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.

Friday, July 15, 2011

#FridayFlash - A Better Way

Needing some extra minutes to place the options on a mental notepad, Johnny took longer than normal in making the burger. Had he been given the opportunity, he might have written everything down on actual paper, list it all on one giant T-Account just like he used to, the positives on one side, the negatives on the other, see which side won out. It had been a long time since he’d looked at problems that way, though—years ago, back before the state punched his ticket and sent him for a long ride on the penitentiary bus.

Using the spatula to scrape away the gristle, sliding it off into the grease trap along with all the other residuals from today’s cooking, he then tapped it twice and listened to the ting-ting! of metal on metal as another thought touched the corner of his mind. He’d been here before, the same decision but a different time; and now, much older and slightly wiser, he knew he couldn’t make the same mistake again.

He grabbed the top bun off the grill and used it like a hot pad to hold the meat against the spatula as he carried it all to the plate, laid it down with the rest of the trimmings. Turning around then, he lifted a basket from the vat, shook the oil off, and dumped the fries on the plate along with everything else.

He placed the finished product down on the counter in front of tonight’s customer. Somewhere in his twenties—just a boy, really—the young man bit down into the burger and moaned like a lover trapped in a wave of ecstasy. “Man, Johnny, where you learn to cook like this?” His mouth full of food, the words came out muffled. He smiled, a glob of mayonnaise in the corner of his lips.

Johnny shrugged. “A man can learn a lot of things, as long as he has the time, the ambition.”

“Well”—the young man swallowed and licked away at the glob of mayonnaise—“this is the best burger I’ve ever had, bar none.”

It was a lie of course, a wishful nugget of talk intended to steer the conversation in the right direction. Over the years, Johnny had heard many versions of it. For some men, it worked; for guys like Johnny, however, it didn’t stand a rat’s chance in a snake den.

Johnny said, “I’m gonna pass on your offer, Mike.”

The young man stopped midway into another bite. He placed the burger on the plate, wiped his hands on the legs of his jeans.


“Because I don’t want to do another run in lock-up,” Johnny said, “that’s why. I’m too old to play that game again.”

Mike held his hands out, palms up. “Didn’t you hear me? We got the hard stuff covered. All you’ll be doing is driving the car.”

Johnny shook his head. “Take it from me—and you know I’ve been there—the thing about rolling banks is that nothing ever goes as well as you plan. You’re father would’ve told you the same thing.”

“Okay, yeah, I looked at that one, too. The reason you did time is because my old man failed to lock down all the angles, and he paid the hardest price for it, God rest his soul.” The young man tapped a finger on the counter. “I guarantee you, we haven’t made that mistake.”

Everyone makes mistakes, Johnny thought. “I appreciate it, Mike, but…” He shook his head again. “I’m happy right where I am.”

Mike looked around. “A short-order cook in a grease pit. You serious?”

“It may not look like much, but some day I’m going to own this place.”

Mike looked away. He shook his head and raised his eyebrows like he couldn’t believe what he just heard. After a moment, he said. “Yeah, okay, but you’ll do us a solid, right? You won’t tell anybody what we have planned.”

Johnny smiled. “I believe you’ll be caught, Mike. The odds are against you. Even if you aren’t though, don’t you worry none. I won’t tell a soul.”

Mike stood to walk away. Johnny grabbed his hand.

“I may do you a solid, but that doesn’t mean the burger’s free. That’ll be six-fifty.”

Mike grinned. “Yeah, sure, Johnny.” He reached into his pockets. “Here’s a ten. Maybe you can sock a little away for your dreams.”


Mike came through the door first, followed by two other guys. Their faces looked flushed. Mike tossed a duffle bag on the table and laughed. “There it is, boys, the sum total of a day’s work.”

The second guy said, “You see the look on that chick’s face when she realized what was going down?” He tossed his gun on the table next to the duffle bag. “I swear, if that’d been the grocery store, there’d have been a voice on the speakers: ‘Mop up on aisle four.’”

They all laughed, none of them seeing Johnny as he stepped out of the darker hallway. He raised his Beretta and shot the third guy first. The young man hit the wall, his eyes wide, a confused look on his face. Johnny stepped up to the second one who only had time to blink, like he wasn’t sure who the old man was. Johnny splattered his brains with the second shot. Two men down, he turned on Mike.

Mike’s hands shot up. “Hey, whoa, Johnny, what gives?”

“You know,” Johnny said, “I’m just as surprised as you. When you told me your plans, I would have bet money you guys would’ve never made it out of that bank. Somehow you did.”

Mike shook his head. “Why?”

“Like I told you, the thing about rolling banks, or anything for that matter, is that it never goes as planned.” Johnny looked at the bag, thinking about his dreams. He smiled then and raised the gun one more time. “Especially when you tell too many people.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

#FridayFlash - The Audit

He strolled into my office wearing a tired blue suit, a knitted tie that looked like something out of the eighties, the knot carelessly pulled together. He carried a lonely black leather bag that sagged in places, bulged in others, from years of use. Without expressing simple courtesies, even offering a name, he grabbed a chair at my table, laid the bag at his feet, and sat down. From the bag, he produced a small laptop computer, which surprised me given what I had already seen, and placed it on the table along with a cell phone—A cell phone? Really?—and also what looked, with the binding worn and frayed, like an ancient Bible, though I had my doubts.

“Just one of you, then?”

His aged, yellow eyes held me for a moment. “I think I can manage.” Like the computer and the cell phone, his voice came out different than I had expected, too. Instead of something scratchy or feral, it was soft like a mortician consoling a bereaved loved one.

He looked at the table. “Would you like some coffee?”

I almost laughed. “It’s my office. Maybe I should be asking you that, huh?”

His smirk told me that was the intent, so I nodded and reached for the phone. Pressing the INTERCOM button, I leaned in. “Mary, would you please bring in two coffees?” When no response came, I offered him an embarrassed look. “I forgot. Mary’s not in right now.”

“Of course.” His eyes still looked at me expectantly.

“You want I should make you a coffee, is that it?”

The smirk again. “That would be nice, Mr. Singleton.”

For occasions like this, though not exactly like tonight’s, I had purchased one of those single-cup coffee makers. Slide the cartridge in, press a button and, voilĂ , a steamy blend of java right at your fingertips. I returned and placed the coffees on the table, where my guest had already opened his laptop.

After taking a sip, he said, “Last year, you claimed several deductions on your return for a satellite office in Ruidoso.”

I frowned. “You’re welcome.”

“Pardon me?”

“For the coffee. You asked and I provided. Even seasoned businessmen know how to say, Thank You.”

He stared at me for a moment. “Mr. Singleton, the coffee is appreciated, but right now I trust you’re ready to take care of the matter at hand.”

Like I had much choice in it. “Sure.”

He looked back at his computer. “The satellite office?”

“Yes,” I said. “I do business in Ruidoso—real estate transactions, probating estates, a few traffic claims.”

He nodded, but then frowned. “The confusing part, however, is that you’re not even licensed to practice law in the state of New Mexico—”

“I have a law partner.”

“—and you don’t even advertise in the local market.”


“So, does your wife know about the lack of any real business?” He looked directly at me. “Or about your partner?”

By the look in those eyes, I knew the omission of “Law” was intentional. Sherre was neither a lawyer nor an employee. She was my—escape. And Morgan, my wife, didn’t have any idea about the affair; neither did Sherre’s husband.

“No.” I leaned back. “I never mentioned it.”

He nodded and returned his gaze to the computer.

“On your return, you also claimed contributions to a local church in the amount of fifty-six thousand dollars.”

“Would you like to see the contribution statement?”

He shook his head. “No need. I already have the details.” Long fingers quickly tapped at the keyboard. “The money went to the Archbishop at the local diocese.”

“That’s right.” I scratched at the center of my chest, finding the irritation odd. “Father Andersen’s my priest,” I added, placing direct emphasis on the last word.

“But the money went to buy a boat.”

“They do mission work along the Mexican coast.”

“And there’s some nice fishing off that same coast, I see.” He nodded toward the far wall, but I didn’t look. I knew the picture he saw—Father Andersen and me on the deck of that boat, smiling for the camera, fish and beers in hands.

The strange irritation in my chest turned into a dull pain.

Looking back at his computer, my visitor said, “Your return also includes a Schedule F, where you show substantial losses.” He looked at me, his eyebrows pulled together.

I nodded. “A ranch, down along the Rio Grande. I raise Longhorns.”

“Yes, I’ve seen the steers.” He turned to the computer. “But the income you reported doesn’t agree with the money that’s been accumulating in your offshore account.”

I shook my head. “What offshore account?”

The smirk again. “Mr. Singleton, while many don’t know about the Cayman account, I think you should know that I do. And I think you should also know I’m aware of the true source of your income.” He shook his head. “And to think of all the miserable lives lost to drug addiction each year.”

The pain in my chest turned from a dull throb to a sharp prick. It was time to turn the tables. “So, this is it? This is all you have, just a few—uh, misrepresentations on my tax return?”

“No, I’m just getting warmed up.” Turning to the black book, he flipped it open. “Let’s see,” he said. “’You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal.’”


“By not reporting all the income and claiming bogus deduction, both for business and then so-called charitable contributions, you failed to remit the proper amount of taxes, money that rightly belonged to the government. That’s stealing, Mr. Singleton.” He turned back to the book. “’You shall not give false testimony or covet your neighbor’s possessions.’ That includes his wife.’”

Remembering the heart attack, the stabbing pain I thought had left, I looked at the book. “So, it is a Bible.”

“Of course.” Sharp teeth grinned at me. “Even the devil knows the scriptures.”

Friday, July 1, 2011

#FridayFlash - Lucky Me

“Yes, I want one of your mountain egg omelets, heavy on the cheese, peppers and sausage, and a beer if you got one. You do serve beers, right?”

“No ma’am.”

“Daiquiris? Mimosas? Anything with alcohol?”


“Then why don’t you just bring me a cup of coffee. Make sure it’s bitter, though. I don’t care if the cook has to scrape the sludge from the insides of his dark, hairy arm pits. I want the nastiest stuff you got.”

“I’ll get your order going.”

“Thank you … What?”


“Wait what?”

“I just wanted the waitress to get far enough away. You want to talk about it?”


“About calling me up out of the blue, getting me down here. And then there’s this business of you trying to order a beer.”

“Jeez, Michelle, can’t a girl have a beer with her breakfast?”

“First, it’s after eleven o’clock at night. And the last I knew, you didn’t drink. In fact, you only tasted one beer in college, and that was because you didn’t know what was in the cup.”

“Yeah, Mark Geoffrey. He was always trying to do stuff like that. What a jerk. Have I ever told you how many times he tried to get into my pants?”

“Yes, and a few others, too.”

“Mark was a complete waste of my time.”

“I’ll bet he’s saying the same thing.”


“Don’t mention it. But Mark Geoffrey isn’t what’s bothering you.”

“No, but you want to know something?”

“Do I?”

“After it was all over, I knew I’d made a mistake with him.”

“You act like it was just one.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Meaning, you kept making the same mistake over and over. Getting together, breaking it off, getting back together again. What was it, eight times?”


“Huh. And to think seven’s supposed to be lucky.”

“It was. It was the last time. Lucky for me.”

“Well, that’s one way to look at it.”

“Yes it is. Ah, finally. This stuff’s bitter right? Real piss and vinegar… What’s wrong with her?”

“My guess? She’s made all the tips she wants today.”

“Mmm, yeah. Now that’s bitter. You know, there’s one thing you can count on in a dive like this. They at least know how to make a strong cup of coffee.”

“Lucky you. So, are you going to tell me what’s going on, or do I have to pester you like I do my husband or one of my kids. What? What did I say?”

“Doctor Samuel’s office called me in last week.”


“My gynecologist. He ordered some labs after my mammogram, and the results finally came in.”

“Don’t they usually just mail you the results?”


Exactly? What’s that supposed…? Oh, Jen, no. Here, let me get you a napkin or something.”

“Thanks. You know what I’ve been thinking this last week? Why me? Who gets breast cancer at thirty-two? Isn’t that like, I don’t know, for old ladies who don’t need boobs anymore? I mean, look at me. I could feed triplets and still have plenty to spare.”

“I’m going to wipe that one from the memory banks. At least, I hope I can.”

“I’m serious.”

“Yes, sorry. So, what did your doctor say?”

“He wants me to come in next week to work out a plan of action?”

“You make it sound like a business deal.”

“His words, not mine. You ask me, I should be working on my will.”


“Why? Can’t a girl wallow in her own misery?”

“You want to do that, call a counselor. I’m your friend.”

“Really? Even after all that we’ve been through?”

“Let’s not go there.”

“But that’s why I called. I wanted to say—I want to say how sorry I am. About Tom and me.”

“Enough already, okay? Tom’s in the past, and I’ve moved on. I have a husband now, a family.”


“You want forgiveness, that it? Okay, I forgive you.”

“It’s more than that, Michelle. You want to know the sad part? Ever since I left home, I’ve been determined to be something better. To have anything I wanted. Pay my dues, climb the ladder, and all the other crap they teach you in college. And look at me. Jennifer, the graduate. Jennifer, the lawyer.”

“You’re successful.”

“But what does all that matter if this—thing goes the wrong way? At least you’ve got something to show for your efforts. All I’ve got are a few degrees and a name plate on the office door. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. I haven’t even talked with my parents since the day I left their miserable house. Who’s going to care when I’m gone?”

“Jen, you know I care about you.”

“And that’s why you haven’t spoken to me in seven years? With a husband and kids to distract you, after tonight I doubt my memory lasts three months. Six tops. And then I’m like yesterday’s news—a flash that only pops up when something else reminds you, or when somebody calls up out of the blue and says, ‘Hey, whatever happened to Jennifer McRoberts? That girl gave us something to laugh about, didn’t she?’”

“First, I’m not laughing. I never did. And the last I heard, people have survived breast cancer. You can get through this. And... And I’ll be here to help.”

“Even after all the stuff?”

“What stuff?”

“... You’re an amazing woman, you know that? You always have been. Ah, here we go. Breakfast at midnight. Only in America. Thank you, miss. And tell the cook the coffee’s great. Real rancid stuff, just like I… Wow, you’d think I’d just stabbed her dog or something.”

“Actually, I think she’s warming up to you. In fact, if you work it just right, you might be lucky enough to have two friends before the night is over.”

“Yeah, lucky me.”