want Bootsy,” Rachel said. Cody almost smiled – it was like Kate all over again. If she wanted something, she was going to have it.
“Alright kid,” he said, letting go of her arm. “Get Bootsy but don’t stay in that bedroom one second longer than you have to. I’ll grab the bags.”
Cody watched her run down the hallway. He felt uneasy watching her go through the bedroom door knowing that the Black Widow had been in there last night. Cody had already seen the ghostly figure several times in the house but there had been no words spoken. That was something to be grateful for at least. And now the Black Widow was coming after Rachel? Any doubts Cody might have been having about leaving had shattered with that revelation.
A few seconds later, Rachel came running back down the hallway with the beat-up teddy bear swinging at her side. She looked content.
“All set?” Cody asked. “Can we go now?” He picked up the two backpacks and flung one over each shoulder.
She nodded. “Just one thing?”
“Oh c’mon Rachel. Let’s get out of here.”
“Who is she Dad?”
The two backpacks slid down Cody’s arm in slow motion. He squatted so that he was almost eye level with Rachel.
“She came out of the Black Storm,” he said. “At least that’s what people say but we don’t know for sure. Everything – the black sky, black rain and the Black Widow – they’re all connected. All these things are part of the Black Storm.”
“And it makes people do bad things?” Rachel said.
Cody nodded. “Very bad things.”
Rachel smiled. It was a great smile – sudden and unexpected.
“We’d better go,” she said.
“Right honey,” Cody said. “Now you’re talking.”
He opened the front door and they stepped outside.
It was dark. A permanent state of dusk hung over the world – a rotten, simmering blackness and it was everywhere. It was unending too. Blue skies and sunlight were a distant memory. The air was thick and muggy and scentless. A stiff wind was blowing and the trees that surrounded the remote two-storey house were swaying.
They walked towards the car in the driveway. Cody’s white 1970 Dodge Challenger was one of only a few references left to his Hollywood past. He was probably the only part-time freelance writer in the world who owned such a vintage car. It was a little much but Cody loved the Challenger with all his heart. It was a perfect replica of the car used in Vanishing Point, one of his top five all time movies. It wasn’t just an ornament either – he kept the Dodge in outstanding driving condition and a good thing too – he was going to need it firing on all cylinders if it was going to get them to the airport.
(I was so happy to finally have found an excuse to put a white 1970 Dodge Challenger in one of my books. It just felt right this time. Have you seen the original Vanishing Point? If I say Kowalski and Super Soul do you know what I’m talking about?)
The surface of the car was covered in a thin layer of dirt. Cody didn’t have time to worry about it – he opened up the trunk and threw the bags in, pushing them all the way to the back. As he did so, Rachel jumped into the back seat taking Bootsy with her.
“Take me somewhere nice!” she called out. She always said the same thing when she got in the car.
“Sure thing Miss Daisy,” he said.
(Hands up if you didn’t get this reference? I’m sorry for you.)
Cody opened up the driver’s door. Before he sat down, he reached a hand underneath the seat, checking that the Glock 19 he’d stashed earlier was still there.
It was. He gave the pistol a quick pat and hoped that he wouldn’t need it.
Cody climbed into the Dodge and turned the key in the ignition. He heard the 426 Hemi engine growling and hell yes it was a satisfying sound, even under the most trying of circumstances. Taking a deep breath, he gripped the wood grain steering wheel and allowed himself one last look at the house where his wife had died, knowing that he’d never see it again.
Move it mister. That’s what Kate would have said.
Cody backed the car down the driveway and onto Rittiman Road. It was a quiet area with houses spaced far apart, but it had never been so desolate as it was now. Was there anyone left around here?
Rachel was quiet in the back – perhaps thinking about her Mom, a woman that she’d barely known and yet someone who had cast a long shadow over her young life. Or maybe Rachel was thinking about the house – it was the only home she’d ever known after all. She was leaving her friends and school behind – but none of those things mattered now. Keeping her alive, that’s what mattered.
The Dodge set off, picking up speed.
Cody looked back at the house in the rear-view mirror. One last look.
That’s when he saw her.
The Black Widow was standing on the narrow road that stretched north behind them. Her porcelain doll-like skin glowed against the surrounding darkness; it was a nightmarish beacon that offered anything but hope to those who had the misfortune to see it. She was tall – at least seven feet and rake thin like a skeleton with a thin layer of flesh wrapped around her bones. Her bright red hair was styled in an old-fashioned Edwardian coiffure. It was a look that went well with the long black Victorian-style mourning dress that trailed behind her.
The Black Widow’s eyes – dazzling silver orbs, devoid of pupils watched them go. She didn’t try to stop them but Cody felt little in the way of relief, even as the phantom faded into the distance behind them.
She was letting them go. At least for now.
(Okay then. I think the first chapter does a decent job of setting up the rest of the story. It’s a race against time. We’ve met the two main characters, we have an idea that something terrible is happening in the world, and that this something terrible has set its sights on our main characters. It’s clear what it is though – it’s a chase thing. Most of all, it’s a post-apocalyptic family story. Father and daughter against the end of the world.)
Black Storm (Book 1) and Black Fever (Book 2) are now available to buy on Amazon.