Today, I have the honor of welcoming a good friend, Todd Keisling, to my blog as part of his super-fantastic blog tour. I don’t do many of these “hosting” gigs, so you know that when I do, it’s because I really dig the writer’s work. I was first introduced to Todd’s writing in his first novel, A Life Transparent. I was blown away by the thematic presence in the novel, and loved how it comments on human nature without being overwhelming. My short but heartfelt Amazon review reads as follows:
I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. The premise is completely original, and the plotting fast paced. I think what I liked best is the way the plot doesn’t overpower theme. I felt there was a clear and concise message throughout the narrative, which lends an extra layer of meaning, and thereby depth, to the novel. Highly recommended.
After reading ALT, I dove right into TLM, which is the sequel, though also acts as a standalone novel. Again, I was blown away. This time, instead of a review, I offered a blurb for the back cover:
“The Liminal Man is at times funny, suspenseful, heartbreaking, and inspirational, but never disappointing. Keisling succeeds in crafting an ambitious tale that not only grips you, but demands you answer that most basic question: who are you?”
In a moment you’ll have the opportunity to sample a chapter from the novel, but first…a contest!
Prologue, “The Thirteenth Man”
Richard Henza awoke in a haze of blood and liquor. His head throbbed, rusty nails shooting behind his eyes and down his neck. Dark maroon splotches burst and trailed like fireworks across the black expanse of his vision.
His thoughts swam fuzzily through his head. Where was he? Was he still at home? Sounds drifted in and out around him, accompanied by a dull ache pulsing to a beat.
The Talking Heads. Of course.
He was still at home. His stereo was still on.
And there was something wet on his face. Warm.
He tried to wipe it away but his hands would not cooperate, and forcing them to action made his joints sing. He gasped, suddenly aware that his wrists were bound to the arms of his chair.
A deep, grating chuckle issued from somewhere across the darkness, startling him. The man with the beard. The sound of his throaty voice called forth a memory of grizzly features: tall, big, a surly son of a bitch with gnarled hair and dirt caked into his wrinkled face.
Remnants of the evening swam into focus. Richard recalled an empty glass, his hand reaching for the bottle, turning to find a huge grimy intruder standing in his den. The last thing he saw was the bastard swinging down the bottle in a swift arc, a burst of stars, then nothing.
Richard winced as he tried to move again. His head throbbed as a fresh stream of blood coursed down his face. When he opened his eyes he felt his eyelids brush against something rough.
Blindfolded. He relaxed, fighting the hazy cloud smothering his thoughts. The evening played back in the darkness like a silent film, and he was its captive audience. He’d been drinking, brooding over his meeting with the heads of the network—and one new face he did not recognize. Bastard thinks he can take my show away from me? Not without a fight, he thought. He hasn’t met my attorney yet.
More laughter. Chuckles. Richard Henza cleared his throat.
“Uh, sir?” The defeat in his voice startled him. “Look, you can have anything you want. Anything. Want a check? I’ll write you a check for a hundred grand right now. I’ll give you my car. Brand new, less than two thousand miles on it. I’ll give you anything, just please, please don’t—”
The air in the room swelled, growing heavier between syllables. Henza sucked in his breath. He was wrong—there was more than one person in the room with him.
“Kale,” said another man. His imperious voice raised the hairs on Richard’s neck. “Everything is in place. Remove the blindfold now.”
The first man hacked out what must have been a laugh, but which to Richard sounded like the choked cry of a wild beast.
“Sorry, Dick. You’ll have to pardon my associate.”
The blindfold came away from his face, and the onrush of light left his vision blurred. Cloudy shapes swirled into focus, revealing the bearded man’s hulking form. Richard blinked a few times to make sure he was seeing things properly.
“I hope Kale didn’t hurt you too badly. I need you to be lucid. You’re no good to me with a concussion—not that it will matter for much longer.”
Richard squinted at the other figure. His blood pressure spiked, amplifying the throbbing in his head. Even though the man lacked definition in the haze, Richard knew him, knew his voice. Yesterday afternoon’s events came rushing back in a furious reverie. There were twelve directors for the WBS television network. Richard Henza had sparred with them all for the sake of maintaining creative control over his show, but this man had changed everything in the span of one meeting.
This smug asshole had remained in the shadows, barking directives and ultimatums, and the rest of the board cowered in his presence. Richard didn’t know his name, and he didn’t care to know. This thirteenth man was an interloper, an enemy, and he wouldn’t allow one smug son of a bitch in a suit to take away the success he’d worked so hard to achieve.
Richard looked up at the thirteenth man. His fear vanished. In its place was pure unbridled anger. He wanted to tear himself from his restraints and choke this man. How dare he enter Richard’s home. Henza was not one to be coerced, and he’d show the bastard—
“Dick, please. Don’t scowl at me like that. You brought this on yourself.”
“I’m going to have your head on a plate for this, I swear to Christ.”
“Christ? Oh come now. You’re not a man of God any more than I’m a man at all.”
Richard fell silent and stared. “What?”
The thirteenth man grinned at his prisoner, revealing two rows of perfectly aligned teeth. His eyes lost their sheen, darkening for an instant before returning to normal. Richard wanted to believe the odd effect was just the result of bourbon on an empty stomach, even a possible concussion, but lingering doubts suggested otherwise. He searched for something witty to say, some statement sharp enough to hurt this impenetrable figure, but nothing came to mind. He glared up at his captor.
“Dick, you and I need to come to terms with something.” The thirteenth man knelt before him. He put his hands on Richard’s knees. His fingers were cold. “Fading Out isn’t yours. It never was.”
“The hell it isn’t,” Richard spat. He’d nurtured that show from the ground up, crafting the pitch, seeking investors, and giving his all to sway the opinions of anyone who would listen. Hell, he’d been in the production van during the first week of filming. That show was his baby, and damn anyone who told him otherwise.
“I know you think it is, Dick. I can appreciate that fact. After all, you’ve helped make the show a success.” The man walked to the bar and poured a shot of bourbon. “But did you ever stop and think about why that board of fogies agreed to carry the show? Or why they let you have complete autonomy?” He returned, pushing the shot glass against his prisoner’s chin but Richard turned away, spilling bourbon on his shirt. “I mean, you seem like a thorough guy, am I right? Surely you would’ve wondered why a TV network saturated with other reality TV shows would pick up yours. What good could they possibly see in a show all about following around dipshit twenty-somethings who work dull, dead-end jobs?”
Richard didn’t want to admit it, but he had a point. Sometimes he did wonder why the WBS boys offered him a contract at all. The right place, the right time, the right idea—everything was in the cards, as he’d heard so many times before. Looking up at the pale man, Richard felt the slow chill of realization crawl through his gut.
“You did this?”
His captor chortled, more to himself than his audience, and set the glass down on the coffee table. Kale leaned against the bar, arms folded across his chest as he watched the two of them. He did not share his master’s amusement.
“You could say I provided the necessary motivation to keep the board off your back. You may have birthed the idea, Dick, but I pulled the strings to make it happen. The show is, for all intents and purposes, mine. And now I’m here to take it to the next step.”
He motioned to Kale. The bearded man nodded and left Richard’s view.
“See, I can’t have you thinking you have any sort of influence. That would only gum up the works.” He turned and pushed the coffee table closer to Richard’s chair. “And it seems only fitting that I demonstrate the significance of my creation.”
Kale returned, carrying a square object with a long, black cord. Richard wasn’t sure what it was until the small television was placed on the table before him. Kale picked up the cord and plugged it into a nearby socket.
The screen came to life, revealing a simple black and white outline of a door. Richard knew it well: it was his own design.
He looked up at his captors and laughed, “You broke into my house and tied me up to make me watch my own show? Really?”
The thirteenth man grinned what could have been a charming smile in the right circumstances, but Richard saw no charm. That lifeless smile chilled his bones.
“Yes, Dick, that’s precisely right. You’ll see just how special this show really is.”
The Talking Heads came to a halt. Richard looked over and saw Kale standing at his stereo. He ejected the disc and snapped it in half, dropping the pieces on his way to the bar. There he stuck his hand into a fishbowl full of promotional buttons for the TV show. Grinning, he pulled one out and affixed it to his shirt pocket.
“Much obliged,” Kale said.
The thirteenth man stepped out of view. Richard felt icy fingertips on his head, redirecting his attention to the small screen.
“You sit tight and watch this. When it’s over, I think you’ll understand the gravity of your mistake.”
“Yeah?” Richard smirked, staring incredulously at the screen as the show’s title sequence began. “What makes you think so?”
“Because,” said the thirteenth man, now whispering directly into Richard’s ear, “you’re going to see just why you should’ve walked away when I gave you the chance, Mr. Henza.”
His voice distorted as he said Richard’s name, dimming in a flurry of white noise. The air in the room swelled as it had minutes before, and he realized the thirteenth man’s hands were no longer on his head. He glanced toward the bar and saw that Kale was gone as well. Then the lights in the room went out, leaving only the blinding screen of the television draping him in its pale glow.
Richard struggled against his restraints until he could no longer bear the discomfort it caused, and when that didn’t work he tried calling for help. He had no family, and his housekeeper wouldn’t arrive until the morning. Exhausted, he slumped against the back of the chair, and tried to rethink his situation.
Concentration proved difficult as the television flashed images of his TV show. Episode after episode of Fading Out played before him in succession. His thoughts of escape dwindled, and after the first episode’s conclusion he found himself willingly glued to the screen. Richard was okay with this, despite the numbness creeping up his arms and legs.
Things began to change for Richard Henza at some point in the early hours of the following morning. The sudden onset of nausea snapped him from his fatigued trance. What began as a discomforting sensation quickly transformed into an invisible hand threatening to disembowel him. And the noise, oh God, the noise was horrible. The low, thrumming drone of bells and static hissed together in his ears.
When he blinked, he found the darkness of the room was gone, replaced by a stark gray palette. Gone were his bar, sofa, and fireplace. The coffee table and TV were nowhere to be found. The room was empty but for the shapes of four tall, scrawny figures. They stood before him, impossibly elongated like the drawings of children.
The drone of bells faded from his ears. A low, mournful sob filled them. He thought it sounded like the yawn of a man who’d not slept in years, carrying on forever in that empty room. The shapes before him came into focus, and Richard’s bladder gave way when he saw them.
Pale, their rubbery flesh stretched taut over bony frames, the figures stood impossibly tall. Looking up at them, Richard supposed they couldn’t be less than seven feet. They towered over him, arms swaying to and fro, their knuckles scratching dryly along the floor. Their eyes were set back into their rounded heads like polished orbs of obsidian, and their mouths quivered hesitantly.
Richard Henza understood then what the thirteenth man meant by his warning. He understood it when the giant white lummoxes opened their mouths, revealing rows of worn, white teeth. He understood it when their jaws unhinged, stretching open to reveal four equally bottomless pits.
The closest figure quickly leaned forward, closed its jaws around the top of his face, and plucked his head from his torso. Richard Henza had no time to scream.
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