The Solitaire Series: The Five of Hearts

The Solitaire Series: The Five of Hearts

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear here, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events. Let’s get started!

Sixteen is a crap hand, at least if the dealer is showing a 6 or 7. You’re right on that border, know what I mean? Stand or hit? It can really go either way.

Of course, all this is easier if you’re counting cards. And don’t tell me how illegal or unfair it is. You know the odds always favor the house, right?

Sure, if you were playing single deck, counting cards would make a huge difference. In Vegas casinos playing eight, it’s tougher to win. And tougher to manage your money and when you choose to lose to make sure a smart dealer or let’s be honest, casino surveillance catches on to what you’re doing.

Not everyone can be a card counter. It takes a certain personality type. Fortunately, I have a touch of OCD when it comes to details, I’m pretty disciplined, and I‘ve developed a system. I hate casinos really. For me, blackjack and counting cards isn’t a hobby—it’s a profession. I track everything. Every win, loss, and break even.

I started with a relatively small bankroll, a couple of grand. I was unemployed, and it was all I had. Now I make a couple hundred thousand a year just from playing blackjack, and I only “work” that job about 180 hours annually.

Fortunately, I travel a lot, and besides Vegas and Atlantic City, the biggies, there are all kinds of small casinos on Native American land, and they actually make pretty good targets. The dealers are often inexperienced, but if you get caught counting in one of those places?

Well, let’s just say you better get off the reservation quickly. There’s some vigilante justice going on out there, and you’re as likely to end up in a hole as back on the freeway unless your quick and a little sly.

The other place you don’t want to be caught is a Solitaire-owned casino.

You’ve never heard of them? That’s how they like it.

I almost got caught in one of their places on a Wednesday, a good day to work. It’s not too busy, and the dealers are often bored and looking to be entertained. That I can do.

No, I didn’t say it was a good day to gamble. It’s only gambling if you think you might lose.

* * *

“Can you come with me, sir?” a hand touched Burt on the shoulder.

The five of hearts lay on top of his cards. 21.

The dealer was bust. Again. Too fucking bad.

“Boo!” several people around him chanted. “Leave him be!” the cheap alcohol on their breath accompanied their words. The sounds in the casino provided a backdrop for their chorus. Slot machines beeped and clinked, and shouts of victory and groans of defeat came from the craps tables.

Poker was one of the only quiet games in the room, each player trying to avoid their personal tell, and instead giving off other obvious signals. Obvious to him, anyway. Dull.

People loved a winner, and it was part of Burt’s schtick: gather an audience. That was the real reason for the ruby-red top hat and coat, the black and white Oxford’s, the wine-colored scarf, and the gold-rimmed sunglasses with pink lenses.

Instead of protesting, he gathered his winning chips and stood. “No, no, folks. We all know how these big places hate a winner!” he emphasized the last word and he saw his two potential escorts hesitate. One cocked his head though, showing Burt someone had spoken to him in his earpiece.

Not a good sign.

Still, he played the game. “I’ll be back once they clear my lucky-ass card playing name!” he declared.

One bystander, a woman in a tiny black cocktail dress more suited for Friday night than Wednesday afternoon wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the lips. Burt responded despite the taste of cheap wine and the smell of even cheaper perfume that drifted off of her in a wave of sickening intensity.

“For luck,” she said.

The crowd cheered and he waved to them as the men led him away.

They passed a bank of slots facing a turntable near the front of the casino, and a motorcycle sitting on it spun slowly, chrome flashing under the neon lights, and bearing a sign enticing players to “Win Me!”

A thin man limped by, using a cane. Behind dark sunglasses and a low-fitting hat, Burt could see that half his face was horribly scarred. He wore white gloves, and one leg looked much thinner than the other. A Doberman wearing a support animal vest pranced at his side. The man headed down one of the rows of slots, his dog right behind him.

“Poor bastard,” Burt swore. “Even if he wins that bike, he’ll never be able to ride it.”

“This way,” one of the two men gestured, and Burt headed up the flight of stairs ahead of them, passing between two more men standing at the top, staring straight ahead like sphinxes guarding the pyramids.

All of them wore identical suits. Assholes.

Burt was ushered down the hallway, and into an exquisite office. A beautiful woman sat behind a large desk. Diamonds dangled from her ears, at least a carat each. Her black dress was open at the front showing off her cleavage and a necklace with another set of diamonds, the value of which Burt couldn’t estimate.

“Nice suit,” she said.

“Thanks.”

He had no time for marriage or relationships. He paid for the fulfillment of any of his appetites on the rare occasion he had them. So, jewelry and superficial beauty were meaningless to him. Cash was king. But he thought he might give things a go with this woman if she gave him a chance.

“Do we need to watch footage of you in my casino?” she said next, leaning forward.

Her position had the desired effect, and his eyes traveled from hers downward.

“I suppose we can,” he told her. “Depends on how much time you want to waste.”

“You’re counting cards.”

“I’m providing those in your casino with entertainment and something else they want, too.”

“What’s that?”

“A winner to root for.”

“How kind of you. How much did you net today?”

Burt shrugged and deposited his chips on her desk. She whistled. “A bit more than lucky, wouldn’t you say?”

“You would, but again—”

A small man, Asian, maybe Japanese, came in. “Excuse me, ma’am.”

The woman sat back and looked at the new arrival. “Well?”

“He’s here.”

“Jack?” she said. “Jesus Christ.”

“I have a plan,” the man said, and glanced at Burt.

The woman sighed. “It’s your lucky day,” she told him. She took half the chips and slid the rest back to him. “Take this. Cash out. Leave. Never come back. Understood?”

Burt nodded. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank Jack.”

“I don’t know who—” but he didn’t get to finish his sentence.

“Hey, Mr. Five of Hearts, get the fuck out. Before I change my mind and have you put out a little more permanently.”

“Understood,” he said, tipped his hat and left the room. There was some kind of commotion happening on the stairs, so he turned down the hallway, following the signs to the elevator.

About halfway down the hall, he stopped and watched the Asian man leave the office and head toward the disturbance.

Whoever this Jack was, Burt wanted to see him for himself.

He reached the elevators and frantically pressed the down arrow. The short hum of a motor was followed by a ding half a second later, and the elevator arrived.

A quick descent put him on the casino floor. He walked around the corner.

The scarred man was about halfway up the stairs. His dog sat at the top next to the Asian man. To his right, he heard more than saw loud celebrating. A sweat-stained gambler he’d seen sitting at the machines on his way cheered wildly, surrounded by a small crowd.

The crowd included a couple of security guards.

The man on the stairs had to be Jack. The other gambler, though clearly a big winner, actually seemed to be of little consequence.

Burt stared with fascination at first, and then turned and headed for the cashier’s window. It would be best not to press his luck by staying to watch whatever happened next.

As he stood in line to collect his winnings though, he saw the small man and Jack tussle at the top of the stairs. The confrontation looked odd. First, Jack was on his back on the ground, and then suddenly the smaller man was down, and Jack was up and limping toward the office Burt had just left.

“Next?” the cashier called.

Burt looked around. Normally, he would be back roomed or escorted out for counting cards, and he’d assumed his departure would be closely watched, but at the moment no one paid any attention to him at all.

He stepped forward and placed his chips on the counter.

“Wow. You had a good day, sir,” she said. “Hang on a moment while I get this ready for you. Hundreds okay?”

He just nodded.

When she paid him out, he slipped the envelope with the cash inside his jacket. Then he walked back toward the blackjack tables. If no one was watching, he might try his hand again. The woman upstairs might be distracted for some time.

When he neared the tables he saw one of the men who had escorted him upstairs previously. The man simply wagged a finger at him.

“Nope,” Burt mumbled. “Time to get out.”

As he turned, he saw the scarred man, Jack, walking towards him. His hat was knocked back just a little, revealing scars on his forehead as well as the rest of his face, tracing all the way down into the neck of his shirt.

His sunglasses sat on the remains of his nose a little crooked and off-center. His right eye socket appeared to be devoid of even a glass eye.

At a perfect heel, his dog followed.

Jack turned to walk out of the casino, and Burt saw him straighten the hat and reach up to adjust his sunglasses. As he exited the doors, Burt saw a gorgeous Thunderbird, one from the mid-seventies waiting for him.

The valet opened the driver’s door for him, and Burt saw the man tip the valet, and tip big from the grin that followed. The dog hopped into the car followed by his master. Burt stepped out just as they pulled away.

He took note of the license number, more for his own curiosity than anything else.

“Who was that guy?” he asked the valet.

“His name’s Jack, I think. Used to come around here a lot. Haven’t seen him in a while until today.”

‘What happened to him?”

The valet shrugged. “Somebody who tips as well as he does, I don’t ask. Pretty gruesome though. That dog is always with him.”

“Huh,” Burt thought.

He turned to go back inside anyway, and at least get that drink he’d been craving when the wail of sirens interrupted his thoughts.

“On second thought,” he said to the valet. “Can you bring my car around?”

“Certainly, sir.”

Burt knew of another place to get a drink nearby, and one where he might just get some answers to his questions.

He had a strange urge to find out who Jack was and maybe even get in touch with him. Maybe they could be friends, allies even. That is if Jack was what Burt thought he was.

His poorly aging Mustang appeared a few moments later. He generously tipped the valet and then left. When he got to the street, he took a left, toward the strip. His mouth was dry, and he needed to quench his thirst in more ways than one.

“You don’t know Jack,” he told himself. “But you will, Mr. Five of Hearts. You will.”

As he headed down the strip, he thought he saw the Thunderbird up ahead. How many of those could there be in Vegas?

He put the pedal to the floor, working hard to keep up. The Thunderbird rolled down the strip, then turned in at the Luxor. Burt followed and parked right behind him in the valet line.

He watched as Jack painfully exited his car, let his dog out, and then tipped the young man in the red tuxedo.

Then another uniformed youngster appeared at his window, and Burt stood, opening the door for him.

“Park it safe, but close,” he said.

The valet took the wheel, and said, “No bags, sir?”

“Not today,” Burt said. He’d have to send for some things from his other hotel shortly.

He went inside to the front desk and asked for a room.

“How long will you be staying?” the clerk asked.

“I don’t know,” Burt said, glimpsing the man using a cane headed for the elevator, his Doberman not far behind.

As usual, I hope you enjoyed this story. You can find the other short stories on Amazon here, and check back for a new story for FREE here every single week!

The Solitaire Series: The Five of Hearts

The Solitaire Series: The Queen of Diamonds

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear here, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events. Let’s get started!

Queen of Diamonds

“So King is dead?” her high heels clicked on the hardwood floor as she paced in front of her desk. The tall blonde wore a short black dress that showed off her legs. Her hair was tied up in what had once been a tight bun, clearly unraveling, little strands of hair fleeing their captivity. Large diamond earrings dangled from her ears, at least a carat each.

The desk was a Wellston Executive, one of their new line of sit or stand models. At the moment, it was raised to the standing position, and a piece of large anti-fatigue foam sat on top of a bamboo chair mat. A leather executive chair was pushed back from the desk on the back wall, a set of shelves that contained what looked like a mix of classic literature, law textbooks, and rare collectible editions.

“What pieces of him we could find indicate yes.” A man of slight build and Asian descent stood still in front of her, keeping his distance. He was new to Vegas but brought a great reputation from Hong Kong.

“That’s four. Fucking Jack.”

“It seems his injury has actually given him an advantage.”

“That injury should’ve killed him. Are you a man of mercy, Mr. Nakamura?”

“No, ma’am. Only a man of honor.”

She scoffed. “Same thing. This business has no place for either.”

Nakamura said nothing.

“I think we need someone more ruthless,” she said, pacing. “Someone who won’t respond to his appearance, but someone crafty too. I thought surely King would see through him.”

“Ma’am, if I may?” the small man bowed slightly.

“Yes?”

“It may be that Jack is no longer on the defensive. He’s disappeared, but he has ties to L.A. The house, the beach, the dogs, and it’s a great travel hub for him to—” he hesitated. “—conduct business.”

“If he disappeared, and isn’t on the defensive, then where is he?”

“Maybe he knows who sent King. That man talks, or rather talked a lot.”

“That he did.”

“Assuming Jack knows who sent him, or has even guessed, he could be coming to find you. Maybe to talk, but—”

“Right. Jack is a smooth talker. But he always ends up killing the conversation. What do you propose?”

“A trap, ma’am. With you as the bait.”

“You’re a brilliant man, Nakamura. You may be one of us yet.”

* * *

The Ford Thunderbird was aging, but aging well, largely due to the care offered by her owner. Her paint job, refreshed only once since the original, was dark blue, this time with metal flakes throughout that shimmered in the sun. Her vinyl top, a dark tan, was soft, supple, and free of cracks despite her dry California home. The interior of the car was perfect, original to her 1976 origins. Even though the stereo had been upgraded, the face still looked like the stock Ford model. She was beautiful.

Classic car aficionados adored her. When he drove her to car shows, Jack was always encouraged to enter, but he never did. This car was his baby.

Boris sat in the back seat. He loved both Dobermans and German Shepherds, but he liked the short-haired breed better. They were better suited for desert climates.

And then his gorgeous car wasn’t full of dog hair.

At the moment, Boris wore his support animal vest, the one that would get him in places where dogs were not normally allowed. Unlike dogs who were a part of the new trend where everyone declared their pet an emotional support animal and certified them through some online service, Boris had real training.

But Boris served two roles. Emotional support, yes. Jack’s entire right side was covered in scars from what many called a horrible accident. He knew it for what it had been: an assassination attempt.

His right eye was gone, his face on that side a drooping mess. His right arm was scarred and while not entirely useless, was a true handicap. Add to that his right leg and foot, nearly unrecognizable as human. That made things like standing and walking extremely painful.

His high tolerance for opioids and his desire to never be a slave to any one thing, let alone a chemical substance, meant Jack was in pain much of the time.

The Thunderbird had one key modification. A gas pedal for his left foot made it possible for him to drive. Luckily he had enough vision in his left eye to not be declared legally blind, so he kept his license.

But he never drove at night and had horrid depth perception.

At the moment he wore dark sunglasses, ones with a strap that compensated for his damaged right ear. A hat covered his half-scarred and bald head and sat low over the sunglasses.

His suit was tailored as perfectly as it could be over his flawed body, and he wore a black driving glove over his mangled right hand.

Jack wondered if he was doing the right thing.

But there were only two ways to get out of a Solitaire contract. One was feet first. The other was to eliminate the originator of the contract.

In this case, the Queen of Diamonds.

Jack simply hoped she wasn’t expecting him. He’d disappeared after the last man they sent to kill him failed.

But only long enough to plan this trip and head straight to Vegas.

The Thunderbird rolled up to the front of the casino. Both valet attendants, clad in typical red uniforms, pointed. He witnessed a quick game of rock, paper, scissors, and the winner stepped forward.

Jack slid out and stood as quickly as his disability would allow, pulling his cane with him. He tipped the seat forward, and Boris jumped out and then sat by his side. Jack attached a leash to his harness, even though he never needed it.

“Careful,” he warned. “There’s an accelerator on the left. I can’t do much with my right foot.”

The valet leaned in for a closer look. “Cool, sir. I’ll be careful.”

“Thanks,” Jack said and held out a fifty. “Park it somewhere close. Watch for me. If you see me coming, go ahead and pull her right up front and leave her running.”

“Yes, sir.”

Jack turned and walked through the gold-framed glass front doors. As soon as he entered, the sound of slot machines and murmuring crowds washed over him. Lights flashed, buzzers buzzed, and shouts of victory made him smile. Straight ahead was a display with a shiny Harley Davidson sitting on a turnstile spinning seductively. “Win Me,” a large sign read.

“Not anymore,” Jack said. He’d thought of buying a trike in order to take up riding again, but just never got around to it. He wasn’t sure how Boris would react to the wind, and he rarely went anywhere without him.

The dog sat at his right side when he stopped, protecting him where he was weakest. Jack looked around.

Where would she be?

A set of stairs led to the second floor of the building, where there were conference rooms and offices. Guest rooms started on the third floor.

This story is now available on Amazon here. The next story is available for FREE here for the next week! Check it out! The Five of Hearts. 

The Solitaire Series: The Five of Hearts

The Solitaire Series: The King of Hearts

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear here, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events. Let’s get started.

The King of Hearts

Las Vegas

“I think I’m in love.”

“You’re not in love.”

“Maybe not, but I think I am.” Brandon stood, feet apart, staring at the motorcycle on the turntable in the casino. A sign underneath said in bold, red letters: “Win Me.”

“You know what the odds of winning that bike are?” the nameless woman next to him said. He knew only that she was a part of Solitaire, the semi-secret organization he worked for, and that she was a high-ranking member. The diamonds dangling from her earlobes were at least a carat each, and he didn’t even want to know what the necklace around her pale neck might be worth. Her blond hair was tied up in a bun, at least partly to show off the jewels she wore, he was sure. Not that they detracted from her gorgeous face.

“Well, if I don’t win it, I’ll just buy it.”

“With what?”

“The money you’re going to pay me. I know I’m in love with money. You do have a job for me?”

“They were right about you. You’re no fun.”

“Not true. And who are they?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

“You’re not a courier,” he said.

“You’re not a Joker.”

Brandon paused. “No, I’m not.”

“The King rules, nothing more.”

“Indeed,” he said dryly. “What can I do for you?”

“We have a target.”

“How much do they owe?”

“This one is different.”

“Different, how?” he asked.

“This job is of a more personal nature.”

“Who did the target piss off?”

The blond sighed and looked at him. Really stared. Brandon shifted from one foot to the other.

“How long have you been doing this?” she asked.

“Right. No questions. It’s just when I’m not supposed to collect money someone owes, I get curious about how exactly I’m getting paid.”

“Understood. Here’s the address.”

“Fucking L.A.?” he said after looking at the slip of paper she handed him.

“Fucking L.A.,” she replied. “Once you’re successful, there’s a safe in the office behind the Van Gogh on the east wall. Here’s the combination.”

Brandon looked at the slip of paper and saw groupings of letters. MKGPI XLRAU SNJVZ

“What’s this?”

“Solitaire, Code Deck 3.”

“I don’t think I have that deck.”

“It’s in his top left desk drawer. It doesn’t have a lock. Remember, solve the code by hand. No computers, no phones.”

“Got it. Easy enough. Time-consuming though.”

“If he doesn’t get a chance to trip the alarm, you’ll have all the time you need.”

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll see you—”

But it was too late. She’d already turned to walk away.

When she was out of sight, he turned and headed out the door.

“Get the jet ready,” he said into his phone, hailing a nearby cab. “Henderson Executive,” he told the cab driver as he got in. “There’s fifty extra in it if you hurry.”

The cabbie squealed his tires as he pulled away from the busy casino parking lot and headed south.

Once aboard the jet, Brandon found everything he needed already there. A .38, pocket-sized, gloves, a lock pick set, a phone with e-lock hacking software, and a completely black outfit.

“How long?” he asked the pilot.

“An hour, give or take.”

“Got it. Wake me when we arrive.”

He kicked back on the bed in the cabin after changing his clothes and fell instantly asleep right after takeoff. He woke just in time for the heavy braking that accompanied their landing.

“Thanks,” he told the pilot once they were in the hangar. “Refuel and keep the engines warm.”

“We’re returning tonight, sir?”

“Provided I can finish my business. If not, I’ll text you and we’ll leave in the morning.”

Outside the plane, a red Mercedes S-Class waited for him. He slid into the tan leather seats, punched the address into the navigation and sped off.

Forty-two minutes to go twenty miles? he thought to himself. Fucking L.A.

By the time he arrived at the classic glass-fronted building that served as his target’s home, forty-seven minutes had passed. A motorcyclist splitting lanes had nearly taken out his mirror as he rode by, the paint might even be scratched.

Brandon hated L.A. with a white-hot passion, and the traffic and insane drivers were only two of the reasons.

This story is now available online. Here is the link! https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08642NFVL/ 

The next story is available for FREE here: The Queen of Diamonds

ENJOY!!

COVID 19 and Troy Lambert Books

COVID 19 and Troy Lambert Books

There is a lot of panic out there, and you’ve probably heard from just about everyone about how they are responding to COVID 19. So I won’t repeat all of their advice: 

  • Wash your hands
  • If you’re sick, stay home
  • Use common sense and keep living, with reasonable precautions if you are immunocompromised.

Oops. I did share some of that advice. Sorry. Force of habit by now. 

First, all in-person events that are scheduled are still happening, but audiences may be limited, and that may change at any time. Stay tuned to this page or follow me on social media to keep posted. 

Here is what I will say. Probably the most devastating effects of this situation will be to small businesses in your area who don’t operate with the margins that big stores and companies do. This probably includes your local writer friends, who often work other day jobs for a living so they can continue to create and your local independent bookstore. 

If you love those businesses, here is some advice for you to help them if you can. 

  • Buy gift cards now that you or others can use later.
  • Order through Grub Hub for other services from your favorite local restaurants. May have waived commission fees, so even if you can’t get out, you can support them.
  • Order physical books from your local, independent bookstore. Ours is Rediscovered Books, and you can visit their website and order our books there. Amazon will weather this outbreak just fine. Your local bookstore might not without your support.
  • Buy books or art from your local authors or artists. This is how they survive, and normal events they depend on for their living are being canceled or postponed right and left. Whether you buy their books in digital or physical format, they’ll benefit.
  • If they offer any ordering options online, use them. Small businesses need your revenue now if you can afford it.

That being said, I know better than most what it is like to be broke, and unable to afford basic needs let alone books and entertainment or supporting local businesses. Maybe you own one of those businesses or you are a creator who works a day job and struggles to make ends meet.

I’ve been there. I still am from time to time. So I have something for you. 

In support of anyone who is suffering either financially, physically, or both from COVID 19, click on one of the links below to get any of the books listed there for FREE in digital format. I only ask one thing in return: that you subscribe to my newsletter. You can unsubscribe at any time, even right away. 

But as I do all the time, but especially over the next month, I will be sharing about free or sale priced eBooks to help you fill your time without breaking the bank. 

I always appreciate book reviews too, so if you read my work and enjoy it, feel free to leave a review or even email me with what you think.

Of course, I also have one FREE story a week, every week, on my blog for the next year. Check out the Solitaire Series, and keep up without spending a dime.  

If you are one of those who are doing just fine through this crisis, please purchase books from the author of your choice. 

Remember, we’re all in this together, and we don’t want the crisis to pass only to find it swallowed some of our favorite businesses and people in the meantime. Stay safe, care for yourself, and care for others whenever you get a chance.  

The Solitaire Series: The Five of Hearts

The Solitaire Series: The Nine of Spades

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear here, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events. Let’s get started.

Nine of Spades

Three Months Ago

To say the decor was ornate would be an understatement. The room was open save four giant pillars strategically placed to hold up a vaulted ceiling. There were eight windows, four on each side, but no light came through them, not just because it was midnight on a moonless Saturday. Shutters held fast by iron latches held the light at bay.

The only light came from several torches set in holders affixed to the walls. The floor was wooden, clearly hardwood with a faded path going down the center, and paths with the same wear leading to either side. Viewed from above, they would have formed a cross, the center one leading to the altar up front.

Once a church, Stephan thought. But there are no pews now, and no one is here tonight for a holy purpose.

The figure came at him, dressed all in black. It moved with grace and smoothness that didn’t match its large form. Stephan prepared himself, dropping into a defensive stance and focusing.

His opponent’s face wasn’t visible. It was hidden behind one of those ridiculous black masks, like the ones you see in ninja movies. His feet were clad in those silly black booties.

Stephan wore a loose-fitting shirt, jeans, but stretchy ones that weren’t overly tight or restrictive, and Chuck Taylor’s basketball shoes. They were light, had just enough traction, and were so common even if he did leave a footprint at the scene of some unfortunate and perhaps questionably legal events, no one could trace them back to him.

He focused on his breathing and watching his opponent’s core as he moved. You could fake a punch or a kick, but there were things that always gave away your movements first. Stephan was trained to see those things.

He blocked a kick aimed for his head and blocked the striking foot as its owner tried to kick him in the kidneys, then the knee. Each blow fell short, but with every block, he felt the power in that leg.

This was no amateur. If he got past his defenses, Stephan would be down, hurt at least.

And so the dance began.

Punch, blocked.

Kick, blocked.

Each blow was audible with its force.

Stephan stepped forward to give the elusive figure a test.

Sweeping kick, low. His opponent jumped. Stephan stepped in, threw a blow intended for the sternum. It was blocked, but the figure staggered for a second.

There it was. Weakness. Not a big one, but—

A counterpunch came toward his head, and he ducked and covered, a good thing. Another strike aimed for his ribs stung his bicep instead.

Bruise number one.

Adrenaline meant he didn’t stop. Instead, he countered himself. Faked a kick, turned it into a knee that landed on a thigh muscle. Not the intended target, but it elicited an “Oof.”

Both fighters were panting now, but neither said a word. There were no strange grunts other than those of pain as they traded blows.

A kick to the ribs got through, and Stephan gasped, but covered and countered with a powerful punch of his own. His opponent hissed, drawing breath between clenched teeth.

He followed that punch with another and another, body shots intended to tire as much as wound. Fast tiny punches landed one after the other, and his opponent went purely defensive, darting free of his range and grasp, staying at a reasonable distance, trying to recover.

“Come on,” Stephan said once he had enough breath to speak. “Let’s finish this.”

The figure in black stopped moving, standing perfectly still, silent. Steel gray eyes stared through him, around him, anywhere but at him.

Stephan approached, cautious. He stared.

He could do anything. The black-clad menace was just standing there.

The figure was taller than Stephan, with wider shoulders and a long reach. But there was something—

A kick, fast and smooth, struck the side of his head. He spun, letting himself absorb the momentum he could, but the dark figure moved faster, following him. Another blow landed, this time on his shoulder, pushing him off balance again. Then a foot struck the back of his knee, sending him pitching forward. The floor rushed up to meet his face.

Stephan tried to perform a shoulder roll but missed horribly. His head struck the hardwood under their feet, and the maneuver turned into an odd flop.

He rolled to his back, ready to defend, and saw the figure standing over him, motionless.

“Jesus, that’s creepy,” he said.

A foot moved, but he was fast enough to grab the slipper clad heel, spinning it with all his strength. His opponent staggered and struck the opposite wall with a thud.

Stephan rolled to his feet in an effective but not a graceful manner and pursued the fight. He was on the figure in three quick strides.

Thud went the blow to the ribs.

Thud went the blow to the back.

Thud went the blow directed at the head as it struck an arm.

Now the figure lay, rather than stood, still.

Stephan waited.

No single blow had knocked this person out or done enough damage that they could not move. No. This was intentional, designed to draw him in.

“Who are you, anyway? I’m supposed to meet—“

You can now find the rest of this story, the second in the Solitaire Series on Amazon. Check out the next in the series, The King of Hearts on my blog, and you can now find the first story on Amazon here. Be sure to follow this blog for regular updates!

The Solitaire Series: The Five of Hearts

The Solitaire Series: Six of Diamonds

The Solitaire Series Reminder: Each week, a story will appear here, and be free to read for one week only. The next story will take its place, and the first story will be available on Amazon and other e-retailers. But if you follow this blog, you can read the stories for free every single week! Read more about the Short Story Deal here.

Throughout the series, there will be collections of stories, and we will even be producing some really cool swag along the way. Watch for contests, prizes, and even some fun “in-person” events. Let’s get started.

Six of Diamonds

“Are you kidding me? Six of diamonds?”

The card sat face up on the green felt with two still upside-down underneath it.

“No, sir. Six of diamonds it is.” The dealer’s vest stretched over his belly, and the buttons strained to keep it closed. It had probably been two sizes too small two years ago. On top of his shoulders and a neck replaced by a gigantic second chin, sat a round face with a neatly trimmed beard. The top of his head was shaved clean, male pattern baldness revealed in the stubble.

“I don’t have time for a six of anything. I have a flight to catch. Re-deal.”

“That’s against the rules, sir.”

“Screw the rules. You know what I do for this organization?”

“I’m fully aware, sir.”

Beady eyes looked at him coldly, and Stephan knew he as screwed. He could do this job or be censured.

That wasn’t an option.

“Fine,” he said and scooped up the card. It’s not like I wanted to start the year on a good note anyway.”

“Have a fine day, sir. See you again soon.”

Stephan didn’t reply. Instead, he strode with purpose across the casino. As he did, he pulled his phone from his pocket.

“Yes,” he said when a mechanical voice answered. “I need to reschedule a flight.”

The rest of the story is now available for purchase on Amazon here, or you can read with Kindle Unlimited for FREE! The Solitaire Series: The Six of Diamonds. If you loved it, feel free to leave a review!

Read the next story for free here, The Nine of Spades!

The Solitaire Series: The Five of Hearts

Riding a Bicycle: The Solitaire Series Starts This Week

There are several aspects to launching something like the Solitaire Series, even since it is just a series of short stories for my blog that will later translate to being available on Amazon. One of them is that even if you are just posting short stories on Amazon, you need to have covers, keywords, and other items in place.

And I had a brilliant idea: I would use playing cards for each cover since that is where the name of each story comes from, but instead of just using regular playing cards, I would use special ones.

Copyrighted Images and Book Covers

What a simple concept. You buy a deck of cards you like. My wife has a wonderful camera, so taking hi-res photos was no problem at all. We’d just get a piece of black felt or even construction paper, take the photos, and send them to my cover designer. Simple, right?

However, just because you own a deck of cards does not mean you own the copyright to the images on them. So I ordered a few decks of cards that I really liked and contacted Bicycle Card Company.

The thing is, they actually have a portal for this kind of thing. If you want to use images of their cards in various creative endeavors, you can, as long as you get permission. You have to pick a specific product to query about, so I did that, following all of their instructions.

And I was encouraged. I got an email back asking me for details about the project, which I promptly provided. And then…

Nothing. I waited, and waited, and waited.

I sent a follow-up email.

And waited. And waited some more.

Purchasing Rights

Regardless, you can’t violate copyrights, not with a book cover, and not with anything really. And as a creator, I’m actually happy about that. I want photographers to get paid for their images, musicians to get paid for their music, writers to get paid for their writing, and even playing card designers to get paid for their designs.

There are even websites with tools where you can create your own deck of cards. Cool, huh?

Except I’m not a designer, and frankly my time is better spent writing. So on to the next step.

I began a search for royalty-free card images, preferably vector images that could be resized without losing any resolution. I tapped my cover designer, Elle Rossi of Evernight Designs, once I found one, she bought the rights to the “deck” and we were off.

The covers are amazing, of course. She always does a great job. Would I have liked to have some cool Bicycle card designs on the cover? Sure. But timing is everything, and theirs was nothing but bad. If they get back to me later, would I consider making changes? Maybe. But it might not be cost-effective then.

A Reminder of How the Solitaire Series Works

I wrote a blog post about this series in an article explaining the Solitaire series, but here’s a reminder about the deal with this series, although you can read details about the Solitaire code and the organization portrayed in the books in the original post.

Essentially, I am doing a short story challenge this year, writing a story a week.

Each one will be based on a playing card, drawn from a shuffled deck.

  • The only thing I have rigged is the final card, the Ace of Spades. Until them, whatever card I draw that week is what I must title my story and therefore include as a primary element of it.
  • All the stories take place in the same world, and there are recurring characters and themes.
  • Every week, a new story will appear on my blog here. It will stay there for only one week. Immediately after that, it will appear on Amazon (and later other places) for sale, and a new story will take its place.
  • There will be links to where you can purchase the stories, and throughout the next year, there will be eBook collections of each and even a couple of print editions of those collections.
  • There will be audiobooks of the series, coming soon after the print series.
  • We’ll have some podcasts from time to time with guests, interviews with readers, and other great stuff.
  • There may even be contests, prizes, and merchandise to go with it all.

Remember, if you keep up with this blog, you can always read stories for free. If you love them or want to take your time reading them later, you can do that too, and they will always be cheap. For the first 90 days, they will be available in Kindle Unlimited, so if you have that service, you can still read them for free until they expand to broader distribution.

If you’re not a Kindle user, you can always email me, and I’ll get you a link to the stories in another format.

The easiest way to keep up is to subscribe to this blog and to subscribe to my newsletter (see the form below). There will be once a month updates and all kinds of other information about various projects throughout the month.

Let’s have some fun! Who’s ready for the first Solitaire story, “Six of Diamonds”? Raise your hands! Share your photo of you raising your hand with me on social media with the hashtag #SolitaireSeries, and you could win a great prize!

The Short Story Deal: One Deck of Cards and a Short Story Every Week

The Short Story Deal: One Deck of Cards and a Short Story Every Week

“The short story challenge, “I heard from somewhere beside me. Two fellow writers were talking.

“Short story challenge?” I said. I’m always up for a challenge, and this sounded new, different.

“Yeah. You write a short story, at least two thousand words long, every week, for an entire year.”

The wheels in my head started to turn.

“You can totally do it. You write really fast,” one friend said (If you are reading this, you know who you are).

“I could,” I said. I drew that last word out like I was hesitating, but I really wasn’t. I was thinking about how I could do it, what set of prompts I would use that would last an entire year, and just as important to me, how I would share it with my readers.

That’s how the idea was born. Here are some more facts about the stories, and how you’ll be able to read them soon.

The Idea

Fifty-two weeks. That made me think of a deck of cards. I followed the idea further. Each card could be its own prompt. I could shuffle them—no, I could plan ahead maybe. No scratch that. Shuffle. That makes it more of a challenge, right?

Because I don’t know which card is coming next week. So I started to research things like bridge, pinochle, poker, and even go fish. What game would I use? I was going to write fifty-two short stories in a row, all the same universe, the same genre.

Then I would bundle them as I went along, into novella sized things, then a giant book at the end of the year. This fits in well with my Million Word Challenge that I’m undertaking this year. The first idea was to write fifty-two locked room type mysteries, similar to a game we played as kids. Then I read an article while doing research for something else (you never know where your next idea will come from) and I came across this:

The Solitaire Cipher

Spies use codes all the time, but there is one that is nearly unbreakable. It’s called the solitaire cipher, and you can read about it in detail here, and even create your own code if you want to. It’s a complex, six-deck shuffle algorithm that isn’t dependent on a computer or another device, just a deck of cards. Once you have gone through the complex code setting process, you take another deck of cards, manually arrange them just like the first deck, and hand it to the person you’re going to send the message to.

You never use the same shuffle to send two messages, so the code changes constantly. There are millions of possible code combinations, and although a complex computer program can break the code if you use it twice, the simple use of cards, done properly, will defeat NSA level decryption efforts.

So now if you and your friends really want to pass uncrackable notes in class, you have the tools to do so that even your smartest teacher can’t crack, unless they know the code and get their hands on one of your decks of cards. Of course, to decode it, they will need a couple of hours.

The Solitaire Organization

Take it one step further and imagine if you will (said in Rod Sterling’s voice) that there is a secret organization of some sort. Say that has to do with gambling. This organization uses the Solitaire code to communicate, but they also use playing cards as a part of their identity.

If you mess up as perhaps a customer of one of their establishments or as a member of the organization, another member of the organization might come to chat with you, collect the money you may owe, or administer some kind of sinister punishment.

That’s exactly the premise of this series of short stories. They have been fun to create so far, and I hope they’ll be fun for you to read. Here’s how it’s going to work.

You Can Read Each Short Story for Free (For a Limited Time)

Starting in February, stories will be posted on my blog here once a week and will stay there for a week. After that?

Well, after that they’ll be available for sale on Amazon and other eBook retailers. That’s just in case reading them once was not enough, or if you just want your own copy to read anytime you want. They’ll be .99 each.

Bundles and More Fun Stuff

Every once in awhile, I’ll be bundling stories in a novella format. When I have a few of those, probably around June, I’ll release them in print. There will be unique ways to win those print editions or to purchase them.

And the end of the year, there will be a HUGE print edition including all of the stories, including the exciting conclusion story, the one that ties all the other short stories together.

Once a month, I’ll send out a newsletter recapping all the different books from that month. Want to review them as they are published? You can get them for FREE in your chosen format by joining our review team, which gives you access to free copies of my backlist to review, along with things like the Capital City Murders series and more. All we ask is that if you get free books, you leave reviews whenever and wherever possible. While we can’t make you do that, we do appreciate everything you do to support authors.

Cutting the Deck and Picking a Card

Every now and then I will have a contest where the winner gets to tell me to “cut the deck” or shuffle what cards I have left. Or I will let the lucky reader pick a card from the hand I have in front of me at the moment.

The one who wins that chance will also win a cool prize, to be determined at that time. Are you ready to read and play along? Want to engage in a short story challenge of your own? Let me know by shooting me an email info [at] unboundnorthwest.com.

I look forward to what this year of stories will bring.

Prepping to Write a Million Words in a Year

Prepping to Write a Million Words in a Year

So, if you are reading this, you probably have or are considering joining the million-word challenge this year. That’s fantastic. You have only a few days to get ready. So what steps should you be taking now? Here are some simple tips and tricks.

Set Your Other Writing Goals Accordingly

So if your goal is to write a million words this year, and you break it down into daily chunks of 2,800 words or 4-5K per day with weekends off, you need to have some idea of what you will be writing every single day. In other words, you can’t really start your day without a plan for that many words.

You could do that if you’re going to write a page a day, but this challenge is much harder. You’ll have to plan what you will write and when. You’ll probably need to plan more than one project a day unless you are really dedicated to only one, and super disciplined. Your mind will need variety, and that can only come through planning.

The problem becomes that if you don’t have enough writing planned for the day, you will run out of words long before you reach your word count. Then you’ll be struggling to come up with what to write next. That will produce immediate issues, and it will only take a few days of low output to discourage you.

This means you need to plan to do more writing than you might have originally thought you would do this year, but even each day, week, and month. Remember, eating the elephant is one bite at a time, and you need to plan those bites out daily.

process testing

Test Your Process

No, technically you can’t count any words you write before the first of January, but you can use the last couple days of the year to test your process. Is the time and place you have selected to write going to work for you? How much can you actually write in an hour sprint? Two hours? Split sessions? What works for you?

The more you know about your process and how things work for you, the less likely it will be that you will get behind at the beginning of the challenge trying to figure those things out.

On the other hand, hopefully, you know yourself well enough by this point that you know how and where you work best, and your prime writing time each day. If at all possible, set aside that time for your writing and stick with it.

See how your family will react to your new process and potentially your clients as well if you have freelance work to do. If you still work a day job, be sure your writing schedule works around that schedule as well. You may need to write at lunch or on breaks or both, and that may mean making changes to your routines. Try them out if you are working the last couple days of the year and see how your mind and your body react.

Don’t Neglect Self Care

Get up, stand, and walk around often. Don’t sacrifice sleep or exercise for your writing time. Remember, this is a marathon that lasts an entire year. You can sacrifice sleep for a few days, but after even a few weeks, that will take its toll. So will skipping walking, running, or working out.

Watch your diet too. Writers tend to munch as they write, so make sure if you do you are eating healthy snacks. Drink lots of water too. Hydration may seem like an afterthought when writing, but you will be surprised how much exercising your brain will exhaust your body too. Eat foods that feed your brain, and if you need to take vitamins and supplements to stay sharp.

That means planning to have water wherever you write, having the snacks you may want or need, and to plan for restroom breaks and walking around. If you take the right kind of breaks, you will actually be more creative, refreshed, and efficient when you come back to the keyboard.

distraction

Practice Being Distraction Free

Close your email programs and social media, or better yet turn off your Wi-Fi as you write. Put your phone on “do not disturb” and let your significant other, if you have one, and others know that you will be unavailable.

Shut your office or bedroom door if you have to. If music helps you concentrate, use it. If it is a distraction and you need silence to write, shut it off.

Remember, if you are going to meet your goals, you don’t have time to wait for your muse to show up. You must sit down and write without hesitation. This means you must start writing. You can always delete words (you don’t have to subtract them) but you can’t count the words you thought about but did not type.

This means when you sit down, you must be laser-focused. No distractions at all. Use the full-screen mode in word, the distraction-free mode in Scrivener, or another program to keep you from looking at other programs. There are even apps like Write or Die that punish you if you don’t write fast enough either with annoying pop-ups or worse, by eating the words you have written.

The point is that whatever helps you focus the best is what you must do. Practice it for a few days before you start and starting will be even easier.

Prep Your Brain to Write a Million Words

Yes, you need to eat brain food, as we talked about above. However, there are other ways you need to prep your brain as well. You will be working it in entirely new ways. Here are some tips to keep the creative edge.

  • Read: I know, you are spending a lot of time writing. Read too, things in your genre and professional improvement books. Don’t have time? Stop reading as much on Facebook and social media or binge streaming shows less.
  • Take a walk: This can be part of self-care too. Exercise is great for you, but a simple walk will often spark your creativity for your next writing session, or for a transition to your day job. Walking has been proven to improve your brain function. Do it.
  • Limit screen time: If you are writing on a computer, take screen time breaks and cut off your television use at least an hour before bed. Use that time to read or exercise, whatever works best for you. You will sleep better, your eyes will be more rested, and you’ll be more creative.
  • Do meditation: You’ll want to be in the right frame of mind to write. Before you get started, take a few minutes to meditate and clear your mind of whatever you have been doing up to that point. If you can, do the same thing after you finish.

Your brain is the most important tool you have, so use it to its utmost advantage by keeping it sharp and clear. This will take work, but if you don’t care for your brain, this challenge will be even harder for you.

Final Thoughts

As you get ready for your kickoff on the first, think about these things:

  • When writing fiction, leave yourself on a cliffhanger, so that the next day or session, you will want to start writing again to find out what happens.
  • Do the same with non-fiction if possible. If you finish one thing, start another, even if you just put the title and headings of whatever you’re doing next in a document. It will be easier for your brain to drop back into that writing mode when you are ready to get started.
  • Think about ergonomics. People get taken out of this and other writing challenges all the time because their workspace or desk is not set up properly, or the space they have chosen is not conducive to the physical demands and challenges of long writing sessions. If possible, have places in your workspace where you can stand, sit, and recline, and alternate between them when possible. You don’t want to end up with carpal tunnel or other physical ailments that keep you from writing.
  • Try dictation. It doesn’t work for everyone, but you can master it with practice. You can generally talk faster than you can type, so you’ll be more productive if you find a way to make that work for you.

This is a long and hard challenge, but you can do it. There will be some days when it will be easier than others, but the key is to keep going. Evaluate your goals each quarter of the year, and adjust your goal accordingly. There is no shame in lowering your word count goal to one that is more realistic once you find your rhythm and what you can really accomplish. Do that before you quit.

This is a life-changing challenge that will do more for you than just enhance your writing life. Get ready, get set, and when the new year hits, GO!

A Million Words in 2020: How Does This Even Work?

A Million Words in 2020: How Does This Even Work?

So from a late-night Facebook post after doing some goal setting and planning for next year to a group on Discord and Facebook, here we are. I thought when I posted the idea of writing a million words in 2020, a bunch of writers would say things like”

“No way, dude. You’re nuts.” (Better than your nuts, if you know what I am saying grammatically)

“I’m behind you. A long way behind you.”

million words

“I hate you right now. How can you possibly write that much? Oh yeah. You work at home and have all the spare time in the world.”

So here’s the story. First, the first time I tried this, I was still working a day job. And if it had not been for some unfortunate events, I would have made it, too. You can do this no matter what your circumstances.

Second, freelance writing is a job with a lot of non-writing things to do. I wish I had all the time in the world, but I don’t. I know you don’t either. That’s why they call this a challenge.

It won’t be easy. Here are some answers to common questions and an explanation of how this all works.

What Words Can I Count?

The answer I have been giving is simply this: you can count anything you want. This is a very personal challenge, but I would encourage you not to include Facebook posts, personal emails, and similar items. You want to count words that are productive.

The reason is the challenge is not all about getting one million words written in a year, although that is the name of the challenge. The idea is to develop a regular and productive writing habit. There is no waiting on your muse to show up—you have an appointment or time set, and you sit down, and words come out of your fingertips or dictation, or whatever method you choose.

I am counting the following projects:

  • Capital City Murders Novellas (I hope to write 8 this year)
  • Monster Marshals Novellas (I hope for 2 this year)
  • Teaching Moments (Novel)
  • The Good Shepherd (Novel)
  • Short Story Challenge (one short story a week, minimum 2K word count)
  • Freelance and Ghostwriting
  • Writing as a Business for Freelancers (non-fiction)
  • Blog Posts and Web Content

This multitude of projects is one of the reasons I think this is doable for me this year. You can count the things you want, just be sure they are work-related and productive, they further your overall writing goals (you have those, right?), and that what you have planned fills the word count.

How Does This Break Down?

The word count breaks down to just under 2,800 words a day if you write 365 days with no days off. That’s just north of 19,000 words a week. Almost a novel.

As Jim Lambert (not related, but also a writer) put it on our original post, intending to be encouraging: “It’s twice as much a day as NaNo, and twelve times as long.” Okay. Maybe as encouragement that needs a little work. But let’s break it down to what you really can do.

If you write 4-5K words a day, five days a week, you will more than make your word count, and you can still take two days off a week. This also lets you “bank” some words for those inevitable days and weeks when you won’t be able to write at all, or at least not as much. However, you do what works for you.

How Do I Do This?

Promotional plug here: in my book Writing as a Business: Production, Distribution, and Marketing, I break down how to write more, faster in the production section. However, what is breaks down to is this:

  • Set a time and place to write.
  • Keep the appointment with yourself.
  • Trick your brain. Use certain programs to write certain things. Train your muse to show up—you don’t have time to wait for her.
  • Write every day. Make it a habit. That habit will also chemically change your brain, and you won’t be able to not
  • Set your calendar as busy. This means for your kids, dogs, spouse, and anyone else who might interfere with your writing. The key is to be distraction-free.

There are also various methods of writing, from timed sprints to multiple writing sessions a day. If you work a day job, this may mean your breaks and lunch hour will also be spent writing. The key is to do what it takes.

In our Facebook group and on Discord, we will have time for sprints and other writing prompts designed to get you moving. Just be sure to have a method, a time, and a place for your writing. The more structured your writing time, the more successful you will be.

You are also welcome to, and encouraged to, set up write-ins and other gatherings in your area. The idea is to hold each other accountable and encourage you toward your goals.

Falling Behind

Look, there really is not a failure here. We want you to reach a million words, no doubt, but above that, we want you to develop good, solid writing habits. This challenge is not for everyone. The idea behind goals is that they be achievable but challenging. If you can’t dedicate a few hours a day to writing, you probably won’t be able to fulfill this particular challenge.

Instead, set yourself another one you can achieve. Try a quarter or half-a-million-word challenge to start with, or even something simpler like writing a page a day. Do that, and in a year, you have a book written. This is not a place for judgment or bragging.

However, it is a place for encouragement. Need a sprint buddy? Reach out. Want to have a write in to catch up? Post here. Even if we can’t join you physically, we can virtually. Need a pep talk? Reach out to nearly anyone in the group or your own accountability partner. (Please have one. You will need them, and they will need you.)

We want you to catch up and even be ahead. We want you to succeed just like we all want to succeed.

Questions? Ask in the group page, or reach out to me at [email protected] with the subject line “One Million”. I’ll do my best to answer as I can. I may be busy.

I have a lot to write, and so do you.

What will this challenge do for you? I bet it will change your life. The only way for you to find out is to say “Yes.” Join us?

P.S. Feel free to share this post and the group with your friends. Let’s make this an epic year for every writer in our lives.