Some of you will not be surprised to know that I took a film class once, one with a teacher who had sort of a thing for Elmore Leonard.
After watching The Grifters and Out of Sight and Lone Star (I know, not all Elmore Leonard, but still) I began to have an appreciation for characters that blurred boundaries, but whom you still rooted for.
When I started writing, those people were fresh in my mind.
Ace Atchison is that kind of character, and so is Sonny.
Ace is blunt, direct, and very aware of his rank as bottom-middle of the pecking order. He doesn’t particularly care. But when Sonny shows up on the scene, Ace uses whatever resources he can to shelter Sonny from what they both know can be a very cruel world.
Sonny doesn’t make it easy on him.
I loved writing Ace and Sonny. This book is told from Ace’s POV, and while I was perfectly aware of what was going through Sonny’s head, watching Ace flounder through it, try to come to terms with who he thought Sonny was, and with all the places he got that wrong– that was a fascinating puzzle, and I loved it.
At the same time, there were scenes that left me shaking as I wrote them. The scarring on their arms is one of the places. The first sex scene is another. Those weren’t the only ones.
These guys got deep under my skin, and they did it quickly, and they did it without mercy. This won’t be the only time we see them– they are a hard couple to shake. But I warn you, just like this time, the next time we see them they’ll be doing things we’re not ready for, things we might not like, and the rawness of what they feel, what they think–that’s not going to change. Oh yeah– and next time? It’s going to be from Sonny’s point of view. Because reality in 3-D is overrated, I want to go for the fourth dimension of crazy!
That being said, here’s the blurb– and enjoy. If I’ve done my job, this one will seize you by the throat and shake you around a little. I understand some of us like that!
Available at Dreamspinner Press
Available at ARe
Available at Amazon.com (You may have to wait a little for the Kindle link!)
“I’ll do anything.”
Staff Sergeant Jasper “Ace” Atchison takes one look at Private Sonny Daye and knows that every word on paper about him is pure, unadulterated bullshit. But Sonny is desperate, and although Ace isn’t going to take him up on his offer of “anything,” that doesn’t mean he isn’t tempted.
Instead, Ace takes Sonny under his wing, protecting him when they’re in the service and making plans with him when they get out. Together, they’re going to own a garage and build race cars and make their fortune hurtling faster than light across the desert. Together, they’re going to rewrite the past, make Sonny Daye a whole and happy person, and put the ghosts in Ace’s heart to rest.
But not even Sonny can build a car fast enough to escape the ghosts of the past. When Sonny’s ghosts drive them down and run their plans off the road, Ace finds out exactly what he’s made of. Maybe Sonny was the one to promise Ace anything, but there is nothing under the sun Ace won’t do to keep Sonny safe from harm.
MY NAME is Jasper Anderson Atchison. People call me Ace.
I am a murderer and a thief, but if Sonny still wants me, I will call myself a good man.
Right now, I am driving a rented car through the Mojave Desert toward Bakersfield from Barstow. There’s a girl next to me who I should have left in Barstow, but I may be taking her home for a spell before she moves on, because that seems to be my job. I seem to be the one who will fix what is broken. But that is not important—in fact, the girl, bless her, isn’t important. What is important is that I get us back to the hospital in Bakersfield before Sonny wakes up and knows that I am gone. That’s important, because if anybody asks, I don’t want Sonny to lie. He’s not no damned good at it. He needs to think I was right there, watching over him as he slept, like I promised. But I promised I’d keep him safe too, and he is in a hospital right now, so that’s not saying much.
Then, we never did say much, me and Sonny. Never did say much at all.
MY FOLKS were all right people—not warm, but not rough. Fed us, clothed us, gave us stuff for Christmas. But I was the youngest of six, and that makes things crowded, and it makes you damned near invisible.
By the time I graduated, invisible was the only thing I was good at.
I decided I might as well be invisible someplace else. I got good marks, but Dad worked a factory job and Mom worked register in a gas station. Good marks, bad marks, there weren’t no money for school. I signed up for the army, shipped out to the Mideast. Wasn’t great, didn’t suck, I signed up again. Got promoted to staff sergeant with the re-up, and there I was, in charge of new recruits, when Sonny showed up in my unit.
Now I ain’t that tall and I’m not that wide—five feet ten inches when I stretch my neck, maybe 180 when I’ve been working out—but I still felt bigger’n Sonny. He’s maybe five six, and if he’s taller, it’s ’cause he’s lying, and 120 soaking wet.
Sonny made himself small. He was standing just as straight and looking just as stiff as the other recruits, but something in his stomach or his shoulders—he was wishing I’d just ignore him.
He looked like a dog slinking outside a gas station, hoping he gets fed more than he’s fearing he’ll get the fist.
Made me squirmy, that look. Like he was thinking I’d be the one to give him the fist. Now it’s true I don’t go around adopting orphans, but I don’t go around kicking ’em either. So I gave the new guys the spiel, sun up, sun down, where the schedule was, where the rifle practice was, how soon they’d be expected to report. The other rookies I sent to their bunks, but Sonny I asked to stay behind.
“Private Daye—wait? Really? Someone named you Sonny Daye?”
Sonny has gray eyes in a poky sort of face—the kind with the cheekbones poking out and the chin poking out and the edges of the eyes sort of poking over the side of the temple—and he narrowed those gray eyes at me and scowled.
And didn’t answer.
Well, hell. I had to get power-tripping on his ass, and that was not what I’d had in mind. “Private, it was a simple question—did your parents really name you Sonny Daye?”
The boy’s face twisted in agony. He was eighteen—eighteen years and three months, if his reg papers were any close to right—but he looked younger ’cause of his size. His face was small and his teeth were crowded, and the looks he kept giving me… well, I backed up a step so as not to spook him into running out into the damned desert and stepping on a land mine.
“That’s not your name, is it?” I asked, shooting in the dark.
He broke attention to look me full in the face. His mouth was open, moist and full, and he licked his lips with purpose.
“I’ll do anything,” he said, and no man in the world could misinterpret what he meant by that.
There was a temptation there, a growing knowledge I wasn’t ready to face.
But whether he knew it or not, he was offering me more than sex right then, he was offering me dishonor, and whether I was invisible or not, my folks had raised me right.
“You are not at ease, Private,” I barked, and he went back to being at attention. I stood there for a second and watched, scowling, as a drop of sweat traveled from his temple, down his cheek, and near his ear. There was the barest amount of stubble there to get in the way of that sweat, but the skin was tanned like it had seen hard weather. Eighteen? I could see it. But it hadn’t been eighteen easy.
“You had to be desperate,” I said, “to risk prison time by lying to the US government.”
He swallowed and kept his eyes trained forward. I was only a little smart. Someone who came before me had to have noticed that this boy had lied to be here. That same someone had to have helped him fake it too—Social Security number, ID, checking account, birth certificate—someone with connections.
“You’re eighteen, though,” I said, making sure.
“Yessir!” he snapped out, with so much force I could tell he was relieved to tell the truth.
“Boy,” I said, though he was a bare three years younger than me, “have I beat you?”
His gray eyes grew large in that tanned face. “Sir-no-sir!”
“Has anyone in the service beat you?”
He jerked his head back with so much surprise that, once again, I was relieved. “Sir-no-sir!”
“Do you want to be beat?”
He cringed sideways like he knew what it was like to dodge a blow. “Sir? No, sir.”
I nodded. “Then you will stand tall when you are at attention, and you will behave as though there is no beating—none—waiting around the corner, do you hear me?”
I sighed and stepped into his space, lowered my head, and spoke personally. “Sonny Daye? You want to last a week here in this fucking oven, where people are either bored, trigger-happy, or just fucked in the head from both? Then you need to act like you will not get beat. You have to tell people your sergeant will get them for you? You do that, but it won’t make you popular. But you tell yourself what you got to so that you stand tall, or you will not last here, do you understand?”
I watched his Adam’s apple bob. “Sir-yes-sir.”
“Good. It says here your specialty is machinery and cars. Great. You stow your shit in your bunk and report to Master Sergeant Galway by the auto bay there with all them Hummers. He’s a fucker, and he ranks me, so you walk in there like you own the fucking place, and if you’ve got to pick up a wrench and kneecap him, you don’t let him lay a finger on you. I’ve got your back.”
He swallowed and actually looked at me. “Thank you, Staff Sergeant,” he said, nodding. “I can defend myself.”
I nodded. “Good. Now you gotta act like you deserve to be defended, or that won’t help you. Hear me?”
And he nodded again and set his jaw.
He marched out of there with his shoulders set and that aggressive jut to his jaw, and I breathed a little easier. Yeah, sure, he might be an asshole to his bunkmates, but they’d leave him alone. He needed to learn, I thought, irritated. He needed to not be meat.
I kept a weather eye out for him, as they say. Saw him sitting alone at mess but scowling at anyone who sat next to him. I’d walk by, bend down, say a word—who would give him hell, who was good to know. He took my advice and pretty soon, I sat with my rank, he sat with his, but he wasn’t alone. I felt like I’d done my job then, and it felt good.
Master Sergeant Galway, just like I thought, had it out for him just for breathing.
Galway was an evil fucker, with red hair he kept brutally buzzed, big green freckles he protected with zinc oxide in that violent sunshine, and a scar—one he’d signed up with—ripping from the corner of his mouth to the corner of his eye. He’d told recruitment it had been a car wreck he’d survived. All that time I’d spent invisible? I wasn’t always a good boy. I knew a knife wound when I saw it.
Last boy who’d been under Galway’s care in the auto bay had walked in front of a bank of sandbags during a shelling.
Galway said the boy was weak. I suspected he had a way of making men weak.
Two weeks after my boy got there, he walked into mess with a black eye. He met my eyes as he stood in line for chow, and I nodded.
He nodded back.
That day, after mess, I paid a visit to the auto bay. Said I needed to requisition a Hummer—and I did—for Master Sergeant Kennedy, who was putting together two teams of recon to make sure no one was moving in on us. We were outside of Pakistan, and I wasn’t high enough to be in the know, but I knew people were running around like headless chickens and that the privates were running message after message that they didn’t know about and didn’t want to.
There was going to be action, something big, and if the good master sergeant wanted to check for bogeymen, I wasn’t gonna tell him no.
I got there just in time. Sonny was standing in the corner, a lug wrench in his hand, looking at the other two privates and Master Sergeant Galway like he was going to take them down. Galway was holding onto his arm, furious, while Daye’s jaw was clenched like this was his last stand.
“Private Daye!” I snapped out, and without flinching, without questioning, he jerked his spine upright, dropped the wrench, and stood at attention.
“Master Sergeant Kennedy needs his Hummer ready, complete with ordinance, as well as two other vehicles. Go out and start outfitting those, and I’ll come help in a moment.”
“Sir-yes-sir!” His voice rang in the hot confines of the concrete-floored auto bay. Then he turned, grabbed his box of tools, and trotted out to the Hummers.
“Master Sergeant?” I inquired courteously. “Is there something I should know about?”
Now, if Daye had been insubordinate or had asked for what had just been happening, this would be the time to say something. But Galway turned his head and spat, the spittle steaming on the concrete.
“You’re not in position to know shit,” he snarled, and the look he cast behind him to the other privates said volumes.
They were scared of him too. I was only a little smart, but I knew that.
I shook my head and went out to Sonny.
“Private?” I said as he busied himself with loading ordinance into the Hummer.
“Sir?” he said, looking sideways.
“There a Hummer we can outfit?”
“You want to see more of this godforsaken desert?”
A smile pulled at that flat, grim mouth. “Sir-yes-sir!”
I nodded. “Then set about that when you’re done. I’m off duty for the day.”
Suddenly the military crispness relaxed a little. “Sir?” he asked conspiratorially, and I liked that little half smile so much I leaned in for the conspiracy.
“Do I have permission to modify our vehicle?” he asked, his gray eyes growing big enough to almost glow.
“We don’t have that much time, Private.”
“Meet me back here in an hour,” he said.
“Will do, Private,” I said, nodding. I turned back around and saw Galway giving us the hairy eyeball, so I saluted smartly and walked back to my bunk for my flak jacket and helmet, because it was fucking Afghanistan, and even a joyride didn’t come without body armor.
TWO hours later, I rode a rocket through the desert.
Yeah, it had all the outward appearance of a gas-fueled Hummer, but you stepped on that gas pedal? There was nothing but wind and grit in your face and a steering wheel that read your mind.
I swear that thing was soaring, off-road—I swerved around rock outcroppings, small stands of brush, and once? A motherfucking cobra—and Sonny sat in the passenger seat, hanging on to the roadie bar for dear life, fingers turning white he was clutching it so hard. If there wasn’t a look on his face like he was flying, I woulda said he was scared to death, but there was that look, and all I could hear in my head was my own voice going, “Faster! Faster!” when my brother took me out for a ride when I was twelve.
He wanted to go faster, and I obliged.
The cliff wall, the same color as the sand, brought us up short. I didn’t see it, and the abrupt 360 I pulled to keep us from slamming face-first into a hunk of rock left us breathless and shaking with adrenaline as I pulled the thing to a stop in the shade.
I half laughed, not really afraid, and looked at Sonny. His eyes were squeezed shut with fear, and I felt bad.
“Sorry ’bout that, Private,” I said, trying for courtesy.
“I’m gonna hafta change my shorts,” he snapped, only half kidding, and I squashed a smile down.
“Well, I hope you did your laundry,” I told him soberly.
His grin caught me by surprise. “Sir-yes-sir!”
I laughed. “Man, Sonny, I do not know what you did to this thing, but it’s like magic. If anyone else drives this vehicle, they will think they stole a flying carpet instead.”
Sonny ducked his head, looking bashful. “Thank you,” he mumbled. “You drive like a tornado.”
I laughed some more, happy like I hadn’t been since I was a little kid and Jake was still my hero. “My brother taught me,” I said. “He used to street race. Damn, he was good.”
“Was?” he asked, and I looked away.
“Was,” I told him, because Jake had driven his car up on the railroad tracks to be hit by an oncoming train when I was a senior in high school. He’d been twenty-six then, with a job at the cannery and his second baby on the way. People said he’d turned off the ignition and just sat there, head back, eyes closed, waiting. But I didn’t want to talk about that, not to Sonny, not now. “But I miss racing,” I said to fill the silence. “Best time ever.”
“You can make money on it,” Sonny said, sounding glad he had something to contribute.
“Yeah? Yeah—Jake used to make money. Said he could make more if he could forget he wanted to live.” But he’d forgotten at the end, hadn’t he? “Maybe when I get back, I’ll do that. Just buy myself a car, soup it up.”
“I’d trick it out for you,” Sonny said, and I looked to my side to see him looking at me earnestly. “I’d make it fly. You’d dust everyone. We’d make a shitload.”
“Start my own garage,” he said, his voice dreamy, and I knew this was something he’d thought about.
I smiled a little, thought to give him his pipe dream. “Yeah, sure, Sonny. We’ll do that. Take the pay we save, buy ourselves a car, a little garage. Make us some money. Get a bigger garage and live someplace nice. Why not?”
He looked fierce then, like I’d given him a dream and a backbone, a reason to sink his teeth into the world.
“That’s a promise,” he said, his voice guttural. “You can’t go back.”
I blinked. I hadn’t realized I’d married the guy just by feeding his dream. But then…. “Why not?” I shrugged. “Got nothin’ better to do when I get back.”
He nodded and spat into the dust. “Good,” he said, as if we’d sealed something. I guess maybe we had. “Now let’s get back and I can fix the mods on this thing so no one knows I’ve been fucking with it. Galway’ll fuck me sideways if he knows.”
Something hot and alien stopped my breathing then. “He’d do that?”
Sonny shrugged. “Sure. Why not. Those guys, they’ll do anything if it hurts you.”
He sounded like he knew.
SO NO more black eyes after that. But neither of us stopped watching his back. Unfortunately we were at war, and things had a way of stabbing you, shooting you, or reaming you from behind, no matter how hard you tried to sprout eyeballs in the back of your head.
Sonny adapted to the army, though. He didn’t fit in, but he adapted. There were locals that slept near the camp. The official rule was not to encourage them, not to buy from them, not to get attached to them—but they were folks, same as us. Some of the boys, the ones who grew up with those parents who watched their every move? Those guys had trouble watching the ten-year-olds with the M16s. Me? My folks didn’t know what we were doing, as long as we got home in time for dinner. I watched my brother slice a piece off his best friend once just because the guy was standing too close to him. The guy ended up with a scar that looked just like Galway’s, except across his chest, and he didn’t stop wanting to stand too close to Jake. Jake just stopped objecting, that was all.
So I didn’t mind the boys with the guns, but I did mind watching them surf through our garbage to eat, so I started sneaking food to them. Sonny saw me and started doing the same.
On the one hand, it didn’t feel honest. It felt like feeding cats, and they weren’t cats, they were people, starving people, children running in linen diapers and nothing else, their feet bare on the burning sands of the road.
On the other, we didn’t make the world and we didn’t make the war. We just pulled a trigger in it when we were asked, and that was all we had. We wanted to feed people like cats? Well, it was better’n shooting them like cats, and I knew guys back home who would do that too.
So we fed the children, and knew they brought the food to their parents in their little tents, and knew that sometimes it went to feed the babies and sometimes it went to feed the dads. All we could do was bring the scraps. It had to be enough.
You feed a cat, and it gets attached, and it was the same for Sonny. He had a little girl, thin, brown, swathed in lengths of cloth like they all were. This one, though—she had a red ribbon, soiled and limp, tied to her wrist like a bracelet. Sonny gave it to her—I think he got it from one of the girls, a copter pilot—and she wore it all the time, smiling at him with quick flashes of white teeth. She couldn’t have been more than nine or ten.
She followed him around when she could, and he let her carry his tools and gave her money for the help. The money was good, and the food was probably better, but mostly? She was like me, I guess. Her mom had a thousand kids, and there were a thousand thousand people in that camp by our base, and she was lost, another set of bare feet and a high-pitched voice, unless she was with Sonny and he made her feel special.
The day we got hit, the fuckers attacking us, they didn’t give a damn about all those locals hanging near the Americans. They just ripped right through like butter.
We had bunkers ready for the attack, and there I was with all the new recruits, listening to the fire and the screams and the chaos, when I looked around and realized I couldn’t see Sonny.
Something horrible roiled through me. He would have been in the auto bay—that was safe, wasn’t it? With his little barefoot shadow in his wake?
I looked at my guys. They were safe, they had ordnance—and there was a Marine Special Ops guy who had stopped for a shower, shit, and shave and gotten caught with us Army grunts when the firing started. They were safer with him than with ten of me.
“You got these guys?” I asked, listening to see if the shelling had started up on the other side of camp.
Lance Corporal Burton looked at me as though that were the stupidest question on the planet. He was a black guy, pleasant round face, light-brown skin, shaved smooth, which he didn’t have to do as a jarhead, but he had the kind of head it looked good on, so why not?
“Good,” I said, taking his silence for acquiescence, which was stupid, but I was worried. “I gotta go check on my buddy. His guys don’t have his back.”
Burton raised his eyebrows. “Your guys don’t have his back?”
I squinted at him. “We don’t all come from a fire cradle, like you all,” I said, thinking about the way those Marines had each other’s backs through fucking lava storms and ice bombs and shit. “Sometimes we’re just grunts and bullies, same as any other schoolyard.”
Burton looked at the new recruits, who were sitting, a little shell-shocked, but sound, cradling their M16s like newborn children.
“Yeah. We’ll live,” he said sourly, and I had a feeling they’d live because he knew how to aim, but still. It was Sonny and he was alone.
“I owe you,” I said, and he shook his head.
“Man, just have your guy’s back,” he said in disgust, and I took that for what it was, and ducked out of the bunker and held my breath.
It was about a hundred yards from that bunker to the auto bay, and maybe the longest run of my life. There were some portable buildings in the way, the mess hall, the showers—I wasn’t all that exposed, but everyone else was behind barriers, and I felt as naked as I’ve ever felt in my life.
Still, my breathing didn’t get any better as I slid into the auto bay. In fact, if anything, it got worse.
I could hear Galway taunting Sonny, even over the retreating shellfire.
“C’mon, Daye, give her up. Your little raghead friend, she ain’t got no business here. You kick her outta this here bunker or I’ll shoot her myself!”
“She’ll die out there!” Sonny protested. It was about the only time I ever heard him stand up for someone.
I ran full tilt into the auto bay and saw that Galway’s other cronies were nowhere to be seen. It was just him, Sonny, and a terrified nine-year-old girl.
“Galway, stand down!” I snapped, and it might have worked, but he’d studied ranks same as me, and his stars and bars were more and better.
“What did you say to me, you insubordinate little shit?” he snarled, and I looked up to see Sonny, his back to the little girl as she wept in the corner. A shell went off, nearer than the last one, and she screamed a little and whimpered, and I thought about what a shitty thing war was, especially for this poor kid here.
“I said leave ’em alone! It’s not like he can fire his weapon!” And it was true. There were tiny little window ports on the shelling side of the auto bay, supported by sandbags, but at the moment? There were two latrines and a shower between the auto bay and whoever was throwing shells at us. Unless someone snuck in past our outer defenses, there wasn’t nobody to shoot at through that little window.
“And I said he’s got a little raghead girl in here and that’s against regulations—that kid needs to go!”
“She’ll be killed,” I said, and I knew, somewhere in the back of my mind, that it was the same thing Sonny had said. It was basic, wasn’t it? Basic humanity? But then, Galway wasn’t hardly human.
At that moment, the guys throwing the shells got smart and added some extra oomph to their ordinance. The two latrines went up in a spatter of sun-boiled shit and a corner of the auto bay, pulverized in an instant. I was thrown down face-first, and so was Galway, and I pulled myself up when I heard Sonny’s wail from under a pile of rubble.
Oh God. He was hurt. I imagined him, bloody, ripped, dying, and for a moment my world became a telescope, me on the far, small end, all the bad things I imagined about Sonny on the big-seeing magnified end, and I thought my breath would stop.
I started digging through the rubble, ignoring Galway, and when I pulled up the sandbags under the broil of the sun, I saw he might have had some scrapes and bruises, but he wasn’t hurt.
The little girl, though, the one with the red ribbon on her wrist—her skull was caved in. Her tiny little face didn’t hardly look human, and the blood was seeping up through the gray dust that covered them both. Sonny was cradling her and weeping even as Galway pulled himself up off of the ground.
“Shut up! Stop whining, you little faggot!” He was screaming, which was stupid because our ears were all ringing and he couldn’t hear his own voice. I know everything I heard sounded like it came from the bottom of a pool.
I looked up, and he was advancing in on us, his M16 in his hand and a look I didn’t like at all in his eyes.
I don’t know what I would have done then. At least that’s what I tell myself. I had my own weapon, a standard-issue Beretta, in my hand, aimed straight on Galway with the safety off. I stood there, finger on the trigger, yelling although I couldn’t hear my own words, and that’s what we were doing when the next shell hit us.
My gun went off and Galway’s face dissolved at the same time. The explosion pitched me forward and buried me under sandbags, and this time, it was Sonny digging me out of them.
“My gun,” I said when I could pull myself to my knees.
Sonny said something, but I couldn’t hear him. I must have asked “what” about six thousand times, because finally he turned me, and what I saw….
He’d taken the little girl’s body and laid her facedown in the puddle of her blood. He’d put my gun in her hands.
The angle was right, I realized, my head ringing, a pain in my ribs and my shoulder I couldn’t seem to breathe past. The angle was right. She could have shot him as he was advancing on her and Sonny. But that’s not what had happened. What had happened was I had shot my own man in the face and I wasn’t sure if I meant to or not, but I’d been aiming, I’d been aiming when the shell went off.
The shells weren’t going off anymore.
I shook my head, dazed, short of breath, trying to figure the story, trying to figure what Sonny had planned with that little girl and my gun and a dead master sergeant. Sonny, tears tracking through the grime, was yelling at me something I couldn’t hear.
I stood up and said, “I hope they go easy at the court-martial,” and it was the last thing I managed before my knees gave out and my lungs were set fire and I looked down and saw I’d taken shrapnel and I might not survive to see this mess untangled.