Cold Cell: Work In Progress

My escort walked me down to the third level, a narrow hallway faced with cells with red painted bars, the same color as my new coveralls. They stretched off into the gloom of the dimmed lights… a corridor that sounded and smelled like a zoo now that everyone had just come in back from dinner. It was warm in here, and humid with the smell of an old men’s locker room. The ventilation fans did little to remove the scent of cheap bodyspray, sweat, and old toilets.

We were catcalled on the way past my new neighbors. Someone was pacing like a tiger in the darkest part of their cell, stalking from end to end. Another man was smoking, and didn’t even bother hiding it as the three of us marched past. Some men were hidden in the stark shadows cast by the single bulb light outside their cell. Another lunged at his bars with a bestial snarl, and then laughed as he reeled away. Everyone was two to a cell – sometimes three. There wasn’t enough space on Red Row. I could guess that the bunk I was to occupy was one of the ones I’d emptied after Red Dog had come at me in the bathroom.

“Hey! I told housekeeping that I didn’t want the turndown!” A man’s voice called out from the cell, deep, with an accent I pinned somewhere between Minnesota and Canada. “Did you bring me the little chocolate at least, ’cause-”

“Shut your fucking mouth!” My escort snarled back at him, racking my door across. “You! Get in there!”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I started forward, only to be arrested when the man inside spoke again. “Yeah! Get in there! You can do it! You’re the man now, dawg!”

The guard holding me shifted nervously on his feet as the other one stalked into the cell, hand on his belt. “Do you want my stick up your ass, fuckhole?”

“Oh no sir, anything but the stick!” My celly pitched his voice high and squeaky. “We hates the stick, don’ts we precious?”

“Why you fucking piece of-” From inside, the other man laughed, a sound that fell back further into the cell as the guard lay into him.

“Ooh yes, officer! Harder! Harder!” He called out, still laughing. “Gimme that Federal bureaucracy, man! All over my face!”

“Will you shut the fuck up!?” The nightstick bounced off something metallic.

“Come on baby, bruise me up! Yeah, that’s it! Woo! I’m going to the one dollar bin! The fruit bin! Like one of those bruised up bananas that’s seen WAY too much heroin!”

“Yeah, man! Go score us that infirmary canteen!” Someone down the row shouted up.

“It’s mine! All mine! Get your own fucking crossword puzzle!” Even under assault, my next door neighbor sounded like he was having the time of his life.

As he realized that the beating wasn’t going to get him anywhere, the guard stalked back out and slammed the door across, swearing like a Navy shoreman. The far less enthused officer nudged me forward, and I got my first look at my new roommate as he rolled himself back up to his ass, still wheezing with mirth.

He was huge: a good three hundred pounds of raw beef, none of it fat. He was seated with his feet wide apart, elbows resting on his knees, his back to the white porcelain sink. His shoulders were level with the rim. I’d known some big men in my time and rarely felt small around them. Short as I am, I was burly, built for weightlifting and shotput and showjumping. Tall, cut men like Zane didn’t faze me, but this man wasn’t just tall. My new cellmate was built like a pro-wrestler. He could have body-doubled for the Hulk.

He had a fading outdoorsman’s tan, but it was the geometric blue ink tattoos that lay across his bald scalp, bull neck, and heavy shoulders that distinguished him from just another skinhead bruiser in this place. They were not anything like the mishmash of gang symbols and trashy flash that passed for tattoos in prison. Care and planning had gone into them, and it was the tattoos that flipped the switch of intuition. I hesitated as deja-vu hit me like a baton to the gut, but I couldn’t recall a name, or a place where we’d met before. Just a shadow of a memory, a patterning… like the ghost of something we’d once done together, over and over again. In light of Kutkha’s frank discussion of my other lives, past and present, the recall was accompanied by a nagging sense of being in terrible danger.

“Stop gawking and get in, asshole.” The guard jabbed me in the back. With motions that were already becoming rote, I crossed the threshold and turned, the back of my neck crawling as I held out my wrists to be un-cuffed.

“Mmmm, now that’s what I’m talking about.” The big man chuckled behind me. “That is one hell of a mint. White virgin chocolate… Fair trade and shade grown.”

The guard glanced over my shoulder with something that might have been momentary concern, at least about the liability of locking someone of my size in with the likes of The Hulk… but it didn’t stop him from racking the door closed, locking it, and walking away to join his coworker.

I drew a deep breath and turned around. “Let me guess. You recognize me from somewhere.”

“I’m writing home to-” When I turned back around to face him, the seated man’s voice fell off, even before I began to speak. “That depends. How many pornos have you starred in?”

I flushed before he could find my composure, jaws clenched. “Exactly zero, thank you very much.”

“Listen to you. ‘I’ll have a buttered scone and a bit of tea, thank you very much,’” my cellmate raised his voice to a prim falsetto as he got to his feet. In the claustrophobic enclosure of the cell, I had never seen a bigger man in my life. He was smirking, and holding an invisible teacup and saucer in his hands, the pinky holding the ‘cup’ held out at a jaunty angle. There was absolutely nowhere in this space I could retreat to that this man could not reach.

Everything I will miss in the years to come

I’m going to miss the Great Barrier Reef. I’m sad that I will never get to see it, and regret that I didn’t visit it before I left Australia to throw my lot in with the USA. I’m going to miss the National Parks of the Americas, the forests and valleys that will be leveled, the shale fields that will be pounded relentlessly for the oil that oozes through the cracks of shattered stone.

I will miss being able to able to travel across the USA by road or rail. It is no longer safe. I’m privileged enough to be able to ‘pass’, for the most part, but if I’m taken to the wrong hospital or attended by the wrong EMTs or somehow found out in public, I am not safe.

I already miss the prospect of a cleaner, smarter, better educated global society built on principles of secular liberty and justice: Elon Musk’s future is where we should be headed, but we probably won’t live long enough to arrive. Technology will now progress only for the benefit of dictators.

When the time comes, I might have to let go of my remaining innocence in the face of war or invasion. I will miss the times when I could blog without fear of arrest, or sit in the peace of my home with a full belly and a sense of having a future, however much work that future required. I grieve that in the knowledge that we will live in an ever-warming climate of hate, fear, and bigotry. We have had two world wars to learn from… but we apparently do not learn.

I do not fear death, but in the times to come, I will miss truly living.

Russian Mafia 101: The Russian Mafia Doesn’t Actually Exist

john-wick-2014-full-movie-720p-hd-free-downloadMy novels and stories deal heavily with the (so-called) Russian Mafia – that mythic Eastern European organized criminal organization that was so badly portrayed in Eastern Promises and portrayed with far more realism in John Wick. There is already an established ‘mafiya’ genre in Russia, which is typified by the amazing TV drama series Brigada. But despite this, the Russian Mafia doesn’t actually exist, per-se.

It may seem strange to be writing about something I claim doesn’t exist, but here’s what that means in Alexi’s own words:

The term ‘Russian Mafia’ is a poor analogue for the many unallied brigadi that make up Slavic organized crime. For one thing, any given Organizatsiya has members from all corners of the Eastern Bloc, as well as Turkey, Israel, and Chechnya. For another, the term ‘mafia’ conveys a certain sense of conservative, orderly unity, evoking images of hereditary Families led by a single Don. Every one of the organizations that could be described as ‘Russian mafia’ does things their own way. If the Italian Mob is a family business, then the Russian Mafia is a fast-food franchise: a cluster of para-military cells unified around a team of managers, with each cell branching out further into a web of patsies, fall-men, bookies, dealers and common street thugs.

Vassily and I occupied a strange position within our own brigada. We were both immigrant children born in America to long-time Thieves-in-Law. Our hereditary position conveyed a certain hollow prestige, in that the senior authorities invested more time into us, but they also expected more.

Essentially, the Russian Mafia is a fractured collection of individual criminal organizations, most of which are not Russian at all. They operate internationally and within the former Eastern Bloc, and the ones based in Russia, Ukraine and surrounding countries are heavily involved in business (especially the gas and oil industries), politics, banking and the Eastern Orthodox church. There are some who cooperate (and even hold ‘councils’ between leaders), but more of them are rivals for the same

Eastern Promises was just about the gayest thing ever, which was great, but it was highly inaccurate.

Eastern Promises was just about the gayest thing ever, which was great, but it was highly inaccurate.

business. Russian mafia organizations range from small gangs of semi-rural youth led by petty criminals through to advanced, complex organizations with ties to the Kremlin and access to military-grade weapons. They compete and convolve in ways that have mystified law enforcement for decades, form crazy alliances with forces as diverse as Nigerian pirates, the Mumbai Mafia, Thailand’s tourism industry and ISIS – and this fluidity one of the reasons that they are currently the most successful criminal enterprise in the world.

Fictional Depictions

In terms of fictional depictions, Brigada is without a doubt the best (semi-sympathetic) portrayal of an Organizatsiya, detailing the life of a young soldier returning to his hard-scrabble regional town and entering into a life of crime. Poverty is still a major driving force behind the formation of Eastern European criminal organizations. The old Soviet factory towns where so many people still live are deprived of opportunity and jobs, and are often bleak, conservative places often falling into disrepair. Soldiering, crime, or luck are the only ways a lot of these young men break out. This is especially true of the old ‘Stans south of Russia, rural Ukraine, and Bulgaria – where are not coincidentally where the Russian Mafia draws most of its members.

Eastern Promises really tried, but it was heavily exoticized and basically took Italian Mafia tropes and vaguely converted them to a Russian cast: about the only thing they got right was the mafia’s involvement in human trafficking. But let’s be frank – I think most of us were watching it for the naked Turkish bath knife-fight, right? John Wick reduced the Organizatsiya to a series of mooks whose only purpose was to be gunned down by Keanu Reeves, but the cultural and social depictions were far more in line with the reality.

Next in the series, I’ll elaborate on this inaccurate exoticism a bit more: specifically, the infamous hand tattoos and the ‘language’ of these tattoos that are now practically iconic.

Want to learn how to swear like a sailor in Russian and Ukrainian? Check out this post:

James’ 2017 Projects: Hound of Eden, Dark Fantasy and More

Hello, dear readers and fellow Illuminati!

Today, I got thinking about my accomplishments in 2016 and what I want to accomplish in 2017 in terms of books (and art). I’ve decided that I’m going to take on 5 and a half projects next year, which will exceed my 4.5-ish books of this year: Blood Hound, Stained Glass, Burn Artist, Fix Your Damn Book, a longish short story for a super-secret project in December, and probably about half of Cold Cell.

I’ve never been one of those authors who can just keep pumping out books, month after month, and make 8-10 releases a year. That kind of sweatshop method is becoming fairly common in Urban Fantasy, but the diagram below applies:

I really like the first two much more than the third.

I really like the first two much more than the third.

I’m not interested in the quick buck. 3-6 months between books is enough time for me to properly weave a good story, make cover art, edit (I do my own editing with the help of a very talented friend who spots the things I don’t) and package a quality book with minimal errors. That being said, I’m going to try and write five of the buggers next year – though they may not all be published in 2017.


1. Cold Cell & Wild Hunt

This is where the ‘half’ comes in. Due to family commitments and immigration procedures (I’m in the process of joining my lovely and extraordinary wife in the USA) and the complexity of the book itself, Cold Cell, the third Alexi Sokolsky book, is going to be partly finished this year for a hopeful February release. The Hound of Eden books take about 6 months to write – the plot is complex, with multiple antagonists, and there is a deceptively large cast of characters which expands with the third book.

I have about 30,000 words of draft material at this stage. What I can say about Cold Cell is that Alexi goes to prison, and that his life – and the lives of the other characters – are going to be drastically changed by the end of the novel. Book 3 deepens the mythos of the Dermal Highway vampires (Feeders) as well.

Wild Hunt is the tentative working title for Book 4. Not telling anyone anything about that until Book 3 is out.


Finish Your Damn Book! – How to plan, write and complete your novels

The accompaniment to Fix Your Damn Book, this is the second of the FYBD Series (Fix, Finish, Format and Flaunt). There’s not really much more to say on that, save that it will embody the sum total of my wisdom on the subject of writing and completing novels. As with FYDB, I will be looking at the psychological issues and viewpoints that often interfere with writing and finishing a novel: the main ones being that people give up before they even try, and assume that they don’t have to study craft to make it.


3, 4 & 5: The Warsinger Chronicles (Books 1-3)

This is the project I am super excited about. You may have seen these super-fancy covers floating about here and there:


This is my dark fantasy series project. Set in the original world of Archemi, a setting originally conceived by me and an old D&D friend in Canada, Warsinger follows the interlinking stories of Suri, a traumatized skyknight who served in the world’s Great War and can no longer bear to fly, and Richter, a talented but brittle monastic ranger who struggles with the ghosts of his broken childhood. This unlikely pair team up with assorted others to head off the cataclysmic legacy of the Great War – the return of dragons, and the dragons’ desire to reclaim their old human slaves. To stop them, Suri and Richter are going to have to overcome their issues and recover the ancient technology that freed humankind from the dragons to begin with: The Warsingers. It’s a bit Escaflowne, a bit Azure Bonds, and a bit Dragonlance (but without the existential hopelessness).

The Warsinger Chronicles is a story and a world that’s been in development for quite a while now. I intend to write at least the first three books before publishing the first (to avoid the GRRM Effect), and then release them regularly every 2-3 months while working on Hound of Eden. This means they’re a while off yet, but the first book, Cruel Necessity, is already in production.

There are 6 full-length novels planned and one Suri-centric prequel novella, similar to Burn Artist. Most of the titles are Oliver Cromwell quotes, highlighting the English Civil War-ish feel of the series.

And that’s it for now. Secret short story project is in the works right now. You can preview the Advance Reading sample of Cold Cell here: Part One and Part Two.

Cold Cell: Chapter One (2 of 2)

Here’s the second half of the first chapter of Hound of Eden Book #3, Cold Cell. The first half is here.

I went back around to the suitcase, set it on the desk, and opened it up. I’d brought a roll of plastic bags, a grooming kit, a squirt bottle of bleach and one of water – the kind you use to hold ketchup – and a complete change of clothes. Black leather gloves, shoes, socks, an identical blue tie, trousers, shirt and jacket, all rolled. The suit was of a different material than the linen I’d worn in, a heavier wool suit in a similar, but not identical color. I wrapped up the messiest things, the hammer and my jacket and tie, and then stepped around to squirt Yegor’s exposed skin with the bleach. The odor of chlorine burned my nostrils, a clinging, lurid pink smell.

After that, I checked myself for blood, swabbing my face and gloves with dilute bleach, then with alcohol-soaked cotton to get rid of the smell. When I was sure I was clean, I changed everything, packed the dirty clothes into the suitcase along with everything else, and left the way I’d come. The P.A was nowhere to be seen, operating at a paygrade which encouraged her discretion. For Yegor, privacy came with a price.

When I was back outside, I dropped the telescoping handle of the carry-on and pulled it behind me on my way up Wall Street, merging into a thick crowd of suits, teased hair, blue jeans and pork pie hats. The sky was heavily overcast, almost like hurricane clouds by the time I reached the Charging Bull statue on Broadway. As I was walking by, I heard a thick wet splat to my left, and turned to see a dark stain, the size of a bird’s droppings, had spattered across the bull’s head. By the time I reached my ride, it was nearly dark. The streetlights had turned on. I was leery of the sky as I loaded up and got behind the wheel, but as soon as I was in the relative privacy of the car, I relaxed with pleasure so profound that it was practically erotic. I had done magic of the kind I’d only dreamed back in there. I’d pulled energy from somewhere other and channeled it with nothing but a word and my will. There was no ward to rely on, no other magus flinging energy at me that I could turn on its head. I’d called to the Art, and the Art had responded.

“My GOD,” I said aloud. “That felt good.”

There was no one else in the car, but someone replied all the same. The voice was in my own head, hissing in my ears like a chorus of hissing leaves sliding down dry pavement. If I hadn’t been a mage, I’d have checked myself in to the asylum.

“Yegor Gavrilyuk is dead.” Kutkha, my Neshamah, projected an image of himself preening under one shadowy wing. Head cocked, he fixed me with one solid white eye. It burned and spat like the core of a star. “A sore blow to the Organizatsiya. Are you satisfied?”

“I won’t be satisfied until they’re dead.” I pulled my wig off and stuffed it into the suitcase, took out my blue contacts, and pulled my shoes. I’d worn two-inch insoles in them, boosting my height to the princely total of five foot seven. “We’ll get rid of all of this and go to K&S. I’ll take what money we can transport, and burn the rest.”

“Indeed. Though you must beware the corruption that so much money brings. The desire for revenge is eating you alive, my Ruach.You have never been a creature of the light, and the Void will tempt you,”

Like I didn’t already know that. It had been just on four weeks since my brush with death, and I had been feeling… strange. Not terrible, despite the usual trials and tribulations of healing a life-threatening injury, but definitely different. Something had shifted in my mind and body like an iceberg sliding into a slowly moving flow of water. When I looked out across a crowd of people, I felt lean and hungry, wolfish, calculating. I’d been eating a lot. I’d been thinking about money and the ins and outs of power. I’d picked up a copy of The Prince and had left it next to my bed at Strange Kitty, reading Machiavelli in an attempt to understand Sergei better. Kutkha had said not a word about it, until now.

“I’m doing my best.” I got out a packet of wet wipes, and cleaned off the remainder of the subtle makeup I’d used to conceal the true shape of my face. Nothing extravagant: just enough to flesh out my cheeks, add crows feet, and give my skin a rosy look that it typically lacked. It made all the difference on camera. “Are you worried about the Yen?”

“Perhaps. Yen infection is subtle in HuMans.” Kutkha shivered, ruffling his feathers. “I worry because you keep yourself in a state of perpetual, voluntary poverty. After a lifetime spent telling yourself that you do not need anything and anyone, you face desire. Desire needles you to make choices. It is not something that you have trained for.”

“Nonsense. I decide on things every day.”

Kutkha laughed, the soft chortling laughter of crows. “Not decisions, Alexi. Choices. Decisions are passive things made in response to a stimulus, a need. Choices create the stimuli that forces others to decide. You have had very little room for choice in your life.”

I frowned, turning the engine, and paused as a thick spang of liquid bounced off the roof. Then another… and then a scattering of blows on the windshield, multiple dark, clotted red masses oozing down the glass. “What the Hell…?”

Screams of confusion and disgust pealed up from the street around me. I was about to open the door and go outside to look when Kutkha seized control of my body and pulled me back into my seat, an awkward exertion of his will on mine that caused me to lift up and then flop back down on an awkward angle. “No! Don’t go out there!”

Dumbstruck, I watched on in stupefied awe as the rain thundered down and my view of people running and ducking for cover disappeared under a greasy layer of shredded flesh. The air was suddenly bone-chillingly cold, saturated with the smell of raw meat.

Satisfaction faded to shock. I slumped back, rubbing my hand over mouth and jaw. “I… I’ve heard of this sort of thing happening as signs or auguries, but, I mean. this seems even beyond the capability of the TVS. Kutkha, do you…”

I trailed off. Kutkha’s response was the tense silence of an ellipsis.

“It is a harbinger,” Kutkha finally said. His voice was firmer, clearer, less ethereal.

The rain of blood was turning to pinkish water, sweeping blasts of it that streaked through the dark red mess from my windshield. I turned the wipers on and started the car, idling until I could see outside again. The street looked like a slaughterhouse. “A harbinger of… what?”

“Events like this occur when a Cell is under attack,” Kutkha replied. “Your world, and all the worlds in this region are protected by a Parama, the ‘skin’ that surrounds your local neighborhood. Paramae separate layers of reality from one another, like cell walls. They are permeable, allowing Phi to sweep in and out of a galactic region. This spiraling wave of GOD’s plasma gives your Cell dynamism. For reality to bend in such a fashion as this, the Parama must be under stress.”

“Or a tornado swept up a warehouse full of chickens and deposited the remains over New York,” I said. “Things like this aren’t necessarily supernatural.”

“When was the last time you heard of such a thing happening?”

I thought for a moment. “The Black Plague was supposedly presaged by a rain of blood over Germany. So was World War One, in rural England. Arguably, the blood rain actually foretold the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, which killed even more people than the war did. A hundred million, if I remember correctly.”

“One fifth of all HuManity in the world perished in that year alone, killed by a virus which brewed in the trenches of the Great War,” Kutkha said. “So, for all the good it will do us, shall we go and fetch our money, my Ruach?”

I tried to push it down, but the disquieting wrongness that pressed in on me could not be ignored. Power rippled in a wave that passed over me from the moaning sky, discordant and unnatural. It was followed by a boom of thunder so strong that the car vibrated.

“Yes,” I said, quietly. “I suppose that’s all we can do. But we need to get to the bottom of it.”

“We?” My Neshamah chortled. “Do you think yourself so great?”

“What I think is that I can’t kill Sergei if I’m dead.” I slowly pulled out onto the street, and watched another glob of indeterminable meat slide down my windshield. “The only thing I am is pissed off. There’s a wooden stake with Sergei’s name on it, and damned if I’m going to let some virus stop me.”

This is a draft chapter and may not actually make the cut. Tell me what you think in the comments! I’m interested in feedback on the suspense and interest this scenario offers people.


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