Greg Rucka

Jul 222014
 

The post Start Reading Bravo by Greg Rucka appeared first on Mulholland Books.

Bravo by Greg RuckaIn his explosive new novel, Greg Rucka reveals that the plot against America is far from over. Jad Bell saving the day in Alpha? A minor setback. Read the first chapter of Bravo below and watch the wheels set back in motion.

Chapter One

“You look tired,” she says, moving out of the doorway to let him inside. “Do you want to talk about it?”

The soldier enters, moves his cover to his hands, holding the hat in a way that makes him feel half her age, though he’s most of the way through fifty and she’s not seen the edges of thirty yet. He doesn’t speak, doesn’t move as she shuts and locks the door behind him, comes back to put a gentle touch on his elbow. She looks at him curiously, concerned, then shakes her head in such a way that her hair shifts and gently sways, exposes bare neck from collar to jawline. He sees her skin, feels an almost magnetic tug, an immediate urge to wrap his arms around her and inhale her scent. He’s too old to believe that doing so will make it all better, but it’s what he feels. He thinks about the fact that he should’ve waited before coming here, before talking to her. He thinks that he doesn’t have a choice.

“Jamieson’s dead,” the soldier says.

She nods slightly, a touch of sympathy in her expression, in the movement, and he thinks it’s for his sake, and not for the dead man she has never met, hardly even knew.

“I’ll make you a drink,” she says. “I’ve got some of that rye you like.”

He nods, moves into the large front room. Floor-to-ceiling windows that would show the gleam of the capital at night, but the curtains are drawn, the way they always are when he arrives. He’s never seen them open, never seen the view out of her condo here in the West End. This town, he knows, keeps a secret like a four-year-old at a birthday party. When he visits, he visits at night, drives straight into the underground lot, takes the spot that’s always open. Normally, he changes out of uniform before coming here.

Tonight is not normal.

The soldier takes a seat, sets his hat beside him, loosens his tie and his collar. When she comes back with the drink, he takes it from her hand, sets it aside. She raises an eyebrow.

“You don’t want a drink you should’ve said so.”

The soldier pulls her to him, meets her mouth with his own. She kisses him back with full hunger, uncaged; it’s what she’s been waiting for.

When they reach her bedroom, he keeps much of his uniform on, at least for a while.

Afterward, embracing every cliché, she lights a cigarette and shares it with him, resting on her elbow, the ashtray balanced on his sternum. He stares at the ceiling. It’s the lost hours, between three and five in the morning, and the only sounds are the hum of the air-conditioning and, just beyond, the muted tick of the clock on the bedside table. He can feel her gaze, studying him. Her patience is unnerving, and he cannot stop his mind from spinning into questions. He knows what she’s waiting for.

“He can name his price.”

She sucks on the cigarette, exhales toward the ceiling, places the filter back between his lips. He swears he can taste her on it.

“I’ll tell him that,” she says.

“I want to talk to him this time. No middleman, not like it was with Jamieson. I want to deal with him directly.”

She shakes her head slightly. He knew she would.

“We bought a service,” the soldier says, recalling her own phrasing. “It didn’t execute.”

“You knew there was an element of risk. You embraced that when you told me what Jamieson and the others wanted to buy.”

“It didn’t execute.” He puts the cigarette out in the ashtray, feels the sharp point of heat of the cinder dying on the glass against his skin. He moves the ashtray to the nightstand, and when he rolls back, she is exactly as she was before. “We’re no better off than when we started.”

“I’ve seen the news, baby. We both know that’s not true.”

“It’s not enough. It’s not what we wanted.”

She shrugs, and it’s as elegant as every other movement she makes. He wonders, not for the first time, what she was before she was this. He used to think she was as American as he, but over time he has revised that theory. There’s an Eastern European touch to her beauty, to the dark hair and dark eyes and almost too-fair skin. When he’s tried to look into who she really is—carefully, very, very carefully—all the answers come back entirely plausible, the banal lies of espionage that he has come to recognize from thirty years of service. When he’s asked her, her response has always been the same.

“I am what you need me to be.”

She’s been a lot of things for him. She’s been an ardent and eager and skilled lover. She’s been a woman who has made him feel adored and strong and potent. She’s been a comfort, laughing at the right time at the right jokes, asking the right questions when he needed to talk about himself. She’s been a confessor, listening to secrets he has no right to tell anyone else. She’s been the gateway. When the soldier and Jamieson and the others concluded what they needed to do to save their country, she heard the edge of conspiracy in his voice, and she offered the way to the means. It was she who told the soldier she knew a man who knew a man who could provide the terror they wanted. It was she who put Jamieson and the Uzbek in the same place at the same time.

She’s been all these things, but right now, he needs her to be something else. Right now, he needs her to be a rope, he needs her to keep him from drowning. Right now, the soldier needs her to tell him that what he’s done, what they’ve done, cannot come back to harm them, and that there is still a way forward.

She moves against him, lays her head against his chest. One hand finds his, laces fingers.

“Tell me what you want,” she says. “Tell me what you’re offering. I’ll speak to him, and I’ll tell you what he says.”

A sudden, sharp anger bursts in him. He resents her patience, resents what feels like condescension from this woman so much
younger than he, who makes him hard despite himself, who has secrets he cannot uncover. He grips her wrists and rolls atop her, pins her arms over her head, and the way she yields only makes him that much more frustrated and aroused. She’s looking up at him unafraid, that same expression, as if anything he might do to her now is what she wants him to do, or, worse, what she expects from him, that he is entirely predictable to her. She pushes against his grip, but only just. She opens her legs.

“We want what we paid for,” the soldier says.

She arches, receiving him, makes a sound that thrills him.

“Yes,” she says.

“You tell him that. You tell him that.”

“Yes.”

“You tell him…oh…goddamn it…”

“Yes.”

“…damn you, goddamn you, woman…”

“Yes.”

“…tell him…”

“Yes.”

“…we want…”

“Yes.”

“…we want the war we paid for!”

After a time, his hands leave her wrists, and she wraps her arms around him, and the silence returns, the air conditioner, the ticking of the clock, the racing of his pulse. Her lips brush his ear.

“He’ll want something in return.”

The post Start Reading Bravo by Greg Rucka appeared first on Mulholland Books.

May 302012
 

[This post originally appeared on i09]

Greg Rucka has rocked the worlds of comics and novels for years, including memorable Batman writing, plus the Queen and Country series and the Atticus Kodiak books. But he might be best known for being a man who writes a lot of “strong female characters.”

People always ask Rucka why he chooses to write so many hard-hitting women. And now, to celebrate the release of his new novel Alpha, he’s explaining why.

The first story I can remember writing, that I truly set down on paper, was a Christmas story that I wrote when I was ten years old. The irony of this isn’t simply that I’m Jewish, nor is it that the story was about what happened to North Pole Operations when Saint Nick “went to join the bleedin’ choir invisible.”

No, it was that, in this little school assigned short-story I wrote, the mournful elves were roused from their grief by a determined and forceful Mrs. Claus, who took – ahem – the reins of the operation in hand. Under her steely gaze, toys were made, presents were wrapped, reindeer were harnessed, and the sleigh took flight with her in the pilot’s seat.

It wasn’t, I think, a terribly good story, but it had two things going for it. It had the shameless unselfconsciousness of a ten year old author, and it had a clear feminist agenda.

Shades of things to come.

When I was in high school, I started writing a serial novel, longhand, set in the Arthurian mythos, and influenced not incidentally by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. It was the story about a young pagan priestess, a Lady of the Lake, as it were, named Adriana, and the various adventures, trials, and tribulations she experienced. I wrote this in several college-lined notebooks. This was what I did sitting in the back of the classroom during English. My thinking was, well, I’m writing it in English, aren’t I? An excuse that, incidentally, did not impress my teacher at the time, Mr. Murray.

I still have those notebooks buried in a filing cabinet in my office. As with Mrs. Claus, the story – in memory, at least – isn’t terribly good. And like Mrs. Claus, Adriana was no wallflower. While I’m certain I never once put a sword in her hands or armor on her form, she was undeniably kick-ass, strong-willed and proud and disinclined to back down in the face of adversity.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"In graduate school, I wrote a one-act play called Work Ethic under the guidance of the terrific writer David Milton. There were three characters in this play, two men and one woman. The woman was a Deputy U.S. Marshal by the name of Carrie Stetko, a later-iteration of whom would reappear as the protagonist in the graphic novel Whiteout, written by me, and illustrated by Steve Lieber. Whiteout was my key through the razor-wire and spikes surrounding the comics industry.

Whiteout was made into a movie. There’s a Carrie Stetko in that, too. She shares the name, but the similarities between Movie Carrie, Comic Carrie, and One Act Play Carrie begin and end with the name. Comic Carrie and One Act Play Carrie would shake Movie Carrie down behind the bleachers, laugh her out of the You Share Our Name Club, and send her limping and mewling home to mother. And they wouldn’t feel a moment’s regret about doing it, either.

In early 2001, Oni Press published the first issue of Queen & Country, a comic book series written by yours truly and illustrated by many wonderful artists throughout its run. I later wrote three novels that are – depending on your point of view – either tie-ins or crucial parts of the series. The main character of both the comics and all three novels is a woman named Tara Chace. Tara is a Special Operations Officer for the British SIS, or MI6 if you’re the kind who likes Old School. She’s basically James Bond, except without the hyperbole and the bullshit. Quiller set in a Le Carré-influenced world might be a better description.

Tara can kill people with her bare hands and escape from Iran with two bullets in her body, but she can’t maintain a personal life worth a damn.

There are more. There are a lot more. There’s Renee Montoya and Kate Kane and Sasha Bordeaux, all over at DC Comics. There’s Black Widow v1, Natasha Romanov, and Black Widow v2, Yelena Belova, and Elektra, and currently Sergeant Rachel Cole-Alves, all at Marvel.

There’s Bridgett Logan, and Natalie Trent, and Alena Cizkova, all from the Kodiak series of novels. There’s Miriam Bracca from A Fistful of Rain, and there’s Dexedrine Callisto Parios, from Stumptown, and there’s Her Ladyship, Captain Seneca Sabre, from the webcomic that I write and that Rick Burchett draws, called Lady Sabre & The Pirates of the Ineffable Aether. There’s Victoria Black from a Project That Is Yet to Go into Production but by the grace of God will soon see the light of day.

There are a lot of women.

You will have no doubt detected a theme, here.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"If you’re familiar at all with my work, you’ve noted that, not only do I frequently write stories with female characters as my protagonists, but these women share certain traits. They tend to be quite smart, if not all of them well-educated. They tend to be physically active, most capable of taking a punch as well as throwing one. They tend to be driven, goal-oriented, and willing to go to great lengths to secure their aims.

Many of them are flawed, some of them quite terribly so, but few, if any, are cruel or mean or malicious, though all of them certainly share the capacity to be such. They are rarely, if ever, portrayed as victims, and if they are ever impediments to the story, it is because they impede themselves through their own character flaws. They are not sex objects, though many are sexual, and several certainly desirable, and often-times they are desired by others to varying degrees. A few even have healthy libidos.

And because of these things, and because I’ve got a Y-chromosome, and because I have not only written about women in this fashion, but have done so professionally for nearly fifteen years, this has been remarked upon.

It’s been remarked upon a lot, in fact.

Most interviews with writers revolve around the same basic batch of questions, albeit with minor variations on the theme. Where Do You Get Your Ideas? is quite popular, for instance, along with How Do You Do It? I’ve been asked both many times. Many, many times.

But there is one question that I, personally, have been asked more frequently. This one:

How Do You Write Such Strong Female Characters?

This past year, 2011, I was asked this question a lot, and here we are into the first quarter of 2012, and it’s happening again (or still, if you rather). Most frequently, it comes up in regard to my work in the comics industry. If you know comics, and if you know superhero comics specifically, you’ll likely be familiar with the reasons why. Last year was not banner for the ladies, and this one isn’t off to a strong start, either, in fact. Wasn’t good for women within the industry itself, nor within the pages of the stories being told.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"Those who’ve had the unmitigated temerity to actually comment upon this state of affairs publicly have ended up paying a surprisingly heavy price. The gender of the speaker has been largely irrelevant, though to be sure, it’s the women who’ve stepped up have taken the harder hits. But all who’ve pointed out the absence of women both on the page and behind it have been ridiculed, insulted, and, absurdly enough, even threatened with violence. Conversely, those attempting to defend their mistreatment of women within the industry have revealed a staggering lack of understanding, empathy, and self-awareness, while seeming to rejoice in an arrogance that is near heart-stopping in its naked sexism and condescension.

To say there are those who don’t get it is an understatement; it would be like describing the Japanese tsunami as ‘minor flooding.’

So, to the question.

I have two answers I tend to give, the Quick Answer and the Long Answer. Both are entirely true, for the record.

The Quick Answer goes like this:

Q: How do you write such strong/well-realized/positively portrayed women?

A: I don’t. I write characters. Some of those characters are women.

The Long Answer:

Writers don’t write Men or Women or Dogs or Salmon. Writers write characters, and at our best, if we do it well and with care and with thought, we invest in those characters a spark of life, a realism and nuance that makes them believable and relatable. We seek to craft characters who inspire empathy, characters our audience will care for, and as a result, will care about what happens to them, and thus will share the journey we have charted. A story, after all, is the character’s journey.

No character – no well-created character, at least – is defined by only one trait, by one aspect. Sherlock Holmes is not simply brilliant. He’s also a malfunctioning human being who, perhaps ironically, possesses a strong moral compass and such a compulsion to pursue justice that it eclipses any fealty to the law. He’s also a junkie.

Harry Potter is not the scar on his forehead, nor is Matthew Scudder solely an alcoholic, nor is V.I. Warshawski just a “female” private detective. Character is biology, countless cells and processes, many of them invisible to the naked eye, yet together forming a whole. A character’s gender, like their religious upbringing or their faith, like their favorite book or food, like their sexual orientation and experiences, like their education and their childhood, is a component of character.

That said, some components certainly weigh heavier than others. Green eyes don’t tend to affect character, unless that story is Big Trouble in Little China, for instance. But to define any character by gender alone makes about as much sense as defining a character by hair-color, or – ahem – judging a book by its cover.

Normally, I’d leave it there. I’m not going to.

There’s a second part to the question. The unspoken part.

It’s the part where I’m being asked and not, say, Laura Lippman. Because Laura is a woman, and it’s presumed therefore that she knows how to write about women, what with having been one her entire adult life. By the same token, Laura Lippman is not asked how it is she can write such convincing, strong male characters. Implicit in her job as a crafter of fiction is the demand that she must. No question need be asked.

The source influences, of course, but it’s not simply a matter of me being male that brings the question. For some, the question seems born from genuine confusion and curiosity. Yet for others – for many others, I think, it’s not simply that they’re asking How Did You Do This Thing? What they’re really asking, I think, is this:

Why aren’t more men doing it?

Why is it that so many male writers, when trying to write strong female characters, fail?

Why do they default to a shorthand, lazy equation, where strong equals bitch?

I can speak for myself, and I can share my suspicions. First? Many men simply don’t see it. They don’t read what they’ve written, or if they do, they’re blind to the content of their words, or they just don’t recognize that there’s work to be done here. For many, sadly, stereotype is enough, and the implicit failings in such writing either don’t factor or don’t matter.

But second, and far more damning? I think it comes from ignorance. Plain and simple ignorance, a crime no author should be allowed to commit.

Think about it like this; if I write a story in which one of my characters is deaf – and I have, it’s called Alpha, and it’s going to be released by this illustrious publishing imprint in May – it’s incumbent upon me as the author of the work to know at least something of what I’m talking about. I don’t, perhaps, need to learn American Sign Language (I didn’t), but knowing something about ASL seems, at least to me, the very least I can do. Finding someone who can speak with authority about the nuances of deaf communication, about the rapidly-changing nature of it, who can educate me enough that I begin to understand the limitations and benefits of ASL communication, that would probably, possibly help.

If I’m writing a story about a pilot, it might, conceivably, be of use to me to know something about how to fly a plane. A pursuit of a pilot’s license all my own would certainly make me more convincing, but sitting down with some solid reading, and perhaps an interview or two, would help to cover my bases.

This isn’t a matter of authenticity alone, though certainly anything that helps invest a story with verisimilitude – and I would argue that such investment comes via character far more than it does via plot – is worthy of pursuit. Rather, this is a matter of respect, for both the story itself and for the audience receiving it. The reader is smarter than you. The reader is always smarter than you. And the reader knows when you’ve taken a shortcut, or phoned it in, or are trying to pull a fast one. And the reader don’t like it one bit.

So why do so many writers seem to get away with such poor portrayals? If the audience is as smart as all that, why does this perpetuate? It’s not that they don’t care, nor even that they don’t mind. More than any other reason, I think, it sadly comes down to this: it’s what they’ve come to expect. It is, as the saying goes, par for the course. Or to put it in a worse light, when we fail to demonstrate the appropriate respect, we’re living down to their worst expectations

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"Gender isn’t simply a biological trait; it’s a societal one. The female experience is different from that of the male, and if, as a male writer, you cannot accept that basic premise, then you will never, ever, be able to write women well. A man walking alone through Midtown Manhattan at three in the morning may have concerns for his safety, but I promise you, it’s a very different experience for a woman taking the same walk, and it’s different again for a man wearing a dress. Think about it. That’s a societal factor, and it’s a gendered one, and this is not and can not be subject to debate. If you’re looking to argue that sexism is a thing of the past, that the world is gender-blind, you’re not only wrong, you’re lying to yourself.

An ignorant writer is a poor liar, and a poor liar makes for a bad crafter of fiction. If we accept that a story, no matter how grounded, is ultimately a tapestry of falsehoods, then it must follow that the author is required to tell his or her lies with as much skill as possible. As every politician and con artist will attest, nothing sells a falsehood better than a kernel of truth at its heart. Honesty at the correct moment, presented in the correct way, can buy the author an awful lot of rope with which to make the absurd seem plausible.

The way writers achieve this is through research.

My fourth novel in the Kodiak series, Shooting at Midnight, is told primarily from the point of view of Bridgett Logan, a Bronx Irish-Catholic private investigator who is also a recovering heroin addict. I am not from the Bronx, I am not Irish Catholic, and despite rumors to the contrary, I have never chased the dragon. The novel – as the novels in the Kodiak series are – was written in first-person. This meant that not only did I need to have Bridgett’s voice clear in my mind before I tried to put it on the page, but further, that I needed to know her view of the world. I needed to know her better and more intimately than I had ever before.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"Bridgett was not my first female protagonist, clearly, but it was the first time I was diving into such deep waters. I was going to be in her head, see through her eyes, and while I knew her personality, there were many gaps. I didn’t know what it was to see the world as a junkie. And despite my best empathy, I didn’t know what it was to see the world as a woman.

And I knew if I couldn’t do those things, the novel would be a car crash. I knew if I wasn’t honest, the reader would know, and not believe in Bridgett, and they would be lost to me. And I knew enough to know how much I didn’t know, and that my ignorance was a problem.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"When in doubt, research. Research a lot. Read. Read a lot, and there is no shortage now – and there was no shortage then – of material to plumb. The women who work in the mystery and thriller genre are many, skilled, and I read them voraciously, just to see what they did with their characters, those points of view. But the best thing I did, the thing that helped the most, the thing that became the guiding principle, and has been ever since, was also the simplest.

I talked to women.

I talked to them about Bridgett, and I asked them questions, and much more crucially, begged them to ask me questions in return. Twenty Questions with Bridgett became a recurring game, and if I couldn’t answer, or couldn’t answer precisely, I’d ask for input, help, critique. I asked to be removed from ignorance, and I went to people I trusted to help.

It was amazing to me how few answers I actually had at the start.

Little of what was discussed, what was asked, ultimately made it onto the page, but all of it – all of it – influenced every word. Not every question revolved around gender, but many questions revealed a gender-influence and perspective that, despite my best efforts, I’d been ignorant to.

The cell analogy again, the million parts to the whole.

Writing is one of those professions where you can never be good enough. Where what you write tomorrow must, at the least, be an attempt to become better at your craft than you were yesterday. What I learned writing Bridgett unquestionably made me a better writer of women, yes, but more importantly, it made me a better writer, period. It changed how I approached my characters, made me re-examine my process and my assumptions.

Why I Write "Strong Female Characters"World building is what writers do. The good ones, the really awesome kick-ass take-no-prisoners crafters of fiction, they’re able to invest such honesty into their tales that you believe in them. This is accomplished not through the alchemy of the letter-dance alone, but because they sit and they think and they play if-then games, they create a world and then honor their creation’s internal logic. They breathe life into their world by finding the details that reveal the whole, by setting the laws of their universe and then adhering to them. If I write a story and set it in Antarctica and then I take Carrie Stetko outside for a walk, I’d damn well better remember that it’s cold outside.

That’s world building. There’s no secret to it. If a writer -– any writer -– wants to make their story worthwhile, then the characters deserve as much consistency and attention as the world they inhabit.

How do I write such strong female characters? I write them the way I write all of my characters. With consideration, with respect, with honesty.

As much as I can muster of these things while lying to you for your entertainment, amusement, and sometimes, perhaps, for your consideration.

Greg Rucka is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen novels, including the Atticus Kodiak and Tara Chace series, and has won multiple Eisner awards for his graphic novels. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children.

Greg Rucka’s ALPHA is now available in bookstores everywhere.

May 242012
 

Prologue

Mario Vesques was sure he was going to make it, right up until he saw the knife in the dog’s hand.

He had no idea where the blade came from; what he did have was just enough time to realize he was in trouble, and then the cartoon animal was lunging at him in a way that Vesques recognized, had seen before, but yet couldn’t immediately place. Only as he got his left forearm up for a cross-block, felt the tip of the knife nicking skin as it split his sleeve, did it click.

Modern Army, as taught at Fort Benning, Georgia, courtesy of the United States Army; and through the adrenaline rush he saw the irony that he and whoever was wearing the Pooch suit shared the same pedigree. The absurdity of it all—Vesques in his maintenance coveralls and this man in his dog suit, right paw missing to reveal a Caucasian hand and the blade it held—that they had shared, at some point, the same masters, perhaps the same history, perhaps even the same instructors. That they might’ve, somewhere, sometime, stood together as brothers in arms.

But the blade was stabbing at him again and again, and Vesques was backpedaling now, stumbling once more through the door he’d just exited, the compressor room off the Flashman West maintenance tunnel, the one running east-west the length of the park. Dimmer light within, after-hours power management, and Vesques knew the room was a death trap, that there was no way out of it other than the one the dog now blocked.

The whole thing had been a fluke, what had seemed to be, finally, a stroke of good luck that had turned inexplicably, absurdly bad. Six weeks almost Vesques had been working the park, placed there just to make sure things stayed safe, that no one got bold, got any bright ideas. Six weeks working on a whisper that nobody believed would pan out—and he didn’t, either, to tell the truth, thought it another wild-goose assignment. But he did his job, the job he was trained to do, and tonight—tonight—he had thought about maybe checking the compressors, just to be sure. He hadn’t known what he was looking for, but intuition had said, hey, air-conditioning, put something into circulation, and he had listened, because in training they had told him that intuition was more often what would save his life than take it.

Except this time.

After-hours staffing, maintenance and custodial working one to six, nobody supposed to be around except other men and women wearing the same coveralls Mario Vesques now wore. Which was why, when he saw Pooch heading into compressor 4, off Flashman West, well, that was definitely worth checking out. Which was why he’d waited until Pooch had emerged again after two minutes, had headed down the tunnel and disappeared, before going to take a look himself.

Shining his flashlight over and around the ductwork, the pipes and compressors, even getting down on his belly until the beam revealed a shape just poking out from behind the compressor itself. Reaching, straining for it, and his fingers had closed on the tail of a nylon duffel bag. Pulled the bag free, looked inside. A folded, paper-thin jumpsuit. A gas mask. A disassembled pistol, and Vesques guessed that was how it had entered the park, one piece at a time. A cell phone, but that wasn’t the jackpot, as far as he was concerned. The jackpot was the radio, military-grade hardware with not one but two extra batteries, and that meant there was a plan in place, one that required communication and coordination, and this was only one part of it.

So he zipped the duffel shut and he put it back where it belonged, and on a whim swept his light around the room one more time, into the dark corners. Reflected light jumped back at him.

He’d gone in for a closer look, seen that his flashlight had bounced from the screen of a disposable cell phone, and that the phone wasn’t alone. Wired up, and good, a proper IED, but a small one, so small he could barely find the charge on it. The phone itself taped to a small plastic baggie, and powder in the baggie, and his throat had gone dry at that. Not the explosive, oh, no, that wasn’t what made his stomach cramp; but that powder, whatever that powder might be, he was sure that was trouble.

Trouble enough that it was time to go, time to make the call and report what he’d found. Time to maybe get the operators in here, people who knew what they were doing with biological agents and IEDs and the like.

Left it where he found it, and he’d backed out of the room, turned, and seen Pooch ten feet away.

Holding a knife.

Tools on his belt jangling, flashlight still in hand, Vesques brought it up, across, trying to club at the hand holding the knife. Hitting high, what should’ve been a bone-crushing blow lost in the padding on the costumed arm, and now Pooch was slamming into him, full-body, the same costume cushioning the impact but doing nothing to diminish the weight. They fell back together, Vesques dropping the flashlight, both hands seeking the knife, and then the white heat bursting through his vision.

Tasting copper in his mouth.

The vibration of his head hitting concrete again, the blurred flash of Pooch looming over him, human hand and dog’s paw, the knife gone. His hair tearing. Kicking back, struggling, and then the world losing sound, vision splintering, as his skull was bashed into the floor.

And his last thought, bitter and angry, as he saw Pooch’s insipid, eternal grin.

Mission failed.

Chapter One

“Just how old are you?” Bell asks.

She stops, her back to him, arms raised, T-shirt exposing bare back to bra. It’s ten at night in Skagway, Alaska, the start of July, and sunlight still hints the sky, slants through the blinds at the window, touching pale skin and painting it bronze. Then she finishes the movement, draws the shirt over her head, discards it with a toss as her black hair falls down her back. She half turns, grins at him, pure mirth.

“Old enough,” she says.

This is probably true, Bell thinks, at least in the abstract. Most of the summer population up here are college kids, working forest-service internships or manning the cafés and storefront industries that cater to the regularly scheduled cruise ship arrivals. Tourists come like clockwork, swarm through the town like worker ants in a managed rush for souvenirs and photographs, retreat before dinner for their all-you-can-eat floating buffets. This girl, she’s at least twenty, Bell figures, though he could be wrong; gauging ages has never been his strongest suit. Height, weight, distinguishing details, those he can record and repeat at the drop of a hat, nearly twenty years of training having turned the act into one of instinct. But ages? He’s never gotten the hang of that, and it’s been nagging him for the last two weeks of flirtation with this young woman who’s been pouring his morning coffee at the Black Bean. Now she’s unlacing her hiking boots, and not unintentionally giving him a view of her cleavage, and Bell has to admit that her cleavage, like the rest of her, is more than a little alluring.

Boots, kicked off, land in the corner, and she straightens to face him while reaching around to unfasten her bra. She’s grinning like before, white teeth visible in her growing smile, an amusement that again has Bell wondering at her age. Young enough that sex is a game, something only ever played for fun. It’s been a long time since he stood in front of someone like this, to do this, and instead of feeling older than she, now he’s feeling suddenly younger, adolescent and hormonal, and he resists the urge to mock himself.

“Why?” she asks. “How old are you?”

“Old enough to know better.”

That gets a laugh, and she begins unbuttoning her Levi’s.

“You going to watch or get undressed?”

Bell thinks that getting undressed is probably the best idea.

There are two sniper teams positioned around the market square, two men to each, and Bell has command. They came in at night unseen, buried themselves amid wreckage and refuse, two rifles, two cones of fire, and a long wait for a killing that may not come to pass. CIA intel fed through JSOC and into the field, and four operators are now in a place they technically shouldn’t be, waiting to kill a very, very bad man. It is a dawn that calls for precision work.

“Spell me,” Bell says, taking his eye from the scope, lowering his head, blinking fatigue away. Despite six hours of motionless waiting, his body feels fine, relaxed and steady. It’s the eye that needs the regularly scheduled maintenance. Beside him, Chaindragger shifts from behind the spotting scope, settles behind the rifle. Somewhere across the square, Cardboard and Bonebreaker are doing the same thing, alternating watch to stay razor-ready.

Sun rises, bleaching the world with heat, the square coming alive. Old men with white beards and ageless women swathed in black, children beginning to spill from homes and hovels, raising dust as they play. Bell watches as six of them begin kicking a soccer ball they’ve made from plastic bags and all the tape they could scrounge up. It’s a good ball. When the smallest of the players pounds a kick into it, it flies true.

Bone’s voice comes into his ear. “Warlock? Vehicle, White.”

Bell swings the spotting scope to the north side of the square, picks up the vehicle instantly. It’s a battered Benz thirty-plus years past warranty, rusted panels and peeling paint. The car coasts to a stop, squeezes between a Transit van and a donkey cart, idles. A Toyota pickup slides past. The Benz rolls forward another twenty meters or so. Stops again, now alongside the largest of the fruit-and-grain stalls on the square. Door opens.

“That him?” Chaindragger murmurs.

Bell stays on the man, the weathered skin and scraggly beard. Boy’s eyes in a man’s face.

“Red,” Bell says, and he keys his mike. “Red. Negative target.”

Confirmations come back. Bell watches the man vanish into the crowd, disappear forever.

There’s silence, but Bell knows they’re all thinking the same thing.

“Warlock?” Bone says, finally. “This is some fucked-up shit.”

Bell says nothing for several seconds before rolling to his side and reaching for the sat phone that leads back to Brickyard. “Fuck it,” he says. “Sending it uphill.”

“Roger that,” Chaindragger says with quiet emphasis.

The square continues filling up, full of life. The Benz isn’t the only car in the square, not by a long shot.

But all four shooters know it’s the only one that’s going to explode.

The last sunlight goes, replaced by a low moonrise, and she comes back from the bathroom carrying a glass of water, stops at the side of the bed. Bell, on his back, looks up at her, watches as she drinks, then brings the water to his lips as if aiding an invalid. He swallows, feeling thick and drowsy, out of practice in too many ways. The last time he had sex was with Amy, four months ago now, just after the divorce went final. A final fuck hurrah, making love with a passion that took them both by surprise. After, they’d lain together for half an hour in silence before she’d left his side for the last time, moving to dress.

“Why are we doing this again?” Bell asked.

“Because you’re a good lay,” Amy said. “And so am I.”

“Not my reference.”

“I know your reference, soldier.” She turned from his gaze to pull on her panties, an awkward modesty that transformed eighteen years of marriage, of intimacy, into wasted days. “We don’t love each other anymore.”

This girl, who’s not Amy, sets the glass aside, then slips back into the bed, rolling onto her belly, breasts pressing against Bell’s chest. He feels where her body has turned cool from the night air beyond the blankets, feels her stealing his own body heat to replace hers. She props herself up on an elbow, rests a cheek in her palm. With her other hand, she begins to tour his body. An index finger traces the puckered line along Bell’s left shoulder.

“How’d you get this?”

Bell turns his head to look at the scar, turns his head back to stare at the ceiling. “I got shot.”

“You were in Iraq?”

“Sometimes.”

“Afghanistan?”

“Sometimes.”

“Army?”

“Sometimes.”

She laughs, concluding that nothing he says can be trusted. Drags a finger across Bell’s chest, then down, stopping at the right lower abdominal. “This one?”

“Shrapnel.”

Her hand moves lower, takes a slight detour, and she offers a naughty grin before continuing to his right thigh.

“Knife?”

“Something sharp, yeah.”

“Roll over.”

Bell obliges. She examines his arms, takes his right hand in hers. He feels the slight brush of her fingertip between his thumb and forefinger, distant, as if from far away.

“This a callus?”

“That is a callus.”

“How do you get a callus like that? There?”

It’s a gun callus, earned by putting thousands of rounds through a pistol seven days a week, from morning to night to morning again. It’s earned on the range and in the Shooting House, live-fire exercises on endless repeat until shooting is like breathing, until missing is Not An Option, and it’s kept by taking that honed skill and applying it to the enemy. It is a killer’s callus, a warrior’s mark, an operator’s badge of honor.

He doesn’t say any of that.

“Yard work,” Bell tells her.

She looks at him, eyebrow arched, then bends her head so her hair brushes over him in a wave. He feels her tongue light between his fingers, her lips as she kisses her way along his arm, onto his back, where she stops again.

“This one?”

“Shot.”

“It’s ugly.”

“Wasn’t too bad.”

“Does it hurt?” she asks. “Getting shot?”

He doesn’t answer at first. Thinking of Amy again, how she never once asked. How her face would fall and her eyes would turn dark, how her lips would draw thin and tight. But she would never make a sound. She never would ask.

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Bell says.

Bell switches the sat phone off. Chaindragger’s heard just one half of the conversation, but he knows what’s coming, and still he hasn’t moved.

“Pack it up,” Bell says, and then says it again for the benefit of the radios.

“We got a VBIED parked down there—,” Bone starts to say.

“We are ordered to pull out.” Bell cuts him off. “Brickyard says mission abort, return to LZ Venus.”

There is another heartbeat’s pause, then the confirmations come back to Bell’s ear. Chaindragger is already at his knees, breaking down the rifle. A shout carries through the hot, still air, and Bell looks out at the square once more. Without optics, more than one hundred meters away, figures look like animation tests, waggling, hopping, running back and forth. He sees the makeshift soccer ball sailing through the air, bounce to a stop in front of the parked Benz.

“Sons of bitches,” he mutters.

Chaindragger looks up at him. Like Bell and the rest of the squad, he’s let his hair grow out, now to his shoulders, his beard a scraggly mass of black hanging from his coffee-dark face. Wearing the local color, the way all of them are, baggy trousers and a long shirt-coat to the thighs.

“It’s wrong, Top,” Chaindragger says. “We’re better than this.”

Bell blinks at him. Looks back to the square, the sun now high enough to give glare to the air itself, it seems. He sighs, knowing he’ll catch hell for this from every echelon between here and Florida.

“LZ Venus.” Bell pulls his pistol from where it’s been riding at the small of his back, moves it to the front of his pants, then heads for the stairs. “I’ll catch up.”

He’s sitting on the edge of the bed, smoking one of the American Spirits from her pack, when daylight begins to return. Dawn peeking through the blinds, as if hoping to catch them in flagrante delicto. She’s sleeping still, her lips parted slightly, as if, even in dreams, she remains mildly amused by Jad Bell.

Bell finishes the smoke, walks to the window, pulls the tilt cord, and the slats part and more light flows. He feels it on his naked body, stares out at the trees, wondering how much longer he’ll have to do this, wondering when it’ll end. He’s made his way from Baja to here in the last four months, left the day after the papers were signed. Hugging the coast north, sleeping in his car or in a tent or just under the stars, taking the odd job now and again. Video chats via laptop with Amy every week, mostly so he could talk to Athena. They didn’t have much to say; she was pissed as hell at him, and he couldn’t blame her. She was six when the war started, Bell remembers. Ten years is a long time.

Guilt flashes, and he turns to look at the girl in the bed, sees that she’s opened her eyes, is watching him. The smile is gone.

“You want to talk about it?” she asks.

“No,” Bell tells her, and turns back to the window.

Bell runs a circuit of the square, keeping eyes on the Benz, and he’s thinking the whole time that there’s a whole slew of reasons Brickyard told them to abort, and that getting atomized by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device is probably at the top of that list.

This is a fucking fool’s errand, Bell thinks. VBIED, and too many variables. Is it on a timer? Is it call-in activated? Radio detonated? And if one of the last two, then some son of a bitch is on overwatch with a phone or transmitter in his hand, waiting to press the button, and he will—he absofuckinglutely will—do just that thing if he sees Bell getting curious about the Benz.

Which means approaching that car is out of the question, at least for the moment.

“Black, clear,” Cardboard says in his ear.

“The fuck are you doing?” Bell has to turn to a building face, keeping his voice low.

“Black is clear,” Cardboard repeats, the hint of his Alabama drawl stronger on the last word. “South of the square is clear. And as we were positioned Red and Green, then your overwatch on that vehicle, Warlock, we must deduce, is on White.”

Bell looks to the south side of the square, then the west, then the east. Colors are direction: White north, Black south, Red and Green for east and west respectively. Nowhere does he see Bone, Chaindragger, or Cardboard, but that’s not a surprise; no more of a surprise than the fact that none of the squad has done as ordered. Bell shakes his head slightly, then realizes the building he’s sheltering in front of is on the White side, the north side, of the square. If there’s overwatch on the VBIED, it’s going to be in here.

“Guess I better take a look inside,” he says.

“I guess you’d better,” Bonebreaker says, and Bell can swear to God the man’s trying not to laugh at him. “Unless you want someone to come hold your hand, Top?”

“Think I’ve got this—”

“Target, target, target,” Chaindragger hisses, cutting in. “Approaching Green, say again, I have eyes on target.”

He showers after her. She lives light, the bathroom uncluttered, only essentials, and apparently makeup consists of an eyeliner and a lipstick, both courtesy of Burt’s Bees. When he’s dressed, she takes his hand, and they walk together to the Bean along streets that are just beginning to stir. Her hand is warm and slight, and his feels big around it, and when they turn the corner onto Broadway she leans her head against his shoulder, squeezes his upper arm through the overshirt he’s wearing. Fourth of July bunting and American flags still hang from houses. Bell looks back, can see the stacks of two cruise ships in the port. It’s early enough that the onslaught has yet to begin.

They separate entering the Bean, she disappearing behind the counter into the back to emerge half a minute later tying a barista’s apron around her middle. There’s a scattering of local color present, and Bell earns a nod from one or two, recognition. He’s been around just long enough that the outsider edge is beginning to dull, but still, he’s viewed as transient. She pulls him a double espresso, puts a blueberry muffin on a chipped plate for him, brushes the back of his hand with hers as he takes them. Bell moves to a table with a view of the window. There’s a copy of the Skagway News on a chair, and he takes it up, reads while listening to the growing murmur of conversation around him. Outside, the first tourists have penetrated this far, peering into windows as if visiting a zoo.

He finishes his breakfast and she slips out from behind the counter, bringing him a new cup, fresh coffee this time, and takes the empty espresso away. Fingertips brush the back of his neck as he turns, and when he swings his head to follow her, she’s looking back at him, the mirthful grin, full of promise for tonight. He can’t help grinning in response, then turns back to the paper, catches sight of a man he knows too well through the window, on the opposite side of the street, moving among the clots of tourists.

He folds his newspaper, sips his coffee, watches this man he knows step inside. Watches him stop at the counter, talk to her. A coffee to go. He exits again with paper cup in hand, turning right, past the window once more, then out of sight.

For a moment, Bell seriously considers not moving, and the thought surprises him. He likes Skagway, he likes this girl, this place, mucking through the woods and fly fishing, the thought of the solitary, silent winters, and, he realizes, there would be worse places to live and die. But he no sooner thinks it than he knows it’s not home, though he’s damned if he knows what or where home is anymore.

He takes his coffee with him as he steps outside.

She watches him go, wonders why he didn’t say good-bye.

“Board, Bone,” Bell says. “Clear White.”

Both men come back, roger that. Bell can hear each of them moving even in the brief instant they radio their confirmations.

“Chain, where?”

“On Green, crossing Red. I’m parallel, ten meters.”

“Give him room to breathe.”

“On it.”

Bell steps out of the way of two burka-clad women walking hand in hand with their children. The noise in the square is constant—voices, livestock, vehicles, conversation and shouts, haggling and haranguing. Bone and Board pass him on either side, no one exchanging looks, and Bell picks up Chaindragger first, opposite him on the Black side, and then, a half second later, spots the target coming up to his left. The man is walking alone, indistinguishable from any other man in the market, indistinguishable from the squad, in fact. Just another tanned face in dusty clothes with a beard and ragged hair sticking out from beneath his hat. And like just about every other goddamn male over the age of ten in the region, packing an AK slung over his shoulder.

There is nothing good about this situation, Bell thinks. They move on target and it goes wrong, the overwatch on the Benz panics. It’s all about the timing now; if Board and Bone can locate and neutralize the overwatch, if they can secure the bomb, then he’ll have a free run on the target. But if they can’t, if the target doesn’t have the common decency to remove himself to a location where he can be quietly put down, the whole thing’s a scratch.

Bell times his approach, passes behind his target without a glance, and the man continues threading his way through the crowds. The plastic soccer ball suddenly rises, arcing through the air, and from the corner of his eye, Bell sees the target head it down, back to the cluster of kids. Laughter and approval, and for a second Bell wonders if those children would be so delighted if they knew the man who just joined their game for an instant has lost count of the men, women, and children he’s murdered.

“White Alpha, clear,” Bone says. “Moving to Bravo.”

First floor clear, moving to the second, and the building only offers three floors, which would make things so much easier, except it’s not the only building on that side of the square. Bell turns, following after the target, maybe eight meters between them. Chain is on his left, falling back; he’ll cut north, try to get ahead of their man.

They’re getting closer to that Benz.

“Bravo clear, moving to Charlie.”

Bell is about to confirm when there’s the rip of AK fire to his right, to the White, the north, side. The crisp crack of 7.62 on full auto, then a second assault rifle joining the first, and all at once the market square bursts into an entirely different frenzy, weapons slipping from shoulders, women and children starting to scatter as voices rise from warning to hysteria. The target stops and pivots, his weapon coming up in his hands, and Bell can read his calm amid the sudden chaos, knows that in half a second, the man in front of him will read the same thing, and see him as the enemy.

With no pause, still walking forward, Bell draws his pistol from its place at his waist and places two shots in the target, head and neck, a double-tap released without conscious thought. The target drops, deadweight, and Bell keeps moving, pistol now against his thigh. People surge on all sides, and for an instant Bell believes no one has noticed, is about to call for Bone and Board, for the Sitrep, when he finds himself staring at one of the soccer players, a boy no more than twelve, that absurd jury-rigged ball in his hands. For just that instant, they’re looking into one another’s eyes, and then Board is in his ear.

“Clear,” he’s saying. “Had it on dial-in, we’re clear.”

“Venus,” Bell says. “Now.”

They all roger that, and Bell and the boy stare at each other for a half second longer, and then the boy is backing away, turning, running. Chaindragger is coming toward Bell now, and they fall in together, picking up speed, starting to hustle with the crowd, blending in. Cardboard and Bonebreaker appear, making toward the Green side, but hold up for half a second, waiting so they can group up again. Bone takes the opportunity to look past them into the emptying square, spots the body on the ground.

“Paid in full,” he says.

Bell keeps moving. The flow of traffic has changed with the lack of gunfire, and now a woman screams, one of their freshly laid corpses revealed. People rush back into the square, voices rising again, confusion, consternation. They skirt the corner of the mosque, and they’re just about to turn when the pressure wave hits them, leading the blast from the Benz.

Bell feels himself lifted from the ground, feels his legs fly out from beneath him. He lands hard, somehow on his back, head ringing and bile in his throat. He attempts to roll, can’t manage it on the first try, curses himself, and pushes again, this time making it onto his stomach. He’s been turned around, he realizes, facing the square again.

The blessing of the blast is that it steals his hearing, and so he can’t hear the pain, only see it, but that, in its own way, makes it worse. Through dust and smoke, he can see that where the car was there is now nothing, a crater ringed in black, and all around, on every side, there is blood and meat and the dumb show of those miraculously spared blinking in their concussion-stupor. He hears a thread of someone’s keening, sees the dead. Old men and young, women and boys and girls, and there are the wounded, clutching at themselves where holes that shouldn’t be are, where limbs that once were have gone absent. Bell’s gaze falls on the boy, the plastic ball in his hand, its bottom half sheared by the blast.

Just like the boy.

Board is pulling Bell to his feet, shouting at him, words dim. Bell nods, knows what he’s asking. Bone is supporting Chain, blood rushing down the side of his face in a sheet. They push off, heading for their vehicle, then for Venus and Brickyard, trying to put this all behind them.

Knowing they never will.

Bell finds him two blocks down, standing at the corner, and it’d be a believable tourist act if it weren’t for the military-issue haircut and the ramrod posture. Civvies notwithstanding, you can take the man out of uniform, but some men—you will never take the uniform from the man.

“Jad,” the man says, apparently admiring the trees.

“Colonel,” Bell says.

The man turns to look at him, the slight curl of a smile as he takes Bell in, then shakes his head. “You look like a pilgrim who’s lost his way, Master Sergeant.”

Bell considers that, then finishes his coffee. There’s a garbage can at the edge of the abused lawn beside him, and he sets the empty cup atop it. “You’re here to help me find it?”

“I’m here to offer you a job,” Colonel Daniel Ruiz tells him.

Feb 142012
 

To be brutally honest, the Punisher was never a character that appealed to me until editor Stephen Wacker approached me to write the book. Prior to that, I’d always felt him to be remarkably two-dimensional, and that’s saying something about a character from a medium where two-dimensional characters are the rule, not the exception. Add to that the lingering Reagan-era right-wing Tough On Crime wrapping, and Frank Castle had always been something of a turn off for me.

But Wacker is a good editor in all the ways that matter, and he knew the right questions to ask me, and the right stories to show me, and all of the sudden, I found myself thinking that the Punisher was far more than I’d given credit. The revenge story is a staple of literature, stretching back to word one, really, and in all that time, there are certain tropes that we’ve seen replayed over and over again. But the nature of comics forces some of those clichés into question, even if – in my opinion – nobody has really stopped to try and answer the questions that have been raised. After all, almost every revenge story ends the same way. Almost every revenge story ends like Moby Dick or Hamlet.

But Frank… Frank keeps going. He took his revenge long, long ago, and he continues, and while the market reasons for that continuance as obvious, the market reasons don’t factor for the character, they don’t matter in the world. In other words, Frank Castle doesn’t know he’s owned entirely by Marvel Entertainment, and that they make a pretty penny off of his continued vendetta.

That was the entry-point for me, and that, in very large part, is what my run on Punisher seeks to explore; how is it that Frank can continue, can survive, so long after his initial revenge has been exacted? How is it that he hasn’t gone mad, committed suicide, come off the rails and started murdering at random? How is it that he has maintained this position as an extraordinary anti-hero and general bad-ass in a universe with Captain America and Spider-Man?

Greg Rucka is the New York Times bestselling author of a dozen novels, including the Atticus Kodiak and Tara Chace series, and has won multiple Eisner awards for his graphic novels. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and children. Mulholland Books will publish his next novel ALPHA, the first in a new series featuring retired Delta Force operator, Master Sergeant Jad Bell, in May 2012.

Stay tuned tomorrow for an excerpt from the The Punisher, Vol. 1, the first six issues of the Rucka-penned series, in stores this Wednesday.