Brian Sheridan may be losing his mind.
Asleep, he’s plagued by dreams of murder, women strangled with a red velvet rope then left with a playing card tucked in the corpse. While awake, he’s hallucinating that he’s being stalked by a man painted like a skeleton. It’s getting hard to know what’s real. He hopes all this is driven by his cold turkey withdrawal from a lifetime of anti-anxiety medications.
But when one of his nightmare’s victims shows up on the news, dead, Brian fears he himself may be the unwitting killer...
FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
About the Author
After a tour flying helicopters with the U.S. Army, he now spins twisted tales best read in daylight. He has written the paranormal thrillers Dark Inspiration, Sacrifice, Black Magic, Dark Vengeance, Dreamwalker, Q Island, and Cavern of the Damned. He has four short story collections, Tales from Beyond, Outer Rim, Forever Out of Time, and Deeper into Darkness.
His wife reads what he writes, rolls her eyes, and says "There is something seriously wrong with you." They live in Florida with two untrainable cats.
Visit his website at http://www.russellrjames.com and read some free short stories. Follow on Twitter @RRJames14, Facebook as Russell R. James, or drop a line complaining about his writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read an Excerpt
Amidst aisles of cheerful childhood diversions, he shopped for the perfect killer's signature.
In the store's ultra-bright light, all the primary-colored plastic toys shouted for attention. Skateboards' vibrant neon wheels screamed to touch pavement and race. Posters trumpeted video games that promised glossy escapes to amazing, undiscovered worlds. Bicycles' polished chrome offered assurances of long summer days under clear blue skies.
But he passed by all these distractions without a second glance. He stopped before a very simple display in the board games section, a tiny rack holding a half-dozen decks of playing cards. He stroked his chin, and fell deep into the decision-making process.
He discounted two of the six, the back design on one being cartoon flamingoes, and the other being a hippopotamus in a sailor outfit. Both seemed too juvenile, too lighthearted for the weighty task he had in mind. That only left four options.
Three of the remaining four were geometric designs: one a crosshatch of blue lines, one a set of green concentric circles like a bull's eye, and one that looked like a black-and-white Persian rug. But the fourth one caught his eye, and not just for its red color.
A flourish-filled design swooped around and crisscrossed the outside third of the rectangle. A mermaid adorned each corner. In the white center were two stacked red circles. Within the top circle stood the figure of a thin, smiling woman in a long, Greek-style toga, her feet near the center of the card. Behind her rose a wide oak tree, branches full of leaves in springtime bloom. She held a flower in one hand.
In the bottom circle, an inverted figure of the same woman stood before the same tree, sole-to-sole with the other woman. Here, the tree's branches were bare, the oak locked in winter's grip. Worry erased the smile on the woman's face. The flower in her hand was gone, replaced by a small skull, an oddly gruesome detail for the artwork.
He liked it.
Yes, the design spoke to him, spoke to the plan. He picked up the deck and flipped the box around so the winter woman, the harbinger of death, now stood upright. He smiled. Much better this way, with death ascendant, and the springtime woman now falling toward judgment day.
Using the deck's jokers would mock the solemnity of his task, but that still left fifty-two cards, fifty-two opportunities to set the world a little more upright, one snuffed life at a time.
He caressed the slick shrink-wrap that protected the pack, running a finger around the top's sharp edge. He raised the pack to his lips, the way another would coax a lover closer.
"What an adventure we are about to have," he whispered.CHAPTER 2
"Hell no! You are not going off your medications."
Daniela Schiavetta glared at him, adamant and furious, a combination Brian Sheridan didn't know she had in her. His cute, tiny, auburn-haired girlfriend had the nicest disposition in the world.
"I've been on them since I was a kid," Brian said. "I'm almost twenty-one. I think it's time to see if I still need them."
"Hell yeah, you do!" She paced the living room of his apartment like a caged tiger. She still wore a pair of oversized, dark blue scrubs from her shift at the veterinary clinic. They flapped like wings with each of her emphatic arm gestures. "Do you still have moments of extreme anxiety?"
Brian wouldn't call them moments as much as he would call them hours. "A few," he lied.
Anxiety and attention deficit issues had plagued him all his life, a gift from his birth mother, bestowed by the cocktail of drugs and alcohol ingested during her pregnancy. He'd called the onrush of an anxiety attack a 'visit from Mr. Jitters' when he was a child. But gallows humor made it no better, and the effects were usually devastating. It was true that meds had enabled him to navigate a bumpy course through middle and high school. But he was an adult now, with a job, no longer under his parents' roof.
"I'm a lot better than when I was a kid," he added.
"You're better because you're on meds," Daniela said. She stopped pacing and took a deep breath. She looked hard into his eyes. "We've been together nine months. I'm saying this as someone who cares about you. You need those medications."
"How do you know? How do I know? How does the doctor know, until I make a go without them?"
"Brian, you aren't one hundred percent even with them."
"I'm not one hundred percent because of them. They make me fuzzy, dull my senses, slow my brain. I can feel them holding me back."
"No, what you are feeling is called normalcy. That's what not having your brain race in three directions at once feels like."
"Maybe I can do better without them, get a better job, a real career." Brian worked as an evening-shift security guard, a position that catered to both his discomfort with crowds of people, and the insomnia his medications seemed to create. From his original goal of becoming a cop, security guard had been as close as he got.
"Look, Brian," Daniela said. "I spend the day mending broken animals. I don't want to spend the night fixing a broken person. You promise me you're going to stay on your meds, okay?"
Looking at her now practically made him sigh. With her pixie hairstyle she stood like a wingless Tinkerbell in the center of his under-furnished apartment. Honestly, a day didn't go by where he didn't wonder what she was doing spreading her fairy dust in his life.
Her doe eyes searched his in anticipation, waiting for him to promise, to give the answer he knew he could only deliver as a lie.
"I'll stay on my meds," he said.
She gave him a hug, strong but angled just a bit off-center. It perfectly summed up their relationship, one that hovered somewhere between friends and fiancés. Then she headed for the door, flashing him a mischievous smile on the way. "Have fun with Sidney tonight."
"Yeah, we'll party hearty." His voice dripped with sarcasm. Sidney, his evening-shift coworker, was a total ass.
She closed the door behind her. Brian's guilt rushed in and sucked all the air from the room. He wished he could make her understand, but he couldn't. No one who wasn't permanently medicated could comprehend what it was like.
He'd lost track of exactly what was in the pills he'd been taking all these years. The combinations shifted, but it was always a concoction of anti-anxiety meds and something to keep his ADHD at bay. He couldn't deny that they helped, but just as not taking them had mental side effects, so did taking them. They turned the world from color to black and white. Sharp edges became indistinct.
A decade-plus of living in a dull haze was enough.
Adding insult to injury were the physical side effects. They'd stunted the development of his long bones, and he was inches shorter than he should have been, and very slight of build. The drugs also completely screwed with his appetite. He often forgot about meals until he passed out from not eating.
He knew those downsides would carry no weight with Daniela. She'd traveled this jagged road with her schizophrenic father. She hadn't said it explicitly, but he could hear it in her tone and between the words. The meds stayed or she went.
He'd be better without them. She'd see. Their relationship would be better. Once sobriety had stripped away the gauzy feeling that plagued him, he'd be so much more in touch with his emotions, so much better able to feel whatever it was the rest of the world seemed to feel when they were with someone special. She'd see, and their relationship would blast into a higher, more permanent orbit.
He entered the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. A pharmacy worth of pills lined one shelf, little yellow silos with white tops, filled to the brim with all that either kept him stable or kept him suppressed. He was about to find out which.
One by one, he poured the contents of each bottle into the open toilet, a stream of pills that pitter-pattered into the clear water. When he was done, he's created a submerged pyramid, a monument not to some dead pharaoh, but to something worse, to the life he'd never lived. He pressed the toilet handle. A swirl of water spun the miniature edifice back into hundreds of tiny capsules, then sucked them down and left the bowl dry and empty.
He thought about how when that flush made it into nearby Tampa Bay, there would be some seriously stoned fish.
"No turning back now," he muttered to himself.
He knew it would take time before his body purged itself completely of the medications. But he already felt different.
He felt free.CHAPTER 3
One week later.
Terror fills her eyes, opened so wide that each iris becomes an island in a sea of white. Every grain of mascara, every stroke of eyeliner displays in perfect detail. Those dark accents, originally added to allure, now only highlight her horror.
This is all he sees, like some wide-screen close-up in an IMAX theater, but in 1940s black and white. All is silent, yet somehow these eyes are shrieking.
While he sees the woman's panic, he feels the evil that hovers over her, senses the malevolence that reflects in her eyes. He knows he shouldn't be here, shouldn't be part of this experience.
The view zooms out a bit. Her glossy, sparkling lips pull back in a silent, oval scream. Bright white teeth frame her bouncing uvula. Under her perfect foundation, her cheeks flush. Tears roll from the corners of her eyes and down toward her ears.
The view zooms out some more. The woman lies on a cheap linoleum floor, scuff-marked and dirty. Two hands grip a thick, dark rope around her neck. The grayscale of the vision offers no color, but he senses that the rope is red, a rich, vibrant shade of ruby. It appears softer than the usual nylon type.
The severed ends of surgical gloves cover the killer's fingertips. The assailant's knuckles whiten as he pulls the rope tighter.
His heart skips a beat. The woman is a stranger, but the hands are all too familiar. They are his. But worse, he can feel what they feel. He senses the power that surges through them, and shudders at the dark delight it inspires. He cannot control them. It is as if they control him.
The woman chokes, gasps. The hands pull the rope tighter.
Now he panics. He wants, he hopes, he begs for the power to stop the atrocity he is committing. But his hands keep pulling, powered by something stronger than his conscious self, something blacker than midnight.
The woman's eyes bulge to the point he fears they will burst. Then the light leaves them, and they go glassy.
* * *
Brian Sheridan snapped wide awake. His racing heart thudded against the mattress. The silent darkness of his bedroom seeped into and dissolved the memory of his nightmare. His pulse ramped down. The clock read 4:15 a.m.
He sighed. Thank God. Too early to get up for most people, way too early for someone like him who clocks in for work in the afternoon. He collapsed back into the pillow.
His throat felt like sandpaper. His mouth crackled, parched as an Arizona rest stop and reminded him why he'd just had that explicit nightmare. No meds. Two of the big withdrawal side effects were cottonmouth and strange dreams. Hallucinations and cold sweats were two more extreme impacts, but Brian hoped his symptoms wouldn't go that far.
"Damn it." He wasn't going to get back to sleep feeling like this. He headed to the kitchen for a drink. He didn't bother turning on a light.
The fridge door opened like a sunrise in the darkness. He flinched against the light, pulled out a bottle of water, and slammed the door shut. He downed half the container in an instant.
Back in his bedroom, he double-checked the cardboard wedged into the windows to block the sunlight. He tucked an errant edge back into the corner of the frame. He really needed to get back to sleep before the blazing Florida sun started to do its work, because then his body would decide to be up for the day. He was by nature a morning person, and each day he battled to stick to a sleep schedule matched to a job that kept him up until midnight.
He dropped back into bed, and managed to sleep until 8:00 a.m. Way better than he'd expected. He got up, started a pot of coffee, and retrieved two apples from his crisper drawer. Minimally processed food was one of the recommendations doctors had given his mother to alleviate Brian's mental issues. It probably didn't make any difference, but she'd stuck with it, and now Brian stuck with it out of habit.
He turned on his computer for a look at the world. The usual stream of distress popped up. War. Terror. Economic issues. A cyclone in Asia.
An ad popped up for a self-improvement course. 'Awaken the unknown you.' The known Brian was more than enough, thank you. He clicked on the Close button. The ad wavered, then went away.
He clicked over to his email. Two dozen spams clogged the page. But a message from Daniela caught his eye. He opened the email.
Still with Mom. She's recovering well, thanks for asking.
He winced. If there was such a thing as a sarcastic font, the last sentence would have been in it, and in bold. Daniela's mother lived in Gainesville and just had a knee replaced. Daniela was there supporting her recovery. The girl was born to heal things, people or animals.
Brian hadn't asked about her mother's progress. While Daniela was a dream, her mother was a bit of a bitch as far as Brian was concerned, and wishing her a speedy recovery wasn't on his to-do list.
The note's next line read: You are still alive, right?
That little dig hit home. He had barely spoken with or texted Daniela since she left a week ago, the day after he promised to stay on his meds.
That was why he'd stopped taking them after she left. By the time she got back, the worst of any withdrawal symptoms would be over. She'd be so thrilled with the new and improved Brian that she couldn't possibly be mad at him. He'd even be magnanimous and skip delivering the 'I told you so' that she'd so richly deserve.
But while he'd had some minor physical withdrawal symptoms, this early morning nightmare was the first of the promised psychological side effects. If those started kicking in now, their reign might not be over by the time Daniela returned. And he sure didn't want her to see him like this.
A feared, familiar twinge rippled through him, that mixture in his gut of dread, panic and adrenaline that presaged an anxiety attack. His brain screamed into a higher gear. His skin seemed to catch fire as neurons began to blast signals that made no sense.
If he didn't get a grip on this, he'd practically incapacitate himself. He'd done it before, but not for a decade. He hadn't fully danced with Mr. Jitters in a very long time, which only amplified his galloping terror.
Sweat prickled his forehead. His hands began to shake. The awful sensation of losing control came on like a runaway train. A hundred images of the hell that was ahead when Daniela returned flashed by him. She'd definitely walk out forever. He felt as helpless and terrified as he had when he was a child.
He realized he was hyperventilating, making everything worse. He focused on controlling his breaths, on slowing his sprinting heart.
In deep, out slow, he focused.
He calmed down a bit, pushed old Mr. Jitters further away. Brian needed to take action, positive action to address the anxiety's source. With shaking hands, he typed an answer to Daniela's note.
Doing fine, just very busy. Can't wait for you to come home.
He paused. Then with one finger, one slow letter at a time, he added:
My best to your mom.
He cringed and hit Send.
The worst of the panic subsided. The dread cooled down from white hot to warm red. He breathed as deeply as he could.
He turned away from the screen. It pinged that he had a new email. He sighed. Daniela must have been staring at her phone, ready to pounce on his reply. He turned back to his screen and checked the new message.
It's Your Time to Awaken read the title of the email from the Totally You Institute.
Half of him was thrilled it wasn't a terse, immediate rebuttal from Daniela. The other half of him was pissed that this new scam shop would be the spam generator of the week. He deleted the email and logged off.
He munched on one of the apples as disconnected images from his nightmare rose in his mind. They gave him a chill. He really wasn't happy his subconscious was capable of imagining himself as a killer.
His phone buzzed to distract him from his self-loathing. He had a text from his adoptive father, Derek.
It was a toss-up as to whether a message from Derek was better than one from the Totally You Institute about awakening his inner Brian. He opened the text.
Your mother wants you to join us for dinner day after tomorrow at 5.
Even in a text, the guy managed to sound imperious and distant. What a gift he had. Dinner with the ol' fam wasn't high on Brian's list of things to do. His parents and sister did not put the 'fun' in dysfunctional family.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Playing Card Killer"
Copyright © 2019 Russell James.
Excerpted by permission of Flame Tree Publishing Ltd.
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.
What is the book about?
After a lifetime on anti-anxiety medications, Brian Sheridan quits cold turkey. He’s soon plagued by dreams of women being murdered. When he sees these murders on the local news he’s worried that he may be seeing these murders through the eyes of what the press has dubbed The Playing Card Killer, or worse that he may be committing the murders himself. The truth is a third, more terrifying reality that sets Brian on the run to clear his name before he becomes the Playing Card Killer’s next victim.
What are the underlying themes?
There’s a strong theme about family. What impact does a good or bad family situation have? How much of who we are is genetically coded and how much is malleable. Brian and his brother start out in the exact same place, yet travel different paths and become different people. We share in Brian’s fear that nature may ultimately undo nurture, and will become more like his evil brother.
There is also an underlying theme about mental illness. There’s a line between off-center but functioning and far out and anti-social. Without the right support and direction, that line ends up being pretty thin in this novel.
Did you base your characters on anyone you knew?
My wife is a school principal and has had a lot of experience with sets of twins. Many have an uncanny empathic connection, aware when the other is in distress, able to finish each other’s sentences, able to communicate in some kind of near-silent shorthand. And to the set of twins, it seems completely normal. I thought about how unnerving it would be if you didn’t know you had a twin and this was happening to you, and that got the story rolling.
Who influenced you most in the writing of the book?
There is a generation of writers I first encountered when we were all writing for Samhain Horror. Hunter Shea, Jonathan Janz, Tim Waggoner, Brian Kirk. All of these authors really inspired me to keep trying to master the craft and to create works that were fresh and original.
Is there any advice you can give someone starting to write?
First you need to read. All the time, every day. You need to decrease the passive entertainment of TV and movies and video games, and increase the active entertainment of reading. Without exposure to new styles and ideas, your own writing can never evolve.
Second, write every day. There are plenty of things you do every day. Eating, brushing your teeth, walking the dog. Writing needs to be as much a routine in your life as that. It is true that practice makes perfect. The more that you write, the better a writer you will be.
Where did you write?
I have a room in my house with a splendid southern exposure and abundant natural light. That’s my best place to write, sitting at a table with a keyboard.
Did you write in silence, or to any particular music?
I’m a write-in-silence guy, except when I start talking to myself sounding out dialogue. Then it might get loud.
Did you find it hard to write? Or harder to edit your own work?
Like any job, getting started working is always tough. But once I get started, time frequently zips by and I notice I’ve been at it for hours. Writing and editing take two different skill sets, the first creative, the second much more mechanical. I like to exercise both.
What was it like to be edited by someone else?
When you have Don D’Auria as an editor, being edited by someone else is great. I worked with Don at Samhain and have learned to trust his judgement and follow his lead. The man knows the genre inside and out, what works and what won’t. I look forward to the edits I get from him.
What are you writing now?
There are a few things in the works. One’s a story about the Devil coming to an island in Long Island Sound to open a permanent passage between Earth and Hell. A couple of former high school lovers are the key to stopping his plan, but each had personal demons to confront, and Satan will exploit every one of them to open The Portal