Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Quandary of Quoting Lovecraft - Erec Stebbins Shares...

The Quandary of Quoting Lovecraft

Madness rides the star-wind... claws and teeth sharpened on centuries of corpses... dripping death astride a bacchanale of bats from nigh-black ruins of buried temples of Belial.–H.P. Lovecraft

What glorious text!

I am a strangely haphazard reader, and as crazy as it sounds, had never encountered the work of the 19th, early 20th century writer H.P. Lovecraft until I began searching for chapter opening quotes for my second Daughter of Time novel, Writer.

Like Reader, its predecessor, Writer is a metaphysical-philosophical-speculative-fiction roller-coaster ride (or so say reviews and Amazon’s algorithms placing the novel in the “science fiction” and “metaphysical” categories). Like with Reader, I like to find samples in the writings of others that reflect some of the ideas and images in the novel in a slightly different light and angle.

Google searching with appropriate key words, I suddenly found myself in the hundred year-old dark, horror, speculative writings of Lovecraft. The quote above sucked me in, and I felt I had a kindred visionary soul I was just discovering. Then I read this one:

What do we know of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have.– "From Beyond", H.P. Lovecraft

How many times had I had such thoughts? Spoken such thoughts? The very novel I was working on had that theme running through it frequently. A true kindred soul!

And yet such thoughts are so rare to hear. In a world of certain religious believers and certain atheists, the radical doubt of the true agnostic lacks respect, is mocked, ignored, and silenced. I suspect that the reason for this is due to fear. People want surety, damn the truth. People abhor uncertainty, especially in the nature of reality, themselves, and their fates. The old quote is wrong: there are atheists in foxholes, just no agnostics.

But here was a voice from the past that truly understood the limitations of our nature. A voice that also could speak with such terrible ferocity and poetry.It was the birth of a serious intellectual crush.

“NOT SO FAST,” smirked the wily internet.

In this age, it only took me a few minutes of online searching to find my joy smashed and my sense of self undermined. This man who spoke so clearly to my mind and heart, who I was so excited to meet as a true brother in spirit despite our separation by nearly 100 years, who I was now planning to quote in my new novel in several key chapters was
a die-hard, despicable, racist son-of-a-bitch.

[Cue melodramatic “Nooooooooo!” from favorite cinema example]

I couldn’t believe it. How was it possible that someone that resonated so deeply with me on things I thought were absolutely fundamental could differ so diametrically on other things I considered equally fundamental?

Beyond the confusion, I felt tainted. What did it imply about me that I felt such affinity to a man that dehumanized so many human beings? Of course, I can play intellectual games of “man of his time” (which he wasn’t in other things) etc, but like most intellectual games, they are superficial. I will never completely come to terms with that contradiction within him and the concern about what it means for myself.

And yet I will use his quotes in my novel.

“Whoa! Say what?”

Yes, I feel that way too, but my response is two-fold: (1) the things I respond to in his work are just too powerful, too synergistic with my own writings to discard because of (seemingly) unrelated aspects of his personality (the close your eyes to the “bad” of the artist approach), but, more significantly for me (2) the evil in the soul of Lovecraft all the more injects the horror of his writings with a certain legitimacy.

Let me explain. Lovecraft wrote monstrous things about monsters in a way really no one had before. Even today there are groups focused on his strange mythologies. His work is a powerful statement on the dark and monstrous in the universe.

What better man to faithfully represent that than one who had so much of that darkness within him? When I read Lovecraft, when I quote him in my novels, I am doing so in the context of horror, of terrible things. My novel journeys through significant darkness, and in the times of the least light, Lovecraft’s insight into horror helps frame the nightmare in the chapter to come.

That’s my excuse, anyway. I’m sure it can be deconstructed and reconstructed (and ignored) in one hundred ways. Yet even with that justification, I feel uneasy about it. But I feel uneasy about a lot of monstrous things, or even less monstrous things (oh, say sex) when I write them.Even if my stories deal with horror and darkness in the context of seeking light, it is hard to write terrible things, to think of others reading them. As for the sexual hang-ups, I fully blame American culture.

In the end, unlike his nightmarish creations, Lovecraft is human: good, evil, flawed, and talented. That sums up the situation for all of us, and in that light, especially when the going gets dark, he is a worthy representative of our decidedly complicated species.



Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book Video Trailers: From A to B - The Teaching Erec Stebbins!

Book Video Trailers: From A to B

So, yawanna make a book trailer, but don't have the $20K to hand over to professionals, and your geek friend says she's too busy?
Then this is your lucky guest blog!  I'm going to outline a general scheme for making a book trailer, DIY, touching on issues of design considerations, hardware and software, video sources, and editing.  
What this isn't is a tutorial on video editing software - the bad news is, if you want to make your own trailer, you're going to have to take the plunge and learn how to work the software, hunt down cheap and rights free videos and images, and put in the editing time.  Trial and error is required, where you'll have to experiment and not be afraid to mess up a lot.  The reward is some control over your promotional activities for your book. These days, very few publishers are going to make (read: pay for) video trailers for books.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a Video Dude (VD for those in the trade).  I am by profession a biomedical scientist, who also happens to be a writer, who taught himself the minimum of what he needed to know to make promotional videos for his debut novel. No training. No film school. No worries. :)  
Keeping that in mind, here are examples of trailers for three of my novels:

Extraordinary Retribution

So, if you generally liked what you saw, let's continue and I'll explain what you need to do to get started on making trailers like this.
The Program
1.  Why Make a Book Trailer?
This isn't exactly a how-to step, but nothing will get done if you aren't convinced that a video can help you promote your book.  After all, unless you make movies for a living, the time and money investment, even for a DIY, will be significant (well, the money depends, the time, you can count on it!).  
Unfortunately, I don't have any research studies on the impact of video trailers on the sale of books.  However, the use of video, with its visual stimulus and ability to emotionally engage the viewer with sight as well as sound, certainly works for many types of advertisements.
Once upon a time, publishers promoted books with jacket blurbs, bookmarks, and author tours. Then six years ago, YouTube changed the rules of the game. Today publishers are spending as much as $20,000 a pop to create book trailers—30- to 90-second teasers, à la movie trailers, designed to generate virtual and word-of-mouth buzz and, of course, to sell titles. “Trailers are definitely a staple in our marketing,” says Diane Naughton, HarperCollins’s vice president of marketing. - The Big Tease

2.  Ingredients
To create your book trailer, you will need the following:
A Computer: PC or Mac is fine, there are video editing suites for both. Most modern computers will do fine. The more hard drive space you have (video files are BIG), and RAM, the better. If you are on a 2005 computer, you will be in a world of hurt.  Headphones are a help when mixing and editing (although make sure to test sound, especially sound effects, on lousy laptop and mobile device speakers frequently - this is especially true for deep, low frequency sounds that reproduce badly on tiny speakers).

Editing Software:  There are many of these, from cheap to professional grade. Do a little web search for your platform, pocketbook, and preference for layout and features. 
iMovie Screen Capture for Trailer for The Ragnarök Conspiracy

I'm on a Mac, and I use iMovie. I can say that iMovie lacks many things that would make the design and editing of trailers much easier, BUT, it's very cheap, intuitive, and makes about 75% of the work easy.  However, the other 25% can make you pull your hair out.
Format Conversion software:  This sounds weird, but I found it a must have. The reason is that you will be (1) needing to covert the video clips you download online for your trailers into formats that your editing software can handle, and (2) converting the output of the editing software (your trailer) into many different formats for web viewing (.mp4, .wmv, .m4v, .mov, .mpg, etc.). Here is a list of several.  I've liked the program Miro Video Converter a lot, but I've used many others, including Quicktime Pro.
Video clips and still images: Unless you film your own stock (which, if you don't know what you're doing, will look very amateur, believe me), you'll be stuck with using other people's video. You'll need to search sites that offer such video without strings attached.  What this means practically is that you need to find websites that for free or for a fee will let you download clips and images royalty free, and which are allowed to be used online for your own promotional videos. There are a lot of sites for these purposes.  Some of the ones I've used (or at least visited):
Some of these are free, some are expensive. Some (usually the free or cheap ones) have low-ish quality video, some have breathtaking shots (the expensive ones). You mostly get what you pay for. But remember, a simply "ok" video if used the right way - briefly, action oriented, etc - may do well enough for a small trailer size.  If you need slow, higher-quality shots (say for a romance novel trailer), some of the free sites have decent "natural footage” for free (vimeo is an example).  You just have to try and see. Also, this list is by no means complete, and these video sites popup and disappear a lot.  
Remember, just because it's on YouTube doesn't mean there are no copyright issues. In fact, there usually are copyright issues for videos on YouTube. Make sure the clips you get are clearly noted with a contract that you can legally use them.  In the joyful event that your video/book goes viral, and you get 700K hits, you will get noticed by the owners of the video and they will not be happy. Also, YouTube now has a lot of very competent algorithms for scanning uploaded videos and comparing the images and music to databases of copyrighted material.  If you have ripped off stuff, they usually find out.  Sometimes, they will just stick ads on your video in that case, which is a nice compromise and avoids unpleasantness.  But still, you never know.
Music: The effect of music on the viewer CANNOT be overemphasized. Let me repeat this: Music, often more than the video itself, can emotionally move the viewer. A weak score for your trailer will leave a weak impression. A powerful musical score can turn "ok" video into something with a punch. It seems counterintuitive, perhaps, but sound often does as much or more for the impact of a video trailer as sight.

Scoring Lord of the Rings
For this reason, I ended up spending the most money for my trailers in getting the rights to music.  For this, I did two things:
(i) Searched Youtube for musical samples of "trailer" music (yes, it's an entire category with composers who make a career of it).  There are different genres (action, epic, romance, horror, etc).  You can listen to the clips on YouTube and identify those you like and look into the rights by contacting the companies handling it.  Many of these companies won't talk to you unless you are a Hollywood group, but you can try anyway and curse the darkness when they ignore you.  Some of them will work with you, however.
(ii) Used sites like this one set up for downloading (for a price) trailer music that is royalty free and licensed for online use.
YouTube (or similar "cloud" storage) account:  You'll need to either host the movie file on your server, link to it with something like Dropbox, or upload to YouTube and link/embed via their tools.
3.  Design Considerations
Theme:  You've likely written short blurbs about your book for promotional purposes.  In a similar manner, you need to visualize a short "scenic blurb" that will grab a viewer and make them interested in your story.  The idea is not to tell the story, the book does that, but to give hints and suggestions about the content and genre through the medium of moving images and sound.  
Go to the Apple web site and watch 10 trailers for films that are close to your book's genre.  See how they do it.  Some things you can't emulate like dialogue etc (best to keep your characters shadowy for the reader to imagine them), but the atmosphere, pacing, music, and editing will begin to guide you.  I recommend movie trailers for viewing over book trailers for the simple fact that movie trailers tend to be much better. The world of book trailers spans beginner to amateur, and you can hit a lot of them that are just awful.  The film industry at the least has polish and tight professionalism in their products, and it's a good standard to aim for. But it's also good to view some book trailers as well, as the products being marketed are obviously different.

Storyboard: Plan out the visual scenes of your trailer and how they will connect. Start lining up draft images/clips to get a sense of the assembly of it in the editing software. Re-work this until you are happy with the overall flow of the trailer, the timing of music and edits. Then do the hard work of finding the best royalty free clips that you can afford, replace your drafts, re-edit to optimize.
Length:  Many go by the rule of thumb is 60 to 90 seconds. However, like movie trailers, there are a lot of exceptions to this.
Music: Again, the power of music is usually not appreciated. If you are going to spend time and money, make sure this is a place you do it. Get good music, and edit with the visuals PERFECTLY. Here is the place to be OCD.  Time the musical beats, changes, moods to the images. The music gives soul to the video.
Voiceover: Very few people can do voiceover well. It really is a talent, a gift.  So, that means you will typically pay for it. However, I got discounts by letting some know I was a struggling author who promised to send a signed copy of my book to them! You can also use text super-imposed over images or dark, transitional screens.  You have to work within your budget.

4. Editing: The Key
Assuming you have decent clips, great music, sound effects, a good plan for your trailer, and editing software, now you have to edit. How you edit the trailer will literally make or break it.

I spent several tens of hours editing 2-4 minute trailers. You may be looking at my trailers and reading this and thinking: "that's just sad." Perhaps! But even to get them to the level they are took me a lot of work.
The issue for my trailers, being trailers for thrillers and science fiction, was to create a sense of tension, momentum, and fear, while revealing just enough of the story to get the viewer interested in my book. Editing involved usually cutting more and more from clips, syncing them to musical phrases and beats, and overlaying 3, 4, 5 or more sound effects and other videos/images over the main video.
However, if your book is a romance, or something else lighter, your use of editing should reflect the mood of your narrative. A high society, historical romance will not do well with fast paced edits and industrial epic music. A global thriller like some of mine, however, does well with that, and will fall flat with a romantic soundtrack. Use common sense.
With amateur video editing software, many of the limitations will drive you nuts as you try to achieve certain effects. Sometimes, you won't be able to accomplish what you have in mind due to technical limitations, and you'll have to rethink your approach or storyboard. It can be very frustrating. Save your work frequently. Make backups. If you make big changes, rename the files or projects (e.g., Trailer1_v1.1). You never know: a corruption of a project file can literally kill a week of work, and more of your lifespan.
5.  Get feedback
Show your draft trailers to the least friendly people you can trust enough to open up about doing this. People who get bored easily.People who aren't going to try to like it. Grumpy assholes. Watch them as they view it (if you can). Listen to what they say. And make changes. However much it hurts, the final goal is not to feel you did a good job and great about yourself, but to engage your viewer.  
Remember, you are a beginner, at best an amateur. You have generally lousy stock clips you paid $10 for online. You have non-professional software. You aren't a movie-maker. Your trailers will reflect this. Your job is to pretend you are a kick-ass producer of film and fake it the best you can, and produce something that will do more good than harm in the promotion of your book. If it's more harm than good, scrap it. If your feedback is that "it's not bad" or better, congrats, you have a video promotional tool!

Good luck! (we all need it)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Extraordinary Retribution Went Into My Top 10 for 2013! Erec Stebbins Brings Passion Caused By Today's Headlines Into Fantastic Thrillers!

Sometimes evil is not born of madness, but madness of evil...

"The man looked up from the floor, confusion on his face. "Why can't you kill me?" He seemed almost desperate.
"Lopez sat down as well, the sirens much louder and the sound of men's shouts ringing out above them. He pulled his knees up into his chest, fingering the weapon.
"I believed I would be a holy man by becoming a priest," said Lopez, a sad smile on his face. I thought that the sacrament of ordination would fill me with the Holy Spirit, and I would then overcome myself and march toward righteousness." He laughed, pointing the barrel of the gun at his chest. I always feared what was inside. Terrible things. Violence. Murder. Things to be suppressed. Confessed. I ran from it all, praying that God would cure me. But God has not.
"Lopez flipped the gun into the air and caught it. He repeated the process over and over as he spoke. "When I walked into that cabin in Gatlinburg and saw what you had done to my brother - things changed. I have chased you now for months. Not for justice. Justice is impartial. It is procedural. It is careful. I wanted none of those things. I wanted you dead. I wouldn't let myself see it, but I wanted to kill you. I chased after you for vengeance."
"So do it!" demanded the wraith. "Now you can! Take your vengeance!"

Extraordinary Retribution
By Erec Stebbins

I'm happy I read this book by Erec Stebbins first. Actually, he had already submitted requests for two other novels, but my backlog had prevented my not even opening those requests. They, too, are great books, but this one, for me, was clearly my favorite. One of the top 10 favorites for the year... In his acknowledgements, Erec recognizes his main character, whose voice he had heard and could not get out of his mind. This novel reveals the passionate response to this character--it is the author's exorcism... I felt it and shared it. I wonder--if the world could--or would--cry together for this character, maybe all wars could cease... May you cry for this...wraith... May he only remain a fictional character... For what if all...

"It had been a difficult week--his usual teaching
load, a marriage, two funerals, and tonight's
coming mass. He had already met twice with
the local city council, pleading a case for
Hispanic families who felt terrified by the new
Alabama anti-immigration laws. U.S. citizens,
he thought bitterly, who already were becoming
second-class citizens because of the fears of
immigrant workers. And the laws were achieving
their goals. Fields were full of rotting harvests
because no Americans wanted the jobs, schools
with dropping enrollments, and businesses
sucker-punched in a recession as the workers
took their pay to other states...
"Hanging over everything was the constant
reminder that his Catholic school was bank-
rupt. The church had decided to close it down.
They protect pedophiles in their ranks and
turn children out on the street! He felt like
a heretic once again, crossing himself as he
stacked his lecture notes. Have we failed you,
Where the offense is, let the great axe fall. 
                                                     --Hamlet, Shakespeare

Father Francisco Lopez had received a frantic call from his sister-in-law. Miguel had rushed home, tossed clothes into a bag and gone! Telling her that he loved her and to tell the kids,  still he had left. Running Scared!

Now he was dead... But he had made his last confession to his Priest...his brother... Miguel had said goodbye, hoping also for some forgiveness from God... although he had never told him what he--and the others--had done.

Others had died before him, some also had tried to run...

Now Miguel remembered his childhood, hoping to find that safety with family he had once felt:

"Turning northeast, he finally began the drive toward the old cabin. It had been in the family since before he was born, and as very small children, he and Francisco had spent many vacations there...
"But it had been abandoned--too old, too far, and too much trouble once his sons had grown. His father had never even bothered to sell it. Or maintain it, he thought and smiled. It had cost him a lot of work and money to bring the cabin to the condition he required of it. He had told no one. Why he thought there was a need for a safe house had no rational answer. It was that part of his mind that had kept him alive, the part that sensed vulnerability and constantly sought ways to reduce it.
"The family's mountain cabin was the perfect solution. He had nearly rebuilt the entire structure, to a different set of specifications. The walls were reinforced with thick steel, the windows of bullet-proof glass. Security systems spread like a web from the cabin into the neighboring woods: cameras, a centralized control module in the cabin itself. Underneath the floor, he had built a storage room that housed an armament of weapons from high-powered assault rifles to grenades. Somehow, some part of his sensed that it would all be needed someday. That day was now.
"He didn't know why this was happening. That it was could not be denied. The victims, one after the other, were all known to him. They had run the secret operations together. They had handled the cargo as a beam. They had followed orders. Orders from above that told them that this was necessary, that this would save the lives of potentially thousands of Americans. This was a war, even if the form and manner of the execution was unlike anything ever seen before. In war, you followed orders; that much he knew from the battlefield. 
But sometimes, things went wrong..."

But the safe house, his family cabin,  was not enough to keep Miguel safe. When Father Lopez had finally remembered their family cabin and had arrived, he saw the remainder of a nightmare. Almost all of one cabin wall--a wall that had been reinforced inside by steel rebar--was gone. Something had ripped the wall apart! It was clear that Miguel had fought to the bitter end, but whatever, or whoever had been there had won...

And that's when it started to get strange... Father Lopez knew what he'd seen, but later when he talked to the police, they indicated that it was probably just a robbery. The nightmare scene had disappeared...

Sara Houston had come to Miguel's funeral and started saying some strange things to Lopez. Who was she and what had his brother been involved with? But by the time Lopez had learned more, he was making a demand of his own--to participate in the investigation! Would he be able to get over what he was discovering about his brother, and others?

To find out more, Houston and Lopez broke into a "secure" CIA compound!

CIA Compound
"He's involved because his brother
was killed only days after I took that
leave! Before I could warn him! You
remember Miguel, don't you Jesse?"
"Don't you patronize me, Sara! Her
boss relaxed momentarily and ran his
palm across his sparse hair. You don't
think I've gotten enough heat with the
deaths of so many agents? A conspiracy
to hunt down and kill CIA agents has
a nice, satisfactory Jason Bourne feel
to it. It gives meaning and makes sense
out of what are, from all the facts,
unrelated, coincidental deaths...
"That they all were involved in covert
missions together, hidden from the
rest of us, going on for years? That
this topic is so hot-button that infor-
mation on these missions is denied
to most CIA employees?...
"You've taken to covertly investigating
your own division?"
"Damn it, Jesse, it's not covert!
"But he saw that her pain was deeper. She was losing part of the America that she had devoted herself to, that she loved and served with all her heart. Her agency directed these atrocities. Her entire belief system was collapsing...
"Houston grunted. Not all is great. According to Fred, the CIA now has me listed as a top-priority catch. And if you can believe it, I'm coded 'GADAHN.' You're listed as a possible accomplice, if that makes you feel less left out.
"What's Gadahn? Accomplice to what?
"Adam Gadahn, the first American indicted for treason in more than half a century...
"Basically, you're fucked," said the floating head of Fred Simon on the monitor. His pixelated image showed little emotion. Lopez and Houston sat close together in front of the screen listening to the parade of bad news. It was worse than Lopez could ever had imagined, even given what they had done. Their theft of CIA documents had crossed a line in the Agency neither Houston nor Simon knew existed.
"They can't make a charge of treason stick, of course, but that won't matter for the manhunt..."

But he was also having a major personal issue--his growing feelings for Sara and what that meant to his vows to the church...

Now there were a sufficient number dead to know that a specific group of individuals was being hunted. The hunted had to become hunters...or else... But they were hunting not only who was doing the assassinations, but anybody else who got in their way of coverup--and that included Lopez and Houston if necessary...

So far, the hunter had gotten near enough to kill every target he was after...and there were more to come...

Those of you who have already read The Ragnarok Conspiracy which told of a conspiracy intensely affecting the entire world by actions of a group of terrorists, will find a much more subtle, almost quiet--elimination. Yet, the suspense is so much more heightened, even once readers know who initiated the actions... The back cover calls him a madman... I find it important to repeat the phrase I quoted from the backcover:

Sometimes evil is not born of madness, but madness of evil...

This novel is a confrontation to every reader--every American. How will you receive it? With understanding?  With empathy? Will it change your thinking? This story demands a reaction, a realization? It is an outstanding explosion of reality--smack in our faces! There are those in the United States who are just as evil as those we are asked to fight in other countries...

I loved it! Payback, retribution, revenge...What if every victim of crime began to fight back? Chaos, yes, but...  Is it time to stop the evil before madness reigns? I recommend this highly as a must-read!


Extraordinary Retribution by Erec Stebbins - An Excerpt...


By the time he reached the razor-wire, the Syrian landscape had shrugged off the delusion of the irrigated greenery around Damascus. Here, the Old Man, the desert, could not be hidden and refused to be banished. Cold even in the oppressive heat, crueler than the scalped links fencing out trespassers, the sands smiled sadistically, remembering centuries of slaughter and dreaming of future screams of anguish.
For the man in the truck, gazing across the landscape, the screams returned to him now. Howling, gasped, panicked. His own and many around him. Images of dank stone, blood and waste-soiled cells. Eyes. Faces. Tormentors and their hideous tools. The weeping of grown men echoed inside his mind as the winds stirred the dry sands around his vehicle. He squeezed the steering wheel tightly, refusing their summons, determined more than ever to rise above their damage and demons. He had come too far to be defeated now.
He stepped out of the begrimed pickup truck and slammed the door. Glancing over the barren land, he followed the fence line to the horizon. The entrance was at a large distance around the perimeter of the compound, hidden in part by an outcropping of desert rocks. His well-paid sources had been accurate: an entrance from the rear would likely go unnoticed. And what madman would ever break into this place? He did not expect vigilance.
 He moved around to the back of the truck and untied a dusty canvas covering the bed. Underneath were several heavy crates. He opened each, removing weapons and explosives, strapping them to his body, and moved to the passenger side of the vehicle. From the glove compartment, he removed a map, glanced at it fleetingly, and pocketed the ruffled pages. It was memorized.
Night fell quickly in the deserts of Syria. In the darkness and desolation, short metallic clips sounded and fell mute on the empty sands. As a shadow, he passed through an opening cut into the gray outlines of the fence and vanished into the blackness.
Through the sandy winds sweeping across the compound, lights twinkled from a handful of incandescent bulbs. Near the gated entrance, he left a guard inside a small shed, seeming to doze peacefully, the unnatural angle of his neck observable only at close range. Before him, a desolate stone structure was dimly outlined by the band of the Milky Way, a single window of light visible in the darkness. Voices could be heard, at times loud and rude, spilling clumsily from the room. Harsh, staccato bursts of laughter confirmed the presence of the prison guards inside. He darted past the window and pressed himself flat against the compound walls. He slid along the rough surface toward the door, arm raised, his hand ending in an extended, metallic cylinder. He made no sound until he spun and kicked in the flimsy wooden door.
He saw four men around a small table, cigarettes in their mouths, pornography and cards strewn haphazardly across the stained wood. As the door swung madly on its hinges and smashed into the wall, they jumped, confused, turning toward him. Even that small pause meant death.
He fired several shots in the confined space. The explosions were amplified and echoed throughout the stone chamber, spilling down the poorly lit hallway opposite to the gunman. Two of the men arched, their heads snapping backward as the bullets blew open their skulls. The whitewashed walls were sprayed red. As the other two men lurched upward and towards him, he spun, his right foot arcing like a sledgehammer coming down, whipping the nearest man backward onto the table. Glasses shattered, and cards dispersed as the guard rolled roughly and fell hard on the stone floor. The intruder channeled the momentum of the spinning motion, and his gun hand came whirling around toward the second man, who now stood unprepared, barely having obtained a fighting stance. His attempted blow was smashed aside, and his jaw shattered as the man’s gun arm brought the metal crashing downward. All four guards now lay still around the table, two dead, two unconscious.
The assailant aimed his weapon at the guard near his feet, firing directly into his head. He then turned and aimed at the other prone figure, rendering a similar judgment. He studied the faces carefully. “At night, five remain once the others leave for the day. And Mahjub works late.”He didn’t need to be told this by his informant. Yes, he knew Mahjub worked late. He would never forget. Nor would he forget his face. Mahjub was not in this room. He must be….below. He had been busy, perhaps.  But not now. By now, he would have heard the shots. He would be afraid.
The assassin smiled.

Two floors below, buried deeply in the Syrian sands, a long hallway with numerous cells ran its begrimed course. Broken men were locked behind stone-walled enclosures with iron doors. The cells were like graves: shallow pits scraped into the rock, devoid of light or even the space to stand. At the far end of the hallway, opposite the stairs, was a small room without a door. Inside Mahjub Samhan clutched a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other. Both hands shook as he cowered behind an upturned table in the middle of the room. He cried out in a high-pitched voice.
“Kamil? Saif?” There was only silence. “Bassam? Nadeem!” He wiped the dripping sweat from his eyebrows and tried to focus toward the stairs. A solitary bulb dangled limply from exposed wires in the middle of the hallway. His left leg began to shake. “Answer me! Who is there? What is happening?
Suddenly, before he could focus or react, a shadow seemed to leap from nowhere, an explosion slapped his ears, and the bulb burst. Shards of glass rained on the stone floor like small bells. A terrible darkness blotted out his vision. In panic, Mahjub screamed, firing shots wildly into the blackness.
A bright light leapt from across the darkness, blinding him. A sizzling rod landed only a foot away from the table. Momentarily confused and distracted by the fire, Mahjub stared down at the stick burning beside him. Explosive? Too late, he turned his weapon toward the sound of rushing footsteps from the hallway, the searing afterimage of the flame obscuring his sight.
A gunshot rang. His right shoulder exploded in agony. His knees buckled, and he fell backward against the wall, releasing a howl of pain as he slid to the floor. He dropped the knife from his left hand and reached over to hold his injured shoulder, grimacing as he felt the warm blood coat his arm and fingers.
He squinted against the light as it was raised above his head. He saw a tall, dark shape behind the flare, a gun in one hand aimed at him. In a swift motion, the table was righted and the flare violently wedged into the rotting boards like a candlestick. The figure crouched beside him.
“You always were a coward, Mahjub,” spoke the voice in accented Arabic. Trying to block the pain, Mahjub strained to place the origin. Saudi? Pakistani?He stared at the face partially concealed in shadow. He had never seen it before. Light hair, blue eyes…American? Nothing made sense. Had the Americans turned on them after all this time? Did they need to bury this operation so completely? With all the chaos in the nation, did they care so much now?
“You don’t recognize me, do you, Mahjub?” the figure asked, almost with amusement. “How fitting, to lie here in pain, your death awaiting you, and not know the first thing about your tormenter.”
Mahjub felt the panic well within him again. “Sir, please, don’t kill me. Whatever we have done wrong, we can fix. We will not speak. We will disappear. Please, not like this.”
Mahjub’s eyes widened at the sound he heard. The man with the gun laughed. Laughed at him! “Mahjub, how do you live outside this place?” The Syrian only looked at the gunman in distress.
“I mean, when you buy fruit at the market, mixing with decent people, or entertain your mother-in-law, do you think about breaking men’s fingers? Sodomizing them? Do you think of blood and vomit when you stir her coffee? Do their screams, their pleas for mercy keep you awake at night?”
“Sir, no, please, I don’t know…”
“You know,” said the man, his blue eyes seemingly glazed over, frosted, utterly cold. The shadowed form whispered ominously, “See, I know what you do, what you are.” Mahjub felt his blood run cold.
“These poor men here,” said the pale man, gesturing toward the hallway, “they don’t know who you are, but they know what you are.” The man spoke with such venom, a snake’s hiss. “It took some time to track you down.”
Mahjub began to cry, clutching his blasted shoulder, grime and blood on his hands and face. A man with such power over others, now powerless, weeping like a child. “Please….”
There was no pity in the cold blue eyes before him. “Consider me more merciful than you ever were.”
The man stood up and aimed the weapon.
“No!” Mahjub began to scream, but a final gunshot ripped through his throat, silencing his cry as he fell against the wall. He gasped vainly for breath, his healthy arm at the gurgling wound, his eyes swimming, his feet kicking madly as he drowned in his own blood. It was over in less than a minute.
The assassin spat on the dead man, turned, and carried a set of keys from the room. One by one, he unlocked the doors along the hallway as he walked toward the stairs. He spoke loudly. “They’re all dead! Leave now, if you can. God soon brings fire to this place!”
Soft sounds of bodies stirring could be heard within the cells. The hinges of one door ground behind him. When he reached the first step, he dropped the large keychain and ascended to the upper floors.

The truck made a startling sound in the desert night as he turned the key. Twenty minutes. That was enough. If they had not escaped yet, they were as good as dead anyway. He stared down at a small radio transmitter on the seat next to him. A red light blinked at the upper-right corner. He pressed the button underneath, and a bright orange glow flashed before him in the darkness. Several seconds later, the sound arrived, the rumbling blast from an explosion as the compound was blown into the sky, rubble and embers raining down on the dark sands.
The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.
He doubted Jesus had meant it that way. He shifted gears and raced away from the inferno.
It had begun.