Long time no speak.
I apologize for that. I’ve been busy writing, and I haven’t taken the time to do a blog entry since…well, for quite some time.
To show what I’ve done lately, I’ve published Empty Eyes. I hope you’ve had a chance to read it, because it’s different than what I usually write. It isn’t based on or inspired by a classic song, and, for that reason, I had fully intended to release the book under a pen name.
My dad, T. Whitman Bilderback, talked me out of it. So, Empty Eyes stands alone. I guess you could lump it in with some of my spooky short stories, since there isn’t any link in them to any of my series. Look for the preview of Chapter 1 at the end of this entry.
I also have two completed Justice Security novels all ready to go.
The first one should hit within a couple of weeks, and it’s a doozy! You’ll see what I mean once you get a chance to read it. It’s going to be an Amazon exclusive, but not for the reasons you might think. This novel also was written before I finished Empty Eyes, but it’s taken this long to prepare it for release. When you see it, you’ll understand why.
I can’t even tell you the name of the novel without spoiling the surprise. Darn it.
However, I can tell you the name of the Justice Security novel that will be coming six-to-eight weeks following that secret story: Jim Dandy – A Justice Security Novel. It’s another doozy that will shake up the Justice Security universe. Of course, it has to do with Justice Security’s competing security company, Jim Dandy Security. If you’ll remember, Jim Dandy was also one of the circle of college friends that included Joey Justice, etc., but there was a falling out between Joey and Jim, and it concerned Misty. Ties between the old friends are mended in this story, and it contains some surprises that you hopefully won’t see coming.
I’m working on the third Justice Security novel for 2015 right now. It’s called Cow Patty – A Justice Security Novel. I won’t give away any plot points or happenings in this one, but I think you’ll enjoy it.
Also in the works are two more stories that I hope have 2015 release dates, too: Eli’s Coming, a spooky little story, and I’m Your Boogie Man – A Tale Of Sardis County, the next installment of the Sardis County series.
So, as you can see, I’ve kept myself busy…but, thanks for reading this, and I’m hoping I can keep up with it a little bit better.
But, if I don’t, please know that I’m writing away like a madman!
Michael (T. M. Bilderback)
Now, here’s the preview of Chapter 1 of Empty Eyes:
I cannot express the deep, incapacitating horror and loss of hope that I feel right now. The situation in which I find myself is terribly troubling, and may spell the end…perhaps not the end of humanity, but the end of all things normal.
I’m sorry; I’m beginning this story at the end. Let me start over.
I don’t know when it all started, but I know when I encountered the first signs. I was at home on a Saturday morning in September, mowing my lawn. We have no gated community, nor do we have a homeowner’s association. It’s a good thing, too, because they wouldn’t like me very much. I don’t worry about keeping my grass a quarter inch high, and I don’t make “stripes” in the lawn when I mow it. I just wait until it’s shaggy, then I cut it back a little to make it fairly presentable.
My neighbor, Ralph Johnson, is just the opposite. Ralph obsesses over his lawn. Crabgrass is nonexistent on his lawn, and daffodils don’t dare to spawn new bulbs anywhere except a flower bed. I’ve actually seen Ralph on his hands and knees, ruler in hand, measuring his front lawn. He spends hours each Saturday with a lawn mower, a weed eater, and a pair of pruning shears. I’ve never seen anyone else as concerned over his lawn.
Ralph and his wife live on the corner of Maple and Oak. My family lives next door to them, on Maple Avenue.
We are not close.
Ralph and I have had “discussions” over my lawn care habits that have reduced themselves to carefully crafted witty insults regarding everything lawn related, including the one I zinged him with concerning going back and fertilizing his own lawn with the bullshit he was spitting out.
After that, Phyllis, my wife, and Catherine, Ralph’s wife remained friendly, but Ralph and I didn’t have much use for each other.
Then, the day came when one of our kids – Ralph and Catherine are childless – accidentally knocked over part of the back yard fence that separated our back lawns. It was a big, wooden, privacy fence, eight feet tall, with those pointed partial triangles at the top to discourage invaders from climbing over the top. Catherine screamed at the children, Phyl apologized. Catherine screamed at Phyl, and that was that. Ralph and I met at the broken fence that evening, I said I would happily pay to have the fence repaired, and that was that. Phyl and Catherine were no longer friendly.
Our kids, Keith and Clarissa, are still preteens. Keith is eleven, and Clarissa is twelve. Both are athletic, and, while I encourage that in them, I don’t know where it comes from. I’m not athletic. Since I’m a writer, the most exercise that I get is walking a couple of blocks, mostly when I’m trying to work out a plot point. Phyllis is an accountant, and works for a major accounting firm downtown. Both of our jobs require our butts to be firmly planted in our desk chairs for extended periods. So, while we both have great metabolisms so that we don’t gain weight, we don’t get to do much in the way of athletics.
After I had assured Ralph that I would pay for the fence, I pulled the kids aside and told them to be more careful in the back yard. Football should not be played unless all parties make sure that nothing crashes into the fence. After that day, we didn’t see much of our next-door neighbors.
So, I was very surprised that day, when I looked up from my mowing and saw Ralph walking across my front yard. He wasn’t walking in a straight line, however…he would weave a couple of steps to the left, straighten up his gait, then weave a couple of steps to the right, and straighten up again. Lather, rinse, repeat. At first, I thought he had consumed one beer too many. I turned off my push mower, and waited for the man to get across the yard to me.
As he got closer, I noticed his eyes. His empty, milky eyes. They looked like light blue marbles surrounded by milk, with some red streaks in them. But, the biggest thing that I noticed about them was the fact that it seemed that he didn’t really see me.
I mean, he could see me, obviously – the man was walking somewhat directly toward me. But he wasn’t seeing me, if that makes any sense.
Ralph stopped two steps away, which placed him about one step away from the push mower.
Ralph, normally a fairly natty man, was dressed a bit sloppily today. Not to say that he was sloppy that day, just out of the ordinary for him. H wore a brown T-shirt, denim jeans, and tennis shoes. But he didn’t have his shirttail tucked in like he normally would have, and he did not have on any socks. His hair was slightly askew, as if he had just gotten out of bed, and his glasses were crooked.
“Hello, Ralph,” I said cordially.
Ralph stood looking at me with those damned empty eyes.
I decided to goad him a little bit.
“Am I mowing too loud for you? It’s this new lawn mower. I don’t even think it cuts evenly from the left side to the right. What do you think?”
Ralph didn’t answer. He just kept looking at me.
“Ralph, is something wrong? What do you want?”
His lips began moving, but were making no sound.
“Speak up, neighbor. I can’t hear you unless you make sounds.”
Ralph said, “Glrk-k-k.” Then he bent over at the waist and vomited about a gallon of blood all over my new Cub Cadet.
I scooted backwards quickly to avoid getting any of it on me, and I was saying, “OhmyGod! OhmyGod!”
Ralph heaved again, and vomited another gallon of blood onto my lawn mower.
But it wasn’t just blood.
There was some kind of black…ichor…mixed in with it, in big lumps, along with squiggly, squirming things that weren’t maggots, and they weren’t worms. I don’t know what they were, but they had legs, and scurried around the lawn mower’s surface. Direct sunlight seemed to kill them, but I wasn’t going to touch one to find out. The smell was horrible, and smelled as if something had died, and was rotting merrily away in the sun.
I pulled my phone out of my pocket, promptly dropped it, then picked it up and brought it out of “sleep” mode. I dialed nine-one-one, told them the emergency, and stayed on the line until the first police car arrived.
Ralph had keeled over onto his left side and pulled into a fetal position. One of those squirming things had begun to creep out of Ralph’s nostril, but pulled back inside when it got close to the sunlight. His mouth was still moving, as if to form words, but the thoughts, if there were any, did not translate themselves into sound.
The cops in the squad car killed the siren, but left the lights flashing. I was on the phone with their dispatcher, told the woman that the first patrol car had arrived, and motioned the two uniformed keepers of the peace over to me.
“Are you Mr. Stiles? Mr. Paul Stiles?” asked the older cop.
“I am, and I sure am glad to see you guys!”
The younger cop squatted down beside Ralph, then reached toward Ralph’s neck, presumably to check for a pulse.
“I wouldn’t do that!” I said quickly. “I wouldn’t touch him if I were you…at least, not bare handed. I don’t believe we should touch him at all.”
“Why is that, Mr. Stiles?” the cop asked.
By now, some of the neighbors had come outside to see what the fuss was about. Another siren, hopefully of an ambulance, could be heard in the distance, growing louder by the second.
I pointed to the top of the lawn mower. “I’m not sure if any of them are still alive, but those wormy-looking things with legs came out from inside Ralph when he vomited, and I saw one begin to come out of his nostril, then duck back in. You might get infected with whatever he has. I don’t fancy having a bunch of…things…inside me, but you make your own mind up.” I watched as the young cop drew his hand back as if it had been bitten. “Sunlight seems to kill them, though,” I told him.
The siren, which did indeed belong to an ambulance, silenced as the rescue vehicle turned onto Maple from Oak. The young cop scurried away toward the new vehicle to explain what was going on. The older cop turned to me again.
“Can you tell me who this man is, Mr. Stiles?” he asked.
“Sure. He’s my next door neighbor, Ralph Johnson.” I pointed to the house, partially visible over the hedge on the property line. “He lives there, with his wife, Catherine.” Realization dawned on me. Someone had to go tell Catherine. I didn’t know who would do it, but I knew it wasn’t going to be me.
“I’ll go check on her, sir, and let her know what’s happening. Do you know if she’s home?”
I shook my head. “No idea, Officer.”
His face grim, he nodded to me. “I’ll go check on the wife. Please stay outside. We may have questions, and you’ll need to sign a statement.”
The paramedics were donning latex gloves and grabbing a stretcher from inside the ambulance. I watched them as I nodded to the cop. “Sure.”
The paramedics put the stretcher down on the sidewalk in front of my house and went back to the back of their ambulance. They pulled out some bright orange plastic coveralls and pulled them on over their uniforms. The older cop had just reached the sidewalk and turned to the other side of the privacy hedge.
If Ralph had been coherent and ambulant, he probably would have screamed at the cop for “ruining his lawn”. Then, he would have yelled something about the cop having no business “tearing up a good citizen’s hard work”. The cop probably would have shot Ralph at that point.
But, Ralph wasn’t coherent or ambulant. I couldn’t tell if he was even alive right now, and I sure as shit wasn’t going to get any closer to him to find out.
I glanced again at the paramedics, and they had also put on those big all-over helmets with the windshield in front. Hazmat suits, I guess they were. They strapped on belts that had medium boxes attached. The boxes had hoses that connected to the backs of their helmets.
What the hell were they afraid of catching from good ol’ Ralph?
Another patrol car joined the emergency vehicle parking lot in the middle of Maple. I lamented that it was still daylight. The flashing red, white, and blue lights would have been fun to watch, and very patriotic with their brightness.
The younger cop spoke with the two cops in the new patrol car, then all three cops turned toward Ralph’s house. The two new cops walked onto Ralph’s lawn – more “ruining” – and the younger cop stayed close to the ambulance.
Finally, the paramedics walked across my front lawn, carrying the stretcher. They stopped beside Ralph’s unmoving body, and one of them turned to me.
“Mr. Stiles, did any of the vomitus touch you in any way?” asked the paramedic. His voice sounded tinny and unreal. It was coming through a small speaker near the helmet’s window.
I shook my head. “No, I was able to dodge away from it. Thank God.”
The paramedic’s helmet nodded back and forth in an exaggerated affirmative nod. “God must have been with you today, for sure.”
His partner had squatted beside Ralph. His voice sounded just as tinny and unreal as his partner’s. “Looks like number twelve, Jim.”
“Wow,” said the paramedic referred to as “Jim”. “What the hell is going on?”
“That’s what I was about to ask you,” I said.
The younger cop had come up to the paramedics. “Excuse me, guys, they need you next door when you get a chance.”
“Next door?” I asked. “Catherine? Is she hurt?”
The young cop looked frightened and distracted as he nodded. “It looks like the same thing as with this man on the ground. They wanted me to ask you if you’d come identify her.”
“Of course,” I replied.
“We’ll take care of your neighbor while you’re over there, Mr. Stiles,” said the standing paramedic.
“Thank you,” I said. I walked to the end of my yard and around the hedge, into Ralph Johnson’s yard. The front door was wide open.
I was alone. The younger cop had hung back with the paramedics, whether from fear, or a chance to assist them.
Ralph’s lawn was immaculate. The shrubberies along the front of the house lived in beds of wood mulch, sharing their space with trimmed, blooming rose bushes, and bright, green tulips, whose blooms had already blossomed for the year. All were precisely laid out, with even spaces between each plant. Railroad ties delineated the beds, and kept the green lawn grass from intruding on the wood mulch. Decorative wrought-iron handrails decorated the sides of the steps, and met their counterparts at the top, whose job it was to keep the front porch fenced in and safely protected from those that might intrude on the privacy of the residents.
I found that I actually did feel like an intruder as I climbed those steps to the front door. With each step, a sense of dread grew stronger in me, and almost caused me to turn tail and run back to my own house, and hide safely under the king-size bed that I shared with Phyllis. I didn’t, much to my later regret. I went to the open door, and spoke up.
“Hello!” I called.
“In the kitchen!” was the answer I received back.
I walked into the foyer, then down the hall to the brightly painted kitchen. The walls were painted with a bright, sunshiny yellow. The appliances were all stainless steel, shiny and spotless. The cabinets were painted with a white gloss, and the floor was white tile. The kitchen was clean and inviting, with one exception.
Catherine Johnson was curled into a fetal position on the floor, lying in a puddle of blood and black ichor. The smell of rot was present here, too. Several of the squirmy things were on the floor, but these particular squirmy things weren’t dead. Sunlight hadn’t touched them, and they were mindlessly scurrying around the kitchen floor. They had not left the fluid of blood and ichor…yet. They were all about three inches long, and looked like centipedes with only six legs. A single antenna waved from the front of each creature.
Catherine was dead, of that I was sure. She had a squirmy hanging from her nostril, and one peeked out from the inside of her ear.
I was glad that I had not had my lunch yet, because I wanted to finish my lawn chores first.
“Mr. Stiles, is this your neighbor?” asked the older cop.
I nodded, fighting not to retch. “Yes, officer, that’s Catherine Johnson. Her husband, Ralph, is on my front lawn.”
“Looks like the same thing that came over her husband,” the cop said.
I was looking around the floor at the splatters of blood and ichor. There was an obvious footprint in the pool.
Someone had stepped in it.
As I watched, one of the two new cops stepped on one of the squirmy things. It splattered its insides out onto the floor and into the puddle. The other creatures came over to the crushed creature and began devouring it.
Obviously, this cop was the source of the first footprint. He probably had done the same thing.
Right after that thought came to my mind, the cop – his name plate read “Richards” – said, “Man, they sure do go after themselves, don’t they?” He had a dorky, sadistic grin on his face.
The older cop’s name plate read “Barnes”, and the third cop’s plate read “Mitchell”.
Barnes looked at Richards and said, “The ME is going to be all over you for ruining evidence.”
“So what?” said Richards. “The bugs killed her. Any idiot can see that!”
“But the ME doesn’t need ‘any idiot’ ruining the evidence that shows that. Don’t do it again.”
I was looking at the floor while they were sorting that out, watching the squirmers. One was making its way out of the pool toward Richards’ shoe. It moved quickly, and had scrabbled its way onto the top of his shoe while I opened my mouth to speak.
“Hey, Richards, you have a…,” I started.
“OW!” shouted Richards, lifting that foot quickly and pulling up his pants leg. A small red spot was there. No squirmer. Just the spot, which looked suspiciously like a hole that wasn’t bleeding.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Mitchell.
“Some fuckin’ thing just bit me!” yelled Richards.
Barnes, however, was looking at me. “What did you start to say, Mr. Stiles?”
“I saw one of the squirmers work its way over to Richards’ shoe. It ducked under his pants leg,” I said.
“No fuckin’ way!” said Richards harshly.
“Then what’s that hole on your shin? Cut yourself shaving?” asked Mitchell.
“No, it just…it’s only…I…,” stammered Richards.
“Damn! Grab his arm, Mitchell! Let’s get him to the ambulance!” shouted Barnes. “Stiles! Get out of here! Go home! Go home now!”
I just want you to know, there was no shame in what I did.
I ran like I never ran before.
Copyright 2014 by T. M. Bilderback
Empty Eyes is available now as an eBook at most of the big eBook retailers, in an audio edition narrated wonderfully by Michael C. Gwynne, and available in paperpack. Please check it out. Links are at my website:
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