My newest original story, Durendal, is now available on Amazon! You can get it here. It runs to ~80,000 words (and goes for $3.99), making it the first novel-length original story that I’ve made available to the public. It’s a coming-of-age story and a Western with elements of science fiction. If you’ve enjoyed my other stories, I know you’ll love this one. Here’s the blurb (you can read a longer preview if you keep scrolling down):
Twelve-year-old Billy Winchester’s got a feeling that the war made Duren a monster, but maybe he and his sister can make him a man again.
Billy’s always dreamed of leaving Sahara VII, a backwater mining planet, for some adventure. But with the galaxy still reeling from decades of war, and an older sister desperate to hang onto the only family she’s got left, he’s not having much luck.
Then he meets Duren, and suddenly adventure’s right on his doorstep.
The rugged stranger from another planet is everything Billy wishes he could be. When his sister hires Duren to help at their diner, Billy does his best to make him a part of their family. Trouble is, Duren’s got a past, and it’s the worst sort of bloody. To Billy though, he’s just a man, and a good one at that.
But danger’s never far on a planet like Sahara VII.
A cruel mining magnate, Stratton sets his eyes on Billy’s sister, and he won’t take no for an answer. When Stratton kidnaps her, Billy’s going to need the man Duren used to be, the man he hoped Billy would never have to see.
But Stratton isn’t stupid, and he isn’t alone. He knows Duren is coming for him, and there are people who’ve been waiting a long time for Duren to show himself. Duren won’t have to beat just Stratton and his men – he’ll have to stand toe-to-toe with the vengeful ghosts of his past while keeping Billy clear of the crossfire. Billy’s finally got his adventure, but it might cost him the only family he’s ever known.
Finally, if you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry. You can download a free App from Amazon that lets you use whatever device you want instead (e.g., PC, laptop, mac, phone, iphone/ipad/ipod). You can find the App here.
I was only a kid the first time that I saw Duren. I was at the spaceport watching the ships go up and down, wishing I were on one of them. There wasn’t much else for a boy of twelve to do back then, at least, not on a dustbowl of a planet like Sahara VII.
And I do mean dustbowl. Sahara VII was named after a great, big desert back on Earth, and the name was spot on. Most of the planet was desert, all red, rust-coloured sand and dry heat. Lots of people died then thinking being tough was good enough. Problem was, the desert didn’t care much about tough. You had to be smart too since even a short trip could turn fatal if you got cocky. In any case, there wasn’t a lot of farmland to speak of. All up, there was barely enough to support a hundred thousand colonists too dumb or too poor to go someplace else. Naturally, though, prices on anything fresh were mighty steep.
So there I was, whiling the hours away at the spaceport dreaming of oceans and cloudy skies, when another ship pulled in. It was a real rickety piece of work, the kind that left you wondering how it ever made it through the atmosphere, let alone made the jump into hyperspace. The outside of it was all banged up, and there were more than a few holes in the hull that looked to have come from laser fire. As it landed, its engines gave an angry whine and sputtered out.
The passengers filed out, and I gave them a good looking over. Most people who came to Sahara VII took one look at everything and got right back on the ship. Those who stayed never looked too happy about being there, except for the ones running from the law. Yeah, we had plenty of them in those days, especially since no one really kept tabs on who was coming in or going out. And there were plenty of people going out.
Times were tough back then, and not only on Sahara VII. We’d had a decade of peace but that wasn’t much, not after thirty years of war, and there wasn’t a system that hadn’t seen its fair share of combat. Even the First Planets – Earth and Mars – had taken a beating, so things were downright miserable for small, out-of-the-way planets like mine. It would be another four years before the galaxy finally pulled itself back together and the Federation of Free Worlds formed. In the meantime, rich men and their money ruled, and the rest of us had no choice but to hang onto what little we could and hope it would be enough.
When I first saw Duren, I didn’t think too much of him. He wasn’t a tall man, but he wasn’t a short man either. He was old though, closer to sixty than fifty, with features that looked like they’d been sculpted by long years of hard weather. But there was something about him that set him apart from the other dull-eyed passengers shuffling away from the ship. For one, his eyes were a steely grey, sharp and keen, and filled with hard-won experience. And there was the way he carried himself. He had a large, heavy looking rucksack and a long bundle slung over his shoulder, but his back was straight and every movement was smooth and easy like all the things he was carrying didn’t bother him at all.
As the other passengers made their way toward the gate into town, he broke away and walked over to the big wall with all the help-wanted posters. He stopped, and his eyes flicked from poster to poster. I was kind of curious by then, seeing as how I couldn’t understand what sort of man would come to a planet like Sahara VII without a job already lined up. I was curious, as well, to see what kind of job he’d take. Even then I could tell there was something different about him, something that maybe made him better than anyone else on that ship, at least on any scale that mattered.
Finally, he reached forward and tore a small poster off the wall. My eyes widened. It was the poster my sister had put up a few days ago. Now, I was confused. You see, my sister and I lived on our own, and although I was only a boy, I took a few jobs on the side to help us get along. Really though, my sister was the one who kept us fed and with a roof over our heads. She owned a diner in a scrappy part of town, and even if it wasn’t the best-looking place, she had a way with cooking that let her turn even the driest, most horrible ration bar into a meal worth looking forward to. We lived in a couple of rooms above the diner, and although it wasn’t exactly roomy, it was home, and so long as we had each other, it wasn’t so bad.
Lately though, business had been good. There was talk of another mine being set up maybe an hour or two out of town, and that meant workers with money who’d need some decent food. The place next door had closed up – the owner had gone for a trip into the desert and never come back – so my sister had bought it and was thinking of expanding the diner a little. To do that, she’d need an extra cook to help her out, and that’s why she’d put the poster up.
I had a feeling about Duren that made me think he could probably do well at almost anything. Yet looking at the easy way he moved and the strength that showed in his lean frame, I couldn’t help but think he’d be better suited to the battlefield than the kitchen. All the same, I followed him as he folded the poster up neatly, pocketed it, and headed off into town.
It was going on dusk then, and I realised I must have lost track of the time. It was easy to do that watching the ships and dreaming of all the things in the galaxy that I’d never get to see. But it was dangerous too. Things weren’t that bad during the day, but once night fell it could get dicey. There were some bad folks in town, and most of them waited till the sun went down to do their dirty work.
But if Duren was worried, he didn’t look it. Instead, he walked on with that same calm but confident stride, and I did my best to keep up as he walked down the main street toward my sister’s diner like he’d been born knowing where it was. A few minutes later, he stopped and then, with a brief glance at a battered street sign, turned off the main street and into the maze of smaller streets and alleys that would take him the rest of the way to the diner.
I made sure to keep far back enough that he wouldn’t get suspicious, but as some of the lowlifes started to come out, I couldn’t stop myself from closing in. He didn’t turn, but he must have noticed me because he slowed his pace a little. As he walked down one particularly bad alley, I saw a couple of young men walk up to him. They had a rugged look about them, and one of them reached for the small stunner he kept at his side. I opened my mouth to yell a warning, but Duren stopped and stared right into the eyes of that young man.
I was behind them, so I couldn’t see for certain, but whatever that young man saw in Duren’s eyes must have scared him something fierce. His hand dropped from his stunner, and he muttered what sounded an awful lot like an apology. And then he was gone, he and his friend slipping back into the shadows.
It was the most remarkable thing I’d ever seen, and Duren hadn’t even lifted a finger. He’d stopped the young man with nothing more than a look.
Finally, we reached my sister’s diner, and I breathed a sigh of relief as I nodded at the familiar neon sign and slipped inside. It was already a bit busy, and the minute she saw me, my sister had me taking orders and waiting tables. I would have grumbled, but I knew she’d been working all day, so the least I could do was help.
As I went from table to table, I kept an eye on Duren. I was glad when he finally looked my way to make an order.
“Evening,” I said. “What’ll it be?”
“Orange juice,” he said, and his voice was rough but sort of kind. “Cold if you can, but if you can’t, then warm’s fine too.”
I nodded and went over to get a glass of orange juice out of the fridge. It was a matter of pride for my sister. Our planet might be downright miserable, but she was determined to give folks something good to eat and drink, and after a hard day’s work, there wasn’t anything better than a nice, cold drink.
“Here,” I said, laying the glass out in front of him. “That’s three credits.”
He nodded and slipped a five credit bill my way. “It’s cold. That’s good. Keep the change.”
It wasn’t often people got generous, so I wasn’t about to argue. As the night wore on, I watched him nurse that one glass of orange juice for close to an hour. At the same time, he watched everything, taking in the good food and the easy-going atmosphere. I kept wondering when he was going to ask about the job, but then I realised what he was doing. He was taking the measure of our place, seeing if it was the kind of place he’d like to work. Well, he’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere better in town, and I knew for a fact he’d never find a fairer boss than my sister.
At last, he seemed satisfied with what he’d seen because he got to his feet and headed toward the kitchen where my sister was. However, he was only halfway there when trouble came in through the front door. A trio of miners burst in, their faces flushed with alcohol.
“Hey, Ellie!” the one in front yelled. “You come on out here and show us that pretty face of yours!”
My sister’s name was Elizabeth, and she was pretty. Lots of men had tried to get a hold of her, but she wasn’t interested in settling down, at least not for a while. Of course, some of the men didn’t take to that too kindly, and these miners were some of the worst.
“That’s enough,” my sister said as she came out of the kitchen, frying pan in hand. “I’ve got customers to serve, so either buy something or get out.”
The sheer daring of the words had the miner reeling back, but he was half drunk, and his cheeks flushed as the anger coursed through him. He upended a table and stomped over with one hand raised. I darted forward to try and stop him – twelve years old or not, I wasn’t about to watch some drunk hit my sister – but there was no need.
Duren stepped between them, and though his voice was warm and almost friendly, those grey eyes of his were icy cold. “I think the lady asked you to buy something or get out.”
The miner looked at Duren and laughed. Sure, Duren was lean and fit, but he was old. The miner was a young man with a powerful build. “Get out of the way, old man, before I move you myself.”
“You’ll try,” Duren said. “But you won’t. Now, go back the way you came and there’ll be no trouble.”
The miner laughed again, and then his fist lashed out, so fast that I could barely see it. But Duren had. Smooth as water, he brought one arm up to block the blow even as his other arm snapped up to drive his fist right into the miner’s chin. The blow lifted the miner off his feet, and the young man crashed to the ground. He lay there for a moment, dazed, before he stumbled back up, angry right down to the soles of his dusty boots.
“Get him!” he screamed at the two others who’d come in with him. “Get him!”
As the customers moved out of the way, Duren breezed forward, light and easy on his feet. One of the miners kicked out at his stomach, but he stepped to the side and caught the man’s leg. With a flick of his wrist, he sent the man flying, and the miner let out a muffled curse as he fell heavily to the ground by the door. The second rushed at him from behind, but Duren was ready for him. He drove one elbow up and back, and as the miner reeled, he reached back and tossed him over his shoulder and out the door. The third one, the one who’d started the whole mess, took one more look at Duren and then turned tail and ran, stopping just long enough to grab his friend by the door.
As things got back to normal, my sister went up to him. “Thank you kindly for the help. It’s much appreciated.”
Duren glanced past her at the customers. “I’m a mite surprised that no one else stepped in, although maybe I shouldn’t be.”
“Don’t blame them,” my sister said. “Those miners are trouble, and they’ve a knack for fighting though it seems you’ve got one too.”
“I suppose I do,” Duren said. “But that’s not why I’m here.”
“Oh?” My sister raised one eyebrow. “What are you here about then?”
Duren pulled out the poster. “I’m looking for a job.”
My sister stared for a moment and then caught herself. “You can cook?”
Duren smiled faintly. “I’ve been known to, and I could sure use the work.”
“That so?” My sister grinned. “Well, I suppose I could give you a try tomorrow, see if you can cook or not.” She extended one hand. “My name’s Elizabeth, Elizabeth Winchester.” She looked at me. “And that’s my brother, William Winchester, although most folks call him Billy.”
“Billy, eh?” Duren glanced at me. “You followed me all the way from the spaceport, didn’t you?”
I flushed. “I guess so.”
“You dreaming of getting off-world?” he asked. I nodded, afraid he would laugh, but all he did was give me a gentle smile. “Well, it’s good to have dreams.” He looked back at my sister and shook her hand. “I go by Duren in most places.”
My sister smiled. “It’s nice to meet you then, Mr Duren.”
“Just Duren,” he said. “I haven’t gone by mister for a long time now.”
“Duren it is then.” My sister glanced back at the empty glass of orange juice on his table. “How about I fetch you another glass of orange juice? It’s the least I can do after you helped out tonight.”
Duren shook his head. “It’s fine. I’ll pay.”
And that was how I met Duren. It wasn’t exactly an ordinary meeting, but as I’d find out later, he wasn’t exactly an ordinary fellow.
Duren spent the rest of that first night nursing his orange juice in a way that told me he’d spent a lot of time making do with not much. Still, I kind of expected someone to say something about it, but I guess the thought of what he could do was still fresh in everybody’s minds. Closing time came by without any more trouble, and my sister waved off the two young women who helped wait the tables and then wandered over to talk to him.
“We’ve got some rooms next door that we could put you up in starting from tomorrow night, but they’re not quite ready yet.” She paused, and I could tell she was embarrassed because her cheeks were flushed enough for me to see even through the tan all of us settlers had. “I didn’t expect someone from out of town, let alone off-world to apply.”
Duren didn’t look surprised. “That’s fine. I saw a boarding house on my way here that looked all right, and if I have to, I can sleep rough for a night.” He saw the look of shock cross my sister’s face, and his lips curled at the edges. “Don’t worry, I can handle myself for one night.”
My sister nodded quickly. “I don’t doubt that you can.” She glanced back at the kitchen. “I’ve got some washing up to do now, but if you want to see the rooms next door, you can come back at ten o’clock tomorrow morning.”
“You still do your washing by hand?” Duren didn’t say the words in a mean way, even though he could have, since even back then most people had machines for washing.
My sister smiled thinly. “Well, it saves on the money a little, and it saves on the water a lot, which is important in a place like this. Not to mention, machines need parts, and parts aren’t easy to come by or cheap, not here.”
“I thought so.” Duren lifted his glass and drained away the last of the orange juice. “Even before the war, folks never cared for anybody but themselves.” He stood and started toward the kitchen. “Tell you what, why don’t I do the dishes for you tonight? If I’m going to be working here, I might as well get used to washing dishes.”
“Oh!” My sister bustled after him, but he was moving quickly, each step smooth and easy. “It’s quite alright, I can do it myself.” But all he did was toss her a faint smile and keep right on going to the kitchen, stopping only to gather the last of the dishes off the tables.
I followed him into the kitchen as my sister got set on cleaning up the tables. I was keen to see him work, silly as that sounds. The way he moved, the strength I saw hidden behind those stern yet gentle, grey eyes, they made me think that he was meant for better things than washing dishes. But right away, I saw that he was at home in the kitchen, like being there made him happy. He looked at everything, and an odd sort of smile crossed his face. Personally, I didn’t see what he was smiling about. Everything in our kitchen was a bit old, and more than a bit worn. In fact, my sister was always talking big about fixing it up, only she never seemed to get around to it.
Still smiling that small smile of his, he set the dishes down next to all the others that my sister had gathered and turned his attention to the sink. The sink was a tricky thing, set to save as much water as possible, and almost everyone took a few tries to get used to it. However, he reached on over and got it working like he’d been working here all his life. When the sink was nice and full with hot water, he got a sponge and some soap out, and got to work.
The plates we used were made of some hard plastic that tended to go grey after a while. But until then, they were nice to look at. You see, they had pictures on them, pictures of places and things I’d never seen, not in real life. Sometimes, I’d take forever to wash the dishes because I’d stop and stare, and imagine what it would be like to see a real beach with real water. I must have been staring right that moment because he gave a quiet chuckle. I flushed, but there was a teasing light in his eyes, and he inclined his head toward the door. The message, I figured, was that I should go take a look and see if there were any other dishes out there that he might’ve missed.
My sister was still tidying up the tables when I got back to the dining room, and the two of us shared a glance. Despite how tough things were, there were plenty of people who thought they were too good to wash dishes. Clearly, Duren wasn’t one of them, and that was what really made my sister start warming up to him, maybe even more than him sorting those miners out.
When I got back to the kitchen, I could see he’d made decent progress. He was quick and efficient in his movements, those rough, calloused hands oddly gentle as he scrubbed each plate clean and stacked it neatly in the pile by the sink. Once they were all done, he’d probably rinse them all together. My sister had a habit of singing while she washed the dishes, and as much as I loved her, I’ll say right now that while she had many talents, singing wasn’t one of them. Duren though, was quiet, his eyes locked onto the dishes like they were the only things that existed in the whole world. It was kind of eerie seeing someone give so much attention to such a simple task, but then the strangest thing happened.
He was scrubbing one plate clean, and then he froze. I was about to ask him if something was wrong, when I saw the plate that he was holding. It was my favourite plate, one with a beach on it, all golden sand and crystal water. When I’d first seen it, I’d been curious to know if it was based on anything real, and after some asking around, I’d gotten an answer. It turned out the beach on the plate was a famous one – the biggest beach on Eden IV, a resort world. Or at least, it had been.
During the war, Eden IV had tried to keep neutral, but that hadn’t worked, not for long. Eventually, one of the sides had got it into their head that Eden IV was helping the other side out and had decided to do something about it. They’d glassed Eden IV, bombing it from high orbit until the surface was little more than molten glass and lava. Still, that hadn’t been enough to take out the shielded areas, so they’d had to send troops in. I shook my head. People said it was the closest thing to hell they’d ever heard of, fighting on a planet that was mostly molten rock. Finally, Duren put the plate aside, and I was about to ask him about it when my sister all but dragged me out of the kitchen by my ear.
“Don’t you even think of asking that man about what you saw!” my sister said as I rubbed at my ear. Back in those days, my sister was taller than me, and she had one heck of a grip in those fingers of hers. “I’m not about to lose a decent worker because of your snooping.”
“But don’t tell me you aren’t curious,” I said. “You saw how he was looking at that plate.”
Her eyes narrowed. “A person has got a right to keep things private, Billy. How would you like it if someone dropped by and started asking you about father?”
I winced. Father was a sore spot for both of us, but for me most of all. At least she had more than a few pictures and some stories to go on. “I guess you’re right.” I sighed. “I wouldn’t like it.”
A quiet cough from the door of the kitchen got our attention. “I’m about done,” Duren said, and the two of us sprang apart like we were in trouble. “You want to take a look?”
“I think I might.” My sister headed into the kitchen, and I padded along after her. Like I thought, the dishes were done right and proper, and he hadn’t used too much water either. “You’ve done a good job, Duren.”
“Thank you kindly. A man should always give his best when he’s got work to do.” He nodded at us both. “Ten o’clock tomorrow morning you said?”
My sister smiled. “That’s right. The morning rush should be over by then, so I should have the time to show you around next door.” She paused and then added, “If you’re going to that boarding house, drop my name, that ought to lower the price a little.”
His eyes widened for a second. “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.” His lips tugged up at the corners. “And you two should watch how loud you talk, a fellow with good hearing can hear you from way back in the kitchen.” His eyes were twinkling, so I knew he was only joking around, that we hadn’t offended him any. “But I guess you know what happened to that beach – it got blown to bits in the war. I heard though, that they’re trying to get Eden IV fixed up again, but I don’t know if it’ll ever be the same.” His eyes hardened a fraction. “There are some things that you can’t fix no matter how hard you try, not after you’ve broken them.” And then he was out the door and gone, his lean frame fading into the night.
The next morning rolled around, and I was mighty glad that it was a weekend. On most weekdays I went to school, and I was curious to see Duren get settled in. Of course, if it were a weekday, I could have tried to skip school, but one way or another, my sister would have found out. Everyone in town knew her, and I had a feeling she had a free cup of coffee waiting for anyone who turned me in if I was misbehaving, even if no one would admit it. The last time I’d skipped out on school, she’d popped up like some kind of desert snake, and it was a whole day before I could walk right after the walloping she gave me.
Duren appeared at exactly ten o’clock, and I gave him a lazy wave from inside the diner. He returned it with a curt nod and waited patiently for my sister to come out and meet him. It wasn’t that busy then, so the diner would be okay with just Lucy and Emma – two of my sister’s workers – to watch over it. Come back in another hour and a half though, and the place would be close to full.
She led Duren over next door, and I tagged along. The place next door had been a flower shop once. Yeah, that’s right. Someone had tried to sell flowers on a desert world. It wasn’t a bad idea, but folks out here were too practical to spend their money on things like that, not to mention there wasn’t a lot of money to go around in the first place. A while back, the owner had gone off into the desert and never returned. So, the place had gone up for sale, and my sister had managed to grab hold of it. It was a good place too, seeing as how it and our diner shared one wall, and there were rooms upstairs that Duren could use.
It took a couple of tries to get the front door open – it had a habit of sticking – and then my sister was showing him around. I’d already helped her clean out the inside of the place, so it was decent enough, but even so, I could still smell the faintest hint of flowers. Duren must have smelled it too because he took a deep, deep breath and closed his eyes for a few moments. When he opened them, he laughed.
“Flowers,” he whispered. “I didn’t think I’d find any here.”
My sister stopped and looked at him for a second and then shook her head. “There aren’t any, not anymore.” She paused. “Now, there are some rooms upstairs that you can use. I’ve had the electricity and water connected, but I’d appreciate it if you could use those carefully.”
“Seems fair enough,” Duren said. “Though I was thinking of paying those bills myself, if I got the job.”
My sister grinned. “If you get the job, I think I might let you do that.” She gestured at the stairs. “Come with me, I’ll show you around upstairs.”
“You thinking of expanding into here?” Duren asked as we walked up the stairs.
My sister’s eyes lit up. She was always dreaming, and nothing pleased her more than to talk about it. “That’s right, Duren. Things have been going well lately, so I was thinking I would knock down part of the wall between this place and the diner and get the dining area widened out. The kitchen is big enough already that I won’t have to expand it.” She gave him a grin. “All I need now is an extra cook.”
Duren turned her words over in his head for a bit. “Have you worked out how you’ll do it yet?” He wasn’t saying this to make fun of her like some people did. No, he seemed genuinely curious, especially since his eyes were already flicking over the whole place as though he were trying to imagine how it would all look.
“I’ve been doing some thinking,” my sister said. “But I haven’t got it all nailed down yet. Architects are pricey out here, and I don’t know much about building things myself.” She gave Duren a cool look. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any ideas, do you?”
He met her gaze evenly. “I might.” But the way he said it made me think he had more than a few ideas. Heck, I got the feeling he’d already worked out exactly how he’d do it. He was that kind of man. “But I suppose it would be better to ask me after you’ve had a chance to see me cook.”
“I have a feeling you’ll do fine,” my sister said. “Now, come on, your room is right around the corner.”
Duren’s room wasn’t big, but it was clean and tidy. My sister had made sure of that, dragging me out of bed to help her get everything ready earlier in the morning. If he was going to work for us, then, damn it, he’d live someplace decent. I knew she wouldn’t have it said that she couldn’t look after her own. There was a bed in there with fresh sheets and pillows along with a closet and a set of drawers. On the wall farthest from the door was a window looking out onto the street.
“Well, here it is, Duren,” my sister said. “And there’s a bathroom at the end of the hall.” She looked back, and I realised that while my sister and I had both gone inside, Duren was still standing a touch outside the door. “Go on,” she said softly. “Take a look around.”
Duren shook himself and stepped into the room. His eyes swept over everything, and slowly he began to work his way around the room. It was strange to watch him pace from side to side, and I got the impression that he was counting how many steps it took to get from place to place. But why would someone need to know how many steps it took to reach the door? Or how many steps it took to go from the bed to the window? And speaking of the window, his gaze was intense, almost frighteningly so, as he glanced out it and took careful stock of everything he could see. Finally, some of the tension drained out of him, and he wandered back toward us. His fingers skimmed the top of the drawers.
“It’s a fine room,” he said. “And it’d be nice to have someplace permanent to bed down in for a change.”
“You’ve been on the road for a while then?” I asked, ignoring the glare that my sister shot me. Personally, I found it a bit odd that we still used expressions like that, seeing as how spaceships didn’t use roads.
But if my question bothered Duren, it didn’t show. “You could say that,” he replied and then more softly, “Sometimes, I can’t even remember when I first started.”
My sister laughed awkwardly. “Okay, well, how about we head back? The lunch time rush is coming up soon, and there’s no better way to see if you’re up to it than to throw you into the deep end.”
“That’s the truth, all right,” Duren said wryly.
“Don’t worry.” My sister smiled. “Most of the stuff we make isn’t too complicated, and mostly I’ll be there to tell you what to do. I want to see if you can keep up.”
Duren smiled back, eyes crinkling a little. “I’ll keep up. You have my word on that.” The way he said it made me certain he’d do fine. Better than fine, really.