I have heard many arguments made that the first five pages of a book are the most important. There is even a whole book, aptly named The First Five Pages, dedicated to making sure that you can snag an agent with that magical first taste.
To put this theory to the test, I am sharing the first five pages of my next book, Dying for Her: Brinkley's Story. You tell me how effective they are. :)
It should be illegal to tell a man when he will die.
“Caldwell kills you himself,” she said to me.
In that dank basement of hers, Jackson dropped this on me. She showed me the picture she sketched. Like any AMP, she is only supposed to know the day of my death, not particulars. But this is a detailed fucking sketch if I’ve ever seen one. In the picture, my Python revolver, my favorite, was pressed to the side of Caldwell’s head. In the background, a 1940s farm house was on fire. Other mysterious shapes pooled around us like ghostly spectators. People? Animals? Whatever the hell they were, they sent a chill up my spine.
My eyes fixated on the gun. The .357 magnum told me everything. That’s my lucky gun. If I took that gun out of the steel box I kept it in, let alone pressed it to the side of a man’s head, I did it believing I wouldn’t make it out alive. I’ve only taken the gun with me into two fights and I’ve always said that I intended to die with that gun in my hand.
When I lowered the drawing, I saw Jackson’s face. The single yellow bulb made the oil slicked across her cheekbones shine. She waited for me to say something.
“I brought you a goddamn turkey and this is what you give me? Some Thanksgiving,” I said. I meant it as a joke, but it came out harder than I expected. “I mean, I deep-fried it in peanut oil.”
“Jim—” She used the old familiar nickname. I hadn’t heard it in a while. God, if that didn’t add a sense of severity to the conversation.
“Gloria,” I replied, not ready to give up the ghost just yet. Only a handful of times in the ten years I’d known her had I called her by her first name. The furnace kicked on behind me, rattling awake. The house creaked above us, groaning under the weight of the evening hours.
She looked away then and let the yellow pencil fell from her fingers and rolled across the table top.
“I made a green bean casserole,” she said and the metal chair screeched across the concrete as she stood up. “I’ve also got a six pack of Rogue.”
“Thank God for small mercies,” I said, relieved she was going to let this lie. For now.
Upstairs, I put a turkey leg on top of a heap of casserole and as promised, Jackson handed me a cold beer. Across from her at the squat card table, I turned the slick amber glass in my hand to read the label. A skeleton perched on a barrel, taking a shit for all I knew, and he wore what could only be described as a party hat made of bone.
I ripped the hot flesh free from the bone with my teeth and the grease melted on my lips. “Dead Guy Ale,” I read aloud and turned the label face out so Jackson could read it. “How fitting.”
I burst into a loud laugh and she followed, unable to help herself.
“Death,” I said, pointing at the little skeleton man. “Shitting on my beer. How fucking true is that?”
We laughed so hard tears rose in our eyes and blurred out Gloria’s squash-colored kitchen. Her little table wobbled between us as we rolled in our seats. Until the laughter died away.
I lifted the bottle and Jackson clinked hers against mine. “To the second loneliest holiday,” I said. It was the best toast we had, a couple of middle-aged, childless soldiers, because we were soldiers. And there was no room for a family in this kind of life.
“It’s been a wild ride,” I said between gulps. Then I set the emptied bottle on the table.
“It sure has been that,” she agreed, inspecting the bones of her devoured bird with dark fingers.
“I thought I would see it to the end. Sorry I won’t.” It surprised me that I really was fucking sorry about it. I didn’t realize how sorry until I apologized to the one person who’d been in on this with me since the beginning and was probably just as exhausted as I was.
Jackson shook her head. “Don’t say that.”
“All right,” I shrugged. “I won’t say it. But I’m really sorry to leave you with this shit. The good guys were already on short supply.”
She looked up then. I thought, no need to be a dick to her now. Giving me the news couldn’t be any easier than receiving it. I sighed. “I won’t say it for a third time then.”
I didn’t. In fact, neither of us managed another word that night.
I stood in the dark outside Jackson’s house and schemed. On one hand, I was surprised that I’d lasted this long. I’d been stabbed, shot, tortured,--just about anything that happened to a man in war. It was a miracle I even opened my eyes in the morning. On the other, I couldn’t believe it.
Forty-four weeks from that moment, I’d be dead. The old survivor in me searched for the loophole, the clause, and the fine print. He was a weathered bastard and damn good at dragging me out of the trenches for the last 56 years. Old habits die hard I guessed—just like old dogs.
Get the kid to replace you, the survivor said as callused as anyone willing to step on the head of a drowning man, if it meant getting to the surface faster himself.
I sank onto the sagging stoop. My worn out boots—a great pair of Bates 922s—crunched dried leaves into powder, while Jackson’s words replayed on a loop in my head.
“Caldwell kills you himself.”
I fished pieces of fat out from between my teeth with a toothpick and considered this while Jackson slept in an old, stained armchair in the living room, the blue TV light and game show voices as good as any lullaby. I wasn’t such a bastard that I’d wake her to talk about this. The tryptophan was the only reason she’d get a few decent hours of sleep. Her relationship with the Sandman was about as shaky as my own, so my questions would have to wait.
What could I ask anyway? I saw it for myself. My gun pressed to Caldwell’s head.
That was the clincher really.
If I could get that close, actually put the old Python to Caldwell’s temple, it would be the closest I’d managed in the ten years I’d hunted him.
Ten years. Ten years since Memphis walked into my office and started all this.
I tilted my head back and looked up at the sky. It was clear and I saw a few of the brightest stars. My breath came out hot, rising in white puffs.
Hell of a night, Thanksgiving. The day to be grateful. And what are you grateful for, you old bastard?
This beer. I took another swig of the Rogue.
That the kid is still alive.
That I’ve still got 44 weeks, which is better than 44 days.
That I’ve still got a chance to end this.
I pulled my leather jacket tighter around me but was unable to shake the cold. I leaned my head way back and finished the beer. Then I went inside and put the empty bottle on the kitchen table beside the three I’d already drained. I tried not to make much noise as I did up the dishes with the pink sponge left by the sink, warming my icy hands in the hot tap.
When I decided that it was time to hit the road for the night, I peeked into the living room one last time.
Jackson was still asleep in the chair. Her dark face calmer than I’d ever seen it awake. I pulled the rainbow afghan off the back of the couch and draped it over her. Then, just before the television show faded to credits, I slipped out the front door.
Sitting at the Harding Place and Danby red light, I sent a text to Sullivan.
Happy Thanksgiving, kid.
Back at ya, boss. Nearby? Ally made ALL THE FOOD.
Maybe next time. Knowing this Thanksgiving was my last.
Even dead guys need to eat, she quipped. The shit. But what she meant as a joke rang heavy.
I was dead, by most accounts, since it’d been nearly two months since I faked my death. I wanted the freedom to go deeper into my investigation. To finish what I started. I just didn’t realize then I had a deadline.
I parked the truck on the topmost hill at Mt. Olivet’s cemetery. It was hidden enough by the large weeping willow above it to protect me from view. No cops checking the grounds with search beams would see me standing over my own grave.
James T. Brinkley.
Veteran and friend.
I stood there until I couldn’t feel my face anymore, the icy wind pulling tears from my eyes, my hands cold and stiff again, even in my pockets.
Where would they bury me the second time, I wondered.
After all, this grave was full.