Yesterday, on Twitter and Facebook, I promised to post excerpts from HOLE IN THE WORLD and RETURN TO THE LOST LEVEL (the forthcoming prequel and sequel to THE LOST LEVEL) if we reached a certain number of pre-orders on KING OF THE BASTARDS. Well, we didn’t quite reach the numbers, but to thank the folks who did pre-order, I’m posting an excerpt from HOLE IN THE WORLD anyway.
As I said, this is a prequel to THE LOST LEVEL, and details the adventures of a busload of people who arrive there some time before Aaron Pace. The second draft is 3/4 of the way finished, after which it will go off to pre-readers, and then Camelot Books (who are publishing the hardcover) and Apex (who will publish the paperback and digital versions after the hardcover).
“Sit down on the grass,” Scott told Benn, “and let me take a look at your arm.”
“Are you a doctor?” Tod asked.
“No,” Scott said, “but I can clean and dress wounds, even stitch them if need be. I have treated a few of my own over the years.”
Tod persisted. “So, you’re like a CIA guy or something? Military?”
Scott shook his head. “Nothing like that, I’m afraid.”
Benn winced, clutching his arm. “You just get hurt a lot?”
Scott shrugged. “I can be accident prone. I also raise reptiles and amphibians, so I’ve been bit a time or two. I’ve stitched myself up before, and treated myself with antibiotics and supplies from the pet store. Good enough?”
Nodding, Benn sank to the ground. “Fuck yeah. At this point, anything will do.”
Scott and Tod knelt next to him.
“How about you,” Scott asked Tod. “You have any medical training?”
“I’m a football coach. I’ve seen a few broken bones. Lots of sprains. Never anything like this, though.” Tod turned to look at the other passengers and called, “Is anyone here a doctor?”
An older man with blood on his face stepped forward. “I’m not a doctor, but I taught high school biology, anatomy, and general wellness for thirty-two years. Maybe I can help?”
Scott shrugged. “Do you faint at the sight of blood?”
“Just his own,” said another man. This one had nasty abrasions on his palms and knees. “I’m Paul Goblirsch. My bleeding friend is H.”
“What’s the H stand for?” Scott asked.
“It doesn’t stand for anything,” H said. “It’s just H.”
“Back there,” Paul continued, “are Leigh, Mark, and Chris. And our new friend Geoff.”
Scott turned and saw a skinny guy, a stocky guy, a guy in a wheelchair, and a guy who looked like a bodybuilder. He nodded at them, then returned his attention to Benn’s wound. The metal stuck out of his forearm like a broken bone. Blood seeped around the edges. He knew there was going to be much more of it as soon as they removed the shard.
“Okay,” he said. “Benn, I want you to lie down. We’re going to elevate your arm. Tod, you’re going to hold his shoulder. Geoff, can you take his legs?”
Nodding, Tod and the bodybuilder moved into position.
“What are you going to do?” Benn asked, licking his lips.
“In a minute, I’m going to pull this metal out of your arm, and I don’t want you thrashing around. But first, we’ll need a tourniquet, some antiseptic, bandages, and probably something to help seal the wound. Can the rest of you start checking with the other passengers and see what we can come up with? We need clean cloth, alcohol, painkillers—stuff like that. Try not to get aspirin or Ibuprofen. They’ll just make his bleeding worse. Tylenol would be great. Superglue or something similar would be awesome.”
Leigh frowned. “Superglue? Isn’t that for, like, gluing broken toys and such together?”
“It’s for gluing flesh back together, too.” Scott positioned Benn’s arm by his side and checked the injured man’s pupils. “It was invented for use on the battlefield.”
Benn coughed, his jaw clenching with pain. “I don’t care if you guys use Elmer’s glue. Could we just do something?”
“Sorry,” Scott apologized. “You’re right. Get to it, guys. And try to hurry. Benn, you rest. As long as the metal stays where it is, you won’t bleed to death anytime soon. Mr. H, you stay here with me. I want to take a look at your head.”
“Okay,” H replied.
“H passed out a few minutes ago,” Paul said, “but he seems better now.”
“I am,” H insisted.
“I’d still like to take a look at you,” Scott said. “And Paul, your hands and knees are pretty scraped up. You want me to look at those, as well?”
“I’ll be okay. Just need some disinfectant.”
“That you do,” Scott confirmed. “Last thing you want are those to get infected. Okay, you help the others with their scavenger hunt. H, you stay here.”
Paul, Chris, Leigh, and Mark headed off. Scott noticed that Chris’s wheelchair was maneuvering with some slight difficulty on the terrain.
Benn moaned. Tod and Geoff tried to soothe him.
“You’re going to be okay,” Scott said. “We’ll have you fixed up in no time.”
“Maybe I should help my friends,” H suggested.
“No,” Scott insisted. “I want you to stay right here for now. Are you seeing double? Have a headache? Anything like that?”
“My head hurts, but I think that’s because I banged it when we crashed. Otherwise, no.”
“And the H really doesn’t stand for anything?”
“It really doesn’t. H is my name.”
“I believe you,” Scott admitted. “In truth, I just wanted to check your memory. Listen to your speech. Make sure you weren’t slurring your words.”
H grinned. “You’re pretty good at taking charge, Mr. Berke.”
“You can call me Scott. And thanks. To be honest, I’m sort of a loner, but I have to work with people all the time for my job.”
“It shows,” H replied. “You got these guys into action pretty quick.”
“Well,” Scott said, turning H’s head from side to side and examining his wound, “I guess somebody has to be in charge until help arrives.”
H looked up at the sun, shining bright overhead. “If help arrives.”
* * *
Greg, Dave, and Jamie stood near the bus, gawking at their surroundings. Paul Legerski stood away from them and alone, angrily trying to get his cell phone to work. His suitcase sat on the ground between his feet.
“How’s your ankle?” Greg asked Jamie.
“I can stand on it,” Jamie confirmed, “but I’m not going to be running sprints anytime soon. Looks like there’s some people hurt much worse than me over there.”
They glanced at where Jamie was pointing, and saw several passengers huddled over a bloody man. Then their attention returned to the landscape.
“I don’t understand,” Dave said. “I mean, how is this possible? It was night.”
“Not to mention the blizzard,” Greg agreed. “And now it’s sunny.”
“And hot.” Jamie unbuttoned his sleeves and rolling them up. “It must be eighty, maybe ninety degrees out here. It feels like back home in California.”
“Except we’re not in California,” Greg said. “And I don’t think we’re in Maryland, either.”
“Then where the hell are we?” Dave motioned at the trees. “I recognize most of those—pines, oaks, palm trees, but have you guys ever seen them growing together like this in the same place? And there are also trees I swear I’ve never seen before. And the wildlife! I saw a crow up in a limb when we first came out of the bus, but I also saw a butterfly that was neon green. It’s like home, but it isn’t. So where are we?”
“Did either of you actually see us crash?” Jamie asked.
Dave nodded. “Sure. I mean, we all saw it, right?”
“No,” Jamie said. “We all felt something happen, but we didn’t actually see a crash. Or, at least I didn’t.”
Dave shook his head. “The front of the bus is all smashed up. The driver got speared by the steering column. I’d say that indicates a crash. We crashed into a tree.”
“Did we?” Jamie motioned at the wreckage. “Or did the tree crash into us?”
“I saw some weird lights,” Dave volunteered. “Right before everything went to shit.”
“I did, too,” Jamie said. “I assumed they were from a plane taking off or landing. We were near the airport, after all.”
“Maybe we got transported somewhere else,” Greg suggested.
Dave chuckled. “What? You mean time travel? Another dimension? Little green men?”
“Maybe it sounds unbelievable,” Greg admitted, “but how else do you explain what’s happened? It makes sense to me.”
Dave turned to Jamie. “What do you think?”
Jamie shrugged. “I believe it is the height of arrogance to think that we are alone in the universe. I don’t know about little green men, but of course there are aliens. As for time travel, I absolutely love the concept, but I am totally clueless as to whether it is a possibility. I do believe in alternate worlds, as it simply makes sense for there to be multiple dimensions.”
“So, then, you believe that’s what’s happened to us?” Dave asked.
Jamie paused. “I don’t know. I believe that something strange has happened. Obviously. But we don’t have all the facts yet, and until we have all the data, the only thing I’m sure of is that we’re in trouble.”
Dave stared off into the forest. “Somebody will come. They have to.”
Greg and Jamie thought it sounded like he was trying to convince himself.
* * *
“Excuse me, sir?”
Paul Legerski stuffed his useless cell phone in his pocket and glanced up. Standing before him were three passengers from the bus. He recognized the first two—the guy in the wheelchair and his skinny friend with the Australian accent. They’d been sitting near him on the shuttle. The third passenger was one he didn’t recognize—a short man with black hair, black glasses, tattoos, and a strange hybrid accent that Paul thought might be Boston and… Ohio, maybe? The third passenger spoke again.
“Sorry to bother you, but I noticed you have your luggage already. We’ve got an injured guy over there. There’s a piece of metal sticking out of his arm. It’s pretty bad. We were wondering if you might have any Tylenol?”
“You’re going to treat him with Tylenol?
“Or liquor,” the Australian piped up. “Maybe you have a whiskey flask, eh? And we need bandages and such, or clean cloth that we can turn into bandages.”
“Anything at all would help,” the man in the wheelchair added.
“Sorry.” Legerski shrugged. “I can’t help you.”
The Australian frowned. “Mister…?”
“Legerski. Paul Legerski.”
“I’m Leigh. These are my mates Chris and Mark. Listen, you might not have noticed, but we’ve got a bit of a situation here.”
Legerski laughed. “That’s the understatement of the year! You think we’ve got a situation? Yeah, I’d say we’ve got a fucking situation.”
“I-I didn’t mean any o-offense,” Leigh stammered. “It’s just that—”
“Look,” Legerski interrupted, “I need to get in touch with my attorney, and I need to walk somewhere until I find a signal because I’m not getting anything here.”
Leigh blinked. “Your attorney?”
“Yeah, that’s right. I’m going to sue the airline, and everybody else connected with this epic cluster-fuck. We crashed, what, ten minutes ago? Where the hell are the emergency responders? They should be here by now, but I don’t even hear any fucking sirens. This is unacceptable. So, if you don’t mind—”
Mark stepped past Leigh and shoved Legerski backward a step.
“Actually, asshole, we do mind.”
Legerski shoved back, glowering down at him. “Listen, cocksucker…”
“No, you listen!” Mark grabbed him by the front of his Sharks jersey with both fists. “Now maybe you didn’t hear us before, but we’ve got an injured person over there. Do you have anything in your bag that might help us?”
“No. And you’ve got two seconds to let go of me.”
“Both of you knock it the fuck off.”
Chris’s voice was soft, yet it held an undeniable edge. Legerski and Mark both paused, and glanced at him. Then they released each other.
“Come on,” Leigh said. “Let’s go ask somebody else.”
They turned away from him and began to walk away, but not before Chris ran over Legerski’s toe with his wheelchair.
“Ouch! Goddamn it, watch where you’re going.”
“Sorry.” Chris grinned.
Toe throbbing, Legerski watched them approach another group—a woman, a young girl, and a kid with long hair and a beard. Before they could reach the other group, they were approached by a fourth man. Paul overheard them call this newcomer Paul, as well.
Two Pauls, he thought. That won’t do. This place isn’t big enough for two Pauls.
Grinning, he stared at the middle of Mark’s back.
Right there, he thought. Right there is where I’ll stick the knife. You wanted to know what I’d do if you didn’t let go of me? Well, you’ll find out. You’re going to be number thirty-eight, fuckwad. At first, I thought it might be that other guy from the bus, but now you’ll have the honor. I’ll wait until they get us out of here, and settled in at the hotel, and then I’ll fucking find you and make you bleed. You, and then you’re little faggot buddy from down under, and then that crippled fuck in the wheelchair. And anybody else who wants to fuck with me.
Legerski knew that killing someone—let alone three people—this far from home was risky. If they found some type of evidence that matched up with his victims on the West Coast, and they began searching passenger manifests and travel records, they might discover a clue to his identity. But on the one hand, Maryland was so far away from the locations of his thirty-seven previous victims (the ones that had been discovered, at least) that authorities might not connect the two at all.
He turned his head to the sky, squinting against the sun’s glare. Legerski had to admit, this didn’t much look like Maryland. And where the hell had all the snow gone? All the white had been replaced with green.
No matter. White. Green.
Soon, he’d turn it red.
He stalked off toward the trees, holding his phone out in front of him, searching for a signal.
* * *
Jesse stared at the forest surrounding them. His expression was concerned.
“What’s wrong?” Colinda asked, trying to get her cell phone to work.
“The forest,” Jesse said. “There were birds singing before. Now, there’s nothing. It’s gone quiet.”
“Maybe the birds are scared of us?”
“Maybe.” Jesse nodded, his expression still pensive. “Or maybe they’re afraid of something else.”
Jesse shrugged. He opened his mouth to respond, but then just shrugged again.
* * *
“Folks” Paul Goblirsch moved to the center of the crash site and held up his hands, signaling everyone. “If I could have your attention for a minute? Please?”
“Good job,” Mark whispered. “Way to take charge, Paul.”
Paul glanced over his shoulder at Mark, Leigh, and Chris, and couldn’t help but grin. Despite the bizarre situation, he was glad his friends were with him. Realizing that the other passengers were all staring at him, he turned his attention back to the crowd.
“Thank you,” he said, speaking loudly so that everyone would hear. “My name is Paul Goblirsch. As you probably noticed, we’re all in a bit of a situation here. Now, I know everybody is scared. I’m scared, too. I don’t think any of us are sure what happened…or where we are.”
“Our phones aren’t working,” said a woman. “Did the driver radio for help?”
“I’m sorry, mam. I didn’t get your name?”
“Well, Colinda…” Paul took a deep breath. “The driver is dead.”
The crowd murmured. A few people gasped.
“I’m sure help is coming,” he said, raising his voice again. “Someone is sure to notice that we’re missing. But it might take a while. I think we can all agree that we might not be where they expect to find us, right?”
Some of the passengers nodded. Paul noticed their expressions ranging from bewilderment to terror. They mirrored his own feelings. He thought about his wife, Janet, and their two daughters. Even if the authorities weren’t aware that they had crashed, Janet would hit the panic button when she didn’t hear from him.
“All we have to do is sit tight,” Paul said. “I’m sure most of you have people waiting at home. They’ll be worried about us. Someone will come. But in the meantime, we’ve got a few injured people over there. One of them is fairly serious. Is there anybody else here who needs medical assistance?”
He waited for a show of hands. When there was none, he continued.
“Okay. Mr. Berke over there knows first aid. He’s going to help the injured. But we need your assistance with that. We need medical supplies. We’re looking for…”
Paul’s voice trailed off as he realized nobody was listening to him any longer. All of their attention was focused on the tree line behind him. He turned slowly, and looked. A few of the treetops shook violently, but there was no wind. There was no sound, either, except for the rustling branches and leaves. Then, they stopped trembling. Seconds later, some treetops closer to the clearing began to tremble. Whatever was disturbing them was coming closer.
* * *
Erin wasn’t paying attention to the grown-ups. She sat in her mother’s lap. Mr. Bob was sitting next to them on the grass. She liked Mr. Bob. He was funny and kind, and did neat magic tricks. But right now, Mr. Bob and her Mommy were both listening to the man with the bloody knees and hands. Erin didn’t want to look at the bloody man, because he reminded her of her own scraped knee.
Instead, she focused on a tiny butterfly with a wingspan of only a few inches. It was orange and red and pink in color, and it quickly flitted between the flowers growing in the clearing, alighting on a different plant every few seconds. Erin thought it was one of the prettiest things she’d ever seen, and its movements delighted her. She continued to watch the butterfly as it flew closer to the forest, hovering right at the edge of the tree line. As a result, she was the first one in the group to actually see the dinosaur as it pushed through the trees and emerged into the clearing.
Then, all of the adults started screaming.
* * *
Benn stared over Tod, Geoff, and Scott’s shoulders, mouth gaping in mid-moan. He forgot his pain, forgot his fears that he was dying, and forgot the nauseating feeling of his own blood leaking from his body. Instead, his thoughts were consumed with the impossible thing looming over them. Benn was so paralyzed with fear that he couldn’t even scream. H, seated nearby, did it for him.
Benn was fairly certain that the creature that erupted from the forest was an allosaurus. It stood about sixteen feet high, and he guessed it was probably thirty feet long, from its massive head to its long, heavily muscled tail. A pair of horns sat above and in front of its eyes, and small ridges ran from its nose up to the base of the horns. It tottered over them on large hind legs.
The dinosaur’s head swiveled from left to right, perched oddly atop its tiny neck, as it surveyed them. Then, it opened its mouth, revealing dozens of knife-sized, sharp teeth, and made a sound—not a roar, as Benn expected, but more of a rumbling hiss.
Screaming and shouting, the passengers abandoned the crash site and fled in all directions toward the surrounding foliage.
“Help me with him.” Scott jumped to his feet and grabbed Benn’s uninjured arm.
“Oh fuck,” Benn wheezed as the allosaurus focused its attention on them.
Tod and Geoff moved quickly. Tod grabbed Benn’s other arm. Benn bit down a scream as pain coursed through the limb. Geoff took hold of his legs. Next to them, H stumbled to his feet, seeming disoriented.
Shock, Benn thought. He’s in shock. If that blow to the head didn’t do it, then this sure did.
“I’m sorry, Benn,” Scott said. “This is going to hurt. Pick him up, guys.”
Grunting, the allosaurus lumbered toward them.
“Hurry,” Scott urged, his voice thick with barely controlled panic.
They lifted Benn off the ground, and he shrieked. The pain was so intense that his vision blacked out for a second. When he could see again, he realized that they were carrying him across the clearing, casting terrified glances back at their pursuer. With another throaty hiss, the dinosaur plodded after them, deceptively fast despite its enormous bulk. With three quick strides it closed the distance between itself and its prey, ignoring the bewildered H and bearing down directly atop them. Its small, three-fingered forearms thrashed with excitement, the curved and pointed claws clacking together with a loud clicking sound. Then it darted forward, head lowered, mouth wide. Drool dripped from its maw.