Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Into Darkness

 

Available at Amazon

New Release!

In post-apocalypse America, one woman will become a legend.

Darla Griffiths is a riverboat captain, giving rides to tourists on her steamboat out of New Orleans. When a devastating solar storm cripples the grid and leaves the local nuclear power plant close to meltdown, Darla is one of the few people who can safely evacuate the citizens of New Orleans before it is too late.

But when anarchy reigns and a hurricane threatens the city, Darla and her crew must risk their lives to save others, and Darla will be forced to confront the darkness of her own past, and the deadly secrets that imperil them all.

Into Darkness is the first of a new series of adventures on the Mississippi River from the author of Solar Storm. Contains moderate language and graphic action scenes.

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Currently available for pre-order on the above link. Goes live January 29th, just in time for the weekend. Since the pre-order doesn't have the look-inside function, I've included the sample first chapter below.

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Sample Chapter One


Whenever Darla Jean took her paddle steamer out onto the Mississippi River, she always pictured herself as Mickey Mouse. Not the cutesy golly-gosh Mickey of the color era, but the gangly black-and-white Mickey from the cartoon Steamboat Willie, whistling nonchalantly as he piloted his boat up the river, doing his kooky, butt-wiggling dance. It was a happy image that fitted how she felt when she took her boat out for its daily tour. She liked black-and-white Mickey. He had just the right combination of quirkiness, mischief and smarts that appealed to her. When she was at the helm — and if there was no one to see her — she liked to dance too, because there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that she liked better than taking her baby out on the water. The smell of soot from her boat’s stacks would mingle with the diesel of the ocean-going cargo ships that docked at New Orleans. Oil patches floated on the water with the trash that trailed out toward the Gulf, and the odor of liquor, horse manure and car fumes would waft out of the French Quarter, mixing with the salty tang of the sea and the musky swamp smell left over from the hot summer. And all of it would be churned up by the paddle wheels of the Mississippi Rose as she backed out of her berth and pointed her bow upriver, passing under the bridges where at least one person would wave at the sight of history crossing the straight-line shadow below. Onward the old boat would steam, pushing hard against the Mississippi’s current until she was out of the city and, from the pilothouse perched high on the Texas deck, Darla could see over the levees the wide, flat plantation fields, full of sugarcane ready to be harvested. In the clearing air and under a deep blue sky, it was the closest thing to heaven.

But she had to remind herself that she wasn’t just there for her personal pleasure. Picking up the microphone, she made an announcement over the P.A.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for coming aboard the Mississippi Rose. I hope you will enjoy your cruise with us today.”

A brown pelican flapped lazily alongside the boat, keeping pace for just a second before pulling ahead. Along the shoreline, pink-feathered spoonbills used their curiously shaped beaks to fish for prey in the shallow water.

Mississippi Rose is a 148-ft. steam-powered sidewheeler, built in Cincinnati in 1936. She’s one of the oldest and smallest of the steam riverboats still operating on the Mississippi. Unlike many of the larger replicas that use fake paddles or diesel engines, Rose remains powered by her original coal-fired steam engines, and there are no screws or propellers pushing her through the water. The two sidewheels give us a lot of maneuverability and, with only a 4-ft. draft, a respectable speed too. The two silver trophies you can see mounted in the Grand Saloon were won at the Great Steamboat Race on the Ohio River in 2014 and 2016. That’s right, folks, we still race these boats today. In 1948, the vessel suffered a fire and sank just outside of Vicksburg but, being a steel framed boat, was raised and restored, showing just how tough these old boats can be. As you can see, Mississippi Rose is still going strong, with a lot of life left in her. And don’t worry about the risk of fire. Like every boat on this river, Rose is equipped with every modern safety feature and regularly inspected by the US Coast Guard, so just sit back, enjoy the ride and take in the view.”

Hugging the inner bank of a large bend to take advantage of the slack water, Darla watched the readings on the depth finder. The channel had been slowly collapsing on this bend for the last few months, and a change in the way the water rippled far ahead told her that a section of the bank had slid early into the channel. Turning the helm, she pulled the Mississippi Rose clear to bypass the obstruction, the sonar graph on the depth finder spiking upward.

“Folks, if you look to your left, or port as we would say, you’ll see what looks like a knoll with cottonwood trees. In the past, that used to be an island. Feathercraw Island, in fact. Infamous in the old days as a hangout for smugglers and a place for illegal cockfights. The Mississippi has changed direction since, leaving it high and dry. You’ll find a lot of lakes inshore that used to be the Mississippi before it switched location. The river has always been a living thing, wandering wherever it takes its fancy, and if it wasn’t for the efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers, we’d probably be sailing on dry land right now, and New Orleans wouldn’t have a port.”

As a girl, Darla had always been drawn to the river and its tributaries, going fishing with her father and uncle. After her parents separated and her mother moved to Jackson, Darla kept running away from home, begging to be adopted by her uncle and the shantyboat community he lived in. It wasn’t until Child Protective Services threatened to put her in a foster home that she relented and sulkily waited out the barren days before her next sanctioned excursion to the river. And the boat she most wanted to see was this very steamer, known then as the Rebecca Jane, which used to blow its whistle every time it sailed by. She told herself, and anyone who cared to listen, that she would one day own this vessel, and she had her chance when, as an adult, she discovered the Rebecca Jane rotting in a salvage yard and in need of heavy restoration. Against all advice she bought her dream and became what she always wanted to be.

“If you look to starboard, you’ll see some pilings and the remains of a brick grill. Used to be a houseboat commune there. After the Great Depression, thousands of unemployed workers and farmers took to the river, living in floating shacks and moving to where the work was. The Mississippi River hosted hundreds of little communities, housing several generations until they were regulated off the river. The Mississippi is the greatest commercial trade route in the United States, but for many people, it used to be a way of life.”

A blob on her radar detached itself from the background noise, denoting an oncoming vessel, but Darla’s sharp eyes could already see the freight rounding the distant bend: thirty barges lashed together, each one larger than the Mississippi Rose herself, being pushed by a single tall white towboat. The barges probably carried as much as 50,000 tons of grain from the mid-west harvest, pushed along by the towboat’s 10,000 horsepower engines. There was nothing the Rose could do to compete with that, so instead of being a working boat, she was reduced to taking tourists on excursions and begging them to spend their money.

“Folks, there’s still time to purchase a lunch ticket in the saloon. Our top chef, Jacques, has prepared a scintillating sample of delights, including …” Darla glanced down at some notepaper taped to the helm housing. “… Shrimp Remoulade Salad, Escargots — that’s snails to you and me — in some kind of sauce I can’t pronounce, and Huitres Thermidor. Ask real nice and you might even get some grits with that. If you’ve eaten already and you’d like to see some history in action, you’re welcome to go down to the boiler room where Manny the engineer will be more than happy to show you the workings of the steam engines and explain how they work.”

The barges passed by on the other side of the wide river, but the Mississippi Rose still bobbed as it crossed the bow wave. The handheld radio slotted into the wall of the wheelhouse squawked. It was Manny from the boiler room.

“Stop doing that!” he said.

Darla grabbed the radio. “Say again,” she said.

“Stop sending people down to the engine room. I told you, I don’t have time to deal with those people and their damn fool questions.”

Darla rolled her eyes. Old Manny got more cantankerous with each trip.

“Deal with it, Manny. It’s part of the attraction.”

“Oh,” said Manny petulantly, winding himself up for a lecture. “You really want those people to see the steam escaping from the regulator? Or how I’ve got to wrap my hand before I go anywhere near it? You promised me a new valve and it’s been getting worse every week. Got a leak from the hot water pipe too, and it’s spraying onto the floor. I’m trying to bind it now, but if you want those tourists to come down and see me cursing while I try to fix it, then sure, invite ’em down. In fact, why don’t you ask if they’d like to volunteer to help? Got myself some bandages for when they burn themselves, and you’ve got insurance, right?”

Darla restrained herself from answering and put the radio back in the cradle. Picking up the microphone, she got back on the P.A.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, now might not be the best time to visit the engine room, but the viewing deck is open if you want to see the big wheels turning. If you need a little more entertainment, then after the desserts have been served, I’m sure Jacques can be convinced to whip out a harmonica and play you some Louisiana blues. Just don’t ask him to sing unless you want to lose your appetite.”

Darla closed the mike and winced, wishing she hadn’t added that last part. Flippant sarcasm didn’t go down well with paying customers. It wasn’t a good look for the company. If she could afford it, she’d hire someone more professional to do the commentary, but in the meantime, she had to remind herself to say less. And get those parts ordered before the boat broke down completely.

Returning to New Orleans, the Mississippi Rose cruised past the gigantic tankers berthing at the refinery, the hulks towering over her. They were the future, and the steamboat was a relic of the past.

***

After the tourists had left and the boat was tied up at the wharf, Darla walked through the carpeted saloon where the bar staff were cleaning up.

“Miss Griffiths?” piped up a voice.

Darla turned. “Yes?”

It was Nina, one of the new waitresses. She looked worried about something.

“Uh, one of the customers complained, uh, about the toilet. I think it’s blocked.”

Darla sighed. “I’ll get on it.”

Nina hovered a little longer. “Miss Griffiths?” she said again.

Darla, about to walk away, said, “What?”

Nina smoothed an imaginary crease from her apron. “It’s about my pay,” she murmured.

“What about it?”

“You, uh, promised you’d pay me for the extra hours last month, but it’s been two weeks and, uh, well …”

Darla couldn’t recall any issues with wage payments. “I’ll look into it.”

“Uh, it was four hours.”

“Sure, don’t worry. I’ll sort it out.”

Darla left her and entered the galley. Jacques the chef vigorously scrubbed down the surfaces in his cramped kitchen.

“Jacques, I need a word,” said Darla.

Jacques was creole, and to him, that meant he was royalty. At least, that was the impression Darla got. Apparently he’d been a top chef in some prestigious establishment and had trained under luminaries she’d never heard of, but whom he was keen to stress had been masters of the culinary arts. She never understood why he took this job and was convinced he was misinterpreting his role.

“This menu we’ve got,” began Darla. “It’s too complex. I mean, seriously, duck and oysters? Swordfish? What happened to gumbo, biscuits and gravy?”

Jacques picked at a stain around the edge of a hotplate. His pots were already clean and hanging in order according to size. A row of knives on the wall gleamed, each one honed to maximum sharpness.

“We can do better than that,” he said, running a cloth around the induction cooktop he’d pestered her to purchase the previous year after complaining about the original wood-burning stove that had come with the boat.

“No we can’t, Jacques. We can’t. I can’t afford these kinds of ingredients anymore. I’ve got to get the ticket price down because we’re just not getting enough customers. We can’t compete on the same level as the Pride of Orleans, so it makes no sense for us to charge near the same.”

“I know the chef on that boat,” sniffed Jacques. “He’s not so good.”

“It’s not a competition. Do you hear me? We have to work with what we’ve got. I’ve ordered new supplies and I need you to make a different menu for next week. Enough of the fantasies. This isn’t the Bon Ton Cafe. Just give me a simple menu with bread pudding to finish. And no, I’m not buying whiskey for the sauce.”

Jacques narrowed his eyes. In his fifties, with salt and pepper hair, his lined face retained an aggressive hardness. His hands were scarred from a lifetime of burns and cuts. He had a reputation for intimidating the bar staff and waitresses, demanding the utmost from them. As a result, the turnover of saloon staff was high.

“When I signed up for this job,” he said quietly, “I accepted the low wages and the inadequate kitchen. I did so because I saw the potential of you and this boat. You said you wanted to make this the finest boat on the river, and I agreed. To achieve such a thing, you have to embrace quality. I will not waste my time cooking mediocre meals for this kind of money. If we do not aspire to be the best, then you have no further need of my skills and I will move on.”

Darla raised her eyebrows. “And where will you move on to, Jacques?”

“There are a dozen restaurants in this city that will be happy to accept my services.”

“Name one. I’ll give them a call.”

Jacques maintained his gaze but said nothing.

“Just give me a menu I can afford,” said Darla, “that’s all I’m asking.”

Walking outside and taking the stairs down to the main deck, Darla paused to watch the Pride of Orleans sailing by on the beginning of its cruise. A large sternwheeler boat with an extra deck, it looked like a floating hotel. Packed with tourists, it had a jazz band playing in its saloon. With a pedigree as old as the Mississippi Rose, it had nevertheless converted its boilers to diesel-fired steam, vastly improving its efficiency. No smoke rose from its stacks, and on the pilothouse were mounted a pair of golden antlers. When Darla had told her passengers about the silver trophies her boat had won, she neglected to mention that they were for achieving second place in the races. The Pride of Orleans had beaten her both times, and thus got to wear the coveted antlers.

The Pride of Orleans blew its whistle in salute, and Captain Hartfield waved at Darla from his pilothouse. Darla waved back, suppressing her envy and planting a smile on her face. Walking along the stage to shore, she considered her application for The Great Steamboat Race next year. The forms still sat somewhere on her desk in the office, and after choosing not to participate this year, she wondered whether she ought to. It was good publicity, and she had to seize every opportunity to drum up trade, but the thought of losing again rankled. The modifications she’d planned for her engines hadn’t been carried out, and her boat’s competitiveness slipped further and further behind with each new problem she found. The makeshift repairs were mounting up, and she worried that she’d lose her certificate of seaworthiness at the next inspection.

On the wharf, outside her tatty trailer of an office, stood a man in a suit, clutching a briefcase.

“Miss Griffiths?” he said as she approached.

“Who’s asking?” she replied.

“Darla Jean Griffiths?”

Darla stopped, hands on hips. “What?”

“I’m from the bank,” said the man.

“Oh.”

“Are you the owner of the Rose Steamship Company?”

Darla squirmed a little. She would like to have said she wasn’t, but she was standing right by the sign.

“I guess I am,” she said.

The man handed her his business card. “Mark Stevens, from Eastside Commerce Bank. We’ve been trying to get ahold of you, but you’re not answering your calls or replying to our emails.”

“Uh, I’ve been kind of busy,” said Darla.

Mr. Stevens pulled a manila envelope from his briefcase and gave it to her. “You’re three months behind on your loan repayments, and this is the third warning. I’ve been instructed to tell you that if you don’t make your payments by the end of this month, we’ll call in the loan and put your business into administration. You know what that means.”

Darla sighed and nodded.

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I’m just doing my job,” said the man. “Good day, Miss Griffiths.”

Darla wanted to tear the envelope up. Digging into her pocket for the keys, she unlocked the office and threw the letter onto her desk. Sitting heavily in her squeaky swivel chair she looked out the window at her boat and shook her head. All those years of hard work just seemed useless now.

She knew this day would come and she’d done her best to stall it, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow. Pulling open the bottom drawer of her desk, she looked down at the half-bottle of bourbon that currently acted as a paperweight to a pile of bills, weighing up whether now was the right time to finish it off. Deciding against it, she slammed the drawer shut. The application for the steam race lay under the computer keyboard. Pulling it out again, she studied it and thought for a while. There had to be some way of improving the cash flow problem. If she could somehow find a way to make this month’s payments and increase the number of passengers, she might be able to make it till next season. Winning that race could really boost her company’s profile.

She wanted to see those antlers on her boat.

Losing herself in that fantasy, she failed to notice the figure approaching her office until he was standing outside the door.

She thought at first it was a hobo staring in through the door glass. His untidy hair was down to his shoulders and his beard bushy and unkempt. His eyes were like pits, deep and brooding, and they gazed darkly into the office like a cat looking into a bird cage. He opened the door and stepped inside.

“Can I help you?” said Darla cautiously.

“I’ve come about the job,” murmured the man, barely moving his lips. His jeans were worn along the creases and sagged badly. His woolen cardigan was clean, but a little odd in the September heat, and a variety of tattoos vied for space on the backs of his hands and the base of his neck.

“I don’t recall advertising for a serial killer,” she said.

The man’s face creased into an ironic smile.

“Steward,” he said.

“That your name?”

“No, the job. The one on your website. My name’s Zack Leary.”

Darla couldn’t think of anyone less likely to be a steward. His countenance alone would have the passengers running for the life rafts, and she couldn’t imagine any of them even daring to ask him for a menu.

“Not sure that job’s open now,” she said.

“Any job will do. Here …” he said, pulling out a creased and folded sheet of paper. “My resume.”

Darla unwrapped the resume, trying to ignore the coffee stain on one corner. A quick skim-through confirmed what she feared. Zack had no experience of river or maritime work. His jobs included bar work, construction, fruit picking and being a lifeguard. Darla glanced up at him, trying, and failing, to picture him in speedos on a beach tower. The resume included a claim that he’d graduated from college, and a ten year work gap that went unexplained. The whole thing looked made up and Darla wondered why he didn’t have a probation officer or social worker to help him lie a little more convincingly.

“Business is in a downturn,” she said, handing the resume back. “Can’t afford to take anyone on.”

“I can work for half-rates,” said Zack, deadpan. “Or cash if you want to keep it off the books.”

“I don’t work like that,” said Darla.

“Okay,” said Zack ruefully, refolding the sheet. “I guess I’ll be going then.”

“I guess you will.”

“Thanks.”

Darla watched him go, wondering how long it would be before she found herself in the same situation. On the other hand, if she did, she’d make damn sure she had a binder to keep her resume looking good and coffee-free. Scribbling a reminder to remove the vacancy from her website, she took off her captain’s jacket and hat and pulled on a set of overalls.

Leaving the office, she paused when she saw a figure leaning against a dumpster by the wharf entrance. It was a guy and he looked as if he had been waiting for her. Lean and tall, he stubbed out his cigarette and walked over, rolling his shoulders in a way she knew he’d learned in prison, though he’d always tried to affect an air of toughness, even before his first stint inside.

“Eric Whelan,” she said.

“Hey, babe,” said Eric, exaggerating his gait. “Did you miss me?”

“Not really.”

“Sure you did.” Eric turned to admire the boat. “So you called her Rose. I like that. I hear you got a vacancy aboard. Don’t mind if I try out for it myself. Be like old times, you and me on the river, and you know I can handle any boat.”

Darla narrowed her eyes. “Oh, I see. You sent your buddy first to test the waters, knowing he’d never get the job. What was he, your cellmate or something? You and Zack go back a long way too? What did you promise him?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, babe. I just got out of the joint and I’m looking for work. An honest living, right? You got yourself a nice company here. Stands to reason. I’m your man.”

“No you’re not. We’re done, Eric. We were done a long time ago and I’m not going back to that. Go talk to your buddies on the mile. Maybe they’ve got some weed you can sell or a car you can jack.”

Eric shifted uncomfortably. “I ain’t like that no more. I got rehabilitated.”

“Oh sure. Third time lucky, right?”

Eric glared. He had the deepest blue eyes, and there was a time when she thought of them as puppy eyes, all vulnerable and looking for love. But she’d seen those same eyes harden and knew he could flip in an instant.

On the boat, Jacques came out onto the deck with the garbage. He paused to look at who Darla was talking to. Eric glanced up at him and narrowed his eyes, squaring up his shoulders.

“Don’t forget me, babe,” he said.

He walked away, glancing back once more at Jacques before turning a corner and disappearing.

The swift change of behavior confused Darla, and she wondered what just happened. She looked back at the boat herself but Jacques was already gone.

Whatever. Eric was old news and Darla had bigger things to worry about.

Back on the boat, she entered the boiler room. Manny was letting the steam out to depressurize the boilers, his work pants slipping low as he bent over the valves.

“You’ve got more hair on your ass than your head,” Darla said above the noise.

Manny hiked up his pants and ran a hand over his bald scalp. “It’s gotta grow somewhere,” he said.

Grabbing an inspection light, Darla got beneath the pipes, looking for the leak.

“We can braze this,” she said.

“I thought you said you were going to get new parts.”

“Must have been static on the radio. You need to be careful about getting the wrong idea with that.”

Darla got the acetylene tank and torch and wheeled it over, grabbing the gloves and goggles.

Manny turned to face her, sweat accentuating the lines on his face. “Young lady,” he said firmly. “If you don’t give me the parts and tools I need to do this job, I swear I will quit.”

“Yeah,” drawled Darla, pulling on the gloves. “All I hear is promises. You and Jacques should run away together some time. The owl and the pussycat.”

“Wait,” said Manny. “Jacques said he was gonna quit?”

“Not really. He just kind of implied it.”

“You think he will?”

“Nope.”

“He’ll never quit,” said Manny, reassuring himself. “He’s got too many people looking for him.”

“Sure. He did mention all the restaurants out to poach him.”

“No, I mean he’s got people really looking for him. Bad people.”

“What, like Child Support?”

“No, no, real bad people.”

“Jacques?” said Darla, incredulous.

“I mean it. He’s on the run. I heard someone tell me Jacques is ex-CIA. Used to be a hitman. Pissed the wrong people off. Now he’s lying low, on the lam. Pretends to just be an ordinary guy, but you’ve seen how he handles his knives. He could kill a man with a paper clip.”

Darla snorted. “And this someone, would he be the same person who claimed to have proof that the moon landings were faked?”

“They were, I tell you. Now come on, you’ve gotta admit there’s something strange about a top chef working on a boat like this. Don’t it make you suspicious?”

“I think I’d be more suspicious of the CIA teaching their agents culinary skills. You think they serve Huitres Thermidor at Langley?”

“Poison. They learn how to hide it in the ingredients. Makes sense.”

“Only to you.”

Darla slid under the pipes and lit the torch.

“Secrets,” said Manny sagely. “People got secrets on this boat. That’s why they take to the river.”

“Sure,” said Darla. “Nothing to do with needing a wage or nothing.”

Manny gave Darla a smug look. “You got secrets too. You act tough, but you’re hiding stuff. I know it.”

Annoyed, Darla extinguished the torch and slid back out, raising her goggles. “If you’ve got nothing else to do, there’s a toilet that needs unblocking in the saloon. After that, try flushing yourself down it.”

There was a lot of work to do to prepare the boat for the next day’s excursions. After the food supplies arrived and were unloaded, the truck bringing the coal sacks pulled up, and everybody had to help bring it all aboard. Once everything had been squared away, the decks were scrubbed and the brass polished until the Mississippi Rose gleamed, its white paint and black stacks glossy in the sunlight. As the last person to leave the boat, Darla checked the padlocks on all the doors and hatches. She gave the arch of the paddlebox an affectionate pat, pulled the chain across the gangway and walked ashore.

In the office she fired up the computer and got changed while it took its time to boot up. Accessing her emails, she scrolled past the repeated bank warnings, and the dubious marketing and financial offers, and opened a River Authority weather warning. Apparently a solar storm was due that night, and the authority was warning all boat captains that the atmospheric interference could introduce errors into GPS systems and create ghosting on radars. Darla didn’t take the boat out at night, so it didn’t concern her and she moved on to the next email, which was a notification of another review of her business on one of the many tourist sites she was listed on. Clicking the link, she hummed a little tune while the computer slowly connected to the site.

She wished she hadn’t bothered. Some anonymous customer had given her a one-star rating, with the comment: A ramshackle boat run by rank amateurs. Not worth the money.


End of Sample

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