Culture Shock, the first book of a science fiction mystery series nearly three years in the making, launched this week. It’s about a broke bounty hunter who stumbles on a secret society of aliens hiding in plain sight, and the havoc this unleashes upon his life. Anderson Gunn’s got a quick wit and a unique skillset tracking fugitives. But nothing could have prepared him for this.
Here’s an excerpt from the book to get you started.
I heard the rumble of the engine long before I saw it. You couldn’t mistake the sound of Alek’s 1971 Chevelle SS. Tipping my chair legs to the floor, I crossed the cramped office and peered through the window.
The blinds were half drawn, as usual. You can never be too cautious in my line of work. I’d have ballistic glass installed if I could afford it, but the last time I was that flush with cash I spent it getting my truck paneling replaced after chasing a wanted felon into a tornado in Oklahoma. Glancing over my shoulder at the bills stacked on my desk, I shoved down the nearly suffocating wave of melancholy that washed over me.
Sliding my finger between the yellowing slats, my nail scraped the filthy glass. When was the last time my office had been cleaned? A year? Maybe two? I told myself the ingrained layer of grime gave the place a homely, “don’t bother breaking in” sort of feel, which was good for security. Truth was that lately, cleaning the windows had been the furthest thing from my mind.
The growl of the engine grew louder until the cranberry red hot rod finally rolled into view. The car really was a beaut. Shining chrome trim, glossy black wheels, and one of those 409 big blocks under the hood. It was the kind of car I’d always admired and never been able to buy. Hipsters and hood rats making their way to their favorite watering holes for the evening craned their necks to admire the machine as Alek coasted to a stop behind my beat-up black Ford pickup.
No matter how often I dreamed of one day owning a vehicle like that, my current preferences inclined toward function over form. You can’t haul much of anything in the trunk of a Chevelle, and I couldn’t risk drawing an entire block’s worth of eyes when conducting surveillance or tailing someone who might be in contact with my target.
Alek stepped onto the curb and pretended not to notice the people rubbernecking at his ride. With a casual glance, he looked both ways before crossing the street.
Alek Ludwig was a bondsman, one of the biggest in the city. He had a fancy downtown office within spitting distance of the Travis County Courthouse, and his business ran radio ads and late-night TV commercials. “Big wig Ludwig’s got your back,” they sang. Just like you’d imagine, with a catchy jingle and everything. I liked to give him a hard time about the ads. He was always a good sport about it, as long as I’d eventually admit that the jingle made one hell of an ear-worm, to which he’d reply that he didn’t mind being needled about the song as long as it bought him toys like that Chevelle.
The man was portly, which I think is a term that’s still considered politically correct. Skinny legs made him look like a beachball mounted on two twigs. Even in this heat, he wore cowboy boots, jeans, and a pale yellow button-up shirt with sweat stains blossoming beneath his arms. His head bore a graying fringe of hair, and his hairless pate reflected the hot Texas sun until he disappeared through my building’s front door.
Turning, I reached across my small office to unlock the door, then resumed my seat at the desk. The door didn’t exactly hit the desk when it opened, but the fact that I managed to fit a desk and two chairs in the space was a minor miracle. The carpet, a brown floral print, was as thin and worn as it was drab. The only other furniture in the room was a dented mini-fridge in the corner, and a metal filing cabinet whose main purpose was to prop up the coffee maker.
While I waited for Alek to climb the stairs, I turned my attention back to the stack of bills, and then to the dated laptop I was supposed to be using to pay them. Moving my fingers across the sticky trackpad, I clicked a link on the banking website.
What happened next made my skin crawl. The click seemed to set the office lights to flickering. That was ridiculous, of course. I was far from an electro-tech genius, but I knew enough to know that clicking a link on a website couldn’t cause a power outage. But the single overhead bulb winked out and my laptop powered down of its own accord.
Muffled curses bled through the thin walls and told me that I wasn’t the only who had been affected. Small comfort.
A second later, the power returned, and with it my laptop. On the screen now was not an internet browser, but a bright blue screen.
Gooseflesh prickled along my arms. What on Earth? The battery should have kept the laptop alive even without the power. I muttered a few choice curse words. Three firm strikes of my palm against the keyboard did nothing to bring the machine back to life. Imagine that.
Sighing, I closed the laptop and dropped it into a drawer so that I wouldn’t be tempted to chuck it out the window like I wanted to. After all these years, I thought I might finally understand my father’s Luddite attitude toward computers.
There was a quick rap on the door.
The door cracked and Alek poked his head through, taking in the office with a single sweep of his gray eyes. He held a folded piece of paper in one hand, and a cold stogie jutted from his mouth.
“Those things are going to kill you.”
Alek grinned around the cigar. His voice came out gravelly, like his lungs were coated with enough tar to fill a swimming pool. “We all die, Gunn. Might as well go out doing something I love.” He held out the folded paper. “Think this is for you.”
My blood went cold when I recognized the handwriting visible through the paper. I took the note from him and swallowed a groan as I unfolded the custom stationery.
Your rent is past due. Again.
You’ve always been a good tenant, and I really appreciate you helping me find Lottie when she ran away last week, but rescuing cats from rooftop bars doesn’t pay the mortgage or my property taxes on this building.
This is your final reminder.
Property Manager, Sunshine Real Estate.
“You all right?” Alek asked.
“Must be a misunderstanding.” The words felt hollow as they left my mouth. “I put a check in her mailbox on the first of each month.”
At least, I thought I had. It must have slipped my mind this month. I shuffled through the pile of bills for a beat, then let them drop back down.
“You still write a check to pay your rent?” Alek asked. “Can’t they just debit the money from your account automatically?”
I scowled at him. “Same dollars. What’s the difference?”
Alek plucked the cigar from his lips and frowned at me. “I’m sorry I haven’t had many gigs for you lately. I thought you were keeping busy with other work. If I’d known, I—”
“Don’t worry about it, I’ll get it taken care of. You didn’t come here to talk about my finances.” I shoved the note into my back pocket and sat on it.
The wrinkle between his eyebrows stayed, but Alek slowly began to nod. “Well, I’ve got a job for you. Pop out for a drink?”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
A happy hour with Alek was one expense I never worried about covering. Still, I got to my feet slowly, trying not to reveal the eagerness I felt, and let Alek lead the way out. We’d become friends over the years, but pride is a funny thing; I didn’t want him to think I was desperate. Work had been scarce of late, and while a single job wouldn’t expunge my debts completely, the money would certainly help steer things in the right direction.
I closed and locked the door to my office. On this side, you could read Gunn Bounties in bold letters on the frosted glass. Beneath my business name, in a smaller print: Anderson Gunn, Fugitive Recovery Agent. The lock gave a satisfying click, and then the letters were only visible in afterimage as the hall went dark.
“That’s starting to get on my nerves,” Alek said.
“Been brownouts all over the city today. Must be the heat. Or there are gremlins in the power lines.”
“It’s Austin,” I said. “Weirder things have happened.”
“Like the lizard man? Or the Cathedral of Junk?”
“Or that one time the mayor sent queso to the moon?”
Alek snorted and slapped his leg. “Oh man, I almost forgot about that!” He sighed. “I love this city.”
We made it down the stairs in the darkness, using our hands to feel our way, and stepped out the front door. A wave of humid air washed over me and my skin broke out in a sheen of sweat. Even after seven thirty at night, it was triple-digit temperatures outside. The weather in Austin was pleasant for most of the year, but in the summer, it could become unbearable. I tried to ignore the way my jeans stuck to my skin as we walked.
My office wasn’t in the high rise, big money buildings near the Capitol where Alek worked, but in a grungy part of Sixth Street on the east side of the interstate. I liked it here. The place had a certain open-minded atmosphere of good vibes that some people said could be traced back to Austin’s roots as the musical heart of rock ’n roll. Divey bars, loud music, and good food were in abundance, especially on the fringes. The smell of charcoal and al pastor wafted past my nose. The trill of an electric guitar floated to my ears from a distance as someone warmed up their ax for the evening’s first set.
At the corner, a windowless door led to our establishment of choice. An octagonal wooden sign jutting out over the doorway depicted a pig with one arm resting on the rim of a large cauldron. His other hoof, though lacking fingers, somehow clutched a large mug of beer. The pig’s face held a tipsy yet mysterious expression, as if it knew the secret to one of life’s many mysteries and was on the verge of being drunk enough to spill the beans. The Poached Pig was etched in an arch above the drawing.
The chime of a small bell sounded behind me. I turned and looked down the street in time to see an old man wearing nothing but a bright green thong cycle past us on a ten-speed bicycle, waving like a supermodel and grinning like a cartoon character. It took me a a moment to realize the grin didn’t belong to him, but to the bright orange Garfield mask strapped to his face.
“Look,” I said, nudging my friend with an elbow.
“Keep Austin Weird!” Alek shouted in solidarity.
I caught his arm before he turned as I spotted another flock of bikers headed our way. “Oh, I see. Must be World Naked Bike Ride day.”
Odd little fact: Austin has no laws against public nudity. Which meant that the parade of beautiful women wearing their birthday suits and casually pedaling down the street in the same direction the old man with the Garfield mask had gone was perfectly okay in every sense of the word. Sure, they were a huge distraction to passing motorists, but this kind of thing wasn’t considered all that unusual. It was a point of pride for the city: Keep Austin Weird. The saying was plastered on brick walls, printed on t-shirts, and impressed upon the minds of a local population dedicated to their eccentricity.
This particular parade drew more observers from the bars, but not fast enough. In less than a minute, the group of naked cyclists was gone, nothing but a blur of tan flesh cutting toward the horizon.
“It is warm out,” Alek commented. “I hope they stay hydrated.”
I chuckled, yanked open the door to The Poached Pig, and went inside.