There Will Come Hard Rains

Hard Rains 180Shortly before 4 a.m. the rain began.

As is usual in the high desert, it came with a gentle westerly breeze. It started as a drizzle in the valley and a light rain along the Sandia Crest. But the volume and velocity of the raindrops steadily increased. That too was not out of the ordinary.

But the rain itself was far from ordinary.

The fourth casualty was Officer Rafael Sanchez.

* * *

At 3:15 he pulled into the Owl Parking lot.

He shifted his cruiser into park, then waited for a moment, listening.

The engine raced, refusing to back down. He punched and release the gas pedal lightly, and the engine dropped back into a gentle idle.

He made a mental note. When he got off at 7, he’d try to catch the captain coming in and let him know.

Sometimes the captain was a little late. If that happened today— well, he’d wait around.

He didn’t know enough about engines. Maybe the sticky throttle was a warning. Maybe it was indicative of a larger problem. He didn’t want to be in a situation where an unresponsive car might dull his chances of survival.

And probably it was a quick fix anyway. Probably the guys down at Hayes Automotive would make the adjustment and have the car back before his next shift.

He switched off the engine, opened the door and got out.

But he’d forgotten to call in.

He checked to be sure the door was locked, a habit. And as he walked across the parking lot, he reached up to key the mic on his shoulder. “Two-seven, PD.”

“Go ahead 27.”

“I’ll be 10-6 at the Owl with a burger.”

Light laughter crackled over the radio. “Tell Rosie hello from me. Personally.”

Rafael grinned. Miranda was such a flirt. She always called herself his number one fan, and she was jealous of Rosalie Gonzales. “Ten-four. Out.”

“PD out.”

The smile still on his face, he opened the front door of the café and waved to the manager. “Hey Burt.”

“Rafael. Imagine seeing you here.” He grinned, then glanced at his watch. “You’re a little late tonight.” Then he gestured with one hand. “Back corner, main dining room.”

Rafael nodded. He already knew which section of the restaurant Rosie would be serving tonight.

He’d been coming here every morning for a burger and fries. In the topsy-turvy world of graveyard shift, 3 a.m. was his lunch time.

The place was almost empty. At this time of the morning, most of the citizens were home in bed. Of those hangers-on who barhopped the night away, most stopped into the lesser-known cafés off the main drag. Either that or they hit the drive-through joints.

But three places in the main dining room were occupied. Two tables and a booth.

At one, two kids in jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps were talking quietly. Air Force boys from Kirtland, the nearby base, from the looks of it. Each had a beer in his left hand. Bud Light and Coors Light. They were young, and they had trim physiques and conservative haircuts.

After four years in the Marine Corps—Rafael jokingly called it his civilian-appreciation course—he found it easy to recognize military types.

At the booth, a man and woman were leaning across the table, arguing. Well, he was arguing. He was dressed like a mechanic or maybe a carpenter. Jeans and heavy boots, a grey work shirt hanging open over a white t-shirt. He wore a ball cap too, tipped back on his head. The Albuquerque Isotopes.

She wore dingy white shorts halfway to her knees, a loose blouse and a harangued look.

He hoped they’d keep it civil. Or civil enough, at least, so he could enjoy his burger.

The last occupied table was also the last table short of Rosie’s section.

A Mexican man, dressed much like the man in the booth, was dining with two younger ones. Probably his sons.

Maria, the other waitress on the floor, stood over him. Her ticket book was in her left hand, her pen poised for action in her right. “How do you want your eggs?”

“Shprise me, baby.”

Maria leaned forward. “Boo! Now how would you like your eggs?”

The man leaned back in his chair and laughed. Obnoxiously. “Hey, that wash purty good. Joo ought’a be a comeed- comeed— Joo ought’a be down at the improv.”

Maria nodded. “Uh huh. I’ll probably have to if you don’t tell me how you want your eggs.”

He wagged one hand, an exaggerated motion. “Ah, jus’ make ‘em over eashy.”

As she started writing, one of the boys said, “Papá, the whites are runny in those.”

The man raised his hand again. “I mean, make ‘em over medimum.”

She started writing again, and he said, “Ah hell, just scramble ‘em.”

“Scrambled. Yes sir.” Then she quickly turned away and walked into Rafael.

He looked down and grinned. “Maria, how’s it going?”

“Grr,” she said quietly, and headed toward the counter to place the order.

The older man at the table noticed Rafael and raised one hand. “Howdy, offisher.”

Rafael nodded. “Howdy. How’re you guys doing tonight?”

“We ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong, offisher. We’re jus’ gettin’ some breakfas’.”

“I heard.” He turned to the younger ones. “You guys doing okay?”

The one who had warned his father off the over-easy eggs glanced at his brother, then looked up. “Yes sir.” A bit more quietly, he said, “I’m eighteen and I only had one beer tonight. I’ll be driving when we leave here.”

Rafael nodded. “Smart man. Be safe, all right?”

“Yes sir.”

He headed for the corner table, his usual when Rosie had the back section.

She came bustling out of the kitchen, a grin on her face. At five-four and in the neighborhood of 125 pounds, she was dynamite with a very short fuse. And it seemed always lit.

Her black, floor-length skirt swayed around her as she swiveled past tables and chairs. Her perfect breasts pressed against her white blouse. The wide mother-of-pearl comb in her raven hair completed the ensemble. He’d never seen her shoes.

“Hey Rafael. What’s shakin’?”

“Quiet night, Rosie. The way I like it.”

“What’ll you have, officer?”

He frowned. “You got a menu in this place?”

She laughed. “One burger and fries, comin’ up. Actually it’s already cooking. I saw you talkin’ on the radio on your way in.”

He nodded. “Miranda said to say hi.”

“You know you’re gonna have to bed her down, right?”

“Not in this lifetime.”

“Well, get it done before you ask me to elope. I don’t wanna start a new life with a stalker chasin’ my man.”

He laughed. “Will do, Rosie. And I am gonna ask you, y’know.”

She cocked her head. “Yeah? Well you better make it quick.” She gestured down along herself with both hands. “Hey, all this won’t be on the market much longer.” She laughed.

She wagged one hand at him. “Your burger ought’a be close to ready. Back in a minute.”

“Okay, Rosie.”

She turned away.

He watched as she headed to the kitchen, maintaining as straight a line as possible, despite having to swivel here and there to get around a table. She slowed only twice, both times to reposition a chair under a table.

Girl works all the time. But she was a pleasure to watch, working or otherwise. Of course, a man could always do much worse than Rosie Gonzales.

She disappeared through the right side of the swinging doors into the kitchen.

Had she ever picked up his burger at the window? He didn’t think so. He wouldn’t be surprised to find out she was cooking it herself. Despite the manager, she pretty much ran the place. That was her personality.

A moment later she was back. She set his platter on the table, heaped with the burger and a mound of well-done French fries. Next to it she put a small bowl with his personal mixture of catsup and Tabasco sauce. Next to that she placed a tall glass filled with ice and a bottled Diet Dr. Pepper.

She stepped back, put her hands on her hips and smiled. “Anything else?” More quietly, she said, “Dessert maybe?”

“Depends. Hard for me to eat dessert right after the main course. How about 7:30 at my place. Will you still be awake?’

“You’ll bring the whipped cream?”

He shook his head and grinned. “I’m lactose intolerant, Rosie.”

“Aw. That’s too bad, Rafael. You don’t know what you’re missin’.”

Then she laughed, turned and headed for the kitchen.

Good ol’ Rosie.

With minor variations, the routine was the same pretty much every night.

And he’d yet to enjoy dessert.

When he was halfway through his burger, the drunk man and his two sons got up and headed toward the cash register.

The old man was swaying pretty hard, but the boys, one on either side, seemed to have control of the situation.

They made it to the cash register, where Maria met them.

Rafael was too far away to hear the conversation, but he watched as Maria talked with them. Then she smiled and wagged one finger at the old man. Probably telling him to behave himself.

She glanced at Rafael and nodded slightly, signaling him that the men seemed all right to her. She didn’t want a dead drunk on her conscience anymore than he did.

Then the men headed toward the door and Maria went to check on her other two tables of customers.

The Air Force boys nodded and smiled as she came up, then seemed to be discussing whether to order ice cream off the menu. At least that’s the part of the menu where one of them was pointing.

While they were deciding, Maria moved to the booth.

The man had stopped yelling even under his voice. He’d moved into the contrite stage.

His wife was leaned forward over the table, holding his right shoulder with her left hand. She appeared to be telling him it was all right. Whatever ‘it’ was.

Didn’t matter. Probably it was a different ‘it’ every time they went out.

Suddenly the front door burst open and the other son, not the one who had reminded his father about the eggs, burst through the door. He threw his hands to his face and screamed. “Please help! Please!” Then he collapsed.

Rafael got up so fast his chair fell over behind him.

The kitchen door to his left squeaked as Rosie came through it into his periphery.

He jerked his left arm up, palm out and yelled, “Rosie, stay there!” as he ran toward the figure near the door.

Maria reached the man before he did, so he ran past and out the door, his 9mm Glock drawn.

The old man and his son were on the ground. Both were face down.

A shooter? But he hadn’t heard any shots.

He ran toward them, quickly scanning the area. Nobody else was around, armed or otherwise.

The gentle rain was still falling, albeit a little harder.

He holstered his Glock and knelt next to the younger man. He yelled, “Are you okay?”

The rain beat a pattern on his head. He’d left his hat inside. His captain would have his ass if he knew.

No response.

He grabbed the boy’s shoulders and rolled him over, then gasped. “Son of a bitch!”

Dark half-circles were under the boy’s eyes, and they grew darker as he watched. Around the edges of those, the boy’s skin was turning green.

Green?

He leaned forward, grabbed the older man and lifted his shoulder. Same thing.

He pressed two fingers against the boy’s carotid artery.

No pulse.

Dead.

Just like that. Whatever the hell’s going on, I have to warn the others. Then I’ll call it in.

He started to rise, but a wave of dizziness washed over him. He staggered and sat down hard.

Behind him, the door to the restaurant opened.

He swiveled around and looked back.

It was Rosie.

He raised both arms as if to shove her away. He yelled, “No! Stay inside, Rosie! Stay—”

And a surge of nausea came, then another.

Something lodged in his throat, then filled his nose.

He fell onto his left side. His squad car was right there. No. He had a radio on his shoulder. He reached for it and keyed the mic with his thumb.

But his arm never moved.

And Rosie was kneeling next to him. “Rafael?”

She faded into vision, then back out.

Her voice got louder. “Rafael? Rafael!”

He frowned.

She’s screeching. Why is she mad at me?

She faded back in, but blurred.

And she slipped into the darkness.

* * * * * * *

Johnny Baby

Johnny Baby 180Darlene Joyce crept out of the fourth house on the block. The night was a little humid, a little cool. The half-moon cast an eerie, shadowed glow over everything, just enough that everything was still 3D.

But the circle from the mid-block street lamp flattened part of it, rendered it a painting of her yard.

She closed the door quietly behind her, then glanced toward the corner.

There it sat. A red Ford pickup, filled with Johnny Cockran, idling next to the curb, near the corner.

She could barely hear the engine running. She grinned. He’d replaced the glass packs after all.

Those things were far too loud for late-night trysts.

He’d asked her just last week to see a movie. Or go for dinner, or even just for sodas.

“In that noisy thing?” she said and pointed. “No way would I ride with you in that. Not late at night. And for me it’s late-night or nothing.” Then she leaned in and whispered, “Sneaking out makes everything more fun. Don’t you agree?” Then she turned away to give his eyes a feast. And in that moment cemented the deal.

And there he was, waiting at the corner.

She stepped down from the stoop and ran across the lawn, her red shorts flashing in the glow of the street lamp. Below them her legs were creamy tan and smooth all the way down to white ankle socks and white-soled matching tennies. Her white lace blouse, with only three loose buttons, would entice the boy to submit to her demands. Inside her clutch, which also matched her shorts, were the tools of her trade.

If there had to be another date, she’d wear a skirt as short as the shorts. That would work for sure.

In her clutch, she carried the tools of her trade.

Inside the house, Mr. Joyce rolled over. He raised up on one elbow, checked the clock.

Five minutes ‘til one. What was she thinking? Did she really think she could pull this off? He nudged his wife, then nudged her again.

“Hmm?” she said and sighed.

“C’mon, get up. Darlene is out. When she gets back we’ll give her the surprise of her life.”

She looked at him and nodded. “What time is it?”

“Almost one.”

“When did she leave?”

“A few minutes ago. C’mon, get up.”

But she rolled over. “We have time,” she said, the sentence trailing off as she drifted back to sleep.

Mr. Joyce threw the covers back, but only on his side. His wife worked hard. He’d let her sleep. Maybe he’d wake her up in time for the main festivities.

Boy was Darlene going to be surprised.

In the pickup, Johnny Cockran watch the girl slip out, come flashing across the lawn. She was taller, slimmer than any other girl he’d ever seen. Everything about her was enticing. Her ponytail bounced as she ran, and he could still see the pale, smooth skin of her legs and arms pumping. The moonlight seemed to be absorbed in them.

She reached the pickup.

Johnny stretched his arm across the seat and grasped the door handle on that side, then pushed lightly.

She caught the door in stride, swung it open, slipped up on the seat and closed it, all in one smooth motion.

“Man,” he said, “it’s almost like you came right through the door.”

She smiled. “I’m just excited. Tonight will be a very special night.” She slid closer and lay her left hand on his thigh. “If you know what I mean.”

He hoped he did. He put the truck in gear. “So where to?” He choked the words out, his voice almost hoarse. He cleared his throat. “I mean, you wanna get a burger? Maybe some fries?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m good. Let drive down by the lake.”

He grinned. “We ain’t there yet?” Then he pulled away from the curb, her hand still warm on his thigh.

At the lake he drove until they reached a T. “Which way?”

She shrugged. “Up to you. Let’s make the circle.”

The circle was a twenty-two mile loop. It took the better part of an hour though, the road was that narrow and that rough.

He looked at her. “You sure?”

She shrugged. “Maybe not all the way around. Maybe we can find a perfect place. You know, for us. You don’t mind, do you?”

He grinned. “You mean tonight? You mean tonight’s our night?”

“Tonight’s our night if we can find a place. Is that okay?”

He grinned again. “Is that a trick question? Of course it’s okay.” He turned the steering wheel right. “I’ll try to take my time.”

She looked at him. “You mean right now? Or later?” And she giggled, then snuggled closer, slipped the fingers of her left hand underneath his thigh on the inside.

He draped one arm around her.

It would take him longer to drive around the lake steering with one hand, his other busy kneading her shoulder. Her parents would be up by now and restless. She’d need them to have time to calm down before she went back home.

Not quite a mile later the road ducked into a stand of tall white pines.

A moment later, Johnny pointed with the index finger of his right hand, which still cupped Darlene’s shoulder. “There’s a small road there. Pretty secluded.”

“Oh, this is way too close to the entrance, though. Once we find a place, I don’t want to be interrupted.” She squeezed his thigh lightly.

He drove on.

A few miles farther along the road they topped a small rise. A stand of poplars stretched away to the right.

Again he pointed. “How about in there? That’s a great place. Very secluded, but the moon—”

“I don’t want to be with you where you’ve already been, Johnny. I don’t want to replace a memory. I want to make our own. Is that okay?”

Again she squeezed his thigh.

Not quite halfway around the lake, which glistened intermittently through the trees to their left, he pointed a third time. “I’ve never been up this road, but it looks like it might be a good place. The trees look close together, and the brush—”

“I’m sure it’s nice. But it’s facing away from the lake. Wouldn’t it be wonderful our first time to be facing the lake?”

“I guess so,” he said, beginning to feel as if he’d been taken. He stopped the truck and looked down at her.

The scent from the top of her head was wonderful. He didn’t want to lose her, but he didn’t like games either. He touched his lips to the top of her head. Not a kiss, but a gentle touch. Then he said quietly, “Look, if you just wanna go back, it’s okay with me. I mean, I’m not the kind that’s gonna get upset or—”

She leaned away to the right and looked back at him. “Johnny? Please don’t get the wrong impression or think I’m not serious. I am. I really want tonight.” She paused and looked him up and down for effect.

Huh, he was wearing a white button-down shirt and jeans. No belt. She hadn’t noticed. But no need with those six-pack abs. And his shoulders, chest and thighs were well muscled. She pouted just a bit. “I hope you haven’t changed your mind. I just want it to be special. God, Johnny, I can almost taste you.”

He looked at her for a moment and felt sorry he’d ever doubted her. “Okay,” he said. “We’re almost halfway around. We’ll go ahead. Maybe there’s a place up here you’ll like.”

“As long as it’s special, Johnny. That’s really all I care.” She caressed his thigh again. “I’m a special girl, Johnny. I like special things.” She paused. Then she rocked her head back and breathed quietly on his ear. “That’s probably why I picked you.”

His voice thick in his throat, he couldn’t even begin to speak.

He nodded quickly and nudged the accelerator.

There proved to be only four places on the other side of the lake. He didn’t even ask about the first three. All were roads away to the right, facing away from the lake. Finally, he gestured toward the front left. “There’s a road. Right down to the lake. I think there’s a floating pier down there.” He glanced at her. “I’ve never been down there personally, but some friends told me there’s a pier. You wanna try that?”

“I’m sorry, baby. It’s too out in the open. And isn’t that the entrance right up there?”

She was right. They’d come all the way around the lake. In less than a half-mile they’d be out of the park, back on the county highway.

He swallowed his disappointment and glanced at the clock on the radio in the dash. It was 2:35. “It’s okay,” he said. “Maybe another night. You know, there’s lots of places out like this. It wouldn’t have to be at the lake, would it?” Then he laughed quietly. “‘Course if you showed me a spot and there wasn’t a road or trail there, I guess I’d probably dig one right quick.”

She laughed too, also quietly. “I guess you would. But you’re right. Maybe another night. We could always— Wait!” She squeezed his thigh again. “Johnny, I have an idea. And it will work.”

He stopped the truck and looked at her. “Yeah?”

She nodded. “Oh yeah.” Then she grinned mischievously. “Remember I said everything’s more fun when you sneak out?”

“Yeah.”

“Imagine how much more fun it’ll be if we sneak in!”

He frowned. “Sneak in where?”

“My bedroom, baby. In my house. I can put a blanket on the floor.”

“I don’t know, Darlene. Your folks—”

“My folks are down the hall, three doors away. And their door’s always closed. They didn’t hear me sneak out, and they won’t hear us sneak back in. And they won’t hear you leave later. Oh, it’s perfect, Johnny! I wish I’d thought of it before. Would’a saved us all this time. C’mon, Johnny.”

“I don’t know. What if—”

“This’ll be like practice, Johnny. Practice with a reward. If we do this tonight, you’ll be able to sneak into my room two or three times a week. Just imagine. My room’s just inside the door on the right. You come in, close the door quietly behind you, take three steps and your inside.” She put her hand over her mouth and giggled. “I mean my room, of course.”

“Your room’s at the front of the house?”

“Yes, baby.” She worked up a blush.

“And are you sure you want me that way?”

She nodded, her wide, round eyes locked on his gaze. “Uh huh. It’s my first time, Johnny. That’s why I want it to be special. And I’ve heard after the first time, you can do it whenever you want after that.”

“Okay,” he said, and shifted the truck from park to drive.

A half-hour later, he pulled around the corner from her house and parked the pickup. The moon had set. He parked next to a large maple tree that shaded his truck even from the street lamp.

“Could you leave your boots here, Johnny? No need to risk those heels clomping on the hardwood floor.”

“Sure,” he said, and took them off. Then he opened the door and stepped out.

He reached back in for a moment and pulled the keys from the ignition.

“Oh, those might jangle. No need to risk jangling anything. Why not just drop them in the console?”

He nodded. “Right. Good thinking.”

Then he practically ran around the truck, the stones on the asphalt biting into his sock feet, and opened her door.

She stepped out and, his right hand in her left, they moved quietly across the first three lawns. At the low hedge separating her yard from the neighbors, she looked up at him and grinned. “You look so strong. Wanna lift me over?”

He did, and set her gently on the other side. Then he stepped over the hedge and joined her.

They crossed the soft front lawn and padded up on the stoop.

“Here, let me get the door,” she whispered. She turned the knob silently to the right, then moved aside herself. “You go in first. The first door on the right.”

He frowned. “Shouldn’t you go first, lead me to your room?”

She grinned and playfully slapped at his chest. “I want you to wait on the threshold of my room and carry me through, my big strong hero.”

Big strong hero? That didn’t sound right, but whatever. He nodded. “Okay.” He moved into position.

She put her left hand on his lower back, then turned the knob the final quarter-inch.

Johnny stepped into the living room and looked down.

It wasn’t hardwood. It was carpet.

A light flicked on. A man was standing there. His mouth was broad, his lips thick. He looked up and smiled, revealing three rows of serrated teeth.

In his right hand was a knife. In his other a hone. He was honing the knife like a professional chef.

He looked Johnny up and down, then looked past him. “Darlene 3, we thought you might be lost.”

Johnny wheeled around. “Darlene, I—” He screamed and backed straight into Mr. Joyce’s knife.

He watched, his eyes and mouth locked open, as Darlene peeled off the lower part of her face.

She dropped it on the floor, then flexed her jaw. She ran her thick blue tongue over her rubbery lips. When she spoke again, she revealed three rows of teeth as well.

And her voice was raspy. “Like I said, Johnny baby, I can almost taste you.”

* * * * * * *

 

Dave

Dave 180The party was in full swing at 2 a.m.

The cops had been by twice in uniform, once at 10 to ask the partiers to turn the music down.

Roger agreed. He owned the place. In his sneakers, jeans and a Cincinnati Reds jersey, he crossed the room. He turned the volume lower as he watched the older officer’s face. When the man’s eyes went soft, he stopped. “That’s good?”

The officer nodded. “Yep, that ought’a do it.” Then he touched his fingers to the brim of his duty cap. “You folks have an enjoyable evening now.” He turned to the younger officer’s back. “You ready? Dave?”

But Dave was busy. He and Julie were talking quietly.

She shifted her leather sandals just enough to turn her tight pink shorts slightly to face Dave.

The muscles in her legs tensed, moved gently beneath her smooth, tanned skin.

Beneath her cut-off white peasant blouse, the lower few inches of her abdomen were already taut. But it still tensed a bit as she smiled and reached up to her forehead. She pinched a strand of hair between her thumb and index finger, moved it behind her ear. It fell back in place.

She canted her head slightly, assumed the age-old pose that indicated interest, feigned or otherwise.

The older officer had seen it all before. He shook his head and laughed, then tapped his partner on the shoulder.

Dave looked around, his eyebrows arched. “Hmm?”

“You ready to go, hotshot? There’s still an hour left on the shift.” He laughed again. “About enough time for the paperwork. Well, if we had any to do.”

Roger grinned, his brown mop of hair bopping to the music. Over the sound, he said, “Be careful what you wish for, man.” He’d known the older officer for awhile.

The second time it was only Dave. He tapped on the door more timidly than before, hoping he’d be welcome without the job.

Julie rushed to open it. She smiled. “Why Officer Dave, what brings you ‘round again?”

And Dave just laughed. By way of explanation, he hefted the bag he was carrying. “Hey Roger—Roger, right? You got a room where I can change?”

But Julie stepped in front of him. She ran one timid finger down his chest. She looked him in the eyes and whispered, “Babe, it don’t matter how you’re dressed.” She took a step back, then gestured with that finger toward his hip. Maybe. “Besides, I’m interested in seeing your big ol’ gun.” As she had practiced many times, she called color to her face and grinned. “I mean— well, you know what I mean.”

Roger said, “Jules, everybody knows what you mean.” He glanced at Dave. “But time for all that later. C’mon, Dave. I’ll show you.”

As Dave crossed the room, Roger grinned. “You might even escape with your morals intact. You cops got morals, right?” He gestured toward Julie with his chin. Quietly, he said, “But not if that one has her way.” He laughed.

He and Officer Dave went up the stairs.

Julie watched.

“Hey Jules.” It was Herman. In baggy grey trousers, black oxfords, a black belt and white shirt, he was doing some approximation of a dance with Ray and Melanie. Odd man out, as usual. He grinned with crooked teeth. “C’mon in, the music’s fine.”

Julie grinned and shrugged. “I guess,” she said, and wiggled her way across the floor to stop in front of Ray. Bermuda shorts, sneakers and a t-shirt weren’t as dorky as trousers and heavy shoes. “Hey Mel, let’s switch,” she said, just as if she knew Mel wouldn’t mind. She started dancing, syncing to Ray’s rhythm.

Melanie adjusted to the space, began moving with Herman the Dork.

She didn’t care. She just liked to dance. Her new jeans caressed every move of her hips.

Crystal stayed to one side, near the stairs. She’d catch Roger again on his way down.

* * *

Upstairs, Roger tapped on the first door with his fingernail and glanced at Dave. “This is the bathroom,” he said.

“Yes?” somebody said. A female voice.

Roger and Dave went on down the hall.

Roger stopped and grabbed the next door knob.

Behind them in the hall, the bathroom door opened. Jill came out. “All clear,” she said. “Oh, it’s only you.”

Roger grinned. “Thanks. Ray’s still downstairs.”

As Jill turned away, Roger looked at Dave. “You can change in here.” He turned the door knob, pushed the door open. “This is the guest bedr—”

At the bottom of the bed, sneakered feet protruded from the legs of a pair of jeans. The owner lay face down but he was balanced on his elbows. His upper arms disappeared into a red and yellow striped t-shirt. That was George.

A pair of sandals lay just inside the room as if kicked off in a hurry.

To either side of George was a bare knee, a shin, a foot, all moving rhythmically. Higher were a pair of arms outstretched to either side, the fingers curled into fists and knotted in the comforter.

Then both feet raised a bit, held and slammed down as she pushed hard against the comforter.

“Ohhh!” she said, and meant it.

And beneath George, protruding on either side just above the bottom of his shirt, was the pushed-up, gathered hem of a blue skirt.

Ah, that was Temperance, as if Roger hadn’t recognized the drawn-out, “Oh!” The blue skirt rocked with the same rhythm.

George kept going, focused on the task, even after she had gripped the comforter. Even after she had slammed her feet against the bed. Even after he was momentarily elevated.

Whew! You go, George! Then Roger remembered he was standing in the doorway. “Oh, sorry.”

But the couple didn’t seem to notice.

Still gripping the door knob, though more tightly than before, he backed away. He bumped into someone and looked around. Oh yes, Dave. “Sorry.”

“That’s okay.” Dave grinned. “Hey, this is quite a party. I don’t think they even knew we were there.”

Roger arched his eyebrows. “Well, would you?”

Dave laughed. “I hope not. So you got another room?”

Roger gestured toward the next door. “Just mine.” He grinned. “I think everyone’s accounted for. You can change in here, and there’s a lock.” He glanced down at the 9mm Glock on Dave’s hip. “Not that you need it.”

Dave laughed. “You have no idea.” He went into the room, set the bag on the bed and closed the door. He didn’t bother with the lock. Maybe he’d get lucky.

Roger turned and went back to the stairs.

He just caught sight of Jill where she’d stopped on the fourth step from the bottom. He shook his head and watched.

She double-checked her waistband, tugged her tank top a little this way and a little that.

He let his gaze caress her narrow shoulders.

She raised her left hand, allowing it to slip gently along the bannister as she continued her descent.

Beneath that blue tank top her breasts were perfect. He’d been glancing at her chest all evening. Below her tight, trim waist, her Daisy Dukes swayed from side to side. And her feet were bare, trim ankles flexing with each descending step.

He grinned. Barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. That’s where she was headed, and no doubt.

He considered calling to her in a whisper, hooking one finger to invite her back upstairs.

But she was too far gone. Someone would hear.

He took his time descending. He studied her perfect bottom as she worked it through another step, then another, then off the final stair.

And she turned to face the music.

What a strange thought. Face the music. But everyone did that in one way or another.

Crystal stuck her head around the corner, looked upstairs. “Oh, there you are.”

Jill located Ray on the floor. He was dancing with that slut. She stepped between them, facing Julie. “Your cop’s upstairs,” she said and grinned.

“Which room?”

Jill turned away and shrugged. “Don’t know. Ask Roger.” She began dancing with Ray, seductively moving her palms along her hips. She closed her eyes so he could watch and thought of the sounds she’d heard through the bathroom wall.

As Roger reached for Crystal’s hand, Julie moved past him to the stairs. “Going to the bathroom,” she mumbled, just as if anybody cared. Besides, they all knew where she was going.

Roger nodded. He started to say “Last door” but changed his mind. Fun is fun, and there’s little enough of that in this world.

A moment later they all heard the shriek.

Crystal looked at Roger. “What was that?”

Roger laughed. “I think she tried the guest bedroom. George and Tempy were pretty busy in there.”

Jill said, “I really doubt we’ll see Julie for awhile.”

And they all laughed.

But upstairs, Julie first went in the bathroom.

She looked into the mirror, moved that strand of hair behind her ear. She leaned in close, smiled broadly, checked her teeth. She ran her tongue across them, then her lips, moistening them the slightest bit. She pinched her cheeks lightly in several places too, to make the color surface, then replaced the strand of hair again.

She stepped back, arched her shoulders slightly, glad she’d decided against wearing a bra tonight.

She thought of Dave, the fine young specimen, waiting in the guest room. Then she turned to face the full-length mirror on the door.

Her gaze traveled to her leather sandals. She slipped out of them as an afterthought. Then up over her well-tanned legs and then her hot-pink shorts. Up over her tummy, just the right amount showing above the hip-hugging waistband. And higher still, her “unclean thoughts”—that’s what the priest would call them—pressed her nipples out against her blouse.

“He can’t resist all this,” she said and giggled. She was gonna bag herself a cop.

And as she reached to turn the bathroom door knob and join her intended just next door, “Oh George!” she heard. An exaggerated whisper, frantic, hungry, longing for release.

So George and Tempy, eh? She grinned. “Oh well. That puts him down in Roger’s room. That’s better.” And his door locked, or at least she thought it did. She didn’t want any interruptions.

She reached again, turned the bathroom door knob and stepped into the hall. At the next door, she paused and listened.

She grinned. Wow. George the animal. Who would have thought it, with him always dressed like Charlie Brown and all? But maybe he’d be next on her list. First the cop.

* * *

Behind the closed door of Roger’s room, Dave turned off the light and drew the blinds. He set the bag on the bed, opened it. He set his duty cap alongside it.

He carefully took off the duty belt, and dropped it and the holstered gun onto the bed.

He unbuttoned the shirt and took it off—the confining thing—then buttoned it again.

He lay it face-down on the extra pillow, then folded the long sleeves carefully down along the sides. He folded each side in toward the center, then folded the bottom up, then up again. He turned the whole thing over, and he made a minor adjustment here and there.

Then he lay it in the bottom of the bag, forming it just right. Ready for the shelf.

He stepped back, unbuttoned and unzipped his trousers.

He removed them, folded the front of the waistband in on itself, so the button opposed the hole. He lay them gently on the bed, maintaining the creases front and back. He folded them in half and then in thirds, and placed them on the shirt in the bag.

Carefully, he took the duty belt and turned it upside down. He set it carefully in the bag, a circle facing up. He picked his duty cap up from the bed where he’d first dropped it when he closed the door, and dropped it upside down inside the circle. Everything fit just right.

He grinned and licked his lips. Unless he missed his guess, Miss Julie herself would be here soon. She didn’t seem the kind to want to wait.

He quickly pulled his t-shirt over his head. No need to fold that. He tossed it into the bag.

He tugged his undershorts down off his hips and they dropped to the floor. With his right foot, he kicked them up into the air and caught them, then laughed and tossed them into the bag as well. They’d be thrown away back on the ship.

Then he turned and faced the full-length mirror.

He flexed his shoulders, stretched his arms high above him. He interlaced his fingers, rolled his neck, and watched his chest expand, contract, expand. He grinned and with his fingers touched his mouth before it disappeared. A curious expression of delight, wasn’t it?

Then it was gone, and the fingers with it. The transformation had begun.

The door knob began to turn, tentatively.

Julie entered, but the room was dark. She grinned, then turned and closed the door quietly. She threw the lock. No need for interruption.

She grinned and turned around. “Dave? You here?”

And in her mind she heard him say, “I’m here. Come over here.”

She grinned and took a step.

She shrieked, but not for long.

A moment later, from his new position on the floor, Dave sensed the gentle rhythm of the music pulsing through the house.

That Julie, she was quite an appetizer. Now for the rest.

Dave flowed along the hallway and down the stairs.

* * * * * * *

 

Regarding “Freelance Editors” Who Do More Than Copyedit

Hi Folks,

If you are fortunate enough that a professional writer who is much farther down the road happens to offer a critique of your work (most won’t, and I don’t), consider carefully what he or she has to say. Then decide whether to apply it to your own work. Apply it or discard it. Up to you.

However, if you receive any free critique of your writing from anyone else, my advice is to nod, smile, say thank you and go back to writing the story you want to write.

The thing is, nobody else knows your story. Period. They know only their version of your story.

And that goes double for so-called freelance “developmental” editors who offer paid critiques.

The paid critique is nothing more than a tool they use to stroke your ego, then upsell you on other services.

Recently I studied a critique (meaning I read it twice) for a friend. The critique was written by a “freelance developmental editor” whose training consisted of being asked by visitors to her husband’s bookstore years ago to look over their manuscripts and see what she thought.

Turned out she enjoyed telling those writers her opinion and has turned that into a living.

She has never written a novel or short story that I can find. On her website, she wrote, “[A]lthough I have the know-how to write a book, my real passion is helping other writers bring their books out into the world.”

In other words, “I could easily write a novel. I’m sacrificing my art to help others. Umm, for cash.”

Uh huh. They have a term for that sort of thing in Texas, and the term refers directly to bovine excrement.

As I said, I read the critique. The first three-quarters of it was how she would have written the story.

And remember, folks, this woman doesn’t have the ear of any particular publisher. She doesn’t work for a major publisher in New York. She’s just another non-connected reader with an opinion. You might as well pay your neighbor to read your novel and give you an opinion.

Don’t get me wrong. All readers have opinions, and they should have opinions. But they should not foist those opinions on writers as to how the book should have been written. And they should definitely not charge people money for that disservice.

  • She talked about characterization and character arcs, but she has never developed a character or written an arc of any kind.
  • She talked about deepening scenes (she didn’t call it that) but thought the writer could do that through the characters. (Uh, no.)
  • She listed specifics, like wanting in one case to make a character work by herself when the character preferred to be teamed up with another character. (Again, no. The characters are IN the story. Let THEM decide.)
  • She talked about weaknesses in the plot, apparently never having heard Bradbury’s quote that “plot is the tracks characters leave as they run through the story.”

Sigh. This sort of stuff washes over me with waves of weariness.

Look, you’re the writer. You get to choose.

  • You can either be the Great Writer On High, directing everything the characters say and do (THIS is where writing becomes drudgery), OR
  • You can resign as General Manager of the Universe, toss off all that responsibility, get down in the trenches and run through the story with the characters. That’s where the fun is.

This “editor” probably is a very nice woman. But she charged my friend $300 for this “critique,” which was only a little over 4 pages long. And remember that upselling I mentioned earlier? In the last several paragraphs, she recommended three different “levels” of editing:

  • a “developmental edit,” during which she would go through the manuscript and note in the margins what the writer should do in each instance (um, developmental editors work in New York for big publishers, and I wouldn’t even let THEM touch my work);
  • a “line edit,” “to ensure everything is in the best place [what?] for the flow of the story, that all the character reactions are in good shape [huh?], and that all those plot issues have been addressed.” (She wouldn’t do that during the “developmental” edit?); and finally
  • a copy edit to “address all the wording and sentence structure concerns, as well as most of the grammar, punctuation, etc.” (Really? Just “most”?)

And yes, of course, she would charge a different fee for each level of edit.

Now, here’s some of that free advice that you can accept or just chunk on the junk pile. At least it won’t cost you anything.

As I told my friend,

  • Write your story.
  • Then have a good First Reader and/or copyeditor go over it to find wrong-word usages, typos, inconsistencies, and places where the story is confusing.
  • Then do your “second draft” to correct What You Agree With that the first reader or copyeditor finds.
  • Then publish it and write the next story. Don’t look back. Look forward.

Please. You’ll be a much better (and happier) writer.

I welcome comments on this post.

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

Note: This is one of very few remaining “instructional” blogs at this location. I write those, almost daily, over on my Daily Journal now. If you want to continue getting advice from this professional novelist and short story writer, visit http://hestanbrough.com and subscribe! It’s free.

Draped Like Muga Silk

Hi folks, This short story was an experiment. I first wrote it as a blank-verse poem (unrhymed iambic pentameter). Originally, I was going to post the short story here first, followed by the poem. But WordPress won’t accept the formatting for the poem. If you would like a copy of it, please email me at harveystanbrough@gmail.com and I’ll send it to you in PDF, complete with the cover. Enjoy!

Draped Like Muga Silk 180The night was cool and deep, already tired, when Charley Bradstreet stepped into the road.

The streetlight cast a pool of light around him.

His black Italian loafers formed a crux, his shadow stretched away to seven o’clock.

His golden-yellow trousers hung just right, the bloodshot pinstripes shimmering as he moved.

His matching jacket draped like Muga silk, as insolent as a yellow flame, his head topped with a fedora, canted low across one eye.

He focused on the grill of a red sedan parked down the road.

He flicked his shoulders and his hands appeared.

In them was a Thompson submachine gun.

* * *

A half a block away, behind the grill, behind the revving engine of the car, a cherry-red ‘48 DeSoto, Milton ‘Millie the Maestro’ spotted him. He grinned. “Well I’ll be damned.”

He gripped the wheel. His shoulders flexed, his off-the-rack jacket stretching across his back as he pulled himself into Charley’s night.

He worked his foot, pressed the pedal on the right.

The engine revved, the cherry-red sedan straining at the brake, the grill a sneer, the car as evil as the occupants.

Or so it seemed to Milton.

In his mind he was a hero come to save the day.

The red DeSoto, rearing, neighing angrily, hungered for Charley’s blood. And it would feed.

From the back, “What is it?” slipped across the seat, the intonation unconcerned, weary even at the interruption.

“Charley Bradstreet. Charley’s got a gun. Not to worry. I’ll take care of him.”

And Big Jim DeBlaso spread his hands suddenly, popping his paper open. The story on corruption captured him again. Truly fascinating stuff.

He glanced down to read the final words in the column, dimly black on white illuminated by the dusty lamp set above the door. Inside the parens he read “continued on” some other page.

He mumbled, “Aren’t we all?” and wondered how the current tale would end. He didn’t need another complication in his life.

Especially Charley Bradstreet. Not tonight. And not with Milton driving, the reckless fool. Now Joey Bones, that would be okay, or Mick the Knife or even Frankie the Face or almost anybody else.

Again, he shook his head and looked at the paper. “Continued on”— He couldn’t make it out.

He sighed and shook his head, muttered, “Well, I’ll finish later. Maybe. If I’m still here.” He folded the paper, dropped it on the seat.

His thoughts turned to the meeting in the room.

He peered at Milton. “Hey, Millie—” and he winced. The man preferred ‘The Maestro.’ “What I mean, this deal is big, y’know? Matter of fact, it’s the biggest deal we’ve ever made, okay? Whatever it takes, y’gotta take him out. If I was ever late, this ain’t the time.”

He leaned forward, grabbed the back of the seat.

“I can’t be late tonight. Know what I mean?”

The Maestro grimaced. “Yeah.”

He always knew what Jimmy DeBlaso meant. Everybody knew his love of money, and the broad was rich. Did he think they all were dumb?

But Jimmy couldn’t have a conversation without tacking on “Know what I mean?”

Milton glanced into the rear-view mirror.

You’re such an ass, Big Jim. Know what I mean? He grinned, but kept the thought to himself where it belonged. Tonight was not the time for many things.

Someday his day would come.

* * *

In a window seven stories up, a face appeared, the thinnest hair in town slicked back over a balding head. He smirked. The scene was nothing new, but for the actors. Bad on bad was good for a change.

The outcome would be the same, only without the good guys risking life and limb. What’s more, his secret would be safe. The stupid moog in the street would die, his gun blazing, DeSoto tracks across his yellow suit.

At least he fit the role: mobster chic.

And two patrol cars waiting down the street would nab the perpetrators, run them in, and pin their butts with a RICO rap.

Unless the Thompson happened to fire straight for once. Then the car would veer and crash, its windshield shattered into a millions shards that sliced and diced Milton and Big Jim, punctuated by a hail of lead.

And on the roof, the sniper, his sights locked on the figure in the yellow suit, would place a hundred-fifty-eight grain slug through the perpetrator’s heart.

The boys down the block would race up, sirens wailing, and fire a few more times, making sure to keep the right trajectory. They tried, they’d say in court, to keep the guy from spraying the other two with bullets. They would prefer convictions, prison terms, for those two.

But life was life and fate was fate and bad guys were bad, always, they would say, even when shooting at their friends. The shooting would be clean, the jury’s hands washed of all wrong-doing, and the sun would dawn tomorrow on a better day.

It was the way such things should always go.

The man laughed. He stepped back from the window, and turned to look at Mary DeBlaso. “Well,” he said, “he ought to be here soon enough.”

She frowned and lit a cigarette. “And then you’ll let me go? I know he’ll bring the money.”

“Of course I will,” he said, as if the money was what it was all about. “Of course I will.”

* * *

Down the street, two patrol cars nestled against the curb.

In one, Sergeant O’Reilly, who had a wife and seven younglings at home who ranged in age from thirteen down to two, seemed relaxed enough, his head laid back against his jacket, rolled into a pillow and crammed into the corner of the door and the passenger seat.

Only the neat round hole in his right temple and the mess on his coat belied the tragedy. He was not asleep.

To his left, Johnny Stilson was more obvious. The rookie lay across the wheel, the back of his head a mess, having released the slug that entered just above his left eyebrow.

And unceremoniously, his cap, which he’d been told never to remove when on the job, lay in the back floorboard. It had not gone there of its own accord, and certainly not with the chief’s permission.

In the other car, the requisite detective lay folded against the dash, where he had gone voluntarily, attempting to avoid the hell unleashed outside his window. He hadn’t even yelled, “Look out!” or anything resembling it to let his driver, twenty-two year old Olaf Svenson know there was a threat.

Olaf looked around as the detective dove for cover. “What in the world?” he said and caught the second bullet in the eye.

It slapped him back against the driver’s side glass.

The jury’s out on whether his head or the bullet made the gaping hole there first.

But they would not respond. That was the key.

* * *

Smiling, nodding at the surging car, Charley shifted the Thompson to one hand and gestured with the other. “Come on, boys. And welcome to hell,” he said. Vengeance was sweet.

They couldn’t take from him what they had taken and live to brag about it. He gestured again. What were they waiting for? An invitation?

He raised the Thompson, squeezed the trigger hard, and peppered the hateful grill with .45s.

He rocked his head back, laughed, and yelled, “Come on! Come get it, y’sorry bastards!”

* * *

In the car, The Maestro shook his head. “This guy’s a nut.”

And Big Jim clapped him on the shoulder, then shoved. “So what the hell you waitin’ for? Go on. Take him down. I told you once I can’t be late tonight. Know what I mean?”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it,” Milton said, and huffed.

He grasped the wheel again and hit the gas and then released the brake.

The car peeled out.

It surged toward the golden-yellow spindle marking the final seconds of his life in the center of a fool’s sundial erected in the middle of the night.

The Maestro smirked. Hey, that’s a pome if I know pomes, and I think I do.

And that was the final thought The Maestro had.

* * *

Just as if it were meant to be, just as if the sights on the Thompson were there for anything but decoration, the first slug took him in the face. He slapped against the seat, crumpled forward to the steering wheel, then rolled hard to the right.

And Big Jim? His eyes grew wide as saucers.

He screamed more loudly than he’d ever screamed as the car caromed off the curb.

It flipped and rolled, coming to rest on rebar spikes set into the footing of the next business he would extort.

Oh yes, he screamed more loudly than he’d ever made Mary scream as he sliced away parts of her womanhood, just for fun.

Never deep, just the skin in strips around the areola, which he left intact. You know, just in case she ever decided kids would be a good idea.

But the last scream died, a gurgle in his throat as the rebar pinned him like the bug he was.

With apologies to bugs, of course.

* * *

“Aw crap,” the chief muttered at the window as the car below him veered and flipped.

Still the yellow fool in the streetlight fired the Thompson, riddling the car with bullets even after it lay upside down, its tires spinning a thousand miles an hour as if it were trying to escape.

The noise from the carnage was so loud he barely heard the door burst from the hinges behind him. But he heard.

He spun around, his revolver almost clearing leather before the man grinned and squeezed the trigger. “Dis is from Charley,” he said. The shotgun bucked.

The chief never heard the explosion that blew him through the window.

Then the guy looked at Mary. “Hey, you a’right?”

She nodded. “Yes, I think so. But my husband—”

The man drew his finger across his throat. “Charley got ‘im. He won’t cut you no more.”

She nodded, then stood and gathered up her things—a jacket and her purse, her latest hat—then looked at the man. “And Charley—he’s all right?”

He laughed. “Oh yes’m. You know, your brother’s good.”

“Yes he is,” she said, and they left the room.

* * * * * * *

Leaving a Jagged Edge

Hi Folks,

I first heard the term “jagged edge” (as applicable to writing) used by SF author CJ Cherryh at Eastern NMU in Portales NM. She was talking about writers’ block and how to conquer it. (This technique works well when writing any genre of fiction, not only SF.)

If you’re still at the stage where the blank page is intimidating, or if you “get stuck” when you come back to your WIP after time away (whether a night or a week or whatever), read on.

By the way, you can find CJ Cherryh’s blog at http://www.cherryh.com/WaveWithoutAShore/. There are some good gems there if you browse. Just remember different writers write differently, and your way is fine.

First, a note on writer’s block itself. I’ve said for ages, there is no such thing. A sure cure? If you sit down at a blank page (screen or paper) and draw a blank, start writing about the writer’s block. Soon enough you’ll be writing whatever’s on your mind in the way of a poem or story or essay. It works. Try it.

But what about that jagged edge?

As I mentioned above, Ms. Cherryh mentioned this in response to a question from the audience about writer’s block. (No, I wasn’t the questioner.) The question was along the lines of, “Wull, what about when you come back to the WIP the next day (or whenever) and yer stuck?”

She responded (paraphrased), “I don’t have that problem. I always leave a jagged edge. Basically, that means I put the character in the shower. When I get back, I have to write him or her out of the shower. By the time I get that done, I’m back into the flow of the story.”

See? That’s what I mean when I use the term “gem.”

At the time, I had enjoyed considerable success as a poet. But I had never written a novel. (Yep, too scared of eating a whole elephant at once.) And I had written only a handful of short stories.

Many writers (I was one of them) believe a “good stopping point” is the end of a scene or chapter.

It isn’t.

Usually, that’s exactly why they get stuck. When they come back to the WIP, they’re facing a blank page.

The jagged-edge, put-the-guy-in-the-shower technique easily remains among the most profoundly valuable lessons I’ve ever learned about writing.

Since then, I’ve actually written scenes in which the character LITERALLY went into the shower or bath. And I did so with the specific intention of having to “write him out” of the shower or bath upon my return. And it worked.

“I still use the jagged edge.”

Nowadays (and long before I started writing novels), I still use the jagged edge.

But now a good stopping point is when one character has asked a question of another. When I get back, the other character has to answer the question, take action, whatever.

Or a broad wooden beam cracks overhead and the character looks up, eyes wide in antiticpation of the ceiling/roof caving in.

Or a sudden massive roaring jerks the character from a sound sleep and he sits bolt upright to see a wall of water rushing his way. Or a hungry-looking lion peering at him from a tree limb overhead. Or. Or. Or.

You get the idea.

Note 1: If you’re a regular subscriber to my Daily Journal over at HEStanbrough.com, you can skip the topic part this evening. It’s the same.

Note 2: There is a distinct possibility that very soon I will move my Daily Journal over here to replace the Pro Writers posts. Watch for it.

Until next time, keep reading and writing,

Harvey

The End Game

Hi Folks, With this story, I’m shifting my free story of the week to Friday. Mainly because Kris Rusch posts a free story on Monday and I often share it on Facebook. Enjoy!

End Game 180The constant, thumping beat, beat, beat from the radio in the Lincoln was giving Eddie Potrano a headache. If he’d slipped into the back seat, he could have put up the glass. Probably he could have turned off the speakers back there too.

He glanced at the driver. He knew Sally from the old days, before he’d been sent to Chicago and got his own crew. He thought it might be nice to ride up front, maybe reminisce with the guy. But that wasn’t to be. Someone had cautioned Sally against being too familiar with Eddie now that he was a made guy.

When they came out of the airport, Sally opened the back door and held it.

Eddie looked at him. “Nah, c’mon Sally. It’s me, eh? I’ll ride up here witchu.” He swung his bag through the open back door, then opened the front door on the passenger side.

As Sally was closing the back door, he said, “Sure thing, Mr. Potrano.”

Mr. Potrano? Whatever. And that had been the whole ride, at least through the first forty minutes or so. Every time Eddie said anything, “Mr. Potrano” was part of Sally’s response.

It made for a long ride. To make it worse, now they were creeping along the New Jersey Turnpike. Well, it wasn’t stop and go. But they weren’t moving very fast.

He glanced toward the speedometer but Sally’s arm was in the way. “What’re we doin’ on speed? Like thirty or somethin’?”

Salvatore glanced at the speedometer. “Yes sir, Mr. Potrano. Almost twenty-five. I’m sorry about that.”

“Hey, it ain’t your fault.” But that damn music, thump, thump, thump. He gestured toward the dashboard. “Hey Sally, can we maybe get somethin’ decent on that thing or what?”

“Sure. Sure thing, Mr. Potrano.”

Salvatore Renozo leaned slightly forward and glanced at the radio to reacquaint himself with the knobs. Yeah yeah. Volume on the left, tuner on the right.

He reached for the tuner, then turned his attention back to the traffic. A grin curled one corner of his mouth as he glanced at Eddie then back to the windshield. “What is it wit’ Jersey, anyway, Mr. Petrano? Whaddathey, need more lanes or what?” He laughed slightly.

Eddie shifted in his seat, lay his head back, glanced left. “Hey, she’ll wait. We’ll get there when we get there. I mean, she called me, eh?” He grinned.

Why the senator from New York would want to meet him in New Jersey anyway was something he couldn’t understand. But she’d bought the ticket. Tomorrow, before he went back to Chicago, he hoped to visit the old neighborhood.

“Hey Sally, so if you ain’t doin’ nothin’ tomorrow, maybe we could visit the old neighborhood, eh? Whaddya say?”

Barely listening and without looking around, Sally nodded. “Sure, Mr. Petrano. Sure. So you want what? Like Rock or…?” The radio already had squelched through seven stations in rapid succession.

His head still against the head rest, Eddie frowned, then closed his eyes. Had Sally always been this stupid? The third or fourth station would have worked fine. But he didn’t want to tell the guy to go back. He used to be a friend.

His eyes still closed, Eddie rolled his head left, then right, stretching his neck muscles. “Hey, just find somethin’, eh? You know what I like. Like we used to listen to. Don’t have to be nothin’ great.” He opened his eyes and glanced at Sally. “Just none’a them heavy-beat raps or that alternative crap. None’a that screamin’ that passes for music, y’know?”

He lay his head back again and closed his eyes.

“Yeah, hey, I know whatchu mean, Mr. Potrano.” He shrugged, then grinned and turned to look at Eddie again. “Guess I got in the habit, y’know? My kid, he listens to this jiga—”

The passenger side window exploded. The gunshot itself was almost deafening. It fractured the world into a series of stop-action frames.

Bits of glass thudded against the right shoulder of Eddie’s suit and peppered the right side of his neck and face. The bullet tore the tip and bottom off his nose on its way to Sally.

Sally jerked once, surprised, as a spot appeared high on his right forehead. He slapped back into the pink mist now covering what was left of the driver’s side frame and window.

Tires squealed hard to Eddie’s right as Sally stared past him, open mouthed, then collapsed over the steering wheel.

Eddie turned his head to find what Sally was looking at.

A face and arm disappeared into a window in the car alongside him. The car became a dark blur as Eddie forced himself hard away to his left. In his periphery, the tail lights jumped as the car climbed the curb on the right. A second later, the back of the car disappeared beyond the right rear corner of a bus.

Eddie was crammed as far to the left as he could get, his shoulder wedged in behind Sally’s body.

Then all he could see was Sally’s back.

The back of Sally’s tight-weave herringbone blue suit. Well, it was purplish-blue when a streetlight flashed through the window. Otherwise it was grey-black.

Obeying the law of action/reaction, Sally slumped over to the right. The steering wheel turned under his weight and his upper arm lodged against the console.

Eddie grabbed the upper right arc of the steering wheel with his right hand. The back of the bus was receding. So they were slowing down. Good. Or the bus was speeding up. Still good.

The radio thumped through another threatening, crotch-grabbing song on some bones-through-a-meat-grinder radio station. Loud. Jeezus, did Sally turn the damn thing up?

Maybe dead-Sally did it.

The air conditioner was on high somehow too, blowing air across his knuckles and up into the arm of his coat. The air was practically frigid. Was the AC on high before?

He pushed upward with his right hand on the steering wheel, dragging it against Sally’s body weight.

No, that ain’t right. The other car went around the bus to the right. They’re gone. I’m alive.

But they went right. Right. Up over the curb. Must be a way out over there. Maybe an exit.

Sally had us in the right lane anyway. Maybe an exit.

Maybe if he steered right a bit, straight a bit.

Fighting panic, he pulled down on the steering wheel, forcing the car toward the right curb.

Use that for a guide. Stay behind the bus and get off on the exit. Get outta this traffic.

But he couldn’t see the exit. He couldn’t sit up. Maybe they were waiting.

The curb would disappear at the exit. Stay along the curb. Stay along the curb.

He tugged on the steering wheel and the right front corner bumped up over the curb.

He steered back to the left slightly.

The tire dropped.

The other car passed the bus on the sidewalk. He could use the bus as a shield. Stay behind the bus.

Finally he got his left elbow under him and leaned up a bit so he could see.

Just as the bus angled right.

Good.

He peered through the darkness, trying to see past the bus on the right. When the land stopped dropping away so sharply maybe there was something he could steer into. Brush maybe. An old building. Jersey was chock full of old buildings.

Hard to see past the glow of the dash lights.

Then the brake lights on the bus glowed red.

He flicked his gaze right. The headlights reflecting off the bus blinded him too.

Damn it. Is it flat out there? Is there a building? Brush? Is it still a drop off? One thing he didn’t need was to gain speed.

But the brake lights on the bus—

He steered hard right.

The front of the car dipped hard away.

Sally’s body shifted.

The brake.

He let go of the steering wheel and tugged hard on Sally’s trousers at the left hip. The body moved a little.

Eddie squeezed his arm between Sally’s left thigh and the steering wheel.

The steering wheel turned back to the left a bit.

The right side of the car dipped lower but the left almost leveled off.

Then it rolled.

Metal wrenched all over the world and the seat flung Eddie into the air. His right shoulder hit the steering wheel and rolled over it as his body flipped. His shoulders slapped against the windshield and the back of his head broke something. Glass? Must be my day for glass.

Just below his right shoulder blade he hit the rearview mirror with a resounding crack.

Hope that was more glass.

Blinding pain seared through his right side. He strained to reach for the steering wheel. His fingertips brushed it and—

Everything turned around and speeded up.

One of his knees hit him in the chin and his arms disappeared.

His back popped, then twisted and wrenched.

He was in the seat again, against the roof, against the dashboard.

Against the driver’s side door, the roof, the passenger seat and door.

His chest atop the head rest on the driver’s side, then his chin and throat, his head against the frame, his neck bowed. Up against the roof again.

Sally flashed past, lying still, moving only with the motion of the car.

Dead weight.

Eddie couldn’t be still. Back against the back seat, against the roof, rolled from his back to his chest. Dropped lengthwise but facing the passenger door. Weird.

Again he was jerked up and back. His left shoe was torn off, his ankle and knee wrenched hard between the bucket seats.

He was flung hard against the back window and his leg pulled free of the seats. He slapped against the roof, dropped against the back of the back seat, then fell across to the back passenger window. He flashed back to the driver’s side back window, down to the back of the front seat. He was glued there for a long second, then dropped face-down onto the plush cushion of the back seat. He tried to turn his head. There, the back of the driver’s side bucket seat. It was leaning at an awkward angle toward the other bucket.

Chomping on my leg.

He flexed his left foot. No, his leg was on the seat with him, his foot pressing against the passenger side back door.

He squeezed, tensed against his next flight.

But no. No, this is good. I wanna stay here. Lemme stay here. This is good.

The car teetered, leaned, strained to flip one more time.

Then it groaned angrily and settled with a jolt.

It bounced once, twice. It stopped. The world stopped.

He allowed the gentle motion to close his eyes.

The radiator hissed loudly. The engine began the tick, tick, ticking as it cooled.

The smell of gasoline and oil and scalding, angry, steaming water wafted in through the shattered windshield.

At least the shocks are good. It only bounced twice. His dad checked the shocks on his mom’s car by pressing down hard against the back bumper.

Drool leaked from the left corner of his mouth to the seat cushion. How long’ve I been asleep? It was a dream? Maybe it was a dream.

He pushed against something solid with his feet and a blinding pain fired up through his left leg. As he jerked it away it felt like jelly. Like pulling a rope tied to nothing. He reached with his head for his pillow. It wasn’t there.

The night air was cool. It rushed through the windshield and draped over the top of the bucket seats.

His head hurt. So he was alive.

His neck hurt. Something pinched in there.

His nose and top lip were on fire. His nose was bleeding. No, not his nose.

He ran his tongue over his teeth. All there.

His arms were back again, and his shoulders. The left arm was beneath him, his hand cupping his crotch. The back of his right fingers lay on glass pebbles on the driver’s side floorboard.

The hammer on his 9mm gouged against the bottom of his ribcage on the left.

Is Sally still on the front floorboard? Gotta be. But hey, everybody’s gotta be somewhere.

Dead weight. Dead weight saved Sally a lashing about as the car rolled.

Didn’t matter. Dead’s dead. Alive’s alive.

The rolling car punished him for being alive.

Then through the hissing steam and ticking engine and foul smells, two car doors closed. Then another car pulled up, roughly, groaning to a stop. Another door opened and closed.

Sounda like the hinges were rusted. Maybe a pickup or a truck of some kind. Do they have trucks bigger than pickups in Jersey? Maybe a delivery truck or something like that. Not a big rig though.

And not a delivery truck like UPS or FedEx either. Those sound unique when they stop.

When Eddie was a kid and Sally lived three doors down some guy got UPS and FedEx deliveries across the street a couple times a week. Eddie couldn’t tell without looking out the window whether it was UPS or FedEx, but he could tell without looking that it was one of them. All because of the sound they made when they stopped.

And the hinges. The door of whatever pulled up just now closed on hinges, like a car door. It didn’t slide shut like a door on a delivery truck. Well, a UPS or FedEx truck. One of them has a sliding door next to the driver. FedEx maybe. On UPS the door is just open. I think.

Like the woman said, what difference does it make anyway?

No, that wasn’t it. “At this point,” she said. At this point, what difference does it make?

What an asshole. Such an asshole. But a client’s a client.

She wouldn’t be pleased when he failed to show up on time. Or even close to on time. He’d have to apologize to her. He frowned. Of all the distasteful thoughts he’d ever had, that was probably the worst. Nah, he wouldn’t apologize. Not to her.

What was it that guy said that time? Never apologize. The right sort of people don’t want it and the wrong sort will take mean advantage. Something like that.

She was definitely the wrong sort. Most of his clients were the wrong sort. But she could teach the others a thing or two about all kind’s’a shi—

A distant but frantic voice filtered in through the busted windows.

“Jeez, didju see that? Holy shit, mac! I mean, holy shit!”

A calmer, authoritative voice followed. “Yeah. Hey, stay back. We got this.” A pause. “Unless you know these guys.”

An instant’s hesitation, then, “What? Oh, no, no. I don’t know nobody.”

“Yeah? So stay back. We got it.”

Where do I know that voice from?

“So you guys— you cops?”

“Yeah, you could say that. Yeah, detectives, that’s it. We was drivin’ by so— you know.”

More hesitation, then a tone of recognition. “Right. Hey, right. Sure, uh officer. Hey, you got this, right? I’ll just get back to my truck. Hey, I’ll see you around, eh? I mean, I won’t really see you around but….” To the sound of quickly receding boots or work shoes, something heavy, the first man’s voice grew faint and faded out.

The boots were crunching too. Weird. Must be gravel. When did Jersey stop putting grass on the side of exit ramps? Ain’t they the garden state or something like that?

Ha. I knew it was a truck. I can always tell a truck. It ain’t UPS or FedEx though.

The sound of scuffing shoes came through. Two set of scuffing shoes. Approaching.

The scuffing shoes got louder. Then a quiet, low whistle sounded, and a third voice came in. “No way they’re alive in there.”

“Nah, ‘course not. But we still gotta check, right?”

“Yeah, but hey, that was a rough ride. No way they’re alive. We might as well line up for coffee.”

I’m alive.

The voice that seemed familiar also sounded impatient. “So let’s hope it was rough enough, right? But we still gotta look.”

“Yeah. Well, let’s get it over with, eh? Then coffee.”

The scuffing shoes stopped, replace a moment later by a short, derogatory laugh. “For you, maybe.”

Eddie had heard that laugh before too. Who is that? I gotta know this guy.

The man laughed again, though with a less desultory tone. “You can drop me at the club. Then you can go get your coffee. Every night I get a salty dog in an old fashioned glass. Secret of my success.” He laughed one more time.

A salty dog in an old fashioned glass? And secret of his success? I knew I recognized that voice. That’s Sammy the Gypsy. Only Sammy the Gypsy has about a b’jillion secrets to his success. Everything’s a secret to his success.

A thought fired and Eddie’s lips moved. “Hey Sammy. Get me outta here, wouldya?” Pain fired through his nose.

But no sound came out. His throat was sore. It felt funny, like it was less or something.

Sammy the Gypsy Romano was made one week before Eddie was called up to the big leagues and subsequently sent to Chicago. Why they kept Sammy here at home and sent Eddie away was a mystery. But Chicago was a good place. Small-town atmosphere and all that. Only who needs a small-town atmosphere?

Maybe when they got him out, he’d ask Sammy about that. Maybe Sammy knew why.

Eddie tried to twist his body around. Get up maybe. The roof was probably crushed but maybe up to his knees. The least he could do was help them help him or something like that. Somebody said that one time. Help me help you. Something like that.

The voice he didn’t recognize came again. “Yeah, yeah, the club. I’ll do that too. Probably need it after this anyways, eh?”

Sammy said, “Yeah, well, look already, okay? Then we’ll go. Check the front first. They said both of ‘em was in the front.”

What? Who said? Who else saw this mess?

“Yeah, okay.”

Scuffing shoes again, turning, sliding a bit. A pause. The distant sounds of cars on the turnpike filtered back in. Occasionally a horn. People deciding at the last second to take an exit, flashing their brake lights, eliciting the drivers behind them to hit the horn.

Probably arms with fists on the ends with middle fingers extended flying out driver’s side windows. God I miss the city. Eddie grinned.

He tried again to shift his position. Help them help me. Yeah.

I wonder who else saw this mess. And who would tell Sammy and whoever else that is?

He worked his right hand across under his abdomen, tried to force himself up.

“Nah, there’s only the one guy in the front. In the floorboard, too. Hard to tell, but I think it’s Sally.”

He thinks it’s Sally. He knows Sally? I mean he knew Sally?

“Hey, imagine a big guy like Sally squeezing into a floorboard, eh?”

“Dead?”

“Like dried moss.”

“Yeah, huh? Good one. But you sure?”

“Back of his head’s gone.”

“Yeah, okay. So then—”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m checkin’ the back too.”

But the seats were dislodged. The roof was crushed. He had to move to the passenger side back window.

A shoe scuffed on gravel, then another one. Then the first one again.

There was a pause, then, “I’ll be damned.” The voice became slightly faint as the guy turned to look at Sally. “Hey, Sammy. I think Eddie’s alive here.”

Yeah, I’m alive, so get me outta here. I got a date with a senator over in—

“Yeah? The boss won’t like that. She wanted ‘im dead.”

She? The boss? She?

Wanted me dead? Me? What Eddie are they talkin’ about? It’s me. Eddie Potrano.

“Yeah, okay.” Then came the soft sound of a pistol leaving leather. And a soft mechanical sound. A click, like. Something being affixed to the pistol. A silencer?

Eddie shifted again, pulled his hand back. He craned his neck down toward the floorboard, back toward the passenger side back window. Worked his right hand free.

“So then the club, right?”

A broad, joweled face appeared in the window. Light from a nearby street lamp reflected off the left side of the face. His lips were stretched in a slight grin. The brim of his fedora shaded where the eyes would be if it wasn’t so dark.

A smooth cylindrical object moved below the face to the side, reflecting a narrow line of light from the same street lamp.

Sammy said, “Yeah, yeah, all right? And then the cl—”

In the compacted, confined space of the back seat of what was left of the Lincoln, the explosion was deafening.

The face jerked away from the window, a new hole in the bridge of the guy’s nose. The fedora flew up as the pistol hit the bottom of the window and clattered to the gravel. It discharged, and a metallic thud sounded as the round hit the outside of the door.

Scuffing shoes approached, calmly. The voice came from behind the car. “Hey Eddie, how’s it goin’?” A pause. “Hey, No Nose really ain’t got a nose now. Nice shot, eh?” Another pause, and scuffing shoes, but receding to one side.

“Hey, this ain’t nothin’ personal, y’know. Just business.” The short, grating laugh came again. “See, that’s why they sent you to Chicago. You were never able to see the end game.”

The end game? What end game? Damn, Sally, get me the hell outta here.

There was a creaking, as of small hinges on a tight door. A small light flickered, a flame. It reflected on what was left of the glass along one side of the back window on the passenger side.

“The boss, she never wanted’a meet with you, Eddie. She wouldn’a been there. You know, just me an’ No Nose.”

Oh no. No no no no no.

The flame got bigger, reflected bigger as something else ignited. “Hey, see you around, buddy.”

No no no no no—

There was a whoosh.

Then there was an explosion.

But Eddie didn’t hear it.

* * * * * * *

 

Smashwords Site-Wide Sale

Hey Folks,

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ALL 200+ of my titles are On Sale for the entire month of July at 75% off at Smashwords. And yeah, other people’s titles are on sale too. (grin)

75% off means all of my short stories are FREE there. I write across all genres and in several voices. You’re sure to find something you enjoy. Maybe several somethings. (grin)

All of my novels (for readers and writers) and nonfiction books for writers are on sale for 75% off the cover price.

To take advantage of this sale visit https://www.smashwords.com/. Then put FrostProof808 into the Search box at the right. Select your titles and add the code SSW75 at checkout to get the discount.

Whether I do this again will depend on how many sales I get this time, so get hot! 🙂 And enjoy!

(Please note that this does NOT apply at Amazon or any other retailer. But you can get ANY eformat at Smashwords, even PDF.)

‘Til next time, keep reading and writing.

Harvey

The Trouble with Trimble

Trimble 180Under a scalding noonday sun with no breeze, Johnny Trimble rode at an easy gallop toward town. Well, toward where the town was supposed to be.

What was it his StarCraft professor always said? A millimeter here is five billion miles out there? Something like that. Of course, you had to go some distance to turn a millimeter into a five-billion mile miss. When Johnny arrived today he would have traveled some eighty miles total. So even if he missed the town, it should at least be within sight. Probably.

Heat waves shimmered all around him. The dust kicked up by his passing lay along the ground, suspended in a still, miles-long cloud. The sprawling, low-rolling countryside was dotted here and there with scrub mesquite and creosote, Russian sagebrush and the occasional cactus.

He should be getting close. He looked around. The town might be anywhere.

The sun continued to bear down, but his yellow straw, wide-brimmed hat should protect him. It was similar to those worn by early 2oth century banditos in the American West. The crown was tall and peaked. Four indentations ran vertically from a few inches above the brim to just beneath the top of the crown, which was a scant two inches in diameter.

The man at the store had said it was “the best protection a man can get for the money, and you can take that to the bank.”

Johnny wasn’t certain about the bank reference, but he had looked up the word. Apparently a “bank” was a place where people in a particular geographical area kept their money.

The whole idea seemed ludicrous. Why not simply keep it in one’s own pockets? Why pool it with the funds of others and then draw bits of it when necessary?

But if he were required to keep his money in a bank, nobody had mentioned that requirement as yet. Still, if it came down to that, probably he would be in style if he wore his hat when he went there. Maybe that’s what the man meant.

He wasn’t entirely certain the man who sold him the hat knew what he was talking about anyway. Protected or not, he was hot. A peculiar sensation—wet, slick and sizzling all at once—seemed to have afflicted the back of his neck. Yet he could still feel the hat, so he knew it was there. It hung from a thin strap across his throat, the way the man showed him. It moved with the rhythm of his mount, bouncing lightly against his poncho.

He’d replicated the poncho from a series of films depicting the same time period. They featured a man with no name who was nonetheless even more dangerous than he looked. And he looked very dangerous.

He hadn’t been able to replicate the man’s sneer, of course. But he had grown a moustache that hung over each corner of his mouth. That helped with the sinister look. It was almost to his jawline on the left, a little shorter on the right. He noticed the last time he trimmed it.

He had resisted the temptation to trim it back and forth, first one side and then the other. That was a “foolsh game,” as his other hero, 007 James Bond would say. Besides, most people would see it only from one side or the other. His left profile was better than his right, at least for his current role. He tried always to strike a pose that would enable him to showcase it.

Beneath the poncho he wore the standard brown dungarees and the round-toed, calf-high brown boots. The right one chafed his leg a bit when he moved just so, but it was a bearable price to pay.

Under the poncho, strapped to his waist on a broad gun belt, a Colt single-action revolver nestled in a holster. He had found exactly the holster he wanted on a movie poster in the archives. He’d copied the part with the holster and belt precisely. Then he fed the copy into the replicator and punched in “cowhide, 0.125 inches thick, long-Colt .45, 7 inch barrel” and “32 inch waist” into the keypad.

But it was a right-handed holster. He was unable to locate a picture of a left-handed one that was even adequate. And for some reason the replicator couldn’t reverse the arrangment even though he had tried five times.

The man behind him in line for the replicator waited patiently through the first two tries. He only shifted from one foot to the other, the toes of his Roman sandals scuffing across the floor. On Johnny’s third try the man audibly sighed, and Johnny looked back.

The man’s torso was covered in some sort of tunic. Below that, a sash held up what appeared to be a very short, pleated dun-leather skirt. In his hand were two photographs. One pictured a helmet, the lower part of which would cover his nose and his jawline on both sides. The other featured some sort of chain mail.

Johnny nodded and offered a slight smile by way of apology. If the chain mail were replicated at more than half-size, it would swallow the man’s narrow shoulders and concave chest.

The man frowned and Johnny turned back to his task. He made a half-hearted fourth attempt, then a fifth. Then he gave up, took the right handed holster, belt and revolver from the replicator, and stepped aside. He didn’t bother to offer the man his regrets or condolences again.

The next morning, the director rewarded his patience and perseverance. As it turned out, it was easier to keep the perfect holster and have his nerve impulses reversed.

Ah, the town was coming into view.

He slowed his mount to a canter, though he had to try three times. Obviously the man with no name was more practiced than he at slowing his mount. He had made it look far easier than it was.

In the first place, Johnny had a rough time finding the right switch. There were three of them under there, after all. And then why didn’t they make it a little larger? Even if it forced the hide up a little, it would hardly be noticeable, located as it was directly beneath the pommel of the saddle.

There was a right, outer switch. It was toward the front of the mount, only a few inches behind the neck. It would automatically lubricate any joints that had begun to grow stiff. The left, inner switch, which was well beneath the pommel, would re-shoe the mount. He definitely didn’t want to hit that one accidentally as he reached for the center one.

And the center one, the one that would serve better by being a bit taller, had four settings. All the way to the right, it would move the mount to a full, look-out-honey-we’re-comin’-home gallop. At the next setting to the left it gentled to a canter. Or a lope. They were the same thing, weren’t they?

Whatever. The next setting would ease the mount to a walk, and the last position would cause the mount to take five more steps and then stop. It was a drawback of this model—the 1842—that it didn’t have reverse. So most afficionados parked it at a shallow angle to any hitching rails. Not that it had to be hitched to anything, except to add another thin layer of verisimilitude to a three-dimensional fiction.

As he moved the switch to the canter (or lope) position, the hide-covered gelatinous back of his Cayuse Inc. mount gentled beneath him, but not so he actually noticed. The countryside just stopped going by quite so quickly. The gait remained the same.

At the Cayuse Inc. factory they’d factored in his height and weight; the length, breadth and thickness of his torso, neck and head; and the distance from his waist to his feet. They’d measured his thighs in three places, his calves in two, and both ankles. One ankle was almost a half-inch less in circumference than the other.

Then they determined his precise center of gravity and how much of his weight was skeleton and how much was musculature. They fed all the information into Cayuse 1842’s mental function banks. As a result, his mount remained constantly apprised of shifts in Johnny’s balance and made adjustments to his musculature and tone as he rode. Sensors embedded in the saddle, which was part of Cayuse 1842 although it looked as if it could be removed, constantly monitored his blood pressure, pulse and respirations.

He hit the switch again and slowed the 1842 to a walk to dodge a tumbleweed as he passed in front of a small barn. Above the wide double door, a faded, hand-painted sign read Livery Stable, Stalie Springs. That was the right place. At least it sounded right.

The interior of the barn was shrouded in shade. It appeared cool, but he couldn’t make out anything inside. There was a forge out front, but it looked cold and fairly new, as if it had seldom been used.

The town itself began a block or so later with a worn, two-story clapboard hotel. From there on through town, both sides of the street were littered with clapboard buildings housing both occupied and abandoned businesses and shops. Neat boardwalks lined the dirt street on both sides.

On both sides, the buildings were punctuated occasionally with small alleyways. There seemed no rhyme or reason for the spacing between those.

Few people were moving on the boardwalks. More were inside the buildings, their faces framed in windows. A few were in between, parked as casually as they dared in doorways. A few others had positioned themselves, equally as casually, in the alleyways.

He paid them no mind. He had to focus on the job.

On the near side of the street, there were two apparently abandoned buildings and then a bank. Perhaps he’d visit there later and try the hat trick the man had mentioned. According to the signs extended above the boardwalk, there was also an assayer’s office, a rooming house, and a bathhouse.

Those few citizens who were on the boardwalks watched surreptitiously as he passed.

As did those in doorways and in the alleys.

The citizens whose faces were framed in the windows watched him openly, their eyes wide. As if the windows offered them some level of anonymity or protection.

Very strange. Well, maybe. If he lived in this town, wouldn’t he be that curious about a stranger?

He continued his search, resisting the urge to nod or otherwise recognize their presence. That would not be in character.

On the other side of the street, Restaurant was painted in a white arc on a broad, square window. The message was repeated on a smaller window inset in a small white door. Next to it was a saloon, judging from the authentic batwing doors, and then yet another hotel.

On the other side of the hotel was a photography studio. In large letters the sign read Tintypes. Beneath that in smaller letters it read Made to Order While You Wait.

Waiting would seem an appropriate pastime in this place.

In the next block on the near side of the street there was a small general store, a gunsmith’s shop and another saloon. Cliché. Boring. He glanced again across the street. There were a few other businesses there, but he couldn’t make out the signs. As if it mattered.

At the far end of town a small square building seemed to have sprouted in the middle of the street. Above an open tower that housed a bell, a pointed steeple reached skyward.

The faces in the windows were beginning to wear on his nerves. Maybe he should report in.

He glanced at a point between the Cayuse’s ears. He cleared his throat. Then he mumbled in the same dramatic fashion the man with no name might use, “They knew I was coming. They’re waiting.”

An implant tingled and a quiet voice sounded just above Johnny’s left ear. “It’s all right. It might just be that you’re a stranger in town. Plus they don’t see many of us there. Did you locate the sheriff’s office yet?”

Johnny shook his head slightly, then remembered to speak. “No, but there’s only the one street.” He chuckled. “I passed a livery stable a little ways back. That’s a little much isn’t it?”

The voice took on a defensive tone. “If you had bothered to look inside you would have seen it’s a state-of-the-art factory service center. They service both Cayuses and—”

Johnny mumbled, “That makes it worse somehow.”

“What?”

“Nothing. So what’s the sheriff’s name again?”

“Striker.” There was a pause, then, “Checking his file now.” Then came a low whistle. “Wow. He’s been there longer than most sheriffs. Eighteen years. Most of them are replaced after ten. Anyway, he shouldn’t give you any trouble.”

“Okay. So when’s the next carriage come through?”

“Stage coach.”

“What?”

“It’s called a stage coach. Not a carriage, a stage coach.”

“Whatever.”

“You have to use the correct terminology just in case. Anyway, it should arrive around— Let’s see. Okay, six p.m. tonight. It will overnight there and pull out in the morning.”

“Sounds almost perfect.”

“Almost. You’ve still got to get him on it.”

Johnny nodded. “Shouldn’t be a problem.”

He glanced again to his left front across the broad dirt street at the generic “other businesses” he had ignored a long moment earlier. Sure enough, in front of the third storefront a sign dangled from a beam protruding from the wall: Rinçon County Sheriff.

He shifted on the Cayuse, which quickly provided the quiet sound of creaking leather. Quietly he said, “Guess I’ve arrived. Talk with you later.”

He guided his mount slightly left. A few paces farther he shifted the gait lever, as he had come to think of it, all the way to the left.

Four paces farther he was closer to the hitching rail than he expected. His thighs tensed slightly as he anticipated the collision, or else a sudden lurch as the Cayuse stopped short.

But the mount shortened its final stride, brought its back legs up under it, and generated a quiet neighing sound. Then it stopped.

On the left flank a short bar—an aid to assist shorter persons in dismounting—protruded a few inches behind the stirrup.

Johnny quickly tapped the end of it with his left boot heel and it retracted. Then he swung down, his left hand cupped around the pommel and his gaze riveted to the front door of the sheriff’s office. That’s how the man with no name would do it, he was certain.

As his right boot, then his left hit the dirt street, his poncho swayed slightly around him.

But he’d forgotten the cigar. He would look much more formidable with a short, ragged smoke clenched between his teeth near the right corner of his mouth. It would add considerably to the rough look provided by his moustache. And his lips, parted slightly around the cigar, would even indicate the sneer he wasn’t quite able to duplicate. That was important.

He quickly fished a cheroot from somewhere beneath his poncho, then placed it just so between his teeth. He struck a phosphor stick on his stubbled cheek and lit it. He drew once, twice, a third time. It would look better with ash hovering at the end. Then he stepped around the front of his Cayuse.

Fortunately he remembered to reach up and stroke the fake neck and mane with his right hand. For effect, he growled, “You wait here, boy.”

The sole of his left boot made no noticeable sound on the edge of the boardwalk as he stepped up from the street. But the heel of his right caused the boards to resound with a satisfying, if muffled, thud.

He put his left hand on the nearby upright and glanced left, then right. In both directions he flashed a menacing look that was intended to warn away any curious onlookers.

But there were none. Apparently the citizens had lost interest.

He crossed the boardwalk—thud, thud, thud—and grasped the door knob, then turned it and pushed it inward.

Directly ahead and slightly to the right a short, stocky man was sitting at a desk. To his left, his wide-brimmed hat hung from a peg on the wall. He was leaning slightly forward, looking over some sheets of paper. His leather vest hung open on the left side. Beneath it, pinned to his white shirt, was a five-pointed star. He smiled as he looked up. “Hey, pardner. What can I do for you?”

Behind him, mounted on the wall, was a wooden contraption that Johnny recognized as a gun rack. Behind a horizontal wooden dowel were two Winchester repeating carbines and a shotgun. A small padlock dangled, open, on the right side of the dowel.

To Johnny’s right near the front corner was a potbellied stove. Atop it sat a coffee pot and a pair of dark metal cups. Straight ahead and slightly to the left was a door. Probably that led to the cells. There couln’t be more than three as narrow as the office was.

Johnny clamped down on his cheroot. His lips barely moved when he said, “How many you got in the cells?”

The sheriff sat back in his chair and his smile disappeared. He shifted his hands from the desk to his hips. “Now what business might that be of yours?”

Johnny shrugged. “Wouldn’t want ‘em to starve. I mean, what with nobody to bring ‘em food or drink.”

“What’re you talkin’ about? I bring ‘em all that. Two squares a day, mornin’ and afternoon. Three on Sunday. Ladies’ Auxiliary drops by then and brings—” He stopped and frowned. Then his head tweaked slightly to the left as he said, “Wait. I mean hold on a minute. You ain’t threatenin’ me are you?”

His gaze firmly locked on the sheriff, Johnny deliberately and slowly moved his chin left, then right. “Time for you to go, Sheriff. Past time in fact.”

The sheriff put his hands on the edge of the desk and stood up. Stiffly. “What do you mean, time for me to go? I’ve been sheriff here for nigh on to—”

“Eighteen years.” Johnny glanced at his left palm. “Two months and thirteen days.” He paused. “Time for you to go. You know the rules.”

The sheriff frowned. “Rules?” He started around the desk. “What in the world are you talkin’ about, boy? I think maybe you ought’a leave.”

“C’mon, Sheriff. Back at the Center they’re surprised you’ve lasted this long. They couldn’t remember the last time you had a protein wrap. Your skin’s gone brown. And what are those lines there? Around your eyes and across your forehead?”

“What? Age and desert sun.” He moved his hands to his hips again as he glanced at the floor and shook his head. Then he looked up at Johnny again. “You can’t possibly be so stupid that you don’t know what a suntan is. Who are you exactly?”

That was a difficult question and he hadn’t expected it. By “exactly,” did the man mean in actuality or in character? To make matters worse, his director hadn’t given him a name. Then again, the script hadn’t required it. “Remember the man with no name?”

Again the sheriff frowned. “The who now?”

He’s dangerously close to blowing this. Johnny almost forgot to quiet his voice to a growl before he said, “The man with no name. I’m his brother.”

The sheriff turned his head a bit and looked sidelong at Johnny. “Ah, okay. Sure. That explains it. Listen, you were asking about the cells. Why don’t we step through that door over there and have a look?” He stepped aside and gestured. “After you.”

What? That wasn’t in the script at all. Then again, what harm could it do? The cells were supposed to be empty. He’d take a look, then tell the sheriff again it was time for him to go. He hoped he wouldn’t have to resort to lying. The thought of using a falsehood to convince someone of a truth didn’t ring honest. And above all, he wanted to remain honest in his role.

Still, he had a job to do and he would do it. If that meant taking a short detour from the script here and there, so be it. “I’d be happy to inspect the cells.” As he stepped past the sheriff, he said, “They’re empty anyway, aren’t they?”

“Up to a point.”

Johnny allowed a smug smile to curl one corner of his mouth. He maintained the cool growl as he said “Oh really? What point?”

A sharp, blinding light flashed across the space behind Johnny’s eyes. He sensed the floor rapidly approaching. Then he slept.

The sheriff looked down at him. “That point.”

Just then the door opened and a tall, thin man rushed in. “Sheriff Martin, you—” He stopped short and looked at the inert form on the floor. Then he looked up at the sheriff again. “Well, I guess you’re okay.” He gestured. “Who’s this?”

The sheriff looked down at Johnny and grinned. “Hey Mitch. Beats me. Says he’s the brother of the man with no name, whatever that means.” He looked up again. “Say, you wanna help me put him in a cell?”

The top of the man’s shirt peaked on either side as he shrugged bony shoulders. “Sure.”

The sheriff opened the door to the cells, then glanced to be sure a cell door was open. He turned around. “I’ll take his arms. You just get his feet.”

A long moment later, Johnny was lying atop a woolen blanket on a firm wooden cot. He didn’t hear the cell door clang shut.

As the two men exited the cell area, the sheriff closed the door behind him.

The front door was still standing open. The sheriff frowned. “What’s all the commotion about?”

“Come have a look. Then maybe you can tell me.”

“Lemme get my hat.”

Outside a crowd had gathered around the Cayuse, Inc. Model 1842.

MaryAnn Sarton peered up from beneath her bonnet as the sheriff and Mitch came out. “What in the world is this thing, Sheriff? As a tax-paying citizen and a god-fearing Christian, I have a right to know.” She gestured broadly around with her parasol, which she had closed when the crowd gathered too close around. “All of us have a right to know.”

“Looks like a roan horse to me.” He bent his knees a bit and peered underneath. “Gelding from the looks of it.”

Mitch said, “He ain’t no gelding, Sheriff. He ain’t no horse neither.”

The sheriff frowned. “What?” Unsure what Mitch meant, he drew closer to the mount and laughed. “Well, whatever he is he don’t deserve to starve. We need to get him down to the livery stable for a few days.” He reached for the reins, took them and turned toward the other end of town. “I reckon it’ll take that boy at least ‘til tomorrow to come around.”

His left arm jerked taut.

Without looking back, he tugged. “C’mon, now. We’ll get you some oats and—”

But again his left arm went taut.

He turned around and looked more closely at the horse. Then he frowned. He walked closer and slapped the horse on the rump. “Well I’ll be. What is this thing?”

Any sharp external stimulus on the Cayuse, Inc. mount activated the two-way communication device set between its ears.

In the lab on the ship, a light flashed next to a monitor.

Darelo Seven glanced at it. He mumbled, “What now?” He approached his station and was about to speak when Mitch said, “Like I said, Sheriff Martin, I don’t know what it is, but it definitely ain’t no horse.”

Darelo wrinkled his brow like he’d seen the humans do. He curled one of his three fingers toward his supervisor and companion-at-work. “Mastril, listen to this, would you?”

Mastril moved closer and nodded.

Darelo flicked a switch, then rotated a dial. Again someone said, “Like I said, Sheriff Martin, I don’t know what it is, but—”

Darelo flicked the switch again and looked at Mastril. “What do you make of that?”

“Did he say Sheriff Martin?”

Darelo nodded.

“But he was supposed to replace Sheriff Striker, right? In Stable Springs?”

Again Darelo nodded.

Mastril shook his head. “Is there any way to get him out? Without alarming the locals, I mean?”

“I don’t think so.”

“All right. Do we have another Trimble makeover ready to go?”

“Yes sir. He can be on planet tomorrow morning local time.”

“All right. Outfit him with the newer Cayuse, Inc. offering. I don’t want anymore screwups.” He glanced at the monitor. “They’ll lose interest soon. When they do, distintegrate the 1842.” He paused. “And there’s no need to cause Trimble— what’s his designator?”

“Seven forty-six.”

Mastril whistled. “That many already.” He shook his head. “No need to cause him any further distress. Recall his life force before he has a chance to wake up.”

* * *

Shortly after dusk, Sheriff Martin checked on his prisoner. He was still sleeping soundly.

He closed the door to the cells quietly and turned around. “He’s all right. Gonna have one hell of a headache when he wakes up though.”

Mitch grinned and nodded. “Maybe then we can find out what that thing is out front.”

They walked out through the front door. Most of the citizens had gone home. As he turned to lock the door, the sheriff said, “Hey, you doin’ anything Monday week?”

“Not that I can think of.”

“I’m supposed to get together with Sheriff Striker up in Stable Springs. Wanna ride along?”

“Sure. That’s only what, about twenty miles?”

“Twenty-two to be exact.”

* * * * * * *

Getting Ideas (and other stuff)

This content was previously posted on June 26, 2016 in the Daily Journal. I posted it here because of the valuable topic included below. Soon I might begin posting the Daily Journal here every day.

Hey Folks,

Probably today will be another non-writing day for me. Despite the fact that when I take a day away from writing fiction I feel itchy and annoyed.

I gave my word to a couple of folks who quickly took advantage of my offer to copyedit for them, so I’ll do that. But otherwise I think I’m going to shove my copyediting service into the ditch alongside the cover design and eformatting services.

Life Events take up too much of my writing time already. Reckon I’m gonna have to cut the cord on providing services.

Getting Ideas

Turns out this is a long topic. I hope it helps.

Yesterday I talked about story starters. To start a story, come up with a character, give him a problem (doesn’t have to be “the” problem of the story and often isn’t) and drop him into a setting. Period.

But a character with a problem in a setting sounds suspiciously like an idea. So how do we come up with the idea in the first place?

Often the idea for the story will spring directly from the character/problem/setting combo. In fact, yesterday one writer sent me an email. In part, it read

Last fall or late summer you gave 3 or 4 character names, 3 or 4 settings, and maybe 3 or 4 problems for us to put together for an opening. … [T]hat exercise gave me the opening for the second book in my contemporary series. (Thanks MAC)

But even more often, ideas simply come at random. Then we assign a character/problem/setting and write the opening.

Example — Right now on my desk, my cherry wood humidor is on my left. An orange Bic lighter is lying diagonally on top. (That’s a story idea.)

Okay, let’s assign a character. Who are you (the character)? Why are you there? And what are you doing? And how does the setting look, sound, smell? Are you

the owner?
a detective?
a male friend of the family?
a female friend of the family?
a masked burglar?
a business associate?

Remember too, the setting can be anywhere that will hold a cherry wood humidor and a Bic lighter: a small home office, the library in a mansion, an office in a place of business, the front seat of a ’58 Nash, etc. Let your imagination run. We don’t know what’s inside the humidor either, do we?

This idea immediately lends itself to mystery, thriller, psychological suspense, romance, and other genres.

If this notion appeals to you, why not just write an opening? See what happens.

There are several ideas on my desktop, in view as I write this:

an open roll of breath mints with one end opened and folded over
a man pecking away at a laptop computer in the wee hours of the morning
three medicine bottles, set snugly beneath a 22″ monitor
a cell phone lying on the corner of the desk. An indicator light is flashing.
a pedometer lying in front of a medicine bottle
a deck of Rider Back playing cards
and so on

Where you’re sitting as you read this, look about you. What do you see that evokes a particular feeling or memory or notion? It can be anything at all. Make a list. Exercise your idea muscle. Then write an opening about one of them.

So how do we come up with ideas? The more apt question would be how do we NOT come up with ideas.

But many writers believe an “idea” is actually the whole story. How boring would that be? If I knew the story in advance, why bother to write it? That wouldn’t entertain me at all. (grin)

Remember, the story idea is not the whole story.
The story idea is just the catalyst that gets you to the keyboard.

Dean Wesley Smith taught me that. Also, he has covered his own process several times in his blog. He has an extensive collection of pulp magazines from the old days.

One of his favorite ways of coming up with story ideas is to “crash” the first half of one old story title into the second half of another old story title. When it appeals to him, he writes an opening.

In addition to just looking around, I tend to get ideas from photographs or from some minor event or from overhearing a snippet of conversation.

Ideas from Photographs

I collect cover photographs from stock photo agencies. I have around a thousand. I intend to use them all.

Every now and then when I want to write a story, I skim through those photos (my favorite agencies are Bigstock and Canstock). If a photo appeals to me, it gives me a title (usually) and a story idea (character, problem, setting) and I’m off and writing.

Plus I already have the photo that I probably will use for the cover when I’m finished. I say “probably” because the story often takes an unexpected turn or two. If the turn is big enough, I have to find a different photo for the cover.

You can also find story ideas in photos that you can’t use for covers. The photos can be from any source at all. If it spurs a memory or a thought or a character, you’re off an running. But again, don’t use any photo for a cover unless you have the license to do so.

Ideas from Events

While I was walking along a dirt road one day, a woman passed me in a minivan.

As she passed me at about forty miles per hour, her left hand was on top of the steering wheel at about the 11 o’clock position. She had twisted her head around to look over her right shoulder and was reaching back and pointing with her right hand. Her mouth was wide open as if she was yelling.

There were three children in the back seat. None were in restraints of any kind. Then a cloud of dust enveloped me and all I could still see was her brake lights as she braked just in time to make the upcoming sharp curve and avoid plunging herself and her children some three hundred feet down a steep, rocky hillside to the wide arroyo below.

How many ideas can you get from that one event?

Ideas from Conversation

Sometimes a snippet of conversation comes while I’m walking the aisles or standing in line at the checkout counter of a store.

But more often a character will pop into my head, usually with an attitude and a line of dialogue. This is most often the result of something I see or hear on TV or from someone I’m talking with.

The dialogue in my head almost always introduces the problem and the setting I need for the opening of the story. And of course, the character is the one presenting the dialogue in the first place. This happens a lot with my Brooklyn characters. (This happened today, actually, and started a new short story.)

So when you ask some presenter at a writers’ conference, “Where do you get ideas?” and they say “Everywhere,” that’s exactly what they mean.

Now, possibly I didn’t cover everything you would have liked for me to cover on this topic. If you have any questions, please ask.

Of Interest

An interview between George R. R. Martin and Stephen King. Very good, but about an hour long. You can find it here. I discovered it on Dean’s site in the comments from yesterday’s blog.

Great interview. I took voluminous notes on a Notepad document. Great stuff. I strongly recommend you set aside an hour to listen. In line with today’s topic (above), this interview is Chock Full of story ideas. It is an unintentional writing seminar. I strongly recommend you take notes as you listen.

The Day

Rolled out right at 4. Email and coffee to wake up.

5 a.m., moved outside and wrote the topic above. Then I went to check Dean’s site and found the link for the interview (see “Of Interest”. I listened to the interview, taking notes.

7:45, to the edit.

11:45, finished the edit and got it sent off. Turns out my mobile hotspot on my phone works too out in my Adobe Hovel (thanks to my wife for calling Verizon and having them reset my phone). That’s a great relief. Of course I won’t have it on most of the time. But it’s nice to have when my phone flashes to tell me something important needs my attention online.

Going to take a break now. And I’ve decided when I come back I’m going to write for awhile. (grin)

1 p.m. after a much longer break than I expected, to the writing.

Well, I got some writing done, but not a lot. The edit left me more tired than I thought. Still, I got a good start on another short story. Something completely different. (grin)

Back tomorrow.

Today’s Writing

Fiction Words: 1077
Nonfiction Words: 1400 (Journal)

So total words for the day: 2477

Writing of “Being Eddie Potrano” (short story)

Day 1…… 1077 words. Total words to date…… 1077 words
Day 2…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX words

Writing of “The Day the World Shuddered and Went Dark” (probably a novel)

Day 1…… 1272 words. Total words to date…… 1272 words
Day 2…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX words

Total fiction words for the month……… 58205
Total fiction words for the year………… 316606

Total nonfiction words for the month… 14930
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 131380

Total words for the year (fiction and nonfiction)…… 447986