Critique Group – Spectralight

How many mistakes can you find on that billboard?

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Spectralight – by Jason

Cedrick pushed open the curtain and was quickly assaulted by the bar’s pungent mix of cigarette smoke, strong perfume, alcohol, and other substances he couldn’t identify. A band on a stage on the far side of the room, strumming guitar strings and pounding drums, performed an okay rendition of a Peter Frampton song. Ordinarily, Cedrick would be tempted to sit at one of the tables and enjoy the music, but tonight’s mission drew him to the set of booths clustered on the bar room’s back side. Velvet curtains were drawn over most of them, so Cedrick sought out an open booth.

Once seated, the teenager dug out a small glass vial from his dark trenchcoat and slapped it down on the table, his hand covering it. So far he had followed the instructions to the letter. Now, he was about to answer a cry for help or step into a dangerous trap. In other words, standard everyday stuff.

Cedrick didn’t have to wait long. A young male wrapped in a brown blanket sprang from down on the floor against a short wall to Cedrick’s left. He took one look behind him before sitting across from Cedrick, who couldn’t help but grimace at his appearance. This guy’s cheeks were bony, his skin nearly white, and his eyes seemed to bounce in their sockets.

“I’d ask if you’re okay, but I get the feeling I’m not going to like the answer,” Cedrick said.

The young male drew his feet up into the booth’s seat. “I’m dead. I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead. They’ll see I’m gone.”

“Relax. You got my message. I’m here to help.” Cedrick then looked at the guy square in the eye. “But first, name.”


“Name, now.”

“Uh, Lawrence! Lawrence Stolz! I’m in eleventh grade! I go to Country Day High…”

“Calm down. I just needed the name. That’s most of the story right there.”

Lawrence pulled his blanket tighter over his body. “Why?”

Cedrick pointed to a man seated a nearby booth, the curtain drawn open enough for him to be easily visible. “That dude over there. Know his name?”

“Uh, yeah, he’s a regular. Benson.”

“Okay. Good. Now, our buddy Benson has green eyes. The same color as that man sitting at the table two rows down. They even got the same hair.”

Lawrence scooted a little further to the seat’s edge to see better what Cedrick was talking about. “Yeah. Yeah, I see two men over there.”

“Right. Now one guy’s wearing the same pants as Benson, but the other guy’s got the same shirt. One guy’s got the same eyes as Benson but the other has the same nose and probably the same teeth. It’s like Benson is actually a combo of those two fellas.” Cedrick then scratched his chin. “Say, do you know the name of just one of those guys?”

“I think the guy in the shirt…yeah, it’s Benjamin!”

“Benjamin. Ben. Benson, as in ‘Son of Ben.’” Cedrick smiled. “That’s how Spawns roll. They’re not very imaginative. When they need to invade our reality, they have to copy from real people to make their bodies. I had to be sure you weren’t one of them. There are tip-offs. If there’s too many ‘Thompsons’ or ‘Johnsons’ around, that’s one of them.”

As Cedrick finished his sentence, the band finished their song. The stage speakers then piped in a new mix of soft beats and guitar strings belonging to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” Almost on cue, the song triggered a large change in the room’s activity. Patrons that were content to sit and drink suddenly rose from their seats and sought out other men and women seated in other tables or booths along the walls. Those already seated at the booths or tables pulled out suitcases or bags from under their tables, or removed small trinkets from within their clothing for the patrons to see.

“The market’s open!” Lawrence pulled the blanket tighter over his body. “Those things they’re buying and selling, they got spectralight in them! They do weird, weird things to you!”

While Lawrence ranted, Cedrick stole a peek at a table behind where he spotted the two men earlier. A gaunt young man popped opened a small case, revealing a row of trinkets and bracelets dangling from the underside. Seated opposite him, a teenage girl followed the hanging treasures with spaced out eyes. Then, robotically, she pointed to a four-pointed silver star before taking it.

The strange amulet suddenly glowed green in her palm. Her mouth dropped open, then curled in a smile. The merchant simply sat there, not reacting to what his ware was doing to the girl.

Cedrick’s stomach churned. These clients looked spaced out, drunk or sickly, plus many of them were disturbingly young, perhaps even junior high school age. It was small comfort that Cedrick’s seventeen years of age helped him blend into this dive. It makes me look like a better target, he thought.

“You see? You see how it works. They hook you. They promise you all kinds of stuff, but there’s a price. There’s always a price.” Lawrence sounded as if he was on the edge of tears. “Now I-I can’t leave. They got their hooks in me. They got me, they got me…”

Cedrick leaned forward. “Hey, I said I’d get you out of here and I meant it. When I leave the booth, you duck out of that curtain I came out of and then run for your life. I got friends outside waiting for you.” He then cast a glance over his shoulder. “Who runs this place?”

Lawrence pulled the blanket back a little. “Mister Mann. Yeah, him. Actually, I heard him talking just now with his guys. They said they were looking for a girl that goes to school around here. I forget the name.”

Looking for a girl? Cedrick didn’t like the sound of that. If Spawns were looking for specific people, that meant far more than hooking unsuspecting teens and adults on cheap spectralight-laced devices. It meant they had murder on their minds.

“Thanks, Buddy. Time for you to bail. I’m going to chat with Mister Mann.”

“What? No, no, that’s crazy! No one can talk to him unless you’re one of his guys!”

Cedrick then finally pulled his hand off the vial on the table, revealing the orange light that pulsed within its transparent container. “I think I can grab his attention.”

Lawrence pressed back against the booth cushion. “Where-where did you get that much spectralight? That’s twelve kils! Nobody has that much!” He then looked up at Cedrick with widening eyes. “Who are you? You’re not one of them, but…”

Cedrick snatched up the vial. “Just think of me as the local pest exterminator. Right now, this joint’s got too many rats.”



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11 replies

  1. Wow! This grabbed me from the beginning and I couldn’t stop reading until the end! Very good job!

  2. I found four mistakes in the last two lines, at least if there is an apostrophe in “prices.”

    As for the story, I definitely see improvements from last time you posted. You did such a good job portraying the unsavory environment that I was loath to walk through it again, even in imagination! Although I read it a bit cautiously, after this read-through I understood your main character better than before. I have an idea of what his job is, and who he might be up against. As I remember the last version, he was a mysterious, cloaked hero who came in to save the day, but I didn’t really know what was going on. I hadn’t seen his face or personality. This beginning will make your later scenes more compelling.

    I think this sentence would be improved by either showing the choice sooner or making it an afterthought:
    “He was [either] about to answer a call for help or step into a dangerous trap”
    “He was about to answer a call for help… or step into a dangerous trap.”

    Because of your character’s savvy, and his voice so far, I’m guessing the first way would work better. As-is, the sentence broke the flow for me.

    Great job on the rewrite! The sense of story and foreshadowing definitely feels stronger.

    • Thanks for the input, Christina!

      I’m glad you were able to understand Cedrick better this time. You likely noticed that I axed the character of White Knight from the previous draft. Last time, White Knight (real name: Merrick) and Cedrick both entered the scene. But now that I got rid of Merrick, the attention’s now focused on Cedrick, which I think helped a lot.

      I think I did my job if you find the locale unsavory and not a pleasant place to read about. 🙂 If it makes you feel better, it won’t be in operation for very long.

      • I just looked at the earlier draft. I think they had merged into one character, since it had been a while. The focus is definitely better here, introducing only one at first.

        And yes! The promise of it’s collapse makes me feel much better. 🙂

  3. ooooooooh! nice! I like how it’s coming out so far!

  4. Jason,

    I found the concept intriguing. I would keep reading.

    My main issue is the lack of knowledge of Cedric’s mission. Since he knows what he is there for, it would be helpful with the reader connection if the reader did as well.

    There are several minor issues:

    You use “then” unnecessarily several times, such as “Cedric then scratched his chin.” I would take most if not all of those out.

    Watch for reactions preceding motivations – ” He took one look behind him before sitting across from Cedrick, who couldn’t help but grimace at his appearance. This guy’s cheeks were bony, his skin nearly white, and his eyes seemed to bounce in their sockets.”

    This sentence is too wordy and is a possible point-of-view error: “Lawrence scooted a little further to the seat’s edge to see better what Cedrick was talking about.” Cedric can only assume the reason for scooting. Tighten this up like this — “Lawrence scooted to the seat’s edge and looked.”

    “Once seated, the teenager dug out a small glass vial from his dark trenchcoat and slapped it down on the table, his hand covering it.”

    Who is “the teenager”? Is it Cedric? Would he refer to himself that way? This was confusing.

    “Cedrick pushed open the curtain and was quickly assaulted by the bar’s pungent mix of cigarette smoke, strong perfume, alcohol, and other substances he couldn’t identify.”

    I would delete “other.” It sounds like you’re saying that he couldn’t identify the odors you named. I would also delete “quickly.” Assaulted connotes a fast action. I would also probably change it from passive to active.

    There are several places that you can tighten wordiness. Search them out. 🙂

  5. Thanks to all who have offered their valuable critiques of my story.

    For those who don’t know, this is actually a rewrite. Bryan reviewed the earlier draft here:

    In the previous draft, I wrote about Cedrick and White Knight (real name: Merrick) entering this unsavory locale to convince one of the locale’s insiders (Shankar) to let them see a “Mister X.”

    This time, I axed Merrick, Mister X and Shankar, and changed the scene to Cedrick coming alone to help a poor teen who has run afoul of the spectralight peddlers behind this establishment. I think presenting a victim of this locale’s shady market was a better move.

    If anyone clicks on the link to the previous draft, the Graybird/Marcie exchange still goes directly after this scene, except Graybird is now Mister Mann.

    I was mostly concerned if anyone would be confused by how Cedrick explained to Lawrence about the existence of Spawns. I wanted to get across that Spawns were these creatures that formed bodies by copying aspects of existing humans, so a single Spawn is kind of like a combo of two people that already exist.

    I also wanted to get across that Spawns have certain naming conventions that give themselves away, like choosing a name that ends in -son. In fact, another giveaway is that some Spawns will pick a name that has a very broad or almost blank meaning, like “Guy” or “Mann.” The “Mister Mann” that Cedrick seeks is one of those Spawns.

    Since no one has commented on this yet, I assume I did a good job conveying the info on Spawns. 🙂

    • That is what I was referring to as “who he might be up against.” (In addition to the immediate threat to the boy) I wasn’t sure if the Spawns created bodies for themselves (like viral replication, where they reprogram a normal cell), or if they were making copies for some other nefarious purpose. I also wasn’t sure how/if they were connected to the unsavory location. But it was plenty of information for me to get a basic idea – and to know I didn’t want to get near one!

  6. Like the story so far. Interesting idea.

    Two characters at the table. Benson and sons/spawns. Vial under Cedrick’s hand. The market. Mr. Mann. The girl. Spectralight. Lots of information thrown into one scene. Maybe unpack things a bit more so that readers are not confused.

    Otherwise, cool story. I would keep reading.


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