proof-tbobafThis is a part of our series of excerpts connected with our campaign for The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries. All of the authors have been selected based on fan and reviewer recognition as some of the best examples of Bad-Ass Faeries, representing over a decade of this award-winning series. If you are interested in learning more about The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, please check out our Kickstarter. #Make100

Selk-Skin Deep

Kelly A. Harmon

Cade Owen stood on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Livingstone, watching the crew of an ammunition ship loading armaments on board. The night sea cooperated. Gentle waves in the Gulf of Tonkin lapped at the two navy vessels. Men from the other ship, the USS Redoubt, sent over bomb after bomb until a crewman from the Livingstone pointed to a large wooden crate and made a cutting motion with his hands, halting the transfer.

Cade itched to know what the man’s agitation signaled. But from this distance, and under these lighting conditions, he couldn’t make out the problem. The carrier needed those munitions. Without them, the fighter jets couldn’t make their ordered strafing runs north of Hanoi in the morning, and he couldn’t rendezvous with the other SEALs later in the week with the Biet Hai Commandos in Da Nang.

Thank Manannán mac Lir. And President Kennedy, he thought, who created the SEALs only recently. He hoped this special mission would grant him a reprieve from the boredom his nearly immortal life provided him, even if he had to live among humans to find surcease. Humans weren’t a bad sort; he just couldn’t fathom why they seemed to live their lives so intensely.

Didn’t they realize that life is a series of up and down cycles? What made it so hard for them to accept that and move on? How can there be anything worth fighting over—dying over—when all things circle back in the ebb and flow of life?

He would love to discuss it with Friedman, but that would mean telling Friedman his bunkmate wasn’t human. Perhaps they’d known each long enough to swim that current. Long days confined together with the threat of war hanging over their heads had shaped their friendship far more quickly than a casual friendship might have. He’d give it some thought.

Until then, he would observe their intensity first hand. For now, he was just another man on the ship. And if he died serving? More the better, for it gave his life a purpose: something more than living and dying with the sea; yet, still living and dying by the sea.

The trident insignia of the Navy SEALs on his lapel gleamed in the moonlight. The brooding look on his face took on a more thoughtful aspect. He reached within his coveralls and pulled a small, rolled fur from around his neck. Shaking out the seal-shaped pelt, he moved into the darker shadow cast by an F4 Phantom and stripped out of his clothes. He draped the skin over his shoulders, letting the length of it drape down his back. Then, he grabbed the edges, pulling and tugging, smoothing the skin around himself until it grew large enough to cover him, turning him into a seal.

In an instant, the darkness disappeared, and Cade could see almost as well as if there were daylight. He opened his mouth, tasting the salty tang of the ocean on his tongue. He drew in a large breath, savoring the smell. He had waiting too long to return to true form. It always felt this way to him, after the change, like the sea wooed him back. If he were his human self, he would have smiled from the pleasure of it.

He dove into the water, falling forty feet through the air, cutting into the sea in a graceful arc. He plunged deep into the water, then surfaced and made his way around the side of the carrier and closer to the argument.

Kelly A. Harmon used to write truthful, honest stories about authors and thespians, senators and statesmen, movie stars and murderers. Now she writes lies, which is infinitely more satisfying, but lacks the convenience of doorstep delivery. She is an award-winning journalist and author, and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America. A Baltimore native, she writes the Charm City Darkness series, which includes the novels Stoned in Charm City, A Favor for a Fiend, and the soon to be published, A Blue Collar Proposition. Her science fiction and fantasy stories can be found in Triangulation: Dark Glass, Hellebore and Rue, and Deep Cuts: Mayhem, Menace and Misery.  

Ms. Harmon is a former newspaper reporter and editor, and now edits for Pole to Pole Publishing, a small Baltimore publisher. She is co-editor of Hides the Dark Tower along with Vonnie Winslow Crist. For more information, visit her blog at, or, find her on Facebook and Twitter:,


eSpec Books interviews Jody Lynn Nye, contributor to The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, currently funding on Kickstarter as a part of the #Make100 campaign.

eSB: What is your idea of a bad-ass faerie?

baf-itselemental_lgJLN: Faeries are tough, because they have to be. They are a part of raw nature, which doesn’t suffer fools or forgive, but at the same time, is entirely impersonal. The fact that faeries have personalities makes it all the more interesting when they intersect with humans. We have all these expectations, of faeries granting wishes, or being a sweet little companion on our travels in the outer wilderness, but what do you do if the faerie in question hasn’t read the story you did?  

eSB: Can you tell us a little about your story, “Fifteen Percent”, that was selected for The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries?

JLN: “Fifteen Percent” is about a writer in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and his muse/agent, a filandiere named Ninette. Marcel isn’t the most conscientious person in the world. In a way, he does live for his art, because when he’s not writing, he’s just not taking care of himself. Ninette makes sure that he works and reaps all the benefits of his work. In exchange, she takes the standard agent’s cut of fifteen percent of the gross. In this case, the fifteen percent means a cut from every part of the creative writing. Filandieres consume filliandrethe energy from creative endeavors. Marcel comes to realize that by her nature she diminishes the very work that she is plugging to New York editors, and resents the hell out of it. On the other hand, what choice does he have? It’s a devil’s bargain. Marcel has access to the mystical side of life, which inspires him to write great things. Ninette feeds from his work.

I had never heard of filandieres before I chose them from the list of spirit faeries, but they sounded so interesting. With a French name, the setting just chose itself. It had to take place in New Orleans and the surrounding environs. In Louisiana, all these creatures exist just beneath the surface of normality. In the city, in the bayou, in every small town, there are legends. Some are benevolent, but most are dark and dangerous. Marcel’s and Ninette’s relationship is one of abusive co-dependence, but I found it touching and funny at the same time.

eSB: What would your fae character’s signature drink be and why?

JLN: Hurricane. Of course. Ninette could ride the real whirlwind if she wanted to.

eSB: What kind of challenges did you find writing for this series?

JLN: Finding any information at all about filandieres. They were unfamiliar to me. Danielle gave me a link to, but that was the only location I have found the name, and that website has disappeared.

eSB: What is your first recollection of faeries growing up?

JLN: Probably the same as most American kids: Tinkerbell. I thought she was fascinating. She was so jealous of Peter Pan’s relationship with Wendy, or anyone else who took attention away from her. She was adorable, but she could be downright mean. After that, I found lots of references to faeries in literature and the movies. Pinocchio’s Blue Faerie was a benevolent presence. I loved Cinderella’s Faerie Godmother.

eSB: Do you have any plans to expand your story…or write in the same universe? If so, what more can your readers expect?

JLN: I hadn’t thought about it, but following Marcel, a very ordinary human with an extraordinary imagination and talent, able to trip into mystical surroundings with the help of his faerie agent could be a lot of fun.

eSB: What are some of your own works readers can look for?

Layout 1JLN: My website is I have lots of books. My current series, the Lord Thomas Kinago books from Baen, is like PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster, but in space. Thomas is an over-privileged, wealthy aristocrat with a good heart but far too much imagination and time on his hands. Parsons, his ‘aide-de-camp,’ helps to keep him out of trouble, most of the time.

eSB: What projects of your own do you have coming up?

JLN: In July, the first of my collaborations with Travis Taylor is coming out. Moon Beam is a hard SF novel for young adults. Set on the Moon, it follows six young scientists working on awesome projects, like building a space telescope out of an existing crater. We want to get young people thinking they can become involved in STEM projects.

eSB: How can readers find out more about you? 

JLN: Visit my website, check in with me on social media, or come up and talk to me at conventions.


Jody Lynn Nye lists her main career activity as ‘spoiling cats.’ When not engaged upon this worthy occupation, she writes fantasy and science fiction books and short stories.  

Since 1987 she has published over 45 books and more than 150 short stories. 

Her newest series is the Lord Thomas Kinago books, beginning with View From the Imperium (Baen Books), a humorous military SF novel. Her newest books are Rhythm of the Imperium, third in the Lord Thomas Kinago series; an e-collection of cat stories, Cats Triumphant! (Event Horizon), Wishing on a Star, part of the Stellar Guild series, with Angelina Adams, (Arc Manor Press) and a collection of holiday stories, A Circle of Celebrations (WordFire Press) , and her novella in the second in the Clan of the Claw series, Tooth and Claw. 

Check out her websites at and She is on Facebook as Jody Lynn Nye and Twitter @JodyLynnNye.


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proof-tbobafThis is a part of our series of excerpts connected with our campaign for The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries. All of the authors have been selected based on fan and reviewer recognition as some of the best examples of Bad-Ass Faeries, representing over a decade of this award-winning series. If you are interested in learning more about The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, please check out our Kickstarter. #Make100

The Natural-Born Spy

James Daniel Ross

Some things are too close for a normal man to focus on at the time. Only decades after November, 1944, can I look back and realize the small stones in the road that diverted our lives so immensely. I could never know that when I walked into the professor’s office at Boston College I was to begin a journey that would lead me to places I never imagined existed.

I was sitting at the desk, pads of paper thrown out across the surface like machinegun fire, books opened to select pages and marked with new pads, pens, and other books. There was a quick rap on the door, and then it opened with a swing that spoke of impatient authority.

The man who entered was tall and straight, or maybe pressed. Yes, that was it: The man gave out an impression that if he were rolled over Niagara Falls inside a wooden barrel he would come out with every bone broken—but every crease of his suit intact. The man practically had starch in his walk and his shoes were shined to blinding brightness. The instant he entered the room, his free hand snatched the hat from his head, exposing only a furtive bristle of hair. His lantern jaw screwed his teeth more tightly together and his eyes narrowed as they took me in. In the non-hat hand there was a book, which he now pointed at me in accusation. “You’re not Professor Levi Stein.”

I blinked at him twice, swallowing hard as his disapproval smacked me across the face. “Um, no. I’m sorry. I noticed the appointment in the book for you, Mr. Smith. There was no telephone number so I decided to wait here to explain why the professor—”

Smith ducked his head out into the hallway, scanning both ways quickly before retreating back into the office and shutting the door. Then he spun on me, his eyes as hard and cold as nails. “Where is the professor?”

I cleared my throat, fighting the tears trying to well up, “The professor is indisposed.”

“How indisposed?”

Then I had to grab a kerchief from my pack and dab at my eyes. “Permanently, sir.”

Smith glanced at the door darkly, but it was a moment or two before I heard a pair of shoes walk innocently by. He then turned back to me. “Who are you?”

“My name is Bruce Andrew.”

He tossed his Stetson on the desk and leaned on the free hand, looming over me and—now I am convinced—reading everything exposed in an instant. “You’re the professor’s star pupil.”

Maybe it was how quickly he dismissed the news of the professor’s death, or maybe how successful he was at intimidating me in a place I had come to regard as a home. Whatever it was, it gave me a little steel of my own, which I threw into my voice, waving my paring knife in front of his broadsword. “That’s right.”

He tossed the book, thick, heavy, and at least two centuries old, down in front of me. “Can you translate Occitan?”

“Of course.”

The grin on his face was not friendly or encouraging. “The pages are marked.”

“And why should I?”

He glared at me as if I were a toy poodle barking at him from the safety of a rich woman’s arms. Then he took out his billfold and pulled out five large bills as crisp as his pants. They fluttered to the desk carelessly, but when they landed they sounded like gold bars to me.

I only let them breathe there for a minute before snatching them up and stowing them in my front pocket. I opened the heavy tome, and saw page after page of pen-work easily dating back to the sixteenth century. Still his demeanor and the heavy bills in my pocket brooked no questions. I could only manage, “This will take a while.”

He leaned in the corner and crossed his arms. “I’ll wait.”

And wait he did, though the longer I moved words across time and languages, the more I smiled inside at his foolishness. It was well past midnight by the time I put down my pen and handed him the sheet. I allowed myself a little smile as he took it. “No hidden treasure map there, sorry.”

I started gathering my own papers into organized piles as he devoured every syllable I had recorded. Only once he was done did he refocus on me, eyes sharp. “Did you understand anything about this?”

I rolled my eyes and shoved my own books into my knapsack, leaving the one he had brought conspicuously alone. “I did an undergraduate paper on medieval belief in faeries and their ilk. They’re really little gods and every culture has had them, like the house gods of Roman times—”

Smith made a motion like swatting away a lethargic fly. “You’re an expert in myths and legends, then?”

I shrugged. “Myths, legends, and I read a half a dozen dead languages.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Star pupil, indeed.”

I nodded once, chin set.

He snatched up his book, translated pages folded within, retrieved his hat and nodded a thanks as he opened the door to leave. He paused. “Have you ever thought about joining the army?”

I hated that question, and it had been asked often the last three years. I did feel some need to go serve my country, and lord knows there were no more evil forces on the planet than Hitler and Tojo. Still, I was tall but thin, with an Adam’s apple of prodigious size. My eyes were more attuned to reading letters than searching out Nazis. In fact, if there was someone less suited to armed conflict than I was, I had never met him. I just was not a soldier. I didn’t know Smith, didn’t much like him, and I never planned to ever see him again. So I settled on a terse, “No.” without regard to what he might think of me.

Then he left, and I locked up the professor’s office for the night. I went to his funeral the next Sunday. He was buried next to his wife in a beautiful ceremony. I stood by his grave for a very long time after.

The next day I received my draft notice. I tried to argue the point to anyone who would listen, but all I got were disapproving looks and olive drab walls funneling me into boot camp, where time ceased to have any meaning. I felt extra eyes on me the entire time, and extra attention paid to my training.

If you are thinking loving, paternal attention, think again. I was horribly out of shape, grotesquely inadequate with a weapon, and almost died on the first three-mile run. I could never keep my uniform clean enough. I was never able to properly express my ferocity. I never knew the right answers. I once stabbed a dummy with a bayonet and immediately fell over backward. I once passed out doing push-ups. The ten-mile marches were almost a death sentence. Let me be clear: I was a fantastic researcher, and an excellent linguist, but at six feet and one hundred and ten pounds, a hard-charging, bullet-chewing, Nazi-throttling grunt I was not.

It was something my drill sergeant never let me forget. He called me Ichabod . . . as in Crane. I was just glad they never found a pumpkin to throw at me as I suffered through the five-mile runs. Then, one night, I was pulled out of bed without warning. My scream turned into a cough as someone lovingly toed me in the solar plexus, emptying my lungs in one, fell whoosh. I tried to call upon my inadequately learned training and lashed out with hands and feet, earning a slap. My head was spinning as they efficiently shoved a cotton gag in my mouth, trussed me up with rough rope, yanked a bag over my head, and hustled me into the frigid night.

A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, James Daniel Ross has been an actor, computer tech support operator, historic infotainment tour guide, armed self defense retailer, automotive petrol attendant, youth entertainment stock replacement specialist, mass market Italian chef, low priority courier, monthly printed media retailer, automotive industry miscellaneous task facilitator, and ditch digger.  

The Radiation Angels: The Chimerium Gambit is his first novel and is followed by The Radiation Angels: The Key to Damocles. He is also the author of I Know Not, The Whispering of Dragons(with Neal Levin,) and The Last Dragoon. Snow and Steel is his first sojourn into historical fiction. James Daniel Ross shares a Dream Realm Award with the other others in Breach the Hull, and an EPPIE award with the others appearing in Bad Ass Faeries 2.  

Most people are begging him to go back to ditch digging.


eSpec Books interviews Patrick Thomas, contributor to The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail, currently funding on Kickstarter as a part of the #Make100 campaign.

eSB: What is your idea of a bad-ass faerie?

Patrick Thomas: Danielle Ackley-McPhail, the godmother of the series, would certainly seem to qualify as the archetype of a bad-ass faerie. And a bad-ass editor too.

eSB: Can you tell us a little about your story, Looking a Gift Horse, that was selected for The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries?

baf-itselemental_lgPatrick Thomas: It takes Terrorbelle – who was in the original Bad-Ass Faeries in a story set in modern day New York City – back to her days in Faerie.  She’s just a kid and yet not the accomplished soldier she grows up to be. She has to depend more on her wits than her brawn to survive the attentions of a killer soldier and a deadly augskyAughisky, a breed of water horse.

eSB: What would your fae character’s signature drink be and why?

Patrick Thomas: She likes beer, but she might enjoy a Pink Lady as it would match her hair.

eSB: What do you like most about The Bad-Ass Faeries series, and why?

Patrick Thomas: The variety of the characters and the settings of the stories is amazing. So many authors contributing so many different yet enjoyable tales.

eSB: What kind of challenges did you find writing for this series?

Patrick Thomas: Right before the events in Looking a Gift Horse, Terrorbelle had suffered a traumatic and life changing event and is seeking revenge, but is only 11 years old. It was a challenge to try to coincide with the rawness and youth of the story with her older more confident self.

eSB: What is your first recollection of faeries growing up?

Patrick Thomas: Well, probably Tinkerbelle in Peter Pan- I saw the show on Broadway when I was a kid. And stories of leprechauns, which in an Irish family isn’t that unusual.

eSB: What interested you in writing for this series?  

Patrick Thomas: Danielle Ackley-Mcphail and I were in the Dark Furies anthology and she asked me if I’d be interested in writing a Terrorbelle story for the first Bad-Ass Faeries. I jumped at the chance.

eSB: Tell us something about yourself that is bad-ass.

Patrick Thomas: I could tell you, but then… Naw.

eSB: Do you have any plans to expand your story…or write in the same universe? If so, what more can your readers expect?

patrick-thomas-fairywithagunPatrick Thomas: Terrorbelle has two books of her own – Fairy With A Gun (a collection of short stories that was once optioned by Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Productions for film and TV) and Fairy Rides The Lightning (a murder mystery in Valhalla that is not solved in time could lead to Ragnorak). Stories of Terrorbelle’s younger years in Faerie will be collected soon with a cover by the legendary Daniel Horne and her adventures take place in the Murphy’s Lore universe.

eSB: What are some of your own works readers can look for?

Patrick Thomas: The Murphy’s Lore and Startenders series, paranormal mysteries Lore & Dysorder (starring Hell’s Detective), Dead To Rites and Rites of Passage (starring Agent Karver of The Department of Mystic Affairs), the steampunk As The Gears Turn and the many Dear Cthulhu advice books.

eSB: What projects of your own do you have coming up?

Patrick Thomas:  A new Dear Cthulhu collection, a collection and novel featuring Hex and a Soul For Hire collection.

eSB: How can readers find out more about you?


Patrick Thomas has had stories published in over three dozen magazines and more than fifty anthologies. He’s written 30+ books including the fantasy humor series Murphy’s Lore, urban fantasy spin offs Fairy With A Gun, Fairy Rides The Lightning, Dead To Rites, Rites of Passage, Lore & Dysorder and two more in the Startenders series. He co-writes the Mystic Investigatorsparanormal mystery series and The Assassins’ Ball, a traditional mystery, co-authored with John L. French. His darkly humorous advice column Dear Cthulhu includes the collections Have A Dark Day, Good Advice For Bad People, and Cthulhu Knows Best. His latest collection is the Steampunk themed As The Gears Turn. A number of his books were part of the props department of the CSI television show and one was even thrown at a suspect. Fairy With A Gun was optioned by Laurence Fishburne’s Cinema Gypsy Productions. Act of Contrition, a story featuring his Soul For Hire hitman is in development as a short film by Top Men Productions. Drop by to learn more.


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eSpec Books is proud to present, The Die Is Cast (From the Archives Book 1) edited by Geg Schauer, a collection of short stories by Mike McPhail and Danielle Ackley-McPhail set in the Alliance Archive Role Playing universe. The book was funded through the Man and Machine Kickstarter campaign and is scheduled to release in March 2017. It will launch at HELIOsphere, a brand new science fiction convention in Tarrytown, NY where Danielle is one of the Guests of Honor, along with David Gerrold and Jacqueline Carey. There will be a launch party the Saturday of the convention, details to come.




proof-tbobafThis is a part of our series of excerpts connected with our campaign for The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries. All of the authors have been selected based on fan and reviewer recognition as some of the best examples of Bad-Ass Faeries, representing over a decade of this award-winning series. If you are interested in learning more about The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, please check out our Kickstarter. #Make100

Grim Necessity

Jeffrey Lyman

Featherlight and her partner, Remy, strode down the corridor of the pixie wing of the maximum security prison, boots clacking on the floor. Remy tapped his billy club against his hip as he walked, a nervous habit. Full-sized bricks, painted white and stacked four high, had been used in the construction of the walls, and there was iron plating behind those bricks. Iron didn’t bother Featherlight, but Remy said it felt like an uncomfortable itch.

“I can’t believe Clank’s getting a visitor,” he said.

“Happens to the worst of us,” she replied, keeping her eyes open for trouble. “I can’t believe the warden’s allowing her to see a visitor.”

The corridor ended and P-wing opened up around them. They were on the top floor of four stories of cells, wrapped around a central, open core. The core had been strung back and forth with steel wire to keep the pixies from flying.

There were a lot of pixies inside today. The prison was on semi-lockdown because of an outbreak of fighting the day before. The warden was limiting the number of races out in the yards. Right now the brownies and faeries were out, and the pixies, ogres, and most of the dwarfs were inside.

Featherlight and Remy stopped in front of a cell. “Clankerbell. You have a visitor.” Remy grunted.

She didn’t agree with the warden allowing Clank to have a visitor.

All evidence indicated that she hadn’t been in the fight, but Featherlight knew Clank had been involved somehow. She always was. Clankerbell stood from her cot, looking bored. Plastic dog tags hung proudly on the wall behind her. They were a trophy, taken from the body of the Rottweiler that had bitten off her right wing.

“My reputation must be growing,” she said, staring at Featherlight. “They sent the Big Pig to fetch me this time.” She fanned her remaining left wing like a butterfly and glanced at Remy. “Who is it?”

She had gotten a new tattoo on her arm, Featherlight noticed. An inverted rainbow, meaning something like an upside-down cross. No matter how hard the warden tried, he couldn’t keep the pixies from getting colors for their prison tats. They practically shat colors, so what was the use?

“I have no idea who it is and I didn’t ask,” Remy said. “He’s either a dwarf or a short, hairy man. You ready?” Clank nodded and Remy bellowed back down to the guardhouse, “Open up number seventeen.”

The bars of Clankerbell’s cell clicked and whirred on their servos and slid to the side.

Featherlight tensed up. “You know the drill. Keep your hands to yourself and I won’t crush you.”

“Chill, Big Pig. We’re cool.” Clankerbell smirked and stepped out of her cell.

Featherlight was a protean shapeshifter who could change not only her looks, but her size. She could swell up in the corridor and mash Clankerbell into the wall in a second if there were trouble. She could also close up her wounds if someone knifed her. The warden always sent her into the fights, and the prisoners respected her abilities.

Clank carelessly sauntered down the corridor, whistling the same cheery song all Pixies whistled. Featherlight heard it in her head sometimes after long days. Remy walked behind them both to stay out of the ‘crush zone’ should Featherlight’s abilities be needed.

They passed a smaller cell with a single bell hanging from the ceiling, and it rang off-key in time with Clank. An ugly gremlin peeked out below the rim and Featherlight pointed at him. “Go back to sleep, Smear.” The greasy head vanished.

They passed through security, where Clankerbell was searched from top to bottom. Featherlight then led her through a mouse hole and into the secure visiting area. Birdcages hung where pixies could talk to their visitors. More docile inmates were allowed out into the larger Visitor’s Room to meet with family members directly. Clankerbell had never been docile.


Jeffrey Lyman is an engineer in the New York City area. His work has appeared in Sails and Sorcery, Trouble on the Water, and in The Defending the Future anthology series, including the Best of Defending The Future. He was co-editor of No Longer Dreams and the Bad-Ass Faeriesanthology series. He is a 2004 graduate of the Odyssey Writing School and was a finalist for the Writers of the Future Award.


proof-tbobafThis is a part of our series of excerpts connected with our campaign for The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries. All of the authors have been selected based on fan and reviewer recognition as some of the best examples of Bad-Ass Faeries, representing over a decade of this award-winning series. If you are interested in learning more about The Best of Bad-Ass Faeries, please check out our Kickstarter. #Make100

Twilight Crossing

John Passarella

George Thorogood was playing on the jukebox when I tossed Ollie Janks out on his ass. Wasn’t the first time. Wouldn’t be the last. Or so I thought, when I said, “Nothing personal, Ollie.”

Little did I know everything was about to change.

The grizzled drunk staggered to his feet and made a half-hearted attempt to brush off the seat of his bib overalls. Lacking the coordination to complete that simple task, he decided to flip me off instead. “The fuck, Ray?” he shouted. “My money ain’t good enough for the Willowbrook Tavern?”

“Not when you confuse Shirley’s ass with the produce aisle.”

“Practically keep this dump in business,” Ollie said, “much as I spend here.”

“We appreciate your support,” I said. “But Shirley’s not on the menu.”

“And what do I get for my hard-earned dollars, eh? Watered down liquor and the bum’s rush, that’s what!”

“Time to walk it off, Ollie. Or should I call you a cab?”

“Need no fuckin’ cab,” Ollie said with a dismissive wave of his hand. He plodded toward the shoulder of the road. “Live three damn blocks away.”

Shaking my head, I returned to the dark confines of the Willow-brook Tavern. By morning, Ollie wouldn’t have the slightest recollection of the events preceding or following his unceremonious ejection from his favorite watering hole.

Something happens often enough, you begin to expect it. That’s when you need to worry.

Moments later, the door hinges creaked behind me.

I turned, bracing for round two with Ollie, but the drunk had stayed true to form. Instead, a slender young man with dark hair and a harried expression on his gaunt face brushed by me, tossing a mumbled apology in his wake. My first thought was: Underage. My second: Trouble.

The clock above the bar displayed midnight.

Then the red second hand began to descend.

Ignoring the social invitation of the bar stools or the shadowed privacy of the side booths, where most of the evening’s crowd were huddled, the young man chose the nearest of three unoccupied, wobbly tables, and dropped into one of the four rickety chairs that surrounded it. A hanging brass light fixture seemed to deconstruct his face into pale slivers of flesh and harsh shadows. Otherwise, he looked unremarkably ordinary in a green and tan Rugby shirt, dark jeans and black running shoes. One heel beat an insistent tattoo against the warped floorboards, as if he were keeping time with a frenetic drummer.

About ready to vibrate out of his skin.

Wearing her customary red-and-white-checked blouse, jeans, a beer-stained apron, and calf-high leather boots, Shirley strolled over to the table to take his order. She gave him a one-second appraisal. “There’s a law against serving minors.”

The young man looked at her, gauging, challenging. “Is that so?”

“That’s what they tell me,” Shirley said, punctuating the comment with a little chuckle. “So what can I get you?”

“Whatever you’ve got on tap.”

“Gotcha. Back in a jiff, hon.”

I shook my head in disbelief. She’s flirting with him! Ben finds out, he’ll break that kid in half.

“Thanks.” He tapped both index fingers against the side of the small bowl of pretzels in the center of the table, ran one hand through his hair, then heaved a sigh.

I drifted back to my regular booth, first one on the left, and picked up the well-worn baseball I’d snagged at a Phillies’ game over a year ago. Foul ball, unsigned, no sentimental value, but it helped me think. And I needed to understand what was happening.

From my booth, I could observe the entire front half of the tavern, and peek down the short hall to the back room, with its side-by-side pool tables. Only the modest kitchen, with its small grill and deep fryer, was hidden from me. Although, occasionally, through the porthole window in the scuffed kitchen door, I caught a glimpse of the bald head of Oscar, our night cook. With Ollie gone, the place was relatively calm, but I sensed trouble brewing, an inexplicable prickling of the short hairs on the back of my neck. Wasn’t sure from which direction the trouble would come. But I knew its target. Had since the moment he bumped into me.

I scanned the crowd, seeking anything or anyone unusual. The tavern was less than a quarter filled, all regulars, fewer than twenty people, huddled in the booths that lined the walls. A few pairs quietly conversed. Some loners scanned the sports pages or worked crosswords, while others watched the muted TV over the bar, tuned to ESPN’s continual stream of scores and highlights. Steady night, not too busy. Sometimes the back room could get rowdy. Tonight, there was a companionable game of eight ball in progress. Nothing more. As the Thorogood tune faded, the only sound rising above the whispered conversations was the muffled thwack of billiard balls colliding. An expression came to mind….

The calm before the storm.

Shirley delivered the young man’s draft in a stein. He paid attention long enough to hand her a five and tell her to keep the change. Instead of drinking the beer, he traced his fingertips along the surface of the glass, creating parallel trails in the condensation.

I was the Willowbrook Tavern’s resident bouncer. At six-one and less than one-hundred-seventy pounds, I hardly looked the part, but I maintained order with the fairly rough trade that frequented the place. I’d needed a job and convinced Quentin Avery, the owner, that I had mastered some inscrutable far eastern martial art whose name I’d made up on the spot and had since forgotten. Self-defense came naturally to me, on some instinctual level I was reluctant to question. In my first two weeks on the job, I proved I could handle the bullies and belligerent drunks, as well as the occasional knife wielders and those making death threats with the borrowed courage of a tire iron or baseball bat. Compared to them, Ollie Janks was a cream puff. Since then….

How long had I been rubbing my arm? Where the young man had bumped into me, my skin felt as if it had been charged with a current. The sensation was spreading, as if he had infected me with his nervous energy. I debated leaving my booth to have a little chat with him, to determine what the hell was happening, when the front door burst open.

Cloaked in shadows, I settled back into the booth and watched as three burly men in black leather garb strode down the length of the tavern, their boot heels striking the floorboards like a succession of hammer blows. Could have been bikers, but I would have heard motorcycles arriving. Two took positions around the nervous young man, one to each side, while the third, presumably the leader, stood in front.

Here comes the storm.

Behind the bar, Shirley tucked a bottled-blonde strand of hair behind her ear. Nervous gesture. She cast an expectant look in my direction. Hank, the greying bartender, stood by the cash register, drying glasses with a frayed cloth. Despite his casual pose, I noticed a slight tremor in his hands. Oscar cast a wide-eyed look through the porthole window, decided it was none of his business and ducked out of view. Most of the bar patrons darted curious but discreet glances at the three men, careful not to draw unwanted attention to themselves. Dan and Elaine, a young couple in thrift shop clothes but with no shortage of common sense, slipped from their far corner booth and practically tiptoed out the back room exit. Resigned to witnessing whatever mayhem ensued, the rest or the crowd seemed to lean a bit further away from the leather-clad trio. The instinct for self-preservation had begun to assert itself.

I leaned forward, my right hand pressing the baseball hard against the tabletop as I studied the new arrivals. All three stood several inches over six feet, had reddish hair and fine facial features, almost delicate in an odd way. Brothers, I thought. Though the leader’s hair was cropped short, the other two sported locks halfway down their back. Belatedly, I realized they were twins. All three had knives in scabbards looped through their belts. I wondered about concealed weapons.

“Well now,” said the leader to the seated young man. “Look what we have here.”

“Do I know you?”

Genuinely puzzled, I thought, surprised. He really doesn’t know them.

“Name’s Darius,” the leader said. “My brothers, Maleck and Mortenn. And you would be Kevin. Kevin Robb, to be precise. Correct?” The young man nodded nervously, as if confessing a felony to a police officer. “Don’t expect you know us, but….” He reached into the chest pocket of his jacket and took out a snapshot. After a quick glance, he nodded and tossed it on the table in front of the young man. “Bet he looks familiar.”

As the three brothers leaned forward, into the pale cone of light, to witness Kevin’s reaction to the photo—my breath caught in my throat. “What the hell—?”

At first I thought something dark and slimy crawled along their skin and clothes, but then I realized it was some sort of dark light or energy rippling around them, a visible aura, something malevolent, if my gut reaction were any judge. I scanned the bar, wondering if anyone else could see the strange phenomenon enveloping these men. Everyone seemed oblivious to it—

—except Kevin Robb. Something had rattled him. Sweat glistened on his brow. His lips trembled as he said, “That—that’s a picture of me. Dead. But that’s impossible.”


John Passarella co-authored Wither, which won the Horror Writer Association’s prestigious Bram Stoker Award for best first novel of 1999. Columbia Pictures purchased the feature film rights to Wither in a preemptive bid. Passarella’s solo novels include Wither’s Rain, Wither’s Legacy, Kindred Spirit and Shimmer and seven media tie-in novels: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Ghoul Trouble, Angel: Avatar, Angel: Monolith, Supernatural: Night Terror, Supernatural: Rite of Passage, Grimm: The Chopping Block and Supernatural: Cold Fire.

He lives in New Jersey with his wife and children. Please visit him online at