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To Hemlock Run

THR promo 3

When reporter Jason Reynolds is asked to look into the disappearance/abduction of a young woman in rural Washington State, he agrees to do what he can. What he discovers is this is no ordinary case of domestic abuse. Instead, he’s stumbled upon something bigger and more dangerous.

What he’s found is the Barton family, the de facto rulers of Dunham County. Not only are they the wealthiest family and largest employer, but they have nearly total political control of the county’s legal system. Residents of Dunham County like to say: “You don’t cross the Bartons; bad things happen to people who cross the Bartons.”

And no one has ever crossed the Bartons like Jason Reynolds crossed them.

Soon he is dodging the Bartons’ Sheriff’s Department and trying to find a way to bring them to justice without sacrificing his life and the lives of his friends.

Read To Hemlock Run by James Boyle, out now.



It Probably Won’t Kill You

As I have previously mentioned (last week as a matter of fact) I primarily write fiction heavy on suspense, from horror, to mystery/detective fiction, to thrillers. It’s the type of fiction I do best. The primary reason this is true is simple. I’m best at writing suspense fiction because it’s what I’ve practiced over the years. I haven’t tried to write many romances, or westerns, so I’m not very good at them. And I’ve spent most of my time and energy trying to write suspense fiction because it is the type of fiction I have always preferred to read. I was trying to write along with the authors and stories I admired.

According to some sources, I’m not alone in that admiration. Combined, the suspense sub-genres form the best-selling group in all of fiction. By far. Mystery fiction by itself is the best-selling sub-genre in the United States, for all age groups and all genders.

Is it any wonder that most of the best known writers of our generation work in suspense fiction? Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and James Patterson all work in suspense fiction, though in different sub-genres.

So why is this type of fiction so popular?

Because it’s scary.

Most people live lives of varying degrees of tedium, full of monotonous, boring routine. Their day-to-day tasks, while important, are seldom what one would consider exciting. Reading a scary or suspenseful story provides a nice, safe break from that routine.

People enjoy being scared. They enjoy experiencing high-tension, anxious, and frightening situations. We enjoy suspense fiction for the same reason we enjoy roller coasters, whitewater rafting, and sky diving. It shoves the heart rate up, gets the blood pumping, boosts adrenaline levels. We are built to enjoy the trill of the chase. We feel more alive.

Combat veterans—those willing to talk about it—report that while combat was terrifying, they’d never felt so alive as when they were in battle. Time seems to slow down. All their senses are tuned in to everything. They can hear the faintest of sounds, see astonishing detail, smell odors they never would have noticed before. Fear turns up all the body’s senses in an effort to stay alive. And you are truly alive, experiencing everything in total detail.

The thrill of the chase. Unfortunately, in real life, that thrill and the adrenaline rush that comes with it, usually come with a serious risk of injury or death. People die every year from sky diving, whitewater rafting and even roller coasters. (We won’t even count combat.) It’s a tiny fraction of the participants, but that risk is there. It’s why the experience is so exciting. Fear of death or injury.

And that is the great appeal of suspense fiction. Because it is fiction it is a fairly safe way of experiencing the rush of fear. When done well, suspense fiction recreates a little of that sensory aliveness. But, if it gets a little too intense, the reader can always close the book mid-sentence and walk away for a while, letting their emotions return to normal.

Try doing that halfway through a sky dive.

Even the worst case scenario—in which the novel depicts something so horrific, so suspenseful, so overwhelming you simply can’t handle it—the story still probably won’t kill you.


Deception Island released on kindle

41jeDmIOnrL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-46,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_[1]Ladies and gentlemen, friends and neighbors, James Boyle’s new novel Deception Island is now live and available as a Kindle download. The print version will be available June 1.

The authorities say Jason Reynolds’ father drowned in a boating accident on Puget Sound, but Jason doesn’t believe it. His father was a fishing guide. An accident wasn’t likely. Once in town, Jason quickly finds evidence that supports his suspicions: files missing from his dad’s office; a mysterious photo of an Asian man; and a letter threatening to evict his father unless he stops “acting against the interests of Lundgren Corporation.”

Lundgren Corporation. The company behind the company town.

And now they turn their attention to Jason.





Deception Island, Chapter 1, scenes 1 & 2 (revised)

Some of you will have seen an earlier version of this. For those who have, these two scenes are now 50 words shorter, but essentially unchanged. For those who haven’t seen it before, these are the opening scenes of my new novel. I hope you enjoy them.

Chapter One


All he wanted from life right now was just one day he could sleep in.

Instead, once again, her damn dog was on the bed.

Beside him, Lisa groaned and pulled the edge of the comforter over her head. Maybe if the dog couldn’t see her, she seemed to think, it would move on to something else. Jason tried pretending he was still asleep. Hector, Lisa’s little dust mop, wasn’t buying either ploy. He tap danced across Jason’s feet and lower legs, then tried a soft shoe over Lisa’s. In case that hadn’t gotten their attention, he barked twice, if you could call it that. His bark wasn’t exactly guard-dog quality. Hector was Pomeranian, ten pounds of long beige fur, attitude and little else. He was what Jason’s dad, who’d had a series of labs and retrievers over the years, would call a yip-yip dog.

“Hector, go back to sleep,” Lisa groaned. “Leave us alone.”

Hector yipped again and improvised another tap dance across their legs.

A claw dug into Jason’s ankle like a tiny little knife. “Ow!” He jerked the injured leg away. “Damn it!”

Hector celebrated his success by performing doggy calisthenics over their legs and yipping nonstop. He had them now and he knew it.

Lisa turned over and snuggled up against Jason’s back. “He needs to go outside. Can you take him?”

“Why me? He’s your dog. Or whatever he is.”

He felt her stiffen beside him.

“Fine.” She tossed the comforter aside and sat up on the edge of the bed. “Come here, Hector, my good boy. Mommy will take you outside. Don’t listen to Mr. Grumpy Pants.”

Mr. Grumpy Pants? What was this? Kindergarten?

Jason tried to tune them out and go back to sleep.

“Oh crap! Crap, crap crap!”

Jason sighed. Sleep obviously wasn’t going to happen. Not today. “What now?”

He felt her abruptly leave the bed. When he raised his head Lisa was already hunched over the dresser in the tee and panties she’d slept in, frantically pulling clothing out of a drawer. “The alarm didn’t go off! We’re late!”

“Shit . . .” Jason glanced over at the alarm on Lisa’s night stand. It read 7:37. The alarm was supposed to wake them more than an hour ago.

“I’m supposed to be teaching 131 at 8:30!”

Lisa ran to the closet, gathering a ski sweater to add to her load of underwear and jeans. Hector hovered near her feet, barking nonstop with the sudden excitement and running in tight little circles.

“Jason, honey, could you please take Hector out while I jump in the shower?”

“Sure,” he sighed. “I’d love to.”

More than anything.

His sarcasm was wasted. Lisa had already disappeared into the bathroom. A second later, the shower started up.

He rubbed the sleep off his face and climbed out of the nice warm bed, found yesterday’s pair of jeans, and slipped them on. Hector yipped nonstop and bounced between Jason’s feet and the bedroom doorway.

“I’m coming, you overgrown rat.”

Hector darted out into the living room ahead of him. He paused to sniff at the empty cartons from last night’s Chinese on the coffee table. Jason was a couple of steps behind him. “Don’t even think about it.”

Hector turned away and scurried to the sliding glass door leading to the back patio.

Jason paused over the empty food cartons. A single piece of barbecued pork clung to one side, It was no bigger than a fingernail. He picked it off the cardboard and crouched down in front of Hector. “Don’t tell your mom, okay?”

Hector accepted the tidbit, downed it and thanked him with a quick lick of the fingers.

Jason unlocked the sliding door and pushed it open. Hector bounded over the little patio and onto the lawn like he was off on a great adventure.

Jason shivered and closed the door against the morning chill. It was October and it was Seattle, which meant it was cold and wet and would be cold and wet pretty much until spring. It wasn’t actually raining now, but everything was still glistening wet. A low, soiled-looking overcast clamped down just above the tops of the neighborhood firs. Even the light seemed filtered by heavy curtains.

The shower went off. Lisa would be putting on her face in a moment.

Hector had finally found the perfect patch of grass and squatted down to do his business.

Monday morning.

Jason sighed and kicked himself for letting her talk him into staying over again last night.


It being Monday morning and all, a multi-car accident on I-5 just south of 40th Street had transformed all four southbound lanes into a parking lot. Seattle’s notorious rush hour had just become a nightmare. According to the local news radio, traffic was backed up as far as Everett. Highway 99, the other major north/south route, was nearly as bad because of the overflow.

The city itself was a natural bottleneck. Seattle was built on a strip of land about twenty-five miles long north to south, but only six or seven miles wide. Several million people commuted to the city every day, almost all of them either from the north or the south. All it took was one little hitch in the flow and everything ground to a halt.

Like now.

Jason turned east on 45th Street, away from the Interstate, cruised through light traffic for a mile and a half, then turned south on Mountlake Boulevard toward the University. Lisa had probably steered her little Civic on the exact same route thirty minutes before. Maybe she’d missed the worst of the traffic.

Within a block and a half he was back in bumper to bumper traffic, but that was normal. Like most colleges, the University of Washington had been designed for foot, not auto, traffic and he usually avoided the area if he could. But at least traffic was moving. He could probably walk faster than it was moving, but it was moving.

No sooner had he formed the thought than both lanes of traffic ground to a halt. To their left the massive facade of Husky Stadium hulked across barren parking lots. To the right, students in raincoats or under the protection of umbrellas scurried around red brick buildings toward their morning classes. The overcast seemed to have lowered and grown darker. In the distance, he could just see the steel gray surface of Lake Washington.

He glanced over at the powder blue minivan idling beside him. A woman with long dark hair was talking on her cell phone and gesturing with her free hand. Behind him, a man with a mustache that matched the dark color of his SUV grimly sipped coffee from a Starbucks cup.

One afternoon, several years before, while sitting at a traffic light just like this, he’d glanced over to the car next to him and recognized the prominent Pastor of an area mega church. The good Pastor had been spending his down time at the traffic light getting friendly with a blond woman in the passenger seat. Jason had suspected the blond was not his wife. He’d snapped a quick photo with his cell phone, done some investigating and confirmed that the good Pastor was indeed breaking the Seventh Commandment.

His story had ended up on the front page, below the fold, but the front page. You never knew where the next story would come from.

But not today.

His cell burped that he’d received a text. He fished the phone from his jacket pocket and glanced at the display. Lisa. He opened the phone and the message.

Made it, she’d written. CU 2nite? Luv u.

His phone asked him if he wanted to reply.

He wasn’t sure.

He wasn’t sure about a lot of things when it came to Lisa. Oh, he liked her. He liked her a lot. There was no doubt about that. She was kind and smart and funny in a goofy sort of way. She was working on her Masters in American History at the University and could spend an evening discussing the nuances of the Nineteenth Century political climate and then without any kind of transition be on the floor wrestling with Hector like a little girl.

She collected teddy bears, for God’s sake.

He truly enjoyed being with her. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that she was beginning to make long term plans. As in lifetime plans. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that. He didn’t want to break up; he didn’t want to see other people; he just wanted to slow down.

They had to have a serious talk, but he didn’t know how to go about it without hurting her.

He decided to avoid the whole issue for now, saved her text, and instead called the newsroom. Marcia, the receptionist, answered on the second ring, only a touch of frazzle to her voice. He told her about the traffic situation and that he’d be late.

“Oh we’ve heard,” she told him. “Believe me, we’ve heard. Half the newsroom is running late. Miles is not a happy man.”

Miles Condiff was City Editor and Jason’s boss.

“Miles wouldn’t be happy if Jesus came down to personally hand him a Pulitzer.”

Marcia laughed. She had a nice throaty laugh.

“Besides, it’s Seattle. He ought to be used to it by now.”

“You know Miles. ‘We’ve got a paper to get out!’”

“Tell him not to have a coronary. I’m on my way.”

Marcia said she would relay the message. “By the way, I really liked your story yesterday.”

He smiled and thanked her. It still made his heart glow when someone liked his writing. They said their goodbyes and he closed his cell phone.

His car radio was already tuned to one of the all news channels, such as it was. He viewed most of his colleagues in broadcasting with barely concealed contempt. How could you take seriously a medium in which an in-depth report lasted two minutes? But he wanted to hear whether anyone else had picked up his story.

With the help of an inside source, he had uncovered a scam involving a contractor who was providing inferior asphalt to the City Roads Department, but charging for top-of-the line product. It was no wonder the city’s streets were in such sad shape. Not only was the contractor essentially doubling his profits at taxpayer expense, but he’d been doing it for nearly ten years. And that was almost exactly how long the contractor’s father, Harold Stevenson, had been on the City Council.

There was no mention of it on the radio, but it was late in the rotation and they were talking about the Huskies win over Cal last Saturday and whether they had a shot at upsetting the Oregon Ducks on Saturday. (Jason wouldn’t bet on it. The Ducks were very good.) The headlines would come at the hour and half-hour. He checked his watch. He had ten minutes.

The double column of vehicles ahead of him began to move forward. He slipped his car into gear and followed the taillights of the Camry in front of him for about a hundred yards before the procession again came to a stop. Now though, he could see the traffic signals ahead. He figured he’d get through the intersection on the next cycle.

A few raindrops splattered against his windshield, then thickened to a light rain.

“Perfect,” he sighed.

He opened his cell phone again and dialed his home phone number. No one was there, of course. No one had been there since Friday morning, which is why he needed to check his messages. When it switched over to voice mail, he punched in the access code and waited as the computers did their thing.

The spooky computerized woman told him he had twelve new messages.

He told the computer to play the messages.

The first three were computer-generated sales pitches offering to refinance his mortgage (he rented) eliminate his credit card debt (it was reasonable, thank you) and save him money on his auto insurance. He quickly erased all three. Next up was a man’s voice: “Hey, it’s Charlie. Listen, I met this gorgeous woman, but she won’t go out unless I find a guy to go out with her roommate. What are you doing tonight?” Jason had no idea who the guy was. Charlie? He didn’t think he knew anyone named Charlie. Besides, the message had been left on Saturday night, so it was too late now. He deleted the message.

He quickly deleted five more messages that were either sales calls or hang-ups, then a man’s voice caught his attention. For one thing, it was a real man, not a computerized imitation. The voice also had a tone that grabbed his attention, somber. “This is Detective (the name was unclear), of the King County Sheriff’s Department. I’m trying to reach Mr. Jason Reynolds. It is very important that I speak to him as soon as possible.” He repeated that it was very important and left a call-back number. The voice mail said the message had been left Saturday afternoon.

Jason frowned, wondering what that was all about and hit the button to save the message.

Writing advice

Creating Suspense: Environment

Another tool in the writer’s suspense arsenal is the environment. If pace can be considered the soundtrack to your story, environment is the combination of location and lighting. Taken together, setting and lighting (the environment) help set the mood of your piece and can amp up the suspense.

Most of us are familiar with the term “setting”. It is where your story takes place. Is it set in an urban center of tenements and skyscrapers? A suburban bedroom community? Or the wilderness of the Yukon? A change of setting inevitably changes the story because the characters interact with the world around them as much as do each other. If that world changes, so will the story.

The Bourne Identity wouldn’t be the same story if it had been set in the ranch lands of Eastern Montana rather than the cities of Europe. The challenges Mr. Bourne faced would have been different, as would the resources available. It may not have been better; it may not have been worse. It certainly would have been a different story. (This is ignoring the genre convention that spy thrillers should take place largely in the “jet-set” cities of Europe and The United States).

Another familiar (and most abused) example of how the environment can create suspense is the creative use of weather: storms, wind, rain, fog, snow, and the dark of night. Literary critics call this “pathetic fallacy”. In literature and film, pathetic fallacy is the idea that the weather mirrors the state of human affairs. If everything is calm and orderly among the folks, the days are warm and sunny. Likewise, when there’s conflict between people, the weather turns stormy.

Probably the most famous example of pathetic fallacy is Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, but it is much more pervasive and often very heavy-handed. Think of how often thunder and lightning occur during horror movies. This is pathetic fallacy at its most cliched. It is so cliched as to be almost laughable. The same could be said for ghost and other such tales always occurring at night. It’s cliché. One of my favorite aspects of Stephen King’s novel It is that virtually all the action ( and I thought some were truly creepy) takes place during broad daylight and during the sunny days of summer, at that. He broke all the cliches and I think it made the suspense even stronger.

Beyond the cliches though, inclement weather (which includes darkness) can be a useful tool in heightening suspense. Why? Because it’s another obstacle the hero has to overcome. If the hero is, say, fleeing through the wilderness from an assassin, he has to worry about his pursuer, accidental injury in the rough terrain and becoming lost. Add a blizzard and now he also has to be concerned with hypothermia, exhaustion, and an increased chance of getting lost.

Bad weather can also serve to isolate the characters. In my first novel, Ni’il: The Awakening, the hero, a small town Chief of Police, and his allies are trying to stop a mysterious string of killings when a Pacific hurricane bears down on their coastal community. Not only does a large portion of the population evacuate ahead of the storm, but those that don’t, hole up in their dwellings for the duration. Then storm damage cuts off all communication with the outside world. The hero must now stop the bad guy entirely on his own.

It ratchets up the pressure.

More than anything else though, weather heightens suspense by making characters more vulnerable. We are all, like it or not, slaves to our senses. So are our characters. Anything that impedes their ability to perceive danger increases their vulnerability and, therefore, the suspense. Darkness, fog, rain, and snowfall all hinder our ability to see approaching danger. Wind, rain, snow, and thunder do the same thing to ability to hear a threat. Also, having a character bundled up in a heavy coat, scarf, hood, or hat can interfere with peripheral vision. A character who is soaking wet, cold, or overheated can also be distracted enough to struggle with focus at the worst possible time.

You get the idea.

Using environmental factors can greatly increase the suspense in your work. However, like any tool, we must constantly strive to use them judiciously and creatively. If we simply fall back to the timeworn thunderstorm as the hero approaches the evil mansion, we will probably lose the reader.

short story


This is another writing sample from your humble fictionalist. Not really sure whether it’s just a sketch I may use later on, or flash fiction, or what have you. You be the judge.

Every cop was haunted.

There were exception, of course, because some cops, Derek knew a handful himself, were every bit the sociopath as the folks they pursued; they had simply chosen to enforce the law rather than break it. Maybe as kids they’d flipped a coin.

So most cops were haunted, especially once they’d spent a significant number of years on the job. It went with the territory. They learned to hide it well, from their friends and family and especially from their colleagues, but the ghosts were there, waiting, patient, ready to appear the moment they dropped their guard. No one ever completely escaped.

The ghosts appeared in your dreams, or against the screens of your closed eyelids as you laid in bed, unable to find sleep yet again. For some it was the broken body of the toddler lying in the street after being hit by a car. There’d been nothing anyone could do to save him. For others, it was the expression on the face of the child’s mother. Or on the car’s driver. The guilt. The horror.

Sometimes it was the vacant expression on a six-year-old’s face after watching his mother get beaten by her boyfriend. Sometimes it was the emotionless, matter-of-fact manner a killer described his crimes.

For Derek, the image was always the same. His ghost was named Melvin O’Connell. Five years ago, Melvin, in the midst of a week-long methamphetamine binge, had come after Derek with a six inch folding knife. Derek had warned him. He’d drawn his sidearm. He’d ordered him to stop. Told him that he would shoot him. Told him to stop again. Melvin had ignored him, kept coming with that knife, insanity in his eyes.

Derek had put two rounds in Melvin’s chest.

It had surprised Melvin, getting shot. His face showed utter shocked surprise, as though he had never before conceived of this possibility. He had dropped the knife. Then he, himself, had dropped. He had died on the way to the hospital. To this day, Melvin was the only person Derek had ever shot and it was Melvin’s face that haunted him during those long, lonely nights.

Melvin and that look of complete, dumbfounded surprise.

short story

“Man’s Best Friend,” a Short Story

This is another sample from my collection Menhir and Seven Stories. Hope everyone enjoys it.

Man’s Best Friend

After the war, everything fell apart. Whatever infrastructure not destroyed outright in the conflict, had been neglected and abused for so long, it literally disintegrated. First to go was the electric grid, followed quickly by the communications and transportation systems. Once those three were gone, everything else dissolved quickly, the government, the economy, society itself.

Lord Chaos took the throne, unopposed.

People suffered. People died.

A lot of people died, the old, the young, the sick, the poor, the most vulnerable. Like a plague, the meltdown spared only the healthy and the strong.

When the dust settled, there were a lot fewer people around, maybe a tenth of the pre-war population, maybe a hundredth. No one knew for sure. Generally, those who survived had resolved themselves into three social groupings: villagers, who lived together in small, fortified hamlets and practiced subsistence farming and raised livestock to feed themselves; raiders, who wandered the countryside in small bands, scavenging the ruins, hunting, and taking what they could from the villages; and rangers, loners, who hunted and scavenged to survive and wanted only to be left alone.

Isaac was a ranger.


“Well, look at what I found,” he told Dite. “Looks like it’s our lucky day, after all.”

Dite perked up her ears, glanced over for a moment from her spot beside the foundation wall, then returned to the leg bone she was gnawing on.

“I know, you’re busy.”

Isaac let the charred piece of plywood fall away and squatted down to examine his find. Lying there amid the ash and charcoal, gleaming like gems, were a handful of cans. Food cans. He could even make out the labels as he picked each up: chili con carne, minestrone soup, two cans of peas and one of sweet corn. As far as he could tell, the seal on every can was intact.

It felt like he’d won the lottery. Canned food, particularly vegetables, was really growing scarce. Most cans had been destroyed in the fires following the meltdown, or by exposure to the elements. What had survived had been thoroughly picked over by scavengers trying to fend off starvation. He’d found probably two intact cans over the past three weeks. Today he’d found five.

He carefully stowed the cans in his backpack, zipped it up tight, and turned to the dog. “Ready to head back?”

Dite lunged to her feet, the stub of the leg bone hanging from her muzzle like an old man’s stogie.

“Want to take that with you?”

Her tail briefly swung back and forth. She was a dog of few words.

“Okay then.” He glanced apologetically at the bleached skull lying amid the debris. This had probably been their home at one time; the leg, their leg, now Dite’s lunch.

“Come on,” he told her and swung the pack onto his shoulders.


He’d set up camp on a small hill just outside the ruins of the town. At some point in the past, someone had planted an apple orchard across the hill, but the trees hadn’t been tended for years and blackberries and weedy shrubs had taken over the space between the trees. It gave him protection from wind and rain, and from unwanted visitors sneaking up on him. Unless they wished to plow through the blackberries, there was only one trail in or out.

The last of the spring’s blossoms were just fading away on the apple trees.

Isaac dropped the pack to the ground next to his bed roll and took a quick look around to make sure there hadn’t been any uninvited visitors while he’d been gone. Dite dropped her bone and did the same, nose to the ground. He hadn’t left anything valuable behind, but that doesn’t mean some raiding party hadn’t been through to see whether he was weak or worth enough to attack when he did return.

Dite seemed to have found something.

“What is it, girl?” he asked. “Do we have bad guys poking around?”

She didn’t look up. Her nosed stayed pressed to the ground as she followed the scent from his bedroll across the campsite toward the fire pit. She moved to one side and concentrated on his cooking pot, her nose working furiously. The hackles were raised along her muscular shoulders.

“What is it, girl?”

He walked over and bent over to look at the cooking pot without touching it. Dite glanced up at him, then stepped back out of his way. She seemed to be saying “Did you see this?” The inside of the pot looked like it had been scrubbed clean, which is not how he had left it this morning. He’d eaten the last of last night’s stew for breakfast this morning. The remains had still been in the bottom of the pot. Now it was clean.

Someone, or something, had eaten his leftovers.

He slowly stood back up, then calmly turned a complete circle, scanning the brush and apple trees for anyone that might be lying in wait. All he could see was the bright green of the spring’s new foliage stirring in the breeze. The sky was cloudless, the sun beginning to near the western hills as the day faded.

An eagle slowly circled above. It took that as a good sign.

Dite yawned and wandered back to her bone and began working it again.

Whoever had eaten his leftovers seemed to have moved on.

He took a deep breath and set about making dinner.

The minestrone had captured his imagination on the walk home. It had been all he’d been able to think about. He went to the backpack and unzipped it. Inside, he kept everything he valued in this life: his folding knife, a box of wooden matches, a tattered volume of Shakespeare, and a yellowed old page from a newspaper, featuring a photo of the President and the headline “Final victory is near.”

He reached past his other treasures, retrieved the can of minestrone and a can of peas, opened each and dumped each in the cooking pot and gave the contents a stir. As a final touch, he unwrapped a crumpled piece of foil and broke half his remaining dried meat into two pieces. Half he crumbled into the cooking pot. The other half he tossed to Dite.

She left her bone just long enough to scarf down the meat, then resumed her hunt for marrow.

He kindled a fire and set the pot nearby to heat up.

As he waited for the soup to heat up, the sun dipped down toward the western hills. The shadows of the apple trees grew longer. The air began to lose its afternoon heat.

Soon the scent of real soup began to fill the evening air. He stirred the pot every few minutes to keep it from burning and fought the urge to start eating now. Though his stomach rumbled and he was salivating more than Dite, he knew it would taste so much better when it was fully hot. It would be worth the wait. Good things were always worth doing right.

Dite’s head snapped up, her ears cocked, her eyes focused on something down the hill.

“What is it?”

Dite got to her feet. Her hackles were up again, and a deep, rumbling growl sounded within her chest.

Isaac eased over to his backpack and pulled his pistol from a side pocket. He only had five cartridges left, but it would have to do. Ammunition hadn’t done well in the fires either.

Truth was, if he needed more than five shots, he was so hopelessly outgunned all the ammunition in the world wouldn’t do him any good anyway.

Dite hadn’t moved. She still stared down the little trail that they’d followed up to the camp. It was the only easy way in and out. The only way without crashing through blackberry brambles and losing much of your skin.

He peered in that direction, but could see nothing threatening in the growing gloom. The sun was setting and the shadows were rapidly overpowering the daylight.

“I know you’re out there!” he called out. “Show yourself or go away!”

There was no answer. Dite remained transfixed by whatever was out there.

“I’ll set the dog loose!”

“Please don’t.” a voice answered out of the gloom. It was the voice of a woman. “I’m not armed. Please. Call off your dog.”

“Come out where I can see you. Make sure I can see your hands.”

He cocked his pistol. In the still evening air, it sounded like a bone breaking.

“Okay. I’m coming. Just, please, don’t hurt me.”

A figure detached itself from the shadows and eased forward into the circle of light thrown by the cooking fire. She was a young woman, early to mid-twenties, wearing only a torn tee shirt, cut-off jeans and tennis shoes. Her hair was a mass of dark tangles falling over her shoulders. She held her hands up over her head, palms spread toward him. Even from this distance, he could see fresh scratches on her thighs.

If she was hiding a weapon, he didn’t know where.

“Where are the others?” he asked. “Your friends?”

She shook her head. “They’re all dead. I’m the only one left.”

Isaac wasn’t sure he believed her. Raiders weren’t above using women and children as bait to get their targets off-guard. But she posed no immediate threat. He eased his pistol’s hammer down and turned to Dite. “Lay down, girl.”

Dite looked at him, then turned and circled back to her unfinished bone. She plopped on the ground with a noticeable sigh.

“Please, mister. I haven’t eaten in three days.”

His soup. He turned back to his cooking pot. The edge nearest the fire was just beginning to boil.

“Shit!” He shoved the pistol into his waistband, grabbed the spoon and quickly stirred it. If her appearance had made him ruin his dinner, he was really going to be pissed. Thankfully, it didn’t seemed to have burned. The spoon scraped bare metal on the bottom of the pot and it didn’t smell scorched.

He looked up at the young woman. She still stood where she’d been, her hands in the air.

Isaac sighed. “You can lower your hands.”

She did, but didn’t move from where she was standing.

He sighed again. “Come on over.”

She smiled and walked over to a spot beside the fire just a few feet from him. Isaac watched her, fascinated by her gait. She seemed to be torn equally between shy wariness and eager anticipation. Up close, she also looked tired and much older than her years warranted.

Everybody aged fast these days. If they survived.

“You’re lucky,” he told her. “I usually only have enough food for myself and the dog. I found extra today.”

She nodded. “It smells wonderful.”

Yes, it did, and he really hadn’t planned on sharing it with anyone.

“Well, have a seat,” he told her and pulled the cooking pot off the fire. “I usually don’t have dinner guests, so we’re going to have to share my cup.”

She sat down cross-legged on the dirt beside the fire, flashing tan, muscular thighs in the golden fire light. “That’s fine. I just really appreciate it. You have no idea.”

He thought he probably did. There had been plenty of nights he’d gone to sleep with his stomach growling displeasure.

He pulled his battered old metal cup from his backpack, scooped some of the soup out of the cook pot, and handed it to the young woman. “It’s hot.”

Their hands touched briefly as the cup changed hands.

“Thanks.” She smiled through the steam rising from the soup. Her eyes were a brilliant green, the color of the young leaves on the apple trees.

Isaac was suddenly self-conscious. He turned from her and busied himself with adding fresh wood to the fire. It was still spring. Now that night had truly fallen, the air would quickly develop a chill. Beside him, the young woman concentrated on eating. He didn’t have to watch her to know the intensity she showed in devouring her food. He’d seen it before. When you’re very hungry, flavor is of less interest than simply filling your stomach.

Dite calmly worked her bone on the other side of the fire, mining for marrow, and watched them with alert eyes. She didn’t seem to hear anyone else lurking out there in the darkness.

Within a couple of minutes, the young woman had emptied the cup. She handed it back to him. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” He scooped up another cup of the soup and offered it to her.

She frowned and shook her head. “It’s your turn.”

“I ate yesterday,” he shrugged. “You didn’t.”

Again, she flashed that smile at him, but she took the cup. “What’s your name?”

He told her.

“I’m Allison,” she said. “My friends call me Ally.”

Isaac nodded. “Hi, Allison.”


“Hi, Ally.”


“So what happened to you friends?” he asked.

“They got sick. Vomittng, diarrhea,” she said. “Pretty soon they were vomiting up blood, then they died. One by one. There was nothing I could do.”

He nodded. She’d said the words calmly, but the firelight caught the tears in her eyes.

“You didn’t get sick?”

She nodded. “But not as bad. I was better in a day.”

“It was probably something you guys ate.”

“Probably. Some rabbit meat we had was starting to turn. David said it would be fine. Couldn’t let good food go to waste.”

Isaac poured the last of the soup into his cup and handed it to Ally.

“What about you? You haven’t always been alone, have you?”

“I’m not alone. I’ve got Dite.”

Ally smiled and looked over at the dog. “She’s certainly a good watchdog. What’s her name mean?”

“It’s short for Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love.”

Dite had heard her name and watched them both with alert eyes.

Ally turned back to him. “What about friends? Family?”

“My wife and daughters died in the war. A bomb made a direct hit on our house.” He shrugged.

“I’m sorry.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry about your friends.”

She smiled, but there was very little happiness in the gesture.


After dinner, Ally gathered the empty cooking pot, Isaac’s battered cup, and the jug of drinking water, took them to the edge of the camp site and began to wash them.

Dite stopped gnawing her bone to watch her, wet nose working the air hard.

“You don’t have to do that.” he told her.

Dite made a sound in her throat, half whine, half suppressed bark. She usually got to lick the pans clean of any food. Once she was done with them, all Isaac would have to do was rinse them out. Of all the things he had to worry about these days, the sanitation condition of Dite’s saliva ranked pretty low.

“It’s the least I can do,” Allie insisted without looking up. She’d poured some drinking water into the cooking pot and was scrubbing it now with her fingers.

Dite glanced over and met his eyes. He could only shrug. She seemed to sigh, then returned to working her bone.

Allie tossed the soiled water out into the darkness beyond the firelight, set the pots aside to dry, and turned back to him, drying her hands on the material of her shorts. Her nipples were erect, pushing against the thin material of her tee

“Honestly,” she told him. “When I found your camp, I was hoping to steal a few scarps of meat, or something. Enough to keep from starving.”

“There was nothing to steal.”

She shook her head. “So then I hoped when you came back you’d spare a few scraps for me. I never expected you to share your meal.”

“Times are tough,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t be human beings.”

“There aren’t many people who think that way anymore.”

“I don’t know that there were ever that many who thought that way. The world’s always been a very selfish place.”

She thought about that for a moment, then shrugged. “Funny how we never remember those parts, just the good times.”

Isaac nodded.

She turned and peered at the area behind him. “Is that where you sleep?”

He turned to look behind him and nodded. It wasn’t much to look at. He’d strung a tarp up between the trees to protect himself from sudden rains. Below that, he had an old gray woolen blanket for warmth and another one that served as a pad and pillow. It was simple and comfortable enough.

He could also roll it all up and carry it on his back when it was time to move on.

“Kind of cozy,” she said.

He shrugged.

She nodded and strolled over to the bed roll.

Curious, he turned and watched as, with a single, fluid motion she unsnapped her shorts, let them fall to her ankles, then kicked them aside. She wasn’t wearing anything underneath. Women’s underwear had been designed to be pretty, not survive daily wear and tear. Most fell apart within a matter of months.

She pulled her tee shirt over her head, tossed it aside with the shorts, and crawled under the blanket.

Isaac didn’t move. He wasn’t terribly sure what his next move should be.

“Are you coming?” she asked.

Dite looked at him from across the fire as though she too were wondering.

He got to his feet.

“Look,” he said. “You’re very nice and I feel bad for you, losing all your friends like that. But I’m not really looking for a wife, or girlfriend, or anything.”

She smiled. “That mean you’d rather sleep alone tonight?”

“I’m just trying to be honest with you.”

She nodded. “Okay. Now you going to get undressed, or what?”

He got undressed.


Sometime during the night, Dite growled. Isaac instantly went from sound asleep to fully alert. Dite was his early warning and security system. It was her job to let him know if any uninvited visitors prowled around the camp and she took her job very seriously.

He lay awake without moving for a few minutes. He didn’t even open his eyes just in case someone was watching him. Instead, he focused on listening, on trying to identify the intruder that had Dite on alert.

She growled again, a low, rumbling warning. But she didn’t bark. Interesting.

A voice whispered to Dite, trying to calm her. The voice was too quiet to make out the words, but he recognized the tone. It was the same soon a mother used to calm a crying baby. It was followed by the slow, stealthy padding of footsteps.

Someone was in his camp. Someone had snuck into his camp and done it without driving Dite berserk.

He slowly opened his eyes.

The fire had died down into a glowing pile of coals. Now the moon shining through the branches of the apple trees overhead was the greatest source of light, bathing the camp in stripes and patches of cool white light. Everything else was pitch blackness.

The night was silent, but for Dite’s low growling and the distant yip of a lone coyote.

As he watched, a shadowy figure moved in front of the fire and hoisted something onto its shoulders. The figure took another step and Allie moved into a patch of moonlight. His backpack was on her shoulders. His backpack, with every single thing of value he possessed.

Except his pistol. He kept his pistol beside him when he slept, under the edge of the bed roll.

Isaac held still as she glanced in his direction, then, satisfied, turned away.

He grabbed the pistol, tossed the blanket aside and climbed to his feet, stark naked. “Was this your plan the entire time? To make nice, then steal everything when I was asleep?”

Allie was a darker shadow at the far end of the camp. She paused in mid-stride near the trail leading down the hill. She seemed to be deciding her next move. Or waiting for his.

Dite was on her feet, watching Allie. She too was waiting.

“Is Allison even your real name?”

She didn’t answer. She didn’t turn to face him. She just stood there and let his words wash over her like surf.

“Why didn’t you just bash my head in while I was sleeping? It would have been easy.”

Allie made her decision. She bolted down the trail and into the night.

“Dite! Go!”

Dite leaped after her, a dark silent shape bounding through the night. She was now a hunter, a predator, and like most predators, she didn’t bark, or growl; she just moved, and moved quickly.

Isaac found his jeans and stepped into them.

In the near distance, something crashed through the brush and branches. Allie cried out. Then she screamed.

Dite had caught up with her.


By early afternoon, the sun was high and hot overhead, baking the ruins below the orchard until the air rippled with the heat. A light breeze moved just enough to keep the it from being unbearable.

Isaac placed the final strip of meat over the lowest tree branch and stepped back to admire his work. Every branch within reach had strips of red meat hanging from it. Seventy five pounds, he guessed, all cut into thin, dangling strips. The visual effect was decidedly odd. It made the tree look like it was growing some exotic type of foliage. A meat tree.

Food was too scarce to let it go to waste. There were no more refrigerators or freezers. Cutting thin strips and hanging it in the sun was the only way to preserve meat these days. The final result would be something like jerky and it would keep forever as long as it stayed dry.

He moved over to inspect the first strips he’d hung. They were coming along nicely, the edges already turning black and jerky-like. Within a few hours, it would be dry enough to keep from spoiling.

Dite watched him from her place beside the fire. She had a new marrow bone to work on, a fresh one, and her belly was full of the scraps Isaac had tossed her way. She was was happy.

Isaac sighed and rubbed his face. He’d been up most of the night and was tired, but could not sleep just yet. It would take hours for the sun’s heat to work its magic. His job now was to protect the meat from scavengers and wait.

Dite stood and came over to press her head against his thigh. He reached down and rubbed her ear. “I know, girl. You and me. I know.”

Dite wagged her tail.

Isaac bent down, picked up a tattered pair of cut-off jeans, and tossed them into the fire.

The End