The Legend of Black Jack
by A.R. Witham
Genre: YA Fantasy
Intended Age Group: 12+
Published: May 17, 2022
Publisher: Nepenthe House (Self Published)
Content/Trigger Warnings Shown on page: Child abuse (foster mom hits main character), Child abduction (main character kidnapped by monster)
Alluded to: Child neglect (foster mom ignores her wards)
Thrilling fantasy adventure debut from Emmy-winner A. R. Witham.
Jack Swift can tell you every element on the periodic table, recite Treasure Island verbatim, and would remember in perfect detail every word you’d ever say to him. He has been alone for a long time, so he has buried himself in books, using them to plan his escape.
But no textbook could ever prepare him for the land of Keymark.
At 3:33 a.m. on his fourteenth birthday, Jack is kidnapped by a hideous monster to another sphere of existence. Now there are two moons in the sky, and he is surrounded by grotesque creatures and magical warriors training for battle. They want the impossible: Jack must use his abilities to save a life or be trapped in this bizarre world with no chance of rescue.
Jack doesn’t have secret magic, a great destiny, or any experience.
So why do they all expect him to become a legend?
Doogie Howser, MD • Nonendangered Rhinos • Legen…Wait for it…Dary
Primum non nocere. First, do no harm.
The operating room was anything but sterile. The floor was pounded-down dirt, the walls were splintered wood that collected dust by the handful, and the smoking fire in the corner exhaled nearly as much soot into the room as up the chimney. It was dark, it was dirty, and it put the odds against Jack Swift before he even began.
Jack had two concerns, other than the obvious: that Xiang-lo would die the moment he touched him. The first worry was the anesthesia. Dr. Richards had told him repeatedly that in almost any surgery, the drugs used to put the patient to sleep were by far the most dangerous part of a procedure; more men had been killed by a tiny slip in the amount of medication used than from any mistake a surgeon made. The gas passers, as Richards called them, were the background heroes of the operating room, and kept their patients walking the thin line between sleep and death.
Jack had made the calculations for the correct amount of anesthesia, but in the end, it proved unnecessary. Memphis would keep Xiang-lo asleep. Such majik was well within the monster’s mastery, said Valerian, and keeping Xiang-lo out of consciousness and out of pain would be the rhino’s task during the procedure.
The second concern was more personal.
“I don’t want to see his face.”
Valerian nodded as if he had been expecting the request. “That has been arranged.”
Good. So the knight understood. “Not just his face,” continued Jack. “I don’t want to see any part of him other than his belly on the right side. There are medical sheets in Memphis’s bag; cover him with those. His chest, his legs, but especially his face. I don’t want to see it.”
Surgery was just like carpentry. Jack had to remember that. But the only way to treat a man like a block of wood was to remove his face, remove his personality, remove any trace of humanity from him…and even then, he would still be a Pinocchio.
If everything went well, Jack would love to hear about Xiang-lo, about who he was, what his dreams were, and how he’d lived his life. But right now, all Jack wanted to know, all he could know, was where to cut.
Besides, some darker part of his mind chided. You don’t want another face haunting your dreams when you kill him.
They had followed his instructions perfectly. The patient (always the patient, never a person) was laid out on a table, every inch of him covered in thin green medical sheeting, save for his white belly, which shone like a spotlight in the darkened room. Memphis stood at the man’s (no) patient’s head, his massive hands on either side of the bump under the sheet, murmuring strange words softly in the dark. There were other people there, hidden by the surgical masks that Jack, through Valerian, had ordered them to wear. They were silent, standing like statues, waiting. The grey man himself stood aside as Jack entered the room. The knight’s worn face was eerily calm.
Jack walked to the patient. There were the tools, laid out on a wooden stool near the operating table, still in their sterile plastic containers, just waiting to be used. The scalpels, the forceps, the clamps. Cold steel ready to plunge into the man’s warm belly.
The belly. Soft and fatty and pale, vulnerable as a newborn baby.
The boy put on the thin latex surgical gloves, feeling them snap over his wrists, then donned the mask.
Memphis had been thorough if nothing else. Every kind of surgical tool he could possibly need was readily available, from clamps and forceps to ointments and swabs to needles and syringes of every kind. Dr. Swift’s office must have been completely bare by the time the thieving rhinoceros was done.
The first step was the intravenous drip. Valerian’s assistant, Kenyan, had been meticulous in following Jack’s instructions for preparing the room, but this was something Kenyan could not manage herself. The most extensive experience Jack had known with the art of phlebotomy was sticking a needle into the skin of an orange. That was practice. This was different.
He extended the metal stand, screwed it in place, took the plastic intravenous bag from the table, and hung it from the hook. Jack removed the sheet from the patient’s arm, thanked
God the patient had good veins, and took hold of the butterfly needle at the end of the IV tube.
He told himself it was no different from an orange. In the end, it wasn’t. The needle pierced the vein and found a home, easing healthy fluid into the man’s—patient’s circulatory system.
And now there was nothing left to do but surgery.
Jack found the bottle of Betadine, the worldwide standard in surgical antiseptic, resting by the tools. He opened the bottle, poured the orange liquid onto a sterile cloth, and quickly swabbed the open space between the green surgical sheets. The skin turned darkish orange as he cleaned it, and suddenly the skin didn’t belong to a man—it belonged to Jack.
He found the container of latex sheathing and tore the package open with a rip that, in the silent room, sounded like a roar. He removed the adhesive strips, settled the transparent latex window over the area where the incision would be made, and stuck it firmly to the patient’s skin. It was under that window, that minuscule six square inches of the universe, that would be the sole focus of his entire being for the next several minutes.
Or the rest of his life.
Those six inches of skin, and the one tiny little freckle that lay within them.
Jack found himself staring at the freckle. There was something about it that unnerved him. In a perfect world, there would be no freckle. It should be just a sheet of plain white patient skin masked in Betadine. But there was something about the imperfection, about the tiny, little dark spot, that made it impossible for those six inches of flesh to belong to anything other than a man.
He stepped back.
“I…I can’t do this.” He shook his head, flexing his fingers desperately. “There isn’t…there isn’t enough light,” Jack continued. “In an operating room, this should be lit up with very, very bright lights. I can’t—I’m not going to be able to see inside—”
His desperate sentence was cut off as Memphis raised one hand from the bump under the sheet and changed his tone. A tiny globe of white light appeared over Xiang-lo’s belly. It started small, no bigger than a bulb on a Christmas tree, but slowly grew to the size of a golf ball, blazing like a Hollywood klieg light. It rotated, and the area facing Jack darkened like the hood over a lamp, giving him room to work without being blinded.
The boy swallowed, his mind racing, his fingers twitching. In the harsh light, motes of dust and soot danced in the air, falling from the ceiling, changing their course with every breath, each one shining bright in the rays of the blazing, hovering orb.
1. Tell us a little about how this story first came to be.
I wanted to drop a Muggle into a magical world and see how they handled magical challenges with no magical skills. Jack’s only gift is an extraordinary memory which, for him, is more a curse than a blessing, because he relives the worst moments of his life in perfect detail. All he’s got is his wits and his guts. In the beginning, like all of us, he’s powerless. But as the story progresses, Jack finds ways to leverage what he knows to survive. If you can’t be powerful, be smarter than the other guy. I think that’s something a lot of clever people can relate to.
2. What, if anything, did you learn when writing the book?
I learned there is very little difference between children and adults. Children are just smaller. Adults whine, make up dumb lies, get hangry, and make ridiculously stupid decisions…the only difference is how often it happens. When you’re telling a coming-of-age story, you look for the level-ups, the things that mark that invisible bridge from childhood to adulthood, and they’re much more subtle than I anticipated. Children know a lot more than we give them credit for. The true separation between us is how much responsibility we’re able to carry.
3. What surprised you the most in writing it?
I was struck by how attached I got to the characters. They’re just made-up pretend people, but when something bad happens to them, I really feel badly for them. I’m used to this in books that I read, but I wasn’t expecting it in a book I wrote. Authors create feelings out of absolutely nothing but it’s weird when you’re the one who created an emotion, then it comes to get you. All those emotions makes killing them tough.
4. If it’s not a spoiler, what does the title mean?
The Legend of Black Jack has different layers to it. On the surface, I wanted it to feel like a classic adventure story that you hear the title and think, yeah, that sounds like it might be a lot of fun. The cover of the book is designed with a keyhole in the side, which is meant to make you feel like it is an old leather-bound tome with dangerous magic inside…so dangerous it needs to be locked up. On a deeper level, The Legend of Black Jack is the idea that legends and stories can guide our way and shape who we become. Before Jack ever gets to the land of Keymark, there is already a legend of this other guy, and when they mistake him for the man from that story, that’s where the real fun begins.
5. Were any of the characters inspired by real people? If so, do they know?
Jack is based in part on my dad. His love of science and medicine, his attachment to his own father, his distance from his mother, the importance of family, and the way he approaches problems from a place of logic. Django Barón was created around the idea of a bullfighter named Ignacio Sanchez Mejias, long since dead. Abrahim Qin is based on an old karate teacher I had when I was ten who would absolutely beat the hell out of us, then list in detail each thing we had done wrong. Every class ended with, “No excuses for bruises.”
6. Do you consider the book to have a lesson or moral?
It’s the classic coming-of-age story. It hits on the emotion of being helpless and powerless to shape our future, subjected to the will of powerful and incomprehensible forces. Jack starts out, like we all do, with nothing of his own, subjected to the will of others, no say in what happens, tossed like a leaf on the breeze. But at some point he makes a stand for what he wants, and uses his mind to leverage himself into a position where he gets to make real decisions. It’s a story about what it takes to go from being a child to becoming an adult, and the sacrifices that are necessary to take that final step.
7. What is your favorite part of the book?
Spoilers, darling, spoilers.
8. Which character was most challenging to create? Why?
Valerian Tsai, the Grey Knight, was probably the toughest to get right. He’s a prominent figure in the story and takes on the father figure role for many people. He’s immensely powerful but prefers to use a soft touch. Getting a mentor right is always difficult, and in Valerian’s case doubly so. However, once I thought about what he loves and why he’s taking on this immensely difficult task, it became smooth sailing for how to present him in the right light. Rooker Flynn was challenging as well, because I had to take an immoral character and make him relatable, but once I found his sense of humor, his song started to sing itself.
9. What are your immediate future plans?
I’m going camping in the wilderness for a week. No phones, no lights, no cars. Launching a book is harder than writing one, so I’m going to recharge my batteries in the wilds of Washington. Thanks for your time Sadie, I hope your fans love The Legend of Black Jack!
About the Author:
A.R. Witham is a three-time Emmy-winning writer-producer and a great lover of adventure. He is the world’s foremost expert on the history of Keymark. He loves to talk with young people and adults who remember what young people know. He has written for film and television, canoed to the Arctic Circle, hiked the Appalachian Trail and been inside his house while it burned down. He lives in Indianapolis.
If you would like a sneak peek at his upcoming work or upcoming events, please reach out to him:
Starts: May 19, 2022 at 12:00am EST / Ends: May 25, 2022 at 11:59pm