NVDT #46 What’s Your Name? Who’s Your Daddy? Can You Write Like Me?

The Prompt – The Publishing Industry – There have been many industry changes in the last decade, so what are some changes you would like to see happen in the next decade?

I struggled with this prompt because it’s loaded. Let’s back up an additional 10 years  (2k/2010) to a time when several hundred years of content delivery paradigm disappeared. *Poof* In the last 10 years (2010/2020) publishers of anything creative have been trying to find solid footing in vapor and are currently grasping at all the old school stayin’ alive methodologies to maintain a dwindling income stream. I decided to break it down into a few obvious and digestible chunks and leave out the peripheral observations. Like good barbecue or the Blues. Bear down on the meat. Ease up on the potato salad.

The two most disturbing things to me in the last five to ten years are franchising and blatant nepotism (which includes Brand Crossovers).

Franchising: Take a look at the NY Times Bestseller List. Aside from the usual box office guarantees (possibly) written by the author listed on the cover, there are at least two box office names in bold print. Across the bottom in a lesser font “with Author You Never Heard Of.” I see this quite often of late. I have one on my bookshelf now I bought for $1 at the library. Another James Patterson with another AYNHO. Is this the ultimate fan fiction payoff? Write a story using famous author X’s character’s, not even bother to redecorate the set? Is this the new wave of Nancy Drew*/Hardy Boys/Mack Bolan? Crank out 70 to 115k that fits the costumes for Patterson, Clancy, and others? Parker’s Jesse Stone and Spenser cheesy re-ups? We don’t care if you can write or not, have an original idea or not, we have a name that sells books, send us your fan fic.

Also, of particular note on the NYT list is the Grisham novel. The plot teaser is an author of murder mysteries gets murdered on a resort island during a hurricane. OMG! How original! Didn’t I see that on Death in Paradise a couple of seasons ago? Grisham (maybe) is now stuffing Christie formula for mailbox money? What next? Every murder procedural on television having a parachute failure episode in the same season? Oh really? That’s been done? Ooops.

Nepotism: Anne Hillerman, Alafair Burke, the Leonard boys. Joe Hill and Owen King (Stephen King), Emma Straub, Nick Harkaway (John LeCarre). Martin Amis, Mark Vonnegut, Christopher Milne, Page Stegner, Carol Higgins Clark. The list goes on and on. This is not sour grapes or to say that none of those people are talented and creative in their own “write,” but I am also reminded of two stories from the music business, where I spent my professional life.

One – Imagine trying to break into the music business in the Mid-Sixties. The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Hendrix, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Sam & Dave, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Yardbirds, Stevie Wonder, the songwriting and studio machines. That list goes on forever, too. Average Jim Bob with an acoustic guitar is looking for some elbow room in all that? Not gonna happen. Unless Paul McCartney’s girlfriend is your sister, he tosses you a few songs he doesn’t need, maybe produces the session and lo, you’re out of the coffee-houses, have four hit records, and become a music industry millionaire lifer named Peter Asher. I wonder did he ever send his sister flowers?

Two – I recall, in my early impressionable youth, hearing a song on the radio by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. When it was over the DJ said, “And that just goes to show that you can get a record deal no matter who your father is…”

So tell me, you’re an Indie author with a bag of short stories. Good short stories. Tom Hanks has a collection, too. How “good” they are is anyone’s guess. I’m betting they’re not bad, but not the new Hemingway. Whose will be on the shelf with fewer than five other choices in Walmart? Because they’re an essential business and bookstores are not? Yours? Mine? Or Tom Hanks. God knows I respect padding your resume with cross-curriculum activities, and Tom is a very talented guy in many respects. But so are myriad others, who will never even get a read or a marketing dollar because The Brand sells the product for the publishers. Free money. Why look for talent or art when here’s some free money? This is the same reasoning behind bands with tie-dyed oxygen tanks selling tickets at Casinos.

Add franchising and nepotism together, along with a dwindling income stream even from the sure-fire box office draws, vanishing brick and mortar bookstores selling stacks of $28 “NY Times Best Sellers” off the $2 and $5 table, and no real plan for going forward, the collapse of the publishing industry (as we’ve known it) is imminent. Anyone who hopes to catch a ride before the ship sinks needs to think long and hard about what to offer them other than your best shot. Because that doesn’t seem to be what they want.

As Faulkner wrote in Mosquitos, 1927 –

“I like the book myself,” Mark Frost said. “My only criticism is that it got published.”

“It’s inevitable; it happens to everyone who will take the risk of writing down a thousand coherent consecutive words.”

“And sooner than that,” the Semitic man added, “if you’ve murdered your husband or won a golf championship.”

“Yes,” Fairchild agreed. “Cold print. Your stuff looks so different in cold print. It lends a kind of impersonal authority even to stupidity.”

“That’s backward,” the other said. “Stupidity lends a kind of impersonal authority even to cold print”

***

What I’d like to see in the next 10 years? A workable, equitable, modern delivery paradigm. Something like socialized publishing maybe? No. Or a freaking lottery? Anything beats Amazon et al’s stranglehold on Indies and Big Publishing’s apathy and continued scraping the sides of the already baked cake bowl for $.

Don’t look to the music industry for a solution, even though it went down first. They still haven’t figured out how to pay songwriters in the latest century.

*Not to disparage Nancy Drew, who, like her film counterpart in the 30s, Torchy Blane, were original female cultural icons. Girls who kicked ass and took names and showed men how it was done. It has been written in academia of Nancy Drew’s impact that one would have to go back to ancient goddess mythology to find a more heroic female figure. The analogy being a deity got dropped in the middle of things to right the wrongs against everyday folk. That’s Nancy Drew, role model to generations of Twentieth Century girls. Why aren't one of you President yet?

 

NVDT #45 – Bachman, Box, Westmacott and Broklifarts

The Prompt – Do you write under a pseudonym? If so, why? If not, would you ever consider it?

No. But there are plenty of reasons why “you” (literal usage) would choose to

  • You write crap. But you’re pretty sure that one day you’ll get better and write something significant.
  • You’re on the lam.
  • You don’t want to embarrass or offend your mom.
  • You obtain your material from the lives of people you know.
  • You obtain your material via access to protected information like medical, legal, financial or other “privacy protected” files through work or “friends.”
  • You want to write something out of your usual content type or style.
  • You ghostwrite.
  • You have more books as yourself than the publisher or public wants in a year.
  • You write for publishing house serials or monthly release shelf fillers akin to Romance or Adventure Hero.
  • You have a reputation, good or bad, to uphold.
  • You are beautiful, rich, desirable, normal, ugly as a mud fence, too old, too young, too fat, too thin, bald, hospitalized, toothless, incarcerated or institutionalized, are vulnerable or have vulnerable family and don’t want/need weirdos knocking on your door.
  • You have an unfortunate birth name. Seymour Butts, Ima Broklifart, Colin Ostemi, Hugh Jorgasm (well, that one might work for certain genres). I could boil this down to the old Oklahoma Indian joke, “Why do you ask, Two Dogs Fucking in the Mud?”

In my part of Texas alone, the original HEB Grocery chain started life as H E Butt Grocers. Urban myth claims his first name was Harry. In truth, Howard. For years, smack in the middle of North Dallas off 635, Dedman Memorial Hospital. Hell yeah, I’m sick. Take me there.

Consider it?

Further to the above, consider the what and why of a few of those who have.

Kilgore Trout haunted Kurt Vonnegut his entire life. Trout was pigeonholed by critics as science fiction and Vonnegut swore that prevented any of them from seeing his work in its true light.

In brighter light, Agatha Christie wrote romance novels as Mary Westmacott and got away with it for 20 years.

Richard Bachman got six or seven on the shelves, allowing Stephen King to beat the “one book a year” publishing mafia restriction before he was outed. Side note, what’s with that one a year? McDonald published three a year in the 50s, plus short stories. There was no public or corporate outcry.

Going deep literary, George Eliot covered many tracks, some subsets of the list above and not all circumspect, for Mary Ann(e) Evans. Separating her from sexist pigeonholing and her existing success as a translator, journalist, editor and critic.

Mark Twain had a “ring” to it that Samuel Clemens did not.

Edgar Box wrote several formulaic, clever, highly satirical, funny, early Fifties pulps. They are a revelation in how much social satire you can pack in a first-person whodunnit. Turns out Box was Gore Vidal.

Box is also a lesson in extremes if you pair him with, say, Spillane’s One Lonely Night or McDonald’s All These Condemned. All from the same time period, all completely different takes on society and politics. I digress.

For me – There is no point in being someone else, other than hiring a person 30 years younger with all their hair and 3% max body fat to do my publicity tours once I hit the million mark. I’m not holding my breath or auditions.

Seriously, I don’t see the point. I have written owner’s manuals, how-to manuals, monthly columns on tech for songwriters, even presentations and columns for (this will kill some of you) Maranatha and the top mag for church music ministers, among others. Under my given name. I thought one time that, golly, what if somebody read something I wrote and protested “No way the dumb hippie sonofabitch I knew could’ve written this!” Or refused to read it because my name was on it. In the general scheme of things it is, 1) highly unlikely anybody would read it, and 2) what’s half a dozen lost sales? Besides, there’s plenty of “me” out there, name wise. Let the weirdos show up in their driveways.

A few thoughts –

Evans used Eliot to avoid sexist stereotyping, among other things. Regardless of the name she used, she was successful.

Bachman sold a lot of books, even got a movie deal, before anyone knew he was King.

Westmacott’s romance novels sold, even without Christie’s name on them.

Box got excellent reviews and sold some books for Signet before the global success of Gore Vidal.

Crossing curriculum boundaries, Paul McCartney has produced, written, and sold chart-topping hit records under half a dozen names.

If you can write, you can write. No matter what you call yourself for comfort, privacy, or any of the myriad other reasons. But a free word of advice – if your last name is Broklifarts? Change it.

 

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Mexican Standoff

I stayed limp, let my head fall when the whale let go of my collar, dumped me on a dusty plank floor. I took the drop with a glancing blow to the right corner of my forehead. Still, a stiff price to pay for authenticity. I’d kept my head down during the drag for the same reason and that cost me any idea of who was where inside the bank. It had revealed there was very little light. Or sound. The helicopter’s whine and slow whomp… whomp… whomp of the rotors was missing, replaced by a soft hiss and the rolling of air around the room. I cracked my left eye open, squinted through my eyelid. All I could see were Moreno’s turquoise and white cross-trainers a few feet away and beyond her, a dark wood-paneled half wall topped with pebble glass. I knew by the rounded toe of his boot jammed into my side that Whale was on the other side of me, and my hair let me know the top of my head was very close to something solid.

It was so quiet I could hear fabric crinkle with movement, fingers on a desk or tabletop above me. On the other side of the hard thing next to my head, the slight shuffle of several sets of nervous feet. It was too quiet for the now eight people inside and a helicopter in the backyard.

Flyer, over my head somewhere. “Let’s see what Moreno’s brought us.” The rip of plastic perforation. “You do know it’s illegal to impersonate an employee of a government agency?”

“It hasn’t bothered you.”

Jesus, Moreno. You’ve already pushed the envelope, let it ride.

“I told you she’s not as clever as she thinks,” Flyer, dry. “This drive look right to you?”

A lengthy pause. “Yes. The seal is as it should be.” Very formal, with a slight Asian accent.

“She could have swapped it, easy.” Whale said.

“I do not agree.” Again, the Asian. “However, in the name of safety, you may inquire further of her.”

“Cavity search?” Whale offered. One snort from the other side of the room. If Whale moved toward Moreno, it would be time to go superhero. I inhaled slow and deep, fought a dust driven sneeze.

“That’s the problem with you people,” Flyer said. “Always in the gutter. There is only the slightest possibility that someone like her pulled a rabbit out of her hat—”

“Or a flash drive out of her snatch.” One snort again for Whale’s routine.

“As I was saying,” Flyer, dismissive now, “there’s no need for stupid and clumsy. One of you,” a finger snap, “wand her.”

Footsteps traveled from behind whatever I was up against and a set of shiny black boots stopped in front of Moreno’s cross-trainers. The NTSA paddle slid down the outside of her left leg, disappeared up the inside, came back into view on the inside of her right leg, skipped outside, disappeared upward. Shiny Boots betrayed very little motion while the wand worked her arms and upper body.

“Nothing. Not even bra hooks.”

“You sayin’ that’s a free-range pair she’s got in there?” Whale again.

“No. And someone needs to shut el cerdo gordo’s mouth before I do.”

Easy, Moreno. The last I looked you were unarmed and the fat pig had an Uzi.

“Gimme that wand,” Whale said. “I don’t think you checked her cooter long enough.” Shiny Boots froze for a second, stepped towards Whale.

“You don’t think, lard ass, because you can’t.” Through my cracked eyelid I caught him pointing the paddle at Whale. “How about I shove this up your cooter?”

“I don’t have a cooter, asswipe.”

“Yeah? When was the last time you actually saw your dick? Two, three hundred pounds ago? You were what then, eight? Nine?”

Whale started to step over me.

“Gentlemen?” The Asian, more directive than question.

Shiny Boots went back where they came from, I could feel Whale’s foot poised above me. Between my shoulder blades if it had come up and to the right the way I felt it leave my ribcage. The last thing I needed was him taking his frustration out on me. I rolled under the foot, grabbed it with both hands, my left not being a lot of help, and twisted with everything I had. Whale lost his balance. I rolled back where I’d been, accompanied by the splonk of a dropped cantaloupe, followed by a grunt before Whale landed on top of me. I groaned, not just for effect.

“Stupid and clumsy.” Shiny Boots had returned, lifting from my left, with help from the Whale’s other side until I could feel his bulk next to me instead of on me. I groaned again.

“You.” I was tired of none too gentle boot toes in my side, even shiny ones. “Get up.” Shiny Boots grabbed my left shoulder, I groaned in earnest, made it to all fours, Shiny Boots saying, “Watch your head,” while he palmed the top of my head, pushed me backward. “Or you’ll end up like lard ass next to you there.”

Upright and next to Moreno I made a minor production of ‘coming to.’ I bent forward, rubbed my eyes, and the back of my head while I mumbled “whew” and “what the fuck” and moaned while I studied the room. If anyone had seen me dump the Whale, they didn’t mention it.

Once I had a perspective on the room, I knew why. Anything I’d done hidden from view by everyone but Moreno because my head had been up against the bottom of a huge, old-fashioned, pool table-size oak desk. In the middle of it, a computer monitor the size of a Hilton Executive Suite television. Everyone was on the other side of all that except Moreno and me. And down-for-the-count Whale.

Flyer sat behind the desk, his right index finger on a flash drive. Behind him, two Agent-of-the-Month poster boys in rumpled off the rack suits and shiny black boots. Just to his right stood Captain LaSalle’s disco vampire. A ghostly thin Asian, six foot six or seven easy, his shaved head covered in colorful tattoos like the remaining Jumbo security next to him. The only visible weapon was the Uzi on a sling over the standing Jumbo security’s right shoulder.

“You must be Ng.” I focused on the tall Asian. “What do you feed these clowns?”

Jumbo security raised the Uzi, and there were guns everywhere.

“I’m askin’ ‘cause this one doesn’t look so good.” I pointed at the blood on the corner of the desk, and down to more blood oozing from the fallen Jumbo’s head. “How’d that happen?” I had to wait for an answer while Ng pushed his Jumbo’s Uzi down and the agent twins to put their matching Kel-Tecs back inside their suit coats.

“Thought he was about to stomp you,” the agent who’d pulled me up said. “Pissed off about not getting his snatch check.”

“Then,” his agent twin suppressing laughter, “the fat, one-legged bastard lost his balance, whacked his fuckin’ head on the desk.”

“Serves him right,” Moreno gave me a quick sideways glance, “for being a pig.”

“Yes, it does, and so he was.” Flyer reached in an outside pocket of his suit coat, pulled out the evidence bag with the knife I supposedly used to kill Third Eye Horseapple Nose. “But your turn, for being a royal pain in my ass, is coming.” He must’ve read my mind because he turned to me saying, “When the time comes it will appear you killed her with this,” showing me the knife. “Then you’ll kill yourself.”

“What if that’s unacceptable?”

“We’ll take care of the details for you.”

This bank robbery of yours is getting better by the minute, Moreno.

“So where’d you get the knife? Tavius been one of yours all along?”

“I wouldn’t have him as a gift, Paro. Let me tell you about Tavius,” Flyer lifted the flash drive now, tilted it my way. “You understand disposable. Understand this. This man, this record-setting, blue-chip running back blows out of Louisiana like a hurricane,” anger rising in his voice. “He’s going to be Army’s great black hope. Maybe even a Heisman candidate. His sole mission in life to get us into an actual bowl game. A legitimate one, not the Bears Shit in the Woods bowl or the Microwave Mystery Meat Burrito bowl or some other pity fuck bowl, but a real bowl game. Army. Against, oh, Oklahoma. Or Georgia. Michigan, Ohio State, Miami. Fuck, who cares? Anybody with a program. What’s he do? He gets hurt. The fucking pansy gets hurt, can’t play. We still have to educate his ass and give him a fucking job?” We held eye contact, Flyer pointing the flash drive, some kind of professor, I should understand his thinking. I’d never understand these guys.

“All well and good,” Ng, bored with Tavius’ blown recruiting and Army stuck in the bargain basement of pity fuck bowls history lesson. “May we continue?”

“Right.” Flyer broke with me, turned his attention to the monitor.

“Excellent.” Ng stepped closer to Flyer, bent down, their heads level, both staring at the monitor. Ng flicked his left wrist and produced a flash drive like a magician pops a plastic flower out of his sleeve.

“What’s that?” There was something in Moreno’s voice that worried me.

“This, Ms. Moreno,” Ng said, not taking his eyes off the monitor, “is why I remain unconcerned about your having replaced the original drive. A child with a rudimentary grasp of technology can reproduce even the most sophisticated microscopic etching and electronic seals.” He took Flyer’s drive, poked it in a slot on the side of the monitor, continued to watch the screen. “But this,” holding up his drive again, “will run a check on the data in the device you delivered.” He felt down the edge of the monitor, inserted his drive in a vacant slot. “If for any reason they should disagree, I will cut off pieces of your friend until you tell us what you’ve done with the proper device. If you outlast him, I will start over with you.” He raised his eyes from the monitor to hers. “If you know anything we should know, inform us now. You will be saving us all valuable time and your friend considerable pain.”

Madre de Dios, Moreno. If you ever even thought about it, tell him. Now!

Satisfied with her silence, Ng dropped his eyes back to the screen. “Shall we?” He tapped a slim keyboard on the desk.

Shit.

We waited, Flyer and Ng engrossed in whatever was happening on the monitor, the Agent Twins and remaining Jumbo feigning indifference. The bank was air-conditioned, air flowing up from vents in the floor. I was sweating.

Ng and Flyer gave each other looks that said Moreno hadn’t screwed with the drive, ill-gotten gain was having an excellent day and I wouldn’t be any losing parts. Yet. Ng tapped the keyboard again, pulled his drive, stepped back, pleased with himself. “Congratulations Ms. Moreno. Your delivery passed the test. Flyer, you may execute the transfers.” Flyer reached out, tapped the keyboard.

I don’t know what happened on the monitor, but Ng’s eyes went ping pong balls. He pulled a long-nosed .22 target pistol out of the tight pea-green suit. With his composure disintegrating he pointed the pistol at Flyer’s head, screamed in falsetto, “You fucking idiot!”

All the guns came out again. Jumbo’s on Flyer with Ng’s, the Agent Twins, one on Jumbo, one on Ng. No one in the bank gave us a thought except Whale, who moaned, tried to sit up. I reached down, grabbed his Uzi, tossed Moreno my Walther no one had bothered to search me for. I pushed moaning Jumbo back down with my foot on his throat, my Uzi on the other Jumbo. From where I stood, Moreno’s aim centered on Flyer.

“Mexican standoff,” I shrugged my sore shoulder, Moreno saying to Ng, “Tell us about it.”

“The drive, this idiot…” Ng was shaking, his high, girlish scream only slightly modified. “It didn’t open the accounts. It’s, it’s fucking eating itself!”

Moreno stepped to the desk, leaned in, her gun still on Flyer, turned the monitor halfway around. She watched lines of code stream for a few seconds. “So it is,” and turned the monitor back.

NO!” Ng, almost in tears. “Goddam you!” The pistol came back level with Flyer’s head, wavered toward Moreno, not knowing who to blame.

“Put the gun away, Ng.”

“What?” He looked at me, lost, his entire universe collapsing on the monitor.

“Put the gun away,” I repeated. “There’re people in here I’d rather shoot than you, but you’re the flash point. Get your shit together, put the gun away, we all get to breathe a little longer.”

“What?” Again, like I was a bad dream.

“I shoot you,” I nodded at the agents. “They shoot Jumbo. I think she’ll shoot Flyer. We take our chances with the agents.”

“Oh…” Ng, bewildered, lowered his pistol. Flyer reached for it.

“Nuh-uh, cabrón. Leave it.” In that moment, by tone of voice alone, I thought Moreno might have shot Flyer in the forehead just to see the look on his face.

An explosion outside rocked the bank. Another, smaller explosion blew open the back door allowing white, sulfurous smoke to pour in. A shotgun blast through the smokescreen knocked the last Jumbo off his feet. When the smoke cleared Rip Taylor stood in the hole that had been the incongruous steel back door, shotgun in hand. “Ng? Sorry, lyin’ cocksucker. You owe me six million dollars, an airplane and a woman.”

 

NVDT #44 – Characters

The Prompt – What are your favorite kind of characters to create? To read?

I don’t create characters. They show up. Unexpectedly, at inopportune moments, always with something to say. Even in this first-person thing I’ve almost completed that started as a clinical exercise. They write me into corners, change course, change their minds. Particularly in this one. Exerting any measure of control is a waste of time. I always say, “Let the story tell itself.” Which means let the characters tell it. And they will, even if they have to bump me from my chair to get on with it. Something that really surprised me with an exercise. I should have known better. I’ve tried exercises before, and they’ve always gotten away from me.

You have to understand. I wanted to write forever. I walked out of college because I refused to regurgitate the opinions of tweedy professors. “Hold on,” I said, “I did this as a freshman in high school. Where’s the good parts? Where’re the prompts? When do we write?” We didn’t. We wrote more book reports. So I walked.

When I first began writing again in 2016 after a long hiatus in the music biz, I sat down, started something, it sucked. After two or three days I sat in my chair, staring at the monitor, bummed. Woe is me. Then, as always happens to me, a doorbell goes off in my head. This time a girl named Deanna Collings appeared on my shoulder. “Yeah it pretty much does really suck,” she said, “and you know better. Writing is just like music. So erase all that junk and listen. I’m the story you want to tell. I’ll tell it, you write it.”

They ALL do that. If I struggle with their names they mope, stay quiet until I hear it. Then, BAM, they have a voice. They have production meetings without me, show up in my head. It’s all I can do to keep up.

What kind of characters do I like? Characters who talk and it’s believable. Who do believable things. Even if they do a few unbelievable things, that’s okay. Like Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Or most Hitchock. Average person has to step into the breech.

What I don’t like is cliché characters unless they are well-drawn. Which is why I love Laura Levine’s fluffy Jaine Austen series. Jaine is a cliché of her own. Underemployed, frequently caught with dinner on her blouse, paint in her hair and wishing her pants fit. Yes, Laura’s screenwriter shows, she telegraphs some things. But her books are streamlined, a breeze to read and I never feel slimed or shorted or steamrollered, just out of breath and looking for chocolate with Jaine. Laura’s peripheral characters are better drawn than most stereotypes. Not just that you know a smarmy real estate agent, but you know this one. With no effort. Effortless characters, that’s what I like. John D. MacDonald and Elmore Leonard are rocket scientists that way.

I like to hang out with my characters, no matter what they do. I say never worry about your characters or your story, they’ll sort it for you. I’m curious to see how others work theirs. And because I’m still going to stick writing in here anyway, here’s one where I never saw any of this coming. You can read it if you wish.

From Bobby B.- Monterrey Mick’s Mad Mods

Bernie was laughing when she answered the knock on Bobby’s apartment door. Monterrey Mick pushed her and the door into the wall, lurched into the compact living room.

“Mick? What the — ”

“Shut up.” He reached across himself with his left hand, spun her, shoved her at the round kitchen table littered with wadded up Taco Mejor wrappers, her purse and several open file folders. Bobby and Creighton sat on the far side of the table with three opaque plastic champagne flutes and an open bottle of champagne.

Bernie recovered, shoved Mick’s shoulder. “Look, jerkwad, I get enough of your shit on the clock.” She started to shove him again, and he pushed her back.

“No, you look.” Mick pulled a ridiculously long-barreled, nickel-plated wild west revolver out of his jacket. He wavered for a few seconds, like the weight of the gun had altered his balance. “All of you look.” He leveled the TV gunslinger special on each of his targets, moved it back and forth between them. “Two million. That’s all I want. All I ever wanted. Two mill and I’m out of here, nobody gets hurt.”

“That line is beyond stale, even in Hollywood.” Creighton took a sip from one of the plastic glasses. “Christmas Eve, Mick. Money like that is three days away, best case. Besides, you’ll just blow it on hookers and coke and be done inside a year. If it doesn’t kill you, you’ll be homeless somewhere they have zero pity for broke Americans.”

“Fuck that, and you. I stay here and I’m a restaurant? I’m a fucking artist. I turn rusty iron into dreams and you fuckers want to put empty, painted shells of muscle cars in an over-sized gas station with my name on it? Where mom and dad and their greasy-fingered little screamers can eat designer burgers and cheesy fries while they watch junior college mechanics slap Bondo on some yokel’s Ranchero? That’s somehow better than killing myself with hookers and blow?”

Bernie shoved her hand into her purse, lifted it off the table, pointed it at Mick. “No you don’t, Mick. No, no, no. Not this time, buddy. I’ve waited five years for my chance out of bikinis and cutoffs and off the TNA wagon. No way do you screw this up for me.”

“What the hell, Bern,” Mick laughed. “You got a loaded tampon in there?”

Bernie shifted the purse a few degrees to her right, and it barked like a Chihuahua muffled in a fat lady’s arms. Just behind Mick and a little to his left, a framed starving artist print of rain-slicked streets in Paris dropped to the floor and shattered. Mick jumped and the cowboy gun boomed a shot into the floor. When Mick looked up Bernie’s purse had disappeared and she had a two-handed grip on a pink Ruger 380 pointed straight at his chest.

Mick checked Bobby and Creighton, couldn’t decide where to point the king-size cowboy pistol.

Creighton held up his hands. “We’re unarmed, there’s no money, so you two shoot each other or work it out before Santa and the pizza get here.”

“You don’t get it. None of you.” Mick looked like he was about to cry. “I just want the money. No restaurant, no more custom cars, no more TV show. No fucking grief. I want out the pile of shit my life’s turned into, and two mill isn’t too much to ask. I made people happy. I deserve it. If it’s a year-long funeral procession, I don’t care. Hear that? I. Don’t. Care. Two million doll—”

BAM, BAM, BAM, loud and sharp rattled Bobby’s front door.

“BOBBY B? FBI. WE NEED YOU TO OPEN THE DOOR.”

“Way too much fun now.” Bobby shook his head once, raised his voice. “It’s open.”

The door banged into the wall again. Two men stepped inside, one black, one white, both in jeans, t-shirts and blue windbreakers, their badges on lanyards around their necks. They spotted the pink Ruger and Mick’s long, shiny cowboy special, pulled their handguns and modern danced a slow, bowlegged cross step around the room. A tall man in dark slacks and a crisp white shirt with the cuffs rolled up walked through the middle of all the guns like they weren’t there, set a briefcase on the table in front of Bobby, and offered him a small, relaxed smile.

“Agent Hyland, Bobby.” He scooted the taco wrappers out of the way with the briefcase, dropped it to flat. “You have pizza on the way?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Perfect. I’m originally from outside Omaha. Bum Fuck USA. Out where they say boredom breeds excess? I thought we knew how to cut loose come Christmas time.” Briefcase man hooked his sunglasses on the lanyard that held his badge, looked around the room at all the players, the guns, the purse with a hole in it, the taco wrappers, the champagne bottle, the shattered bad art. “But I gotta hand it to you, Bobby,” Hyland nodded his approval. “You throw one helluva Christmas party.”

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Sidekick Poster Boy

From the air, Kerrigan had appeared more organized. A simple four by four grid of streets with a few dead-end driveways that streamed off the main outer boundaries to half a dozen houses, mobile homes, and outbuildings, the same way children draw sunrays. On the ground it was looser, the grid a collection of modest houses with a hundred-year age range parked randomly on large, marginally improved lots, their driveway entrances guarded by bulging black trash bags. Their landscaping composed of small gardens and almost lawns close to the main house, the lots strewn with rusted out grills missing legs, dead appliances, overturned ice chests usually dumped close to trailered, motorless boats that hadn’t seen water in at least a decade. Disintegrating cardboard boxes full of glass and cans and tattered linens, farm implements, headless lawnmowers, and dead vehicles slowing being overgrown. A chicken coop here and there, outbuildings in various shades of disrepair and quite a few large, cheerful, inquisitive dogs that stopped to sniff me, get their ears scratched and trot away while I made my way around the town’s perimeter from the far south end to beyond the Kerrigan State Bank on the northernmost edge.

I’d asked Rip after my first flyover recon why the bank sat so conveniently at the front of a large, empty lot and his answer was the man who originally built the bank a hundred years ago had cleared the land behind it and put in a competition level croquet court with extra room for observers and Roaring Twenties tailgating. The croquet court was now a well-kept grassy backyard, the only eyesore a rusting old pickup next to the bank. I’d already reached the conclusion that rusty old pickups were a yard art trend in Kerrigan.

I approached from the rear where a thick windbreak line of trees marked the bank’s rear property line and experienced firsthand how the tree line had expanded over the years. A hundred feet behind the tree line, a flat, dusty field grew into knee-high weeds and saplings that ramped up to taller trees covered in rope-like vines. Smaller trees fought for their own space and sunlight in the gaps. Close to the main old-growth tree line it got so dense I wanted a machete, but made do stomping a path close to the front of the tree line where I could crouch, unobserved, and watch the rear of the bank.

Everything about the rear of the bank was a visual of extremes. Set in the middle of the bank’s peeling clapboard siding was an incongruously severe steel door. On the right side of the lot, the unmarked CIA Lakota helicopter’s turbine whined at idle, rotor brake unlocked. On the other side of the lot, well away from the Lakota’s slowly turning rotor, was the biggest black Cadillac Escalade SUV ever made. Parked, like the Lakota, at a forty-five-degree angle to the bank’s rear corner. Two jumbo characters in black chauffeur outfits, necks, hands and glistening shaved heads covered in colorful designs stood in front of the Escalade. With their hands clasped in front around Uzis, a wired earbud in one ear, they could have been stained glass Secret Service save for the lunacy of their choice in firearms. I thought of the tattooed freak show May mentioned, smiled to myself, checked my Walther. Again.

For the second time in as many minutes, a dirty white dually Ram crawled by the front of the bank. Both times the colorful Jumbos talked to their lapels. After the second pass, the one closest to the street moved away, disappeared in front of the bank. The Ram rolled in again from the right side, took too long to cover the distance blocked by the bank. More than enough time passed for Security to have checked out the driver and had a “beat it” chat with whoever was driving. The Ram emerged slowly, rolled to the corner, turned left. A minute later it was in the field behind me, headed my way in no hurry. The Ram stopped at the edge of the brush, Usman climbed out, walked my way unscrewing a suppressor from a chrome forty-five, a loop of thin black wire dangling from his pocket. He dropped the suppressor in his other pocket, followed my crushed sapling path. He raised his chin slightly in greeting. I reciprocated.

“I got tinking,” he said. “Da Pilot’s some asshole, sure. But he trows my kinda party.” He palmed my shoulder, grinned, pulled the missing Jumbo security man’s radio and earpiece out of his pocket, handed it to me.

I took it. He answered my question before I could ask.

“Da suit wit da snake on his head? In da middle da street, hand up. I stop. He show me da Uzi, tell me get da fuck out, pick some different streets. I say I’m lost, yah, you get da fuck out da road, an fuck you. He open da door, ‘be glad ta fuck you up, weasel.’ I put da forty-five on his head. He start cussin’ dat pizzachit Uzi, I say Pop goes dis weasel, yah? Pop.”

“And here you are.”

“Yah. Here I am.” He raised the forty-five toward the bank. “An dare he is, under dat  bridge in da front.”

From the radio chatter, the dead man had been Cantrell. His outdoor partner asked if Cantrell had come inside since he’d been whining about the suit and the heat. Whoever was inside said, “No. The Boss told you both stay where you’re at. Whattaya worried about a goddam farmer for, anyway?” Back yard Jumbo got more blistering commentary when he asked to go look for his partner. He paced for a minute, ignored his orders, and walked around front.

I told Usman to arm up. ARs, the RPG, the missile launcher. Anybody but me or Moreno came out the back door? Take out the Escalade, level the fucking bank. I took off in a bent-over run for the helicopter. If Jumbo came around the corner of the bank before I made it, Usman was to use his discretion to eliminate him. I worried about that for a few seconds. Not that Usman wouldn’t cover me, but would he blow up half the town in the process.

I made it to the far side of the helicopter, stuck the Walther in the bored pilot’s side. “Stay cool soldier, stay off com.” I leaned in, checked the bay. Empty. “What’s your cargo, Captain?”

The helmet came off, the pilot shook out a dark ponytail. “Flyer. Plus two. Gaw-awd damn, it is you. With more hair. Sir. Major Riordan, sir.”

“Major’s been a while. They all inside, Captain,” I checked her sewn in ID, “LaSalle?”

“Yes, sir.”

“The Escalade?”

“One tall, tatted up disco refugee in a pea-green suit, plus two like the bookends over there. Even Steven.”

“Inside. They left you out here alone.” She clouded up, glanced down at the pistol strapped on her vest. “Ain’t skeered, Captain?”

“Yes, sir. I mean no, sir. I mean—”

“Go fuck yourself, sir? Good to know you have it under control, LaSalle, but your weapon needs to be where you can use it, not Velcroed to your vest.” I reached out left-handed, unhooked the SIG, set it in her lap. “One more time, I’m not a sir.”

“Yes, sir, you are. Flyer gave me your picture, told me to shoot you on sight so I looked you up. Major Riordan, the A-10 Maniac. They say you flew so low they picked Taliban pieces out of your fans.”

“That’s folklore. Why haven’t you shot me?”

“No way I shoot a pilot.” She glanced at the pistol in her lap and offered the faintest of smiles. “Commander Eisen said you knocked the side of a mountain down then wasted a convoy of leftover Russian trash to rescue a sharpshooter team.”

“Eisen was an old liar when I knew him. It was two sharpshooter teams and an eight-man squad. Only they rescued me. That’s the run got me fired.”  I noticed the remaining Jumbo security on his way back to the Cadillac, stepped into the chopper to keep my feet from being visible. “Can you do me a favor, Captain, and stay off com other than the mandatory yes sir no sir go fuck yourself sir?”

“Yes, sir. There’s no one on com but Flyer and his two suits. We’re off the grid, sir. So to speak. Flyer had another asset,” she paused, “but they went offline.”

“The Apache’s down.” I clocked her eyes. “Friends of yours?”

“Yes, sir.” Her eyes got bigger. “They’re not—”

“The Apache’s gone. The crew’s okay. Probably takin’ a long walk arguing about where’s the nearest farmhouse. Something those two should have been paying attention to before they blew up my plane. Deal on no com?” I lifted her helmet off the floor, handed it off. She held it in her lap on top of the pistol, momentarily lost in thought.

“Yes, sir.”

“When Jumbo over there turns his back, I’m headed around front to wait for the mail lady. Anyone besides your cargo, the mail lady or me pops out that back door, jack this thing up and get the hell gone. Deal again?”

“Yes sir. But sir—”

“Cargo, the mail lady or me. Otherwise, haul ass.”

“Yes sir. Sir, could that be considered a sexist remark?”

“Soldier, in uniform, from the back with a big stick in our hands? We’re all brothers.”

“Yes, sir. Go fuck yourself. Sir.”

I let her have that one because right then Jumbo turned his back, walked around the front of the Escalade facing away. I took off, ran to the side of the bank, hugged the wall until I was in front, next to the door. At least four armed, primed, and adversarial inside. Ng and Flyer were wild cards. I didn’t like it at all. I stuck the dead Jumbo’s earpiece in my ear.

“You’re shittin’ me. How the—”

“I dunno.” They were both working their secret agent whispers. “Just layin’ there, dog. Dead as a mother—”

“You didn’t hear nothin’?”

“Nothin’.”

“Shit, man… Dead how?”

“What I’m sayin’, dog. How the fuck do I know? He’s layin’ out front, half his head’s gone. You want me to text you a picture?”

“I have to tell the boss.”

“He’ll go ballistic, wanna start a fuckin’ war now. Wait till this plays. Maybe the spooks will slack his dance for us.”

“You’re thinking these smug government assholes will let us walk if Ng goes down, think again.”

“I’m not thinkin’, dog. I’m out here with the keys to an armored Escalade. It gets fucked up in there, fuck all of you, know what I… Mail truck, dog. This is it.”

***

Cavanaugh Moreno was playing herself in a USPS uniform and carrying a priority overnight Tyvek mailer. She walked straight to the door, didn’t look at me.

“I expected a disguise.”

“I am what I am,” she hissed. “This is my play.”

“Flyer the CIA man is in there. He knows you.”

“I know the situation.”

“Okay. I’m right behind you.”

“No, you’re not. You’ll fuck everything up if you go in now. You’re my ticket out, if I need one, not in.” She reached for the door handle, made eye contact with me. “Paro, for once just do what I tell you. No Rambo, no Superman. Don’t make targets out of either of us.”

“I thought we were robbing this bank. Together.”

We are. My way.” She grabbed the door handle, raised her voice. “United States Mail. Priority. Signature required.”

I sidled away from the door. Cool air escaped when she opened it. She stepped inside, closed it behind her. I had the Walther in a sweaty double grip, noticed my knuckles were white. I’d give her two minutes alone in there, then–

“Howdy, amigo.” I looked up, Rip Taylor was thirty feet away walking toward the bank, a 50 caliber Desert Eagle hanging in his right hand. He’d spoken to Backyard Jumbo, not me.

“Yo, old dog,” from Backyard Jumbo. “What’s your business?”

“You.” Rip’s gun flashed up in a quick arc up before it boomed. “Go on in, Paro. I have this.”

“I have a man,” shit, I lowered my voice, “out back.”

“We’ve met. I added myself to the list of who comes out before he levels it. I give you and the girl five minutes before I bring my issues to this table.”

“How will I know–”

“Trust me.”

Right. I tossed the first dead Jumbo’s radio next to him in the drainage ditch, stepped in front of the door, knocked, dropped to a crouch an instant before the door opened. A burst of automatic fire went off over my head, chest-high had I still been standing. I lunged into the Jumbo filling the door. He swung the Uzi at my head, caught my shoulder, my left arm went numb. I stayed down like I’d taken the headshot, slid the Walther into a pocket under cover of being dragged into the bank by my collar. I should have shot the whale but the only place Uzi’s are worth a damn is close confines, like a phone booth or this ancient bank, and I had no clue how many or where the others were. And Moreno was in there, somewhere, spinning ‘I’m Cavanaugh Moreno and it goes like this’. There’s an old saying about no matter how fucking crazy what you’re thinking about doing really is, you can always find someone to go along with you. That was me, sidekick poster boy.

 

 

NVDT #43 – Don’t Trip

The Prompt – What’s the most unusual experience you’ve ever had? Have you included it in one of your books?

HA!

The young woman who smelled like a sex, weed and alcohol all-nighter walked away down the terminal corridor, her phone in the hip pocket of skin-tight distressed jeans, unkempt ponytail a bouncing pendulum against a black, sprayed-on record company t-shirt.

“God she drives me nuts,” the guy on my right said. “Did you hear all that shit? What is she, twelve?”

“Marketing is full of star fuckers and picture leaners. She’ll wake up one day and hear the ‘hose bag with an Amex’ noises behind her and decide to turn pro.”

“Maybe. Or she’ll keep at it until she’s too old or fat to be cute and fuckable for AR and end up in inside sales. I need a beer.” He pushed himself out of the plastic airport bucket chair. “You?”

“No. But watch your step. The floor’s littered with all the names she dropped.”

“I just stole that one,” he said, kicking away imaginary obstacles. He turned, his foot sideways in a soccer pose. “Think I can hit the Burger King from here with Van Halen?”

***

The direct answer is yes and no. Not about Van Halen, but the prompt. I’ve mentioned before that I was in the music industry for 40 years. And everything that entailed. Everything. That’s a rich experiential tapestry, a deep well, a gold mine of… You get it. To explicitly recount the most unusual experiences would amount to telling tales out of school. By logical extension to use any of that material mandates the veil of fiction. However, my characters arrive with their own tales and I know better than to attempt control of the cosmic radio and do my best to stay out of their way with my nonsense.

In truth, we are the byproducts of our existence, and we occasionally, possibly subconsciously, populate our stories in familiar territory or with a peripheral character we might have known and forgotten.

But when I write? I keep at it like a reader to see how it ends because I don’t know, and I enjoy the ride.

For the sake of the prompt, I offer this from The Hot Girl III.

Since the ‘let’s share’ idea went over like a lead balloon, that’s all I’ve got this week.

 

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Pet Potato

The Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery continues –

“No white smoke,” I mused aloud, more for myself than Tavius.

“Smoke?” Tavius grunted, his eyes narrowed. “I asked did you have a helicopter plan, not–”

I dropped to my knees, pulled Tavius with me, pushed him over on his back. He growled something unintelligible, growled louder when I lifted his shoulder, drug his arm underneath. I tossed the weapons away down past our feet like we’d dropped them, stretched out, kept a leg bent at an angle that killed my knee. The helicopter was a mile or more off, traveling in a straight line east, sounded like they were following the road, low and slow. Recon and Target Acquisition mode.

“This is your plan, Paro? We get uncomfortable and wait for them to come kill us?”

“The plan is we’re dead. The more uncomfortable you look, the deader you look. And the ground is hotter than we are. A domestic crew running a company checklist that can’t make us with thermal imaging or movement will call us dead if we look dead. They might try to get us to jump. Part of the process. If they put anything down, I don’t care how close, don’t fucking move.”  I stared at the sky, remembered when I’d played dead in the blistering sand. Turned out what I thought would be the last sounds I’d ever hear was the ground squad and two snipers I’d cut loose from the Taliban.

Saw you eject, Hot Dog. Kinda low. Laughter. They try to send you a bill for the Hog, you tell ‘em send it to us.

The helicopter passed us, west to east, still a mile north, running the route of County Road N had it not hooked a hard right turn. They turned, headed our way running County Road O, the way Tavius and the pair of biker mercenaries had come. The chopper flew directly overhead, no more than fifteen feet off the ground. The twin-jet roar punished us, the rotor wash flattened the sorghum. The sorghum bounced back up when the chopper moved, hovered over the road roller, or maybe the blast site. I heard the tail rotor spin away and knew they faced us. We had their full attention, checking our thermal imprints, looking for movement. After a forever minute they gained altitude, drifted back north. The unmistakable hammer on an anvil sound of their 30mm cannon spitting out a dozen rounds rattled through the empty countryside, followed by half the rounds hitting nothing but dirt, then the Whoomppfff  that told me either Rip’s pickup or my Cub were no more. It was all I could do to stay down.

They washed over us again with more altitude, hammered out another dozen rounds within yards of us, waited for us to rise from the dead and run. We disappointed them. They continued to hover until, after enough delay to get further instruction, they flew off east, then north. Not so far that they were no longer part of the near-zero audio landscape, far enough that we were out of range.

“Smoke?” Tavius groaned.

“Yeah.” I’d had the epiphany. “Listen. The van went up. No white smoke. No white smoke, no dynamite. The dynamite yesterday wasn’t Usman. It wasn’t anyone inside.”

“Send him a card. Why’d the helicopter leave us alone?”

“Because we’re dead.” I stood up. “And not left completely alone. That was my plane just went up.”

“Your partners?”

“Too close to a gas well or they passed noncombatant scrutiny.”

“What they need an Apache for?”

They? That’s what I’ve been tryin’ to tell you. ‘They’ is you.”

“Now you’re fuckin’ with me just to be an asshole. My job, day one till now, is make sure you keep cooperating with Moreno. Hack your phones and your radio, follow you around, keep you both alive long enough to do whatever she’s supposed to do. I’m more’n half glad that goddam plane’s gone so I don’t have to listen to my handler bitch and call fool on me when you take off somewhere unannounced or she disappears. Nothing in my resource book about attack helicopters.”

“Your handler tell you about layin’ in a sorghum patch with a hole in your leg? How they set you up with a line of shit about the chiropractor and some rentabikers?”

Fuck no. Why would inside–”

“Lie to you, get you shot? Send an Apache to make sure you were gone or finish you,  blow up my plane and send pictures of all that shit home? Somebody up the food chain says lie to you, they lie to you.”

“You sayin’ the chiro’s not comin’?”

“Never was. You think that little shit and some armed bar rats rate an unmarked Apache?”

“Then who the—”

“Us, maybe.” I reached out, grabbed the M32 grenade launcher I’d tossed away. “More likely Ng’s posse.”

“Nobody but you’s said anything to me about Ng bein’ in this anywhere.” He eyed the grenade launcher. “What you plan on doin’ with that?”

“I plan to get even.” The Apache was on its way back, hammering out cannon rounds well over a mile away. I checked the M32, brushed it off.

Tavius rolled on his side. “You forget I been shot?”

The Apache swung down in a steep swing a quarter-mile away, faced away from us toward a slight rise in the road, hovered ten feet off the ground.

“They’re set up down there to close out whoever’s stupid enough to keep coming after the somos más badass deterrent strafe rounds we heard ‘em throw down a minute ago. They do their job,” I cradled the M32, “I’ll do mine.”

“Paro? You start talkin’ Spanish I get worried. What you mean ‘get even’?” I’d lowered to half squat, half standing, waded off through the Sorghum patch toward the helicopter. “What’d I ever do to you? Paro! Motherfucker, don’t you leave me here!”

***

Everybody’s a badass ‘till an Apache comes to town. I had a front-row seat to the Apache’s cannon making dog food out of a handful of pirates on motorcycles and a Ford custom van. Bodies and body parts flew from exploding motorcycles. The van collapsed in a ball of flames with the front end blown out from under it. Another round lit up the gas tank. The cannon hammering stopped, the Apache hovered, waited for any wounded to move, hammered out a few more rounds to be sure their mission kill score was a hundred percent. I knew the drill. The Apache would continue to hover, scanning the bodies for wounded to finish while one of the crew uploaded video, called in a cleanup crew, joked with com about how they’d smoked the ‘insurgents’. I fired two 40mm grenade rounds on top of each other into the tail rotor, didn’t wait to watch the gyro effect or the hard landing, but the power cut was obvious. Cocky assholes were about to find out Texas in the summer was a decent proving ground for wherever their next assignment landed them after losing an Apache to a supposed-to-be-dead man on a dirt road in the middle of domestic nowhere.

I jogged back, climbed up on the road roller, fired it up, shoved levers until it moved, crushed Tavius’s car. I shoved more levers, it reversed, pushed the concrete barriers aside the way a cowboy opens a saloon’s batwing doors. I dropped the key when I pulled it out trying to stop the thing. Never did manage to kill it. I grabbed the stainless Walther and clips on the way down, the roller ambled off through a field of high plains nothing at a quarter mile an hour.

Tavius had used the AR for a crutch to make it to the road. I pointed to the passenger seat of the Harley I’d started. He shook his head, loosened the tourniquet.

“I can ride.” He started the other Harley and made it to the pickup waiting in the road by my smoldering airplane.

“Somebody with a phone,” Dawson boomed, cop-like, while he helped me move Tavius to the back seat before Dawson took over the saddle. “Nearest hospital?”

“Shattuck. In Oklahoma,” Moreno said, phone in hand. “It’s–”

“Spent the night there one month,” Tavius shouted over the idling Harley, wrapped one arm around Dawson, pointed with the other. “Go.” The Harley roared off in the direction we’d come.

***

I sat in the open door of the pickup and chugged my second bottle of water. “Looks like the mail’s gonna be runnin’ late in Kerrigan today.”

Por qué? Are we not finished here?” Moreno, in my face, one hand on the door, one on the pillar. “You need last rites for your toy airplane?” She crossed herself. “Perhaps I should call a priest?”

“I need to think. Too many players, too much bullshit. The dynamite–”

“Think all you want, Paro, but not too much. Hora de ir a trabajar.” She let go of the truck, dropped her sunglasses on her nose, threw her left leg over the Harley I’d ridden, hit the starter and kicked dust all over Usman and me.

Usman rubbed his chin, consternation twisted his face. “What she say wit her barky bark words?”

“It’s time to go to work. Barky bark?” I fished another water out of the chest on the floor of the Ram.

“Yah. She talk dat shit, sound like dinky yap-yap dog I tink. Barky bark.” He tapped his fingers to his thumbs in a double hand puppet move to reinforce the yapping. “So what’s da what, Pilot? You shoot me now, leave me here?”

“You’re off the hook for the dynamite. Can’t kill you just because you’re not lovable.” I raised the truck bed cover, flipped cases open until I found the RPG. “We should have some fun before you drop me in Kerrigan.” I hefted the launcher. “You ever let one of these go?”

He shook his head no.

“It’s addictive.”

I drove us in closer to the grounded Apache, used a range finder scope to study the helicopter. Usman stood on the truck’s bed cover, wrestled with the launcher. I helped him get it stable on top of the cab before I unscrewed the detonator cover.

“Where dey now, Pilot?”

“Shufflin’ in the dust, workin’ on their story. Need ‘em to move away before you let that fly.”

Usman planted the RPG’s kick-up sight against his right eye. “Dey hear dis ting comin’, dey clear da fuck out.”

***

I’d told Usman he was free to do as he pleased after he dropped me in Kerrigan. He could abandon Rip’s truck somewhere after he knocked off a convenience store for some traveling cash or sell it to a chop shop or give it to some kid in the parking lot of an Arizona McDonalds. He looked sad when I hopped out on the edge of Kerrigan.

I took a few steps off the road, stopped, squatted on manicured grass in the shade of a giant pecan tree. I could smell fabric softener coming from the clothes hanging on a line a hundred feet to my left.

What a cluster. A relaxed morning, meet Woody and the biker mercenaries, let them blow themselves up with the van trap, pick off the stragglers. Forget that. With the entire crew now pissed off or dead, wounded or running off in different directions, no intel but what I could cobble together and no mission game plan in effect? I felt like the lone gunslinger in an old western movie where nothing moves but sweat. A lonely tumbleweed dances down an empty Main Street, bounces off a raised sidewalk, skips past shuttered storefronts, not a soul in sight.

I had an hour to wait for Moreno to deliver the mail at one o’clock. I don’t know what it is about tense situations that make you check your gun and your watch every two minutes, but it’s probably the same thing that made Michael Jackson grab his crotch a dozen times in a three-minute song. A need to make sure it’s still there, loaded, oiled, and ready when you need it. What I needed was some insight, some intel, some—

“Hey, Mister. You one a the helicopter people or a alien?”

Madre de Dios… I was so jumpy I almost shot her. Thirteen, fourteen, at most. Skinny legs in cutoffs almost to her knees. Worn, once-white Converses the size of snowshoes. A new, too big Metallica t-shirt with tour dates from the Seventies. No hat, dark bowl-cut hair. Darker eyes.

“Helicopter people?”

“The one parked over by the old bank. You hadn’t seen it?”

“I just got here.”

“Then you’re a alien.” Her eyes sparkled, lips tilted in an off-balance grin.

“I got here in a pickup.”

“Don’t matter.” The grin again. “What’s your name, Mister?”

“Paro. Comparo. You’re—”

“May. I shoulda been another April but Mom said April the Second was one April too many. We had a June already and since I was almost May she just rounded me up.” She held up three fingers. “April, May, an June.” The three fingers turned into an outstretched hand. We shook. “You some kind of Mexican, Mister Comparo?”

“Some kind.”

“Me, too.” She grinned straight up, showed some teeth. “Some kind. I ask, nobody can tell me exactly how much or when.”

“You worried about it?”

“No way.” She rubbed a copper arm. “I tan up good, turn Snow White in winter. Just curious is all.”

“Curious is good. Why’d you say I was an alien?”

“Ol’ Mathison, he ‘bout drove his truck through Miss Eggert’s house. Jumped out yellin’ ‘the world’s gettin’ blowed up east a town’.” She pulled a tin of Altoids from a pocket, offered. I held out my hand. She put one in the middle of my palm and pasted on that crooked grin again. “But Mathison finds any excuse he can to hit up Miss Eggert about aliens. Mom says it’s a wonder he gets anything done on his farm. June, my biggest big sister, she says he don’t have to work ‘cause he’s not farmin’ nothin’ but subsidies. I never ate one.” Her face devoid of emotion. “Have you?”

“Only when they’re in season.” I had to laugh. She joined me. “You seen anybody else around that doesn’t belong?”

“Like the NATO troops an the Chinese comin’ to take over? That’s who Flowers says made all that racket Mathison was goin’ on about. But Flowers, Mom says all that hair she hadn’t cut since 1970 an the stuff she used back then to bleach her brain, well… Flowers, she like had a pet potato for a couple years, went over to McDonalds in Shamrock one time to protest French Fries…” she gave me an are-you-getting-this look. “So she’s kinda, well, unreliable sometimes. But NATO, or Chinese, or it could be rainin’ sharks like on TV and Ol’ Mathison’d turn ‘em into aliens and drive up here ‘cause that’s Miss Eggert’s passion, aliens.”

“Whatta you think?”

“I think Flowers has forgotten all about NATO and the Chinese an is in her backyard dancin’ to invisible music, an Mathison is all about gettin’ himself some a Miss Eggert’s passion any way he can,” she snickered. “I don’t think you’re more helicopter people or the tattoo freak show that come in the big Cadillac looks like it’s from the mortuary. Or an alien, and you’re sure not a Chinese. Know what I really think?”

I cocked an eyebrow.

“You’re the reason the Sheriff told everybody to keep their heads down, go fishin’ or somethin’ but whatever, stay the heck away from the old bank today.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

NVDT #42 – Pilgrimages and Pugnuckling – Two-fer

The Prompt – Have you ever gone on a literary pilgrimage? If so, where and why?

Yes.

Physical: My daughter and I were guests when Dr. Wife received an invitation to stay at Exeter College, Oxford, all expenses paid, to present part of her dissertation Rhetorical Stance in William Morris (aka William Morris – Reluctant Rhetorician) at the William Morris Centennial. Inundated with Pre-Raphaelites for a week. Went to Kelmscott House or Manor, visited the graves. In London we went to the Tate. While the academics pontificated my daughter and I ran rooms of several other museums (I have an addiction to late Taylor) the rooms and gardens and the alleys of Oxford, walked in the footsteps of Dexter’s Inspector Morse, ate tiny, expensive deli sandwiches and ice cream on the High Street, got off the main drag and collected a pile of local punk band handbills and EP promo from a sympathetic CD/record shop owner. (Who took one look at obliging shaggy Dad and knee-high Doc Martens teenage daughter and saved himself a trip to the dumpster). Rode in a bus the width of the road (with a few academics of questionable hygiene) throughout Oxfordshire and the villages where Marple and Midsomer and Morse turn up all those bodies. I stood in front of a 900-year-old ivy-covered cornerstone where education was taking place while, where I live today, indigenous people were living a prehistoric lifestyle. Just like the rest of us are now.

The other pilgrimage: Occurs every time I drive down to Half Price Books World Headquarters on NW Highway east of Central Expressway. Mask and sanitizer at the ready I visited as long ago as yesterday. More books and music, holy moly. First editions, hardback classics, old original pulps, coffee table books out the wazoo. Self-help, textbooks, sheet music, religion, philosophy mystery, classic fiction… to quote James Brown, “Good Gawd j’awl!”

The real pilgrimage: Every time I open a book it’s a pilgrimage. Of style, substance, structure. I’m a content person. Which brings me to the real meat here. What do we learn from pilgrimages? I won’t dwell on the awful stuff. Here’s the other part of the two-fer I mentioned, garnered from opening a book.

Two-fer

Pugnuckling: When the right word is the wrong word. What do you do? Well, pugnucklers, you make one up.

I busted on Faulkner’s earliest works, drenched in adverbs and repetitive descriptions. But by The Reivers he’d hit his stride and turned the voices of the South into a raucous, racy, whimsical, colorful, sweet as a Magnolia blossom cacophony.

From William Faulkner’s The Reivers.

“It ain’t fair that it’s just women can make money pugnuckling while all a man can do is just try to snatch onto a little of it while it’s passing by.”

How smooth was that? I drop F-bombs like Tarantino or Chili Palmer. However, in my latest excursion, I have characters who have agreed to substitute Madre de Dios for motherfucker when used as a ‘shakin’ my head’ or ‘what else can go wrong’ sentiment.

Bonus. I say we kick the responses to these prompts up a notch. Not that I object to all the subsequent to response marketing hype because I skip the boring parts. I say we respond and offer a chapter, a scene, of something of ours that represents the prompt. Like this week. Who has a pilgrimage out there? Every book has somebody, going someplace, to learn something. Even if it’s a junkyard or a hotel or a library or a graveyard or a dive bar full of aliens and informants. This blog hop is a perfect venue and what a great way to learn something specific from each other. Did you have trouble? Why did character X go there? Did it work? No shit really, I’d gladly read chunks of WIPs or books instead of skipping the “And then I wrote the book/series that made the whole world sing” stuff. Save that for the market. What’s the ever-popular catchphrase, show, don’t tell?

So, I’ll drop one, fear of exposing mediocrity in check. Here’s a link to a pilgrimage bit.

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

Rules:
1. Link your blog to this hop.
2. Notify your following that you are participating in this blog hop.
3. Promise to visit/leave a comment on all participants’ blogs.
4. Tweet/or share each person’s blog post. Use #OpenBook when tweeting.
5. Put a banner on your blog that you are participating.

NVDT #41 – Move On or Serialize?

The Prompt – Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

I haven’t considered this. I write what I write.

But- I have a tome sitting on my hard drive that is five seasons of Netflix costume drama. It started life as a coming of age story about a head cheerleader who quits and wants to be a feminist, longs to meet one guy who’s not all hands and bullshit. And a wannabe musician who wants a girlfriend that’s “different.” Throw in a couple of lesbian fairy godmothers, a wise black saxophonist, a no-nonsense guitarist, a superjock big brother and a couple of 70s gender role confused get outta my way (in their own ways) mothers and…Well, it went on forever. Two were plenty. But I got a lot of mileage out of the last three.

Intentional Repeaters – I have several short story characters that repeat. Lamar is looking for the meaning of life in a lighthearted way. Jackson and Deanna, I rip one of their endless chapters of exploits (from those last three books) and turn them into shorts. Can’t just leave fun sidebar character interactions hanging out there.

Bobby B. Bobby allows me to assail all the stereotypes of a series character without becoming one himself. I consider Bobby’s stuff to be my paean to Elmore Leonard/Hitchock/Twain and all other caper storytellers. In a post-Katrina junkyard Bobby sees a top for a tractor, without the tractor, puts it on a swamp boat, meets a boat salesman, and a black lady manufacturing expert who understands automatic weapons and Swamp Vue is born. Bobby wants to learn the custom car business, goes to Hollywood, winds up running across the country with a college-educated bikini model, getting shot at by a phony handicapped pimp and a crazy topless dancer, the FBI in hot pursuit…Bobby sees a big box van with an air conditioner on top and before long, half the politicians, reporters and bad guys in Louisiana are after him and a third-generation Mississippi Madam for her client book. Plus it has parallel storylines and all the stuff a series needs. Bobby would be my series.

Loners – The first-person thing I’m in the middle of as an experiment will be my last. I like the characters, but it’s a one-shot. In fact, if I’m honest, it’s a writing exercise. To see if I could write something I liked, formatted loosely on something I read that was too full of research and filler but otherwise likable.

Here’s my real issue – I don’t need the hero’s epic journey or classic motivation that gets lost in facts and figures or even the old pulp trouble, more trouble, skin of the teeth escape within given parameters. Like me, a lot of my characters have no idea what’s going to happen next. They show up, something happens, next thing you know they’re on the river with Huck and Jim and dressin’ up in women’s clothes.

Point – Now, let’s talk about what bucking that story arc, blah-blah-blah set decoration, infamous Dan A and all the what’s his/her motivation show don’t tell except when you’re skipping the plot holes does to editors and scam artists posing as editors and grammar Nazis.

“Well, with things like this, slice of life, where is it going, what does he want? He says, but… ” No, they both get their asses kicked all summer long, did you not see the train wreck coming?

Seriously? I forget how Tom Sawyer and Becky got lost in the cave, but I remember they did and it was a big scene. Did Tom start out the day with “I’m gonna get lost in the cave with Becky today and cause a real commotion”? I doubt it. So when Bobby doesn’t say “Think I’ll take off with two million dollars and raise some hell” it doesn’t change or default his motivation none. He says he wants to get a “people” education. He damn sure does.

I went to college for a while. Did the concept of stream of consciousness and/or modified postmodernism drop off the curriculum in favor of formulaic spreadsheet bullshit? If so, how did Barbara Park sell so hundreds of millions of  Junie B books?

I get the whole conflict/resolution thing but that’s so overdone without something special, some spice, some people in it. Since the 50s life’s messy little problems have been being solved on television, neatly, in 30 minutes to an hour by understanding parents or quickdraw sheriffs or clever detectives. Enough of that procedural stuff, enough predictable formula arc, enough is three too many red herrings. I want to turn the page to see what happens next to the people. What they get into, what they learn, how they feel, what weirdos they’ll run into next.

To whit. We’ve become so formulaic, so programmed… I watched a Hallmark mystery yesterday (post-surgical pain meds make a lot of things tolerable) that paralleled a recent book review of Stevie’s. Overprotective Mom. The son was cardboard, the menacing gold digger wasn’t menacing or a gold digger just happened to be a potential girlfriend… pretty bland stuff. Everybody had million-dollar teeth, though, and it dripped with stereotypes, half of whom couldn’t even act at that level. But it’s on the air. Somebody like Michelle Frances wrote it and it was pitiful. Except for the teeth. Go Hollywood Society of Cosmetic Dentistry!

Question – When do we quit listening to “Well, it’s not the formula…” and just throw it out there, series or one-shots? I don’t feel I write well enough to say, well, here, read this, will ya? It’s not the same kettle of fish, but…

 

PART OF OPEN LINK BLOG HOP

Rules:
1. Link your blog to this hop.
2. Notify your following that you are participating in this blog hop.
3. Promise to visit/leave a comment on all participants’ blogs.
4. Tweet/or share each person’s blog post. Use #OpenBook when tweeting.
5. Put a banner on your blog that you are participating.