Sidekick Poster Boy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And here you are.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

“The Escalade?”

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

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

“Yes, sir. I mean no, sir. I mean—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

“Yes sir. But sir—”

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

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

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

“Yes, sir. Go fuck yourself. Sir.”

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

“You’re shittin’ me. How the—”

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

“You didn’t hear nothin’?”

“Nothin’.”

“Shit, man… Dead how?”

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

“I have to tell the boss.”

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

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

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

***

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

“I expected a disguise.”

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

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

“I know the situation.”

“Okay. I’m right behind you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How will I know–”

“Trust me.”

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

 

 

NVDT #43 – Don’t Trip

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

HA!

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Pet Potato

The Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery continues –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Smoke?” Tavius groaned.

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

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

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

“Your partners?”

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

“What they need an Apache for?”

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

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

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

Fuck no. Why would inside–”

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

“You sayin’ the chiro’s not comin’?”

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

“Then who the—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He shook his head no.

“It’s addictive.”

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

“Where dey now, Pilot?”

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Helicopter people?”

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

“I just got here.”

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

“I got here in a pickup.”

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

“Paro. Comparo. You’re—”

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

“Some kind.”

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

“You worried about it?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Whatta you think?”

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

I cocked an eyebrow.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

NVDT #42 – Pilgrimages and Pugnuckling – Two-fer

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

Yes.

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

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

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

Two-fer

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

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

From William Faulkner’s The Reivers.

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

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

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

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

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NVDT #41 – Move On or Serialize?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Oreo

Dawson stepped down from the driver’s side of the van, Muller walked around to meet him laughing, ricocheting off the van. Muller joined in the overdone laughter, both of them finger-pointing about who cut the fart. They threw in a few distracting theatrical fore-and-aft bends with a lot of hand movement. I wasn’t buying.

“Hands where I can see ‘em, the fart act is spare. Muller, you can pull the party store contacts when the dust settles.” He frowned, went slope-shouldered hangdog.

Dawson beamed me a game show host smile. “Hey, pilot, you wake up alone or what?”

“Let’s cut the shit. Whoever you are, who the fuck you belong to?”

I waited what I felt appropriate for a ‘busted, gather thy bullshit’ stall, brought the pistol to bear sighted on Dawson’s forehead. He froze.

“That bitch is cocked.”

“Said one two-dollar whore about another. I asked a question.”

Muller, who had yet to say a word, shot Dawson a look. “We’re done.” Muller went on in a nasal monotone. “He’s Secret Service. I’m Treasury.”

“Good thing I didn’t shoot you both when you got out of the van.”

“Now that,” Dawson said, “would be a shit pile of paperwork for somebody. Care to know why?”

“Fuck that, Dawson,” Muller moaned. “He doesn’t care. He’s gonna kill us like he killed Wheeler, and then he’ll do the Polak and the woman when they get here and fly off into the sunset with Ng’s money.” The man sounded like Eeyore of the Treasury.

“I didn’t kill Wheeler. ‘The woman’ is who got me into this circus.” I raised my chin an inch in their direction. “Storytime.”

“I’ll go first.” It was Dawson’s turn to check Muller. “Don’t sweat it, Muller. His jacket said he only kills immediate threats or assholes that piss him off. I don’t think your fart routine pushed us over the edge.” Dawson turned back to me saying,

“For years somebody’s been flying money out of the country for Ng’s cartel. His loss rate is less than 1%. The average is forty, forty-five percent because we tag most of them at least once a year. A high percentage of that loss is down to inexperienced, disposable pilots.”

“Pictures of your crew on the news pulling cellophane-wrapped cash out of Laguna Madre a couple times a year with an upside-down plane in the background is job security?”

“Yeah,” Dawson rolled his neck, pulled on the t-shirt stuck to his chest. “But Ng, he’s got an honest to God pilot, if not an airforce, that’s invisible.”

“I see a lot of agencies in that, none Secret Service.”

“National security. Border politics have a room temperature flashpoint. Depending on the day, either side of the aisle can use the borders to bank political capital. Borders are nothing but lines on a map to Ng.” He was sweating like a dirt farmer. “It’s not front-page news, but it’s in too many agency and committee reports. Where I’m from Ng is an untouchable border running terrorist who’s beyond the daily finger-pointing. Everyone in Washington has the same intel, but no one can leverage it without setting their own pants on fire. And uncontrollable shit like Ng mocking the border, maybe leaking, maybe making headlines, makes everyone who wants to get re-elected nervous.” He knocked a drop of sweat from the tip of his nose with a knuckle, careful and obvious with his hands, looked me in the eye. “I know you understand me when I say I’ve got way bigger guns pointed at me than yours.”

I understood. In fact, that was the first hint of anything that sounded like bankable truth I’d heard.

“So, Pilot,” Dawson flashed the game how host smile again, “since we’re all hanging out here in the wind without a net in deniability fuckedville together, you wouldn’t want to lower your weapon, would you?”

“No. But I feel your pain. Muller?”

“More of the same,” he droned. “When we knew for sure Ng’s accountant was a dead man walking, we needed to be inside, see what he planned to do with the code and try to get our hands on it. I drew the short straw.” He sighed, slow and deep. “Then the Mexican split tail… We never saw her coming. She fucked everything up.”

Dawson snorted. “You should have left the chiropractor out of it.”

“That wasn’t me,” Muller flashed, suddenly alive. “Blame that on Wheeler or the fuckin’ Polak.” Muller caught his breath, held up his hand. “I can’t take another second of these goddamn things.” He bent, plucked out his contacts, flicked them off his fingers, stayed down a fraction too long, came up pulling the slide on a pocket-size automatic. I put a round through the center of his neck, right below his Adam’s apple. He gawked, shimmied from bottom to top, dropped like a bag of cement.

Everything went back to hot and still for a long minute.

“Now that,” Dawson wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, “was a hell of a shot. And you,” he pursed his lips, pushed the lump of Muller with his foot. “That was fucking stupid.”

***

Dawson helped me load Muller in the back of the van, pulled a couple of cold bottles of water from a styrofoam cooler before we shut the lift gate. We went back, sat on the barrier. Dawson took a deep pull on his water, wiped his lips.

“I never thought he was Treasury, or anything legit. The money the Mexican chick keeps waving under our noses is counterfeit.”

“That it is.”

“Good for you. Muller didn’t know.”

“You’d think a Treasury agent would’ve noticed. But it’s good counterfeit.”

“That it is,” he echoed, tapped my water bottle with his.

I chugged the entire contents of my water. “FYI, the ‘Mexican chick’ is from Orange County.”

“Orange County? Had me fooled.”

“I think that’s her job.”

“Jesus.” He chuckled, way back in his throat, drained his water. “Who’s she working for?”

“You ever see that Hitchcock movie, North by Northwest?”

“You’re saying you don’t know?”

“I am.”

“If it matters, she lights up a little when you’re in the picture. A tell like that around anyone more observant than this crew could get her killed.”

“For a year I thought it had.” I pointed my empty bottle at the van. “Is there more water in there?”

“Yeah,” Dawson slid off the barricade, turned, squinted at the sun. “We should get it now before Muller starts to cook.”

***

Dawson’s holstered weapon was on the van’s console. I picked it up, he grabbed the cooler, walked back and set it on the barrier. I handed him the holstered Smith and Wesson .40. A real cop gun. He looked sheepish.

“Got careless role-playing this one. Straight I work in a shoulder rig, but it’s too fucking hot to wear a jacket and none of the others were crazy to carry.”

“Shoulder holsters scream cop. So does this point forty. It can’t be issue, you’re supposed to be a con.”

“Usman’s got a small flight case full of supposedly clean handguns.”

“Moreno said you took target practice this morning. He any good?”

“Usman? Fuck no. All the finesse of a hand grenade.” He laughed, belted his holster on his left side, butt forward in a cross draw position. “But what he shoots, that’s all he needs. He hit a scrawny tree trunk at close to a hundred yards with that grenade launcher.”

“You?”

“Camp Lejeune. Quantico. Qualifying, nothing special. Not,” he nodded toward the van, “like your ‘lights out’ drop.”

“Plenty of downtime at Bagram. I spent it burning rounds with soldiers who knew how. Like you said, nothing special.”

“No bars or medals, maybe. But that was sharpshooter work.”

“Was it?” The dust trailing behind a white dually pickup signaled the not too distant arrival of Usman and Moreno. “What’s your story when they ask about Muller?”

“The truth, Pilot.” He checked his pistol for a chambered round, slid it back into his holster. “He got stupid, he got dead.”

***

“He’s dead?” Moreno raised one eyebrow, turned, pointed at the van. “In there?”

“Baking,” Dawson said. “We pulled the cooler before he got too ripe.”

Moreno’s eyebrow came down. “With the money? Paro, tell me you—”

“Nope, still in there. I have a plan for Woody’s crew. Dawson, put the key in the ignition.” I grabbed Usman by the back of his neck. “You, set the alarm.”

“I give you da code one time. You set it.”

“Fine. Climb in the back with Muller and I’ll give it a go.” I loosened my grip, he shrugged away.

“I should do it, I tink. Your fucking psycho memory maybe not so good.”

“You tink?” I raised the bedcover on the white pickup, started opening flight cases until I found the automatic rifles, grabbed one, pulled a grenade launcher out of its case and shouldered it. Moreno, the only one of us not sweating, her white capris and pale lavender sleeveless top still crisp, put her hand on my arm.

“Paro?”

“I’ll go sit in that field of red sorghum and wait. You take this truck back a half-mile down the road behind my Cub. Get off the road if you can. Look like you belong. Behind a gas well or something.

“With… them?”

“They haven’t bothered you up to now.”

Ahora es diferente.

“Not so different. Unless one of them has figured out who you really are.”

“Not a chance. But I would prefer to be armed.”

I flipped open the boxy case of handguns, pulled it to the edge of the bed.

“Insurance?”

Si.” She stepped up on the tire, leaned over, picked up a few, dropped them back, finally settled on a small Ruger 9mm. She checked the clip, popped it back in, slipped it in the waistband of her shorts, behind her back.

“Dawson’s Secret Service,” I offered. “Probably shoots like a cop.”

“I have seen. Clusters of three.” She smiled. “When the requirement is one, well-chosen.”

She walked to the driver’s side door, opened it, said, “I’m still driving.” She got no argument, climbed up, drove them around the van, and back down the road.

***

I had just gotten situated in the sorghum patch when Tavius’s maroon Lincoln, missing glass and full of bullet holes, skidded sideways and banged to a crunchy stop against the road roller. He stumbled out, one leg bloody, fell back against his car. I heard motorcycles stop down to idle not far away.

Madre de Dios

I cradled the AR in my right arm. With my left I half carried, half dragged Tavius back into the sorghum. I dropped him, ripped his left pants leg open. He had a through and through on the outside of his thigh. No veins, no bone.

“Lucky.”

“I’m shot, motherfucker.” He tilted his head back, clenched his teeth when I cinched a strip of his jeans around his upper thigh. “How lucky is that?”

I ripped his t-shirt down the front, rolled a thin strip, and plugged the hole.

“Not bleed to death lucky. I heard bikes. What happened?”

“The old fucker…”

“Rip?”

“That one. First blockade in Oklahoma. He shows around midnight in a flatbed with lift arm, a crew and some Jersey Barriers like what you got here. Told me no car sideways in the road, even a cop car would be any deterrent to what was coming. He had them drop barriers across 15, told me to beat it if I wanted to keep breathin’.”

“Wondered where he was off to last night. Looks like you didn’t beat it hard enough.”

“Funny. I drove down 283 to what passes for civilization out here, pulled into a Chevrolet dealer’s lot. Caught three hours of z’s before I turned up here.”

Stop moanin’ and keep talkin’.”

“I’d cleared the Braums dairy and two bikes fly out from either side the road.” He glared down at me while I used a piece of broken drip irrigation pipe to tighten the improvised tourniquet. “Goddam, Paro, you are some kind of sadistic motherfucker.”

“You’re not dying but we need to get you outta here.”

“Plan?”

“Unless you just fucked it up.” I handed him my bottle of water. He dumped it over his head, shook it off like a wet dog.

“Good to know a brother you can count on.”

***

Two skinny, sunburned bikers in unbuttoned, sleeves cut off flannel shirts over wife beaters, jeans and heavy boots rode up on full dress Harley road bikes. They stopped, dismounted, each shouldered an assault rifle and walked around Tavius’ car, poking the rifles through windows, popped the trunk. After a short eternity they started our direction, stopped at the edge of the road.

“It’s the nigger’s game we go in the patch after him. Fact he could have us sighted in rat now.”

The other one scuffed the ground with his boot. “He did he’d a been on us a-ready an we’d be bleedin’ with him.” He pointed his rifle at some blood on the white dust. “No vehicle, no way to get nowhere. He’s gonna die out here.”

“I’m wonderin’ why here?”

“Plannin’ to meet somebody? Could be some somebodies was waitin’ on him an us.”

We need to let ’em know this road’s blocked like the last one?”

“Naw. That van we saw to the other side when we come rollin’ up needs checkin’ out first.” He spit, shouldered his rifle. “Our nigger’s good as dead or he’d a let us know he weren’t.” They both snickered, backed away together until they were on the far side of the road roller.

Tavius tugged my sleeve. “A true brother would go shoot the one called me a nigger.”

“That would be both of them. No need.”

“You tellin’ me a card carryin’ Oreo can afford to endorse racism?”

I torqued the tourniquet on his thigh. He choked on a scream that would have vanished in the blast. The ground rolled us up like we were riding a wave, dropped us, smacked us on its way up to level as if the Jolly Green Giant had shaken the field like a dirty rug. We huddled, heads covered. It took a minute for the debris to stop falling. We uncovered to counterfeit bills overhead that floated and fluttered, a flock of flat, drunk birds. We stood up together, his arm around my shoulder.

“Fuck me, Oreo,” he gave me an iron man squeeze. “You did have a plan.” He lifted his head skyward at the sound of an approaching helicopter. “What you got in mind for that?”

Caliche

I raised my head off the bed, reached out and palmed the phone. Rip. Two minutes before the alarm would’ve gone off at 0600.

“What?”

“What? What sorta mess you leave me, Sleeping Beauty?”

“Oh… Shit. That.” I rolled up to sitting, dropped the phone on the bed, rubbed my eyes.

“In the hangar… Dogs…”

“At this rate I’ll wait for the movie. Pick up the goddam phone or put it on speaker.”

“Right…” One of those sounded like an excellent idea, but all I could do was rub my face and stare at the phone.

“Paro?”

“Yeah, yeah…” I picked up the phone, stuck it to my ear, leaned forward elbows to knees. “There were two of ‘em. They killed one of your dogs, enjoyed it too much. Got ‘em in the hangar… The other dogs…” I hadn’t heard him laugh out loud for a while.

“Didn’t leave ‘em in there all night, didja?”

“I let the dogs out after twenty minutes or so.”

“Good. The dogs’ll fuck with somebody till they’re dead, but they won’t eat ‘em. Guess we taste funny. Wish I’d been there.”

“Assholes would’ve never made it to the hangar.”

“If they’d a killed the dog before I killed them, though, think I’d a sent ‘em to their knees an let the dogs finish it, same as you. Only outdoors. Why is it you always gotta make a goddam mess?”

I didn’t have an answer for him, but I’d fumbled my way into the kitchen. “Where’re you hidin’ the loads for this Keurig?”

“You too lazy to make a real cup a coffee?”

I didn’t have an answer for that, either.

“They’re in the second drawer there, underneath. You know where the Bobcat’s parked?”

“The baby ‘dozer? Yeah. Jesus, is this Keurig plumbed for water?”

“Double filtered. Don’t fuck with it. Turn it on, stuff one of those plastic jobs in its mouth, push the button, drink it if you can stand it. I’ll get hold of somebody to clean up.”

“Cops, or Sheriff or–”

“Paro, need you to wake the fuck up, son. Nobody in any kinda uniform is on your side an you got work to do.”

“But I have two, three hours–”

“No, you don’t. Listen. Need you to make sure the Bobcat’ll start so I can send people out there to mop up. Then you an your puddle jumper need to be in the air an gone.”

“What’s the big damn hurry?”

“That unmarked UH-72 helicopter the CIA man with the high dollar scotch dropped by in? The one the polite, heavily armed uniformed children come lookin’ for the money in? It’s on its way again. No way you’re outrunnin’ it in your little Cub so you need to be at ten, twelve thousand feet going the other way now.”

“Whoever’s comin’ has radar. They can follow–”

“They don’t wanna follow you, Paro. They don’t want you in the air. Period. People like the dog killers disappear every day. You’re another likely if you don’t hit it damn quick.”

“What if they find the bodies, or—”

“Nobody in that chopper gives a damn about any dead bodies other’n yours. They see you’re gone? They’re gone. Stop askin’ questions. Git.”

The hurry and get out only to end up waiting at the convict and Moreno rendezvous point wasn’t the way I’d wanted to start the day, but Rip was right. A UH-72 in the air wasn’t cause for alarm. They weren’t designed as combat machines, but on the ground they could easily deliver eight combat troops loaded for bear. Or a Company hotshot with a crew of black balaclava-clad erasers looking to make someone disappear. Whatever the payload, if Rip’s heads-up call was on the money, I’d have been standing in the kitchen in my birthday suit, drinking another half cup of Keurig almost coffee when they arrived.

***

I walked through a hot shower, balled up the camo jumpsuit, stuck my feet in the flip-flops, and air-dried on the way to the Cub. I fished out my next-to-last pair of disposable boxer briefs from a bag under the seat, found some not too objectionable socks stuffed in my desert boots. I dressed, trotted down to the Bobcat front-loader, made sure it would start for the cleanup crew. On the way back I stopped at the old red Ram, grabbed the Walther PPK S along with a box of ammunition and two spare clips. I lifted the pickup bed cover, discovered the gym bag with three million dollars in it was missing. Moreno. She either needed it to bait the convicts into twenty-four more hours of service or fund her disappearance.

Either way, if I got to the best-case engagement rendezvous and found out I was playing solo I’d turn around and keep traveling.

Bullshit.

What a bucket of talk. I had far too many unanswered questions for everyone involved in this circus. It felt good, though, to say I could walk away from the Great Kerrigan Bank Robbery by brushing my hands together.

***

I’d climbed through 10,000 feet and trimmed out on a North-Northeast heading towards Lipscomb County Road N when I spotted the Lakota helicopter 3,000 feet below me, chugging along in the opposite direction. The helicopter didn’t turn around, didn’t raise me on the radio for an ID. Whoever they were, they had their order blinders on. Stay on course, one scenario, one outcome. I’d almost gotten killed doing that for the same breed of “intelligence community” people. They’d ‘purged’ me for making them look stupid, and here I was in the middle of their shit. Again. I didn’t have time for the who’s stupid now game. I knew without playing.

***

I flew over the engagement area, an intersection of secondary, unpaved roads in the eastern Texas panhandle. There were a few perfect, green circles of irrigated crops, the rest of the area was flat, high plains scrubby grassland dotted with oil and gas wells that stood out from the green and brown on bright white four hundred foot diameter Caliche pads.

I banked in from the west and County Road N presented as a seven-mile-long straight shot of more white Caliche. Utility poles, wires and fences on the side, nothing to fly over getting in or out. Landing on an unknown surface concerned me. Ground up and mixed with coarser chunks of itself Caliche forms a decent surface for unpaved rural roads in this part of the world but it’s not always smooth and the gravelly version wasn’t what I wanted to land on. The snow white color made it impossible to determine texture unless you were right up on it. But the fields of saw grass knots and waves of irregular sand mixed with solid Caliche outcroppings and gas wells on either side were worse.

I lined up low a mile west of where I wanted to drop, with over a mile in front of me after I hit. I floated in so low the Cub kicked up a sizeable dust cloud before I leveled out, cut the throttle back and held my breath for that instant before flying machine meets ground. The surface wasn’t glass, but it wasn’t heavy gravel. I taxied to the edge of the road, swung the tail around into the rough grass where I waited for the white dust cloud to settle before climbing down into a hot, no breeze middle of nowhere morning.

I’d left myself a decent walk. A half a mile on N before it turned right into another mile on 23 to the best-case engagement where 23 dead-ended into County Road O. I decides to cut across a scrubby pasture where I skirted a couple of gas wells and a Caliche gravel pit. A route that saved me time, a nose full of dust, drenched me in sweat and tried its damndest to twist my ankles. I got to the intersection, found two ten foot long thirty-two-inch high concrete barriers laid end to end across County Road O. Parked on the far side of the barriers and facing east sat a huge, white-dust-covered yellow and rust road roller. Its presence explained why my landing surface was better than expected. No one was driving around that road-width roller without driving into the drainage ditch, a solid wall of Caliche, or facing out into barbed wire. The barriers were a bonus.

***

I put one of the concrete barriers between me and the scorcher of morning Sun and sat facing west, feet flat, thighs to my chest. Thought about a cigarette. Not the first one that would make me feel like shit, but the pacifier effect of the subsequent ones. Without them I settled into edgy, fidgety, vigilant boredom. The boredom you feel waiting for the event you know is coming that will turbocharge your adrenaline production. The Moreno gift phone buzzed, startled me. I patted a few pockets until I found it, popped it out, tapped the red dot.

“Paro?” Moreno, her voice encapsulated in road noise.

“Shoot.”

“Perhaps there is the better choice of words? Donde?”

“Engagement.”

Gracias, amor, I didn’t think you cared. You’re early.”

“I had to get out before el lechero.”

“The milkman?”

“Figure of speech. What do you know about Gerald Ng?”

“Geral-deen? The Milkman? Estoy perdido, Paro, you confuse me. Make sense, por favor.”

“Forget it. ETA?”

“Twenty minutes, perhaps. We, um,” she faltered, “we also achieved the early start. The gentlemen wished to make shooting practice.”

“They let you shoot?”

“No.”

“You in Rip’s truck?”

Si. With the weapons, also. As you asked.”

“Alone?”

“No.”

“Shit. You have the money?”

No, pero el dinero debería llegar pronto.” She barked ‘okay’ to someone in the background. “It will be there, with you, very soon. In the van with Señores Muller and Dawson. Paro?” She hesitated, dropped “Ten cuidado mi amor, estos hombres no son quienes dicen…” at triple speed. I heard Usman tell her to shut up with the Spanish and the phone clicked off.

‘Be careful my love, the men are not who they say they are.’ Thanks, Cav, but I’d picked that up early on. Usman was the only legitimate badman. A B-grade thug at best and a minor player in the arms trade game. ‘Bax’ Wheeler, AKA Third Eye Horseapple Nose, had been Flyer the CIA hotshot’s plant. Maybe he was a con, but the little time I’d spent around him he smelled like a professional weasel, a career informant. Muller was playing damaged, threatening psychopath for reasons unknown. Not wearing the crazy eye contacts in the same eye every day had given him away. The other tallish one, Dawson, had a bogus convict sheet planted in the systems on his behalf in case anyone went looking. He was some brand of undercover or ex-cop with cop and service tats and million-dollar teeth. Not a forger, much less a con.

Judging by the dust rising on County Road N behind the ‘convict’s’ van, I didn’t have long to wait to find out. If they stopped and fucked with my plane instead of driving around it, I’d have to shoot first when they arrived. I vaulted over to the east side of the concrete barrier, checked the Walther for a chambered round. Out of curiosity, I climbed up on the road roller to see what cover it could offer. The key, attached to six inches of worn, braided leather the thickness of a shoelace, was in the ignition lock. Whoever owned the roller must’ve figured it was too slow to steal and too big to hide. I scrambled down, walked to the barricades, the Walther behind my back, safety off, finger on the trigger.

NVDT #40 – Clam Digging

The Prompt – Your top 5 writing mistakes and/or the ones that make you cringe

1 – Loop-de-loop paragraphs. I learned to beat this. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  I call them “pinball paragraphs” where one minute we’re a backstory line, the next we’re a set descriptive, the next we’re in a head, and that goes ’round in a circle. There are examples of opening paragraphs written this way in this very room.

2 – Words and phrases strung together that sound like writing. I encountered this in the music business as well. Rather than play an entire solo or phrase we called the punch-ins when they rolled by. Art in that process is elbow grease on the seams. Unfortunately, in writing there’s no way to fix people writing what they think sounds like what they want to say regardless of how illogical or supercilious it sounds. Similar to this is a paragraph of undeveloped scenes or thesis statements strung together. This and this and this and this. Whoa. Start with the first one, develop it, logically, next.

3 – Obvious backstory triggers. Mirrors, photographs. Please. Backstory dumps are SPEED BUMPS and corrupt story flow. Following on the heels of cliche triggers is cliche backstory. Lunch with the wise old wizard, the ex-boxer turned private detective with retired or active cop friends and the magic fireplace/doorway/portal are stale. Wise old wizards who might be geezer horse farmers, okay. But the long cloaks and Love Potion #9? We can do better. Drop backstory into dialog or in pieces. Or at least dress it up in a clever way like Helen Simonton. Hackneyed photograph or staring at the fields backstory is exposed by an interruption or an intrusion by a third party. A formula that makes the dump situational and part of something. I’m sure she read the formula somewhere but she does it well. Better yet, let the characters tell us who they are by what they say and how they behave.

4 – Inside out sentences. I am guilty of this in draft mode. It can sound erudite, or stupid, or pontificating. None are as effective as straight ahead. An example would be the dreaded -ing simultaneous action. Putting on the goggles he walked out the door. Sounds like amateur writing night. Jackson put on the goggles as he walked out the door.

Inside out Example  – Jackson slammed the door behind him as he put on the goggles and walked out. You know sometimes it takes a dead eye to see that junk because when we read it, from ourselves or others, our brain fixes it. Slammed was the last, not the first thing, but we make sense out of it because it goes together. Sort of. I see this all the time.

5 – Echoes. Not just words but thoughts, behaviors, descriptions. Saying the same thing twice in different ways. Holy crap. My first time out I had an editor draw red lines through paragraphs with the note “you already said this two paragraphs ago. No need to reiterate, we got it.” That’s writerly ‘splaining. We want to be sure the reader got it so we do it again. I see that a lot in head time, not just narrative. An event happens, we see the characters’ reactions in the scene and then somebody has to take a stroll and explain it all over again for us in their head time.

6 – C’mon, it’s an even number and it’s perfect for this topic – Not knowing when to stop. Wanting to write that last line or two when it was done two lines ago. That’s another sort of ‘splaining I suppose, but I see it in chapter endings all the time. And it’s one of the things I have to go back and whack. When it’s done, it’s done. Example – “And then they packed up and went home” is nothing but extraneous BS word count. Hell, “then” is extraneous word count.

Expanded list – Selling philosophy/religion/agenda via dystopia or straight-up ‘fiction’ just flat pisses me off. If someone writes to sell me something they should mention it on the flap.

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NVDT #39 – If Not Now, When?

The Prompt – How soon is too soon to include an actual event in a fictional story

The average attention span is around 8 seconds. Down from 12 in 2000.

Which screws up content-based marketing. I have Addy’s for 29.5 (30 second) commercials. One had 36 cues. Bip Bam Boom. One was a gauzy, dreamy Mother’s Day ad for a chain of jewelry stores. I wonder if anyone ever heard the tag? Why bother with 29.5s? Because TV stations can’t stay alive selling 7-second ads.

That’s what, 4 ads in the space of 1 with some extra fade time? “FORDS! WE GOT ‘EM!” “FURNITURE! COME GET IT!” “FAT GUY PLUMBERS, ON TIME!” “HOT WINGS! CARRYOUT OR DELIVERY!”

Extend that content thought out to writing a new novel (which explains the plethora of plot holes and unexplained Red Herrings lately). My new book, please review – “Zombies. Lots of them. Fear. Chase. Blood and guts. More blood and guts. Screaming. Sex. More fear. Everyone dies. The end.

Our attention spans are so short we’ve blown off Covid 19 as a death sentence that hasn’t gone away, in favor of making sure we can get haircuts. And nachos. And exercise together in sweaty groups in closed rooms.

My answer – Whenever it suits you. Now is fine for whenever whatever happened or is happening.

Which begs the question – At what point or measure of time from an event does pop-culture fiction become historical fiction? A generation? Five years? Twenty years? When everyone who experienced it is dead? When kids weren’t born when it happened?

The old saying, roughly, is ‘wisdom is the distance from an experience to its understanding.’ Some events take longer than others to grasp their full magnitude, but is it a prerequisite that we understand a current event to use it for a tortilla to wrap around our story burrito?

The 7-second rule says “Nah.” You couldn’t write a YA about the Twin Towers because most of them wouldn’t know what the hell you were talking about. And you might offend some terrorists. Maybe YA’s know about Taylor Swift’s boob job or Demi Lovato’s latest overdose. Maybe. Don’t count on it, because some celebutante just tweeted about how she loves her new custom painted high top Converses. What was I saying?

Quick. What happened 7 seconds ago?

Gotcha.

 

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NVDT – Writerly Concerns #38

Hukt Awn Foniks Werkt Fur Mee

The prompt was – What are your pet peeves as regards grammar and spelling?

Do I have any? Definately. The little red lines under words are their for a reason.

Grammar (as word usage) and spelling should always be correct outside of dialog.

Possessives and plural’s like ladys and ladies except when convention has negated the rules as in mens room since it would be gender inequality for men to get the apostrophe and ladies not to. Or is would that be ladys? Or… Is it correct to say “Excuse me, I’m off to the men ( or women) room? Is that why there are so many nongender synonym workarounds for potty?

All that other punctuation stuff? Is it the week we put punctuation outside of quotes or not? I refuse to believe the first three words of every sentence are an introductory clause. Grammarly disagrees. Imagine that. I use commas for phrasing and timing like rests in music, not “correctly.” It drives English Professor types nuts. Two bad – because —

I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. – Elmore Leonard

I also believe the following true.

Here is a lesson in creative writing. The first rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. – Kurt Vonnegut

1) If it doesn’t work, even if it’s correct, rewrite or eliminate it.

2) If it needs a semicolon or some other oddball punctuation, re-write it. Use a period. Two short sentences do not make the author look stupid. Neither does whacking a couple of words here and there from two windy clauses that could be one good one. There is no sin in the simplicity of ‘Jim kicks Bill.’

Dialog is the exception. I said that already. Why? Good God y’all, people can and do talk some stoopid shit. The cops and crooks on true detective shows? The people newscasters interview who lived through a tornado in Oklahoma? Eyed put up an example but we’d be here all day.

You can’t have characters speaking perfectly but you also can’t cop out and have them speaking pidgin English like bad movie pirates. Dialect and patois, okay, to a point. But there is no reason to have characters speak like extras in Captain Blood. 

The point – Proper usage, conjugation, logical continuity, spelling should all be mandatory when committing writerly narrative to the page. Commas and that semicolon, em dashes (and their usage), ellipses (and the spaces before or after)…even quotation marks, are style choices. (As far as I’m concerned)

Why? Punctuation is something even the Grammar Nazis can’t agree on.

Yeah. Spelling, proper usage, and content – Definately.

Joke. What do divorces and tornados have in common in Oklahoma?

It’s for sure somebody’s gonna lose a double-wide.

 

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