Thursday, March 31, 2011

#FridayFlash - A Trip in the Valley

Nick felt a rush in his stomach, like his morning eggs had suddenly been re-scrambled, as the hovercraft flew over the bend and dipped down across the cracked arroyo bed. Funny to think that water once flowed in rivers here, he thought. Now they had to dig thousands of feet to get it. His body pressed against the seat as they shot up out of the dry gulch and launched back across the plains. He glanced at the dashboard, saw the display linger momentarily at ninety before it started to climb again.

Behind the controls, Lauren’s father pointed a gnarled finger toward the horizon. He wagged it back and forth. “Look around you,” he said. “This is the Valley, as far as you can see. A land so rugged and harsh, yet so eternally optimistic. In fact, some say this was the place God decided to let go unfinished when day seven came around.” He chuckled and glanced over at Nick. “Of course, they ain’t never been to southern Arizona, I suspect.”

Nick gave a smile and a nod, trying to act interested, but was more concerned about the speedometer, the numbers now topping a hundred and still going. He wasn’t excited about the trip; he’d seen this side of the Red Planet before and didn’t think much of it. And the truth was he could have picked any number of things he would have rather done today instead of riding around in beat-up Tritan, the crazy old man not even watching the road. Like standing in the aisle outside the lingerie department while Lauren thumbed through racks of bras and panties, old women giving him their best disgusted look as they passed by with their grandchildren in tow. God knows, that ranked about as low as anything as he could imagine.

And there was no doubt about Lauren’s father being crazy, either. The first day he met her parents, the old man, Luther, shook his hand and quickly gave him a tour of their massive six-thousand square-foot complex. Under the dome in the backyard, Nick noticed a row of crosses; when he asked about them, Luther said, “They’s loved ones, Nick.” He smiled. “A man can’t live a good life without keeping his loved ones close by.”

The way the man looked at him then, like he meant every word, sent a current of bad energy through Nick’s skin. It was another good reason to be someplace else. But then, Lauren had insisted, said it would do them both some good, and so here he was.

Looking over, hearing the whine of the engine, Nick noticed that the display had finally leveled off around a hundred and ten. Behind them, a cloud of red dust trailed in their slipstream. God help me, he thought. One flick of the wrist, and they could forget the part about being full of grace; there wouldn’t even be time to say, “Hail, Mary.”

Luther thrust his arm across Nick’s chest and pointed. “Looky there, off that way about a half-kilometer.”

In the distance modular homes, like silver Airstreams back on Earth, congregated together. More like tin-can coffins, Nick thought. Hitch up and roll 'em away to the burying grounds when the time came.

“Now that,” Luther said, a proud smile on his face, “was my very first development. About twenty years ago. Right after Lauren was born.”

No nodding this time. Cluttered with trash and lean-to solar panels, the placed looked like images of shanty towns that Nick had seen in some of his history books.

“Carried the note on every one of them,” Luther added. “Some of them six times over, all of them at least eighteen percent. Even got lucky enough to sell a few for a hundred-thousand Kronos, you believe that. Folks are still paying.”

Nick frowned. Eighteen percent?

“Now I know what you’re thinking,” Luther said. “How can I sell a piece of crap for such exorbitant rates and prices? But look again, and see it through their eyes. Think where they came from, what they had to deal with before they crossed over on the shuttle. To them, this is the land of promise; and if they have to pay a little extra to live in a better place, so be it. And besides…” He shrugged. “If not me, somebody else would be selling the space.”

Nick closed his eyes, raked a hand through his hair.

“This why you brought me out here? You wanted me to know how you really made your money?”

Luther looked at him for beat, then shook his head. “You never quit making money, son. One guy can’t pay, you find somebody else to take his place. And if he does pay, you take the profits, buy more land and develop it, too.” The craft started slowing down. “No, I brought you out to see if you’re the man you claim to be. A self-motivator, who can tackle any challenge.”

Luther turned the craft down another road. Ahead, Nick saw a worn-out station. It's yard was littered with pieces of broken-down machines and equipment.

Luther gave him a hard look. “’Cause I gotta say, ain't just anyone who can have my daughter. I want someone who's got a killer instinct. Someone strong enough to run the family business.”

Nick squinted. “The family business.”

Luther reached down under the seat and pulled out a gun. “Just so happens, today’s foreclosure Tuesday. Time to evict some non-payers.”

“And then what? They'll become a burden to the rest of us.”

“No free-loaders after I'm done.”

Nick looked at the gun and didn’t like the feel in his gut. “Don’t they have a magistrate for this?”

Luther shook his head. “Out here, I’m the law.”

“And if I refuse?”

Luther looked at him for a moment. “Only loved ones get crosses in the backyard, Nick.”

Friday, March 25, 2011

#FridayFlash - The Dragon Lady

Jarol stood like a sentinel, facing the children before him. All eyes looked at him expectantly. “No,” he finally said. “I promised your mother I’d have you in bed by nine o’clock, and it’s now eight-fifty-five.”

The youngest one cried out first. “Aw, c’mon.”

Jarol looked down at Tony, and felt a small pang of worry. Such a big voice, and yet for a six-year old the boy looked no more than a day past four, his size far smaller than it should have been by now. But then, appearances aside, the fire in those eyes told him this one held the strength and independence of a child twice his age.

Jarol shook his head. “C’mon nothin’. A promise is a promise, you know that, and I intend to keep mine.”

The middle child, Andrew, spoke up then. “But, pa-paw, we still have five minutes.” He gave Jarol a pleading look that begged for reasonable thought. Couldn’t he bend just this once? Always the one to find the loophole in any argument, Andrew would most likely be standing before a judge someday, arguing ad infinitum on what the legislature truly meant by this or that law.

Jarol glanced over, saw the look on the oldest child’s face--a look that said, so what are you gonna do now?--and felt his determination wither. There were only three of them, and he wasn’t growing any younger.

“Oh, all right.” He glanced at the clock, took a deep breath and swallowed it. “I guess I can spare a few minutes.” He shuffled across the wooden floor to the easy chair, the leather worn and shiny, and the pillow top sighed as he slumped into it. His hands cupped the armrests. “So what do you boys want to hear about tonight?”

The two youngest looked to the oldest, Tommy, who gazed toward the ceiling, his lips pressed together, and after a moment nodded his head like he’d just solved the riddle behind Mona Lisa’s smile. “How about the Dragon Lady?” he said.

“Yeah,” the other two shouted.

“The Dragon Lady,” Jarol said. “But it’s so long, and you’ve heard it at least a hundred times already.”

“But we want to hear it a hundred and one times,” Andrew said. “And after that, a hundred and two.”

Tony nodded. “It’s the best one.”

Jarol looked to Tommy, who stood there with arms crossed and a smile on his face. He pursed his lips for a moment and then said, “Okay, the Dragon Lady it is.”

“What color were her eyes again?” Andrew asked.

Jarol laid his head back. “They were black. As black as the new moon sky with all the stars swallowed up. In fact, I’d be willing to bet the light from the torches of a thousand foot soldiers had been snuffed out with just one look from the Dragon Lady. Now boys, there’s evil and then there’s evil, and she was by far the most evil woman who ever lived.”

The room drew silent.

“Instead of skin, her body was coated in scales, green and sparkling like emeralds. And when she talked, her forked tongue flicked in and out, her voice sounding like the crash of ocean waves. Her breath smelled like burning tar.” He told how she came to be and where she lived on the hill. “For years, she ruled over the land with a power no man had ever seen. With spells the bent fire, the flames so hot they would melt the stoutest of shields, she terrorized the people. She devoured her enemies whole like a python eats mice.”

Tony leaned into Andrew, wrapped both arms around his brother.

“‘Bring me your best men,’ she screamed from the hilltop, ‘and I will eat them all.’ And for the longest time, nobody dared. Most hid behind rocks, fearful that one blast of fire from the Dragon Lady would instantly turn them to ash. Then one day, a new warrior appeared, a young man who said, enough, the people had lived in fear too long and had apparently forgot who they were. Nobody had ever heard of him before, and though it had been rumored he was only a minor’s son, the youngest at that, nobody really knew for sure where he came from, or how, without sword or shield, he could act so brave and valiant. But stood before the Dragon Lady he did, wearing only the clothes on his back, because when given the chance to wear the best armor from the finest blacksmith, he refused. ‘I’m not a swordsman,’ he said. ‘Instead, I will go against her with only that which I hold in my hands and the fire in my heart.’ The people were amazed. ‘But you have nothing in your hands,’ they said.”

“But that didn’t matter, did it pa-paw.”

Jarol looked at Tony and smiled. “Not a bit. He went before her, opened his palms, and blue light shot forth. It swirled around the Dragon Lady, and a new look filled her eyes, one that nobody ever saw before--fear. In an instant, it was over. The blue light twisted and spiraled into the sky, and nobody ever saw the Dragon Lady again.”

“Wow,” Andrew said. “That one never gets old, pa-paw.”

Jarol looked at the clock and exhaled. “Well, will you look at that? I gave you the story and still have a minute to spare.” He swept a hand toward the stairs. “Now off to bed.”

The two youngest gave him a hug, a kiss, and then scurried away. Tommy lingered behind, smiling.

“You like that story, huh?” Jarol asked.

Tommy nodded. “Because I know it’s true.” He stepped forward, one hand inside the pocket of his jeans. “And you know what else I know, pa-paw?”

Jarol frowned. What was this? “I can’t imagine.”

From his pocket, the boy produced a wristwatch. His time read nine-fifteen. “I know who and what you are.”

Friday, March 18, 2011

#FlashFriday - Don Makes A Deal

Don shook the bottle next to his ear, listened to the sharp crackling within. He frowned then and looked across the table.

“Ain’t much in here, hombre. Maybe just one pill.”

In the other chair, the Mexican smiled. His teeth were long and yellow, and he chewed on a thin cigar. Guessing by the sheen of the man’s hair, Don suspected it had been days since the last bathing. Still, underneath the tattered denim jacket, the man wore a gold necklace and a white shirt, the collars starched and knifing down.

“For what you need, señor…” The man looked left, then right around the plaza. Like it really mattered. Here in the border town, where a man could locate "dancing girls" who'd spend a couple hours with him for fifty dollars, nobody cared, not even the so-called federales. “I think one will be enough.”

Don looked at the tangerine colored bottle. The label looked professional enough. There was even the obligatory governmental caution prohibiting the transfer of this drug to any person other than the patient for whom prescribed. Which was funny because looking at the name again Don had never thought of himself as an Ignacio Inés. Not in a million years. And even though the pill was indeed a drug, it was neither the drug labeled nor a drug that a doctor would prescribe. Not any doctor he knew, at least.

He placed the bottle down on the table. Only one pill. Really, though, exactly how much did he need? It wasn’t like he was a doctor. He thought about Gladys back in the States, the constant badgering, the bird-dogging. Good Lord, not even his own kids could look at him with respect anymore. Last week, after she'd walked into the office to chew him out, he finally told himself it was enough. A man can only take so much.

He glanced back across the table and hoped the Mexican was right.

“How much?”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

#FridayFlash - A Nice Night for Orion

Jonas smelled the fear. Usually, he either saw it or heard it—how the eyes danced around to avoid direct contact, or how the throat clenched up; sometimes, it was both. Tonight, though, an onion stench of sweat trailed behind the mark as he passed by, completely oblivious that Jonas could have reached out and touched him. No doubt about it, the way he was acting, walking fast like the world was about to end, the man was scared out of his mind.

Earlier tonight, the information received had been short, but concise. Thomas Cantrell: accountant and managing partner of Cantrell and Associates. Residence: 2154 Lakeside Court. Tonight’s e-mail also contained a JPEG file of Cantrell’s photo, taken outdoors, catching the accountant as he walked to a black Cadillac XLR, the same car now sitting in the driveway, its high-gloss paint and chrome trim shimmering under the glare of a security spotlight. While not impressed with what he now saw--a balding man around five-foot-eight, weighing in the neighborhood of one-seventy, maybe one-eighty--Jonas at least appreciated the man’s taste in vehicles.

The last and most important part of the e-mail was the commitment for fifty thousand dollars to be wired to a Banco Del Rio account on Grand Cayman, payable upon proof of services rendered. Looking at the ring on Cantrell’s right hand, Jonas remembered the knife in his pocket and knew right away what proof he would give.

He stepped out of the shadows and followed closely behind. “Evening, Thomas.”

Cantrell spun around. His eyes locked in on Jonas. “Who are you?”

In addition to knowing there was a payoff at the end, Jonas took a small comfort in seeing that it was also justified. Somewhere along the way, Cantrell had blurred the lines, lost sight of the bigger universe; and the beads of sweat, the recognition of real danger in those eyes, served only to condemn him.

Jonas took a deep breath. The brisk air calmed his insides. “I represent Mr. Dawson.”

“Dawson never said anything about someone coming out.”

“They never do.”

Cantrell blinked. “They?”

“My clients.” Jonas waited for the faint light of recognition to play across Cantrell’s face. He smiled. Sure enough, there it was.

“Look,” Cantrell said, “there must be some mistake. I wasn’t stealing Dawson’s money. I only have it so it can be deposited tomorrow. I mean there’re multiple accounts, and they all need to be managed.”

Jonas shook his head. “I’m not paid to know the details.”

Cantrell’s voice cracked. “Oh God, please, surely it doesn’t have to come to this. We can work something out, can’t we?”

Jonas glanced up at the night sky and spotted a thin wisp of cloud that split the orange moon in the east.

“I love this time of year, don’t you?” He looked at Cantrell. “It's so beautifu at night, and you can always see Orion.”

A look of confusion crossed Cantrell’s face. “Pardon?”

“The stars.” Jonas reached underneath the lapel of his jacket and felt the grip of the Ruger tucked away inside its holster. “It’s a nice night for Orion.”


"Cannon baaaaaall!”

Mack turned his head, bracing for the inevitable as Jimmy took a running leap off the pier, both hands tucked between his legs. Mack cringed at the last mental image he saw before the splash: the crack of Jimmy’s rear end. The impact sent a tidal wave of water in all directions.

A moment later, Jimmy surfaced and shook the water from his hair. “Man, this water’s cold!”

Mack didn’t say a thing.

“Hey, how’d you like that one?”

“I didn’t.”

Jimmy wiped at his eyes. “Hey, what’s got your panties in a wad?”

“We don’t need the noise, Jimmy. There’s no telling if or when the cops’ll come around, and I don’t know about you, but I personally don’t want to be hauled out of the lake with nothing to cover my Johnson but my own two hands.”

Jimmy laughed. “Like that’ll ever happen. They’ll be too busy laughing to notice your shriveled-up peanut.”

“I see, you’re a funny guy now too, that it?”

“C’mon, bro, lighten up. Besides, it was your idea to come down here.”

“I’m just saying--”

The sound of an approaching motor carried through the woods. A moment later, headlights spotted through the trees as a car approached. Almost to the pond, the driver turned his wheels and then braked, the car facing away. White reverse lights cast an ethereal glow across the water then as the driver backed up to the pier and cut the engine. He stepped out, walked to the back of the car and opened the trunk. Mack heard a grunt, and his heart stopped as the man lifted a body out of the car and walked backwards, dragging the body out to the edge of the pier. The man dropped it over and stood for a while, staring at the water. He took a deep breath and almost turned, but stopped. He looked further out and Mack’s stomach turned sour as their eyes met, the man sighing at first and then shaking his head, smiling.

“Well, this is a little awkward. I wasn’t expecting anyone out here in the middle of nowhere this time of night. Don’t you boys have school in the morning?"

Mack shook his head. “Spring Break.”

“And what, you decide to come out here to swim instead of heading south to the beach, some place warmer?”

“Can’t afford to,” Jimmy said. “Besides, our parents would let us anyway.”

The man nodded. “Well, don’t be too glum about it, boys. After all, it’s not as bad you might think.” He reached a hand into his coat and glanced up at the sky. “At least we’ve got Orion to look at, huh?”

Friday, March 4, 2011

#FridayFlash - The Problem with You

“The prolem with you,” the professor said, “is that--is that you lack the nessary vision to sthee beyond the brooder scheme of things.”

He held a goblet filled with ice and vodka, waving it around as he talked. A spider-web of blood vessels painted his cheeks, and the side of his mouth drooped slightly. Condescending eyes, half-shrouded by withered eyelids, looked me over.

“You need to thing about the future,” he said. “You need a plan--a long-range proshection of where you want your pathetic life to go--what’re going to get, and how’re you going to get it.” A crooked finger pointed generally at me. “Because while baggy jeans and a Mötley Crüe t-shirt might build you a nice career stocking shelves at Wal-mart, they won’t buy you a house on Park Avenue.”

His head bobbed forward then, a tussle of white hair flowing down across his brow. Wiry eyebrows lifted as if asking whether or not I understood what he was talking about. I wanted to say that Park Avenue was a continent away and I was quite happy living within the sight of Mt. Rainier, thank you very much; instead, I nodded. Sure it was placating and definitely less than a little insincere--and the old man probably knew it as much as I did--but so what? Part of the game or not, the conversion had already lasted fifteen minutes beyond the five I originally gave it.

“Now take her last boyfriend--Matt”


Glancing at Amanda, the professor’s daughter, seeing an I’m-so-sorry look in her eyes, I knew she was ready for this to end as well. I couldn’t blame her. In her shoes, I would have felt the same way.

He squinted. “No, not Matt. Mark.”


“Yes, it was Mark.” He nodded. “Now, Mark couldn’t grasp the complexuries of life. To him, life was… a Happy Meal. Something with a cheap toy to play with.”

Amanda sighed.

“I don’t consider Amanda to be a Happy Meal, sir.”

He smiled. “Well, that’s something, at least.”

Amanda slipped her arm around mine. “Daddy, we really have to go. We have reservations.”

The professor glanced at her and took a deep breath. “If you must.” Looking at me, he said, “We can finish our talk later tonight.”

“Daddy, I--”

He turned away.

Walking out, her arm still wrapped tightly around mine, Amanda said she was sorry. “I don’t know why he always does that to me. Don’t let it push you away.”

I opened the door of my Corvette, a vintage 1965 model. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I see the same thing every day from some of my employees, the ones who think they’re smart enough to run the company.” I gave her a reassuring smile as she climbed into the car, and the panic left her face.

I started to shut the door, but stopped. “By the way, when do I get to meet your grandparents?”

She shrugged. “Someday, I guess.”

“How old are they again?”

“Eighty-five and Eight-three.” She frowned. “Why?”

I shook my head and shut the door, thinking that tonight might be just a couple of beers, maybe a burger--nothing special. As I made my way around the car, I stopped and took one last glance at the house. In the window, I saw the professor standing there watching me.

I smiled and gave him a wave.