Excerpt from Electric Freedom - Chapter 1: Alex Gets an Offer
To celebrate the conclusion of 2017's National Novel Writing Month, and in conjunction with the Shameless Plugs podcast, I'm pleased to present the first chapter of my first novel, Electric Freedom. This excerpt is accompanied by the planning document I used to plot out this chapter, as an extension of Shameless Plugs' mission of writers supporting writers.
Death in a Diner.
That’s what the headline would read after Alex was gone. It was how they’d remember him. “Who?” someone would ask.
“Alex Anastos,” someone else would answer. “You know, the guy who got killed in a diner.”
So not only was he about to die, he was about to become a factoid. Nope. Not acceptable.
Even at 2 AM, The Golden Mile bordered on a capacity crowd, and exit strategies were exponentially more difficult when you had to keep innocent bystanders from getting caught in a crossfire. Having zero clue what you were doing didn’t help either.
He hadn’t paid the two intruders any attention at first, not until the Voice started buzzing like an electric chair.
No. The Voice wasn’t a death sentence. It was an early warning system. When Peter had the accident; that night in the Fourth Ace; the mugging. Its return meant the intruders were trouble, and Alex needed a plan, double time.
Fight through the noise. Think through the possibilities. Who were they, and what did they want?
Thieves? Unlikely. Their faces were completely exposed, so either they were determined to get picked up approximately twenty-seven seconds after walking out the door, or they had no intention of leaving any witnesses.
Considering the Voice’s urgency, murderers was the more likely option, and odds were they were here specifically for him. He didn’t recognize them, so it wasn’t personal. Someone sent them. But who? There was only one person who would want Alex dead, and these two unremarkable girls hardly seemed the type to be doing a gang leader’s dirty work.
Maybe this was about Alex’s abilities. Their objective might not be robbery or revenge, but a simple shakedown. His guts twisted at the notion of being outed – the impact it would have on his parents alone.
They couldn’t go through something like this with another son. Alex wouldn’t let them. Whatever these two girls were, there was a decent chance The Golden Mile was about to play host to Alex vs. The Intruders.
Both of his opponents were in their early-to-mid-twenties – right around his age. The taller one stood around 5’6”, giving him nearly half a foot on her. There was no outward reason she’d set the Voice on edge. She didn’t appear armed. She wasn’t dressed for battle. In fact, her roomy jeans looked downright comfortable, so broken in they’d faded to colorless from the tops of her thighs clear to her knees.
Soft features lowered her intimidation factor too, with a wide forehead and plump cheeks that tapered down to a rounded tip of a chin. Add in a prominent widow’s peak, and the sum of her facial parts equaled “heart-shaped.” Buoyant strands of potting-soil-brown hair (it was only where the light touched it just right that he could tell it was lighter than his own) that had broken free from a ponytail framed her face, and although her build was athletic, the curve of her hips was pronounced as she leaned against the booth closest to the door, creating an hourglass silhouette.
She was more “future suburban mother” than threat, and seemed as likely to bake him a pie as take a swing. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have given her any more consideration than a chair in the corner; she’d make the perfect assassin, invisible even when she’s right in front of you. Her mistake had been paying him too much attention. Alex was the kid who kept his mouth shut and stuck to the back of the class. Even on his best days, when his hair was willing to lay down and everything else lined up just right, he was a fingernail better looking than the most average person alive. No one ever noticed him.
The shorter member of the pair did more than just pay attention: she openly studied him, moving from his arms (too wispy to fill his t-shirt’s sleeves) to his engineer boots (too clunky for a footrace). Her encore was an eye-to-eye evaluation of his killer instinct. It didn’t matter whether he chose “fight” or “flight,” she was programmed to take him down as efficiently as possible, and devoid of any doubt she’d succeed. He didn’t disagree.
Her appearance seemed calculated to attract attention; the magician’s waving hand that distracted you until the dove pecked your eyes out. Her pixie hair was deep red – carrot enough to be natural, but with sufficient fire engine to make him wonder – and her sleeveless tank top showcased steel cable arms. She barely cleared five feet and ninety pounds, but lost no confidence for it; her back was straight, her shoulders were square.
With Beatdown Betty tilting the odds away from a combat victory, Alex considered his surroundings and his escape options. It wasn’t Marathon City’s fanciest restaurant, not by far. Time and light had leeched the original golden tone from the floor’s tiles, leaving them a sickly mustard. The tables hadn’t fared much better: their tan Formica surfaces bubbled up in liquid-induced deformities as they wobbled on chubby stalks, chips in the black paint revealing the flat gray metal beneath. Knocking them over as he fled might create a makeshift obstacle course. Maybe it would play out like an action movie: he’d heroically leap over the debris as his attackers floundered, grasping at his boots but clutching empty air.
Doubtful; odds were he’d be the one to trip over the tables and find himself not only a captive, but a captive with a broken leg.
From the pale green walls, the olive face of original owner Nicholas Zemenides stared down alongside celebrities, politicians and heroes. The Zemenides family was part of Marathon City history, having held onto this place for more than sixty years. It was the only real diner left in Marathon.
This was Alex’s diner, an oasis where he could escape his cramped apartment after work, turn off his mind and watch lives play out around him. He’d lost count of the nights he’d spent studying his fellow customers and imagining what their significant others, friends and children were like; what they did on weekends; which diners were cheating on spouses or taxes.
Tonight, he only studied the two attackers. They’d reduced the Golden Mile to a cell.
The door was only eighty feet away. He had a better chance of making it to Jupiter. Not that Jupiter actually existed anymore. Nothing did. For the handful of minutes he had left, this diner comprised his entire universe. At least the universe would end on his home turf.
In the aisle to his right, a baby stood watch from her high chair; putting her in harm’s way wasn’t an option. Halfway down on the left, a group of college kids had pushed three tables together, barring another escape route.
Behind the main counter, the cooks chattered in Greek, mindfully noisier than the running sinks and spattering griddle. Alex was fluent enough to ask them for help. He’d make it seem like chit chat. They’d create a diversion for their countryman, and he’d break out of the greasy cage.
No. Getting them involved would only set off alarms and make them targets too.
When the third intruder arrived, every eye in the restaurant stared and every voice caught. Even the baby went silent. Marathon had her share of celebrities. Her citizens were jaded. But Dr. Martin Reiss was no mere celebrity. He wasn’t just a billionaire, he was a billionaire war hero, the hero. He was the silverback of celebrities.
Dr. Reiss swallowed attention as if living up to a gargantuan reputation were his job, smiling and nodding at gawkers as he crossed the diner in a handful of strides. Sure enough, he looked the part: the just-slightly-ruddy complexion of a doer not afraid to get his hands dirty; the substantial mass of hair, fitting for a man half his age, but reflecting the silver wisdom of an elder statesman; the dignified suit, slate gray, and immaculately wrinkle-free at a time of night when suits were rumpled reminders of a day that ended ages ago.
Alex finally understood who the girls were: bodyguards.
“May I?” the doctor asked, grabbing the back of the seat across the table.
“If I say ‘no,’ will you go away?” Alex pulled a cigarette from the pack in front of him.
Reiss smirked as he sat. “Smoking isn’t good for you.”
Alex opened his mouth wide in mock shock and lit up.
“You’re too smart for your own good, Alex.”
All the eyes that had been on Reiss were now leaping between him and Alex, who leaned in close before responding. “Fine. Then I’ll leave.”
His chair screeched across the floor on its collision course with the corner. Reiss’ breathing deepened and his eyes broadcast a warning as he clamped onto Alex’s wrist. “Sit down.”
The petite bodyguard leaned half a step closer, her weight shifting to the balls of her feet. All those eyes locked onto Alex. If he made a move, she would too. All those innocent bystanders would become innocent targets, and his secret anything but. So he sat, took another drag off his cigarette and silently watched its tip burn.