When I met Todd Gallowglas, he was about to get his ass kicked.
This was last year, in the California desert. A couple of my squadmates and I had flown into San Jose and rented a car, and we’d decided to stop at a little sports bar in the middle of nowhere and grab something to drink, since we knew there’d be no alcohol where we were going. There were four of us: me, Bobenhausen, Butts, and Reynolds, who had been stung by a bee mowing the lawn the day before and had hands like catcher’s mitts. I’d grown my beard out to make a more convincing Afghan, and none of us were wearing our uniforms, so we could have been any Joe Blow off the street.
We parked next to a Mini-Cooper. Butts didn’t think much of it, but ever since watching the Italian Job I’d been in love with them. It was arguably the smallest vehicle in a parking lot full of pickup trucks, midlife-crisis sports cars, and SUVs, most of them either sparkling clean, or plastered in mud.
When we walked into the place, it was already late in the day, and the regulars were pre-gamed, drunk, playing pool, shouting at the game on TV—Cali desert rednecks, like bogans from a Crocodile Dundee movie but in trendier clothes. I call it a “sports bar”, but it was somewhere halfway between an Applebee’s and a roadhouse. The men outnumbered the women thirty to zero.
The only one that didn’t belong was the guy sitting at the bar. He looked like a man that knew an honest day’s work: a Jack Klugman football-town type, with rakish black hair and a mariner’s hard blue eyes. What set him apart was the charcoal blazer and the laptop bag, and whatever he was drinking. Sharp honey in a rocks glass.
Me and my friends grabbed seats to either side of him, since like guys at a bank of urinals he’d taken up position in the middle of an empty stretch of stools. The first thing I noticed on the menu (printed on laminated A4 paper in Comic Sans) was that they had a military discount, and I suppose that was why Butts had suggested it.
We’d only just ordered our drinks when a regular started in on the guy in the blazer.
“Whatcha got in the bag, man?” he asked. He was big, with thinning hair and a head as blunt as an elbow, decked out in Wranglers and a flannel shirt. West Coast Honky Tonk. “You ain’t one of them Jehovah’s Witnesses, are you? I hate them sonsabitches, wakin’ me up all early and leavin papers in my front door.”
“I don’t think Witnesses drink,” said Blazer-Guy.
The buttons affixed to the straps of his bag depicted things, nerdy things, fantasy references, geek jokes, scifi bits and bobs that I would recognize, but would be like the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Brad Paisley lookalike crowd currently taking notice of us. He wasn’t wearing a tie, either, and had on a T-shirt under his jacket.
“Nah, man,” said another man. “He’s one of those—” he snapped his fingers, “—bank guys, one of those dudes that go around and serve foreclosure papers. I dunno what you call em.”
“Oh,” said the first guy. “Oh, yeah.”
“I don’t know,” said the man in the blazer, “but I can assure you I work for no banks. I serve papers, but not foreclosure papers.”
“Is that so? Well, what do you do?”
Bobenhausen turned in his seat and spoke over his shoulder. Bobo, as we called him, was a lunker, a mountainous Baloo of a man with a red German face and a crewcut. “Come on, guys, just leave him alone. We’ve had a long flight and we just want a drink before we clock in again.”
The balding guy in the Wranglers darkened. “Was I talkin’ to you?”
Bobo just stared at him, his smile at half-staff like a sticker beginning to peel away to reveal something meaner underneath. We’d discovered in Afghanistan that “Bobo” was the Dari word for grandmother, and it (as well as our good-natured ribbing) did nothing to diminish any of his ursine affect.
“It’s okay,” said the man in the blazer. He offered Bobo a hand to shake. “It happens. My name is Todd, by the way. Todd Gallowglas. I’m a fantasy author.”
I perked up. “Hey, me too.”
“You out here for Con-volution?” asked Todd.
I shook my head. “No, we’re doing an Army thing outside San Jose.”
The man in the Wranglers caught my mention of the word “Army” and seemed to lose interest in Gallowglas, wandering over to a game of pool. He said something I couldn’t hear to the Brad Paisley lookalike and a few of his friends, and they all took turns glancing over at us, but nobody said anything else.
The rest of the evening reeled out in a pastoral if slightly tense way, the four of us carrying on conversation but constantly aware of the eyes on our backs.
We got to know the writer, told him some of our crude Army jokes and a few war stories, and he gave a couple of us his business card. We told him we were on our way to Fort Hunter-Liggett to play OP-4: about fifty soldiers from Mississippi, Michigan, and Georgia had signed up to portray Taliban insurgents in a large-scale training exercise for a unit on its way out to Afghanistan.
Gallowglas smiled sincerely. “Man, that sounds like a blast. I wish I could come along. I haven’t played in the woods with sticks and rocks since I was a kid, much less ride around in an actual Humvee and shoot fake rocket launchers.”
“There’re gonna be civilians there helping,” I told him. “We could talk to the instructor about it.”
He winced. “Eh, I’ve got the convention in San Francisco. That’s my can’t-miss event of the year.”
“Well, we hate to drink and run, but we got an early day ahead of us,” said Reynolds.
We slugged back our last drinks and paid our bill, and headed out. Gallowglas seemed to agree, and as we were funneling through the front door I looked over my shoulder and saw him paying his own bill.
“Your hands are enormous,” Butts told Reynolds as we got into the car. I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Shut up and help me buckle my seatbelt.”
My laughter died as I sat up to find the clasp; I happened to glance through the windshield and saw the fantasy author in the middle of a horseshoe of roughnecks.
One of them shoved Gallowglas against the wall and his back stayed pressed to the cinderblocks, looking down at the ground. One hand clutched the shoulder-strap of his laptop bag. At the time I thought the downcast expression on his face was one of quiet despair—or perhaps resolve, Todd reluctantly warming up to the realization of violence…but now I know it was only self-control. As if in a dream, the author unzipped the bag just enough to push his hand inside and grope for something. He took out a pair of sunglasses, whipped them onto his face like David Caruso, and delved into the bag again.
You wouldn’t hit a man with glasses, would you?
“Ah, hell,” said Bobo with a sigh, and he unfolded himself from the Subaru.
I started to get out, but Butts put up a hand. “Bobo can talk it out. We’ve got orders to be at Fort Hunter-Liggett in the morning, and we can’t do that if we’re sitting in the county jail.”
Bobo was halfway there when a bright flash briefly turned the parking lot into the White Sands Nuclear Testing Ground.
The afterimage on my retinas painted a strange scene: the lanky soldier four feet in the air, his feet kicked out in front of him, hovering in front of a miniature sun. Following that was a lung-shaking WHUMP that set off car alarms across the property. I blinked, trying to clear my eyes. Whoop whoop whoop whoop. Headlights strobed in a stuttering pattern all around us. Breeet! Breeeet! Yeeeeeew!
“What the hell was that?” asked Reynolds. He fumbled for the doorhandle with his fat hands, whipped the seatbelt aside, and climbed out.
Butts and I were already out. It’s only as I sit here writing this that I realize I was hiding behind my open door. Screwing my fists into my eye sockets, I stared into the heart of the event and saw Todd Gallowglas standing in the middle of a splay of unconscious men, holding something up in the air like the Statue of Liberty.
I rubbed my eyes again. The thing in his hand turned out to be a light bulb about the size of his fist, clear, with a heavy coil of wire filament that still glowed orange like a dying ember. The only thing the threaded contact was screwed into was the A-OK circle of his thumb and forefinger.
Gallowglas casually stepped over the fallen men, calling to us. “Sorry about that,” he said, slipping the Edison bulb back into his laptop bag. “You all right?”
Bobo sat up, blinking owlishly. His face had gone even redder.
“Catch you guys on the flipside,” said the author, squeezing a key fob. The Mini-Cooper parked next to us let out an electronic oot-oot and he climbed inside. Before he shut the door, he said, “If you guys get a chance, come see my show at the con. I’d love to see you there.”
“Yeah,” I said, a little stunned. “I’ll… I’ll do that.”
Actually, none of that happened. I ran into Todd Gallowglas on Twitter after recognizing his name from Reddit’s Fantasy subforum, and we’ve been friends ever since. April Fool’s!
But wouldn’t the roadhouse story have been better? That’s what I love about telling stories. They say truth is stranger than fiction, but that’s bollocks—any well-read stranger can tell you about their favorite book, and dime to a dollar says it’ll beat any police blotter you can find. And a good, well-told story is the real legerdemain, isn’t it? As they say, writing is about as close as you can get to real magic.
And Todd Gallowglas…well, he’s the real deal. He works like a mule to make his dream happen, traveling these here United States, putting on storytelling shows for live audiences, and I gotta hand it to him, I’d never have the gumption for that. I got a keyboard growing out of my knees for a reason.
Now, he may not actually be able to flash heavies with a magic light-bulb like I told you about in that anecdote up there, but he’s pretty good at the practical magic, the deep-talk, the mystical work that the druids used to call “gliú do asal go dtí cathaoir”, which is Irish for glue your ass to a chair magic. So pull up a seat, kick off your shoes, and sit back with one of the best indie authors in the business today.
S. A. Hunt
Author of the Outlaw King gunslinger fantasy series and horror-fantasy Malus Domestica