Friday, August 29, 2014

#FridayFlash - Wages of Sin

Mark blew on his coffee and stared through the plated glass window, watching as two men made a hit on his car. It had to happen sooner or later, he knew; there were too many reports—about this store, this location—to suggest otherwise. Still, he let it happen, watching as the two men stood on either side of the car, acting as if it belonged to them.

The odd thing, as far as Mark was concerned, was that they didn’t recognize his vehicle from before, when they stole some fairly valuable items—items that were later used to inflict more misery and pain upon his life. Maybe they had seen too many vehicles in their so-called career. What was one red, but old, Honda compared to another? Of course, it was probably that they did in fact recognized his car, but didn’t care. Maybe they thought he was the idiot. Some people never learn, right?

Mark was different, though.

He watched them grab the bags he conspicuously placed in the back seat. In less than a minute they had opened up his car, grabbed the stash, and were walking away. Amazing. And the funny thing, almost poetic when he thought about it, was that they actually locked it up for him. He knew this because the lights winked twice as the punks shut the doors.

Thirty seconds after hitting his car, the men had climbed into their own car, a Cadillac of all things, and were now pulling out of the shopping mall parking lot, acting as if they had just spent an exhausting day walking around.

He gave them a minute, just enough to make sure they were a mile down the road. He set his coffee down on the bookstore table, and then reached into his pocket. With a few quick keystrokes, Mark hit the SEND button. Ten seconds later, the concussion of the car bomb sent ripples through the remainder of his coffee. All around the bookstore, people looked at each other, not sure what they just felt. Was that an earthquake? Out here?

Mark smiled. “The wages of sin,” he said.

Friday, August 22, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Last Dance


Lonnie's voice startled Juju. She had been sleeping—catching a wink, as her mama used to say—but at the sound of Lonnie's voice she jerked her head up and blinked away the confusion. "What?"

"I said we out of beer. Why is that?"

Juju sighed. If there's a hell, she thought, this has to be it.

Lonnie stood in the kitchen doorway, wearing a stained tee shirt and baggy shorts that hung down below his knees. Two little stick legs poked out from the bottom of the shorts, and even though she was more than fifteen feet away from him, she could still smell a composite of motor oil, grease, and sweat.

Lonnie was always asking why. Why didn't she have dinner ready at five o'clock? Why didn't she pick up some toilet paper at the store while she was out? Couldn't she see that she had used up the last roll? Why didn't she wash his shirts like he asked? Only, when she pointed out that he didn't tell her he was out of shirts, he just asked why he had to tell her. They put their dirty clothes in the same pile, didn't they?

And now here he was, at it again, asking why they were out of beer.

"'Cause you drank it all, that's why."

He looked back at her like she was an idiot child and him her frustrated parent. "Well there you are. Just goes to show you. That GED comes in handy for something more than just waitressing tables and talking to horn-dogs, now don't it?"

She looked away. It wasn't an ideal job, she knew, not even one she talked about. In fact, when some of her friends asked what she did for work, she would just tell them, "Oh, a little of this, a little of that." She would never tell them she waitressed tables at The Palomino. They would think she was lying, that she was really one of those girls who took off her clothes, did little private dances so men could... well be nasty-old-men. But Juju was not one of those girls. She never took off her clothes for anyone other than Lonnie. And even then, she didn't like doing that much these days.

"No, what I'm asking," Lonnie said now, still going on about his needs, "is why you didn't buy any more beer on your way home. You pass right by the store before you get on the bus, right?"

Juju took in a deep breath and let it out. There was the why again. Some days, it was like an annoying cricket.

"You make the money," she said, feeling the anger well up within her. "You even got the car. So why don't you drive on down to the Pit Stop and buy it yourself. It's not like you do anything else around here."

He shook his head. "Girl, you get smart with me one more time, we gonna do the rumble."

The Rumble. In addition to always asking why about everything, Lonnie also had a way of saying things without saying them. Like when he went out with his friends to get drunk, he'd say he was going to help the boys put out the fire. Or when they would all meet up at the public courts to play some basketball, he'd tell her they were going to the dance. As if they were Kobe or Lebron, and the whole world was tuned into their game. And when he threatened to hit her, he always called it doing the rumble. As if the band was about to strike up a tune, and they were going to tango the night away.

Juju gave Lonnie a hard look. Five years she had put up with him. Five years of the yelling. Five years of ordering her around like he was some patron at a strip bar she had to serve with a smile if she wanted a tip. Five years of the occasional beatings when he was drunk, or just plain pissed off. Five years...

Well, that was enough. Even the ladies at the bar had said so over the last year and a half—told her to quit him, just walk through the door and keep on walking, never look back. But what if he got mad about that, and beat her up again? Then you teach him one, they told her. Wait 'till he's asleep or ain't looking, and teach him to never hit you again.

With all the anger that burned in her stomach, Juju said, "I ain't your maid. I'm not here to just wash your linens, fix your dinner, or spread my legs when you want it. And I'm certainly not here to make beer runs. You want something to drink, then—"

Man he was fast. Juju's sentence lodged in her throat like an over-sized bite of cheeseburger. She couldn't finish it—she even felt paralyzed to move—as he jumped at her and flat-handed her across the face, hit her so hard Juju rolled over the armrest of the chair and fell on the floor. Sparks danced across her eyes, and her skull resonated with a high-pitched ring.

A moment later, the taste of blood in her mouth, her face on fire, Juju looked up at Lonnie.

"Don't say I didn't warn you," he said. He turned and walked back to the kitchen. "Now go on. Go on and get me some beer."

Five minutes later, Juju stood at the front door, her purse strung over her shoulder. She didn't know anything about showing Lonnie not to hit her anymore, but she did know how to walk and keep on walking. All that time at the bar, bringing home tips but never turning over everything to the abusive fool, she imagined now was as good of a time as any. She put her hand on the doorknob and turned it.

She never looked back.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Working on the Weekend

Regardless of the Loverboy tune, my weekends are made for working. Today's task: straighten up and finish the walkway In the backyard.

Seeding the grass will be next...

Friday, August 15, 2014

#FridayFlash - Taking Back the Road

Though things were different now, the words still cut like shards of glass. Noel said she lacked fulfillment, that she had been using him like a genie in the bottle. Only, it seemed to him that she needed her little genie more often than not, which was, she supposed, his way of saying she had been co-dependent. Noel never came right out and said directly what was on his mind. Instead, he danced around it, pointing at it like John Travolta in white leisure suit.

In the darkness, the countertop illuminated by the soft digital blue from the microwave clock, Allyson heard the familiar ticking of Barty’s toenails on the tiles. His labored breath kept time with each step. He was Noel’s dog, an ancient Lab with white spots around the nose. He whimpered, and she gave him a light scratch between the ears.

“Hey, big guy. You need to go out?”

Another whimper.

Standing at the back door, Barty outside taking care of his business, Allyson stared through the glass, the sky still an early-morning black. She thought about Monster Hill. How long had it been now, six years? Seven? Somewhere along the way, time had punched its ticket and stepped out, the days slipping by unnoticed like highway mile markers. It was funny how it did that.

Monster Hill, as she had called it, was a mile stretch of road, climbing a six percent grade that could easily dissolve hardened legs, turn them into jelly. Once over the crest, however, the land rolled out flat—a small reward; and from there, like Robert Earl Keen used to sing it, the road went on forever.

Allyson used to ride up Monster Hill on a regular basis. Her father said she was wasting her time, knocking off the same obstacle. Couldn’t she find something else to conquer? But then, he never understood the challenge, or the freedom that came with it. He never peddled his weight along an even surface, let alone a killer wall, so what did he know?

Allyson frowned. In a weird sort of way, she realized again the similarities in her life. Noel also thought she needed a vision. She needed a strategy to realize it, too. Without a plan to make it happen, life would amount to nothing more than a pile of pipe dreams and fantasies, tiny playthings of the mind that left people ultimately something less than human—defeated souls trapped in lifeless prisons, waiting for that last breath to sign their pardon. She didn’t need to be that way, Noel had told her. She needed to figure out what she wanted, and then to take it.

She let Barty back in, gave him one more scratch behind the ears, and headed for the garage. In the corner a grey Trek 520 leaned against the wall. At the time she bought it, Allyson paid for the bike with the cash she had saved. As usual, her father asked why. Wasn’t there anything else she could have spent the money on? Like what? Like maybe a new computer or a new television, or something for God’s sake that she could actually use without getting herself killed.

Noel had said essentially the same thing in so many words. He pointed out all the places she could ride like the trail around the city park or the high school running track. What were they going to need it for at five o’clock in the morning? Noel even showed her a route through their housing development. He personally mapped it out and drove it just so he could measure the distance and gauge the safety. Of course. The Safety. Like she was some child who couldn’t act responsibly.

Looking at the bike now, Allyson smiled, remembering there was a time when she like to take risks. She liked to get dirty, too, work so hard she had to peal her clothes off afterwards. To her, the danger of falling into a ditch or being plowed over by a car was an acceptable risk so long as she had the open country, the fresh air, and the occasional Monster Hill to tackle.

Pushing the Trek out of the garage, Allyson closed her eyes and listened to the click-click-clicking of the rear freewheel. This was her Fantasia, the sights and sounds that collectively composed the riding experience—the brush of wind in her face, the hint of spice from the juniper trees or the waft of sugar from the donut shops as she passed by. These were the constructs that Noel and her father could never piece together. Their idea of living was breathing in filtered air, conditioned to a steady seventy-two degrees; or listening to the clacking of keyboards, the constant din of voices over modular workstations; or watching the minute-by-minute rise and fall of market indices, their monitors and spreadsheet models transcending above simple ones and zeroes into modernized Ouija boards. Well, they could have all of that, if that's what they wanted. This last week, Allyson had finally decided to listen to the other voice, the one that beckoned to her like an old friend wanting to chat over a cup of coffee. This is what she wanted.

She straddled the seat and slotted her left foot into the peddle.

“Just like riding a bike,” she said to the darkness.

Then she pushed off.

Friday, August 8, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Art of War (Conclusion)

Micah controlled his breathing. He relaxed his body and focused on his heart rate. The key to a long range shot was to squeeze the trigger in between beats and to avoid any slight movement. A shudder or a twitch could send the round off course, especially at six hundred yards, missing the mark.

Through the scope, he watched as his father fiddled around at the kitchen counter. He saw a glass, a bottle of vodka. His father held the phone between his head and shoulder as he looked down, working on something. A tablet computer maybe?

Master Sharma had said that hearts could never be wholly mended without tending to the parts first, one piece at a time, and right now—right here—was one of those pieces. In a moment he would start the mending process. In a moment six hundred yards would be reduced to nothing, and all the years, all the pain, would be washed away like grains of sand on a beach. Micah would be the god of his future.

He tensed the muscles in his hand, felt the slight pressure of the trigger, cold and lifeless but ready to breath life into a round of deadly ammunition. In between the beats, he told himself.



His father's voice bridged the divide.

"You sure you want to do that?"

Micah blinked.

"Do what?"

"Wait around for the next contract." His father continued to work at something on the counter. "In my experience, waiting too long in one place is risky."

Micah pulled his head away from the scope. He felt his heart rate skip. While the questioned seemed to be in line with the rest of the conversation—almost perfect, actually—he couldn't deny the subtlety of his father's ways.

"But if nobody knows where you're at..." Micah said.

"Never assume you're alone. Always, always, always—"

Micah finished it. "Check the back door."


In spite of the chilled room, Micah felt sweat ooze from his hairline. His heart rate gave up on skipping around and now ran cheetah fast as his father's often repeated mantra screamed inside his head: One way to avoid your enemy is to hide in plain sight. If done properly, one could easily become the hunter instead of the hunted.

"But in a city like Brazil," Micah said, "with so many back doors..." He laid down the rifle and stood. He scanned the room, looking for anything out of place.

His father sighed. "Haven't I taught you anything?"

Micah knew what his father was going to say. Never go anywhere, and never set up any operation, without knowing first all the points of weakness. Any one of those points could be exploited. It would be just like his father to set up his own operation in that apartment, but not doing it before first realizing that someone—someone like Micah, that is—could set up another operation in the hotel six hundred yards away. The mystery though, is how his father would know which hotel room to target. As Micah walked around, he guessed his father had an asset, or maybe more than one, who was paid to keep certain rooms free, and then to send word when anyone specifically asked for one of those rooms. To accomplish that kind of tactic required a large amount of money, an amount like either one of them could easily afford.

At a room vent, Micah found what he was looking for. A small red LED, like a dragon's eye, winked at him from behind the grill. There was a camera, no doubt about it, but most likely the device also included a little something more deadly.

"You're right again," Micah said. "As always."

He smiled and looked down. He shook his head, knowing his father, six hundred yards away, watched as he did so.

On more than one occasion while growing up, and usually during an intense training session involving so much pain and humiliation it drove Micah to the point of retaliation, his father had observed that a smart teacher never revealed all of his experience and secrets. In addition, a wise student would never underestimate his master. With the LED winking back at him, Micah knew he had made a fatal mistake. And it was fatal. Once a scorpion reared its tail, the decision was clear: destroy it. Micah could run, but odds were his father had enough explosive tucked away behind that grill to take out several square feet of the hotel, if not the entire floor. And odds were that his father had started a small timer, just in case Micah had actually squeezed the trigger. He didn't know how much time would be left, but every moment now counted.

"Tell me something," he said.

Silence filled the headset. For a moment, Micah thought his father would not respond at all. He would just wait for the timer to unwind. Then, his father's voice cut across the divide.


"Did you ever think it would be this way?"

There was a slight pause before his father said, "We're not talking in hypotheticals anymore now, huh?"

Micah turned and walked back to the balcony door.

"No. I don't see the point."

"And neither do I."

Micah nodded. He guessed that was as good of a response as he could expect. After all, he already knew what Patton had said about winning a war, right? He was just the other dumb bastard this time.

Sitting down again, legs crossed, arms out at the four and eight o'clock positions, he focused on his breathing.




Friday, August 1, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Art of War

Micah liked the hotel room chilled down to a nice sixty-eight degrees. It calmed his nerves. It allowed him to quiet his mind, to feel at peace and in control. Facing the balcony door, Micah sat with his legs crossed, his eyes closed, his arms out at the four and eight o'clock positions.

A deep breath in, he told himself, followed by a slow exhale. Clear all thoughts. All except a stalk of wheat, swaying back and forth in a gentle breeze. With the turmoil this world laid at a person's doorstep, meditation was the broom that swept it all away. This he learned from Zen Master Sharma. Sit in peace to find it, as the Zen Master once said.

Micah liked the room dark, too, though not for calm or peace or to be control; for him, the darkness offered something more important. He picked up the field glasses next to his side and zoomed in on the apartment building. Sixteen stories tall, the silver monstrosity stood like a mutant cockroach with a reflective glass shell. On the top floor, Micah found the same windows he had looked at on and off for the last month. He reached down with his other hand and hit the speed dial on his cell phone.

Six hundred yards away, a man stepped out of a bedroom and walked into the dining room. Micah watched as the man picked up a phone and stared at it. After four rings, the phones finally made their connection. With the aid of technology, the voice jumped the distance and hopped from Micah's phone to the bluetooth headset pressed against his ears.


"I finished the job," Micah said.

"Yes, I saw it in the news." As always, his father's voice showed no emotion. "Your payment has already been transmitted."


In the field glasses, Micah watched as his father stepped around the dining room table and into the living room. He sat down on a couch.

"It's early to be calling at this hour, isn't it?"

Micah frowned. "No, I'm still in Brazil."

It was a strange question for his father to ask. Micah could have said Paris, Moscow, or Singapore, and it wouldn't have mattered. Whatever answer he gave, his father would know better. Never accept anything at face value, his father often said. In this line of work, the only truth you ever really know is that the answer you're given is more often than not a lie.

More troubling, however, the question told Micah that his father knew about the house in Melbourne. At two o'clock in the afternoon, New York time, it was four o'clock in the morning in Melbourne. Micah would have to sell the Australian getaway. If his father knew, then who else did?

"And you think that wise?" his father asked, playing along now about Micah being in Brazil.

Micah smirked. As always, even with the years of training—the constant drilling, the incessant commands to do it again—his father still questioned his every move, his every decision.

Micah closed his eyes and took another deep breath. Letting it out, he remembered another of Master Sharma's instructions: If you want to defeat the god of the past, be the god of the future. A simple quote, but powerfully liberating.

He started seeing the Hindu priest two years ago, at a time when life became more than he could bear. With all of the the killing, all the lies and deceit, life became nothing more than a shallow heartbeat of a dying man. While the next beat meant more time, it also meant more time to struggle, more time to dwell on the insignificance and lack of true meaning. Master Sharma changed everything with his kind face, his kind instructions. "To be self-conscious," he said, "is to not accept the self at all." Words like that helped Micah to wade out of his mire and embrace life as it existed.

"One way to avoid your enemy," Micah said, now quoting his father, "is to cloak yourself in plain sight." His father loved it when Micah repeated back the various mantras.

"Yes... yes, it is." Through the glasses, Micah watched his father nod. "Tell me, did he cry?"

"They always cry."

The mark this time was a staff member of a United States senator. He had been down in Rio for a week to negotiate with various dignitaries from Brazil. It seemed the United States government was ready to give up on the whole cotton industry as long as Brazil would be willing to scale back on corn, a crop far more important since the midwest grew it. And with the midwest, Ohio and Michigan especially, two states with significant electoral votes, the senator's party could maintain their control. That's the way it worked, a little here for a little there. In this case, it was one crop for another.

The senator's staff member, an ivy leaguer with a weasel face, had pleaded with Micah. He promised anything that Micah wanted. Just name the price. Micah had stared at him a moment, but then pulled the trigger. There was nothing the man could have said. His fate had been sealed with the contract Micah had accepted. Do the job, and don't ask questions—another of his father's mantras.

Six hundred yards away, his father stood and walked across the living room, back through the dining room and into the kitchen. He would make himself a vodka tonic, Micah knew.

"So, what's next?" his father asked.

Micah put down the field glasses and slid open the balcony door. He picked up the M40 rifle.

"I'll do what I always do," he said. Through the scope, he spotted his father in the kitchen. "Wait for the next contract."

In his head, Micah repeated the lyrics of Peter Gabriel: One doubt. One Voice. One war. One truth. One dream.

(to be continued...)