Monday, November 8, 2010

Birnam Wood Comes To Dunsinane

AICN has been running a feature called "Behind the Scenes Pic of the Day" for a while now.  I had to share today's installment because it features Orson Welles.  This is from Welles's version of Macbeth shot in 1948.  I'm not sure, but I would bet that's Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth in the distance.

(click to make bigger)

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Terriers

Terriers is a great new PI show on FX.  Dave White's been pimping it on Twitter and our friend Stephen has been posting (relatively spoiler-free) reviews almost weekly on his blog.  I watched it based on their gentle prodding and was hooked instantly.

It's from creators Ted Griffin (Ocean's Eleven) and Shawn Ryan (The Shield, The Unit), so it's got good pedigree (if you'll pardon the pun).  The stories are great with a healthy mix of serialized and standalone elements.  The acting (especially Donal Logue) is top-notch.

Too bad the ratings aren't good, so it looks like it'll be another one season wonder.  I'll watch the rest of the season and more than likely buy the DVDs once it comes out.

Give it a shot.

Would I steer you wrong?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Discount Noir

Word is spreading around the 'nets about a collection of flash called DISCOUNT NOIR.  The anthology contains works by: Patricia Abbott, Sophie Littlefield, Kieran Shea, Chad Eagleton, Ed Gorman, Cormac Brown, Fleur Bradley, Alan Griffiths, Laura Benedict, Garnett Elliot, Eric Beetner, Jack Bates, Bill Crider, Loren Eaton, John DuMond, John McFetridge, Toni McGee Causey, Jeff Vande Zande, James Reasoner, Kyle Minor, Randy Rohn, Todd Mason, Byron Quertermous, Sandra Scoppettone, Stephen D. Rogers, Steve Weddle, Evan Lewis, Daniel B. O’Shea, Sandra Seamans, Albert Tucher, Donna Moore, John Weagly, Keith Rawson, Gerald So, Dave Zeltserman, Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen, Jay Stringer, Anne Frasier, Kathleen A. Ryan, Eric Peterson, Chris Grabenstein and J.T. Ellison

Some of those names sound familiar?  Yup, this is a collection of stories from one of the (in)famous flash challenges from the mind of Patti Abbott and Steve Weddle.

I've taken up the flash challenges before (see here, here, here, or check out the flash label on the side), but this is one I skipped out on.  Sucks because this challenge got made into an book.  *sigh*

Anyway, go here to buy a copy.  You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Longhand

Hang around a group of writers long enough and you'll hear someone say they overcome writer's block by picking up a pen and paper and working on their story longhand?  Why is that?  Comfort level?  Regression to our childhood days when creativity seemed so much simpler?

Actually, there may be some science behind this.  A recent study shows that children who spend more time writing by hand show greater progress in brain development and cognition.  Some research shows "the sequential finger movements required to write by hand activate brain regions involved with thought, language, and short-term memory."

Even if you are skeptical of the science, we can all relate to what novelist Robert Stone said.  "...I write in longhand in order to be precise. On a typewriter or word processor you can rush something that shouldn't be rushed — you can lose nuance, richness, lucidity. The pen compels lucidity."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Twenty-Five Years Ago

Twenty-five years ago, Orson Welles (May 6, 1915 – October 10, 1985) passed away. He hit the trifecta of being a genius actor, writer, and director and his innovations changed the way movies were made.

The well-known story goes as follows: Orson was scheduled to be a guest on Merv Griffin's talk show on October 10th. In any interviews with anyone, Orson always stipulated that there were to be no questions about his past. Before this particular interview, he went into Merv's dressing room and said he could ask him any questions he wanted. Any questions at all.

Two hours after the interview, Orson died at home at his typewriter.

Here is the interview in two parts:




The New York Times obituary (click for a text version):

Friday, October 1, 2010

Fortune and Glory (FFF #41-ish)

The last poll over at Friday Flash Fiction had some really nice choices. I was able to spin a Twilight Zone-ish tale off the winner, but there was another one on the list that I thought I could use as a starter for a western.  My first attempt didn't go so well.  Here's the second.  Still not completely thrilled with it, but it's something.  And away we go!

Fortune and Glory
 
"When you came right down it, I guess it was better this way."

Jonah Blane looked across the sand strewn floor to the rival bounty hunter.  Roscoe Chance was crouched next to the window of the adobe hut with his revolver in hand.  Chance's trademark sawed-off shotgun lay on the floor next to him.

"How's that?" he said.

"After Page kills you, the bounty's all mine," said Chance.

"In case you haven't noticed," said Blane, "we're out-numbered and out-gunned.  They've got us surrounded and we got no more horses."

Blane looked out of his window.  Page's men were situated about 100 yards away from the hut, crouched behind large boulders.  Their horses were staked down in the distance.  Chance and Blane's own horses were lying dead in the expanse of dry, cracked land between them and the outlaws.  Page's men had killed both horses during the chase, but Chance and Blane made it inside the hut before they could befall the same fate.

"So?" said Chance.  "I figure you can take out two or three of his men before they get you.  I'll get the other five and Page."

"You think you're that much better than me?"

"I know I'm that much better than you.  Who was it that brought in Milo Huggins last month?  Me."

"Yeah," said Blane.  "After I tracked him to Los Cruxes and figured out he was posing as the sheriff.  I still owe you for that bump on the head you gave me."

"We make it out of this alive, I'll kiss it and make it better," said Chance.  "Would that make you happy?"

The two-room hut was abandoned long ago.  The windows were just openings in the wall and there was nothing covering the door.  Time and windstorms helped the desert start to reclaim its territory.

Blane looked out and noticed a shadow moving around the side of the house.  The setting sun made it hard to tell, but it looked like a man-shaped shadow.

"Watch the back," he whispered.

Chance put down his revolver and picked up the shotgun.  Blane cocked the hammer of his Colt.

The air in the house was still.  The only sound they heard was a coyote barking in the distance.  Chance's eyes darted back and forth and he licked his lips.  There was a faint sound of fabric brushing over stone and a slight jungle of an ammo belt brushing against the wall.  A man stepped out of the back room and Chance immediately unloaded both barrels into his chest.

At the same time the body flew backwards, another man jumped through the front door and aimed a gun at Chance.  Blane fired two shots into his back and the man fell to the floor.

"You saved my life," said Chance.

"I have a feeling I'm going to regret that."

Chance laughed.  "I owe you a mezcal when we get out of this."

Chance turned his head out the window and yelled, "That's two."

After a moment, Page's voice replied, "Impressive, Mr. Chance.  But there's more on the way.  I sent Pete out an hour ago to round up a posse.  They should be here any minute.  How long do you think you can hold out all by yourself?"

"I got some help."

"Is Mr. Blane still with you?  My, my.  You certainly are resilient, Mr. Blane.  I thought I'd taken care of you a long time ago."

Chance looked at Blane.  "What's he talking about?"

Blane shook his head.

"Though I wouldn't count on him in a fight, if I were you," said Page.  "He's got a yellow streak as wide as the Rio Grande.  Why don't you ask him about the last time we met?  Or maybe how we used to ride together?  Did you know that, Mr. Chance?  Your friend was once part of my gang."

"He's no friend of mine," said Chance.  He turned the shotgun on Blane and said, "Is what he saying true?"

"It was a years go.  Around the time Page's gang stopped robbing banks and stagecoaches and started stealing from the ranchers.  Now, stealing from businesses and money men is one thing, but messing with somebody's livelihood is another thing."  Blane turned his head and showed his scars to Chance; three vertical white strips on his cheek where his beard didn't grow.  "I got this when I tried to leave.  Sliced my face up pretty good and gutshot me.  I was able to get to a doctor in time to patch me up.  Since then, I've been hunting down every member of Page's gang and bringing them to justice."

"So this is a vendetta thing for you?"

Blane nodded.

"Good," said Chance.  "You've got strong motivation to see this through.  Now I know I can trust you in a fight."

Blane said, "Why're you doing this?  The whole bounty hunter thing."

Chance smiled broadly.  "Fortune and glory."

Blane slid the Colt into his holster and picked up the rifle.  "You got some kind of a plan?"

Chance nodded. "Well, we got two and he just said he sent Pete away.  So that leaves Page and four others.  I figure we can sneak along the ridge and catch them by surprise.  Shouldn't be too much of a fight."

The two men got up into a crouch position.  Staying low, they moved to the back of the house and slipped out the bedroom window.  The brittle soil crumbled under their feet, muffling their footsteps.  They climbed up to the ridge and kept low in the wild feverfew bushes.  The sun was now completely down and clouds obscured most of the stars.  It was getting harder and harder to see.

"You boys haven't gone to sleep on me, now," said Page.

Blane held up a hand and they stopped.  They were almost on top of Page's men and they hadn't noticed.  Blane squinted and was able to make out the outline of the outlaws.  He turned to Chance and held up two fingers, pointed to the near side of the boulders, then pointed to himself.  He held up two more fingers, pointed to Chance, then pointed to the far side of the boulders.

Blane watched as Chance moved around behind the outlaws, using a tall mesquite tree as cover.  Chance's shadow stopped moving and Blane raised his rifle to fire.

He fired two shots into the man closest to him, wheeled and fired two shots into the other man.  Responding to his shots, Chance fired his own gun into his intended targets.  Page, realizing what had happened, vaulted over the boulder and started off in a run.

Blane slung the rifle over his shoulder and slid down the slope, drawing his Colt as he did so.  He and Chance checked that their targets were dead and turned to chase after Page.  The outlaw fired blindly behind him; his bullets whining as they ricocheted off the rocks.

Chance said, "He's mine now.  I run faster than you."

Blane said, "Yeah?"

He raised his Colt and fired, hitting Page in the leg.  The outlaw dropped to the ground and a big dust cloud rose.

Chance said, "That's cheating."

Blane shrugged.  The two men rushed to Page and got there in time to stop him from retrieving his gun.  Blane picked up Page's gun and stuck it into his belt.  Chance held the shotgun on Page and said, "Get up."

Page stood up and dusted himself off.  Chance jerked he shotgun in the direction of the horses and said, "Move."

"Looks like you finally got me," said Page.  "How long you been chasing me?  Four years?  Five?"

"Five," said Blane.

Page whistled.  "That's a long time.  Chase a man for that long and he becomes a part of you.  The quest consumes you.  Sending me to prison isn't going to give you much satisfaction. No, to quench this fire you need blood.  You've got to kill me.  That's how the game is played."

Chance looked at Blane.  Blane said, "He's just trying to get into your head."

They got to the horses and Blane grabbed a piece of rope.  He tightly tied the rope around Page's wrists and ankles.  "I  wouldn't trust him if I were you.  See that bloodlust in his eyes.  The Jonah Blane I knew was a stone cold killer.  The minute you turn your back, he'll kill you and then me."

Chance eyed Blane.  "Maybe you better ride up front."

"You're not listening to him, are you?" said Blane.  "He's playing mind games.  That's how he works."

"You can't trust the big bad man, now can you?" said Page.  "He'll say anything to get his way.  How well do you know Jonah, Mr. Chance?  How much are you willing to trust him?  You owe him nothing.  Now, Jonah and I, we have a history.  Did he tell you about how he got those scars?  About what happened to his wife?  She was a peach, your dear sweat Olivia."

Blane shot forward and punched Page in the mouth.  Page spat blood on the dry ground and looked back at him with a big smile on his face.  A sick light shone behind his eyes.  Blane said, "Don't you dare say her name."

Chance turned the shotgun on Blane and said, "I really don't care if you kill him.  He's starting to get on my nerves, too.  Just do it now and let me go collect the bounty.  He's worth half as much dead, but it's still something.  He's probably gonna die anyway.  Look how much his leg is bleeding."

Blane looked down at Page's leg and saw his pants were soaked through with blood.  He tore the sleeve off of Page's shirt and tied it around the wound.  "That's an expensive shirt you just ruined."

Blane said, "Shut up."

He turned to Chance and said, "He's just gotta make it alive as far as the marshal's office in Pasodobles.  After we collect, he's the marshal's problem."

Chance thought about it for a second and said, "OK."

He picked up Page and laid him across one of the horses.  He mounted another horse, rode it over to Page's left and grabbed hold of the reigns.  Blane mounted a third horse and positioned himself to Page's right. The three of them started off in the direction of Pasadobles.

Chance said, "What do you mean 'we collect'?  You just wanted the man, I want the money."

Blane said, "You couldn't have done it without me.  We have to spit the reward."

"Next thing you're going to tell me is you want to split it 50-50."

"You still owe me for Huggins."

"Oh, you're gonna bring that up again?"

Page said, "If you two are going to bicker the whole way, would someone please just shoot me now?"

Blane and Chance both said, "Shut up."

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Southern Lights (FFF #41)

It's that time again.  Yes, boys and girls, it's time for Friday Flash Fiction.  This week's sentence comes from The Professor and is quite a good one.  It would've been very easy to go in the PI direction, but why always take the easy road?  Without further ado, I give you.....


Southern Lights

He walked in and slid the photograph across my desk.

"There.  I have proof this time."

"Proof of what, Zeke?"

"The UFO.  I told you I saw one."

I picked up the grainy photograph and looked at it.  The photo was almost completely black with a fuzzy white blur in the middle.  "This is your UFO?"

Zeke hitched his thumbs in straps of his overalls and said, "Yup."

The townsfolk have been worried about Old Zeke for a while now.  Ever since his wife died, the farm's gone to shit.  His cattle died.  He fired all the hands.  He rarely leaves his property these days.  From the smell wafting across my desk, I could tell he hadn't bathed in five or six days.  The acrid stench of sweat and desperation filled my nostrils.

"Have you shown this picture to anyone else?"

Zeke shook his head.  "Nobody but you's gonna believe me, sheriff."

"Hell, I'm not even sure I believe you, Zeke."

"Come out to the farm. I'll show you where the alien craft touched down."

I sighed and agreed to go with him.  I grabbed my hat and walked out into the bullpen.  The police force of Hope, New Mexico wasn't much to look at.  Then again, we didn't get much crime in these parts.  The occasional complaint about neighbors burning trash in their back yards.  People, mostly tourists, speeding down the main drag through town.  Apart from me, we had two full time deputies, a dispatcher, and a woman who comes in to do the paperwork a couple times a week.  I saw Deputy Hill was on duty today.  I told him if anyone needed me, I'd be at Zeke's farm and that he could reach me on the radio.

Zeke and I got into my squad car and I rolled down the windows, even though that probably wouldn't make much difference.  It took us about fifteen minutes to get to the farm. It was in much worse shape than I had seen it last.  The fields were overgrown with weeds, the barn was crumbling down, and his house was in desperate need of a new coat of paint.

Gravel crunched under my car's tires as I pulled up to the left of the house.  Zeke got out and pointed left toward the clearing between the house and the barn.  "It touched down right over there."

I got out of the car and walked in the direction Zeke indicated.  I noticed a burned out spot in the grass and knelt down next to it.  The spot was a perfect circle - about the size of the bottom of an oil drum.  The ground was completely black and was covered with an ashy powder.  "Have you been burning your trash out here again, Zeke?"

Old Zeke shook his head vigorously.  "Nuh-uh.  There's two more over there."

I stood and looked around.  Sure enough, there were two more burned out spots in what looked to me like a triangle pattern.  I stood in the middle of the triangle and put my hands on my hips.  I felt a funny feeling in my chest as I stood there.  Like there was a huge buildup of static electricity in the air.

"This is, what, the second time you said you saw a UFO?"

"Third."

I nodded.  "You get any kind of warning before they come?"

"The TV goes out during the middle of Jeopardy.  The sometime later that night, they show up.  Their craft hovers for five or ten minutes and then flies off."

I looked at Zeke's house.  There was a giant oak tree growing in the sad patch of grass he called a front yard.  They say his grandpappy brought the sapling from back east when his family moved here all those years ago.  My gaze then drifted to the front of his house and I spotted the satellite dish over the front porch.

"Couldn't it be just a tree branch getting in the way of your satellite?"

Zeke shook his head.  "Nope.  Never had any problems at all with that there dish.  Not even during those big storms we had last winter."

I rubbed my chin.  Old Zeke was obviously crazy, but I couldn't have him scaring the townsfolk with tales of aliens and their spacecraft.  Leave all the nonsense that brings to the folks up north in Roswell.  "Tell you what, Zeke.  Next time that happens, you give me a call.  I'd like to see your spacecraft first hand.  In the meantime, we'll keep this just between you and me.  That sound like a deal?"

Zeke nodded.  "Much obliged, sheriff."

I got in my car and drove off.  It still smelled like Zeke in there, so I left the windows down.

I finished out the rest of my day without much change in routine business.  I had to break up a domestic between Scotty Anderson and his wife again.  Every month or so, Scotty drinks too much whiskey and starts mouthing off to the missus.  This time, like most times, just showing up put him in a more civil mood.  I was thankful for that because I didn't feel like throwing him in the drunk tank again.

Around six thirty, I grabbed a quick dinner and a slice of pie at Mabel's Diner.  Best apple pie in the state and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  I paid my bill, left the tip, then walked out to my car.

The radio was squawking.  "Sheriff Heindricks, Sheriff Heindricks, this is dispatch.  Please respond."

I leaned on the side of the car and reached in to grab the receiver.  "This is Heindricks.  Go ahead."

"Sheriff, we just got a call from Old Zeke.  He was complaining that his cable went out and was adamant that I get in touch with you.  I told him to call his cable operator, but - "

"That's fine," I said.  "I told him to call me.  I'm gonna head up to the farm and see what's what."

I got in the car and drove off.  Zeke was starting to be a pain in the butt, but I sure as hell hoped he hadn't seen a UFO - for both our sakes.

I pulled up next to the farmhouse again and Zeke came running down the front porch to meet me.  "I'm sure glad you're here, sheriff.  The TV went out during Jeopardy again.  The aliens should be along any minute now."

"Uh-huh."

The setting sun painted the horizon a bright orange.  The sky above was dark and clear.  The first stars of the night were just starting to come out.  There were no birds or crickets around making any noise.  The silence was deafening.

I felt the static charge like I had felt in the afternoon.  This time it was much more intense.  I looked at my watch and noticed the hands stopped moving.

"They're coming!  They're coming!" shouted Old Zeke.

I looked up into the sky and three lights in a triangle pattern appeared.  Without warning a larger, brighter light appeared in the middle of the triangle and engulfed both me and Zeke.  A hum started to build and I covered my ears.  The light kept getting brighter and brighter until it almost blinded me.

Suddenly, I was plunged into darkness.  I blinked to readjust my eyes and I noticed I was alone on the hilltop.


Days passed.  Then weeks.  Men from the state police and the FBI came and went, but nobody had found any sign of Old Zeke.  Eventually they all left and things got back to normal in Hope.  The case file on Zeke's disappearance stayed open, but got shuffled off to the cold case room in the basement.

Every once in a while people still talk about Old Zeke.  Some say he finally went off his rocker and got himself committed to a mental hospital.  Some say he wandered off into the desert at night and died.  A handful of people even claim that he was abducted by aliens.

You gotta keep your eye on those last folks.  The High Council don't take too kindly about people poking into their affairs.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Until Gwen

On Monday, friend of blog StephenD posted a link to a Dennis Lehane story entitled "Until Gwen".  How's this for a kicker of an opening line:

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.

Sold!  It's a great story and told uniquely in second-person (how often is that done?).

Stephen also links to an interview that Lehane did with The Atlantic.  Here, Lehane talks about his books, his writing process and his thinking behind writing the story.  Here's a brief quote:

At the time, I'd been teaching a lot and trying to get my students to understand that a character is defined most adroitly by his actions.  I eventually decided to practice what I preached, and "Until Gwen" became a story in which the main character reveals himself entirely by what he does, as opposed to by what he thinks or says.

"Until Gwen" has just made it onto my list of favorite short stories.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Honor Among Thieves (FFF #40)

After a couple weeks off, it's back to Friday Flash Fiction. I like to switch things up now and then, but Cormac provided a sentence that suits my particular sensibilities. On with the show...

Honor Among Thieves

I heard footsteps on the wet sidewalk and the sound of keys.

Jeff Frasier opened the Buick's door and slid behind the wheel. He didn't notice me in the back seat until I pulled back the hammer of my .38 and touched its barrel to his neck.

"Hello, Richie." His voice was cool as a cucumber but his eyes had that shine that comes with fear.

"Drive. And don't make any sudden moves."

He turned the key and pulled the car out into traffic. We cruised down the crowded street, the flashing enticements of the clubs had no effect on us. The sidewalks were full of respectable people having a respectable night on the town. Jeff had a room at the Hotel Carlisle to keep up his image while swindling nice old heiresses out of their late husbands' fortunes. I knew he was too vain to give up the room - even after they left me for dead.

"Where are we going?" he asked.

"You're taking me to see Velda."

"I don't know where she is."

I pushed the barrel harder into his neck. "Why don't I believe you, Jeff? You know exactly where she is. You're worried she's going to double-cross you same as you did to me."

He looked at me in the rearview. "It was her idea. Honest, Richie. You and me, we had a deal. You know my reputation. I always honor my deals."

The old canard of honor among thieves is the last refuge of the damned. Jeff didn't have an honorable bone in his body. But what he lacked in scruples he made up for in gutlessness. Stealing from old ladies is a good way to make a buck without too much confrontation. Jeff certainly helped her, but I'm sure it was Velda's idea to leave me gutshot and take my share of the jewels.

"I got a new deal for you, Jeff. We split the take 50-50 and leave Velda flapping in the breeze."

Jeff swallowed hard and stared at the road ahead. "OK, Richie. You got it."

I leaned back in the seat, but kept the gun trained on Jeff's back. I didn't trust him, but what other option did I have?

We made our way to an apartment house in the outskirts of town. The streets were deserted and Jeff parked right in front. A light burned in the second floor window.

"That's where she's staying," Jeff said. "Second floor, on the right."

"Let's go see her."

We got out of the car and walked up the front steps. I stayed behind Jeff, keeping the gun trained on him in case he decided to scram. We went in the front door and up the steps. A thick runner of red carpet muffled our footsteps. Jeff stopped at Velda's door, raised his hand to knock, and looked at me nervously.

He knocked and the door opened a crack. Jeff said, "Velda...."

I pushed him through the door and Velda stumbled backward. I closed the door behind me and trained the gun on her. She cocked an eyebrow at me and said, "Hello, Richie."

"Hello, angel."

It was a nice apartment with a large fireplace and vase-lined mantel. A curved-back sofa sat in the middle of the room on a broad Oriental rug. I could see the bedroom off to my left through the half-open door. Velda had done well for herself. She was dressed like she was about to go out. She had on a pure white v-necked dress that was loose around her calves and tightened as you got to the interesting bits.

"You're looking well, Richie. I hope there are no hard feelings from what happened before." She slinked her way over to the fireplace and laid an arm across the mantle. "A girl's gotta look out for her own interests."

"Can it, angel. That was your plan from the beginning and like a sap I fell for it. You're velvet on the outside, baby, but sandpaper on the inside."

"All's fair in love and war," she said.

I took a step toward her and said, "You're going to hand over the jewels and I'm going to walk out of here. In the interest of fairness, I'm not going to ask you to repay what you've already spent."

Jeff lunged at me and grabbed my gun with both hands. The guy had more guts than I gave him credit for. I slammed him into the wall, but his grip didn't budge. He pushed against the wall with all his strength and we rushed as one toward the sofa. We hit hip high and tumbled over the sofa onto the coffee table, smashing it to bits.

Jeff stood up, but I still had the gun in my hands. A shot rang out and Jeff collapsed in a heap. Velda held a smoking gun that she pulled from one of the vases on the mantle.

I stood up and she looked at me and said, "I was ready to split it 50-50 anyway. It doesn't matter to me if it's with him or with you."

"I fell for that one once already. Goodbye, angel."

I shot Velda.

Wiping my fingerprints from the gun, I placed it in Jeff's hand. Desperately, I searched the apartment for where Velda hid the jewels. Pavlov may have salivating dogs, but he's got nothing on police response to gunfire.

Velda kept the jewels in a box hidden in the chimney. I grabbed the box and rushed out of there. The sirens were getting awfully close as I shut the door to her apartment.

Halfway down the stairs, my shoe caught on the runner and I stumbled. Down and down I went, tumbling onto the hard wood floor at the foot of the stairs. I hit bottom with a thud and the box flew out of my hands.

The lid popped open as the box hit the floor. A fireworks display of green and red exploded in front of me.

At that moment, the door opened and a stunned policeman came in.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Decision. Consequence. (FFF #37)

Another week, another Friday Flash Fiction challenge. I'm going out of town for a convention next wee, so I probably won't be able to comment on anyone else's stories right away. Rest assured, I'll read them all when I get back. Without further ado...

Decision. Consequence.

As with juggling, the key to life is to keep the procession moving steady and don’t look down. That's what Joe would always say. Fact of the matter is, I'd rather be juggling right now.

With chainsaws.

Flaming chainsaws.

While blindfolded.

Instead, I'm in the trunk of a dark green 1972 Comet with my hands tied behind my back. The road is bumpy and I bounce off the roof each time we hit another hole. The car either needs new shocks or this is their way of softening me up.

We turn off the main road onto gravel and the car comes to a stop. The car's engine keeps running and I hear both doors open and shut. Keys jingle by my right ear and the lid of the trunk flies open. Four hands come in and drag me out.

I'm in some kind of quarry. A dump truck is on my left and a pile of gravel to my right as the two goons march me to the middle of a clearing. I call them Mike & Ike because I can't think of better names right now. Mike is the taller one. His punches felt like a bag of hammers and he probably had the same amount of brains. Ike is two inches shorter with a perfectly shaved head and he holds a gun on me. He says, "That's far enough" when he thinks I'd gone far enough.

"On your knees."

"Listen, fellas," I say. "It's all a misunderstanding."

Ike hits the base of my skull with the gun and I fall to my knees. Out of the shadows in front of me, steps a man in a jet black suit with a purple silk tie held in place by a diamond pin. The pin catches the light from the overhead lamps as he steps toward me.

"You have something that belongs to me."

I look at him and say, "I've been trying to explain to your boys, you got the wrong guy."

Mike punches me in the temple and I pitch forward. I suck in a lungful of dust and dirt and start to cough. Mike grabs me by the shoulders and returns me to my upright and locked position. Tie Man says, "Let's try this again."

I blink the floaties out of my eyes and concentrate hard. I know exactly what they're looking for, but I'm not ready to give it up. I work at a bar down by the pier and money's always tight. A couple days ago on my way home from a shift, I hail a cab because it's raining. In the back of the cab is a satchel. I was about to tell the cabbie someone lost their bag when I get a glimpse of what's inside and shut my mouth. Back in my apartment, I count it. Close to a quarter million dollars.

"Whatever you lost," I say, "I can help you find. I've got some connections. I know some guys."

Tie Man raises an eyebrow at Mike and the big lug hits me again. He picks me up and keeps hitting me until the world goes swimmy. This time when I cough, I cough blood.

"You stole something from me," says Tie Man. "Nobody steals from me and gets away with it."

"Look," I say. "I didn't steal anything. I found it, OK? There was this bag in the back of a cab. No names on it. No tags. What was I supposed to do?"

"You took something that didn't belong to you." Tie Man is the kind of guy who doesn't get loud when he gets angry, he gets quiet. And his voice is so very quiet. It chills me to my bones. "When you take something that doesn't belong to you, that's called stealing."

Yeah, I kept the money. Wouldn't you? As a bartender in his late twenties, any free money is good money. I was on top of the world for a a full day. Then on the TV at the bar, I saw a news report saying a cabbie had been brutally murdered. I recognized the picture as the guy who picked me up in the rain. I asked my boss for the rest of the shift off and headed home to find my apartment on fire. Mike and Ike were waiting for me when I went to look for Joe.

"OK," I say. "I've got your money. Look, it was an honest mistake. You can have it back and I'll repay you what I spent. That sound fair?"

"Where is it?"

"In a locker at the bus station. The key's in my shoe."

Tie Man nods to Mike who rips off my shoe. I see the key and the little orange keychain fly through the air toward Tie Man. "You have what you want. Can I go now?"

Tie Man strokes his chin. "You see, with every decision there is a consequence. You decided to take my money and the consequence...."

His voice trails off, but I know what he's implying. Ike steps behind me and I hear the hammer of the gun being pulled back.

I squeeze my eyes shut as tight as I can and grit my teeth.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Last Voyage of the Rebecca (FFF #36)

It's Friday Flash Fiction time again. This time the polls broke and mass hysteria ensued.  Writers were allowed to choose whatever sentence(s) they wanted to use.  I, naturally, used my own.

The Last Voyage of the Rebecca

In the distance I saw all kinds of birds circling over something, but I couldn't tell what from where I was. I turned my boat around and started rowing in that direction.

I'd never seen the water as clear and blue as it was that day. I could see all the way down to the sandy white bottom and all the fish that lived there. It was a big difference from the night before.

We left port from Wilson City about five days ago on the Rebecca. She was a salvage ship chartered out of The Bahamas. The deeper parts of the Atlantic are filled with old shipwrecks. Find a ship first and you could set up your own mint. That's what we were doing.

The captain got wind of a wreck southeast of Bermuda. Some old ship, maybe even one of the fabled lost ships of the Spanish Armada. My mouth watered at the thought of a hold full of Spanish doubloons.

We were on our way back to port when the storm hit. The sky was black and the wind sounded like a wounded animal. I am convinced that the ship floated on its side at one point. The captain and first mate tried all they could to keep the ship afloat. Chances of survival in a life raft in the middle of the Atlantic are slim to none, but it's better than staying on a sinking ship. Adams tossed bucket after bucket of water overboard, but he couldn't keep up. I took off alone.

The birds took flight as I approached and they circled over my head - squawking. I knew then what Tippi Hedren must have felt like.

There was something under the water. A large shape; dark against the white sandy bottom. I grabbed my mask, one of the few pieces of equipment I was able to save, and held it under the water. The shape looked to be the wreck of the Rebecca. It was eerie. The calm ocean, the birds, and no debris floating in the water.

I took my shirt off, put the mask on, and dove in. I swam and I swam and I swam. The water was deeper than it looked. I surfaced and drew in a lungful of fresh sea air. Without the proper diving equipment, I doubted I could reach her. I took a couple deep breaths and dove again.

It wasn't a Spanish ship we found, but a French one. None of us were experts, but it looked like a wreck from the 1700's. The hold was full of rusted rifles and crates that had long ago become homes to sea creatures. We did, however, find some tarnished jewelry and an unbroken crate of glass bottles with wax seals.

The deck of the Rebecca was almost in reach and it felt like my lungs were on fire. My hand brushed against something and I realized it was a mooring hook. I grabbed hold of it and started bashing it against the nearest porthole. The glass held and I banged harder and harder. I was almost out of air and my vision grew blurry. I swung the hook once more and the porthole cracked. I had to stop.

I burst through the surface of the water, gasping and coughing; taking in much needed oxygen. I pulled myself into the life raft and ripped off the mask. Blood trickled from my nose and I wiped it on my shirt. I laid there, resting; letting the hot sun dry the saltwater on my skin.

Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't dive again until the next day. But these weren't normal circumstances. I put the mask on, grabbed the mooring hook, and dove back in.

I swung at the porthole with all my might. I jabbed it with the blunt end of the hook. I hung onto the deck and kicked it with my heel. Finally, it gave way. I thrust the moor inside and hooked the first thing I touched and clawed my way back to the surface.

Blood was now pouring from my nose. I put a finger under it and leaned forward until the bleeding stopped. I was thankful there were no sharks in the water. I was as good as dead anyway, but I knew it would be suicide to go back down.

Opening the bag I grabbed, I had to laugh. It was just my luck. It wasn't any of our supplies. It wasn't any of the jewelry we found. It had two of the sealed bottles we salvaged. I tore off the wax seal, popped the cork, and drank a toast to my lost friends with the finest champagne I ever tasted.

****

Welles here again. I had this idea, so I proposed the sentence. Over the weekend, I read this article and got the idea of a different ending to the tale.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Cross-Country Trip (FFF #35)

It's Friday Flash Fiction time again. This week's sentence comes to us courtesy of Flannery Alden. My entry this week is my attempt at a Cornell Woolrich type story. It's a bit long-ish, and could definitely have been longer. Hope you enjoy.

Cross-Country Trip

"I don't disagree with you, but you have to admit, this puts me in a delicate position." The man who called himself Alex sipped his drink and flashed a dazzling smile at Meghan. "You see, if I tell you I'm not, you'll be disappointed. But if I tell you I am, you'll no doubt call the police."

Meghan reached out and touched his arm. "Then let's leave it a mystery, shall we? I simply adore mysteries."

The band struck up a swinging tune behind them and the dance floor quickly transformed into a mass of swirling dressed and flailing limbs. It was a typical Friday night at El Mocambo. Meghan often stopped off for a quick cocktail in hopes of finding Mr. Right.

She spotted Alex right away as he was just her type: tall, dark, and handsome. It wasn't too long before he came over and bought her a drink. There was an air of danger around him that Meghan liked.

"Well," she said, "I hate to be a wet blanket, but I should be getting home. I have to get up early for work tomorrow."

"But it's Saturday."

"They're doing their twice a year inventory. All the girls have to be there. It's so boring."

"Let me walk you home."

She blushed and thanked him. Alex slipped some money out of his pocket and laid it on the bar. His hands were large and strong and Meghan couldn't help notice how nicely manicured his fingernails were. He offered her his arm and they left the revelers to their bacchanalian delights.

Outside, the sun had nearly finished dipping below the horizon. In the distance, the sky glowed red as if it had applied rouge before going out to meet its beau. Meghan's apartment wasn't far away, so they walked slowly, hand in hand, enjoying each other's company.

"I had a lovely time," said Meghan.

"Me too. May I call on you again sometime?"

"I'd like that very much," said Meghan. "You know, you really do look like him."

Alex leaned in and gave her a soft kiss on the cheek. He turned and walked away. Meghan felt a warm glow growing inside her as she reached for her keys. She slid the key into the lock and suddenly a hand wrapped her waist and another covered her mouth. She dropped her purse and tried to scream, but only a muffled noise came out. The hands dragged her into the alley next to her building and roughly threw her to the ground.

Meghan rolled over and saw Alex. He said, "I really wish you hadn't recognized me. Like I said, this puts me in a delicate position."

He was on her before she could scream, his rough hands squeezing her neck. She dug her fingernails into his hands and struggled, but she couldn't break his grasp. She thought, "He seemed so nice", and her world went dark.

***

Monday, July 12, 2010

Recent Reading

I've been working my way through The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway.  Frequent readers of this blog will probably have guessed that by how many times I've reference him in the past couple months.  I tend to read a couple stories, go on to another book, then come back for another dozen or so stories.

Of course, there are the greats that everyone talks about:  "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", "Hills Like White Elephants", "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber".  But I'd like to talk about one that I just read last night called "A Canary for One".

Luckily, the full text of the story is available on Google Books, so you can read it online here.  In fact, I suggest you do so and then read the rest of the post hidden after the jump.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Flower Garden

The Flower Garden

As Paulo crested the hill outside of town, he encountered an old man heading back toward Maricopa. Paulo grabbed him by the arm and said, "Where are you going, old man?"

"You don't understand," he said. "I have to go back."

"Are you crazy?" asked Paulo. "The whole town has been evacuated. The rebels are almost here."

As if to punctuate his point, machine gun fire chattered on the other side of town. It was much closer than it had been just ten minutes ago.

The old man turned and stared at him. There was something fierce in his eyes that Paulo didn't recognize. "Esmeralda’s flowers. Who will take care of Esmeralda's flowers?"

"Who cares? The rebels will probably burn them and the rest of the town. Come on. We must get going. Now."

The old man jerked his arm free and shuffled back toward town. Paulo set down his pack and ran after the old man. He again grabbed the old man by the arm and said, "We must hurry. The rebels are almost here."

The old man struggled to free himself from Paulo's grasp. "Let me go. Let me go. I must attend to Esmeralda's flowers."

Paulo let go of the old man's arms and waved his hands dismissively. "Go on, old man."

He climbed back up the hill and picked up his pack and put it on. He turned around and watched the old man enter Maricopa. Paulo pitied the old man.


Tired and sweaty, Paulo entered the town of Curzon hours later. Curzon was one of the first towns razed during the uprising and now served as a resting place for refugees traveling along El Rastro de Lágrimas. Just inside the town walls, there was a burned out building which had no roof. Paulo entered it and found a place along the wall to rest for the night. The room was full of other refugees from Maricopa

Paulo leaned his pack against the wall and sat down. He removed his shoes and his feet felt better. A filthy man with a thick black beard approached him. "Water? Do you have any clean water? I will trade you an orange for a drink of fresh water."

Paulo nodded. "I haven't eaten all day and I have an extra canteen which is half full. For two oranges, you may sit with me and drink as much as you want."

"Thank you, sir. Thank you."

The bearded man sat down next to Paulo and gave him two medium sized oranges. Paulo handed the canteen to the bearded man and peeled his first orange. The bearded man asked, "Have you come from Maricopa?"

Paulo nodded. "Yes. I was one of the last to leave and something very strange happened outside of town. I ran into an old man who was coming back into town."

"Why didn't you convince him to come with you? Surely the rebels have him by now."

"I tried," Paulo said. "He kept saying something about Esmeralda’s flowers. The old man was obviously crazy."

The bearded man put the canteen down. "What did this old man look like?"

Paulo shrugged. "He was very old. He had a bald head and shuffled as he walked. He didn't look very well."

The bearded man said, "I know this man. His wife grew the most beautiful flowers. She always won first place in the competition at the town fairs. They were very much in love, but had no children of their own. She died several months ago, shortly after the uprising started. The flower garden must be all he has left to remind him of her."

The bearded man stood and handed the canteen back to Paulo. "Thank you for the drink."

Paulo looked west and stared at the red glow in the horizon that must be Maricopa burning. He now understood that fierce look in the old man's eyes. Paulo pitied himself.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Notes and Asides

As you can probably tell, I slapped a new coat of paint on the old blog last week.  I like it, but then I think....is it too bright and cheery for the kind of stories I write?

I wrote the first couple hundred words of a new Jack Duncan tale yesterday.  I'm not sure if the current story will have one or two more parts.  I guess that depends on where things lead.  Already making a return is the Duncan Spy Tips, which were missing in chapter 2.  Hopefully it won't be too long until it sees the light of day.

In other news, it's summertime here.  Time to fire up the old backyard grill.

(No, that is not really my grill).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dames and Dimes (FFF #33)

Greetings, cats and kittens, and welcome to another exciting installment of Friday Flash Fiction.  This week features, what else, another noir tale from your humble servant.  Big thanks to David Barber for this week's prompt. And away we go....

Dames and Dimes

It was a shortcut that I would regret for the rest of my life.

It was another rain-soaked night in the big city. The slick pavement shined like obsidian under my headlights. The rain stopped, but it had long ago driven everyone inside for the night. That's why I was surprised to see a blonde struggling to get a cream colored convertible started.

I pulled my car in front of hers, got out, and walked over to the door. She looked up at me and rolled down the window. She looked like Lana Turner in Slightly Dangerous. "It won't start."

"Let me take a look."

"All right." She slid over to the passenger seat and I opened the door.

"Some night."

"Yeah, some night."

"I was surprised to find anyone else out," I said.

"I was visiting a friend."

"Must be some friend. That's quite a dress you're wearing."

"We were going to go out. She wasn't home."

"If you came calling on me looking like that, I'd make sure I was home."

She smiled and I felt like somebody had kicked me in the head.

"Let's see if I can get this started." I turned the key and the engine sputtered like a nun after hearing you take the Lord's name in vain. "It's not flooded. Let me take a look under the hood."

I got out and popped the hood. She turned the car over with the same result. I closed the hood and walked back over to her door. "Looks like you're not getting any spark."

She raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips and said, "No?"

"I hate to leave you all alone on a night like this. How about I take you back to your place? Of, if you want, we could go to my place and try to call some garages."

She got out of the car and said, "Surprise me."



In the days that followed, we saw a lot of each other. Most nights she'd come to my place, have a few drinks and listen to the radio. She'd curl up into my arms on my sofa and I'd enjoy the soft warmth of her body.

"Kurt?"

I mumbled something and nuzzled her hair. She turned and looked at me with her sparkling blue eyes.

"Kurt. There's something I've been meaning to tell you. Something that's hard to talk about, but we have to. You see, I had a boyfriend when we met."

I stood up and walked over to the bar. She looked so small, sitting there on the sofa. So alone.

"I tried to tell you so many times," she said. "But it was never the right time. That night we first met, we had a quarrel. It was the last straw. I was going to leave him. But Mike...."

She stood up and walked over to me. "Mike's a bad man. He robs banks and I'm sure he's killed people. I'm afraid of what he'd do to me if I broke things off with him."

She threw her arms around my neck and laid her head on my chest. The scent of wild orchids filled my nose. "I'm so afraid, Kurt. Please, please forgive me."

"If he's such a bad man," I said, "why don't you go to the cops?"

She sobbed. "Oh, I can't. I can't. You see, everything I have, he bought me. These clothes. My car. The lease on my apartment. They're all paid for with his dirty money. If I go to the cops, they'll take everything away and I'll have nothing."

"You'll have me."

"Oh, Kurt." She looked up at me with tears in her eyes. "Mike's coming to my apartment tomorrow night for me to run away with him. The papers say he stole two hundred thousand dollars during his last job. If we can get that money, you and I can run away together. Start somewhere new. Think of it, Kurt. A new beginning for us in a new town with more money than we'd know what to do with."

I put my arms around her and squeezed her tight.



Ann lived in apartment 402 at the Lexington Arms. The place made my flop look like two steps up from a hobo camp. The carpet in the lobby was slate gray and deep enough to lose change in. Leading to the elevators was a dark red runner that looked so expensive that I wiped my feet before I stepped on it. A bell chimed the elevator's arrival and I stepped aside to let a middle aged woman by. She eyed me with acute disgust.

I took the elevator up to Ann's floor and leaned on her buzzer. She opened the door and flung herself into my arms. "Oh, darling. I'm so glad you're here. I've been getting worried."

I closed the door behind us and we walked as one to the window. She had a view overlooking Grant Park.

"What's the plan?" I said.

"Mike is going to call me some time tonight," she said. "If all is clear, I'm to say the phrase 'I don't have the radio on right now' and he'll show up within 15 minutes. If I say anything else, anything at all, he won't show."

"And what are we going to do when he gets here?"

"After he calls, you hide in the closet over there." She pointed a long, slender arm toward a door by the entrance. "When he comes in, you can surprise him and take the money. Did you bring your gun?"

"Yeah," I said and patted my coat pocket. "What if he doesn't scare easy? I don't want to have to kill him."

The phone rang. She said, "That has to be him. Hello? I'm sorry, I don't have the radio on right now."

She hung up and looked at me. "That was Mike. He has to be on his way. Quick, get into the closet."

The closet was small and cramped. The cold steel of the gun was heavy in my hand. I left the door open a crack so I could see and hear what was going on. Ann sat on the sofa in the middle of the room smoking a cigarette and looking as cool as a creek on a hot summer day.

The doorbell rang and she answered it. A gruff voice said, "Hiya, doll. You ready to go?"

"One second," said Ann. "Come in out of the doorway. I just need to get my suitcase from the bedroom."

Mike stepped into view and I knew he wasn't going to scare easy. The guy had a couple inches on me and his back was as wide as a streetcar. I saw Ann shoot a frightened look over her shoulder. She wanted me to act now.

I stepped out of the closet and said, "Hand over the money."

Mike dropped the bag and turned around. His face was hard and mean. "What is this? Some kind of a setup?"

He pulled a gun and fired. The vase to my right shattered sending flowers to the floor and shards of china flying into the air. I fired my gun three times into his heart and the big man fell.

I kept my eyes glued on him and took a step forward. Ann said, "Is he...is he dead?"

I nodded and turned my eyes to the bag of money now on the floor. I heard a gunshot and felt a warm explosion in my gut. I staggered back toward the wall and collapsed in a heap. Ann stood in the middle of the room with a smoking gun in her hand. Her blue eyes were now cold and distant.

She took a few steps forward and picked up the large leather bag Mike had been carrying. "Thank you, sweetheart."

She put on her fur coat and leaned down next to me. Her breath was warm and tickled my ear. "We sure had some fun together."

I stared at Ann's back as she slinked out of the apartment. Mustering all the strength I could, I raised my gun and fired a shot right between her shoulder blades. Ann crumpled to a heap in the middle of the hallway like a marionette whose strings had been cut.

We sat there on the floor like a grotesque dinner party: two dead bodies, a bag of money, and me with a growing red stain on the front of my shirt. A siren wailed in the distance, letting us know the cops would be here soon to brake up our little trio.

Party crashers.

Friday, June 11, 2010

This Is Most Certainly True

Wow.  This could possibly be the only writing quote anyone would ever need.  Again, from Ernest Hemingway:

We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bullet the Blue Sky: Chapter 2 (FFF#32)

After two vacations (one mine and one Cormac's), I'm wading back into the fray of Friday Flash Fiction. I saw Nicole's sentence this week and it immediately sparked an idea. The first draft of this story was written before her sentence even won the vote. This is chapter 2 (well...parts of 2 and 3) of a longer story started way back in FFF23 with Bullet the Blue Sky. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, it's the return of super spy Jack Duncan. This isn't as wham-bang as the first installment, but it sets up future actions in the tale.

Bullet the Blue Sky, Chapter 2

“So much for Plan B.”

Sid Lane turned to face Jack Duncan, who was leaning against the back wall with his arms crossed over his chest. The two men were in a darkened observation room, staring through the two-way mirror at Amy Chen. The only thing they’d learned from two rounds of interrogation was a few more Chinese curse words.

“Let me have a crack at her,” said Duncan.

“Hold on,” said Sid. “Let’s give them a little more time. These folks are trained in psychology and can break anyone with enough time. There’s no need to resort to torture.”

Duncan fixed his cold, blue eyes on Sid. “Who said anything about torture? This is a spoiled little rich girl who’s also a double agent for the Chinese. What makes you think she won’t say whatever we want to hear in order to stop the pain? All I need is five minutes.”

Sid looked through the two-way at Amy Chen and then back at Duncan. He nodded and said, “What are you going to tell her?”

“The truth,” said Duncan. “Call this one Plan D.”

Two Days Earlier

From his penthouse suite in the Beijing Park Hyatt Hotel, Ambassador Chen looked out at the sunrise. The thick cloud of smog that hung over the city made the red glow of the early morning look like a fire, slowing rolling in from the plain. Before too long, the pollution and the heat of the day would make the air outside hard to breathe. Chen sucked in a lungful of the air-conditioned air and turned to the interior of his suite.

He stepped off the thick carpet onto the hard, wooden floor of the living area. The cool surface felt good on his feet this early in the morning. It filled him with energy and a sense of optimism about the day. The negotiations yesterday had gone well, he felt. It was certainly the most challenging summit of his career, but Chen felt up to the task.

Through the spring and early summer, massive protests sprung up everywhere in the Chinese mainland. Citizens, young and old, were becoming more forceful in their denunciation of the communist regime. The Chinese government was brutal in their shutdown of the protests, but only one incident, so far, had gathered the amount of international attention that the Tiananmen Square protests of twenty years ago did.

About a week ago, roughly 10,000 protesters marched through the streets of Beijing en route to the capital building. Before they could get there, they were intercepted by members of the Chinese military. The clash was swift and brutal, leaving nearly 100 protesters dead and an additional 200 wounded. The Chinese military suffered minimal injuries, including two soldiers beaten to death. Two of the men arrested for the murder of the Chinese officers were Chinese-Americans – soldiers in the U.S. Army, visiting relatives while on leave. The Chinese government viewed this as a sign of American involvement in the protests and wanted to make an example of the men on the world stage. The President immediately dispatched Chen to soothe over China’s fears and to secure the release of the captured soldiers.

Chen ran a hand over his blue silk tie and plucked an apple from the fruit basket on the glass coffee table. He took one bite of the apple and was reminded of his childhood in Liaoning province, before he immigrated to the United States. Washington has good apples, but nothing compares to the Fuji apples he used to pick fresh from the trees growing in his parents’ back yard.

He felt the stab of regret that his daughter didn’t join him on the trip. She didn’t show up at the plane and the Air Force officers couldn’t delay any longer. They had been so close when she was younger, especially after her mother had died. But Chen felt them growing apart as Amy got older. Her years in college had made her cold and distant to him. He wanted to bring her back home and share their culture – a culture she missed out on growing up in the US. He also wanted to show her that communism wasn’t the great idea her leftist professors told her it was. It’s all well and good that everyone should be treated equally and nobody was better off than anyone else, but it never worked out in practice. The violent putdown of protests is a good example of the brutality committed in the name of “maintaining order”.

Chen took another bite of his apple and slid the fruit basket to the side. He was surprised that it was a lot heavier than it looked. He put his apple down and removed the top level of apples and bananas. At the bottom of the basket, there was a small black box. He flipped it over and saw a red numbers on a digital display, counting down from five.

Chen’s eyes opened wide as he realized what he was holding. He dropped it and leaped over the leather sofa but it was too late. The bomb went off.

**

Jack Duncan opened the door to the interrogation room. Amy briefly looked over at him, then back at the blank spot on the wall she’d been staring at for hours. Duncan closed the door and dragged the steel chair directly into Amy’s line of sight and sat down. She looked down at the table, trying to escape from his steely gaze.

Duncan was prepared to wait as long as necessary. He was trained as a sniper to sit still for long stretches of time. SEALs are trained to move swiftly and quietly. It didn’t work going off half-cocked. Slow and steady wins the race.

Finally, Amy said, “What do you want? Why are you doing this to me?”

Duncan said nothing.

“I want my lawyer. I’m an American citizen. I have rights!”

“You’re a Chinese agent and a traitor to your country,” said Duncan. “The best your lawyer could do is get you life in prison instead of execution.”

“You don’t scare me. You’re just mad because you were played for a fool. My father’s an ambassador. He...”

“Your father’s dead.”

Amy was quiet for a second and said, “He’s a traitor to his country.”

Duncan looked into her eyes and saw pain. Her words were full of bravado, but there was no feeling behind them. They were just slogans repeated like she was a doll with a pull string Duncan said, “Do you want to know how he died?”

Amy said nothing.

Duncan opened the manila folder he carried in with him and placed five black and white photos in front of Amy. Each photo showed what was left of her father’s hotel room. The curtains were black with soot. The sofa was a charred hulk of what it once was. Her father laying on his face, bloody and burned, with a banana peel resting at his shoulder.

Amy began to cry. Big, wet tears streamed down her face and her chest was wracked with sobs. Duncan said, “You did this.”

“No.”

Duncan slammed a meaty hand on the table and stood up. “You did this,” he shouted. “These are the people you work for. The information you send them? They use it to hurt people. Innocent people. People like your father who want to make the world a better place.”

“The revolution….”

“The revolution be damned! They don’t want to make a workers’ utopia. All they care about is staying in power and killing anyone who is a threat to that.”
Amy was overcome with tears. Her shoulders convulsed like she was working a jackhammer. Nothing but sobs and gasps escaped her mouth. Duncan turned and looked at the two-way mirror where he knew Sid would be watching.

Turning double agents is tricky. The key is to find a person’s motivation. If money is the key, then it’s easy. Just pay more than the other guy and you have a terrific asset. If it’s ideology, then you have your work cut out for you. You need to find one thing they care for more than their ideology.

Re-doubling an agent is trickier still. You could think they’re on your side and playing those who flipped them in the first place. Or they could pretend they flipped back and feed you false information given to them by an enemy agency. Shifting alliances are hard to read, so you need to take a leap of faith and verify later.

“Amy,” said Duncan, “we need your help. The Chinese government is holding two of our soldiers captive. We need you to help us find them, so we can rescue them. Your father was in China to secure their release, but his assassination shows that China no longer cares about averting a war. If you help us get our men back, I promise you, we’ll find those responsible for your father’s murder and bring them to justice. We need you to finish your father's work. Will you help us?”

Amy looked up at him. Her eyes were puffy and red from tears. She sniffed twice and took a deep breath. “Yes. Yes, I’ll help you.”

Friday, May 14, 2010

Breaking Radio Silence

From the preface to The First Forty-nine:

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you dull and blunt the instrument you write with.  But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it on the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.

-Ernest Hemingway

I've not been attending bullfights nor have I been serving as an ambulance driver.  Rather I've spent time with family, and reacquainted myself with seldom seen friends, and explored the riches offered by our great cities.  I don't know if any of it will be sufficient fodder for future stories, but are at the very least the stuff that makes our short time in this world more enjoyable.  Time to rest and then re-sharpen my writing instrument.

I remain, as always, your obedient servant.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Sweet Dreams: Cool Blue

About a month ago, Patti Abbott issued another Flash Fiction Challenge. I've done this a few times before (in fact, my story for "Shifting Gears" is probably one of my favorites of what I've written) and it's always a lot of fun.  When you're finished here, drop me a line and head over to Patti's site and read the rest of the stories.

Cool Blue

"Dave."

"Richie."  Dave sat on the stool next to Richie and rested his heavy forearms on the wooden bar top.  The bartender delivered a River Horse Hop Hazard without being asked and left without saying a word.  "You said got something for me?"

Richie's left hand tapped an inconsistent beat on the counter and he took a swig of his Sam Adams.  "You sure we should be meeting out in the open like this?"

Dave looked around the bar.  Four o'clock in the afternoon and the joint was empty.  "It was either here or in the park.  Less of a chance someone sees us in here, don't you think?"

Richie absentmindedly nodded his head.  "It's just with everything going down, it might not be a good idea if someone saw us together."

The kitchen door to their left swung open; the sounds of “Sweet Dreams” wafting out before it swung shut again.  Richie said, “That's why you should never eat here.  Who plays The Eurythmics anyway?  You wanna eat at a place where the kitchen is full of Mexicans.  Those guys know how to cook.  Good music, too.  All them horns and shit?  You can't be depressed listening to Mexican music.”

“Thanks for the advice.  I'll send it along to Zagat's.”  Dave's beer sat untouched in front of him.

The front door opened and in walked five feet nine inches of perfection poured into an electric blue dress.  Her wavy red hair fell neatly onto white shoulders.  The dress ended just above the knee and showed off her amazing calves.  Richie's eyes followed the swaying of her hips as she took a booth along the far wall.

"That's what I call a woman," he said and took another sip of his beer.  “Did I ever tell you about my ex-wife?  My sweet, darling Marie.  Smoking redhead like that one.  When we were in a room together it was like the rest of the world didn't even exist.  I'd come home from a job and we'd just stay in bed all weekend, if you know what I mean.  Divorced me when I did my time upstate, though.  Couldn't stand being without me, but couldn't stand being alone either.”

"Boo-frickin-hoo.  Quit dickin' me around, Richie.  You got something or not?"

Richie sighed.  "I'm trying to be cautious."

Dave twisted his glass on the coaster, still not taking a sip. "Everyone's saying the grand jury thing's got everyone buttoned down pretty tight.  The report I read yesterday said the crime rate's down sixty percent just because the hard guys are worried about it.  I said we should run a grand jury every three weeks.  You guys would have to start shining shoes or pimping or collecting unemployment. Makes my job a hell of a lot easier."

Richie took another sip of his beer.  His glass was now over half gone.  "I don't know what this means.  Could be something big going down or it could mean that they suspect something."

"What is it?"

Richie looked around and leaned in closer.  "You and I know the bosses aren't the sharpest tools in the shed, but they're smart enough not to do anything with indictments hanging over their heads.  Everybody's busy planning shit instead of doing shit.  No reason to let you guys catch them with their hand in the cookie jar.  Thing is, I haven't heard a peep out of anybody."

"So?"

"So?  You know how connected I am.  How could I be the only one out of the loop?  Unless they suspect I'm the guy putting the finger on them.  Then there are the phone calls.  I keep getting calls for guys like Eddie Fingers or Johnny Sack."

Dave furrowed his brow.  "Those guys haven't been around for years."

"Exactly," Richie said.  "They were 'disappeared' a long time ago."

"All right."  Dave stood up and reached into his pocket.  "We were trying to wait a little bit longer, but we should probably get you into WitSec right away."

Dave threw some crumpled bills next to his untouched beer and looked up into the mirror.  Standing behind him was the redhead who entered the bar a few minutes earlier.  She shot him in the back of the head.

"Christ!" said Richie.  "Did you have to do that right here?"

"What did you want me to do?" said the redhead.  "He was getting up to leave."

Richie reached over the bar and grabbed some wet napkins.  He tore one open and rubbed it on his cheek and neck, trying to clean up the blood spatter.  “And right next to my head.  I'll probably go deaf now.”

"I could just as easily put a bullet in your head if that'll stop your whining."

Richie chuckled.  "When did you become such a hardass, Marie?"

Marie smiled.  "I learned from the best."

Richie opened another napkin and wiped the blood from the sleeve of his leather jacket.  "So does this clear things between me and Fucilli?"

"It's a start.  Just don't let anyone else see you talking to the cops."

Marie dropped the gun into her purse and snapped it shut.  She turned and Richie watched her ass as she walked toward the door.  She stopped and looked back over her shoulder, "Don't forget the alimony is due on Thursday."

Friday, April 30, 2010

Writing Quotes

The famous Saul Bellow satirized Hemingway's style as "Do you have emotions? Strangle them."

But, Hemingway had his own way of expressing emotion. Here are some wise words that every writer should keep in the back of his/her head:

"Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling as you had."

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Warehouse Job (FFF #29)

It's once again time for Friday Flash Fiction.  In case anyone missed it, I posted part 2 of "Band on the Run" last Tuesday.  You can read it here and refresh yourself with part 1 here.  Anyway, this week's prompt started with two simple ideas, and I was able to incorporate both.  Hope you guys enjoy it.

The Warehouse Job

"I said that you don't have to believe me, and I certainly wouldn't if I were in your shoes."  Burkle cradled the Styrofoam cup in his hands and sipped the coffee.  It looked funny, but it was the most efficient way to drink with handcuffs on.

"Listen, Burke..."

"It's Burkle."  He stared at the cop with the crew cut.  He was trim, in a dark blue suit that fitted him like a glove. His partner was a heavy, beaten down veteran.  Burkle figured Crew Cut was the hardass and figured Pops had the better-honed bullshit detector.

"You were apprehended leaving the scene," said Crew Cut.  "There was nobody else around.  You tested positive for gunshot residue.  Do you still stick by the fact that you didn't kill Mel Maltese?"

Burkle looked over at his lawyer.  The lawyer said, "My client has offered to name the man who killed Mr. Maltese in exchange for dropping the larceny and weapons charges against him.  Might I remind you that you have no physical evidence linking him to the crime and doesn't have to offer you anything."

"Yet," said the older cop.  "Nothing physical yet.  The lab still hasn't gotten back to us."

Silence hung heavy in the harshly lit interrogation room.  Crew Cut finally said, "All right.  Tell us your story."

Burkle took a deep breath and said, "It all started a couple days ago.  I stopped off at my neighborhood bar for a quick drink when Maltese came in....."

----

"Hey, I got this really big score tomorrow night.  You want in?" he said.

I took a sip of my scotch and said, "I'm getting a little old for heists.  Thinking of hooking up with Jimmy O'Flaherty and getting into the numbers game.  Maybe just retire."

Maltese looked shocked. "You're the best in the game.  The best I've ever seen.  Hey, maybe you can become a planner. You know, plan the heists for us and I'll get a couple guys to do all the muscle work.  How's that sound?"

I didn't commit to anything because, truth is, I'm getting a little tired of the game.  I'm not even 40 yet, but this has always been a younger man's racket.  "We'll see."

"Come on," said Maltese, "I'll show you the place and tell you all about it."

We got into his car, a late model Volkswagen of some kind, and drove to the warehouses down by the docks.  We parked across from one next to those big cranes and he pointed to it. "That's the one.  It's an import location for some kind of wholesale distributor.  They sell everything.  Catch it on the wrong day and you get linens and kids toys and shit.  Catch it on the right day and jackpot.  I heard tomorrow night they got a shipment of electronics coming in.  Flat screen TVs, DVD players, iPods, shit like that."

"You got a fence lined up?"

"Yeah, a guy I know outside the city.  Real good.  Discreet."

"What's the plan?"

"They don't have any guards around here at night.  Just lock the front gate.  I figure all we got to do is get a van, get in here early and hide out until they pull the gate shut.  Then we can load the van up and drive right out."

"Security cameras?"

Maltese chewed his lip.  "I didn't think about that.  There aren't any back here, but I didn't check by the gate.  I guess we'll have to check that out.  I got some guys that I can call for muscle."

I said, "I wanna meet them before the job.  I like to know who I'm getting involved with."

Maltese nodded, "Sure, sure.  Makes sense."

The security cameras by the gate were nothing to worry about.  Cheap little jobs.  I would've been surprised if they were even hooked up to anything.  The hitch was they were high up and hard to get to.  Nothing we couldn't handle, though.

I met the two goons the next day.  Bobby Capp and Titus.  I didn't catch if Titus was a first or a last name.  Not too bright, but seemed level-headed.  The best you can hope for with muscle is someone who won't fly off the handle without warning.

I made a couple changes to Maltese's plan, but overall it was sound.  We got in early and hid out until dark.  Since we showed up well before closing time, dock security probably figured they forgot to clock us out.  Exactly what I planned.

Titus used pincers to break the lock on the warehouse.  He slid the door open while Maltese pulled the van up to the loading dock.  We found exactly what we were expecting to find inside.  Capp and Titus loaded the heavy stuff like TVs while Maltese and I stacked the DVD players and PS3s in as tightly as we could.  Everything was going according to plan until Maltese opened his fucking mouth.

"What did I tell ya?" he said.  "Great score.  These HDTVs will go for a bundle.  I think I saw some 52" ones around.  The bigger the better."

"Shut up," said Capp.

"All I'm saying is...."

"Keep your mouth shut."  Capp put down the TV he was carrying.  "Why you gotta talk so much?"

"Take it easy," I said.  "That's just the way he is.  He doesn't mean anything by it."

"Yeah," said Capp.  "Who's asking you?  I thought we were all here to make some fucking money.  Not to chit-chat and share beauty secrets."

Maltese said, "I'll shut up, OK.  Will that make you happy?"

Capp said, "I don't know why you wanna talk so damn much.  You wearing a wire or something?"

At this point Titus had stopped moving and started watching us.  Capp grabbed Maltese and shoved him deeper into the warehouse.  He said, "I think this guy's wearing a wire."

Maltese put his hands up. "No, no.  Come on, guys.  I'm not wearing a wire.  This is my score.  Why would I be wearing...."

Capp pulled a gun from out of nowhere and shot Maltese through the forehead.

"Shit."  I looked down at Maltese's body as it twitched and then went still.  "Shit.  Why'd you do that?"

Capp turned the gun on me and said, "Be quiet or you're gonna be next."

It was at that point we heard the sirens.  Titus said "We gotta go" and jumped in the van.  Capp followed him, keeping the gun trained on me the whole time.  He slammed the back door of the van closed and they sped off, leaving me alone in a warehouse empty except for Maltese's cooling body.  So I ran.

---

"And that's where you guys came in," said Burkle.  "I guess I'm not as fast as I used to be."

Crew Cut gave Burkle a hard look while his partner sat there like a sack of potatoes.  Burkle's lawyer said, "Now if there isn't anything further, you need to release my client."

Pops uncuffed Burkle, who rubbed his wrists to get some warmth back into them.  He said, "You wouldn't happen to know where we could find Bobby Capp or Titus would you, Mr. Burkle?"

Burkle shook his head.  "The only time I saw them was at a pool hall on 53rd.  I don't know if they were regulars.  I'm afraid I can't help you much."

Burkle took a copy of his immunity agreement and signed his release papers.  He and the lawyer walked though the cop bullpen and pressed the "down" button to call for the elevator.  Once inside, the lawyer said, "Was that really wise, Mr. Burkle?  You might get a reputation of helping the cops.  Don't you think Capp and Titus will come looking for revenge?"

Burkle laughed. "There is no Capp.  I put the bullet in Maltese myself.  He was a no good dirty snitch who needed to be dealt with."

"But you just told the cops..."

"I know what I told the cops."  The elevator dinged for the lobby and Burkle stepped out.  He turned to look at his lawyer and said, "The first thing I told them was they shouldn't believe a word I said."

Friday, April 23, 2010

Writing Quotes

From George V. Higgins, author of The Friends of Eddie Coyle and others:

"If you do not seek to publish what you have written, then you are not a writer and you never will be."

And

"The secret remains that there is no secret. The way to determine whether you have talent is to rummage through your files and see if you have written anything; if you have, and quite a lot, then the chances are you have the talent to write more. If you haven't written anything, you do not have the talent because you don't want to write. Those who do can't help themselves. We do it for the hell of it, and those who raise a lot of hell, and then get very lucky, well, we make a living, too. There are worse ways to travel through this vale of tears than by doing the things you love, and making a living at it."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Band on the Run, part 2 (FFF #28.5)

Due in part to the tremendous feedback on last week's Friday Flash Fiction entry, I wrote a follow up story.  I figured since Cormac is taking a vacation this week, Tuesday would be a good time to post the second half.  I feel expectations are running high, so I'm hoping I haven't let you guys down.  Enjoy!

Band on the Run, Part 2

The pain was starting to get to me.

I hadn't been waiting that long, but the bullet in my shoulder and the image of what Travis was doing to Brenda wedged in my mind made it feel like the world was moving in 12/8 time. I checked the makeshift bandage on my shoulder and leaned against the wall.

I had waited a couple minutes to make sure Bernstein was gone before I sat up. Then I went into the store and tore open one of the trumpet polishing kits they kept along the back wall. I put two of the soft polishing cloths on either side of the wound and tied it tight with a couple guitar strings. Not an easy task with just one arm.

Opie's beat up red pickup pulled to the curb and the door opened. "Shit, man. What happened?"

I got in and said, "Take me home as fast as you can."

The key to reading Opie was his eyes. They were pretty much the only part of his face that you could see. He always wore a bandana pulled down close to his eyebrows and his bushy beard stood up nearly two inches from his cheeks. "No way, man. We gotta get you to a hospital."

"Brenda's in trouble. I'll explain on the way."

He peeled out and we were off.

Opie looked like the bastard son of a biker and a roadie, only twice as surly. We met in prison through an inmate known only as The Bishop. Prison has all sorts of programs to rehabilitate convicts, but if you were serious about staying straight, you went to The Bishop. Opie got paroled a month before I did and gave me a place to crash while I looked for work.

"When you called me, you didn't mention anything about you getting shot."

"I didn't want to worry you."

"Gee, thanks."

I told him what happened and what Trevor was doing to Brenda. Opie ran a red light.

"What about Bernstein?"

"I'll come up with something. The priority right now is to save Brenda."

Opie gripped the wheel tighter and his muscles made the woman tattooed on his forearm dance a striptease.

We pulled up to my apartment and Opie jumped out and grabbed a tire iron from the bed of his truck. He bounded up the steps to my second-floor unit and crashed through the door. In the bedroom, we saw Trevor with his pants around his ankles, plowing my girlfriend.

Opie pulled him off Brenda and threw him into the closet door. He set about tenderizing Trevor's ribs with the tire iron as I pulled a sheet over Brenda. I looked over at Trevor and it took all the self restraint I had not to shove a drum stick through his eye.

I said, "Where's Bernstein?"

“Fuck you.”

Opie swing the tire iron a couple more times.

“Listen, dipshit,” I said, “I know you're not ambitious enough to come up with an idea like this yourself. Tell me where Bernstein is or we'll start to get rough.”

"I don't know. I swear, I don't know."

Opie looked at me and said, "Is he a rightie or a leftie?"

"Rightie."

Opie straightened out Trevor's right arm and laid it palm down on the floor. He put his thick-soled work boot on top of the hand and started to press down.

"OK, OK," said Trevor. "Victory Gardens. Apartment J2."

We tied Trevor up and threw him in the bed of Opie's truck.

---

Bernstein's lights were out, so Opie parked his truck across the street, and we waited for Bernstein to come back. I hated waiting.

I drummed a beat on Opie's dash with my right hand and I felt a numbness starting to set in in my left. I looked at the bandage and saw the wound was still bleeding.

Opie said, “After we do this, you're going to the hospital.”

“You'll get no argument from me.”

Around a quarter after two in the morning, Bernstein stumbled home with a girl on each arm. They bobbed and weaved up to the front door like they were one giant drunk beast with six legs. He dropped his keys twice before he was able to open the door. He didn't shut it after them and that gave Opie and me our opportunity.

Bernstein must have heard us because he turned around just in time to get a right cross to the jaw from Opie. The two hookers were worn out old hags with dead eyes. They gave each other a look and walked out, leaving us to our business.

Bernstein started to say something, but Opie punched him again, sending him backward onto the couch. I said, “What did you do with the money?”

“Ha! Thash funny.” It was hard to understand him the way he was slurring so much. He was obviously drunk, high, and full of himself. “It's my money. If you said yes, you could've had a cut. But noooo. You made me get nashty.” He waved a hand in the air. “Bye bye. No money for you.”

“Do you think I want it? I'm going to kick your ass and put it back where it belongs.”

He tried to stand up, but Opie shoved him back on the couch. “You kick my ass? Don make me laugh. Tell him to back off and I'll show you an ass kicking.”

I grabbed his Martin, the only acoustic guitar he owned, and said, “How about one more joke? What's black and blue and laying in a ditch? A guitarist who's told too many drummer jokes.”

I smashed the guitar over his head, splintering it into a hundred pieces.

---

I hadn't told Bernstein the whole truth. I didn't put the stolen money back in the safe. Instead, I put something even more valuable.

It wasn't hard to find where Bernstein put the money – at least the part he hadn't spent. The remaining money we laid out on the kitchen table, making it look like they were divvying up the take. We left him and Trevor, still without his pants, unconscious and handcuffed to each other in Bernstein's apartment.

After Opie dropped me off at the hospital, he went back to The Den to clean up my blood and anything that might have my fingerprints on it. He took a crowbar and scuffed up the safe so it would look like amateurs tried to open it. He then gave the police an anonymous tip that he saw two suspicious men walking out of The Music Den.

The police called Erik, The Den's manager, and asked him to get to the store as soon as possible. They looked at the damage and made Erik open the safe. That's when they found my present.

Bernstein and Trevor's driver's licenses were inside.

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Question of Tone

As I mentioned in the comments the other day, I'm working on a follow up to Tuesday's Friday Flash Fiction story.  I'm struggling a little bit with it.  The narrative this time around seems to be taking on a bit darker tone, which isn't how I heard the original in my head.  Then again...if your lead has been betrayed/shot and his girlfriend kidnapped, anyone would probably want to go Death Wish on their enemies.

Act 2 is a kind of shift from heist story to revenge story, so maybe I should just get out of my own way and let the story tell itself.