Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Beer Money (FFF #26)

Yet another entry into the world of Friday Flash Fiction. After a couple weeks in different genres, I decided to go with a more traditional (for me) route. I kind of dig this Brenner cat.

Beer Money

What do you see when you close your eyes?

I see the face of a woman. It's a face with round cheeks and wide eyes. It's a face framed by a short bob of curly red hair.

It was the face of Alice Hawke. And this is the story of how we met.

---

It was a typical Friday night and I was on my usual stool at Sharkey's, a dive bar down by the pier. I had a beer in my hand and it wasn't the first of the evening. A lot of my old army buddies wouldn't set foot in a bar this close the water, but I liked the emptiness and quiet. Besides, if things got boring I could always insult a couple of swabbies and we'd have ourselves a nice old fashioned brawl.

I stubbed out my cigarette and drained my glass. I was about to motion the bartender for another round when she walked in. At first glance, she wasn't much to look at. She was short and kind of on the chunky side. Her eyes were big and brown and her nose was the shape of an overripe eggplant.

She scanned the bar until she spotted me, then walked over and pulled up the stool next to mine.

"Brenner, I presume?"

"Presume? No, I'm Dr. Livingston." She either didn't get the joke or chose to ignore it.

"I was told you're a man with a certain set of skills. Skills that would be of great use to me."

"If the skills you're looking for involve drinking and playing darts, then I'm your man." The bartender dropped off another pint for me, but she didn't order anything.

"Well, it appears Kenavey was wrong about you." She got up to leave.

Kenavey was my rackmate before he washed out of basic. Kept in touch with him and he started throwing some work my way after my "other than honorable" discharge. Not much, but enough to keep me in beer money.

"Wait, lady. I'm just sassing you. What do you need?"

She sat back down and eyed me suspiciously. Kind of the way you look at that box of Chinese food that's been in the back of your fridge so long that you can't remember when you ordered it. Eventually she said, "I could use some protection. I'm meeting a man tonight. You see, I work at Costington's department store downtown in their accounting department. While going over last month's books, I noticed some irregularities."

I took another swig of beer and half tuned her out. "Cliff's Notes version please. I have a short attention span."

She sighed and gave me the hairy eyeball again. I'd get up and leave, but this is my bar and if anyone was leaving, it was going to be her. "Bottom line. I found out my boss was embezzling. He got fired. Now he's threatening to implicate me in it if I don't give him $10,000 tonight. I need someone to come with me to the meeting to make sure he lives up to his end of the bargain."

"How much?"

"I'm willing to offer your $300."

"Six."

Her eyes bugged even further out of your head. "That's absurd!"

"Blackmail is tricky business, m'am. You're willing to give someone ten gees and hope they go away, but you're not even going to pay a measly 6 percent of that for guaranteed muscle?" I threw a little math at her hoping to impress her.

"Fine," she said. "I'm meeting him at Gemini's on fifteenth street in one hour. I'll give you half up front and half after the meet."

"Four hundred now. The other two when we're done."

She closed her eyes and made a face like she just swallowed some cheap tequila. "You win."

She reached into her purse and pulled out a wad of bills. She peeled off four hundreds and slid them across the scarred top of the wooden bar. I deftly made them vanish.


It occurred to me that Gemini was a funny place for a blackmailer to meet his victim. There wasn't any room for violence because the place was stuffed to the gills with people and egos. Too loud music blared from one side of the room. I followed her through the crowd until we got to a booth in the back. The guy sitting there was wearing a sharp suit and a smug expression. His bald and shiny top and close cropped black hair on the sides made him look like that guy they cast as the snooty maitre d' in almost every movie.

"Who is this?" he asked.

"He's...."

"I'm her dance instructor," I interrupted.

He turned up his nose at me and then pretended I wasn't there. Alice sat and I stood. "I brought you your money, Mr. Bloom."

"Oh, 'Mr. Bloom'? So nice and formal, aren't we." He mocked her. "Did you bring all of it?"

She pulled a large envelope out of her purse and slid it across the table. "As much as I could get my hands on at such short notice."

His long, narrow fingers reached out and drew the envelope closer to him. It looked like a spider trapping a fly. Bloom opened the envelope and slid a finger across the greenbacks. "I'm afraid you're a little light, my dear Alice."

"It's all I have," she said.

Bloom eyed me, then looked back at Alice. "Is he here to make me take this insult?"

Bloom tossed the envelope back on the table and leaned back into the booth. He stared at Alice and Alice stared at him. They looked like a couple in some painting at a classy art gallery. I don't know much about art, so I kept my mouth shut.

He cracked first. "I deserve my fair cut. There should be a lot more than that coming my way. Don't think I'm going soft just because I didn't alter our deal after I got canned."

Alice stole a quick glance at me out of the corner of her eye. I was starting to get the feeling that she was more than an innocent victim in all this. "Consider it a down payment," she said.

"Listen, sister, if I don't get out of here soon, I'm going to be facing jail time. I need that money so I can high-tail it to a South American country that doesn't have extradition."

His eyes flicked in my direction and I realized just in time that he wasn't looking at me. I spun to see a gorilla swinging a folding chair in my direction. I got my arms up just in time to absorb the shock intended for my head. My hands tingled like I'd slept on them all night. I kicked the gorilla in the nuts, crumpling him to his knees. I landed a left hook to his temple, sprawling him on the ground like a giant bearskin rug. I said, "Watch the head, it's where I keep all my wisecracks."

While I was distracted, Bloom and Alice had both left. I don't know if it was together or separately, and I didn't really care to find out. My little dance with the gorilla had attracted unwanted attention from the club's bouncers, so I booked it out the kitchen.


I went back to my apartment and tried to get some sleep. There was a knock at my door around 2:30. I tried to ignore it, but it didn't take the hint.

I stumbled over to the door and opened it. The gorilla was standing there and he pulled my into the hallway by both shoulders. He took me to see Bloom.

Bloom had a nice room over on 52nd street. It was all Oriental rugs and velvet drapes. I figured the chair I was sitting in would cost me a whole month's worth of beers down at Sharkey's. And I can drink a lot.

Bloom sat in an identical chair across from me, bridging his fingers the way some people do when they're trying to look smart. "Tell me where Alice is."

"In Wonderland."

He wasn't amused. "If you don't want to tell me where she is, at least tell me where she keeps the money. That's really all I'm interested in."

"I don't know anything about her or the money. I only met the girl a couple hours ago."

"Loyalty is an admirable trait. Let's see how loyal you really are. Bruno?" He motioned to the gorilla who moved from his position by the door. As he got closer, his girth started to block out the overhead lamp. His shadow must have weighed 50 pounds by itself, easy.

Bruno clamped a catcher's mitt sized hand my hand and started to squeeze. Bloom said, "Now, Mr. Brenner. Where is the money?"

"I don't know," I said. "I'm telling the truth. She came into my bar a couple hours ago. Said you got fired for embezzling money and were blackmailing her. She wanted me to come along for backup in case you got violent."

Bloom said, "How much was she paying you?"

"One thousand dollars." I lied.

Bloom laughed. "You really should've asked for more. You see, the embezzlement scam was her idea. Cooked it up all by herself, but she needed my help to doctor up some of the customer accounts we used to hide the funds."

Bruno was still squeezing, and I couldn't pry his hand from my throat. Spots started dancing The Nutcracker before my eyes. Bloom continued, "In the time we were running the scam, we siphoned off nearly a quarter of a million dollars. It was all going so well until that bitch decided to cut me out. I tell you what. I'll let you go on one condition: find Alice for me. You can keep her thousand dollars and I'll pay you another two thousand once I get my money. Deal?"

Before I could answer him, there was a knock at the door. Bloom turned and stood and opened it. Before the door was even opened halfway, a gun went off and Bloom slumped to the ground. Bruno let go of my throat and tore into the hallway. A few seconds later I heard two shots and knew Bruno was down too. As a strong believer in the saying "discretion is the better part of valor", I climbed out the window and down the fire escape.

In the alley, I lit a cigarette to calm my nerves. The smoke burned my raw throat, so I coughed. I turned the corner around the front of the building and a short, stocky figure in a tan raincoat ran down the front steps. I grabbed her and spun her around to face me.

It was Alice alright. She stared at me with those wide eyes for a second, and I said, "Hello, angel."

She tore herself free and pointed the gun at me. "Stay back or I'll shoot."

"Out here in the middle of the street? Well, you've already killed two men tonight. I guess a third won't make much of a difference."

"I'm warning you."

I'd seen combat during the war. My life was on the line on more than one occasion. But it's different when it's not in the middle of a battle. You seem to notice all the little things. The sweat on her upper lip. The slight tremble of her eyebrows. The white knuckles wrapped around the dark metal grip.

"What do you want?"

I said, "I want the rest of my thousand dollars and I want you to forget you ever saw me."

"The deal was for six hundred."

"That was before two men lost their lives."

Alice licked her lips and contemplated my offer. "That's it?"

"That's it."

Her gun hand lowered and she reached into her raincoat for the fat wad of bills. She peeled off $600 and tentatively reached out toward me. I took the bills from her and put them in my pocket.

"And we just walk away?"

"We walk away."

She started to walk away, not turning her back on me. She was probably suspecting a trick. If I didn't know me so well, I'd be expecting a trick too. The trick is to know how the cops work. Any time there's money and murder involved, the cops get involved. It wouldn't be too long before they connect the dots between Bloom, the missing money, and Alice. They certainly didn't need my help and I had a stool down at Sharkey's where they could come and find me if they did.

Alice finally took her eyes off me as she turned the corner. I hoped I'd never see her face again.

I flicked away my cigarette and walked off into the cold city night.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The End (FFF #25)

Yet another entry into Friday Flash Fiction. Kinda rushed this week, so this is a first draft of a story and also my shortest entry to date. It's a little melancholy, but I blame that on reading some more Hemingway.

The End

He had been told crawling would get him nowhere. A man had to stand on his own two feet. The admonitions of Nick's father echoed in his head as he lay on the floor of his bedroom.

Nick gritted his teeth and planted his hands firmly on the wooden floor. He grunted as he pushed the floor away. Nick grabbed the edge of his bed and pulled himself up into it.

"Let me help you." Doris took a few steps in from the doorway.

"No. I can do it myself." He strained from the bed as the crutch had fallen out of his reach. A sharp pain shot through his back, reminding Nick the bullet he had taken in Bremen was still there.

"Is the pain bad?" Doris had seen him wince.

"The pain is what keeps me alive." He caught the end of his crutch with numb fingers and dragged it closer. The doctors said he'd never be able to use his left leg again and he was losing more feeling in his left hand every day.

"It doesn't have to be that way, Nicky. I was talking to Eric the other day..."

"Who's Eric?"

"He's Judy's husband. He works downtown."

"A doctor?"

"Yes."

"No more doctors."

Doris slumped her shoulders and looked at her hands. "They can help you, Nicky. I have some money now. They gave me a raise at the factory. I'm making close to $30 a week now."

"A man has to be able to stand on his own two feet."

Doris fixed her teary eyes on him. "There's no shame in letting me help you. Women proved that we can work every bit as hard as a man. We don't need to be secretaries and teachers any more. The world changed while you were away."

"And who says this change is for the better?" Nick hoisted himself up on his crutches and hobbled over to the small table in the corner. He poured himself a glass of whiskey and knocked it back in one gulp. He poured another glass.

"It's not fun any more, Nicky."

Nick finished the second glass and poured a third.

"You said we'd be married after the war, but you changed too. I don't even know if I'd say yes any more."

"Who's asking you?" Nick threw his half-full glass at the door behind Doris. The brown liquid scattered as the glass broke in two and fell to the hard wood floor.

They stood there without talking, and listened to the taxi cab bleat its horn outside.

"Do you think things will ever be the way they were between us?" Doris asked.

"I don't know." He was afraid to look at Doris. Then he looked at her. She stood there staring at him. Nick hobbled over and sat on his bed.

"Do you still love me, Nicky?"

"I don't know."

Doris lowered her head and a single tear fell and splattered on her shoe. She reached into her purse and pulled out his key and put it on his dresser.

"Goodbye, Nicky."

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Writing as an Addiction

Hi. My name is WellesFan and I’m an addict.

HI, WELLESFAN!

This year I’ve completed 8 stories, started 2 others, and written in the neighborhood of 15-20K words. Not much, but it’s a lot higher than my 2009 output. In this post (my 200th, btw), I’d like to thank the Friday Flash Fiction crew and Cormac Brown – who invited me to join – for starting me on the slow road to recovery.

Writing is an addiction. Like any addiction it can be rough and painful, but it can also lead to great highs. Writers often talk about the “need” to write. Very few of us enjoy the actual process. I think Gloria Steinem said it best “I do not like to write - I like to have written.”

That is where the high exists. In having crafted the perfect sentence. In having found the right word to use at the right time. In producing a tale that evokes an emotional response from our reader.

A bad story is like a bad trip. Something so awful that you question why you do it. But a good story is like the perfect high. You keep writing again and again so you can get that feeling back.

To get better, an addict must wake up every day and say “I will NOT do XXX.” To get better, a writer must wake up every day and say “I will write.”

The reason each writer writes is as different as the reason each junkie has to get high. Your reason could be to perform a kind of self therapy or to become a better writer or to finish that damn novel. Whatever your reason is, the only way to get better is to take each day as a new beginning.

To paraphrase Paul McCartney: I’d like to think I’m getting better / Getting better all the time.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Bullet the Blue Sky (FFF #23)

This week's Friday Flash Fiction is another new genre for me to try out (anyone like Vince Flynn-style thrillers?). Not to mention it's also my longest entry yet, clocking in at just under 1900 words.

Bullet The Blue Sky

Jack Duncan had to kick out the back window to escape. He wrenched his body over the seat and through the shattered remnants of the car's window. Glass cut his arms and tore at his shirt, but he was more worried about what would happen next. Duncan rolled off the trunk of the Mercedes, bounced, rolled, and skittered to a stop on the blacktop. Lucky for him, the car behind them wasn't tailgating.

Duncan heard tires squeal and saw the Mercedes's tail lights turn on. He scrambled to his feet and to the edge of the Teddy Roosevelt Bridge. Both passenger side doors of the Mercedes swung open and Duncan heard yelling in Chinese. His hands were handcuffed behind his back, so he didn't want to do this, but he had no choice. He swung both legs over the guardrail and plunged feet first into the icy waters of the Potomac.

Six Hours Earlier

His SEAL days were long over, but Jack Duncan still liked to run five miles along the beach every morning at sunrise. It help keep him in shape and keep the edge on; an edge he hoped wasn't being dulled by his current desk job. He stepped out of the shower and toweled off. He looked at the scar in the mirror. It glowed white against his otherwise tanned skin. An eternal reminder of the stab wound he got last fall from Abu Saif in the mountains of Afghanistan.

His phone chirped and he flipped it open. “Go for Duncan.”

“Jack, it's Sid.”

Sid Lane was Duncan's handler at the CIA. “What's up, Sid?”

“We got a rush job for you. It has to do with the recent unpleasantness with China.”

Duncan's brain tingled. He mostly worked the Middle East desk, but anything to get back into the field. “OK. What is it?”

“Now don't get mad,” said Sid. “It's a training op.”

“Oh, fuck me. I'm not a babysitter.”

“I know. I know. But this is important.” Sid took a deep breath on the other end of the phone. “Our ambassador to China is hopping a military flight from Andrews to Beijing this afternoon. His daughter is going with him and has volunteered to provide us with some intel. She goes on trips with him all the time, so she's not going to raise any suspicion.”

“A diplomat's kid? You gotta be kidding me. No way. Absolutely not.”

“She approached us a couple months ago. She's already gotten a quick run-though at The Farm, so she knows the basic craft. We just need her to do one basic training mission here in D.C before we can sign off on her. Listen. You're the best we have. Just put her through her paces and see what she's got. If you give her a thumbs down, we won't send her. I already talked to the bosses and if you play this right, we could get you back in the field sooner rather than later.”

Duncan sighed and against his better judgment he said, “OK. I'll do it.”

Sid said, “Great. Her name's Amy Chen....”

Duncan said, “Really? Amy Chen? That's like the John Smith of Chinese-Americans.”

“That's her name. I'll e-mail you a photo of the girl and a briefing packet. It's a simple bug and follow of two Chinese case officers. They're having lunch at the Ambassador Hotel at 12:30.”

Duncan flipped his phone shut and got dressed.


When you're a spy, begin on time means you're late. Duncan arrived at the Ambassador Hotel nearly an hour before the Chinese spies were set to meet. He made mental notes of all the entrances and exits and emergency exits. The valet out front was manned by two college kids, and had security cameras pointed at the drop-off and key area. Duncan got a table in the outdoor cafe and ordered himself an orange juice.

Around 12:15, he noticed the girl approach the hotel. At least she was taught the value of coming early, even if fifteen minutes wasn't enough time. She took a seat on a park bench across the street, staring directly at the entrance of the hotel. And she was dressed all wrong too: wearing black slacks, a bright yellow shirt, and huge sunglasses. Duncan shook his head. With her location and clothing, the only way she could've been less subtle is if she had a big piece of poster board that said “Look at me! I'm a spy!”

A black Mercedes swung into the entrance of the hotel. Two Chinese men in black suits got out and the driver handed his keys to one of the college kids. The kid tore off and the two men entered the bar and got a seat in the indoor section of the cafe. A few minutes later, the kid came back and hung the Mercedes keys on the pegboard behind the valet podium. Duncan waited another five minutes until another car came in.

He put a few bucks on the table and walked out of the hotel. In a thick Texas drawl he said, “'Scuse me, son. Here's my claim ticket. How 'bout you go get my car?”

“I'm sorry, sir,” said the kid. “Jeremy does all the driving. The hotel doesn't like it when the desk is unattended.”

“Boy, do you know who I am? I'm Congressman Sam Hill from Texas. I think you'd better go get my car right now so I can get back to the Capital before the big vote this afternoon.”

The kid swiped the ticket from Duncan's hand and grabbed the keys from the pegboard. “I'm sorry, sir. Right away, sir.”

He sped off, leaving Duncan alone at the front of the hotel. He reached over the podium and grabbed the keys to the Chinese men's Mercedes. Duncan then calmly walked across the street to where Amy Chen was sitting. Without breaking stride he said, “Wait ten seconds and then follow me.”

Duncan picked a bench in a secluded part of the park, but one that still had a view of the hotel. Amy sat next to him. “So what are we going to do? Go in and pretend we're on a date. Do you want me to spill something on them?”

Duncan held up the keys. “This is one of the greatest advances in tradecraft in the past 20 years. Car keys are a great place to hide a listening device. Modern remotes have enough room for a transmitter as well as a built-in battery for power. All the operation costs is however much you want to tip the valet.”

Duncan unscrewed the back, attached the transmitter to the battery, and sealed the key up again. He handed it to Amy and said, “When there's only one guy at the valet I want you to go up there and start yelling at him. Say they brought back your car and it was scratched. Demand to see the manager. When he leaves, put this key back on spot 23. You got that? 23.”

She nodded her head. Amy crossed the street and started yelling at the valet. After a few seconds, she started to spout off in Chinese. Duncan didn't know what she was saying, but he caught the word gweilo which is a derogatory term for Caucasian. It means “ghost man” or something. The college kid practically ran inside and Amy put the keys back where she was supposed to.

“How’d I do?” she asked when she got back to the bench.

“Not bad,” said Duncan.

“Are you really the best CIA agent? I asked for the best because I want to do the job right,” she said.

“I’ve been running ops for more than a decade and I’m still alive. That’s all that matters to me.”

The two Chinese officers finished their lunch and went to the valet to retrieve their car. Duncan pulled a device that looked like an iPhone from his hip pocket. He switched it on and said, “This is the receiver. We’ll be able to hear everything they say as well as get a GPS fix on their location.”

The men got into the Mercedes and Duncan tuned the device to the right frequency. All he heard was Lady Gaga. He said, “What the…”

The Mercedes squealed to a halt at the curb next to them and he turned his head to the right. Amy Chen had a Beretta pointed at him. “Get in the car. Now.”

*****

After swimming ashore and removing the handcuffs, Jack Duncan made his way to the national museum on Roosevelt Island. The pay phone in the parking lot must be one of the few left in D.C. He picked up the receiver and dialed a number from memory.

“Joe’s pizza.”

“This is Sidewinder. Get me Snake Doc.”

A few seconds later Sid Lane’s voice came on. “This is Snake Doctor.”

“Target’s been compromised.”

“Say again, Sidewinder.”

“The target’s been compromised. Need info on possible exfil routes.”

“Wait one.” After a few seconds of static Sid came back on the line and told him the ambassador’s plane was scheduled to take off from Andrews Air Force Base at 1900 that night.

“Get me cleared with the gate as someone from Homeland.”

“OK. What are you planning to do?” Duncan didn’t respond, so Sid said, “Sidewinder, we need her alive.”

“I’m not making any promises.”

“Damnit, Sidewinder…” was all he heard before he hung up the receiver.



Jack Duncan huddled next to a hanger near where the ambassador’s plane was waiting to take him, his daughter, and the US delegation to Beijing. He was dressed in all black and wore a light-weight Kevlar vest and black leather gloves. A cold wind whipped through the empty alleyways nearby. Air Force bases are nearly all cement and lose their residual heat soon after sunset.

A few minutes before 1900, a black Mercedes pulled up next to the hangar. It was identical to the one Duncan escaped from this afternoon except the rear window was intact. The two front doors opened and the Chinese spies got out. The one on the passenger side opened the rear door and Duncan spotted Amy Chen.

He left his position and fired an expert double-tap to the chest of the driver with his silenced 9mm pistol. He then swung his arm and caught the second spy in the forehead. Amy gasped and reached into her purse. Without a sound, Duncan was on her in seconds. His large hand wrapped around her smaller one, pointing her Beretta away from his body. The gun went off, sending a round harmlessly into the tarmac.

“Let go of me,” she said. “My father’s the ambassador.”

“I don’t give a shit who your father is,” said Duncan. “You’re a traitor to our country.”

“My father is a traitor to his.”

“Is that why you’re doing this? What happened? Did someone approach you on a trip with your father?”

“I don’t have to tell you anything. I know my rights.”

“You have no rights any more. The minute you flipped and became a double-agent, you signed your death warrant. Even your father can’t save you now.”

Amy Chen’s eyes got wide and she swallowed. “Are – are you going to kill me?”

Duncan said, “No. You’re going in a deep, dark hole where nobody will ever find you.”