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.”