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The Starving YearsThree more days ’til The Starving Years release! I've been deep in ebook-creation mode all week. It takes a massive amount of time to typeset a full-length novel. (Especially if you pick-pick-pick like I do, and then tell yourself, "I'll just read through one more time," often enough.)

Here are the first two chapters to whet your appetite.

Chapter 1

The room was warm. Too warm. The molded plastic stacking chairs had grown profoundly uncomfortable. On the buffet at the far wall, the picked-over remains of the manna samples, tiny cubes stuck through with toothpicks, were going dry around the edges. The air smelled worn out and used up, stale and slightly ionized, as if the convention center was pumping pure oxygen into the ventilation system in an attempt to keep the Canaan Products, Inc. hopefuls from drooling onto their laminated all-day seminar passes, then keeling over and toppling out of their seats.

Nelson Oliver filled in all the letter-O’s on his glossy Canaan Products brochure, then moved on to the spaces in the a’s and e’s. He was so far beyond bored he was practically in an altered state of consciousness.

The guy on his left with the name tag that read Randy in large, assertive letters, the guy who took up way more space than he needed, was actually asleep—really, deeply asleep.Even asleep, he managed to elbow into Nelson’s comfort zone. A couple of hours ago he’d started to nod, jerking his head back up each time it drooped, and forcing his eyes open wide. And then there was lunch—a working lunch, standing at the buffet, trying to look as if it wasn’t tempting to casually spit some of the stranger new flavors into a napkin. Once they were through cramming themselves full of manna samples, a weird hodgepodge of sweet and savory they could potentially have the responsibility of tweaking, packaging and selling for the company’s next big rollout, Randy finally gave in and let his full stomach usher his brain past alpha waves, and deep into a full-on theta sleep.

Marianne, as proclaimed by her quickly scrawled name tag—the cute redhead on Nelson’s right—was not bored. She was doing her own thing, texting so fast, he could hardly see her thumbs move. The job fair literature had clearly stated that PDAs and Smartphones weren’t welcome. Nelson wished he hadn’t let the literature convince him to leave his Droid at home. The presenter was counting down the history of manna at a level even a child could understand—explaining manna to Nelson: a manna specialist.

Nelson glanced around the room at the sea of strangers. Was anyone there capable of keeping their attention on the tedious presentation? Every one of them held an advanced degree, or the real-world equivalent. There were marketing gurus. Entrepreneurs. Even other scientists, like him. And all of them were scrabbling to be picked for the Canaan Products elite development and marketing team that was the buzz of the entire food industry. Regaling them with the history of manna—what next? A blow-by-blow demonstration of how to tie your own shoes?

“Can anyone here tell me,” said the slick Canaan Products guy on stage, “the ten top-selling manna flavors of all time?”

“Chocolate,” someone called out.

“Chocolate. That’s number three.” He strode back to his box of tricks from which he’d been pulling visual aids all morning, and found a plain envelope inside. From that, he drew a bill, though Nelson was too far away to see its denomination from where he was sitting. “You’ve earned yourself one hundred dollars.” He set the bill on the edge of the stage. A whisper ran through the audience, and suddenly the whole shuffling, shifting, half-asleep crowd was on high alert. The man who’d called out “chocolate” leapt up and marched to the stage to collect his prize.

“Okay,” said the presenter, “I’ll take another guess—but raise your hands now, don’t just blurt it out.” Hands shot up all around the room. “Second row, in the blue shirt.”

“Rice.”

“That’s right. Rice has been the top-selling flavor in Asian markets since its invention in 1961, and remains so to this day. Overall, rice comes in at number two.”

The other two job-seekers at Nelson’s table had their hands up. Marianne’s tush was up out of her seat as she jabbed her raised hand toward the acoustic drop-ceiling, hoping to be noticed over the crowd of mostly men, who towered over her. Of course, Nelson could name the top ten flavors (and who wouldn’t want a hundred bucks?) but the thought of being made to dance in his seat like a trained macaque was insulting enough to keep him from raising his hand. Instead, in the spaces between the words, in the margins and the paragraph breaks of the brochure, he began to draw.

A cacao pod with its plump ridges. Tiny oblong grains of rice. A wedge shape that represented cheese. A hairy circle with three eyes—coconut, another big seller in Asia and the Caribbean. A three-lobed, sawtoothed cilantro leaf to stand for verde, Latin America’s top flavor, a combination of herb essences, chili flavors and a hint of tomatillo, a flavor combo that gained popularity fast because its flavor complimented manna’s naturally greenish hue. A similar elliptic leaf for mint. Nelson didn’t much care for it, but it sold well in warmer climates. Mushroom…those were easy enough to draw. Green onion, not so much. What else? Ah. Feet, wings, beak, wattle….

“Chicken,” a man announced. The audience groaned. Nelson glanced up—the guesser was a generation older than him, somewhere around sixty. Not only would an American that age remember meat-flavored manna, he’d probably even eaten it himself. Not the manna, the real thing. Chicken bodies.

A disapproving murmur went through the crowd. A college-aged kid two tables over mimed gagging himself.

Nelson finished the chicken drawing with a dot to represent its eye.

The speaker drew out a crisp hundred with a flourish. “That’s absolutely correct. Although only a few small specialty factories produce it today, chicken was the undisputed market leader worldwide from 1963 to 1972.”

And then there was one—a single remaining flavor the crowd hadn’t yet named. Nelson considered the best way to draw it a moment longer than he had the others, because this was a more conceptual idea. He smiled to himself; he always enjoyed a good challenge.

Around him, the audience attempted to guess what the single most popular flavor of manna could be. Was it honey? Bread? Green apple? Legume? Yes, those flavors were all fairly common, but none were so ubiquitous as to be at the very top of the list.

Nelson pondered his drawing as more people guessed: tamarind, barley, snap pea, almond. Ridiculous. The answer was so simple, and there they were, reaching farther and farther away from it. He considered and dismissed a number of visual representations, and finally decided to keep it simple, himself.

He drew an empty box.

To his left, the man named Randy, who’d been asleep only ten minutes before, surged up out of his seat. “Yes?” the presenter said, pointing. “You want to give it a shot?”

Randy squared his shoulders, looked around the room in triumph, and said, “Plain.”

A collective groan surged through the crowd. The presenter beamed. “That’s right—plain. Think of all those billions of government-fed mouths: India. Russia. Indonesia. Bangladesh. The whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Beggars can’t be choosers, and the majority of the manna they get is good, old-fashioned, inexpensive, minimally processed plain.”

“He copied off you.”

Nelson found Marianne staring down at his doodle-covered brochure. “Copied?”

“Plain.” She jabbed her finger at the empty square. “It took him a second to figure out what that symbol meant, but now look at him.” At the edge of the stage, Randy didn’t pick up the 100-dollar bill from the stage floor like everyone else; he took it right from the slick presenter, who shook his hand and gave him a big smile. “Acting like it was all his idea. Like he’s so smart.”

“Thanks for the concern, I guess, but it’s not that big a deal.”

“Not that big a deal? Look at him, all smug, and he didn’t even think of it himself.”

Nelson gave a half-shrug. “Welcome to the world of manna.” A hundred bucks would have allowed him to seriously upgrade his pre-work coffee that month, from the daily grind to one of those fancy things with whipped manna and flavored syrup on top—but he’d be damned if he would make a huge spectacle of himself to earn it. If he needed the cash that badly, he could pick up a few extra shifts at his crappy dayjob—which was just as boring as the seminar, though thankfully, not nearly as insulting.

Although, Nelson realized, if he looked at the bigger picture, the Canaan Products bigwigs were probably paying more attention to the applicants who walked up to that stage, and not the ones who stayed back in their seats doodling the answers on the promotional material. Seminars like that weren’t for potential employees to learn about the company; they were for the company to put a bunch of poor schmucks like Nelson through their paces like a bunch of manna-bloated lab rats.

What use was it? He’d never be able to do the corporate act, not even for the few seminars and interviews it would take him to get his foot in the door. He spotted an exit behind the coffee cart. Too far. In the divider that split the conference room from the adjacent room—yes, another one there. That door wouldn’t lead directly out, but even so, it was tempting to go sit in the adjoining empty conference hall, alone in the quiet and the dark, until the Canaan Products recruiters and all the desperate hopefuls fawning over them packed up and went home. Nelson eyed the doors, but he stayed where he was. If he ever wanted to quit clerking at the video store and put his degree to work again, he’d probably need to act like one of those dancing apes—at least for the duration of a seminar.

He shook his head in disgust.

Marianne must have thought he was disgusted about Randy stealing his answer, not his own inability to fake corporate dronedom for a single day—and she seemed determined to be upset in his honor. She rose from her chair. “I’m going to tell the event coordinator. I see her right over there, refilling the carafes.”

“Seriously. Don’t—”

“And now for our next teambuilding exercise. It’s time to open up the green envelope from your welcome packet.”

Please, Nelson thought. Just shoot me.

When the presenter spoke, Marianne sat back down, clucking her tongue in annoyance as she dug through her welcome packet for the correct envelope.

Nelson checked his watch. Two more hours to go, and then…how long until he’d be notified that of the picks for Canaan Products’ new dream team, he ranked somewhere around fifty out of fifty? Coming to the open call had been a stupid idea. Nelson wasn’t a people-person, a showman. And that’s what you needed to be to look like a winner in a sea of interchangeable faces.

“Inside you’ll find a puzzle piece.”

So stupid. Unbelievably stupid. Who thinks of these exercises? If he could ever get over his loathing of the whole corporate culture, there might be money to be made in thinking up some better games. Not that Nelson thought he could ever get beyond that initial stumbling block.

“Your piece represents one of the top flavors of manna—except plain, of course…because we had a little trouble finding a symbol for plain.” The crowd laughed, all except Marianne, who glanced down at the empty square on Nelson’s brochure, then gave him a pointed look.

On Nelson’s other side, Randy sat down and began to dig for his green envelope, still grinning about his big score. Nelson tipped a puzzle piece into his palm. Green leaf, serrated edge. Mint.

“Be the first to find someone whose puzzle piece fits yours, and you’ll each take home one of these.” The announcer held up a box covered in plain paper. It looked about the size of Canaan Products’ Exotic Spices line—a spectacular flop. Thirty dollar value when it first came out, but now that it was in every clearance aisle, you could score it for under twelve. “Ready? Set?”

Nelson rolled his eyes—and then noticed that Marianne was holding her puzzle piece so he could see if it fit his. She had half a piece of cheese on hers. He shook his head slightly, and she scowled.

“Go!”

Marianne and Randy were off like rockets. Nelson sat for a moment and wondered if he should just put himself out of his misery and go back home, sneak out the way he’d come in now that everyone was milling around, but he figured he’d already wasted six hours of his life in the futile endeavor, so what difference was a couple more? He stood, turned, and managed to collide with one of the jigsaw-clutching hopefuls yearning to find the other half of their souls. Honestly, were they so eager to dance for the monkey-masters they didn’t even look where they were going?

Nelson turned to glare at the guy who’d jostled him…and stopped dead in his tracks. The guy couldn’t have been looking where he was going, because on that side, he had an eye patch—and not a disposable-looking “I’m recovering from a speck of dirt in my eye” eye patch. A very permanent black eye patch. With a scar that extended out from below it, down his cheek, all the way to the corner of his mouth. Less than a second ticked by as Nelson took it all in, but he dropped his gaze fast, like he’d been caught staring, to the other Canaan Products hopeful’s name tag.

Javier.




Chapter 2


“Sorry,” Nelson said, and it was torture to keep his eyes averted, because what he really wanted to do was get a good, hard look at this Javier. The rest of his face—if you could even see beyond the patch—was graceful and beautifully proportioned, in a swarthy, exotic, Latin way. He was slim, even a bit on the pretty side, with thick, black hair that fell over his collar, hair too long for a corporate drone. But the eye patch, the scar…Nelson might spare a second look at an attractive guy, but it was Javier’s flaws that made Nelson want to linger. “So…what’s your puzzle piece?”

“Chili,” Javier replied cautiously. “I guess it’s supposed to be verde.”

Definitely Latino. The way he pronounced verde sounded hot enough for phone sex. The cloud of ennui Nelson had been struggling under? It lifted and dispersed as he mindmapped twenty ways to score Javier’s phone number. “I think I’ve got cilantro,” Nelson said as he eased up closer and tried to read Javier’s body language to see if his appetites leaned the same way Nelson’s did. It looked like they might.

Javier held up his puzzle piece. Nelson could tell it didn’t fit with his, even from the small glimpse he’d given his own piece, but trying to force them together would give him a reason to keep talking.

He placed his puzzle piece against Javier’s and poked the tab on his into the other piece’s blank. The tab curved up, but the blank was round. They clearly didn’t fit. Javier reached up and steadied Nelson’s hand, rather than taking the piece from him, and tried to fit the obviously dissimilar parts together again. Pleasure zinged down Nelson’s arm. Definitely queer. “I don’t think that’s cilantro,” Javier said. He even made the word cilantro sound sexy.

“You sure?” Nelson eased closer—enough to make it clear he was flirting, without sounding too sleazy—and said, “Try again.”

Javier smiled. It was a subtle smile, and hard to read on him, because the scarred corner of his mouth curled up a bit from the tautness of the scar tissue there. “You need to find someone with mint,” his gaze dropped to the adhesive-backed nametag, “Nelson.”

“So, you’re a marketing guy? Design, maybe?”

“And you say that because….”

He had to be a creative. Not just because of the eye patch, or the fact that he was one of the few minorities there. Because he looked like he should be scaling a volcano or white-water rafting down the Amazon? Nelson couldn’t say that. It alluded to the scar, and even he wasn’t uncensored enough to bring up something like that within the first thirty seconds of meeting someone. “You haven’t given me the secret food science handshake.”

Javier’s subtle smile crept wider. His teeth were brilliantly white against his dark skin. “Copywriter.”

“I knew it….”

A burst of shrieks startled Nelson out of his seduction trajectory. “Cheese! Cheese! We have the cheese!” Across the room, Marianne jumped up and down like she’d just won the lottery. She waved her piece in the air, and hauled the arm of the accountant-looking guy beside her up and down along with it. He placidly accepted that it would be easier to resist a force of nature.

The glitzy presenter strode to the edge of the stage with the mystery boxes. “Whoever said the cheese stands alone? Not today.”

Shit. Couldn’t Marianne have waited another few seconds to start screaming about her cheese? Nelson went into overdrive on his phone number acquisition attempt. “And here’s the part,” he said, “where they tell you to get the contact information of whoever you’re talking to.”

Not particularly smooth, but it promised a better outcome than hoping he’d run into Javier at the subway station afterward, or tearing the puzzle piece out of Marianne’s hand, calling her a liar, and insisting the exercise carry on until he could find a better way to get Javier’s number. He pulled a business card from his pocket and held it out to Javier expectantly. Javier looked at the card like he didn’t buy that it was part of the exercise, but was deciding whether or not to humor Nelson anyway, when the presenter said, “All right. Everyone back in your seats. I’ll call out the names of the flavors and we’ll split you into teams….”

Javier looked from the card to Nelson’s eyes, and made a micro-movement as if he was about to turn away. Nelson stuffed his card into the pocket of Javier’s sportcoat. “No way I’m going to get picked out of this crowd for a real interview—but if you hear of anyplace else that’s hiring lab guys, let me know.”

“Okay…sure.” Javier turned and made his way back to his seat without giving Nelson a card in return. Nelson sighed and went back to his table. He hadn’t ranged even five feet from his starting point.

Marianne plunked down next to him and peeled back the corner of the paper that covered her big prize. She clucked her tongue in disgust, and whispered, “Exotic Spices? Ew. They all taste like funk.”

Nelson agreed. “Too much turmeric.”

She leaned in close. “So that jerk next to you gets a hundred bucks and I get this? That blows.”

“I’d tell you no one ever said life was fair, but then I’d have to put a dollar in my cliché jar.”

The presenter said, “We’re going to do sweet on one side of the room and savory on the other.” Another chance to bring the mysterious Javier around to his obvious charms? Nelson perked up for a moment, but then realized that he had sweet mint, and Javier had savory verde. No problem, he’d trade. Marianne would probably be willing to give up her cheese, although who knew if she’d need that game piece for a real reward later, since the Exotic Spices seemed perilously close to a booby prize.

“Along the right wall, I want the following: coconut, chocolate….”

Nelson turned toward Randy. “What do you have?”

Randy actually had to check his puzzle piece. What, he’d been looking at it for the past ten minutes and he still didn’t know? “Uh…a jalapeño pepper.”

Unbelievable. Nelson plucked it from his hand and shoved the mint piece in its place. “Here. Now you’re fresh and zippy. Go stand by the cute girl in the orange sweater.”

While Randy might have wanted to balk at being told what to do—especially by a long-haired homo misfit like Nelson—the girl in the orange sweater really was awfully cute. Nelson saw she had a wedding ring on, but Randy would probably be too busy staring at her rack to notice.

The savories all trooped to the other side of the room, where Nelson picked Javier out from two dozen other hopeful Canaan Products employees, and sidled up to his sighted side.

Javier’s eye went to Nelson’s hand, as if he could see through it to the puzzle piece. “Aren’t you on the wrong team? Or are you just a creative cook?”

“They say mint and lamb went well together—but, hey. They still eat termites in Ghana, so what do ‘they’ know?” Nelson held up his half of verde. “I’ve never really been much for mint.”

Javier looked amused. He didn’t seem like the type to be amused lightly, either, which only made Nelson want to try even harder. “Where’d you get the verde?”

“Does it matter? We’re lucky we didn’t score that particular prize, trust me.”

The presenter dipped into his big box of tricks and pulled a bunch of clotheslines, a stack of index cards, and a wad of bandannas.

“It’s time for a little game of ‘Make that Shape.’ Five people from each side will lead the team by giving directions, and the rest of you will need to form the ropes into the shapes the callers describe to you—blindfolded.”

“It just gets lamer and lamer,” Nelson whispered, but when he looked to see if he could elicit some agreement from Javier, instead of a complicit disdain, he detected something entirely else: dismay. Javier’s olive skin looked ashen, and his mouth was set in a stiff line.

Of course. Only a jackass would blindfold a one-eyed man in a room full of strangers. Even Nelson, who prided himself in being the poster boy for self-involvement, knew that much.

“So I’ll need the five team leaders from sweet and five from savory to step up and get the gear….”

“Go up there.” Nelson gave Javier a little shove toward the stage. Did he need to be more explicit about his reasoning, or would Javier take the ball and run with it? “You’d make a good team leader.”

Javier looked spooked, but either he intuited Nelson’s plan to keep him from being blindfolded, or he trusted enough in Nelson’s confidence that he was willing to lead the way for the savory side.

“That’s the same guy you were talking to during the ice breaker,” Marianne said.

“Really? Are you sure it wasn’t one of the other guys with eye patches?”

The sarcasm rolled off Marianne’s back. Tenacious girl. “Are you cruising him? You are, aren’t you?”

Nelson sighed. “It’s not like I’m deluded enough to think I’m going to get a job out of this thing. I’ll settle for a phone number.”

“He kind of looks like a movie pirate, doesn’t he?”

He did. An especially hot movie pirate. All he needed was a puffy shirt. Nelson warmed toward Marianne a bit, though he kept his expression neutral, as he didn’t care to show anyone the chinks in his armor on such short acquaintance.

“I guess you can’t actually say that,” she went on. “It would be like telling an amputee that their prosthetic turned you on.”

“Do you mind? My subconscious already has plenty of awkward things to blurt out. It doesn’t need any more ideas from you.”

Javier returned with a clothesline, plus four bandannas, which he passed out to Javier, Marianne, an a couple of other white guys in ties. It felt awkward to take the bandanna. Nelson suspected he’d blown his chance at a date by acknowledging the eye, even in such a roundabout way—though if he’d let events unfold without saying anything, it probably would have ended in Javier bailing on the conference right there and then, or even worse, suffering some kind of mortifying post-traumatic panic attack. So any way he looked at it, Nelson figured the date was an unlikely outcome.

What a shame. Javier was profoundly hot…though unlike most men who dug men, he seemed strangely resistant to Nelson’s charms. But, Nelson supposed, if he really felt like scratching that itch, it wasn’t as if he’d have trouble hooking up with someone else. There were always more fish in the sea.

And now he owed another dollar to his cliché jar.

He tied the bandanna over his eyes, and reassured himself that every minute of the conference he endured put him a minute closer to getting home and seeing how quickly he could find some pirate porn online. Unless a miracle happened, and Javier gave in and surrendered his phone number. Nelson wasn’t going to discount that possibility until he went home empty-handed.

“Team leaders, unwrap your clotheslines. Team players, check each other’s blindfolds and make sure they’re on good and tight. Anyone whose blindfold slips will be disqualified.”

A hand groped up Nelson’s arm, then felt its way up to the bandanna. He felt a body press close to his, and smelled shampoo and a hint of perfume—lady stuff. Marianne gave his knot a rudimentary check, then spoke in his ear. “That was nice, what you did with the blindfolds.”

Very observant. Plus, she’d won one of the stupid prizes. She’d probably get a callback. Nelson shrugged the arm she was holding onto.

“All set?” The blindfold cutting off Nelson’s vision made the announcer seem twice as loud. “Okay. Team leaders, take card number one, and look at the shape. Be the first to get your team to create that shape by arranging the rope without naming it, and you’ll all win—”

The pause went on longer than Nelson would have expected. Maybe he was showing the prize to the team leaders. Hopefully it wasn’t more of that Exotic Spices crap. The sound of people standing around quietly was louder with the blindfolds on, too. Nelson could hear the rustle of their clothes as they shifted, and a few indistinct whispers.

“Something’s wrong,” Javier murmured. He pulled off Nelson’s blindfold.

Something really was wrong. After a moment of disorientation, Nelson realized the room had gone dark. “It’s just some gimmick to test our problem-solving skills.” He could picture the doors he’d scoped out earlier. He and Javier were only a few yards away from the door in the divider wall. His patience had been teetering on the tipping point, and this latest insult, plunging them all into darkness just to see how they’d react, was the last straw.

His eyes adjusted grudgingly to the glow of a Canaan Products laptop a few yards away. People shuffled, disturbed by the long, awkward pause, though most of them had left their blindfolds in place. The event coordinator was at the edge of the stage, whispering to the presenter. Maybe the darkness hadn’t been planned, after all.

Javier moved through the crowd, sinuous and stealthy, without alerting the rest of the job seekers that something was wrong. He was at the laptop before anyone else even thought to remove a blindfold.

Marianne tugged Nelson’s sleeve. “What’s going on?”

He bent and spoke low in her ear. “Power failure, or some screwup like that. Take that thing off.” He pulled off her blindfold but kept his eye on Javier even as he spoke, thinking that if there were a downed power line, a rolling blackout or most any sort of electrical issue, the laptop would be useless. Yes, it had battery power. But the building’s wireless network wouldn’t.

A moment later, Javier realized as much. He gave up on the laptop and headed back toward Nelson, threading through the blindfolded crowd just as silently on his return trip. “You think it’s something bad?” Nelson asked. He could think of a dozen flavors of “bad,” including a bomb, a pandemic outbreak and a biological terrorist attack. Not that any of those things was likely, just that he was in the habit of looking at problems from every possible angle.

“I don’t know.” Even with one eye hidden, Javier’s expression said otherwise. “But we should play it safe.” He turned toward the main entrance.

“Not that way.” Nelson looped one arm through Javier’s, and took Marianne by the shoulder with his other hand. “That’s a bottleneck just waiting to happen.”

They were groping for the latch of the divider door when the first gunshots sounded.

-Find The Starving Years at Amazon, B&N and JCP Books March 5!-

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
andy_slayde
Mar. 2nd, 2012 03:53 pm (UTC)
Love the cover!
jordan_c_price
Mar. 2nd, 2012 04:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I made it a while ago. Taking it apart to tweak it is resulting in a lot of "huh, what'd I do?"
krondr
Mar. 3rd, 2012 12:39 am (UTC)
LOVE THAT COVER!!! The first couple of chapters was such a great setup.
jordan_c_price
Mar. 3rd, 2012 01:09 am (UTC)
Thanks! I was really pleased with the Nelson model in particular.
Amanda Corlies
Mar. 3rd, 2012 05:46 pm (UTC)
Squeee! I am freaking stoked about this story. Can I say I laughed out loud so many times at Nelson and his take on the conference. He and I are going to be simpatico. Typical of your MCs. And now, I think I need to go look for some pirates online. LOL!
jordan_c_price
Mar. 3rd, 2012 06:42 pm (UTC)
He's overeducated and underemployed, so somehow I'm not surprised ;-)
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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