Friday, September 7, 2018

Mortal Foe by Marty Roppelt


MORTAL FOE by Marty Roppelt, SupernaturalThriller, 213 pp., $14.99 (paperback) $4.99 (Kindle)


Title: MORTAL FOE

Author: Marty Roppelt

Publisher: Dragon Breath Press

Pages: 213

Genre: Supernatural Thriller

A picture is worth a thousand words… But what if that image can only bee
seen through the lens of one camera? What is the snapshot can only be
seen by a select few? What if the photo has its origins in the pit of
Hell? What is that face belongs to an enemy bent on destruction? This is
Buddy Cullen’s fate when he first dreams of his grandfather’s death and
then inherits his grandfather’s antique camera and captures an image
that haunts him and seeks his death. Can Buddy survive the curse that he
sarcastically dubs “Popcorn”—a curse that no one wants to believe
exists and stalks the city of Cleveland, beginning with its baseball
team—a mortal foe?

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Excerpt:


My eyes snap open wide.

A shadow faces me from beyond the
foot of my bed. I shiver, holding my breath. The tall, bulky intruder seems
oblivious. My sleep-hazy mind tells me to lie still. I'll make myself smaller
that way, so the invader won't see me.
I'm making myself small…
My brain stirs slowly. A minute
passes, then a few more. My eyes take their time adjusting to the darkness.
Across the room, the sinister hulk takes the shape of my antique cherry-wood
armoire.
My girlfriend, Kelly, lies next to
me, undisturbed. She faces away. Her chest rises and falls with each breath,
her body radiating warmth.
I don't move. Dread still freezes
me in place. A voice in my head, my own voice, whispers a warning to me. The
warning is so primal it would wear a bearskin if it had a life of its own.
Don't show the darkness any
fear, any weakness.
A familiar neon green beacon, my
alarm clock, demands my attention. A quarter past midnight. The glow helps me shake off the drowsy
panic. My eyes scan familiar, dark shapes around me—the armoire
, the
dresser, the doors to my closet and to the hallway, the rumpled down comforter
covering my girlfriend.
Despite the need for rest, my eyes
won't stay closed. This irritates me. The frustration of not being able to
sleep keeps me awake even longer. I can deal with the frustration. But I can't
shake this sense of dread.
A dream. Just a weird, stupid
dream
.
The clock's digits change without
remorse, mocking and exasperating me. Twelve
forty-seven, eight, nine… Tomorrow won't be good. I risk coming off
like a yawning zombie. Twelve fifty-five… I consider pummeling my pillow. My
legs swing out of bed instead. The cold of the hardwood floor against my bare
feet chases away the last of my drowsiness.
I amble into the kitchen. Sitting
in silence in its cradle on the kitchen counter is my cordless phone. My eyes
lock on the handset. An urge brews up to call someone close to me, but who
should I call? My mom, my dad? Neither of them would answer at his hour, for
different reasons, and neither should, of course. Now I expect the phone cradle
to light up and ring, as my roused senses try to decipher the dream that woke
me, that somehow signaled to me something is wrong…
A dream has me waiting at a
ridiculous hour for a phone call from someone in my family.
I grumble to myself. "This is
nuts."
The opened refrigerator bathes me
in a sudden glare. Unguided hands fumble past paper bags and Styrofoam
containers of restaurant leftovers. I finally find a bottle of beer. My fingers
close around the long neck, I twist off the cap, and take a swig. The light
cord of the ceiling fan dangles near my head. I ignore it. Something about the
darkness is important. Not comforting, but…
But what?
Raising a cigarette to my lips, I
open the window a few inches, then sit at the table. My old Zippo lighter's top
pops open with a metallic clink, the flint makes a quick, scraping rasp, and
the flame whooshes to life. I cringe. Did the noises rouse my neighbors from
their own troubled sleep?
My gaze wanders past the flame.
Don't show the darkness any
fear.
Darkness dominated the kitchen only
a moment ago. This flame, this puny, solitary sliver of light defeats the
darkness. My Zippo can't signal ships at sea. My 'fridge probably could. Both
lights can expose shadowy shapes, however, and the night cannot overcome either
light. The only thing that can extinguish the light is me.
Don't show it any weakness.
I light my cigarette and kill the
glow of the Zippo.
"Join you?" A voice,
half-awake, issues from the doorway behind me. I hope I didn't jump too high.
"Sure. Beer?"
"No. You can fire up a smoke
for me, though. Thanks."
Kelly glides past. A wisp of
vanilla, musk and flowers, Chantilly, her favorite perfume, follows her. She
sits opposite me and takes the lit cigarette I offer. "Should I turn on
the light?"
"If you like."
She keeps her seat, apparently
liking the darkness better.
I jerk my chin toward the open
window. "You want me to turn the heat up?"
"I've got my robe on."
I chuckle. My own total nakedness
doesn't concern me. Kelly, on the other hand, wears her gauzy emerald green
"robe" only, untied. She might as well be naked, too. I understand,
of course. The sheer silk garment's function was never to keep the wearer warm,
but to light a fire in someone else.
Kelly toys with her cigarette,
rolling it between her thumb and fingers. "Worried about tomorrow?"
"About my department head?
He's audited my classes before."
"So, why the stress?"
"Im that transparent?"
Her laugh drips playful sarcasm.
"You light up every hour and a half when you're awake. You only smoke more
at a bar, when you're bored, or when you're stressed. We're not at a bar. And
when I do things right you're definitely not bored." She leans over the
table. Her lips pucker into her best Marilyn Monroe pout. "Didn't I do
things right tonight?"
"Oh, yeah."
Several hours ago, Kelly left her
Downtown Cleveland office after work to meet me at an upscale bistro on the
west bank of the Cuyahoga River. A glass each of Chianti Classico turned into a
whole bottle. She asked after glass three if I could spend the night with her.
I toyed with the idea. After a few minutes, though, I finally decided to beg
off.
But Kelly doesn't often take long
to get what she wants from me. Tonight was no exception. The wine shot straight
to my head. The low lights hid the dainty foot that nudged and rubbed my calf
under the table. The aromas of Italian cooking mingled with Chantilly in an
irresistible wave of sensuality. We passed on dessert. Kelly promised something
much more stimulating at my apartment.
Now she sits back in triumph,
blowing two perfect smoke rings toward the ceiling. "So, this is
stress."
"Yes and no," I mumble.
"Nightmare?"
"Yeah."
"I'm surprised."
"Why?"
"It's just a dream. You're a
bright college professor…"
"Journalism, not psychology.
Who said I put stock in that stuff, anyway? I woke up, that's all."
"What did you dream
about?"
"Funny. Now that I'm awake, I
don't remember much."
Why did I just lie to her?
The truth is I remember every
detail. The odd nightmare burned itself into my consciousness like a glowing
cattle brand.
In the nightmare, my grandfather,
photographer Jimmy Cullen, pulled a photo print off the wire that runs the
length of his basement darkroom. Grandpop—I've always called him that—held the
photo as far from his face as possible. His eyes widened. His ruddy complexion
drained of all color. His lips quivered. He acted as if he'd been handed a live
hand grenade.
"Grandpop?" My tongue
lolled in my mouth with Novocained sluggishness. "What is it?"
 A sudden wind blew. Dried fallen leaves
scraped across the pavement outside. Our heads snapped in unison toward the
sound. The basement's bare cinderblock walls gave the place a fortress's
ambiance, but they didn't blot out the rattle of dead leaves. Grandpop stared
for a long moment. He froze as if expecting the walls to give way to the
leaves, or to worse. The still house seemed to invite the whispery sounds of
death inside and embrace them.
Grandpop spoke. But like a badly
dubbed foreign movie, the words his mouth formed didn't match the words that
came out. "Alone tonight… Darn it, Maureen… doggone kids' Halloween
dance…"
Grandpop plopped down on a tall
stool at his work table, exhausted by his outburst. A complaint? The words, the
whining and grousing, were out of character. I had no response for him, which
is also unlike me.
"No Grandma?" Invisible
marbles rolled around inside my mouth.
Grandpop blinked hard, jumping as
though he'd been electrically shocked. He jammed the print into a large manila
envelope that already bulged with something else inside. The package bore a
number written in green ink: nine-eight-five-nine.
Grandpop rose from his stool, a
barstool I recognized from my dad's Downtown tavern. He strode toward the
walk-in closet at the back of the darkroom. He muttered at the envelope as he
passed me.
"Caught you again, didn't
I?"
"Caught who?" My voice
changed. I sounded like a Munchkin from Oz.
Grandpop disappeared into the
closet, leaving me in the darkroom alone. I couldn't bring myself to move. My
curiosity was the kind a child suffers when he's told never, ever to do a
certain thing. The curious kid in me wanted to see what was going on. The adult
in me feared for life and limb. My fear rooted me to the spot.
A "pop" and loss of light
announced the death of one of the darkroom's two light bulbs.
"I don't spook so
easily," Grandpop hollered.
A car cruised up the driveway. The
engine's hum filtered through the fortress walls. The side door to the kitchen
creaked open and banged closed.
We were no longer alone.
My heart raced, my joints froze. I
wanted to run. My muscles fought against me. Stark terror turned my feet to
lead. Footsteps headed our way from the basement stairs.
"Jimmy?" my grandmother,
Maureen, called.
My heart slowed but I still
couldn't move, despite my relief.
Grandpop met Grandma in the doorway
and gave her a peck on the cheek.
"How's my Lass?"
"Missed you." She
scrunched her face into a silly expression, a kind of mock pout,
uncharacteristic for her. "Atlanta? The Series?"
"Too much traffic. The Indians
lost. Missed you, too."
They held each other, their embrace
a subtle dance. The surviving forty-watt bulb above us threw weird shadows into
the corners of the darkroom. The sounds of our breathing, and the scraping,
rustling leaves grew louder in the otherwise silent murk.
Grandma pulled away, cackling.
"Cup of hot chocolate and a ghost story for you?"
I almost laughed out loud at her
bizarre behavior.
"Nah," Grandpop said.
"I'm going to bed."
Grandpop answered in a
melodramatic, fearful tone. "Just a couple more things to do. Then we'll
be together again."
His stony expression was the
lawyer's before a murder trial, or the soldier's on his way to deadly combat.
His demeanor only made his words to Grandma more jarring, more frightful to me.
They kissed. Grandma wheeled and
left the darkroom. We heard the groan of well-worn wooden stairs, first to the
kitchen, then further above to the bedroom of their old colonial-style home.
Grandpop settled again on his stool. He reached across his work table for his
Kodak Medalist 620, the camera he used since his enlistment in the Navy two
generations ago.
Every once in a while, a dream
becomes so surreal that, despite still being asleep, some distant part of the
brain announces "This is a dream!" I remember the exact moment, a
sort of "out-of-body" experience. I became Grandpop. I sat on his
stool and held his camera, but I was still an observer, too, watching myself
play his part. I gripped the antique as if shaking a frail old friend's hand. This
friend accompanied me—him—through everything from the best of times to the most
harrowing hell.
No more experiences would be shared
and captured on film. A hot, sharp pain ripped up my left arm. A giant fist
squeezed my chest and I gasped in vain for breath. My mind raced away from the
Medalist 620 to my grandmother lying in bed, likely dozing while trying to read
a book. She would wake, sensing Grandpop was still in the house, and yet gone.
She would find him here later. Sadness engulfed me.
I'm sorry, Lass…
I slumped to the work table. As
Grandpop, I wanted my last thoughts on earth to be of Grandma, to take the
memory of my gentle, devoted wife's face with me on my way to meet God. But my
last glance caught a shadow that was not Grandma's, moving toward me from beyond
the darkroom doorway.
Then I woke to the strange shadow
at the foot of my bed…
"Yeah, I've had that happen
before. It's so frustrating."
Kelly's voice, from behind the
glowing cigarette tip, jars me back to the waking present. I shake the
nightmare out of my head.
"Had what happen?"
"Dreamed something and then
forgotten it only a couple of minutes after waking up. Frustrating."
"Yeah."
Kelly takes a drag from the
cigarette and stabs the ash tray with it. She shoves her chair aside, composes
herself, and glides back around the table, tracing her finger up my bare arm.
Her nail scratches a light reddish trail on my skin.
"Know the best way to get rid
of frustration, Buddy Cullen?"
"Tell me."
"Showing's better than
telling."
I crush my own cigarette out and
glance at the phone. Nothing happens, of course. The phone's not going to ring
tonight. Not for this. I rise and lay foolish superstition aside. A colleague
at Case Western Reserve University, a science professor, once assured me that
to attach meaning to dreams is unscientific, a bogus exercise. Dreams, he
theorized, might be nothing more than a mash of random thoughts and memories.
Kelly breezes ahead of me, tugging
me by my hand. Her urgency mounts. My gaze consumes her. The wispy robe
caresses her perfect form. Her cat-graceful step entrances me. She pirouettes,
sits on the edge of the bed, and leans back, pulling me down toward her.
Ghosts and demons and other
unexplainable things lose their fascination. I lie far less gracefully beside
Kelly. Her lips explore the base of my neck, but I still keep one ear cocked
toward the phone. She nips lightly at my ear lobe, with a deep-throated
chuckle. In a few short moments, she commands my full attention…
The phone rings. I gasp, irritated
by the interruption. I'm dismayed, too. I know what the call is about.
"I have to get that."
"No, you don't." Kelly
tangles her fingers in my hair and pulls my face back down toward hers.
"That's why God gave us answering machines."
I'm conflicted, keyed up but
powerless, able to break free but unwilling to try. The machine answers the
call, the phone stops ringing. I feel Kelly's smile in the darkness as her lips
brush against mine. I lose myself in her, lose every part of myself.
Every part, that is, except the
faraway corner of my mind that wonders if Grandma just woke from the same
nightmare, and found Grandpop dead in his darkroom.


















Marty Roppelt was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. His original
profession was acting on stage, in local commercials and training films
and in film. This means that he has experienced life through a wide
variety of day and night jobs, from barista to waiter and bartender to
security guard, amongst many others. He lives in Illinois with his wife,
Becky, and their eccentric cat, Fritz.

Mortal Foe is his debut novel.

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Interview with Marty Roppelt

How did you come up with name of this book?  The name evolved with the story. Mortal Foe started as a short story I'd written involving a man and his son running into a paranormal entity at a baseball game. I called the piece Popcorn. After I'd written it, I thought it would make a novel. The story grew from just weird stuff happening in a common American setting to a life-and-death battle. As I was writing the novel I thought about the essence of the story, the main character's struggle. Mortal combat requires an enemy to fight against. A mortal foe.

Do you read yourself and if so what is your favorite genre?  My first answer would be the Bible and things Bible related, but I don't read those, I study them. As with the music I listen to, I like several different genres. Tom Clancy didn't really create the techno-thriller; just read some of Ian Flemming, the creator of James Bond. But Clancy revved the genre up, and I love reading his original novels. I haven't read any from the authors who write under his brand. I love Steven King's early work, like Thinner—as Richard Bachman—and The Shining. And I've enjoyed Michael and Jeff Shaara's historical fiction, like Killer Angels and Last Full Measure. I can lose myself in any of these genres pretty quickly.

Do you prefer to write in silence or with noise? Why? It really depends on my mood, but I most often write while listening to music. What I'm writing often dictates what I'm listening to. I've written several Christmas-themed short stories, and of course listened to Christmas music, recordings I grew up with. If I'm writing something on the dramatic side, I'll listen to Beethoven or Mozart, usually the soundtrack to Amadeus. Otherwise, I'm catching some jazz on YouTube—Dexter Gordon or Stan Getz, and others. And if I need to conjure memories from my youth, I'll crank up some '70's rock—Springsteen, Seger, early Billy Joel.

What do you feel you can accomplish with this book?  If I can get readers to peek into their closets before going to bed, or to glance over their shoulder on a dark street after reading Foe—if I can cause an occasional shiver—then I've done my job. If I've also given readers food for thought, I'd be thrilled.

What is your next project?  I'm working on a sequel to Mortal Foe, where the son of Foe's protagonist is a police officer dealing with simmering racial tensions brought to a boiling point by another paranormal entity. I've also got plans for a prequel to Foe, and a novel set in Transylvania, Romania, at the start of the First World War. No vampires, but a different kind of demon stirring up trouble in a land full of superstition.






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