By now you’ve probably heard of Serial Box, the publisher that brought the prestige TV model of to literature, releasing stories in weekly “episodes,” often written by a writer’s room of established literary talents. Their next serial, Bullet Catcher, breaks the format a bit—it’s by a single author, Joaquin Lowe—but will still unfurl over the course of several months (this particular serial has 14 episodes).
Bullet Catcher is billed as a dark fantasy western with shades of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower and the films Logan and True Grit. Check out the summary below, and then keep reading for an excerpt. The first “episode” of Bullet Catcher will be released October 18 in ebook format.
The war between the Gunslingers and the Bullet Catchers is long over, but the scars never really fade. They mark cities, faces, families, and souls. They mark Imma Moreno, leaving her living no kind of life in no kind of town, an orphan girl washing dishes and wondering what happened to the brother who promised he’d come back for her. The brother she knows, in her heart, is dead.
Then one day a stranger comes to town. A stranger who can’t be shot. A Bullet Catcher, like Imma’s brother longed to be. With nothing to lose, she tracks him into the desert, demands he teach her, demands answers. The Bullet Catcher is stingy with answers, but teach her he does, one bullet, one wound at a time.
But when trouble comes to their doorstep, everything changes.The Bullet Catcher tells her he is going after the man who killed her brother, and Imma won’t be left behind. She wants revenge. But what she finds will change not only her life, but her whole world.
The rhythm of washing can be hypnotizing. It has the power to grind down your thoughts the way time grinds down a mountain. My mind empties. Only when the sun sinks low in the sky and the light slants into my eyes do I rouse from my stupor. By then the glasses, spider-webbed with scratches, are clean and stacked chin-high.
Stretching my back, I step away from the washbasin. Rest against the doorframe between the bar and my room and watch the barflies, the men in big hats playing cards for pennies, the lonely gunslingers passing through town on their way to someplace else, spinning their guns on their fingers for the girls turning tricks. That’s when the stranger appears. He pushes through the batwing doors, looking like a tornado the way the sand spins around him, the way his brown, threadbare coat billows around his thin body.
All eyes turn on the stranger. The saloon goes dead silent. Not for long, just enough for the old hinges on the swinging doors to creak twice. Then the noise starts up again, each voice louder than the next, the clack of bootheels on the old wood floor, the clatter of drinks. I watch, absently working the sand into a dirty glass with my rag.
The stranger crosses the saloon and sidles up to the bar. He holds up two fingers. Even from where I’m watching, I can make out his calluses and scars, dusty mountain ranges running every which way across his skin. Dmitri pours him two fingers of snakebite.
In the Southland there’s an unspoken rule that when you settle down for a drink in a saloon, you put your gun on the table. It’s a sort of peace offering. It says, I’m not here to make trouble. I’m just here to drink. And it establishes the pecking order in places like this. The person with the biggest gun is boss. But the stranger isn’t wearing holsters. He doesn’t have a bandolier and he doesn’t put a gun on the counter. Dmitri eyes him nervously, but says nothing.
I press myself closer to the doorframe, making myself invisible. Easy when you’re small, skinny like a knife. The stranger’s eyes flick from his drink to me, fixing me with a stare that pierces me to the core. In this mercury-popping heat, my heart freezes. No one sees me. Not when I don’t want them to. I’m the unnoticeable girl. It’s my power. It’s a good power. But the stranger sees me. From under the wide brim of his hat, his eyes peer out like the moon on a bright day: white and pale blue and almost invisible. His eyes bore into me, then he lifts his drink, sips, and, like that, I’m forgotten.
“Imma! What do you think you’re doing?” Dmitri hollers over the din of the saloon. His voice shakes the glasses on the bar. Everyone stops what they’re doing and looks up. His voice commands attention, everyone’s but the stranger’s. He doesn’t move a muscle.
And then Dmitri’s standing over me. He grabs the glass from my hands and holds it up to the light.
“You press too hard,” he says. “You’re ruining my glasses.”
“They’re cheap glasses.”
“Cheap!” he yells. “You’re the only thing I own that’s cheap!” He swipes me across the face with the back of his hand. Hard enough that his nice straw hat falls off his head. The blow drops me to my knees, but I stand up as quick as I can. He raises his hand to hit me again, but stops, picks up his hat, dusts it off, and goes out to tend bar.
I shake away stars, stagger to the washbasin, and look at the bruise developing across my cheek in my reflection in the pint glass. But it doesn’t hurt. No one can hurt me—I just bruise easy. It’s another one of my secret powers: fast-developing bruises. Once anyone sees the yellow-purple blotches developing they always let up. I pick up my rag, fill the glass with sand, and scratch the hell out of it.
From the far end of the saloon comes the screech of chairs pushed back quickly, the clatter of a table overturning. Stealing a peek into the bar, I see cards fluttering through the air like dying lightning bugs. Two men stand toe to toe. The first man has his guns drawn, aimed meaningfully at a second man’s chest.
“You trying to cheat me?” says the first man.
“You the cheat,” the second man growls. His eyes are yellow, his skin pallid from too much snakebite. “I won that silver fair and square!” His guns lie on the ground, a few feet away, among the spilled cards and scattered silver.
“Either way, you ain’t walking out with it.” The click-click of the hammers being cocked fills the otherwise silent barroom.
The second man’s eyes flick to his guns on the floor, and he says in a calmer tone, “Fine. Long as I get to walk out at all.”
The first man lowers his guns. The second man seizes his moment, diving for his guns. There’s a moment when everything is still. The air buzzes. Then the bar explodes in gunfire. The first man, grizzled and unkempt, is faster than he looks. He ducks behind the upturned table, unloading his irons. The patrons hit the deck. Glasses of snakebite explode. A man jerks back as a bullet passes through his cheek and out the top of his head. He crumples to the ground. And in a moment it’s all over. The second man lies on the floor. Blood leaks from his mouth and the hole in his chest. He wheezes and feels for his gun, just out of reach. The first man stands, dusts himself off, walks over to the bleeding man, and steps on his wrist. He applies pressure until something pops. The second man lets out a strangled gasp and the first man puts a bullet in his head.
Then the saloon is full of the sound of chairs and tables being righted. The patrons growl curses and prayers in lowered voices. Two customers haul the dead men out into street and roll them into the gutter. A slick of blood trails out the door. Dmitri emerges from behind the bar with a bucket and scatters sawdust over the stain.
And then I notice the stranger. He hasn’t moved. Not a muscle. He sits on his stool and stares through the mirror on the other side of the bar. The glass is riddled with bullet holes on either side of the stranger, but the glass before him is unbroken.
That’s when I know what he is.
And I’m not the only one who’s worked it out. Things have just started calming down when a man comes up behind the stranger and stares at his reflection in the mirror. He’s tall, broad as a barn. His face is dark, with three scars on each cheek that travel from his nose to his ears. At first I think he’s just snakebit, but his eyes are narrowed and serious, and he stands straight and sober.
“I know you, bullet catcher,” he says.
For a time the bullet catcher doesn’t say a word, doesn’t move. Then, calmly, he picks up his drink, finishes it in a single gulp, and says, “There are no more bullet catchers.” He speaks in the voice of the desert: that stillness right before the wind picks up and blows everything to hell. If you’re caught up in one of those sandstorms you’re as good as dead. The sand gets going so fast it blows right through you like a million tiny bullets. The sand doesn’t care if you’re made of flesh or stone.
“I know a bullet catcher when I see one. I killed plenty during the war.”
The bullet catcher stands and drops a silver coin on the bar. He looks the scarred man up and down and says, “You’re a bit young to have seen much fighting, but I’ll be moving on just the same.” He tips his cap. The only sounds are his boots as he crosses the floor and the rusty hinges singing as the doors swing open and closed. All I can do is watch, my head peeking up just above the counter.
I turn to look back into my little room, at my meager belongings, my sorry life. I think of Nikko, the way I let him go so easily because I was sure he would come back for me. But in this life you can’t wait around for anyone. If you want something you have to take it. I learned that the hard way. And right now, all I want is to be out of here. I want to be free of Dmitri and his adoption papers like chains, shackling me to this washbasin. I want to be free like Nikko was, even if his freedom only lasted a night and a day.
All eyes are on the scarred man, waiting to see what he’ll do. I rush back into my little washroom. I grab what food I have—a couple handfuls of dried meat and fruit—empty the yellow water from the recycler into a skin, and throw everything into a pack. I untie my apron and pull on my coat. I stow my gun in the breast pocket, fill my other pockets with bullets, and sling the pack over my shoulder. It takes only a minute to pack everything I own, besides my books, which are too heavy to carry. In the end, my escape is easy. Maybe I had been planning it all along. Maybe I had just been looking for my chance. Nikko ran away from the orphanage to chase the bullet catchers. Now I am off to chase one of my own. I give my sorry little room one last glance and smile at the thought that I’ll never see it again. And then I run back out into the saloon.
The scarred man stands by the bar, looking like his girl stood him up. Finally, he sticks his thumbs in his belt and marches out the door. The patrons crowd after him. And there’s Dmitri’s big straw hat hanging on a peg behind the bar. I grab it, pull it low over my eyes, and blend into the crowd. I’m the unnoticeable girl again, a good foot shorter than the next shortest person.
The townsfolk line Main Street. The bullet catcher’s back is to everyone as he walks away. The scarred man ambles to the center of the street and squares himself to the bullet catcher, who’s nearly out of range. The scarred man takes off his long, dark duster and drops it in the dirt. He has two of the biggest, shiniest revolvers I’ve ever seen. The townsfolk see them too and gasp. But I know better. When something’s shiny it means it damn never gets any use. All of a sudden this guy doesn’t seem so big or bad. He stands with his legs apart. His fingers tickle the handles of his shooters.
“Turn and face me, bullet catcher!”
But the bullet catcher just keeps on walking. Drops of sweat, big as marbles, develop on the scarred man’s forehead. He has to do something or he’ll look a fool. Jokes and murmurs roll through the small crowd.
Pushing through the people, I duck into the alley and run down the side street, fast as I can, trying to catch up with the bullet catcher. I turn the corner of the last building as the shots ring out, two loud bangs that turn the air white. The bullets must be as big as cannonballs to make a noise like that. Fire into the air with those guns and you could make craters in the moon. I hit the ground. It’s instinct. Stray bullets are a problem in towns like Sand. You think there’s so much open space and so few people that the odds of getting hit by a stray bullet must be damn near impossible, but it seems to happen every day. I look up through the dirt, puffed up in a cloud around me from when I hit the ground, and watch the bullet catcher spin, his hands a blur. He moves so fast I think I may be imagining it, because a moment later he’s just walking off again on that same line out of town, like nothing in the world can break his stride. Picking myself up, I run out into the street. The man with scars on his cheeks lies on his back, like he’s making an angel in the dirt. His two shiny revolvers glitter at his sides. They won’t be there for long. As soon as the townsfolk get over the shock of seeing someone bend a bullet, they’ll descend on the fallen man like vultures, whether he’s dead or not.
Ahead of me is the open desert, hot and merciless. Behind me is Sand. I don’t turn back; I don’t say goodbye. The bullet catcher carves a straight line through the desert, walking toward the distant mountains.
And I follow.