I promised you extras, and now I’m delivering!
First up, the the original short story that brought to life some of the characters you’ll find in Rise and Run. This is the very first imagining of Felix Quinn and his alter ego, Jack. Jack would later become Conor, and the story would take a sci-fi bent. This short story? It’s purely thriller.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Part II of the cover reveal if I didn’t, I dunno, give you a peek. At the bottom of the post you’ll find another snippet of the cover for Rise and Run. So, without further ado, I present …
Pressure: A Short Story
Amber street lights, pale in the pre-dawn cold, marked our progression, never a straight stretch of road in sight. Shaina saw it first, the mattress stretched across the center of the two lanes. She braked, steered around it. A box-spring had landed about fifteen feet from the mattress, clothes scattered alongside the road, boxes. I told Shaina to pull over. Only after did she protest.
“This isn’t your concern, Jack.” She grabbed my elbow as I opened the car door. The name sounded wrong, emphasized. I looked at her. “Just hurry up.” She released my elbow, almost with a push, attention going to the dirty windshield.
I followed the trail of debris. Glass from a picture frame crunched under foot. I didn’t look at the picture. I pulled the collar of my coat up. Five steps, a slash of fluid. Four steps, another wet spot pooling. Smelled like transmission fluid. The road made a sharp turn. I kept going straight, to the nest of trees that cradled the broken truck. Not a bad wreck, not by a long shot. There were no cords, tie downs, no straps of any kind in or around the long bed of the truck. Explained the mess for such a delicate landing.
The first two digits on the license plate suggested the truck’s driver came from Marionette. Or the owner did. I’d like to say that I walked to the passenger’s side door cautiously, but I’d be lying. The driver had long since gone, window down. The cab reeked of tobacco. I could go for a Winston about now, myself. A wallet lay deserted in the passenger seat. I grabbed it, flipped it open, looked at the name. Fantastic. I stuck the wallet in my coat pocket and headed back to Shaina and the warm car.
“We’re going to have to call Rian,” I said. Rian Connell ran Five Points. The man behind the politicians, behind the law. He’d raised me from age three, finding in me something adequate enough to be his enforcer. He made the rules, I made sure the rules were followed. The downfall to being raised for a job like that? Gave me a tendency to go overboard. The first time I went too far Rian decided it necessary to induce a solution. The result created a kind of second personality. He even gave us separate names.
“You mean, you’re going to have to call Rian.”
True. After all, Rian hadn’t cut Shaina off from the family. He’d cut me off. So why the elaborate theatrics? Not for his own benefit, surely. Rian must have heard rumors about my recreational activities outside of the Five Points district. Not that I’d done anything wrong, yet. Just been getting harder to play by the rules lately.
Shaina glanced at me, looked back at the windshield, dropped her voice. “You don’t owe him anything. You’re out, remember?” Her voice hitched.
“Yeah, well, he owes me an explanation.” I took the wallet from my coat pocket and handed it to her. “Besides, I didn’t choose to leave.”
She opened the wallet, let out a low whistle.
“Felix.” Hearing her say that name felt like a blow. More comfortable, familiar, the name rang truer than Jack ever had. Reminded me of what I’d lost when Rian had told me to take some time off. She tossed the wallet back to me, turned over the engine. As she shifted into first gear I watched her denim-clad legs, the twitch of thigh muscle as she lifted her left foot, easing off the clutch, right pressing the gas. Smooth transition.
“What do you think, kid?”
“I think it’s a joke,” I said.
“You haven’t been Felix for two years.”
“I’m aware of that.” Sounded bitter, even to my own ears. I hadn’t volunteered to leave the family, hadn’t volunteered to live as Jack.
“Think he wants you to come back in?”
“I don‘t know.”
“Could you even pick up where you left off?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, what are you going to do?”
“Go to Marionette. I’m going to see Rian. Figure out what this is about. What else can I do?” Slight pressure built between my eyes. Shaina pushed me for answers I didn‘t have. Trying to get me to think on broader terms, maybe. Why? Because she worked for Rian. Making me answer for my own sake, not hers.
“What else can you do?” She pitched her voice, mimicking Rian’s lilt. A son of Ireland, he ran the Five Points district like a piece of the homeland.
Sitting in a leather chair in the office Rian Connell owned in Marionette—the city that made up the western border of the Five Points district—I tried to figure out what to say, the right questions to ask to get the answers I needed. Not something I considered a good time. Open blinds covering the wall of windows from floor to ceiling showed the sun falling behind towering buildings. Made for a pretty picture. Still … My palms were a little damp, stomach didn’t sit right.
Rian, always the professional in a three piece suit, sat behind his desk, jacket draped over his chair, hands placed in front of him. His sandy hair never seemed to gray, green eyes never dimmed. The pressure of the job never seemed to bothered him, though the fine lines spreading from his eyes spoke of tension.
For all intents and purposes Rian ran a chain of pubs throughout the Five Points district. Best way to keep up with what went on in his cities. A jack-of-all-trades, Rian dabbled in everything from racketeering and gambling to illegal dock trades that allowed distribution of hard to come by medications for the less fortunate. A crook and a saint. More than anything else, Rian and the family kept the cities safe. He ran the district efficiently and came across, for the most part, as a decent guy. Didn’t make me want to strangle him any less.
I took out the wallet weighing my coat down and threw it on Rian’s desk, took another wallet from the back pocket of my jeans and it landed with a thud next to the first. I leaned back in my chair and watched as Rian pulled the wallets to him, opened each, looked at me. I spread my hands, palms out and facing him.
“You can’t push me around, expect me to play along. Not without telling me what’s going on. Pick an identity. Who am I?” I had to hear him say it.
The clock mounted on the wall above a poster that read LOYALTY counted out the seconds, oozing lazily along. Tick. Tick. Tick. I wanted to slam closed fists on the desk, demand answers. When it came to Rian, forceful persuasion wouldn’t get me anywhere. Not my style, anyway. Most of the time.
“Rian,” I said. I wanted a name. He‘d given me two. He had to choose one. “What are you doing?”
“It won’t work, boyo.” He always knew.
“Why am I here, then, huh? What is it you’re wanting me to do? He’s dead.” I poked the smaller wallet harder than I meant to. “No more.” My hand was still close enough to the wallet that picking it up and chucking it against the wall behind Rian took no thought, no time, no effort. “Bye-bye, see ya, no more Felix. You made sure of that after the last assignment. And him?” I grabbed the thicker wallet between two fingers, waved it around, dropped it back onto the desk. I sat back in the chair and tapped a finger against my chin. Decided to start again. Start over. Small questions Rian would answer.
“Do you have a new assignment for me?”
“Permanent?” No answer. “You said I was done.” I resisted telling him that he’d alienated me from the family. Resisted showing any type of abandonment.
“Which makes this a choice.”
Another smile. I hadn’t noticed leaning forward.
“You need Felix again.” His pleasant smile continued. I didn’t need to ask whether he’d made the necessary arrangements. “Just … give me the assignment.”
Rian handed me a folder about two inches thick. At the door, I had my hand on the knob, when he spoke. “It was never my choice.”
My fingers seized around the handle. I left.
I spread the contents of the file before me on the coffee table in my apartment. I expected an assignment. Instead, a detailed file on Felix is what spread across the table. I didn’t need the background information. I’d lived it. Felix isn’t some cover to adopt and throw away. Neither is Jack. So why give me the file?
Because details of Roy Henderson’s murder headlined Felix’s file, and Roy’s death had caused Rian to create Jack. Because I’d killed Roy. An accident. I’d gotten caught up. Couldn’t remember the details, yet here they lay spread in front of me. I’d almost forgotten, almost blocked it from my mind.
Rian’s way of reminding me. Reminding me what could happen without Jack’s presence to stay my hand. Jack, calm, ordinary. Don’t get me wrong, Jack’s a cool guy, the person I’ve been for the past two years and the closest I’ve come to an actual, single identity in the past twenty. It’s just … Rian saddled me with an ordinary life when he took Felix from me.
Felix got things done when people couldn’t. While Jack may have been the one who lived in society—had the job, the car, the home, the capability of having the family, the career—Felix had the contacts, the information, the developed skill set, the ability to persuade and enforce. Felix who had ability to take care of the problems that arose in the Five Points district, Felix who Rian would call when an issue needed handling. Felix who had all the fun.
At first the two identities were gloves to be slipped on and off, something I controlled, had awareness of. Eventually they became something more. Any given situation brought forward the necessary persona with no conscious effort. Always a flow of changes that had me never really knowing who’d surface until someone would say a name. Always me, never me.
Two years ago, when Rian freed me to leave his employ and said I, in fact, should really “take an extended vacation,” he’d said a name. Jack. So that’s who I’ve been. Jack, the law abiding citizen who drank Starbucks coffee and always paid his parking tickets. Now he throws Felix in my face. I can’t look to Rian for answers, he’s already shown me that. There were only two other people I could turn to, one being Shaina. And since she played a hand in the setup of re-enrolling me in family affairs, maybe she could be useful and spare a few answers.
I pulled up the collar on my coat, walked to the door, tapped once. She’d hear the soft thud. The door opened and Shaina leaned against it giving me a once over. She looked different at home than in the car. She fit here. Tall and lean, her skin the color of heavily creamed coffee. She moved back to let me inside. I followed her to the kitchen. Her hair seemed longer now that it fell loose, the track lighting emphasizing the red tint peeking through the dominant near-black shade. I sat at the island and she handed me a glass of water, looked at me. Her blue eyes gave her face an exotic look. Eyes that could always unnerve me, though today they seemed less searching, less demanding.
“Wondered when you’d make your way here,” she said.
“You’re getting lenient with your entrance fee.”
“You’re right. You didn’t bring me food or anything.” She smiled. “Of course, I can always lead you out and we can try this again. Only this time, if you don’t have a bag full of Chinese take-out I’ll happily deny you entrance.”
“Where’s the wolf?” The first time I had met Seth—who I’d been calling the wolf for the duration of the seven years I’d known him—he’d made a peculiar monosyllabic noise that sounded like a distorted growl. I’d realized it was his laugh. The kind of sound that had startled me at first, but grew to be something expected and almost comforting. Seth and Shaina were the closest thing I’d come to having a family, like a brother and a sister. Seth, the person I’d turn to if Shaina had no information for me, also worked for Rian.
I nodded. Best not to ask about the details. She leaned over the counter to stick her face in mine, elbows propped on the counter, chin resting on long-fingered hands. She sniffed.
“Spit it out, kid. You saw Rian and …”
“Nothing.” I spun the glass of water round and round. “Just gave me this.” I handed her the file.
“An assignment?” She looked at it, looked at me. She pursed her lips. “So you’re no longer on hiatus.” Not a statement, not a question. The words came out like molasses. She set teeth against her bottom lip, opened the file, shook her head. “There’s no assignment.” She didn’t sound surprised.
“Who are you then?”
“Why do you think I’m here?”
She set the file down in front of me, folded her arms across her chest.
“He’s playing with me.” I said.
A slight lift and drop of her shoulder. “He has a motive—”
“Doesn’t he always?”
“Whether it’s clear or not. Have you talked to him since you got this?” She tapped a fingernail against the file. I shook my head. “I haven’t heard anything.”
My stomach dropped. Time to find the wolf. I thanked Shaina, asked if Seth would be working later. She confirmed.
“Let me know what you find?” she said. I nodded.
I walked the streets of downtown Marionette, an ensemble of towering modern structures and decades old houses-turned-businesses. The wind had kicked up and the temperature fell with the sun. The shop windows were plastered with Halloween decorations. A green witch in black robes with a purple stripe adorning her pointed hat rode a broom across the front of Finnegan’s Apothecary. Orange pumpkins with yellow eyes and mouths and a scarecrow in a flannel shirt kept guard over a vintage clothing store.
I neared Faolan’s Pub and a man in a latex mask caught somewhere between human and monster jogged past, howling something unintelligible. I slowed my pace, letting a particularly strong gust of wind pass. Stopped. Turned. The man in the mask stood facing me in front of the pub door. Faolan’s Pub means … Wolf’s Pub.
I called out to the man. He turned and ran. The slam of my feet against the sidewalk informed me of my pursuit before my mind had time to register a conscious decision. He turned right. I followed. He headed for the docks of the little river the populace of Marionette seemed so fond of. My pulse quickened, stomach tickled. The man started to slow. He looked over his shoulder at me, let out a growl. A laugh. Confirmation that my masked man and Seth were the same. I pumped my legs harder to pick up speed. Called out to him again using his name. Docks were getting close. Could see the water, feel the weight of downtown falling behind. Realized just how cold this October had gotten.
The cadence of Seth’s steps changed when he hit one of the piers, a hollow thunk with every footfall. He stopped at the end of the pier. I still ran, closing in. He knew something, didn’t he? Had to.
The pier was icy, slush crunching under foot. Seth, still in the mask, held his hand out. To slow me? By his stance, I doubted it. I tried to slow. Couldn’t. I got too close. He grabbed my coat, using my own momentum to throw me into the water. I landed hard, breath knocked away on the impact before I sank.
I had two choices, sink or swim. Seems obvious. I thought about the way Jack would react. He’d waste needed time wondering what happened, why Seth threw him in a freezing river. After all, the wolf’s a friend. Isn’t he? Jack would be angry and confused. Yet even as the thoughts surfaced I treaded water to get to air.
I knew if I opened my mouth the freezing water slamming against my lips as I swam would rush into lungs already burning for air. I could feel the water seeping past my lips, through the spaces between clenched teeth, freezing in my throat and threatening to choke me. Needles poked my legs, my sides. A few more feet, the surface couldn’t have been beyond a few more feet.
The too-cold water prevented me from opening my eyes. It didn’t matter. My body instinctively knew when I broke the surface. The dropping temperature of the air had my eyelashes freezing together. I knew not to take a deep breath even though my lungs were crying for it. Took ten shallow breaths. My pulse started to slow to a reasonable rate. Now I could worry about opening my eyes.
The trick to opening your eyes when your lids and lashes are a mess of ice is simple. Don’t care about the pain. Don’t care about aesthetics. The sloppy wet gurgle? That might have been a slew of unsavory words. I waited for my sight to return, the dark turning into a mass and blur of watercolor images trying to take form. Blinked. Twice more.
Rian stood silhouetted against downtown, Seth behind him, mask in hand. Had a feeling Rian would be around when I surfaced. I swam to the pier, arms shaking as I pulled myself up and landed face down to catch my breath. Rian crouched in front of me. Feeling half frozen, spitting ice, lungs still on fire, I spoke to his knees.
“A little dramatic, even for you.” Numb lips tried to eat the words as I spoke them. Rian shifted his feet to better balance his weight. He snorted. A hand appeared in front of my face, work worn, well manicured, strong. I raised my face enough to look at Rian.
“Felix …” The name took root in the silence. “This was never a choice that could be made for you. I chose Jack thinking he was a person that could contain you, make your life simple. I was wrong. You’re not that simple, boyo, you never have been. Sometimes you never truly know who you are—”
“Until the pressure is on?” I grabbed his hand. He helped me up, smiled, nodded.
“Something like that.”
Seth joined us. Hugged me. Good to have you back, he’d said.
“It’s good to finally be someone,” I said.
Without Jack, controlling myself would be harder. And yet, in his absence, I felt there would be one less hand holding me back.
Welcome back! I hope you enjoyed the short story that would eventually spawn Rise and Run. If you cheated and just skipped to the end of the post for another piece of the cover, shame on you. But also, I understand. Well, here it is. Another snippet of the cover. Tune in tomorrow for the final piece.
And, of course, you can see the full cover on Wednesday, the 14th.