Three A.M.

Three A.M.

3.7 9
by Steven John

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Fifteen years of sunless gray.

Fifteen years of mist. So thick the streets fade off into nothing. So thick the past is hazy at best. The line between right and wrong has long been blurred, especially for Thomas Vale.

Long gone are the days when new beginnings seemed possible--when he was a new recruit, off to a new start fresh in the army. He had hoped

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Fifteen years of sunless gray.

Fifteen years of mist. So thick the streets fade off into nothing. So thick the past is hazy at best. The line between right and wrong has long been blurred, especially for Thomas Vale.

Long gone are the days when new beginnings seemed possible--when he was a new recruit, off to a new start fresh in the army. He had hoped to never look back. Not like there was much to see, anyway.

First came the sickness, followed by the orders: herd the healthy into the city, shoot the infected. The gates closed and the bridges came down… followed by the mist.

Fifteen miserable years of the darkest nights and angry, awful gray days.

Thomas Vale can hardly fathom why he keeps waking up in the morning. For a few more days spent stumbling along? Another night drinking alone? Another hour keeping the shadows at bay….

But when Rebecca Ayers walks into his life, the answers come fast. Too fast.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The opening of John’s compelling debut, set in an unnamed near-future U.S. city, could come straight out of a 1950s hard-boiled detective novel (“She was blond, of course. Eyes as gray as midnight fog and lips stained red”), but soon, the irony of the fog reference becomes clear. Fifteen years earlier, a horrific new illness devastated the entire country. Even worse, a fog settled in permanently over the world, making sunlight only a faded memory. Those living in quarantined cities must navigate by touch, aided by dimly lit orbs. In this hellish environment, ex-soldier Tom Vale survives by working as a PI who’s more than willing to strong-arm witnesses, crooks, and recalcitrant clients. The entry into his life of the blond bombshell, who wants him to exonerate a prisoner accused of murder, unsettles Vale’s grim routine and leads him to some disturbing secrets. John’s unsparing, hard-edged depiction of cynicism and immorality marks him as an author to watch. Agent: Russell Galen, Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency. (Mar.)
Library Journal
After a deadly epidemic and a seemingly unrelated, unrelenting, mysterious fog descended on the world, Tom Vale's life narrowed to the space just a few feet around him. Once a soldier, Tom now spends his days as a minor private investigator and shakedown man. Like so many others, he has found a way to survive if not thrive in the sunless, chilly, fog-ridden city—until the day a woman in a bright red dress commissions him to undertake a murder. In a sudden race against the clock, Tom finds himself caught up in a mystery far beyond one individual—a mystery that could explain the illness, the fog, and the future of Tom's city. If only he can stay alive long enough to solve it. VERDICT This fast-paced well-written debut dystopian thriller lures readers in with its noir feel and complicated hero and keeps them engaged with plot twists and turns and lively dialog. Reader are never more than a step ahead as our flawed protagonist bumbles toward his answers and a satisfying conclusion.—Jennifer Beach, Cumberland Cty. P.L., VA
Kirkus Reviews
A bleak little fable about personal responsibility, set in an apparently post-apocalyptic, nameless American city. Sixteen years ago, millions of people died from a mysterious illness. Not long afterward, the fog drifted in and never left, blanketing the city and cutting it off from the rest of a presumably equally devastated world. Stumbling through the streets is private detective Thomas Vale, drowning his despair in booze and pills, waking every night at 3 a.m. and not knowing why. But when he concludes an investigation of a warehouse theft and accepts a new, dubious-seeming assignment from a gorgeous blonde, he learns the truth about both the illness and the fog. John does a marvelous job of painting the physical and emotional landscape of a corrupt, eternally obscured city, where hope has almost drained away and people cling desperately to (but are deeply wounded by) their mementoes of a brighter, happier world. Unfortunately, once the Big Conspiracy is revealed, the novel shifts from an introspective noir to a still thoughtful but somewhat clichéd thriller where the perennially underestimated hero runs around trying to expose the plot and save his woman before he's killed. (Really, it's ridiculous: Vale amply demonstrates that he's vicious when he's cornered, and his enemies never take sufficient precautions.) Worse still, Rebecca, the femme fatale turned love interest, is sadly two-dimensional; she's a beautiful victim who primarily seems to be there to give Vale some focus. Vale's relationship with Heller, a young man who owes him money, is far more poignantly and complexly real. John does get props, though, for not forcing an inappropriately happy ending. A promising, if not entirely satisfying, debut.

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Three A.M.

By Steven John

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2012 Steven John
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8764-6


She was blond, of course. Eyes as gray as midnight fog and lips stained red. Her dress matched her lips and hugged her hips and chest, and my eyes kept drifting to where the crimson silk stopped and her thighs began. Christ, what a beauty. And oh how she knew it. And she knew I knew she knew, and it didn't matter a bit.

She waited so long to start talking, I was lost in her beauty by the time she started playing her game ... trying to hook me. She almost did. No one ever actually did, though — at least no one had in years. Sure, she was gorgeous, but I would just as soon have put a knife in her back as I would have put her back on a mattress. She wasn't innocent ... wasn't clean. I could see it as clear as the skin between her breasts where her dress took a plunge. I don't care who you are — a young beauty or some old tough — if you smell corrupt, I'll take you down if someone hands me enough dollars.

And she was deeply corrupted. Lost in her own darkness. I sat there, feeling coy and looking passive and letting my eyes drift from her chest to her legs and every once in a while to her face. I wasn't going to say a damn thing. It was her move, her game, and I knew how to play it. She did too, as I learned — and better than I would have expected from a girl barely pushing twenty-six, but just the same, she was good.

I hunched over my scotch and she lounged behind her vodka. I smoked and looked at her and she looked at me and she knew I was waiting and she let me. The place was mostly empty. It was late on a Tuesday — just folks like me who don't have a schedule to keep. All burgundy paint and wood and always dark, but the vents were good and it was never all that smoky.

So I lit another cigarette and almost laughed when she actually broke the silence with a husky "Can I have a light?"

I held out my lighter, meaning for her to take it, but she leaned in and waited, a long black cigarette between her dark lips. I lit it for her and she touched my hand and it was all such a fucking cliché.

"So," I said.

"So ..." she said back. No way. I wasn't giving her an inch. I turned back to my drink. When I looked up a second later at the mirror behind the bar, she was staring right at my reflected eyes. She smiled slightly. Beautiful. Dammit. All right, then ...

"Okay," I said to her reflection. "What is it you want to talk about?"

She laughed and it seemed genuine, pure. It sounded all wrong in this dark-walled bar. People here never laughed like that. She took a long drag of her cigarette and put it out well before it was done. "I thought you'd never ask." A long pause. "I'm Rebecca."

"Hi, Rebecca."

"Hi, Tom Vale."

I fucking knew it. I nodded a few times, looking down at my drink, a wry smile turning up the corners of my mouth. Must have been the whiskey; I was not amused.

"You know, Rebecca, I have an office."

She smiled, leaning closer to me. I turned to face her. "I've stopped by many times in the past few days.... You're never there."

"Yeah, well, that's still where I like to do my work. I come here to do my drinking."

"Well, then, let's just drink. We can do business some other time."

I sighed silently, stubbing out my smoke. "Seeing as that's not what you're here for, let's just have it."

"This place seems a better office for you anyway."

I couldn't fault her there. I've been coming to Albergue for years. In fact, I did most of my work from the very barstool where I was sitting. Usually, though, I was alone here. Albergue was where I sat to think about things or to drink until I didn't have to. It was small, off an alley that wasn't even off a main street. No one new tended to find the place. Which didn't make the lovely Rebecca's presence any more comforting. It was one of the few bars around that still had cases of the scotch I like. The guys behind the bar knew not to talk to me too much unless I started talking to them. There were pictures of fields rolling beneath blue skies on one of the walls. It was perfect for me. Until this.

"I want to hire you, Tom."

"No," I said flatly.

She pulled away, looking slighted, but it was bullshit. "Won't you at least hear me out?"

"I'd rather not."

"Well, let me buy us another round and just listen. Please. Then I won't bother you anymore if you still don't want to help me."

She finished her drink and waved the bartender, Adam, over to us. He caught my eye with a subtle smile the girl would not recognize as out of the ordinary. I looked down, shaking my head slightly. His slender, pocked face was placid again as Rebecca ordered another vodka martini for herself and a glass of Cutty Sark on the rocks for me. She knew my drink. She wanted me to know she knew my drink. Adam served us and she slid her glass toward mine and clinked the base of hers against it. A few drops of her vodka spilled into my scotch.

"Okay. You've got me for a drink. Let's get to it. You know my name, you know my whiskey, and now you know my office is here, not the room with a number written next to it. Who are you ... how and why do you know about me ... and what are you going to propose that I'm going to say no to?"

She took a long sip from her glass and then closed her eyes for a moment. She opened them slowly, her irises following her lids upward until they locked on to mine. "If I offered you fifty thousand dollars for a month's work, what would you say?" "Probably yes."

She smiled to herself and turned away from me. The last few patrons got up from their barstools and left. Now it was just me and her together with our reflections. She was studying mine, I could tell. I kept my eyes down, looking at the wood of the bar. It had been scratched and revarnished countless times. I'd stuck a knife into it myself once or twice on angry, drunken nights.

"A man named Samuel Ayers was killed last month."

"Go to the police, sweetheart. We're done here." I turned away.

"I did ... or I mean — someone did.... His wife, I think. And they found the guy who shot him and tried him and he's probably on death row already."

She pulled a cigarette out of her handbag and picked up my lighter. Her hand trembled a bit as she lit it, and though I couldn't be certain, it seemed like the unsteadiness was intentional, practiced.

"The man they have didn't kill him. I know it."

Typical. So goddamn typical, I could have screamed. Instead I talked.

"Rebecca, do you have much experience with this kind of thing? This wronged-man kind of thing? No? Well, I do. A lot. Forget it. Forget him — your boyfriend in jail or whatever. He probably did kill your Mr. Ayers, and if he didn't, sorry, he's gone anyway. No way out. The system wins; you don't. Apologies, but it's your life, your problem, not mine."

"I'll pay you the fifty thousand even if you can't change a thing. If you'll just try."

That was a lot of money: twice as much as I had to my name. Too much for me to write off out of hand even if she was dirty. So I finished my scotch and decided to get involved. But I wasn't going to let her know yet — I was too far into my cups to play it cool right now.

"Okay. Here's the deal. Give me your number in case I think of any questions for you, and come to my office in two days. I'll hang around there in the early afternoon."

"How about I keep the number to myself and come tomorrow?"

"No. I'm getting drunk tonight. Tomorrow's all for me. Two days, afternoon. And keep the phone your little secret for all I care — pretty eyes or no, I want you to finish up your drink and leave now. I like to be at my bar alone."

She seemed hurt. I didn't give a fuck. Fifty grand or no, I was hating this situation already. I'd been paid to find things out and take care of problems for more than a decade, and the good ones never talked money before they talked facts. The good ones were never beautiful. But money spoke louder than morals.

I watched her go and she knew it.

* * *

I wanted to stay and get drunk, but Rebecca had screwed up my thinking. As I tried to reason through the few open cases I was working, all I could think about was her lips and her legs and her money and wonder what was behind it all. So I decided to go home to my little apartment and drink the same scotch there anyway and be done with Tuesday. Or Wednesday. Whatever.

Tossing some bills onto the bar, I nodded to Adam and headed for the exit. I pulled open the first heavy door and stepped into the alcove beneath the loud, massive vents. Shutting the iron door, I paused and waited until it was sealed, and then pressed open the second door and stepped out into the fog.

Mist swirled around me and I was still for a moment to adjust to the fog-blindness, leaning against the bricks of Albergue just like I did most every night of my life. I could see three orbs tonight, and set off heading south after lighting a cigarette.

The orbs in this part of town were placed about ten feet apart from one another. I laid my hand on the first as I walked past it. The luminous, yellow orange sphere was warm beneath my palm. There had been a slight breeze up right when I'd left, but it subsided now and I could see only one orb ahead of me and one behind as I turned onto Sixth Avenue.

My brow grew damp with the mist and I wiped at it with a dirty old handkerchief, picking up the pace a bit. I hated the cold, clammy feeling I got all over my exposed skin at night. Eighth Ave had blowers and they would likely still be on at this hour, so I headed that way, cutting down an alley. There were no orbs in the alley, but I knew it well and ran my hand along the wet bricks of the wall as I walked.

I crossed Seventh and passed two people. A woman and a man — that much I could tell by their silhouettes. Another short alley and I came out onto Eighth Avenue, where, sure enough, the blowers were still running.

The fog swirled and danced ten or fifteen feet above street level; higher than that was thick gray. But on streets like this, when the blowers were all on, you could almost see clearly. I passed one of the massive fans as I walked up the street and gripped my coat closed against the wind. Behind it was a small dead zone, where gray wisps drifted downward, out of reach of the blower fans a few blocks north.

I paused there for a minute to light another smoke. The ten-foot-tall fan hummed, impressively quiet when you weren't on the business end. As I took my second drag, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up — just a bit and only for a fleeting moment, but I'd learned to take them more seriously than anything else on earth. Subtly, pretending to stretch and roll my shoulders, I looked all around me.

I couldn't see a soul. Not on the street and not in any of the first- or second-floor windows of the nearby buildings. The only sound was the blower's hum. I decided to write it off, but made careful note of where I was and the time anyway. Just before midnight — the witching hour, I thought to myself with an internal smile. If someone was watching me, no need to convey any sardonic thoughts. Or anything at all.

Abruptly, I set out walking north again. Though all seemed normal, I had already made up my mind to take a snaking, illogical path home. I passed through dark alleys, up streets lined with softly glowing orbs, and down a couple of the larger, clear-blown boulevards. Rebecca and her red lips kept drifting into my thoughts, and before long, I was more wandering than evading.

She was still on my mind as I sat in the chair beside my threadbare mattress drinking a glass of scotch with no ice. And she stayed in my head as I slept on top of the covers.


I awoke around three in the morning, just like always. Through the gray sheet tacked over my window came pale yellow light from the sign of the shop below. It sold clocks and lamps and all sorts of bullshit. Shelves piled high with coffee mugs, hammers, picture frames — whatever they found they put up for sale. Asian guy and his wife. Not too old, but beaten down ... He always used to cast his eyes on the floor and mumble when I'd greet him. So I stopped saying hi. The wife would lean against the front window all day, her face pressed between the retractable iron cage that had never been slid aside.

She would peer out into the few feet she could see before the mist got too thick, and then, whenever someone materialized out front she leaned back, staring at them with her little black eyes. I'd never heard her say a word. I hadn't been in there for over a year. I got my sun sphere there: a fancy model with a luminous clock built into it. That's how I always knew it was three.

For a long time, I had gotten it into my head that something was waking me. It was too precise for a body clock phenomenon. Certainly not my body, at any rate, which was usually full of booze and nicotine and whatever and never went to sleep at the same time two nights in a row. So I picked random nights and stayed up. The first night of my little experiment, I tried to read, tried to listen to music.... It was all too tedious: trying to pass time made time go slower, so I had just sat there in my chair, glancing from the white wall glowing yellow in the shop's light to the sun sphere and the blue numbers glowing inside it.

Nothing. Three A.M. had come and gone without so much as a breeze outside.

The following night I awoke at 2:58.

I had stayed awake and sober at least ten other times, watching three in the morning slide silently by. But still, five nights out of seven, I woke up.

Sighing, I eschewed the half-empty bottle of scotch on the table and walked stiffly, naked, into the kitchen/living room. The only other room in my place was where I shit, showered, and shaved. I spent most of my time home half-awake in the bathtub or half-asleep in bed. The rest I spent in the twelve-by-ten room where I occasionally had food and had a small cloth couch and a pressboard table. There were also some cabinets and drawers, and in one of those drawers were the pills I took some of the nights I couldn't sleep. Actually it was most nights. And I'd been taking two or three of them at a time recently.

They were technically for manic-depressives, but they let my brain shut the fuck up and my body go limp, so what the hell, I used them. I got them from a guy named Salk, who was some sort of pharmacist and sold whatever he could sneak out to a few loyal buyers. He gave me a good price because he knew what I did for a living and that I could have him busted hard anytime. I had helped him out of a few jams because he knew I was buying pills illegally.

I hardly remember how our unique business relationship began — a bar and some drunken conspiring, I'd wager. It certainly was strange: All he had on me was that I bought government-controlled substances, and all I had on him was that he sold them. It was a vicious, beautiful cycle that kept us both fucked and both safe.

Those were the best kind of partnerships to have.

I popped two pills and sat down on my ratty couch to have a smoke. It usually took about two cigarettes' time until the drugs got to work. Those few minutes always got very strange. Right before I passed out, almost invariably, I thought of life before the fog.

I had been twenty-eight the last time I saw the sun. Fifteen years ago. And that had been just a chance parting in the mist. It took months for it to go from clear to hazy to socked in. I was so used to it that it rarely occurred to me just how different things were. But those first days — those had been horrible times. Everyone gripped by a sense of despair. Suicides ran rampant. Fear was everywhere. As the sickness spread and they started shutting down cities, quarantining us by the thousands, the fog started in and changed everything. Fucked everything up.

I hadn't driven a car, thrown a baseball, lounged on a bench ... nothing like any of that in a decade and a half. It's amazing how little you can do when you can't see a goddamn thing.

The pills started taking hold before I was finished with my cigarette, but I still wanted a second so I lit another off the embers of the first and inhaled deeply. I loved that little burn at the back of my throat when I took in a lot of smoke. Let me know I was doing something. Killing myself, sure. But fuck it — I was in charge. I was aware.

I pulled open the window and lay on my back in the middle of the floor. After a minute, damp gray air crept across my body. It was cold tonight. I smoked my cigarette and looked at its little orange tip, my own personal orb, glowing in my own personal haze. My thighs and stomach grew chill and wet as the heavy air passed over the hairs of my body. I shivered, smiling like a half-wit, and ran my left palm across my chest and down along my torso, blowing smoke into the mist.

The sun always used to bother me. When it shone in my eyes, I hated it. As a carefree kid, I hated when it heated my shoulders, or later baked my fatigues while I was out on exercise runs ... when it cooked our backs while we did push-ups out in the grass.

And the grass made my flesh itch. I missed diving into cool water, though, stepping into the river, being wet and cold all over. I ran my hands over my face and thoughts and shoulders and clinched the cigarette butt between my teeth. Fucking sun. I had hated it and the grass, but I missed it all. I would gladly have gotten a thousand little cuts and itching, sticking grass all over my body and rolled in the sun now, but it was never anything but the mist and no more cool blue lakes and no more deep blue. Just fog and a world at arm's reach. Around the corner was a million miles away. So fucking pathetic. Goddamn disgusting just blubbering and jacking off there lying on the floor in the fucking mist in my own little chambers and running hands all over my body until I was lost in the pills and dreams I never recalled after a few minutes when I'm awake and grasping for them and they drift away....

* * *

Oatmeal and coffee and some bar that was supposed to have fruit and vitamins and shit in it. All I tasted was the shit. That was my morning routine. That followed by pushing the heels of my hands against my head to hold the pounding headaches at bay. I knew I did it to myself, but somehow the painful pragmatism of avoiding morning hangovers never beat out the gratification of a good drinking session at night. Ever.


Excerpted from Three A.M. by Steven John. Copyright © 2012 Steven John. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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