Saturday, December 31, 2011

16517--Quick as a Flash

Oh, the dreams we have, imaginings of being smarter, stronger and faster.  These have likely been with mankind since about the time we managed to wrangle fire.  Personally, I've been partial to Superman for almost as far back as I can remember, but the first nickname I was tagged with as a child that came close was "Flash".  Now, in my case, this had everything to do with my being considered a bright child and nothing to do with the fleet-footed fastest man alive.  Still, many are the times I would have loved to be able to move at superhuman speed.

"The Flash" is a name shared by four (yes, four) DC comic book superhero characters, so it would certainly be tough to challenge his popularity.  The original Flash made his first blurry appearance in Flash Comics #1 way back in January 1940, the creation of writer Gardner Fox and and artist Harry Lampert.  The second incarnation of the Flash, Barry Allen, is generally considered the first hero of the Silver Age of comic books, starting his running about in 1956, and the superhero has remained one of DC's most popular ever since.

I'll simultaneously acknowledge and bypass the fact that, for many years, Superman's nigh-infinite powers easily made him a rival for the title of The Fastest Man Alive, but DC finally reined the Man of Steel in sufficiently to let The Flash have that to himself (Supes has so much else going for him, why not throw the guy a bone?)  Nicknamed the Scarlet Speedster, each the Flash is the Flash because they all possess the power of super speed which includes the ability to run and move extremely fast for extended periods of time, use superhuman reflexes and seemingly make particular laws of physics their bitch.  If you ever thought the Road Runner was impressive as he confounded the Coyote, you haven't lived.  Sonic who?  These guys turn time and space, and sometimes their own bodies, inside out.

Now, while it must be extremely fulfilling to be of super-fast service to their fellow man, I can't help but think that it would also be quite the joy to be able to get my Chinese food from Beijing on a whim, run across water or up and down the sides of buildings, outrace bullets, clean my house in the time of a few heartbeats or, perhaps best of the bunch, write novels faster than Mickey Spillane on crack. 

I think the worst part of the powers would be waiting for things that couldn't be forced into a super-fast time frame.  The Flash can vibrate the molecules of his body to pass through solid matter.  He can also share the energy that fuels his power to provide speed to other things or people.  So what happens when, instead of running through a wall, he decides to use a door at mach 4?  I think there'd be a tremendous wind in a room and that's assuming the structure of the door could even hold up without the whole thing flying apart.  That's fine when you want to storm the mafia hideout, but not for visiting your mom.

Imagine the tedium waiting in a long line at the store.  There are only two cashiers open and one of them is waiting on a supervisor to clear up a problem.  The people ahead of you are writing checks, but don't start until everything's done being bagged and some of them have items that need price checks.  Meanwhile, your mind is in an accelerated time frame, thinking of thousands of different things that you need to get to doing if only you could ever get out of this line.  You're an accelerated metabolism in a crock-pot world.  Your every human interaction involves waiting for people to reach one of a dozen variant conclusions you reached before the first sentence of the conversation was finished.

AAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGH!!!  Unless you can develop the patience of a monk, running and writing and other solitary activities might be the only joys left to you.

No wonder the comic speedsters spend so much time, relativisitcally speaking, hanging out with each other.  They're really the only ones who can relate to the experience of racing lightning while living in a slow-motion world.  Being The Flash isn't just a heroic triumph over time and speed, but apparently over tedium-fueled insanity as well.

Beep-beep!  ZING!

Friday, December 30, 2011

16516--Welcome to New America

Once upon a time, the world around us was dominated by entrenched dynasties and wealthy economic powers.  The masses worked and worked to the benefit of the ruling class, catching what crumbs they were given, praying for improvement in their status in life. A few managed to work their way up the status ladder through the right marriage or successful business dealings. Then, revolution came and the look of the world changed.

In our time period, the publishing world’s entrenched dynasties and traditional economic powerhouses are in trouble. The masses are tired of their crumbs and have begun questioning the standards they’ve long been told to accept as unquestionable. The revolution is underway in a virtual landscape and the masses are winning. Even though the dust of the revolution has yet to settle, a lot of people consider that the masses have already won. Whatever the case, the traditional publishing houses know (they have to know) that they’re in trouble.

The virtual battlefield is being shaped by entrepreneurial drive, by ambition, by trial and error. It is New America. It’s a place of Freedom of action and thought and commerce. It’s a place where new ideas are still welcome and have impact. It’s a place where the decrees of the old regime are being ignored by the upstarts who are remaking things for the future.

It’s not a flying car and it hasn‘t toppled any governments, but this revolution that has come as a result of fusions of new technologies put into the hands of writers may be one of the most exciting changes since Johannes Gutenberg got his printing press going. I’m glad to be a part of it and I’m eager to see what it does in 2012.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

16515--Similarities to Persons Living or Dead (Ch. 15)

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.
Similarities to Persons Living or Dead 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 15

After some fast-talking, attentive forensic support and more than a few aspirins, the police finally seemed satisfied that Alex Gold hadn’t died when they originally thought he had, but instead when I put a stop to him. They almost seemed to pretend to care about that and the murders he had committed. They knew how dangerous an insane idealist could be and I was sure they were really glad that I’d done their dirty work for them. Just to be thorough, I intended to attend the cremation and make sure he stayed gone. I had the feeling Gold would’ve appreciated that himself.

“Well,” Jonni said, closing the wine bottle and the bone chalice into their fitted oak case, “at least you ended up with another trophy I can decorate your place with.”

“Yeah, and a rare antique, too,” Harmony added. “You ended up with something cool out of this after all, Brick.”

“No, cash is fine, really,” I said.

“I’m sorry, Brick,” Harmony said. “I know this whole mess was all headache and no payday, but you saved my life and I do appreciate it.”

“Stone,” Pete Moss said, barging into my office with Helen Blazes at his heels.

“You look familiar,” I said. “Captain of the Titanic, right? You driving that beast till it hits bottom?”

“With your help,” Moss said, “we expect to keep that from happening. We heard about what happened with Gold yesterday. What were you able to learn from him?”

“Before we get into that,” I said, “let’s get something else straight: I don’t talk to the dummy.”

“What?” Moss asked.

“Ladies, have you ever seen one of those ventriloquist acts where the audience gets all worked into it and people start arguing with the dummy?” I asked. “Well, I‘m not one of those people. If you want to know something, ask me yourself Helen.”

“Well, as long as we’re being direct, I need that money, Brick,” Helen responded, pushing Moss aside and stepping forward. “The reports of Alex Gold’s actual death have been all over the news, which means Corvus is, too. There are a lot of questions to answer and Corvus needs that money.

“Not to mention the Conditum Paradoxum,” I said.

“You found the--! *ahem* I mean, the what?”

“Fine, pretend you don’t need that, too,” I said. “Gold told us enough to make it clear that you’d be better off with it than without it, though, Jamal Qadish would rather be paid off with cash than with a magic bottle of wine, I‘m sure.”

“The wine would make life easier, to be sure,” she admitted. “For now, just tell me about the money.”

“Gold didn’t know where it was,” I said. “I haven’t seen it and I don’t know that I’d tell you if I had.”

“What?” she asked, seeming to be genuinely surprised. “I mean, I thought you and I had hit it off so well. We had such chemistry--”

“That you thought I’d be putty in your hands? You didn’t level with me,” I said. “Since then, I’ve heard more than enough about what you do with chemistry.”

“Gold had plenty to say about Project: Snugglebunny or whatever you’re calling it, you monster! He told us about that and a whole lot of other depraved things Corvus is up to,” Harmony said harshly. “There should be laws against what you’re doing!”

“Fortunately, the mad scientist lobby is far too vocal for that to happen anytime soon. As long as people want death rays, killer robots, high-grade wacky putty, an obscenely comfortable couch or a hundred new recipes for llama or trilobite and they don‘t care where it comes from, research that pushes the envelope of good taste and reason will continue.”

“Well, the public certainly won’t like what you’re up to,” Harmony said. “We are talking about cuteness, after all.”

“You are so getting coal in your stocking,” Jonni said, pointing accusingly with the Wayfarer‘s Arcanum. How long had she been holding that thing?

“I would like to know,” I said, “just out of curiosity, how Moss slipped up.”

“How do you mean?” Helen asked.

“Well, I’m assuming that he was actually in charge at some point,” I explained. “Gold certainly thought so. He hated him and, unless it was you making him express it, Moss was harboring some mutual ire for him, too.”

“Fair enough,” Helen said.

“So how did he end up as your bitch-boy?” I asked her.

“It was the money problems,” Helen said. “The company took to paying more and more of my salary and benefits with stock options. As the average IQ of the accounting department continued to plunge, they lost track somewhere and I ended up owning the lion’s share of the company.”

“So?” Jonni asked.

I became Corvus, dear,” Helen said. “The magic behind the restored dead recognized me as the head of the company.”

“And who are you to argue with a giant brass crow that screams inside your head?” I asked.

“You heard it scream?” Helen asked with some surprise. “You shouldn’t touch the crow, Brick.”

“You’re telling me.”

“And you were getting after us about touching stuff,” Jonni said. “How about that?”

“I got onto you two about insanely touching a specific, very dangerous item. Completely not relevant.”

“Did you two need a minute?” Helen asked.

“Sorry. No, I think we’re good,” I said. “Do continue.”

“Anyway, I let him keep on directing things for awhile, but he didn’t seem to get any smarter,” Helen said, “so--”

“You had your zombie minions do him in,” Harmony accused, “and seized the reins of power!”

“How sinister,” Helen said calmly. “Your mind does dwell in dark places, doesn’t it? There was a lab…incident which appeared to trigger a fatal heart attack in poor Director Moss. Thanks to Corvus, through the Society of Crows, it’s as if it never occurred.”

“That’s a health insurance plan?” Jonni asked. “I’ll be good with major medical, Brick.”

“You’ll get an hour for lunch and like it, doll,“ I said. “So, Helen, you keep Moss walking and talking and when the house of cards crashes down they’ll still be looking for him and not his charming executive secretary.”

“And he even does all the paperwork,” Helen said with a self-assured smile. “Whatever happens, I’ve made arrangements. One should always plan for the future.”

“And that about sums it up,” I said. “Now get your assets out of here.”

“You’ll never see a day’s worth of work from anyone I know, Brick.”

Or Helen naked. I sighed. Why did dames have to be so much trouble? Why did water have to be wet? “Keep making threats and I’ll go back over there and blow a hole in your big brass bird. I’ll bet your puppets won’t stay too mobile with their strings cut. Of course, my bank account’s gonna be in the black long after people are still saying ‘Corvus who?’”

“Even if he were broke and starving,” Jonni added, “he wouldn’t take business from you! He’s got too much class!”

“Out, Moss,” Helen commanded sharply, as she moved toward the door. “It’s so sad, Brick. We could’ve been magic together.”

“I’ve seen your magic. I have special bullets for that, thanks,” I said. “I’m so glad they stopped by. Good laughs.”

“Was there smoke coming out of her ears?” Harmony asked with a giggle.

“Brick, you’ve had a look in your eye,” Jonni said with a knowing smirk. “You’ve had an extra day to reflect, so where do you think the money went?”

“Oh, do enlighten us, Brick. I want to be able to sleep tonight.”

“OK, but this is merely speculative,“ I said with a smile. “Sheila told Gold that he’d taken the coins with him, even though he denied knowing anything about where they were.”

“One of the puzzlers that led to her death,” Harmony said.

“She was playing with ‘You can’t take it with you.’”

“Just like she thought it was funny to meet with Gold in the cemetery.”

“Sure,” Jonni said, “so we’re getting some shovels and heading for the cemetery? Where do we keep the shovels, boss?”

“Not today,” I said. “According to the records, while Gold had a nice memorial service, whoever’s body was used in place of his was cremated. Among the personal items Sheila kept in her hotel suite at the Ambassador was the urn that was supposed to be Gold’s. That’s where she kept the gold coins until she decided to start hiding them in plain sight.”

“You think she had the coins turned into jewelry or some kind of art maybe, Brick?” Harmony asked.

“Actually, I think she laundered it through her husband’s nightclub, The Looking Glass, when she started doing the books there. The cash infusion could’ve easily helped them turn the place into one of the hottest spots in town.”

“On top of that, she’d stolen the Conditum Paradoxum from Corvus,” Jonni said.

“Yeah, I was wondering about that,” Harmony said. “Her husband said she drank from it almost every day. I thought it was for keeping the Corvus puppets from falling over. What would it do for her?”

“I looked up the name in one of my books,” Jonni said. “It means ‘wine of spice and surprise.’”

“You’ve got research books, too?” I asked. “You are so overqualified.”

“Thanks, Brick,” Jonni smiled.

“Don’t let it go to your head,” I told her. “What kind of surprises do we get from magic wine? No hangovers?”

“At the least,“ she replied. “This stuff hasn‘t been made since before the fall of the Roman Empire.”

“So it should be well-aged by now,“ I said.

“The enchantment refills the bottle everyday so it never runs out,” Jonni said. “That’s how Corvus was able to keep giving the wine to their recycled labor force to keep them from breaking down and falling over dead again. Being alive, though, Sheila was being juiced full of vitality, luck and all the best of life, but it only works when drinking the wine from the bone chalice. The magical rewards for her probably spilled over to the nightclub and the people closest to her.”

“Then, she realized she was being followed,” I said, “so she separated them, keeping the chalice at home and the wine at the Ambassador. As the pressure mounted, she had to stop going to visit the hotel. Without continuing to drink from the wine, the benefits faded.”

“Like sobering up backwards?” Harmony asked.

“Which meant bad luck and diminishing capacities for her,” Jonni said, “until she was killed.”

“Gold was a mental case and not too bright,” I said. “She should‘ve known better than to aggravate him the way he said she did, but she probably got overconfident in thinking she could keep him under control.”

“So what’re you going to do next, Brick?” Harmony asked.

“About what?”

“The money, the magic wine, Corvus…”

“Well, Helen‘s right, Corvus isn’t breaking any laws we know about,” I said, “so the company gets left to the mercy of public opinion and creative finance…and Jamal Qadish.”

“Right, Fenrir‘s son,” Jonni said with a shudder. “I don’t think I’d wish that on anyone. Well, wait a minute, there was this guy--”

“Hey, they brought that on themselves. No one forced them to make a deal with him,” I pointed out. “She seems to think she’s got her ass covered, anyway, so I wouldn’t lose any sleep over that either. The magic wine seems better off out of circulation and it didn’t come with anybody’s name on it. So, I guess that stays with us, especially since it looks like the only payment I‘m gonna see out of this and that‘s one thing the handbook is very clear about: always get paid.”

“And the money?” Harmony asked.

“What money? I’m no accountant. I didn’t find any money. I was just speculating.”

“I see.”

“I don’t work for bunny killers,” I said.

“And I work for a cool boss,” Jonni said with a delighted smile. “Let those Corvus bozos find their own money.”

“I’m glad you’re not just out for money, Brick,” Harmony said. “You’re a good man. I’d make you dinner, but I’m leaving this crazy town and heading back to San Francisco.”

“You sure you want to trade this crazy town for that crazy town? It’ll be a tough time finding dates.”

“No, remember, Brick,” Jonni whispered at me, “she’s a thespian.”

“And you’re leaving me to this.”

“I’ll write.”


“If it’s any consolation, I’m going to visit my family, Brick, so I’m not supposed to enjoy myself either,” Harmony said, giving us hugs and heading for the door. “You two take care of each other and let me know if you ever find out anything about Ausparlous.”

“Looks like it’s just you and me, kid.”

“Yup,” Jonni said with a beaming smile.

“You hungry? I’m buying.”

“Your place. I’m cooking.”

“I don’t think there’s food there. That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing I usually keep around.”

“I thought I saw…something there.”

“You may have cleaned the wrong apartment.”

“I want to show you how your apartment looks now,” Jonni said, pulling me to my feet. “We’ll get take-out if we have to, maybe from The Looking Glass.”

“I’ve seen my apartment before,” I told her. “A couple of times it was even in focus.”

“You’ve never seen it while having dinner with me before,” she told me, smiling coyly as she twirled the Wayfarer‘s Arcanum like a cheerleading baton. “Besides, we have lots to talk about.”

“All true,” I agreed. “Your choice of walking stick, for example.”

“I guess it would make a good one, wouldn’t it?” she pondered as she touched a rune and made it grow a foot longer. “Oh, yeah, I could plan an outfit around an accessory like this.”

“Well, someone’s been busy with research time.”

“Yeah, I think I even figured out how to mix some of those weird drinks you like.”

Drinks and a blonde? “Wait, this sounds familiar. Isn’t this how I lost three days before?”

“I checked your calendar,” Jonni said. “Your secretary says you’re free.”

“I’m going to have to have a talk with her,” I said, “about my scheduling in accordance with the guidelines of the standard issue Official Private Eye Handbook.”

“As luck would have it,” she said, “she’s already scheduled to attend that same dinner meeting.”

My karma from burning the handbook was obviously catching up to me. “Lucky me,” I sighed.

She smiled, saying, “You don’t know the half of it, boss.”

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

16514--The Promethean Gift

We have a class of heroes in our culture that we hold dear for bucking rules and fighting systems.  These heroes we adore for "fighting the good fight", meaning that we'll love them whether they win or not.  We'll love them for having the heart, the courage and the staggering audacity to unleash their chutzpah against giants that may well crush them and not even care.  True enough, we hold these mavericks in positions of iconic reverence, but they are still mortal.  What status is deserved by a maverick who begins as an immortal?

His name, Prometheus, means "forethought" and he has long been credited with the power of prescience.  He was born to the Titans, child of Iapetus and Themis, brother to Epimetheus and Atlas.  When the Titans were the ones in power, he sided against them with the younger generation because he knew who would be victorious in their struggles for supremacy.  Though often cited as a trickster, he is also credited with committing the theft of fire from jealous gods for the benefit of mankind despite his diminished status and, given his powers, the horrific punishment he knew would be dealt as a result.  Who really wants to endure centuries of disembowelment by being eaten alive?  No one I know.  He ultimately traded his release for knowledge that Zeus and Poseidon both wanted, but he never broke, neither altering his position nor apologizing for it.  His levels of courage and tenacity are without doubt sublime. 

Unlike many mythic figures, he's not best remembered for his power.  Never have I found a tale of Prometheus being the super-annoying god of "I told you so" or the guy who was always peppering conversations with "I knew you were going to say that."  Instead, Prometheus is noted for his sacrifice and gifts, all favoring humanity against his oppressive kin. 

I am under the impression that the legendary "theft of fire" from Olympus has actually been underrated, whether for the sake of brevity or by the designs of the Olympian PR department.  I think the "fire" stolen for us was as metaphoric a description as the "darkness" that Zeus wished to keep mankind shrouded beneath.  The dark time following the Titanomachies (years of wars between generations of immortals) would be common following a rise to power, Zeus taking the position of establishing the strict control of his new regime.  Put 'em down, keep 'em down and keep 'em stupid...those tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  Not if Zeus could help it.

Even though Prometheus had sided with Olympus against the Titans, he also showed that he intended to champion mortals against the gods.  The act of "stealing fire" represented Prometheus bestowing not just energy to man, but the blazing light of intellect, knowledge of craft and healing arts and the living Earth.  He traded his torture for our enlightenment, not only standing up to Zeus but flaunting whatever obscene he felt went best with that defiance.

Prometheus was a special kind of hero, a champion of the underdog rabble that humans really are.  Sounds like a Tough Guy to me.

Monday, December 26, 2011

16512--What's so Magical about Mistletoe?

Before you pluck off the berries and toss the whole thing away, ask yourself what you've been doing.  Have you been squandering the hidden potential of mistletoe on coercing kisses out of unsuspecting victims?  Didn't your sorcerous apprenticeship teach you that it was useful for so much more?  Well, that's what the druids said, anyway.  The Celts and the Norse, too.  Of course, it was sacred to them.  As a tea it was considered an antidote for poisons (despite the berries themselves being poisonous) and a cure for sterility and barrenness. So you see, kissing someone under mistletoe is actually a symbolic attempt at invoking its hidden qualities.

Just bear with me.  Knowing these sorts of things, or at least pondering your way through to them, can be just the sort of exercise your mind needs when you're writing a story or building the elements of a world.  It may apply to only a single system of magic or it may end up being the framework for a score of them.  It's your writing so that's for you to work out.  Allons-y!

In the French comic strip Asterix le Gaulois, the tribal wizard, Obelix, uses his golden serpe to collect mistletoe for potions that confer superhuman strength like Popeye’s spinach. Strength equals virility and from there it's a short hop to fertility. To the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans, mistletoe was a product of the oak and thus inherently fertile. In cultures across pre-Christian Europe, mistletoe was seen as a representation of divine male essence (and thus romance, fertility and vitality), possibly due to a resemblance between the berries and semen.

Botanically unique, mistletoe is not only a highly evolved flowering plant, but also parasitic (capable of using over 200 species of trees and shrubs as host). To the magician, this speaks to unusual properties, but curing barrenness and acting as an aphrodisiac? There’s no known chemical that has a specific, predictable aphrodisiac effect on humans. Sorry, gang, but human physiology is far too complicated and individually reactive for that. Alcohol, for example, isn’t an aphrodisiac. It merely lowers inhibitions, some of which may be sexual. Most drugs don’t stimulate arousal at all, rather they create fatigue and a sense of stimulation as that fades. Playing with brain chemicals does amazing things, but if mistletoe is lowering inhibitions they do seem to be the ones focused on kissing.

Among the Germans, decorating trees for religious effect goes back to pagan practices, the bringing of trees into the home for Winter solstice long-preceding Christianity. Teutonic religions borrowed heavily from the Celts, with whom trees were very popular, so the notion spread rather readily. In the 8th century, St. Boniface dedicated the fir tree to Christ, supplanting Thor and Odin’s sacred oak. By the 13th century, the mistletoe’s subtle powers carried it on to become the unexpected killer of the Asgardian god Baldur in the form of a projectile, either an arrow or a dart (in the Prose Eddas).  With Frigg, his mother and Odin's wife, weeping over him, her tears became the white berries as they fell upon the plant and restored her son to life.  Her vow that mistletoe would cause no further harm was extended to hold that those under its sway would, if enemies, set aside their weapons and embrace.  Those without enmity took it even further and...kissed.  After each encounter, a berry was plucked until all were gone.

An alternate version of Baldur's death, the Gesta Danorum version, casts the deadly weapon as a sword named Mistilteinn, the Old Norse for "mistletoe".

Magic arrows? Magic swords? Now we’re talking about some action. Mistilteinn makes its way into several Norse legends that way, but the plant itself never really fades completely from people’s minds. In later times, ol’ St. Nick was supposed to have had his first kiss with the future Mrs. under the mistletoe, so that probably has something to do with it all.

Magic responds to emotion and need. Apparently, collectively, we're even bigger fans of kissing than we are of magic swords.  Somewhere along the way, we remembered that Love is some pretty potent magic (that version of Baldur's death with the magic sword had him killed by his brother in a rivalry over Love).  That's cool in its own way.  Even moreso because it's giving me still more story ideas.  That's hot stuff.  That means it's writing time.


Sunday, December 25, 2011

16511--The Ghost Story that Will Not Die

Released in December 1843, while not generally considered a supernatural tale of horror, A Christmas Carol did use horror as a tool (a big, blunt hammer) upon its central character: the famed Ebeneezer Scrooge.  When you break this one down by genre, though...alright, when I do it.  Most other people have apparently found in it an uplifting holiday story.  I suppose that's a good thing since it's what Charles Dickens was aiming to deliver.  It was well-received when it came out and still sees frequent adaptation and updating over 170 years later.

OK, so it's a staggering success, especially for a secular (non-religious) Christmas story.  Still, it seems weird that Dickens got there the way he did.  He paid for the publishing himself (he wasn't happy with his publisher's payout on their previous deal), he gave us a protagonist who was utterly unlikable and let the antagonists torment him.  Scrooge unleashed his rants and tried to resist, but he was up against ghosts who had decided to target the cranky old guy.  He was outmatched and in the end he caved.  Scrooge became what the ghosts apparently wanted him to be.  The headstrong loner gave in to popular opinion.

That's an atypical hero in an atypical story pattern and people are still eating it up almost two centuries later.  Wow.

Dickens was bad-ass.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

16510--Down from On High

 When I was informed that we had calculated that the course of a big, nasty asteroid (Apophis) would bring it into our back yard in 2029 and possibly hitting us in 2036, I was...well, on the fence about whether or not we should be concerned.  I mean, we're in the 21st century and I still can't even get weather information I can count on for the same day.  Now they're trying to sell me on a prediction two decades out?  I checked a mirror.  I do not have "SUCKER" on my forehead.

The way they're telling it, our best case scenario has the rock passing between Earth and the moon (which is pretty close for that sort of thing); worst case says we're looking at quakes, tidal waves, floods, plague, famine, death, see where this is going.  Be concerned if you want to be or don't (but so you know, we're looking at 99.9993% chance of a miss).  Either way, I'm not betting on the government to handle things.  The government really only seems to handle disasters well in fiction and even then the track record is shaky.

As that sort of thing goes, we'd be better off with Superman.  I know, a lot of people love to put all their stock in Batman and I don't want to take anything away from the Dark Knight's street cred, but playing head-kicker with serial killers is vastly different from changing the course of mighty rivers.  I've loved both these guys since childhood, but I've always considered Superman to be the superior role model and never had any question that when planes and giant rocks started falling from above, the Bat-signal wasn't going to get the needed help to the right place.  That's not a shortcoming on Batman's part (I won't even make a dig about searching the utility belt for a Bat-asteroid deflector).  Superman just brings a strong game to the playing field.

When problems pop-up, Superman is the superhero to go to.  I'm not talking about a Superman who falls back on some lame time-travel "solution", creating a paradox where he can just pretend bad things aren't happening.  I'm talking about a super man, who oozes noblesse oblige without even knowing it, gets hands-on and gets things done.  Superman came to us with not only compassion, but a passionate desire to help us find the best part of ourselves.

That has probably always been one of the most essential virtues of the heroic Kryptonian immigrant: he unselfishly wants to help everyone.  It's really sad to me that so many people have expressed some inability to relate to him.  I think it saddens me because it displays an inability to acknowledge the brighter virtues within ourselves.  If anything, Superman shouldn't seem unreal and alien, but an inspiration.  He should represent a standard to which we should aspire.  WWSD?  The right thing, of course.

 Superman has always been the champion of the people.  He's not from around here, so we all look alike to him.  He never plays favorites, he just helps people live their lives without interference from others.  He's a freedom fighter.  Even more than that, he wants everyone to have a chance to just get through their day.  When it struck him that a great many of Earth's people couldn't even count on having food every day, he made an effort to change that.  Unlike any other single person, his herculean effort to provide food for the hungry for a single day drew such attention that it inspired a tremendous outpouring of supplementary aid from other people.  He remains mindful of a hero's function as a role model, a status he holds probably beyond any other iconic figure.

Like many heroes before and after him, he's an orphan.  Still, he has always allowed the circumstances of his origin to add to his strength and his strength of character.  After the better part of a century, he has continued to spark the minds and souls of young and old alike.  We should expect nothing less from someone who has descended from a world of wonders to live and walk among us.  Even the appeal of innocent Billy Batson's transformation to the purehearted Captain Marvel takes a back seat to Superman's, whose virtuousness is that of an uncorrupted adult.  He is not a naive child in the guise of a man.  Superman has walked the Earth and seen what it has to offer.  He has made informed choices and refused to be led astray.

 Many believe that Superman's appeal lies in his power.  Some even feel that he wouldn't be a hero without his superhuman powers.  That's short-sighted, I say.  Predecessors to Superman such as Hugo Danner in Philip Wylie's Gladiator and pulp hero Doc Savage would certainly indicate otherwise.  Danner was born with powers similar to Superman's, but lived a miserable life in which he felt himself a misfit among humanity, never found a purpose for his special abilities and died alone, miserable and unfulfilled.  Doc Savage, closer to Batman than Superman, possessed wealth and drive, honed his body and mind to such extremes as to seem nearly superhuman and found his way in the world fighting the forces of evil.  He had no special powers, but he had a drive to be the best he could make of himself and to help others unselfishly.

Superpowers or not, I'd rather be in a world with people with the heart portrayed in these people of conscience, these people who seek only to help and ask nothing in return.  No matter who they are--Wonder Woman, Batman, Spider-Man, Doc Savage--or how many they come to number, Superman will ever stand steadfast at their forefront.  He is recognized around the world and knowledge of his mission has spread with him.  Superman fights for freedom and justice, possesses both power and humility of incalculable measure, all the while setting examples for us to emulate.  Like us, he's not perfect, but he also teaches us to never stop striving to become the very best of ourselves.

Bringing out the best in...*ahem* Moving along!

Friday, December 23, 2011

16509--It's That Time Again

Round and round the calendar goes and here we are again back at another December 23rd.   So?   How can you ask me such a thing?   Look!   See?   No lights on the house! Harken! No songs to be heard! Dust off your aluminum pole and prepare your list of complaints about your loved ones because Festivus is upon us!

Happy Festivus!

Without the hours of stressful, high-pressure preparation that go into more-publicized holidays, I’ll have to wait till tonight to find out what sort of leftovers we decide to throw together at the last minutes before dinner. I’m anticipating a showdown over the very cheesy scalloped potatoes with crumbled bacon that were left from last night’s dinner (obviously, a Festivus miracle for how else could all have been fed such a delicacy and still more remain for another meal?), which means the Feats of Strength may get an early start.

A Festivus for the rest of us!   That has me envisioning the dog staring at me in hopes that I’ll surrender my meatloaf.  Clearly, another Festivus miracle: a sign of the menu.  We’ll see how that works out.  I’m still favored in the Feats of Strength if you want to place bets.  I’ve been working out.

I’ve heard that some people are speculating that the traditional Airing of Grievances may begin to fade away with the increased presence of pervasive social media forums.  I think the tradition will hold its own.  There’s no online forum that can yet compare to a face-to-face confrontation over the dinner table with people you know well.

I’d love to hear about the manifestation of any other Festivus miracles.  Please share them here and I’ll let you know of any others I come across.  I’m all atingle.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

16508--Similarities to Persons Living or Dead (Ch. 14)

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.
Similarities to Persons Living or Dead 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 14
It seemed to take awhile. I certainly walked past a ridiculous number of mirrors, but I never got tired or lost the spring in my step. I’d have to get confirmation to be sure, but I was willing to give the Wayfarer’s Arcanum credit for that.

Being damp was nothing new to me and I knew I’d get dry eventually. I’d dried a lot during my walk in the hall of mirrors, so I didn’t stop to change clothes. In spite of my assistant’s protests, I only took time enough in passing through my apartment to get the name of the hotel where I was headed. I entrusted the Wayfarer‘s Arcanum to Jonni and made the rest of my trip the way that suited me best.

The rumble of the Charger’s engine shook through me like electricity. It was always invigorating, jolting me to life every time I shot off in another pursuit. Anyway, I finally made it to the Ambassador Hotel. The golden griffins were standing guard out front just like Richard Taylor had said. The place looked so ritzy I’d have bet that even paying by the hour was pricier than a whole night in most other places. When I pulled up to the front, three valets fought to get to park the Charger.

“You want to be helpful?“ I asked them. “Any of you recognize her?“ I asked holding up one of the pictures of Sheila Taylor and Alex Gold.

Two of ’em were silent, but one couldn’t hold back a “Well…”

Even a bad gumshoe knew what that meant. I waved off the other two valets as I climbed out of the car and flashed a sovereign at the third. The look in his eye told me that the gold was already working its magic on his conscience and loosening his tongue.

“That’s Ms. Farr,” the valet said, his eyes darting from side-to-side. “Sheila Farr. Real nice lady, but I haven’t seen her in a few weeks, I swear.”

Farr? Probably a maiden name. Whatever, it was a start.

“Her friend, though, I don‘t know his name,” the young man continued. “Most of us just call him…‘Grumpy’, but please don’t tell them.”

“My lips are sealed, bud,” I assured him. “How long since you’ve seen him?”

“About…thirty-five minutes ago…with another woman.”

“Thanks, kid,” I said. “Keep the car close.” I grabbed an envelope from the valet station and went inside to the concierge. With a quickly borrowed pen, I wrote Sheila Farr‘s name on my envelope while I waited for some assistance.

“I have an important message for Ms. Farr,” I said, handing over the envelope.

“I show that she‘s out,” the clerk said, “but I‘ll see that she gets it.”

“Thanks,” I said, watching the clerk put the envelope into one of the numbered mailboxes. Hmmm…tiny numbers. “I said Ms. Farr.”

“Yes, sir,” the clerk said. “Sheila Farr, 1102.”

All too easy. “Oh, I see. My mistake. Thanks.”

An eleven-story elevator ride later found my dainty left foot kicking open the door to suite 1102 and letting my gun barrel lead the way inside. “Freeze, Gold!” I shouted.

“Brick!” Harmony called out, battered and a bit disheveled, but sounding better than she looked. “You found me!”

“What? No! You drop your gun and get in here!” he counter-offered, grabbing Harmony’s arm and pulling her in front of him. “Do it now or I’ll blow her head open!”

“I’m coming,” I said, letting the door close behind me. “Calm down.” Harmony had a shiner turning purple above her left cheek and there was a trail of blood running from her pouting lips. Even with the psycho holding her up, the wobble in her legs said she was having trouble standing.

“Drop the gun!” Gold commanded again. “And don’t tell me what to do!”

“Oh, I thought we were giving each other instructions,” I said. “Well, if you’re not calming down, I’m not losing the Roscoe, so that doesn‘t really improve our situation.” The first part of the suite, the receiving area, was a well-decorated, tidy living room, but a glance told me the master bedroom wasn’t faring as well. My nose insisted that either it or Gold himself was getting more than a little ripe. “Maybe you’d settle for cracking open a window and giving us a little fresh air.”

“Funny guy, huh? Well, I’m not playing around! I just want to know where the money is.”

“The money you stole? What kind of an idiot are you?” Harmony asked him. “You really don’t know?”

“No, I don’t,” he admitted.

“Maybe you quit your day job too soon,” I told him. “Larceny is obviously not one of your strengths.”

“Just tell me where the money is!”

“We thought you would know,” I said.

Damn!” he shouted. “Sheila had it. She was supposed to keep it safe.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have shot her,” I said.

“She was laughing at me!” Gold said.

“Well, in all fairness,” I said, “I’m barely holding it in myself. You‘ve got to learn to lighten up, man, or stop being so amusing.”

“You really shot her?” Harmony asked. “Wow, good call, Brick. You‘re a lot better at this than Lew…was.”

It had been a lucky guess, but I’d take it.

“Yeah, freaking brilliant. Now, you were working for her,” Gold said, “so I thought you might know what she‘d done with it. She must’ve hidden it somewhere she could keep an eye on it and that it couldn‘t be traced. She brought the Conditum Paradoxum here to keep it safe, so if she didn‘t hide it at home--”

“Wait. The what?” I asked. “C’mon, man, that’s not even English!”

“I didn’t work for her,” Harmony said. “I worked for the other guy you killed, Lew Manning.”

“Who?” Gold asked.

“You lost track? How many people have you killed?” Harmony asked.

“He dressed like us,” I said. “He took lots of pictures…”

“That guy? I thought he was with the Crows,” Gold said.

“Who?” Harmony asked. “What crows?”

“The Society of Crows,” Gold said. “From Corvus? They have the weird eyes.”

“Oh, them,” Harmony said. “The creepy stalkers.”

“Crows are carrion eaters,” Gold said. “The society uses the dead.”

SOC. Society of Crows. Got it. “No, he wasn’t with them. You’re just paranoid. Well, overly paranoid, anyway.”

“Oh, God,” Gold said. “Well, then, who are you two?”

“Brick Stone,” I said. “She hired me to keep her safe from creepy guys. What‘s the story on the crows anyway? Something to do with reanimating the dead?”

“Corvus has been trying to save money for years,” Gold explained. “Since most of the day-to-day functions that are performed in the company are simple and repetitive, the executive director realized that he could cut expenses if he could find a way to get the work done with an army of robots. Robots are expensive, though, so--”

“So they came up with a way to turn people into zombie office workers?” Harmony asked.

“Yeah, that big, brass crow in reception has something to do with it,” Gold continued. “It gives Moss control over legions of simple-minded reanimated workers.”

“That can shake off bullets,” I pointed out.

“No, that’s the Conditum Paradoxum talking,” Gold said, pointing out a bottle of orange wine and the jeweled wine glass from Taylor’s on a table in the corner. “It’s enchanted. When the reanimates drink the wine from the glass, they become…like, super zombie soldiers.”

“Weird,” I said. “And if they don’t drink it?”

“Then they stiffen up and die all over again after awhile,” Gold said.

“I knew there was something Moss wasn’t talking about,” I said. “Since you took the wine, he’s having to keep getting new candidates. If it’s any consolation, your old boss is getting desperate over at Corvus. The money they borrowed is running out and they really want back what you took. At least now I have a better idea why.”

“Wait, if you’ve got the wine glass…Did you kill that sad Mr. Taylor, too?” Harmony asked.

“No, I went back there to search again and see if I could get anything out of him,” Gold said. “He wasn’t home when I shot Sheila and now that I’ve had a chance to talk to him I still don’t know who’s got the money!

“That does seem to be the missing piece of this oddball puzzle,” I said. “She didn’t tell you anything at all?”

“Sheila? Tell me anything?” he asked, getting even more frustrated. “That bitch? That bitch! It was always jokes with her! Always so clever…so very clever…Look, before I faked my death, Sheila converted the cash into a dozen old, gold coins. Gold for Gold, see? That was her sense of humor.“

“And then, you shot her,” I said. “I can see that.”

“Not then, later. All she was supposed to do after my fake death was hide them,” Gold continued, “and keep them safe. Was that asking so much?”

“No, of course not,” Harmony said.

“When I asked her about them, she said I’d taken them with me,” Gold said angrily, “but she’d never tell me more than that. Funny for her, but torture for me. I didn‘t know where they were, but I was supposed to have them. I was keeping them safe, but I had no idea how!”

“From the looks of things,” I said, “I’d guess that you stopped buying new clothes.”

“Or throwing out old ones,” Harmony said.

“It meant not throwing out a lot of things,” Gold told us bitterly, “and searching everything…over and over and--”

“Crazier and crazier?” I whispered to Harmony.

“Then, she said she was going to move it,” Gold continued. “She said it would be better to hide it in plain sight, whatever that means. I have no idea! Oh, but she thought it was soooo funny! Always laughing, laughing, laughing! I’ve been here going out of my damned mind, but she’s been living it up and happy as can be!”

“Till you shot her.”

“Yes! Yes, I shot her!” he admitted again. “I killed her! And she still got the last laugh because I don’t know where the money is or why she--”

“Hold on. Why did she even help you steal from the company in the first place?” Harmony asked. “It couldn’t have been to live a life of insanity in the shadows.”

“I stole the money for the same reason she helped me cover it up and stole the Conditum Paradoxum later! Corvus had to be stopped,” Gold explained. “Their evil plans were…just so evil!”

“Wow,” Harmony said, “you were right again, Brick.”

“What plans?” I asked. “What were they doing?   Enslaving people as corporate drones wasn‘t enough?”

“Mad science! The way Corvus reanimates the dead they aren’t technically zombies. The reanimates don’t fall under the anti-zombie codes, so their use isn’t technically classed as evil here just distasteful misuse of the dead.”

“OK, no active decomposition,” I conceded, “and no cannibalistic rampaging. I suppose I can see that. Still…”

“Corvus was going where we weren’t meant to go, doing unspeakably inhumane experiments,” Gold went on. “Isolating the shaving cream molecule wasn’t enough for them. They were working on isolating cuteness!”

“Cuteness?” Harmony asked.

“Yes, the very essence of what makes things cute, cuddly and adorable,” Gold said. “If they could synthesize it and infuse it into other things, they could manipulate masses in undreamed of ways! They were doing experiments on bunnies, kitties…all sorts of cute, little things. And that was only the start! They‘re planning addictive, mind control chemicals to put in foods, low calorie snacks made from sawdust…oh! Oh! How do you feel about the hypertrophied organs from lab animals being treated with radioactive isotopes and reconfigured for marketing as cream cheese?”

“Glad that I don’t eat cream cheese,” I said, “but still a bit ill over the concept.”

“The fiends!” Harmony said in disgust. “How could they? It sounds like they‘re one step away from dredging the sewers and feeding the sludge back to their customers.”

“Moss glossed over the bits of information that painted them as psychotics when we talked,” I said. “I guess he couldn’t bring himself to speak of the unspeakable either.”

“Pete Moss is a corporate drone!” Gold said. “He’ll burn with the rest of them. Without that money they’ll go down hard and if the public ever gets evidence of how evil Corvus truly is, they’ll never get back up again! Now, who wants to die first?”

“Not it!”

“Oh, thanks! I don’t want to die at all!” Harmony protested. “I thought we were talking here. We were getting to know each other. What happened to that?”

“Well, that leaves you, Al,” I told him. “First one in, first one out. We‘ll be on our way and just send a maid to tidy up after you.”

He started turning his gun toward me again and his eyes hadn’t gotten any less crazy.   Fortunately, I was faster than the smelly lunatic and a .44 magnum slug in the chest was enough to drop him and keep him down.   I took the fact that he stayed down as a good sign that he hadn’t been dragged into the Society of Crows.   “You OK?”

“Yeah, thanks. I think he’s dead this time,” Harmony said, looking down on the body as she wiped the blood from her mouth.

“He’d better be,” I said, holstering my gun.   “I’ve got a reputation to uphold.”

“And those bullets aren’t cheap,” Harmony pointed out.

“Yeah, it‘d be bad for business if I had to start charging extra for re-shooting guys.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

16507--How Weird is Too Weird?

What in the world are you writing?  If you're a writer, you should probably have an answer for that.  You should at least be able to address it contextually if not defend against the attitude inferred by the phrasing.

When you write, you're most likely doing so with the expectation that others will be reading your words.  I know I’m not writing this for my own viewing.   As a writer then, one goal is to make the output interesting and, even further, unique.   Now for unique, I’m not just talking about avoiding plagiarism.   Rather, I’m talking about using your creativity and talent to bring something new to the reader.   If you’re writing non-fiction, present ideas in an innovative fashion.   If you’re writing fiction, get weird.

How do you know if you’re writing weird?  Well, I don’t think you can know on your own. This is why we have test readers.  Having people to help with proofing and editing is great, but I’ve long felt that evoking a reaction of “How the Hell did he think of that?” was the target to shoot for.  Cause that and you know you’ve brought something to your reader that was completely unexpected.  That's a surprise worth more gold than in the most avaricious dreams of Midas.

I’ve achieved this before and I loved it.  It says that not everyone would’ve thought of whatever it was that was written.  I’ve seen others produce ideas and stories that were so far out of any conventional box that they made me strive in my own writing.   It was experiencing that feeling that made me want to share it with others.   I believe that’s one of the great things a writer can give to others.  I feel it's a sad cheapening of the craft that some people choose to achieve this through drug use rather than the pure exploitation of odd neural connections.  I know, we've had a great deal of music and art and blah blah blah that can be directly attributed to drug use.  Of course, while there has been some staggering creativity fueled by chemical experimentation, there's also been a lot of blah blah blah.  If you're creating with your brain on drugs, will it make sense to an audience that's straight?  Will it even make sense to you?

Simply put, you don’t want to lose your audience.   Hook them with interesting, but run off on your own with weirdness and “Lost” *cough* may be the kindest comparison you draw.   If that happens, it should go without saying that you’ll be spending time rewriting.   Call it “selling out” or “going commercial”, but if your thousands and thousands of words aren’t resulting in communication with others, then you’re only writing them for yourself.   If that’s the case, you can save yourself a lot of extra work by skipping the whole publishing and marketing phases of the project.   If you’re writing for others, which I earlier offered that you probably are, then you need to write right.

Just as there are rules to telling a joke, there are rules for writing.   Your pacing has to be correct and it has to resolve in a certain way.   Most importantly, if the delivery and resolution don’t work out, embarking on a session of explanation won’t help breathe life into the corpse.   You don’t get a second chance, neither in an afterword nor by chasing down your audience door-to-door.

Put a leash on that weird.   It does you little good to let it run free.   Harness it and use its power to take you far.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

16506--Tough Guys Do More

Today is a Tuesday, so it seemed fitting that I ruminate on tough guys. I deliberated waiting till Thursday and hammering this one out with Thor, but he’s a very popular fellow. Instead I settled on a less well-known tough guy to work with, but still worthy of getting his own day. For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, Tuesday was named for Tiw. The Greeks had Ares and the Norse had Tiw. Tiw was a Norse god of war, but he wasn't an ass about it like some. In fact, the unyielding nobility that has served as Tiw’s claim to fame only serves to bear him out as a tough guy.

You see, way back when in Asgard, the gods tried to live together in a state of mutual cooperativeness. To foster peace and harmony among them, these warrior gods had made a deal not to kill off each others’ children. Unfortunately, this later came to include the children of Odin’s adopted son Loki. Loki had proven himself to be troublesome enough over the years, but wow did he ever have some weird kids. I always thought Hera should’ve given up on popping out little ones, but Loki definitely should’ve taken a vow of abstinence. His offspring weren’t just bizarre, they were prophesied to be key players in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods. No pressure.

Loki’s daughter, Hela, was cold and grim and stood nine feet tall. They put her in as top dog of Nifelheim. Cold and gloomy, meet cold and gloomy. This place had everything it needed to give Hades a run. Another kid was the Midgard serpent, encircling all of Earth and lying in wait for the end of things. Last was Fenris, a gargantuan wolf who would bite the moon in half during the final clash between good and evil.

Fenris was of such staggering strength that his power worried the other Asgardians, but that pesky pact they’d made forced them to get creative. So they attempted to chain mighty Fenris…many times. Boisterous competitions being what they were in Asgard, Fenris showing off his power to shatter every chain and binding brought to test him became a great game, albeit a frustrating one for those who would have the massive wolf under control.

It was time to get serious. That meant putting the dwarves to work on the problem. Brokk and Eitri had become known as masters of creating wondrous things (these were the guys who’d made Thor’s hammer Mjolnir and Odin’s favorite magical items, after all), so it’s amazing that they hadn’t consulted them sooner. Thinking out of the box, the clever dwarves created a fine golden cord worthy of Wonder Woman herself. This creation was made of immaterial things that could not be broken, whispers and ideas whose essences dwarf magic was able to combine into what they hoped would be a single unbreakable object even Fenris couldn’t break.

The next gathering of the “Let’s Bone the Wolf” club had a different feel to it. Even though they tried to play it cool, let’s face it, a lot of gods are better at arrogance than they are at keeping a good poker face. No surprise then that Fenris got to feeling a little suspicious about the latest game of “Bet you a mead you can’t break this.” To put Fenris at ease, like a sucker, the closest thing he had to a friend agreed to let the wolf hold his hand in his mouth as collateral. Noble Tiw (thought I’d forgotten about him, huh?) calmly allowed Fenris’ teeth to take their hold. When the golden cord was fastened around Fenris’ neck and the free end anchored to a mountain, the test began. Together they all learned that those little dwarves were some kind of mad geniuses. Fenris could not break the cord and the gods wouldn’t release him, so Tiw lost his hand.

Now, did the one-handed war god complain and moan about his loss? Did he curse Fenris or the other Asgardians who allowed him to lose his hand without even an attempt at negotiation? No, he did not. Why not? Tough guy.

Tough guys do what needs doing.

Tough guys don’t make excuses even when failure occurs.

Tough guys persevere, taking the extra steps, going further than those who don’t know what it means to be a tough guy.

Tough guys don’t cry over physical pain. Women may have said, for a little while, that they liked men who cry, but I think they’ve largely gotten over that. What they came to realize was that they sort of liked “sensitive” men who could share their feelings. They seem to have largely tired of “sensitive” men, though. They cry too much. Plus, the communication that’s involved in sharing feelings is cumbersome. Men and women communicate differently. We say the same things differently from each other and we have different body languages. Also, men talk less. And, like it or not, there are different expectations for men than for women. Women can cry over physical pain without having it held against them. Men can “open up” about their feelings, but tough guys don’t do things by half-measures so don’t expect much. To a tough guy, “opening up” for a “good cry” doesn’t accomplish anything worthwhile. He doesn’t understand it so he isn’t likely to do it unless someone’s died or “Old Yeller” is playing.

There's more to the job than just having a Y chromosome.  If you want to be a tough guy, you've got a lot of work to do and none of it involves whining.  Guys who cry over physical pain better not have hit puberty yet because such an activity will interfere with being perceived as a man. It will certainly remove any perception of being a tough guy. John McLain didn’t cry as he limped along with glass in his foot and neither should any other tough guy. Whether it’s a bullet in the leg or cutting off his own arm, the tough guy remains composed. He is a role model and anything less is unacceptable.

Men, be warned: cry in front of your partner over physical pain and your status will be downgraded. You may even be replaced. No joke. Suck it up and walk it off.

If you want to be a tough guy, step up to your responsibilities. That may mean extra hours at work, extra jobs, doing more around the house…Whatever it takes, it’s going to mean doing more even when no one else understands it.

If you’re going to be a tough guy, you’ll see where you’re needed. You’ll look for opportunities and you’ll get things done.

Monday, December 19, 2011

16505--At Home with Harry, Estelle and Rusty



Harry’s middle-age spread filled the seat of his worn recliner. He seemed almost a permanent fixture, as much a part of the furniture as its collected food stains, as the weekend’s football games were displayed on the flickering screen before him, hour after hour with no apparent end. The special, super-deluxe, command center remote control in his right hand allowed him to do everything he could conceive of doing from his chair, so he almost never released his grip on it. During a game, that only happened when he had to actually get to his feet to go to the bathroom. Everything he ate or drank was handled with his left hand. Getting everything he ate or drank to his chair was handled by…

“Estelle!  Estelle!” Harry shouted.  “Bring me another beer, will ya?  Awww, geez!  New York’s getting stomped.”

Harry scratched his forty-seven-year-old belly, the most significant movement he had made in the last hour, through his white, cotton T-shirt. The shirt fit him snugly, long ago stretched tight by his often enthusiastic, but usually mindless, consumption habits. He ran a meaty hand over his thinning grey and black hair.

The doorbell rang. Several seconds passed and the bell rang again. Rusty trotted into the living room from the kitchen. The small, tan mutt paused at the front door for a moment. He let out an uncaring bark that sounded like a huff or a belch or some combination of the two before walking over to Harry’s easy chair and curling up at the sluggish man’s feet.

“Hey, Estelle,” Harry called out, “you gonna get the door or what?”

“You get it,” Estelle called back from the kitchen. “I’m on the phone with my mother.”

“And I’m watchin’ the game,” Harry said. “And bring me another cold one, will ya?”

Whoever was outside the front door switched to insistent knocking which quickly came to border pounding. Estelle finally emerged from the kitchen, shuffling to the front door in fuzzy pink slippers while mumbling about beer, football, home runs and television. She had left her mother chattering away about the week’s soap operas, but figured she could get back to the phone before her mother noticed Estelle’s absence. One hand pulled her yellow terrycloth robe shut while the other fussed over her new perm, making sure she was presentable before opening the door.

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” Estelle said, reaching for the door knob.

Two men, sporting neatly cut black hair, jet-black sunglasses and equally black suits, ties and shoes stood motionless on Estelle's stoop, their shadows falling over the housewife as she looked up at them. Their faces were as expressionless and inscrutable as mannequins.

“Well?” Estelle asked impatiently. “Salesmen, angry neighbors or Jehovah’s Witnesses?”

“That‘s classified, ma‘am,” one of the men said.

"Oh my gawd," Estelle said, her eyes lighting up.  "You sound just like...and you look...Are you...Jack Nicholson?"

"No, ma'am, he's not," the other man said.

"Oh," Estelle said, getting confused as though trying to work a puzzle, "you sound like him, too.  How come you both sound like--?  Are you two brothers?"

“What do you think, partner?”

“Fits the description,” the other man-in-black said, his voice disturbingly similar to his partner’s.

“What‘re you talking about?” Estelle asked.

“Bag her,” the first stranger said.

“Right,” the second acknowledged, throwing a heavy black sack over Estelle that quickly covered her from head to waist.

Rusty lifted his head just enough to make another huff belch, but lowered it again as the black-clad pair yanked the wriggling Estelle out of the house and closed the door. Only a single fuzzy pink slipper remained to mark Estelle’s passing.

“Hey, Estelle,” Harry called out.  “Hurry up with that beer.  This one’s almost empty.”

The heavy sack was yanked away to allow a hot, bright cone of light to shine down on Estelle’s naked face.  She tried to lift a hand to shield her unprotected eyes, but one of her captors reached from the surrounding darkness to slap it down.

"OW!  What'd you do that for?" she asked, rubbing her hand. 

“Naughty, naughty,” one of the men said, slightly amused. “Just sit tight, lady. We’ll be right with you.”
"If you want me to sit here for long, I'm gonna need a better chair," she insisted.  "This is too hard.  It's not comfortable at all."

Estelle could see only shadowy figures in the darkness beyond her cone of light. She listened for any sound, but heard nothing. She began to worry and fidget.

“M-My ma’s gonna start to get real concerned if she notices I ain’t there no more,” Estelle said. “Wh-Wh-What’re you gonna do with me?”

“Do you like living in this country, ma‘am?”

“Huh?” a puzzled Estelle responded. “Well, yeah, a’course. What kinda question--?”

“Are you a communist?”

“Or a liberal?”

“Who‘d you vote for in the last five elections?”

“I--I--I--” Estelle stammered.

“Looks like she‘s going to be difficult,” one of the men said.

“Should I get the equipment?” the other asked.

“Looks like you’d best, partner.”

“Equipment?” Estelle parroted. “What equipment?  What’s going on?  What's with all these personal questions?”

“Don’t think you can play games with us, you commie pinko subversive maggot slime.”

“We know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice,” the tag-team badgering continued.

“We see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake.”

“We know when you’ve been a filthy, law-breaking maggot, so come clean for goodness sake.”

“About what?  I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Estelle protested.  “I ain’t done nothin!”

“Oh, really?” one of the men asked, rolling his eyes behind his obscuring glasses.  “Don’t tell me you’ve never seen...this!

A swiftly moving hand passed into the light, flinging a small plastic bag into Estelle’s lap. She picked up the clear, sealed bag and looked at the piece of white paper contained within. Smooth on three edges, jagged on the fourth, the torn scrap of paper bore bold print that read: UNDER PENALTY OF LAW THIS TAG NOT TO BE REMOVED. The frightened woman’s eyes widened and her jaw grew slack. As swiftly as before, a hand darted back into the light to snatch the evidence bag from Estelle’s trembling fingers and disappear with it into shadow once again.

“I suppose you’re going to try telling us you’ve never seen that before,” one of the men said with a chuckle.

“And that you didn’t tear it off the bottom of a chair,” the other added.

“But I--”

“But me no buts,” one of the agents said. “We’re on to you!”

“The jig’s up, Lillian,” his partner said. “You’ve done the crime and we’re going to do the punishment.”

“Crime doesn’t pay, lady,” the first one said, leaning close enough to show his toothy grin.


“I warned you…” one of the agents said, the clicking of switches being flipped and the sound of a whirring electrical motor spinning up to speed penetrating the blackness.
"Now you wait just one doggone minute," she said, defiantly shaking an index finger at where she thought someone might be.

"Waiting time's done," an agent said.  "You had your chance to confess."

"Now," the other told her, "you're going to find out what happens--"

“My name’s not ‘Lillian’.”

“What?” the men asked in unison.

“My name’s Estelle,” she told them.

“That can’t be right,” the agent said, losing his grin.

“If you’re trying to pull a fast one, lady,” the other man said, “I’ll warn you now--”

“So you’re claiming you’re not Lillian Dumont?” the other asked her.

“Well, no,” Estelle told them. “I mean, yes…”

“Which is it, lady?”

“I ain’t her,” Estelle clarified. “She’s at 123 Oak Street.  Me and Harry are at 132 Oak Street.  Oh, that woman’s just awful.  I could tell you stories...and she thinks she's so high class...Have you got any gum?”

There was a long silence in the dark, finally broken by the nervous shuffling of papers and a dry cough.  A half-empty pack of gum flew out of the dark, landing in Estelle's lap.

"Thank you very much," she said, taking a stick of gum.

"Keep the pack," one of the voices instructed.

“Well…damn,” one of the agents said. “You know how many forms we’re going to have to--?”

“There’s been a mistake ma’am,” the other man told her as more switches clicked and the electric motor whirred slower and slower.

“Sorry about the commie, pinko, subversive…Well, all of it,” the other agent said.

“Yes, completely our fault, ma’am.”

“Oh…it’s OK, boys,” Estelle said. “I guess there’s no real harm done. After all--”

“Bag her.”


The front door flew open as Harry flicked a bottle cap at the television.  Estelle tumbled into the house in time to hear Rusty huff belch and Harry grumble something unintelligible at whatever game was on the screen.  Still shaking, Estelle closed the door and wriggled her bare foot back into its forlorn slipper.

“Harry,” Estelle said.

“Estelle, you got my six-pack, baby?” Harry asked her, his eyes never leaving the game.

“But, Harry, I--”

“Could ya hurry it up, Estelle?  I’m dyin’ ovah here,” he told her, “and the game’s goin’ inta overtime and…Holy--! Would ya look at that?”

Estelle shuffled off into the kitchen.  She picked up the phone, still where she had left it on the counter and held the handset to her mouth and ear.  Her mother was still talking and had only gotten as far as Wednesday’s soaps.  Estelle put the phone handset back on the counter and sighed at the sticky mound of dirty dishes that looked like they were growing larger in the sink.  She turned to the refrigerator, opened it and took a cold six-pack of beer from inside, then closed the door again. Setting the cold cans on the kitchen table, Estelle reached for one of the padded metal frame chairs. She tipped the chair back and looked at the underside of the seat cushion with an odd smile.

“Estelle! Geez!” Harry bellowed from the living room.

“I’m coming! I’m coming!” Estelle responded, hurrying in from the kitchen.

She stopped beside Harry’s recliner and set five of the beers on the table next to her husband, handing him one. Harry took the can, already anticipating the refreshing feeling of having it in his mouth as he heard the hiss of opening it.

“Ahhh…that’s good,” he said as he suddenly noticed that Estelle was still standing over him. “What?  You want a medal?  Dinner ain’t gonna cook itself.”

“Sorry, Harry,” she said, taking a last glance at the little table before she left.

Looking past the waiting beer cans, Estelle’s gaze focused on the torn piece of paper she had placed next to them. She smirked once more as she read the bold, black words “UNDER PENALTY OF LAW” and felt a little bounce in her step as she turned to saunter off to the kitchen to decide what she would have for dinner while waiting for the doorbell to ring again.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

16501--Similarities to Persons Living or Dead (Ch. 13)

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.
Similarities to Persons Living or Dead 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 13
Even though I got back home as fast as I could, I found the door to my new apartment already open, something I never liked. Inside, I found Berlin sitting on my couch holding a bag of frozen peas to the back of her head.

“What’s going on?” I asked her. “You OK?”

“Getting there, I guess,” my assistant reported. “Thanks for asking. You just missed three guys hitting me on the head and dragging your client out of here, though.”

“Dark eyes? Kinda zombie?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Acquaintances or angry clients?”

“More SOC stalkers,” I said. “They’re some sort of reanimated dead. They seem alive, but they’re missing pieces.”

“Souls most likely,” Jonni said. “They looked like they were missing a layer and I thought they smelled funny.”

“OK,” I told her. “If they’ve got her, they’re gonna be taking her to Corvus. Hey, where’d you find peas?”

“In the freezer.”

“Not my freezer.”

“I put them there,” she said. “No, I didn’t open the deadly box,” she assured me, rolling her eyes.

“OK, then, keep on not doing that,” I told her, walking over to my desk.

“What’re you going to do about the incredible wailing woman?” Jonni asked me.

I sighed and opened the center desk drawer. I reached in, ignoring the pens, paper clips and other random items to take hold of the rune-covered, circular rod. “Something drastic,” I responded. “Probably something I’m going to end up regretting.”

“Brick?” Jonni asked, no small concern in her voice. “Why does it look like you’re holding a magical rod?”

“Because I am,” I sighed again as I crossed the room and went around the dining table, to the large blank section of wall between the balcony and the kitchen.

“What is that?” my assistant asked, rising from the couch to follow me. “New toy?”

I touched a specific rune on the rod and then touched one end of the black metal rod to the wall. A heavy 8’x8’ mirror with an ornately crafted frame became manifest against the wall.

“Ooh, impressive,” Jonni said. “That really opens up the room.”

“You don’t know the half of it, Berlin,” I told her as I tapped the end of the rod against the looking glass. The surface of the mirror began to ripple like a pond. “It’s called the Wayfarer’s Arcanum.”

“Oh, that does sound majestic,” Jonni said. “It has sort of a poetic flair.”

“Sure, whatever,“ I told her.

“Really? Then let me borrow your glowing heart pendant,” she said. “I want to do some research.”

“It’s…special,” I said, handing over the rock. “Be careful. Keep the door locked. I’ll be in touch as soon as I can.” With that, I walked through the mirror and found myself in a reflected version of my own living room. Though the scenery was different from my last visit through the darkly reflected realm, the large wooden crate of precious metals was still about where it was before, relatively speaking, just about ten feet in from the mirror. Following the pattern I had learned before, I crossed the room and went through an opening in the wall into darkness.

Breaking up the featureless blackness, there was a seemingly endless line of mirrors to my right and, to my left, a dirty stone floor where a sprawling craftsman’s workshop had been staged for who knew how long. Hard at work at his blazing forge, the lean, tall dark elf known to me alternatively as Teng Rovo-something and as Smith, stood sweating in the hot air as he used his tongs to manipulate something in the hot coals.

Teng looked at me sternly, then back to his forge. Pointing at the bellows with the index finger of his heavy-gauntleted right hand, commanding, “Hotter!” In response to his barked order, the bellows pumped hard, forcing more and more air into the forge. Apparently satisfied for the moment, the mighty smith walked at me with purpose, his long white hair flowing behind him. He pulled off his left gauntlet as he approached and tucked it into his leather apron. “Welcome, Wayfarer. Finally have someplace you need to be?”

“Yeah, that kind of day,” I replied, handing over the Wayfarer’s Arcanum. “Sorry for the interruption.”

“No bother,” he said to my surprise, though still gruffly. “I needed to see you anyway.” He handed over a small wooden box as he said, “Here’s some bullets for you to test. They’re similar to the sample you gave me, but I added some magnetized iron and some extra powder.”

“Yeah, heavy,” I said, taking one out to feel. “I like it. This is great work, Smith. Or do you prefer ‘Teng‘?”

“Either’s fine,” he told me. “Stop trying to make me blush and tell me where you’re going.”

“Corvus Building, downtown,” I said, following him as he bolted off for a mirror before I could even finish speaking. “So you know where it is?”

“What floor?” he smiled.

“Top, thanks,” I told him as he used the obsidian rod to make the rippling mirror show us a bathroom inside the corporate target. “Now, do I need to come back through the same place I go through? I opened a hole in a wall once before.”

“You opened a passage through a wall,” he corrected me. “Use a reflective surface to get back to the mirror hall.”

“Oh, so I made a hole in the wall, like in a cartoon?”

“Sure, I suppose,” he said.

“What if I tap the rod against someone’s head?”

“The Wayfarer’s Arcanum is a finely crafted tool of subtle and ancient magic,” Teng explained, handing it back, “so it will certainly smite your villains mightily, especially when it is applied…upside the head.”

“’Upside the head‘?” I asked in disbelief. “Pick that one up around the forge?”

“Did I use that wrong?”

“No, surprisingly well actually,” I told him.

“Be sure to keep a good grip and remember your follow through. Go forth with confidence and stealth, Wayfarer.”

“On my way,” I said. As I’d arrived, I was off again, stepping through another mirror and back to Corvus. Certainly, it was nowhere near the top of my list of places I wanted to hurry back to and I definitely would’ve been happy about having time to plan, but there were times when evil activities just couldn’t wait to be stomped.

Taking advantage of my speedy travel and the privacy of the bathroom, I pulled the SOC card from my jacket pocket. I took a deep breath and let it out as I whispered, “Murder of crows.” The card began to glow in my hand.

The whispers began at once. A torrent of voices rushed through my mind, a chaotic noise of messages to and from Corvus. Standing still, it seemed that relaxing and clearing my mind would allow me to begin to make some sense of the crosstalk. I also discovered that some of the messages were flying in the form of images. With a little more effort over several minutes, guiding the imagery I paid attention to showed me where to find Harmony inside the Corvus office building. As expected, she’d been brought to the top floor for interrogation.

The Corvus puppet masters were desperate, but they couldn’t lobotomize her and hope to still get the information out of her that they wanted. My best estimation said there was little danger of them dragging her into the ranks of their mindless legions. On top of that, what Harmony and I knew and they didn’t, was that they could spend all night cutting off her fingers and toes without ever getting the info they wanted from her. Neither of us knew the secrets that would save Corvus. They needed to talk to Alex Gold. Harmony needed me to get in and get back out with her. If I was going to have any chance at getting her out whole, it was going to have to be done quickly.

On my last visit, it looked like the heaviest security was down on the first floor. Telling them that I was hired by Moss would’ve gotten me upstairs easily enough. Making up some story about finding their money might even have been enough to get me in the same room with Harmony. After all the effort they’d gone through to get her and bring her in, though, I had the feeling I wasn’t getting her away from them except at gunpoint. On any other job that would’ve given me a big, happy, warm puppy feeling, but I had no idea how many single-minded, reanimated guards and stalkers they might have had that I might not have been able to shoot down even with my shiny, new customized bullets.

Rather than have things play out like a bad zombie movie, I decided to use a technique that had gotten me out of a couple of tight spots before. I climbed up on a sturdy, flipped over trash can and took a disposable lighter to the sprinkler sensor. “What was the name of that restaurant?” I was asking myself when the alarms started blaring. I was soaking wet before I had my feet back on the hard tile floor.

There were only a couple of women screaming and squealing out of the half-dozen running for the stairs. Everyone else I could see was eerily calm, almost sleepwalking away from their cubicles, evacuating in a calm and orderly fashion. Well, at least they knew enough to go…or maybe they were only following an order. Either way, good for me. I didn’t have to kill the lights and the low-light goggles could stay in my coat pocket.

As I moved back through the cubicle maze, I heard a woman yelling from Moss’ corner office. I was surprised I could hear it as far away as I was and in spite of all the relentless noise of the alarms and hiss of the artificial downpour. It had all become unbelievably loud to me. I picked up my pace and stopped at the open doorway. It seemed crazy how very loud everything was. Helen Blazes was standing over Director Moss. I could tell that the office had been wrecked--smashed table, overturned chairs, papers and office supplies strewn about the floor--even before I’d started the water works.

“Get up! Get up!” Helen yelled at Moss as she tried pulling him to his feet. “He’s getting away with her!”

“Stone,” Moss said, hurriedly buttoning his suit jacket to cover a blood stain on his white shirt.

“Brick,” Helen beamed in as charming a tone as I’d ever had thrown my way, “what’re you doing back here so soon? Don‘t tell me you missed me already,” she said, trying to strike a casually sexy pose in a clinging wet dress while the chaos continued around us.

It was almost creepy. “Alright,” I said, “so we’re just pretending that the alarms and the indoor rainstorm aren’t happening? Is that it?”

“I hired Mr. Stone onto the case,” Moss said, sweeping his soaking wet hair back off his face. “Good timing, Stone. That bastard Gold was just here. He made a mess, kidnapped a girl and ran back out again.”

“You just missed him,” Helen added, pointing at the office door.

“So, if I hurry, I can catch him? Got it,” I said. “We’ll talk later.”

Undaunted by the downpour, I raced back to the elevators. By the time I was stabbing at the call button, my mind had been doing flips trying to figure out how I was going to find a homicidal Alex Gold with a captive Harmony Storm. By the time I reached the lobby, it was thick with sleepwalkers filing out the front doors. It felt like I was the only one in a hurry, pushing and squeezing my way through the slow-moving pack. Beyond the doors, I could hear fire engines getting closer and as I made it to the sidewalk along with scores of other people of questionable body temperature the sirens were about two blocks away.

I heard an engine revving and tires squeal nearby. As I continued to push through the mire of drones, I saw an old yellow sedan pulling off from the curb. Alex Gold was in the passenger seat. Well, they were found. That just left catching him and rescuing her. With violent suddenness, more noise and effort, the car swung a U-turn and sped back past the building. Harmony was the driver.

“Brick!” Harmony shouted as they passed.

I could hear the fear in her cry. My heart hammered hard in my chest and my politeness and restraint went for a walk. I started fighting my way forward trying to chase the car. I was pushing and shoving and knocking to the ground people whose only offered resistance came from the inertia of their complete lack of drive to move. Conversely, I was like a lunatic shopping after dark on Christmas Eve and that crappy car was the last of the must-have items on my list.

I felt my hand tighten its grip on the sturdy metal rod it carried as the impulse formed deep in the ancient lizard section of my brain to start swinging at every skull around me. Then, muscles tensing to begin my first assaults, I saw myself. There I was in a frozen moment of rage about to explode, my reflection captured in a window. Weight lifted from my chest and shoulders as I shoved people aside, sweeping them left and right to clear myself a path to the glass just a few feet away. I could just barely see the ghostly image of myself as an image in the glass and began tapping the window with the Wayfarer‘s Arcanum on the chance that it would be a reflective enough surface to get me to where I needed to go.

I fell out of a mirror. To me, it was a random mirror that looked just like any of the countless others that stretched off into featureless black on either side of the one I’d just tumbled through. I picked myself up from what passed for floor and looked to my left and to my right. I saw black and I saw mirrors, but no indication of the fire from Teng’s forge nor the sounds of his work. I had to find him or, at least, the master mirror that would get me home. The rod glowed. Why’d the rod glow? Because I thought of the master mirror? It glowed a little more brightly. Of course, it can point me to the master mirror.

I held the glowing rod to my right and said, “Master mirror,” but the glow faded as I felt only a slight tug to my left. I turned to my left and said, “Master mirror,” again, picturing the huge thing back in my apartment. That time I felt a stronger tug from the rod as it glowed brightly. I started walking. I wasn’t sure how far it was to my reflected living room, but at least I was going the right way.

I had to get on to my next move. It looked like Gold had Harmony driving uptown. The fact that Gold was still alive was becoming less of a secret every passing day. Too many of the wrong people knew he was breathing, in fact, so he couldn’t have been trying to keep Harmony quiet. That ship had sailed. He may’ve finally snapped, but like the folks at Corvus, he must’ve thought she knew something important. Like them, it would make sense that he’d take her to whatever he was calling home to squeeze info out of her…What was the name of that ritzy hotel again?