Sex, Liquor and a Jack Taco

“For the last time, Paro, mañana!”

I’d leaned on Cav a dozen different ways attempting to excavate her exact role in the demise of the exploding Honda’s driver, and I’d gotten nowhere. I could hear in her voice that I’d reached the point, or rather she’d reached the point where it was a good thing the only nearby firearm, that I knew about anyway, was locked in my truck and that the heavy objects in the room, like lamps, were bolted down. With those comforting thoughts at hand I decided to shoot for a baker’s dozen.

“C’mon, Moreno –”

Comparo?!” She slammed the drawer she had open, gave me knife eyes. I hadn’t heard my name explode in that tone of voice since I was eight. After that my mother was too busy trying to keep my sister out of a whorehouse or a convent or a home for wayward girls and my father out of a bottle for her to get exasperated with me. In fact, by the time I was nine, I’d become so invisible I could have been on fire in the living room and it wouldn’t have mattered. But Moreno? Her voice, the eyes? She could have set me on fire.

Suficiente! Consíguelo?” She slammed another drawer.

“Enough. I get it.” I wasn’t sure she bought the sheepish shrug.

Bueno.” She slammed the closet door but didn’t come away empty-handed. She popped open a plastic bag the hotel had thoughtfully supplied for send-out dry-cleaning, in a town without a dry-cleaners, and we started to load it up with used napkins and the empty comida especial containers.

Mira, mi Amor,” she smacked my hand, stopped loading, one wrist reflexed to her hip. “Right now? If I told you everything, I would have to kill you. I might anyway if you don’t reach down in this bag, ahora mismo, and dig out the fork you just threw away.” A fork she mentioned in elaborate detail did not belong to her, or me, and if I wasn’t paying enough attention not to throw real eating utensils away, maybe I should stay home tomorrow.

“Home? Mañana?”

“Don’t be cute.” She pinched my cheek. “You should change clothes while you’re there.”

I reminded her that she’d turned my life into a country song about a guy who’d lost his trailer, his truck, his dog and everything else he owned. That the cargo shorts, t-shirt, and underwear she’d washed was it, except for the few remaining pairs of underwear I’d bought in Houston. Underwear I considered one-use disposable, not to be laundered and suffered through a second time. All that misery, I told her, for a woman who hardly let enough of herself show, or stood still long enough to cast a half-assed shadow.

Pobrecito. You still have your toy airplane, and me. And this.” She handed me another in the long line of burner phones we’d exchanged. However, it was the first from her. I tried not to make a face, failed. “Don’t be afraid to use it, Paro. It’s a hacked Sat with a tower chameleon.”

“A Sat tower what?”

Vamos, Comparo.” She ushered me to the door with the trash. “When your friend informs you of Woody’s intercept location, you will immediately inform me. Repita por favor?”

“When I know, you’ll know. But why? To bring the Convict Cavalry? I thought they were mine, and you had mail carrier duty.”

“Woody is morning business, even if we have to take our business to him.”

“There’s a joke in there, about morning wooo –”

“Save it for me. Forever, posiblemente. What I was going to say is that no one in Kerrigan expects their mail to arrive before one o’clock. Three if the regular went ‘feeshin’’ in the morning.” She furrowed her brows. “You do have eyes on Kerrigan?”

“No. That was your…I thought -” Hell, it didn’t matter what I’d thought. I could see her wanting to say something like ‘Shit, Paro, are you fucking stupid or what?’ I didn’t wait for it.

“The truth is I was supposed to take my mission directives from you, and so far all I’ve gotten, from you, are some romantic vagaries, texted invitations to ambushes, an introduction to the Convict Cavalry, an excellent meal and a Tom Clancy phone.” I held it up between our faces before pocketing it. “Everything to do with your mission has been brought to me not by you, but indirectly through a smarmy, greedy assed wild card chiropractor, a magical piece of laminated paper that might have come from a dead once-upon-a-time mob accountant, and a couple of alphabet soup agency types with God knows what agendas. All of them blowing their version of how it’s going to go up my ass. And all you can say when I ask is fucking mañana? We were supposed to rob a bank, Moreno. Mañana. That was it. I was supposed to fly that cash off into the sunset for you to build a wild animal rescue park-slash-halfway house for convicts. A few hours ago I found out that was complete bullshit, just like the Company’s starting a gang war with it was bullshit.”

We studied each other’s faces in a half and half Mexican standoff.

“Well, your bank’s already been robbed, Cav. The cash is stashed. Technically I’m done. But here I am, dynamite going off all around me in Shamrock fucking Texas, and I have this strange feeling that I haven’t even gotten started yet. This whole six-ways-from-Sunday, ‘sausage, sausage who’s got the sausage’ flyin’ blind with alphabet soup suits’ shit is exactly what got me marshaled out of the service. And how I lost my licenses to fly after the last time one of your ‘plans’ went tits up, or tits down, right before my eyes.”

There. I’d said it.

“Romantic vagaries?” She bit on her lower lip, slowly dragged it out from under her front teeth.

“Have I not made it clear…” She let go of the door, kissed me. I could still taste her homemade salsa verde on her lips. She grabbed a fistful of my shirt and locked on my eyes. “You are involved in ‘this shit’ with me, Comparo Riordan, for the very same reasons the militarys and the alphabet soups said to you adios,cabrone.” The hand not clutching my shirt was gesturing in, to out, to a finger in my chest, her chest, out again in rhythm with her words.

“When I discovered myself in deep water again, yes, I ask for you to assist me. You, exclusively. I trust you, Comparo. And you only. Why? In Columbia I was nothing to you but a skinny, dusty, mouthy, filthy haired woman in boy’s fatigues. You said as much to me, to my face, but you risked your life to save mine. You could have walked away, ass covered, and never looked back. Twice now you have done this much for me. And you feel you must ask why I shot a man pointing a gun at you? In all this demencia you are el hombre mas perfecto. For me, for this, for… She kissed me again, more of a lip brush, let go of my t-shirt, smoothed out the wrinkles.This,” she flipped her hand dismissively, frowned. “All of this…suits’ shit…is bigger…No. Was bigger than the accident of you and I. Now…Mañana, Paro. Por favor. Si?”

“Yeah. I ‘si.’”

I didn’t, but I had to say it because she was right. Whatever was going on had been around long before I stepped in it. Age hadn’t improved the smell any, though.

***

I tossed the dry-cleaner bag of trash in the dumpster, fired up the rumbling old Ram. I eased past the barricades and police tape that had been put in place to block off the parking lot from 13th street and the gaping hole in the feed store wall. There was a woman in a yellow reflective jumpsuit using a hitch dolly to trundle a United Rentals of Amarillo gas-powered work light around the scene. She was taking pictures of small Honda pieces, maybe even small assassin pieces, and bagging them. I waved when I drove by. She ignored me. Must have known she’d be spending the night in the Holiday Inn, and it was my fault. I flicked on my lights, rolled out onto Main, and turned south.

I’d eaten enough of Moreno’s TexMex, or CaliMex as she preferred to call it, for half a dozen lumberjacks. I was sated for the moment, and more concerned with dozing off at the wheel over the next 60 some miles than contemplating whatever mañana or my curiosity about all things Moreno might put up on the big screen in my head. Things like had I just eaten my condemned man’s last supper.

I switched on the radio before I was out of town. Imagine my surprise, Country Classics. It was Marty Robbins, and damned if he wasn’t singin’ about falling in love with a pretty senorita out in El Paso. I’d read somewhere the Grateful Dead covered “El Paso” over 400 times in their live shows. Wondered if Marty cared whether fields full of acidized Dead Heads had tripped to his song that many times. Marty was dead, had been for a while, so no. Wondered then if any of the Dead’s versions would clock in under five minutes for radio play. But they were the Dead, so no again. I cranked the volume on Marty. It was shaping up to be a long hour’s drive.

***

When I idled into the vehicle hangar. Rip was walking toward the Cessna, holding one glove while he pulled on the other. He stopped, waited for me. I stepped out of the truck, a few feet away I turned and armed the alarm then covered the ground to Rip.

“Tell me somethin’ good, Paro.”

“Moreno says she popped a random iceman with your stainless Walther.”

“You apologizin’ for her?”

“Nope. Thought you should know, in case it was new enough to have ballistic fingerprints.”

“Heard there wasn’t enough left of that fella to make a Jack in the Box taco. Wouldn’t worry, I was you. ‘Less a course you forget to clean it.” He tugged on his remaining glove, flexed his fingers. “I know about that ‘cause I talked to Sheriff Long this afternoon. Bein’ as he’s the County Mountie, an Kerrigan, chicken shit burg it may be, is still the county seat. An in light of all the nut cases and excessive weaponry floatin’ around I figured it was my duty to call an suggest that he might wanna take off fishin’ tomorrow. Know what he said?”

“I look telepathic?”

“Truth told you look like hell and smell like girly-man fabric softener. Anyway, Bob answered his phone standing in the Tarryall River there outside Lake George, Colorado, doin’ exactly what I was about to suggest. He’d even given the County admin folks tomorrow off, an left word that come mornin’ they should let any drunks out the basement.”

I must have looked confused, if not telepathic.

“The jail, all two cells of it, are in the basement of the Courthouse, Paro. Never been much serious crime up that way, mostly ‘cause their ain’t many people. But the Highway Patrol takes occasion to drop off drunks there. Not all drunks, just the obnoxious or vomitous varieties. Generally, they’ll just run the cheeful or passed out ones on into wherever their district is. Pampa, Borger, ‘Rillo. Run ‘em in and knock off early ‘cause they’re home. But out there ‘tween Pampa and the Oklahoma borders ain’t much they can do with a real pain in the ass drunk save drop ‘em in Kerrigan. That’s why ol’ Bob leaves a key out so the HiPo can drag ‘em down the outside steps there and throw their drunk asses in a cell. ‘Cept for the Trooper was stayin’ over to Canadian with that woman. He’d drop all his HiPo baggage in there, sometimes two, three to a cell. Fella was big on arrestin’ an thumpin’ on alleged dope dealers. Till he an the woman –”

“Rip? The sheriff? Kerrigan?”

“I’m gettin’ there.” He gave me a bushy eyebrow squint. “Who pissed in your boots, you’re in such a all-fired Goddam hurry? That girl kill a friend a yours gettin’ the gun dirty? No? Then lighten the fuck up, will ya? Jesus, all these damn phones an gadgets and shit these days are gettin’ everbody’s panties in a big-hurry twist.”

“That sermon’s dyin’ here, Pastor Taylor.”

“I can see that. Well, turns out the Trooper an the woman were runnin’ themselves a ‘Gentleman’s Retreat’ –”

“In Canadian?”

“Everybody needs to get laid. Sex an liquor, son. Folks’ll drive hours for either or both. Friend a mine, he’s one a those’ll drive three hours for decent Scotch. He was the Trooper an the woman’s landlord. He got a call from a neighbor a their’s one mornin’ sayin’ water was runnin’ outside onto the patio from under the back door. He goes over an finds the Trooper an the woman dead, along with three or four all kindsa fucked up teenage girls sittin’ around in their skivvies, smokin’ weed, oblivious to the sink overflowin’ and the bodies in the kitchen. Sheriff Bob had to come back from a vacation to deal with it. Y’know he needed to ID the Trooper with fingerprints since most a what used to be his head was stuck to the side a the fridge. Bob said the walls a that kitchen looked like a lasagna night food fight.”

Rip lifted and reset his Confederate Air Force cap, took a slow look around the cloudless night sky. We both took note of some distant, barely visible lightning, probably over eastern New Mexico. I hoped that was where it stayed.

“So…” Rip carried on, “Bob’s tellin’ me nowadays he takes a few more vacations than he used to, ever since a couple years ago when FedEx started droppin’ off envelopes ‘bout three times a year with ten grand cash in ‘em. Along with suggestions of a couple days comin’ up he might wanna take off. Says that money’s how he put security cameras in the Courthouse an rebuilt the gazebo in the square. Also how he hired that slew a Messicans to clean up the old amphitheater he uses for those yodellin’ folk singer weekends he puts on. An how he came to truck his patrol car over to Elk City where some relative’s kid put all those useless fuckin’ lights on it.”

The quiet hung in the steamy night for a few beats. I felt like I was waiting for an encore from a suddenly darkened stage before the lighters came out. I flicked an imaginary Bic.

“All that was you tellin’ me the Sheriff’s on one of those suggested vacations as we speak and not to worry about Kerrigan collaterals?”

“Roger that. ‘Cept be careful who you kill tomorrow. Bob hates gettin’ called home early from vacation.”

Madre de Dios…

“Whoa, Rip. Where the hell you off to…” I checked the time on my new burner, “at ten-thirty at night?”

“Meetin’ some folks from the highway department.” He backed away, offered me a loose salute. “Lawn Jockey dropped by, left a note on the kitchen table for ya.”

Mañana

I answered the knock on the Holiday Inn door in Cav’s robe, got a cursory glance from Tavius as he pushed past me into the room.

“Where’s Moreno?”

“You people need a new question.”

“I don’t have time for your shit. Moreno. Has she flown?”

“Depends on where she had to go for food that doesn’t come in a yellow paper wrapper.”

“That might take her days. For future reference, the better choices from over there come in cardboard boxes.” He paced, looked around, opened the bathroom door, hit the light, checked inside. “White truck’s gone. She must have found her keys?”

Rip’s keys. That a real question?”

“This is.” He kept up the pacing, tapping his thigh with his index finger. “What’s in the convict’s van?”

“Figured you’d already run Usman’s credit card receipts or used some superspy Xray vision glasses on the van.”

“Cute, like the robe. Again?”

I told him about the grenade launcher and SAMS. Crazy people in possession of surface-to-air missiles are good attention getters.

SAMS? Where the fuck they get those?”

“Our surface-to-air buyback fail after Russia walked Allfuckedupistan?”

“You aren’t running for office here, Comparo.”

“Standard automatic assault rifles, frag loaded anti-personnel shotguns. I know there’s more than what I saw and what Usman claimed.”

“Explosive ordnance? Mortars? Rockets?”

“Only what I saw.” I left out the RPG7 rocket launcher because I didn’t actually see it. “One of them was big on Chuck Norris’ dirt bike that shot rockets out its ass. Maybe they have one broken down in the other flight cases.” I rubbed some of Cav’s eucalyptus lotion on my scraped knees.

“She got the shave gel to go with that?”

“Imagine so.”

“Use some, you gonna keep wearing her robe.” He paced back and forth in front of a silent baseball game on TV, tapped his fingers on the top as he went by. “After Kansas, the original cash-money hijack is off. She has no reason to stay. You see my concern for her and keys to a vehicle?”

“Kansas?”

“Kansas, Paro. That wire report from up there? Shit reads like a cheap paperback crime novel full of dead bad guys in bum fuck. Ends up all over law enforcement com channels. Me?” He leaned over in my face. “I say the key to unlocking that entire shituation is the missing pilot.”

“You say that to anyone?”

“Nobody cares.” He stood up, resumed the pacing. “Cops everywhere laughing about free money, five self-closing homicides. It reeks of being staged by someone who knew how to make it fly. Leaving the rent-a-soldier’s money was the touch that sold it.”

“Greed is a deadly sin. Will you sit down?”

He checked his watch, spun a chair from the round table, sat in reverse, arms folded across the back.

“Happy?”

“I got what was left of the money, sixteen and change. Moreno set three of that aside for the convicts as a farewell present since their part of the robbery was off. She decided we still needed them after she got a text from Woody sayin’ he’s on the way, drivin’ a van like one of the money vans, with four motorcycle escorts. Unless that was one of his that ate it for me earlier today out on 66. Then there’s only three, and they’re already here.”

“You don’t know?”

“Goddamn it, Tave, you’re the spy. You come in here askin’ me where’s Moreno, where’s Woody? I have no fucking idea, but by tomorrow afternoon’s mail delivery guaranteed they’ll all be in Kerrigan with the rest of the party.”

“This is not good news, Paro. I need to hear you have a plan.”

“I’m thinking, you know, instead of going to look for any of them I should do this like an old Western. Any road into Kerrigan, I put curious locals on the rooftops. When somebody spots inbound bad guys, they signal a little barefoot, bowl haircut Mexican kid. He’s wearing one of those karate outfits that make him look paisano, and he runs as fast as his little kid legs will go to wake up the kindly old padre and ring the church bell. Except there’s not a church with a bell tower in Kerrigan.”

“That’s the only problem you have with that?”

“It’s a small town. There may not be a Mexican kid with a bad haircut and a karate outfit.” I waited for that to land, for him to look at me. “Somebody, who went to West Point and worked for our government, could download SAT intelligence for me.” I let that weigh in, too. “Because without it, I’m tellin’ you now the whole five-ring circus plays Main Street Kerrigan.”

He pursed his lips, rubbed them slowly, thumb and forefinger, corners to center several times.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, already somewhere else in his head. He stood, spun the chair back under the table, pulled the curtain and surveyed the parking lot. “Paro, when I hear that smartass shit from you instead of some straight-up shit I can use?” He checked his back holster, tightened the tuck of his tailored dress shirt on the way to the door. “I regret ever signing you on.”

“That makes two of us.”

I’d have to tell him again, sometime when he was listening. My smart-ass shit had been and still was the only thing I had over the spreadsheet for casualties, collateral damage, contingency CYA plan sound-bite desk jockey assholes. One thing I’d learned in Allfuckedupistan working with bureaucratic spies was that without people around them who could improvise, they could and would fuck up a crowbar.

The door closed behind him. I took a couple of long strides to the window, pulled back the curtain to see what Tave was driving, but he’d vanished. The only other car in the lot aside from my Ram was an older, green with peeling paint sealer Honda Civic hatchback sitting sideways in the lot. The driver looked straight me, raised a long handgun with a suppressor on it in my direction. I fell over a chair and on my ass when I backed away. A bullet came through the window, tore a hole in the curtain, thudded against the wall over the bed. I heard tires screech, the quick pop, pop of an unsuppressed handgun. A small car revved up for a few seconds, followed by the boom-crunch of a no brakes applied car crash.

I eased up on the side of the window, pushed the curtain back to see the hatchback turned into a steaming, over-sized green accordion embedded in the cinder block wall of the feed store across 13th Street.  Alarms. Sirens. People were running from the feed store, the hotel, from across Main. They all ducked, covered their heads in a unison dance move when the Honda exploded, showering them, 13th Street and the Holiday Inn parking lot in old Honda and assassin pieces. The cloud of white dynamite smoke drifted west, dissipating slowly as it rose in the afternoon heat.

I’d played dodgeball with the Reaper twice in one day, and it wasn’t even dark yet. Been too close to two dynamite explosions and seen enough illegal weapons to take Cuba at siesta time. Moreno was gone. With my keys and my clothes and my gun, maybe three million dollars, and as I looked around and couldn’t find it, my wallet and ID. Maybe she had hit the afterburners. Mr. Mysterious had vanished spy style. And, how special, in no time at all there’d be cops at the door to interview me, in Moreno’s robe, about did I know why a pisolero put a bullet hole in the window of a room where I wasn’t a registered guest moments before someone shot him and he and his car exploded all over the side of a feed store.

I cinched the satiny robe, and just for the security of having something on under it I wished that Moreno’s undies fit me. I held up a pair…What the hell was I thinking? Sirens wound down in the Holiday Inn parking lot, doors slammed, radios crackled, firefighters barked at each other.

Madre de Dios…

 ***

The lone, cheap-suit-for-special-occasions Shamrock detective arrived and immediately hit on all the extreme kink theories a Presbyterian Deacon with a badge could pull from the headlines of every perverse behavior Daily Mail article ever forwarded to him. I’ll give him this. I had prepared for some boredom-central bombastic cop theater, but he’d questioned me in an offhand, good ol’ boy manner even though his material was on the kink far side. I could also see him rethink his questions before he started up again. Doing all he could to reorder a scene with very little evidence into an imagination fueled kink fest he could sell himself or entertaining enough to sell to his superiors. Or The Daily Mail. By his third revision, the exploding Honda was no longer a player. In fact, contrary to witness reports, he decided to drop the Honda shooter altogether. “Too much confusion. The Honda driver, too. Heard shots, drove into a wall and the car blew up.”

With the truth written out of his theory, he concentrated on me in a too-small satiny woman’s robe, the missing woman who was the registered guest, our supposed spouses, pimps, love children, relatives, the Armed Ladies Morality Watch… all of whom offended enough by our behavior to end our sordid affair with gunfire.

An hour and a half into it Cav had burst into the room with a breathless, wide-eyed “Dios mio, Comparo! Que pasó?” and shoved a bundle of dryer-warm clothes and a grocery bag of hot food containers into the detective’s chest just when he’d decided to cuff me.

I thought she’d almost overplayed the pretty ‘no comprendo, no entiendo’ Mexican girl card, especially after the detective had studied her California Driver’s License for a good ten minutes. A license with a ‘Licensed Since’ date that looked to me, from a distance, to be sixteen years ago. However, that information meant nothing to the cop because he never questioned why her English language skills weren’t slightly more advanced. But, for reasons known only to him, he took it to mean that she wasn’t a prostitute.

For my part, I played the broken Spanglish guy, capable of just enough Spanish to order in a restaurant like a native or get laid. I joked with him about that, winked, raised my eyebrows, nodded toward Cav while he went through my wallet that he’d found in Cav’s purse. He shuffled my veteran’s cards, FAA licenses. He made a few calls, motioned to my clothes during one of them, so I hit the head and changed.

When I’d dressed, he made the ‘assumed’ joke several times while he apologized for going off the deep end with me and the robe, and yeah, he’d tried on yoga pants one time just to see why women lived in them. I almost told him how, for a split second, I’d thought about Cav’s undies but we’d put all that to bed with a random bullet theory that had to do with an argument between the green Honda and person or persons unknown.

I held the door open, again, for the detective who couldn’t make up his mind to leave. He was long done with the bullet hole but not with Cav and his imagination. I kept good-nighting him, thanking him, nudging him out with the door while he repeatedly found one more question for ‘Is it Miss, or Missus?’ Moreno. I wasn’t sure if he was looking for part-time companionship or a way to sell her to his wife as their new housekeeper. She continued not to understand him. He sighed with finality, gave up. I locked the door.

***

Cav started to unload styrofoam boxes from the brown grocery bag, stopped, leaned on the table with her fingertips, cocked her head. “Like all the Mexican hookers in California ride the bus, or what?”

“How you decide whether to take a Mexican girl home to meet Momma or not is if she can parallel park.”

“I hope I never hear you repeat that.”

I popped the top off a round container, stuck my little finger in for a taste while I thought through the Moreno conversation I needed to have.

“Twice today somebody has tried to fucking kill me. Three times if you count the boobytrapped convict van. Where the hell were all your alphabet soup spook friends for that, huh? No, better…where the hell were you for most of it?”

She smacked my hand, took the container, gave me a fork and a spoon from a real set of silverware.

Tu problemo, Paro? You don’t like my cooking?”

Every other time something shitty has gone down, one set or the other of your spy buddies is hustling the locals away. Today? I was stuck here in your fucking bathrobe talking to a one-man pervert lynch mob. No backup, no federal intervention, none of that. You’re gone for four hours –”

“Did you say your cooking?”

Si. The housekeeper here, we’re new best friends. I was sick of what I’ve been eating, asked could I borrow her kitchen. She’s young and said as long as I let her watch.”

“That sounds like what the detective wanted to ask us.”

“There wasn’t an answer in that.”

I took another spoonful of the most incredible black bean soup I’d ever tasted, closed my eyes, waited for the heat to sneak up.

“If you cooked this,” I tried to look thoughtful, spoon in my soup cup, “where does the proposal line start?”

“You would expect this?”

“I’d expect you to tell me why you took my keys, my gun, my wallet and left me here like all kinds of sitting duck.”

“I’m a professional woman, Paro. This is comida especial, not a daily.” As if she could read my mind she added, “You’re shiny Walther is back in that place under the floorboard. I didn’t have time to clean it.” She popped the enchilada box open and the room filled with intoxicating aromas that I hadn’t been exposed to since I was a kid at my aunt’s house.

“So if it’s not the food, what’s your problem?”

Mañana.

“Is that a bullshit blow-off mañana, Paro, or…?”

Mañana, Cav. We’ll talk mañana.”

“A sort of blow off mañana, then. That’s doable.”

“Who’d you shoot with my gun?”

“Some pendejo in a green Honda.” She hit the enigmatic smile behind a forkful of smoked chicken enchilada. “Mañana?”

A Good Sign

“Then, last minute, he sees the sun or somethin’ flash on the wire, you know,” Muller, the tall convict with crazy eyes slapped his thigh, laughed like a hyena, “an then he puts the bike down inna skid, under it, the wire, Arnie does, you know, and comes up blastin’ these fuckers –”

“Van Damme,” Dawson said. “That was Van Damme. Not Schwarzenegger.”

“I tink,” Usman backhanded Dawson’s upper arm, “was Chock Nordis maybe?”

“Norris?” Muller hit hyena again. “That old pussy? If it wasn’t Arnie it was Segal. You ever seen that fucker’s feet, Segal? Goddam, man, you know, I was standin’ next to him in L.A one time, at the airport, and he was wearin’ some kinda chukka boots,” Muller held his hands about two feet apart. “Man, they were like suede fuckin’ snowshoes!”

“You’re making that shit up, Muller,” Dawson, sitting in the middle, wasn’t having it. “You and Segal ever in the same state. Besides, Segal, he went under a trailer, or a truck. Like in an alley, he was shooting at somebody, or they were shooting at him…Or…Fuck…was that Van Damme?”

“Now you’re makin’ shit up, man, not me.” Muller’s hyena fell short when he coughed, waved the Marlboro he was smoking, some teacher trying to keep everyone’s attention. “’Sides, dumb motherfucker, LAX, and Terminal Island are in the same fuckin’ county.” He coughed again, reached across to shoulder punch Usman, “And, Norris, you know, he was always blowin’ up renegade gooks and shit off in a jungle somewhere with palm trees, not on motorcycles.”

Delta Force, ‘dumb motherfucker.’” Dawson had his finger damn near in Muller’s good eye, “Norris had a dirt bike shot rockets out its ass the same way you’re talking out yours.”

They laughed like they were the convict version of Hollywood Squares, sitting lined up on the end of the bed across from Moreno who was trapped on the chipped Formica suitcase storage wing of the TV stand-dresser. She sat, right leg over left, forearms crossed on her knee, impassive, unlike me, to their bullshit barrage.

Moreno had told me on the way over not to piss them off, not to shoot at anyone. And shaken by the picture of the resurrected Woody, the biker at the bomb site and the bomb, she didn’t want to tell them about the money I’d brought. Much less give it to them. She’d said we needed what they had in the van, for whatever might go down tomorrow. Like we knew what, aside from her playing Post Office to snag the sixty-four-million-dollar flash drive, was going down tomorrow.

I’d played along, followed orders and listened to their convicts making action movie scene casserole shit for at least twenty minutes because I’d lost it on them last time and had failed to inventory their arsenal. But damn, my ears hurt, my face burned, my back ached. I had sandy mortar funk in my hair, down my pants. I itched all over, my knees and palms were scraped and I’d had enough. I walked into the dingy linoleum and mold bathroom, picked up the can of Hawaiian Memories air spray, flipped it end over end, baton-style, got between the convicts and Moreno and aerated the end of the bed. The spray, settled, mingled with the funk of BO, zoo breath and locker room laundry. Instead of helping, I’d managed to make the small room at the Texian smell like Godzilla had dropped a deuce in the Hilton Waikiki lobby.

All the action figure hot dogs have pulled that sideways bike and sparks stunt.” I hit the spray again. “For the last time, we aren’t stringing wire across the road. We aren’t parking a fucking semi across the road. No one is putting their fucking bike down sideways and coming out the other side of anything, to blast anything. Who can tell me why?”

In unison, they mumbled, “Because they aren’t getting that close.”

“Thank you.” It was quiet.

“Who peezed in yor Pawstuh Tawsties, Pilot?”

“Maybe you,” I grabbed the front of Usman’s grimy blue shirt, against Moreno’s orders to be nice.

“Now you tink maybe we can talk da showp?” He snickered. “Da news gurl wit da tits, her face doan move? She say all da sirens go right past us to a gas explosion. Nashural gas, Pilot.” He checked in with his playmates. “You say to us maybe you fart up too much in dat olt buildink?” They all hyenaed.

“It wasn’t gas, asshole. It was dynamite.”

“Oh no, Pilot!” He made a big-eyed, round mouthed hands-to-cheeks clown face. “Not dyndamite!” More laughter. “Dyndamite iz for chilldaren, eh?” He checked his partners again. “Chock Nordis maybe even.” He pulled up the corners of his eyes “Ah so, you bro up machine gun trower! Dis time I krill you, Chocky Norree!”

God help me. I let him go, looked around the room. “Forget it, Cav. I couldn’t give two shits and a nickel if this room full of comedians were are all dead this time tomorrow.” She gave me an almost imperceptible nod, handed me the keys she’d picked up from the nightstand when we arrived. I walked out. The hyena roar crescendoed behind me.

I unlocked the van, thought about Rip’s electrocution anti-theft scheme, the brick wall pushing me into Route 66, went back in, dragged Usman out. “Open it.”

“You unlock already?”

I nodded. His face went whiter than a Clorox commercial sweat sock, his eyes said cornered rabbit.

“I uh, I uh…I…”

What I thought. “Open it.”

“Yah…Yah, I do dat. Quick, maybe.” He tensed up, wiped his hands and reached up under the front fender well. There was a series of beeps, followed by one longer beep. He relaxed by half, exhaled. He turned back to me, sweat staining his pits and the front of his shirt. “Nex time do da codes first, den da door, hokay? Sheet gawdamighty jeezis da fockin’ christ, Pilot…da way you do it, maybe we all go up to da big bye-bye…” He clicked the handle, pushed the sliding van door open.

To the casual observer, the convicts could be a band transporting music gear in the half dozen Gator ABS cases where the middle row of seats should have been. I flipped the latches on the closest large one. Jesus…an M32 six-round 40mm grenade launcher and a twenty-four round ordnance belt. I flipped a pouch open.

“All High Impact?”

“Yah. Who da fock robes bank wit flares?” He picked up the grenade launcher. It looked a lot larger in his hands than it did in Schwarzenegger’s.

“Five loaded. Not so big bang like Hollyvood Arnie’s,” he slapped my back. “Do da yawb, dey do, dough.”

Do-da-do-daday…I popped open the next larger case, resisted the urge to drop my head.

“Doan like doze so mooch maybe?” He didn’t laugh, made a nasty sort of wheeze through his nose.

“How many?”

“Two. One for dem. One maybe for you,” he hooked his thumbs, made a bird out of his hands, flapped them upward, “Boom!” and flipped them apart. “You tink twize maybe to fly wit da money now, eh?” He latched the surface-to-air missile case, slapped my back again, waved off the other cases. “Dat one dare iss RPG 7. Some ARs, AKs maybe, two riot guns…Hey, why dey called dat way? Dey da riot to shot somebodies wit!” He mimed a waist-high shotgun blast, “Boom!” his face expanded in happy. “Ka-splooey!”

Fuck. Me.

“How do I lock this thing?”

First da code, Pilot. Two buttons, over da tire. Lock, unlock, same tink. Left, right, left, left, right. Den da door. Den da keys, turty seconds.”

“Or?”

“Or Boom, Pilot. BOOM!” He started to walk off, I grabbed his arm, hauled him back.

“Hang with me while I try this.”

“Sure ting. Left, left, right, left, right.”

Asshole. I reached under the wheel well, got the beeps. He grinned. I’d never wanted to introduce someone’s face to parking lot asphalt more in my entire life.

***

“Looks like Tavius brought your ride back.” I pulled up next to Rip’s new pickup in the Holiday Inn lot, leaned my arms and forehead on the steering wheel.

Gracias, Paro.” She squeezed my forearm. For not losing your temper with them. I know it was difficult.”

“I see that Usman fucker, I lose my temper. Men like him’re the reason so many…”

“I said I know. Columbia was the same, si? One more day, Paro. It will, as you say, ‘play out.’ They’ll help us, they’ll get their money, be off with the wind and we’ll never see them again.”

“You don’t trust them to stick around, help build the convict run wildlife park?”

“No.” She checked out Rip’s truck. “No more than I trust your amigo Tavius. Perhaps he is upstairs, waiting for us? No…He is too much the Señor Misterioso who sneaks his way to you when I am gone.” She squeezed my arm again, smiled. “Come upstairs, Paro. Take a shower. I’ll put your clothes in the laundry on the way to get us some food that’s not McDonalds.”

“Does this mean you’re not mad anymore?”

“It means you’re a filthy mess and I’m hungry, Pendejo.”

Pendejo was a good sign. “I still have three million dollars locked in the bed of this truck.”

“Three people only know that. You, Señor Taylor, me.”

Tres Amigos, solamente?”

Tres amigos, amor.” She killed the old Ram, grabbed the keys, leaned over, and kissed me on the lips, quick.

“You need my keys, too, Cav?”

“I’ll need something to drive in the event I’m mistaken and your Señor Misterioso is waiting.” She glanced over her shoulder on the way out, smiled again. “Don’t worry if I have to take your truck. I have my own money.”

I wanted to hate her. I wanted to confront her. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to ask her what the hell her game was. I wanted to ask did she know about the exploding van. I wanted her not to smile like that last one. At least not for anyone but me.

 

Photo (edited) Credit – Chuck Norris in Delta Force

“Bozo”

Rip shook me awake, waved coffee under my nose. I sat up in the wicker patio love seat, rubbed my eyes, heard the question I’d been asked a number of times bang around in my head.

“She took off, Paro. Back up to Shamrock and those convicts.” Rip pushed the coffee within an inch of my nose. “You sure have trouble hangin’ on to women.”

“I thought you took…Drove…” I had to take the scalding coffee from him or risk burning my nose.

“I took the old truck with the steel bed liner and cam locks. She’s got the new one.”

“You’re fucking…” Shit, the cup was hot. “You know how many…”

“Fuckin’ crazy? I been told. An it seems you’re to blame for the girl’s run a stolen vehicles. Christ, Paro, you’re a mess. Shake it off, go clean up. Margarita’s volunteered to give up house cleanin’ this mornin’ to run us off a coupla batches of steak n eggs.”

“Margarita? Who…The money! Did it survive the –”

“Would I be here if it hadn’t?” He smacked my shoulder, hot coffee sloshed in my lap and got me off the patio pulling the cargos away from my privates with both hands.

***

“Margarita drives down from Lelia Lake every coupla weeks,” Rip rotated his fork around like a radar dish. “Helps clean up. Dusts, organizes the office, helps me swap out sheets an the like. First time she was here it took me a week to find the damn TV remote. Since then we come to an agreement on that one.” Rip pointed at my empty save for the gnawed t-bone plate. “When was the last time you ate?”

“Last evening. Your hot wings.” I poured myself another half cup of coffee that could pave a driveway or seal a roof.  “Feels like a week.”

“Busy night, watchin’ those two fellas shoot one ‘nother. A story –” He waited for Margarita, a pleasant, bony, hair in a bun woman wearing 80s glasses as big around as saucers to clear the table, set the plates in the sink. She left the kitchen, a vacuum cleaner started up down the hall.

“As I was sayin’, a story I ain’t buyin’ that they took your favorite piece and shot each other. There’s nothin’ about that gun comes back to you, or me. We clean and load with cotton gloves, the gun itself came from a dyin’ Englishman halfway around the world. Why the tap dance?”

“They start pulling your fingernails out you don’t know anything?”

“Bullshit.”

“Talking myself into believing it so I can lie telling it that way and not blink?”

“Sold. The two renta-a-soldiers, you figure them to be the end of that?”

“Best guess. Probably an eight-man rifle squad, didn’t domesticate, went freelance. Lost six in Shamrock, squad boss had to be on that first casualty list.”

“The two strays not the sharpest knives in the drawer?”

“Armed, primed for confrontation. Jumpy. Like a pair of crackheads poppin’ a 7-11. Squad leader would’ve called a play, even for me.”

“Sure they’re ex-employees of Uncle Sam, not current?”

“I saw the payroll kids last night, too, remember? Big difference.”

“Mmm. Need to see the money?”

“No.”

“Good. ‘Cause it’s buried.”

“I like the sound of buried treasure. Makes me feel like a pirate.”

“Not shovel buried, son. ‘Dozer buried. The girl had me pull three million, said you’d know why. I buried thirteen-three, kept out twenty-seven thou. It’s in the safe.”

In my head I did all the math I could stand for year. “That works out to an oddball start number.”

“People skimmin’ along the way. The chiropractor had to have pulled a stash, plus you toppin’ him off. Drivers, security, entourage, all hooker an dope partyin’ in the vans. Envelopes home. That’d work out to an even start around eighteen-five unless somebody got greedy.”

It was my turn to say “Mmm…”

I knew Moreno wanted the three million on hand to keep the convicts happy. With her and me since there was no longer anything on the way to Kerrigan for them to help rob. I hoped she hadn’t called off tomorrow’s roadblock or said something stupid about where the money was. Didn’t seem like her to do that, but “like her” was still a fuzzy picture. The “Love” girl who could play a lot of parts, too convincingly.

“In that movie a yours,” Rip said, like he’d been reading my mind, “noticed Cary Grant’s suit coat didn’t have a vent.”

“What?”

“No vent. Like a Zoot suit. Eye-talian, they call it.”

“Not a Zoot, or ‘Eye-talian.’ It was a ventless three roll two. He also wore same-as-suit ties and brown or oxblood shoes with gray. The man was a real Sartorialist, ahead of his time.”

“Meanin’?”

“Fashionista. Metrosexual. Sharp dressed man.”

“You ever got a decent haircut I’d say you’d been readin’ GQ at the barbershop.”

“Back in the run-up to not marrying Christine, I learned more about men’s clothes than I ever wanted to know.”

“That why these days you look like a sack fulla doorknobs most times?”

“Among other reasons. Like five grand for a pre-motheaten sweater.”

“You don’t have to do vagabond. Recall the few times you ever wore a suit you looked good in it. And a uniform.”

The vacuum stopped. I pushed my chair away from the table.

“Like the times you got married and that duster from Nebraska’s funeral? Thanks, Mom. Been there, done that.”

“An you ain’t changed t-shirts since.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “You know your problem, Paro? You’re tryin’ to sort the good guys from the bad guys into two neat piles.”

“Do I smell an inbound sermon?”

“Nope. Never hurts to give both sides some leeway is all.” He arched his hand over his coffee cup, twisted it with his fingertips in a slow circle. “It’s not Cary Grant or the Lawn Jockey. Or the high dollar Scotch man or even the convicts. It’s the girl still has you bothered. You think she’s bidin’ her time, waitin’ to see who’s left standin’?”

“Could be.”

“You think she’s dangerous?”

“No more than the other vipers in the Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery pit.”

“An it could be you just want her to be wrong.” Rip sat in a very still, noncommital quiet for a few before he pushed his chair back. “Well, your problem, not mine.” He stood, hitched his belt up. “The girl’s money’s locked in the bed a the Ram, vehicle hangar. You know where the weapons are.”

***

Moreno had called, for some reason I didn’t hear it and it went to voice mail. The message was crap connection scratchy and I’d had to rewind it three times to nail down the address on Route 66/12th Street in Shamrock’s dead “Old 66” business strip. I knew the meeting place had to be the convicts’ idea, not hers.

I got to Shamrock early, parked two blocks away down the side of a freshly painted, locked-up NAPA auto parts store with waist-high weeds under the sign. I stayed off the road, used overgrown back lots behind empty buildings for cover. I was leading with the stainless-steel Walther I’d picked out of Rip’s gun safe, racked and chambered, safety off when I walked the cracked concrete studded with grimy weeds drive and around to the front of the free-standing once upon a flea market, record store, vegetable stand, and mechanic’s garage. I stopped at the edge of a large window where nearly invisible weather faded, childishly executed paintings of appliances – washing machines, sewing machines, and typewriters – now lived against a closed, dust-caked Venetian blind backdrop. On the door, sun-faded posters for concerts in Amarillo, Oklahoma, Colorado. A festival out by Canadian where a long list of old-time honky-tonkers offered to make a weekend of it four years ago. The inside of the door covered in yellowed newspaper pages held in place by equally yellowed masking tape.

I tried the door, easy. Locked. I didn’t like anything about this whole setup, kept walking, turned down the east side of the store and froze. A bulky guy in the weeds about halfway down the side, his back and long gray ponytail to me, was working a crowbar on the side door. I backtracked, flattened myself against the front wall between the windows and old garage door. Less than a minute later I heard the front door unlock from the inside.

Shit. My hands started to sweat.

The door opened, followed immediately by a giant white ball of WHOOMPH that blew Bulky Man out the door and into the street. Glass and Venetian blinds flew by me, a second or two passed before bricks pushed on my back, shoved me off the sidewalk and out into the street with him. I laid that way until I got my breath back, shrugged off some bricks and rolled onto my left shoulder. I brought the gun up, checked Ponytail Man and dropped my arm back down. I’d seen my share of blast casualties, and they all had the same look. Something once human reduced to a bloody, impossibly positioned rag doll. A splintered chunk of two-by-four had impaled Bulky Man between his shoulder blades and now held his upper body a foot off the ground. It gave him the look of demonstrating effortless yoga. I hadn’t noticed Rip’s truck roll up, or Tavius get out.

“Damn, Paro.” He squatted down in front of me. “You aren’t bleeding much. You whole?”

I moved up to hands and knees, careful to avoid the glass shards, shook my legs out one at a time.

“I’ll live.”

“Good.” He stood, caught the back of my upper arm with a steel fingered grip, lifted me out of the bricks. “One of these days tryin’ to kill you is gonna take.”

***

The nicks and scrapes burned when I washed the sandy blast and street debris off my face in the McDonald’s restroom across the street from Moreno’s Holiday Inn. Tavius watched, his booted foot against the door while he told me for the tenth time what a lucky fuck I was, how it was a hell of a little wall that saved me.

“Nothin’ to do with the bricks, Tave. Dynamite.”

“For a fact?”

“White, and I could smell it.”

“In your current condition,” Tavius cocked an eyebrow, “my well-dressed Lawn Jockey self could run with a line like that.”

“What I mean, it was an uncontrolled blast. Dynamite out-pressure is like fire. It hauls ass to the easiest exit.”

“You learn that watching the science channel?”

“Jesus, fuckhead. Listen. The wall came off as one piece, in slo-mo, behind the blast. From residual pressure and structural failure. It was a Jim Bob bomb, not a focused C4 job.”

“So?”

“So? Who set it? Not the Roosky convict, he thinks he’s a fucking artist. Who was the big ponytail guy? Who had Moreno send me there?”

“Too many questions, grasshopper. The last one I have half an answer for. I didn’t like what I heard on the intercept of that message. The rhythm felt wrong. I had it run and it was a splice job, like I thought. Someone must have hours of that woman talking.”

“It was from her number.”

“You telling me you never get robocalls, look like they’re from a real number?” He scowled at the loud, insistent knock on the door.

“What the hell are you sayin’?”

“Saying third graders know ways to send a call looks and sounds legitimate. Saying she didn’t call you, so don’t go off on her when you get over there. Saying further don’t say shit to her about it.”

“The phone call or the bomb?”

“Brother, you a tore up, dusty, dirty Goodwill refugee walking.” He moved his foot and let in a round, pink-faced man wearing a loud yellow golf shirt. “No way you avoid the bomb.”

Pink Face man eyed us, laughed. “Hey, y’know that’s what I just told my wife,”

“Yeah? Then she told you how it really was,” Tavius showed a lot of teeth. “How you’d best take your act on over to McDonald’s, leave her and the motel room shitter out of it?”

“Exactly what she did. Been married awhile yourself, huh?”

***

Again?” Moreno would make some kid a good Mother. She had the fists on hips thing down. “He has my truck?”

Rip’s truck, Cav. Consensus from the convicts to the CIA is that given a vehicle, you get flighty and unpredictable.”

ME? You’re no one to talk! You take off in the middle of the night in your…your fucked-up baby airplane with your fucked-up Mars lander box inside to re-rob our bank. Ni una palabra! Not one single word to me, your partner.”

“You still on about that?”

Yes!”

“Your English takes over when you’re mad.”

“Okay. Si! Si, si, si! You like better the Spanish me? Maybe I make some little sexy sing-song in it? Oh Paro, quiero amarte demasiado buena…” She leaned into me, and I swear she purred. I backed up a step.

You.” I put my hands on her shoulders. “I’d like you to ‘love me too good.’ If I knew who the hell you were.”

She pumped her shoulders, left, right, left, right, almost a dance move to dump my hands, backed up as well. She folded her arms and fumed, her eyes like shiny, hot obsidian.

“I brought your convict money,” I thought I was being slick, changing the subject.

“You are so hopelessly transparent.” She whipped her phone up off the table from in front of the Holiday Inn’s TV, stuck it in my face. I took it, held it back out so I could see. It was a text from “unknown” with a picture of an older custom Ford van too similar to the one I set on fire in Kansas to be a coincidence. How many of those damn things were out there? I made Woody as the guy in aviator shades behind the wheel, four exact copies of the dead Bulky Man on big motorcycles, two on each side.

I want my money. BITCH. Tell the pilot we’re coming. BITCH. For both of you. BITCH

“So much for you winnin’ the Kerrigan Bank Robbery Miss Popularity Contest.” I handed her the phone. “Guess we still need the convicts and their grenade launcher.”

“I guess,” she reached up, brushed sandy mortar dust out of my hair while she built a thoughtful, wicked smile, finger-thumped the top of my head, hard. “Bozo.

“Ow.” I squinted through watery eyes, rubbed the thump. “What happened to pendejo?”

“I’m still mad.”

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #29

The Emotion Issue – Fight for Your Characters Rights Not To Fight (All the Time)

Several years ago emotion was a topic on Beth Hill’s excellent self-editing (and then pay her for professional polish) site. I just did a search and these articles are ones I found useful. Particularly the one on buffer phrases we might use subconsciously or to sound writerly that put distance between us/readers and characters. Here’s The Editors Blog Link.

I am not in favor of dialogue tags unless it is impossible (or being too lazy) to avoid them. Dialogue tone should set the stage, and action tags (often reading like a director’s instructions) are somewhat better until they become, as in parentheses, directorial. Or use none at all, but that’s a personal opinion.

However, and here’s my big but, characters are actors. Without a snuffle or a sneeze where did the Kleenex come from? How did the picture of the scene develop? How was the purse/door closed? How are they sitting? All clues to the emotional state of characters and the visual imprint of the scene.

What do we do if ‘said’ doesn’t cut it and enough adverbs to fill a Nancy Drew mystery are, by personal mandate, prohibited? First, DO NOT ASK AN EDITOR. Why? because as much as they preach emotion the first thing they want to do is remove it unless it is blatant “show.” Emotions are also in a touch, a simple gesture just as much as a fist or a shout. I know this because of two pretty obvious internet editors.

Here is a line from Dan Alatorre – They sure touch a lot for strangers. About one woman pulling a strand of hair from another’s face, fixing a fallen dress strap through the process of discovering that they are both married to the same man. Two subtle references in 2200 words, about a budding relationship, is too much? In Dan’s defense, my take is that he likes his female characters flirty and depth free with long hair they can toss. A lot.

Next is Beth Hill, who offers great advice on her blog. But I sent her a manuscript, too. Usually, she wants twenty pages and page 200 or so. All I had was a doc file, sent the whole thing. Weeks go by. I ask did she get the manuscript? Oh yeah. Read the whole thing. Sends me suggested edits and one of the first things she says is – Rather than filter actions through Deanna and her senses, consider going straight for what (the supporting character) is doing. How Deanna feels is the heart and soul of the document and why Beth hooked into reading all of it to see where it went. Edit it out? No thanks.

I agree that felt, saw, heard, noticed are filters in some instances, but not all. Without sensory input, our characters run the risk of becoming robots. Try this –

She felt/touched/held her hand over/checked/ the stove for heat. We get into detected and some other synonyms and we begin to distance our character from the event with vocabulary. How did she touch it? It depends on the scene, but touch, felt etc. bring you into it. Hardcore no filter would have “she determined the stove was cold.” How do we know? “She reached out, the stove was cold to her touch.” Emotions, senses, large and small show us character and tell a story.

It all depends on what we’re writing.

Here’s a good one – based on one work of mine someone asked me about a character. “Don’t you ever get pissed off? Doesn’t he ever get pissed off?” “Sure,” I said, “but he’s a space case piano player and slugging people is not his style, nor is it good for his vocational health. If you want violence here’s a gothic spy caper with lots of gratuitous violence.”

Now, for the tip. The Emotion Thesaurus, Ackerman and Puglisi. Some of it is redundant but it’s an easier read than the body language texts and it’s searchable. And it’s a lifesaver when “Punched” and “Screamed” are too much.

Fists and shouts, violence and emotional extremes and graphic erotica are not all there is. The devil is in the details. We should give our characters lives, and tone, not just temperaments.

I Worry as I Please

I turned due south fifteen miles east of Liberal, Kansas, cleared the Oklahoma panhandle and picked up lights at 3 o’clock, two miles out, 150 feet low. They weren’t closing, they didn’t go away. I flipped the radio to shortwave, phoned home.

“PD 1 to PD 3”

“Copy PD 1. What’s your location?”

“Southeast of Perryton.”

“PD 1, the coordinates are in front of you.”

“Good for them. I have a shadow, 3 o’clock, two miles.”

“Chopper?”

“Probably. You copy that, PD 3?”

“Roger that. PD 3. Out.”

I clicked off the radio. Rip was sharp enough to skip the sermons about Palo Duro at night. Hopefully sharp enough to drive most of the way without lights to avoid picking up his own shadow.

PD 3 was the second most dangerous of the four routes we’d plotted through the Palo Duro Canyon to a drop point. In daylight. It wasn’t daylight and this wasn’t the way it was supposed to go. I glanced out the window at my shadow. Whoever you are. I hope you can fly that thing or know when an order starts to look like suicide…

 I backed off airspeed to give Rip the hour drive time he needed. The shadow closed to within a mile and we flew formation that way for an hour. A third of the way from the southern end of Palo Duro Canyon I ran the Cessna up to 120, dropped to 50 feet off the ground, killed the lights. That got the shadow’s attention and they pulled up on my tail.

This was the touristy part of the canyon. Great views, steep cliffs, wide canyon floor. I took it low and fast across the top of Castle Mesa, cleared the edge, pushed the nose down and dropped like a rock, pulled the nose up 30 feet off the canyon floor and ramped back up to 120, skirting the canyon floor and walls, scrub brush so close I could almost feel it grab at the landing gear.

My shadow had stopped at the edge of Castle Mesa, like a horse afraid of a jump. The pilot must have lost an argument and was behind me again, trying to stay centered in the canyon and higher, but not high enough. Smart money would have put them way up and over in a wait and see, let their electronics track me but they were as close to on my ass as fear would let them, catching up in spurts only to lose me again. That told me they weren’t outfitted for air to air or air to ground weapons or any radar other than weather and nav. That was the best news I’d had all night.

The canyon was a straight northwest shot if you knew where the walls, interior mesas and outcroppings were, except for a quick left-right dogleg by Brushy Draw. I twisted sideways and over, took the bend in a roll. The helicopter saw the dogleg coming, gained altitude at the expense of speed or face into the cliff. They were back a few miles later when the canyon valley made sense again. I banked hard left into a wide gulch, followed its rise, nosed up and out of the canyon. My electronics told me that my shadow had flown past and reversed back to the gulch. If they went in, they weren’t coming out. It appeared they were debating, again, and remained stationary.

I took advantage of being out of their line of sight and flew north at 140, slowed, dropped down into another, wider gulch and shot out into Flat Canyon, banked hard left. My shadow had stayed in the canyon drifting north, assuming my business waited somewhere on the canyon floor. They caught up and stuck to me until the easy part went away at Nameless Draw and the old canyon riverbed turned into a narrow snake run of hard banks left, right, left, then right again. I lost them at that point, which was the only part of this evening that had worked according to plan. Without a rehearsal, no one was following that run at speed. After the last hard right, I pulled the Cessna into as steep a climb as it could handle, cleared the mesa, nosedived back over, located the large, brackish pond covered in green slime off Thomas Draw, dropped power to near stall, reached up, put my hand on the cargo release and held my breath.

Too many things could go wrong in the next five seconds. The cargo container would drop, the static line would pop the gas canisters, they’d inflate the life rafts. The static line wouldn’t break free, the plane would drop like I’d tossed out an anchor. Rip’s custom cargo doors on the floor of the fuselage wouldn’t fall shut and I’d be flying a big wind scoop too slow to pull out and keep flying and too low to use the Cessna’s safety parachute. The rafts wouldn’t inflate, the cargo container would explode on impact littering the area with hundred-dollar bills…

Madre de Dios…

I pulled the handle.

The Cessna jumped, bucked, the nose went up. The cargo doors dropped and held. I didn’t have time for the rest of it, that was Rip’s job. I was up past the mesa and climbing in a slow, easterly bank and wiping the sweat out of my eyes when my shadow, who’d never made it past the second bend, bubbled up out of the canyon to follow me to Rip’s.

***

The Lakota pilot waited for me to turn on the big outdoor lights after I’d landed, and set down almost exactly where they’d landed before. This time Flyer the CIA man wasn’t with them. Three armed to the teeth rifle squad troops trotted from the back. The first one offered his field pack ID, held up in a gloved hand for me to read. Damn he was young. And smelled cleaner than any foot soldier I’d served around.

“Run short on Sergeants tonight, Corporal…?” His name had more consonants than a Russian phone book. “Don’t make me say that without help, soldier.”

“No, sir. Prizz-bull, sir. Our orders are to search your aircraft and surrounding premises.”

I turned sideways, swept my hand in the direction of the Cessna and hangers. “Corporal Pryzbyl, make yourself at home.”

“Thank you, sir,” came awkward and slow. The corporal must have expected resistance. He signaled his two compatriots, sent them off to either side.

I went to the kitchen, switched on the lights, calmed the dogs. I should’ve let them out to put some combat duty shit in the recruits’ drawers, but they might have freaked and shot the dogs. I knew Rip had at least one sermon waiting for me when he arrived, I didn’t need another.

The kitchen door slammed open. Moreno’s hair was the mess of sleep, her clothes were what she had on when I’d dropped her on the bed. She shoved the soldier behind her in the chest with both hands.

“Déjame ir, sucio cabrón!”

The soldier looked at me, hope and fear in his eyes. “Sir? We found her in –”

She shoved again, and for all his combat gear I knew Moreno scared him more than any enemy he’d been shown movies of.

“Thank you soldier. She’s unexpected, but not unwelcome.”

“Not unwelcomeYOU!” She reached in the dish drainer, grabbed a cactus tumbler and threw it at me. Good aim, but I caught it. Through the screen door I saw the soldier hauling ass back to his search duty, most likely praying there were no more Cavanaugh Morenos lurking anywhere.

“Calling a soldier in full combat costume a filthy asshole is a risky proposition, even for you.”

“You! You wish to talk assholes? With me? You think you are so clever. Your sneaky lemonades. So you might have your way with me?” She spit in the sink.

“I didn’t –”

“You did! Your way to get rid of me while you go off, off to…Rip said you went to rob the bank! Two and a half days early! He told me you say the bank has already been robbed! How? The money, it’s not even here.”

“It wasn’t ever going to get here.”

“So you said, but in two days’ time more! You, Comparo. And Senor Rip. And me,” she poked herself in the chest, “Cavanaugh Moreno. We would rob the van. Together. As a team!”

“You through?”

“No.” She dropped in a chair at the kitchen table. I opened the fridge.

“Anything?”

“Filtered water. The tap is disgusting.”

I tossed her an Ozarka bottle. “Fort Worth tap water.” She made a ‘that’s disgusting’ face. “Reverse osmosis filtered.”

She eyed the bottle, turned it in her hand.

“That makes it Spring Water?”

“You pissed off at everybody, Cav?”

She chugged most of the bottle, set it on the table.. “You. Only.” She leaned back in the chair, both fists propped on the table, stared at me through the slits her eyes became when she was angry. “Did you do it? Re-rob our bank?” She smacked her forehead with the heel of her palm, “Re-rob! Dios que suena estupido.”

“I know it sounds stupid, but –”

“Sir?” The leader of the partial rifle squad stood outside the door. “Sir, we need to search this building.”

I made another welcoming gesture. “Don’t break anything, the old guy who owns this place has lots of friends. Give him an excuse to get a hard-on and you soldiers will be doing combat duty someplace way nastier than Texas.”

“Yes, sir. Sir?” He hadn’t moved. “The dogs, sir?”

I’d tuned out the rumbled growls of the dogs, but I read the corporal’s mind and led them off the to a bedroom, closed the door. The proper command and it would splinter. “They’re in the back bedroom. Let me know when you need in there.”

The corporal turned and with a jerk of his thumb sent one of his underlings to search the house. I heard drawers and closets open and close as he worked his way through. He stopped at the dog room.

“Sir?”

I went back, sent him to the kitchen, herded the dogs into a bathroom, returned to the kitchen, gave an “all clear.” He was back in three minutes. He talked in low tones with the other two for maybe thirty seconds. They broke their three-man huddle, the young leader stepped up to the door again.

“Sir, thank you for your cooperation.” He touched his helmet in a one finger salute. “Ma’am, sorry to wake you.”

We waited for the helicopter to do a brief preflight, wind up, lift off and fly east until it was no more than a rowdy locust in the distance.

“The bank. Paro? The bank, which was not yet a bank, but a van. A van in Kansas?”

“Why aren’t you with Tavius?”

“I refuse, that’s why.” She shook her head for effect, as if to clear it. “The bank? The van I mean.”

“Yes, I re-robbed the bank. Van.” I had to laugh. Tension release, the stupid way it sounded. She laughed with me. We collected, sat for a moment in silence.

Cuéntamelo. Todo!”

All of it?”

ALL of it.”

By the time I’d finished the Mullinville Cenex truck stop saga she was sitting on my lap in the patio loveseat, a plastic wicker number with thick, dusty cushions.

Madre de Dios…” she said, her head resting on my left shoulder.

“That’s what I said. In fact, I think you’ve infected me with it. It’s become my go-to for ‘holy shit’ and ‘muhhh-ther fuhhh –’”

“Good. It is a nicer way I think, to say the same.”

“Unless you know it’s a replacement.”

“Then it becomes an inside joke. Like re-robbing a bank. That’s not even a bank.”

“Think of it like refried beans. Miss it the first time –”

She swatted my ribs. “I missed nothing. I didn’t know.” She rubbed where she’d swatted me. “Why, en el nombre de Dios, did you give Woody money and let him go?”

“Pity. And maybe a shot of stupid.”

“A double shot, if not a triple.”

We sat in silence again. I thought she’d fallen asleep when she whispered, “Why the old movie?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I worry as I please. Senor Rip discovered the film, but had not started to watch when I, when they woke me up. I told them I was going nowhere and that you were cutting us all out of…of…” She let that trail off. “But you came back.” She squeezed me, yawned, arched her back like cat, made fists at the end of her outstretched arms, let them go. “The three of us came in here to watch together. We made popcorn. And I melted butter in the microwave.”

“That’s a first?”

Si! I was taught low and slow, on the stove, or to use the little plastic cup on top of the popcorn maker.”

“Those cups never worked. Good popcorn?”

Perfecto. Terribly greasy, just like the movies.” She eased her shoulder under my arm. “Rip teases your black friend, but they are two of a kind, I think. Men like you, without regard for El Jefe.”

“Tavius is CIA. Possibly still active Army Intelligence.”

“That’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one…”

I considered all the oxymorons in what I’d said. She snuggled back into my shoulder.

“Where is the money now, Paro?”

“Rip has it if it survived our lander.”

“He is trustworthy?”

“I’m not sure anyone is when there’s sixteen million cash involved.”

“You have been…so far…” She yawned again. “In your old movie? Rip thinks it is one of the men you are speaking about. I think it is about the girl.”

I let that go and she was asleep in minutes. I watched the stars, the lights of a lone aircraft with enough altitude to pass soundlessly through the night sky, thought to myself all this crazy shit – the whole bank robbery setup, combat soldiers on domestic CIA duty, long nights, near-death experiences…They’re always about the girl, aren’t they?

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #28

Sentences – Dead. Simple.

A sentence is a collection of words that convey something, an idea, an action, with sense and meaning. They are developed (hopefully) according to the logical progression of idea(s) and/or action(s).The simplest sentence consists only of a noun, a naming word, and a verb, an action word. For example, in the sentence “Mary walked,” Mary is the naming noun and walked is the action verb.

Wow!

How simple is that? Sense and Meaning. Subject and verb. Big stuff, huh? No.

What if we are building a scene? A scene is a small story or the setting for a whole story. Can that all come down to Mary walked? Sure. With Sense and Meaning.

Mary walked. Okay, where did she walk? The store? A window? To town? To the moon?

Mary walked to the window. Whew. Simple. What window?

Mary walked to the kitchen window. Which one? What sort of window is it? Does it have curtains, cracks?

Mary walked to the window, the one over the kitchen sink that’s always clean.

Oops. Almost. What’s always clean, the window, or the sink? Let’s get serious. In cases like this we can leave it the way it sounds best and hope readers brains sort it out, write it so it makes sense or make two sentences out of it. I’m going high road for the sake of it. Now. Did Mary do something?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the curtain.

More?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain.

Yeah? What if we learn something about Mary in this? POV?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain that she and Nana hung when we were kids.

?

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn floral curtain she remembered helping Nana hang while her younger siblings looked on, both covered in chocolate and fascinated by the tools and Nana’s tone of voice when she used them.

What? Well, that smoothed out the sink and window bit. Now we have a real sentence. A sentence that is a mini-story unto itself. Mary walked is good. That whole sentence is tolerable. What if that sentence steps out of the narrative and sets up…

Mary walked to the window, the one that was always clean over the kitchen sink and pulled back the worn, floral curtain.

Janet smiled at her. “I remember we were just little kids when you and Nana hung that curtain.”

“Oh God,” Mary held the curtain open with her index finger, leaned over the sink to peer outside. “You and Jake in nothing but droopy white underpants, y’all’s faces covered in chocolate ice cream, mouths wide open. Your eyes were the size of ping pong balls…”

“We’d never heard Nana cuss before. Or get mad for that matter.”

“Tools,” Mary flashed her sister a return smile. “That’s what she said to me when we took them back out to Papa’s garage. ‘Tools do bring out the devil in a person.’” She leaned further, shifted to the right. “That hedge line she wanted by the road, there where it comes up out the holler? It never did take.”

“She worked it hard, though.”

We worked it hard, Janet. We all had the shovel and hoe slingin’ blisters to show mom and dad for it, too.”

Janet always found it amusing that her big sis stopped being a hotshot Kansas City lawyer immediately after entering their grandparent’s old flagstone cottage in the Missouri hills, turned back into the girl she’d grown up with.

Off we go. Break that last sentence down. Mary’s language wasn’t enough to build character depth? No. But when countered with another character’s perspective? That gives us meaning out of a sentence.

Narrative or dialogue. Every story, every scene is down to every sentence. Write a good sentence with the same questions as a good story. Where is it going? What does it look like, feel like, smell like, what does it do to you, where does it take you?

Dead. Simple. Ask simple questions, get real sentences.

Mary walked. And…there’s a million things to think about. Why was the window always clean? Did Nana watch birds or Papa working or the milk cows, or wonder about the school bus up on blocks that blocked her view or… Write a decent sentence. Follow it with another one. Follow it with dialogue, whatever.

Use your imagination, but control it with sense and meaning. Take a breath, read it out loud. Repair as required. Continue.

Dead. Simple.

Make sense. Have meaning. Try it. The longest journey starts with a step, just like Mary.

Mary walked. The rest of her story awaits.

***

Exercise 2 –

Mary walked. Mary dragged the body to the dumpster. She was tired and sweaty. The body was too heavy to lift by herself. Could she trust her sister? Oops. Too simple and it reads like an outline.

Mary, drenched in sweat despite the sub-freezing temperature, walked back to the van after she’d dragged the body to the dumpster. No way could she lift all of that fat fucker even an inch by herself, much less four feet off the ground. Maybe she could trust her crazy sister Janet, but only if Janet was thoroughly medicated. Janet was the bionic woman, as big as the dead man rolled up against the dumpster, only Janet wasn’t fat. She was just big. NFL linebacker big, freakishly strong, crazy as a snake-handling preacher and totally unreliable. But long on strong. And crazy. Shit, there had to be another… Mary searched her brother Jake’s PianoMan Movers van for something, anything she could use for leverage. The grand board, wedged in under the organ dollys, might work. Sure. Strap that fat fucker down, lift the board, unhook the top strap, fold his dead ass in. Perfect. Unless she couldn’t lift the grand board with the fat fucker strapped to it. Strong was exactly what she needed. Shit. Her finger hovered over Janet’s number, a bee over a dying rose. Fuck it.

“Janet? Mary. No, your Big Sis Mary, not the Sainted Mother. Yeah…No, I didn’t know you were expecting her to call…Hey, look. ‘Member that handsy pervert Nana married after Papa ran off with the turned out not to be a lesbian wrecker driver…”

It doesn’t matter in what genre we write. Long sentences, short sentences, one after the other.

Dead. Simple.

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #27

Fluff and Shite Episode 2

January 31st was the feast day of St. John Bosco. A Nineteenth-Century Italian and patron saint of editors. I put a dollar in the slot and lit a candle. I need all the help I can get. First-person has made me downright effusively verbose, style-wise. See there?

I noticed something strange about the book. “The pages don’t have numbers on them, Don.”
“No,” he said. “You just open it and whatever you need most is there.”
“A magic book!”
“No. You can do it with any book. You can do it with an old newspaper, if you read carefully enough. Haven’t you done that, hold some problem in your mind, then open any book handy and see what it tells you?”
“No.”
“Well, try it sometime.”      Richard Bach – Illusions

“There’s a book for that.” One of my favorite lines when I am asked how/where/when about writing, or getting stuck writing, or flat confused. Not that I read them cover to cover or adhere to their rules. But what the Reluctant Messiah suggests is, as one of my favorite characters would say, “A natural fact.”

1553 – Sounds like that dark lager I like from New Belgium. Not near as much as Reasonably Corrupt from Great Raft, a dark that you can forget for twenty minutes and still drink. There I go. What’s on the jukebox in Mullinville?

1553 – (ahem) – Thomas Wilson published The Arte of Rhetorique. Written to help fledgling poets and writers develop their craft. He got on straightaway to thrashing the wordy nonsense that I refer to as “words strung together that sound like writing.” 400 years in front of Lanham. One of Wilson’s examples of what to avoid –

“I cannot but celebrate and extoll your magnifical dexterity above all others. For how could you have adepted such illustrate prerogative and dominical superiority if the fecundity of your ingeny had not been so fertile and wonderful pregnant?”

Huh?

We like to be liked, told how wonderful we are. It’s “a natural fact.” I don’t pick up books or seek out criticism to be coddled. It’s unnatural. Why? I worked “creative for $” since I was 20. I supported myself with it from 25 on. It is not a thin-skinned gig. Artistic directors, producers, the client(s), the company, the focus groups…All have opinions. As the creative, yours doesn’t count. You can sweat blood, follow the directives and hit the deadline and watch everyone in the room sag when it runs. Two choices. Whine and make excuses or listen, retreat and repair. Hey, it’s not my skateboard or gas station or Neiman Marcus. My point is – I put that “kick me, please” attitude on myself. If it makes my skin crawl, even a little, it’s wrong, somewhere.

Take “Crossroads.” It makes my skin crawl a little. I could cut 250 from that, easy. More like 500 in my normal style because I could cover a lot of ground with shifting third person POV, see a more omni view of what’s going on instead of shadowing one character. My dilemma is that I want more than the meeting with whoever will ‘splain the setup, tough talk and gunfire. More than a classic pulp, less than a moralizing Travis McGee. The extra words, head time (for ‘splaining), all that stuff is really troublesome. I run the risk of stringing words together that sound like writing.

Consider “Crossroads” again. The denouement, flying away? It was three times as long before I whacked it, and could go altogether. In fact, it could all go as far as I’m concerned after “greasy spot in the dirt.” But it would require some (a lot of) excess suspension of disbelief. And it serves three purposes. It clears most of the question marks in the air about the vehicles and the bodies, gets him in the air and we get some character glimpse humor.

Granted, I could have walked him to the café and back, ruminating or moralizing or both. climbed into the plane and taxied with him. I could have dropped everything after the gunplay and caught it up in conversation with Rip or Moreno. Earlier I could have gone off on enlightened racists and deeper ‘all the casualties of war.’ Or fields of wheat and farmers and drought and…Jeez, 3k, 3.5k by then? I’m not that fluffy. If I want a sermon I’ll go to church, a history or sociology or botany lesson I’ll go to school. I figure most of you feel the same way.

I wouldn’t have this problem if it was as simple as “I stopped at the store with Nana’s shopping list. Three apples, brown sugar…” Stop after shopping list. Screw the recipe. “Nana and I spent the next hour putting the nutmeg in the cinnamon before we…” Stop. “Nana and I spent the next hour getting covered in flour and assorted ‘makins’ while we assembled her from-scratch blue ribbon apple pie.” Rule one. If it’s not a cook-book, dump the recipe.

But – This is not so simple, at least for me. Not a story told in my usual style. Not a story I want to thin out when it is about more than a superficial greed and money caper. Seriously, in a straight caper with a twist, what the hell am I doing with Rip riffing his allegories, Moreno playing the love card, Paro shifting from just a dude with a plane to pulling combat and in charge dude from his front pocket now and then?

Truth? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but it’s about to go sky-high. I can see the bloat, but until Paro tells me the next chapter and it’s in the can I won’t know exactly where. I’ll find a place in draft 2 to whack and catch up. Maybe. Maybe I’ll exceed my self-imposed word limit and run this linear until it blows up.

“There’s a book for that…” Yes, I just haven’t picked it up yet. For now, I’ll do the best I can with the fluff and shite I have and consider it a learning experience. At least, as I discovered opening The Arte of Rhetorique, I haven’t quite hit the pompous inkhornism bar Wilson admonished against. But it made me more aware of my failings than it bolstered my ego.

Feel free to like this post and say something supportive. Or tell me a harsh truth!

 

 

 

 

Crossroads

It took less than ten minutes to hustle through the van-to-plane cash transfer. When we’d finished Woody sat on the floor in the open side door of the van, leaned forward elbows to knees in despair pose, wiped his face with his hands up inside the expensive pantyhose golf shirt.

“We got the bitch’s money loaded for her. What am I supposed to do now?”

“You and I’ll take the van about a mile down the road and torch it so it doesn’t become your tomb. My guess is more than one faction of this farce is tracking it wondering ‘what the fuck?’ since the money GPS and the escorts are off course by now.”

“But the GPS was just on the money –”

“Yeah, and every vehicle that played any role in its shipment. You told Moreno to wake up, pull her head out. It’s time you realized you’re in way over the head stuffed up your ass and you don’t get it, Woody. Nobody, particularly an organization that deals in big money, will ship that big money without a dozen ways to track it. Trust me. You keep driving this van, somebody will find you and you’re dead by day after tomorrow at the latest.”

I counted out ten ten-thousand wrapper-bound stacks of hundreds from one of the bags in the Cessna, dropped them in a fresh trash bag, and set it on the van’s engine cowl.

“The van goes up, you take a walk with that. Find a bus station, travel light and far. Florida would be a good place to find the new you.”

“Shit…Rednecks and Alligators and more spics.”

Cubanos, amigo. Need to watch your mouth. Never know who’s listening.”

“I forgot. You’re another Oreo light.” He stood, shook it off with a whole-body twitch, crawled through the van into the driver’s seat. I closed the door, took up residence behind him. We turned south onto CR12, and after about a mile when we were surrounded by darkness and empty fields I tapped him behind the ear with the Browning.

“This’ll do.”

He slammed on the brakes so hard I thought both of us would go through the windshield. I spun out from behind the driver’s seat, caught my balance on the engine cowl, slammed the shift lever into park to stop the van from rolling. Woody had grabbed his trash bag of cash, thrown his door open and scrambled out. He fell in the middle of the road, rolled twice, came up running. For a split second I considered shooting him. But I saw a rabbit in my sights, lifted the Browning and let him run off into the Kansas night. He wasn’t dangerous without help. His phone was on the floor next to the emergency brake and without it, he couldn’t fuck me up in the Kerrigan mess until he found one, and I doubted he would, even then. For a guy like Woody, this was a Tarantino nightmare. All he wanted was for it to stop. Until his feet started to hurt and he realized his luck had held one more time, and there was still a flash drive worth sixty-four million dollars in the Postal Service ether headed for the Kerrigan State Bank. Dammit. I should’ve shot him.

I pulled the van over into a shallow culvert, melted a couple of leftover trash bags onto the nylon fabric weave seats, let it drip onto the carpet and spread before I started the hike back to the Cenex station and Rip’s sixteen-million-dollar Cessna.

***

With all the money vans out of the picture I needed to find a van and a driver, in less than forty-eight hours, to drive to the Kerrigan State Bank like it was loaded with cash. Or I’d have to rewrite the day of the robbery in Kerrigan script. I worked on that while I walked up the very slight incline toward the gas station. From well outside the station’s light halo I spotted a Honda Goldwing sitting at a gas pump in front of a Ford van. The van remarkably similar to the one I’d set on fire a few minutes earlier. My guess about Woody’s life span, had he stayed in the van, had been overly optimistic.

I opted for discretion until I knew what was up, backtracked further from the light, circled east through the field and approached the line of sleeping, idling trucks at an angle from the rear. I squatted down under the first trailer and took a few minutes to identify objects and their shadows. About the time I’d decided I was happy with the backlot of Cenex presentation I saw the bottom halves of two men walk past the far end of the truck line, seven trucks away. One of them flicked a lit butt under the last trailer, the sparks flying, bouncing, dying. The legs kept going, past the trucks and the shrub line to where the Cessna was parked. I duck walked to the end of the trailer to get a better look.

Even from a distance, I could tell what they were. Bulked up men in black t-shirts, black cargos, black boots. Ex ‘combat engineers’ too battle and steroid fried to pass a cop or Jim Bob’s Security Company psych exam. Killing machines designed and built by the government. A government that, having removed their purpose for one expediency or another, no longer had use for them. They’d become Private Sector Security, a catch-all euphemism for Mercenaries. Rent-a-Soldiers. Poor Woody. He’d probably found them in the back of a random gun porn mag, figured them for altruistic champions of avaricious weasels. The A-Team maybe, or if he was lucky, Charlie’s Angels.

The ‘Honorable’ PSS at hand no doubt put their own tracking device on Woody’s van and were taking their time to let him get comfortable before they isolated him, whacked him and made off with a sixteen-million-dollar profit. Their tracking device had stalled and gone off-line nearby, no Woody to be found. The glowing, otherwise ignored ball of orange in the distance plus the presence of an airplane piqued their curiosity.

I thought about waiting the mercenaries out, but I had things to do and no idea of their agenda and didn’t want to meet whoever might be following them. I scooted out from under the first truck, walked the front of the truck line until I could duck down between the last two trucks and do more squat recon under the last trailer. The ‘security guard’s’ backs were to me, the bigger one on my right lit a fresh cigarette. I studied them for a minute, measured them against my experience before I stepped out as soundlessly as possible, Browning leveled between them. The big one reached for the door handle of the Cessna —

“Evenin’ soldiers.” They didn’t startle, the big one froze, the smaller one started to turn “Nuh-uh, soldier. Maintain for’ard face. That’s good. My sidearm is six inches from the base of your necks.” I knew the fidgety non-smoker on the left would bite. He spun with a short, wide, wrist sheath combat knife in his right hand. He would have cut my head off had I been where I was supposed to be. He twisted past the center of missing contact with me, planted his foot in perfect right face profile. I squeezed off a round and his nose disappeared in a dark mist. The shot a little pop sound in the dark emptiness of the field. The other one lifted a SIG combat handgun from a left thigh holster, kept his position, gun arm down at his side. His partner was making Gak, Gaa-aak and coughing blood while he stared at his bloody palms.

From the big one came “You call it that way?” When I didn’t answer he said, “I’d say you wanted it in his ear and the balance move fucked you up.”

“You’d be right.”

“Where’d you soldier, airman?”

“Around.”

“You gonna finish it?”

“Seen a lot worse salvaged.”

He shook his head very slightly, flashed his SIG up and put a round in his partner’s forehead. Another little pop in the field. He did it so quickly that if he’d wanted me, I might not have gotten off a shot. The dead man standing stumbled to his left and fell, face first, ankle over ankle, rolled onto his side. The SIG went back in its holster. Its owner pointed at the orange glow to the south. “Chiropractor?”

“His van.”

“Waste him?”

“The money’s earmarked. Like you, he got greedy. Unlike you he’s not dangerous. I gave him a hundred grand, told him to take a walk.”

“The world is going soft on me. Permission to about-face?”

“Granted as slow.”

He performed the most perfect toe-to-heel ball of foot dead slow about-face…It should’ve been in a training video.

“Balletic.”

His lips formed a very small, very tight, very brief smile. “Smoke?” He slowly reached for his t-shirt pocket with two fingers of his gun hand. I gave him that. He pulled out a crumpled pack of Camels, disposable lighter stuck in the cellophane.

“Could have been a detonator, airman. Another softie.”

“Not a hot zone, you haven’t had time to set a device. If you’d pulled the handle on that plane without the fob in my pocket it would’ve cooked your heart. Consider us even in the tip department.”

He took time to think that one over. “Airmen are lifers. What happened?”

“I lost a beauty contest.”

“Sorry to hear that. Your battle plan to offer me a hundred k? I won’t take it.”

“I wouldn’t insult you.” I waited, let the air get thick. “You’re one man against the bikers who’ll come looking, time for you to hit the road.”

“We’re not civilians, airman, we stripped their machines. They’ll end up scratching their nuts at a dumpster out behind that shithole barbeque pit where we left them three bodies and their civvy spy shit.”

“Good news for everyone, then. We’re done when you load your partner in the van, drive away with two million you don’t have to split with anybody.”

He shifted his weight around, set his feet.

“What if this goes wild west, airman? You win, what happens?”

“I put you and your partner in the van, park you back out front, turn the pumps into roman candles.”

“I win?”

“It wouldn’t matter.”

His snort morphed into a derisive smile. “You’d do that? Scorch this little patch of Americana crossroads for no money and a lost cause?”

“Try me.”

He thought it over for what felt like a thirty-second hour.

“Not tonight.” He lit a cigarette, bent down, grabbed his partner with both hands, threw him over his right shoulder like a sack of fertilizer, and walked past me. I turned, waited for what I knew was coming when he felt he was beyond my ‘airman gone soft’ accuracy range. I kept him sighted, dead center. Up, down, either side. I couldn’t lose him.

He was about forty feet away when a firetruck screamed past on CR12 headed for Woody’s van. The soldier pulled his SIG and twisted, dropping his right shoulder to dump his partner. He should have tried it wild west style when he had the opportunity, facing me and unencumbered. He might have beat me, even with my weapon out and on him. Or we might both be dead. The way he’d called it my first shot broke his left shoulder sending his shot wild, my second one went in the center of his chest when he tried to straighten. I waited while he collapsed on his back, knees bent to the side. He made a feeble attempt to reach the SIG with his good arm, heaved twice, coughed a blood geyser, and settled into a greasy spot in the dirt behind the sleeping trucks.

I walked around the bodies, slow and cautious, considered my next move. When I was combat green working ‘short some personnel’ volunteer evac duty scooping bodies from both sides off the sand, looking for a way to rationalize what I was doing, where I was, how I felt when there was nothing left to vomit a multi-theater combat commander pulled me aside. He said, in a gravelly, war-weary voice, “There are no poetic ways or places to die, Lieutenant. Dead is dead. The dead don’t give a damn and neither should you. Get over it. Load ‘em up. Move on.”

I stopped the walk around. With a touch of staging the way it laid told a tidy story. I wiped my Browning, put it in the first one I’d shot’s hand, squeezed off a dead-hand shot muffled by a dead leg into the chain-smoking quick draw wannabe. Two dead mercenaries who would test positive for gunshot residue, in a field behind a rural truck stop. A van out front where the cops would find two million in cash, the mercenaries prints everywhere. They’d argued, gotten wound up. Pow. Kiowa County gets a cash windfall, a new van with a bonus motorcycle and something to talk about besides Liggett’s sculptures.

Flying back around headed west southwest I wondered if ‘that Murphy character’s’ version would make the rotation when the County Mounties and meat wagoneers arrived to clean up their latest “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”

 

 

RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #26

Gimme a Dollar’s Worth – The Fluff and Shite Episode

“I’d rather get on with the plot than fluff out half a book with shite just to make the 90,000 words that agents are looking for.” – Stevie Turner

Amen. I mentioned in my last Writerly Concerns about generic advice, real skillsets and understanding how to apply them and telling our stories our way as best as we can. How to identify what makes the story flow, haul ass or slow down and fit into itself not some bullshit factology numbers and hack formulas.

Check this out. Someone once asked Eddie Van Halen how he tuned his guitars. Ed said, “I tune them to themselves.”

Give that a minute to gain the weight it deserves.

The second bit of Stevie’s quote is very telling of the bullshit factology we’re presented with every day. “90,000 words that agents are looking for.” I can’t find an explanation. But I do have some data. Data is boring, but this is simple, average word count comparisons from authors who sold/sell a lot of books. Do not use this data as bullshit factology, but reference. Remember what EVH said? We should tune our books the same way.

First, and this one is blatant. John D. MacDonald’s “A Deadly Shade of Gold.” I say that because emblazoned on the cover is “A double-length adventure in the brilliant new series…” It clocks in with a 110k word count from an author/series that averages 59k. How did he do it? Is there more brilliant adventure? No, instead of a typical ‘I stopped and ate lunch in the hotel lobby before going up to the room’ as we’d find in something like “The Quick Red Fox” we get lunch with Travis McGee. For a page and a half. Complete with phonetic dialect from the waiter. Trav tells us about the quality of his sleep. He describes not a ‘rag tag assemblage’ of fishing boats, but every one of them. Not ‘California beach bunnies’ but down to their sprayed on wet suits and ‘unblemished by character’ complexions. How many books are on a shelf, what they are. The ‘double-length adventure’ is the same Travis McGee adventure with descriptions of the wallpaper and extended moralizing.

Modern authors, I’ll pick on Balducci and Burke, who average in the 127 to 135k range. I would like to read Burke but I don’t want to keep a botany text handy for his descriptions of Louisiana. Somehow, even with too much “silvery moonlight” and Nancy Drew adverbs Faulkner’s “Mosquitos” makes you sweat and feel and be New Orleans and the swamp without the proper names for all the subtropical greenery. I almost bought a recent Baldacci hardback off the Twofer $10 table at Barnes and Noble. The raw materials are worth more than $5. Number One New York Times Bestseller. $5. I popped it open and the dialog was so stilted it would have embarrassed a Hallmark Channel scriptwriter. I put it back. 127k of call and response dialog and fashion/objects description fattening up what one reviewer called “familiar ground.” 127k that, like Burke, felt slow and obese.

I almost picked up his “How to” on writing mystery and suspense, but his latest sitting like a beautiful red turd in the punchbowl at $5? No thanks. We have the internet and the plethora of Dan Alatorre’s and his clones to charge money to teach us hack formula. (personal opinion only)

Helen Simonson’s “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” was a best seller at 130k and save for the extra pages, often inserted in moments of character rumination, devoted to descriptions of England’s Pastoral Green and Pleasant Land it never felt “thick.” She painted the story and its myriad cultural clashes with thoughtful care and very little preaching or flagrant agenda.

Jennifer Egan. The female David Foster Wallace. Love or hate her work, “The Keep” hits 76k. We get the castle experienced, not narrated. The entire book is full of experience through the characters, how things feel. Never does she say “the castle, imposing and mysterious” to get it out of the way and tell us where we are. An amazing book, even if you don’t like it or the characters. Liking it’s not the point, it’s an exercise in literary immersion that most of the franchise 130k crowd couldn’t hit in a million of their words describing the interior of a BMW where a boring conversation takes place.

Lets get to some people who sold books, movie rights, tv-series and won awards from their peers. Even some of the old-timers big shot authors point to.

Dashiell Hammett. “The Thin Man” 59k. Most of his average right in there. The same with Chandler. Sounds like MacDonald.

Elmore Leonard. “The Switch,” “Tishomingo Blues,” “Maximum Bob,” “Get Shorty.” 75k to 78k. “T Blues” felt a little heavy at 78k down to the Civil War reenactment and history lessons. But still, EL was a mid 70k author.

Robert B Parker. Like Hammett, Chandler and MacDonald, “Painted Ladies” hits 59k. Right in the pocket with the rest of his hard-boiled detective novels. He stretches it by 7 to 10k in some of the non-Spenser works.

Tony Hillerman. I have no bias because as a kid I went with my father on Saturdays to Tony’s father’s photo studio in Oklahoma City. Tony wrote like watercolor on glass and will put you in New Mexico talking to Navajos like you’re there with zero effort. “Coyote Waits” is representative of his award-winning work at 73k.

Let’s not forget the serial ladies.

Patricia Cornwell. Mid Scarpetta series hits that 130k mark. Franchise author land.

Mary Higgins Clark, like PD James. Runs from 83 to 135k, depending.

I won’t go into King, because it took me a year one week to read “The Stand.” He can write what he wants. And the Brits in the Colin Dexter line? Sheesh.

My point? Where the hell is that 90k number coming from? 

Narfling another Garthok – I had one, first of a series I’d thought about. The series could have run a million words. The first one, the edited (and I thought whacked down) draft went out to beta readers and editors. It weighed in at 110k. Everyone and I mean everyone, quit about 75k and said “that’s enough of that. Wrap it up. We get it.”

Which is exactly how I feel. Mid-seventies is perfect. Plenty to get it told, to get ahold of, but not too much time on the wallpaper or beating the characters to death. To me, 130k is like all you can eat for two dollars. And a dollar’s worth is all you need. Or, in some cases, can stand.