Thursday, December 29, 2016

Where I've Been, Where I'm going . . .

    It's customary, at the end of the year, for writers and columnists to spend some time in retrospect, commenting on the highlights of the year, inserting some political or social commentary, and then to look forward to what may still lie ahead.  This column is something like that, but let me tell you first of all a couple of things I am NOT going to talk about:  First of all, I'm not going to run down the list of all the wonderful actors and singers that we lost this year.  It's just too darned depressing, and honestly, my memory is not good enough to recall the whole list.  RIP to them all, thanks for the golden hours of entertainment, and may you each find the peace you deserve.  Next, I am not going to waste one more iota of ink on the 2016 election.  I got screamed at on FB for not supporting either of the two major party's nominees; I broke with my lifetime voting traditions, and I frankly was going to be nauseated and fearful no matter who won, so NO!  Not gonna write about any of that mess tonight!

  Something else I am not going to do is spend a whole column on my personal life.  Most of you who read this don't really know me, so it would be fairly boring for you, and those who do know me have been kept abreast of my doings over the past year via my social media platforms.  For everyone else, here is a thumbnail sketch:  I have been married to my childhood sweetheart Patty for some 32 years now, and we still like each other (we love each other too, but as you get older, you realize that actually LIKING each other after so many years is a real accomplishment!).  I have 22 year old twin daughters that live upstairs in a cave that was once a bedroom, constructed of empty Dr. Pepper cans and dirty laundry.  OK, OK, that's a cheap shot, they did clean their room this week and I can even see the floor now, so it's not REALLY  a cave.  It just looked like one for most of the past year.  My 88 year old mother-in-law lives with us and we take care of her in shifts; she's a neat little old lady who once bent a  hammer in half with her bare hands, so we don't get too far out  of line.  We have 17 goats, 3 dogs, 2 cats, and 3 snakes.  Oh, and I got to live out the dream of a lifetime and visit Israel this past spring, 'nuff said.  Read March's entries if you want to know more on that.

    What I really wanted to talk about tonight is my books, both the ones in print and the ones upcoming.  It will be five years ago come February when I sat down and began writing the prologue to what would become my first novel, THE TESTIMONIUM.  I finished this gripping tale of faith, archeology, romance, and terrorism some ten months later, and it took me a little over a year to find a publisher for it.  But Electio Publishing was indeed interested in it, and in August of 2014 it came out in paperback and Ebook format.  Since then I've sold over a thousand copies of this book; I think it's pretty outstanding for a first effort, although I like to think I have gotten better as I've gone along.  As I write this, THE TESTIMONIUM has 36 Amazon reviews, and 33 of those reviewers gave it a five star rating.  Not bad for a first effort, but I always enjoy getting new reviews, so please, download and read this one and tell me what you think!

     Not long after I finished THE TESTIMONIUM, I began working on my second novel, THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE.  I finished it in a similar timeframe, and I sent it to Electio as soon as I had a contract signed on the first novel.  It was published in May 2015, and I must say that I am tremendously proud of this historical epic, a biographical tale about the man who sent Jesus to the cross.  I put a lot of research into it, and specifically, into making my characters act and speak in a way that would come across as authentically Roman.  Too often historical novels feature people in past eras acting and thinking the way we do in the 21st century, and the Roman Empire of two thousand years ago was a very different place and time than the one we live in today.  I think I captured it well, and Pilate was a fascinating character to explore.  Honestly, if I am remembered as a writer a century from now, I think it may well be for this book above all my other early works.  My Amazon reviewers agree - nothing but five star reviews for PILATE - twenty of them, to be precise!

   But I am not one to rest on my laurels.  Not long after I finished Pilate, I began working on book number three!  This one was shorter and faster-paced than the previous two.  Entitled MATTHEW'S AUTOGRAPH, it caught up with my characters from THE TESTIMONIUM two years after the events in that story came to an end.  Father Duncan MacDonald, archeological consultant to the Vatican, calls in his American friends when an excavation in Israel yields an exciting discovery: the tomb of Saint Matthew the Evangelist! Inside a sealed jar within the tomb, they find the original text of Matthew's Gospel - but it doesn't read quite the same as the text we are all familiar with.  Have we gotten the Gospel wrong for two thousand years?  Or is something fishy in Israel besides the lox they eat with their bagels every morning?  This historical whodunit is a fun little story, great as a stand-alone read, or as a follow-up to my first book.  It was released in December of 2015, and has nine five star reviews on Amazon.

    Those are the three books that I have in print right now.  I have two others completed and under contract: LOVER OF GOD, another historical novel set in the Roman Empire, and THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, which is the last (?) book featuring my characters from THE TESTIMONIUM.  LOVER OF GOD is the story of Theophilus, the unknown Roman nobleman to whom Luke dedicated both his Gospel and the Book of Acts.  Since no one knows who the real Theophilus was, I took great pleasure in giving him a name and a story that wove his life with those of the Emperors Claudius and Nero, as well as the apostles Peter and Paul.  This novel will be coming out in April of 2017, and I think you guys are going to love it!  The next one, THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY, is a powerful, dark tale about what happens when a radical Islamic terror group captures a female archeologist and a Catholic priest - none other than our beloved Father MacDonald!  All I can say is that this is my favorite thus far, of the three tales I have written about these characters.  It goes into some pretty dark and terrible places, but it is in the darkest moments that the light shines most brightly.  THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY is slated for release in May of 2018.

   As you can see, my publication dates are spaced out about a year apart, and that last one is quite a ways off.  So after I finished THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY this spring, I decided not to start a new novel for a long time.  To keep my muse slaked (that greedy little bugger demands to be fed, like Stephen King's "fornits")  I wrote a number of short stories over the past year, and also dug out some of my old ones from nearly 30 years ago and cleaned them up, transcribing them in digital format.  If you are a newcomer to this blog, I would challenge you to scroll through my entries starting this spring and get a taste of my short fiction, since I published nearly every one of those stories on here.  Horror tales, inspirational stories, and even a Sherlock Holmes story - I enjoyed writing them and I hope you will go back and read them.

   What lies ahead?  Well, last week I started work on the final volume of my ROME trilogy that began with THE REDEMPTION OF PONTIUS PILATE.  It is called THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE, and it tells the story of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, and the warped and evil Roman Emperor Domitian, who tried and failed to kill John, and then exiled him to the Isle of Patmos instead.  I'm not sure where all this tale is going yet, but I bet it's going to be a fun and exciting ride.

   So, in closing, if I might make one humble request to you, my faithful (or random) readers - PLEASE BUY MY BOOKS!  I have lost my local Hastings bookstore, where I sold 200 or more of my books a year since 2014, and this week I had another store where I have done very well inform me they are no longer going to host author signings.  So if I want to have continued success as a writer, my online sales are going to have to pick up.  WAY up.  So please, click the link below, and spend a little coin, and start reading!  You will be entertained, and informed - I promise!

Happy New Year!!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

HERE IT IS! The Prologue to my Newest Novel

    I deliberately put off starting my next novel for several reasons.  My publication schedule topped that list; LOVER OF GOD is due out in April, but THE GNOSTIC LIBRARY will not be released until May of 2018!  Writing five books in four years was an awesome personal achievement, but it left me backlogged a bit when it came to getting them published.  Also, this fall semester was a very busy time for me at work, and I simply wouldn't have been able to do justice to my three regular jobs and my writing.  Last of all, I wanted to play around with some short stories, and so I wrote more short fiction in the last year than I have since my first two years in college - back when Ronald Reagan was still President!
   But the muse cannot sleep forever, and the final volume of my "Rome" trilogy had been hanging in the back of my mind for some time.  So after school dismissed, on a sleepless night last week, I began work on my next novel.  The tentative title is THE EMPEROR AND THE APOSTLE, and it will juxtapose the life of St. John with that of the cruel and twisted Roman Emperor Domitian.  I haven't gotten very far yet, but I did write the prologue and I'm pretty proud of it.  Here it is; enjoy and, as always, let me know what you think!


          The Master was alive again.  The thought kept ringing through the fisherman’s head as he rowed the boat across the dark waters of moonlit Lake Gennesaret in Galilee.  The High Priests, the Sanhedrin, and the Romans had all conspired together to kill Rabbi Yeshua, whom the Romans called Jesus - the Messiah of Israel - and kill him they had.  He was arrested, beaten, flogged, and then crucified outside the city gates, on a hill locals called The Skull.

          There was no doubt in the mind of Yehonan bar Zebed – John the son of Zebedee, as his Greek friends called him – that Yeshua had been dead.  John had stood at the foot of the cross, his face torn by grief, holding Yeshua’s mother, Miriam, as she wept bitter tears at the sight of her firstborn son nailed to a tree, and thus placed under the curse of Yahweh.  John had held her with one arm and his own wife, Miriam’s daughter and namesake, with the other as they watched their beloved Master die a criminal’s death.

          It had not taken long, not by the standards of crucifixion.  It was not unheard of for men to linger for days on the cross, but Yeshua had yielded up His mighty spirit after only six hours of suffering.  He had asked John to take care of His mother as he hung there dying, a natural choice since Yeshua’s brothers were estranged from him.  They considered his preaching and teaching an embarrassment to the family.  John loved his mother-in-law dearly and would be glad to take her into his home and treat her as his own mother.  Not long after making those arrangements, Yeshua had lifted his head up one more time and cried out with a loud voice “It is finished!” before slumping again.  His final words were a whisper that John could barely make out: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

          He knew that Yeshua was dead, but the Romans would not release the body until they made sure of it.  A burly legionary drove his pilum through Yeshua’s ribs and into his heart, and a gush of blood and water mingled together had flowed from the wound.  John shielded Miriam’s eyes from the fearful blow, but he kept his own gaze fixed on Yeshua’s face as the soldier skewered Him.  Marred by dust and sweat and blood, Yeshua never flinched or groaned as the iron spearhead penetrated his heart.  He was dead, there was no doubt about that.

          John had helped cut the body down from the cross, wrapped it in linen grave cloths, and hastily deposited it in a nearby tomb donated by one of the Master’s wealthy followers.  They had rolled the massive stone across the door of the tomb to keep animals from despoiling the body, and both the Romans and the Sanhedrin had posted guards on the tomb, remembering the Master’s words that he would be coming back from the dead after three days.

          And now He was alive again.  The women had seen him first, coming to the tomb early in the morning on the third day after the crucifixion of their beloved rabbi.  Miriamne of Magdala had been first, followed by another group that included Yeshua’s mother and two of His sisters.  All of them reported variations on the same theme – that the tomb was empty, the stone rolled away, and young men dressed all in white were proclaiming that their Lord had risen from the dead.

          John’s heart had flamed with a desperate hope when he heard Miriamne of Magdala say that the Master’s tomb was empty.  He and his friend Petros – Simon to his family, Peter to the Romans, and Cephas to the Greeks – had raced each other in a frantic dash to the garden where the rock tomb was located, within a stone’s throw of the Hill of the Skull where the Master had died.  They had arrived moments apart, John’s younger legs carrying him a bit faster than Peter could run.  He had stooped and looked in, and seen the grave cloths he had wrapped around Yeshua’s body so carefully lying there, a hollow shell, with the face cloth neatly folded and set to one side.  John knew at that moment that somehow, beyond all hope, their Master had returned.

          Peter was not so sure; he entered the tomb and poked at the grave clothes, then left, his countenance still marred with sorrow and pain.  No one else knew what John knew: that Peter had denied, three times, even knowing who Jesus was.  He had done it for a noble reason – he and John had gained admittance to the High Priest’s palace, where Jesus was being tried.  Peter had been accosted and accused of being Jesus’ accomplice; he was afraid that if he acknowledged Jesus that he might be cast out.  Therefore he had denied his Master, exactly as Yeshua had foretold, before the cock crowed to herald the coming dawn. When that fateful sound did come, Peter had folded up like a wet leather sack and fled the courtyard, weeping bitter tears.

But then, after they left the empty tomb, Simon saw the Master alive again, and later on that evening, John and the others saw Him too. Yeshua was alive! He was changed, somehow, but He was still among them, only better than before – majestic, regal, and complete, His face glowing with the knowledge that He had accomplished what the Father sent Him forth to do.

After a few other brief appearances to His disciples, the Master told them that he would meet them in Galilee, and so Peter and the others had returned to their homes in Capernaum to await him.  After a week without any visitation from Yeshua, they had decided to go fishing one night.  The notoriously fickle schools of perch were nowhere to be found; again and again they cast their nets out with no result. Now the sky was growing grey with the dawn, and the weary Galileans decided to row back to shore.  With no catch, their morning meal would be meager.

It was John who saw the stranger first – a man standing on the shoreline, muffled up in a cloak against the chill of the springtime air.  It was too dark to make out his face, but when he spoke, his voice was friendly and curious.

“Hello, children, have you caught any fish?” he asked.

“All night we worked, and not so much as a minnow!” Peter bellowed in reply.

“Try casting your nets on the right side of the boat,” the stranger told him. “I saw something move the water there just now.”

Peter and Andrew lifted one end of the net, while John and his brother James grabbed the other, and they heaved as hard as they could, throwing the fifteen-foot mesh across as wide a surface of the water as it would cover.  The weights on the corners quickly pulled the net down, and the ropes in their hands began to jerk and twitch as the fish they had captured strained against them.  All four of them pulled as hard as they could, and the net barely moved.  Peter called out, “Everyone give a hand!”

The net was full to the top – there were so many fish the boat was listing to one side.  On the shore, the stranger pulled his mantle back and laughed, a keen laugh of pure joy that they recognized immediately.

“It is the Master!” Peter cried.  He quickly pulled on his tunic – he had stripped down to his loincloth as they toiled through the night – and then dove into the water, swimming for shore as fast as he could.  John laughed out loud as he and the others hoisted the bulging net into their boat, and then they laid to the oars, making for shore in Peter’s wake.

As soon as they had dragged the net up on the beach, they rushed to Yeshua’s side.  He had already kindled a fire, and fresh fish – where He had gotten them, who could say? – were grilling over it on a flat stone, sprinkled with herbs for flavor.  John embraced His Master eagerly, and then stepped back so the others could greet Him.  Afterward, they sat down and dined together.  Few words were exchanged – the disciples were so awed by the presence of their resurrected Lord that they were afraid to speak to Him.  How had He conquered death?  What had He seen?  What lay next for all of them?  The questions, never spoken, hung heavy in the air.

After they ate, James and John returned to the net and began counting up the number of fish they had caught, while the rest began stringing up lines and lighting fires in order to begin smoking their catch.  The lake had yielded up a tremendous bounty, and the money from the sale of the fish would pay for food and lodging wherever Jesus chose to send them next.

“One hundred and fifty three!” John said.  “We haven’t caught that many since -”

“Since the day the Master first called us,” James finished the sentence for him.  They both fell silent as they remembered that day, so long ago, when Jesus had led them to the biggest catch of their lives – and then called them to “fish for men.”

“Where are Peter and the Master going, I wonder?” James said suddenly.  John looked up and saw the two of them walking up the beach, leaving the rest of the disciples behind.  Impulsively he stood and began to follow.

Jesus and Peter advanced up the beach, their feet occasionally lapped by the gentle waves.  The night chill had worn away, and the morning sun was slowly clearing the hills – it was going to be a beautiful day.  John followed the two men, not announcing His presence, but not concealing himself either.  The Master looked back over His shoulder and gave John a smile, then turned back to Peter and spoke.

“Simon bar Jonah, do you love Me?” he asked.

“Of course, Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter said.

“Then feed my lambs,” Yeshua replied.

They walked along in silence for a while, and then Jesus posed the same question again.

“Simon, son of Jonas, do you love Me?” he asked.

“Lord, you know that I love you,” Peter replied again.

“Then tend my flock,” Jesus repeated.

For a long time, they walked on in silence, and then Jesus looked at Peter again.

“Simon, do you truly love me at all?” he asked.

Peter’s face was streaked with tears.  Three times he had denied the Master, and now the Master was asking him a third time to affirm the love his actions had belied.

“Lord, you know all things,” he said.  “You know the bottom of my heart.  You know that I love you.”

“Then tend to my lambs,” Jesus said.  “And listen to Me! When you were young you went where you wished and did what you wanted.  When you are old, another will take you and bind you and lead you to a place where you do not want to go.  Are you ready for this?”

Peter squared his shoulders.  “I will follow you to the grave and beyond, my Lord!” he said.  Then he glanced back and saw John trailing behind them.  “So what about him, Yeshua?” he asked.  “What does his future hold?”

Jesus looked back at John and smiled once more.

“If I want him to tarry here until I come again, what is that to you, Peter?” he asked.  “You follow me!”

Peter turned and looked at John.  “It will be a long wait, my friend,” he said.

John tried to speak to him, but Peter’s face was changing, aging, his hair turning white and the lines in his face deepening.  Blood ran down his features as his face contorted with agony –

And then John sat up.  Nearly fifty years had passed since that day on the Sea of Galilee, and he was now an old man.  Peter had been dead for more than a decade, crucified upside down outside the walls of Rome, and now John had a flock of his own to tend.  He slowly sat upright, ignoring the aches in his seventy year old knees, and pulled his sandals on.  It was time for the shepherd to feed his lambs.


Thursday, December 15, 2016


     To borrow a phrase from our soon-to-be former President: "Let me be perfectly clear."

     I am not now and never have been a Donald Trump fan.  The man disgusts me; he is the most morally loathsome candidate ever put forward by the GOP.  Braggart, bully, unrepentant serial adulterer, pathological liar - all these terms which have been thrown down during and since the campaign accurately describe the GOP nominee.  And yet this utterly unqualified man won the White House with the aid of millions of passionate, evangelical Christian voters - people who would never once participate in the behaviors that their chosen candidate has enthusiastically indulged in for his entire life.  How could people who are so devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ vote for a man whose life has been lived in direct contradiction to those principles?  How could pastors like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffers and so many others publicly endorse a man whose life is a mockery of the moral principles their faith is based on?

    I was shocked and appalled as one evangelical leader after another came out for Trump.  I was disgusted when men who had publicly called Trump out for the charlatan that he is then came crawling to him hoping for cabinet positions once he had secured the election.  I was one of those voices in the wilderness who did his level best to stop the GOP from running off  the moral cliff by supporting this man - and I must admit that I was proud when both living Republican Presidents and the last two GOP nominees refused to endorse him.

   So why did they do it?  Why did so many Christian conservatives embrace a man who only discovered his conservatism last year, whose positions on conservative issues seemed to change almost daily during the campaign, whose rhetoric bristled with personal insults, thinly veiled racism, blatant lies, and whose comments about women would have been the kiss of death for any other GOP politician?  After a month of consideration and soul-searching, the conclusion I have come to is a very simple one:

   You created Donald Trump, my liberal friends.  All my feminist, gay rights-championing, pro-choice (which, let's be ABSOLUTELY HONEST, ultimately means  pro-abortion), Christian bashing, Black Lives Matter-loving lefties - you drove millions of conservatives into such a tight corner of fear and paranoia that they turned to a monstrous bully in panicked self defense.
   Consider what has happened to us conservatives in the last eight years:

    Any of us who gave anything less than full-throated, fist pumping enthusiasm to homosexuality, transvestitism, and various other sexual deviancies were publicly shamed, sued, and openly compared to the racist thugs who lynched black men in the darkest days of the Jim Crow South.  When we expressed concern that overly broad "bathroom bills" might let pedophiles take advantage of our children (I don't think many of us were that worried about real transgender folks peeing where they felt most comfortable), we were slandered and vilified.

  If we dared to question or disagree with the redefinition of the world's oldest and most successful social institution, marriage - even thought it was only achieved by a 5-4 split in the nation's Supreme Court against the eloquent objections of the Chief Justice of the United States - then we were branded as hatemongers and bigots and lumped in with the likes of Osama bin Laden.

   When the attorneys representing the United States Government threatened to revoke the tax exempt status of churches that did not recognize gay marriage, or of Catholic hospitals that refused to provide abortion services, you backed America's Christians into a corner.

   When the candidate you chose to back for President refused to recognize that there should be any restrictions at all on abortion, not even in the ninth month of pregnancy, millions of Americans who believe that unborn babies have a right to life were driven straight into the arms of Donald Trump.

   When a Planned Parenthood executive was caught on tape going over a price sheet for the body parts of aborted human babies, your response was not horror or even soul-searching, but a flaming denial that what our eyes and ears told us was real, followed by a prosecution of the undercover journalists who filmed the interview - and the stampede grew.

   When you shamelessly pandered to the "Black Lives Matter" crowd and condemned good cops as racist assassins, but refused to acknowledge the epidemic of criminality in America's black ghettos which makes policemen afraid for their lives every day, you drove millions of Americans who still respect law and order straight into voting booth to pull the lever for Trump.

   When you refused to express any concern about the flood of illegal immigrants who are taxing our fragile social welfare network to the breaking point, and who sometimes do come here to sell drugs, commit crimes, and wreak mayhem among us (even while nearly all of us recognize that those bad actors are a tiny minority of the undocumented community), and then mocked those of us who were concerned as Klansmen, nativists, and "Know-Nothings," you put our backs up against Trump's imaginary wall.

  You demonized us, ridiculed us, belittled our faith, our morals, our values, and you drove far too many of my fellow conservatives into a panicked stampede that ended in an orange-tinted electoral apocalypse.  Some of us stood firm - I valued conservatism and traditional values far too much to cast my ballot for a man whose life was a mockery of both - but you scared enough traditionalist Americans into believing that their whole way of life was under assault that they elected a man who promised to defend their values and faith, even if he didn't share them.

    So as inauguration day approaches, and you prepare your protest signs and your mourning robes and all the other paraphernalia of civil disobedience, grief, and dismay, remember this - when you marginalized half of the people in this country, you empowered Donald Trump.  The best explanation for his Presidency can be found by looking in the mirror.

   I hope you're proud of yourselves.  Your arrogant self-righteousness may well have destroyed this great nation.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

REQUIEM FOR A BOOKSTORE - Hastings of Greenville, 1982-2016

  It's been over a month now since my favorite business on the planet shut down, and this is the first time I've really been able to bring myself to write about it in detail.  It's funny - I've had many establishments that I frequent go under over the years, but none of them have ever hit me as hard as the loss of our local Hastings store this October.  I drive by and see the sign still up outside, and it gut-punches me every time.  I poked my head in the other day because the doors were propped open, and I saw the building being gutted and remodeled for the next occupant (I hear it's a Planet Fitness, but that may just be a rumor).  It was like seeing a loved one opened up and spread out on the autopsy table.  I nearly cried.

   Hastings originally opened as a bookstore in the local mall the year I graduated high school, when Ronald Reagan was still "the new President."  At that time the mall had a Walden Books as well, and Hastings was just a place I stopped in occasionally.  But then in 1991 or so, they moved into a huge storefront that had been the "49-n-More" video store, remodeling it and enlarging it.  Suddenly there was this marvelous place that carried books, movies, and music!  Later on they added entire shelves full of fandom memorabilia, games and accessories, and all sorts of other neat products for those of us who live in Geek World.

    My first copies of Oblivion and Skyrim - my two favorite video games of all times?  From Hastings.  My "Hello, My name is Inigo Montoya" T-shirt? From Hastings.  My first Lindsey Stirling CD?  Hastings.  My wife's "Grumpy Cat" T-shirt and pillow?  You got it - Hastings again!

    And then there were the movies.  New releases every week, VHS at first, then VHS and DVD, and then DVD and BluRay.  A stunning variety of titles, too.  I am a complete and total movie nerd, so when I wanted to rent or purchase serious historical films - Spielberg's LINCOLN, or VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN, or FLYBOYS, or THE PATRIOT - Hastings had them all.  When I wanted something creepy that would give me trouble going to sleep at night - Hastings was the horror movie capitol of Texas!  Big budget films like JEEPERS CREEPERS, MIRRORS, SINISTER, THE RING, and INSIDIOUS were there for purchase or rental, but you could also find those marvelous, creepy little low-budget films that were often more creative, original, and scary than the big studio productions.  GRAVE ENCOUNTERS, COME BACK TO ME, ABSENTIA, THE HANGMAN - all of these films made for under $100,000, and yet each of them brilliant and terrifying in their own way.  All rented or bought at Hastings.

  And, I'll admit, I love really BAD movies too - low budget shlock with cheap CGI, ridiculous plots, bad acting, and cheesy monsters.  Want a cannibal mutant hillbilly movie?  Hastings had every  single one of the WRONG TURN flicks, plus the unspeakably awful THE BLOOD SHED.  Want goofy SyFy originals? They had all of the SHARKNADO movies, ABRAHAM LINCOLN VS ZOMBIES, and the truly bizarre NAZIS AT THE CENTER OF THE EARTH.  Hastings introduced me to the absolute weirdness that is Japanese science fiction with movies like MACHINE GIRL, TOKYO GORE POLICE, and perhaps the weirdest movie I have ever seen, HELLDRIVER.

   But the book section called to me again and again.  The wonderful bargain book shelves in the middle of the aisle were a history lover's dream.  Most of the new release historical books wound up there pretty quickly, and I purchased Presidential biographies, military histories, interesting monographs, wonderful coffee table books, and hundreds of other tomes that caught my eye, usually for well under $10.  During the last three months the store was open, my wife and I purchased over 100 books.  Most of mine were historical works of one sort or another, with a few pieces of fiction thrown in for good measure.  I got books on samurai warriors, books on Caribbean pirates (real ones, not Captain Jack Sparrow!), books on doomed whaling expeditions, analyses of Presidential elections, and the most amusing reference book of all time, THE GREAT BIG BOOK OF HORRIBLE THINGS.  In my classroom at school there is a massive set of bookshelves, 16 feet long and 7 feet high, nearly full of books - and over half of them are from Hastings (so are the shelves, purchased during the going out of business sale!).

   But it wasn't all non fiction.  New works by my favorite novelists - Harry Turtledove, Stephen King, Lincoln Preston and Douglas Child, George R.R. Martin, Stephen R. Donaldson - I snapped them up as soon as they came out, and consumed them like junk food for the brain!

   Over the last 20 years, I visited Hastings, on average, two or three times a week.  I rented movies on Friday, returned them on Saturday to get the early return credit, and then rented more.  I stopped by before my night class most Mondays, and on Tuesdays after work to see what the new releases were.  I knew most of the employees - Lennon and Holly, the two book managers, Joel, the store manager, Danielle and Brittany, who were never too busy to help me locate some obscure book or movie title.  This place was my personal "Cheers," the friendly local business where everybody knew my name.

    But it was as an author that Hastings became my true home.  I published my first book in 2014, and my very first book signing was there at the local store.  I sold 47 copies at Hastings that day, and 12 more that first weekend!  Not only that, but Joel worked with me on the consignment fee to make sure that I made a decent profit on every single book sold while still making some money for the store.  After a while I realized that I could come in and sign books any day of the week, on short notice.  And, when I wasn't there, they stocked signed copies of my novels - one title at first, then two, and finally three - right up next to the cash register, where shoppers could see them and grab one on the way out of the store.  I sold over well 400 books at the Greenville Hastings in just over two years.  Any author can tell you how much those kind of numbers mean.

  Now it's all gone.  This thriving local store was undone, not by slow business or flagging sales here in Greenville, but by mismanagement and poor decisions at the corporate level.  I walked in every single day during that last week the store was open, greeting my friends - they were no longer just Hastings employees, but almost a second family to me - and browsing the shelves, spending more than I could afford, trying to take as much of the store with me as I could before it was gone forever.  I have about 80 unread books of history upstairs, perched on a new set of Hastings bookshelves that I bought three days before the store shut its doors.  I have around 100 DVD movies waiting  to be watched, of various genres and titles.  And I have some marvelous memories of hanging out, browsing, recommending obscure movies to people, proudly pointing out my novels to total strangers, and generally enjoying my experiences in this unique store.  But I'd trade every book, every movie, every shelf and T-shirt to have my favorite store open again.  It's not meant to be, I guess.

   Ah, Hastings, we hardly knew ye.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

BROTHERS - A Tale of Ancient Rome

    Thanksgiving is a time for family, and no ancient civilization valued family ties more than ancient Rome.  So here is my most recent short story, a tale of an unexpected family reunion late in the reign of Caesar Augustus . . . enjoy, and, as always, please leave your comments!


A Short Story by

Lewis Smith


          Caesar was dying!  The word quickly spread across the streets of Rome, flying from one of the seven hills to the next, so that by afternoon the lowest slave and the highest patricians were whispering with dread what might come next.  Would Tiberius take the place of his adopted father?  Would the Senate try to re-assert itself and take up the power it had surrendered fifty years before? Would there be another civil war, like the one that had shaken Rome for the better part of a decade after the death of the Divus Julius?  The fact that the Emperor was not in Rome made the tensions even worse.  Riders from the South were bombarded with questions as they came up the Via Appia, to see if they bore further news.

          The known facts were sketchy: the aging Emperor, whose health had been in decline for some time, had gone to visit Nola, to the very same villa where his father had died many years before.  While there, his health had taken a turn for the worse, and no one knew at the moment if he was alive or dead.  The mighty Roman Empire which Augustus had created and sustained over the last half century ground to a halt as the sons of Rome waited for word on the fate of their political father.

          No one noticed, in the hush that came over the great city, as one old man made his way from the poorest stews of the Subura towards the stables at the entrance of the Appian Way.  He was elderly, at least seventy summers or more, but strode along the street with a vigor and purpose that compelled men to get out of his path.  He carried a staff, and his face was partly concealed by a hood, unusual in the August heat – but those who caught a glimpse of his sharp features and keen eyes often paused, as if reminded of something that they could not quite recall.

          Arriving at the stables, the old man rented a horse and mounted up with a quickness that belied his years, spurring his steed south.  The groom stared after him for a long time, trying to place the old man’s face.  Who did that old fellow remind him of?  He thought long and hard, but the only name that popped to mind was so wildly inappropriate that he laughed at the thought and went looking for the stable boy, who had left the nightly deposits of manure unshoveled.

          It was some fifty miles or more from the gates of Rome to Nola, but the old man was accustomed to long journeys.  As he rode southward, he prayed to all the gods he would not be too late.  He had waited years for this moment, and the thought that it might slip away because Augustus had chosen to leave Rome before entering his final crisis was galling.  His joints ached slightly as he spurred the horse along, but he had no time for the infirmities of age.

          His mind stretched back, across the years, to the last time he had seen Augustus, some forty-five years before.  They had been so young, and the future Emperor was still called Octavian by many, although he was already styling himself as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.  He wondered how the old man would react to seeing him again after all these years.  The thought brought a grim smile to his lips.

          It was hours since he had ridden out from the gates of Rome, but the sun had not yet set, when he finally arrived at the town of Nola, some miles to the north of Neapolis.  Everyone knew about the villa that had been built over eighty years before by Gaius Octavius, the Emperor’s long-dead natural father; it was a matter of local pride that the great Augustus returned there from time to time to rest from his labors in Rome.  The old man stabled his horse at the local inn, and asked the stable boy how the Emperor fared.

          “They say he’s barely hanging on,” the pimply-faced boy said.  “Me papa is first cousins with the steward of the villa, so we gets the news quicker than most.  Old Augustus is still awake and aware, they say, but his breath grows shorter and shorter.  His wife is in there with him, and they’ve sent for Tiberius.  Who knows if the gloomy old cuss will bother to come or not, though, d’ye know?”

          The old man tipped the boy a silver denarius for the information, and slowly walked up the path towards the hill where the villa was situated.  The Emperor had enlarged it slightly since he took possession of it, years before, but overall, it still reflected the simple Republican values of the man who had brought the Republic to an end.  Augustus wielded great power, but never flaunted that power, living in simple dwellings, dressing modestly, and avoiding extravagant displays of wealth. For this, his subjects had come to love and revere their old Emperor, and the looks of grief the old man saw on the faces of the villagers were not feigned.  They knew that the death of Augustus was the end of an era; and who could say what the new era would be like?

          Torches were lit all around the villa, and members of the Emperor’s personal bodyguard, the Praetorians, as they were now called, stood watch at the gates in front of the garden.  They snapped to attention as the old man approached.

          “Best be on your way, old timer,” one of them said.  “The villa is closed to all visitors.”

          For the first time since he left Rome, the old man let his hood fall back all the way.  His thinning white hair was plastered to his head with sweat from his long ride, but his features were sharp and his attitude of command unmistakable.

          “I need to see the Emperor while he remains in this world,” he said.

          The guard was staring intently at the face before him, trying to figure out where he knew the old man from.  He was certain he had seen the face before!  But after a moment, he remembered his orders.

          “The Emperor is seeing no one!” he said.  “Only his wife and physician are allowed at his bedside.  Begone, old fool!”

          “He will see me,” the old man replied, “if you show him this.  And believe me, if he finds out you sent me away, it will go ill for you.  Simply show this to him, and see what he says.”

          He had reached into his coin purse as he spoke, and pulled out a heavy golden ring. He dropped it into the hands of the guard, who stared at it for a moment, then stared again at the old man.  A dawning look of horror came over his face.

          “It can’t be!” he said.  “You . . . this . . . you aren’t -”

          The old man grinned, and then suddenly cast aside his staff and drew himself up sharply.

          “You will convey that ring to the Emperor, Praetorian, or I will see you flogged!” he snapped.

          The centurion turned pale and fled inside, leaving his much younger companion staring in wonder at their elderly visitor.  The old man turned his gaze upon the other Praetorian, who met his gaze for a moment, then slowly lowered his eyes.  The visitor smiled grimly and waited in silence.

          Ten minutes had passed when the centurion returned.

          “He will see you,” he said simply, and gestured for the old man to follow.

          They entered the villa, which was furnished comfortably but not lavishly.  They passed the atrium and the guest room, skirted around the kitchen, and made their way to the rear of the building, where the bedchambers were located, overlooking a green knoll that sloped down to the river.  The old man could hear the furtive whispers of servants as they scurried about, and from one bedchamber he heard gentle sobs.  Clearly, Augustus had not long to live.

          Finally, they came to the Imperial bedchamber.  Lamps burned bright from every niche, and the room was warm, even for a summer night.  Ironic, thought the old man - that the Emperor’s life would end in the month he had named after himself.  The sweet smell of incense, however, could not completely mask the faint odor of death that filled the room.

          The Emperor of Rome was propped up on pillows, his face pale except for bright hectic spots on each cheek.  His breathing was labored, but his eyes were clear, and his wife Livia – still a handsome woman, despite her seventy summers – sat by his side, holding his hand, and wiping his brow with a damp cloth.  Her eyes flashed as the old man entered the room.

          “I don’t know who you are,” she said, “but were it not for my husband’s personal order, I would have you flogged for intruding on us at such an hour!”

          “Silence, wife,” Augustus said faintly.  “This man has earned the right to stand before me.  He is, after all, my brother.”

          Livia Drusilla froze in astonishment, her wide eyes looking from her husband to the stranger – and then widening further as she took in his features for the first time.  She had seen those features before, long ago, when she was just a little girl – regal, even then, with a dignitas that the kings of the east could only aspire to.  Her astonishment was so transparent that the old man smiled in amusement.

          “I am Ptolemy Philopater Caesar,” the old man said, “although most people called me Caesarion in my youth.”

          Augustus slowly nodded, then coughed.  He wiped his chin with a white cloth, which came away stained with blood.  In one hand he held the scarab ring that the guard had brought him, the sealing ring of the House of Ptolemy. 

          “So tell me, brother of mine,” he said, “if you will – how is it that you are still alive?  The last time I saw you, you were being led out of my tent, bound and hooded, to be executed and buried outside my camp.”

          “You shouldn’t have chosen a veteran of the Tenth Legion to carry out the sentence,” Caesarion said.  “I waited till we were clear of the camp’s walls, and asked the man to remove my hood, so that I could look on the moon and stars one last time ere I died.  It was a simple request, and even though you had told him to keep my face hidden, he couldn’t see any reason to do so once we were clear of the legions.  So he pulled my hood off, and saw my face.”

          Augustus smiled, displaying his teeth, which were crooked and yellow with age.

          “Well played, my brother!” he said.  “You always did bear a striking resemblance to our divine father.  That was why I could not let you live – after all, Caesar could only have one son!”

          Caesarion nodded.  “So you told me at the time. But as soon as he saw me, the legionary began to tremble.  He asked who I was, and I told him.  He said that he had fought all through Gaul and Greece under the command of the Divus Julius, and he could never harm Caesar’s son – not even when Young Caesar ordered it.”

          “What shall I do then, young master? he asked me.  ‘If I kill you, I would have to fall on my own sword to atone for such a sin.  But if I let you go, my master will have my head and send legions of mercenaries after you.  What can I do to save us both?’”

          “I pulled off my tunic and asked him for his dagger.  I sliced open my arm and soaked the front of the tunic in my blood, then ran a hole through it with the dagger.  The old soldier gave me an extra tunic from his pack, and I donned it quickly.  I hid among the date palms while he went to tell you that the job was done,” the old man explained.

          “I kept that tunic for years,” Augustus said.  “I told myself that I did the only thing I could to spare Rome another civil war.  Let the masses catch one glimpse of you, Julius Caesar reborn, and my father’s will and all my labors for Rome would be forgotten in an instant.  Chaos would have broken out! But I will tell you, my brother, that my conscience tortured me in my dreams for many years for what I had done to you.  I relived that scene in my tent many times, sometimes as myself, and sometimes as you, bound hand and foot by my guards, facing my own judgment.”

          “I, too, have often relived that moment,” Caesarion replied.  “That was the day that both our lives changed forever.  I knew you were ruthless – Marcus Antonius told me how you insisted that Cicero be the first Senator to perish in the purges, and then told all of Rome that it was he who insisted the great orator must die!  But I also thought you had a heart.  I went to you to spare my mother from the indignity of marching in your triumph.  I thought if I offered to rule Egypt as your exclusive client, and pledged never to set foot in Rome, that it would be enough. And, I will tell you then as I told you now – Egypt was all I wanted!  I had no desire to come to Rome, to set myself up as your rival.”

          “I’m sure you meant it at the time,” Augustus said.  “But men change, my brother, men change.  What I did to you was morally wrong – I know that, and have known it for years.  But politically, it was the only choice I could have made.” 

          His frail body shook with coughs again, and the linen cloth came away from his mouth stained with more blood.  Livia said not a word, but tears streamed down her cheeks.  Augustus looked up at her kindly, and patted her cheek with a trembling hand. 

          “But I am glad to see you, Caesarion,” he said.  “I am dying, and it gladdens me to know that I will not go to stand before our great father with his only true son’s blood on my hands.”

          Caesar Augustus turned to his wife. 

          “Livia,” he said, “I want you to leave me alone with my brother.”

          “Are you sure, husband?” she said.  “What if he - ?”

          The Emperor of Rome laughed, then coughed feebly into the linen cloth again. 

          “What if he kills me?” Augustus said.  “The sands of my life are running out regardless.  Listen to me, dear wife – if I have left this mortal life when you return to this room, under no circumstances do I want you to pursue any type of vengeance against my brother.  He has suffered enough at my hands.  Am I clear?”

          She sighed deeply.  “Yes, my dear husband,” she said, and kissed his brow.  As she passed Caesarion, she looked at his aquiline feature – identical to those of his long-dead father, whom she had seen at his last great triumph when she was a girl.  She spoke to the son of Julius Caesar.

          “I know he wronged you,” she said, “but my husband is a great man who has done much for Rome.  Pardon him, I beg you!”

          The old man looked at her, and his face was not unkind.

          “I pardoned him long ago,” he said.  “I understand his motives better than you think, for I too am a son of Caesar.  I did not come here for vengeance.”

          Livia smiled back at him, and from the death bed, Augustus spoke once more.

          “Livia, tell the Senate something for me,” he said.

          “Whatever you wish, my dear,” she replied.

          “Tell them if I have played my role well, then to applaud at my departure,” the Emperor of Rome told his wife.  She smiled through her tears, and left the room.  After her departure, Augustus regarded Caesarion with a cool, appraising glance.  Despite his obvious pain and the burden of seventy-five years, his gaze was one of command.

          “So, brother, why have you come?” he said.

          Caesarion stepped forward and sat down on the edge of the Emperor’s bed.

          “I wanted you to see my face before you died,” he told Augustus.  “For years, I simply wanted you to know that I had won.  That I had thwarted your will, and survived, thanks to the kindness of Fortuna and the loyalty of a legionary named Titus Severus. He bore me far away, to the wilderness of Numidia, where I lived as a simple shepherd for over a decade.   For years I thought of killing you, to avenge my mother’s death, and that of Antonius, whom I loved as a father.  But as time went on, and as I watched from a distance what you had done, I understood your reasons more and more.  What you did, you did for Rome.  You took a Republic torn by war and dissension for a century and turned it into a peaceful and well run Empire.  You took a city of wood and mud and turned it into a city of marble.  You gave your people a better life than their fathers and grandfathers had lived before them.  But all that time, you carried the burden of my death on your shoulders.  I could see it in the way you carried yourself, and in your eyes when you were weary.”

          “You . . . watched?” Augustus asked, his eyebrows arching.

          “I have lived in Rome for the last twenty years,” said Caesarion.  “Residing in the worst stews of the Aventine and the Subura, posing as a penniless beggar, a wounded veteran, or a simple tradesman.  You have walked right past me on the streets a dozen times in the last decade, brother.  But a hood and an eyepatch are not a bad disguise.”

          Augustus nodded.  “Well done indeed,” he said weakly.  “Go on, I fear my time is running out.”

          “I decided that I wanted to show myself to you before you died,” Caesarion said.  “I thought the one noblest thing I could do for my adopted brother was relieve him of the burden of fratricide.”

          The Emperor of Rome wept softly, wetting his cheeks with tears.

          “Then you are a better man than I,” he said.  “Our father was renowned for his clemency.  I thought that to be his greatest weakness.  He forgave his enemies, restored them to honor and high stations, and they killed him for it.  I made up my mind not to be so weak – to get rid of all those who might pose a danger to me. But in the end, that was my weakness.  I rid Rome of all of those who might have challenged me – and in the end, I was left with no one to test myself against. I destroyed my own competition, and in doing so, I ultimately weakened myself.  You are the true son of Gaius Julius Caesar, my brother – more so than I could ever have been.”

“You did not share his unique greatness,” Caesarion said, “but that did not stop you from forging your own.  History will remember you as long as it remembers him, Octavian.”

“It is a long time since any man called me that,” Augustus said.  “But I do not take it ill, coming from you.  Caesarion, my brother, I have imposed on you for your entire life.  May I do so one more time?”

Caesarion arched an eyebrow, an expression that reminded Augustus painfully of his adoptive father, the man he had adored and sought to emulate for so many years.  But when his brother spoke, his voice was purely his own – softer and kinder than the great Caesar’s.

“What does the Emperor ask of his brother?” he said.

“I am dying, Caesarion,” said Augustus.  “I am dying, and it hurts.  Every breath is like a dagger through my lungs, and the faces of my ancestors dance before me every time I close my eyes.  I know my time draws short, but I am weary of waiting.  I am weary of the pain of this life, and ready to stand before my father again.  Would you end it for me?  I tried to end your life long ago, when we were both young.  I have regretted that for years, but perhaps if you hasten my end, it will tip the scales of justice back in my favor.  Finish me, I beg you!”

Caesarion was surprised to find tears in his own eyes.  For years he had fantasized about plunging a dagger into the man before him, or displaying Caesar’s severed head in the great Forum of Rome.  But now that the man he had once hated was begging him for the release of death, he found he did not want to kill him.

“Do not think of it as vengeance, if that is not what you desire,” Augustus said.  “Think of it as one last gift from Egypt to Rome. Or perhaps as a simple favor, from one brother to another.”

Caesarion leaned forward and kissed the fevered brow of his adoptive brother. 

“Rest well, Emperor of Rome,” he said.  “You have earned it.”

An hour passed before Livia returned to her husband’s bedchamber.  Augustus was propped up on his pillows, his features calm and peaceful, his body as still as a statue, his breath gone.  Tears streamed down her face as she kissed her husband’s lips one last time, the warmth of his life already fading from his noble and beloved face.  Then she stepped to the door and called one of the Praetorians.

“Go and find my son Tiberius,” she told him.  “Tell him to come quickly.  Tell him that his father . . .” 

Her voice trailed off, as she struggled for words.

“What should I tell him, domina?” the soldier asked gently.

“Tell him Caesar died of natural causes,” she finally said.


Early the next morning, a ship left the harbor at Naples, bound for Alexandria, Egypt.  No one paid much attention to the old man who stood in the bow, his gaze set to the south.  He did not pay much attention to them, either.  Caesarion was going home.