The Short Of It
Saturday, January 29, 2005
Rolling Rivera by Steven Torres"Rolling Rivera" by Steven Torres, Shots Magazine, January 2005
The protagonist of this story is Sheriff Luis Gonzalo of Mr. Torres' Precinct Puerto Rico novels. As near as I can tell, this is the good Sheriff's first appearance in a short story since no short stories at all were listed on Mr. Torres' website.
In the middle of a lonely night shift in his part of rural Puerto Rico Sheriff Gonzalo receives a frantic call from a woman who has just discovered the body of her husband. The sheriff knows the woman and her husband. He grew up and attended school with her. The husband, Abraham Riviera, he knew on a professional basis, a mean drunk and abusive husband who was seldom, if ever, sober.
The sheriff finds Abraham's body in the middle of the road. He had been run over by a tractor-trailer rig. The description of the body is accurate without being overly gory. This was the second time Abe had been run over while lying drunk in the road. The first time turned him into a paraplegic, something he looked at as a gift from God. Now he could collect Social Security and never have to work again.
So how did Abe wind up out in the middle of the road with his wheelchair in the grass across the road, undamaged? The sheriff suspects family involvement, but the wheelchair shows the fingerprints of all the family members. Which one did the deed? And does the sheriff really want to know?
On a personal basis and as a mystery reader I think that the solution came too easily. However I suspect that Mr. Torres' intention was to show the community interrelationships and culture with a mystery story as background. In that he succeeded.
I also felt that the good sheriff's hewing to the law enforcement line of "the guilty must be punished" was rather forced. Not being familiar with the sheriff from the three Precinct Puerto Rico novels, I can't say whether that is a part of his character or a bit of authorial intrusion.
In short, ultimately unsatisfying as a mystery.
Friday, January 28, 2005
Improvisation by Ed McBain"Improvisation" by Ed McBain, Dangerous Women Edited by Otto Penzler, Mysterious Press, Trade Paperback, $13.95
This is a story of lust for success, with a little (very little) sexual lust thrown in as well.
Will, a Gulf War veteran, tries to pick up a beautiful blonde (of course) in a bar. Unfortunately for him, she's willing to be picked up. When he uses his lame pickup line, "Well, what will we do for excitement tonight," she replies, "Why don't we kill somebody?" Will thinks she's just responding in an original way to his mating dance.
There's not much mystery here, so I suppose you could call this a suspense story. Unfortunately I knew where the story was going by the bottom of the second page, so the suspense was a little lacking.
Will and Jessica pick their supposed victim, a mousy little woman of the genus File Clerk. Will, being besotted with liquor and lust (that very little bit of sex I mentioned above), believes he's hit the jackpot and will soon be indulging in a little "double play", never mind that the other woman falls on the frumpy side of the attractiveness line.
Will is certainly not the sharpest pencil in the box, and by the time he figures out what's really going on, it is much, much too late.
I was disappointed in this story. As I said, the suspense was AWOL, and when Mr. McBain did construct a situation that would allow almost unlimited potential for drama, he gives it little more than lip service. In addition, in the third paragraph before the end, he makes a viewpoint error worthy of a rank beginner.
About the only thing he did right was make the two women ultimately annoying. At least he made me feel some kind of emotion.
In short, dissatisfying.
Thursday, January 27, 2005
Purrz, Baby"Purrz, Baby" by Vicki Hendricks, Mississippi Review, January 2005
In this story Ms. Hendricks makes the Green-Eyed Monster truly monstrous. And there’s a cat.
Georgia is married to Jack, a history professor. Georgia owns a restaurant and makes more money than Jack, but she still has a self-esteem problem. Though she tries to deny it, she feels intellectually inferior to her husband. That leads to problems when she sees an attractive female colleague of his, Mary Lou, wearing a robe identical to the one he gave her for Christmas.
She sees that as a sign that he is having an affair with Mary Lou. She tries to let it go but keeps picking at it, like continually tonguing a sore tooth. She can't decided what to do about it until one night her husband describes a punishment, called cat-hauling, once used on recalcitrant slaves. Georgia loves cats in general and her own Purrzie in particular, so she starts listening. This is a particularly nasty method that uses live cats as the instrument of punishment. She could never use her beloved Purrzie in that EXACT way, after all it involves pulling them by the tail. However . . .
As the story progresses Georgia works herself into a frenzy of jealousy and revenge, so much so that she stops thinking. A fatal mistake for someone.
I particularly liked the way Ms. Hendricks handled the buildup. She starts out small and, within Georgia's mind, gradually increases the feelings of hurt and inadequacy until she snaps. The whole buildup made the character's reactions believable.
In short, a good story (in spite of having a cat in it), well told.
BTW, the cat lovers among you will be happy to know Purrzie landed on his feet.
Wednesday, January 26, 2005
More Thoughts on Audio -- Part 3Market, market, who's got a market? The market exists because the demand is there. It isn't a large demand, not yet. So how do you create and expand a market?
A year ago Podcasting didn't exist. Now it's exploding at a rate faster than blogging. All this due to the efforts of one guy named Adam Currey. All it would take to make audio short stories take off would be one right guy.
In my previous post on this subject I mentioned an online zine for short story podcasts. The form I mentioned was pretty aggressive with a new story every day. What if we cut that back, model the zine on Hardluck Stories or Thrilling Detective or Shred of Evidence? Four or five stories published on a quarterly basis to begin with. Get people used to listening to stories again. Stories that run 15 to 30 minutes, the average commute time. No auditus interruptus. Start the story when you leave the house. Finish it before you get to work.
Now, how do you get people to pay for that? I'm not sure yet, but it can be done. It has been done.
Apple did it. When they started iTunes all those professional industry pundits said they'd fall on their face. People had been downloading music from the Internet for free for years. No one would pay for what they had been getting free. But Apple did it. Of course they may have had a tiny, little bit of help from the RIAA, but, hey, whatever works. Right? Now everybody is jumping on the bandwagon.
What about satellite radio? The market is booming. Those people are desperate for content. Content we can provide.
And don't discount the Cool Factor, a major component in iPod's success. Apple got Bono to pimp it. And there are those white earplugs with the white wires. Everybody else has black or gray or black-and-gray or black-and-silver. You see white wires, you know it's an iPod.
The lesson? Make listening to short stories cool. Think Bono's available?
So come on, people. Comment on this. I need ideas to be put on the table for discussion. In my mind I keep coming back to the "Save Our Short Story" campaign. I'll think some more on that. You think about it, too. Comments, people, comments!
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Links To The StoriesOK. Here are the links to the stories in this Great Experiment.
Duane Swierczynski -- "State Trooper Joke"
Dave White -- "Negative Lottery"
Gerald So -- "Soft Sell"
Pat Lambe -- "The Dummy Receipt"
Bryon Quertermous -- "Trunk Shot"
Ray Banks -- "Delia's Gone"
Jen Jordan -- "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts"
Sarah Weinman -- "Rulebreaker"
John Rickards -- "Four Billion Funerals and a Wedding"
Dave Zeltserman -- "She Stole My Fortune!"
Jon Jordan -- "No Cure for Cancer"
Graham Powell -- "Bonnie and Clyde's Last Ride"
Aldo Calcagno -- "The Anniversary"
Moby Dick In A CanHere it is, folks. The Big Blog Event! All those people I mentioned in my teaser post yesterday have written a short story that will be posted on their blog today. The set-up involved writing a story in which a character had something in the trunk of his car and he was pulled over by the police. That was it. I can hardly wait to read all the stories. I'll link directly to the stories sometime today or tomorrow. Enjoy.
“Moby Dick In A Can”
Robert W. Tinsley
I know there’s a good reason for me being in the trunk of this car. Me, Jack Brady, all 6'4" and 280 pounds of me, boss of Brady Investigations, stuffed into the trunk of an antique Cadillac. If Johnny Soto ever finds out about this, I'll be the laughing stock of the town. And given the current state of El Paso politics, that's saying something.
* * *
"It's the only way, Boss." Kathleen Sanchez, my sec . . . my assistant was having way too much fun with this. "Fredo set the meet up for Scenic Drive Park tonight. You'd have to be Batman to hide out up there and still get to me in time if I needed help."
"I will not fit inside the trunk of your car," I said.
But I knew she was right. Scenic Drive Park perches on the south end of Mount Franklin. The Drive itself clings to the side of the mountain as it winds around the tip. There it widens out enough to allow parking for about two-dozen cars. You can walk out onto a narrow promontory, which gives you a pretty spectacular view of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. There is no place to hide. The only way to cover Kathleen was to be in the trunk of her car. The trouble was, there was no way I could fit.
"Don't worry, Boss. I'm going to borrow my friend's car. He's got a 1959 Cadillac Sedan DeVille convertible, midnight blue, in cherry condition. It's got the largest trunk ever built for an American car. He's installing the cameras under the dash and in the backseat now. You'll be able to see and hear everything."
"A '59 Caddy convertible? You don't know the meaning of the word inconspicuous, do you?"
"I suppose I could get something that would blend better. But it would be smaller."
"Besides," said Kathleen, "you said I could take the lead on this one, and I think the Caddy fits my new persona."
Kathleen on her worst day makes modeling agency scouts stop in their tracks and start salivating. Today, in the new persona, she'd make a Bishop take a second look. Her shoes had four-inch spike heels, Bruno Magnus, or something like that. She now stood tall enough to look me straight in the eye. Her skirt was a plaid, pleated number that looked like someone had raided a parochial school clothing store and then gone mad with a pair of scissors, leaving an amazing expanse of well-turned leg exposed to view. A blood-red blouse had the same effect on her upper body. Kathleen’s normal head of glowing black hair hid under a dark auburn wig in a cut like Uma Thurman's in the dance scene of Pulp Fiction. That, along with a couple of makeup tricks that were a complete mystery to me, transformed her into the type of woman one might just see in a midnight blue '59 Caddy convertible.
"All right," I said. I just couldn't get the image of whale being squeezed into a sardine can out of my mind. "I'll go along with this on one condition."
I put on my most threatening expression; one I’d used to turn SEAL trainees into quivering jellyfish. Kathleen didn't bat an eye. She was pretty much immune having spent two tours in the Navy as a Master at Arms, a member of the Navy's police force.
"Under no circumstances must Johnny Soto be allowed to find out about this."
Johnny Soto is the lieutenant in charge of the El Paso Police Department's Crimes Against Persons division. We've been friends for a long time. I've always teased him about his moustache, a Zapatista type that he continually fiddles with. I tell him that it makes him look like Snidely Whiplash, the villain from the old Dudley Do-Right cartoons.
So far he's not been able to come up with anything comparable on me. But the whale-in-the-can image keeps coming back, and I know it's just the sort of thing he could use. So he's not going to find out about it.
"My lips are sealed," said Kathleen, drawing her fingers across an idiotic grin.
* * *
This whole abortion started two days ago when we were contacted by an investigator for Rogers and Heath Surety, a moderately sized insurance agency. The investigator, Harold Dent, a man so indescript he could disappear in an empty room, filled me in on the problem.
"My company specializes in insuring collectors of various sorts, antiques, paintings, coins, that sort of thing. Recently a number of our clients have been burgled."
"How many?" I asked.
"Four to date in various parts of the country. It seems like the burglars got hold of our client list and started hitting them. The only saving grace is that the thieves have always contacted us to sell the items back. This has saved us an enormous amount of money, but so far we are out $350,000."
"That's turning into serious money."
"It is, and we're tired of it. So far we've acceded to the thieves' demands that the bills be unmarked and that no attempt be made to follow the pick-up man. No more.
"This last theft, from a client here in El Paso, involved a chess set with silver and gold pieces inset with precious stones. The set, housed in a carved teak box, is valued at $250,000. The thieves are asking for $75,000. We're going to give it to them, but the money is going to be marked and the bag will contain a GPS tracker. We're hoping that they have been lulled into a sense of security and won't check this time.
"We want you to handle the exchange and to film it. We have insisted that one of the principals of the burglary gang make the exchange in each case. Every time it has been the same man. He calls himself Fredo, an Hispanic male, mid-thirties, a crescent-shaped scar on the end of his nose. This time we want hard evidence to put these guys out of business."
"All right, Mr. Dent. Do you want me to follow up on the GPS signals?"
"No, Mr. Brady, our own personnel will do that. We just want a front man that Fredo will know is local. He's insisted on that every time. Once you make the handoff, your job is done."
"Sounds easy enough. What's my fee?"
"One percent of the declared value, assuming you get it back. If you don't have the recording equipment already, we'll supply it to you. All the previous exchanges have been done in cars at night, so the equipment will have to be small and have ultra-low-light capabilities."
"I have the equipment I need. It looks like we have a deal, Mr. Dent." I stood up and shook his hand. "Why don't you step out into the front office. Kathleen will take care of the paperwork and get your contact numbers."
* * *
So, here I am. Parked on a lovely April night in a convertible with a beautiful woman. Unfortunately the beautiful woman is in the front seat, and I'm stuffed into the trunk.
It wasn't too bad back here, but it wasn't particularly good either. I lay on my left side facing the rear of the car with a pillow supporting my head. The two low-light cameras fed a small LCD split-screen monitor with two Sony mini video recorders. I could hear everything within 10 yards of the car and could talk to Kathleen through an earplug hidden under her wig.
Kathleen's friend had done a good job concealing the cameras. He'd also installed a handle on the trunk latch that I could use to open it.
We'd been sitting in the parking area of Scenic Drive Park for about fifteen minutes. My left shoulder was starting to go numb, and I was shifting around trying to put a different spot on my shoulder against the metal.
"Boss?" Kathleen's voice came through the plug in my ear. "What the hell are you doing? I feel like I'm in the middle of an earthquake. If Fredo comes while you're break dancing back there he'll know something's up."
"Don't get your knickers in a knot," I said. "I've gotta get circulation going again. Just remember, this was your idea." I could have sworn I heard her giggle.
"Boss, we've got a bite."
I saw on the monitor Kathleen turning to the passenger side of the car. The backseat camera showed a man stop next to the Caddy.
"Hi," said the man. "Nice car." He ran his hand along the top of the door, caressing it.
"Yes, it is," said Kathleen.
The guy's hands were empty.
"A beautiful car for a beautiful woman. My name's Roberto. What's yours?"
For crying out loud! The guy was trying to pick her up.
"Nona," said Kathleen.
"Nona your business. Now beat it."
"Aw, come on. I can be a lotta fun." The guy put his elbows on the door and leaned in.
"You look like a nice enough guy," said Kathleen, "but if you don't haul ass out of here I'm going to cut off your balls and feed them to you a slice at a time. Do I make myself clear?" To emphasize her point she pulled out a Benchmade automatic knife, what they used to call a switchblade, and flicked it open. It made an impressive sound.
The guy straightened up like he'd been hit with a cattle prod. "Hey, no offense lady. Geez, just trying to be friendly."
He backed out of range of the camera, and Kathleen folded up her pig-sticker.
Another half-hour passed with no action. Fredo had said he could show up anytime within a two-hour window, so we still had a while to wait. I was getting increasingly uncomfortable.
Suddenly some skinny kid vaulted over the passenger door into the seat. I saw a gun in his hand.
Shit! This kid wasn't Fredo. He was a stick-up artist.
"Give me your purse. Now."
Kathleen held her purse between her and the kid. I was about to pop the trunk, Fredo or no Fredo.
The kid reached for her purse, and she went into action. She tossed the bag onto the dashboard. The kid's eyes followed the bag allowing Kathleen to grab the gun. She twisted it hard. I heard the snap of the kid's trigger finger breaking quite clearly over Kathleen's mic.
The kid screamed, fell out of the car and scrambled out of sight. I heard a car door slam, then a car pulling out of the parking area in a hurry.
"Did that attract a lot of attention, Kathleen?"
"Some of the people out on the point looked around, but they don't seem agitated. No one's in any of the other cars parked here. Looks like we're still in business."
"Good. Let's just hope there aren't any more cut-rate Lotharios out there. I'm starting to get cramps. Much longer and you're going to have to use an engine lift to get me out of here."
We settled in for another wait, but it wasn't five minutes before a car pulled into the lot and another man approached the car. He stood off a ways, just at the limit of the back seat camera's field of view.
"My name's Fredo. I'd come closer, but I saw what happened to the last two guys that tried that."
"Hi, Fredo. My name's Nona. Get in."
Fredo approached the car and opened the passenger door. As he got in I could see that he carried a dark cloth bag with something rectangular inside.
"That the set?" asked Kathleen.
"It is. You got the money?"
Kathleen reached over the back of her seat and pulled up a briefcase. "You show me yours, and I'll show you mine," she said.
Fredo smiled and opened the bag. He took out a carved box and opened it.
Kathleen opened the briefcase.
Fredo nodded, and they exchanged items.
I couldn't see into the box, but Kathleen pulled out a couple of chess pieces and examined them with a lighted magnifying glass. Fredo pulled out a couple of packs of bills and flipped through them.
"I'm satisfied," said Fredo. "How about you?"
Kathleen put the pieces back in the box and closed it. "Looks good to me," she said.
Fredo got out and closed the door softly. "Very nice car. It's been a pleasure doing business with you."
With that, he walked out of camera range. I heard a car door close and the crunch of gravel as he drove away.
"Done deal, Boss. Everything looks good. You want out of the trunk now?"
"Yes, I want out of the trunk now. But this isn't the time or the place. Fredo was watching you before. He could still be watching. Let's get out of here."
"Aye, aye, Boss" Kathleen started the car and backed out of the parking area. She started driving west on Scenic Drive. We were only about ten minutes from the office.
It was going to be a long ten minutes. I had gotten to know every lump and bump in that trunk intimately. It was like getting to know your in-laws. The more you were around them, the more irritating they became, and these lumps and bumps were getting mighty damn irritating. I had to squirm into a new position about every 30 seconds.
We were almost to Mesa Street when I saw flashes of light reflecting off the inside of the windshield. Then I heard the abbreviated whoop of a siren.
Great! We were being pulled over by a cop. "Were you speeding?" I asked Kathleen.
"Not me, Boss. Strictly speed limited."
"Fine. Just find out what he wants and get me back to the office."
Kathleen pulled over. A couple of minutes later a cop walked into camera range. He stopped just behind the driver's door.
"Good evening, ma'am." He didn't look much older than the kid with the broken finger. When did the police department start hiring high school students?
"Did I do something wrong, Officer?" She sounded like innocence personified.
"May I see your driver's license and insurance card, please?"
Kathleen dug them out and handed them to him. "I was sure I was obeying the speed limit," she said.
"Yes, ma'am," said the cop as he shined his flashlight on Kathleen's license. "I pulled you over because you have a taillight burned out."
"Oh, is that all? I'll be sure to get that fixed right away."
"Is this your car, ma'am?"
"No. It belongs to a friend of mine, Rogelio Amaya. He lent it to me for the evening."
"He must be a very good friend."
Oh, for Pete's sake! Do your job, give her a ticket and let her go. I'm about to go nuts in here.
I had to shift position or scream. Unfortunately the cop put his hand on the car just as I started moving.
He must have felt it. He jerked his hand back like he'd touched a hot stove. "What was that?"
"What was what, Officer?"
"I felt the car move."
"You must be mistaken, Officer. I've got the emergency brake on and everything."
"Do you have something in the trunk?"
Oh, Christ! "Kathleen," I whispered. "Do not, I repeat, do not open the trunk. I don't care how you do it. Distract him somehow. Keep him out of this trunk."
I could see it in my mind. A sardine can. Painted on the lid was a white whale. Printed above and below the whale were the words, "Moby Dick In A Can."
"I don't have anything in the trunk, Officer. I was just out driving on this beautiful evening. You must have felt me shifting position to look back at you."
"No, ma'am, that wasn't it. Please step out of the car and open the trunk."
"NO! Don't do it, Kathleen. Do something. Keep him out of this trunk."
"Is this really necessary, Officer?"
The cop stepped a little further back. "Please step out of the car now. Open the trunk."
Crap! "Think of something, Kathleen. Don't open the trunk."
Kathleen got out of the car and shrugged, probably for my benefit. She walked out of camera range followed by the cop.
I heard the key sliding into the lock. I grabbed the handle that operated the trunk latch. If she couldn't turn the key, she couldn't open the trunk. I felt her try a couple of times.
"It won't open," she said.
"Ma'am," said the kid cop, "if you don't open the trunk I'm going to have to impound the car. Those guys at the impound lot will use a crowbar to open the trunk. Your friend might not like that very much."
I let go of the handle. I heard the lock click. The trunk lid rose. The beam from the cop's flashlight hit me right in the eyes. I couldn't see a thing.
I heard the cop yell, "Holy shit! Ma'am, put your hands on the car." He called for backup.
I still couldn't see anything. Nothing except the label, "Moby Dick In A Can," on my photo in Johnny Soto’s office.
Monday, January 24, 2005
Keep Watching This SpaceTomorrow will dawn with a huge new Blog Event. I can't tell you what it is yet, but I can tell you that it's a big deal. To my knowledge nothing like this has ever been done. And you can only see one part of it here. To see the rest you'll want to visit the following folks.
So be sure to check back here first thing tomorrow.
More Thoughts on Audio -- Part 2Innovation
"Blog" was the Word Of The Year for 2004. This year it's likely to be "Podcasting". Podcasters are bloggers who are doing just exactly what I did with "Grasshopper" and, in addition, providing a way for listeners to subscribe to the files the same way you subscribe to a list of blogs. Every time the podcast is updated, your computer downloads the file and readies it to be transferred to your iPod or other MP3 player.
The first podcasts (this was within the last 6 months) were a bunch of computer geeks playing with the technology and telling each other how cool it was. The number of subjects covered now is expanding at an exponential rate.
For the first time in history the individual has at his disposal a method to distribute his own audio files to a world-wide market at virtually no cost to him. This is an innovation that makes Gutenberg's invention of the printing press look like a tempest in a teacup.
Think of this: an online zine that publishes podcasts of short stories. Instead of being updated on a monthly or quarterly schedule, it's updated with new stories on a daily basis. John Q. Public subscribes to this feed, and every morning on his way in to work he can listen to a new story.
Of course this imposes additional demands on the author. Now she not only has to write the story, she has to record and edit the recording as well. That takes time, though not as much as you might think. Even knowing as little about the process as I did, it took me less time to record and edit "Grasshopper" than it did to write it. And it was just as much fun. The more recording and editing you do, the less time it takes. To a point.
Now some authors won't want to do this for whatever reason. I understand that. But a market for recordings will create and support a market for those willing to do the production on an out-source basis.
At this point in time no one is paying to read the stories published by the online zines. Similarly no one is paying to download and listen to podcasts. So where is this market I'm talking about?
The market already exists because the demand exists. What we have to do is expand the market and transform it into one that pays. I'll talk about that in the next installment.
Sunday, January 23, 2005
More Thoughts on Audio -- Part 1Well, my recording of "Grasshopper" is out there for all the world to hear. So far no one has filed suit against me for assault by audio, so that's a good thing. Also, as of today, no one has offered me obscene amounts of money for my talents as either reader or writer. That was only to be expected.
So. What was the point? To prove it could be done. To encourage others to do it. To get more of our work out there in a more portable form so people can take it places where reading is impractical.
Audio books (I am including short stories in this category in the interests of conciseness) have been around for a while. The market has grown by leaps and bounds and has only been helped by the advent of CDs and anti-skip technology in portable CD players. But still it is only a miniscule percentage of the book market as a whole. Why?
The primary issue, I think, is price. Audio books are expensive. No only must the publishers pay the author, the editor and the teamsters, they also have to pay for a recording studio and the voice talent. That's fair, though I think book publishers, like the music industry, over inflate the costs of producing a CD.
So how do you decrease costs? The easiest place to do that in today's world is in the distribution costs. Sell over the Internet and you have no packaging, no printing for the packaging and no teamsters to pay. It doesn't matter how high the price of diesel fuel goes.
Then why does the audio book of Nelson DeMille's new bestseller cost the same at Audible.com as it would if you bought it from your neighborhood Barnes & Nobles or Borders? Hey, those guys aren't stupid. They'll charge whatever the market will bear. For now, downloaded audio has a certain convenience or coolness factor, and some people will pay for that. It's also true that there are a lot of suckers out there.
When ebooks first got off the ground, the same thing applied. The ebook editions cost as much as the print editions. Some still do, but prices are falling. Take Michael Connelly's The Narrows for example. The hardback costs $26.95. At Palm Digital Media the ebook costs $15.25 (higher than it ought to be, IMO, but still considerably cheaper than the print version). Blood Work in paperback costs $7.99. The ebook costs $5.25. Catch a sale, and you can save even more. One of Stephen D. Rogers' short stories will set you back a full $0.49 at Fictionwise.com.
The prices of audio books will come down, but that's not going to help us today and probably not this year or next year. So what will? Innovation and building a market. More next time.