November 1st, 2019

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output to these hallowed pages. This year I’ve got a setting I like very much, and an opening that I can get behind, and little Malika promises to be a handful. But I don’t actually have much of a story figured out yet.

This part works, though, if you ask me, and sets up perhaps a Young Adult hard-sf story centered on a female character.

If it looks familiar, it’s because it’s based on a little piece I did a while back, but from the point of view of the more interesting person.

The Garden

The children walked single-file along the path, gravel cruncing softly beneath their feet. Malika was near the back of the line; only Remi was older than she was. She had walked this same path almost every day since her fourth traditional birthday, at the very front to start with, until Barry had come along and taken her exalted spot. Over the years new kids started at the front of the line and the older kids dropped off the back, to begin their vocational training and take the next step toward adulthood.

She had resented Barry at first, but after years of staring at the back of his curly-haired head, it had come as a shock the day he wasn’t there anymore. Now she followed Abigail’s pony tail.

They reached the half-bowl-shaped depression in the center of the garden, its gently-terraced sides providing seating in the lush grass. The little ampitheater was large enough for the whole clan to gather, but most of the time it was just the children, come for their daily histories.

They filed down the slope, and occupied the first two rows. The ground was cool beneath her, moist to her touch. She pushed her finger into the soil, then raised it to her nose to breathe its life. The garden was the center of her tiny universe.

Malika loved the history stories. It meant time in the garden, with the smells of the soil and the plants and the air heavy with moisture and oxygen. It was a symbol of their weakness, the older ones said, this desire of scarce resources, the drive that had been the undoing of her kind. But Malika didn’t care. She was a mammal, and she liked what she liked.

At the focus of the arc Evie waited for them to settle in, her pale face with that half-smile that almost never wavered. Evie was much paler than most of the children she faced, which was one reason Malika’s clan had traded for her. New Blood. Even now Evie’s belly was starting to grow for the second time. Malika’s family said that this baby was probably going to work out better than Evie’s first one had.

Most days, Evie would open her book of history and tell the children about one of the times a general or an ambassador had made a difference. These were the moments when all the other lessons the children recieved in the sterile classrooms outside the garden, from calculus to psychology, were put in context. When Malika was younger she had revelled with stories of success, tales of clever planning and dexterous adjustment, but now she was more interested in the failures. That was where the true wisdom was to be found. If Malika was going to be a general one day — which she most certainly was — then she needed to learn from the mistakes of those who came before.

Remi, to her right, would not be a general. Remi was smart, but he was a dreamer, and there was nothing in the universe worse than being one of those. When Malika leaned close she could feel his intelligence radiating from him, but he was unable to apply it to anything useful, anything that would justify his oxygen allowance. It’s not that he didn’t try, but his thoughts were often slow to develop. When he reached that thought it was often profound, at least to Malika’s ear, but profundity had little value. If he was better at math he might become a scientist, but numbers were as slippery as ion-repellent lubricant for him, never lining up in the orderly way they did in Malika’s own head. But there had to be some way he could contribute.

Thinking black thoughts, she pushed a little closer to Remi on the soft grass. The moisture from the earth soaked into the seat of her uniform, a feeling she could only know during the history stories.
Except this day, Evie did not open the usual book of history. She opened the Book of Earth. “It is time we remember where we came from,” Evie said in her soft voice.

While the little kids in the front leaned forward eagerly, Malika groaned. Once she too had been eager to learn of Earth, but not anymore.

“It used to be, in a garden like this one, the air was filled with music.” Evie waved her hand and cocked her head, as if she could hear the sounds. “All around were creatures called birds. They were like reptiles, but covered with lightweight, fibrous things called “feathers”. She held up her book so the children could see the illustrations. On one page was a strange creature with a pointed bone for its nose, an insect crushed in its mouth. The bird had its wings outstretched, to show the feathers. The other page showed one of those feathers; it resembled a leaf to Malika’s reckoning. Birds were reptiles that grew leaves and could fly. At least they ate bugs.

“Earth,” Evie said, her voice reverent. “It was a place like no other in the galaxy. A place of such rich variety and vast resources that mammals could flourish and build a civilization. Imagine,” Evie said, gesturing up to the dull metal over thier heads, measured by a grid of lights that emitted a set of wavelengths calculated to match Earth’s sun. “Imagine the sky, like a cieling but far above, blue, but not the sort of blue you can touch. Sometimes water would fall from the sky, and people would dance with joy.”

Malika closed her eyes and took a breath. She had loved that image as a child, she had imagined herself standing under the blue sky as water blessed her, but now she was almost graduated and she could see Earth for what it was: a mythical place. A story you tell the children. And the reason they made it sound so magical was to drive home the real lesson. All the stories of Earth ended the same way.

“No one knows what the music of the birds actually sounded like,” Evie said, her eyebrows sad over that same half-smile. She paused to turn the page of her history book.

“And then the mammals fucked it up,” Malika whispered to Remi. He turned to her, his eyes wide with surprise.

Evie hadn’t heard her. She held up the book again, this time to an image of desolation; trees burning and birds crying in fear as they were immolated. “But we know their music was beautiful. The first histories lament their loss.”

Evie pasted on a sad face as she turned to the next page of her history book. Malika didn’t have to look to know it would show their reptilian saviors.

“Malika.”

She whipped her head around to see Creche Master Willi rise from a bench in the foliage. The children went silent. Evie lowered her book, her eyes wide, her complacent smile forgotten. Willi held out his hand. ”Could you come with me, please?” It was not an idle question. The Creche Master held the power of life and death. It was the same question he had asked Barry.

Remi grabbed her hand without looking at her, but he let go as she stood on shaky legs. You don’t cling to compost.

Malika was having a hard time breathing as her heart tried to jump out of her chest. “Master Willi?” Her throat was so tight she could barely speak. She wanted to look him in the eye but inhaling was about all she could do.

His hand was still outstreatched. “If you could come with me.”

She didn’t have to stumble over anyone to shuffle up the slope to where Willi waited. Just breathe, she told herself. You’re going to be a general. She knew that wasn’t true. Not anymore.
Behind her the others were silent. She reached Willi, and he kept his hand out until she took it, gripping him tight. Her legs wobbled but Willi supported her through that link.

“Am I compost?”

Willi smiled, but it seemed forced. “We are all compost. You know that. Will you walk with me?” He didn’t wait for Malika to answer; he turned up the path to the bulkhead door, her hand still in his. The door opened and they both passed through quickly, allowing it to close again before too much magic leaked out.

The air outside the garden was brittle and cold, and left Malika always a little hungry for more. She followed Willi along a corridor, the deck the same gray metal as the bulkheads, stained here and there where humans were likely to touch. They turned in a direction that led to a door Malika had never passed through. A door to a differet world. No one ever came back through that door.
“Please,” Malika said. “I can be good.”

Willi gave her a sad smile. “I don’t think you can.” As her knees gave way he wrapped his arms around her, lifting her back up, supporting her. “But we’re not here to be good, whatever that means. We have to earn our way.”

They reached the portal that led from Malika’s tiny world to the domain of a star-conquering species. Willi lifted an oxygen tank from a rack by the door an Makila copied him, slinging the gas cylinder over her shoulder and putting the mask over her nose and nouth. “You are about to be judged,” Willi said. “I have told them you show promise. Don’t let us down.”

1

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

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.”

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

November 1, 2009

Yesterday wasn’t as prolific as day ones have been in the past, not nearly so, but overall I’m pleased with the quality. Here’s the first chapter, which represent a large fraction of my day one output. Now I need to forget about quality for a while and get the dang story out.

Be warned that this episode contains profanity. Deek is not a terribly genteel guy.

Immortal Flesh

Deek lay in his bed, his thin limbs tangled in the sweaty sheets, his skin pale in the light of the moon splashing through the small window high on the wall of his room. His breathing was shallow, his eyes open wide, dark rings beneath them a testament to many sleepless nights. His shortish dark hair poked out at all angles, stiffened with dried sweat and grime. On the apple crate that served as a night stand sat a clock radio, empty beer cans, and a hatchet, its blade rusted and dull in the moonlight, its cracked wooden hand grip poking out toward him, so he could grab it in an instant.

There was a monster under his bed.

He closed his eyes, held them shut, tried not to hear the faint scratching from the Band-Aid box (sealed with Band-Aids), where a severed finger twitched, whether reflexively or guided by a desire to escape its confinement Deek did not know. A sighing sound as a Hefty bag with a slab of thigh in it settled in a new position. A rattling as teeth tried to escape the Altoid box that held them. Furtive sounds, patient, like they had all the time in the world.

There must be fifty fucking containers under there, Deek thought. Fifty pieces of vampire. Probably more. He had tried cutting the pieces into smaller and smaller slices, but no matter how small the pieces, they still remained animated.

How? The energy must be coming from somewhere, some power source unknown to science. There was a fucking Nobel prize under his bed, for someone who could crack that mystery. Probably a lot of Nobel Prizes. Scientists would shit over shit like this.

There would be no Nobel prizes for Deek, however. For him the boxes under the bed meant nothing except a slow and painful death. If there was one vampire, there would be others. And they would be pissed. No doubt they were already wondering about their missing buddy, checking the places he had last been seen, asking about who he had gone home with. Deek needed to get rid of the thing, soon, and he had to make sure it never came back.

Schwik-schwish. Deek jumped. He hated that sound most of all, when the heart in the zip-lock bag decided to beat, even though there was no blood for it to pump.

There was plenty of blood down there under the bed, though, pooling, clinging to the surfaces of the containers that held the rest of the parts. It had a musty smell, a little sweet, that made Deek’s throat tighten.

Deek’s own blood stayed where it had fallen, staining the oval rag throw rug. Mom was going to be pissed when she saw that.

Something in a shoe box—a foot, in all likelihood—started to bump against a milk crate filled with tupperware containers. Bump, bump, bump. Deek could move the boxes and gain peace for a while, but eventually the bumping would begin anew.

Once more Deek put in his earphones and turned up his music. For a moment it helped, but the only thing worse than hearing the shuffling and scratching beneath his bed was not hearing them. What if something got free? Every sound that came from outside his earphones made his stomach go sour with fear.

Deek sat up grabbed the hatchet. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed. Nothing reached out to grab him. He stood and felt safer after he took two steps, over to the microwave and hot-plate his parents had given him when they agreed to let him rent the basement. Not that he ever paid rent.

He opened the fridge, pulled out a can of beer, and popped the top. He took a long drink and started to feel a little better. He drained the can. In the corner was a plastic bag filled with empties; he balanced this one delicately on the pile before getting a new one from the fridge. Almost out. No way I’m going to the store with this thing here, though. No telling what I’ll find when I get back.

Something thumped under the bed, one of the larger pieces. Deek spun and held the hatchet out in front of him, but nothing more happened.

On top of the microwave was a cereal bowl. Inside a thumb twisted and writhed like an earthworm on a sidewalk. Before Deek had gone to bed he had chopped the thumb into a puree. Now it was whole again. Eventually all the pieces stashed under his bed would find a way to come back together, no matter what Deek did, no matter how far apart he could separate them. Then the vampire would find him. It would not be so careless next time.

There had to be a way to kill it. There had to be some way to disconnect the atoms of the undead flesh from whatever force it was that preserved it and gave it the energy to move. Was there intelligence guiding that force? The vampire’s brain was in several pieces, some clinging to the fragments of the shattered skull, others in their own containers. A quarter of the head was in a mayonnaise jar at the foot of the bed, the eyeball popped free from its socket, dangling by the optic nerve. It seemed to be watching him. For a moment Deek thought he was going to puke again. He took another gulp of beer.

How do you kill something that’s not alive? Not alive like he was anyway.

Deek pulled out the big kitchen knife he’d borrowed from upstairs and put the thumb on the stained wooden cutting board. He chopped off a section, the knife severing the bone with a crunch. A drop of blood, almost black, escaped and then oozed back into the larger piece of the thumb. Nothing he had done so far had robbed the flesh of the power that quickened it.

He picked up the smaller piece, a disk of grey flesh with a circle of bone in the middle, and nearly dropped it when he felt the flesh move between his fingers. Mincingly he set it back down, farther from the rest of the thumb.

Tears welled in Deek’s eyes. He was fucked. Well and truly fucked. They would come for him, the vampire’s friends, they would take him and they would exact their revenge and when they were done with him his mutilated body would be discarded some place no one would ever find. No one would even look for him; his mom and step-dad would just breathe a sigh of relief and wonder where he’d got to. His friends might miss him for a while, but then they’d just get stoned and soon he would be forgotten. As if he had never existed.

“Fuck!” he shouted. He stabbed the larger part of the thumb with the knife, pinning it, preventing it from wriggling over to connect with the section he had sliced off. Tears ran down his nose and made dark circles on the cutting board. With an incoherent scream he threw his empty beer can against the wall as hard as he could. It clattered impotently against the unpainted cinder block and rattled down behind the fridge, coming to rest on the condenser coils. A thin stream of foamy backwash drained down onto the floor.

His anger gave out. His knees couldn’t take his full weight anymore; he clung to the microwave with shaking hands, his nose filling with snot, his vision blurred. “Fuck,” he sobbed. “I didn’t ask for this.”

Mojo. Juju. Magic. Deek thought about something he had read once, something about warriors absorbing the strength of their enemies. He looked at the cross-section of thumb, mushroom-colored, quivering slightly, smelling of damp earth. The earth of the grave. An idea took root somewhere in his cerebellum, spreading tendrils through his mind before finally blooming in his consciousness. A laugh escaped his lips, edged with hysteria. “Hell,” he said to the specimen. “What do I have to lose?” He laughed again, a deranged giggle that sounded like a horse whinny.

He opened the fridge once more, pulling out the next-to-last beer, and a bottle of ketchup.

November 1st, 2008

I wrote a lot of words today. It’s November, after all, and that’s the point. I’m not going to put it all up here, just the first chapter. I’m tempted to put Chapter 2 up as well; it’s quite a bit racier and reintroduces us to Bixby, a nice guy, good with an ax, happy to let others do the thinking. I should probably read this over before posting. Maybe tomorrow. If you’re actually interested in the next chapter, let me know.

This excerpt represents less that 20% of my writing for the day. Wow!

The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy

Part 1: The Gathering of the Good Guys

Chapter 1

The lone rider clattered up the road to the castle, his black horse’s iron-shod hooves striking sparks in the darkness. A watchman above sounded a horn at his approach, the long note echoing through the rocky valley, until it was defeated by a peal of thunder. When the horn sounded, dark, misshapen forms rushed to the capstans, driven by snap of their masters’ thirsty whips. The creatures began to chant in hollow, tongueless voices as they leaned into their task. With a groan and a rumble the black iron portcullis lifted, and the rider passed through without pausing. More whips bit flesh and the portcullis lowered once more.

The dark rider pulled up at the massive oaken door of the main keep, his horse quivering from exhaustion, coated with sweat, foam coming from the mighty steed’s mouth, the fiery glow of his fearsome eyes diminished. It had been a long ride.

The rider dismounted. Servants swarmed around horse and rider, bowing and scraping as they took the reins of the devil-horse and opened the door for the rider. From his saddlebags the dark rider produced a bundle. Cradling it carefully, shielding the precious object from the rain, he strode into the castle.

“The master awaits,” a slightly taller, slightly less missapen servant said in a voice that bubbled with fluid. “He is in his laboratory.” The servant made no attempt to escort the dark rider; it would only slow him down, and slowing a dark rider down was a good way to die unpleasantly. The dark rider nodded and began the climb to the top of the improbably tall tower in the center of the castle.

The master was seated at his reading table. He looked up when the dark rider entered. “You have the book,” he said in a rich baritone voice.

“Yessss, Masssster,” the dark rider said, his voice the whisper of a winter wind passing through the bare branches of a graveyard tree.

“Bring it to me.” the Master closed the book he had been reading and made space for the latest addition to his library. The dark rider crossed the room in three strides, then carefully unwrapped the book. With a bow he offered the book. The Master lifted the tome off outstreatched hands. “It’s beautiful.” He ran his fingers over the gilt lettering on the cover. The book was bound in soft leather – human skin, the master was willing to bet – reinforced with brass at the corners. It was difficult to believe, looking at it, that it was one of the oldest objects in the world, old when the mountains themselves were young. Almost nothing remained of the ancient civilization that had created the book, mighty as they were, time proved mightier yet. The book smelled of time, it radiated age. The master wasn’t sure it the book was vibrating gently or if that was just his nervous fingers. The room brightened and a bare instant later a crack of thunder shook the tower. Neither dark rider nor master seemed to notice.

“You have done well,” The Master said.

“Thank you, massster.” the dark rider whispered.

“Any word of Trabant?”

“No, Massster. Not that I have heard.”

“He’s up to something, I’m sure of it. Go, then, and help your brothers.” The dark rider bowed and backed out of the room.

Alone, the master centered the great volume on his reading table. A simple incantation released the catch, and he opened the volume. The paper crinkled and a musty smell greeted his nose, but there on his desk were pages that no man had seen for thousands of years.

The master frowned. The page appeared to be gibberish. He had studied all the fragments of the language of the ancients that he could get his hands on, but this text was different. Code, The Master thought. The power that this book revealed would be carefully protected. Code, or simple misdirection? With a wave of his hand he extinguished all the candles in the room, plunging himself into darkness.

Now the master smiled. Floating in the air in front of him, blood-red squiggles twisted and danced, forming themselves into words. Lightning lit the chamber and was just as quickly gone, and as the thunder rettled the shelves the master read the opening dedication:

Qua’alox Linnor!

Qua’alox Linnor!

Narding u’hjit,

Nerding b’hoom,

Nording g’hnkl!

Important Thing!

Important Thing!

Above space,

Beyond time,

Mightier than the pantheon!

“Cower in fear, all who read these words, stand in awe of the Important Thing, who’s true nature can only be revealed to the few capable of weilding such tremendous power. Within these pages lie great power and great responsibility.

Chapter 1: What is the Important Thing?”

The master rubbed his hands together in anticipation. At last! He held the key to the important thing, whatever it was. Soon the world would bow before him!

The next words written in the air were like a punch to the gut:

“FREE SAMPLE ONLY. ENTER PASSWORD TO CONTINUE. PASSWORDS MAY BE PURCHASED FROM S’RNGRVE & S’RNGRVE, YOUR ONLY SOURCE FOR THE FINEST TOMES OF UNTOLD POWER.”

November 1st, 2005

I’ll be honest with you, I intentionally chose to present you with an edited version of this story. The only differences are the name of the country and an improved transition to the cocktail party. I know I had decided to give you the raw prose from that day, but the original country name was close enough to an actual country in the area that it might have caused confusion among those who know geography, or it might have cheesed the residents of the actual country. This fictitious country is in some forgotten pocket in the mountains somewhere around Tajikistan. Proximity does not breed similarity, however; in fact when Ghengis Kahn swept through the region, he took one look at Ztrtkijistan and decided not to bother with it. It’s not much of a place.

This was my first November 1st in Prague, and it was with great anticipation that I dug into this story. I hadn’t planned it much. I had the idea that an American bureaucrat gets dumped into the remotest corner of the Earth as a spy. When the locals discover he is a spy be becomes a minor celebrity. Of course there is nothing worth spying on, so the bureaucrat has taken to drink and he starts sending back dirty jokes as “state secrets”. He is hoping to get fired, but Washington “decodes” his dispatches and discovers that dire events are taking place. Hijinks ensue, and the bumpkins from the backwater country prove remarkably adept at intrigue. (In fact, forgery is a national pastime.)

In a previous episode I published a set of excerpts from the parts of the book where the Americans, the Russians, and later the Chinese spring into action. It was a good use of copy and paste.

This isn’t my entire output on that fateful November first; I ended up cranking out a lot of words that day. I think this is enough, however, if not more than enough. On occasion I’ve tried to come up with a better title. I know there’s one out there.

The Stan-Man Plan

The bus lurched and wheezed its way up the hill, leaving a cloud of black smoke behind. The driver made no effort to avoid the potholes and ruts in the once-paved road, jarring the kidneys of the passengers, their children, and their livestock. Robert McFadden was bounced and jostled with the rest of them, but he seemed to feel it more. The others, even the livestock, had been on this road many times before.

The pitch of the engine rose, making it impossible for Robert to hear the steady stream of profanity issuing from the driver. He suspected that in the coming weeks and months he was going to need to know those words.

The bus reached the crest of the hill, and after a moment of roller-coaster anticipation went careening down the other side, trying to build momentum for the next climb. Robert tried not to think about the sheer drop just to his right. There was no guard rail. No one else on the bus seemed to notice that pain and death were only a meter away.

He pulled out his map and studied it. By his best guess they were in Ztrtkijistan now.

They crept up through a cleft between two snow-capped peaks and the bus shuddered to a stop. There was a shack there, and a uniformed guard wearing a fur cap and carrying an AK-47 sauntered over to and spoke to the driver through the open door.

“Anything I should know about?” he asked the driver.

“There’s a foreigner today.”

“Huh.” The guard stepped up into the bus and immediately spotted Robert. He paused, his brows knit as if he was contemplating something perplexing, then came to a decision. “Can you come with me for a moment, sir?”

“Certainly,” Robert said in Ztrtkijistani. He stood and the other passengers made way for him, watching him with the same open curiosity they had shown for the entire trip.

“You speak our language?” the border guard asked, surprised.

“Yes, I do. That’s why I’m here.”

“Huh.”

They climbed off the bus and Robert was grateful for the opportunity to stretch his legs and rest his backside. The cold mountain air was thin and bracing, only slightly tinged with the smell of the overheating bus engine. Inside the shack a small oil stove produced more heavy, clinging smoke than it did heat. McFadden wondered why the soldier even bothered. The massive soviet-era desk barely left enough room for the two chairs.

“Please, sit,” the guard said, unconcerned for the busload of people who were waiting. Close up, Robert could see that his uniform was faded and worn almost through in places. “May I see your passport, please?”

Robert handed over his passport and his visa paperwork. The soldier looked at the visa, nonplussed. “You intend to stay here?”

“Yes.”

The guard set down the papers and scratched his head while he regarded his guest with open confusion. “Why?”

“I am a professor at a University. I am studying your culture and traditions.”

This seemed to raise more questions that it answered in the mind of the soldier. “Study us?” he asked incredulously.

Robert understood his confusion. This was not a country famed for arts or sciences or even any sort of military tradiditon. The Soviet era had efficiently erased what little unique culture the country might have had.

If Ztrtkijistan was even a country at all. No one seemed quite sure whether the isolated people were an independent nation or an autonomous province of neighboring Kyrgyzstan, least of all the Ztrtkijistanis themselves. The ambiguity could have been cleared up by the two countries easily enough, Robert thought, but neither side had gone to the trouble. In the end, no one cared enough either way.

Robert hesitated before answering the soldier’s question. In all truth he was no more interested in the culture of these isolated people than anyone else in the world was—which was not at all. Still, he needed some story to make it plausible that he would be there, and the options were few. Tourism was not going to work. This gray, rocky country was goverend from a dusty, gravelly city of block buildings that utterly lacked charm. The city lay in a pall of smoke from countless wood fires and greasy oil stoves, a haze thick enough to bring tears to the eyes of visitors. Even the mountains surrounding the country somehow lacked any sort of soaring grandeur. The guide book Robert had studied for this trip had tried gamely to come up with interesting things to say about the country, before throwing in the towel. “There are more goats than people,” it pointed out. “In the market square one can find a variety of handicrafts.” “The mosque in the center of the capital had a lovely mosaic on the floor, which can be seen at the XXX museum in Moscow.” “The hotel has running water.”

Telling the truth about why he was there was out of the question. Robert McFadden was a spy.

Had Robert McFadden known how he had come to be assigned to Ztrtkijistan, it would not have made him feel any better.

It was a particularly tedious political coctail party, and General Harold Martin was on his third martini in the last hour when he fell into the trap. One more drink, he thought, and I’m out of here. He was almost to the bar when an analyst he recognized from the office struck up a conversation with him.

Always important to treat the troops well, he thought, as he signaled for another martini. He watched the analyst’s lips move and idly tried to remember his underling’s name. My God, this man is boring. I need to say something, and get the hell out of here.

“… the gross domestic product of Ztrtkijistan,” the analyst concluded.

The general had already opened his mouth to break off the conversation, but he stopped short. “Where?”

“Ztrtkijistan.”

“That’s a country?”

“Of course,” the analyst said, pleased to catch the general in his ignorance, even though the analyst had not known Ztrtkijistan was a country either, until two weeks previous when a coworker had trapped him at another coctail party.

The general chewed on that for a moment. That smug bastard is going to spread it all around the office tomorrow that I didn’t know that Zert-whatever was a country. Not acceptable. The best defence, he knew, was a good offense. “Has the situation there stabilized?”

The analyst balked. “Situation?”

The general smiled inwardly. “Of course the situation. Why the hell did you bring up Ztort… that place if you don’t have more information about the situation?”

The analyst backed up a step. “I—”

Got you! Nobody was going to make the general look like a fool. He turned to the aide standing patiently at his elbow. “Who do we have on the ground there?”

The aide scowled, pretending to be in deep thought for a moment. “No one, I think, sir.”

“No one? We don’t have a single person in the entire goddam country?”

“I think not.”

“You mean the people of the United States of America are relying on us to keep the world safe for democracy and we’re letting entire countries slip through our fingers?”


I don’t think Ztrtkijistan qualifies as a threat to democracy.”

“You don’t think so, eh? Well, that’s the difference between you and me, Chumley.”

“It’s Crumley, sir.”

“Don’t interrupt me. Ever. The difference between you and me is that I’m not satisfied with just thinking a country is not a threat. I have to know. It’s the one you’re not watching that will put a knife between your ribs. I need someone on the ground there to infiltrate their institutions and see what’s really going on, and I want it yesterday. No stan is going to catch me with my pants down.”

“Stan?”

“Tanjistan, Uzbeckstan, all them stans. I want a man in every stan.” He barked a laugh. “Ha! Man in every stan.” He took another swig of his martini and glared at the retreating analyst.

The next day the general had forgotten the entire conversation, but Crumley had not. With a malicious glint in his beady eyes he combed over the agency’s personnel records, looking for the ideal person to send. Someone who was qualified on paper but would be difficult for the general to explain later. Crumley would enjoy watching the general squirm when he had to explain why a resource needed back home was rotting in some piss-hole country no one had even heard of. “The difference between me and you, general,” he muttered to himself, “is that I’m competent.”

Crumley’s eye scanned down the list and came to rest on Robert McFadden. A desk jocky, a slacker, and one of the few people in the western hemisphere who could speak Ztrtkijistani. He spoke a lot of languages, and was currently working on translating Iranian communications. He would be sorely missed. Perfect.

Crumley smiled and began to type the orders.

Robert McFadden shifted uneasily on the wooden chair. “I’m here to catalog the idioms and mannerisms in everyday speech. The language here is not like any other in the area, or anywhere for that matter.”

The guard still looked skeptical, but with a grunt he shrugged and rooted around in his desk for his stamp, and having found that, some ink for it. “Don’t use it so much,” he explained. No one else in the world is dumb enough to come here. He carefully stamped Robert’s passport, inspected his handiwork, and returned the papers. “Welcome to Ztrtkijistan,” he said. His forced smile revealed a gap where his front two teeth should have been.

“Thank you.” Robert stood to leave. The guard put his fur cap back on and walked over to the bus with Robert.

“It seems like on my map the border should be a few kilometers up the road.”

“Which map you got?”

“Fremming’s.” Robert held it out for inspection.

The soldier dutifully studied it for a moment, then said, “That map’s no good.”

As they walked toward the bus Robert blew into his hands, envying the heavy gloves the other wore. It was October, and things were going to get much colder, he knew.

“What map should I use?”

The soldier thought. “They’re all no good.” He shrugged. “Enjoy your time here,” he said skeptically and moved to raise the gate.

Robert climbed back onto the bus and surveyed the other passengers as they watched him frankly. He moved back to the seat he had been occupying for the last few hours and settled in next to a middle-aged man who was also missing his front two teeth. The man was shorter than Robert – these were not a tall people, they were thin and small, like the sparse vegetation once again flashing past the windows of the bus. This was not a place for towering trees or rich jungle, it was the place where toughness was the only dominant gene.

“You are from America?” the man asked.

“That’s right,” Robert said, and wondered what question he could ask the other man in return. He had difficulty enough conversing in the US, where at least theoretically he he had something in common with the people he was talking to. The man had spoken occasionally during the trip, saying things like “The bus crashed here once,” and “I have a cousin who raises goats up there.” Each time Robert tried to think of possible replies, but beyond “Oh, I see,” or “You don’t say,” he came up empty.

“Yes, I’m American.” He tried to expand. “I live in Washington, but I’m from California originally.”

“The man nodded. Ah, California.” Robert suspected he had no idea where California was. Not even Hollywood had penetrated these mountains. Not, at least, as an actual place that people could be from. “Why have you come here?”

“I’m a professor…”

“You have come to teach us things? How to speak English? Some people think we should teach all our children English, the way we all learned Russian.” He didn’t look enthusiastic about either. “I am not so sure…”

“No, I’m not here for that. I’m here to learn about your culture.”

“Why?”

“It will help the Americans to understand you better.”

He shrugged. What’s to understand? We’re just regular people. “Maybe we should send someone to study the Americans.”

Robert laughed and the other man smiled at his apparent joke. “Maybe you should,” Robert said. “In the meantime you have me to study.” He gestured vaguely at all the others watching him on the bus.

The other nodded solemnly at Robert’s joke. “Yes, yes, we will study you, too.” Suddenly he laughed and slapped Robert on the shoulder. “We will all be professors.”

November 1st, 2004

Considering how much action there is in this story, there’s not a lot happening in this chapter. I went back later and wrote a chapter before this one, but I’m pretty sure this is my output from my first day of writing in 2004. The grafted-on opening chapter isn’t terribly actionitious either, but it adds to the suspense at least. So when you read this, just remember that all is not as it appears, and someone’s going to get hurt.

I’m not sure anyone else is finding my November 1st’s interesting, but I’m enjoying the memories. If you don’t want to read a big pile of unedited words, then these episodes probably aren’t for you. That’s OK; I understand. I’m trying to intersperse my normal style of blog episode (whatever that is).

Worst Enemy

The bar sat at the top of a rickety staircase, the surrounding vegetation giving it the feel of a treehouse. It was quiet, still offseason. The breeze carried with it pungent tropical smells, somehow overcoming the human smells from the town below.

On the patio four tourists were getting drunk, two couples drinking the house rum concoction. They were probably staying at one of the resorts to the south of town and had decided to come into town for a change of pace. This bar certainly qualified as that. They didn’t ask what was in their drinks, and that was fine with Rose.

On the TV at the sheltered end of the bar the Steelers were playing, brought live by satellite from a cold-looking Three rivers Stadium. Rose was idly cleaning things that weren’t dirty as she wacthed her team.

“Oh, Jesus Christ!” she shouted at the TV. The tourists stopped their conversation to see what the commotion was about. “You worthless piece of shit!” she concluded.

“Nice to see you, too, Rose,” the man at the bar said.

Rose wheeled. “Jesus, Jake, I didn’t see you.”

“I am a sneaky bastard.”

“Shit, Jake, It’s great to see you.” Rose came around the bar to give the man a hug. She stepped back from the man and said, “You’re early this year.”

“I thought if I got here before the hurricane season was over I could have you all to myself.”

Rose laughed, reverberating out over the town. There was a saying in Cruz Bay, “When Rose is happy, everyone knows.”

“Saint Pauli Girl?” she asked. That was the onofficial beer of the island, and Jake liked to respect tradition.

But there were other traditions. Jake put on a hurt expression. “Rose, how can you forget?”

“Oh, shit, Jake, I’m sorry. It’s the fuckin’ Steelers. I can’t concentrate.”

“If I’d known it was Sunday, I would have waited until tomorrow to come in.”

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

“You’re right.”

Rose had poured generous portions of Scotch. She handed one to Jake. They held their glasses up, tapping them gently together, making eye contact. Rose threw her whiskey back, Jake sipped his. “Here’s to ya, Rose,” Jake said belatedly.

One of the girls from the patio cam over for another round. Rose started pouring booze into plastic cups. While she was fishing for the pineapple, she asked, “So how’s Rosie?” She turned to the girl waiting for the drinks. “He named his boat after me,” she said.

“Really?” asked the girl.

“Not exactly,” Jake said. “The real name is Rosinante.”

“What a great name!” the girl exclaimed. “Does that make you don Quixote?”

He chuckled wryly. “Hardly. My nake is Jake.”

“He’s got the most beautiful boat in the bay,” said Rose. “What’re you working on now, Jake?”

“One of the winches is sticking, and I want to do a little woodwork while I’m here.”

“You ever get those electronics figured out?”

“Yeah, there was some weird wiring. I ended up rebuilding the whole harness, pretty much.”

“Damn, that’s a beautiful boat. I love all the wood.” Rose turned back to the girl, who was lingering to listen in on the conversation. “You should see her. She’s fast, too.”

“You don’t know that,” Jake said.

“Oh, come on, you kicked Cap’n Steve’s ass two years ago.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

The girl asked, “Is it the boat or the captain that wins a race?”

Jake hesitated. “Longer boats go faster.”

“How long is Captain Steve’s boat?”

Jake glanced at Rose. “68 feet?” he asked. Rose nodded.

“How long is your boat?”

“52 feet. Longer when she’s heeling. I beat him because I’m rigged to sail shorthanded and his crew wasn’t much.”

Rose butted in. “You kicked that guys ass.” To the girl she said, “Cap’n Steve’s been trying to buy Rosie ever since.”

Jake shook his head. “I think I’m going to sell, Rose.”

“What?” both women asked in unison. “You can’t!” added the tourist.

Jake shrugged. “The tub’s too big for me,” he said. “I don’t need so much boat.”

“Crap, Jake,” said Rose, “You’ve put everything you have into Rosie.”

“She doesn’t need me so much anymore.”

“Jake, you love that boat. You can’t sell it. I won’t let you.”

“Man’s gotta eat, Rose.” It took a moment for Rose to digest that. When she had Jake continued, “There’s not enough for me to fix on her anyway. I need a new challenge.”

“You don’t really think that. You just don’t know what to do when it’s easy is all. Crap, Jake, fight for it.”

“Can I see your boat?” the tourist asked.

Jake finished his scotch. “Not tonight,” he said. “But congratulations.”

“What?”

“Congratulations on your engagement.”

“How…”

“You keep fiddling with your ring, so I know it’s new. It takes some getting used to.”

“Oh.” She looked at the impressive rock as if she was surprised to see it there. “Thanks.”

The tourist took her drinks back to her friends. Rose slid Jake a beer and said, “You still have your way with the ladies. She was almost starting to like you there for a moment.”

Jake took a long drink. “Can’t have that,” he finally said. “She’s not happy about her engagement. I don’t want to get in the middle of that.”

“You always find a reason, Jake. Blondie’s pretty cute, and she liked you.”

“Really, I’m just saving ther the trouble of learning later what a messed-up motherfucker I am.”

Rose shook her head. “Jake, any woman would be glad to be with you.” She held out her hand to forestall comment. “Not me, of course, but any other woman.”

“Thanks, Rose. That’s just what I needed to hear from my favorite bartender.”

“Ah, Jake. I know you’ve got a favorite bartender in every port in the world.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Rose. I’ll lie to them, but I’ll never lie to you.”

“You say that to all of them, too.”

“Not quite. I tell them all they’re my second favorite bartender.”

November 1st, 2003

This is isn’t exactly what I wrote that day so long ago, but it’s reasonably close. I got it from a file dated March of 2004, which is when I had a big first draft and was about to do some serious chopping. The writing here is certainly awkward enough to be a first draft. This scene changed a lot over the years, before meeting its demise this summer. At least, the scene this had become met its demise. After years of revising, it’s interesting to look back on this and see that there are some good things that got lost along the way. There are also some things about this that I am not at all sad to be rid of.

The Monster Within

I watched other patrons come and go as I nursed my beer. You’ve seen a hundred Taverns and pubs like the Crossroads Inn. It was a large room, with a bar at one end, a fireplace at the other, tables in between. Most of the smaller tables were occupied, and one of the two long tables was filled with a boisterous group of mercenaries who were there for the same reason I was. Looking for work.

It was a chilly day; Winter was reminding us that she was waiting for us. There was only one way to avoid her icy breath, and I wasn’t ready for that. Not yet. So I sat in a corner away from the heat of the merry fire and people that enjoyed it. “Bring it on, Winter,” I mumbled into my beer. “You haven’t killed me yet.” She had tried, and even come close, but I was still there, with all my fingers and toes, and a room to stay in until my money ran out. Tomorrow.

“Did you say something?” asked the serving girl as she passed my table, laden with crock mugs for the mercanaries.

“Just talking to the Universe,” I said, “but it’s not listening.”

She laughed prettily even though she didn’t understand and went off to flirt with other patrons. Her hips swayed even more as she approached the long table with her cargo of ale. I heard her laugh clearly across the room, ringing high over the rest of the conversation.

The name of the Crossroads Inn is descriptive if not particularly creative. The town of Rinth sits at the intersection of two important trade roads, and prospers by catering to the merchants passing through. There were several inns in town, but this was the favorite among soldiers and free lances, so it was the place merchants came when they were looking for a little extra muscle as they continued east into more dangerous territory. It was also the place where they would drop off unneeded muscle as they headed West. The area to the east was lawless not because neither Landreth or Garadel claimed it, but because both did. Most of the bandits were technically in the employ of one state or the other, although they rarely seemed ineterested in advancing anyone’s interests but their own. They were little more than bandits and petty warlords.

Some merchants specialized in the road east from Rinth that eventually reached Landreth. Some had even made special tarriff arrangements with the bandits. In the end, however, no matter who you paid, you had better be ready to defend your cargo.

Some mercanaries made a living off that road, and had arrangements of their own, but I wasn’t so much a specialist myself. I had traveled that road often enough, but I couldn’t keep doing the same thing for very long. Still, beggars can’t be choosers, and I hadn’t been getting much work lately.

There were some merchants at the smaller tables. One group had obviously just come from the East; they were drinking heavily and I watched as the worry of the journey was lifted from their shoulders. They had made it. They had taken a risk and now they would profit handsomely. The local working girls had picked up on their mood and were vying for their attantion. No one that visited the Crossroads Inn and had a little coin would sleep alone if he didn’t want to.

Most of the merchants that traveled the east road were younger, trying to establish themselves and build a reputation. Very few older men took that risk. Traders either died young on the East road or they made their money and moved on to safer, but more competitive, routes.

That made it more difficult for me to get work here. I depended on regulars, merchants who knew me and knew what I could do. Getting a new client was the most difficult part of my profession. Killing I could do, dying I was prepared to do, but approaching a man and asking for work was almost impossible for me. I’m not that much to look at, really, smaller than most other hired swords, with a baby face that makes me look like a boy barely past puberty. People who know me, people who have fought on battlefields and in the caves at Algarth with me, know that I am a capable soldier, and more honest than many. Strangers usually just laugh. I’m not much of a salesman – not much of a talker, really. Sometimes I would try to tell them about my military record, but it would just add to the merriment.

There were no friends or acquantances here tonight, only strangers. Usually in a group of mercanaries the size of the one at the long table I would be able to recognize someone. I recognozed one of the Westbound merchants, but he would be reducing his payroll now that he was through the danger. I knew I should talk to him anyway, just to renew the relationship, but I’m not much at small talk. I looked over the other merchants, trying to spot the one who would need more muscle and would not laugh in my face.

I had one picked out, and was rehearsing my sales pitch, when he got up and went upstairs. I started over. No one looked like a very good prospect. Still, people were coming and going all the time. Maybe another caravan would come in before my money ran out. I’ve been out of money plenty of times, and I am quite capable of living off the land, but when you’re broke it just shows. People prefer to hire people who look successful.

Eventually, as it became obvious which of the prostitutes were going to win the affection – and money – of the merchants, the other working girls began to scout around the rest of the room. Finally one of them decided to give me a try. She sashayed over to my table and I had to admit to myself that she was very pretty. Her shirt – blouse, or whatever they’re called – was cut very low, revealing ample cleavage beneath. Her skirt had a slit cut far up the side, revealing at least one shapely leg.

“Would you like some company for the evening?” she asked sweetly.

“I’m not your type,” I said, trying with only limited success to make it sound like a growl.

“Don’t be silly, kid. Everyone needs a little company now and then.”

For a moment I was tempted. It sounded nice, someone to lie with in the darkness, talking about nothing much in particular, sharing body heat as the night got colder. Maybe even laughing at some little joke that wasn’t really that funny. To not be alone. I had been alone for so long now I wondered if I was even capable of any form of intimacy. I felt a hollowness in my chest that I had almost forgotten. The place where most people have a heart. I had something else there instead. A monster. Perhaps for one night, though, I could pretend.

The monster moved inside me and I came to my senses. “I’m the type with no money,” I said.

The look in her eye said that I had cut her more deeply than I had intended. She had offered comfort, and I had called her a whore. “That’s not always what I want.” She pulled herself together and returned to the warmer end of the hall.

What if I had said yes? What if I had let down my guard for one night and gone with her? What if I hadn’t been sitting there when the stranger came in, looking for someone to do a job for him? But the man was looking for me, and the monster saw to it that he found me. I was no more able to accept the comfort of that girl than I was able to end my own life.

The monster wasn’t real in the sense that it was a separate creature that lived inside me, although most of the time it felt that way. It’s just a name I gave to a part of me that seemed to have its own life. It certainly had its own goals, and I suspected that my survival was not one of them. We didn’t talk much.

I didn’t pay very much attention to the stranger at first; he wasn’t wearing the outward signs of wealth that traders seem to be so fond of, and he didn’t look like any sort of hired sword. He paused at the door, surveying the room, and, walking very slowly, he eased himself into a rough-hewn chair in the no-mans-land between the rest of the patrons and me. A traveler, weary from the road. No doubt his companions were nearby, and would be joining him soon.

Where he sat, I could not help but look at him further, and the more I looked at him, the more curious I became. Although he was clearly weary from the road, he held himself erect. There was discipline in his posture, and pride. His clothes, too, though simple, were tailored to him and made of sturdy but soft material. Beneath a layer of dust his boots gleamed with fresh polish. The hilt of his sword was finely worked and well-worn.

I realized that he was looking at me, appraising me as I was appraising him. He smiled slightly. “May I offer you a drink?” he asked.

I wasn’t working, so I decided that another couldn’t hurt. I don’t drink when I’m on a payroll, but between jobs I sometimes allow myself to dull my senses a little. Every once in a while I allow myself to dull my senses a lot, a cowardly attempt at oblivion, but they always come back. I had promised the owner of the tavern that I wouldn’t start a fight tonight – this was not my first time in Rinth and tavern owners have better memories than my employers – so there was really nothing to lose.

“Mind if I join you?” he asked after he had ordered our drinks.

“Be my guest,” I said.

He pulled himself up slowly, but with a grace that spoke of training. Either dance lessons at court or combat training. Both, I decided. I shifted my chair to allow him an equal share of space at the table. He stood over me, his dark clothing making him look even taller than he actually was, which was pretty tall to start with. He smelled like horse and money. “My name is Smith,” he said, offering his hand.

I took his hand and shook it, pumping twice firmly, not squeezing so hard it looked like I was trying to prove something. “Hunter,” I said.

“Hunter? Is that the name your mother gave you?”

“That would be a remarkable coincidence,” I said.

He laughed, and sat with a sigh.

“Long road?” I asked.

“You have no idea. Traveling like this always takes it out of me. But I have been in a hurry.”

The serving girl arrived with our drinks. When she set them down the table rocked, causing some of the dark liquid to slosh onto the table and onto me. She didn’t notice; she was flirting with my guest, giving him an eyeful as she bent over to set down the mugs and brushing against him quite unnecessarily as she turned to leave. She could smell the money as well. I was a little jealous of the attention, despite myself.

Smith didn’t seem to notice her at all. Holding his mug so that nothing would drip on his clothes, he sampled the beer. “I’ve had better,” he said with a slight grimace. I had had better ale as well, but not here. There didn’t seem to be anything to be gained by belaboring the point, so I sipped my beer, letting it drip where it might.

“Why do you call youself Hunter?” he asked.

“It’s left over from my army days. You get all sorts of names in the army.”

“What were you called before that?”

I shrugged. “Thomas, usually.”

“But now you’re Hunter.”

I nodded.

“You know how to use that?” he looked meaningfully at my sword.

I nodded. “And I know how not to.”

Smith raised one eyebrow. I had always wanted to be able to do that. I resisted the urge to try again to do it right then. He looked around the bar. “Who do you think the most dangerous person in this place is right now?”

He was testing me, which would have been annoying except that it probably meant he had work of some sort to offer. “Dangerous to your money bag, that little hooker over there with the light fingers. Dangerous to your health, probably the cook in back. But dangerous overall…” I surveyed the other patrons. Some of them looked like they could be trouble, but as I sized them all up the monster whispered in my ear and I knew it was right. “…you.” I said.

This time his smile revealed a neat row of narrow, white teeth. A wolf’s smile. “You could be right. I need someone to do a job for me. Are you interested?”

“That depends on the job, but probably, yes.”

“I have a mesage to deliver to the palace in Garadel. The messenger requires a bodyguard. Discretion is very important.”

I raised my eyebrows. Garadel was the seat of the largest and arguably most powerful kingdom in the world. A delivery to the palace implied that this was royal business. I wondered what rank Smith held in the royal household.

“Where is this messenger now?”

“We can discuss the particulars after you are in my employ.”

“Why me?” I asked. Usually for a bodyguard you hire the biggest, ugliest man you can find. More often than not, his presence alone would prevent trouble. I was better in situations where the fight was already a given.

“As I said, discretion is very important. If the bodyguard looks like a bodyguard, then everyone will know that he is protecting something. What I need is someone who can protect without appearing to be a protector. There is another thing as well. I believe that I am a good judge of a man. Usually when I meet someone I can tell right away what their character is. I believe that you would never betray an employer. Am I right?”

I nodded. “Yes.” I was compelled to add, “as long as he doesn’t betray me.”

He smiled, congratulating himself on his perception more than appreciating me. He put a coin on the table. “This is for the next hour of your time. Do you accept?”

I didn’t even look at the coin. It didn’t matter what it was if it allowed him to describe the job. “Sure,” I said.

“What I am about to tell you is secret. You are not to tell anyone about it, even after our current contract expires. Do you understand?”

I chose not to be insulted. If the guy needed to state it formally, he could knock himself out. “I understand,” I said.

“The messenger will be prepared to leave from Monkham the day after tomorrow. You are to be there before nightfall the day before.”

Monkham lay to the south, straight down the road. I was between mounts at that time, and Monkham was long way to go on foot in one day. At least I would have a night to rest before the journey started. It would take about two weeks to get from there to Garadel by horse, depending on how fast the messenger could move. “Is anyone likely to cause trouble?”

He nodded. “If certain people find out about the message, they will try to stop it. I have lost messengers in the past.”

And bodyguards, I assumed. I sized him up, and made a guess at what he would be willing to pay. “Thirty crowns,” I said.

He smiled again. “Ten,” he said, “and you can keep the horse.”

Depending on the horse, that would be a fair price. Depending on the horse. “Twenty and the horse,” I said.

“Fifteen,” Simth said, “and you will like the horse.”

I hadn’t had fifteen crowns jangling in my pocket in a long time. It was a lot of money to make for two weeks work; in the army I had earned less than that in two years. I could stretch that kind of money over months, and then I could sell the horse. That would easily get me through the winter, and well into summer beyond. “All right,” I said.

“Good.” He gestured to the coin on the table. It was a gold crown. A lot of money. This had been the most lucrative hour of my life. He handed me another. The way he was throwing money around, I wondered why he had bothered haggling. Probably just for the fun of it.

“Use this to pay for our drinks and you may use the rest for whatever, ah, accomodation you wish for this evening,” he said. “There will be five crowns and a horse waiting for you in Monkham. There will be ten more crowns in Garadel.” He stood. “Ask for Haversham. You’ll find him in the stables just outside of town to the north. Tell him you are the escort. Do not use my name; it would mean nothing to him anyway. The code word is ‘glory’.” He frowned. “Not what I would have picked. If he asks about Bill, Bill is dead.”

He stood so I did too. After all, he was my boss now. “I am pleased that I found you here, Hunter. I look forward to a long and beneficial relationiship. I will see you again after you are finished in Garadel.” We shook hands again and he left the inn without looking back. It was too late for him to start a journey tonight, but I was not surprised to see that he had found accomodation in a different inn. There were other places that offered services more suited to one of his class.

I paid for the beers and had plenty left over. The girl I had insulted was still there. She had seen me pay and now she saw me looking at her. She came back over, proving she was braver than I was.

“Change your mind?” she asked.

“I, uh, no, I mean, I’m not interested.” I felt myself turning red.

Her smile became more genuine. She touched my cheek gently. “I’ll be gentle, lad. You won’t forget it.”

“Look, here, just take this.” I handed her a coin, a ten-heller coin as it turned out. Rather more than it would have cost to have her stay with me all night. But I knew now that was impossible.

She looked at the coin, angry. “That’s all you think I am, isn’t it? That’s all you think I want?”

“No, I -” But she was gone. She did take the coin, though. So she couldn’t have been that badly hurt.

I stood and looked down on my unfinished beer. I wanted it, but I was on the job now. The crown he had given me bound me to his service as much as all the King’s gold would have.

There was nothing left to do but go up to my room and prepare for the trip. I had been camping in a copse of trees on the outskirts of town for the past few days, but I had felt the cold snap coming and had booked a room for the night, spending the last of my precious cash to be more comfortable. I must be getting soft to spend my last few coins just to be warmer for one night. Now I was flush again and glad to be indoors. I heard the wind picking up outside. The worst of the storm would pass by morning, but it was still going to be a cold journey. Fortunately I would be moving quickly and keeping myself warm.

November 1st, 2002

I’ve decided to put an excerpt of each of my previous NaNoWriMo efforts here. Sorry in advance. The first year’s excerpt was a no-brainer; day one of novel one. Since I haven’t actually read the story that was also the easiest to find. This installment of NaNoWriMo hit parade is a little tricker. I spent the next eleven months of my life on this story as well, adding more than editing, letting the story sprawl. There are many parts much better than day one. The thing is, I have no idea what day they were, or even what month they were. So I have gone back to my earliest version of chapter one. This is not exactly what I wrote on November 1, 2002, but it’s pretty close.

I’ve edited this chapter a lot since then. A lot. (The reason I have such old versions is to test the format conversion for newer versions of Jer’s Novel Writer.) So while this isn’t exactly what I produced that lovely November day, as I sat in Callahan’s on day one of “30 days, 30 bars, 1 novel”, it’s reasonably close. I think the only major change after day one is that I experimented with giving people pretty heavy dialects. I wanted to differentiate Jane’s speech, but the result is some hard reading.

Also, this is pretty wordy. That was the point, after all.

My current version of the chapter is a total rewrite from the ground up; it may be that no phrase at all from this version survived. While the new version is definitely better I think this first spew of words did a decent job setting the tone of who Jane is. (I was tempted to give you chapter two here instead, it’s tighter and introduces the world better and is overall a better chapter one than chapter one is, but then I got tired of thinking and just decided this will be a series of November 1sts.)

A side note I discovered as I worked on this story: one of the most difficult things about world-building is inventing a good system of cursing. I believe that one day I will come up with a vocabulary of epithets so integrated and natural that they will give me both the Hugo and the Nebula, with a Pulitzer for garnish.

The Test

Jane was just a little girl when her mother died of the shakes. Her mother had tried to shelter her from the truth, that she was dying, but Jane knew something was wrong. Late at night she would awaken to the sound of her father giving futile reassurance to her mother as she silently wept.

It wasn’t until Jane overheard a neighbor talking that she knew what was wrong.

“Such a shame,” the woman had said, shaking her head. “The shakes, and her so young. Such a sweet girl. And she with them little ones, too. An’ thet lass a queer duck, ‘erself. Gives me the shivers when she looks a’ me. She’s a touch o’ the dark blood in her, I’d nae be surprised.”

“It’s thet way she talks,” another agreed. “Like a steamin’ princess.”

“Thet’s ‘er Ma’s doin’. She thet it might ‘elp ‘er rise in station.”

The first woman clucked. “Jest made the lass odd, is all she did. Jest talkin’ like a steamin’ richie don’t make yeh one. Jest look at ‘er with thet book.”

They hadn’t realized that Jane was listening, or they would not have mentioned the shakes. There had been a careful conspiracy to keep the truth from Jane, as if that would change anything. Nobody ever got better when they had the shakes. The disease was as inexorable and unforgiving as it was painful and humiliating. Jane had seen someone with the shakes once before, a neighbor in the crowded row house, another woman who worked the wonders down at the factory. Her screams had echoed up and down the hallway. By the time she died, the whole building let out a sigh of relief.

Jane pretended she did not hear. She just sat quietly, forming the letters in her most treasured possession, a reading and writing primer she had found on the ground outside the school where the children who didn’t have to work went to learn. Nobody paid any attention to her as her tears smeared the lines where her fingers passed over the inscrutable shapes. The corner of the room where she sat had markings all over the floor, from the times she had a scribbler and she practiced making words. Jane fancied that it was a spell she had placed on that corner of the room, that the simple words were actually powerful runes to deflect any evil that might try to reach her there. She didn’t mind when her mother made her clean them, for it gave her a chance to replace the simple words with longer ones, and now even whole sentences.

Jane’s mother never made her clean the markings if she didn’t have a writing stick to make new ones.

She wished she had a scribbler now. She wished that her mother had let her practice her writing in other parts of the house, to create words that could keep the shakes away. She reminded herself that they were just ordinary words, not the mysterious symbols used by the Great Ones, but she wanted to be able to do something, and that was all she had. No one would stop her from writing wherever she wanted right now, but she didn’t have a scribbler and there was not going to be any money to buy one.

After a few weeks her mother’s tremors were undisguisable. She started to forget things, and remember things that had never happened. The tremors started in her hands and slowly spread throughout her body. For a few weeks there was no other indication that anything was wrong. When mother slept they would look at her and fool themselves that everything was as it had always been.

As time passed, however, Jane’s mother slept less and less. The last two weeks were marked by the catastrophic loss of bodily control and sanity. When her voice gave out she continued to rave in a hoarse whisper, seeing things that were not there, speaking with people long dead, and crying piteously in terror as unseen demons tormented her.

It was on a quiet morning that she died. The sudden stillness in the building was unnerving. The entire block paused, took a breath, said a prayer for the departed, and after a moment moved on.

The stillness continued in the room that Jane’s family called home, however. They all just sat, Jane, her father, and her brother. Her brother was still too young to understand what was going on, but he took his cues from the other two. Finally he asked, “Is mama better now?”

Jane’s father took a moment to answer. “No, John, she’s passed to the shadow world. The spirits came and took her by the hand and showed her the way to somewhere where she doesn’t have to suffer anymore.” To Jane’s ears, it didn’t sound like he believed what he was saying.

“I want to go there, too, Papa. I want to be with Mama. I want to go to the shadow world.”

The neighbors who were visiting then all sucked in their breath. Some of them made motions in the air to ward off bad luck or worse. Even Jane’s father seemed alarmed. “Nae, lad, Yeh mus’ nae ever say a thing like ‘at. Nae even breathe it. Nae even dream it. Yeh nea ever know the dark ears what may be listenin’. Yeh will be goin’ to see yer ma anon, boy, long hence, I pray, but if yeh go tae soon ye will nae be ready, so the dark ones will take yeh for theyselves, to eat yeh or worse. The dark ones alway be lookin’ for the little boys they can fool into followin’ them, but yeh must not listen to ‘em. Yeh have to work your whole life to earn yeh place there, so yeh can be in peace there.”

“When will Mama come back?”

“She’s nae comin’ back tae’ us ever, little mon. ”

John’s face started to cloud as he began to understand. “I want mama tae come back.” The tears were coming.

“Aye, I know.” The big man gathered his son into his arms. The hard man was crying too. “I know.”

Jane watched them cling to each other from across the room. She wanted to go over to them, to share their sorrow and comfort, but she did not know how. She watched as Father’s big, gnarled hands took in her brother and built a fortress to protect him. Her father looked up and his eyes met hers, and she felt that he wanted to cross the gulf as well, he wanted to give her comfort and protection, but he was just as lost as she was. When a neighbor came to the door, it was Jane that answered.

The visitors had become a procession, bringing food and words of condolence to the most recently grieving family. A display like this happened every week in the building, it seemed. Everyone pitched in, because they knew that it might be their family next. Jane often had carried the offering to the bereaved; for some reason the gift was better received when delivered by a child. Perhaps it was without the taint of obligation when it came from someone who didn’t really understand what was going on.

Jane did not take comfort in any of her father’s platitudes. She did take comfort in the knowledge that her mother was no longer suffering, but she did not believe they would be together again in some happy place some day. While she allowed that there was a remote chance her mother was in some improbable better place, she was confident that was a place she would never go. She didn’t believe, and the place she didn’t believe in was a place only for believers. So even if she was wrong she was out. She knew that there was a shadow world, she just didn’t believe the descriptions of it that she heard, since no one had ever come back from there.

Days passed, and slowly the sympathy visits dried up as new tragedies supplanted the old, and gradually life settled into a new routine. There were still some women who would call, women who had lost husbands to the lumps or to the blood cough. They would bring food and dote over the children, praising them and giving them sweets. Their own children would never come over with them.

This parade, too, slowly petered out as Jane’s father began to drink more and more.

The first time had been about a week after Jane’s mother had died. He had been sitting in his chair, quiet, brooding. Suddenly he had jumped up, startling both children. “Look after the lad,” he said to Jane. “I need tae get some air.” He didn’t come home until the middle of the next day. He had staggered in, disheveled, reeling, reeking of vomit, and had gone straight to bed. Hours later he called out “Breakfast!”

Jane did her best to make him something, but there was almost no food in the house. Her father had been angry at the thin broth she had given him. “Yeh air the goddam woman innis house now, and I expec’ yeh tae act like it. There’s nae mon will want yeh like this, sniveling and whining. Get down to shop and bring me some proper kip.”

She was relieved to get out of the house. She went down to the shop that her mother had always taken her to, and walked in as if everything was normal. She selected her bread and eggs the same way her mother had, and approached the counter. She had to stand on tiptoes to see the butcher over the counter. “A pound of bacon, please.”

“Well, bless me if it isn’t Jane! She’s been a far time since I’ve seen yeh, lass. And now yeh be grown up and doing the shopping for the family.” He paused. “And how is your lovely mother?” He asked the question casually, but Jane could see that he was very interested in the answer.

“Mama died. She had the shakes.”

The butcher’s face lingered briefly on sympathy before resting on caution. “The shakes, eh?” He shook his head and made a gesture to ward off bad luck. As if he could catch it. He recited an old proverb. “The spirits are greedy, always taking the finest ones. And how will yeh be payin’ today?”

“On the account, just like Mother did.”

“Ah, darlin’, do yeh know what thet means, account?”

“No.”

“It means that yeh’ll pay me later. Yeh already owes me quite a pile o’ money. For yer ma, I was willin’ teh wait ‘til she could pay it, but if she’s gone I’m afraid thet I can’t be lendin’ yeh any more coppers until I have the silvers yeh already owe.”

“But I don’t have any money.”

“Nae anyone has any coin, Miss Jane, but if I gave everyone free food then I would be theh one starvin’. Yeh unnerstand?”

Jane nodded solemnly, although she didn’t. She didn’t want him to explain any more, though. “I need to bring breakfast for my father,” she said.

“I’m sorry, Miss Jane. I wants to help yeh, I do. But I’ve got enough problems of me own. I can’t help yeh with yourn.”

She fought the urge to cry. She pushed that part of her back inside herself until she couldn’t feel it anymore. “But I have to bring him breakfast.”

The butcher was becoming less sympathetic. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but nae wi’out money. Yer pa is working. ‘E must have some coppers. Go and get some coin from ‘im and bring it back. Then I can give yeh ‘is bacon.”

Jane wasn’t sure why she was confident that would not work, but she couldn’t think of any other plan. She dragged her heels as she walked back home, not sure of the reception she would receive.

Her father was sitting at the table when she came in, head cradled in his hands. He wasn’t wearing any trousers, and he smelled bad. “Did yeh get me kip?” he asked.

“No, father. The man said I had to give him money.”

“Well, of course yeh hae tae give im money. ‘ow the ‘ell dae yeh expect tae buy tings wi’out money?”

“But I don’t have any money. He said to get money from you. He said we already owe him money for the account.”

“Account? Account? Weh don’t owe thet goddam shyster a goddam bean! Yeh get yer goddam arse down there and bring me me goddam breakfast!”

Jane scampered from the house and started walking back down to the shop. Listlessly she avoided the puddles of filth and worse in the street. There were few others out in the lane, and they moved like animated corpses, which some of them were close to being. She passed a man with oozing sores on his face. He stood staring directly at the weak sun, muttering unintelligibly. Most of the families on the lane knew each other, but she was not surprised that she did not recognize this man. When they had the sores they tended to drift about in the tide of traffic, finally washing up dead in some lane far from home. No one would take in one of these – a simple act of charity could wipe out an entire family. Jane passed as far from him as she possibly could. She hoped he would move on before he died. Sometimes it was a long time before anyone would come to this neighborhood to remove the corpse.

She still had no money and she knew that there was no way she was going to be able to come home without her father’s breakfast. She followed her feet, with no particular destination.

Some time later she realized the day was failing. She watched the sun sink in the west, chased by the fat, lazy, river, which rose and fell with the tides of the mysterious sea beyond. Jane had never seen the ocean, but she wondered about the vast water that was alive somehow. It breathed, its great watery lungs rising and falling, pushing the river back on itself and lifting the ships anchored there.

Jane was not supposed to go down to the docks, but she found herself there now. She was far from home. She turned and started walking quickly back the way she had come.

Without the sun, the autumn air turned cold in a hurry. Jane walked as quickly as she could, which helped keep her warm, but slowly the cold crept into her fingers and toes, stabbing her with tiny needles. Still she pressed on. Eventually the pain in her extremities was replaced with a welcome numbness. She imagined she was walking on pillows; it didn’t seem like she was touching the ground at all.

That is how they found her, floating dreamily on frozen feet, pretending her light jacket was a set of wings, flapping it and feeling it carry her away over the rooftops. It was not her father who found her, but one of the neighbors he had pressed into the search. By the time she had been delivered safely home her father was there waiting, along with some of the women who had come over to look after young John while the men went searching.

As she came through the door Jane’s father rushed forward and swept he up in his arms. “Oh, my wee one, my sweet, I thought I hed lost yeh, too. Yeh’re all thet I have left of me dear Shannon.”

Jane rested in the warm embrace of her father’s hands and felt his strength, protection, and love. She felt far away. Somewhere down below her knees sensation was returning, the promise of agony to come. Her mind felt fuzzy and detached; she was watching herself being held. It was just like watching her brother sitting in her father’s lap; somehow the love he was showing was directed at someone else. She watched as he wept and promised never to do wrong again. She watched him promise to be a good father, the way he always had before she died. She listened to him promise that he would support them all and they would never want for anything. Even from far away she knew he didn’t believe the promises himself, but he felt the need to make them anyway.

He held her in his arms while she slept, and massaged her feet and hands to restore the circulation. Neighbors came visiting again, bringing hot food and contradictory advice. Jane drifted through it all, knowing she was the center of attention for the first time in her life, and liking it, but also knowing that the situation was fleeting at best, and hating the world for that.

Eventually she recovered with all her fingers and toes, and not long after that father disappeared again. His absences got longer and more frequent until one day he didn’t come back.

November 1st, 2001

What follows is my first day’s output from my first NaNoWriMo. It’s rough. It’s the first draft of the first day of my life as a novelist, day one of a story that I have not bothered going back to read. It was tempting to repair the obvious errors, to tweak the repetitious phrases, and to generally smooth things out, but that would not be in the spirit of NaNoWriMo. Even the flagrant misspellings remain. I’m not entirely certain that I have the right end point for day one; seven years later it seems like the loss of the umbrella girl was more poignant back then. There is another moment later, but that’s a hell of a lot of words in. In any case, there’s no point inflicting any more than this on you guys.

Rio Blanco

The plane banked sharply as it made its way through the clouds. I was generally nervous when I wasn’t the one flying the plane, and descending into the airport, knowing there were mountains out there, and not being able to see the ground was nerve-wracking indeed. Down, down, we went, and I wondered how close we were. It seemed like we should be below sea level by now.

Suddenly we broke through the deck of the clouds and I could see the lights of a small town about 1500 feet below the belly of the plane. Although the sun would rise soon, the clouds kept the land below dark. By the layout of the town I guessed that it was Ciudad de la Santa Fe del San Domingo, or San Domingo on the map. We were almost to the airport at Rio Blanco, my destination. If anything, I noted, we were coming in high. The pilot began to drop more quickly, scrubbing off as much speed as he could on the way in. The attendants defied reason and continued to move about; had I asked, I probably could have had another tequila. I didn’t ask.

A few minutes later the last stewardess strapped herself in moments before the wheels of the plane bounced once off the runway and settled back down to stay. The engines roared as we slowed to taxi speed and pulled off onto the taxiway. As we approached the terminal, I noted that there was one other plane, smaller than ours and apparently deserted. With a lurch we rolled to a stop just as the clouds opened up and the rain started to fall with vigor. Beyond the airport the lush greenery of the rain forest bowed and waved under the buffeting of the gravid raindrops.

Ground crew members rolled the stairs up to the plane and a flight attendant opened the door. A breath of the air outside replaced the stale air around me, and I inhaled deeply, savoring the clean, damp air. A good rain can even make an airport smell good. The ground crew undertook the task of getting the tourists off the plane without getting them too wet. The efforts to escort passengers down the stairs while holding umbrellas over them was the culturally correct thing to do, but was laughably ineffective. They were escorting the passengers in stages, first getting them under the shelter of the wing of the plane, and from there another crew was escorting them to the terminal building. I declined escort down the slippery stairs, and dashed under the wing of the plane. From there I intended to jog to the terminal unprotected, and save everyone the trouble of keeping someone dry who didn’t really care that much about it.

I was in no hurry to depart that place, however. I have an affinity for machines and was distracted inspecting the engine, now quiet except for the tiny pings the metal made as it cooled off. Over the sound of the rain, I was probably imagining those sounds as well. As so it was, so it was meant to be, that it became my turn to be escorted to the terminal.

“Sir, if you will come this way,” she said politely.

I hade been vaguely aware that one of the ground personnel escorting passengers through the rain had been a smaller woman with a nice figure, but contrary to my usual nature I had not really paid her any attention. My, but I had been distracted by the air, and the airplane. Now, suddenly, those things vanished. She was beautiful. She was small, but had a nice figure. That paled in comparison with her round, brown smiling eyes and her sweet, almost-sincere smile. “I’m going wherever you’re going,” I managed, and I meant it. I realized that I had responded in Spanish.

Her smile grew a little more (white perfect teeth lined up like dominoes, red lips full) and her eyes crinkled at the edges in a way that suggested playfulness. “Well, I’m going to the terminal,” she replied in credible English. With a suggestive swish she turned and raised the umbrella over our heads. I picked up my bag and we headed towards the terminal. Her perfume added to the smell of the jungle close by, and it was perfect; a blend of the exotic and the alluring, with just a hint of the cheap. She was the goddess of Rio Blanco come down to Earth; she was all that the town promised, all that the town dreamed of. I was in love with my umbrella girl.

I tried to walk slowly, to prolong the moment, to cheat one extra breath of the perfume, to feel her hip brush mine once more as we walked under that tiny shelter, but mostly to earn one more smile. I needed something to say, anything, to get her to smile once more, to turn towards me with that swishing motion, to give me a glimpse down into her blouse just before swishing away again and looking at me over her shoulder in mock scolding for how I teased her.

That’s the way it would have happened, had I thought of the right thing to say. I did not.

As we reached the building, I touched her arm, the one not holding the umbrella, smiled at her and said, “Thank you.”

She returned the smile with one that made mine seem like a horrific grimace (but a sincere horrific grimace, I hoped), and said “You’re welcome.” Before I could ask her if she was going to be at the festival she turned, making my heart stop for a moment with the pure grace and sexual suggestion of the motion, and headed back to retrieve the next passenger. I watched her for a moment, and I hoped she knew I was watching, hoped that she liked the idea that I was watching her, but just standing there waiting for her would be too obvious, too lame.

The interior of the building was much like the perfume my umbrella girs had been wearing, filled with things you have never before seen or smelled, but somehow cheapened by the entrepreneurial spirit that is America’s primary export. The airport had been built in a different time, by people with different priorities than the airports of the States. I stood under a wide roof, next to a building whose walls served as doors and were currently wide open, letting the tropical air move through the space unhindered. People also moved about the space; there was about an even mix of travelers and those whose purpose was to separate the tourists from their money. Sprinkled here and there were police in neat uniforms, carrying serious-looking weapons in their white-gloved hands. In two hours, after the plane had finished exchanging its passengers for a new set, most of the businesses here would pack up and head back into town. I picked up my bag and moved into the flow of people.

Near the opening that I entered the shelter through, there was a folding table staffed by three middle-aged women with a full set of teeth between them. On the table were some bottles of the local rum and a stack of small paper cups. There were several cups arrayed on the table, each filled about 1/3 full with the booze, and a sign, neatly hand-lettered, which read “Free Rum. Welcome to Rio Blanco.” There was no sign that said the same thing in Spanish.

I paused to sample the local drink, testing it as if I had never had it before. It had been a long time, but the stuff still didn’t taste very good. Still, there is something to be said for supporting the local industry, especially if that industry is a distillery. At the behest of one of the women I had another sample. She didn’t realize that she had already closed the sale. I allowed her to offer me one more before I bought a bottle. I didn’t want her to think I was easy. The bottle cost three times what I could get it for in town, but I wasn’t in town. Location, location, location. It’s the key to a successful business.

I looked back towards the plane, and it seemed that all the passengers had finally been safely ferried to the terminal. I looked for my little umbrella girl, but I couldn’t see her. I convinced myself that could feel her nearby, but people can convince themselves of just about anything, and I’m no exception.