The Official Website of Author Michael McBride

Freaking Awesome! *Picture Post*

I came home from work to find a box on the porch from Paul Goblirsch at Thunderstorm Books. What do you think I found inside?

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These hardcovers are works of art and a steal at $25! I’m also kind of fond of the story. So fond, in fact, I’ve decided to post an excerpt below the cut!

Prologue

18 Broad Street

Financial District

New York, New York

September 29th

8:54 a.m.

If the love of money was the root of all evil, then this was its cold black heart.

Its lifeblood flowed through arteries clogged with taxis blaring their horns and buses coughing exhaust into the gray sky and cars that wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Ferries and subways bolstered the ranks of pedestrians cramming the sidewalks, pulsing in time with the rhythm of high heels and Italian leather striking concrete and pavement as they converged upon Broad Street from the vena cava of Wall Street and Exchange Place. The sounds of life echoed from bricks and mortar and glass, a ceaseless beat of one-sided cell phone conversations and the crumpling of wrappers and coffee cups, of the snapping of briefcases and the chiming of text messages, of the impact of millions of hopes and dreams colliding.

Those who worked here were no more a part of its evil than perpetrators of it. For them, this was just another day at the office. A day spent trading one intangible quantity of something for another intangible quantity of something else in a transaction from which money almost magically materialized. A day spent buying things with other people’s money and selling things they never actually owned in the first place. A day spent staving off the eventual myocardial infarction that would merely open up a seat on the trading floor for the next in line. A line that formed beneath the American flags gracing the magnificent façade at 18 Broad.

One figure stood apart from the rest. The boy watched the cold heart beat with his finger firmly on its pulse. He stared at the high-relief of Integrity with Agriculture and Mining to her left and Science, Industry, and Invention to her right. He wondered if it was coincidence or prescience that had inspired the sculptor to create her with her eyes closed, her arms spread, and her left foot stepping from the precipice as though she were about to hurl herself to her death. He imagined her plummeting past the Corinthian columns and the American flags and the gold letters of the New York Stock Exchange to crush the crowd of brokers swarming behind the black wrought-iron fence that kept the chaff from mingling with the wheat. He laughed aloud at the image and drew corner-of-the-eye scrutiny from passersby.

Let them look all they wanted; it’s not like they weren’t already.

From across the street he watched them. Finishing last-minute phone calls and shoveling down messes of sausage and bacon and egg from foil wrappers, compliments of the vendor carts that perched beside the fence like vultures vying for whatever scraps of the American Dream were tossed their way. The police officer leaning on the hood of his cruiser swept his gaze across the crowd and momentarily latched upon the boy before releasing him with a whuddaya-gonna-do shrug. This was still New York, after all.

He checked his watch.

8:57.

Three more minutes.

To his left, a CNBC van was parked at the curb, its satellite broadcast dish raised. The cameraman stood in the middle of the closed street beside a reporter the boy didn’t recognize, but whose assets were far more intriguing than those traded behind the walls across the street. To him, anyway. She was here to catch a glimpse of whichever celebrity would arrive to ring the opening bell. He secretly hoped it would be someone like Christian Bale. He’d always wanted to see him in person.

A glance at his watch.

8:58.

Two more minutes.

Sweat beaded his brow, but he couldn’t risk smearing the green and black makeup it had taken him hours to apply to wipe it away. It ran through his brows and stung his eyes, which already burned from the lack of sleep. He should have brought some eye drops. Something to help alleviate the discomfort. And maybe a cold drink. He hadn’t expected it to be this hot so early in the morning. He was positively drenched beneath his trench coat. He couldn’t afford to open it for a single blessed second. Not yet, anyway. Not for another—he looked at his watch—sixty-three seconds.

8:59.

The world was about to change forever. He wondered if any of the people here had even the slightest idea that they were about to become a part of history. Soon, everyone—everyone—would know the name of the boy who changed the world. His name. And they would never forget where they were on this day, at nine o’clock exactly, when the bill for their avarice finally came due.

He reached beneath his coat and ran his palm down the smooth surface of one of the canisters strapped to his ribs, fingered the brass tubing, the high-pressure nozzles. Discreetly removed his hand from his jacket again. Pondered what it was going to feel like to shed his skin.

The sun crested the building at his back. It reflected from the windows opposite him, a fiery crimson glare behind the giant American flag. A portent, maybe. Or perhaps merely a magnificent backdrop for his ascension.

Sudden movement to his left.

He instinctively flinched. His heart leapt in his chest, beat a million miles an hour.

A crowd of people converged from his peripheral vision, moving toward the front doors. Fast. The cameraman and reporter ran toward them. Somewhere in the middle of the commotion, the boy thought he saw that one actor his mother liked so much, the one with the crazy made-up religion who held his wife and daughter hostage or something like that. The guy who always seemed to be in the headlines was about to be in a whole lot more.

The boy checked his watch.

One final time.

9:00.

Now.

He wiped his sweaty palms on his jacket and strode across the street. Strong. Confident. A man on a mission. Chaos to his left. The policeman had his cell phone out. Appeared to be trying to get a picture of the celebrity somewhere in the entourage streaking toward the front door. The majority of the men and women in business suits had their backs to him.

His coat flared behind him. The heels of his black leather boots clapped on the asphalt. He held out his hands like a gunfighter. Opened and closed them. One finger at a time. Pinky to thumb. Walked right past the officer, who looked away from his phone and into the painted face of his murderer without even recognizing it.

The boy stepped up onto the narrow black fence and turned again to face the street. Held out his arms for balance. Shrugged off his trench coat, which fell away to reveal the machinations of his own design. The carbon dioxide canisters that would force the pressurized gas through the adjacent canisters, which were filled with the fluid he had spent months perfecting, before expelling it at two thousand psi through the nozzles on his chest and shoulders as a fine mist, which would travel outward at a rate of five feet per second.

A woman screamed. Shouting commenced. The thunder of running footsteps and bodies colliding.

He raised his face to the sun. Felt its warmth on his eyelids, his cheeks. Basked in its glory.

The policeman shouted something. A warning. Drew his sidearm. Too late.

The boy reached behind his back with both hands. Pulled the twin rings to fire the carbon dioxide tanks. Heard the whistle of air. Felt it passing through the tubing. Around his chest. Watched the nearly invisible cloud disperse from his chest and into the air with a rippling effect that reminded him of natural gas.

The cameraman turned to face him, capturing history for the eyes of the entire world and the generations to come.

The boy felt the mist contact his skin, a sensation like needles filled with acid and coated with lava being driven straight through his skin and muscle and directly into every single nerve ending in his body at once.

His pupils constricted to pinpricks. All of his muscles contracted at once.

He closed his eyes and welcomed oblivion.

All around him, the screams of the living metamorphosed into the screams of the dying.

One

Billington Residence

27 Cohawney Road

Scarsdale, New York

September 29th

10:12 a.m.

Special Agent Renee Lawton descended the stairs into a basement no different than any other. Brown shag carpet. Furniture worn at the armrests. Faux wood paneling. A television and a gaming system. The smell of cats, though not recent. The slat blinds were drawn over the window wells. The horizontal seams admitted the faintest hint of the alternating red and blue lights of the police cruisers blocking the residential street in either direction. Three doors off of the main room. A bedroom straight ahead. A bathroom immediately beside her to the right beside a closed door through which she could hear the hum of the furnace.

She glanced at her watch.

Seventy-two minutes post-event.

The light coming from the open bedroom door was blinding. The crime scene response team had already mounted portable spotlights inside the room and commenced with the process of deconstructing the life of Logan Avery Billington. An evidence tech brushed past her with a large hard shell case. His hair was damp and his red face beaded with sweat. She nodded to him. Caught him glance at the badge she wore on a lanyard around her neck before nodding back. Her timing was perfect. They’d obviously just finished collecting fibers and trace evidence. Time for the real work to begin.

Lawton stopped at the threshold. Closed her eyes and cleared her mind. Blocked out the voices around her. No preconceptions. No judgments. Only observations. She wanted to absorb every detail, savor every sensation. Every scent, every emotion. Before she could even start to understand him, she needed to crawl into his skin. To understand not just how he lived or how he felt, but what it was physically and mentally like to be him. This was his lair. This was where he felt safe. Where he could allow his true self to come out.

She opened her eyes and entered the room.

Seventy-three minutes post-event.

She first mentally subtracted the fellow agent in the latex gloves working the laptop on the small writing desk to her right. The crime scene photographer in the center of the room. The criminalists at the back, one of whom catalogued the items on the dresser while the other did the same in the walk-in closet. Two uniformed officers maintained a close watch on everything that transpired. None of them could afford to screw this up for fear of inheriting the blame. One of the officers said something to her, but she neither heard his words nor cared. They had their jobs to do; she had hers. She would never have another opportunity to form her first impressions, which, in her experience, were everything. This was her only shot.

The flash from the digital camera strobed.

Her cell phone chirped from the pocket of her blue and gold FBI windbreaker. She’d barely entered the room and already they were demanding answers they would likely never get. At least not the kind of answer that could be made palatable for an entire nation in a thirty-second sound bite.

Seventy-four minutes post-event.

She thumbed her phone to vibrate and took in her surroundings as she imagined her subject would have before leaving this room for the final time. This was how he wanted his room to be found. There was a message he wanted to convey, but not one that would in any way mitigate or minimize the impact of the grand one he already delivered. In this room, it would be the expression of himself that mattered, the physical act of displaying something about himself that others failed to see. A way to be remembered for who he was, not merely for the act he committed. Something about himself of such high personal importance that he didn’t care if it was held up to judgment or scrutiny or mockery after the fact. Something that would serve to challenge the preconceptions of the general public or express emotions he hadn’t been able to when he was alive. This was the unguarded expression of himself as seen through his own eyes.

Lawton shivered.

Flash. Flash.

The subject had only recently moved down here from one of the upper level bedrooms, which had been too close to his parents, too far from independence. That much was obvious. There was no transition from child to young adult. No residue of what he once was to ground him. That room was still upstairs, she was certain. Likely a memorial to his childhood that mom and dad weren’t ready to turn into a sewing room or home gym. At least not yet. Not while the subject was still undergoing his process of metamorphosis. They were unwilling to accept that this was who he had become, yet granted him the freedom to dip his toe into the water on the way to the glorious destiny they believed awaited him. They had forgotten that to a teenager the moment was everything.

Flash. Flash.

Seventy-five minutes post-event.

The single waterbed was carefully made. The clothing in the underdressers neatly folded. Jeans with pre-fab holes in the thighs. Boxer briefs. Black socks. A black LA Dodgers cap to match those of the members of the band on the poster above the headboard. They wore masks. Hollywood Undead. The same group whose bird logo the subject had sloppily tattooed in India ink on his own forearm. He identified with the masks. He felt he wore one to hide his true self, too. This was where he shed it, though. So where was the real him?

Flash. Flash.

She perused the objects on the dresser, which seemed superfluous considering the clothes under his bed. Movie ticket stubs. A stack of well-used hardcover books. One title summed up the general motif quite nicely: Destroying the World to Save It. So he fancied himself a nihilist, did he?

Seventy-six minutes post-event.

“Zoloft or Prozac?” she asked.

“What was that?” someone responded from behind her.

“What drug were they using to try to fix him?”

“Effexor,” the agent scouring the laptop said.

She opened and closed a few largely empty drawers. CDs and comic books. Graphic novels. Sketch books filled with charcoal and pencil drawings. Talented.

Flash. Flash.

She turned in a circle. With the exception of the lone poster, the white walls were bare. She approached one, looked closer. Ran her finger over the smooth surface. Felt the subtle impressions where tiny nails had once affixed paneling to the walls, like in the adjacent room. He’d gone to considerable effort to renovate this room only to leave the walls stark white.

Flash. Flash.

The lamp on the desk, within reach of the bed, was the only object that stood apart. A lone silver stem rose from the middle of a carousel of horses that had been painted black, their eyes red. The shade was conspicuously absent. As was the bulb. She flicked the toggle on its neck several times. Listened to it click.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

She strolled past the closet. The jackets smelled of sour cigarette smoke. Black leather. The T-shirts were all black. There were a few nicer shirts toward the back. Collars. In case he felt the need to impress someone. There were anatomical models on the shelves. Paperback books. A stack of pictures, pre-transformation. A bulletin board with more recent photos. Cheap colored pushpins. Superficial friends. She knew the signs. Shoes and boots. A tackle box with smears of dried paint on the outside.

“We independently confirmed the prescription,” one of the criminalists said. “Toxicology’s obviously still pending.”

Flash. Flash.

Seventy-seven minutes post-event.

“Venlafaxine is a serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor prescribed for major depression and anxiety disorders. It’s in the phenethylamine class of chemicals. Same as amphetamines and methamphetamines. I don’t see its manifestation in this room. Do you?” She opened the tackle box. Paintbrushes. Clean. A mason jar full of discolored mineral spirits. No tubes or bottles of paint. “Was there a bulb in that lamp when you arrived?”

“Lamp? You mean the one on the desk? Not that I know of, ma’am.”

“Everything’s exactly as it was when we arrived,” one of the uniforms said.

“Was the ceiling light working?” She turned and glanced up. Two bulbs beneath a glass diffuser. One hundred and twenty watts, minimum.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Bright?”

“Not bright enough for our purposes, ma’am.”

“Hmm.”

She lifted the edge of the comforter and ran her fingers along the sheets. Smooth. Satin. He expected to entertain at some point, if he hadn’t already. Thinking of the future, not the present. She stopped. Gnawed her bottom lip. Turned in a circle.

Flash. Flash.

Bright overhead lights. White walls. A tackle box that once housed paints. Not a single painting.

“Did you find any bulbs down here at all?” she asked.

“No, ma’am.”

“Any of you have a black light wand on you?”

“Yeah,” the criminalist on his hands and knees in the closet said. “Case is behind me. Why? Teenage boy? You’ve got to figure his bed will light up like the night sky. You wouldn’t be able to find a sample other than his on a dare. Besides, we have no reason to suspect any sort of sexual component.”

Lawton removed the wand from its custom insert, walked to the center of the room, and eased the photographer out of her way.

Seventy-eight minutes post-event.

“Someone kill the lights.”

“I’m not done—” the photographer started.

“Trust me. You’ll want to get this, too. Now would someone mind…?”

The auxiliary spotlights extinguished with a snap and a thud. The only light was the alternating red and blue filtering through the blinds from the street.

She turned on the black light and held it up over her head. The blue glow diffused throughout the subject’s bedroom, causing the designs he’d painted all over the walls and the ceiling in invisible, phosphorescent paint to glow a pale shade of purple.

“Jesus,” the photographer said.

“Well?” Lawton said. “What are you waiting for? Take your pictures.”

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