Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Great Blog Story Event

OK. Here's a list of the sites where you can find the stories in the Second Great Blog Story Event. The names are in no particular order (actually they are in the order Quertermous listed them in an email, so blame him), so start at the top, or bottom, or middle, and read them all. Have fun!

Bryon Quertermous-
Dave White-
Dave Zeltserman-
Ray Banks-
Duane Swierczynski-
David J Montgomery-
John Rickards-
Bill Crider-
Gwenda Bond-
Scott Neumyer-
Paul Guyot-
Stuart MacBride-
Gerald So-
Sarah Weinman-
Christin Kuretich-
Bob Mueller-
Megan Powell-
Pat Lambe-
Steven Torres-
Graham Powell-
Jennifer Jordan-
Jon Jordan-
Aldo Calcagno-
Rochelle Krich-
Alina Adams-


Robert W. Tinsley

Three men had been killed over the last two weeks. The young Kikuyu man standing in front of Inspector Thomas Donnegan's desk at the British East Africa Police headquarters in Nairobi was afraid he was going to be next.

"You are a man," said Inspector Donnegan in KiSwahili gesturing to the young warrior's shield and spear. "Why don't you protect yourself?"

All this was being translated for me by Suleiman, Inspector Donnegan's askari corporal, as I had not been in the country long enough to become familiar with the lingua franca of this part of Africa.

Suleiman, a member of the WaSwahili tribe, stood as tall as I, and was splendidly turned out in the red fez, blue shirt and khaki shorts of his office. Many of the askaris I had seen thus far had been rather slovenly in their dress, but King Edward himself could have found no fault with Suleiman.

"If it were a man I had to fight," said the Kikuyu whose name was Lanana, "I would do so and win. But these are not the deeds of a man. This is the work of a witch."

"What?" I said, unable to keep quiet in the face of this nonsense. "Is this man serious? Witchcraft?"

Inspector Donnegan fixed me with a look that made me wish I hadn't spoken. "Quite serious," he said. "Don't forget, you are no longer strolling the Thames embankment. To these people witchcraft is as real as London fog is to you. I've seen men and women in the prime of life curl up and die because some witch put a curse on them. Now, be quiet, and let's see what else we can learn."

"Why do you believe this to be witchcraft?" asked the Inspector switching back to KiSwahili.

"The men disappeared at night without a sound. On those nights that a man disappeared, we heard hyenas outside the village. We found each man the next morning just outside the boma, half eaten by hyenas."

"You must hear hyenas around your village quite often," said Inspector Donnegan.

"N'dio, Bwana," said the young man. "That is so. Fisi often comes to our village, but always in packs. Those nights there were only two. That is not the way of fisi. These are the warriors of a witch."

After a few more questions and a promise to follow the man back to his village, a two-day walk apparently, Inspector Donnegan had Suleiman show the young Kikuyu out.

I could not hold my tongue any longer. "Surely you don't credit that nonsense."

Inspector Donnegan leaned back in his chair and regarded me over his tented fingers. "Do I appear, in any way, to be an idiot? If so, please tell me."

My heart jumped into my throat. I was certainly making a dog's dinner out of this session. Here I was, fresh from England, and already well on my way to confirming my immediate superior's apparently low opinion of me. My father always said that my tendency to speak without appropriate thought beforehand would be my downfall.

"Er, no sir. Not at all, sir. I was merely trying to ascertain why, in the face of such arrant absurdity, you would agree to investigate these so-called crimes. Likely these unfortunate fellows simply chose the wrong time and place to answer the call of nature."

Inspector Donnegan rose from his chair and stalked around his desk to stand in front of me so closely that I could count the number of threads in the weave of his shirt. I am not a short man by any means, standing a full six feet without my shoes, but Inspector Donnegan topped me by half a head. I could feel his breath ruffling my eyebrows, a nice accompaniment to the butterflies in my stomach.

"The natives in these parts often leave their dead outside the village to be eaten by hyenas, and hyenas, being opportunists of the first water, will eat murdered corpses with as much gusto as a corpse that died of natural causes. Thus hyena attacks are often used as cover for more nefarious deeds.

"I seem to remember," continued Donnegan, "that the alleged purpose of your posting here, boyo, was that I might train you to become a useful member of His Majesty's British East Africa Police. Does my understanding of your orders coincide with yours?"

I realized that sometime between when the Inspector rose from his desk and now I had come to full military attention. I couldn't for the life of me remember having done so. "Yes, sir. Absolutely, sir."

"Good. Then perhaps you will be so good as to remove your sorry carcass from my sight."

"Yes, sir." I executed a smart about-turn and marched toward the door.

"One other thing," said Donnegan. "Be certain to retire early tonight. We'll be leaving at dawn tomorrow. I don't want you collapsing of exhaustion along the way. Should you do so, I'll leave you for the lions. Now, be off with you."

I went.

* * *

I am not a morning person, thus my anxiety over sleeping late overcame my anxiety over being left for the lions, and I got almost no sleep at all. I arrived at headquarters a full half hour before the inspector. This allowed me to watch the preparations for our safari, that being the KiSwahili word for journey.

Suleiman and three of his askaris arrived about the same time I did, each carrying his service rifle, a Martini-Henry .500-.450 single-shot.

The porters arrived next, five WaSwahili clad in the ubiquitous kanzu, a white cotton garment similar to a nightshirt. They were carrying packs that would have driven me to the ground after five steps. These packs contained all we would need on our safari, tents, camp beds and chairs, cooking utensils, non-perishable foods such as rice, grain and biltong, a spicy dried meat that is a positive danger to the integrity of one's dental work. In addition each porter carried a jerry can of water as our trip would send us to the northwest, away from the rivers and streams that surround Nairobi on every other side.

Just as false dawn began to lighten the Eastern sky Inspector Donnegan came striding up to BEAP headquarters. A small Swahili man with a perpetual grin followed him. This worthy, as Suleiman informed me, was the Inspector's gun bearer and cook who went by the name of Tasty.

The Inspector walked right up and ran a dubious eye over me from sun helmet to boots. I had checked myself four times in the mirror before leaving my quarters and knew I was as well turned out as anyone in the country. Why, then, did I begin wondering if I had left some important piece of clothing undone?

"Didn't anyone tell you," said the Inspector, "that in this country starch in one's clothing is not a good idea?"

"No, sir," I said.

The ends of the Inspector's mouth turned up in what I suspect was a smile. I was more than half amazed that the lower portion of his face didn't crack and fall off.

"Never mind," said the Inspector. "Occupational hazard of the new boy, I suppose. Come along then."

With that Donnegan turned and strode off through the dirt of Government Street, puffs of dust exploding into the first golden rays of the sun at every step. Tasty, carrying the Inspector's service rifle paced him at his right elbow. I followed, carrying my own rifle, with the others stringing along behind.

We were just out of site of the town when we came upon a curious figure standing beside our line of march. From a distance he looked like an enormous stork, standing on his left leg with his right foot resting on his left knee.

This extraordinary figure became even more so as we approached. Drawing even with the stork-man the Inspector stopped. They greeted each other with some familiarity.

Their greeting allowed me to examine this curious creature. The man was as much taller than the Inspector as the Inspector was of me. He was lean and well muscled. I could tell due to the fact that his only clothing was a red bolt of cloth draped under his left arm and knotted above his right shoulder. His hair was plaited into narrow rows and plastered against his skull with red clay. He carried a spear almost eight feet long, just under half of which was a head of narrow double-edged steel that flashed in the sun like a diamond, so well polished was it. In addition he carried a long knife or short sword hung on a cord draped around his neck.

"This is Uliagurma," said the Inspector, "though I call him Deadly. He is Maasai and will serve as our guide."

"Why do you call him Deadly?" I asked.

The Inspector fixed me with his gimlet eye and replied. "Because he is."

We then resumed our trek with Deadly in the van. I had, of course, read of the Maasai, an exceedingly warlike tribe until just recently, though they are still not a people to take lightly. To become a moran or warrior, the only males eligible to marry and own cattle, a man has to kill a lion single handed with nothing more than his spear and shield. Yes, I should think twice about giving such a man offense.

Throughout the day we were never out of sight of one great herd or another. The sheer number and variety of wildlife here is incredible. We saw wildebeest, hartebeest, impala, Grant’s and Thompson’s gazelles and eland. We even saw a pride of nine lions gathered about a kill they had made last night. The male was a huge specimen with a bushy black mane. We passed them at a distance of no more than two hundred yards. I must admit my heart was in my throat the entire time, expecting a charge at any minute. The lions merely watched us until we were out of sight. No one else in our little caravan gave them more than a passing glance.

We made camp about an hour before sunset. As soon as the tents were up, Tasty began preparing dinner. This was to be my first taste of impala as the Inspector had shot one just before we reached our campsite.

This deed elicited some excitement among our askaris and porters as fresh meat is apparently a treat for them. So much so in fact that during the butchering each of them could not resist slicing off a bloody handful of the flesh and eating it then and there without benefit of cooking.

After witnessing that I wasn't sure I was going to have much of an appetite for dinner. However the aromas wafting over from Tasty's cooking fire soon had my stomach growling like a hungry lion. I discovered that Tasty had been well named.

After dinner I settled into one of the folding camp chairs before the fire. The Inspector ducked into his tent and emerged with a bottle of Bushmill’s Irish whiskey and two glasses.

"Would you care to join me in a wee dram?" he asked.

"Yes, thank you, Inspector."

It was full dark now and the moon was not yet up. We sipped our whiskey in silence. Then there came a sudden cacophony that could have originated in Bedlam itself. Such a concatenation of snorts, hoots, giggles, guffaws, and shrieks I had never heard before. It made the hair on the back of my neck rise and chills run down my spine.

"It sounds as though the hyenas have had a good hunt tonight," said the Inspector.

"Hunt?" I asked. "I thought the hyena was a cowardly scavenger."

The Inspector grunted in amusement while splashing another "wee dram" of whiskey into his glass and then mine. "Don't believe everything you read, boyo, especially about Africa." He paused for a moment listening to the calls of the hyena pack. "If you were to come upon a ten-pound note lying on the ground, would you pass it by?"

"Certainly not."

"A rotting corpse is no different to a hyena than a ten-pound note is to you. It's a meal she didn't have to work for. The fact that they scavenge doesn't mean they are averse to working for their tucker. Hyenas are quite skillful hunters. And brave as well. It is quite common for a pack of hyenas to drive a pride of lions away from their kill."

I sipped from my glass. "I had no idea."

"Most people don't. And, by the way, boyo, has anyone told you about puff adders?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“One of the deadliest vipers in Africa, so I shouldn't move just now if I were you." The Inspector pointed, moving nothing more than his index finger, at the ground by my right side.

I looked down and my heart fairly stopped in my chest. There on the ground illuminated in the flickering firelight was the largest snake I had ever seen. The details seared themselves into my mind. The snake was a yellowish color, not much different from the dust along the game paths we had been following all day, and as thick as my forearm. It's head swung back and forth, it's tongue questing out.

The glass was quivering in my hand as though I had the palsy. "What should I do?" I croaked. Just then Deadly's spear flashed out of nowhere and pierced the snake's head, pinning it to the ground.

"What you should do, boyo, is finish what's in your glass, then let me pour you another," said the Inspector without any sign of quaver in his voice.

It was advice that I followed with some haste.

Deadly retrieved his spear with the snake still dangling from its point. He flipped the spear with a short twist of his hands, flinging the snake's corpse out into the night, then returned to his fellows without a word.

"My God," I said. "Does this happen often?"

"Not much more than once or twice a trip," said the Inspector, grinning. "You're lucky Deadly hates snakes rather than simply fearing them as do most natives. Our other lads over there, fatalists all, wouldn’t have stirred a stump, letting the gods decide what would happen."

The Inspector stood and stretched. "Well, you should finish your drink and get to bed. Breakfast is before dawn. We'll be moving at first light."

With that pronouncement he ducked into his tent. It wasn't five minutes before the sound of snoring reached my ears. I, meanwhile, with the adrenaline still rushing through my veins, was wondering if I would ever sleep again.

* * *

We resumed our march as soon as the sun lightened the eastern sky enough for us to see our path. We traveled on through the heat of the day and finally reached the village about mid-afternoon. There must have been close to a hundred thatched huts surrounded by a fence of cut thorn trees called a boma.

Most Europeans have no concept of what an African thorn tree is really like. The thorns of holly and roses are children's playthings next to this beastly bush. The thorns themselves are three to four inches long and sharp as a seamstress' needle. The branches grow in such a manner that the thorns often interlock.

Natives cut branches from these trees and pile them in a fence around their villages to keep out wild animals. During the day one or two openings are left to allow comings and goings. At night these openings are closed with more thorn tree branches. It forms a very formidable barrier.

We left our porters and two of the askaris to set up our camp outside of the village while Inspector Donnegan and I, accompanied by Deadly, Suleiman and the remaining askari, a fellow named Jomo, paid a visit to the village chief.

We found that worthy seated on the ground in front of his hut. An older man, his hair was sprinkled with white. Four mature women, presumably his wives, and numerous children ranging in age from infants to late adolescence wandered about engaging in either work or play.

Inspector Donnegan asked Chege, which was the old man's name, about Lanana.

"That one has gone on," said Chege in KiSwahili.

"Where has he gone?" I asked after Suleiman translated for me.

The Inspector spared me a withering glare before returning to his conversation with the chief.

"This means that the man is dead," said Suleiman.

"When did this happen?" asked the Inspector in KiSwahili.

"Last night. Hyenas took him. His hut was empty this morning. We searched for him and found him there." Chege pointed off to the North.

"Where is his body now?" asked the Inspector.

Chege merely pointed in the same direction as before. Apparently the old chief was going to let the hyenas and jackals finish what they started.

"Hyenas have been bad around here. Isn't this the fourth young warrior your village has lost to them?"

The old man shrugged. "It happens," he said.

"How can the man be so uncaring?" I said.

Donnegan glared at me. "Be quiet and listen," he said.

"Since we are here, Chief, perhaps we will kill these hyenas for you. There are only two after all."

The chief shrugged again. "There are two, and you may try to kill them if you wish. But I think you will not succeed."

"Why not?"

"These two are not just hyenas. They are devils, witches' warriors. They cannot be killed."

After Suleiman told me this, I was about to let my mouth run again, but the Inspector anticipated me and raised his hand for silence.

"I wish to see the body," said the inspector.

"My son will show you," said Chege indicating a boy no older than 12 or 13.

The Inspector turned to us. "You and Jomo will come along," he said to me. "Suleiman, you and Deadly will stay here and see what you can find out." With that he gestured to the boy and we followed him out through the gap in the boma.

We found the scene of carnage no more than a 20-minute walk from the village. On coming upon this horrible sight my gorge rose immediately, and it was only by quick action that I did not vomit on my own shoes. I was quite mortified, but the Inspector didn't seem to notice.

Parts of the man's body were scattered everywhere. There was little flesh left, and many of the bones had been chewed and broken in the hyenas' powerful jaws. The head had been completely detached from the spine. It stood upright, and the profile toward me looked untouched. It was only as I moved around that the rest of the horror was revealed. The hyenas had eaten away all of the flesh on one side of the head.

I glanced over at the boy. He was gazing at the scene with an aplomb that I could only envy. "Should the boy be seeing this?" I asked.

"I'm sure he's seen worse," said the Inspector. "You must remember that Africans do not have the reverence for life that is found in the London drawing rooms you so recently left behind. Life here is ugly, bloody and short. These people have learned to deal with that in their own way."

The Inspector surveyed the scene once more, and then dismissed the boy. "It's time we returned to camp. I'm sure Suleiman and Deadly have news. Africans will talk to other Africans before they'll talk to a white man."

* * *

"There is a very pretty girl in the village coming of age to marry very soon," said Suleiman. "There are many suitors. The old men say one of the young warriors hired a witch to eliminate the competition."

"Do they know who the witch is?" I asked.

"They know," said Suleiman, "but they will not say. They are not civilized like we are. They are afraid."

"What about the man that hired the witch?" said Donnegan.

Suleiman shrugged. "Each one we talked to believed it was someone different."

"You're not giving any credence to this witchcraft nonsense, are you, sir?" I asked.

"As I said before, hyena attacks are often cover ups for wicked deeds. But since any evidence we might have had has been eaten, all we can do is sort out these rogue hyenas."

Accordingly we ate our dinner and made preparations to return to the kill site. Our party consisted of the Inspector and myself, Deadly, Suleiman and Jomo.

We arrived an hour after a spectacular blood-red sunset and spread out in a line 30 yards downwind from the site. The Inspector had brought a large electric torch that he set on the ground close to hand.

We waited in silence for over two hours before hearing the giggles and whoops that heralded the approach of our quarry. Standing, we checked our weapons by feel, as the moon had not yet risen.

I couldn't see my hand before my face. My heart was thumping so loudly I feared the hyenas would hear me and take flight.

Finally I could hear the sound of bones breaking, and I knew the brutes had resumed their grizzly meal.

"Be ready," whispered the Inspector.

I raised my rifle and pointed it in the direction of the feeding sounds even though I could not see my front sight.

The Inspector flipped the torch on, revealing the dreadful scene before us. Both of the huge brutes lay on the ground gnawing bones that not 24 hours before supported a living man as he went about his business. At that point events stopped progressing as expected.

Normally when one shines a sudden light on an animal at night, that animal will freeze for several seconds allowing the hunter to fire a telling shot. Not so these devilish beasts.

As soon as the light hit them, they were up and charging us in that half-crippled gait of theirs. As odd as it looked, their progress was remarkably quick.

After a moment of stunned inaction, we all fired. The ground erupted all around the charging brutes, but not one bullet struck home. As the Inspector and I were the only ones armed with repeating firearms, it was up to us to stop them. By the time we were ready to fire again, the beasts were only 15 yards from us. I seemed to be unable to take a breath, and it was becoming imperative that I do so.

The Inspector and I fired almost as one. The Inspector’s quarry stopped as though it had run into a wall and fell over quivering. My target merely ducked its head and continued on undeterred. I began to believe I would never take another breath except to scream when Deadly’s spear saved my life a second time within as many days.

I finished jacking a fresh round up the spout and discovered that I could breathe again.

“Close thing, that,” said the Inspector.

“Asante, Deadly,” I said to the red-painted giant. He nodded his head with all the presence of royalty.

Examining the dead beasts we discovered that they were both females, the larger of the two sexes. My hyena, or rather Deadly’s, had a bloody crease down the top of its head bisecting the distance between its ears. That must have been my bullet causing the brute to duck its head. I had overshot though I had been sighting at the base of the hyena’s neck. I checked my rifle and discovered that my 200-yard rear sight was up. No wonder I had overshot.

The Inspector noticed me changing the sight. “In future,” he said, “I suggest that you use the long distance sight for long distances.”

Since that statement required no response, I resumed examining the dead hyena. Deadly’s spear had severed the hyena’s spinal cord. As I was looking at the wound I noticed a flash of reflected light amongst the stiff bristles of hair along the beast’s withers. Looking closer I found four glass beads woven into the animal’s coat, red, blue, yellow and red again.

I drew the Inspector’s attention to this, and we examined the other hyena. The same types of glass beads in the same sequence were woven into this beast’s hair as well.
“How in the world could that have happened?” I asked.

At just that time an apparition appeared from the dark to the considerable consternation of our little party. The apparition resolved itself into a wizened old black man naked except for a tiny loincloth. His body was painted all over with white spots. He immediately launched into a long tirade in KiSwahili.

He and the Inspector went back and forth for some time. At the first appearance of this man all our civilized natives faded into the dark, so I had lost the translation services normally provided by Suleiman.

After a lengthy discussion in which voices were raised on both sides, it seemed that negotiations were finally concluded. From his dejected mien it appeared that the old man came out the worse for it.

“Corporal,” called the Inspector.

Suleiman materialized out of the dark with Jomo at his side. “Sah!”

“Corporal, accompany this man back to the village and cut out ten head of his best cattle. We will be taking them back to Nairobi with us. The money from the auction will serve to pay his fine.”

“Sah,” barked Suleiman saluting. He and Jomo gathered up the little man and disappeared into the darkness.

“Sir,” I said. “If you don’t mind me asking, what the devil was that all about?”

“That man is the witch that started this whole donnybrook.”

“A witch? Him?”

“Indeed,” said the Inspector. “He saw us kill the hyenas, and came in here demanding payment for the loss of his property. I asked him if he could prove they were his. He said, of course he could prove it and proceeded to describe the beads woven into their coats. For a moment, I was at a loss over what to do. I couldn’t arrest him for murder, no evidence, and I certainly couldn’t arrest him for practicing witchcraft. I realized, however, that I could punish him financially, so I fined him 10 head of cattle and told him that the next time the fine would be double.”

“You fined him? For what?”

“Keeping vicious animals.”


Saturday, May 21, 2005

Money, Money, Money

I’m baaaack! I’ve taken a couple of weeks off from writing virtually anything outside of the day job, so I’m feeling up to posting something here. I was going to review a story, but yesterday I ran across a couple of things that took precedence, at least in my mind.

You are all familiar with how excited I am about the potential of audio on the web. I’ve even reviewed a couple of podcasts called “Earthcore” and “The Seanachai,” both excellent continuing podcasts. Now there is “Escape Pod.” This is an ezine that publishes an audio file of one short story a week, generally coming out sometime on Thursday. This was their second week in operation.

The publisher bills Escape Pod as “The world’s first science fiction podcast magazine.” There is another first for Escape Pod: they pay $20 per story. You submit a text file of your story according to their guidelines, and if they accept it, they record the story and publish the audio file on their site for free download. They prefer previously published stories (cuts down on the selection/editing timeline) but will accept original manuscripts. Science fiction manuscripts.

I listened to the first story they published called “Imperial” by Jonathan Sullivan. While the story itself wasn’t bad (it had a very nice science-fictioney twist), it could have profited from some judicious cuts. The production values were pretty good. There were some nice intro and outro sweepers, and the reader was pretty smooth though I think he could use a little work on his female voices. He could also use one of those mesh disks that they put in front of mics to keep the plosives from blowing out the listener’s eardrums.

All in all, this is a pretty exciting site for audio fans. If they can keep it up. My first question was, “If they don’t charge for the stories, where does the money come from to pay the writers?” Some time ago I discussed the three current models for bringing in money from a website: subscriptions, advertising and begging (also called the PBS model). Escape Pod is following the PBS model by soliciting donations through a PayPal button on the site. They faithfully promise that all the money they collect will go toward paying the writers. Way to go, guys! This is a ground-breaking site. They have a few things they need to work on, but I really hope they make it. We’ll have to wait and see how it evolves.

Part of the issue of Escape Pod’s survival will be promotion, another frequently heard rant on this site. The podcasting community does this much better than do the text sites. There are four sites on the internet frequented by virtually every podcast fan out there: iPodder, Podcast Alley, Podcasting News, and Podcast Pickle. When someone starts a new podcast, they submit their information to these sites, which then adds them to a master list and assigns them to a category. You can go to one of these sites and check out the newest additions in all the categories, or a specific category. That’s how I found Escape Pod.

In addition, Podcast Alley, Podcasting News and Podcast Pickle rate the popularity of each podcast by listener vote. Most podcasts will have a vote button for one or more of these sites on their home page. These votes get sent back to the appropriate compendium site and tallied. Each of these compendium sites produces a list of the most popular podcasts and posts that list in a prominent place. This, of course, increases the traffic to those sites. Naturally there are quibbles and complaints about how the votes are tallied and whether some votes are qualified and the like, but the compendium sites are trying to address those issues. But whatever way they go, these compendium sites are promoting podcasts to the listeners, a very valuable service with, as near as I can tell, no cost to the podcast producer.

A short note to those who still have doubts about the power of audio on the net. I mentioned Earthcore above. This is a book by Scott Sigler. Earthcore was on track to be published by AOL/Time-Warner. During the internal upheavals a couple of years ago, the publication of the book was canceled. Scott was unable to find any other interested takers, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. He started recording the book himself and is currently issuing it as a series of podcasts, one or two chapters released each week. He was hoping to attract enough listeners to show publishers that he could deliver enough of an audience to make his book viable. Currently Earthcore is rated #6 on Podcast Alley and #5 on Podcast Pickle. Scott is seeing 5,000 to 6,000 downloads of each of his podcasts every week. In addition he has gotten a lot of press, both print and internet. So I’d say Scott did the right thing.

The second thing I saw this week was a couple of new services (oriented toward podcasting, but I don’t see any reason why they couldn’t be adapted for text) that could make the subscription business model pay off for small publishers. I’ll talk about that next time.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Times, They Are A Changing

I am no longer going to post daily reviews.

There. In good journalistic fashion I have placed the most important sentence in the story at the top. Now for the explanation.

There are two major reasons for this. The first is burnout, I guess. When I first started this reviewing gig it was fun. I enjoyed dissecting the stories and discovering why I enjoyed them and, especially, why I didn’t. I thought that it might give me more insight into my own writing. More on that later.

Since December 3, 2004, I have written over 140 postings, the vast majority of which are reviews. Lately writing reviews has seemed more like work than play, more so this last week than ever. I kept thinking, “Just get through this week, then think it over.” Finally, as Candace noted, I couldn’t even get through the week.

Also lately I’ve felt that my reviews haven’t been quite up to snuff, at least in my own eyes. I think I’ve overdone it, and I need to recharge my batteries.

The second reason for this course of action is the fact that my fiction writing has practically halted during this time. More than one person whose opinion I respect has told me that they believe my fiction writing has suffered because of the blog. My aim is to become a well-known writer of fiction, not a well-known critic. I have to recognize my priorities.

In the year prior to starting “the short of it” I finished twelve short stories. Since December of last year I have finished one, “Moby Dick In A Can.” A pretty good one, if I do say so myself, but still. As I mentioned above, one of the reasons I started reviewing was to strengthen my own writing. Since I haven’t written much of anything other than reviews I can’t say if that goal has been achieved.

I do know that when I go back and read my published stories I cringe. I do know that I have been trying to revise one of the stories I wrote last year for three months without feeling that it’s yet good enough to submit. I’ve about come to the conclusion that it’s time to let it go and let the cards fall where they may. I’ve got to give my internal critic a good kick in the ass and tell him to lighten up. I don’t think I can do that while writing daily reviews.

Reading for reviews takes more time and intellectual effort than simply reading for pleasure. Often I will read a story two or three times, think about it for a while, then write the review. When I’m done, I’m tired. It’s time to get back to reading for pleasure for a while.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do any more reviews, but I’m only going to review stories that I think are particularly good or exceptionally bad. That means that the appearance of those reviews will be erratic, on no particular schedule.

I also intend to do the occasional author interview, the operative word being “occasional”. I wanted to do more of those before now, but it seemed that the pressure (completely self-imposed, I now realize) to churn out the reviews kept me from taking the time to do the proper research I felt needed to be done before I contacted the author.

I’m also hoping that this lack of pressure will allow me to post more of my musings on the short story form. But again, on a very occasional basis.

I want to thank, from the bottom of my heart, all the people who have been regular, or even erratic, readers of this blog. You have made it a success beyond my wildest dreams. Thank you all, more than I can say.

I would appreciate it if you would keep my RSS feed in your aggregator so that you don’t miss the times when I post in the future. I promise to try to make it worth your while.

In short, this blog is not going away, it’s just going to get more irregular. Thanks again.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Blood Ties by Tim Wohlforth

Blood Ties” by Tim Wohlforth, Mysterical-e, March 2005

Ah, motherhood! Loving, nurturing, caring mother. A perfect story to read just before Mother’s Day. Or it would be if the mother involved had any of the characteristics listed above.

Our Hero (hereinafter designated OH), an unnamed PI, goes into his favorite watering hole and is told his mother is waiting for him. Not the mother who raised, loved and nurtured him since he was three years old. His birth mother.

OH is not anxious to renew a relationship after forty years of no contact, but he can’t resist, first the urgings of a good friend, then his own curiosity. She proves her identity with her hospital admittance form and his birth certificate. Then she tells her tale of woe.

Mom’s been busy lately. She went to work as a bookkeeper for a Cuban patriot in Miami collecting money for the next Bay of Pigs, some 10 million dollars in an offshore account. Suddenly her boss is gone, the office cleaned out, all the money withdrawn from the account. Next a couple of goons show up accusing her of stealing that money from the Cuban people. She takes it on the lam, driving all the way across the country to Oakland in her yellow BMW to see her son, the PI. She wants him to protect her.

He’s not anxious to take on the job. Why should he? Was she interested in protecting him when he was a child? He asks her why she gave him up for adoption. She responds with frustration and anger and stabs herself in the hand with a pair of nail scissors. Not the most stable of personalities. OH tries to follow her, but she gets away.

As he goes home to the marina where he lives on his boat, OH is accosted by two gorillas – or is it guerrillas? Mom’s erstwhile boss and his brother. They want to know where the money is. It seems Mom told them that OH, her son, has it. Whatta gal!

In order to impress him with the seriousness of their query, the two hardmen dump OH into the Bay and won’t let him out until he comes clean – or dies. The water is very cold, and OH is somewhat the worse for alcoholic wear. He could easily die from hypothermia. What happens next could prove the dominant strength of maternal love or self-preservation.

In spite of my light-toned review, this story is anything but light. Mr. Wohlforth does a good job of showing the confusion and frustration of a man abandoned by his birth mother. Why did she do it? Does he hate her as much as he thinks he does? Was he unworthy in some way? Was he unlovable? Did he force her away? OH is filled with warring emotions, curiosity versus rage. What is the true worth of Blood Ties?

In short, I enjoyed it, and the final twist makes the perfect cherry on top.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Lady Chesterliegh and the King of Swords by Susan Brassfield Cogan

Lady Chesterleigh and the King of Swords” by Susan Brassfield Cogan, Mysterical-e, March 2005

This story takes place in 1935 San Francisco. Lacy Chesterleigh is kidnapped by a couple of toughs and taken to see a local crime lord called the King of Swords. He is called that due to his propensity for using a sword to relieve his enemies of their heads.

Lady Chesterleigh is not a hothouse flower. She is tough, hardy and not easily intimidated. She has worked closely with the police in the past.

The King of Swords wants Lady Chesterleigh to use her influence with one Inspector Monahan to get his son released from custody. In a raid the night before the police found the King’s son unconscious with his pockets full of opium. He has her write a note to Monahan on pain of beheading. Once she has finished, the King sends one of his henchmen to deliver the note to Monahan.

Now that he has seen to the release of his son, he thinks, he turns his mind to finding the identity of the person or persons who framed his son. He does this by consulting an old crone who reads the Tarot cards. Apparently this isn’t the first time he has utilized her services.

The crone reads the cards and implicates two young men who are part of a triumvirate of friends. The King interprets this to mean his son’s two constant companions.

Lady Chesterliegh has some knowledge of Tarot, enough to see that the old crone is telling a story of her own making and not reading the cards she lays down. Questioning her about the cards, she leads into a question about the crone’s children. It seems she had a grandson that was murdered. She says that his murderer is in prison and will not long survive.

Along with the questions about the cards this tale of woe leads the King to conclude that his son’s betrayer stands before him. Can Lady Chesterleigh save the crone and herself as well?

I enjoyed this story more than I thought I would. It isn’t quite a cozy (there is some graphic violence), but it isn’t hardboiled either. I liked the main character and wouldn’t mind reading more of her adventures.

The tone of the story, the voice, is very much like what you would expect for the time period, and therein lie my two quibbles. One was the use of the phrase “good buddies”. That seemed anachronistic for 1935. Maybe it was just my exposure to the CB culture, but probably not.

The other was the reaction of one of the characters to being shot in the arm. I can’t go into much detail without giving away the ending, but that reaction may have been consistent with a Golden Age story, however in this day and age it just won’t fly. It put a bad ending on a good story. If Ms. Cogan insists on depicting violence, she must become familiar with the effects of violence.

In short, closer attention to detail might make Lady Chesterliegh one of my more favored characters.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Dress Blues by Michael A. Black

Dress Blues” by Michael A. Black, Hardluck Stories, Spring 2005

PI Ron Shade is looking for a runaway boy. The boy, Manuel, had a behavior problem, he was getting into trouble and trying to get into a local gang, the Spanish Tigers. His mother, with the help of a family friend, got him enrolled in the Woodsen Academy, a military school. Manuel had disappeared from the school.

The people at the school were unhelpful, but sent him to Dr. Odin, a psychologist who counsels the school’s more problematic students. Odin also used the “didn’t have time to get to know him” excuse, suggesting that Manuel had gone back to the gang. Ron learns that Manuel’s street name is El Mariposito, Little Butterfly, because of his affinity for Filipino butterfly knives. (BTW, Dave, you got the spelling right on the third try!)

Ron tries to talk to his friend, George, at the police department but is brushed off because of the murder of a big-shot named Horkin. Later, with the heat off because of the kiddie porn they found in Horkin’s safety deposit box, George offers to help Ron talk to some Spanish Tigers. They don’t know where he is. George sends him to a priest who helps kids in trouble. That also turns out to be a dead end.

Ron goes back to see George who had promised to check Manuel’s juvenile file. When he arrives George is going through Rolodex cards from the murdered big-shot pervert’s office. One of the cards attracts Ron’s attention, Dr. Herman P. Odin. When Ron finds out that Horkin was knifed, he goes back to see Odin.

I enjoy Mr. Black’s Ron Shade stories, and this one is no exception. Shade is well drawn, and I like the fact that he can take care of himself. PIs like John Lutz’s Nudger make me nuts. Becoming a professional snooper, at least in fiction, almost guarantees that sooner or later someone is going to take violent exception to your actions. Anyone that doesn’t realize this and take appropriate steps is less than bright.

I also liked the way Mr. Black led Shade to build his case step by step, many of them false, letting us feel his frustration build, then blowing off a little steam with the hulk at the halfway house. That relief then let him build suspense more effectively to the end.

In short, good, solid PI fare.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Death of an Aztec Princess by Martin Limon

“Death of an Aztec Princess” by Martin Limon, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, June 2005

A young woman, a high-school senior, is missing. Her mother calls Gonzo Gonzales, a private eye in East L.A. Gonzo is the mother’s cousin, but the girl is like a daughter to him. The girl, Juanita, is pretty and smart. She’s a member of a folk-dance troupe and a Chicano activist. She’s late coming home from a rehearsal, and her mother is worried.

Gonzo finds her by following the police presence in El Cinco de Mayo Park, a place that is a haven for drug dealers. Now Gonzo is no longer looking for her, he’s looking for her murderer.

Gonzo searches Juanita’s room and finds about $500 in small bills along with a small notebook with cryptic entries of initials and dollar amounts. Juanita’s mother tells him that Juanita has been dating a drug dealer.

The police arrest Henry Carranza, an ex-boyfriend and leader of Los Diablitos, an East L.A. gang, on the testimony of a witness. The witness, Chuy the Squirrel, is a hanger-on, not a gang member but someone the gangs find useful to run errands.

Gonzo suspects that Henry is telling the truth when he says he didn’t kill Juanita. Gonzo finds Chuy and questions him. But Chuy is afraid of something. Gonzo gets knocked out and wakes up the center of attention for a number of the vatos of Los Diablitos. They tell him to meet Chuy alone and unarmed in the park and warn him to stay away from El Cinco after that. Then they make sure Gonzo knows they are serious.

During the meeting Chuy is killed by an unknown shooter who then chases Gonzo through the sewer system. Gonzo gets away.

While having breakfast the next morning, Gonzo figures out what the notebook and money mean. They are contributions to Juanita’s dance troupe from local businesses. This discovery leads him to Juanita’s murderer.

This story is well-written and well plotted with a big twist at the end. The atmosphere of East L.A. is so vivid that you can smell the albondigas cooking. This isn’t just a mystery story, this is Chicano literature. Mr. Limon immerses the reader so thoroughly in the East L.A. culture that returning to my gringo world on finishing the story was something of a shock.

In short, read this story.