The idea of an FBI detective turning up at a murder scene in full chain mail regalia is so appealing that I instinctively want to like this story. The other immediate positive is that, even just glancing at the extract, I can see plenty of dialogue, which is a good sign. See what you think.
Title: Feast or Famine
Genre: Dark urban fantasy
Language: US English
Synopsis: An idealistic FBI agent tracks down a serial killer targeting victims born with twelve fingers and twelve toes. When the trail leads to a homicidal cabal of angels, he is forced to take them on by becoming a member of the Four Horsemen.
Nine o’clock on a Friday night—a week before Valentine’s Day—the Park Avenue sidewalks should have been crowded with throngs of people, shoulder to shoulder, shopping and going about their business before the weekend.
The historic street should have been equally jammed with bumper to bumper traffic. And it was. Except that the vehicles consisted solely of New York City police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, forensic vans, and a hearse from the coroner’s office. The iconic brilliance of the city by night was faint, barely noticeable against the flashing of blue and red emergency lights.
It was going to rain soon. Michael Childs could smell it in the air. As a few threatening drops fell from the sky, he pulled the collar of his joust tunic tighter against the back of his neck and stepped off the curb to merge with the flow of official traffic, both vehicles and personnel.
With no time to change into a suit, he promptly made his way toward the police barrier, still wearing a protective gorget around his neck. The weighted, maille shirt rattled as he walked, despite the padded black gambeson beneath that covered him from shoulders to mid-thigh. Reinforced with buckles and straps that complemented his leather leggings, boots, and spurs, the medieval ensemble received more than a fair share of strange looks from the first responders on the scene.
Dodging a fire truck as the vehicle departed, Michael swept back a gray, suede arming cap from his head and ran his fingers through his long, black hair. He used a leather cord from his sword belt and tied it back into a pony tail at the nape of his neck. It was difficult to do with gloves on, but he didn’t have time to worry about how he looked. He was already out of time and out of place at the official scene of a homicide.
“Sir, there is an active police investigation here,” a uniformed officer said. “I’m going to have to ask you to step back.”
Michael pulled out his badge and ducked under the wooden barricade without waiting for permission.
“FBI sure has a funny dress code these days,” the portly cop said. There was disapproval in the tired, double-chinned face and dull eyes.
“You should see us on dress-down Fridays,” Michael replied. “Onesies and lingerie.”
Standing in the alley behind a band of yellow tape, Elijah Pope poked his head around the corner. “Mike?” He scratched at the short growth of black hair at his crown. “Let him through, Larry.”
“What’ve we got?” Michael stepped aside and out of the way of a passing team of CSIs. Evidence collection bags in their hands, they paused long enough to stare at him before returning to their vehicles.
“Never mind what I’ve got.” Elijah walked in a circle around him. “What the hell are you wearing?”
Michael flashed a mischievous grin. “EJ, I was at joust practice. When I got the call, I was cap-a-pied with a lance and an 1800-pound Clydesdale bearing down on me.”
Confused, Larry narrowed his eyes. “Cap-a-what?”
“It means in full armor.”
“A crazed murderer running loose in the city, and you’re playing knights of the round table? At your age?” Larry tucked his thumbs into his gun belt and rolled his eyes in disgust. “What do you want to be when you grow up someday?”
“An FBI special agent.” Michael held up his badge again. “And you?”
Elijah winced and bit his thumb. “Damn! Better see the EMTs for that burn, Larry.” He took Michael by the shoulder and led him into the alley.
“The locals are awfully testy tonight.”
“With good reason, Mikey.” Elijah directed his attention to a white tarp laying on the ground. “Meet Miss Mary Padgett, 36.”
Hesitant to look beneath the covering, Michael frowned. Though he had investigated dozens of murders, the task of examining the body at the scene never got any easier. The most recent cases had proven to be especially difficult. “Is it him again?”
“See for yourself. Hope you had a light dinner.”
Michael drew back the tarp. The pallid face of a young woman stared up at him. Her eyelids had been cut away, forcing her vacant eyes to stare into nothingness. She laid in a supine position on the damp concrete. With an adept degree of precision, the murderer had carved up her face with occult symbols. Evidenced by the dried blood in the wounds, she was still alive when he cut her. Bare and discolored, her arms were stretched over her head, as if she were reaching out for the small clay jar beyond her fingertips.
“I see the eyelids are gone.” Michael sank down on one knee and shook his head. “Her tongue, too?”
“Cut out and burned with the eyelids in that jar above her head. Forensics already made a positive call for human remains. I could tell that by the stench.”
“Cause of death?”
“Just a preliminary, but judging from that nasty yellow foam coming out of her mouth, she choked to death on her own fluids.” Elijah pulled a pen and notebook from his coat. “I’ll bet the quarterback on my fantasy football team that the tox report comes back the same as all the others.”
“This is the fifth one,” Michael whispered.
“Partner, it’s time to call this here shit what it is.” Elijah glanced around to see who might be listening in on their conversation. “This here is a serial killer with a fetish for ritualistic torture and killing. If we don’t wrap our heads around that fact, we ain’t never going to catch the bastard.”
Artistically sculpted with precision and care for the esthetic, a set of wings unfurled from behind her shoulders. They might have been beautiful had they not been carved from the flesh of the dead woman’s back.
Editorial comment: I want to like this opening, immediately, because the idea of someone turning up to a murder scene in an alleyway just off Park Avenue in full chain mail appeals. I trip up a little on the first two paras, however. The reason is that they’re pure scene setting, exposition. They’re not overlong, and you might think I’m being too fussy, but they’re just unnecessary. They’re not related from any character’s PoV, so really they’re wasted words.
Once my attention is drawn to them, because of this background/exposition problem, I get to thinking about them. I know it’s the City that Never Sleeps, but is that true, that Park Avenue would be thronging with people at nine at night on a probably bitter cold Friday evening in very early February? I used to live in New York, and sometimes you didn’t want to be anywhere outside in February, with north-easterlies howling down those glass and concrete canyons, and the streets would be relatively deserted. The same applies to the next observation, about the traffic. Do you mean to say that they closed off Park Avenue because they found a single body up an alleyway? In Big Apple terms it’s hardly a major incident. I suppose the Feds can do anything they like, but I would have thought closing off an entire Avenue in NYC for a “simple” crime scene investigation would even give them pause.
Now whether that’s a road-block too far for most agents I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a potential issue that I’d try and remove. The rest of the scene is great: lots of dialogue, as I said, interesting quirky characters with their own lives going on.
I can’t give it a gold star because of those first two paras. If you’re quite sure that Park Avenue would be packed with busy shoppers, answer this question. How does the serial killer have the opportunity to murder someone unseen, set fire to various body parts in a small pot, and carve chunks out of his victim’s back and arrange them as wings, with hundreds of happy shoppers thronging past a few feet away looking for anything heart-shaped for Valentine’s? If you’re going to say that the murder wasn’t committed there, I’d still say that it would be a stretch for the murderer to arrange this tableau (what did he do, back up a van?), in the presence of so many love-struck New Yorkers. Are there even any alleyways on Park Avenue? From what I remember of it, it’s all massive skyscrapers, and if it does have any alleyways, they would probably be full of furtive smokers sneaking a quick Marlboro Light while their boss is on the phone. But otherwise really good writing.
Thanks for posting.
Wow! I think I have whiplash from the quick turnaround! THANK YOU!
All concrete and valid points here that have plagued me about this first chapter. Here’s the rub. To the trouble with exposition that you point out here (and I completely agree), I was told by a professional to essentially ‘get over myself’ when I confessed that it was not working for me. Talk about feeling like the kid who tried to sit at the adults’ table. I bowed my head to reprimand and resisted reworking it.
A more recent reviewer, also an industry professional, seemed to dislike the quirkiness of the characters and suggested trimming the dialogue because it was too much like television scripting and the humor was inappropriate. I was left a bit perplexed, scratching my head and giggling at the same time to save my sanity. This business really is a shot in the dark, the proverbial needle in the haystack, with many masters to please. Good thing I like puzzles.
I plan to get over myself by fixing that introduction and at least satisfying myself, if no one else. Thank you so much for your time!!! It is heartfully appreciated!
Please yourself and at least you’ll please someone, as they say. It is always your book, at the end of the day. I do get a bit mystified by some of the other review points reported to me by writers. Your first critic I’d just disagree with, plain and simple. It’s not egregious, but it is exposition and you don’t need it, or rather, you could make it much more personal, and therefore build your characters at the same time. Perhaps your second reviewer was taking to heart the “dark urban fantasy” and assuming everything should be gothic gloom. I disagree, again strongly. Real people have senses of humor, and the juxtaposition of this with what is, after all, a pretty macabre scene, is what makes it all the more compelling. Where do you get the most ridiculous banter between professionals? Morgues and operating theaters.
Thanks again. Looking forward to resubmitting. /humblebow
I have a policy of not accepting resubmissions within a month of the original. This is to protect you. If you react too quickly without really thinking about what changes you’re happy to make, you might end up writing something that you think I want to read, rather than something you want to write. That’s not the object of this site at all!
I wanted to send another thank you. I reworked my first chapter with a better opening, as you suggested. My mentor said this: “freaking brilliant”. I dislike dropping names as it seems desperate, so I’ll just say my mentor is a well-established, best-selling and award-winning YA author. She loved the new intro and is contacting her agent to share the chapter to see if there is interest.
Not sure where it might lead, but it is a step in the right direction. Thanks again.
Patty (Feast or Famine)
That’s great news. Keep us posted!