BY: SCOTT MCNEIGHT
Dean “Corduroy” Masland is an experienced MMA cage fighter. One night during a sanctioned bout, he accidentally kills his best friend, Vic Mercy, with a second-round right hook to the temple. The next morning, Cord awakens to find a prophetic tattoo—his own name and date of death—etched into the back of his neck, dated four days in the future. Soon, he encounters a seven-foot-tall demon in a blood-speckled lab coat, bent on fulfilling the prophecy. As if things could get any worse, the police begin to suspect Vic’s death wasn’t an accident and peg Cord as the prime suspect. But unless he can unravel the dark magic behind his tattoo, Cord won’t live long enough to clear his name. The countdown to his expiration date has officially begun…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Expiration Date by Scott McNeight, Cord Masland is an MMA cage fighter who kills his best friend in a match. Branded as a killer by his friend’s family, even though it was an accident, Cord also wakes up the next morning with a new tattoo on the back of his neck, giving his birth date and his death date—4 days in the future. Then if that’s not bad enough, a demon he calls the Coroner is after him, determined to kill him. When the police detective investigating the friend’s death decides that it wasn’t an accident, Cord also becomes the prime suspect. Man, he’s really having a bad week!
The story is a fascinating glimpse into the world of MMA cage fighting with a paranormal twist that is both chilling and intriguing. I found the book extremely hard to put down.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Expiration Date by Scott McNeight is a paranormal thriller. Our hero, Dean “Corduroy” Masland, is an experienced MMA cage fighter, the MMA being mixed martial arts. During one such match, Cord accidentally kills his best friend, Victor Mercy, who dies in his arms. When Cord wakes up the next morning, he discovers that he has a new tattoo on the back of his neck, one that he doesn’t remember getting. This strange tattoo gives his name, his nickname, his birthdate, and lists a date of death as April 15, 2016, which is only four days away. Then Cord begins to encounter a seven-foot-demon in a blood-spattered lab coat, who Cord refers to as the Coroner. Now Cord needs to unravel the dark magic behind his tattoo, and fast, or it won’t even matter that the police think he killed Victor on purpose to avenge an old wrong. He isn’t going to live long enough to have to worry about proving his innocence.
Expiration Date is chilling and tense, combining the already-dangerous world of cage fighting with the black magic of demons and evil curses. An exciting read that will keep you turning pages from beginning to end.
The morning after the fight, Cord woke in pain. He couldn’t see out of one eye. His head pounded. When he got out of bed, his right knee buckled. He staggered downstairs to find his housemate, Lovie, asleep on the kitchen table with a smear of jelly across his chin and a pencil lodged sideways in his mouth.
Cord pulled out a chair, upending Leonidas–Lovie’s tabby. The cat swatted at him then disappeared under the table–a natural fighter, descendant of the tiger.
Lovie woke, blinking his eyes as if from a strong glare. He spat out the pencil and swung his legs off the table. “Damn that Senator. That’s the second pencil this week.”
“Who made this mess?”
“Dunno. I didn’t recognize half of the people here. It was supposed to be a warm-up party for your event, but we never got there, you know?”
Lovie talked like a valley girl, punctuating his statements with questions, rarely finding satisfactory answers. “Your nose looks broken, pal.”
“It is,” Cord said.
“Sorry I missed the fight. How’d it go?”
“I fought Mercy in the prelims.” Cord choked out the words in a hoarse whisper. He didn’t even recognize his own voice.
Lovie whistled, a low note. “Vic Mercy is one fearsome dude. I know he’s your best buddy and all, but still. That’s a tough draw.”
“I fought the fight of my life.”
Lovie raised an eyebrow. “Yeah? You win?”
Cord’s vision blurred. He took a deep breath. “I won.”
Lovie fist-pumped the air, the table groaning under his weight. Then he paused. “Wait, this is a good thing, right?”
“It was a right hook, two minutes into the second round. Flush to the temple,” Cord said, staring straight ahead. “I knew something was wrong, the way his knees buckled.”
“You’re saying what?”
“He hit the floor. I held him. Then he was dead.”
“Wait, what?” said Lovie, his mouth gaped. “You killed him? Your best buddy?”
“I did.” Cord could still feel it, the snap of the punch, the way the impact had traveled all the way up his arm, through his body. A perfect hook. With shame, he recalled the excitement he felt when the punch landed. The glee. The fucking delight. And then, a second later, as Vic fell, the regret of what he had done, the terrible, everlasting guilt already sinking in.
“Jesus, Cord.” Lovie studied Cord with narrowed eyes, an expression of deep concentration. The process of thought seemed to cause him actual physical pain. “This may be a bad time, but Bookmaker had you at even odds to win your opening fight.”
“I threw in for five hundred. That’s a nice paycheck. Unless killing the other guy cancels all bets. I mean, it’s still a win, technically?”
“Fuck you, Lovie.” Cord shoved out of the chair and returned to his bedroom with an icepack.
Cord, always small for his age, had learned to scrap as a youngster. He took karate classes at seven, lived on a diet of Bruce Lee films, classic boxing replays, and more recently, mixed martial arts pay-per-views.
A defining moment: in eighth grade, Sean Cramer, a held-back fifteen year-old, knocked a pile of books out from under his arm in the hallway. Cord imagined himself–as always–scrambling along the cracked tiles while his classmates crowed with laughter. Instead, he tried something new–a Rocky Marciano overhand right. The fist connected with Cramer’s nose, pushing the cartilage to the other side of his face.
Cord got a two-day suspension, but when he returned, his classmates carried his books to study hall, chanting his name.
Cord had collected fighting memorabilia ever since his first allowance. Now, at twenty-nine, he owned a pretty decent assortment: the laces from Ted “Kid” Lewis’s gloves, the loincloth worn by Kotokaze Koki when he won the 1983 Sumo Championships in Tokyo, Ken Shamrock’s blood-crusted incisor–two hundred ninety-three dollars on eBay, complete with certificate of authenticity signed by Shamrock himself–and his prized possession, Bruce Lee’s fighting stick.
He rented a house in High Falls, New York, with two college buddies, Lovie and Senator. They’d graduated together from Pace University in 2008. They were good guys, but they had no respect for his memorabilia, particularly when they were intoxicated, which was most of the time. Cord worked as a gravedigger and nightshift security guard at the Woodside Cemetery near the Roosevelt Mansion, and he often came home to find his collectible wrestling figurines spread out in homoerotic poses on his bedroom floor with Hulk Hogan ass-humping The Rock. Other times he’d find a tangle of arms and legs under his sheets, usually Senator with some dude he’d met that night. Cord had installed a lock on his door, which was broken the following day. His roommates weren’t much for privacy.
In nine years as an amateur fighter, Cord had broken almost as many bones as Evel Knievel: his right ankle, three or four ribs, and his left arm, which still bothered him every time it rained. He’d broken the arm in an after-hours match at an Atlantic City bar, an unlicensed underground event. His opponent was a two hundred sixty-five pound Norwegian with a scraggly yellow beard, six foot six, maybe six foot seven. Cord had weighed in at one-hundred-sixty-nine that night, five-foot-nine in his bare feet, three weight classes below his opponent, but this wasn’t the UFC. Looking back, Cord should’ve taken one look at the guy and called the whole thing off, but–stupidly–he’d gone through with it.
Later, he’d blame it on dumb pride. He’d never been one to back down against stiff odds. Within a minute, the Norseman pinned him to the canvas, wrapped his legs over Cord’s torso, and locked him in an arm bar. Cord tapped, but the “ref” had turned away to chat it up with a biker chick in the front row–and the Norseman kept cranking until Cord’s elbow popped, the bone giving way like the snap of dry kindling.
Cord’s amateur record was fourteen and eight, but he’d won and lost twenty or more unlicensed events. Many mornings, he woke bruised and battered after bar fights with little or no recollection whom he’d fought. All those injuries, all that pain, but nothing compared to this day.
The headache, the bashed ribs, broken nose–and the nightmare knowledge that he’d killed Vic Mercy, his best friend in the world since he was seven years old.
He glanced at the twenty-gallon fish tank on top of the dresser. His angelfish, Rocky, who’d been with him since his twenty-third birthday, lay belly-up among the pebbles and ferns at the bottom of the tank. Lulu, his other angelfish, nibbled at his corpse. Another casualty of the prior night.
“Jesus, Cord. I just heard.” Senator stood in the doorway, wearing his black Giorgio Brutini suit, hair neatly gelled to the side. He gave Cord a hug. That was Senator’s thing, hugging. Any chance he got, he’d maul you like a black lab. Partying was also his thing. Back in the day, he liked to pop Ecstasy and hit the city clubs, staggering home at dawn, looking like something you’d see in a George Romero film. At twenty-nine, he’d cut down on the raves but not the revelry. Often Cord found him naked and gyrating in front of a strobe light late at night, the psychedelic beats of electronic trance reverberating throughout the house.
When he released his grip, Cord smelled like he’d just taken a bath in Vetiver. “I’m sorry,” Senator said. “It’s all over the news. The blogs are calling you Killer Cord Masland.”
“It feels like a bad dream.”
“We drew each other in the first round. Simple as that.” Their martial arts instructor, Sifu Lao, used to make them spar with one another. Lao believed in full-contact training, max-effort, moving targets. This, he’d felt, prepared them both for the cage and for real-life. Better you bruise here now than bleed out on the street, he said. “We’d fought plenty of times,” Cord said. “Once in Union City–”
“I remember, last fall, the Union City Fi’ty.”
Cord nodded. That night there’d been fifty fighters, one “grand” prize: five-hundred bucks. He and Mercy had faced off in the semi-finals. Mercy had ended the fight by wrenching Cord’s arm behind his back, forcing him to tap. “Say uncle, bitch,” Mercy had hissed. Afterward, they’d spent Mercy’s winnings at the bar.
“How do you remember these things?” Cord asked.
Senator shrugged. He had a great memory for random facts. He’d memorized the birthdays of all the people he knew–working PR as the son of Congressman Brady Valor, he knew a great many. He sent out prompt birthday cards, ones decorated with cupcakes that said things like, Hope you have a super sweet day! He addressed the cards, Team Valor.
“Vic broke my nose that night,” Cord said. “For the first time.”
“That doesn’t look too good right now, either. You want to tell me what happened?”
“Well, you can guess. I caught him. Solid. After he fell, I tried to hold him up. His lips were moving. It was like he was trying to tell me something, but no words were coming out. Blood ran out of his mouth. That was the worst of it, you know? The blood.” Cord paused, drawing in a shaky breath.
Senator put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, buddy.”
“His eyes fluttered, then stayed open–like he was staring at me, but there was nothing inside. I called for a doctor, but I already knew he was gone. He died in my arms, right there on the mat.”
Senator threw his arms around Cord. “Chin up,” he said. Then he drew back, his brow furrowed. “When did you get that?”
“On your neck.”
“What are you talking about?”
Cord ducked into the bathroom and angled a hand mirror so he could see into the full-length one behind. There was a fresh tattoo on the back of his neck. Crisp black edges, intricate lettering etched into his skin.
Dean “Corduroy” Masland
September 7, 1986
April 15, 2016
“What day is this?” he called to Senator.
“No, the date.”
“The eleventh,” he said. “April eleventh.”
Cord ran hot water in the sink and scrubbed the back of his neck. He toweled dry, checked again. The tattoo was still there, as fresh as before. Not even a smudge. So it wasn’t the removable kind. He reached under the sink and pulled out the industrial soap, the gritty stuff that came in an unmarked white container with a pump on top. Lovie had brought it home from work the last time he’d had a job–middle-school janitor, 2014. Cord pumped the blue gunk onto his palm and scrubbed the back of his neck. It felt like washing with sand. When he rinsed and looked again, there was no change. The tattoo seemed more vivid, if anything.
“Seriously, dude,” Senator said. “That’s a creepy thing to ink onto your neck.”
“I didn’t do it.”
“How did it get there?”
“Hell if I know.”
Cord replayed the night’s events. At seven, he’d met Mercy at his apartment, and together they’d driven to the Newark Prudential Center. It was the biggest event in their fighting careers. The winner would receive five thousand dollars and an invitation to FightFest, a national event in Youngstown, Ohio. Mercy had insisted on driving, saying he was too nervous to spectate in the passenger seat. Cord had been happy to oblige. He wasn’t crazy about driving to unfamiliar places. They got their brackets ten minutes before the fight. Round One: Mercy vs. Masland.
“Looks like it’s you and me, brother,” Mercy had said.
At the stare-down, they bro-hugged and patted each other on the back.
During the fight, Mercy had moved well, as quick as Cord had ever seen him. He caught Cord with a stiff combination, the second punch connecting with his nose, which gave way with a sickening crunch. Cord’s vision darkened, and he had instinctively thrown the right hook that ended the fight–and his friend’s life.
He had spent much of the night talking to cops, getting fingerprinted like a criminal, first in Newark, then at High Falls PD, where Cord answered questions for an hour. A detective–Gallo, in his fifties, with a serious limp–jotted notes in a folder. Numb, still in shock, Cord heard his own voice as if it belonged to someone else. Finally, Gallo said, “You’re free to go, Mr. Masland. Sorry to have held you up.”
After they released him, he’d taken Mercy’s car home, getting in at four in the morning. No visit to the tattoo parlor–not unless he did it in his sleep.
That afternoon the phone rang–Brandi, his sometimes girlfriend. He hadn’t seen her in a week, maybe more. He stared at the phone, imagining her nasally condolences, imagining having to explain what had happened all over again. Not that she wouldn’t care–maybe she would. But he wouldn’t. That was the problem with them. He liked her well enough, at least her body. But they’d been “dating” for the better part of a year, and yet, in his mind, it had never reached much past the point of casual sex.
When the phone rang again, he figured he’d have to answer this time, but it wasn’t Brandi. It was Mark. Half-brother–they had the same father. “You made the front page, Dean. There’s your picture in black and white–looks like a mug shot, actually. Under that, the headline: ‘MMA fighter killed in cage–’”
“Actually, bro, don’t read it to me.”
“I’m not up for talking about it right now.”
“You must be in hell.”
“You could say that.”
“How did it happen?”
“I really don’t want to talk about it right now.” As much as Cord tried to forget about the fight, his brother’s nagging voice brought it all back. That killer right hook. Vic’s crumpled body lying on the canvas. Cord’s best friend in the world. Dead, by Cord’s own hand. It didn’t seem possible, and yet he remembered every moment as if the images were seared into his memory. The pre-fight posturing, the first and second round battles. And, of course, the worst image of them all: holding Vic’s broken body as his blood dripped onto the canvas.
Doctors had run into the cage then, yelling for space, and yet he’d clung to his friend’s body. He couldn’t let go. How stupid. What if those few moments had been critical to Vic’s survival? What if he’d still had a chance to live?
“You are shaken up,” Mark said. “I can hear it in your voice.”
“Of course, I’m shaken up,” Cord yelled, “my best friend just died in a fucking cage.”
“I’m glad Pop’s not around to witness this anger. This anger and terrible violence. It’s sinful, Dean.”
Cord held the phone away from his ear, strangling the receiver. Mark and his religious crap. Mark’s mother and stepfather had died in a car accident when he was a teenager, and after that he’d embraced God and His divine plan. Personally, Cord didn’t see anything divine about some drunk plowing through a guardrail at ninety. Mark could believe what he wanted to believe, but Cord couldn’t stand to hear scripture, particularly not this morning. Cord brought the receiver back to his ear with a sigh. He means well, Cord thought. At least, I think he does.
“I stopped by Pop’s grave this morning. I was disturbed by the condition of the plot.”
“Call Rusty Suggs. He’s the caretaker. I just dig the graves. You know that.”
“Doesn’t it concern you that your own father’s headstone was vandalized?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Someone kicked over Pop’s headstone.”
“That’s impossible. That stone weighs a ton.” When Rusty had placed his father’s gravestone, he’d had to hook up the trailer to a rotatable crane–the Tank, they called it. The headstone was solid marble, three hundred fifty pounds at least.
“I was there an hour ago. Saw it with my own eyes.”
Cord frowned. As far as he knew, his brother hadn’t visited the old man’s grave since the funeral. His involvement in Stan’s burial was solely financial–he paid for the headstone. Cord had tried to convince him to come to the graveside service. But Mark hadn’t been close to his father.
In truth, Cord didn’t blame Mark. Cord hadn’t gotten along very well with Stan either. The old man had been a selfish prick on good days.
He called Mark a mistake, “The unwanted spawn of my loins.”
“I’ll deal with it when I go in tonight, okay?”
“‘To the living we owe respect,’” Cord said, quoting Voltaire. “‘To the dead we owe only truth.’”
Mark paused. “Then you owe some truth to Vic Mercy, my brother.”
© 2016 by Scott McNeight