Wednesday, August 31, 2011

16397--Even Kids Know That Sticks and Stones Can Break Your Bones

I was recently posed a question about Star Wars' imperial storm troopers.  It amounted to, "What good is their armor, anyway?"  As someone who has watched the films many times and would like to continue (if I can get the whole "evil Jedi" thing out of my mind), questions of this nature are fun intellectual exercises.  In this case, it doesn't take the most critical eye to realize that it's a valid query.

Whether clone troopers or storm troopers, the uniformly clad, high-tech soldiers strike quite an imposing sight.  Watch them closely though, and despite their genetic engineering and thorough training, their armor doesn't seem to be helping them much.  These crack soldiers aren't just falling to blaster fire and light sabers, but suffer humiliating defeat to an indigenous shih tzu-teddy bear population armed with sticks and stones.  Sticks and stones, really?  This is the best they've got?  Look tough, but end up with your head being used for a drum?  So, they sunk all that money into big ships and death stars and...what good is their armor, anyway?

Well, nerd that I will admit to being, I bought a series of informative, secret-revealing publications released between the original film trilogy releases back in the early eighties.  They were a mix of print and pictures on glossy paper and if you unfolded them, each one opened to reveal a poster.  I never hung mine and they're, of course, safely tucked away with my many many comic books.  From those appetite-whetting offerings, I remember that the lightweight armor was supposed to be able to reflect anything short of a straight-on laser shot.  Now we all know that good guys are inherently better shots than bad guys, but I still have to question that armor's laser-reflecting capability.  I'd sooner accept that that particular specification is imperial hyperbole.  Maybe as the number of troopers went up and armor production demands skyrocketed, some corners were cut so the armor quality suffered.  Certainly, the lightweight material doesn't seem to do much against blunt impacts.  What does that leave them? 

Those shell casings they keep their troopers wrapped in actually do provide important benefits that have nothing to do with traditional armor concepts of protecting from enemy attacks.  The white exterior does serve the purpose of reflecting ambient light and heat, thus helping to keep the soldier within cooler.  Inside the armor, the clone trooper can be kept comfortable inside a climate-controlled mini-environment.  Wherever you drop these guys across the empire, whether it's desert or jungle or frosty outside, they can stay as comfy as home.  Let's face it, a comfortable worker is an efficient performer so imagine how effective a stormtrooper can be if he never even has to break a sweat.  Ideally, I would also expect that they would be afforded at least limited protection against harmful gases, bugs and biological pathogens.  Suddenly, stormtrooping is more fun than camping.  It's not xenophobia, even if we do like to think of the imperial forces as bad guys.  Back on Coruscant, I'm sure the main senate building is equipped with all sorts of decontamination protocols.  When the soldiers are on the move, it's far more practical to wrap each one than to try disinfecting a planet.

The films also show us that the stormtrooper helmets contain communication equipment.  Rapid, clear communications with fellow soldiers can be vitally important.  I would also think that the standard gear would provide a considerable amount of audio-visual enhancement to the soldiers, making it worthwhile to wrap their heads in those helmets.  Additionally, if I were designing them, the helmets would also provide tactical information displays fed by the armor's computer systems.  Each trooper would be able to see an area map, know where his unit members were, see augmented reality, monitor vital signs (his own and his squad's) and even administer drugs.  That last one, I would expect to include things like painkillers and stimulants.  Depending on how much equipment one wanted to put into the armor, biological manipulations could be done bioelectrically through systems linked to the monitors.

So those stormtrooper suits aren't completely useless after all.  How about that?  Still, as impressive as they might seem in the lab, any squad still needs to be forewarned about any stick-toting, rock-throwing locals.  Any weapon or technology is only as formidable as the people behind it.

Are there any other modifications you think would be a "must have" for a soldier on the go?  Foot and calf massaging boots?  Waste recyclers?  Muscle augmentation?  Pez dispenser?  What are your thoughts?

Friday, August 26, 2011

16392--Lowering the Bar

I'm...wondering about us.  I'm not just wondering about a selective "us".  No, this time, I find myself concerned about the collective "us".

Stop rolling your eyes.  This is for your benefit, too.

Our stories are our mythologies.  They aren't strict histories, but they are tales of us and our culture.  They may be more telling now than any other time we know as we have not only local cultures, but grand global culture as well.  Tales of the global culture have grown and changed over the last few decades, with creators and audiences finding comfort in exploring greater levels of detail and emotional depth.

We have largely foresaken simplistic tales for those deemed more realistic.  As a result, we have populated our stories with protagonists and antagonists who find themselves sharing more traits with each other.  Antagonists who wear the mantle of tragedy or show some quality making them worthy of redemption have become most interesting.  Likewise, protagonists are heralded not for the heroic qualities they use to rise above crisis and conflict, but their own flaws over which they find triumph in spite of lest they be deemed lacking of sufficient dimensionality.  While we are certain we have gained previously unknown richness in our entertainment, have we done so at too great a cost to ourselves?

We have given ourselves protagonists increasingly willing to embrace internal darkness as part of their nature rather than as a part of their struggle.  Flaws have become less the uncertain footing for a hero to guard against and more the traction of his foundation.  A character like Superman has been deemed "too good" by many with his heroic ideals considered to be something to which we can no longer relate.  Many modern folk have come to champion Batman and Wolverine as examples of those with whom they can find greater comfort because of their darker aspects.  What are we saying about ourselves when we find that we're happier dealing with a hero who's a brooding alcoholic willing to take a few shortcuts to win the day than one who's willing to put other people's needs ahead of his own and make the right choices even though they're hard choices?  On what side of the line in the sand have we chosen to stand when we find more ready respect for a villain than a hero?

Have we lowered the bar too much?  In some ways, it seems we have.  I've become concerned for us because it has started to look like we are more comfortable with protagonists and antagonists who seem more realistic because of the challenges they don't represent rather than those that they do.  An antagonist we can understand is one we can possibly talk with rather than fight.  A protagonist who doesn't stand as too tall a role model, daunting us with lofty aspirations, makes us feel less inadequate but also gives us lower goals for which to reach.  Sadly, we're left lost and confused.

Remember the TV series "Heroes"?  It started off with decent energy, but lost its way as the most heroic heroes squandered their potential and became too flawed to function.  As that went on, the show's most villainous villains had themselves more put together than the heroes to the point that the baffled audience no longer knew for whom to cheer.  The show ended quietly, mercifully, as ratings fell along with interest.  On this side of the TV screen, we've likewise been battered with years of ridiculous presidential failures.  Some have been as simple as maligning English and the image of the office.  Others been more blatant machinations like lying to Congress and We the People, having the audacity to question the definition of "is" to avoid answers or engaging in complex criminal activities while investigators and whistleblowers die off in curious ways.  Flaws and shortcomings like these will apparently persist as long as we abide them.  Are they what we want?  We are the ones who've decided to hold people to a lowered standard.

I recently found myself ready to fight over one noted writer's notion that Superman was disliked because of his working-class background while Batman was loved for being a billionaire who beat up poor people, thus representing a wish fulfillment fantasy.  My vehement response included a recommendation that said writer had at the least become a victim of his self-professed drug use and could do far worse than to submit himself for psychiatric evaluation.  If surveyed regarding his opinions, I will obviously choose the "strongly disagree" option.  I don't think we've gone so far afield yet that we've completely lost sight of the "good guys versus bad guys" basics.

In a time when many of us have become more comfortable with celebrating mediocrity and comforting underachievers, however, it seems to be increasingly within reason that we would succumb to this brand of socialism that has us seeking our lowest common denominator.  That's the thing about socialism, though: you can bring everybody down, but you can't lift everyone up.  It seems odd and sad that many of us have given in to weariness, since we have so long held that our reach should exceed our grasp and aspired to better ourselves.  I know, though, that we know better than to merely surrender.  Just as satisfaction comes from achieving our goals, it wears on us to fail.  We have always set that standard of success as having the will to rise that one last time and to never stop striving to be more than we already are.  That's the heroism that blossoms from within us.  It fuels our strength to rise, our courage to be unselfish and our will to face our fears.  It brings none of us down and can lift everyone up.  That is a part of ourselves we must never relinquish or we resign ourselves to always being less than our best.

Oh, sure, a certain level of laziness, settling for less and reclining in comfort holds a basic physical appeal to us.  We need it.  This allows us to enjoy our rest from our efforts and relax.  There's a limit to how much of that we can handle, though.  That's the line where outright sloth begins.  Reaching for more is inherent in our psyche, a basic part of driving us to improve.  Looking at it closely, it still appears to be worth our efforts not to abandon anytime soon.  Daring ourselves to dream means not lowering the bar.  It means finding the strength to fight evils that are indeed evil and not merely misunderstood, just as it means allowing ourselves to feel worthy of heroes who are better, stronger and faster than we are so that we might learn to fly and continue to achieve ever-greater goals.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

16391--In Warm Blood (Ch. 11)

Happy Thursday. To help keep my own feet to the fire, I'm using Thursday as my public accountability day. That means, posting a bit of coherently creative output for you to read and feedback on every week. If I perform according to my own intent, what I put here will be available as a whole elsewhere at the same time or shortly after appearing here.

In Warm Blood is currently available as a part of The Official Private Eye Handbook, first book in the CITY OF MAGICK series.  Please, feel free to take a look here, though, and at subsequent chapters. Let me know how you feel about it.  For those of you finding your way here relatively late, no problem. The start of the story is just a click away.
Chapter 11

After a few hours in the hospital, Overknight was declared stable despite the impressive amount of blood she’d left in my car. They told me she’d probably be sleeping till morning. I convinced a couple of cops to guard her until her boss could get there. I also left a message for him that I’d gone out to play in traffic and that he should do the same.

I would’ve liked to keep an eye on Overknight myself and I was sure Cross and Peace would’ve preferred I’d stayed put, too, if I’d given them any say in it. Unfortunately, my rugged manliness was distracting too many of the ladies on-staff. Plus, my staying could’ve ended up drawing more heat where it didn’t need to be. Instead, I’d decided to test my theory that shooting galleries would be less popular if the targets shot back. I was very interested in getting Ferrari’s feedback on the subject.

It was starting to rain again. I flipped my collar up and decided to seek out a bartender I knew who usually seemed to be well-informed. It was a short drive from the hospital and there was a parking garage where I could get the Charger out of sight.

Then, as I walked toward the car, I saw a figure shuffling from a shadow. My hand moved for my .44 even as my eyes tried to focus on what seemed to be a hulking form, but then I realized was…about five-six and curvy. The lightning and the meager street lights revealed “Lana?” Some trick of the dark and the rain, I thought.

“Hi, Brick,” she said in her usual velvet tone as she approached.

It was Lana du Free, one of the smarter blondes I knew. I wasn’t usually a fan of odd coincidences. “Funny, I was just thinking I should come to see you. Funnier still, for a second I thought you were seven feet tall.”

“That is weird,” she said. “I’ve never been mistaken for more than six-five. Did you need a drink or info?”

“Both, gorgeous, but what’re you doing out here, especially on a night like this?”

“Well, I was looking for you, of course,” she smiled, continuing to walk with me toward my car. “That can wait, though. What did you need to ask me about, Brick?”

“Somewhere out there, Pietro Ferrari is violating bail, offending decency and making his mother cry. I need to find out where he’s hiding.”

“Well, of course you do, Brick,” Lana said. “With a guy like that gunning for you, who could expect you to do anything different? Certainly, you can’t let him keep you from finding the Unknown Box.”

“Yeah, he…The what? The box? How do you know about the box?” She laughed and did that hair-tossy thing I had seen her do a hundred times before.

“Silly, that’s nothing to worry about right now. Let me see what I can do to get you together with Ferrari.” She reached out a comforting hand, saying, “Then, that’ll be one less thing you have to take care of.”

“Thanks, Lana, I…I…” Ow! Felt some kind of sting…or…

“What’s wrong, Brick?”

“Feel…dizzy…hot…” My head was pounding. “…weak…” What was happening? What had she done? I couldn’t even reach for my gun again. I probably couldn’t have held it if I…I felt the ground hit me in the head.

“Oh, poor tough guy,” I heard her laugh, but it sounded deep and distorted.

My blurry vision was going dark as I felt her lift me from the ground and hoist me over her shoulder. She was stronger than I’d thought. Well, if she was going to hold a grudge over a few hundred “dumb blonde” jokes, she had definitely blown her next tip.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

16390--Flies Gotta Fly, Bees Gotta Be and Writers Gotta Write

My grandfather used to say, "The jobs that come looking for you are better than the ones you have to go find."  I suppose that means writers are among the blessed because it is certainly something which seeks us more than it is sought.  There are those who could also make an arguement that writers are among the cursed or afflicted because writing well is hard work.

Even when words come easily, if we're doing what we do properly, we're particular about the choice of each one.  We have time for reflection about those choices.  We can take the time to struggle with placement of sentences, whether to use one or two, and how everything needs to be punctuated. Then, of course, there's the issues of paragraphs and transitions.  Next thing you know, you've been using your brain for hours.  Don't let anyone tell you differently: that's work.  To compound the issue, your brain uses the lion's share of your caloric intake.  The rest of your body is just a complicated system for keeping it fed and alive.

Part of the problem, for writers, is that the definition of "good writing" not only varies depending on the target media (short stories, editorials, blogs, poems, movies, comics, etc.), but also with the opinions of each audience member.  Back in junior high school, I was told my fiction writing was very good.  In high school, no matter how much my fiction was enjoyed, our English teachers stressed that our essays had to be longer and more dense.  Those of us who wanted the best grades wrote more.  In college, though, that rule changed and the emphasis became to write less.  One of my first essays for the appropriately named Dr. Dyer (dire) was mercilessly bloodied by his red pen.  Entire paragraphs were cut and in one margin he left a madman's scrawl that asked, "Don't you ever edit?"  Well, that wasn't really something I'd been taught, but he went to work on that.  He had all the finesse of a brick going through plate glass: not charming, but effective.

Another of my college's English teachers returned a paper with an assessment and a warning.  "I see you've got some real flair and creativity in your writing.  We're going to crush that right out of you."  Wow.  Yeah, I took that as a warning and I took it to heart.  The self-defense part of my brain decided it would be best to engage in a different course of study where the creative bits of my scribblings would be encouraged.

I found my way there, but the thing is: writing is work.  No matter how long you do it, it's still work.  Part of the tricky thing is, there's more to it than just writing.  There's also editing and recruiting others to help you do those things.  If you're planning to cultivate a broad audience, there's marketing involved and that's something the writer needs to take an active part in because no one else knows as much about whatever's been written as the writer.

So, write write and write some more, proofread, edit, rewrite, recheck that research, rewrite some more...Practice may make you better, but it doesn't make the task easier.  The hundreth hole you dig takes just as much digging as the first and writing is always writing and laden with all manner of extra bits. 

It seems simple at first glance, but it's bigger on the inside.  That's something most of us don't find out till we're deep in it, but that's just something we have to deal with.  We're writers, after all.  It's not like we were going to be doing something else, anyway.

Friday, August 19, 2011

16385--Why Your Characters Want What They Want

Whether it's 3 for $5, 4 for $1, the 6- or 10-piece deal, or buy one get free, it seems we all want to get more for our money.  No one ever says, "I want less bang for my buck" or even just "I want bang for my buck."  We want more bang for our buck.

Admittedly, I don't have a degree in the subject, but I've done my fair share of amateur anthropology.  Years ago, I noticed two differences that stood out in discoveries about Neanderthal and Cro-magnon man.  First was that Neanderthal territory shrunk over time and Cro-Magnon territory expanded over time.  The second thing, that I suppose seemed like more of a big deal to me, was that while both species made tools, the products were different.  Allow me to elaborate...

Neanderthal tools that were dug up showed that they were bright and resourceful enough to make all the same basic items to which we're accustomed.  They had the hammer and spear and hand axe, as expected.  What was most interesting about their tools, though, was that once they had the tool figured out, that was the only way it was ever made.  For thousands of years (yes, thousands--think about that), every tool was made in the same way it had always been.

Now, when digging up Cro-magnon remains, the drastic difference appeared.  Despite similar brains, Cro-magnon tools looked like they had taken a trip down to Fred Flintstone's local Sears.  They had the 120-piece toolkits, containing differently sized and shaped variations of every useful thing they could think of to make.  Cro-magnon man was innovative.  These were the guys who were moving their camps around year after year to find out what was over the next hill and swarm all over the world.  These are the guys who followed a career path that carried them on to become modern man.

What did I learn?  What did those primitive butt-scratchers pass along to their modern children that matters to how life is lived today?

I realized that if I could sum it up in one neat package it would be this: more.

That's it.  "More" is the motto.  What did they say in Wall Street?  "Greed is good."  In practice, enough is never enough.  More profit is sought.  More territory is sought.  More for our money is sought.  We're on a ceaseless quest for more of anything we want, whether that's sex, food, money, cars, living space or stuff to fill the space with.  Good luck communicating the concept of "non-renewable resources" to a population hard-wired for "more".  To them, we'll never run out of anything because the very concept of "more" means there's always "more" to be sought and obtained.

We place great value on friendship and tout that a best friend is a special and precious thing, but how many people have ever trumpeted having one Facebook friend?  How many Twitter followers are enough?  I guarantee you that a company that makes a $10 billion profit one year will set a higher profit goal for its sales force the next year.

People want to "have it all"'s more!  Those who get it still won't be happy because it's not enough.  That's what more is all about and five hundred hours of psychotherapy are not about to change millenia of evolution that's still working.  It pushes us to go forth and strive for lofty goals.  What will most parents tell you they want for their children?  More than the parent had.

Do you know why we have morphine and cocaine today?  Because neither addicting a third of China to opium nor being able to work vigorously at high altitudes by chewing on a coca leaf were enough to satisfy us.  Somebody had to have...more!

OK, so the secret's out.  You can stop feeling guilty over striving and questing, etc.  If you're writing, you now know what drives your characters (assuming you didn't already) to pursue their specific motivations.  If they're human, that antagonist wants more [blank] and even the protagonist wants more [blank] unless your hero is very odd or even inhuman.  That's part of what will make them seem more than a mere two-dimensional simulation and take on the feel of real people.  Fill them up with enough of that drive and they may even seem obsessed.  Watch what they do then.

Is there something in particular for you for which there's never enough?  Does that carry into your writing?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

16384--In Warm Blood (Ch. 10)

Happy Thursday. To help keep my own feet to the fire, I'm using Thursday as my public accountability day. That means, posting a bit of coherently creative output for you to read and feedback on every week. If I perform according to my own intent, what I put here will be available as a whole elsewhere at the same time or shortly after appearing here.

In Warm Blood is currently available as a part of The Official Private Eye Handbook, first book in the CITY OF MAGICK series.  Please, feel free to take a look here, though, and at subsequent chapters. Let me know how you feel about it.  For those of you finding your way here relatively late, no problem. The start of the story is just a click away.
Chapter 10

I didn’t expect Heliopolis would be easy to penetrate. Her killer deserved as much of a chance as he’d given to Whitney: to not see me coming at him. I needed time to plan how I was going after White. Home seemed like the best place for that, even with the kiddie cops. Despite his name, Homer got lost three times on the drive. We stopped for some take-out and I drove us back to my building. I parked in the underground garage.

“Why are we parking down here, Brick?” Homer asked.

“I don’t like being bothered with getting in and out of here usually, but this way we have a better chance of not being seen.”

“Increased odds of making it to sunrise sounds good to me,” Overknight offered. “Homer, if you go on ahead and make sure it’s clear, we’ll follow with the pizzas.”

“I’ll send the elevator back down,” Homer said.

“You getting cautious in your old age?” I asked.

“DeBrave goes by-the-book. If you want to reach old age,” she said, “just let us do our job, Brick.”

“I’m not stopping you,” I said. “Ferrari signed on with the forces of evil a long time ago. Bombs and mayhem are the man’s style. They’re what he knows. On the up side, it makes him predictable.”

“Yeah, but he’s known for car bombs, Brick,” Overknight said. “He’s got a guy who specializes in it.”

“How nice that must be for him. Some people just drift, never knowing where their true talents lie.” The elevator didn’t take long to come back down, so we started the ride up to meet Homer. About halfway up to my floor, there was a thunderous rumble. The elevator shuddered and the lights flickered. Overknight and I looked at each other. I reached for my gun.

“We’ve got to stop the elevator, Brick!” she shouted, dropping the pizzas and lunging for the control panel. “I’ve got to get you out of here!”

“No way,” I told her, blocking the panel of buttons. “We can’t just leave Homer behind, especially not when we‘re already on the way up.”

“Our job is to protect you,” she demanded. “He knew the job was dangerous when he took it, remember? You’re supposed to be cooperating, remember?”

“Not with the bad guys,” I told her. “If you want to protect me, get your gun out and clear your head because I’m going to check on your partner.”


“Don’t try talking me out of it,” I said. “Dinner’s already a bust. Now I’ve got an appetite for action.”

“Fine,” she said, staring coldly at the doors as she pulled her pistol. “Just don’t be a wuss and die on me.”

The look in her eyes, on her face, said that she was ready to kill. We were about to hit my floor when I asked, “You sure you’re ready to rumble?”

“Fine time to ask,” she said. “Yeah, I‘m ready, Brick. Let‘s bring the pain.”

“Anytime.“ The doors slid open. Sprinklers were pouring their icy rain down into the smoky hallway. Emergency lights and flickering flames were our only help as we kept low and approached my apartment. Alarm bells rang in the distance as I told her, “Stay low and sharp.”

“I know my job!” she snapped back. “You’re not my first dance partner, Brick.”

We reached the flaming hole that used to be my new door. We also saw what was left of Homer amongst the charred rubble.

“Bastards! Alright,” Overknight said, grabbing my coat sleeve, “Homer’s beyond help and we need to get out of here. You have any neighbors we need to help get out?”

My neighbors? No, they’ve learned to keep their heads down when the loud noises start.”

“Which way are the stairs?” she asked.

Ironically, the stairwell door opened just then and a goon squad started pouring into the hall with guns blazing. “Down!” I told Overknight, knocking her to the floor as I returned fire. She started shooting back along with me, but it was pretty clear that we were outgunned.

“Give it up, Stone! Make it easy on yourselves!”

I couldn‘t fault their strong negotiating position, just their logic. “Forget it, punk!” I snapped back at him. “Cowardice sickens me and I don’t even know how to surrender. Brick Stone is not French!”

“You’re going down!” someone else shouted, opening fire from the opposite end of the hallway.

Through the smoke, I saw one of the walls rippling like water as men with guns charged through it and into the hall. We had been outflanked with another shadow portal, just like in the alley. Then Overknight took a bullet in the shoulder and dropped her gun. As she picked up the gun with her left hand, I hit her with a tackle that sent us tumbling to the floor just inside my apartment. Another second and the weakened floor collapsed, dropping us into the apartment below what was left of mine. Whoever’s it was, it looked like they had just become as homeless as I had. Above us, the sounds of shooting continued.

“Ow,” Overknight moaned. “Not sure what hurt worse: getting shot, tackled or the fall. Is the building collapsing?”

“Just a little. Some fun, huh?” I asked her. “I don’t think they’ve realized they’re shooting at their own guys yet.”

“What’s your next brilliant move?” she asked me.

“Well, salvaging my security deposit’s a lost cause, so I get you to the hospital,” I told her, helping her to her feet. “Hold your hand over that hole and try not to go into shock.” She was losing a lot of blood. We had to move fast.

“Somebody has to watch your back,” she said as we staggered to the elevator. “Ferrari’s obviously gotten desperate.”

“Don’t worry about me,” I told her. “I’m fine. You’re the one who’s leaking. People who hang around me have a nasty habit of having bad things happen to them.”

“Yeah, me, too, but we knew the job was dangerous--”

“No, I’m going to go share the misfortune with Ferrari,” I said. “After I take care of you, I’m going to go find him and watch bad things happen to him.”

What?” she asked as we started back down to the garage in the elevator.

“Oh, no, your hearing’s going. I said--”

“No, Brick,” she insisted. “You were right: you can‘t just go after Ferrari! It’s suicide!

“Overknight…Jen, what happened to all that fire and spunk? I can take care of myself…and Ferrari, too.”

“Let Cross handle it, Brick,” she said weakly. “It’s too dangerous.”

“One little scratch and you start sounding all wussy,” I told her. “I’d watch that if I were you. You’ll make people start to wonder if you’re just all talk.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “You mean, they might confuse me for you?”

“You should be so lucky.” She hadn’t lost her sense of humor, but that wasn’t keeping her from getting as pale as Whitney. By the time I got her to my car, she was barely conscious. The Charger’s tires screamed and the engine roared as we sped back out into the city streets.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

16377--In Warm Blood (Ch. 9)

Happy Thursday. To help keep my own feet to the fire, I'm using Thursday as my public accountability day. That means, posting a bit of coherently creative output for you to read and feedback on every week. If I perform according to my own intent, what I put here will be available as a whole elsewhere at the same time or shortly after appearing here.

In Warm Blood is currently available as a part of The Official Private Eye Handbook, first book in the CITY OF MAGICK series.  Please, feel free to take a look here, though, and at subsequent chapters. Let me know how you feel about it.  For those of you finding your way here relatively late, no problem. The start of the story is just a click away.

Chapter 9

Down on the south side, the security on the front door of The Griffin was diligent and made the entry line long and slow. Rather than bother with the mass of lemmings that dragged themselves out to drink and dance the night away, we entered through the stage door at the rear of the building. Blending in with some of the people going in the back was simple. Once we mixed in, acting like we belonged backstage got us to where we needed to be. We had to push through lots of people that seemed to be oblivious to getting in anyone else’s way. There were young and old, pretty and tough-looking, colorful and grungy, which I think were the ones responsible for the stronger smells, but we did get there: the dressing room of a band called “Once Upon a Time.” “OUT is in” their fans liked to chant.

Homer got to the door first and chose to knock then enter, rather than kick the door in or let me kick the door in. Once again, my teachings went unlearned. It saddened me a little and I sighed as Overknight and I followed him in. We walked into an odd mix of new smells. Looking around, I could see it was the smoke from different incenses and cigarettes that made my nostrils sting, but it seemed to counter the smells from outside the room.

There were a couple of assistants, working on whatever their tasks were, while the other two guys and three girls seemed to be more relaxed as they looked at themselves in mirrors or checked their guitars or tapped drumsticks or talked about their upcoming show. I couldn’t tell who was ready to go onstage and who wasn’t. Obviously, the three of us stood out from them as much as they looked different from us. After all, they were supposed to be “The Realm’s Most Dangerous Band” according to all their posters.

“Hey, who called for an order of cops?” the guy with the drumsticks asked as I shut the door behind us.

“I ordered Chinese, man,” one of the guitarists said.

“Good evening,” Homer said, flashing his badge. “We just have a few questions that should only take a few minutes and we can get out of your way again.”

“Be quick, man. We’re on in fifteen.”

“Fifteen? That’s barely enough time to finish these off,” one of the guitar players proclaimed, holding up a half-empty bottle of whiskey. “Grab some glasses, officers. Help us out.”

“It wasn’t me, chief. I got an alibi.”

“She said she was seventeen, I swear!” another guitarist said, letting the first refill his glass.

Funny bunch. “Robin Diana Wilson,” I said with a little more volume and authority.

“Oooooh,” a few of them chanted.

“Sounds like trouble for the girl wonder,” one of the band’s girls taunted the one beside her.

“I guess that would make you her,” I said to the brunette sitting in the barber chair with her back to the mirror.

“No need for all that,” she said, downing the rest of her drink and handing the glass to her hair stylist. “You don’t look nuthin’ like my daddy. He was th’only one in the habit of usin’ all three, and then only when he was riled.”

“But it is your name,” Homer confirmed.

“Robin Elektra now,” she said.

“They must not be fans, Robin.”

“You came into The City on a work visa as a musician, what, five years ago?” Homer continued to probe.

“Yeah, from north Texas,” she responded. “What of it? You came here to take surveys at the mall and look at you now: asking big boy questions. Your parents must be so proud.”

“Alright, look,” I stepped in, “we don’t have five years for Homer to catch up to current events and get to the point of this.”

“Awww and I was just starting to have fun,” Elektra said, pushing out her full lower lip in a mock pout as she finished.

“I’m sure you were,” I said, “that’s rock and roll, but one of my ass pains is that I need to find Stark White. One of yours is me until you get me heading in the right direction.”

She laughed and said, “I agree, he is an ass pain. He must’ve stolen something really pricey this time. Let me guess: something rare and magical.”

“Yeah, a woman’s life,” I said, shoving Whitney‘s amethyst pendant into her hand. “He ambushed her with a sniper rifle and a magic bullet and shot her down in the street.”

“Holy shit,” Elektra whispered as the room got even quieter. She stared down at the Monarch’s Hope, sparkling in her supple hands. “I..I guess he’s finally lost it. He’s been a selfish piece of crap for years…but I never thought…I never thought he’d go that far.” Elektra was getting more agitated, sitting there shaking her head in disbelief as she stared into the purple light. Her deep red lips trembled. “Hell, I even thought he might straighten out and become a decent guy one day, but…”

“It looks like this is news has become upsetting for you,“ I said. I had learned that sometimes it could be helpful in an interrogation to act sympathetic. “It’d probably help you feel better if you just start spewing info…and then we can bounce and you can go do your little show.”

“Hang on,” she said, holding out a hand to one of the young men on the far side of the large dressing room. “Covenant, can you hit me with the Divinity?”

“Sure, Rob,” he said, opening his hand to let an oddly shaped liquor bottle levitate across the room to her.

“Divinity?” Homer asked. “Draught of the Divinity--”

“Turn your head, stiff,” Elektra said firmly, “or wait outside. You want my help or not?”

“Let this one go, Homer, OK?” Overknight asked her grumbling partner. “Murder investigation. We‘re prioritizing.”

“I-I knew he…was getting worse…,” she said, taking a swig of the blue intoxicant with one hand and wiping hot tears from her cheek with the other. “Back when he first showed up around dad’s saloon, he just seemed like another guy that wanted to make a buck and get into my pants.”

“And you fell in love and--”

“Y’know, I never did,” Elektra told us. “Dad and I loved music. It’s got a magic all its own. It touches hearts and souls,“ she said, crying some more as she handed the Monarch’s Hope back to me. “Dad tried to explain that to him, but the fool could never feel that. Still, he got obsessed with the idea of chasing down magic and using it to make his life better. He took off to squeeze whatever he could out of the world. After dad died, it was just me. I finally let the saloon go and let my love for music bring me here. Lucky me, the last guy I ever wanted to see again had already beat me here.”

One of her friends handed her a tissue.

“Last time he got pinched, though, he called you,” Homer said. “He called a lot. What’s he to you?”

“He’s no friend of mine,” Elektra said firmly.

“Obviously,” Overknight said, “they used to date.”

“Hey, she’s good,” Elektra said. “It was only two dates, oh, no…one. He dropped in on me while I was at lunch once, ate half my food and said he owed me dinner, so we went out once. You guys should let her talk more. She‘s sharp.”

“We have to pay her by the word,” I said. “Keep going.”

“Yeah, well, my would-be boyfriend’s real name is Matt Stark and he called me way too much,” Elektra confirmed. “Fortunately, I realized years ago that he was a greedy SOB with

zero soul. All he ever cared about people was what he could get out of them for himself. I never knew him as more than a conniving weasel. He’d lie and steal to get whatever caught his eye, but if he’s started killing people…wow…Anyway, I finally went downtown to tell them to put him someplace with no phones…or lights. That’s when I found out about the new name and the newfound ambition. He cooled his heels for a while, but he did a favor for somebody connected while he was in, so--”

“He exploited it to become a bigger bad guy when he got out,” I said. “He probably started working for one of the rising bosses. He‘s definitely fast-tracked way beyond petty theft.”

“Yeah, the next time I saw him,” Elektra said, “he’d ditched the Harley, the boots, the denim and had started doing dirtier deeds to build bigger piles of money. He was trying to show-off with a gold limo, cash, shinies and a suit worth more than his narrow ass. He still turned my stomach, though, so I took that as a strong sign to send him on his way again.”

“Any idea where he went when you sent him off?” I asked.

“Or maybe he mentioned whose organization he’d joined?” Homer asked.

“No on the who,” Elektra said. “As for where, he bragged about a great view. He offered a phone number…He offered a lot of things, but I didn‘t want anything more to do with him. He was still obsessed with magic. He still wanted my dad‘s old harmonica,” she said, holding up a polished brass and chrome harmonica, “but neither of us would ever let him have it.”

“I see,” I said.

“Brick, doesn’t Heliopolis use gold limos?” Overknight asked me.

“Heliopolis…Yeah,” I said, “that’d fit. It’s one of the tallest luxury hotel casinos in town. That‘d account for the great view worth bragging about.”

“A crooked casino with housing for organized criminals,” Homer said.

“Don’t be a sore loser,” I told him. “I’m sure you’d have lost money in an honest casino, too, Homey.”

“Hey, I’ve got a system!” Homer protested.

“Anyway, that sounds like a good place to look for him next. Thanks for the time and the help. Have a good show.”

“You want to show your gratitude?” Elektra asked, her voice turning grim. “Find a way to put that dog down before he hurts anyone else and we‘ll call it even.”

“I promise you, White’s high on my priority list,” I said. “His time’s been running out since he put a hole in somebody close to me.”

“Oh,” Elektra said softly, sympathy in her eyes, “I’m sorry I hadn‘t realized. The girl he shot…you two were close?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “She was standing right next to me. Now, come on, you two. We’ve got a busy night ahead.”

Monday, August 8, 2011

16374--Fantasy Suggests, Reality Dictates and Household Maintenance Endures

I'd say the dishes are done, but that wouldn't really be true.  I don't think any cleaning is ever done.  It's a cyclical thing.  You can have low points in the cycle, but it never has an end.  That's a basic reality.  This is probably why some people find it so appealing to thrive on take-out food.  That feeds the fantasy of avoiding the persistent drudgery of household maintenance.

As a dad, domestication is more of a requirement.  Household maintenance doesn't just mean taking care of the trash and yard work.  Today, it was taking care of dishes and laundry and sick wife and cooking everyone a breakfast they would eat.  Finicky kids are funny: they'll eat any sweet processed crap a cereal company stuffs into a colorful box, but when someone upon whom their life depends goes into the kitchen and lovingly prepares a custom meal for them they get picky.  Part of being a domesticated dad is learning to fight the urge to unleash swift and blinding violence against the people around you when they become annoying.

"Awww...I don't like this."
"Yes, you do."
"No, I don't."
"You ate it yesterday.  You loved it."
"I'm not hungry."
"You said you were hungry five minutes ago."
"I'm not hungry."
"Just eat it."
*unintelligible grunt* accompanied by a pronounced slouch
"Fine, just pout then."

Noise?  That's just the sound of my internal conflict becoming external, why?  It only sounds like my forehead bouncing off the wall. 

Back when I was single, I had absolutely no responsibility to feed people who annoyed me or even just couldn't decide what they wanted to eat.  If my friends and I got together on the weekends and my turn came up to make a food run, the guys learned quickly to make decisions on what they wanted.  When I got on my feet and pointed my finger, I asked the question "What do you want?" and expected an answer from these people who claimed to be hungry and had me going to get them food.  "Uh..." earned a response of "Nothing for you" and I moved on to the next guy in the poll.  Imminent starvation does wonders for reactivating a society-addled survival instinct.

I'm not a fan of coddling children.  "I don't want spoiled milk," I've always said, "why would I want spoiled kids?"  I've been assured there's a law against throwing them out when they go bad on you.  I trust my mom, so I'm willing to take her at her word, but I also recognize that she carries some bias.  Still, she knows how I feel.  Hey, she took part in raising me, so she's responsible for some of it.  In fact, on my birthdays, I call her to wish her a "Happy Mother's Day" and thank her for not caving in the back of my head with a rock when she had the chance.  Still, we all want our kids to be able to survive out of the nest, but we also want them to have a reasonably comfortable path getting to that point.  Some of them appreciate it and others don't.  A lot of them are clueless.

I've got one video game junkie who's halfway through teenage.  He seems to have decided that I need to teach him humility.  I wouldn't say he has much of an interest in it and he doesn't seem to enjoy it, but at least it makes me laugh.  Like many teens, he seems to think he's smarter, stronger, tougher, etc. than he is.  I think they go through that sort of thing because their growth has them more developed than they've ever been.  It goes to their teen heads, swelling them.  That really seems to make mine hate facing that dad actually is smarter, stronger, tougher, etc. than he is.  The stark reality threatens the gossamer edges of his bubble made from fantasy and denial. 

What can I do, though?  We're like the BEFORE and AFTER pictures in the old Charles Atlas ads.  I can count his ribs, weigh more than twice what he does, can bench press more than three times what he can and my shirts fit him like bedsheets.  When we watch Jeopardy!, his favorite answer is "Uh..."  and I can certainly do his homework better than he can (not that I would do it for him).  I'm a writer, but I get up and do things, too.  He's a kid and he'll stay in bed till noon if he's allowed to.  There's no part of my mind that says my acting like Clark Kent for the sake of his ego is a good idea.

As long as he can keep them to himself, I'm easy-going enough to let him have his fantasies most days.  Kids use fantasy as part of their growth process.  It helps them deal with reality in controlled doses.  It's similar to the way we grown-ups shield them from certain things till we feel they're old enough to deal with them.  So I let him have his a point.  I try to restrain myself from crushing fragile little egos (we want them out of the nest, not curled in a ball in the corner), so I try not to rub his nose in too much reality as long as he doesn't get out of line.  Sometimes, though...well, teenage boy.  Which means, he asks for it.  He doesn't always realize he's doing it, but he does ask for it.

One of the ways a lot of kids learn the limits between their delicate fantasies and our collective reality is to push at the borders.  When that becomes dangerous or just irksome (which I think most parents are probably familiar with), the "teachable moment" flag goes up and parenting time starts.  I used to have a plan for my rambunctious charge to dig himself a hole in the back yard that was deep enough for him to stand in, then have him stand in it while I filled it back in up to his neck.  The last part involved waiting to see how long it took him to break.  Mom, again, said I wouldn't be allowed to do that either.  Another dream fell, shattered.  Well, not really shattered, since I keep it tucked away in one of my happy places.  That means I have to be creative when the parenting balloon goes up.  It also means the kid is not going to enjoy it, but there's no reason for me (the parent) to miss an opportunity for some fun.  When it's your turn, trust me, run with it.  It's part of household maintenance.  It helps keep you, the parent, happy.  Plus, the earlier you deal with...whatever, the happier you'll be in the long run.

Was I ever that bad?  Mom says I wasn't and we've already established that, despite her bias, I trust her.  I was an odd child, preferring to stay in reading and writing even after being licensed to drive.  I grew into an odd adult, but my wife says she's happier that I do this rather than eat pork rinds, drink beer and watch sports.  Admittedly, it means that I do lack some of the exact experiences to draw upon for ammunition, but I've managed to learn a few things about human nature.  For one thing, I'm waiting for the day when each boy will decide it's time to do the Man Dance.  Not all boys have that day, but I've heard that many do.  As a coming-of-age moment, the Man Dance is that special time in a young one's life when he decides it's his time to stand up and challenge his dad, usually because that swelled teen head has gotten the better of him.  It usually ends up with a boy's bubble being burst by reality.

Children also seem to have the ability to poke at my love and compassion in a way that triggers my concern for their lack of developed sensibilities.  Sadly, the kids don't seem to have developed a sense of appreciation for my sarcastic wit.  It can make the life lessons take a little longer and I have to deal with "Huh?" a lot.  I've gotten pretty good at sighing...and shaking my head...and communicating with a stern stare.  Still, I persist.  My brain clings to the idea that it will someday be able to awaken our children's brains.  It has something to do with there being a joy to teaching that brings satisfaction to the soul, I think.  Did I mention the part where it's funny, too?  When I hear the words "Thanks, dad," couched in a distinctive tone of exasperation, I know my work is done.

And when I say "done", I recognize that it's a cyclical thing.  Kids can only handle so much teaching at once and I don't think there's ever an end.  That's just the reality.  Of course, there are days when the teaching/learning part seems that it might be the fantasy.

I feel a sigh coming.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

16370--In Warm Blood (Ch. 8)

Happy Thursday. To help keep my own feet to the fire, I'm using Thursday as my public accountability day. That means, posting a bit of coherently creative output for you to read and feedback on every week. If I perform according to my own intent, what I put here will be available as a whole elsewhere at the same time or shortly after appearing here.

In Warm Blood is currently available as a part of The Official Private Eye Handbook, first book in the CITY OF MAGICK series.  Please, feel free to take a look here, though, and at subsequent chapters. Let me know how you feel about it.  For those of you finding your way here relatively late, no problem. The start of the story is just a click away.

Chapter 8
I was almost starting to enjoy having been saddled with an entourage, probably because my escorts had become distinctively useful. Without them I would’ve had to bribe my way into the morgue or wait till Monday to check on Heather Morgan’s body. On top of that, I wouldn’t have to jump through hoops to get access to the medical examiner’s report and, if that ended up being inconclusive, any of the findings of the supplemental examinations that were determined to be warranted. How hard it would be to get the supplemental reports could depend on a lot of factors, from the weather to the time of the month or what kind of mood any of the examiners (psychic, alchemist, wizard) happened to be in that day. I probably wouldn’t even have to bribe the night morgue attendant, who I was pretty sure was one of the undead vampire minions of the medical examiner. It was almost refreshing to have the kiddie cops removing obstacles rather than being obstacles.

“Well, Heaven?” Overknight probed of the very pale, vaguely Asian woman. “Anything to report?”

“Please, we’ve just met,” the morgue attendant said, coldness in her voice and her dark eyes.

I didn’t usually find the pretense of such formality lurking under pink-striped hair. People in clerical positions using customer needs to squeeze extra respect out of a situation, though, that I found a lot. She wasn’t picking up a bribe for doing her job, so I figured it was no big deal to give in on the formality thing.

“Our apologies, Miss Lee,” I said. “We’re really trying to put some pieces of a case together.”

“I understand,” the morgue attendant said from behind her clipboard. “It’s really a simple concept: you have your job and I have mine. At this point, mine is to say that I can‘t help you.”

“We really need to view that body,” Overknight insisted.

“And I can’t help you with that,” Lee firmly told us again.

“What’s the problem?” I asked her. ’Is there some form we need to fill out or--?”

“I can’t show you the body because it’s not here,” she explained. “It never was. I have a Jack Morgan, but no Heather. I’m even out of Jane Does.”

“You’re sure she’s dead?” Lee asked. “Lotsa folks in this town aren’t as dead as some folks think they are.”

“True,” I conceded, “the body counts do get a little tricky from time to time, but I put this one down myself. She wasn’t moving again under her own power.”

“Anyone else you might want to see that you think could help?” Lee asked.

“You got a weasel-looking guy named Grayson?” I asked Miss Lee.

“Yeah, he’s full of holes,” Lee said.

“That’s the one,” I confirmed. “We don’t need to see him. Glad he’s here, though.”

“But not as glad as if we could see the other,” Overknight said.

“Well, they should’ve all come in together,” I explained.

“So you’re maintaining that her absence means either someone carried her off or magicked her off?” Overknight asked.

“Pretty much, yeah.,” I replied. “I do know how to put holes in people.”

“Great,” morgue girl said, “are we done playing cher chez la femme here?”

“Here, yes,” I answered. “Thanks for your time, Miss Lee.”

You may call me ‘Heaven’,” she said, sliding a business card into my shirt pocket. “I saw you in the newspapers. It looked like you’re into some wild stuff. You should call me.”

I sighed.   It was like being haunted by myself.

“I might have a lead,” Homer said, coming into the morgue’s examining room.

“Do tell,” Overknight said.

“I just got off the phone with a friend over at Central Records,” Homer said. “We were having an informative chat about…the other lead…your sniper.”

“Stark White. Great,” I said. “We should talk about that in the car.”

16369--Truth Like a Cleansing Fire

A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh is a very wise bear.  I say this with complete security in my adultness.  Pooh or Edward Bear to those in the know, is one of my favorite children's book and cartoon characters.

Despite Pooh's natural simplicity and subtley brilliant insights, he is not alone in bringing enlightenment to the Hundred Acre Wood and the world beyond.  He has a different approach to Life than friendly Pooh, but Eeyore brings to us a level of directness and honesty that one seldom finds in any book for children.

The first time I ever read "Bouncy or coffy, it's all the same at the botttom of the river", I knew with certainty that that grim, gray little quadriped with the unreliable tail was definitely not one who would sugar-coat anything.  All I could say was "wow" because there was a voice that wasn't shy about the truth.  How many people do any of us know who cuts to the heart of any matter with so sharp a knife.  Eeyore is nothing short of a bracing slap in the face as a member of the rainbow of personalities found in Christopher Robin's menagerie.

I think Eeyore's unique perspective, while stark, definitely makes a special contribution.  Granted, Eeyore would make a dazzling critic ("We can't all, and some of us don't. That's all there is to it."), but his voice also provides a brilliantly balancing commentary for an audience that encompasses a wide age-range and knows the world isn't all sunshine.  As the little donkey said, "Being fine today doesn't mean anything.  It may hail a good deal tomorrow--blizzards and whatnot."

At first glance, perpetually depressed Eeyore may seem like a pessimist, but he's actually just terribly pragmatic and sometimes the only one around who's prepared for dealing with the worst.  "They're funny things, accidents.  You never have them till you're having them."  When Life starts hitting the fan, Eeyore handles things better than FEMA.  Still, you'll never find Eeyore caught up in "I told you sos" or any other such behavior so lacking in humility.  No, he's strictly a "Thanks for noticing me" sort, utterly unassuming.  In his quietness, Eeyore seems passive, yet he also possesses a gentle strength inherent to his donkey nature.

There's a great feeling of respect that accompanies the willingness to convey such total honesty.  Conversely, I believe such Eeyore-ness is likewise deserving of an equal level of respect.

Monday, August 1, 2011

16367--I Don't Trust My German Shepard to Watch My Food Either

Based on reputation and writings that have come down to us over time, I've been well-trained to believe that George Washington was a decent man and a respectable president.  Thinking more freely, I've never seen him as perfect and I'm quite vocal about my certainty that one of the qualities that made him a great president was that he didn't want the job.  He did a job that he was convinced his people needed him to do and when it was time, he walked away.  Despite his other flaws, at least he wasn't a politician.

For over a hundred years now, anyone still alive and who's been paying attention has been able to see the strings of politicians manipulated by titans of banking and industry.  What does that benefit the people politicians are supposed to be serving?  Still waiting to see an upside.  That's probably because I'm biased by the fact that I don't trust a single one of them.  When I think of politicians, there's not one flattering adjective that comes to mind.  I think they're trying to wear us down to the point that we actually believe that if we just give them everything we work for and ask for nothing in return, they'll hand us a perfect society (even though they'd actually still be plotting against us).  Fortunately, I don't think we're quite there yet.

Unfortunately, we seem to be stuck in a loop of complaining about our politicians and how our government works, re-electing the same politicians or more just like them and then complaining some more when things get worse.  We're stuck in a downward spiral of corruption, but I do think there's a way out of it and it has nothing to do with amending the Constitution regarding marriage, abortion, flag-burning nor any other distracting irrelevancy that our Constitution doesn't need to be changed over.

Ben Franklin had doubts that we'd be able to maintain the republic that he and his conspirators implemented.  If they could've seen how far afield we'd go from what they started, they'd probably have turned the whole thing over to the Algonquian Roundtable.
Rather than watching corrupt representatives spend millions upon millions of dollars to get voted into a position that doesn't pay nearly as much but does afford them the opportunity to steal from us and break laws while we watch our country wither and die, I say we get rid of the politicians.  Personally, I'm tired of watching politicians fight among themselves like they're some mini-Middle East holding onto a centuries-old grudge. 

Since politicians prove without fail that they're willing to weasel out of anything except office, I propose that the ranks of our representative government be filled in the same way that jury boxes are.  Representatives will be selected from among We the People to engage in civil service.  Pay can be lowered to make sure no one enjoys it too much and terms can be shortened to keep anyone from suffering too long.  Every six months or so, we'll get a new batch of representatives in place (president included) and we can do away with all the nonsense of campaigning and lying and debating and pondering over which loser to vote for based on how screwed we think we'll be by our lack of decent choices.  We could do away with representatives who sought the position because of overambitiousness and were willing to do anything they needed to do to win it.

Sure, we'd lose a lot of the circus, but some actual focus on administration and public service could happen.  Imagine having representatives who acted in the interest of their constituencies and how quickly they could be replaced if they didn't.  Imagine functioning without arguments mired in a tangle of political party lines.  It would certainly keep us on our toes  when the mail came around and if the system gets run like jury duty, we should have the blessing that most of our representatives won't really want the job.

You got a better idea?  Help Thin the Herd!