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
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 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.”
“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…
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.
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?”
“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 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.”
“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.”
“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.”