Friday, December 30, 2011

#FridayFlash - Katherine's Wish

Blood red clouds ripple across the horizon. Sitting at a round table with umbrella tassels dancing in the coastal breeze above her, Katherine fingers the stem of her cocktail glass and watches the waves break over the reef. Eleven more hours, that’s all she has left. In the morning, a nine o’clock island hopper will first shuttle her to Miami, where she will then catch a non-stop to Austin. By this time tomorrow night, God willing, she plans to pull the plug on the phone, climb into her own bed, and sleep until she can’t sleep any more.

She raises the glass and takes a sip of the martini, gritting her teeth. When she came out from the hotel lounge, she told the cute brown-skinned boy standing behind the bamboo tiki bar (Pablo or Roberto, or something like that) to make it a dirty vodka martini with double the vodka. “Throw in a couple onions, too, while you’re at it,” she told him.

On the beach, a couple walks barefoot, each holding a pair of sandals in their hands, their conversation buried under the waves and the Bob Marley tune flowing from the bar’s speakers. Halfway across the beach, they stop. The man dips his head down, and she wraps her arms around his neck. Katherine quickly takes another sip and notices how easy the second one slides down.

Looking to the hotel, she searches out the windows and spots the second one from the top left. The curtains are open, but the lights are out. Either the newlyweds are still down in the lounge, dancing away to the shuffling beat of Reggae, or they’re making love as the night slowly covers the sky under a blanket of darkness.

Yesterday, her daughter showed off the room.

“Just look at that view,” Tara said. “Isn’t it great?”

Katherine affected the best smile she could.


“Just think, by this time tomorrow night I’ll be Mrs. Chad Hamilton.”

Katherine bit her lip, nodded once and then quickly hugged her daughter.

“I’m happy for you,” she whispered. “I really am.”

Thinking about it now, she knows she lied, but what else could she do? Tara had already made things perfectly clear three months ago.

Out on the water, a small craft slowly makes its way across the bay, the running lights bobbing up and down.

All things considered, beyond the cost of everyone flying out to the Caribbean, the wedding had been simple. No traditional wedding march, no special music, and definitely no communion. Instead of a big bash, they could all assemble in the lounge for some drinks and dancing, a small gathering with only her family in attendance. Of course, that meant the whole family, which was why Katherine decided to take her drinking out to the beach.

She is finishing off the martini when a dark figure steps off the stone walkway and approaches. Even before he stops at her table, she feels her stomach tighten.


“I thought you were going to your room,” he says.

Katherine sets the glass down, looks at her watch. “I was just about to head on up.”

“Mind if I sit down?”

She lets the ocean’s hiss interrupt them, hoping that in the long, uncomfortable moment he’ll get the message and move on. He doesn’t. Finally, she shrugs.

“This won’t take long,” he says, slumping into the chair.

Her eyes search out the running lights of the boat on the bay. What she wouldn’t give to be there, or anywhere, right now.

“I just wanted to thank you,” he says. “For… you know… being courteous with Caroline here.”

She pauses to consider the depth of his comment; or rather, the shallowness of it.

“Did you expect me to behave differently at our daughter’s wedding?”

He shakes his head. “No, I guess not.”

Maybe not you, she thinks.

“I wouldn’t even dream of taking anything away from Tara,” she says. “This is her night.”

He nods, but says nothing. She watches as he leans against the table. He looks down, rubs his hands. Katherine shakes her head and looks out across the bay.

“What do you think about Chad?”

The sudden shift catches her a little off guard.


“I never asked you before,” he says. “I’m curious. What do you think about our new son-in-law?”

Her eyes search out that fourth-floor window again, remembering the first time Tara brought Chad home to meet her. The visit was discomforting at best. His scruffy hair and pierced ears she could handle; however, the look in his eyes and the just-for-the-moment attitude he carried were unnerving.

“All I want is for Tara to be happy.”

Dan nods. “Me too.” He scratches an arm then and makes up an excuse to exit, something about needing to check with the hotel management on a lost pair of sunglasses. He stands to leave. “Thanks again.”

Watching him walk away, even though twenty-four years have passed between them, Katherine is still surprised by the all-too familiar knot in her stomach, the spear of pain that stabs at her heart.

As Dan clears the beach and takes the stone path back to the hotel, she notices the bartender approach. Looking at the tag on his shirt, she now sees his name is Justin, a far cry from Pablo or Roberto. The deep tan and the straight black hair obviously threw her off.

He points at the glass.

“Would you like another?”

“Yes, please.” She affects her best smile. “I’m celebrating. My daughter just got married.”

He nods and smiles. “Ah yes, congratulations. You must be happy.”

She doesn’t answer that, but instead looks out to the ocean. The boat has been swallowed up by the darkness and the sea.

A few minutes later, Justin returns with her second martini. She looks up one last time toward the fourth floor window. Then, she raises the glass.

“May you never know.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

#FridayFlash - Roberto Makes a Stand

Roberto crossed his legs and propped his boots up against the wall. He rolled his last cigarette, licked the paper and pinched off the ends. As he dug a match out of his pocket, he noticed Diego standing in the doorway.

“What do you want?”

“They say five minutes, Señor. Shouldn’t you wait?”

Roberto struck the match across the rough edge of the wall. It flared up with a snap and a hiss. He lit the cigarette, and blew out a stream of smoke.

“What for? So they can take this away, too?”

Diego shrugged his bony shoulders. The loose shirt pulled tight for a moment and then sagged.

“It’s your cigarette.”

"That’s right,” Roberto said. “Just like Adriana was mine, too.”

Diego looked away.

Roberto took a long drag, pulled the smoke deep into his lungs. He didn’t blame Diego. The young man was just a kid really, not even a hint of whiskers on his upper lip yet, so he had little to draw upon. He started to think about how things could have turned out different, like maybe if Diego had been old enough or strong enough, but then shook the thought away. The truth was it didn’t matter how many Diegos lived in this dusty village. There would never be enough to stand up to even the shadow of Rafeal Vargas. Whatever that man wanted, he took, and while he did everyone else stood by and watched without so much as a word or a whimper. Well not watch, really; it was more like they suddenly found something interesting on the ground to occupy their time. Because they had learned, it seemed—learned that the ground was far safer to look at than a man’s eyes or what he did with another man’s wife. In their minds, it was safer—no, smarter!—to pretend that the shrill voice was the sound of only a bird in the air and nothing more. Why get involved in matters that did not concern them? Why follow an angry man into a bar to face off against the federales when he would end up like the rest of those who actually tried to do something: alone with only a scarred wall to stand behind him.

He took another long drag, blew out the smoke and watched it billow toward the ceiling and then out through the bars.

Let them have their clever thinking.

He held out his hand and stared at the cigarette.

At least I still have this.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

I'll Be Home For Christmas

The Christmas tree looks more beautiful than ever this year. The lights all a glimmer, the star shining brightly, it’s enough to make Eunice cry. Outside, even the City enjoys the spirit of the season. Caterpillars of tinsel festoon the telephone wires while beach-ball size ornaments and bells hang from the lamp posts. Through the window, she can hear the faint tinkling of music—“Sleigh Ride”, isn’t it?—as it carries across the lawn, all the way down from the city square. It’s a wonderful time to be alive. Roosevelt has turned things around. Her daddy promised—

“Making Christmas trees on the frosted glass again, Eunice?”

She turns and sees Jonelle, the little woman from down the street. Or if not down the street, then somewhere close by; she’s here every morning, noon, and night. Eunice then looks at the glass, at the small image she has scratched into the glass. Almost like a triangle with boughs, she thinks.

She smiles. “I guess I have.”

Jonelle nods. “Your kids coming to see you today?”

Eunice gives the woman a whimsical smile. Such a funny lady. “Oh, Miss Jonelle, you know I’m not old enough to have kids. Shoot, I’ve not even been kissed by a boy yet.”

Jonelle turns to the bed. “Well, maybe they’ll show this time.” She pulls up a sheet and then stops, giving Eunice a pained look. “You never know. Always look at the bright side, right? That’s what Mr. Barack says.”

Eunice frowns. “Mr. Barack?”

“The President, honey.”

Eunice gives her a small chuckle. There she goes again.

“Miss Jonelle, why do you carry on so? Why everyone knows that Mr. Roosevelt is President.”

Eunice likes this part about Jonelle. Not only is she one of the most positive women Eunice has ever met, Jonelle is always the kidder, too. Which is really a nice character trait to have, given that the woman can still laugh and make jokes even though she only has enough money to buy one set of clothes; every day, she has to wear the same white outfit, the same white shoes.

“My daddy is serving the President right now, did you know that?” Eunice asks. “I got a letter from him just the other day.”

“Who, Mr. Roosevelt?”

“No, silly, my daddy. It came all the way from Pearl Harbor where he’s stationed. He says he’ll be home for Christmas, which is about the best gift ever. Better than any of the toy trucks my brother is always asking for.”

Jonelle stares at her flatly for a moment, and Eunice wonders if she has said something wrong. Maybe Miss Jonelle can’t afford gifts for Christmas. Jonelle then turns back to the bed. The sheets pulled up, she straightens out the covers. After that, she turns and pulls out a pad of paper from her pocket.

“What do you want for breakfast today, Eunice, the scrambled eggs? Or maybe we should just stick to the oatmeal with raisins. It’ll be good for your constitution.”

Eunice waves a dismissive hand.

“I don’t care one way or the other,” she says. “In fact, just knowing this Christmas is going to be the best one ever, with mom and dad together again, I could eat rocks and not care.” She looks around. “By the way, where is mother this morning?”

A pained look crosses Jonelle’s face. “Honey, your momma’s been gone a long time now. Almost as long as your daddy, the poor girl.”

“Gone? Where’d she go, to the store?”

Jonelle looks at her for a moment, the pained look replaced by one slightly irriated.

“That daughter of yours better show today, or I have a mind to call her myself.”

With that, the woman walks out the door.

Eunice stares after her for a few seconds and then shakes her head. Such a kidder.

She turns back to the window. The Christmas tree looks more beautiful than ever this year. The lights all a glimmer, the star shining brightly, it’s enough to make her cry. She can’t wait to show her daddy when he comes home. Won’t he be surprised?

S.B.: With everything that's been going on lately, from NaNoWriMo to my Holiday Story Exchange (the deadline was yesterday, and I clocked in 3K words with my story), and all the Christmas events starting to pile up, I wasn't planning on adding much to my blog. But then this morning I woke up, sat down at the computer, and a worm of an idea started to bore its way into my mind. This story is the result.

As you can see, I wasn't planning on writing anything for #FridayFlash either, so I'll just let this one stand on its own.

I'm going to take the next week off so I can knock out some reading. After that, I'm going to be back hard on the novel. I want to finish this one soon, and then start on the revisions. Things are starting to heat up for my protagonist, and I can't wait to see how everything plays out. So if you don't see much from me going forward, you'll know why.

I hope you are having a wonderful season, my friends. Spend as much of it with your family as you can. Each day is its own blessing.

Until next time...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Crossing the Finish Line
(2011 NaNoWriMo Update)

There's a saying (I think it was something I actually heard in a Beatles song) that states, Life is what happens to you while you're making other plans. The same is true for a writer trying to finish his novel. During the process, you can count on this: life will throw many curve balls at you. The thing to do is to get up each day, take a breath, step back into the batter's box, and swing away. Some days you will strike out. Some days you will only make it to first base. But there are days when you will not only knock it out of the park, but you'll send a crushing grand slam into the bleachers and drive in all those other single-basers as well.

My 2011 NaNoWriMo experience was just like this. Some days I just didn't clock in the minimum 1,667 words. Those days were few, though, and all my other days made up for the process, especially the days when I clocked in more than two-thousand words. The items that krept into my life this time around? First, my daughter had a tonsilectomy. Personally, I have never had my tonsils removed, but I can tell you as a parent it has to be painful. My daughter is now at Day #7, and she's still in recovery. Suffice it to say, an event like this has a way of interrupting your plans.

The second thing that stood in the way of NaNoWriMo is so common that I might as well plan for it in the future: the holidays. As Americans celebrate Thanksgiving, there is so much focus on family and food that all other plans need to sit on the bench... especially writing a novel. How do you tell your spouse that writing your masterpiece is more important than spending time with family? The answer is you don't. You go, you drink and eat, and you set your sights on picking back up later. I don't know why the creators of NaNoWriMo chose November to do this event. Maybe it's a way to see who is dedicated and who isn't. Thankfully, they didn't choose December. I believe the obstacles in that month would probably thin the herd of winners.

So, my NaNo goal was set back a day. Big deal. Last night I met my minimum at around forty-nine-thousand words. I looked at that and said, "There's no way I'm going to stop today when I'm so close to the finish line." So, I pressed on and moved past the ultimate goal: fifty-thousand words in thirty days. That's not to suggest that my novel is done. It's not. In fact, it's probably only two-thirds complete. But a finished novel in thirty days isn't the primary focus. Writing the minimum to be called a novel is.

With December just around the corner, and my other project (2011 Holiday Story Exchange) deadline just a couple weeks away, I'll probably slow down a little, and my novel will be finished sometime before (or maybe after) the first of the new year. But that's okay, too. My goal for 2011 NaNoWriMo is complete, I'm firmly on the path of my story and into the lives of my characters, and my finished novel is within my grasp.

Until next time...

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Mind Works in Mysterious Ways
(2011 NaNoWriMo update - Day 18)

I awoke this morning feeling like I needed to take a healthy dose of sinus medication and go right back to sleep. My head ached. My stomach felt like something sick and ugly crawled inside and set up camp. Forget about NaNoWriMo, that little voice in my head muttered. It’ll be there in the evening. Get yourself back to bed.

Thankfully, I didn’t listen to the voice. Sure, it took me an extra twenty minutes to pull myself together, but I put on a pot of coffee, took the sinus medicine (along with a couple Tylenol), and eventually planted my keister in the chair. The words came slow at first, too, but by six o’clock my word count reached topped off at a little more than one thousand. Sometimes, the best you can do is simply this: just show up.

The mind works in mysterious ways. Not a week goes by where I find myself amazed at the connective tissues the mind forms between experiences. For example, somebody in your day makes a comment, and the mind suddenly jerks a long forgotten dream from its dusty shelves. In some cases you replay the event over and over (Haven’t I seen this before?), and an unsettling case of déjà vu burns at the brain like an out-of-control fever. Mostly, though, you find yourself transported back to those dreams and everything granular—every sight and sound, every spoken word—swiftly comes into laser-sharp focus.

In writing fiction, I find that the exchange between reality and Neverland often works in reverse. Something a character says or does brings a real-life experience to the forefront and suddenly I am writing from the heart. Write what you know, they say, and sometimes we do just that. And it’s not just me; I believe this is true for all writers. If I had the opportunity to ask Stephen King one question right now, it would be this: How much of The Body (aka, the movie, Stand by Me) came from personal experiences? I would love to hear his answer to that. This morning (as well as other mornings) I found myself once again working with certain characters, and something they said or did brought an event or a viewpoint from the past to the forefront. That’s just the way the magic works for me.

The project is still on course. In fact, it’s better than being just on course; with the work now at more than 33K words, I’m two days ahead of schedule. My estimate is that I will reach the 50K goal by the twenty-fifth. And that’s not bad. It gives me plenty of room to reach 60K before the end of the month.

I hope life is going just as well for all of you, my friends. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep dreaming. This is what we do. This is what we love. And if we can share something new with someone else—even the weird or bizarre—then so much the better.

Until next time…

Friday, November 11, 2011

NaNoWriMo Update
(Day 11 and counting)

Given the choice, I would rather not whip and spur an old horse. It’s just not my thing. After this week’s news, however, concerning Q.R. Markham and the recent revelations about his book, I feel compelled to once again touch upon the issue I’ve written about for my last two posts.

It is true that we learn much from reading other writers. I have learned a ton about dialogue from Elmore Leonard. I have also learned much about narrative and prolific sentence structure from the likes of William Gibson and James Lee Burke and the earlier works of Dean Koontz (his later works aren’t quite as prosaic). I have learned much about writing characters and backstory from Stephen King, trying to give little pieces that readers tend to pick up and snap together. Still, it is one thing to learn from others in an attempt to hone your own voice and craft; it is quite another to copy their work into yours, and then have the audacity to say you wrote it. While we all learn from other writers, we can never-ever-ever stoop to the level of plagiarizing their work. I can’t stress that point enough.

And enough on that subject, too.

This week has had its positives. First, my NaNoWriMo project is moving along nicely. Today, I passed the twenty-thousand marker and moved beyond twenty-one-thousand words as well. And with that I am now over forty percent of the way home. In the next day or two, I expect to roll past the halfway point. Halfway for my NaNoWriMo goal, that is; the way this novel is working, I don't expect that it will be finished until much later. My first project two years ago ran over one-hundred-thousand words. We'll see how far this one goes.

The plot is starting to come together nicely as well. At this point in the story, I have been able to see little nuggets of foreshadowing—unintentional at their origin, but quickly recognized as something that will have more voice as the story progresses. The final road map is not clear in my mind yet, but it is coming into focus far better than it did when I started. And that’s a good thing.

In my readings, I finished Stephen King’s The Girl Who Love Tom Gordon. For those who criticized it as slow and boring, I have to strongly disagree. It was a powerful story and the end touched my heart in a way that many books do not. For those who have never read it, this is one of his better works.

Those are my quick updates for now. For a future post, I am considering the prospect of sharing some personal thoughts about dialogue. While I have learned much of what I do from other masters, I have also developed strong opinions of my own.

Until next time…

Friday, November 4, 2011

Let Books Be Your Guide
(2011 NaNoWriMo)

"Writing a book is very much like going on a long trip abroad...Writers who have gone before travel with you; all you have to do is welcome them along. Let books be your guides. Choose wisely. And, mostly important, limit yourself to exactly six books per writing project. Three books on craft. And three books exactly like the one you wish to write."

Heather Sellers ~ Chapter after Chapter (Ch. 16)

This post is basically a follow-up to the previous one (Snacks for the Road) where I recommended having a book along for the journey. I read Heather Sellers's book over two years ago, before I participated in the 2009 NaNoWriMo event. So as you can see, this is not a new idea, and it certainly isn't one I came up with. Still, it is one that I believe is an essential tool for writing a novel, or even for writing a short story.

On more than one occasion while visiting the Writer's Digest Forums (a public network for writers at any stage of their work) I have come across the following statement: Find writers you like and try to imitate what they do; it's what every writer does. And while to some that may appear to be debasing the value of what we do--imitation and not art--I disagree. And with good reason...

"You can't plagiarize a method of opening a chapter. You can't really steal a technique--the technique belongs to all of us. If you love the way one of your [favorite authors] does dialogue, use her pattern and cadences and beats in your own dialogue. It's not cheating. It's how all writers work."

Heather Sellers ~ Chapter after Chapter (Ch. 16)

The truth is that writers don't learn in a vacuum. They learn by reading and by writing, and the writing is usually influenced by the reading. You want to learn how to handle good dialogue? Read Elmore Leonard. You want to learn how to develop great suspense? Read Dean Koontz. You want to learn how to write mysteries with plenty of twists and turns that keep your readers guessing? Jeffery Deaver is a great teacher. In my opinion, he is one of the best.

Keep in mind, however, that not everything you learn in reading is necessarily good. You want to learn how to bore your readers by demonstrating your ability to spit out an almost endless supply of worthless details instead of moving the story along? Read The Last of the Mohicans. You might even learn how to teach your readers to skip whole pages at a time. I'm not recommending it, but if that's your goal...

In preparing for this year's NaNoWriMo, I picked out a selection of Young Adult books, since my primary characters are young teenagers. The book selected were as follows: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; the Harry Potter books, one through four, by J.K. Rowling (five through seven are still waiting on the shelf); The Body by Stephen King, I Am Number Four by Pitticus Lore; and finally The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, also by Stephen King. For my part, I wanted to see how other writers handled young kids as characters--their mannerisms, their dialogue, and such--so that I could start to do the same in my own writing. I think I've learned plenty to help me. And the good news is that I have each of these books within reach while I'm working on my NaNoWriMo project this year.

An interesting change of plans this year, though: What I thought would be a YA novel has turned into a supernatural thriller. I told someone the other day I thought it would be a horror novel, and there may not be much difference when all is finished, but I think supernatural thriller more accurately describes what I have in progress. As such, all those YA novels I read, while still useful for characterization of children, may fall short on the suspense angle; however, I have plenty of other books to lean on when the time is right.

Until next time...

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Snacks for the Road
(2011 NaNoWriMo)

Part of the experience of NaNoWriMo 2009 including having a book at my side, to keep me company and generally feed my mind. Two years ago that book was Elmore Leonard's Out of Sight, probably my favorite Leonard book. In the process of reading, my mind would see something he did--how he handled a certain aspect of a scene or dialogue--and then it went about the task of working similar magic in my own project. The end result was always mine, of course. I never plagiarized his work. I simply used his writing as one of many tools to springboard my own ideas into something that could be used to make a splash.

This time around, I have decided to read Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. While some readers hate his work, others, like me, love him. He usually has a great writing style, and what I love most about King is his ability to take the reader deeper into the character--through voice, dialogue, and flashbacks--without taking the reader off course in the process. So far, reading this small novel has given me plenty of food for thought. Again, the end result will be mine, written in my voice and style, but reading a novel is already helping me to ask the questions I need in order to make my 2011 NaNoWriMo project better.

How about you? Do you usually take some reading brain food along on the journey? If so, who and what are you reading (or snacking on) this year?

Until next time...

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

All Things on the Table
(2011 NaNoWriMo)

This morning I awoke about ten minutes before four o'clock. I gave the dog a good hug, a scratch behind the ears, and then stepped outside with her into the cool morning air. Which lasted about three minutes until a neighborhood cat belled by its owner--maliciously, I think--tinkled by the fence line and successfully sent my lovable, and for the most part quiet, pooch into a canine frenzy. Suffice it to say, I rounded up my dog with a few sharp whispers and together we walked back inside. Her genetically curled tail stood almost erect with pride.

The coffee made, I then went about the task of lining things up to sit down and work my magic on the keyboard. Today is Day 2 of the 2011 National Novel Writing Month, or affectionately known as NaNoWriMo to those who have participated in the past. Two hours and fifteen minutes later, my daily quota almost finished, I wrapped things back up and started with the task of waking children and preparing for another day. I'm happy to report that I am still on track with the project. By tonight, I will have passed my quota and moved my work-in-progress bar a little closer toward the ultimate goal: fifty-thousand words in thirty days.

While it may be easy for others--I have read somewhere that Stephen King sits down to write ten pages each day--for me writing a novel in this timetable doesn't happen without some planning. Two years ago, I made daily walks, mapping out issues and whole scenes in my mind. I had a good idea of where the novel wanted to take me before my fingers ever typed out the first word. This year, I didn't engage in daily walks, but I still had the mind working through scenes and issues prior to the first of November. I even drove to the office supply store last week to purchase a dry erase board, a tool I find indispensable for my style. It allows me to brainstorm ideas and to jot things down and erase them with ease. On Saturday, I made an initial sketch of the village for my novel, identifying some of the quirky places therein. All told, I believe I have put some serious planning into this novel like I did with the previous one, and I believe the dividends of my labor will pay off in the end.

This is not to suggest that I don't leave room for magic to happen. I do. In fact, yesterday morning I woke up earlier than expected. In that quiet moment between fully asleep and fully awake, I felt the magic stir within me. Short stories that I had started working years ago suddenly clamored for attention. "Hey," one shouted. "You remember me? Maybe I'm not a leading actor, but I can certainly play a supporting role." And thus, the spell began. I considered that story's statement, and then gradually nodded my head, the fog of sleep clearing with each passing moment. Yes, I thought. I think you'll do. And what I originally planned to be a YA novel has now changed into something else.

As writers, our inspiration can come from all sorts of influences: people we've met, conversations overheard, and yes even stories that we've never finished. The thing is to keep our minds open, even if the inspirations appear like phantasms in a dream. Allowing all options on the table is a key step to moving forward in writing any kind of story.

Friday, October 28, 2011

#FridayFlash - Interview with a Killer

I lean forward, place my arms on the table, and stare into those black holes.

“Let me give you a hypothetical,” I say to Fields.

An intrigued smile crosses his lips.


“Flash forward to the day of your death.”

“That’s a hypothetical?”

I shrug. “Okay, it’s more of a timing issue. As you know, the state allows every death-row inmate one final statement.”

The smile broadens. “And you want to know what I’m going to say?”

“I want you to imagine yourself standing before the families, looking into the eyes of those who have lost so much because of you.”

“But it’s like I said, Rusty.” He leans forward, and we’re close enough now that I can see two white hairs poking through the flesh between his eyebrows. A small scar on his cheek lies almost hidden within the folds of his aging skin. “It wasn’t just me.”

I give him a dismissive nod. “But you’ll be the only one standing there.”

He doesn’t say anything to that.

“So place yourself in front of those families. In fact, I would like you to imagine that this represents every mother and father.” I slide the recorder a little closer. “What are you going to say to them?”

It’s a moment that every inmate on death row has to face. Unfortunately, it comes with a risk. Do they stand in silent acceptance, knowing that in a few moments they’ll see and breathe no more, or do they try to say something that will last forever? Preferably, they will offer the victims a slice of humanity, apologizing for what they’ve done, but that’s not always the case. Some stand by their innocence. And who knows? Maybe they are. Others want one last act of terror. Men like Clyde Boudreaux, who stood before his panel of witnesses and said, “Seein’ as how I got here a real nice audience, who’s got nothin’ better to do tonight than to listen to little ol’ me, I guess I might as well give you somethin’ good for your money—not that you paid anything for them seats.” And before the state stuck the needle in his arm, he went into graphic detail on every one of his crimes, and then gave the families a big grin as his final act of defiance.

Fields looks at the recorder for a long moment.

“I guess I’ll say that their daughters’ sacrifice, while small here on earth”—he looks back at me, and I can see it coming—“was big in the kingdom of God.”

I play with my ring, twist it around my finger, and give him a nod. He still thinks he's a saint, but in the end he’s only another crazy the world can do better without.

I turn off the recorder.

“I would like to thank you for your time.”

He frowns. “You don’t sound thankful.”

I stand and give him a smile of my own. “The spectrum of gratitude has many colors.”

I offer my hand, and he looks at it for a moment. I wonder what he’s thinking. Is it a hand he would have liked to torture? Is the skin something he can imagine knifing his fingers under, lifting it up and peeling it off the meat, like the women of old used to do with chickens because they didn’t want to mess with plucking the feathers? I blink away the thought.

Finally he stands. He looks to the guards first, his way of showing them he has no intentions of doing anything stupid, and then reaches for my hand. As he holds it, I lean forward and slap his hand with my left, a common two-handed shake of camaraderie. I can see the wince of pain in his eyebrows.

“The families will be grateful for this moment,” I say.

Confusion replaces the pain in his face as I let go. I reach to my ring and give it another twist. The small needle retracts, once again hidden within the stone. Picking up the recorder and the rest of my things, I turn and walk toward the door. Before I can reach it, I hear his voice.

“Who did you say you worked for again?”

I stop and look at him. He is rubbing at the back of his hand.

“I told you. I’m with the Houston Chronicle.”

I point to the press card I made for today. It looks authentic enough. To tell him the truth—that I once worked for the government doing things that would cause most people to shudder, but now work for anyone willing to pay—would only mean my visit might turn into something longer, with bars of my own, and I have no intention of staying. He nods, but the look of confusion presses deeper into his brow like a first-grader trying to remember what two plus two equals—Is it four or five?—or on which side of the O does the bar stand for the lower case B. All those years of studying and learning vectors and coefficients slither away, a scared snake faced with the prospect of things even more frightening: exposure and vulnerability.

Past the guards and through the door, I make my way out of the prison. Walking through a long hallway, my shoes pock-pock-pocking! on the concrete floor, my thoughts turn to my report and the people who will read it, especially the one with cancer. She can now die knowing for certain that John Winston Fields faced her own version of justice. The poison in his system will attack his heart, forcing it to race faster and faster until it finally explodes from exhaustion.

I also think about my stomach roiling at his first admission. It wasn’t because of the mutilation. I’ve seen worse. I do hope, however, those girls were truly dead first. Through the outside gate at last, I shake my head. Some things are just not worth exploring.


S.B.: There it is. I hope you've enjoyed four weeks of this one. One additional note. I will be absent from the #FridayFlash for a good month. As you may have seen already, I have a side project running with some friends on the Writer's Digest Forums, and it will consume some of my time. On top of that, I've also decided to engage in NaNoWriMo for the second time in my life. Suffice it to say, I'm going to be fairly busy over the next month and won't have time to dedicate myself to writing anything else. But I will take time to read your stories each week. I look forward to that. Until next time...

Friday, October 21, 2011

#FridayFlash - Interview with a Killer
(Part Three)

Years ago, while stationed over in the Persian Gulf, I ran into a platoon leader by the name of Ordell Lewis. A quiet man for the most part, black orbs for eyes pivoting around like radar antennae scanning the sky, Lewis offered few words one way or the other. When he spoke, however, it was usually something thoughtful and clear, a treasured commodity in a world where chaos became the common denomination. On one occasion, we observed a private first class by the name of Samuel Ellison as he slapped at his loaded rifle in frustration. Like brute force would somehow knock the weapon into submission. “You know,” Lewis said, “I think the best part about that boy must’ve dribbled down his mamma’s leg.”

Looking at John Winston Fields, the smile of satisfaction on his face like he’s just revealed the wisdom of the ages, I remember Lewis’s words, and I think the best part of Fields clearly didn’t make it all the way up. But that’s assuming there ever was a best part to begin with. After my experiences in the Gulf War and then after, I am convinced that for some people it’s like farming a crop. You can’t grow good plants from bad seed.

Taking a moment, the seismic admission as to why he skinned those girls still reverberating in my mind, I glance at the recorder, already second-guessing how much will make its way to the final report. Not everything has to. It’s not like they need to know all that has been said here. What benefit would it serve? Will they sleep better knowing the final outcome places an ending period on the story of a man claiming to have committed the crimes because of some perverted understanding of love? I doubt it. In fact, after everything is finished and Fields takes his last breath, I believe some of them will still find restless nights, waking up to the imagined sounds of their daughters, screaming and crying out to be held.

Looking at my watch, the constant tick-tick-tick telling me to move it forward, I prepare to ask the one question I know needs an answer. If it can be answered, that is. I once listened to a prosecutor tell a jury pool that in some cases the best he could do was give consolation. The question the victims needed to ask the most often went unanswered.

“People want to know why.”

He frowns. “Why what?”

“Why you selected the women you did.”

A slight smile. “Ah, there it is. Everyone always wants to know why. Even the D.A., if she could have put me on the stand, would have asked the same question directly. The problem is, though, even with all the witnesses—the specialized testimonials from leading experts in their field—the prosecution never asked the right question.”

“And what is the right question?”

“Did I have a choice?”

It’s my turn to frown. “You think you didn’t?”

Fields slowly shakes his head. “No more than you have a choice to stop breathing. Oh sure, you can hold your breath, will yourself to stop, but unless you tie yourself off with a rope or otherwise engage in some form of suicide, holding your breath won’t do. Pretty soon you’ll pass out. And then what? Your brain tells you to breathe again and you do.”

I shake my head. “But that doesn’t answer the question as to why you selected those women.”

He looks at me like I’m one of his thick-headed students who can’t quite grasp the law of gravity.

“But it does,” he says. “Not only does it tell you that I didn’t have much control over why I killed them, and then skinned them, but it also tells you that I didn’t have much choice in who I selected either.”

“So who or what selected them?”

“I told you, Rusty. It’s ágape.” When I look at him with questioning eyes, he smiles and adds, “It was the love of God that drove me to it.”

At first, I find it hard to accept Fields’s comments. Not that he skinned those women; I have already seen the colored photos and the black and whites—graphic snapshots of his handiwork. To some people, the human body is just a machine, just another creature in the kingdom not unlike anything you might find out in the forest flicking its white tail and jumping through the brush. Skinning one animal is just as easy as skinning another. What’s hard for me is deciding whether or not Fields actually believes his words, that those acts were simply ritualistic manifestations of love and devotion to a higher power. One part of me wants to think that he’s spitting on the live wire again, testing to see if it’s still hot. He wants to see what the little lady will buy, just how far can he take her? But then, looking into those eyes, seeing the darkness that digests light like some black hole without so much as a burp in response, I can see he means it. He really, really means it. He’s a believer who has swallowed all religion and then squatted out his own version of morality, only it’s nothing that anyone in their right mind will ever comprehend. He’s Charles Manson or David Koresh times ten. Times ten thousand. He’s every one of those sick bastards who flew the planes on September eleven. He’s what Saddam saw of himself in the wildest of wet dreams. He’s the devil dressed as the messiah, wrapped up like a fajita with all the twisted trimmings inside.

I think about the mothers and fathers—especially the one dying of cancer. That John Winston Fields is on death row isn’t good enough. With the legal system in place, he’ll continue to sit here for years to come.

And now I know it’s time to finish the interview with a final question.


S.B.: I know I mentioned only two or three installments, but this week I have found myself carried away with the characters. The next installment will be the last.

Friday, October 14, 2011

#FridayFlash - Interview with a Killer
(Part Two)

In the silence that fills the room like a bear squeezing into a fox den, Fields starts to smile, and I can tell he’s waiting. He wants me to acknowledge him as a slayer of dragons, a rescuer of damsels in distress, a lover of angels. This is an interview, after all, given at his discretion; if I want it to continue, then I have to give something in return. In another time and another place, maybe, he might have asked for something a little more personal—a lot more private. And given the odds that not even a Las Vegas bookie would take, it would most certainly be fatal. But this is prison. Thick walls, steel bars, and a fence line of razor wire surround us; the guards are only a few feet away. The best he can do, then, is test the mental waters. Just how bad do I want to reel in the big fish?

In the fifth grade, I had a run-in with Trey Johnson. Fresh into town, his father a transient minister relocated every few years by the Methodist church, thank you very much, Trey had already developed a bad attitude toward new schools and new faces, and during the first week of class he managed to put the fear of God into several of the homeroom kids just by gritting his teeth, clenching his fist. The threat of force against those untrained to deal with it turned out to be a powerful tool, it seemed. For me, an older brother turned out to be an even more powerful tool. When I talked to him about it, he just smiled and said, “Rusty, you can’t let people push you around, be it even a boy. Here’s what you have to do…” The next day, I kicked Trey in the balls and then put my fist in his eye. I spent a couple of days at home after that, but Trey Johnson never bothered me again. Or anyone else for that matter.

“It’s the fifth of June,” I repeat, my voice slightly louder for the recorder, “and I’m sitting with convicted murderer, John Winston Fields.” His smile widens. He’s enjoying the moment. “First, I would like to say thank you, Mr. Fields, for taking the time to give this interview. I appreciate it.”

He looks at me for a beat, biting the side of his lips, and then nods. “Anything for my favorite journalist.”

I ignore this.

“I would like to start by asking what life is like now.” He frowns, so I add, “What do you do to occupy the time? What are your routines?”

“You kidding me, right?” He snorts. “Girl, it’s like going to a carnival in here. The food is the best you can find anywhere, the sights and sounds like nothing you’ve ever seen before. And the guards? Well, they’re a thrill a minute.”

Standing by the door, the guards give each other a silent chuckle.

“Tell me about the food.”

His lips purse slightly. “Let’s just say there’s maybe one or two ways you can dress up oatmeal. After that it’s still the same ol’ sludge. But really, Rusty, is this what you came to ask? Or should I call you, Mrs. Kelton?”

I raise my eyebrows, and he leans forward.

“Your ring,” he says, nodding toward my left hand. “How many years you been married?”

I shake my head. “This is not about me.”

“Well, for the moment let’s make it about you. It’s a beautiful ring, by the way. Don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it.”

I cup one hand over the other.

“Oh, come now, Rusty. I give a little. You give a little. I give a little more. We do the hokey-pokey and we spin ourselves around. That’s what… it’s all… about.” He actually croons the last few words, his voice crackling like a barroom singer with a three-pack-a-day habit. Then, he sits and waits.

I look at my watch and wonder if this is the way the interview will go. Time is limited, and I won’t have what I came for—my readers won’t have what I came for—if I have to play Mexican standoff every few minutes. I glance at the recorder, thinking about the questions that can fill up the dead air, and so I give a little.

“Only a few months,” I tell him. It’s a lie, but he won’t know the difference. Before today, he never knew I existed.

He smiles. “Ah, young love.” Leaning back, he says, “Being in here, you know what I miss, Rusty?”

“Tell me.”

“I miss what you have right now. The wonder. The excitement. The passion.”

I don’t have to ask what he means.

“So, the killings excited you?”

He looks away. “In here, the passions are animalistic. Men need something, they do whatever it takes to get it. For some, that’s by force. Others, they surrender a piece of themselves, forget who they are, in order to have what they desire the most.”

“And you?”

A moment passes before he answers.

“I never forget what I am.”

It’s a subtle change—not who, but what—and I have to ask.

“And what exactly are you?”

“I already told you, Rusty.” He gives me a half-smile. “I’m a convicted lover.”

I nod. I should have guessed as much.

“So, you think you loved those girls?”

“I don’t think, Rusty. I know.” He leans forward again. “Maybe not in the way you love your husband. But there’re different kinds of love.”

“Such as?”

“Well… I think the Greeks got it right. First, there’s storge, just an affection. There’s philia. That’s the brotherly love kind. You know, Philadelphia and all that. Then of course, there’s éros, the passionate, lustful type of love—sometimes good, sometimes dirty. But finally, there’s the best kind, ágape love. It’s unconditional. It’s god-like. It looks beyond the faults, gets beneath the surface.”

I see where he’s going, and a sick feeling roils in my gut. “And I suppose you loved those girls with ágape love?”

He smiles. “It’s why I skinned them.”

Friday, October 7, 2011

#FridayFlash - Interview with a Killer
(Part One)

I am sitting at the table when the guards open the door and walk John Winston Fields across the room. His hands are cuffed and chained to a belt wrapped around his waist. He’s hunched over like an old man—an act, I believe—and because of the leg irons his white canvass slip-ons make this shushing noise as he shuffles across the concrete floor.

He has a beard now, his hair long and greased back, both new features since he took up temporary residence at Huntsville, and I make a mental note to ask him about it later. During the trial, the hair was short, his face clean shaven. It had been rumored that the defense attorney actually made arrangements for a make-up artist each morning before court. It had also been rumored the defense made arrangements for an updated wardrobe, too, all compliments of a set dresser who worked for a local television show. Nobody in their right mind believed Fields could have afforded the clothes he wore. Which is another change, looking at the fashion du jour, an orange jumpsuit with numbers stenciled across the left breast, and I make mental note to ask him about that as well. My readers will want to know how life has changed, how he has changed because of it. Not that justice is served, but I’m sure it will go a long way in their minds. It certainly has for me.

The three of them stop at the table and Fields looks first to the guard on his right, then to the other one, like he’s asking for their permission. According to the badge pinned upon a shirt the color of a paper grocery bag, the one on the left is Harper. Standing what must be over six feet, with arms as big as my thighs and a bald head the color of midnight, he’s an intimidating specimen. Certainly not one to be flippant with if you’re an inmate.

Harper gives Fields a nod and says, “Take a seat, Johnny.”

Fields gives the guard a dismissive smile. Throughout the trial, even in the media storm before and after, the world learned that the defendant demanded to be called John Winston Fields. His attorneys probably had something to do with that. With such a sophisticated ring to it, sounding almost like British royalty, the jury would have a difficult time looking at him as something evil. After all, that was the name on his birth certificate, punched there in black typewriter-ribbon ink, so why not use it to their advantage? Here, though, I see the guards hold no illusions. He’s not John Winston Fields; he’s just another Johnny who will one day take the long walk to the death chamber and it will be their pleasure to escort him in.

Seated, he finally looks at me. His eyes bore into mine and then take in everything else.

“When they told me a Rusty Kelton was here to talk with me”—his voice has a definite southern twang to it—“I thought I would be seeing a man. Imagine my surprise when I find out this Rusty has pretty hair, a nice pair of tits, and a box I can smell from over here.”

Harper gives him a backhand upside the head. “Mind your manners, Johnny.”

Fields looks at the guard and then at me. A shrug and a smile, and I can see he doesn’t take it personal. It’s just part of the game.

He says, “So, how’d you get a name like Rusty? Your daddy want a boy and didn’t get one?”

I shake my head. The truth is I earned the nickname a long time ago, before I knew how to hold up two fingers and say my age. My brother, thirteen years older than me, stopped by my crib. He looked at my curly auburn hair, and said I looked like a rusted nail. My parents found humor in that, and the name stuck. But I’m not about to tell Fields this. What would be the point?

“My real name’s Jennifer,” I say, “but everyone calls me Rusty.”

He looks at the top of my head and nods, and I can see he’s already pieced it together. One thing is for certain: though the time in lockup may have changed the man’s appearance, it has had no effect on his mind. He’s still the man who could write out complex formulas involving coefficients and then give you the answer before you could punch it all into a calculator.

I lay a recorder on the table. “You mind if I tape the conversation?”

He shrugs. “What do I care?” And before I can start in, he says, “Who’re you with again?”

I hold out a press card. “The Houston Chronicle.”

“Were you at the trial?”


He frowns at this. “I don’t remember you.”

“It was a big courtroom,” I say. “I was one face among many almost a year ago. How could you?”

He continues to frown, and I start to worry the interview is already over, that my readers won’t have the answers they want to see. But then he nods, and I push the PLAY button on my recorder.

“This is Rusty Kelton,” I say. “It’s the fifth of June, and I’m sitting with convicted murderer, John Winston—”

“Convicted lover,” he interjects.

I give him a long look. Before the trial, the only crime he confessed to was a sincere appreciation for women. A regular player at a local night club, he admitted to sleeping with several of them; that one never returned home was a coincidence. The detectives and the prosecutor saw things differently. Sure he was a nice looking man. He attended church and was a high school physics teacher, too. Those things aside, however, he still had one big flaw: he not only killed one woman, he had raped, skinned and buried six others as well.


S.B.: While clearly this is a series, it will not be as long as "Heroes Wanted." Two or three installments is all I envision right now.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Invitation: Holiday Story Exchange 2011 (5th Annual)

Back in 2004, when I decided to make a determined effort to focus on my writing, I joined the Writer's Digest Forum. I spent a few years running around the circles, learning, posting stories, and exposing my writing to criticism. As a group, we had fun with different writing contests. Some of the forumites had a Halloween contest, others a Friday 13th contest. In the summer of 2007, I took the idea of a Secret Santa and proposed the Holiday Story Exchange.

The premise was simple. Each writer would complete a questionnaire, giving personal details. Examples of questions included "What is your favorite food?" and "What is your favorite book or movie?" The point of answering the questions was not to be too direct, but rather to give a little peek into the person. For instance, I could have responded to the food question by noting that I "... absolutely love deep-fried frog legs, covered in pepper sauce. You ever hear of Buffalo Wings? Well this is the same, only with a little extra kick!" Joking aside, though, it was those kinds of responses that made HSE so fun. The other part of the fun was seeing what another writer could do with this completed questionnaire.

After all the questionnaires were submitted, they were then redistributed to other participating writers, who then took the information and created a story with the subject writer as their lead character. Once finished, the writers submitted their stories, which were then posted on a secure website without naming who wrote what. Finally, we added a little extra fun by trying to guess the Secret Writer. The best part of HSE, however, was each writer seeing what someone else could write about them.

This year marks the 5th Anniversary of something that started as a bit of fun, but then carried over each year since. When I came up with the idea, I originally thought it would only last a year. To my surprise, many of the original participants asked when we would do it again. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

This year, I would like to extend a personal invitation to all of my #FridayFlash friends out there. If you've never done anything like this before, now is a good opportunity to check out something new. To participate, all you need to do is come join the fun out in the Writer's Digest Forum. I have a post set up in the Take It Outside! forum. If you've never been a member of the forums, it's not that hard to sign up. And best of all, it's free.

Finally, to give you an idea of the types of stories we write, you can see an example here. This was a story originally written as part of the 2007 HSE, and then, with the approval of my subject, it was later submitted and published by Long Story Short.

Anyway, if you're interested, we in the forums would love to have you join us.

Friday, September 23, 2011

#FridayFlash - Being Relevant

With two fingers Lee tapped at the rim of his coffee cup and stared across the table at the young man standing next to Kari. It was a turf thing, he could tell, the way the young man narrowed his eyes as he glanced over, trying to tell Kari what was on his mind without actually saying it. Lee’s returned presence tonight made the situation uncomfortable, and that was okay. In fact, it was better than okay.

Her voiced lowered, Kari said, “Please, Jim. We’ll only be another five minutes, ten at the most.” Turning to Lee now, she said, “We’re almost done, right?”

Lee looked at the young man and thought about The Waltons, the show he used to watch as a kid—had to watch with his mom, really—sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the black-and-white, and he almost smiled now, seeing this young buck slowly chewing on a stalk of hay, incisors as big a couple of Peppermint Chiclets. And the funny thing was, in spite of the massive teeth, the kid probably imagined himself as some sort of ladies’ man, a regular James Bond. Lee only saw him as another Jim Bob.

Lee pushed his thoughts aside long enough to give Kari a nod. He looked at the young man and said, “Yes, we’re almost done.”

Jim stared for a moment longer, his mouth open like he had something else to say. Except nothing came out. Then, he looked back at Kari. “Sure, okay. I’ll just be over at the bar. Maybe I’ll have an espresso and strike up a conversation with someone over there.” Meaning, of course, some young lady besides Kari. And with that, the punk stalked off, shaking his head in an I-don’t-believe-this way. Kari looked after him.

Watching it all, Lee bit at the side of his lip. Comical or not, if Kari turned around too quickly, he didn’t want her to see the smile on his face. Their little “study time” wouldn’t last five seconds longer then.

As Kari turned around, the look on her face sent a thrilling current through Lee’s body. In those eyes and mouth, he saw embarrassment, and that was something he could work with, turn to his advantage.

“I’m sorry about that,” she said. “Jim’s really a nice guy. Sometimes, he just gets—I don’t know— a little impatient or something.”

Lee nodded and said he understood, though in his mind he saw it a little differently. Whether Jim was a nice guy or not was up for debate, one which Lee didn’t see the point in arguing. The bigger issue though—and right now, Lee was working up how he would actually say it—is what would she get in return? Gauging from the way the boy dressed, his total lack of hygiene and attitude, a future with him would hold less hope than a cockroach clinging to the inside of a toilet bowl. One good flush, maybe even a minor hiccup in the finances, and that would be it, right? And looking at her, Lee knew the only thing Kari needed, the best thing to swing the pendulum his way, was to see how her life would turn out if she played the wrong hand.

What guys like Jim Bob failed to understand is that some people will refuse to settle once they’ve already acquired a taste for the best. Jewelers like Lee understood that better than anyone, though; it’s why he always showed the young hopeful ladies the full carat first, laughing inside at the young men who only wanted to buy in as cheap as they could. Because, boiled down, for some people love took second place, standing in line behind a more important need—of wanting an image, of being seen as relevant. After all, ask anyone who has regularly shopped at Neiman Marcus, or Bloomingdales or Nordstrom for that matter, if they would rather die or be seen in a Wal-Mart and see what kind of answer they give. Which was why, when given the choice, a young woman would rather be married to an older man with money than to saddle herself down to a race horse stud that would eventually become worthless. And it was also why that same older man enjoyed walking around with the young lady hanging on his arm.

Lee looked down at his textbook. “Where were we?”

Kari paused, her eyes unfocused, the expression on her face telling how hard she was working to regain control. And Lee couldn’t blame her for that. Jim Bob had just stopped short of saying what was really on his mind, and everyone knew it.

After a moment, she said, “I think we were talking about Jake and how he really loves her, but he can’t.”

Lee nodded again, though in truth he never forgot their place in the story. Having read The Sun Also Rises at least a dozen times, and probably more, he knew the novel’s landscape better than anyone in the class. But then, taking the night course to learn more about American literature hadn’t been the point.

After five minutes turned into twenty, Lee controlling every bit of the conversation, he looked up and noticed young Jim Bob throwing down a couple of bills and storming out of the coffee shop. Kari hadn’t picked up on it yet, but eventually she would. And when that happened, Lee would be ready to take her home, let her ride in a car that actually said something. Maybe they would have a few more things to talk about, too.


S.B.: As a side note, my previous #FridayFlash posting from two weeks ago, "Dr. Zanthur's Journal," has been published with Flashes in the Dark. For those of you who did not have the chance to read it here, you can read it there.

Friday, September 16, 2011

#FridayFlash - The Third Time

Ricco filled his mouth with wine and held it there, his thoughts still churning about what lay on the table before him. Finally, he swallowed. He looked up at Manny, his good friend and the man to whom he had often sought in times of need.

“She sent these?”

Manny nodded.

“She actually handed them over… to you?”

Manny frowned. “What does it matter? She’s just a whore trying to save her own skin. For all we know, she could have had some help.”

Ricco glanced down at the table. She’s just a whore trying to save her own skin.

“Yes or no,” he said. “She give them to you?”

Manny stared at him, and then shrugged. “Yeah,” he said. “She gave them to me.”

A growing emptiness filled Ricco, like his heart had just been sucked out and a deep, yawning hole took its place. To Manny, and probably everyone else, the items on the table meant nothing; they were trophies, most likely stolen by Tara herself, or, as Manny suggested, by someone trying to help her. And even if they had never been returned, their loss could have been fixed by walking into any nearby jeweler’s store. Looking at the necklace, though, a medallion hanging from a golden chain, Ricco knew it was the one item that could never be replaced. Passed down from his grandfather to his father, and then to him, the metal held more value than its price on the commodities market. Only the true heir of the family could wear it around his neck.

When Tony, his firstborn, came into the world with a sharp cry of defiance, Ricco felt as if nothing would ever be the same again. After all that he had accomplished—swimming against the tide of social morality to take up control of the family business, managing the daily ebb and flow of reefer, of Mexican Brown and other fine products—none of it compared to the task ahead. He was a father, and everything he did going forward would serve only one purpose: to push the family ahead until the day Tony could take his place. But time is a cruel mistress, it seemed. She could make a man lift his hopes and dreams, like a gleaming chalice, only to have it all taken from his hand and tossed aside into the blazing fires of misfortune. Not long after his firstborn took young Tara’s hand in marriage, the ceremony binding her beating heart into theirs, the family put on black and stood side-by-side, fighting back the anguish, as Tony’s body was laid into a hole.

A year passed before Ricco finally asked his second son, Marcus, to stand in Tony’s place and make Tara whole, a point that Marcus rejected at first. After all, she wasn’t born into the family; so, why should any child born to her lead it? But even after he reluctantly agreed, Marcus never had the chance to fulfill his role. The doctor called it an aneurism, a birth defect that nobody could have seen or known about. Again, the family put on black.

Still staring at the articles on the table—the ring, the watch, the medallion—flotsam to most anyone else—Ricco now saw a deeper meaning: three things for three sons. The power of three. He picked up the necklace and stared at it. With the loss of his first- and then his second-born, Ricco promised Tara he would make her whole, but she would first have to wait. His youngest, Nicolai, needed to grow up and become a man. In the meantime, she could live with her own father.

He never intended to make good on that word, however; he had already lost two sons to this woman and, family line or not, there was no way he would lose a third.

Manny’s voice cut through his thoughts then, and Ricco looked up. “What?”

“I asked how you wanted me to handle it.” Meaning: how did he, Ricco, want her killed—with a bullet to the head or with her feet cast into concrete, her body tossed into the East River? To Manny, Tara was a whore, a prostitute who had slept with another man, maybe several, and now walked around as pregnant as the morning sun. And there was no way the Giovannetti family could let that go; nobody in Uptown would respect them again if they did.

Ricco said nothing for the moment.

As if time had become more than just a cruel mistress, after the loss of Marcus, Ricco’s wife took ill—cancer, the doctor had said—and within a month the family put on black. Afterwards Ricco withdrew. Of course, the family business would be taken care of; it always had been. Beyond that, he wanted to be alone. Which worked out fine until one night, growing tired of the gloom, Manny suggested they take a ride to the Eastside. They could drink a few, probably more than that, and then catch a little easy time with some easy women. To his own surprise, Ricco agreed.

He didn’t remember much about that night. What he pieced together was that he had indeed spent time with a hooker he spotted on the corner. “And what will you give me?” she said. Though he didn’t have money on him at the time, he told her his name and promised to pay her double what she normally took. “But what,” she said, “will you give in pawn me to make sure you pay?”

The next morning, he couldn’t believe what he had done, the stupidity of it. He tried to find the woman, but she was nowhere to be seen and nobody had ever heard of her. Looking at the medallion now, though, Ricco knew there was at least one person who knew her name.

He turned to Manny, who probably wouldn’t believe the next few words he was about to hear.

“Leave her alone.”


S.B. : As an exercise at the end of his chapter on plots, John Dufresne (The Lie That Tells A Truth) issues this challenge: “Let’s do what Shakespeare did. Let’s borrow our plots.” This story is just that—a borrowed story, updated slightly for modern times. The original, if you’re interested is found in Genesis, Chapter 38. What is even more interesting (to me) is that the same characters in Genesis were later mentioned in the bloodlines found in both the gospels of Matthew and Luke. In some ways, fact is far more interesting than fiction.

Friday, September 9, 2011

#FridayFlash - Dr. Zanthur's Journal

This week's flash "Dr. Zanthur's Journal" has been removed from the blog since it has been accepted for publication with Flashes in the Dark. For those of you who did not have the chance to read it here, you can read it there. I want to thank everyone for stopping by.


S.B.: This little germ bored into my mind early this morning, somewhere between 5:00 and 6:00 while I tried to wake up, and it wouldn't let go. So, scrapping the story I had planned, I quickly wrote this one down, and here is the result. A bit hasty, but I hope it works.

Friday, September 2, 2011

#FridayFlash - Newton's Law

“Good Lord, M-M-Mr. Newton… You scared me.”

“Yes, I do have this habit of showing up unannounced. Or so I’ve been told.”

“How long’ve you been standing there?”

“Does it matter?”

“No, I guess not. How’d you get past security anyway?”

“I’m a resourceful man.”

“Oh… Well, what can I do for you?”

“I have a problem, Jerry, and somehow I think you’re the only one who can help me with it.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You see… Well, I’ll be. You have quite the collection here.”


“First editions?”


“Autographed copies? ”


“King… Rowling… Deaver… You do read a variety.”

“I try.”

“Jane Austen. Really?

”“Like you said, I read a variety.”

“You have quite the view, too. Not everyone can say they have Central Park outside their window. Weird, isn’t it, how way up here it seems like you can stretch out your arm and just about touch the edge of the city? Down on the ground, though, you can’t even reach out and touch the other side of the street.”

“Mr. Newton, I’m not sure where all this is—”

“Right, I said I had a problem. Well, here it is. You read lots of books—even if some of them are a little out of character—and you have this nice office overlooking the best of the city. You went to Harvard, class of 2003, graduating with honors. You have a brokerage account with Morgan Stanley that’s worth three-point-four million as of the opening bell this morning. And then there’s your Porsche, your house—two houses, really, one out in the Hamptons—each worth five million apiece. I see all of this, and I think: Now here’s a really smart guy. You have to be; otherwise, you wouldn’t have such an excellent balance sheet. And yet, I’m amazed to discover just how incredibly stupid you are.”

“Look, Mr. Newton, I never meant for it to go this way.”

“The road pave with good intentions, is that it?”

“No, it’s not that way at all. Like I told you, this was supposed to be an easy job—in, out, nothing to it. At least that’s what they told me.”


“I don’t know for sure. But thinking about it now, I’m guessing they’re the Feds.”

“The Feds… And what makes you say that?”

“The way you were set up. It’s like they meant for you to be there.”

“So, let me get this straight. You sent me into that office—to eliminate your problem, you said—in fact, you told me it was to remove, and I quote, ‘A thorn in my flesh.’ But it turns out it wasn’t your problem at all. You only sent me there because somebody else told you to. And yet, you failed to disclose that up front?”

“You don’t understand. They said my family would suffer, that my son would go prison.”

“Your son. Jerry, what do they have on you?”

“Money. I used some campaign finance funds to pay off the family of that stupid girl.”

“The one your son raped.”

“Allegedly raped. He’s never been charged.”

“You know, Jerry, you’re really not that smart at all.”

“Look—Mr. Newton—I’m sorry about all of this, I really am.”

“Me too. I’m sorry it has to come to this.”

“What is that? A gun?”

“Well, it certainly isn’t a bar of chocolate, now is it?”

“You can’t shoot me. Please, God, no. They’ll know you did it.”

“… Yes, you’re right, I can’t shoot you. But I can do this.”

“Sweet Mother of God! What on earth? Why did you shoot out my window?”

“Because, Jerry, there’re some things in this world that are too much for a man to handle. As much as you might want to change things, defy the systems set in place, there’re certain laws that cannot be broken. Rules you can’t ignore.”

“Hey! Put me down. What are you doing?”

“I’m showing you the proper way out of this situation.”

“Don’t do this. They’ll know. They’ll—Aaaaaah…”

“No, they may suspect. But they’ll never know for sure.”


S.B. ~ The curious fact about writing fiction and always changing things up is that some of the stories are thoughtful and driven while others are just for the sake of having fun. This one, including the title, falls into the latter.

Friday, August 26, 2011

#FridayFlash - About Last Night

At King’s Cross, and feeling a little giddy, Peter stepped aboard the 0700 destined for Newcastle. Of course, he wouldn’t make it that far; his stop was in Darlington, slightly less than three hours away. He found a seat and sat, his gaze fixed out the window, a smile fixed upon his face. God, what a trip, he thought. Her eyes had been fantastic, and capturing that look at the precise moment of her death, the way her body deflated as her spirit left the earth, had been worth everything—the risks he took in coming down here, in visiting not just one but two of the London night clubs, and then the almost-altercation with the possessive young man who clearly thought the girl would go home with him instead. The stupid git. Thought too much of himself and probably ended up tossing off before the night was through. Thinking about that, Peter couldn’t help but snigger.

The car shuddered, and the train pulled forward. As the platform and station slid past the window, Peter laid his head back. He closed his eyes. Like watching a movie through a camcorder’s viewing screen, he replayed those last moments. How her skin quivered and prickled at his touch. How she groaned with the expectation of something pleasurable, and the liquored taste of her mouth as he gave her one last kiss. How that look of ecstasy surrendered first to confusion and then to panic and fear as the tide of realization set in.

Rewinding the scene, he played through it again. He listened to her words this time (“I don’t usually do this.”) followed by his own (“It’ll be a first for me, too.”) and then the sound of her giggle, mixed with the jingle of keys, as she unlocked the door to her flat. The cool air had tickled his face as he followed her through the living room, walking past the wicker and glass coffee table, past the Calico that fixed him with knowing eyes before it skittered away behind a ratty couch.

In her bedroom, a crocheted afghan covered the bed, and he remembered thinking that her mum had made it for her as kind of a going away present. The little girl had grown into an adult, living by herself now, and would need a little something to remind her of home. As the train snaked into the country, leaving the city behind, Peter smiled as he remembered how he had wrapped her in that blanket before he left. A small gesture of consideration on his part—at least the woman would know that the last thing to touch her daughter’s body had been something crafted by her own hands.

Again and again, he replayed the night, catching a little more of the details each time; and as Darlington slipped into view, he had completely framed everything about last night—the sights, the sounds, and the smells. Even the sharp aroma of voided piss, mixed with jasmine perfume, was clear in his mind.

In his apartment now, he took a moment to greet the dog, give it a scratch behind the ear, before he walked into the living room and sat down at his desk. With a touch and jiggle of the mouse, the monitor winked on. The cursor danced across the screen. A few clicks later, Peter located his manuscript and opened the file.

Typing a few paragraphs of narrative and then a line of dialogue (“I don’t usually do this.”) he quickly found his rhythm. The next three hours vanished like smoke in the wind. The smile never left his face.

Friday, August 19, 2011

#FridayFlash - The Oldest Profession

Parker closed the door and sat down as directed. Even from this distance, the guest chairs at least five feet away from the desk, the familiar look of distress clearly marked the senator’s face. Parker laid a legal pad upon his lap and pulled a pen from his shirt pocket. He waited. The senator had called this meeting; it was on his terms and would start when he was ready.

Senator Dennison finally looked up. He cleared his throat. “You’ve seen the video?”

Parker nodded. “It’s not very flattering.”

“Not very flattering?” Dennison glanced away. “It’s a god-awful mess, you ask me.”

“There’s been worse, you know. Bill Clinton inside the White House or JFK. Every last one of the Kennedys, for that matter.”

Dennison shook his head. “The liberals are going to have a field day with this.”

No news there, Parker thought. Just like Cain and Abel, only without the blood. If Washington were a serial killer, then politicians would be its prey. Well, that and principals.

“A reporter from the Post keeps calling,” Dennison said. “He’s left three messages already.”


“Marc Thomason.” Dennison snorted. “You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was him who set me up, sent me the video.”

Parker nodded, thinking about a line in a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash: Paranoia strikes deep. “The reporter can wait.”

Dennison looked away again. “What a mess.”

“Granted, it’s embarrassing. A mess for you, though? It’s not conclusive.”

Dennison looked up again, his expression changing—expectation and hope fighting for a seat at the table. “Oh?”

“In the first place, you never see the man’s face.” Parker scribbled a few notes on the legal pad. “No face, no case.”

“But there’s the girl.”

“True, but the question is who and what, exactly, was she doing there.”

Dennison frowned. “Nobody’s going to see it any other way, Parker. It’s not like she was using her mouth to help me unstick my zipper.”

Parker frowned. Stupidity ran deep, too. “Stay with me,” he said. “The man in the video, not you.”

Dennison rubbed at the back of his neck. “Okay, the man in the video. But what do you think it looks like she’s doing there.”

“I’m not talking about the physical actions; grainy image or not, that part’s pretty clear. No, what I’m asking is why she was in the video at all. Where was this taken?”

“How am I supposed to know? I’m not the man in the video, right?”

Parker smirked. “Once we leave this office, out under the public microscope, you’re not the man in the video. For now though—for me to help you—I need to know where this took place.”

Dennison looked away for a moment. “The Worthington.”

“The Worthington?”

“A small B-and-B across the Potomac.”

“And did this woman pick the place?”

“No, it’s a place I regularly visit.”

Parker nodded. “By now, it goes without saying how crazy-reckless that was.”

Dennison looked down. “I know, I know. Repetition is the grain that gets the deer shot.”

Parker made a few more notes. He allowed for a pause. “Okay, I know a guy that can handle things discretely. He’ll check into this situation at the Worthington, find out who the players are, what their game is. After that, we’ll figure out our best plan of action.” He placed the pen back in his pocket and stood. “Again, this is not as bad as it seems.”

The look of hope started to fight for the chair again as Dennison glanced up. “Thank you.”

Parker said nothing and turned toward the door. As he placed his hand on the knob, the senator's voice stopped him.

“I mean that, you know.”


“I truly do appreciate this. I know we haven’t been on the best of terms after our disagreement over Lockney-Harris, and I know there’ve been rumors floating around that I was looking for a new chief of staff. But I want you to know that I still support you.”

Parker didn’t turn around. The Lockney-Harris bill would have settled the issue on guns, and it was good for the country; Senator Dennison didn’t see it that way, however, and killed it in committee. And as far as the rumors of a pending termination went, they were all true.

He nodded and said, “Thank you, sir. I can appreciate that.” He opened the door. “And don’t forget to call the reporter back. I advise you to deny everything.”

He stepped out and closed the door. In the parking garage, the car’s engine warming up in the cool October air, Parker sat behind the wheel of his Lexus and dialed out on his cell phone. A familiar voice answered.


“I have another job for you.”


He told his friend how he wanted a report. Make up the names. The report would give the senator more hope and bolster his actions before the media. Then, in about a week, they would release the second video, the one with a clear shot of the senator’s face, along with the details of the Worthington’s records–only all of this, as agreed, would go to the Senate Majority Leader’s office before it went to the press. In return, the Majority Leader promised to re-visit Lockney-Harris during the next session (“I’m sorry about your sister, by the way.”) and see to its passage. As an added bonus and a welcome to the other side, there would be a nice office with a view waiting for Parker.

Parker smiled as he hung up. There was some truth to what he had told Dennison. It wasn’t as bad as it seemed. It was far worse.

Friday, August 12, 2011

#FridayFlash - Talking to Rose

The afternoon sunlight glinted off of Myron’s whiskey and ice while the kitchen clock ticked away the seconds. From across the room, Jillian stared at him with eyes he imagined would have smiled if they could.

“You need to throw me a line here,” he said.

She grinned. “That’s funny. I thought even you ex-Navy boys knew how to swim.”

“We do. But that’s not what I’m talking about, and you know it.”

“Well, I was pretty clear. What part didn’t you understand?”

He placed his drink on the counter and crossed his arms. “For starters? The part about you actually talking to Rose.”


It was a question, he knew, not a comment. As if to say that, yeah, she did have a conversation with Rose. Did he have a problem with that? And there was part of the rub; he did have a problem. Rose had been gone two years now, over the rail of the Caribbean Queen and down into the ocean, never to be seen again; and yet, here was Jillian acting like the two of them just sat down with each other at Starbucks and had a nice chat over a couple of lattes.

The other part of the rub—the little nugget he found hard to set aside—was deciding whether or not Jillian was sincere or putting him on. Maybe it was worse. Looking at her, though, he couldn’t say for sure.

He frowned. “You been snortin’ again?”

She scoffed and shook her head. “Same old Myron. Still believing only in the world you can see, cracking wise about the one you can’t.”

He nodded. “Maybe, but it sure beats living on false hopes and superstitions—or that stuff you tend to see with a line of powder up your nose.”

“Screw you.”

He shook his head. “We tried that once. Trust me, it won’t happen again.”

“Oh, you’re right about that.” She reached for her purse on the table and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, a lighter. “Besides, I would never sleep with the man who killed my sister.”

He leaned back and whistled. Now, we’re getting to it, he thought. The problem with a brain nugget, the word he used for puzzles that made him stop and wonder just what he was really looking at, was that sometimes they turned into boulders—much larger problems than he initially thought. And Jillian’s desperate phone call, the bottle of whiskey she brought along with her, made him wonder if this was going to be one those times.

“Where’d you get that one?” he asked. “You see it between the lines you laid on the coffee table? Or better yet, maybe Rose gave it to you, moved the little triangle while you were playing around with your Ouija board.”

“Go ahead, Myron, make some fun. Your defenses won’t work this time, though. And you want to know why?”

She lighted a cigarette and blew out a stream of smoke.

“I’m gonna guess I don’t have to ask,” he said.

“Because Rose told me the truth. About you, and about that night on the boat. She told me what really happened.”

He smiled. “Is that so?” Glancing to his right, he spotted the block of knives next to the coffee maker. Rose gave him the set last year. A Santa gift, she’d told him and clearly meant it, too. As if he should actually believe in the jolly old elf as much as she did. One thing about the Donahue sisters: they were quite the pair.

“She told me how you asked her to go for a midnight stroll,” Jillian continued. “How you told her it had been a long time since the two of you walked hand-in-hand under the moonlight. And how you rubbed the small of her back, and then grabbed her rear while the two of you rode the elevator up to the deck.”

His smile faded. This little nugget was definitely a boulder.

“There’s no way you could have known—”

“Oh, there’s more, Myron. You see, she knew about the gambling problem, too. How you embezzled money from the company to front it all, and then found yourself in bed with the local shylock in order to keep your boss from knowing what you did.”

Myron picked up his glass and drank the rest of the whiskey. The boulder was rolling downhill now, destroying everything he had accomplished and leaving a trench in its wake.

“You’re crazy,” he said. His hand started to shake, so he placed the glass down on the counter, glancing again at the block of knives.

Jillian took another pull on her cigarette. “Am I? Well, try this on: ‘One thing I gotta say, Honey’”—her voice changed, huskier and full of drama—“‘is I want you to know how much I love you, and that I don’t really mean this. There’s just no other way.’”

His blood turned to slush as the words cut through him. Those were his words, just before…

Jillian smiled. “And to think you actually believed you could take the insurance money and—”

Before she could react, before his mind could tell him to stop, Myron grabbed the long butcher’s knife and watched her expression change as he rammed the blade through her.

“You are,” he said.

Jillian’s eyes softened, and then changed. Again, he thought they would have laughed if they could. “Rose told me something else,” she said, her voice breaking down. “That you’re a sucker for a glass of whiskey.”

He let go of the knife and glanced down at his shaking hand, knowing now that it wasn’t all nerves. Sunlight turned to grey, and the room swirled as he fell to the floor.

Looking up he saw another figure, one who wasn’t there before.

“Hello, Darling,” she said. Her fetid breath was far worse than anything he’d ever smelled before.


She smiled, her teeth black and gums white. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

Thursday, July 28, 2011

#FridayFlash - The Meeting

The circle fell into a hush as an aged man wearing a pressed three-piece woolen suit cleared his throat and stood. His name was Alfred, though everyone in the group called him Al, and his oily scalp, shaved clean of any hair, glistened under the florescent lights.

He said, “Good evening, gentlemen,” and someone in the group snickered. “I’m glad to see all of you back”—he looked around the circle and focused on one man seated three chairs to his left—“as well as a new potential member.”

Everyone in the group looked at the new attendee. In stark contrast to Al, who looked in his fifties, this younger man, closer to thirty than twenty, wore blue jeans and an olive-colored, loose-fitted shirt printed with red hibiscus flowers. He wore sandals on his feet, and his toenails were the color of rotting onions. The young man gave the group a stoical nod of his unshaved face before turning his attention back to Al.

“Maybe later, if you’re comfortable with it,” Al said, “we’d like to hear your story.”

He turned to the group. Like him, they were dressed in suits, ties and leather shoes.

“First, however, a little bit of housecleaning is in order. You’ll see in your packet, on page two, a detailed listing of price quotes from local vendors for a body scanner. You will recall, this is direct response to Bob’s request to find some other non-evasive way to verify that all weapons, including guns, knives, garrotes and, yes, even Shurikens, have been turned in at the door. While nobody likes to have their person touched, it is still an important function of safety for the entire group. As a means to give this topic some direction, then, I would like a motion authorizing me to make a deal with the second vendor on the list. He’s higher priced, but the quality of the scanner is far superior.”

Someone in the group said, “So moved.”

Al nodded. “Thank you, Bob. Do I have a second?”

“Second,” another man said.

“I have a motion and a second. Is there any discussion?” When nobody replied, he added. “All in favor please raise your hand.”

Collectively the group assented.

“Good.” He now turned to a man on his right. “With that business done, we’ll let Charlie go first tonight.”

The man stood and said, “I’m Charlie Smith.”

The group collectively said, “Hi, Charlie,” which was quickly followed by a lone voice, muttering, “Right, we’re all Charlie Smiths around here.” That comment drew a couple of chuckles. Charlie even smiled before he continued.

“It’s been six weeks, on my honor, since I last killed someone, and this”—he held up a token chip on a chain—“I keep in my pocket to remind me of my commitment to the Big Kahuna upstairs and this group.”

Most of the group clapped in response; a few pursed their lips and nodded; one man held up a hand, pointed his finger, and said, “That’s the way, Charlie!” The new attendee looked around and furrowed his brow.

Charlie held up a hand. “It hasn’t been easy, though. Some days I feel… tortured.” He bit his bottom lip. His eyes watered. “Most days, it seems. Like this morning, this guy at the coffee shop not only cut in line, he then turned around and said, ‘You keep lookin’ at me like that, mister, you and me, we gonna have ourselves a little come to Jesus.’ And there I was, thinking, yeah, all right, but you’re gonna go see him first, pal.”

Laughter filled the air.

“I’m telling you guys right now, though,” Charlie said, “it took everything I had to fight the urge to stick him right there, and then watch him bleed.” He smiled. “The only thing that kept me from doing it”—he held up the chip again—“was feeling this in my pocket as I reached for my knife.”

The group mostly applauded.

“That’s a great story,” Al said as Charlie took his seat. “One we can all relate to.” There were a few nods to that. Al looked at the new guy. “What do you think?”

The guy leaned forward, arms on his knees. “I think…” He narrowed his eyes and looked around. “I think some aliens must have come down here and fried your brains, every last one of you.”

Bob said, “Hey, wait a minute.”

Al waved him off.

The young man shook his head. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing. I was told there was this group of men like me who meet every week down in the basement of St. Michael’s. I remember thinking, hey that’s cool, finally I can meet some guys and we can chew the fat, maybe share some tricks of the trade.” He scoffed. “Only I come here and find myself in a room full of sissies.”

“Yo, pal,” Charlie said.

“Pal? Look, man—whatever your name is—we ain’t pals. In fact, I don’t think I want to be in the same room with somebody who not only let another man disrespect him, but then stopped short of doing anything because of some powder-puff, cream-colored chip in his hand.” He laughed. “You’re no assassin. You’re just a beaten down puss who probably wears pink panties under—”

Before the man could react, Charlie jumped from his seat. He grabbed the man by the head and gave a swift jerk. A dull pop filled the air and the young man’s body went slack; he fell to the floor.

Looking down, Charlie blinked. Al rose and stood beside him.

“You want the chip back?” Charlie said.

“The way I see it,” Al said, “this is only a minor slip—a stub of the toe. We’ve all been there before.” He clapped Charlie on the shoulder. “You just need to climb back on the wagon and press on.”

Everyone agreed.

Al looked down at the dead man. “It was a righteous kill, though.”

Friday, July 22, 2011

#FridayFlash - "The Death of Sal Lorenzo"

Biding time, Carter looked down at his drink, his eyes unfocused. The acrid smell of vomit and booze filled the room. Born of countless libations, like a worm the stench had burrowed its way into the wood—the floor, the tables, the bar—and now, in the absence of smoke, even with the filtered air cycled in, it took on a ubiquitous life of its own.

Across the room, Jazz stood in the doorway, his pale face turned toward the street. A million miles from home, trapped in a giant revolving donut, and some aspects of life still remained the same. They had a city. They had streets. And thank the stars, they still had drugs and alcohol.

“What’re you doing?” Carter said. “Trying to get yourself shot?”

Jazz turned his head slightly. His two orbs sparkled like black pearls in sunlight in a way that always struck Carter creepy. Replicas could never match the real thing.

“They’re pointing their guns at each other, Carter, not at me.”

Carter lifted the glass. “That’s a little beta, don’t you think?” He took a gulp of mescal and swallowed hard. “I’ve never known Sal to be a straight shooter. Especially when he’s drunk.”

The pearls blinked off, then on. After a moment, Jazz moved away from the door and glided toward the bar. Carter smiled. Jazz could be presumptuous, at times overconfident in his design, but presented with a set of proper constructs, well-defined patterns to analyze, Carter also knew the AI to be reasonable. After all, it was better to evolve at the expense of others.

“Why is Sal doing this?” Jazz’s voice chip sounded worn and dated, an original part that would need replacing soon.

“I heard Sal say that Lucius was making a run after his woman.”

Jazz stopped. The pearls narrowed. “But Lucius is like me.”


“He’s asexual.”

Carter nodded. “True, but you know how programming can go at times. One small line of improper logic, a tiny code misplaced, and the robot you thought would only sweep your floor is now eating your pet dog.”

The line of Jazz’s mouth curved slightly. “I don’t have a pet dog, but that would be something to see.”

“I have seen it. It isn’t pretty.”

Jazz shook his head. “It still doesn’t compute, though. Why would Lucius go after Sal’s girl? Humans and AIs don’t share the same platform. They can’t replicate.”

“Who said anything about replicating? There’s more to this than sex.”

“Oh? Like what?”

Carter finished the mescal. “Like companionship. Two souls connecting in a universe that fights to exist without souls.”

Above, a ceiling fan’s monotonous whirring disturbed the silence that filled the room.

“That’s something I can never quite process about humans,” Jazz finally said. He moved toward the front window. “Why you’re so quick to kill each other over simple ideas. Mere intangibles.”

Carter nodded. “True. But consider this: tangibles come and go. They no longer serve a purpose, they’re replaced with upgrades or discarded. It’s the intangibles that live forever. Things like freedom and beauty. Or love. You take those away from a man, and you’ve taken his world, shattered his reason for living.” He pointed toward the door. “Sal is a case in point. He’s drunk, he’s angry, and he doesn’t care about the consequences.”

Staring out the window, Jazz shook his head. “And you say I have bad programming.”

“You do. You’re standing in harm’s way again.”

Jazz frowned. “I’m not in the doorway.”

Carter smiled. “A bullet can go through that window just as easy.”

Jazz moved away and Carter raised his glass. “Hit me again.”

Jazz grabbed a bottle of mescal and glided toward Carter’s table. “I wonder,” he said. “What will happen to Sal’s girl if Lucius is the better shot?”

Carter watched as Jazz filled his glass. “She’ll find another man.”

“You mean she’ll dispose of Sal?”

“His body will already be disposed of, but on some mental level, yeah, I guess that’s right.”

“So Sal’s just as tangible as the robot sweeper that ate your dog.”

“Again, his body is.” Carter lifted his glass. “His soul is still very much an intangible.”

“Interesting.” Jazz placed the bottle on the table. “And this is what you believe—what is preached in your church on Sundays—the intangible soul?”

Carter stopped mid-sip. Mechanical or not, there was a tone in Jazz’s words. “What’re you driving at?”

“It seems a waste of time.”

“How so?”

The pearls stared at Carter for a moment. “Can you tell me much about your great grandmother?”


“What about your great-great grandfather?”

Carter frowned. “No.”

Jazz nodded. “Ideas like freedom and love, I can compute. Centuries old, they’re still around for us to consider. But two generations removed and people’s souls are quickly forgotten, tossed aside like wrapping paper on a fast food burger.”

Just then two shots rang out. The glass window shattered as a bullet punched through.

Carter looked at Jazz. He smiled. “You can thank me later.”

Standing, he walked to the door and looked out.

Behind him, Jazz said, “Did he make it?”

Carter shook his head. “Looks like Lucius was the better shot after all.” He returned to the table and picked up his hat.

“Where are you going now?” Jazz asked.

“To see Sal’s girl.” He placed twenty credits on the table. “She’ll need some comfort at a moment like this.”

As he turned, Jazz stopped him with another question.

“I wonder who told Sal that Lucius was after his girl?”

Carter smiled. It was a good question. “It doesn’t matter now.” At the door, he heard Jazz mutter something else. “Pardon?”

Jazz shook his head. “Such terrible programming.”

He wasn’t sure exactly what Jazz meant by that. Failing to see any benefit in pursuing the conversation with an AI, though, Carter placed the hat on his head and stepped out into the fluorescent light and processed air.