SAVAGE NIGHTS, a thriller by W.D. Gagliani, the author of WOLF'S TRAP, WOLF'S GAMBIT, WOLF'S BLUFF, and WOLF'S EDGE
I wrote Savage Nights in 2006-07, intending it as a follow-up to my Bram Stoker Award nominated novel, Wolf's Trap. In my mind, Nick Lupo's story was done, finished. I was moving on, writing about haunted Vietnam veteran Rich Brant and what he does when his beloved niece is kidnapped by a sex slavery ring. But my publisher asked for a sequel to Trap because it had done so well, and the Nick Lupo series was born – up to four novels out there now, with a fifth underway.
So as I wrote Wolf's Gambit, I had my agent shop Savage Nights as a stand-alone thriller, but ultimately I think it was too dark. Much too dark! There were nibbles, but no takers. And then Liam Neeson's movie "Taken" was released, and I was dismayed to find that it shared some coincidental plot points with my novel – on the surface, the plot is the same, except it's the protagonist's daughter who is kidnapped. The two protagonists share some past history and experience, too, giving them "skills" they can use to get their loved one back. There is one great difference, however: in Savage Nights the protagonist and his niece also share a tenuous psychic bond that lets him know she's still alive.
Well, there's another difference, and that is how much darker my novel was than the watered-down movie plot. I wanted to be unflinching in my portrayal of the slavery ring and how they treat the girls and women they kidnap, resulting in a novel that's closer to horror as a genre. It was probably too dark for the general thriller market, where many explicit details are routinely glossed over. Coming as I did from a horror background, that was the last thing I wanted to do.
This is how I described the novel for promotional purposes:
"Tormented Vietnam veteran Rick Brant is forced to use his inconsistent and unreliable psychic ability when his beloved 19-year old niece, Kit, is kidnapped from a busy mall. Realizing that Kit has been snatched for auction by an international sexual slavery ring, Brant reconnects with his Vietnam buddies, some of them ex-cops, to help him pry her from the clutches of the ruthless Goran ("the Serb") and his gang. Her ultimate destination may be a modern harem, a brothel, a dungeon, or one of the Serb's kinky slavery clubs. Or worse. As the horror of Kit's captivity increases daily, Brant becomes rescuer, avenging angel – and executioner. In his quest, he may find redemption for his own past sins. Savage Nights is a tough, pulls-no-punches, hard-noir thriller that's not for the faint of heart."
I think I may have coined a new term there: hard-noir. I called my Wolf novels North Woods Noirs because they were set in Wisconsin's North Woods and they followed, in my opinion, a noir sensibility in their pacing, dialogue, and action – and in the darkness exhibited by their antagonists and even protagonists. I came up with hard-noir to describe the thriller Savage Nights with the intention of explaining its hard-nosed qualities, which I think take it beyond traditional noir. The parallel story is set in the past, during the Vietnam War, and focuses on Brant's experiences as a Tunnel Rat – and shows both his psychic tendencies and his occasional forays into his own heart of darkness. All of which greatly impacts how he responds to Kit's kidnapping in the story's present…
The excerpt Tamworth Grice has graciously agreed to post is the start of that parallel story, set in the Vietnam jungle and around one of the many tunnel entrances the Rats were forced to negotiate, often with nothing but a knife and a handgun. Based on actual accounts of the Cu Chi campaign, I tried to stick to reality with only very few creations from my imagination (although there were a few). Here, then, is Chapter Two from Savage Nights, which is doing fairly well as an independent publication for the Amazon Kindle.
Thanks for checking it out, and I hope you'll let me know what you think if you give it a chance. Remember, it's a very dark read. But the reviews have been mostly excellent, and I'm very proud of the way it turned out. Great thanks also to Tamworth Grice for hosting!
A NOVEL OF SUSPENSE
By W. D. Gagliani
The jungle canopy spreads out over them like a leafy umbrella. Its sounds have stilled to occasional raucous cries that give each of them pause as they stand circling the hole, their fingers tight against the triggers of their rifles. There is Sarge, his thick eyebrows knotted over roving red-rimmed eyes. There is Smitty and Packey, standing guard against whatever might come crawling from the hole or stumble out of the jungle's darkness. The others form a small, nervous ring of guns and sweat in various poses.
No one is more covered in sweat than he, and he feels the sheen on his skin soak his clothing all over again. He sets down the black rifle and pack and strips off his web belt. From the pack's loose flap he withdraws a Colt .38 snub-nose revolver and checks the cylinder.
Sweat droplets gather on his chin and dribble in a line to his chest, where the olive drab fabric has turned black. His hand shakes as he methodically inserts six fat cartridges into the Smith's cylinder. The brass slips between his damp fingers but he gently seats each round in its nacelle and snaps the cylinder shut. Full. Six rounds.
"Loot," drawls Sarge. "Let me lob a couple grenades in there. We got plenty."
"You know that's not good enough, Sarge. Grenades don't do shit in Charlie's tunnels. There's only one way to flush 'im, and that's this old fashioned way. Keep an eye out for other exits, and don't shoot my fuckin' head off if I come squirtin' back."
"Kay. Smitty, Digger, fan out and watch for moving bushes."
Sarge pulls back the bolt of his M-16 and lets it snap quietly forward. The others follow suit.
Loot — Lieutenant Richard Brant — shrugs out of his pack and extra gear, unsnaps his webbed belt and holster, and taps both boot knives down so they can't slide out on their own.
He checks the opening carefully. Charlie's been known to booby-trap everything. Coke cans. C-ration tins. Fallen logs. Trapdoors are a likely booby trap, but Loot traces the edge with a finger and senses this one's clear. He can't see any wires, there's no sign of a hasty set-up or glob of plastique. His sweat trickles into his eyes and he blinks hard. Charlie might be crouching just on the other side of the square door, AK in hand, bayonet fixed, ready to make a suicide strike on the first GI to face him. Maybe there's a squad past the second trapdoor, or maybe there's a hollowed out side chamber behind which Charlie lies, clutching a spear and just waiting for a pink-skinned target to ease into the square hole. Maybe—
Loot senses he's psyched himself out. If he had just opened the trapdoor and climbed in, it would have been fine. But instead he started to play the scenarios in his head. Remembering other holes, other tunnels. He squirms as if the giant spiders were crawling on him again, as in the last tunnel, yesterday, the one that nearly reduced him to tears. He cocks the trigger of the Smith, quietly.
"Fuck this," he mutters under his breath and in one swift motion he pushes the trapdoor into the hole with one hand and reaches into the darkness with the .38 ahead of himself.
The blast blinds him and the pain is an intense lance to the
brain and heart, and then to his hands. He sees his bloody hands
writhing on the tunnel's dirt floor, one still gripping the pistol, and he screams long and hard even as he realizes that the blast wasn't all, the booby-trap wired to the back of the trapdoor also includes a small container of home-made napalm, and then he blacks out, his eyeballs melting into the skin of his face and his lips liquefying over his teeth like runny glue. His scream turns to a gurgle and then it's blessed nightfall—
—blessed cool nightfall and his eyes blast open but there's no light (yes there is, there it is, the nightlight) and he realizes that he can see after all and his skin feels rough but it's all there and his hands are, where are his hands? In front of his eyes, twitching and clenching, but most certainly still attached to his wrists. He can feel the pain in his wrists, but it's not his pain, it's someone else's.
Fuck, it's Strachowski. That's what happened to him. Not me.
He remembered Strach's ravaged face, the blood, the stench. Then, for a second, Strach's face seemed to morph into someone else's. A girl's.
He shook his head violently to erase the image.
The familiar sharp twitch below his neck began to throb and he twirled his head until he felt a tender snap, somewhere deep inside his upper chest near his shoulder blade.
He rolled on his side and checked the ghostly blue display.
Another night shot to hell. It was 3:19 and he wouldn't be able to sleep until light filtered through his drapes.
He flicked on the lamp and slid the book onto his chest. The latest Peter Straub thriller. Glasses or no glasses? He hated his bifocals. Still not quite needing them, but already beyond the point where he definitely did not need them, he always debated. He thought his sight was better without the glasses, whenever he read in bed. He could squint a little with his left eye and the words were almost crystal clear.
He sighed. The king-size bed was too empty for him. Too empty
since Abby had gone away.
Who was he kidding? Abby hadn't gone away. She had died, and there was no mind-fuck he could give himself to change that fact. She'd been almost a decade younger than he, and that still hadn't kept her by his side for the rest of his miserable life. Jesus, he'd been over this so often it was almost like rehearsing a comedy act in his head, except that it wasn't humorous and if he allowed it to continue he'd just cry. What was the point of that?
He sighed again and opened his book. Sometimes the only escape was to lose himself in someone else's words, someone else's crisis, at least for a while, until the charade wore thin.
Today, it took fifteen minutes. Then he set the book aside and closed his eyes. It wasn't immediate, but the jungle's dark treeline was always there, taunting. Hiding something gruesome. He was accustomed to scanning that treeline in his mind's eye, hoping to recognize the danger in time. There was always a new place to look, a new venue to consider. A new sound to process.
In his nightmares, Loot always saw the others have their hands, their legs, blasted off, or their bloody intestines uncurled like blood-slippery ropes. Sometimes it was him instead of them, in stark representation of the way he wore his guilt like a coat. Guilt for having survived, he assumed. Guilt for what he had done. He had spent considerable time analyzing his feelings, his dreams, and his own thought processes. The analysis kept him sane, for the most part.
But altogether too often his clear thinking clashed with the
realistic visuals that accompanied his nightmares. The dark jungle, the treeline, the intense redness of arterial blood. Bone fragments and stripped skulls. Each of these imposed itself on the inerasable tablet contained in his brain like an eternal hard drive and replayed in front of his eyes when open, even in the dark, or seemingly projected onto the insides of his eyelids when he attempted to seek sleep. Almost like the Zapruder film, it unreeled over and over again, proving too much and yet leaving too many questions unanswered.
The phone's shrill ringing jabbed through his muddled thoughts and the menacing dark treeline disappeared when he opened his eyes. He reached for the receiver blindly and pressed the Talk button, already dreading the voice at the other end.
The caller was crying. Sobbing, almost. There was a wet snort as if he'd been surprised at the fact that anyone had answered.
His brother Ralph, once again victim of some sort of attack on his pampered life.
"Yeah," he said quietly, trying to sound non-judgmental. The relationship had soured years ago, but for one element. "What's wrong?" He wasn't sure he wanted to hear his brother's problems at this time of the night, but he steeled himself for one of the usual selfish whining sessions that had driven him away in the first place.
"They—" Ralph's voice stopped, suddenly interrupted by another sudden snort. "I think they've got Kit, Rich. Somebody's got Kit!"
Brant's eyes snapped open. "What? Say that again, Ralph. Who's got Kit?"
The other end of the line went silent for a second and Brant could hear sniffling, as if his brother was wiping snot from his nose with tissue and trying to clear the nasal passages so he could continue.
"Tell me!" Brant winced when he realized that he sounded imperious, commanding. He felt his heart racing, but tried to calm his voice. "What's going on, Ralph?"
"I'm not sure," Ralph stammered. "I — I got a call a couple hours ago, and I can't... I don't know what to do. I've been debating... I don't know."
"Damn it, Ralph. Who called you? What's going on with Kit?"
Ralph audibly wiped his nose again and seemed to compose himself. "First I got a call from Kit's roommate, a strange call that I almost didn't believe. She sounded — weird, you know. Said Kit had disappeared. Maybe she was snatched. She used the word snatched. Does anybody use that word except TV news guys? Anyway, I didn't know what to do. I told her I would call the police and she said no, that she would do it. But then I called them anyway. I couldn't get them to transfer me to anyone, so I left a message for some chief of detectives, I was told to do that. This guy, he called me back and wants me to go in. Rich, he says nobody there got a call from Kit's roommate. I'm not sure exactly who or how it happened, but somebody kidnapped Kit. That's all I know. But I think there's more, this cop didn't seem to believe me though, but I don't think — it doesn't sound good. She's all I've got, Rich, you know that. She's the only thing left after... After everything and all that... I don't know what to do, Rich. Rich?"
Brant had cut off his brother years before, for many reasons, but he had kept one line of communication open. Kit, Ralph's daughter. Miraculously intelligent, beautiful, level-headed, everything that Ralph was not, and he had found ways to help her, to be more than a distant uncle to her. He had become a friend and almost a father. Ralph had remained a weak link in the family chain, someone they were forced to tolerate.
Now Ralph was begging him to do something, and telling him that something had happened to Kit.
Kit was the only good thing in Brant's life, too.
"Damn it, Ralph. Pull it together and give me facts." He heard his voice barking at his brother — his weak brother — but he couldn't help himself.
"I can't. I don't know much. I just... Can't you come over and we'll go there together?"
"They want us — me — at the police building downtown, central precinct, whatever. Zimm — Zimmerman or something. I can't face this alone, Rich. You love her as much as I do. You —"
"Give me a half hour," Brant said, interrupting.
"Okay, Rich. Please—"
Brant hung up.
The shower was necessary, the heat bringing blood singing back to his veins. He knew men who swore by cold showers, but ever since he couldn't take hot showers in the military, he'd wanted nothing but. Sometimes so hot the water threatened to cook and strip the flesh off his bones. Beyond cleansing. Perhaps he sought the ultimate cleansing. So his last therapist had suggested.
Fucking weasel was probably right. Overcharged me, but I guess he was on the right track.
Brant toweled off vigorously and watched his red skin finally return to its normal color. The scars visible in the mirror he ignored, as usual. He finished his bathroom routine in half the normal time, and in five more minutes he was dressing. A black turtleneck over dark jeans, and a leather jacket over that. Running shoes, as if he'd be running. He'd been running since the jungle.
Maybe the jungle was catching up.
Guest author bio:
W.D. Gagliani is also the author of the horror/crime thriller WOLF'S TRAP (Samhain Publishing), a past Bram Stoker Award nominee, as well as WOLF'S GAMBIT (47North), WOLF'S BLUFF (47North), WOLF'S EDGE (Samhain), and the upcoming WOLF'S CUT (Samhain). WOLF'S TRAP was reissued by Samhain Publishing in 2012.
Gagliani is also the author of various short stories published in anthologies such as ROBERT BLOCH'S PSYCHOS, MORE MONSTERS FROM MEMPHIS, WICKED KARNIVAL HALLOWEEN HORROR, THE BLACK SPIRAL, THE MIDNIGHTERS CLUB, THE ASYLUM 2, MASTERS OF UNREALITY, DARK PASSIONS: HOT BLOOD 13, MALPRACTICE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF BEDSIDE TERROR (the last three with David Benton), and more.
He has written book reviews, articles, and interviews that have been published (since 1986) in places such as THE MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL, CHIZINE, CEMETERY DANCE, HORRORWORLD, PAPERBACK PARADE, CINEMA RETRO, HELLNOTES, FLESH & BLOOD, BOOKPAGE, BOOKLOVERS, THE SCREAM FACTORY, HORROR MAGAZINE, SF CHRONICLE, BARE BONES, and others. He has had nonfiction and craft articles published in the Writers Digest book ON WRITING HORROR (edited by Mort Castle), in the Edgar Award-nominated THRILLERS: THE 100 MUST READS (edited by Morrell & Wagner), and in October 2011 THE WRITER magazine published his article on writing werewolf epics.
His interests include old and new progressive rock, synthesizers, weapons, history (and alternate history, secret history, and steampunk), military history, movies, book reviewing, and plain old reading and writing. He is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA), the International Thriller Writers (ITW), and the Authors Guild. He lives and writes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.