Archive for May, 2011

This is a story about loss. Something we all deal with, in our individual ways, every day. It’s hard not to think of loss in these times with so much of it around: Japan, Alabama, Louisiana, Joplin, recession, joblessness, Oprah Winfrey. Watching the HBO movie Too Big To Fail last night gave the word a whole new slant. Loss. Change the last letter to a “t” and you have a completely different word with an almost hauntingly identical meaning.

 

They say “every time you lose something, you gain something.” So why then does it—sometimes—hurt so much? Death is the elephant in the room here. Death of a family member, death of a close friend, death of a marriage—those are supposed to be the Big Three. I’ve experienced all in the exact reverse order, the last as recently as this week—a decades old friend with whom I shared both the love of art and the eccentricities of our entwining careers.  I cannot imagine not hearing his voice ever again, his laugh, his laments, his ingeniously idiosyncratic mind. Who will I turn to now for that part of me that was him? Yet isn’t my own passing as inevitable as his? These bodies are but borrowed, these surrounding hovels as temporary as the next great wind. Why do we cling to both as if they were timeless, adamantine? Under it all aren’t we as nakedly finite as the stars that made us? Or as Updike, in one of his last novels, Villages, put it far more eloquently: “It is a mad thing, to be alive. Villages exist to moderate this madness—to hide it from children, to bottle it for private use, to smooth its imperatives into habits, to protect us from the darkness without and the darkness within.” One of our great writers…now one of our greatest losses.

Losing a premature baby was my first great loss and without a doubt the worst. I wept for weeks. It turned me inside out. I thought the agony would never end. So traumatized was I, that when my wife again became pregnant (a risky one) I honestly believed I wouldn’t make it to full term. But the baby, a beautiful boy, was born—not without incident—happy and healthy and in every way perfect. I knew it was our last child and was surprised to find a measure of relief in that. I’d never have to go through the awful fear of that kind of loss again.

Except the one thing you can be sure about life is: you can never be sure about any of it.

One sunny day when my boy was five, we drove to a favorite beach in Ventura County to stroll the shops and take the sea air. There was a small emporium containing an indoor carousel and snack bar I thought my son might enjoy. I put him on one of the wooden horses, watched him laugh and wave round and round, then took him to the snack bar for popcorn. There was some protracted problem about the right change that is no longer clearly memorable to me. What is indelibly memorable is my turning around, popcorn in hand, to find my son—ten seconds ago at my side—gone.

The terror comes in building stages. At first you realize, hey, he was just here, couldn’t have gone far, must be over by the carousel watching the horses. Then, finding he is not there or anywhere else in the emporium, you think (panic rising but still manageable) he must have stepped outside: it’s been less than a minute. The all-out terror comes when you search around the building still not finding him, start searching the concourse and find that too is empty, and it hits you that someone that small could not possibly have gotten so far away: unless he was taken.

The thing I remember most? The look on an elderly lady’s face when I accosted her on the concourse in a state of deteriorating frenzy. “Have you seen a little boy?” I asked. Maybe it was the sound of my own voice or the look on my face, but to this day I can still hear with clear distinction every syllable of her reply: “Oh, no!”   That single “no” has followed me down the years, ever just at my shoulder, followed by my own thoughts: Stupid, stupid, stupid! Bad father!

I had never spanked my boy in his life. But when I came back through the emporium door, drained and dazed, looked up and saw my son ease smiling from behind the wooden snack counter, spanking and spanking him very hard was exactly what I intended as I rushed toward him. Instead, of course, I swept him into my arms, hugged him till he yelped and muttered, choking against him: “Don’t ever do that again!”

Years older now, he doesn’t even recall an event I know will live forever within me. Every grueling second of it.

Of all my stories the one that follows is—for the most part, at least—probably the most autobiographic. The ending’s pure fiction, of course, although that too, I suppose, might someday become an eventuality. In the meantime, maybe, like Robert Wilkes, you’ve had–weaving life’s ever surprising obstacle course–a similar experience while playing

 

THE WAITING GAME

                                                    ________________________

                                                                 Bruce Jones

 

ROBERT Wilkes pushed through lethargic exit doors into chill December night, sucking the cold into his lungs with a gasp.

“Jesus, it’s freezing out here!”

His wife burrowed deeper in her fur-trimmed coat, hunched lower with a trembling nod. “Amen.”

Her way of reminding him not to take certain individuals name’s in vain so close to the season. They walked briskly across the parking lot, tracking through icy rivers of slush–filthy from endless parades of chained tires–squinting against sudden rude blasts of stinging wind. “Holiday spirit or no holiday spirit,” he grunted, “I’m glad that’s over with. Christmas is for the young, the very young.” He shifted heavy store packages in his arms.

She turned abruptly, made a stricken face. “Damn!”

He stopped, icy vapor fluttering, dread building. “What is it?”

She gave him that look he dreaded most at times like this, one of sheepish apology. “I forgot someone!”

“Oh, Lindy, no!” His toes were already beginning to lose feeling.

“It’s Kim Jameson down the block! She gave us that beautiful dish last year, we can’t just forget her!”

He groaned, cast his eyes heavenward. “I can!”

“You go on to the car,” she told him, shivering violently. “You can turn on the heater, I’ll only be a few minutes.”

He looked down the long, darkened parking lot and shook his head. “We’re almost out of gas and you won’t be a few minutes, you’ll be tied up forever in line with other last minute Yule-tiders brimming with holiday spirit.” And sighing regret: “I’d better go with you.”

A gust of wind pushed them back the way they’d come. He held her arm, guiding her around frozen lakes and pot holes, asking himself for the hundredth time that evening why in hell he didn’t do his Christmas shopping in August. It was the same thing every year, as if he deliberately planned this agony for himself—some guilt-edged form of self-punishment. For sleeping late on Sundays, he thought; this is the way I do penance with the Lord.

For a moment, the warm rush of store air from within was a relief as they reentered the stampede, but within the space of two minutes someone jabbed him hard in the ribs, a child stepped on his already screaming toes, and the all-too familiar din of scurrying humanity gave new life to his once-fading headache. He heaved resigned breath as they approached the cattle chute at the escalator. If you squint your eyes, he thought, it’s like that scene from the silent classic Metropolis: soulless workers trudging to mechanized doom.

His wife must have seen the look on his face. “There’s no need for you to fight this, honey,” she said with endearing sympathy. “Somewhere there’s a book department on this floor, why don’t you browse around there while I look upstairs for Kim’s present? It’ll give you a chance to put the packages down.”

He had to love her. “What if we get lost?”

“We won’t. You just stay with the books. I’ll finish up and come to you!”

And he had to admit it sounded good. Better than watching her search through feminine apparel or dishware or whatever she was after. Christ. He didn’t even like Kim’s husband. “All right. Make it quick as you can though, huh Lindy?”

She gave his arm a patient squeeze, proffered that smile that said I love you despite all this mess. Just before she got to the escalator, he saw her point across the store expansively, silently mouth: Books—that way! Then the crowd swallowed her like a living thing.

He strained above the sea of bobbing heads to see where she’d indicated, saw only more bobbing heads, shrugged and struck off in what he hoped was the general direction.

Somewhere above the shuffling turmoil overhead speakers broadcast an ancient rendition of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen by an Irish tenor whose name he couldn’t recall, though he’d heard the song a thousand times over the years. Christmas classics. Right. The old speakers—or maybe the undulant crowd—made the song sound tinny. The way his brother used to tell him he sounded at choir practice. He chuckled under his breath. It was impossible to think of those days without a little rush of nostalgic warmth. And with it, an edge of guilt. Where along the way had he managed to lose his faith? The dealership? The mortgage? No…long before that. Maybe around the time he knew his wife knew they weren’t going to be rich after all…

His faith. His church. He could still see his father’s powerful frame from where he, as a child, had sat in the front row of pew, gazing with unending awe and fascination at the strong hands gripping the pulpit, listening with unswerving love and reverence to the voice that drove out all fear and worry. And later, that same commanding voice, reduced to a gargled whisper by the cancer eating his throat, instructing him from the strange-smelling death bed to take care of Mommy and little brother Jim. He’d prayed to God that night with all his might not to take his father away, not to leave him alone with those terrible responsibilities, the dark, featureless future. But God, it seemed, wasn’t home that night. In the pale stillness of early morning light his father had slipped away…and with him taken the church…

A line of squirming children and bored mothers blocked his path. His weary eyes followed them down the aisle to the bright, hand-painted sign hanging above: Toyland—Visit Santa Here! He shook his head and skirted the slow-trudging line and zombie faces, picturing in his mind this year’s version of Santa: another sad-eyed old man in a padded suit of crimson and white trim, dutifully hoisting each recalcitrant youngster to his lap for $3.50 an hour, hiding, no doubt, a fifth of bourbon somewhere in the cardboard workshop behind him.

Just after entering Sporting Goods his nose was assaulted by a sudden noxious odor. Good Christ, he thought, what in the world…?

He made a face, craned about for the source. Did some kid vomit? Crap his little skivvies? The whole department reeked. He pushed past a burly, blue-haired woman and hurried to get out of there, watching where he stepped as best he could.

He rounded a corner and found himself in Hardware. He hesitated, looked right and left. “Books, books,” he mumbled, “where the hell do they keep the damn books…” The packages were becoming lead in his arms. A growing numbness crept to his left shoulder. Heart attack. Nice.

Then he saw the sign: Books—Stationery.

He grunted satisfaction and moved ahead, forging path like a wide receiver.

In twenty minutes he’d seen all the books he wanted to see.

He found himself leaning against a table heaped high with remainder volumes, packages at his feet, arms folded, back muscles resenting him, listening to—how many times was it now?—God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The Muzak loop must have been stuck. Or maybe the store was just too cheap this season to up the variety. Right now he’d settle for six straight renditions of Jingle Bell Rock. Maybe even a chorus or two of Little Drummer Boy. Yeah, he thought, shifting his weight to his other aching arch, and a partridge in a pear tree.

He consulted his watch. It had been an hour since he’d left his wife at the escalator. Where the hell was she? Come on, Lindy, I’m slipping away here…

A woman shoved by and kicked the packages at his feet. Merry Christmas and fuck you very much.

He was hot under the heavy coat, had been hot for over half an hour now with no way to remove it. Should have left it in the damn car. Should have stayed in the damn car as Lindy had suggested. He knew she’d be late, they both had known she’d be late, she’d been trying to warn him. Shit.

He shifted his weight to the other leg, sighed. Wondered how many times he’s sighed that night. Why do people sigh, anyway? Just boredom or some necessary bodily function? Hadn’t he read somewhere it was caused by improper breathing or posture? That, by sighing, your body saturated the lungs with oxygen and thereby helped clear the brain. But was it voluntary or involuntary? Hadn’t he seen something on TV where–

–oh who the hell cares! Think about something else. Like a nice cold beer. Or six.

He glanced down at his watch again. It was exactly a minute and six seconds later than the last time he’d looked.

He closed his eyes there against the wooden counter. Please don’t start that damn song again. Please.

For a moment he thought he could almost fall asleep on his feet that way. Horses did it, why not humans? His uncle Allen had a horse once. Kept it in his back pasture. He remembered riding it a few times when he was very young. His Uncle told him once the crazy nag was always jumping the fence, running down the middle of the road, him chasing and cursing it. Funny image. What was that horse’s name, anyway? Angie? Agnus? Mr. Ed? Something. What if he opened his eyes right now and the whole crowd just disappeared. Wouldn’t that be cool? Maybe if he wished hard enough…

The crowd was still there. All but his wife.

Why were women always late? It wasn’t just a double standard, you know, they really were always late. Always. Lousy drivers, too. It was true. Always tell when you get behind some broad. Specially in traffic. Like they waited until you were sure they were going to make that red light, then slammed on their brakes in front of you. Lousy drivers and always late, habitually, every girl he’d ever known, Lindy one of the worst. It was a thing between them. He detested waiting for people, prided himself on his punctuality. She didn’t know the meaning of the word. Women. Great legs, though, had to give his Lindy that. Boobs could have been bigger, sure, but so what, at least they were real. But those legs. Especially before the kids came, remember that? Not an ounce of fat on her. Buns like apples. Guys used to stare at her when they passed on the sidewalk. He didn’t care, didn’t blame them. Let ‘em stare. He got to go home with—

–oh, shit…here came the song again.

He started to look down at his watch again, caught himself, jammed his hand into his coat pocket instead. A watched pot never boiled. Who comes up with crap like that anyway? And who cared? Useless information; his brain was full of it. Some truth to it, though. Glancing at his watch would only make it seem longer. Jesus but his back was killing him!

What was she doing up there for chrissake!

Maybe she was almost through. Maybe she’d found a gift and was standing at the head of the long check-out line, handing her plastic to the girl, or lady or whoever. He pictured the girl handing her back her card, smiling a Merry Christmas, saw his wife move back through the crowd with her package to the escalator, step on it, ride it down…cross the aisle to the book department. She’d be here any minute, any second…the next person to come into view—

He turned expectantly, seeing her smile in his mind’s eye, her waving arm. He scanned the myriad faces of strangers anxiously, searching, searching. Any second now, any second! The very next face would be hers—

Nothing.

He ground his teeth. Now I’m getting mad, damn it! Now I’m really getting teed! There was no earthly excuse for this! It had been the better part of two hours now! She dawdling around up there picking out just the right color of this or that, him down here with spikes through his back, arches on fire! Well, just wait till he saw her! He’d give her a piece of his mind all right, yes even in the middle of a department store! Not that the oblivious ignoramuses around him would notice! But he’d let her have it good, goddamnit, she deserved it! “And make it quick,” he’d told her! Right! She knew how exhausted he already was, the trouble he had with his feet! He’d offered to come back here to the store with her! He’d—

–an attractive girl came out of the sea of bodies and stopped to look at a book near him. She was slim and stately, really quite beautiful. Her swelling breasts strained against a yellow sweater, yellow like the waterfall of curls that fell to her small shoulders. My God; she could be a model. Easily. Maybe was a model. There was a time when girls her age used to look at him, used to notice him all the time, give him the eye. And not so long ago, either. He’d been something of a looker himself in his day. Damn straight. The chicks had dug him, no question about it. Even that teacher in high school that–

The girl looked up and caught him staring. He looked away quickly, pretended to be interested in one of the sale books. In a moment she’d crossed over closer to him. Picked up a book of her own, paged it, put it back. Crossed over closer to him. Right next to him, actually.

What was this? Was she interested? In me? Guy my age? Is she making a play here?

From the corner of his eye he could see the globes of her breasts move when she sighed boredom, turned a page. She wasn’t wearing a bra! Was she–?

He shifted his position again, cleared his throat nervously. What now? She was obviously inviting conversation. He was supposed to say something now, break the ice. But what? He was out of practice. He found himself craning around with a sudden hooded look of fear; of course Kim would show up now!

But she didn’t. And the girl inched closer. He could smell the oil in her hair…

He pictured himself turning to her, smiling, asking innocently about the book she was reading. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with conversing with someone while he was waiting around here, no law against that. Just a quick word to open the conversation. He glanced askance quickly and thought he caught her smiling. She was interested! Never mind why, this absolutely beautiful knock-out doll was without a doubt coming on to him! Next thing he knew he’d be buying that book for her, escorting her to the exit door. Then a quick hamburger somewhere, if she wanted it, back to her apartment, a drink or two, and wham–into the old sack. He saw them heaving feverishly across the bed, bodies locked, her long nails digging his back, round hips bucking up to him, lovely mouth opening as she cried out in writhing orga—

The girl was gone.

He blinked once. Craned around. She was gone.

Jerk. Standing here in the middle of a neighborhood department store the night before Christmas Eve fantasizing about ravaging some poor innocent girl young enough to be your…

He looked at his watch. It was over two hours now. This was beyond ridiculous! Where was his wife!

A sudden chill found him. Wait a sec! What if she’d run into some kind of trouble? What if she couldn’t get to him? It had never occurred to him. He stood there trying to imagine what kind of trouble she might be in–couldn’t think of anything. Still, you never knew; this was an incredibly long time to wait. No check-out line was that long…

No. Something must have happened. This was serious. Two hours! Better go check on her, he thought, picking up the packages, better go see what’s wrong…

Then the thought: but what if she came down while he was going up? If he missed her now it would only delay things further. “You just stay with the books,” she’d said, “I’ll come find you.” Fine, but what if she had run into trouble, was in some kind of difficulty? He’d never forgive himself for just standing around doing nothing while she suffered.

He grimaced frustration. Lindy, Lindy! Why do you do these things to me?

But, hold on! His packages! If he left his packages here with a check-out girl, his wife might recognize them—a signal to wait for him to come back. Also, he wouldn’t have to worry about lugging them upstairs through that mob. Yes. That’s it, leave the packages down here.

“I was wondering if I could leave these with you for a few minutes?”

The ‘girl’ at the cash register was a fat, middle-aged woman with doughy face, blank expression, and red-rimmed eyes with no remaining patience in them.

“Someone’s supposed to meet me and I thought she might come by here and see the packages. I have to leave for a few minutes. Would you mind?”

“You want me to watch yer packages, mister?” flatly, drily.

“If it wouldn’t be inconvenient.”

She lowered her fat neck slowly to the presents in his arms. Arched a dubious brow. “Well, I can’t be held responsible–”

“Of course not. Just keep one eye open, that’s all!”

“Well…I dunno…”

“Please. It’s important.”

“Okay. Fine. Leave ‘em. But I don’t get the blame if they ain’t here when you come back.”

He lifted the gifts to the counter and pushed them to one side out of the way. She regarded them with lifted nose as if they were wrapped excrement. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, leaving them with this moron. Well, too late now.

He turned and struck off for the escalator.

*   *   *

He searched the entire second floor for Women’s Apparel. He couldn’t find it.

By then he was furious. With her, with himself, with the whole night, the whole stupid season. I’ll wring her neck, by God, I’ll wring her neck!

He began pushing angrily into the crowd again, not apologizing when he lurched into someone. It had become a separate entity, the crowd, a mini-Tsunami washing against him, blocking his path, crushing him against a shore of others. His head was pounding with every step, every jolting shove. The store was suffocating, reaching down and pulling him inside out. He longed now for the chilly blasts of wind in the parking lot, would have emptied his wallet for one quick breeze.

“Is there a lingerie department on this floor?”

The simpering high school girl behind the counter shrugged her small shoulders, snapped gum. “I’m not sure, sir, I’m just Christmas help.”

He clenched his fists until the nails dug into his palms. Was there no end to this madness? He stood glaring at the girl, hating her. “Well, is there someone who might know?”

She pointed a skinny arm without looking. “Miss Chadwick, next aisle over.” Thanks a holly jolly bunch, bitch!

He stopped short suddenly in the middle of the aisle.

Who said his wife was in lingerie anyway? He’d said it—he’d assumed it—not her! Christ, she could be on the third floor or the fourth, in dishware or chocolates! Anywhere in the damn store!

He hissed a curse under his breath. He’d spent twenty minutes up here, wandering around like a lunatic drug dog, while his wife was probably waiting downstairs for him right now, standing next to that obnoxious pig “guarding” his packages. Or no! Not at that counter! Lindy was waiting for him at the book department!

He rushed for the escalator. That’s where she was all right, he could just feel it, waiting downstairs for him in Books, craning about worriedly, wondering where in hell he was. He was a fool to ever leave the book department. He pushed onto the silvery moving stairs, waited impotently for the slow, mechanical descent. Please, he begged unseen forces, please don’t let her leave! Let her stay with the books until I get there!

Robert Wilkes jumped from the last step back into the first floor melee.

But which way? His head jerked about randomly. He turned a tight circle. Everything looked unfamiliar.

Goddamnit now, you were just here minutes ago! How could you forget so fast! His eyes fell on the glass-encased directory beside the escalator. “You see,” he told himself, breathing funny, “no need to panic. Try using your brain once in a while.” He quickly combed the list of departments here on the first floor. There was no book department listed.

He stepped back, wiping at his forehead. “What the hell is this!”

A pungent smell rolled over him suddenly. That same sickly odor again. Enough to make you gag. Where was it coming from?

Someone banged into his shoulder, spinning him lazily in place. He felt dizzy, light-headed. He couldn’t take much more of this, he needed to get out of here, to breathe! He shuffled off, directionless, trying to distance himself from the awful smell. It seemed he’d encountered that odor once before. Where? He got a quick flash of dun landscape at night…couldn’t expand on it…

He found himself wandering aimlessly in the music department, hollow eyes searching listlessly ahead for the overhanging sign that read, Books—Stationery. You’ll find it, you’ll find it, just don’t fly off the handle. It’s got to be here somewhere. Right around the next corner, it’ll be right around the next corner.

Five corners later he was totally lost.

He stood in the middle of Household Appliances, a whine building in his throat. This isn’t happening. This is a dream, a nightmare. He crossed on trembling legs to the nearest check-out station. The girl looked seasoned, sharp. Good! She would know where he was.

“The what?”

“Books!” he repeated above the din. “The book and stationery department. Can you tell me which way it is!”

“I’m sorry, we don’t have a book department in this store.”

He stared sightlessly at her. “But I was just there!”

She shook her head. “Must be confusing it with another store, sir.”

“I’m telling you—“

“Sir, I’ve been working here for six years now, and we’ve never had any kind of books. Ever.”

He became aware his mouth was hanging open. “…but I…was just…”

She turned away to take someone’s money. He felt the crowd around him, eyes staring at him.

“God rest ye merry gentleman, let nothing you dismay…” The music rang dully from the ceiling speaker above him. Through him. Stabbing into his brain. He stumbled numbly down the aisle, bumping off people like a pinball. “…remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas day…”

A fat man banged into him, jarring his teeth, almost knocking him over. “Sorry, buddy.” He looked up helplessly at the bright sprawl of Christmas decorations festooning the walls, the ceiling. He tried to think. The decorations swam.

And then it came to him—where his wife would be. The car! Sure! She’d gotten tired of waiting for him in the store and gone to sit in the car, get off her feet! She had her own set of keys—it was where she’d expect him to look for her!

He pushed with renewed will to the first exit he saw, a wave of relief sweeping him. It was almost over now. Soon he’d be beside her in the car, putting it in gear, backing out of the congested lot. Tomorrow they would laugh at this! The packages? She’d probably picked them up herself. And that girl at the other check-out station was off her nut—no book department indeed! He’d been there, hadn’t he?

He wormed through the exit doors into sharp winter air again, basking in the cold wind, hurried across the dark, icy lot as fast as his legs would carry him. Even his headache didn’t seem so bad now. He grinned. It was going to be okay. He could feel the bed under him, the heating pad across his back…

He couldn’t find the car.

He combed the freezing lot twice, carefully checking every vehicle, shaking his head in bewilderment. Nowhere among them was his yellow Tempo.

He looked at the watch with giddy panic. It was almost ten. Over three hours now. The store would close in a few minutes. He started back across the big lot a third time. Please…please…

Then it struck him. She’d left! Something had happened and she’d driven on home! Probably she’d looked for him at Books, failed to find him and couldn’t wait around. He hurried back to the store, heart pounding. Why in hell had he not brought his cellular? Got to get to a pay phone, call home, before they close!

A picture of his child flashed before his eyes. Something had happened to Lonnie! The bath tub? The sitter had called the store, had them paged, but he couldn’t hear it in all the bustle! But Lindy had heard, and had  left without him!

Dimly at first, he became aware it felt warmer outside. He was actually sweating under his heavy coat and his breath wasn’t making vapor anymore. My God, the temperature must have risen thirty degrees! Then the awful smell washed over him again. Even out here?

He gagged. What was that reek? A restaurant garbage dump? It was nearly unbearable.

He reentered the store and quickly found his way to a pay phone. He punched his number with shaking fingers, waited for the ring tone. Waited. It never came. An operator came on instead.

“What number are you dialing, please?”

Now what? his mind cried. He gave her the number, voice shaking.

“One moment, please…”

He clutched the receiver tightly. Please God, why are you punishing me?

“Sir?”

“Yes!”

“I’m sorry, there is no listing for that number. Would you care to check the number and have me try again?”

“Operator, that’s my home number, I think I know it!”

“One moment, please…”

He waited in agony. Above him the song started again. “God rest ye merry gentlemen…”

Shut up! His mind screamed. Shut up! SHUT UP!

“I’m sorry, sir, but there is no listing for—“

“Operator for the love of God!”

“Sir, do you wish me to try another number?”

“No, I wish you to do your job you moronic bitch!” He slammed the receiver into the cradle. He stood shaking uncontrollably. I’m sick. I’m sick, that must be it. The flu or something. After a moment he lifted his head, lifted the phone again, punched in his number.

Pause.

“What number are you dialing, please?”

He replaced the receiver slowly, gently. Stood for several seconds staring quietly at it. It looked like an alien thing. “It’s the store,” he muttered aloud, “the store hates me…the store is trying to get me…” It was alarming how real the idea seemed. He could feel his heart laboring painfully in his chest, his breath whistling.

He took the receiver again and dialed information. “May I have the number of the nearest cab company in the Shadybrook area?”

The cab arrived in front of the store in ten minutes.

Robert Wilkes rushed outside and jumped into the back seat, slamming the door behind him. He was dripping sweat. It was almost humid outside.

“Where to, Mac?”

“Ninety-seven twenty-three Maple Drive.” He felt himself pushed back against the seat cushion as the cab accelerated. A few more minutes now and it would all be over, the whole horrible night would all be over.

The smell assaulted him again through the cracked window. He could hardly take a breath. “Where’s it coming from?” he asked the driver.

“What that, Mac?”

“That odor, that smell?”

“Can’t smell a thing, pal, got a head cold.”

He sat in silence the rest of the way. All he wanted was to get home and find out what was happening—put an end to this hideous evening. Until he did, he didn’t want to think about smells or phone numbers or book departments or anything. Those things could wait; right now the sole occupant of his thoughts was his wife. He shivered once spastically. Somewhere deep within him, he’d begun to fight the insane notion he’d never see her again…

The tires made a crisp sound on the pavement as the cab turned onto his street. He watched the familiar line of his neighbors’ houses passing by. The homes on either side were butted together in an unbroken line: welcome to suburbia. Welcome home.

His house was not among them.

He couldn’t seem to find his voice.

”Which one is yours, Mac?”

He blinked out at the night. “Are…are you sure we’re on the right street?”

“This is the only Maple Drive in this burg, pal,” and the driver set the brake.

Wilkes opened the door carefully and stepped into the street, staring intently at the line of homes. There could be no mistaking it. This was his street all right. He just didn’t live here anymore.

A horn blared behind him. “Hey, buddy! You payin’ tonight or what!”

He fished bills from his wallet, handed them absently to the cabby. The taxi jerked away in a cloud of fumes. Silence settled around the man on the empty street. He came to the sidewalk, stepped up on the curb, stared numbly at the houses before him.

He closed his eyes and felt a sob break in his chest. God help me…I’m losing my mind!

He felt a wave of suffocating heat wash over him. A fever? Something he’d eaten earlier? Sweat ran in rivers under his clothes. He opened his eyes and stumbled backward in shock.

The line of houses in front of him was gone. Replaced by a broken landscape of charred rubble, little islands of dirty, drifting smoke.

He turned with a gasp and began running blindly down the steaming sidewalk. As far as his fevered eyes could see, the neighborhood was leveled; an endless black field of twisted, gutted frames canted in terrible contrast before a glowing cyclorama of orange sky. Everywhere was devastation and ruin.

And the smell was overpowering.

He recognized it now; it was the same odor he’d encountered in Iraq. The odor of decaying flesh.

His shoe caught on a piece of shattered concrete and he twisted, pin-wheeled and crashed to the pavement. He winced pain, stared down with unbelieving eyes at the burns on his body, his wasted flesh, ribs jutting white under dust-smudged, shredded clothing. He tried to push up again, but the effort sent slivers of pain through his leg. He seemed to have no strength at all.

*   *   *

He sat alone in the center of the rubble-strewn remains of what had once been a church.

Above him, the poisonous red clouds boiled together and sent a light curtain of rain hissing across the parched earth. The sound it produced was the only sound against the night, save the occasional rumble of thunder.

Robert Wilkes heard none of this. Nor saw the glowing holocaust around him. Nor felt the stifling heat. He braced himself against the frigid blasts of December wind as he and Lindy struggled across the slush-strewn parking lot to the department store entrance. Once again he regarded with irritation the seething mob of last-minute shoppers.

For the eighth time that day, Robert Wilkes relived the same endless dream kept alive by a single thread of sanity still pulsing feebly within his mangled mind. All alone among the crumbling rubble, rocking gently to and fro, he crooned softly to the radiation-choked heavens above.

“God rest ye merry gentleman,” he sang, “let nothing you dismay…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2011 Bruce Jones Associates, Inc.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A few readers have informed me that my short stories are—to put it politely—“oversexed.” I’m not particularly concerned. When often accused of the same label, John Updike replied: “Everyone’s interested in sex.” And who’s going to argue with him? But there’s another reason a few of these tales may appear overly titillating (what genius concocted that word!): some of them were written in my relative youth and published in what were referred to back then as “men’s magazines.” I was asked to be sexy. Hey, I was young, and as Marilyn Monroe once modestly confessed: “I needed the money.” At least I was in good company; while I was churning out verbiage for a poor man’s Playboy called Escapade, some kid named Stephen King was simultaneously stomping the vineyards of the slightly classier Cavalier with his own early fiction. The following yarn, however sexy, has a different genesis altogether, and a different pedigree for that matter. I was approached in 1977 by Zebra Books editor Andrew Offutt to contribute something to a collection of original sword and sorcery tales entitled Swords Against Darkness, Vol. 1. That I was not invited back for Vol. 2 may owe not a little to the fact I hadn’t the least idea what a sword and sorcery story was– as you’ll soon see. But I had read some Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy as a kid. So, ever plucky, I plunged blindly ahead with the genre-tangled anomaly below. Maybe the best thing about the whole Swords project was the cover art by legendary Frank Frazetta–that and sharing space with fantasy icons like Poul Anderson and Manly Wade Wellman. I can say with unabashed accuracy that of all my scribbling through the years, this story holds the dubious honor as the one most reprinted. After the Zebra book outing, it appeared in comic book form– issue number six of the BJA sci-fi title Alien Worlds. At the time I was writing all the stories for the comic—four per issue–and simply ran out of steam. Yes, I stole from myself. With Frank Brunner’s illustrative help, the tale turned out rather well in graphic story form, I think, though I’m not sure it’s science fiction. Not long afterwards (probably not long enough) the tale appeared again in a now out-of-print paperback collection of my stories called Twisted Tales. To some a collector’s item now, the book boasted a cover and several interior illustrations by ole pal Richard Corben. All this was made more confusing because Twisted Tales is also the title of another line of BJA comics partner April Campbell and I were packaging for San Diego publisher Pacific Comics. Whew! At any rate (as Robert Bloch’s agent always said) now, at long last, the poor, tattered, homeless story has a final resting place under the tediously long foreward in this blog. But wait, there’s more! As stated below, if these yarns prove popular, I’ll doubtless include it in a brand new, refurbished collector’s edition of Twisted Tales in ebook form! So you see, kids, if you want to be a really-for-real professional writer, always be ambivalent. But most of all learn to think green—recycle! And maybe you too can endlessly torture a beleaguered reading public with the likes of something as unceasingly ubiquitous as:

 

 

                                             PRIDE OF THE FLEET

                                                 __________________________

                                                             Bruce Jones 

 

The Colifax she wore at her girdle, and she didn’t like it. It pulled the wrong way. It hurt. It looked ugly.

The stunner she had thrown away hours ago. She could always claim later she’d lost it in the tangled underbrush. It would cost her, of course, but she’d rather pay a fine than be humiliated by the presence of a common gun. She would have thrown away the Colifax too, even earlier, but it happened to be worth several million credits base value and even more than that to the prestige of Colony Six and its commander; if she had any intention of staying with the Fleet, she’d better hang onto that particular piece of hardware.

All right, she’d put up with the damn thing. Even if it did get in her way, slow her down and (most importantly) unforgivably disfigure her sexy, newly designed combat uniform. She’d suffer through.

But damned if she’d use it. She’d flit through this mission in record time, bring back her man without a scratch (to either of them) and collect her credits and medals. And she didn’t need any so-called cutting-edge techno-gadget to accomplish it. Dangers? Of course. Threats? To be sure. There were always those. But she’d run into them before, in more jungles on more planets than she could remember. She could handle it. Handle it well.

She had her sword.

Ah. Her sword.

She touched it now, lightly, on the jeweled hilt as she stepped over the next moss-laden log, and couldn’t suppress a smile of pride tugging her lovely cheek. Now here was a sword!

The uniform may have been for show, true; the flaming hair, moisture-gloss lips, black choker and diamond slippers, pure eye-candy, all for effect. Granted. Even the elegant sweep and flamboyant design of the blade itself may have been opulently histrionic—but that’s where the similarity ended. Once that ivory hand wrapped around that ebon grip and the blinding sabre length sang from its scabbard, all the tinsel ended, all the glitter vanished.

She was lightning, she was whirlwind, she was blinding blur—everywhere her opponent should have been just one nth of a second before he got there—all slash and gleam and terrible wind-screaming death was she. Until her combatant got dizzy just watching, just absorbing this wondrous dervish– probably never felt the incredible razor incisions even after the ground was soaking red under him and his knees were buckling of their own accord. Oh she was good. She was the best. Sex distinction notwithstanding. In a word: unbeatable.

She knew it too. Enjoyed the reputation and attentive awe that went with it. Men were at once intensely enamored with and terrified of her. She simply could not be bested with a sword—not at Colony Six, anyway, and in a place where the men outnumbered the women three to one…well, it made for an interesting career.

They were all in love with her; all the men and many of the women. She was beautiful, exotic, talented, lethal. It’s easy to love people like that. Even the Colony Commander wasn’t immune; him with his stuffy little paneled office and his stuffier little shirt…

* * *

“Come in, Sheffield, yes…”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Sit down, please.” My God, is THAT her uniform! Is she running around the halls like that?

“I prefer to stand, thank you, sir.” It shows me off better.

“As you wish.” >ahem!< “Now, as you’ve no doubt heard, we’ve got an AWOL as of last night, Sheffield. A cadet…uh…papers and name here somewhere…”

“’Leakwood,’ sir.”

“‘Leakwood,’ yes. Cadet Leakwood.  AWOL as of 0730. Our first AWOL in seven years. Seven years, Sheffield. The first ever on my watch. I don’t like it. Don’t like it a bit. I want him back, do you understand? I want him alive. I want him disciplined. Do you understand me, Sheffield?”

“I do, sir.”

“It’s a blemish, Sheffield. You can appreciate that.”

She looked down a moment at her perfect arms, unblemished breasts. “Yes, sir.”

“We can rectify this thing, Sheffield. Cleanly. Efficiently. Without it getting upstream, if you take my meaning. We have the training, we have the technology. We’re one of the best, Sheffield, one of the very best. We don’t want a blemish like this on Colony record, on everything Fleet stands for.”

He cleared his throat, found himself staring at her torso without approval. “That…ah, uniform you’re wearing. Has it been officially recognized?”

“It has sir. I designed it myself. After the Princess Dejah Thoris.”

“The who?”

“Dejah Thoris, sir, a fictional creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs.”   

“Burroughs…”

“Twentieth Century novelist, sir. He’s all the rage now.”

“Is he now? Huh.” Furrowing of brow, shaking of head. “What they’re passing for regulation these days. Now, in my day, we… anyway, you’ll wear something else for this mission. Something less…revealing.”

“Sir, I prefer to go as I am. This is designed as a combat uniform.”

“Perhaps, Sheffield, but it’s hardly…I mean, your…bosom—it’s unprotected.”

“Bare breasts are quite common on Cylis 4 now, sir.”

“I’m aware of what is and isn’t vogue, Sheffield, but—“

“Sir, I believe my present uniform will afford me with the greatest amount of comfort, familiarity and physical dexterity for the mission, thereby serving as the best asset to my abilities.”

 

Clever, that speech. But then, she’d rehearsed it thirty or forty times before entering his office in anticipation of his remarks. Self-designed combat uniforms were more and more commonplace on Fleet soldiers now, but this one was almost too radical. Like everything else about her.

She smiled a confident little smile as she moved through the forest. Every female at Colony Six was jealous of her ability to handle the Commander. If they only realized how simple it was; how, under all the brass and bluff, he was just like all men. Weak.

Ahead and to the right a twig snapped.

Her smile broadened. She was on Leakwood’s trail to be sure; he had, in fact, made little attempt to conceal it. But an ambush in this clearing? Not likely. Leakwood just wasn’t the type. Besides, unless she’d missed her guess, Leakwood liked her.

It wasn’t surprising, then, to find a stranger confronting her when she rounded the next tree. What was surprising was to find a member of Fleet standing there. As far as she knew, Colony Six had exclusive privileges on this planet. Could this be another AWOL from another Colony?

She strode politely if confidently up to the man and took in his bearing in a single sweep of her lovely green eyes: tall, husky, yellow Fleet stripe on his arm (like hers), buccaneer pants and boots (very vogue these days), tank top, series seven sword, no stunner, unnaturally curly hair. This last item was egocentric. Any man who had his hair set regularly was obviously glued on himself; this one was probably into an Errol Flynn thing (also very vogue these days). It could be merely swagger, but then she was flamboyant as well—and she was good! It was always prudent to test, even when you were the best.

“Station?” It was the expected universal greeting.

“Colony Twelve.”

She didn’t like the way he said it: snobbish, self-important. She didn’t like what his mouth did when it formed the words. But she was on official business, in a hurry. She’d give him the benefit of the doubt. “I’m Sheffield, Colony Six. On Fleet Apprehension Orders. Do you wish to assist?”

“No.”

It was the way he said it again. Ohh, this one was a smartass all right. That conceited, jutting chin, patronizing air. Probably a sexist to boot. She knew she should get about her business, leave this jerk to himself, but she couldn’t help adding one last item. “Are you aware that this planet is restricted to Colony Six personnel?”

“Is that a fact?”

“What is your business here?”

“I came to bag a Rhunk. With my sword.”

With his sword. Cute. Stuck on at the end to let her know he didn’t need a stunner to kill a Rhunk. Ohh, a real smartass all right. She knew what reaction her next words would elicit and she said them anyway.

“That’s against Fleet law.”

He smiled, widening the smarmy conceit, and his hand touched his sword hilt as she knew it would. “And you’re going to report me,” he filled-in for her.

“Yes.”

“Klete!” It was what she expected, one of the universal words for ‘on guard’ always followed by the swift unsheathing of the challenger’s sword. There were other words, but “Klete’ was the most widely used. Either she followed suit now or faced ridicule.

“Hawn!” Her word. Ancient Oriental, like her fighting style. Neither was widely known and rarely practiced, which was why she chose them. Her sword literally sang from its scabbard—shiiinggg!—a result of the friction of twin blade sharpeners employed within her case. It wasn’t impossible to buy such a scabbard but they were known only to the elite.

His sword, she noticed made a sound like shuuunk. No sharpeners. He might be a prima donna but he wasn’t in her league.

She stepped in immediately, not wasting time, with a deliberately slowed English shoulder thrust, sacrificing style now to see what he could do. He parried nicely—anyone could have—but still, his movements were quite dexterous, even admirable. She pivoted next, went low and tried a Cyrnian volupe to the solar plexus. Again he blocked with ease, adding a quick counter slice when he leapt lightly back that was supposed to put her off balance. It didn’t, of course, but he was above average, definitely.

She played with him for a time, letting him get in some false scores until she knew his every strength and weakness. And, although the latter far outnumbered the former, she found him an exceptional swordsman with the potential to be even better—if he stopped spending all his time in the beauty salon. It would be a pity, she decided, to waste someone who could be an asset to Fleet.

She stepped back, clicked her heels together, and pointed her sword stiffly at the forest floor to her right. It mean either, I yield or Let’s reconsider. “You’re a fine swordsman. I don’t wish you harm. Leave the planet now and I see no reason to report you.”

The vain smile again. He thought she was bluffing out of fear. Oh, boy. There was just no help for this guy. All right then, she’d tried. The fun was over. She had to get back to work.

“Klete!” he answered and threw himself into an excessively ostentatious fighting pose.

Now it was her turn to smile. “Hawn,” she said calmly, and slowly, ever so slowly drew her sword level to and horizontal with her breasts. It was a maneuver she savored. They were splendid breasts; generous and round and pink-nipple firm. Few men could watch them and her sword simultaneously. He proved no exception.

Her next movement was so lightning-fast, he had only time to feel the breeze her John Carter blade made passing in front of him. He started to counter but she was frozen now at the completion of her turn, staring passively at his chest.

But she had missed! He was sure of it! He’d felt nothing! He glanced down at his chest.

The ribbons of crimson appeared magically across his tank top, delayed seconds by the impossible keenness of her blade. His mouth fell open. Before he could shut it again, she was behind him, wrist flicking ivory bright in the sun, sending the slashed tank top swishing from his body and over his head. Together they watched the material arc high into the air to drape neatly over a leafy branch.

When he whirled in humiliated fury to slash at her, she was gone, pirouetting gracefully to his right—no, to his left—no, no she was behind him again—pulling tentatively at his wide swashbuckler’s belt with the point of her weapon, then effortlessly slicing leather like butter to the ankles. The pants fell away like separate, faded petals. Then she feinted to the right—he followed, stumbling—and, leggings tangling his ankles now, crashed in an inglorious heap as she’d planned. He had to let go of his sword to prevent impaling himself.

She kicked the sword away and struck the point of her own blade beneath his terrified chin. His Adam’s apple convulsed once and he was suddenly swimming in sweat.

“Up!”

He obeyed immediately, propelled airlessly to his tiptoes by the stinging tip of the magic sword. She stood grinning at his nakedness, letting the razor point trace a tickly, not-quite-skin-piercing line down his throat, chest, belly…

She lowered the sword between his legs and cocked her head speculatively. She had castrated only one man before in swordplay, although it was quite commonly the loser’s lot among Fleet swordsmen; indeed, many half-expected it. But she found no particular satisfaction in the act or in the rapidly growing fad of gathering nuts so popular among the younger cadets. In her book, you either killed your opponent outright or let him go the way he came.

She looked up at his dripping face: eyes squeezed tight, teeth clenched, jaw atremble. “Turn around, pig, while I decide how to kill you.”

He turned drunkenly, legs rubbery with fear, to stand shaking before the warm sun. He was standing there still, an hour later, long after she’d melted silently into the tangled thicket.

Alone again in the forest, she was still on Leakwood’s rather clearly marked trail and still remembering what the Commander had said about him…

* * *

“Now, then, Sheffield, my reports tell me you knew this…this…”

“Leakwood, sir.”

“…knew him personally. Is that true?”

“It’s unofficially true, yes sir. ‘Acquainted’ might be a better word.”

“’Acquainted.’ Would you care to amplify that, Sheffield?”

“We ran into each other at the Colony library occasionally…had lunch together once or twice.”

“Once or twice.”

“Twice, then.”

“What kind of lunches, Sheffield?”

“Just…lunch. At the cafeteria.”

“I see. What else?”

“Let’s see…I believe he took me to the movies once. Yes. Several months ago.”

“And?”

“And? Nothing, sir. It was a terrible film as I recall.”

“After the film?”

“He took me home—no, I took him home. He’s…you see, he’s small, sir. His quarters were in a rundown part of the Colony and, well, I’m good with a sword.”

“I see.”

“The truth is, sir, we were just friends. Never anything romantic about our relationship. I don’t think Leakwood had romantic inclinations toward anyone. He just wasn’t the type. I socialized with him because, well, I could relax around him, not constantly be fighting off eight arms if you take my meaning. Leakwood didn’t have many friends. He’s sort of…funny-looking, to be blunt. I felt a little sorry for him. And I know he appreciated my gesture, offering to be his friend.”

“His friend. Not his girlfriend.”

“Not his girlfriend, no sir.”

“Was he a thief, Sheffield?”

“Sir–?”

“Did he ever steal anything to your knowledge?”

“Not that I’m aware of, sir.”

“Well, he has now. Something extremely valuable. Extremely expensive and extremely important to Fleet.”

“I see, sir.”

“We want it back, Sheffield.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Pronto, if not sooner.”

“Yes, sir.”

Pause.

“Uh…what would that be, sir?”

“How’s that?”

“The stolen property, what was it?”

“I can’t provide you with that information, Sheffield.”

“Can’t provide—“

“It’s classified, Sheffield.  Sensitive. You can appreciate that. Colony Six is a Top Secret installation. Half of these buildings house classified information and material. The object this cadet stole is highly confidential. I understand there are no more than two of them in existence and both are here at Colony Six. Or were here. I want it back.”

“Yes, sir, but how will I be sure…I mean, if I don’t know…”

“I’ll grant you that’s a problem. That’s why you were chosen, Sheffield. My reports tell me you’re one of the best in the Colony. Top of your class. This could be the most memorable assignment of your career. The most important. Are you game, Sheffield?”

“Of course, sir.”

* * *

Of course she was game. Like the best swordsmen in the Colony, she’d been itching to get a look at what lay outside those steel walls. Now she had her chance.

Evening was coming on fast. In a few minutes she’d have difficulty discerning Leakwood’s trail, clear as it was.

The dandleflies were out, zeroing in on her like attacking missiles, rolling their crystal wings deliriously in her sweat glands. She found a Mulinaw bush without much effort, broke one of its berries between her fingers and spread the glistening oil over her limbs. The dandleflies buzzed off in resentment. She’d done her homework.

The ground beneath her slippers grew steadily softer, danker, as she’d read it would toward evening. The Rhunks would be pushing up any time now. She fingered the hilt of her sword warily…

A species of un-catalogued bird-lizard screeched abruptly above her head. She twisted around and caught sight of its yellow-blue plumage spiraling swiftly across the mauve sky, arrowing gracefully to a nearby fern, landing not so gracefully with a light plop. As she watched, it began kicking convulsively, then stiffened and began dissolving rapidly into the devouring fern.

She knelt down beside Leakwood’s  latest boot print and took a reading with the infra-heat device snapped to her girdle. To her amazement the little needle hovered just over the seven minute mark. Leakwood must be very close. Calculating her rate of pursuit, he must have slowed considerably within the last hour. Odd. He couldn’t have tired this early in the hunt. Was it indeed to be an ambush? Or had he finally come to his senses, fearing the coming night, his lone vulnerability?

She produced a food tab from her belt and chewed it reflectively. Leakwood was a hard one to figure all right: cautious, introverted, rarely talking at all during the few times she’d been with him. Still, she couldn’t believe he’d do her harm. He may not have shared the other men’s physical passion for her, but she thought she’d always seen something like affection in his eyes.

He was an odd one, though.

She twitched reflexively. A pungent odor assailed her nostrils. Her perfect nose wrinkled in revulsion. She craned about for the source, right hand gripping the dark hilt of her blade. Behind her a soft plopping sound became evident. She whirled in time to see the dun snout of a female Rhunk poking through the soft loam amid clumps of its own excrement.

She stepped back gingerly, eyes riveted to the enormous block-like head, twitching ears and blinking yellow pupils. The smell became overpowering. It hadn’t seen her yet, so she moving backward silently, merging with the surrounding undergrowth… watched in repugnant fascination as the thing heaved its rhino-like bulk out of the damp earth and yawned enormously.

It was everything both field manual and Commander had described…

* * *

“Now, I’m sure you’ve made yourself familiar with the wildlife on this planet, Sheffield. Let me emphasize that the three hundred and sixty-eight pages before you do not exaggerate in describing the ferocity of these creatures. They are many and varied—and nearly all lethal. I realize that swordplay is very much the fashion of the day—that some of you young people are quite proficient with a blade. However, I’m going to insist you also carry a sidearm.”

“But sir—“

“Please. I’m well aware of your prowess and reputation, Sheffield, and that the blade has recently been recognized as an official Fleet weapon. But this planet is different. Aside from this AWOL, only seven men have ventured outside these steel walls. We lost two of them because we weren’t sufficiently prepared. I’ll not allow that again.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Take a look here at page twenty-nine of the manual, Sheffield. Tell me what you see.”

“A Rhunk, sir.”

“Ugly brute, isn’t he?”

“He is, sir.”

“Ugly and huge and deadly. You’ve heard stories of how they can rend animals twice their size to shreds with those tusks while holding them securely with those ghastly tentacles. You’ve heard and read how their hides are comparable to the finest alloys we know, how a certain percent of their make-up is non-molecular. You know they’re virtually indestructible.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Patently unstoppable. But! They can be fooled.”

“Fooled, sir?”

“Hoaxed, conned! There’s only one animal on the planet a full grown Rhunk won’t attack and immediately disembowel. Do you know what that animal is, Sheffield?”

“Another Rhunk, sir?”

“That’s very good, Sheffield, very astute. Yes, another Rhunk. And we can make another Rhunk! We have made another Rhunk–here in our labs at the Colony.  With the aid of this instrument you see in my hands.”

“What is it, sir?”

“It’s called a Colifax.”

                                                                          *   *   *

A Colifax. It hung now from the gold chain of her G-string, the cold metal pressing uncomfortably against her bare tummy, banging distractingly when she walked. Until this moment, it had been a heavy, unwanted piece of Colony technology she’d have given a week’s pay to be rid of. Top Secret or not.

Now she wasn’t so sure. If it could somehow protect her from this incredible monstrosity erupting from the soil…

For it was obvious now that nothing else could. The emerging Rhunk was an awe-inspiring study in armor-plated destruction. Nothing short of a T-3 missile could bring it down, of that she was sure. Even with sword in hand she felt, for the first time in her life, totally ineffectual. That guy from Colony Twelve must have been out of his mind, or—like her—had never seen a real Rhunk in the flesh.

She stumbled back through the creepers as it lifted its nose to sniff the evening air. She emerged into a small clearing on the other side. As she turned, she came face to face with another Rhunk.

A big one this time. A male.

She stiffened. The thing was staring directly at her, had heard her coming, in fact. The thick lattice of jungle hemmed her in from all sides. There was no place to run, no place to even turn. For the first time in her young life, real fear found her.

Stay frosty. That was the rule. Her rule. With palsied fingers she tore the Colifax from her waist and knelt slowly to the wet earth, setting it in front of her—eyes never leaving the bloated form of the big Rhunk before her. Its nose was in the air now as the female’s had been, taking in the full scent of the human with the aid of a steady evening breeze wafting directly toward it. The thin, veined membranes of its four nostrils flared red, and she thought she detected a sudden tremor pass along the great ridges of its broad back.

Methodically then, as if confident of the helplessness of its prey, the monster advanced on her, muscles riding in sensuous rhythm along its muscular flanks, tentacles twitching in eager anticipation.

She reached out for the Colifax, depressed a red button.

The hotness that flooded her body was immediate and not altogether unpleasant. No pain, really, but it left her with the distinct feeling she was being pulled slowly apart from all sides like heated taffy..pulled and softened and molded. Changed. She refused to panic; she knew, as Colony Command had warned, the morphing process would reverse itself the moment she touched the green button. Even now her fear was ebbing as she took on the proportions and character of her new body. Even the approaching Rhunk appeared less menacing with the advent of her new height, her muscular girth.

Its nostrils didn’t flare any less, however, and the tremors riding its back increased if anything. It was still intensely interested in her for some reason. But if not as food…what?

Even before it moved over and deliberately crushed flat her Colifax with its massive hoof, sealing her fate forever, she knew: even before it wrapped its twenty tentacles about her ardently and adjusted her to mounting position she understood. For she had looked deep into its eyes and they revealed all. Perfect as the Colifax was at imitating, it couldn’t quite disguise the familiar personality behind those eyes, the quiet, introverted but highly imaginative brain. And in that instant, she knew exactly why Leakwood had led her this merry chase, and what piece of Fleet equipment he’d stolen.

She’d miss her friends, of course, and life at the Colony. But most of all, she’d miss her sword. Even with the highly sensitive tentacles at her command, with seven thousand pounds of female Rhunk behind them, it was difficult to be as gracefully as Dejah Thoris.

 

JAWS 2 BOOK REVIEW

Posted: May 22, 2011 in Uncategorized

Jaws 2Jaws 2 by Hank Searls

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No, this is not a joke. Hank Searls, author of THE BIG X, THE CROWDED SKY, THE PILGRIM PROJECT, BLOOD SONG, and OVERBOARD (my favorite) is one terrific writer. Retired now with an online shop that helps beginning and even veteran writers hone their craft, Searls should get back in the game, especially in light of the ebook boom. He’s simply one hell of a stylist. He puts you in the book!

JAWS 2 is one of those weirder than life scenarios only Hollywood could concoct: a movie tie-in book that’s actually better than the movie on which it’s based which is worse than the movie before it, which is better than the original book. It’s complicated.

As anyone who wasn’t off the planet for the last 30 years knows, author Peter Benchley wrote a novel called JAWS, all about a big, hulking shark dining on the locals of a Long Island resort town in the summer of 1973. Benchley’s book, incredibly, was inspired by the true events of a big hulking shark (or sharks, depending your theory) dining on the locals off the beach and in a creek off Matawan, New Jersey, in the summer of 1916. No one is yet sure of the exact breed of the real-life culprit, but Benchley chose a Great White for his tale because that was the then-presumed offender of the 1916 killings. It’s generally accepted now that the real killer was a Bull Shark owing to its abilities to navigate and survive fresh water estuaries like the brackish Matawan creek. If people were afraid to go into the water after seeing the 70’s movie, a dark fin cruising an innocent-looking 1916 neighborhood creek must have been beyond traumatizing.

JAWS the novel was published in hardcover with success in 1974 by Doubleday. Before that, however,  unknown young director Stephen Spielberg got hold of the book’s galleys on the Universal lot and pleaded with the producers to let him helm the film. The paperback sales released in tandem with the film helped bolster an already gigantic hit. And you know La-La land: “If they liked it once, they’ll love it twice.” So JAWS 2 was green-lit. Actor Roy Scheider reportedly begged Universal not to make him appear in the sequel, not surprisingly, but a contract is a contract. The sequel’s plot surrounds the wholly improbable idea of yet another enormous shark snacking on the good folks of Amity Island (read: Martha’s Vineyard), mostly its adolescent population. Directed without an ounce of finesse by Jeannot Szwarc, this is an instance where you’re actually rooting for the shark to eliminate the obnoxious teens. Strangely IMDb lists the writers of this mess as Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, who also penned the screenplay of the original. But the tie-in novel of JAWS 2 credits Howard Sackler and Dorothy Tristan. Given the dubious distinction between the two, I’d bet on the latter. At any rate, Hank Searls was invited to make sense of the whole thing in novel form.

A move-tie novel assignment is almost always a thankless task. There’s little original glory in it. Published in 1978 as a PB original (tie-ins always are) by Bantam, I can only assume a superb writer like Searls took the job for pocket money; he’d already had a reasonable hit with his own OVERBOARD (Norton) the year before. One can readily see, however, why both H’wood and publishing brass might think Searls the go-to guy for such a venture; he was a seasoned screenwriter, a WWII Navy pilot who knew his watery stuff and who even lived on a ketch in the South Pacific at the time. But with such a bad film (or script) to work  from, adapting the film must have seemed doggedly tedious. Maybe Searls—who does follow the film’s nothing plot, adding some padding of his own—was simply determined to buck the averages. Whatever the case, his novel is the only good thing that came out of anything surrounding the sequel.

If Searls’ book has any drawbacks it may be in trying to live up to its vivid first chapter. In the movie’s opening, a couple of divers we don’t care about stumble upon the wreckage of the Orca, Quint’s original not-big-enough-ship, now sunk somewhere off Long Island Sound. While taking pictures of each other near the canted icon, they get attacked by–what else? In a virtuoso display of how words can be far more potent than images, Searls turns a predictable prologue into a heart-stopper by taking us into the hearts and minds of the victims as well as the internal workings of the shark itself, wrapping all this in a green world of cold, murky twilight with verisimilitude as vivid as your worst bad dream. It begins the moment the two divers—lawyer and doctor part-owners of a Hatteras powerboat—don their wetsuits and slip into the water to start the final downward journey of their lives:

Halfway down the anchor-line the doctor paused. His panting, amplified in his regulator, was earsplitting. He was sure his partner, descending in a green flowering of bubbles 10 feet below him, could hear every gasp. Clinging to the half inch rope he tried to relax…he could not understand the apprehension that was making him pant.

The strobe light flared, turning everything momentarily white. All at once he heard a sound like a subway train, fast approaching from his rear. His partner, dancing on sand as he tried to balance in the current, wound his camera, then stopped. He stared at something approaching from above and behind the doctor. His mouthpiece fell from his face.

The doctor, startled, began to turn but instinctively hunkered down instead, clinging to a broken plank. His eyes were riveted on his companion. A great bubble soared from his partner’s mouth. The lawyer threw up an arm to protect himself…the green surface light faded. An enormous bulk, descending like a gliding jet, swept by, a foot above the doctor’s head, blotting out the dancing sunlight. It seemed to pass forever. The last of the shape became a tail, towering taller than himself. It swished once, almost sweeping him loose and blotting his view of the partner in a cloud of bottom-silt and mud. There was silence. The barrel clanged. The doctor clung to the plank, peering into the settling murk. He could hear only his own tortured breathing. He was terrified of the loudness of it, beckoning whatever it was back to the spot…One of his partner’s diving fins bounced past, heading to sea on the tidal current…

The beauty, of course–the deftness–is in revealing no visceral imagery at all, only the imagined horror of it. In his great book THE SILENT WORLD, Jacques Cousteau describes being underwater as so quiet “you couldn’t hear a whale swim up behind you,” so I can’t credit Searl’s  subway sound of the attacking shark. But I don’t dispute it either; you can’t write that well about the ocean depths without having experienced them. But it gets better—or worse, if you’re the poor doctor. His partner gone, and something still lurking about, he must return to the surface and the safety of the boat. We feel the terrified rattle of his nerves right down to our fingertips during the course of a few minutes journey that feels to the terrified swimmer like hours…

He eased his head from the water. The Hatteras slapped at anchor hardly a hundred feet away…carefully, he slithered toward the boat. He hardly broke the water. Once he stopped and glided, gazing straight down. He saw nothing but shafts of emerald light lancing the depths below. He shivered suddenly. Deep in his soul he felt another onrush of terror. He quickened the beat of his fins. One of them plopped loudly, and then the other, but he had less than 30 feet to go. He could no longer stand the dragging pace. With 20 feet to go, he was sprinting, thrashing recklessly, breathing in enormous chest-searing gulps. All at once, 10 feet from the boat, he felt a bump and a firm, decisive grasp on his left femur some three inches above his knee. It was surprising but not at all violent…He dipped his mask, looking down. He was amazed to see half a human leg, swathed in neoprene, tumbling into the depths…

Brrrrr! Great stuff!

The film features a segment involving a young girl parasailing, being plucked off the ocean surface and set down again like a bit of living catnip to tempt the pursuing shark. Searls wisely dispenses with such gimmickry in his book by foregoing the sky antics and letting water skis and shark alone be tension enough. All this is framed from the POV of the horrified husband driving the speedboat that pulls his hapless skiing wife. With terse prose choppy as the waves around them, Searls milks the scene for every ounce of nail-biting suspense. If the panicked husband can just get that ski boat back to shore in time:

A hundred yards behind her an enormous, lazy fin was beckoning. She did not see it, and while he stood frozen in horror, he saw it move, in a leisurely manner, up their trail. “Dee!” he screamed. She smiled at him over the water and took her hand off the towbar, waving him ahead. The fin was coming up on her now, weaving across their dying wake. It was simply gigantic. He jammed the throttle forward, way too fast, catching her off balance…in a moment he was afraid she would pitch headfirst into the wake…she was on the ski now and rising. He stood erect, searching their wake for the fin. The thing must have dived, that was it, he had fooled it.

Now all he had to do was head for the beach: no fish like that would go into shallow water…he scanned the beach for a safe place…gently, his eye on his wife, he began a sweeping curve toward the cottage. She was weaving again, jumping the wake each time, exuberantly. He signaled her to take it easy, simply to ski, finally slowed the boat so that she couldn’t do it at all, and then saw the fin again, coming up fast astern…

Does Searls have time for deep emotional insights and titanic literary themes? Hey, this is a tie-in novel. You’re on board for the thrills and if you’re not on board, grab that Tolstoy you never got around to. Is there more character weight and revelatory catharsis in his stand alone OVERBOARD?–you bet, and that novel ends with a shockingly poetic punch you won’t soon forget it. What Hank Searls delivers in JAWS 2 is a high speed read with surprising resonance, themes and descriptions that linger in the mind and on into our dreams. He could have tossed it off, sure, but he chose to go the other way: make pulp profound. At times he succeeds well beyond the call of duty.

In truth there are passages in JAWS 2 that are every bit as good as anything I’ve read by the author. I’ve given that considerable deliberation. Is this a case of a really good writer getting out of his own way, going with first-gut instincts and turning a quick paycheck into a mini-masterpiece of suspense? I don’t know. Sadly, his next sojourn in the saga, JAWS 4 (or was it JAWS 4.0?—I can’t keep up) is a less satisfying one. By then, attempting to novelize an idea no longer remotely novel may have proved beyond even Searls’ gifts.

A hint of this future futility comes in JAWS 2 when the author is expected to follow the movie’s preposterous script at its most ludicrous. Fending off the shark from a small craft, Brodie and a gang of adolescents are trying to haul up the anchor when its flutes become hooked on something below. Together they somehow heave the ‘something’ up—which turns out to be part of a length of miles long impossibly heavy power line to the lighthouse on the distant point—what the shark eventually bites into and electrocutes itself with. Even a writer of Searl’s talent must have hung his head in despair at such Herculean incredulity. But he plunges bravely ahead despite the laughable images: “It was black, shiny and as thick as his upper leg. How he and a few teenage kids had got it from the bottom, he had no idea.”

Nor clearly did Searls.

Some genius in Hollywood, maybe?

Jaws 2

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Here sighs, plaints, and deep wailings resounded through the starless air: it made me weep at first. Strange tongues, horrible outcries, words of pain, tones of anger, voices deep and hoarse, and sounds of hands amongst them, made a tumult, which turns itself unceasingly in that air for ever dyed, as sand when it eddies in a whirlwind.

That was Dante. Specifically, The Inferno (Canto III, 22-31)

Here is Roger Zelazny in his foreward to Harlan Ellison’s From the Land of Fear, Belmont Books, 1967:

What does it take to be a writer and why? The quotation from Dante…contains the answer. There are these sounds, this tumult, turning in that air for ever dyed, eddying in a neat simile and beginning with that all important word “Here.” Everybody hears the sounds, some people listen, and a writer, for some damfool reason, wants to put them down on paper and talk about them—here, right now. So that’s the answer to the question: “Some damfool reason.” It’s why Dante wrote too. My damfool thing, the thing inside me that makes me say what I have to say, is a thing that I don’t understand at all, and sometimes I curse because it keeps me awake at night…

Now here is Bruce Jones, writing a foreward to his own short story and proving what it really takes to be a writer: the ability to steal from two other far better ones and create, essentially, three different introductions. More for your money! Except it’s free, right? As free and naive as I was when first reading Harlan’s book of short stories. Him making a ton of dough out in La-La land writing for TV, me sitting on my Fort Leonard Wood barracks bunk with his paperback making 75 cents a day– wondering if my platoon was next in line to be shipped to Viet Nam. Not having yet sold my first short story. Not having yet even braved the wailings and tumult of New York publishing. Not having yet met Harlan, let alone called him friend. And certainly, in my wildest dreams, not having the least inkling of something to be dubbed The Internet, an invention as wondrous strange as Dante’s Pit, which would soon threaten the printed page as avidly as Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451’s book policeallowing me to reformat, somewhat rewrite and pass along to thee the kind of personal bit of morbid mayhem like:

                                               

                                                                                FEEDING THE BEAST       

                                                                                      ________________________

                                                                                                Bruce Jones    

 

T risha was killing her mother again—this time in the farmhouse kitchen with the old broken-handled steak knife—and in a little while killing her sister Dolce, who grunted like a pig when stabbed and bled liberally and long.

Then, free of them, free of the knife, free as the wind lashing her tawny locks, Trisha came running…came galloping fierce and proud, heedless and grinning over the rolling meadow, Shep nipping and barking delight at her bare heels—the fair-skinned girl and with the banner of summer hair and the bounding, yelping German shepherd, alive and free and safe at last among fields and more endless fields, undulant and sweetly perfumed with earth and grass.

Until the warm breeze shifted sour, grinning Mojo abruptly materialized, gold tooth contrasting midnight skin glistening now with the sweat of hate, rough, callused hand shocking sharp across her tender face, starting blood at her lip…and Shep—brave Shep, try as he might—could not sink eager teeth into skinny black legs which kept disappearing, winking in and out, which meant they weren’t real at all and neither was Shep, long dead now like this half-forgotten meadow…and this was now not then, and Mojo was her pimp and she, Trisha, was a hooker and these peeling walls could never be the lovely golden meadows… as she came up and up and finally out of the dream…to the dreary little room and the man asleep beside her.

Amazing, she thought, yawning.

–not that she had dreamed of killing–that was old hat–but amazing she had fallen asleep here on the job next to her john. They did that sometimes—the johns—passed out and snored blissfully if she gave them an extra good ride, especially the fat ones, the smelly ones, though this one had been neither. This one had been quiet and gentle and strangely tender. Even nice-looking in his dark way.

Which is why Trisha was so startled there on the tired hotel sheets, turning in brassy afternoon sun to find what her john had become…to find the far darker, more terrifying form that had replaced him while she slept.

Not a man at all, this misshapen shadow that shared her bed, but a thing of black hair, cruel pointed muzzle, pink lolling tongue guarding bone-white incisors as deadly sharp and long—longer really—than Shep’s. So that for a moment Trisha actually thought the dream was real and it was her long dead pet there beside her on the pillow, Shep come to comfort and sleep with her while Momma was busy with the men.

But no. This creature was far bigger, far more terrifying than anything canine, or strictly human either—a savagely insane juncture of the two, a great, dark sleeping beast from childhood nightmare, midnight matinees, but all too real, all too here and close, its hot breath against her bare arm, its great shaggy head so near she could see the corona of coarse hairs along the sleek, swept-back ears.

The eyes, mercifully, were closed; had they been open, red (she was sure they must be red) and full of blood lust, Trisha Kincaid would doubtless be a dead whore, not a recently dreaming one.

Carefully then, not breathing, moving in a slow-motion haze of terror, she pushed herself up gently, hitching breath as the ancient bed sagged creaking resentment, lowered her legs over the edge of the mattress, found the cold floor, turned to see if the thing had awakened, was watching. It was not. Though now, at this angle, she could glimpse more of it in the dying ochre light—the broad matted chest, massive arms, muscular sweep of thigh, placid but fearsome phallus. This too was swathed in hair, as were the testes, fat and shiny as a seed bull’s. It was the power there, between the thing’s legs,  that was perhaps the most fearfully awesome of all.

Heart and knees knocking, Trisha just made it to the formless lump of her skirt and blouse, just made it to the old cut glass doorknob, twisting it carefully, silently… the voice behind her spinning her about, gasping.

“You’re leaving?”

Her back against the door, throat constricted, heart slamming painful ripples, Trisha faced not the terrible dark beast, but the pale naked man of before. Only his eyes and the hair of his head were dark now, as a sad wistful smile tugged tender, remembered lips. He caught her look, returned a knowing one of his own, and nodded, sadder still. “You saw…”

Trisha, rigid against the weathered door, could only nod terror.

He came to her, tall and looming but reproachful only to himself. “I’m sorry. It happens sometimes, when I sleep.” An old accent, slightly English? Gentlemanly anyway. Which was shock enough for Trisha. “You’ve nothing to fear from me,” he told her gently. “I am sorry, truly.”

And twice amazed this day, Trisha found herself wholly unafraid…so much so she wondered absently if it was the creature itself she had truly feared, or something else. “You won’t…kill me?”

His smile was as disarming as his winsome, weary expression. “Never. Never in daylight.” Young eyes hollow, haunted by dark memories, perhaps decades of them.

Trisha, marveling, dropped her own eyes to find further changes. The naked man stepped back, his smile rueful now, regretful? “Yes…that goes back to normal too. All of me back to quite ordinary and normal.” He looked up again. “Will you keep my secret?”

Trisha, her mind on other things, slipped thoughtfully into her Wal-Mart blouse, all trembling gone now. “Have you ever…while you’re that way, I mean?”

This made him assess her with new eyes, searching eyes. “No. That would bring death. I change to feed, not for love.”

Then he turned, showing her his pale buttocks, and retreated to the bed, to his own clothes. Retrieving the little automatic she’d thought she’d hidden so well beneath her pillow, he placed it to his own chest, smiled into her eyes, and fired—the slug knocking him back violently but not penetrating, falling flattened as a dime to the threadbare rug. “I can’t be harmed in the normal way, you see.” He smiled that sad, nearly defenseless smile again, then asked reflectively: “Will you betray me, Trisha?”

A sudden pounding at the door—anxious, muffled cries.

The tall figure strode past her to the ancient knob, twisted it.

A beefy red face peered through the crack anxiously:  Pudler, the bouncer. “Everything all right in there? Heard a shot!”

“Yes,” the tall man offered easily, “we were wondering about that too. Perhaps down the hall…”

The beefy face glanced once Trisha’s way, then retreated, mumbling.

The tall figure closed the door, turned back to Trisha, smiled again softly.

“How did you know my name?” she whispered, heart thumping again.

“Will you betray me?”

She turned from him, came back to the bed, ran a hand absently across the still warm sheets, head cocked in reflection. “Will I see you again?”

Which made his smile falter curiously. “Whatever for?”

* * *

At home—a refurbished Ninth Street penthouse—Mojo slapped her hard for falling asleep on the job—diamond ring cutting her cheek–slapped her again for forgetting his money. Took her silver automatic, Trisha on her knees, stuck it in her pretty mouth and made her suck, suck hard until she’d summoned the weapon’s load, the slug crashing through the back of her skull…except Mojo, laughing and gold-toothed, jerked free before this last, making her only imagine it, warning that the next whore in his stable who showed without money was a dead whore. He and Angela (Mojo’s current pump, a pretty Mex who had recently usurped Trisha in that dubious honor) both getting a good long laugh from this.

Trisha killed her mother again that morning, threw her off a cliff—forgot about killing sister Dolce and ran once more wild and free with Shep, yellow grass whipping her ankles.

That night, having made up her mind, she hit the streets searching. It took her most of the evening but she finally found his big dark car, sauntered over and leaned down to the window. “Hello again. You forgot to pay me.”

“Yes, I’ve been looking for you. Here…” The tall man paid her double her usual, triple on account of her warm smile.

All of which Trisha returned to him, then stayed his hand before he could pull from the curb. “What’s your name?”

“Franklyn.”

“That’s a nice name. Old fashioned. I’m Trisha. Not old fashion at all.”

They shook hands.

“Franklyn, I have a…well, proposition. Will you be in town for a while?”

“I rather tend to keep moving, Trisha.”

“Stay another night. One more night…”

* * *

Trisha had read little in her life, movies being most of her education, and these proved enough.

She had exercised caution all her life, had come this far because of it. She exercised it now; melted down the silver crucifix at her neck, took the glistening lump to Fat Freddie who owned a gun shop on Third and Ike. Freddie grinned a toothless ex-Hell’s Angel grin and asked, “What you up to now, woman?” but asked no more. He turned the lump in his hand and told her to come back on Thursday. When she did, with fifty bucks, Fat Freddie had the newly molded silver rounds all ready for her in a clean red handkerchief. “They soft, but they work,” he told her. Trisha loaded them into the shiny automatic herself. Then sought out Angela. 

Told Angela she’d scored a date, a “doubles party” and for a lot of money, more than she’d ever seen before. Then led her up to the little hotel room, let Angela—who looked not unlike her sister Dolce in some ways—enter first into the little room, the darkened room, quickly shutting and locking the door behind her.

“What–?” from Angela, inside and alone with shadow and full moonlight and something else. Then a quick, sharp scream—the kicking sound an antelope might make under a hyena—then quiet, punctuated by just the lightest dripping.

Give me fifteen minutes he’d said, and Trisha did, before unlocking the door again, pushing into a room full of streaming moonlight and streaming Angela, Trisha’s silvery gun weighting her small purse.

He awaited her on the bed, muzzle yet dripping, eyes glowing red, as she’d guessed—so powerful, so dreadful an apparition Trisha thought at first she must flee, though she did not. She undressed quickly instead, temples pounding, purse close at hand, came to the bed and, unable to face eyes so soul-piercingly, hitched skirt up, panties down and presented him pale, moon-kissed buttocks.

It was the words she wanted most, had never known. Her johns had spoken them—shouted them—many times, accompanying their too-eager discharge, words usually curiously religious in nature—words like “Jesus!” and “Oh, Christ!” or sometimes merely “Fuck, fuck!”—hissed sometimes almost vengefully, other times oddly tender, vaguely forlorn, more prayer than epithet.

Trisha had never spoken them, never experienced a mind so cleansed white with passion that unbidden words could find voice, force free…never known fulfilled love, sexual or otherwise. Certainly not in childhood.

While mounted here in full glorious moonlight, the beast’s dark talons at her white flanks, hot stench of blood-breath in her ear, the words came…at first a guttural gasp in the seemingly futile attempt to accommodate the shocking girth of him, then, in a moment—face red, eyes and mouth bulging like a pond frog’s—Trisha cried out, felt the savage tide catch and lift her, rode and let herself go with it at last, to be carried away high and higher, scream the words joyfully now…

And he—lost in animal grunts, animal thrusts, emptying his soul, filling her and spilling over—filled the small room with a high, lovely, long-buried howl of completion.

Afterward, both of them changed into something else, they lay together listening to each other’s breath, each other’s hearts, marveling that, amid such crimson carnage—Angela’s twisted remains still under the bed—they could discover such near-forgotten need, such exhausted, long-sought completion.

“Stay with me?” he breathed hopeful against her. “I have money. Plenty.” And she nodded, snuggling closer, having searched a lifetime, long and alone and finally found this unexpected dark treasure no power on Earth, she’d make sure, would ever wrest from her.

“We’ll have to travel,” Franklyn said, “Quite a lot, sometimes in hot, lonely places.”

“Not lonely,” she murmured, “Never again lonely. But first…one more night…”

* * *

“The honky peckerwood did fuckin’ what!” from an uncontainable Mojo.

“Refused to pay me,” Trisha repeated, all innocence and fluster.

“Uh-huh.” Mojo packed his slender stiletto and Colt Python with savage impatience. “We just fuckin’ see ‘bout that shit!”

Knocking at the hotel door ten minutes later, impatient with chest-puffed bravado. “Open the door, motherfucker! Mojo want a word with your soon-to-be-dead white ass!”

“It’s open…” from within moonlit walls.

Opened by Mojo a moment later, then locked again by someone else, Mojo’s “What the fuck–?” followed by the roar of two quick shots, a frenzied wheezing that exuded bright terror, a clawing of wood at the hotel door that Trisha, from the hall, feared must be Franklyn…then a light popping, like a twig wrapped in wet cloth breaking—a visceral grunt from Mojo as if he’d just come. And silence.

She faced Franklyn this time, lay beneath him, supine and triumphant, looked straight up into the dark canine face, the flaming eyes, dreadful still-wet fangs… and she reveled, clutched tight thick fur and let him mold her, scrape her, scratch tender breasts blooming angry red lines as she came, yelping…held his hugeness within her, gripping– until he made her come again, shout the Words, rear back his own shaggy head and make the room echo his plaintive love-howl.  Mojo’s head, trunk-less and blood-crusted, watching from a shadowed corner with dead, yolky eyes.

“We’re alike,” Franklyn said later, changed back and lightly stroking her, “outcasts and hungry. Alike.”

They traveled the desert states: hot clear days, chill, restful nights, during which she never again dreamed of Shep, his cool muzzle thrust into her palm, his trusting head against her lap.

In Arizona, in an enormous stucco chalet Franklyn had rented amid flat, sandy mesas, they tarried long and knew sweet peace and quiet. For a time.

She brought him boys sometimes, but mostly procured him young women.

“They all look like the same girl,” he commented once absently.

She said nothing, and it seemed fine. All seemed fine.

Until the emergence of Franklyn’s great rival, his lurking jealously over the one person he could never exact vengeance upon: himself.

She found him wandering the desert one night beneath black, moonless sky. “What is it, my love?”

At first she though he wasn’t going to respond. Then: “It’s not me, is it? It’s not me. It’s him you want—that other me–the beast you covet.”

And she took his arm, pressed warm against his shoulder. “Can’t it be enough?”

He watched the ebon sky, sighing. “I want to hunt alone from now on. Just me. Do you understand?”

She searched his face, hugged the arm again, nodding. “But one more first, darling…just one more…”

* * *

Some of the young women were lesbians, overtly so…some merely lost souls not unlike her former self. Some delicate to shattering, others abrasive with hot rebellion, steeped in the hatred of family or marital abuse, like this one tonight, this reedy blonde who looked so much like the others.

“And this is the guest room.” Trisha showed her.

The girl, Jana, ever pensive, clearly jealous, shrugged proud indifference. “Can that window be closed? I can’t sleep with the moonlight in my eyes.”

Franklyn came to see the girl just past midnight. To his shock, Trisha was still there, with no apparent plans to leave. She stood, back pressed to the closed door, and watched.

Franklyn changed swiftly, with none of the protracted lassitude of the late-night movies. A shadow passed over his face, his sad smile became ghastly, the clear eyes red and burning, and it was done. He dropped panther-silent to the floor, not a panther, nor any longer a man…something dark and feral that rumbled deep in its massive chest and urinated pungently in the small room, then leapt…

Jana—imperious demeanor crumbled—face a rictus of terrified disbelief—could only run…in a space where running would not be had.

Thus the chase across moonlit bed and fallen chairs was brief, though long enough to remind Trisha of the neighborhood tomcat of her childhood, the one next door that used to trap and play with fat field mice. Jana, who was not fat, did not turn and fight at the end the way the mice had; she screamed instead and clawed the stucco walls, leaving brilliant red behind and most of her fingernails before the dark thing pulled her down.

Behind the bed, between brass rail and wall, the beast dragged her kicking, pinning her with a satisfied whuff of black flared nostrils, bent glistening jaws and ended screams and struggle with a single bite, eliciting a sob of near-gratitude from Jana, a final spastic flutter of limbs as the big incisors broke something deep down, spraying fine mists of blood and piss.

Trisha, still pressed silent to the door, listened absently to the feast, a thing of mostly moving shadow…came finally to Franklyn’s hunkered form, stroked the shaggy head, bent and kissed it lightly. Lingered to tongue his still streaming lips, lay back and sit astride him in scalloped gore and shout her words—her glory, her vengeance and triumph against all past pain to the moon’s mindless eye. She yelped fear when Franklyn drew her suddenly down, nipped her throbbing neck, lapped tenderly at what trickled there.

Later, on smeared, rumpled sheets, lazily sated, pleasantly logy, Trisha reached for and caressed the huge phallus, felt (with disappointment) it retreat, shrink away with the rest of him to become slender, pale and white as the bone-colored moon. She found, turning to kiss his face, smiling at her.

“You bit me,” she smiled back.

“My gift to you.”

A distant chill plucked at her. She ventured, “Gift?”

“What you wanted, have been asking for all these nights. Death.”

She started, naked, turned a red-streaked hip to appraise his shadowed face. “Have I asked for death?”

Smile in place, he stroked her slim back. “Asked for it, demanded it, shouted it with every fevered climax. ‘Kill me!’ you cried. And now I have.”

“I said that? I said, ‘kill me’?”

“What did you think you were shouting?”

Trisha, genuinely awed, considered this. “Something more…erotic.”

His ever-sad smile broadened tenderly. “It isn’t love you’ve been seeking, sweet, it’s peace. Release from your guilt.”

“Guilt?”

“Over your mother. And sister.”

Trisha, abruptly chilled, glanced at the twisted thing on the floor, withdrew from Franklyn a fraction. “How did you know?”

“We know.”

No one was more surprised at the sudden tears than Trisha, or more relieved. “They…hurt me,” she sobbed. “Mother gave me to the men because I was the pretty one. Dolce…Dolce laughed. I hated them.”

“And loved them. They were killing you. You were killing them. I didn’t know what to do about it, what to do for you. And then I did.” He touched the still tender mark at her neck. “You’re one of us now. The infection has passed. Forever dead, forever living.”

She pushed herself up, heart hammering alarm, finger tracing an invisible line at her carotid.

“You’ll never know guilt,” Franklyn told her. “Guilt is not to be found in us.”

A cloud passed over Trisha’s face. “Will we still be able to…?” and she nodded hopefully at his belly, and below.

He laughed. “More than ever. More explosively atavistic, lubriciously primitive. And nothing can ever harm us. You’re invulnerable now. Watch…and trust.” He took the silvery gun from under her pillow, aimed quickly, fired casually at her naked surprise.

She would wonder in her last moments why she had left the silver rounds in the gun, why she had kept the gun at all. That old cautionary guard again? Fearing the beast even as she trusted the man?

Wondered too, in the fleeting breath between his last words and the white glare of the explosion, if she might somehow have warned him in time…or if she had deliberately, albeit subconsciously, planned it this way.

…if Franklyn, in his sweet ignorance, had not perhaps done her the greatest favor of all: gifted her—the silver slug tearing through her heart—with that which she’d really sought most of all.

Dying there in strangled moonlight, the bed a pool, fast becoming a lake, the approaching wail of sirens souring the peaceful night, she found no breath to explain with…could only listen in descending darkness to his agonized sobs, his tortured, howl—wholly human now—of despair…chasing her into the final night.

Hear a moment later the familiar joyful bark, feel Shep’s cold muzzle against her palm, the two of them laughing and truly free now, racing forever the yellow undulant meadow through soft summer breeze…

 

 

 

 

FREE FOR ALL

For all you nice folks who have endured my endless self-promoting and bought my novels, THE DEADENDERS, SHIMMER and THE TARN on Kindle, etc., let me first give you each a big wet thank-you. Your patronage is a gift to me. Please allow me to return the gift with a cost-free short story or three. If these prove popular I may collect the whole mess under one title with a sterling new cover rendered by moi. Meanwhile, some of you may recall a few of these yarns from the now rare paperback collection TWISTED TALES (not the comics) and various slicks from days of yore–some, very yore—reformatted and in some cases re-tweaked for your reading revulsion. Happy nightmares and thanks again one and all!

Oh—fair warning: I’m starting with an R rater first.  They aren’t all this…well, you know who you are. Tread lightly…

 

HOME MOVIES

__________________________

Bruce Jones

 

“I took your advice about the affair,” Karen was mumbling.

She sounded distant-dreamy, echoed as the Lincoln Tunnel, barely audible and less visible to Glenda, groping her way steadily through darkened house, tripping on something and something else in the living room, calling back through the black cavity of hallway, “Hey? Where the hell are you, sweets?

“In the bathroom! Follow the wall! Did you feel the quake?”

Feel it? It terrified her. Glenda Hope, future big shot  CEO returning to hometown haunts from big city triumphs, just off the plane, just in best friend Karen’s neighborhood and driveway when what happens? The ground shudders, the Volvo sluices, street lamps wink out. Blackness. Not even a porch light to find the front door with. Feel it?

“Feel it? The whole neighborhood’s gone dark! Karen, where’s the goddamn bathroom!” She kept banging her shins on things.

“Getting warmer!”

“Keep talking. I don’t like this. I’ve been reading about your serial killer in the tabloids. Am I close?”

“Just at the door.”

“Is that you? You sound half asleep, where are you, it’s like a fucking cave!”

“In the tub. Come sit on the potty lid.”

“I can’t even see you!”

“Isn’t it divine, I adore the dark! We should live like this, like cavemen. How’s Frisco, did you get the job?”

“I got it. Where’s Ed?” Glenda found the toilet, pulled down the lid, sat, whooshed.

“Being a cop, I guess, collecting his fuck movies.”

“You sound slightly wasted—shit, what did I kick? Was that glass…?”

“Johnnie Walker.”

“Karen! Not you! Since when? What fuck movies?”

“Didn’t I tell you about his porno? He gets them from the department, confiscated or something, brings them home for us to watch. Or him to watch. I just lie there under him fighting for air. Gives him a thrill.”

“He screws you while watching porn? Wow, romantic.”

“While regaling me with all the gory details of our serial killer’s latest exploits. The bloodier the better. Twisted fuck. Have you really been gone three months? I’ve missed you.”

“Anything left to drink?”

“Sorry, I’ve been a pig. Was it a big quake do you think?”

Glenda strained impatient pupils, tried to make out the vague form swimming before her, the ghostly hulk that must be the Sanford’s tub. “Felt like it. What’s this about an affair?”

“How’s that?”

“You are drunk. You said something about an affair on my way in here.”

“I’ve been fucking like a Trooper, Glennie.”

Glenda started in blackness, unused to gentle, retiring little Karen Sanford using the F word with such casual aplomb, drunk or no. “For real? Who?”

“Haven’t the slightest idea.”

“What? You’re fading, kid.”

“I don’t know his name!”

“You don’t know his name. You’re having an affair with someone and you don’t know his name?”

“Like Last Tango. Remember, with Brando?”

“What do you know about him?”

“Well, let’s see…I know every inch of his more than considerable cock, for one. You were right, I should have cheated on Ed years ago.”

Something about it. The eerie ring of little girl voice against harsh tile? Something. Glenda fought down a distant chill. Craned about in darkness. When would they have the damn lights back on? “–And how did you meet this mysterious superstud?”

“You wouldn’t believe…you truly would not…”

“Hello? Fading again! Don’t go to sleep on me and drown. I’ll be Lamb and Rector’s new CEO with a drowned best friend, consider my resume.”

“I won’t drown. I won’t go that way. Ah, me. Where to begin…?”

Glenda heard the liquid rustle of bath water.

“…well, Ed, I guess. Fat, sloppy, cop-husband Ed and his disgusting porno vids. I think his favorite title was Anal Antics. Every night the same thing…same thing…”

“You’re drifting, stay awake.”

“…same thing. He comes in half tight, we eat dinner, he hauls out those big steel manacles, cuffs me to the four-poster, puts on his tapes and slaps it to me. Same time, same station, same position. Big gut, little pecker, that’s my Ed. Gotta love ‘im.”

“He screws you while watching porno.”

“And gives me all the latest lab report updates courtesy of our local lady killer. Have you heard about our killer, or did I already ask?”

“It’s in the Frisco papers too. Are you very scared, honey?” Glenda twitched around at invisible shapes, swallowed thickly. “I’d be terrified. I wish the goddamn electric would come back on…”

“I wasn’t, in the beginning. Scared, I mean. Mostly just disgusted. He cuts their nipples off, you know. Oh yes, Eddie tells me all about it. Cuts their titties and comes in their hair. Me, I’d have preferred flowers.”

“All right, all right! About the affair!”

“The affair, yes. I met him at the mall.”

“Karen, no.”

“I know, classy huh, but Glennie, you should have seen him. Forget those TV hunks, this guy…this guy…”

“Trailing again…”

“Sorry.”

“How much did you drink?”

“Plaid shirts. He always wore these plaid shirts. Like a lumberjack.  Lumberjack…with a big, lovely…axe…”

“Oh, you’re gone, you are.”

“I’m sitting there at Olga’s Kitchen sipping my mango iced tea, minding my iced tea business, and I look up and there’s Mr. Dream Pecs staring at me.”

“’Staring’?”

“At me. Not the other chicks. Me. And you know me, Glennie, I’m blushing out to here, from the toes up. I get so hot and scrunchy I have to leave the booth.”

“You left?”

“So shook up I ducked into the nearest multiplex, sat there in the dark actually trembling.”

“I’ve got to see this guy. Hey, do you have candles, we could—“

“No. Do you want to hear about this?”

“I’d like to see you for chrissake! What happened after the theater?”

“I’m getting there. The place is practically empty. And the next thing I know this guy, this incredible-looking male model, is sitting next to me.”

“Oh, wow.”

“And then—and this is without saying a word—he’s got his hand on my leg.”

“No.”

“And then he’s got it somewhere else.”

“My God! What did you do!”

“What did I do? What did I do? What do you think I did? I came like the fourth of July. Finally.  After all these years. I think I yelped.”

“Karen, this is incredible.”

“And he says, this big hunk says, ‘I don’t want to talk. I don’t want addresses. I don’t even want to know your name.’ And then he leaves.”

“Jesus. And what did you do?”

“I think I passed out there in the theater seat. It was fantastic. Incredible. At least until I got home and Ed started in with the cuffs and the smut flicks. That was the night he first told me there was a killer in the area.”

Glenda huddled against the toilet rubbing her arms; no air-conditioning, the house cloying, the bathroom worse, and she was rubbing her arms. “But the killer, Karen. I mean, weren’t you—you must have—“

“Of course. I mean, I thought about it certainly. Even if it was a long shot it was still dangerous, right? Foolhardy, really. I think that’s what made it so exciting. I think that’s why I showed up at the mall the next day.”

“And…?”

“He was there. We did it in the women’s john. Twice.”

“You didn’t!”

“He followed me in. I was sitting there doing my thing and all at once there he was, pulling back the door, grinning. He shoved me up against the tile, hiked up my dress and away we went. I came like a drunk nun, pounding on the wall.”

“You’re putting me on! In a mall toilet!”

“I think he liked it down and dirty like that. We did it in elevators too. Hotel halls. Any place dangerous and exciting. Outside in the park, sometimes. The warm sun on his hard, white ass. Neither of us uttering a word to each other. Just groans. And gasps. Mmm.”

“Karen, this is sick.”

“Isn’t it? We did it ten times one afternoon. Ten times. In every position. I was awash in the Big Sticky, kiddo. It was unreal. Unreal. It was…it was…”

What! Don’t drift off on me now!”

“…it was…addictive. I fell in love.”

“You fell in lust. I can’t believe this is you talking.”

“It went on that way for weeks. Every day. I was so…sore. And the more sore I got, the more I wanted it. I got so bad one night I broke the rules. I shouldn’t have done that…shouldn’t have…that’s when it all started coming apart…”

“The ‘rules’?”

“The no-address rules. I followed him home one night. He lived over on the West Side, nice place, big two-story Victorian. Dormers and all. I pulled up down the street, watched him go in, watched him come out again. I should have gone home. But I wanted him, I wanted him so bad. And the only thing at home was Ed. And his smut. So…I sneaked into lumberjack’s house…”

“Please tell me you’re making this up.”

“I snooped around downstairs like a common thief. It was thrilling. Dangerous. Nerve-wracking. Made me wet. Can you understand? I went upstairs. He had this incredible enormous canopy bed. I stripped, lay across the satin duvet, awaited my prince.”

“Christ, Karen, I can’t believe—weren’t you—“

“To death! I heard voices below, then on the staircase. He had someone with him. I hid in the closet.”

“With your clothes, I hope!”

“He brings in this really gorgeous blonde, really stacked. I’m watching through the crack in the closet door. The room is suddenly very bright, very bright, like the sun just came up. Glennie—this gets pretty sick now…”

“Don’t—“

“He’s got her bent over the bed, his big thing in her, and it’s turning me on, Glennie, I know how that sounds, but this guy…I wasn’t jealous, wasn’t mad, just so goddamn unbelievably hot. That’s when…that’s when…”

“What what!”

“He picks up the knife.”

“No.”

“From atop the bureau.”

“Karen, don’t!”

“I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.”

“Oh Jesus, Oh Christ, I knew it! Don’t tell me anymore, I can’t do this!”

“He stabbed her, Glennie. He stabbed her. He stabbed her. The blood just…flew.”

“Karen—“

“And the bastard, the bastard is still in her! And then and then…then I guess I passed out.”

“Please, I’m going to be sick!”

“When I woke up, the room was dark. The house was empty. I got the hell out of there. Back at home, Ed’s waiting with his damn cuffs. And his stories about how they found another girl. I threw up most of the night. Told Ed it was the flu.”

“Dear God. Dear God.” Glenda shook spastically, managed to keep it under control. “You—my God, you’re lucky to be alive! Did they catch the guy? Karen? Hey! Karen–?”

“…what…”

“Wake up! Did they catch the guy?”

“I…no…I didn’t tell them…”

“Didn’t…why!”

“…you don’t understand, Glennie…you could never understand…I tell you I was addicted…I was…I was beyond sick…I’d like there in bed at night and see the knife, the red…and all I could think about was being under him. I didn’t care, don’t you see…I was ready to die for it…”

“Karen, oh God. What’s happened to you!”

“He happened. He happened. And I couldn’t let him go. Didn’t want to let him go. I got a knife from the kitchen, just for protection, took it with me. We had this Tuesday night thing at this cruddy motel. I don’t think I really intended to ever use it…didn’t really believe he’d—“

“Karen, don’t! I can’t breathe in here!”

“I panicked. He was standing over me there next to the crummy bed, naked…so big, so huge, huge…I just…I panicked. And then the knife was out of my hands and—in him. Way in. I don’t even know how it got there. And I was running…running…running…”

Glenda clutched nausea, the room listing lazily, like Uncle Fred’s yacht. “Karen? Honey? Are you there?”

Barely audible now, slipping: “…wasn’t much blood, not on me. And then I was just home again. Just suddenly home again. Like it never happened. Only it had. It had.”

“Baby…”

“No, there’s more. I washed my face, gave myself a few minutes, then came into the living room. Ed was setting up the damn DVD player, had this sick grin on his face. ‘You’ll like this one,’ he says, ‘One of them phony snuff movies! Lots of fake blood and bad acting!” And then he’s got me down, cuffed me down, and he’s huffing away and I’m…I’m…I’m looking up at the screen, my heart…my heart just seemed to stop…”

“What–?”

Just a whisper: “…it’s him, Glennie, my big silent hunk, my lovely lumberjack, on the TV, humping the stacked blonde in his bedroom. That’s why the lights got so bright that night…he was making movies…stupid, phony snuff movies…

“Ed was laughing. ‘That’s Sally Palmer,’ he says. ‘We call her Sally-the-Pump down at the precinct! Hooker! Works Cimarron and Central. Saw here there tonight, in fact. Does this sort of phony snuff crap all the time.’”  

Glenda lurched up, twisting, pain spiking her ankle, groped for the lid, just got it up before her dinner and probably her lunch found the pale bowl.

The voice from the tub so feeble now, so dreadfully feeble: “…he wasn’t the killer at all, you see…I killed an innocent man…an innocent…man…”

Glenda coughed, raw-throated, slipped to her knees, sat there panting weakly, head down and swimming against the cool porcelain, dancing dots behind her lids. Pushed up and slipped again. Had she gotten some of it on the floor, have to clean it up, it was slippery all over the floor…sticky…

“Karen? Don’t fall asleep! Karen, you’ll drown…”

Her own voice sounded far away now. Probably she’d gotten it on her dress too, the Armani she’d worn at the meeting, damn. “Karen–?”

The air conditioner thumped on first.

Then the blinking fluorescents, stuttering brightness…the room coloring pink, then red…and deeper.

Red on the sticky floor, the walls, but mostly the tub, the tub filled with it, nearly black with it, sides scalloped crimson. Karen waxy as death within.

Glenda, strangely composed, stared at the friend’s corpse: breasts bobbing, chin tilted, mouth still caught in mid-sentence, livid islands in the sea of blood. The left arm, fallen free, dangled with deep slashes, leaking still.

On the sticky floor, Glenda’s shoe found the fallen razor, nudged it, smearing Karen’s blood. She stared curiously at it, dreamily, her swimming head cocked like a bird, eyes finally lifting to her own laughably shocked reflection in the sink mirror…staring silently, listening to her mind saying quite reasonably really: I’m a CEO, I live in Frisco now, I’m not part of this, any of this at all…

 

 

Copyright 2011 Bruce Jones Associates, Inc.

 

 

 

 

WHO WILL WEEP FOR OSAMA

Posted: May 8, 2011 in Uncategorized

This is about as political as I’m apt to get in this blog, so just endure, huh?

>sigh< Okay, I may as well join the rank ’n file on this. So I’m watching CNN—you know, the bin Laden Channel—and Anderson Cooper’s over and Piers Morgan’s up and I’m ready to switch channels (or maybe even get off my ass and write something!) when I see that Piers’ guest tonight is Michael Moore. And the subject is…let me think a minute, got it right here somewhere, oh, yeah—Osama bin Laden! And I sit back again. I mean what could be more charming: a Limey twit trying so hard to be American-cool conversing with a guy so far left he’s missed Albuquerque. The subject: the most terrible ex-person on Earth, who—say what you will of him—is most certainly dead. I think. I’m pretty sure.

–I mean, there was that strangely protracted period of garbled information from the White House, or the CIA (or are they the same, I forget) that went something like: the helicopter was caught in a down-draft and crashed, big firefight on the first floor, bin Laden shielded by some woman, bin Laden making threatening moves and therefore shot—

–wait, scratch all that. The helicopter experienced mechanical failure, crashed, not such a big fire fight on first floor after all, “shielding” woman caught in crossfire, we think bin Laden made threatening moves and therefore shot—

–no, no…it was this way: helicopter got fucked up some way, crashed, no real firefight,  just one guy shot, some woman was there and…no, wait! Oh the hell with it.

On Monday we’re assured Osama was only an impotent figurehead, hiding out with no effective power or connectivity. On Tuesday we’re told he was still an active director of Al Qaeda movements. Let’s don’t even get into that operative run safe house watching him, and the complete lack of guards anywhere around the mansion. And–

–but I digress. Often. So, back to the TV show: Plucky Piers, quite aware of Michael Moore’s raucous rep concerning all things congressional, is guiding him around questions about whether President Obama made a good call here. Moore, so desperately thankful any man of color is in the White House, is giving Obama good points but at the same time taking the government to task for what he deems was essentially an assassination assignment (albeit an accomplished one) by the Navy SEALS. And lamenting about how there is something “missing” in America and Americans now (he never says exactly what but I’m guessing morality) and that–attacking a sovereign country aside—American policy is not to execute criminals, no matter how heinous their crime. That we instead must absolutely unequivocally bring them to fair and just tribunal, mete out American jurisprudence as stated in the Constitution, then act accordingly. If not, we are—in essence—no better than they are. This last part apparently also is the essence of Obama’s decision to not show pictures of the (shot, killed, murdered, assassinated: choose one) Al Qaeda leader.  “We don’t show trophies, we don’t go there!” About half the nation seemed to agree with this or at least agree with the reasonable assumption that such a photo might further piss off the Al Qaeda-sympathetic; the other half feel the announcement of the terrorist leader’s death alone is sufficient reason to piss off his followers: show the damn photos! The morbidly fascinated fell somewhere between.

On the face of it, certainly, both Moore and Obama offer persuasive arguments, though Moore got almost righteously flag waving at one point on TV, a startlingly incongruent posture compared to his usual style. But persuasive. Persuasive because, of course, he’s right. It is not American policy to assassinate people. We just do it anyway. Right?

Or do we? You can always tell someone who was not of age during the Kennedy administration. Bay of Pigs, anyone? Correct me here, but I believe we sent our troops over to cap Castro’s commie ass, not to have tea and cigars with him. As for showing grisly photos of dead people, you could readily find shots of a post mortem Jack Kennedy almost from the day he was shot if you wanted to look hard enough. So it’s okay to show pics of Jack’s blood-matted hair and gaping wounds but not Osama’s? What’s the criteria here: who was better-looking alive? I personally can live without seeing photographic proof of bin Laden’s glassy death stare, but the whole thing is moot anyway. These days any high school kid with half a Photoshop or Adobe aptitude can fake bloody dead guys with beards (as some on the Internet actually did—then left you with a Trojan Horse for your trouble). And what if, by chance, the wrong “official” photo got out to the press? What if some tech head then proved it was a fake? Where’s your veracity now, White House? I mean, we could look so disingenuous that important friends like Pakistan might not trust us!

Certainly bin Laden was targeted with “extreme prejudice.” And there is a two-part reason for this. First, unlike Prezes Bush who listened quietly to detailed intelligence from the CIA, etc., then went ahead and did it their way, Obama—correctly—digested the intelligence he got, let the CIA and, more importantly, the Navy SEALS deal with it their way. That’s why he succeeded where the Bushmasters failed. Secondly, the SEALS are a terrifically competent group, no question about it; you want someone whacked, they’re the go-to guys. But they do share something in common with every dog-faced G.I. in the annals of warfare. Quite simply: when in doubt, shoot first—live to ask questions later. Especially in a dark room under inhuman pressure with Hillary Clinton watching and your adrenalin dial on 11. If you don’t? Well, then you got yourself another Bay of Pigs. Oh, and what if you shoot first but kill the wrong guy and, God forbid, the right guy gets away or wasn’t there at all? Well…then you got yourself another Bay of Pigs. Only you can’t always count on another Cuban Missile Crisis to bail out your presidency, CIA directorship, or Black OP’s whatever. Meaning even if the official order encouraged capturing Osama alive, I doubt it was the first guilt-fraught thing on the minds of those running through the smoke and chaos.

But. That word ‘assassination.’

Moore’s entire logic on the subject was based on the premise that American Military/Congress doesn’t just go about offing people without their day in court. He even mentioned the Nuremburg trials (good old flawlessly patriotic WWII logic there) and how we refused to simply line up the accused Nazi bastards and fire away point blank, much as the slime might have deserved it. Fine. But you see, Michael, that might have had something do with the fact that those Nazi bastards were captured, imprisoned and READILY AVAILABLE FOR TRIAL! But more to the point, Moore’s argument implies, apparently, that we are not at war with Al Queda—and thus bin Laden was therefore not a soldier. So, what was he then? An innocent civilian? In war, bringing to trial individual soldiers isn’t exactly practical from a time or tactical standpoint; the enemy tends not to hold still for you. In war, all bets are off. So, if you believe bin Laden was a soldier, then he was not, by definition, assassinated. He was killed as part of a military operation. The people in the twin towers, now, that was more of an assassination. The first thing the army does in boot camp (I was there) is ask those in your platoon if anyone has a conscientious or religious objection to murdering another human being while in the military. They never mention whose military, which I always thought a bit odd. Anyway, if you raise your hand, you’re asked to step to the left. Then you’re sent back home.

But look, this isn’t what I wanted to talk about anyway. Arguing about the technicalities of war is like arguing about cancer; it’s not going away until we stop it.

What really steams my clams has nothing to do with politics or war or attention-getting news shows or really even morals, I guess. Look, I don’t know anything about Osama bin Laden. Does anybody really know anyone? I read he was an educated man, an apparently charismatic, soft-spoken man, and mostly a man obsessed with his own ideas about the mingled destines of war and religion. I also know that he was, at some point at least a, well…kid. A six year old kid, four year old kid, a newborn baby. Maybe his mother didn’t love him. I don’t know what his parents were like or if his family was dysfunctional or how that might have impacted him. I only know that at the instant of birth what he was not: he was neither Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, or Roman Catholic. Those are religions. He was a simple lump of flesh. Just another human being. Like the rest of us.

Yeah, I know: Hitler, Stalin, John Wayne Gacy. Maybe it’s true some men are born bad. There may be a genetic predisposition toward it, I don’t know; I majored in Fine Art. The point, my point anyway, is that the death of any human being is not cause for celebration. It may be cause for relief. But if it comes at gunpoint, doesn’t that diminish us all a little?

Should we weep for bin Laden? That’s reserved for whatever’s left of his family, I suppose. But Moore got at least one thing dead right: we shouldn’t cheer or celebrate anyone’s killing. He was once, after all, merely little Osama, the kid down the street, innocent as you and I. It was the world around him–part of an increasingly shrinking planet–that formed and shaped him, and is—in a major way, I think–responsible for what he became. And what we become as well. 

 

GOOD KARMA

Posted: May 3, 2011 in Uncategorized

Not saying anything particularly revelatory here, but I’m continually astonished by how many mediocre writers hit the jackpot these days while really terrific ones are all but dismissed and forgotten. Oddly the case with most of my favorite authors. Is it just me?

The only thing maybe worse that a great writer like Mitchell Smith completely falling off the map is the idea he may still be out there somewhere cloaked under a pseudonym, and I can’t find him. I’m especially sensitive to this idea in Smith’s case having recently discovered he began his writing career under a non de plume: a series of Western paperback originals from one of the, shall we say, less reputable houses (I should know, having begun my own career with them). Is it cricket to mention a series of books an author purposely chose to remain estranged from? I don’t know; even a clearly exploitative title in the hands of a master can bear rewards.

Anyway, we’re here to discuss Smith’s mainstream era thrillers, DAYDREAMS, STONE CITY, DUE NORTH, SACRIFICE, REPRISAL and particularly KARMA, probably my personal favorite—though I hesitate to categorize them as mere thrillers, especially DUE NORTH which, like the others, has its thrills but is so much more than that. They say Richard Matheson was a mainstream writer masquerading as a horror/sci-fi writer; I’m guessing Mitchell Smith was a mainstream writer masquerading as a thriller writer. Certainly if the line can be blurred between the two, Smith did it brilliantly. His big push began with the police procedural-oriented DAYDREAMS, followed by the claustrophobically-male prison epic STONE CITY, both generally considered his best and most literary offerings. I think this is giving short shrift to his later, more overtly genre pieces like SACRIFICE and REPRISAL. Finely crafted, exceptionally well written with a style I can only describe as uniquely his own, all of Smith’s titles bear his emblematic signature prose, at times an almost musical leitmotif that, when juxtaposed with passages of violent action, border on the poetic—but somehow, amazingly (damn him!) drawing us in rather than distancing us from the narrative. No mean feat. Yet we never doubt we’re in the hand of a confident master.

KARMA’s handsome, blue-blooded architect Evan Scott witnesses the 70 story falling death of a young woman from an in-construction Madison Avenue edifice. Or was she pushed? When others around Scott meet similarly unexpected ends he soon learns his witnessing the girl’s fall has put his own life, and eventually those of his Greenwich, Connecticut family, at dire risk. This in the form of Rao Electrical, a company with a multimillion-dollar wiring contact for the building and secrets they’d just as soon keep hidden. They’re doing a good job so far; even the fallen girl’s construction foreman father hides fearfully silent behind the truth of her death. And Evan gets a particularly unnerving warning from a Hindustani NYPD Detective Prasad, who should know what he’s talking about when not too subtly suggesting the inquiring young architect keep his ivy league nose out of things. Rao Electric plays tough: “..we think they use a Pathan—a Dond savage…a mountain people; they are not minding heights at all, if you catch my drift.”

Evan might have listened, too, had one of the mysterious deaths not included his coworker/Hispanic lover Sanchia Fuentes. Ignoring the obvious warning, Evan pursues the brutal Rao brothers, a powerful Hindu crime family even the Mafia fears. He finds help in the only person who doesn’t think he’s crazy, elderly newsstand owner Ram Das Lal, whose nicely delineated appearance eventually forms what becomes essentially a buddy-picture. Deliberately paced at the beginning to reveal both Evan’s current home life and past Vietnam skirmishes (Kirkus, who is always wrong, accuses Smith unable of deciding if he’s writing a post-traumatic war pastiche or a vulnerable loner thriller—duh!—he’s writing both) the thrills and action ratchet up soon enough along with a host of wonderfully realized characters, especially Evan’s Indian pal Das, who nearly steals the show. Not to be outdone, the baddies are as repugnant as spoiled curry, especially the Rao’s imported goon, the Pathan Dond.  A long-bearded, sword-wielding psychotic, the Dond thinks no more of table-leg raping and strangling Evan’s secret lover in her own bed than he does of disemboweling a group of subway toughs in broad New York City daylight.

With a prose style rife with frags, disruptive ellipses and occasional not-quite-purple passages, Smith’s mesmeric, deceivingly languid style closes the circle of terror around both Evan and reader with unnerving skill and bravado. It’s on full display during Evan’s witness of the iron worker’s fatal fall near the novel’s opening:

(Evan) looked out over the wall, looked up—expecting some workman waving across the way—looked up and saw through soft, richly golden light, a girl come falling.

She fell from far higher, out from the red steel skeleton of the building in progress—not more than yards away across empty air.

Evan heard her call again…something. Only a startled exclamation—certainly not a scream, not a shriek as she fell. And he saw her, and she saw him watching as she fell so seemingly slowly, lying spread-eagled in the air, wearing a tool belt, work clothes—jeans, shirt—all softly beaten by the air, and her long black hair bannering out, ruffling in the wind of descent so Evan heard it through the silence.

The book predicts our current phobia of foreign terrorists more than half a decade before 9/11, though when written it was probably more a metaphor for ‘70’s big business developers ravaging NY. Some may read bias bordering jingoism in Smith’s subtest. Evan is an unapologetic WASP war hero haunted by Vietnam dreams, his Aryan wife Catherine a privileged snob who, in the book’s explosive finale, wielding a shotgun to defend hearth and home against foreign invaders, is found “standing high at the end of the deck as faint gunsmoke drifted, her blond hair frosted white in moonlight, standing with the full moon behind her—a northern goddess, and grim.”

Still, Smith smooths any outright bigotry with the appearance of the Hispanic Fuentes and, more pointedly, in the wonderful Hindustani Ram Das whom Evan regards at novel’s end as his dearest friend. Walking New York streets together, Das, worried that the invasion of so many foreigners is taking its crowding toll on the Yale, Groton’s native soil, is reminded by a worldly-minded Evan: “The city was made by foreigners.” True enough. But Smith makes it sound just short of a warning.

Hidden agendas or not, there’s no denying the power of Smith’s story-telling during scenes both thoughtfully introspective and savagely, almost uncomfortably real. It’s not even the outward threat of foreign gangsters that provides Evan’s biggest nightmares, but the doubting indifference of associates and family around him. Where’s the real enemy here–self-assured American complacency and arrogance? Is the most obvious metaphor Evan Scott himself, the disillusioned lonely big city dweller hiding in plain sight? Clearly the war has left its scars and scares enfolded deep–going off to one thankless war only to return home to another kind of battlefield in its own way just as bafflingly isolated.

War in all its deceiving faces, though only shown in brief flashbacks, permeates the book as a constant, lurking menace. Early on, we’re shown Evan coveting dead Marine buddy Beckwith’s bowie knife, kept ever sharp and oiled in loving memory back in Evan’s civilian life. And in dark contrast, we see the demonic Dond’s lethal sword, dispatching the subway toughs with near psychotic detachment. We just know, as events unfold, these gleaming weapons are destined to meet in an analogous war from which only one can emerge.  When it finally comes, Smith’s vertiginous stage is the unfinished lattice of narrow I-beams wrapping Evan’s own workplace, high amid the darkened canyons of NY. It’s one of the book’s defining and perhaps most memorable moments: a clash of cultures and mindsets that in its fury morphs the flailing combatants into a near balletic death dance that turns all soldiers into borderless brothers. Evan’s first glimpse of the Pathan is like an explosively evil apparition of Chernabog himself:

Something was running toward him over the steel. Huge, oddly shaped, and galloping with a long cloth coat swept back by its speed—looking barely human in moonlight, its head thrown back in a great grin of pleasure, long moon-silvered beard, long hair fallen loose and streaming behind it…this man came running barefoot over the steel as if there were no spaces, no emptiness, as if sparse structures were solid flooring all across. There was no sound but the eager padding of his feet, their swift rhythm humming through the steel.

Running away like a terrified child against such indomitable fierceness, Evan finds soon enough that the Dond savage is far swifter, and his shrieking saber a good deal longer than the Bowie war memento the young architect brought along for comfort. When the Pathan’s blade finally descends:

–Evan was saved by Beckwith’s knife and what was left of college fencing, and by twenty years of polo. Born and built for this, the Bowie hooked the Pathan’s blade as it came, turned it just enough, and carried it clanging away. And Evan’s right hand and arm and shoulder—packed with muscle from years of swinging a mallet whipping left and right from a galloping pony—his hand and arm and shoulder parried, and took the shock.

The Dond stood back and relaxed, a bird of prey at ease, and stared at Evan considering, while they both breathed. The two of them were alone in the world; there was no world beside the narrow beam they fought on, nothing beyond the striking circle of their knives. They had become as close as friends, and knew each other.

Do yourself a solid and know this book.

And the poetic prowess of very cutting edge action/suspense Mitchell Smith-style.