The Best of the Year

Most Fridays over at the online rag Fantasy Magazine there is a “Blog for Beer” contest in which they give $10 cash on the barrelhead for the best F/SF comment – either a bit of original work, a review, or whatever. This last week they decided to have a special year-end version of that contest, with a bigger prize and more time to post. Entries were to be on the theme “The Best of the Year”.

What the heck, I figured, and the other night I jotted out a little blurb that in the end really had nothing to do with fantasy or science fiction. It was an OK mood piece though, a late-night ramble through a quiet part of my head, perhaps closer to the spirit of flash fiction than most things that use that name. It needs some work to be actually good, but it was a decent rough draft. It didn’t follow the contest guidelines but I went ahead and posted it anyway.

My post was followed by a very complimentary post by a guy who recently quit his job at the post office to become a writer. Judging by his comment, he may be hoping to be the Bukowski of fantasy. I’ll let you decide from there.

Since then the comments over there have been pretty quiet. I’d feel pretty good about my chances to bring home the bacon if I had somehow found a way to include some sort of Fantasy or SF element, but in the end they just didn’t fit. (Unless you count a wee bit of license with meteor showers, but heck, Arthur C. Clarke moved Sri Lanka south.) There are hints of things going on that, if expanded, might invite some sort of fantasy explanation, but they are not explored in the blurb at all.

Of course that leaves the door wide open for you, faithful readers, to post something profound or entertaining that has something to do with the genre, and scoop up a book or three. Plus, you can make the editors feel better about their contest, so they’ll be more interested in doing it again. And remember, every Friday there’s ten bucks of beer money on the line. While you’re over there, hang out and read a couple of stories. I haven’t read the latest one, but a couple of them in the past have been pretty good.

Just for giggles, I’ll go ahead and reproduce what I wrote over there, but you really should follow the link and see what other folks have wrought.

______

The Best of the Year

He stood in the darkened hallway of his childhood home, listening to the silence. Waiting for something, maybe. A nudge in one direction or another, or the echo of a voice from long ago. The memories sifted and stirred, but none rose into view. On nights like this he believed in ghosts.

“What are you doing?” Claire’s voice came from the guest bedroom — once his room — and sounded sleepy.

“Nothing. Just thinking.” He walked into the room and in the pale moonlight for a moment he thought he saw Gwen there instead; it was Gwen who had always wanted the curtains open even in that south-facing room. She had complained about the sun every morning, but would never consider sleeping where she couldn’t see the sky. Now it was he who felt trapped when the blinds were closed, and Claire who patiently tolerated his idiosyncrasy.

“Now, honey, remember what the doctor said about thinking. It’s bad for you.” She tried to keep her voice light, but he could tell she wasn’t really joking. There is a time for thinking, a time for the mysteries of life and the mad world we occupy, and there’s a time to lie quietly in your lover’s arms, knowing nothing but the scent of her and the heat where her skin touches yours.

“Let’s go for a walk,” he said.

“Are you kidding? It’s freezing outside.”

“But there’s no wind. Once the moon goes down it’ll be perfect.”

“But…”

“There’ll be meteors.” They had a tradition of kissing whenever they saw a falling star. “It’s the Quadrantids. The best of the year.” He heard an echo when he said it, like deja vu but not quite; the last time he had been the one in bed.

Claire smiled seductively and flipped the covers back, showing her skimpy nightie. Her Christmas gift to him. “Come on to bed, sweetie.”

He felt the pull of her, her form indistinct in the darkness but radiating heat. He took a step toward the bed when a flash of light streaked across the sky outside. “I just need to go out for a while, have a look,” he said, but he knew he was lying.

When Claire heard the door close she knew he was gone. She had felt him slipping away almost the moment they met, as she cast her net and drew him in gently, ever so slowly, trying not to hold too tight. Bastard. Now here she was in his parent’s house, and in the morning it was going to be up to her to tell them their son was gone. Where? I don’t know. When is he coming back? A shrug. Maybe never. Would she be able to say that?

At least now she would be able to sleep with the curtains closed.

She rose from bed and stood at the window, her hand on the pull cord for the curtains, looking out at the stars as they clustered in the black high desert sky. The stars he was looking at, somewhere else, not far away as the crow flew but light years along the crooked paths the heart followed.

A meteor flashed past, and another. She stood, her bare legs gooseflesh. Another. If she had followed him they would be kissing now. She wondered how she felt about that. The sense of loss wasn’t the acute distress of a breakup, but the yearning for something she had perhaps never known. Another meteor, another bit of drifting debris, ancient, consumed silently in the time between two heartbeats, a flash of light and no more. Billions of years and then poof and that was all.

Finally, tired, she crawled back into bed, but she didn’t close the curtains.

The Road

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is a story of the journey of a father and son across the lifeless, blasted terrain of post-apocalyptic America. There is nothing living except a few bands of desperate survivors; the barren earth is no longer capable of supporting complex life. The only food available is what can be scrounged from the ruins, the only fresh meat is human flesh. The man and the boy are heading south, but they have no reason to believe that what they find will be any better than anywhere else. To the north, however, lies certain death from exposure and starvation.

They have a gun, with two bullets. One for each of them.

We would never eat people, the boy asks. No, never, the man replies.

The man and the boy are never named, conceits like that belong to another world, a place that doesn’t exist any more, a place the boy has never known. In the new, unrelentingly grim, world, there are only bad guys — people who will do anything, anything at all, to stay alive — and good guys — people who still entertain notions of right and wrong. People who, in the words of the boy, are carrying the flame. Even in the face of the horrifyingly pragmatic decisions the man has to make, the boy retains an inherent goodness, and on his shoulders lie the future of mankind.

I was going to write that McCarthy has discarded many of the rules of modern grammar and style, but it would be more accurate to say that he has developed his own grammar and honed it over the years. Rather than bind his sentences with the concepts of subject and verb, in McCarthy’s writing sentences are units of thought, impressions, fragments that map the experience of the characters. Most of the time this works, but sometimes in dialog it is easy to lose track of who is saying what, and the prose sometimes suffers from ambiguous pronouns. When reading this story it’s best not to worry about those things too much, but to let the words flow, bump, jitter, and lapse into silence the way the writer intended them to.

I can see them coming now, the scores of writers who think that it is McCarthy’s style that makes him such a compelling writer, and who will try to imitate him with disastrous results. What makes McCarthy a good writer is his clear vision, his ability to make language work for him, and his ability to create sympathetic characters in the bleakest of situations.

The future shown in this story is a grim one indeed, and there were times I thought to myself “all right, already, life sucks, I get it.” But there is movement in the unrelenting gray of the world, as we see the toll the road takes on the travelers, and watch as their courses diverge. This is a mighty fine read.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

On the Cover at Piker Press

My short story “The Tourist” is on the cover of the Christmas issue over at Piker Press. The story takes place in the world first started with my story “Tin Can“, which appeared over there some time back. Depending on how you count things, this is either the fifth or seventh entry in the series. (There are a couple of stories that take place in the asteroid belt that have a similar voice but which aren’t — yet — connected in any concrete manner.)

Hats off as well to Sand Pilarski for an illustration that really fits the piece. It’s simple, but it really works for me.

I just reread the story, and while I like it quite a lot, there are a couple of places when I needed to pause for a moment, to allow the reader to react before being swept away in the ensuing events. One of those is the second paragraph. I may ask the Piker editors if I can sneak in another sentence there. There are also a couple of sentences I worked really hard on, that present pretty complex ideas, that get a little lost. (How many times did I go over the story? A hundred? I suppose there will always be something that could be made a little bit better.) Overall, though, it’s a not a bad read, if I do say so myself.

This also marks the third anniversary of my Piker Press debut, the story “The Cowboy God” which was on the cover of the Christmas issue in 2004. That debut was a big deal for me, my first real publication. I was in Moravia at the time, unable to get online, and I was going nearly crazy trying to make sure everything had come out right. A lot has happened in the last three years, and I will be forever grateful to the ongoing support of my fellow Pikers.

So Happy Jerry’s Piker Debut Day, or any other holiday you may wish to celebrate today.

Addendum: Thanks to the Piker Press staff for incorporating my edits, not just once, but twice. The story is better now in ways quite possibly visible only to me. Although there is that one missing comma…

A Good Time for Late Sleepers

The days are getting longer! Hooray!

For the next few days, however, for most of us the sun is still rising later. Longer days and you still get to sleep in! Bonus!

The Upside of the Downhill

I think about energy a lot. I’m not sure why this is, but often I see little places where energy is being squandered when it should be reclaimable. In general, any time you have something that’s hot, and you don’t want it to be hot, energy is being lost.

Some of this energy can be hard to spot. Take, for example, the fully-loaded truck at the brake-check pullout before going down a long hill. It’s not moving. Its fuel tanks could be almost empty. But it has energy. Lots of it. The driver is checking the truck’s brakes because the truck is about to turn all that energy into heat. If the driver is not careful, that heat could cause brake failure and a very dangerous situation. The driver will inch down the hill, allowing time for brakes to cool and to use the compression of the engine to slow downward progress as well (heating the exhaust).

All that energy, and we treat it like a bad thing. But energy is expensive, even now when we only pay a fraction of its true cost! What we need is a safe way to reclaim the potential energy of the truck, safely and in a useful form.

Introducing TruckGen. TruckGen is a system that uses the truck to turn a generator as it descends. The generator provides resistance to the truck, but rather than turning the energy into heat, turns at least some of it into electricity. (In fact, the generator would have to be able to provide huge resistance to the motion, but that’s OK — that’s where the electricity comes from.) The truck’s brakes are spared, saving wear and tear and making the descent safer, and as a bonus useful power is reclaimed.

I’ve considered several ideas for exactly how this would work; one of my favorites is a chair-lift-like affair with a cable that runs above the road. Descending trucks would attach to the cable with big clamps, and as they descended they would drive a capstan that turned a generator. The cable would have to be quite strong, of course, but if anything went wrong all the trucks would have nice fresh brakes.

An alternate would be to dispense with the generator and have the uphill trucks attached to the cable as well, and the descending trucks would give them a push. Cutting out the electrical generation makes this system quite efficient. (There would have to be something to prevent some uphill trucks from slacking and forcing other ascending trucks to haul them up as well while they save fuel.) In either case all trucks attached to the cable would move the same speed, improving traffic flow.

If cable strength is a problem (I’m not sure even where to start figuring that out), I imagine an alternate method with a vehicle that latches on to the front of the truck for the descent. It might look something like the tractors that push jets around at an airport, with big tires with good traction (or cogs on a rail?) which would turn a built-in generator. There would be an overhead power line, similar to the ones used to power trains, but in this case they would be receiving the power instead of providing it. The tractors would use some of that electricity to get back to the top of the hill, which cuts into the efficiency of that plan, but the descending trucks would still be a heck of a lot safer.

Next time you see a truck creeping up a steep hill, ask yourself, “what’s going to come of all that work?” With TruckGen, you have the answer.

Road Therapy

My stay in San Diego didn’t really go as planned. I found myself inheriting and amplifying the stress of everyone around me, my own stress level steadily increasing, leading to me drinking more than I should have last night, and this morning I had an urgent need to just get out of there. So I snubbed several friends and even a couple of dogs and I just legged it out of town.

By El Centro, California, I was feeling a little better, but I figured that the smaller the road the more therapeutic it would be. I popped into In-N-Out Burger and took my atlas inside to have a meal and plan my route. Let me say categorically that El Centro In-N-Out at lunchtime is not the place to soothe jangled nerves. The place was a frickin’ zoo, with people jockeying for tables, and clusters of customers waiting for to-go orders blocking the aisles. I found a spot to sit and opened the atlas, conscious of the covetous eyes longingly staring at my prime table. So much for lingering and enjoying a meal.

And yes, I could have just gone somewhere else, but I kind of had a hankering for the classic. Had I picked up the vibe while standing in line I probably would have left, but there was no guarantee that other places weren’t also crazy.

After lunch, things got better. A few miles north of El Centro I joined highway 78, an old-school road that rolls with the landscape rather than the cut-and-fill style of more modern highways. I remember from family trips in the long past signs reading “Dips”, but those roads are rare now, although they are still just as fun as they were when I was a kid. Passing over Imperial Sand Dunes there were some spots with significant sand buildup, but otherwise the road surface was in good shape and the car was running like a champ. Life started to seem a little better.

I took the interstate over the Colorado River but soon after I hopped onto highway 60, which wasn’t terribly exciting, but as I made my way up toward Prescot things got steadily more fun. As the sky turned purple in my rear view I climbed up onto the Kaibab plateau, twisting and turning up the brand new surface of highway 89, a road made for driving.

(Yes, I know that pretty much all roads are made for driving, but there’s driving and then there’s driving.)

Flagstaff. A cheap hotel, a meat loaf sandwich in a brightly-lit diner. Just me. Here, the only issues I have to deal with are my own. I feel bad about not seeing so many people, but I don’t think I would have been much fun anyway.

Calling Dr. Jer

Amy has a toddler, and a job she can’t afford to take any time off from. Yesterday when Noah woke up with a fever and sniffles, Amy was in a bind. Just how much of a bind became obvious when I ended up watching the kid. While I’m sure I could pick up all those child care skills, I’ve managed to avoid ever needing to.

Luckily, Noah really likes the duck animation. It ruled out my getting any work done, but once I showed Noah how to click to run the animation again, my life became much easier. Eventually the animation lost some of it’s charm, but clicking the replay button never got old. Whenever the animation finished he’d drop whatever he was doing and restart it.

This morning Noah was doing a lot better, which meant he was much more active. I was relieved a few minutes ago, just as Noah was running out of steam, struggling valiantly to keep his eyes open. Now I am free to get some properly Americanized Chinese food for lunch, and tonight Surfside Sushi calls.

The Road Less Traveled

The shimmering blacktop stretched out before me, undulating across the desert floor, and I knew I was in the right place. No place. Just me, tiny, alone, crawling slowly across the face of the world. The road rose slowly but steadily, carrying me to the base of the San Bernadino mountains, then winding ever upward through switchbacks and icy corners, up into the snowy forest.

At Big Bear City I opted for the smaller road for the next leg of my journey south, happy that it was a work day and therefore the road was free of skiers from Los Angeles and San Diego. The only obstacle I faced was an accident scene near the top of the pass; a big rig and at least two other vehicles had tangled. One SUV had been hit broadside by the truck, and almost pushed over the edge for what would have been a long fall. Emergency crews were on hand, cleaning up glass, measuring things, and directing traffic. There was room for me to squeeze past the wreckage and once more I was on my way.

Down from the mountains I continued south, aiming for Hemet and a very small road due south through the metropolis of Sage. Alas, I couldn’t find the dang road amidst the runaway housing developments in Hemet, and I wound up taking the larger highway 79 down to Temecula. Boy, was that depressing. Everywhere the land was scraped flat and where there weren’t new houses all lined up, there will be soon.

Many of the future buyers of these houses will commute every day down to San Diego. Once I was on the Interstate I saw the truly massive expansion efforts under way to funnel these people from the north down to where their jobs are. Someone needs to build a railroad or a commuter blimp service or something.

I was tempted to leave the freeway again, to take the really long route to San Diego, but highway 79 had robbed the day of its magic, and I decided to just get here and meet up with folks. And that’s where I am now, sharing a sofa with a cat, tired, and very soon for the land of nod. Overall, I’m glad I chose to go around the city of angels, even if it did mean extra miles. A lot of those miles were of a particularly high quality.

A Bumpy Day of Travel

I’m sitting now in a Denny’s in Selma, California. I did not plan to stop after covering such a short distance, but sometimes even plans as nebulous as mine go astray.

It all started when I bid my gracious Piker hosts goodbye and hopped in the car for a fairly routine trip down the central valley. If things went well, I’d add a couple of hours to the trip to go around Los Angeles. I turned the key and… nothing. The battery was dead, after racking up significant highway miles yesterday. One trip to the auto parts store and a jump start later, and I was on my way. Clearly, though, the months of storage and little use had taken its toll on the battery. Wherever I stopped for the night, it was a safe bet that I’d need a jump start in the morning. The auto parts store didn’t have a battery for a Miata — it’s some kind of mini-sized high-tech thing. I would need to go to a Mazda dealership.

Then the road. Highway 99 south, an easy drive despite fairly heavy traffic. Zipping along, I saw a sign by the highway. Selma Auto Mall. Mazda. Well, heck, I’m going to be buying a battery, so why wait? I pulled off at the next exit and began to work my way back to the dealership. It was not obvious how to get there and I was in a residential area when I pulled out from a stop sign and turned to see a car coming right at me. The girl driving locked up her brakes and slid on the rain-slick pavement, slowly slowing, and right up to the end I was able to hope that disaster would be averted. As she came to a stop the noses of our cars kissed. Ouch. Although a more skilled driver might have been able to avoid me, the collision was, without a doubt, my fault.

We pulled to the side of the road. I’ll say this for the flexible plastic parts at the front corners of our two cars, They really handle this sort of impact admirably. There were some scratches and paint swapping, but everything was fundamentally intact. “I’m going to call my dad,” the other driver said. While waiting for him I gave her my insurance info and whatnot.

Dad arrived, looked over the damage, and said, “I don’t think we need the police.” I readily agreed. Not knowing what else to say, I told Dad that I had already given his daughter my insurance info. “Do you want to use insurance?” he asked. “I know a guy.”

The prospect of just taking care of the repair without taking a hit to my insurance premiums was attractive, to say the least. So, we all formed a convoy, dad in the lead, and drove across town to a backyard body shop just past the city limits. They all exchanged pleasantries in Spanish, obviously old pals, and one of the guys looked over the scratched-up bumper. he named a price, less than what I expected, far less than the hit to insurance premiums would be. Now all that was left was getting to a bank machine for the cash. Dad gave me a lift in his pickup truck, and on the way we had a nice conversation. he used to live in Mexico City, but much preferred the small-town life. He had 40 acres of farmland, and had just been offered $50,000 per acre for it, but he hadn’t sold. Where would he go? He liked it where he was.

Overall, that little automotive bump could have gone a lot worse than it did. It cost me precious cash out of pocket, and time, but thanks to the fact I was dealing with reasonable, friendly people it all turned out OK. Then it was back to the original destination. I was due for an oil change, so I went ahead and had them do that while I was in the neighborhood. Once that is done I’ll hook up the new battery and I’ll be off and running once more. Let’s hope the rest of the trip is without unexpected bumps.

+++++

Evening has arrived. The service guys were kind enough to set my clock for Pacific time; it took me a while to realize that I wasn’t experiencing a premature twilight caused by the low clouds. I could have pressed on, worked my way through LA, and arrived in San Diego late in the evening. I chose not to. LA is a big obstacle, but with planning and a little extra time, it can be avoided. Rather than plow through the hellish traffic of Los Angeles, I chose to go around. Tonight I am sitting in a place called Molly’s Pub, poised for some fine back-road driving in the morning.

Tune in tomorrow for: The Road Less Taken!

That Girl and Me

She calls her bedroom the “Pretty Pretty Princess Room.” The walls are a pale purple and there is a canopy over the bed. It is the room she wanted as a child and now by god she has it. The shades of purple and green work well together, along with her red hair and (usually) green eyes.

There is a door in that room that is always closed. In the mornings light comes through the crack under the door, so there must be a window or a skylight in the space beyond. I don’t know anything else about it, however. It is a mystery.

It took me a day or five to articulate just what it was that I most liked about That Girl. She has a sexy brain. It’s a brian that puts things together in unexpected ways and never forgets to have fun doing it. When we were together hardly an hour went by when between us we didn’t come up with a new get-poor-quick scheme, complete with catchy marketing name. Oh, yes, we are a dangerous pair when it comes to inventions and words. Sure, anyone might come up with Laundermatic, but Albino Formula Laundermatic? I think not. We are quite the team. (There is another idea, mostly hers, for a book. I’m mentally building the table of contents now, but I might be soliciting input from the blogosphere. It’s gold, baby. Pure gold.)

For the record, it’s not just her brain that’s sexy.

We talk about a lot of stuff, That Girl and I, crazy and serious. Stories from our pasts, introductions to the people around us. There was one big, giant topic that we danced around most of the time, however. The future.

The future is a sneaky bastard, hiding in the most innocent of pet names and endearments, lurking in the way we refer to each other to friends, waiting for words that imply a promise neither party has the right to make.

The future did peek out occasionally, of course — rarely overtly — but when That Girl said, “who knew this would happen?” she let her emphasis of the word carry the future into the conversation, if only for a moment. This was something big enough to make space for, sometime, somehow. I sure as hell didn’t know this would happen, but I had known that I could like That Girl, and, well, isn’t that this? Wasn’t that in the back of my head when I decided not to set my return date to Prague before I left?

Today we said goodbye, at least for a little while. The future tromps along, with or without us, no matter how hard we work to ignore it.

In her bedroom is a door. I could have opened the door, and seen what lay beyond. I could simply have asked. But as long as I don’t know what’s in there, there is an incompleteness to my visit, an unknown that will not allow closure. Sometime in the future I will open that door. Until I do, there will always be a future with That Girl and Me together.

Episode 26: Reunion by the River, part four

Our story so far: There is a thing, an object of some sort, of incalculable value. Many people want this treasure, want it enough to kill for it. Others are equally willing to perform violence to ensure the treasure is NOT found by anyone. Charles Lowell doesn’t give a damn about the object; but people are trying to kill him anyway. He has been hired by Lola Fanutti, neé Meredith Baxter, wife of a now-dead crime lord, and she holds a vital clue to the location of the object. Well, she doesn’t actually have the clue, but she knows where it is. Or, at least, she says she does. She’s not very good at the truth, sometimes, and it often seems that Lola Fanutti and Meredith Baxter are two different people, and she changes without warning.

It is now Sunday, the day Meredith said she could recover the Blood of the Saint, a stolen painting which contains the key to finding the treasure. Many factions have asked Charlie, with varying degrees of politeness, if he would tip them off when she had the painting, so that they might take it from her. Charlie can’t satisfy them all, and those he doesn’t help are not going to be happy. In this crowd, “anger management” means “stay calm so you don’t miss your target.”

Charlie is now in a limo with Meredith, speeding toward the East River, there perhaps to recover the painting. They are protected by a group of toughs who may or may not be loyal to them, and unbeknownst to Ms. Fanutti, Charlie has sent word to one Mr. Cello, self-made lord of the underworld. Meredith thinks something is not quite right, but she can’t put her finger on it.

Those new to the blog should be aware that this story is not planned out — not even the episode I’m writing at the time. I just try to get into voice and let the ideas hit the page unfiltered and barely edited. Inconsistencies, oddities, and questionable actions are par for the course.

To read the entire story from the beginning click here.

She looked out the window as we sped along, her brow creased in concentration, concern, or both. I watched her; there wasn’t much I could hope to do cooped up in the car if it turned out the people around us weren’t loyal. In the end, she was my problem, the hub of the wheel that threatened to run me over. She felt my gaze and looked across the car at me. “A penny for your thoughts,” she said.

“I don’t think you’d be getting your money’s worth,” I said.

She smiled, more out of courtesy than any found humor. “I’ll be the judge of that.”

“I think maybe it’s time to make a deal.”

“With whom?”

“Whoever gives us the best chance of getting out of this with our skins. Cello could protect us.”

“You want out?”

“I never wanted in.”

She sighed and looked back out the window. “Do you know what it’s like, Charlie? Being on top?”

“No.”

“You get used to it in a hurry. I can’t live at the bottom of the whole shit-pile that is humanity any more, Charlie. I just can’t. Not after tasting the good life at the top. I’ll take a swift death reaching for the stars over the slow death stretched out over decades while lying in the mud.”

“There will always be another chance.”

“Not like this one, Charlie. There will never be another chance like this, ever again. Whoever controls this treasure will never have to worry again. About anything. I’m going to be that person, Charlie. I’m going to sit at the very top of the pile and I’m going to run the show. But… it would be better if you were there with me.”

“All those fancy clothes and people fetching things for me makes me nervous.”

She laughed. “Is that what you think it’s about? The mansions, the servants, the people standing in line to kiss your ass? Those mean nothing. Just money. I like money, and I plan to have a lot of it, but that’s not what this is about.”

“Oh?”

“For the few at the top this isn’t just the world, Charlie, it is their world. The world you see out there has been shaped by them, according to their rules. You’re just a little rat in a maze, running about looking for a bit of cheese. But they built the maze, and they decide which rats get fed. You are just here for their amusement, and it will always be that way, unless you knock someone off the top and take their place.”

“That doesn’t sound very fun.”

She shrugged, but she was looking into my eyes with intensity. “You don’t have to do any of that, Charlie. Not if you don’t want to. That’s what it means to be on top. You can do whatever you want as long as you’re with me. Booze? Cars? Travel? Women? Your affairs wouldn’t bother me, as long as you came home afterward.”

“Or I might die trying to get there.”

“Or we might die. Yes. Do you still want out? Do you want to go back to that dreary, desperate life you used to think was your own?”

I thought of that dreary, desperate life. I thought of waking up each morning not knowing how I was going to pay for the next bottle of rot-gut whiskey, wondering if this would be the day some random thug punched my ticket or some philandering husband thought a gun would be the best way to shut me up. I thought about nights alone with only a bottle to console me, never quite deep enough for me to fall all the way in and never surface again. I was a rat in a maze, and the cheese was always just out of reach. A pathetic, hopeless existence. An existence that, somehow, was me. I liked me, though Lord knows there wasn’t much to like.

Meredith shifted her position, to better display her shapely leg. There were certainly some benefits to sharing her life at the top.

The car eased to a stop. Out the windows I could see the wharves, silent in the dark of the night. It was too late to quit. It had been too late for a long time. “What’s the plan?” I asked.

She checked her watch. “We wait. There’s a boat arriving in fifteen minutes. They will have a small crate. No one touches it except you or me. No one.”

“What if there’s trouble?”

“Protect the box. Let me and my boys handle the shooting.”

I nodded. With only one hand I wasn’t going to be able to do both, and she was much better at shooting than I was. Her men began to issue from the cars and take up positions around the wharf, trying with varying success to blend with the shadows. We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I wondered what was going on up in her head, and what that meant for me. What was I to her? Stooge? Pawn? Lover? Perhaps to her they were all the same thing.

“It’s time,” she said without looking at her watch. I opened my door and levered myself up out of the car, wincing with pain as my shoulder protested.

“Are you all right?” she asked. Her concern sounded genuine.

I steadied myself. “Never better,” I said.

She touched my arm gently where it lay in the sling. “Everything will be all right, soon,” she said. She stepped closer, started to say something more, when her eyes narrowed, looking past me. “It’s here. Let’s get this done as quickly as possible.” She stepped past me and I turned and followed one pace behind. I could hear the soft putt-putt-putt of a boat motor out on the river, but I could see nothing. The far shore of the river was just a dim blur; fog was rolling in, shrinking the world until there was just me and Meredith. Still I felt exposed as we walked out on the dock, our shoes reverberating with dull thuds on the wooden planks. Meredith had her pistol out and was making no effort to hide it.

The engine noise came closer and I caught a whiff of diesel. A scraping noise just ahead announced the arrival of the boat. Meredith quickened her pace before stopping at the top of a ladder. She pointed her gun down into the shadows. “Benny?” she asked softly.

A muffled voice rose from below. “He went for pancakes,” I thought I heard. That must have been some sort of countersign; Meredith relaxed fractionally. “got something for you, Ms. Fanutti,” the voice said again.

“I’m sending someone down for it,” she said. She looked at me and indicated with a nod that I was to climb down. Coming back up with a package of any size would be tricky. Oh, well. I stepped to the top of the ladder, turned, and groped with my foot in the darkness for the top rung. Hanging on tightly with my one hand, I made my way slowly down.

“Easy, Chief,” someone said behind me a few moments later. “Almost there.” I grit my teeth as someone took my bad elbow and helped me into the boat. When the man realized I was wearing a sling he let go quickly, and I almost fell into the boat. “Sorry, Chief,” he muttered. The boat splashed quietly on the glassy water as I recovered my balance.

“You got something for me?”

“Yeah. Right over there.” He pointed to a wooden box, maybe a foot square and three inches deep. Such a small thing for all this trouble. I walked over and saw that it was sealed all around, and that a wire held it to the bench. “We didn’t touch it, just like Ms. Fanutti told us,” the man said.

I lifted the box, breaking the wire. I stepped back over to the ladder and looked up. I could see the outline of Meredith’s head as she peered down at me. I juggled with the package and finally wedged it into my sling. “Thanks,” I said to the men in the boat. As soon as I was off the dec
k the putt-putt accelerated slightly and the boat slid out into the river. I looked up, but from the ladder I could see nothing. I began my slow climb.

By the time I got to the top the fog was thick as cat’s breath. I could make out a few lights over toward land, and in the other direction a single glow marked the light on the shed at the end of the dock. Meredith materialized next to me, moving as silently as death. “You got it?” she asked.

“I got a box,” I said. “No telling what’s inside.”

“My husband died for that box, Charlie. Let’s get out of here.”

We began walking back to the cars, slowly, the blanket of fog hiding us and giving the scene a mysterious and furtive air, making me want to walk as quietly as possible. Meredith was to my left, a few feet away, little more than a vague shape in the darkness.

We reached the base of the dock and stopped when we saw a figure blocking our way. The short man stepped forward.

“Good evening, Ms. Fanutti,” he said softly. He took a careful pull on his cigar, the glow from the tip lighting his face in a hellish cast. Cello. “Good evening, Mr. Lowell.”

“You can’t have it.” Meredith said. “It’s mine.”

In the gloom behind Cello I could make out several more figures, all of them big, all of them armed. Cello just smiled patiently. “I believe the object is currently in Mr. Lowell’s possession,” Cello said.

“Same thing,” Meredith said.

“Is it? After all, it was Mr. Lowell who invited me here tonight.”

“W—what?” Meredith looked over at me and my guilt must have been etched in my face. She staggered as if punched, then recovered, but still she looked at me until I couldn’t meet her gaze any longer. “Charlie…” she said, quietly, then nothing more. With a swift motion she raised her gun and shot Cello in the chest. He staggered back, a dark stain blooming over his white shirt, as the men behind him opened fire and Meredith’s men arrayed around the dock fired into the group.

Meredith fired once more, then twitched, staggered, and spun as another bullet found her, and another. Nobody was shooting at me yet, but I wasn’t going to depend on things staying that way. I ran.

I ran, but all I could think about was the look of hurt in her eyes as she decided to die.

Tune in next time for: Day of Reckoning!

The Fourth Bear

The Fourth Bear: A Nursery Crime by Jasper Fforde looked promising. “Brilliantly, breathlessly odd.” USA Today called it. ‘Odd’ is one of my favorite adjectives when applied to light prose, and the recommendations on the back cover of the book reinforced the impression, comparing Fforde to the creators of the Simpsons and to Douglas Adams, mentioning outrageous satirical agility, and so forth. I thought I was in for a treat.

What I got was certainly pleasant, and I did chuckle frequently while reading, but I was not swept away. Inspector Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crimes Division of the Reading police force is trying to solve the case of a missing reporter who went by the name Goldilocks, last seen in the company of three bears. She was preparing to blow the lid off a huge story that had something to do with championship cucumbers. Inspector Spratt is himself a PDR (Person of Dubious Reality), which makes him uniquely qualified to wade through the myriad of credulity-stretching oddities and clues. Meanwhile, the Gingerbreadman has escaped from the mental hospital and has resumed his killing spree…

There are puns aplenty, occasional self-referential humor, and a nudge-nudge feeling pervades the book. Being up on your nursery rhymes will certainly help; I was pretty vague on the Jack Sprat rhyme, for instance. While I found it easy to put the story down, I also found it easy to pick back up again.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Programming Note

Here it is Sunday already and I haven’t mentioned that my sister, Carol Anne Byrnes, is on the cover over at Piker Press this week. Check it out!

Snowbound in the Sierras

Things I have in common with the Donner Party:

  1. We both took an indirect route to get to the pass.
  2. We were both forced by the weather to stop on the trail
  3. We both ran out of beef jerky

The key difference:

  1. There was a restaurant 100 yards from where I was stopped on the freeway

After waiting more than an hour for traffic on the freeway to move, I trundled up the shoulder to the exit and stopped off for a nice lunch. I arrived to hear Willie Nelson’s “On the road again,” sat with a view of the stationary vehicles out on the freeway, and read my book while waiting for the police to open up the freeway at Donner Pass. The wait was no big deal, but it did render my new set of tire chains unnecessary.

On The Road Again

Yesterday was a day of travel, but just the little-t sort of travel that is concerned with destinations. This morning found me in Oak Creek, just south of Sedona, Arizona. I pulled out the atlas and discovered that there really was only one sensible route to take to reach my destination in California. I didn’t go that way.

The air was brisk, but it was certainly a top-down kind of day. Beef jerky, Gatorade, and the open road. This, my friends, is what America is all about.

I went up Oak Creek Canyon to reach Flagstaff, and wow, what a pleasant stretch of road that is. The leaves on the (I assume) oak trees were still changing, and there was some big, energetic symphonic thing playing on the radio. (I regret now that my little voice recorder is in Prague.) At the top of the canyon I stopped for pictures, then headed toward town. In the days of yore, mariners welcomed the sight of sea gulls which heralded their arrival in the new world; in a similar fashion the pizza delivery truck announced my arrival in town.

I rolled into Flag in a mood for small roads. There is a road out of Flagstaff, due north, that I had never driven. And hey, I needed to go north… a bit. We won’t discuss the three mountain ranges I put in my way by going north, then west, rather than the other way around. I turned my back to the winter sun and north I went.

Highway 89 was a bit of a disappointment. The map showed it running right up the edge of the painted desert, but it follows the echo cliffs, which block out the vast panoramic views I was hoping for. From just above Flagstaff I was under overcast skies, and there was a gloomy aspect to the Indian crap stalls lining the highways, deserted, “OPEN” banners flapping in the wind.

One crap shop that was open was Chief Yellowhorse, which, with a bright red-on-yellow lettering, promised “FRIENDLY INDIANS”. Whew! That’s a relief!

North and north some more, past the turnoff to Tuba city, past the UPS party (bunches of UPS trucks parked off the road, shuffling trailers), heading for Glen Canyon dam, and all along the way the grandeur of nature was undermined by the scars of man. Down this corridor power transmission lines, roads, and run-down buildings, abandoned vehicles, and a general feeling of decay predominate. Farther north, however, the road becomes more interesting as it climbs up onto the Kaibab plateau and makes a run for Utah. At the Glen Canyon Dam (the one Edward Abbey wanted to blow up), there is a cool rock formation that looks like a beehive. It is obscured from the distance by the power station for the dam, and one shoulder of it is cut away for the visitor’s center parking lot. The power station I can understand, and the rocks will be there long after the station has rusted away, but I think the marketing boys didn’t see the value that cool rock would have as an identity for the dam, and they harmed it’s value while catering to the very people who would have appreciated it.

I came out from under the overcast skies somewhere around the Utah border, as I added a bit of west to my journey. I passed though a little farm town in southern Utah, nestled in a narrow valley, that was named Orderville. I am careful with speed limits in all those small towns, but in this place even the name suggested that there would be no shenanigans tolerated. Sure enough, at the school crossing (just past the sign advertising handmade caskets), a truck with police lights waited at the side of the road. At the wheel I couldn’t help but notice the long graceful neck and the full red lips of the cop inside. She was fast asleep. I didn’t take a picture, I just kept driving.

The last time I had been in those parts I had driven through Zion National Park, so this time I elected to pass to the north, to see some new scenery. It is time to add Utah Highway 14 to the list of best roads in the country. I would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for all the warnings about how I was doomed to die if my car wasn’t equipped for deep snow. When I got to the summit, to my right was a breathtaking vista, the forest a patchwork far below, bare deciduous trees mingled with the conifers, open meadows with pristine white snow, shimmering with suggested rainbows in the low sun. I just looked; I didn’t take a picture, I just paused and kept driving. The trip down the other side twisted and turned, taking me past a frozen cascade and into a narrow canyon. If you put this road on your to-drive list, I recommend going west to east, as sharp corners are more fun going uphill.

I stopped at Cedar River (Cedar something, anyway) to warm my hands and fuel up, then it was off into the sunset, west toward the Nevada border, into a spectacular sunset that used the whole sky. It got dark quickly once the sun had quit the scene, and I turned on the heater to blow onto my red hands. I was rolling.

When I joined the “Extraterrestrial Highway” (no idea why it’s named that, but it’s even labeled on the map), I passed a sign reading “Next gas 150 miles”. I glanced at my gauge and thought, “No problem.” Ten miles later I looked again and was considerably less confident. I pulled over and put the top up for better aerodynamics and slowed down to 59 miles per hour, rather than the posted limit of 70. Slowing down also extends the time of uncertainty, but after I have covered the first 110 miles I could see that I would make it with plenty of gas to spare. I didn’t speed back up, though; that pace just seemed so comfortable at that point, just rolling along quietly, the road mine and mine alone.

A bit of perspective for European and Eastern US readers (Australian readers need not bother): In the 240 km for which I was driving 18 kph under the speed limit, I was never passed by another car. In fact, I traveled more than 100 km, more than an hour, without seeing any other car moving in either direction. In more than two hours of driving, I met four cars total. This was in the evening, between 18.30 and 21.00, not the middle of the night. There are some big, open spaces out here, places people can (and do) disappear.

I rolled into Tonopah, by far the largest town for a long way in any direction. There were several hotels, and some of them advertised free Internet. My first try was the Clown Hotel. It didn’t look that great, but I wanted to open this episode with “I’m at the Clown Hotel.” You have to jump when you have a chance to use a line like that. You can be sure it will show up in a story some day. Perhaps “From Clown Hotel to Space Age Lodge: A voyage across the desert southwest.”

It was full. So was the Best Western. I wound up at the Ramada, which doesn’t suck but it cost a bit more. My WiFi signal is sporadic, but here I am and here I’ll sleep. There is a casino here, but it only has slot machines, so there’s no temptation on that score. There is television, however, and the late-night cartoons of Adult Swim are doing a wonderful job distracting me. Why does every anime dubbed into English use that horrible, horrible, girl for one of the voices? She must be the worst actor in the world with a steady income.

For all the driving I did, I’m not really that much closer to my destination, and now I face mountain passes and winter storms. Not the smartest bit of route planning I’ve ever done, but you don’t look down from the summit on Utah Highway 14 in the winter when you travel intelligently. I guess maybe I should sleep now. At the moment I don’t have a signal, but hopefully I can post this soon.