Robert Swartwood

USA Today Bestselling Author

Bullet Rain Chapter 3

Every Saturday leading up to its release, I’m posting a new chapter of Bullet Rain here at the website. You can check out chapter 1 here and chapter 2 here. Also, my grandmother passed away yesterday. I had a chance to see her earlier in the week, and she was not doing well, so it’s good to know she’s in a better place. Bullet Rain will be dedicated to her memory. 

*      *      *

It took him an hour before he saw the town off in the distance—a few lights in the growing darkness—and it took him another twenty minutes before those lights materialized into actual buildings. By then the sun had set and the temperature had dropped, just as Nova had known it would, and he was doubly glad he had brought along the leather jacket.

For the first mile or so he had focused on the sun-weathered macadam, trying to spot anything that might have caused two of his tires to blow, but besides a flattened can of Old Milwaukee along the side of the highway, there was nothing.

Traffic was sporadic for the most part, the first vehicle passing him a tractor-trailer. It had been coming toward him, away from town. He stuck out his thumb anyway, in the hopes the driver would stop, so Nova could use the CB radio. But the truck had just kept going—the trailer itself white with no markings on its side—and Nova had watched it receding, noting the license plate was from California.

A few other vehicles had passed him along the way—some headed west, others headed east—but by then he had no interest in hitching a ride. He would reach town soon enough.

He checked his phone every half mile, hoping for a signal. None was available. It was strange—he had been passing through most of rural America in the past two days and there had almost always been cell reception. Granted, it was usually only one or two bars, and even those weren’t reliable, but at least they had been something.

Strangely enough, as he neared town—nearly a half mile away—service was suddenly restored to his phone. Four bars, even, more than enough to make a phone call or use the Internet. He unlocked the screen, pulled up the phone application, but then realized he had nobody to call. He wasn’t a member of AAA, and even if he was he knew it didn’t matter unless there was a tow truck nearby, and if there was a tow truck nearby, then he might as well find it himself. The town looked small enough to walk from one end to the other in five minutes, so he kept walking.

Most of the town—houses and trailers—sat off on one side of the highway. On the other side was a diner and a bar, as well as a long, squat building that he realized after a moment was a motel. Behind the motel sat two dust-covered tractor-trailers.

Nova tried the diner first. The lights were on inside, but the doors were locked. A sign on the door said the diner closed at eight. He checked his watch. It was 8:15.

Inside, a middle-aged woman was wiping down the tables and counters. Another was mopping the linoleum floor. The one wiping tables noticed him, smiled and shrugged.

He went to the motel next. It appeared to have six rooms. There was only one car in the parking lot, a Volkswagen Rabbit convertible.

He couldn’t seem to find an office. All there appeared to be were the six rooms, and only one of them—occupied by the owner of the Rabbit, presumably—had lights on inside. He was half-tempted to knock on the door, inquire how one went about contacting the front desk, if such a front desk existed, but decided not to bother.

Nova headed for the bar.

Wart

My flash fiction piece “Wart” is up today at Vol. 1 Brooklyn. This is the first flash fiction piece I’ve written in a long time, so it’s nice dabbling in the genre again. A big thanks to Tobias Carroll and everyone else at Vol. 1 Brooklyn for giving it a place to be read.

Bullet Rain Chapter 2

Every Saturday leading up to its release, I’m posting a new chapter of Bullet Rain here at the website. You can check out chapter 1 here. Happy Saturday!

*      *      *

Nova was doing seventy-five, the needle inching up toward eighty, Guns N’ Roses blasting from the speakers, when the Mustang’s rear tire blew and nearly sent him careening off the highway.

He only had one hand on the steering wheel—his right—while his left arm was on the open windowsill, his fingers tapping a quiet beat to the pounding music. But once the tire blew and the car began to buckle and he felt the centrifugal force start to pull him off the highway, he grabbed the wheel and gripped it hard, jerking it to the left just a bit, enough to keep him on the macadam.

A second later, the front tire blew—the same side as the rear—and Nova wrestled the wheel again to gain control, then lifted his foot off the gas and coasted to a shaky stop along the side of the highway.

From the speakers, Axl Rose screamed that the jungle was going to bring Nova to his knees.

Nova punched the power on the ancient stereo, cutting Axl off mid-scream.

The engine was still idling, purring like a beast, eager to keep eating up miles.

Nova cut the ignition, withdrew the key, and opened his door.

At once the silence of the desert enveloped him. There were sounds, yes, the desert sounds of nature—wind, cicadas, a bird, possibly a hawk, calling from somewhere nearby—but the sounds he was used to hearing—traffic, construction, people—were absent. It was one of the reasons why he had taken this road trip in the first place, to just get away from it all. But this right here, not one but two of his tires blown flat, had not been part of the plan.

He shut his door—the sound of metal meeting metal becoming the loudest sound in the desert—and circled around the hood to check on the tire.

Yep, the thing was flat, just like the rear tire.

Crouching down, Nova squinted at the worn rubber. The light was leaving the sky, but there was still enough to see that the tire had been shredded in one spot. Even though he knew he was going to find the same thing, he checked the rear tire.

“Son of a bitch.”

He stood back up and stared down the empty space of highway he’d just driven. He hadn’t noticed anything in his path, broken glass or shaved metal, anything to cause two tires to blow like that … though he had been getting into the song at the time, singing along with the chorus like a jackass.

There was a spare tire in the trunk, but it was just one spare, and right now one spare was not going to help.

He withdrew his iPhone from his pocket, slid the bar across the screen, entered his PIN, but then said, “You’ve got to be shitting me.”

NO SERVICE, the iPhone informed him.

Nova held up the phone, slowly turned himself in a full three-sixty as if that might magically restore cell service.

It didn’t.

Nova released a heavy breath. He knew what this meant. He knew what it meant and he didn’t like it one bit.

The last town he had passed through was about six miles back. It had been a small town, a handful of houses, trailers, some buildings, and not much else. He wasn’t sure how far up the next town was, and without cell reception, he couldn’t check Google Maps.

Which meant he had no choice but to head back the way he had come.

He considered grabbing one of his bags from the trunk but decided he only needed his leather jacket instead. The temperature wasn’t too bad—was rather comfortable, in fact—but he knew just how cold it got in the desert. In the next hour or so, once the sun disappeared, it would be best to have a jacket.

He locked the doors and stood back from the car for a moment to take in its beauty.

It was a 1966 Mustang Shelby GT 350, cherry red with white racing stripes. He had always wanted a Mustang, ever since he was a kid, and had promised himself he would eventually buy one. But then life, as it always did, got in the way, and he was barely home for long enough to enjoy such a car.

But then all that shit went down back in D.C., and his pickup ended up in the Potomac, and then he quit his job and needed a new ride and figured, what the hell, he’d always wanted a Mustang, didn’t he?

The price for this one was a pretty penny—just over six figures—but it was more than worth it and Nova had the extra money to spend so he went all out.

And now here it was, a vintage classic with two blown tires, sitting slumped along the side of an empty highway in the Nevada desert.

“Son of a bitch,” Nova said again.

He started walking.

Dead For A Dollar

The Dishonored Dead, my zombie novel that’s not a zombie novel, is currently 99 cents for the next few days on Kindle. I’m playing around with KDP’s Countdown Deal, so after Friday it will be $1.99 for two days, then back to regular price at $4.99. So, um, what are you waiting for? Go grab it!

Bullet Rain Chapter 1

Bullet Rain should be out sometime next month, and for the weeks leading up to its release, I thought it would be fun to post a chapter of the book every Saturday. This book is a bit of a departure for me, as it’s mostly just a straight-up action thriller. There are a few twists, but nothing as complex as most of my stuff. Nova, of course, is Holly Lin’s sidekick in No Shelter. Bullet Rain picks up right after the events of No Shelter, and will lead into the next Holly Lin book, The Devil You Know. Enjoy.

*      *      *

The sniper sat on top of the ridge, his back against a boulder. He had his eyes closed, earbuds in his ears, listening to an audiobook.

He listened to an audiobook almost every day, having nothing else to do except sit here in this makeshift hut and wait. There was a cooler with water and Gatorade and the remains of his lunch—tuna fish sandwich and barbecue potato chips, a can of diet soda—and that was it. If he needed to loosen his bowels, he did so in a hole one hundred yards away.

His transportation was a 2009 Honda CRF dirt bike. It was parked five hundred yards away down the embankment, in the shade of a Utah Juniper tree.

In the next hour or so he would ride the dirt bike three miles across the desert to town. His home, a doublewide trailer, sat on the outskirts. A wooden shed was beside it, and it was into the shed he would ease the dirt bike, snap the padlock on the door, and head inside the trailer. Strip out of his clothes, take a shower, then lower himself down into his recliner with a cold bottle of beer, turn on the TV, and watch sports until he drifted off to sleep.

But that was later, and this was now, and currently he sat with his back against the boulder, his eyes closed, listening to his audiobook. It was a murder mystery, a book in an ongoing series that he liked. What he liked most was the narrator’s voice. It was smooth and confident. The narrator had the uncanny ability to change his voice to match any character in the book, even a secondary character, sometimes even a tertiary character.

The sniper was impressed.

He was also bored.

This job paid well—exceedingly well—and it was relatively easy, but not much happened. Hence the earbuds and audiobook. Hence the hut with the corrugated steel roof that protected him from the sun. The desert was dry and played hell on his sinuses, but he had become accustomed to it over the past two years. That was how long he had been doing the work, ever since he had left the Marines.

He had had thirty-seven kills during his service to his country.

He was a killer, he supposed, though he thought of himself more as a marksman. A very skilled marksman, to be exact, one of the best in his platoon, so it made sense why he had been snapped up so quickly after leaving the Marines.

Of course, the fact that he had a gambling problem, and that he had been down nearly one hundred thousand dollars, also factored into his decision to be where he was right now.

His debt had been paid off long ago, and if he wanted, he could have left this job and perused another, but hell, the money he was making for the little work he was doing, it was just too good to walk away from.

He had gone to war to fight for the American dream, and now he was living it.

In his pocket, his cell phone vibrated.

He opened his eyes. Outside the narrow opening of the steel hut the desert stretched out in front of him. The day had worn on and the sun was already headed toward the horizon. In another hour it would be gone. Night would come, and the temperature would drop, and the desert would become alive with the nocturnal sounds of nature. And the sniper? By then he would be home, his feet up on the ottoman, SportsCenter on the widescreen.

The audiobook was getting to a good part, the detective close to finding out who the killer was, and part of him wanted to just keep listening, while another part—the rational part, the part that liked money—woke up his iPod to stop the audiobook. He plucked out the earbuds just as he withdrew the phone from his pocket.

A text message was on the screen: RED MUSTANG, FOUR MILES EAST.

The sniper set the iPod and earbuds aside. He climbed to his feet, stretched his arms, his legs, his neck. He stepped over to the mesh case on the ground, bent and opened it up to reveal an XM2010 enhanced sniper rifle.

The XM2010 was a fine machine. The Army had issued it in 2011, so he hadn’t had the pleasure of using it during combat, but he thought he got better use out of it now as a civilian.

The rifle weighed twelve pounds and was nearly four feet long, the barrel exactly twenty-four inches.

He hefted it and exited the hut, keeping low as he advanced to the edge of the ridge. From here he had a perfect view of the valley, and the highway that snaked through it. The closest section was almost a straight shot, nearly two miles of macadam, and oftentimes drivers put the pedal to the metal, either to try to save an extra minute or to get a rush.

The red Mustang the text notified him about was still three miles away. He could just make out the dot on the horizon. If the car was going too fast—and he had to assume it would be—it made his job harder. But that was why he got paid the big bucks. Nobody ever said it would be easy.

He lowered himself down into his usual spot. He attached the sound suppressor, made sure it was tight and secure, then opened up the tactical rails, locked them in place, and set the rifle down on the ground.

He closed his left eye and with his right eye peered through the scope.

The range on the rifle was 1,300 yards.

From where he was crouched up on the ridge to the place the Mustang would pass was just under 1,000 yards.

More than enough room for him to play with.

In fact, it was almost child’s play.

The XM2010 had a five-round detachable box magazine. He attached it now, though he would only need two bullets. All he ever needed were two bullets, .300 Winchester Magnums.

He took a breath, released it. Took another breath, let it out only halfway.

He looked through the scope again.

There was the Mustang, coming right at him.

His finger touched the trigger.

He waited … waited … waited …

A slight squeeze of the trigger, the kick of the rifle, a quick adjustment, another slight squeeze of the trigger, another kick of the rifle, and that was it. His job for the day was done.

Hint Fiction Contest IV

From now until the end of this month, submissions are open for this year’s Hint Fiction contest, judged by Benjamin Percy.

What is Hint Fiction? 

A story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story. Think of Hemingway’s apocryphal six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It doesn’t have a title, but those six words convey a punch. Not only that, they stand on their own. They’re not the first line of a story, or a random sentence plucked from a longer story.

About the judge: 

Benjamin Percy is the author of two novels, Red Moon and The Wilding, as well as two books of stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. His honors include an NEA fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Plimpton Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories and Best American Comics. His story “Impact” appeared in the Hint Fiction anthology.

Prizes: 

  • 1st place $100, 2nd place $50, 3rd place $25.
  • All winners and runners up will receive signed copies of the Hint Fiction anthology, as well as signed copies of my very short fiction collection Phantom Energy.
  • Perera-Hussein Publishing House has generously donated copies of their Sri Lankan Hint Fiction anthology Short & Sweet to the winners and runners up as well.
  • Finally, the 1st place winner will also have his or her Hint Fiction story animated by Dustin Grella, who has animated a few Hint Fiction stories in the past (here and here and here).

There is no entry fee.

Not sure what Hint Fiction is? It’s strongly recommended you check out the anthology, which is still available in paperback. Also, Norton has kindly lowered the price of the ebook for a limited time, so you can purchase it for just $2.99 on KindleNookKobo, and iTunes.

You can submit up to two Hint Fiction stories using the form below (subscribers to my newsletter can submit up to three; directions on how to submit the third story can be found in the welcome email). After April 30th, a top 20 will be chosen and will be published online, where readers can vote for their favorites à la American Idol. Then from there a top 10 will be narrowed down, which will be sent to Benjamin Percy (please note that I hold veto power, so if a story I feel strongly about in the top 20 doesn’t make the top 10, I may include it anyway).

Stories should be no longer than 25 words. This does not include the title. If the story is longer than 25 words, it will be automatically disqualified.

Please note: Unless you’re a newsletter subscriber, submit no more than two stories. If you submit more than two stories, you will be automatically disqualified.

Using one of my own Hint Fiction stories as an example, please format your stories like this:

CORRECTIONS & CLARIFICATIONS

It was Fredrick Miller, not his murdered son Matthew, who was executed Monday night at Henshaw Prison.

Good luck!

Me In Google Play

Not too long ago Google contacted me about making my ebooks available in Google Play. And now several of them are. Mostly just my novels right now, but eventually I’ll get the short stories and novellas up at some point. Anyway, if you use Google Play, or know someone who does, help spread the word!

Refuge Audiobook

Refuge is now available as an audiobook, narrated by Jeffrey Kafer. Each book is available separately, but I’d suggest getting the full package: Refuge Omnibus Edition: Refuge 1 – 5, which clocks in at nearly 15 hours.

Speaking of audiobooks, The Serial Killer’s Wife will soon be available for your listening pleasure. It’s narrated by the fabulous Tanya Eby, who has narrated for the likes of Dean Koontz, Tess Gerritsen, and Nora Roberts. More details to follow.

Speaking of The Serial Killer’s Wife, it finally reached its 100th review on Amazon (and, thankfully, it was 5 stars!). To celebrate, I’m giving away free digital copies of No Shelter until midnight tonight, so hurry and download now.

New Hint Fiction Contest

It’s been almost five years since my essay “Hint Fiction: When Flash Fiction Becomes Just Too Flashy” was first published at Flash Fiction Chronicles. Since then Hint Fiction has really taken on a life of its own. Besides the anthology published by W. W. Norton four years ago, there’s been an art show, a film contest, and even recently an anthology of Sri Lankan Hint Fiction. There have been three contests in the past — judged by Stewart O’Nan, James Frey, and Joyce Carol Oates — and this year I thought it was time to host another contest.

What is Hint Fiction? It’s a story of 25 words or fewer that suggests a larger, more complex story. Think of Hemingway’s apocryphal six-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” It doesn’t have a title, but those six words convey a punch. Not only that, they stand on their own. They’re not the first line of a story, or a random sentence plucked from a longer story.

The reason I didn’t host a contest the past two years is because the stories submitted in 2011 seemed rather … formulaic. After all, there is only so much that can be done with a 25 word limit. Having said that, I have a faith that more can be done with the genre, that writers can think outside the box, so that’s why I’m doing another contest.

This year’s judge is the one and only Benjamin Percy. He is the author of two novels, Red Moon and The Wilding, as well as two books of stories, Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk. His honors include an NEA fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Plimpton Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories and Best American Comics. His story “Impact” appeared in the Hint Fiction anthology.

The submission period will be from April 1 to April 30 at this website. You can submit up to two Hint Fiction stories (subscribers to my newsletter can submit up to three, those lucky sons of guns). After April 30th, a top 20 will be chosen and will be published online, where readers can vote for their favorites à la American Idol. Then from there a top 10 will be narrowed down, which will be sent to Benjamin Percy (please note that I hold veto power, so if a story I feel strongly about in the top 20 doesn’t make the top 10, I may include it anyway).

The prizes are as follows:

  • 1st place $100, 2nd place $50, 3rd place $25.
  • All winners and runners up will receive signed copies of the Hint Fiction anthology, as well as signed copies of my very short fiction collection Phantom Energy.
  • Perera-Hussein Publishing House has generously donated copies of their Sri Lankan Hint Fiction anthology Short & Sweet to the winners and runners up as well.
  • Finally, the 1st place winner will also have his or her Hint Fiction story animated by Dustin Grella, who has animated a few Hint Fiction stories in the past (here and here and here).

There is no entry fee.

Still not sure what Hint Fiction is? It’s strongly recommended you check out the anthology, which is still available in paperback. Also, Norton has kindly lowered the price of the ebook for a limited time, so you can purchase it for just $2.99 on Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iTunes.

So check back here April 1st. In the meantime, have fun!

EDIT: The contest is currently open.

Missing You

Harlan Coben’s latest novel, Missing You, is out today in the U.S. I was fortunate to receive an early copy. Unfortunately, I’ve been swamped with work and have only had a chance to read about half of the book so far, but it’s just what you would expect from a Coben novel: witty, sardonic, fun, but with a mystery wrapped up in a riddle in a … well, you know. It’s a blast, and I can’t wait to finish it. The thing I love most about Coben’s books is the complexity of the plots. Missing You is no different. Just when you think you might have it figured out, Coben throws you a curveball. Pick it up today.

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