November 1, 2017

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output here on this blog. Some years I’m happier with it than others; this time around I’m very happy with the idea, but no so keen on the execution. Maybe ok for a first draft (and hey, isn’t that what NaNoWriMo is all about?) but I’ve done better. This has the makings of a quiet, personal story, but this is November so at any minute someone may transplant an alien consciousness into the cat and off we go.

I’ll try to do right by Max and Fucking Cat another time. Oh, and by the way, there’s some profanity coming up.

Max woke from a dream of a rainstorm of needles to find Fucking Cat tearing at his face with age-worn claws. He pushed the cat away with his left arm — his organic arm; he couldn’t afford any more repairs on the other one — but the creature yowled and dove for his abused face once more.

“Fuck!” Max said. He held Fucking Cat away from his face and it went to work on his thumb with its teeth while its claws tore at the flesh of his arm. “Fucking Cat, OFF!” The cat went limp in his hand. At least the voice commands still worked; the last time Fucking Cat had been hacked he’d had to find the hardware switch under its patchy fur.

His cluttered little cube was dimly lit by dozens of red and green status lights, casting crazed shadows on the walls as they shone between the wires, gadgets, and simple junk that cluttered every surface other than his sleeping palette and a plastic chair which had one leg replaced by a section of aluminum conduit. Old electronics running a little on the hot side, last night’s algae cakes, and cheap gin provided the smell that Max thought of as “home”.

He rose from the palette and wiped the oozing blood from his face and his arm with a scratchy towel and examined the dark-red dots. There had been a time when he could afford paper towels, and just throw them down the chute when he was done. He put the cloth towel back against his face and sat in the chair in front of his main console. The metal leg shrieked briefly as it shifted on the hard floor to accomodate his weight. The screen came to life as he sat, bathing the room in a serene, blue-white light. The cube raised other lights in the room, warmer light, the better to care for his eyes. His left eye, at any rate.

It didn’t take long to find the information he was looking for. The virus that had infected Fucking Cat was called SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01 (pronounced peek-a-boy), and had first surfaced thirty-six hours before, somewhere in the home system, possibly even Terra itself. Max snorted. Rightly or wrongly, Luna would be blamed in the end. That’s how it always was with Terra. If they couldn’t blame Mars, they could at least blame Luna.

His research complete, Max turned to the portal for The Pet Smith, and found the expected announcement about SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01. He muted the corporate yammering of the stupidly-attractive representative, no doubt selected for him based on a marketing company’s databse of images Max lingered over just a little longer than others.

Ignoring the distraction, Max searched for the instructions to download the patch. They weren’t where he usually found them, and that’s when he noted the somber expression on the spokesman’s face. She wore the regrettable bad news face.
“Ah, crap,” Max muttered, and with his well-maincured right index finger he allowed the spokesman her voice.

The message began with the spokesman sitting at a table, wearing a conservative, her legs crossed, however, to display a shapely calf. “Hello. My name is Kiki Ventura. We at The Pet Smith are deeply troubled by this most recent attack on our most loyal customers.” A flash of anger crossed her face, her deep-red lips tight at the corners. “The latest viral threat attacks a positioning chip in some of our classic lines of companion animals. Unfortunately that chip set has not been manufactured in many years, and the manufacturer has not been able to provide a software patch to cover the vulnerability.” Here she looked almost heartbroken. “While we will provide tools to rid your companion of any current infection, we cannot guarantee it will not be infected again.”

Kiki raised a finger like a lawyer in court. “All patrons of The Pet Smith can be assured that SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01, or any attack like it, is simply not possible on our newer lines of animal companions. Later model positioning chips are self-contained and not vulnerable to outside tampering.”

One of Kiki’s eyebrows lifted, and she leaned forward in her chair just a little, forcing Max to appreciate her breasts. “For those many who have loved their classic companion animals for all these years, perhaps this is the time to move on. You will be amazed at the incredible range of lifelike behavior our Model 12 line exhibits, whether cat, dog, or less-traditional companion. As part of the transistion, at first your new companion’s behavior will be practically indistinguishable from your current beloved. And we will recycle your previous animal companion with all the respect and dignity it has earned after a lifetime of service.” A brief smile crossed her lovely face. “That’s seven lifetimes in tech years!”

Now an expression of hopeful earnestness. “For a limited time…”

Max silenced the feed again, sighed, and pulled up his bank statement. Enough to cover the deductible for a visit to the Alice, the local veterinarian. He looked at Fucking Cat where it lay in a gray heap on his desk, legs tangled, one yellow eye staring blindly into the corner of the room, the other closed.

The flow of blood on Max’s hand and face had slowed to a slow ooze; he put the towel carefully in the sink and sprinkled it with cleansing powder before turning back to the terminal.

The vet was busy, it appeared; he wasn’t able to get an appointment for several days. In a neighborhood like this one, most of the animals were what The Pet Smith would have called “calssic”. What they really meant was “old”. But having so many older pets in the area meant that sometimes there were solutions to problems that the manufacturers didn’t know about. Or chose to ignore. He made an appointment for Thursday, five days out, and set to work clearing Fucking Cat of his infection, knowing that as soon as he activated the beast he would be infected all over again. Max wan’t going to have anyone to talk to for a few days.

On Wednesday afternoon, Alice called him.

“Max,” she said with no preamble, “I think you should cancel your appointment tomorrow.” Her voice was tired, carrying the weight of decades of delivering bad news.

“Why’s that?”

“Your warranty company has dropped coverage of FC’s model,” she said. She didn’t like the name Max had given his cat. “I’ll have to charge you full. And on top of that, I don’t have any fix for PeeKaBo01. You’d be wasting your money.”
“You can’t fix him?”

“It’s hardware. You could put a new positioning chipset in, but standards have changed. You’d have to upgrade the feedback bus and get way faster-responding actuators to support the clock rate of the new chips.”

“How much would that cost?”

“Several times the price of a new cat.”

By now Max had curled Fucking Cat into a ball and closed his other eye, so it looked like he was just sleeping, the thinning gray fur of his tail wrapped around his nose. “I don’t want a new cat.”

“Max, I understand what you are going through. Really I do. But maybe it’s time to let go.”

“Can you deactivate the chip?”

He waited while Alice composed her answer. “I could, but…” Max kept waiting, and finally she continued. “That chipset is part of a feedback mechanism that constantly recalibrates FC’s movement. Without that system, FC will gradually become clumsier and weaker, until finally he won’t be able to move at all.”

“How long would that take?”

“In a cat as old as FC, probably a few weeks. Maybe a little longer. It’s… not how you want to remember your Fucking Cat. Not for just a few extra weeks.”

“You want to hear something funny, Alice?”

“This isn’t going to be funny at all, is it?”

“My arm has the same positioning chip set. My eye probably does, too. I got lucky on the leg and the fingers. I won’t ask you to shut down Fucking Cat’s positioning chips, but I’d be grateful if you’d teach me how to do it.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Alice said. “You can pay me in chickens.”

“If I had chickens I’d kill them for their chips,” Max said.

Alice smiled sadly. “You know what I mean.”

“I have to go,” she said.

“Why?”

“It dosen’t matter. I have to go. Can you look after Shadow? You’re the only one I trust.”

“I don’t want a fucking cat.”

“That’s not fair! He likes you!”

“It’s a fucking cat. It doesn’t like anyone. It pretends to like me to make you happy, because it pretends to want you to be happy.”

“What a mean thing to say!”

“It’s not mean if it’s true.”

“Just take him. Please. I won’t be gone long.”

“All right.”

“By the time I get back, you’ll be best friends.”

“I said I’d do it. You’re selling past the close.”

“You’re a good friend, Max.”

“Just fucking go if you’re going to go.”

1

All-Nighter

She lay her head down on the table, wild dark hair soaking up spilled beer and mingling with the guacamole. “The problem with places that never close,” she said, her airy voice barely audible over the driving ranchero music of the cantina, “is that you can never go home.”

4

November 1st, 2016

It has become a tradition for me to post my first night’s work here on the inaugural day of NaNoWriMo. This may not be all I write tonight, but it’s a good size for an excerpt.

Jaqi broke the surface with a gasp. “Four divers up!” Smokey called from the raft, his raspy voice carrying over the calm water. As Jaqi tread water, panting, she allowed herself a little smile. Last one up, again. Once the firefiles cleared from her vision and her breath slowed down she turned and swam to the raft, where her friends were already being pulled aboard. She passed her arm through a hoop welded to one of the steel barrels that foemed the floats of the raft, and waited until someone could pull her up. It would have been an easy climb, had she not just spent four minutes holding her breath.
After a few seconds Aaron’s sunburned arm reached down and she took his hand and let him pull her up.

Madre,” she said, and laid down on the sun-hot planks, feeling the heat of the sun on her skin. Someone handed her a tin cup with fresh water. Aaron had retreated to the sheltered section of the raft, heavy canvas supported by a steel frame cast half the raft into shadow impenetrable to her light-adapted eyes, but she could hear the children in there, doing their lessons with white-haired Annabelle, while young, gangly Alex no doubt watched over the cook fire. In the sun to her left Big John cursed steadily while fussing over one of the guy lines that held the mast in place.

“Anything?” Smokey asked. His dark hair was showing gray now. He had never been a big man, but now it seemed like a puff of wind would carry him back to his home in Cuba. He had threatened to pilot the whole raft there, one of these days, but Jaqi had heard that they were shooting new refugees there now. Sparrow said they were eating them, but Sparrow said lots of things.

Jaqi shook her head. “Fuckin’ South Beach,” she said. She sat up and looked down at the water, reading the gentle waves as they revealed where buildings stood below the surface. To the east, the rolling waves from the Atlantic broke over a reef that had once been the hotels and night clubs that lined Ocean drive, now just a jumble of broken, twisted beams and slabs of concrete breaking the surface, discolored by a slick layer of algae.

On the other side, the towers that lined Alton Road had also fared poorly when Henrietta had struck, the storm surge toppling two while undermining the rest. The Icon still stood, damaged when the Murano Grande went down, but only a few crazies lived there, distilling the brevetoxins from red tides into a substance they called “Brevelicious.” What they didn’t consume themselves, they sold to the archipelago. Sparrow knew a couple of them, he even said he’d spent the night there once, but Sparrow said a lot of things. At night the screams of madness from the Icon carried over the water for miles, while lights flashed wildly only to go abruptly dark

Jaqi lay back down, her black braid still dripping onto the deck. “Everything’s collapsed down there,” she said. “Your fuckin’ wine bar is gone, acere.”

Smoky looked up along the darker blue stretches that announced a streets lay below, forming a neat grid. “It’s around here somewhere,” he said.

Javy stood and spit over the side, his brown skin perfect in the sun, his lean frame starting to fill out with muscle. He almost caught Jaqi looking at him. “Either someone got it already or all the bottles are broke. There’s nothing left this close to the towers,” he said. “Fucking scuba dipshits were all over this.”

“We got time for another dive?” asked Jaqi.

Aaron frowned and looked at his phone. “Satellite says weather’s comin’ in.”

“Don’t look like it,” Javy said, making a show of inspecting the horizon.

Smokey shook his head. “Those are the worst ones. Barometer?”

“Dropping,” Aaron said. “But not much yet.”

“One more dive,” Jaqi said. She hated coming up empty-handed.

“You haven’t had time to recover from the last one.”

“I’ll make it a short one,” she said. “We’ll be heading for the towers in five minutes.” Already she was taking deep breaths, hyperventilting to fill her blood with oxygen.

Smokey sighed. “Anyone else want one more?”

Javy shrugged. “Sure.”

“You just said there was no point.”

He shrugged again.

Rosa said, “Fuck it,” and took her t-shirt off. Jaqi watched Javy watch Rosa adjust her bikini top. Jaqi busied herself with her fllippers and her mask. Short dive. The building she had tried to find a way into her last time down might have had retail space on the bottom floor. If she went straight at it, found an opening, there might be something worthwhile inside.
“Three divers,” Smokey said. “Get ready.”

Jaqi moved to the edge of the raft, and fiddled with her own one-piece suit, almost dizzy from the oxygen in her blood, but still breathing hard.

“Divers go,” Smokey said, and Jaqi dropped from the edge of the raft into the cloudy tropical water.

November 1, 2015

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s efforts for National Novel Writing Month here each year. Some years the day-one spew is more interesting than others; this year my approach to NaNoWriMo is somewhat different and so the product is different as well. What I’m doing is more like research than it is the actual story.

You know how you pick up some stories and you start reading and all of a sudden you’re “treated” to chapters of “how character X got to be here” junk? It’s all stuff that happens before the real story begins, but the writer doesn’t trust himself to show you the character organically so he feels compelled to go off on a huge tangent to explain who the main people are in the story. But it’s not part of the story, and if you can’t make a character’s behavior in the here and now make sense without first presenting a complete biography, then maybe it’s time to review that behavior.

There’s nothing wrong with writing a full backstory for characters, just remember that it’s for you as a writer, not for the reader. Write it, but don’t publish it.

Or, if the backstory is interesting, you can publish it on your Web site as a supplement to the core story. That can be fun for everyone. Just let people meet your characters in the story first.

Oh, by the way, this episode is all backstory. I’m writing it to answer to myself one simple question: “What’s the story with Bags’ pretty sword?” I wrote that in as an interesting detail all the way back in episode one, but I have no more idea what it signifies than you do. So I better figure that out. For the next couple of days I’m writing a story for me only, to hash through Bags and to try to find ways to make him interesting. After that I’ll do the same for Kat. Martin, maybe, maybe not. He lives so much in the moment that the past doesn’t seem to matter to him. He just is.

After that I’ll probably start gushing out versions of what TFNIWLNW would be like if I were to actually write it. The main thing I need now is a plot. Characters and setting will only get you so far. (Though there are plenty of big-name authors who coast on character and setting once people are hooked to their interminable series.)

Anyway, all that backstory I just said one should not publish? Here’s some of it now. One thing about writing backstory just for the sake of backstory: it’s almost all exposition. I’ll be getting into more character development later tonight, but this part is already pretty long to expect a blog audience to read.

I will say, what with it being a series of events, a lot does happen, even if I haven’t examined very much yet what the significance of those events is. At the very end of this bit I finally start getting some traction in that arena.

Anyway, here’s the first part of the first day:

The Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write: Research

When Baxter Mongret was enjoying his fifth summer, his father went off to war and didn’t come back. When news of father’s death reached the modest cottage where Baxter had been born, all were pleased — but not surprised — to learn that he had died well. “Die young but well and leave plenty of offspring” might have been the family motto, were it not, “In Glory, Everything.”

Each generation of Mongrets saw a few of the men survive long enough to enrich his family with the spoils of war and the favors of grateful nobility, but Baxter’s father had so flawlessly embraced the family’s unspoken credo that he had died gloriously, slaying many enemies and saving the life of a bastard son of a minor prince, but expiring before any of the rewards of such heroism could be conferred upon him.

So it was that Baxter, his still-beautiful mother, one younger brother, and two sisters, found themselves living under the care of his uncle Traistin, one of his departed father’s older brothers.

The next few years were the best of his life. Baxter was set upon by his older cousins, beaten, taunted, and tormented in every way that the nefarious minds of children can invent. He fought them with fist, boot, tooth and words. He always lost. But sometimes he would pause, surrounded by the larger boys, and see Uncle Traistin watching, with a faint smile on his face, and he would give a nod of approval aimed at Baxter alone. Those moments made everything else worthwhile.

One by one the older boys were given over to the master at arms, to begin formal training, and were no longer allowed to tussle with the children. It was a grave and solemn graduation from child from youth, and later from youth to young man. Young men could serve warriors, and would eventually achieve that station themselves, somewhere around their twentieth birthdays. The only step that followed that one was ‘corpse’.

By the time Baxter, or ‘Bags’ as his unkind cousins had taken to calling him, turned seven there were no longer any cousins who could best him. He wasn’t the biggest, though he had the bones to suggest he would be. He wasn’t the most skilled; he moved with the awkwardness of a large puppy still trying to gain control of his skeleton. But he was strong, and he was fast, and more than anything else he was releltlessly untiring. Combined with a patience born of being overmatched, of enduring and waiting for the one chance to strike a blow that might turn the fight, he had the discipline of a mature warrior.

His younger brother William, or “Worm” now to most of his cousins, did not recieve the same attention. He was still too young to be involved in family politics, and as he got older he grew into awareness of his surroundings already knowing the cousins his age. Worm was small for his age, and while he shared his brother’s quickness, he was obvioulsy never going to be a great warrior. Luckily, you don’t need to be a great warrior to die bravely. It might even hasten the path to glory.

On Bags’ seventh birthday, then, one year ahead of when most boys were sent for their arms training, Traistin stood to speak in the family mess hall, and solemnly announced that Baxter Mongret was ready to join the master at arms for formal training. There was much cheering, because Bags was popular among the adults and respected by the other children, but some of his cousins did not like it. Their own father was showing some interloper greater respect than he ever had shown for them.

“You better watch your back, Bags,” Clyde hissed across the table. “We’ll be using real weapons next time.”

Bags smiled. His life would once again become what he was accustomed to. He was going to be the target again, and he was going to learn how to fight all over again.

 

Only it didn’t work out that way. First, all their fights were carefully controlled by their tutors. Even when the tutor was an older brother of the cousin Bags was fighting, they kept things scrupulouosly fair, lest they dishonor themselves. Nobody was prepared to diminish himself in the eyes of the master at arms. Second, After the first few weeks while he accustomed himself to the new tools of violence, Bags started winning. He fought with joy and daring, without ever being reckless, and he was steadily matched against older and older opponents. The graying men who presided over the training too notice, and gave him personal attention with more sophisticated attacks and defenses. The masters hoped, quietly, to themselves, that Baxter would have many offspring before his inevitable fall. Out loud they told Traistin that Baxter was going to bring great glory to the family.

They were wrong about both those things.

 

When Bags’ mother got pregnant again, Bags thought nothing of it. Pregnancy was someting that happened to women. Other people seemed terribly upset about it, though, especially Uncle Traistin’s wife Greta. Greta had come from far away to marry Uncle Traistin, and she had never much liked Bags’ mother. She didn’t seem to like anyone, for that matter — she went out of her way to make it clear she was unhappy pretty much all the time. But for Bags’ mother there was a extra special sort of hatred that Bags did not understand, as much as he was aware of it at all.

Most of the other people around the place didn’t seem to care all that much. It all went with the Unspoken Credo. Leave many offspring. A bastard could die gloriously just as well as any other.

Things only got worse when word came that Uncle Traistin had been killed in battle, hundreds of miles away, along with his two eldest sons, fighting for some prince Bags had never heard of. The messenger had ridden through sleet and rain and winter’s muck to bring the news as quickly as possible, as if another day of not knowing would have mattered. His horse died right there in the courtyard, while Bags looked on sadly.

His uncle had died a violent death, but that’s what it meant to be a man in his world. From Bags’ point of view, Glorious Death was the sole reason battles even happened, and princes only existed so that men could die for them. Without princes, what would his family even do?

Traistin was the last of his generation, and his oldest surviving son was a mere seventeen, only now starting on the “many offspring” part of his destiny. Just married and to be honest rather stupid, he was ill-prepared to be head of the household. Which allowed Greta to take control, at least until more distant testicle-bearing relations could make their way to the compund. While she had the ear of her sons, she made two decisions. One, that not all her sons would die in battle. Two, there was no room under her roof for beggars and whores. By whom she meant Bags and his family. Mother and sons she turned out into the winter; Bags’ sisters she sold to a caravaner passing through.

 

It was only a few weeks before Greta was executed by the men of her family for bringing Dishonor on the name Mongret, but by then the damage was done. Penniless and starving in the snow, Bags’ mother died giving birth to a little boy, who died hours later while Bags held it, crying helplessly. “They turned their backs on us,” His mother panted while she bled into the snow, her doomed infant son wailing in her arms. “Listen how your tiny brother cries for vengeance.” She shuddered. “If you share his cries, Bax, you must remember one thing. One thing…” She coughed and took another shuddering breath, her face as pale as the snow around them. “They must die the death of cravens, or your vengeance will merely hasten them to glory.”

 

Bags couldn’t even bury his mother and brother. The ground was too hard and he had no tools, and no way to get them. As night fell he heard the furtive sounds of scavengers and predators, drawn to the scent of blood. He woke his younger brother who lay pulled into a ball, shaking in his cloak. Bags pulled him shivering to his feet. “Never forget this place,” he told Worm. “We must always remember.”

Worm nodded. “Always.”

“We have to go now.”

“What’s going to happen to her?”

“She will become part of the forest.” Wolf shit is part of the forest after all.

“Like a spirit?”

Bags nodded, though he had no idea how these things worked. But there were spirits in the woods, and they had to come from somewhere. “Yes,” he said. “And we have to remember this place, remember her, or her spirit will fade.”

Worm, solemn as ever, said, “I will always remember. Even when you forget, I will remember.”

“I won’t forget.”

“You forget everything. Everyone in our family forgets. They forget what people looked like as soon as they’re gone. They forget the happy times they had together. I think we have to forget or we’ll be sad all the time.”

“But not you?”

“Not me. I remember everything.”

“I won’t forget this,” Bags said. “Not this.”

“I won’t let you,” Worm said.

The creatures of the night were getting braver. “We have to go,” Bags said. He took Worm’s hand and led him out of the underbrush and onto the deserted, moon-lit road. “Which way?” he wondered aloud.

Worm pointed to their right. “That way,” he said. “Away from anyone who has ever even heard the name Mongret.”

1

TFNIWLNW: 6

Episode 6

Civilization at last. Or a reasonable attempt at civilization, at least. Mountain Forge is a squat stone blister on the side of a mountain, habitable only because shit runs downhill. Its five hundred inhabitants, mostly male, are there to extract wealth from the stone, and for little else. But where there are men with money there will always be alcohol, and where there is alcohol and money there will be gambling. A truth as eternal as the stones under out feet. The alcohol would be watered and the games would be rigged, but those are problems a resourceful man can manage.

We slogged into town through steady rain, the gray mud sucking at our feet adding to the effort of our climb. I had long since given up trying to keep the moisture from permeating my clothes, my skin, even my bones. My cloak weighed twice what it usually did and my trousers chafed my inner thighs. My feet had swollen up in my shoes and threatened to burst the worn leather.

We hadn’t spoken much before, but once the rain came we plodded in silence, each of us wrapped up in our own personal misery. We marched, Kat in front, Bags in the middle, and me staring at Bags’ rain-sodden ass mile after mile. The trees became sparser and shorter as we climbed, until they quit entirely on the outskirts of Mountain Forge. The wind kicked up and drove the raindrops under the brim of my hat, a thousand icy needles stinging my skin.

Kat stopped before reaching the first stone hovel at the edge of town and waited for us to pull up next to her. “They will know about Sothron’s murder. There will be a reward. Someone here might try to claim it.”

At that point, I would have taken a cell in the deepest pit over more rain. Still, it’s important to remain pragmatic when running for your life. “Will there be time to get drunk first?” I asked.

Kat snorted as if I’d told a joke. “Just be alert. The baron was not well-liked here. Most people here hated him even more than they love money. But the temptation will linger in their hearts if they think they can get away with killing you and delivering your head to the authorities without having their own guts poured out in the street first.”

I looked up the muddy lane flanked by low stone structures, their granite walls dark with the rain. Coal smoke rose from chimneys only to surrender and roll back down to the ground, adding to the heavy mist, and giving the town a ghost-like cast. Farther up the lane the buildings became larger, more permanent-looking. One of those would have booze, a fire, and other entertainment. I started walking. “Speaking personally,” I said, “I’ve never heard of Baron Whosifuck. I just want a drink.”

“We’re in this together,” Kat said.

I stopped, turned, and regarded her. “No,” I said. “We’re not. There is no ‘this’ for us all to be in on. An asshole is dead. We all agree that’s a good thing. But that’s done now and the next step is to not be killed just because some rich bastard got his throat cut. I promised Bags a new shirt, and he’ll get one. But first I’m going to get warm, get dry, eat a hot meal, and try not to get stabbed for playing dice better than the locals. None of those things require your participation.”

She looked like I had taken her favorite toy away. “You don’t understand.”

“Actually, Katherine, I do. Better than you do, I think.”

Bags raised his big hand in a gesture somewhere between a wave and a salute. “See you later then,” he said.

I raised my own. “Let’s go find the blacksmith of this shithole after lunch tomorrow.”

He smiled. “You’ll still have some money then?”

“I’ll run out of welcome long before I run out of money in a town like this,” I said.

“Well, try not to get killed before tomorrow.”

“We’ll be staying in the same place,” I said. “I’ll leave it to you to keep me alive.” With that I turned and trudged up the road into town. I heard Bags and Kat exchanging words behind me, but I chose not to hear what they said. There was nothing she could say that hadn’t been said about me many times before.

first episode

TFNIWLNW: 5

Episode 5

There is a moment each morning when the night must recognize that day is coming, when darkness admits it must give in to the sun’s bullying ways, yet clings to the world for just a while longer before slinking back into the shadows. In the forest it is a time before color has awakened, when mist hangs close to the ground and the air is gravid with the scent of the earth. There is a silence then, broken only by the furtive steps of timid creatures trying to steal a meal in the stillness, before the predators of the day begin to stir.

Those who believe that the sun has no choice but to rise may not appreciate the magic of that moment. They forget that it will not be long before the uncaring ball of fire rises without them. When I am able, I stop at that moment and thank whatever gods might be out there for allowing me to know that simple peace once more.

It is also an ideal time for hunting. When my companions stirred with the growing light they were welcomed to the day by the smell of rabbits cooking over oaken coals.

“I could get used to this,” Bags declared as he tore dark meat from the bones and pushed it into his mouth, but I wondered if he could. The pace and the terrain were taking a toll on the big man. His hands bore a dozen cuts and scrapes from climbing, and fatigue was etched in his face. He favored his left foot when walking and I saw blood on his socks when he took off his boots. I had not been unhappy to bid the horses goodbye when the terrain got rugged and the forage sparse, but Bags, it seemed, had been born on the back of one of the beasts. Still he greeted each day of toil with a smile.

Katherine, on the other hand, suffered not because the pace was too fast, but because it was too slow. Each day she would range ahead, finding the best route for the big man, and then sweep behind us, checking for signs of pursuit. For every mile we covered, she walked three or more. Each night she agreed with tight-lipped reluctance to stop when Bags could go no further.

For my part I was content to pace Bags, traveling mostly in silence, encouraging him when I could, carrying his pack on occasion — though never for very long — and helping the civilized man to negotiate the wilds.

North, we traveled, relentlessly north; only Katherine sure of our destination. She knew more than I did about the people who wished us dead and the people who might still have use for us in this world, so I was content to let her choose our path, all the while knowing that while we toiled through the rough country, word of the baron’s death was traveling by road and was by now far ahead of us. A problem for another day — but each day Bags was going to be less useful when it came to dealing with the unfriendly people we might meet.

“Going to rain today,” Katherine said.

I looked up into the brightening sky. There were no rain clouds, just high, feathery clouds drifting to the east.

For a moment Bags’ smile faltered. “Well that’s just grand,” he said.

“It is, actually,” Katherine replied. She softened a bit. “Hang on a little longer, Bags, and you can rest. I made you something for your foot.” She handed him a wad of leaves that smelled awful.

Bags peeled open the leaves and looked skeptically at the gray ooze she had given him. He took a suspicious sniff. “What is it?”

“I found some dragontooth while I was scouting yesterday. I made a balm last night. Rub it on your blisters.”

“Isn’t that stuff poisonous?” I asked.

She ignored me. “When you put it on, it’s going to burn like you stuck a hot iron on your foot. But it’ll harden up your skin where the blisters tore off. And, uh, don’t lick your fingers.”

While Bags tended to his wounded foot Katherine turned to the food I had prepared. She took a bite of rabbit and nodded. “Thanks for breakfast, once again,” she said. “I appreciate not having to hunt.”

“I just put out snares,” I said. “The rabbits do most of the work.”

Bags picked up a pebble and threw it at me. “Just say, ‘you’re welcome’.”

Katherine allowed herself a hint of a smile. “You’d rather not take credit for anything, would you, Martin?” Katherine asked.

“I have always found credit difficult to distinguish from blame.”

“You’re worried I’ll blame you for making breakfast?”

“Your breakfast is stolen property. This forest belongs to someone. I would rather he never give me credit for making your breakfast.”

She made a face like she had bit into something bitter. She had extremely well-developed scowling muscles, I noted, forming small knots at the corners of her mouth and between her dark eyebrows. “Lord Wilmont can choke on his own genitals,” she said, “now that Baron Sothron won’t be sucking on them.”

I had to chuckle at the fine polish she put on her obscenity. She had not grown up poor, but she was comfortable enough living simply now. The frayed edges around the hood of her cloak and the patches on her knees bespoke a thrift I was not accustomed to finding in one raised in comfort.

It was possible, of course, that her carefully-learned diction was simply artifice, adopted with care, with the intent to conceal, rather than reveal, her origins. I am acquainted with people who have made that effort. The roll of her r’s and the elongation of her vowels hinted of the north, an impression reinforced by her pale skin, but her northness had been muted, subjugated by the tyranny of a southern-born tutor. Father dearest had hoped to improve her value in the eyes of the powerful men in the moneyed south. Based on current circumstances, I hazarded that his plans were not working out the way he hoped.

“Why are you smiling?” she asked me.

“I was jut trying to imagine how it went when your father tried to marry you off.”

She stood abruptly and reached for her bow. Apparently it was time to start walking. “Oh, I married him,” she said. “Father did very well for himself. But that’s over now.” She held her hand out to Bags and helped him to his feet. “Better?” she asked him.

He tested his medicated feet and nodded. “Better.”

I stood also and gathered my few belongings.

“My husband is dead,” Katherine said. “He was mutilated before his throat was cut, in a tavern while surrounded by his own men. No one seems to know whom to blame. Or to credit.”

first episode

TFNIWLNW: 4

Episode 4

It was I who heard them first. Horses pushed hard by angry men.

We had covered perhaps five miles by sunrise; the terrain was still friendly enough, and as the clouds broke up a sliver of moon provided enough light for us to avoid the worst obstacles. A bed of pine needles on the forest floor softened our steps as we wove between the dark pillars of the tree trunks. Katherine, when I could see her at all, seemed to blend with her surroundings until she was little more than a shadow. If ever needed to kill her, I decided, I’d make sure I did it in town. But today we were on the same side, or at least running from the same people, and the sound of pursuit to the south meant that blood would soon be spilled.

“Horses,” I said.

The others stopped to listen. After a moment Katherine nodded. “Riding hard — they don’t care if some of them break their legs.”

“How many?” Bags asked his partner.

“Several. Maybe ten.”

I would have wagered seven were I in a more congenial crowd. “No dogs,” I said, with some relief. Dogs are harder to deceive.

Katherine scanned the rising ground ahead of us. Not far to the west a rocky outcrop peeked above the trees, its pale face shining pink in the early-morning light. “We’ll set up there,” she said and turned that way without waiting for an answer. Bags and I followed, jogging behind her.

She didn’t slow until she was at the top. While Bags caught his breath I explored the outcrop, listening as the horses drew near. We were in a a good, defensible position, the approach to the outcrop easily visible. To the right was the gentler slope we had climbed, to our left the rocks were broken and jumbled.

“I should be able to get a couple of them before they reach shelter,” she said.

“What if they shoot back?” I asked.

She smiled. “I hope they do.”

Bags pulled his sword free. Everything about him was ragged except that blade, gleaming in the early-morning light. “I can hold the path,” he said, “’till you pick them apart.”

I studied the outcrop, and realized that I would be little help in the battle they were imagining. I have no sword, no armor, and no bow. “I’ll see you two later, then,” I said, and started down the other side, away from all the trouble.

“Where are you going?” Katherine asked me sharply.

“Not sure yet. I’ll play it by ear.”

“You godfucked son of a mongrel,” Katherine said. “I didn’t take you for a coward.”

“This isn’t my sort of fight,” I said over my shoulder.

“See you later, then,” Bags said.

Her voice was steady and hard. “I will find you, Martin. You can count on that.”

“I’m counting the minutes, Kat” I called back. Then I was among the trees, and I began moving more quickly, while wisdom warred with curiosity in my head. If I kept walking, I could live to spend the gold in my wallet, Kat’s threats notwithstanding. I could be far from the ugly politics, far from hundreds of angry soldiers. Eventually Katherine and Bags would be killed, Katherine’s connections discovered, and I would be forgotten. All I had to do was keep walking west.

Wisdom lost the battle, but of course you knew that already. Wise men rarely have interesting stories to tell; people don’t crowd pubs exchanging stories with their friends about the time they did the wise thing. I found myself curving around to my right toward the jumbled rocks on the north side of the outcrop where my friends waited to fight seven to ten well-armed men.

Our pursuit would have seen our change in direction and known exactly what it meant. They would be cautious. Katherine’s bow would slow them, and Bags’ sword would push them back, but assuming my companions won those two skirmishes, there would be other men looking for a more subtle path up. I needed to find that path first.

I found a likely spot, a fissure in the weathered granite that provided shelter from arrows and unwanted eyes. Through that passage the honorable men who wished to slaughter us would be able to get behind my companions at the top of the hill, making the fight much more fair than I was comfortable with allowing. I moved through the gap and found a nice nook behind a loose boulder. I was just settling in behind the rough, weathered stone when I heard the first man cry out. An arrow had found flesh. There were shouts, the leader instructing his men, but I couldn’t make out specific words.

Another curse, and the clash of metal, then quiet. If Bags had been overwhelmed, the enemy was now above and behind me. Best not to think about that. I had only one choice: to trust my judgement, to trust my companions, and to do what I do best.

Perhaps ten minutes later I heard the first furtive sounds of men trying to be stealthy while wearing metal clothes. By the time they were near me I had identified three of them by the sounds they made. I would have preferred two.

The knife I chose for this job was thin and razor-sharp, her blade the color of a dark dream on a moonless night. The smith who had forged her was dead now, slain by her twin. If I was going to die today, I wanted to die with this lovely blade in my hand. The steel was surprisingly resilient, but if I erred and hit armor rather than flesh she would break in a thousand pieces. Mentally I promised the piece of metal that I would not miss.

Three of them. I’d have to wait until I was right in the middle of them to make my move. If they didn’t cooperate and pass where I thought they would, my best option was to start running and not stop until nightfall.

They cooperated. The first was past me when I lunged from my little haven and cut the throat of the second, my black steel sliding through his flesh like it was air. The third in line had time to raise his sword before I found his larynx and pushed my knife home. Blood gushed onto my hand, threatening my grip, as I turned to face the one who had been in the lead.

He was facing me, sword ready, shouting obscenities that were frankly unimaginative. His feet were searching for purchase on the rocks, his hard-soled boots with tapered toes were made for the stirrup, not uncertain ground. His armor was clean and showed not a spot of rust, his green cloak hung easily on his shoulders. He held out his sword, fighting for balance on the rocks, and he knew that his only advantage was that his deadly steel was longer than mine. We seemed to be in a standoff. From above came another clash of steel, another cry of pain.

“You’re the last one,” I said. “All your friends are dead.”

“You are a lying son of a whore,” the soldier said. He was barely more than a kid, the fuzz on his cheeks more a wish than a beard.

I shrugged. “We can stand here until my big friend comes down to see what all the shouting is about, or you can drop your sword and go back the way you came.”

“If I drop my sword, you’ll kill me.”

I smiled and moved my blade to the side just enough, my empty hand in a placating gesture. “Why would I do that? I just want to be on my way. Drop your sword and start walking, and we’ll have no reason to kill you. We’ll be keeping your horses, of course.”

From above the sound of heavy footsteps. One person, favoring a leg. If it wasn’t Bags, I wanted my current situation resolved long before he arrived. “You’re time’s running out,” I said.

The sound of his sword rattling among the rocks reverberated through the forest. “Thank you,” I said. I reached out my hand to steady him as he clambered back past me. When he was next to me I cut his throat and watched his eyes widen in shock as he choked on his own blood. “You saw my face far to well, kid,” I said as he slumped to the ground. He deserved an explanation.

I turned to meet the approaching footsteps. Bags greeted me with his gap-toothed grin. There was blood smeared on his cheek, but I couldn’t tell if it was his. “Good to see you,” I said.

“Dangerous work,” he said. “Three of them, huh?”

I nodded. “Kat all right?”

“Yeah. Might go easier for all of us if you call her Katherine.”

“I know.”

“You also should have told us your plan. So we could work together.”

“I didn’t know my plan.”

“Maybe not specifics, but you did know generalities.”

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to take the chance to leave you guys behind.”

His face was almost serious for a moment. “Fair enough. Why didn’t you?”

“Still might. But you’re a good guy. Hate to see you die some anonymous death out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“You imagine a better death for me?”

“Maybe not better, but later.”

Bags laughed. “I’ll take it. And I’ll tell Katherine that I’ve already chewed you out for not being a team player.”

“A lot of good that will do.”

Again that smile. That toothless smile that lacked any guile at all. “Oh, she’ll still be madder than a cat in sack, but she won’t say anything. And she knows that you’re going out of your way to annoy her for a reason. She just has the wrong reason.” He laughed again. “She thinks you like her.”

first episode

The Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write: Chapter 3

There’s a milestone in the development of the characters I need to reach before I walk away from this setting.

Chapter 3

A gentle silence settled around us as we finished our food. We all knew what must follow. Travel. Pursuit. Fear and maybe death.

I don’t make much of an impression when I’m in a room, and that’s all right with me. Even after I killed the baron I doubted anyone who was there would be able to identify me with certainty. Were I alone I’d just need to put enough distance between my face and that ugly scene, and refrain from showing too much of the baron’s money in one place, and I’d be fine. Eventually they’d find some other bastard to execute.

Bags, however, had made quite an impression. We could get him new armor and maybe even new teeth, but it wouldn’t matter. The baron’s friends would follow him to the end of the world. It was time to find shelter from the storm.

“Know anyone who hated the Baron?” I asked my new companions.

Always-Katherine nodded. “Almost everybody.”

Almost everybody is worthless. “Anyone who might be grateful enough and powerful enough to protect us?”

She framed her response carefully. “Grateful and powerful, yes. But willing? Probably not. The baron’s enemies aren’t going to want to reveal themselves yet.”

Yet, she said. I wiped my fingers on my cloak and stretched my legs. The fire was just a glow now, painting our faces red. Bags belched and laughed. I asked the question I already knew the answer to. “What makes you think that?”

She spit into the fire. “Because one of them hired me to kill the son of a bitch.”

Bags laughed. “That’s why she made us come marching out here. To see who stole her fun.”

“And to keep you alive,” she said. She turned back to me. “Who are you working for?”

“I fill my own belly, and starve on my own account,” I said.

“Why did you kill him, then?”

“He was an asshole.” And that’s the whole truth. But people want to make it complicated.

She smiled, but it wasn’t a particularly friendly smile. “Do you kill all assholes?”

“I’d like to.”

“Bags said the baron was attacking a woman, and you killed him for it.”

Katherine was trying to like me, trying to see me as a defender of the weak, a man willing to risk his life to protect the downtrodden. A lot of people are like her; they feel a need to enjoy the company of the people around them. Those people annoy me. “I killed him,” I said, “but that’s not why.”

Bags snorted.

I let it drop. If they wanted to think I was some godfucked saint then it would be easier if I ever needed to cut their throats. “We should be going,” I said. “And Bags, can we prevail upon you to not leave a trail of blasted vegetation behind you?”

Bags gave me his toothless grin. “Probably not,” he said.

“They’ll know by now we are headed toward Bishop’s Junction.” Katherine said. “They’ll be waiting for us there. We should turn north.”

The terrain to the north got very rugged, making mounted pursuit less of an advantage. It also meant slow, hard travel and a much longer wait before I could start spending my money. “Maybe we should split up,” I said. Without Bags, I was pretty sure I could fade into the forest and emerge somewhere else, just another stranger.

She looked at me with narrowed eyes and shook her head slowly. “You’re the one who got us into this.”

“Us?”

“Baxter’s messes are my messes, too. And this one’s yours as well.”

“I wanted to do it,” Bags said as he sucked the last of the chicken grease off his fingers. “They were hurting her.”

“That’s because you’re a kind-hearted idiot,” Katherine said, but she didn’t sound angry when she said it. She looked back at me. “I don’t know what you are. We’re staying together until I figure that out.”

And not a moment longer, I added silently, because that was the truth of it. I stood. “Best get going, then. I hear the north is lovely this time of year.”

first episode

1

More from the Novel I’ll Likely Never Write

I don’t have a plot, but I have some characters.

The fire crackled and sputtered as it nibbled at the damp branches I had laid for it. Smoke rose reluctantly in the heavy night air; were it not for the heavy cloak of clouds overhead I would not have risked giving away my location. But after a good night’s work I felt I deserved better than to huddle in the darkness. I had put a lot of distance between myself and the blood-soaked public house, and I had taken pains to be difficult to follow.

My stomach growled. I wished I had take the time to eat before saving that girl. It wasn’t the first time I’d gone without dinner, however, and it wasn’t likely to be the last. Nothing drives the work ethic quite so well as an empty belly.

I sighed, pulled my travel-worn cloak tighter about me, and once more opened the purse I had liberated from the baron. We are creatures of habit, all of us, and I honestly don’t remember removing the baron’s money sack even as I removed his family jewels. But here it was, heavy with gold — far more gold than the baron could possibly have needed for a night out abusing his common folk.

The freshly-minted coins gleamed in the fickle light of the fire. Whatever the young baron had intended to do with them, they were mine, now. My little friends.

The sound of footsteps made my ears want to swivel on my head. Still far away, but heading my direction. Two people, one making no attempt to be quiet, the other almost silent. Alone, the furtive one would have been able to get very close indeed. I took a long breath in through my nose, released it through my mouth. I needed to act, but I needed to act wisely. And quietly. There was only two of them, but if they had found me, they were probably more skilled than the average yahoo.

But dark woods at night — that’s my battlefield. I am, in the words of my father, one sneaky son of a bitch. Away from the fire I moved, easily, carefully, silently. I had scouted fallback positions before laying a fire, and on this damp night I chose to move out and up, into the comforting branches of a towering conifer thirty yards from the little clearing that had been my home. Some twenty feet off the ground I pulled my night-colored cloak around me and relaxed with my feet underneath me. If I had to, I could jump, but that didn’t seem likely. I practiced my knife skills while I waited.

It was twenty minutes or more before the pair arrived at my campsite. During that time two things became clear to me: they were following me, and they weren’t trying to hide the fact. By the time the big man stepped into the light I was not surprised to see him. His ragged chain shirt had another gap, but I didn’t see any sign of blood. I might have smiled, but my teeth would have reflected the waning firelight.

Behind him was another man — no, a woman. The quiet one. Her eyes flashed into the shadows all around the fire, not scanning for me, but for signs of my passing. She held a short blade of darkened steel, more a large knife than a sword, while a compact bow hung from her shoulder. Her clothes were earthtone and her boots were soft. Her straw-colored hair was pulled back so it would not interfere with her vision. She was a tracker. I’d never met a woman in that line of work before, but her presence here marked her as a darn good one. I was going to have to me more careful in the future.

The big man turned and smiled at her; she smiled back. He slipped the pack off his back and sat on my rock as he swung the pack around in front of him. She remained standing, keeping her eyes on the shadows in my general direction, the dark blade comfortably loose in her grasp.

Out of his pack the big man pulled an oil-stained bundle. He opened it to reveal three roast chickens. He laid the cloth at his feet, pulled a drumstick off one of the birds, and took a bite. “Shit, this is good,” he said.

I smiled. She saw me, but she tried to pretend she hadn’t. “Do you have enough for one more?” I asked.

“Sure,” the big man said, “But I’m not giving you your seat back.”

I began my descent. “So you recognize that it’s my seat.”

The tracker spoke. “The seat belongs to us all.” Her voice was a husky alto. The conviction it carried sounded like trouble.

“My little brother has a saying,” I said as I reached the base of the tree. “The man with the chickens can sit where he chooses, as long as he shares.”

The tracker opened her mouth to speak, but then just nodded. I stepped into the light and appraised her as she appraised me. We were about the same height, and about the same weight. Her blue eyes made me think of snow. Her mouth was set in a thin line that pressed the blood from her lips.

“My name is Martin, more often than not,” I said.

“Baxter,” the big man said through a mouthful of food. “But usually Bags.”

“Katherine,” the tracker said. She paused, and a tiny smile quirked her hard face. “Always.”

I sat on the ground next to the food and turned to look at the big man. “You all right?” I asked. I gestured toward the new gap in his chain shirt with a chicken bone.

He smiled toothlessly. “Definitely gonna be purple under there,” he said. “But that’s what the shirt’s for.” He took another bite of chicken, pulling the tender meat off the bones with his molars.

“Looks like it’s saved you a few times.”

He looked down at his battered armor. “Yeah,” he said. He pulled at the metal links idly. “Lotta holes in it now, though.”

Katherine’s back was to the fire. All I could see of her was a cloak that draped to her knees, lean calves and skinny ankles below that. “Then why haven’t you replaced it?” Her voice was carefully flat.

The big man, Bags, looked at me and shrugged, a little half-smile on his chicken-grease-slicked face.

I sliced off another chunk of meat and ate it off my knife. Rosemary filled my head and I felt benevolent toward the entire world. “I found some money recently,” I said. “Let’s get you fixed up right.”

“Well, actually—”

“Thank you,” Katherine said. She crouched down and tore a piece of chicken away with long, slender fingers. “Good people should help each other.”

“And on occasion I help good people as well,” I said, to lighten the mood. Let’s not make any mistakes here; I am not a good person.

Katherine sent me a thin smile. “This is going to be an interesting journey.”

first episode

1

An Excerpt from a Fantasy Novel I’ll Likely Never Write

So I just banged this out and I’ll discuss it maybe a bit in the comments — it diverged from the idea in my head in an interesting way — but I should warn you that this gets violent. Knives and genitals meet.

The Duty of the Strong

The Baron grabbed the serving girl and pulled her forcefully onto his lap, sliding his hand inside her dress. Her cries were drowned out by the laughter of his men. Her struggles only added to the merriment. “I like ’em feisty!” the baron shouted.

The man sitting next to me at the long common table tensed. He was big, but for his size he was lean and hard. He wore a simple chain shirt that had been repaired many times; in places the links bunched while other areas were only thinly protected. The shirt he wore beneath was tattered, more hole than cloth. His long dark hair was tucked behind his ear, revealing the tension in his square jaw and the crease of his brow pulled down over deep-set eyes. A scar, still slightly pink and puffy, bisected his eyebrow and continued down his cheek.

Another cry from the serving-girl, barely audible over the roar of the baron’s retainers. My stomach turned. But I am a smallish man, slightly built, talented in my own ways, perhaps, but helpless to prevent what was about to happen. The big man was breathing carefully.

“It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak,” I hazarded, softly.

“Perhaps,” said the big man, in a voice for me alone, the product of a throat that has known no shortage of shouting, “But I am more inclined to help the girl.” He looked at me directly. His eyes were blue, sapphires buried in the shadow of his brow. “But I am just one.”

“Sometimes simple brawls have unexpected collateral damage,” I said. “Where no one is looking.”

He smiled, revealing a void where his front teeth should have been. He put a hand on my shoulder, a big, hard hand that bent me under its weight. “It is the duty of the strong,” he said, “to protect the unarmed.”

He rose with a roar, tipping his chair and mine, his blade gleaming in the light of the fire, a living thing almost, flawless and beautiful. I rolled beneath the table adjacent, lost in the rush to flee the violence.

“Come here, you little bitch baron,” the big man shouted. “Come over here and learn what it means to be a man!”

The baron stood, dumping the girl on the floor, and for a moment I thought his pride was going to render my skills unnecessary. He drew his sword, stepped forward two paces, and said, “Nobody speaks to me that way.” To his men he said, “Kill him.”

Twenty green-cloaked men rose and I didn’t like the chances of my new friend, however strong he was. I was not going to tip that scale, however; he was on his own. All that was left for me was to make his death worthwhile. I chose a thicker blade, a cutting knife rather than a stabbing one. I thought perhaps the extra blood on the floor would end the violence more quickly.

From one table to the next I moved, though in the confusion and noise I need hardly have bothered. The big man was using that gleaming blade to keep the greencloaks from getting too close, but it looked like he’d only killed a couple of them so far. I continued toward my goal.

They say that poetry is lost in this world, that the bluster of commerce and war has hardened our souls to beauty, but it is lost only to those who don’t know where to look. There is the poetry of moments, a poetry of found things that a perceptive mind understands. Take for example, a moment when one emerges from beneath a table, holding a very sharp knife, to discover the genitals of a man about to violate a woman while she watches her would-be savior perish. The poetry is further enhanced if one is well-versed in the various ways to use a knife, and if the possessor of the genitals releases a particularly shrill scream when they are removed from him.

I almost didn’t kill the baron; living his life so altered would almost certainly be another poem, and enduring sonnet. But I knew he would hold a grudge, and he had seen my face. I cut his throat as he clung to his gushing crotch, interrupting his continued scream with a burble.

The baron’s scream had turned the attention of the greencloaks my direction. “Time to go!” I shouted to the big man, in the event he was still alive. I dove for the shadows and the window in the corner that was still open despite the chill. Always know where the exits are, my mother used to say. My mother was a wise woman.

November 1, 2014

You probably didn’t notice that I didn’t put my first night’s NaNoWriMo effort here on November 1st. It’s not like people wait all year to glimpse the unedited, unplanned, product of my imagination. It is rarely sparkling prose. My first sketch of a story (not even a draft, really) often turns out to be conversations between people about what they could do, and not a whole lot of people doing things. Kind of an outline-the-plot-with-dialog technique. They are also rather light on description. Periodically in this year’s effort, I put great emphasis on description, and was pleased with the result. But not on November 1st. Maybe some other time I’ll post my description of a breakfast diner in rural North Dakota.

But even though I’m less proud of this month’s first chapter than I have been of others, it does set the scene for the action that follows. (Well, the action that is subsequently discussed.) So, here it is. You don’t have to thank me, it’s what I do.

Note that as usual, I didn’t spend time doing silly things like proofreading or correcting errors or (God forbid) tightening up ambiguous pronouns. I’ve still got to finish my NaNoWriMo effort this year, and there’s only six hours left.

A Cool Breeze in Hell

Harper pulled out the last of his crumpled wad of bills and smoothed them out on the fake woodgrain of the bartop. His backpack sat at his feet, containing everything in the world that he could call his own. Two extra pair of socks, one pair underwear (in need of cleaning), blue jeans (the pair with smaller holes in the knees), a toothbrush, a few toiletries, and a t-shit for a band he’d never heard of all shared space with an ancient laptop whose battery really didn’t hold a charge any longer. In his pockets huddled some loose change, a pay as you go phone (unpaid, going nowhere), and a pocket knife that had attachments to do almost anything… poorly.

When his little pile of greenbacks ran out, things were gong to be tough. He scratched his four-day beard and held up his finger to catch the bartender’s attention.

“Another one?”

Harper nodded.

“Happy hour ended five minutes ago. I’m going to have to charge full price.”

“That’s fine,” Harper said. He hadn’t been that happy anyway.

He watched as the balding man behind the bar wiped his hands on his apron and stooped to get a glass out of the freezer. The bar was almost deserted; there was no reason for the bartender to hurry. The barkeep straightened with a moan and slid the glass under a tap and pulled the long handle emblazoned with the logo of one of the local microbreweries. The blessed liquid gushed forth and before long a pint of deep amber liquid rested on a tiny napkin in front of Harper. “Five bucks,” the bartender said. Harper counted six off his stack and gave them to the man. He tried not to see how much was left. Better not to know, sometimes.

The television behind the bar was muted, but grabbed his attention anyway, with amateur video of explosions and car crashes. Harper decided he liked the world more before every damn thing that ever happened was recorded and put on the Internet. Still, he watched.

He didn’t see the man come in, was only peripherially aware when he sat two stools down from Harper. When he sat he exhaled heavily, as if he had taken off a backpack full of stones. “Beer,” he said, “Give me the IPA.” Harper was taken by the man’s smooth baritone voice. Though he spoke softly his voice carried, bearing a tone of authority. Harper turned and studied the man’s profile as the other waited for his drink.

He was tallish, on the thin side, darkish hair swept back, narrow straight nose. Dark eyes, thin lips pressed together, creasing his face. He seemed to be in pain, concentrating on not letting it show. His suit was probably a nice one, Harper thought, though he wasn’t sure exactly how to tell suits apart. The stranger’s navy tie with yellow stripes was loosened and his top button was undone. His right hand tapped the bar in impatience, the left he kept clenched in his lap. The other man’s beer arrived and he turned to Harper and raised his glass. Guiltily Harper returned the gesture.

“Long day?” Harper asked.

The man nodded. “I’m not even sure what a day is anymore.”

It was then that Harper knew he was talking to the devil. There was no one thing to tip him off, no weird glimpse of horns or red skin or cloven hooves for feet. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the guy at all, except that he was the Prince of Darkness, loose on Earth to spread torment and damnation.

Up until that moment, Harper had not considered himself a religeous man. He still didn’t, he realized. The bartender went about his work, pausing for long stretches to watch TV, seemingly unaware of the Dark One sitting on one of his vynyl-topped barstools.

“What brings you round here?” Harper asked.

“The beer,” the devil said. “Not the conversation.”

Harper took the hint and turned back to his own beer. He tried to nurse it, but far too quickly it was gone. “Another?” the bartender asked when there was half an inch of beer left in his glass.

He nodded. “And one for this guy.” He pointed down to where the devil sat. He counted out twelve dollars and saw that there would be no more beers tonight, or ever again until he got a job.

The bartender pulled the two beers and set them in front of the two patrons.

The devil regarded his beer with narrowed eyes and turned to Harper. “What’s this?”

Harper shrugged. “You looked like you were having a tough day.”

“And now you’re going to ask me for a favor.”

Harper blinked in surprise. “No.”

The devil rocked back on his stool and looked Harper up and down. “Everybody wants something.”

A job, a place to call home, friends, a purpose for his life. “Not so much. You just seem to be having a rough time right now.”

Somehow now the devil was on the stool next to Harper. He couldn’t remember it happening. “Have you ever said, ‘it’s hotter than hell in here?’”

“Yeah, I suppose.”

“You were wrong. Hell is really fucking hot.”

“Well, at least you can get away for a beer sometimes.” Harper raised his glass to illustrate what a fine thing that was.

“I am in hell right now. I am always in Hell. I always will be in Hell.”

“Oh, I get it. So it’s not like a physical place then? More like a state of mind?”

The devil drained his beer and set down the glass. “Oh, it’s a physical place, all right, just not in this space-time continuum. I’m what you might call extra-dimensional. I can exist in both places at the same time. And that means I’m bathing in liquid sulfur and having my flesh boiled off my bones at the same time I’m sitting on this stool being annoyed by some guy who didn’t pay attention in Sunday School.”

Sunday School was a distant memory, to be sure, and indeed Harper had not paid attention, but he was pretty sure the phrase ‘space-time continuum’ had not been used.

“So how hot is it, exactly? Sulfur boils at 445 C, so it’s cooler than that, right?”

“There are areas that are much hotter than that. I avoid them.”

“You should air condition,” Harper said. He discovered his glass was empty, which ruined the fun of his little joke.

The devil scowled. “Don’t mock me, human.” To Harper’s ear, though, he didn’t sound angry.

“I’m not mocking you at all. It’s a straightforward engineering problem. You need to move heat from one place to another. All that takes is energy, and you have tons of that. Possibly you could use sulfur as the refrigerant.”

“I am skeptical.”

“You’d be making some parts of Hell cooler, at the expense of making other parts of hell much hotter. Of course, it would be much more efficient if you had a cooler place to pump the heat to. Maybe…” An idea was taking shape in Harper’s head. A brilliant solution to the devil’s problems, made all the more beautiful through the haze of the five beers doing the rhumba in Harper’s brain. “So, you can cross dimensions, right?”

“Obviously.”

“Could you open up a hole from here to there? You could use hell like a geothermal source, pump the energy over here, generate a shit-ton of electricity, and cool things down a bit on your end. Not a whole lot, maybe, but enough you might notice a cool breeze. Meanwhile humanity would benefit from a cheap, clean power source.”

“The benefit of humanity is not my concern,” the devil said. “Although I do encourage technological progress where it will result in more humans on earth. More souls.”

“You must love nitrogen fertilizer, then.”

“Yes. It will be a shame when its overuse leads to the destruction of a large amount of the world’s farmland. It will be a busy time for me.”

“So, you like for there to be more people, so you can lead them astray?”

“I suppose you could put it that way. Think of me as a farmer.”

“Then this should be a no-brainer for you, don’t you think? This could mean a lot more kids growing up to be sinners.”

“You amuse me, Mr. Harper. You think you’re tricking me into making life better for humanity here on Earth.”

“I’m not stupid enough to think I can trick you.”

“In fact, you’re fooling yourself. You still don’t believe, deep in your heart, that this project could result in countless more souls in eternal torment.”

Harper didn’t have a good answer for that. “I guess I don’t. Modern agriculture made it possible for me to be here. So if you were behind that, then thanks.”

The devil smiled, showing two neat rows of narrow teeth. “Very well, Mr. Harper. I will provide you with the necessary resources and technical advice. You will install a cooling system for hell, and you will use the energy to provide clean power to humanity.”

“Uh, me?”

The devil’s smile grew. “Of course. Who else?”

“But I’m not even remotely qualified. I don’t know anything about power stations, or drilling a hole across dimensions, or getting a permit for… whatever I need permits for. I suck at that stuff.”

“Well, Mr. Harper, I think it’s time you started learning.” The devil reached into his pocket and pulled out a smart phone. “Here. You will need this. You will be getting calls from some of my people.” He set the phone on the bartop between their glasses.

Harper reached out, then hesitated. If the stories were true, accepting a gift from the devil seemed like a bad idea.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” the devil said. “Not every gift incurrs an obligation. This is just a tool I’m providing so you can do your job. You can return it when you’re done if it will make you feel better.”

Harper picked up the phone and held it like it might bite him. It had a satisfying solidity. No lightning came from above. He set it back down. “You have the wrong guy,” he said.

“I’ve been around for a long time, Mr. Harper, and you are one of a handful of people in all the history of your miserable race that has surprised me. So shut up and take the phone before I get angry. You are going to air condition hell. It is not for you to decide.” He reached into his pocket again, and pulled out a credit card. “I will pay you, of course. Fair compensation for your labor. Once again, no additonal obligation.”

“How much?”

“You decide. That card has no limit. None at all. Soon you will be hearing from my money people to arrange financing the project. In the meantime, I’ve asked the bartender to make sure your glass is never dry tonight. You have a new job, after all. It’s time to celebrate.”

Cyberspace Open Spring 2011: Scooter’s Balls

As usual, I’m posting the work I entered in this iteration of the Cyberspace Open. This time around my process was a little different — not by design, but by sloth. In the past I’ve tried to spend the first day playing with several ideas that touch on the prompt in very different ways, then take my favorite rough draft and polish it on Sunday.

This year I mulled things over quite a bit on Saturday, but didn’t start typing until Sunday afternoon. I only ever came up with one idea, which my home consulting service improved dramatically.

I tried to follow my own advice and keep the scene dynamic and flowing; hopefully it’s not too confused. I thought over ways to sneak a little more of the broader story context into the scene, but in the end I just managed to work a few clues in. After that the as-you-know-Bobishness started to grate on me.

Anyway, without further ado, I bring you: Scooter’s Balls.

INT. LIVING ROOM – DAY

HELEN (28, pretty, several locks of hair escaping from her pony tail) jumps when the phone rings. She scans the disrupted living room and locates the phone on the couch.

SCOOTER (dog, big, a mix of Labrador Retriever, Rottweiler, and god knows what else) takes the play position and barks with excitement. Crossing to the couch Helen steps on a squeaky toy, which just excites him more.

HELEN

Hello?

JAKE (OVER PHONE)

(loud, agitated)

Helen?

HELEN

Jake! Where are you?

Scooter perks up at the mention of Jake’s name and watches the phone intently.

INTERCUT PHONE CONVERSATION

EXT. LAS VEGAS BACK STREET – DAY

JAKE (30, wiry, disheveled) is in his car, the convertible top down and obviously damaged. The windshield has a spider web of cracks centered in front of the passenger seat, where it appears someone’s forehead hit the glass very hard.

JAKE

I… better not say.

HELEN

Jake, what the hell is going on? The FBI was here, for Christ’s sake.

JAKE

Is Scooter there with you?

HELEN

Of course he’s —

JAKE

(shouting into the phone)

Hey! Scooter! How’s my buddy?

Jake whistles over the phone, low, high, then medium pitch. A prostitute leaning against a lamp post nearby looks up.

Scooter hears the whistle over the phone and goes ballistic, simultaneously running in circles and jumping into the air, barking madly. He slams into a coffee table but Helen drops the phone and catches the lamp before it hits the floor, then dives to recover the phone before Scooter can grab it. She puts it to her ear to hear Jake laughing.

JAKE (CONT’D)

That’s my boy!

HELEN

Jake, Mrs. Simms came by. Scooter’s been peeing on her stupid lawn gnomes again.

JAKE

He’s just marking his territory. That’s what dogs do.

The prostitute approaches Jake’s car, her cheap blonde wig askew. Twenty years of meth have taken their toll. Jake looks at the hooker, then back at the traffic light.

JAKE (CONT’D)

(under his breath)

Hurry up, hurry up…

HELEN

Yeah, well, she doesn’t like it.

JAKE

She should be glad. That means he’ll protect her yard too.

PROSTITUTE

Hi, honey. You want to have a little fun?

Jake looks back at the light. Still red. He shakes his head quickly and returns the phone to his ear.

HELEN

Oh, yeah, I’m sure she sleeps better at night knowing her urine-stained statuary is protected by Scooter’s unwavering vigilance.

The prostitute leans over Jake’s car door, showing withered cleavage.

PROSTITUTE

You know what you need? A blowjob.

The light has changed, but the car in front of him is not moving. Jake honks his horn.

HELEN

Listen, Jake — I made an appointment with the vet.

JAKE

What? Why?

HELEN

You know why. Maybe if he’s neutered he won’t be so much of a… problem.

JAKE

He’s not a problem, he’s a dog!

HELEN

We’re supposed to be a family now. How can we be a family if I can’t trust him?

JAKE

You can trust him, honey! Scooter would die for you!

The prostitute leans in even closer.

PROSTITUTE

Blow. Job.

HELEN

Who is that? Did someone say blowjob? Where are you?

Finally the car in front moves and Jake lurches forward in the convertible — about ten feet. The car in front of him stalls again.

JAKE

It’s no one! Jesus!

HELEN

What about when we have children? What’s he going to do then?

JAKE

Scooter loves kids!

HELEN

That doesn’t mean he should have any of his own.

The prostitute is back, standing by the car with a bony hip cocked, smiling with yellow teeth. Jake honks his horn. He puts his hand over the phone.

JAKE

Go away!

PROSTITUTE

(cackling)

Blow job!

HELEN

I heard that! Who’s there?

JAKE

I don’t know. Some crazy lady.

He takes the phone from his ear but doesn’t cover it.

JAKE (CONT’D)

Go away! Please!

(into phone)

Honey, that’s just how Scooter is.

HELEN

Well, that’s not good enough. He’s going to have to shape up if we’re going to have a family.

JAKE

He’ll be better. I swear. Give him a chance before you chop his balls off.

Scooter is up on the sofa now, pushing his head through the blinds, barking madly, coating the glass with slobber.

HELEN

I don’t — You hear that? I can’t take any more of this.

JAKE

Why’s he barking?

HELEN

Why is he ever barking? I don’t know.

She looks out the window.

HELEN (CONT’D)

Huh.

JAKE

What?

HELEN

It’s your friend with the limp. It looks like his nose is broken.

JAKE

Shit! Helen! Get out of the house! Go out the back RIGHT NOW. Take Scooter with you. Do it!

Helen is still looking out the window.

HELEN

Holy shit they have guns!

She turns and runs toward the back of the house.

HELEN (CONT’D)

Scooter! Come!

Scooter gallops after her, tongue flopping in the wind.

JAKE

Helen!

HELEN

What?! What else have you done? Set the house on fire?

JAKE

I love you.

She hesitates a moment.

HELEN

I love you too. And… I have something to tell you, so get home safe, OK?

Helen throws down the phone and dashes out the back door.

Jake flips his phone closed. A horn honks. He’s blocking traffic. He hits the gas but just then the light turns red. He pounds his head on the steering wheel.

PROSTITUTE

So they gonna chop his balls off or not?

4

Not Bad Enough?

My story this November is about bad writers getting murdered. One of the things that makes this an excellent NaNoWriMo idea is that I can include excerpts of the fictitious bad writers’ fictitious bad novels. Which means not only can I just let fly with the prose, I don’t even have to cringe and tell myself that I will fix it later. I can revel in the mediocrity, even add things that normally I would never do.

Except for the complete absence of structure, however, even this draft of Step on a Hack is ahead of some of the crap out there.

Occasionally I will write a scene specifically intended to showcase common crime story clichés and blunders. Paragraphs of exposition and loose-end-tying while the protagonist and antagonist are in a burning building, for instance. It is a fun world to write in, where all the good guys are named ‘Buck’ or ‘Dirk’ and all shoot with far better accuracy than a bad guy ever could, where they live a solitary existence, all girlfriends and partners murdered, and are tormented by demons from the past. And out there somewhere, a criminal mastermind seems to have it in for that one detective.

Yesterday I thought, “I need a scene with cars and guns,” so I wrote one. Such freedom! As I wrote it I had several opportunities to include details that are personal peeves of mine (car doors stopping high-velicity bullets, for instance), but I didn’t. Instead I let the scene play out the way I would do it. It’s still mildly preposterous, but I think it scores in the acceptable range on the preposterometer for a story of this genre.

Were I to go back and tweak it, I can see several ways I could make it better, especially at the start, where I still had word-inflation and bad prose as goals. Overall, however, this scene scores a “not bad” from the not-as-dispassionate-as-it-should-be part of me that judges everything I do. Which, ironically, makes it unsuitable for Step on a Hack. Not enough for the cop reading the story to mock. Oh, well.

Here, for your amusement, is a scene with cars and guns. And swearing. If the occasional f-bomb is going to sour your stomach and cast a pall over the rest of your day, then you probably should stop now.

Ace Martingale shifted into fourth as the sleek black Dodge Charger roared up the ramp and onto the highway, a steel shark in the night. Ace lit one cigarette with another and threw the smoldering butt of the first out the window. The speedometer crept upwards, 70 then 80 then 90. He let it settle in at 100 miles per hour. A good speed. Fuck kilometers.

The mighty engine purred and the hot desert air blew Martingale’s hair and dried his sweat instantly. He punched in an eight-track tape to help him think. Lynyrd Skynyrd. Free as a bird now. Free as a fuckin’ bird. Maritngale smiled for the first time in five years.

He was out, he was in a fast machine, a twelve-pack of corona blondies in the passenger seat, bolt cutters, pick and shovel in the back seat. In the trunk, the last of his problems. Life didn’t get any better than this.

“Fuck yeah!” he shouted into the night. “Fuck yeah!” he threw his empty out onto the road and reached for another. By the time the glass bottle hit the pavement he was long gone. He was a spirit, a shaman, a god of the desert and he was going to live forever.

At Desert Center he left the interstate highway, turning north on state road 177, past a couple of industrial sites and into the breathing desert. Two lane blacktop. The way it was supposed to be. He slowed it down to a safe and sane 90 per and popped open another brew.

For the next hour he floated along the highway, in harmony with machine and road, alone and unencumbered. Past mile marker 239 he slowed. There it was. Martingale’s heart sped up a bit as he pulled into the primitive rest stop. Nothing more than a table and what had once been a sun shade. A rusting barrel overflowed with garbage.

He turned off the music and rolled gently to a stop, his tires popping over the gravel. Behind the table his headlights splashed on a gate adorned with a rusted, bullet-riddled “No Trespassing” sign swinging on a piece of wire. He left the motor running and reached back for the bolt cutters.

He opened the car door and stood, stretched his spine. The desert’s hot breath kissed his face. “I missed you, baby,” he whispered into the darkness. The gravel crunched under his boots as he walked to the gate. Before he even reached the gate, he froze.

The chain was already cut.

He dropped the cutters and ran back to the car, dove back in the waiting door.

A hole appeared in the windshield, nice and clean, matched by a larger, more ragged hole appeared in the rear window. The round passed his head with a supersonic crack and vanished into the night.

Martingale stayed low, cranked the wheel and mashed the gas. The car slewed and jumped forward, slamming the door shut. The passenger door made a booming sound like someone had kicked it, and a slug tore into the upholstery.

“What the fuck!” He screamed. Killing another man was one thing, but this car was a classic. It was art. You don’t shoot art. He lifted his head a little to guide the car out onto the blacktop, pointed north. The spinning tires screeched when they hit the pavement and thrust the car forward. The engine roared as Martingale went through the gears. The car started to float at one hundred twenty miles per hour, and Martingale held on for sweet life.

Two lights stared back at him on the road ahead. The eyes of an animal, reflecting his headlights. He hit it before he even had time to wonder what it was. Night insects flashed in his high beams, there and gone faster than a prayer.

More lights ahead. This time, a car. He hurtled toward it. Motherfucker had his brights on. Martingale pushed his speed up to 140. Holding the wheel with sweaty hands, twitching to keep it in his lane.

Just before the other car flashed past he hit the brakes. Flame burst from the other car, the muzzle flash of an assault rifle on full-auto, spraying the space he would have occupied had he kept a steady speed. The enemy flashed past as Martingale punched the gas again and heard bullets tearing into the rear of the car. Then he was away, and, for the moment at least, he was alive.

In the rear view he watched as the other car hit the brakes and began to turn around. Martingale was going to be a long was down the road before they even got turned around. They’d have to be driving one hell of a car to catch him.

He took a deep breath. Time to stop reacting and start acting. They had men and guns, he had a fast car and the desert.

This was his desert. Whoever those people were back there, they had missed their chance.

They knew about the rest stop, and that meant Olaf had spilled his guts. Which meant he was probably dead. Anybody with the means to make Olaf talk wouldn’t be the type to keep him around after they got what they wanted from him.

Martingale slowed to take one white-knuckle turn, then another. He checked the rearview. Nothing. Just before the next corner he switched off his headlights and slowed. He pulled off the road, over a cattle guard concealed by a boulder. He stopped the car and ran back to the road, brushing over his tire tracks with his boot. It didn’t have to be perfect, as long as they weren’t obvious.

In the still night he heard the hiss of the car as it approached, augmented by the roar of a large engine. He ducked behind the rock as the pursuit car screeched around the corner, then around the next curve and out of sight. He jogged back to his car. He’d be easy to spot by anyone coming back the other way.

He stopped short when he saw the bullet holes in the trunk, the metal shining silvery in the moonlight against the black paint. He put his hand on the trunk lid, afraid to open it. “Fuck!” he said, but there was nothing to do now except get well down this road before the others doubled back. He thumped the trunk twice with his fist and jogged to the door. He drove slowly, lights off, steering by moonlight but wishing it was darker.

November 1st, 2010

Well, another NaNoWriMo is under way, and this year my mystery/comedy (with action and adventure!) is off to a roaring start. It’s become a tradition for me to put my first day’s output here, and this year my novel’s prologue has guns, cars, hookers, explosions, and profanity! Not bad! Chapter 1 loses some of the momentum, but there’s no time to go back and fix it.

For those new to these parts, National Novel Writing Month is an event where participants are challenged to write an entire novel in a month. Quality is optional and often counterproductive.

There are a lot of ironies here, but I think I’ll discuss them in the comments thread.

Step on a Hack

Prologue

Benny Hamwich regained consciousness slowly, as if his brain knew something bad was out there and didn’t want anything to do with it. Someone was slapping his face, he realized.

“Benny.” The voice was low and gravelly and came from nearby. Another slap. Benny’s tongue was sandpaper against the roof of his mouth. The air tasted like hot metal.

“You really doped him up good.” That was a female’s voice, to his right, a little farther away.

“Benny!” Another slap, harder. “I know you can hear me.”

Benny blinked with sandpaper eyelids and tried to focus. He was sitting upright in the driver’s seat of a car. Convertible. Big. Beyond the long hood the city lights stretched before him. They were pretty high up.

“Benny.”

Benny wheeled his head to point it at the man crouching over him. He was a big guy, his lined, pale face divided by a thick dark mustache. Under the brim of the man’s hat one eye was squinted almost shut. The man’s smile revealed perfect, white teeth.

“Hello, Benny. Are you ready for a little science project?” The man’s adam’s apple bobbed as he talked, drawing Benny’s attention to a scar there.

“A… wha?” asked Benny.

Behind him a woman cackled. He turned to see her sitting in the passenger seat, her short skirt revealing long, slender legs. Her outfit was business sexy, and it worked well on her. She laughed again. Her teeth were not as straight as the man’s. “You should see yourself,” she said, and made a stupid face.

“Now, Marybeth,” the big man said. Benny turned back to meet his cold gaze. “Benny here’s been drugged. It’s hardly fair to judge.” The man reached inside his overcoat and pulled out a slender paperback novel. “Do you recognize this, Benny?” The man’s voice was cold and hard.

Benny nodded, too afraid to speak.

“Look, it’s got your name on it.” The man held out the book so Benny could see his name on the cover, near the bottom. At the top was another name, Penn Jetterson. In between, there was a picture of a rugged-looking man and a sexy woman in a massive white convertible. They were airborne, and she was kneeling in the passenger seat (showing a lot of leg), firing a wicked-looking assault rifle at unseen assailants behind them. He was gripping the wheel like a man possessed, grinnig. “TWO TO TANGO” the title screamed.

“You wrote that?” Benny turned back to the woman in the passenger seat. He was going to hurt his neck wheeling back and forth like that. She looked a bit like the woman on the cover of the book. “Really?” she prompted.

Benny nodded. “Yeah.” His voice cracked. He swallowed and tried again. “I wrote that.”

The woman smiled. “That’s terriffic.”

“That remanis to be seen,” the man said. Benny turned back around to face him. It was much more pleasant to look at the woman. The man tossed the book into Benny’s lap. “Thus, our little experiment.”

Benny forced himself to look around. He was in a white Lincoln convertible with red leather seats. A mighty piece of Detroit iron from back when big really meant big. The same kind of car Dirk Freemont drove in Two to Tango. They were on the roof of a building half a mile from downtown. In front of the car, rails stretched to the edge of the roof. Behind him a machine hissed with escaping steam.

“We are going to do a little reenactment,” the frightgning man said. “Have you memorized your lines, Marybeth?”

“Sure,” she said.

“Since you haven’t had time to prepare, Benny, we’ll let you read from the book. Chapter one, as you have no doubt surmised.”

“Wait, what’s—”

“It’s like this, Benjamin. I have a difficult time accepting that chapter one is, well, possible. Which sort of undermines the rest of the story. So we’re going to reenact some parts of it and see. Perhaps I am mistaken, in which case you’ll have my most sincere apologies.”

“What about all this?” Benny indicated the rails.

“It’s like a flight simulator. We’re going to make it feel like you’re flying while you go through the dialog. We’ll plug that back into the computer to see just how far you actually would have flown.”

“This is bullshit.”

“Benny, I’m afraid I must insist.”

“Come on, Benny,” the woman said. “Just say your fuckin’ lines so we can get out of here. If you’re fast enough I’ll throw in a blowjob.”

The scary man smiled. “Most of Marybeth’s acting career involves less clothing,” he said. “You two have a lot in common.”

Benny opened the book with fuddled fingers and found chapter one.

“I highlighted where we will start,” the man said.

Benny scanned ahead until he saw the mark.

 

“We’re cornered!” Marybeth cried out.

“Hardly,” Dirk grumbled. He mashed the gas pedal down to the floor. With a throaty growl the 455-cubic-inch engine thrust the Lincoln toward the edge of the parking structure. With a roar the mighty beast crashed through the rail and out into space. Directly ahead an office building loomed.

Marybeth flipped down the visor and inspected herself in the little mirror there. With her little finger she fixed a flaw in her lipstick. “I think you should know that I’m sleeping with Steve,” she informed him.

“What?” Dirk growled. “Steve’s my partner!”

Red-tipped tracer bullets streaked past, leaving burning trails of magnesium and strontium nitrate…

 

“Ready, Benny?”

Benny glanced up from his writing. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.”

“All right, then. Marybeth, you start when I say ‘action’. Really go for it, all right? Show me what you can do.”

“You said this was an audition.”

The man indicated a video camera on a tripod nearby. “It is. If this works out, I’ll be optioning the screenplay rights. This is your chance to be a real actress.”

“You’re going to make a movie out of Two to Tango?” Benny asked. It was the opportunity he’d always dreamed about — only, in his dreams things were… different. Less scary.

The man patted his shoulder with a gloved hand. “Whether the movie gets made is up to you, now. Let’s see if we can’t resolve some of these pressing questions.” The man stepped away from the car. The night hung dead still around them, the city below lay quiet. The man glanced around, assured himself that all was ready, and pulled a stopwatch from the outer pocket of his coat. He practiced with the buttons a couple of times. Satisfied, he looked up and said, “Action!”

“We’re cornered!” the woman shouted, her voice an icepick in Benny’s ear.

“Hardly!” Benny said, and grabbed the steering wheel for effect. He mashed the gas pedal even though the engine wasn’t running.

His head snapped back againt the seat’s headrest and he was pressed into the leather upholstery with such force the air was driven from his lungs and spots appeared in his vision. He stomped on the brake but that had no effect as the car was launched into the air and sailed over the edge of the building.

On the rooftop, the man stood in the steam washing out from the catapult and watched the car float through the air, slowly rolling over and going nose-down. He could hear the prositiute screaming. Damn her voice was annoying. After a few seconds the white streaks of tracer rounds flashed up from another rooftop, slowly converging with the the sailing car. Would Benny appreciate the bullets’ red tips? It seemed unlikely. If Benny survived, as his protagonist had, the scary man would be sure to ask.

The Lincoln was no longer right-side-up but still a bullet found the gas tank. The car didn’t explode but a nice gout of flame erupted from the back just before the land yaht slammed people-first into the side of a building downtown. The man stopped his timer.

There was a delay before the low whump reached the man’s ears, followed by the crunch of metal against concrete, and the crash of shattered glass. The flaming wreckage bounced to the side and fell out of sight to the street below. The surrounding buildings were lit by the yellow glow of the fire.

The man looked at his stopwatch. Thirty-five seconds. Not quite enough time for the dialog as it had been written, but he thought he had made his point.

Chapter 1

Penn Jetterson stared at the book lying on his polished oak desk. Kissed a Snake, the title read in bright red lettering, underneath that, A Jake Marten story. The type arched over a glossy drawing of a man in the crosshairs of a rifle scope. Behind him a hot nun stood in the entrance to a cathedral. She held a gun, and was poinging it at the man’s back. Or was she aiming at the man holding the rifle?

As covers went, he’d seen worse. This particular book cover had two real problems, though: His name across the top and the name of Andrew Zen across the bottom. The name at the bottom meant the book would be awful. The name at the top meant he would be blamed for it.

#1 BESTSELLER! A banner in the corner said, although the book had yet to sell a single copy. That didn’t matter; his name was on it. Reviewers would rave in exchange for advertising dollars. Jetterson would make a lot of money. Preorders were strong, but not as strong as they had been for the previous book. Still, lots of people would read it. A few of those would never pick up a Penn Jetterson book again. People were starting to realize the Emperor had no clothes.

He lifted his whiskey glass and found it empty. Seemed like he’d just filled it. He knew he shouldn’t, but some days there was no helping it. He pulled open the large, lower desk drawer on his right and pulled out his bottle of Ardbeg, his beloved Islay single-malt. He poured himself a couple fingers of the amber liquid and paused to let the earthy smell fill his sinuses. He put the bottle back, noting that there were only two left in reserve. He closed the drawer.

The book sat in front of him, waiting.

Before he could stop himself he reached for his phone and dialed a number he knew by heart.

“Penn! Darling!” Emma Coe’s voice gushed down the line. “How’s my favorite writer?”

“I haven’t been a writer for a long time.”

“Poppycock!” Somehow it didn’t sound ridiculous when Emma said words like that. “You’re at the top of the best-seller list. Did you get the book?”

“Yeah. I’ve got it right here.” He picked up the object in question, gazed at the brightly-colored cover. “Looks nice.”

“Wonderful! I’ll tell them we’re ready to go.”

“Uh… hold on a sec, Emma. I’m not sure I’m going to approve this one.”

“Don’t joke with me like that, Penn. You’ll give me a heart attack.”

“It’s not very good, Emma.”

“Have you even read it, Penn? You can’t have had it for more than half an hour.”

Not that it would take much longer to read this fluff. “No, Emma, I haven’t.”

“Well then, there you go. What makes you think it’s so bad?”

“It’s a Jake Marten story, written by Andrew Zen. They’re all bad, and each is worse than the last. I think Zen is unlearning his profession. And seriously, what the hell kind of nom de plume is Andrew Zen?”

“Oh, Penn, let me be the judge of what’s good and what’s bad. Didn’t I help you when you were a struggling writer?”

“Yes, Emma.”

“Really, Penn, Andy may not be as good as you, but he’s plenty good enough.”

Penn flipped the book and looked at the back cover. His heard skipped a beat as he read the description. An asp in a copy machine? Had that really been his idea? He vaguely remembered an outline he had tossed off one night, maybe three years ago. Paper Jam, he’d called it back then, but the publisher never kept the titles Penn gave the stories. “Emma, I don’t think that was one of my best ideas. And after seeing what Zen does with my good ideas, I’m afraid to even open this one. The stink will kill me.” Jetterson took another healthy swig of whiskey to fortify himself against such an occurrence.

“Penn. Honey. Relax. The reviews are in, they love it.”

“They’re paid to love it.”

“We’ve got a big signing scheduled, we’re bringing in busloads of people from nursing homes to pack the place. Blockbuster! Lines out the door. New York TV coverage. Great buzz on the blogs.”

“For this?

“For Jack Marten. He’s huge. They’re talking about Schwarzenegger for the movie. People want this, Penn. Look, you and I both know that the books aren’t perfect, but they sell. And that’s what matters.”

“But…”

“Now, Penn. It’s your name on the book. Jack Marten is your creation. If you tell me to kill this book, I’ll kill it. I’ll kill myself, but I’ll kill the book, too. So. Do you want me to throw away millions of dollars and kill this book, or do you want me to push the hell out of it and get us a sweet movie franchise?”

Jetterson felt one of the last remaining bastions of integrity crumble in his soul. He’s sold out long ago. He lived on a farm in the country, drove a nice car, traveled the world, entertained mistresses. All he had to do was produce two outlines per year for each of six series that bore his name, along with the name of some talentless English major that Emma met at a party somewhere. He had no doubt that the hacks actually believed they were good.

“All right. Publish it.” He put down the book and emptied his glass.

“Fantastic. I’m sure you’ll feel better when the checks start arriving.”

“Yeah.” He reached for the drawer and stopped himself. At least wait until the end of the phone call.

Emma’s voice dropped and became breathier as she moved her mouth closer to her phone. “They found out who was with Benny.”

“Who’s Benny?”

“Benny Hamwich, of course. It was a prostitute.”

“I see,” he said, even though he didn’t. It didn’t surprise him at all that his co-author couldn’t get laid on his own. The only mystery was why anyone else would care. “I don’t pay attention to gossip.”

There was a pause. “You didn’t hear?” Emma asked.

“About Hamwich and a prostitute? No. I couldn’t care less about his personal life.”

“Benny’s dead, Penn.”

“Oh? Really?” Jetterson made a half-hearted attempt at sadness and failed. The man had actually used the phrase “As you know, Bob,” in a story. There were times his stores grew so preposterous that Bennie Hamwich made Andrew Zen look like Shakespeare. “What happened?” Jetterson asked to fill the silence on the line.

“Oh my God, Penn. You will not believe this. He ran into a building in a car.”

“What an idiot.”

“Three stories up, Penn. Three stories up. Just like in Two to Tango. No one has the slightest idea how he did it.”

“When did it happen?”

“Three a.m. this morning. They say the car just came out of nowhere.”

3

Cyberspace Open: Immortal Flesh

Time’s up, pencils down! The writing part of round one is over; now the waiting part begins. As I did last time, I have posted my entry below. As with last time, there are a couple of lines I’d like back. One of them I tweaked about a hundred times, read out loud in Igon’s voice, fiddled, twisted, and never got right. In the harsh light of morning I realize that when that happens it’s not usually the words causing trouble, but the idea they are trying to represent. Igon’s just not saying the right thing just then.

There are a couple of places where I flirt with As-You-Know-Bobs — things people say to each other that they both already know as an artificial way to inform the audience. They wouldn’t be necessary if this scene had the context of the larger story around it, but I think here they work to provide needed information about the core ideas in the story.

For your remindification, here’s the prompt that all challengers were to write to:

Your protagonist is crushed. His or her plans have been dashed; his objective now appears impossible. And yet if he throws in the towel, bad things will happen. Write a scene in which a mentor, friend, love interest or enemy rallies or provokes your protagonist in an unexpected way. Be sure to give us your best dialogue here as your protagonist comes around and rises – or falls — to the occasion.

And here’s what I did with it. Enjoy! (Warning: there’s a bit of foul language ahead.)

INT. DIVE BAR – LATE NIGHT
DEEK (26, slender, scruffy) slumps on his barstool, toying idly with an empty longneck. The bar is dim, neon lights splash reds and blues about. There is no one else sitting at the bar.
Deek catches the bartender’s eye and raises a finger. The bartender shakes his head.
BARTENDER
I think you’ve had enough.
DEEK
I’m not even buzzed.
The bartender glances at Deek’s tab.
BARTENDER
Dude, you’ve had ten beers.
DEEK
Then you better bring me something stronger.
BARTENDER
Tough day, huh?
Deek is starting to lose it, holding back tears, clinging white-knuckled to his empty. The bartender nods.
BARTENDER (CONT’D)
OK, gimme your keys and I’ll let you have another.
Deek snorts and reaches into the back pocket of his jeans. He pulls out a card and slaps it on the bartop with a bang.
BARTENDER (CONT’D)
What’s this?
DEEK
It’s my fuckin’ bus pass. I’m a fuckin’ superhero and I don’t even have a fuckin’ car.
The bartender steps back; the camaraderie he was trying to foster is broken.
BARTENDER
What’ll it be?
DEEK
You got any rat poison?
The bartender laughs nervously and wipes down a section of bartop.
DEEK (CONT’D)
Probably wouldn’t kill me anyway. Just gimme another beer.
The bartender pops a longneck and sets it in front of Deek.
BARTENDER
And for you, sir?
Deek wheels and discovers a man sitting next to him. A vampire. Igon is withered but healthy, impeccably dressed. Deek leaps off his stool, landing gracefully while the stool clatters to the floor.
BARTENDER (CONT’D)
That’s it, buddy, you’re done.
Deek is trying to control his breathing, never taking his eyes off the vampire. Igon touches the bartender’s arm. He looks directly into the bartender’s eyes.
IGON
It’s all right. I’ll have whatever passes for Scotch in this place. One for my friend as well.
(to Deek)
I’m just here to talk.
DEEK
I think I should be going.
IGON
Don’t be foolish. If you leave, you force me into actions we would both rather avoid.
Igon takes the two highballs and heads to a table in the corner. Hesitantly Deek picks up his stool and retrieves his beer. He follows to where Igon is seated. He hesitates.
IGON (CONT’D)
If I wanted you dead, you would be dead already.
Deek nods and slides into the chair opposite Igon. He accepts his drink, sets his beer next to it. They sit in silence for a moment.
DEEK
So, talk.
Igon smiles apologetically. His tone is grandfatherly.
IGON
Forgive me; it is easy to forget how you mortals hear the ticking of a clock in every heartbeat.
He sips from his glass, finds the Scotch adequate.
IGON (CONT’D)
I have two problems, Mr. Kramer. You are one of them.
DEEK
You have my sympathy.
IGON
You are also a potential solution to my other problem.
DEEK
Is your other problem a vampire?
Igon smiles. Deek has seen right to the heart of the matter.
IGON
Yes. A very old, very powerful vampire. My only true rival. I would like him dead.
DEEK
Why don’t you do it yourself?
IGON
We each have an aura, Mr. Kramer. A vibration. A smell. When you absorb the power of another vampire you inherit traces of that aura as well. I can hardly appear in council reeking of a vampire who has gone missing. I can already smell that French bastard Henri on you, and you still have a lot of him left to consume.
Igon leans in, a dangerous fire in his eye.
IGON (CONT’D)
Vampires believe they are immortal, Mr. Kramer, but you and I know the secret. We have taken the power of others and made it our own.
Deek’s eyes widen as he realizes that Igon has eaten the flesh of other vampires.
IGON (CONT’D)
Don’t look so shocked, boy. This is about power.
DEEK
If I kill this guy, what’s in it for me?
IGON
I will allow you to live.
Deek stares down at his hands on the table.
DEEK
You’ll have to do better than that.
IGON
Well, then, let us haggle. What would you like? Wealth? Power?
(pause)
Sex?
Igon grins and lowers his voice conspiratorially.
IGON (CONT’D)
Fernando has an impressive harem. Very talented. You could choose one for yourself, with my compliments. Your very own vampire concubine.
DEEK
I want Jody back.
IGON
The girl you killed?
DEEK
It was an accident!
IGON
It was careless.
Igon narrows his eyes, measuring Deek.
IGON (CONT’D)
How would you feel if your girlfriend were a vampire?
DEEK
You can –
Igon raises his hand, forestalling Deek’s question.
IGON
I don’t know. It has never been done before. But I am a man of science. The idea intrigues me.
Igon thinks through the intricacies of the operation.
IGON (CONT’D)
It would probably kill the vampire who attempted the conversion.
Deek’s new hope is crushed. Igon smiles and pats his arm.
IGON (CONT’D)
No cause for worry, my boy. I always keep an extra vampire or two around for just such contingencies.
DEEK
You would still have one problem.
IGON
A cogent observation. Luckily for you, I have many enemies. As long as I can trust you to kill only the vampires I specify, I can make sure you have plenty to eat.
DEEK
And Jody? You’ll help her?
IGON
What if I did? If your friend were hungry, would you help her hunt? Would you murder a human to help a vampire?
Deek swallows but finds the answer.
DEEK
Yes.
Igon leans back and smiles warmly. He raises his glass.
IGON
To a long and productive partnership.
Deek picks up his own glass, gestures, and drains it.
1