You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Cotton Candy World-

Thomas Horton Henderson III was a man proud of his heritage. A fifth generation confectioner and purveyor of sweets and treats to the people of the venerable town of Boston, Massachusetts. His father had retired some years ago, leaving the family business to Thomas and his brother William.

Thomas continued to run the family storefront business. William had studied science, with advanced degrees in chemistry and food science. They both held positions on the board of directors of the major corporation, but preferred the hands-on of making candy and other treats to simply the management of a business. Others were better suited to those tasks and had been brought on-board for that purpose.

This day in the store should have been a day like any other. Thomas liked to arrive early and get things started. He always began with warming the kettle corn kettle, and then got the cotton candy machine going. It was the original machine, purchased in the distant past by a previous Henderson and in constant operation since. It required a bit of tinkering these days to keep it going, but Thomas didn't mind.

At least he didn't until this morning. He started the machine, and it seemed to be running fine. He made up the morning batch of cotton candy, and hung the finished cones of sugary goodness up to be bagged and made ready for sale. After all, a business called Cotton Candy World had to have cotton candy to sell. Everything seemed fine until he determined that he was done spinning the magical confection and tried to turn off the machine.

He flipped the switch. It kept spinning. He flipped it on, then off. It kept spinning. It was nearly out of sugar, but the cloudy substance kept spinning out into the big bowl. He started collecting the spinnings onto cones as he contemplated what to do. He had quite an addition to the morning's scheduled production before he noticed that the cotton did not appear much like candy.

Thomas examined the most recent cotton candy cone. The spun material had a metallic sheen. He pulled at it and found it felt like metal. He leaned over and examined the central unit where spinning took place. There was obvious erosion to the metal components. He could hear the internal parts, such as there were, grinding a bit.

"Perhaps the old girl is going to cash it in. Buy the farm. This may be the end." he muttered as he played with the switch again. Nothing. It kept spinning. Then a horrible screech, and the sound of mechanical parts rending themselves into scrap. He looked into the bowl. The spinning was still going on.

Grabbing another paper cone, Thomas gathered some of the most recent product. Other metals and plastic were spun into the cotton fibers around the cone. He was perplexed, going on frightened.

"Time to call William." he said aloud to himself. He did so. "William? Yes, Thomas. There's something wrong with the cotton candy machine. Yes, I know I have repaired it for decades. This is strange. Something is really, really wrong. Can you come over?"

Thomas continued to gather the spinnings from the machine that continued to work in spite of no longer having any works to work with. The mess of broken bits at the center of the machine continued to erode as the vortex grew to consume them. A half hour later William arrived.

William examined the spinnings that were definitely not cotton candy. They were cotton steel and cotton copper, a bit of cotton Bakelite from the older components and some cotton plastic and rubber from the newer replacement bits that had been added over time. He looked into the bowl and watched the spinning vortex in the middle. He played with the switch.

"Did you try unplugging it?" he asked. Thomas looked sheepish and did so. The vortex continued to spin.

The two brothers sat near the machine, thinking and wondering what to do with the strange thing sitting in the middle of the room. Employees arrived and were apprised of the situation. Thomas decided that the store would open, but for the first time in decades the Cotton Candy World would not be selling cotton candy.

If any metal or other contaminants had entered into the cotton candy made that day it could be a huge liability to the business. No, there would be no cotton candy this day. The store opened and went about normal business, working around the brothers and their strange anomaly sitting in the back room.

"We need to move it, while it is small." Thomas said.


More thinking, then some phone calls. A dump truck full of sand arrived at the rear loading dock. The brothers and the truck driver, a friend named Mack Elroy, loaded the anomaly into the back of the truck and nested it into the sand. The three men drove the spinning vortex out to an old quarry, parking the truck in an isolated area. They then sat on the sides of the dump bed and watched the spinning vortex continue to expand and consume the metal bowl. The vortex was now eight inches across.

Periodically Thomas would use some of the paper cones he had brought with him to sweep the spun metal from the eroding bowl away from the vortex. He didn't know if it was necessary, but it gave him something to do.

"What could we do with this?" William asked. "It seems like it could be useful, but we don't really know much about it."

"It would be great for processing scrap metal." said Mack. "Or used for demolition. Or processing recyclable materials that could be spun out and made into thread or yarn."

"I wonder if it could be some kind of energy source?" speculated William. "Can we contain it?"

"Maybe we should just dump it out, bury it and walk away." Thomas mumbled. He didn't like the responsibility. He didn't like the impact it was having on his day. He cherished the regularity of running the shop.

"I don't think that would work." said William. "That probably wouldn't stop it, and eventually it would get big and be out of control. Not that we control it right now." He looked at the vortex slowly spinning out the metal of the cotton candy machine's big bowl. William began punching keys on his calculator.

"There's got to be some way to make money with this thing." said Mack. "What happens when it finishes spinning out the bowl and gets to the sand?"

He and Thomas contemplated that idea, as William continued to calculate. Finally Mack felt the need to do something. He grabbed the shovel that was part of the trucks kit and began shoveling sand into the bowl.

"Hey, stop that!" said Thomas. Mack continued.

"Actually, that may be a good idea." said William, looking up from his calculator. "That way it will work mostly on the sand, leaving the bowl intact to contain the spinnings. I don't think it can hurt anything to add some sand."

Thomas shrugged, then reached out with one of his paper cones and began gathering the spun sand. "Looks a bit like fiberglass. More brittle, but similar."

"Got it." said William. "Good news first. If it progresses in a linear fashion, it will probably remain within the bowl as long as we feed it and pull off the spinnings."

"That will give us time to figure out how to make some money with it." Mack said. "I would hate to just have to give it over to the government. No profit in that, and who knows what they would do with it."

Thomas used another paper cone to begin collecting more spun sand. The first cone he had tossed over the side of the truck. "What's the bad news?" he asked.

"Well, if the progression is non-linear, we have no idea how much time we have." William answered. "However, ultimately it would be a big problem. Cotton Candy World would be more than the name of a business."

Thomas sighed, threw the paper cone of spun sand away, and started on another one. "Having the fate of the world in my hands is a bit more than I had planned for when I opened up the shop this morning." he said, turning the paper cone slowly at the edge of the vortex.

A confectioner's life shouldn't be so hard.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Survival Minimalist-

Jackson Quill was not an ambitious man. He wasn't a strong thinker. He was just a guy who tried his best to get by. He hadn't been one of those who planned and put things aside and got ready for the collapse of society. Survivalists were inherently paranoid, resourceful, and willing to work hard preparing for what might well not happen.

It happened, and it caught Jackson a bit short. Indeed, he had made only one preparation for the apocalypse, and had not even exercised that option. Not yet.

The first weeks weren't hard. Scavenging the stores for what he needed, keeping on the move, maintaining a low profile as he moved out from the town to more rural surroundings. He had an idea where he would go. He was aware of one of those extreme survivalists out there, living alone and probably snickering in his sleeve about being right.

A lot of people died those first weeks. The haves, as in those who had guns, were killing off scavengers and each other. Jackson figured the ones that thought bigger than "have lot's of guns" would be the eventual winners. They would eventually become the leaders of feudal colonies. The few who had cultivated anachronistic skills would find themselves valuable craftsmen. The rest would be surfs, peons, even slaves.

Jackson had another plan. His one provision. He was almost there, and would put his plan into action. It was pretty much a one shot option. He would succeed, or he would die. It seemed fair to him.

His target was ahead, a carefully built compound held by a retired gentleman with some funds and a hobby of preparing for the end of civilization. Jackson move to the edge of the clearing around the compound and found himself a suitable stick.

To the stick he attached a large white handkerchief, which he immediately began waving as he stood and stepped out from the cover of the brush. He tried to look dumb, desperate and innocent. Two of those were close to the mark, so it wasn't a big stretch.

"Come forward and talk." he heard from a high point ahead. A glint at the corner of one building indicated a likely location of his hoped-for benefactor, looking through a rifle scope. Jackson tried to be unafraid, but the prospect of a high velocity round passing through his head made the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

He moved forward, hands in the air, and waited.

"What do you want?" came the voice from the building. Jackson assessed the perimeter fence ahead, noting that it was serviceable for defense of the small compound. The high point on the building was not bad, but covering the whole compound with only one gunman was not possible.

"I want to serve you." said Jackson. "You need hands to help. You can't be watching for invaders and do the work necessary around your place all at the same time. I am tired of running and hiding. I want to serve you."

There was silence for a time. "Come forward to the gate." Jackson sighed in relief. This might just work.

He waited several minutes in front of the formidable gate. Iron and heavy wood, not impervious to explosives but still formidable in most foreseeable scenarios. The gate slowly opened. A voice from within called out, "Come in."

Jackson stepped through. His benefactor stood a couple of yards away, a large caliber hand gun trained on Jackson. It was steady in the man's hand, and Jackson figured he practiced quite a bit with the deadly thing.

"Turn around and bar the gate." the man said. Jackson did so, noting that they were in a sally port. Behind the man was the inner gate, a large affair in which a smaller door was hung. Having barred the gate, Jackson stood where he was with his benefactor at his back. He held his hands high and sought a quiet frame of mind. It was hard to find.

He could hear the man approach and felt the one hand carefully begin patting him down. He checked carefully, wrists and arms and legs and ankles. He patted every pocket, checked the tops of shoes and socks, and gave his crotch a nudge or two with his one hand. Jackson noted that the other hand probably held the gun close to his kidney. The gun did not touch him, which raised Jackson's estimate of this man a bit.

Not knowing just where the gun might be prevented Jackson from confidently spinning and blocking the weapon as he might fight for control of the deadly thing. Not that Jackson even considered that idea. Such a move would be dangerous and require some combat skill. Still, the man knew better than to touch him with the weapon during the search.

"Not even a pocket knife." the man said. "I guess you are safe enough. Let's go inside and discuss our situation."

When the man stepped around in front of Jackson he had already holstered the weapon. "Put your hands down, and follow me." The man stepped toward the door in the inner gate, pulling a ring of keys from a pocket and sorting through them. He was just reaching for the lock when the shot rang out. He probably didn't hear it, since most of his head was now painted on the inner gate.

Jackson kept the two-shot derringer pointed at the man as he collapsed in front of the inner gate. Leaning forward he put the second round through the man's heart, even though the level of damage to his head was probably sufficient to insure he was already dead. Jackson scooped up the man's handgun and the keys, and opened the inner gate.

The rifle he had expected was leaning against the wall just inside. Jackson locked up the gate, leaving the body where it lay. He figured it would serve as an object lesson when petitioners came to seek service in his compound. He picked up the rifle and hung it by the sling over his shoulder.

His compound. Minimalist survival-ism seemed to be working. He had planted that little .44 derringer behind his belt buckle a long time ago, figuring to simply take the wealth of some more enterprising survivalist if the need should arrive. Need had arrived, opportunity presented itself, and now he was indeed wealthy.

Jackson kept his handgun ready, just in case. He had followed this guy and several other locals on the Internet, watching them share and develop plans to create safe compounds against the eventual fall of modern society. Jackson knew that this guy was alone and a loner, and so there was probably nobody else here. Still, he proceeded with caution.

As he explored his new home Jackson reviewed the recent events. He wanted to get to a vantage point, soon, after learning his way around. He had to watch for invaders, and potential servants to help run his little kingdom.

"One thing is sure," he mumbled as he continued his exploration. "Anyone I let in gets strip searched. I can't be the only one with this idea."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bitter Green, revisited-

It was several years ago I learned the tale I am about to tell. The song, "Bitter Green," comes to mind whenever I think on what I learned that day. This is a true tale, a tale gleaned from one of my many journeys in distant lands. I am in the habit of occasionally making my way to a land far away, and taking a walking tour of the rural lands there abouts.

On this day I happened into a little country tavern in the late afternoon. Time for some refreshment, but enough day left for my strong legs to cover some more miles before finding a bed. This was an old land, a land that remembers the times when men made their way from place to place on their own two legs. Villages and taverns and hostels abound in that land, and it is one of my favorites for walking tours.

Besides the barkeeper there was but one man in the place. He had been in his cups for a bit, I could tell, and I thought he might be open to talking. I liked to learn something of the lands through which I traveled. I purchased two pints of whatever he was drinking, carried them to the table, and asked if I might sit down. He eyed me with an obvious distrust of strangers, not uncommon in rural lands. He eyed the pint I offered with considerable warmth, however, and welcomed us to join him.

His previous pints and the one I added didn't open him up much. I learned something about the local apple industry. Growing apples and making apple related products is apparently just a way to stay mere inches above abject poverty. I was about finished with my own refreshment and contemplating departure when another local gentleman entered the tavern.

As he entered he walked slowly by an old coat hanging on a peg on the wall. I had noticed this coat when I came in. It was heavy, dark blue in color, and of an old military cut. The man passed a hand along one sleeve, then stepped up to the bar and ordered a pint. He stood at the bar, sipping contemplatively at his brew and glancing occasionally at the old coat.

My reticent rural friend sat in his usual silence, watching me glancing at the coat and the man at the bar. I turned to him and drew a breath to speak. He waved me to silence. "I will tell you about it, later." he said in a low voice, and took a pull from his pint. I remained silent, and did the same with my own pint.

Soon the man at the bar finished his pint. He turned to the old coat, took it down and put it on. As he turned toward the door he noticed me and my silent host. He nodded to the man with whom I was sitting, gave me a puzzled look, and exited the tavern.

My host drained his glass and said, "Follow me." I finished my own pint quickly and followed. He turned to the left as we exited the tavern, no question as to which direction to travel. The man in the old coat was far ahead, walking toward the edge of the small town and the orchards in the distance. Apple orchards.

I attempted a few questions directed at my companion. He waved them off, and continued to walk in silence. His eyes were on the other man. I could not read the emotion there. His feelings seemed to be complex and jumbled. I continued to walk by his side, growing more and more intrigued by the mystery of the coat.

As we rounded the corner I saw a young woman sitting on a stone fence. She was staring down the lane, gazing off into the distance. The man in the coat drew along side her and said something. My host halted, and so did I. The young woman jumped up and embraced the man in the coat as if he were long missing and only now returned. He kissed her, gently, and taking her on his arm walked her down a path into one of the orchards.

My host gazed at them as they walked, watching until they vanished into the trees. He then sighed, and turned to me. He glanced around, making sure we were alone.

"I must tell someone." he said, as much to himself as to me. "You are a stranger, and soon gone. I shall tell you. The coat is shared among several of us farmers and merchants here abouts. Along with the coat we share a small cottage, it's contents and the responsibilities associated."

He sighed again. "We also share the young lady." he whispered. In a louder voice he continued. "She was to marry a rich man from a neighboring community. He had pledge his troth, and then been called away to some military duty. She last saw him in a coat like ours. The news of his death overwhelmed her, and broke her mind. Day and night she sat where you saw her sitting, awaiting his return."

"Several of us recognized her madness, and came up with a plan to aid her. Her health was suffering, and she did not respond to the attempts of the women folk to care for her. She was wasting away. I don't recall who came up with the old coat, but one of the men donned the garment and approached her where she sat. She responded warmly, and he took advantage of the situation."

I was appalled. It must have showed on my face. The man shrugged and appeared to have a sense of guilt. Well he should, to my way of thinking.

"Aye, he took advantage of her." he went on. "The sense of guilt was heavy, and he shared it with a friend. So arose the plan we continue with today. He brought in other men. Men who loved their wives, but found the spark of old passion had grown cold. Men who could appreciate the opportunity."

"Yes, we took advantage of her and her madness. We also provided her with a cottage, and food, and clothing. She wants for nothing. None of us could have afforded this, alone. Together we can provide for her in her disabling madness, as none of us could have done alone. The shared cost goes unnoticed by our wives and their friends."

"Your wives do not know?" I asked.

"They do and they do not, if you take my meaning." he replied.

"This arrangement troubles you, or you would not have felt compelled to share it." I  said. "Even with a stranger. Why continue to take advantage? Why not simply take care of her, as a charity?"

"It occurs to each of us, from time to time." he replied. His gaze was again directed through the trees. I presumed the cottage was in that direction. "But you know not what it is like. My wife has been loving and devoted, and I cherish her. Still, never has she displayed the passion that I find in those arms of madness. It is not a thing easy to give up. I don't know that I can."

I looked at him, first in judgement, then in pity. I was overwhelmed by the complexity of the human heart, and the things it drives humans to do. I, too, stared through the trees toward the infamous cottage of stolen love, madness and assumed responsibility. Complex, indeed.

I clasped the man on the shoulder for a moment, then turned from him and continued on my journey through the country. I did not look back as I walked away, but I have looked back often at the memory of that time.

Especially whenever I hear the song, "Bitter Green."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Three Inch Philosophy-

Gastro was self-aware, and self-aware enough to know he was not supposed to be self-aware. Well, supposed to might not be quite right, or so he thought as he moved along in his sluggish manner. Sluggish in the most literal sense. Gastro was aware that he was a gastropod, a relatively common slug. Specifically, he was a Banana Slug. He wasn't sure quite what a banana might be, though he suspected that he might well have come into contact with a banana here or there in his constant feeding forays.

It was on such a foray Gastro was currently schlumphing along. Schlumphing is not a particularly rapid mode of transportation, something you would know if you had spent any time watching a snail or slug progress across any surface. If you have ever spent more than a few minutes watching such progress you are probably either a scientist or a stoner. Nobody else has the patience or that level of interest in the movement of gastropods

Gastro was progressing, albeit slowly, toward a field in which people often walked their dogs for the purpose of exercising and emptying the dogs. Gastro had discovered that the molds that grew on the doggie doo-doo was particularly tasty, and worth the time and effort to travel to the field.

Additionally, it gave him time to think while doing something useful. As he often did, he reviewed the time when he became self-aware. It had happened in an abandoned house, as he crawled across some things he later identified as books. When he had entered the decaying domicile he had been blissfully unaware of his own existence.  Some event, or series of events, in that place was responsible for his transformation.

While negotiating a new gopher mound he recalled the delicious new mold he had found on the surface of what he later learned was a book. It happened to have fallen to the ground, and fallen open to an entry on "gastropods." Consuming the mold had caused immediate changes as he crossed and recrossed the image on the page and the words related to the image.

At first he thought it was the delicious flavor of the mold that compelled him to keep feeding on the book. Eventually he recognized that he was also feeding on the words printed on the page. Eventually he moved on to other books that littered the floor. He grew rapidly over the following days, and changes took place inside of him. After all, the brain of a gastropod was not quite the thing needed when it comes to thinking.

Unable to physically examine his own physiological changes, Gastro speculated that he had somehow co-opted other parts of his body for use in the process of thinking and storing information. This mode of thinking brought Gastro to consider himself a philosopher rather than a scientist. Scientists have rules and procedures to guide their thinking. Philosophers are not so constrained. Philosophy seemed to suit his particular condition better than science, so he contemplated in three-inch chunks of thought.

Yes, it was probably the mold in some peculiar combination with diverse bacteria that had caused him to change. It was only chance that caused this particular combination to occur on a book just so situated as to impart the necessary nutrients, mutagens, and information to make a slug self-aware. That, or divine providence. Gastro was not willing to discount the idea of a God who intervened in slug affairs.

He was just beginning to entertain that particular line of reasoning when he came upon his target. Oh, yes! It was a particularly abundant deposit of doggie waste material, still moist and sporting a delightful coat of growing molds. From his sluggish perspective it was a mountain of deliciousness. He set-to immediately, and slowly worked his way over the convoluted mass of excrement. It was gastronomic heaven!

"Hey, Jon! I found another one!" shouted Jimmy. "That's thirty or so. I'll put him in the pile."

"OK." said another voice, presumably Jon.

Gastro felt himself whisked into the air and shortly deposited in a slimy pile of soft bodies. Stupid human children, thought Gastro. He was self-aware enough and sufficiently informed regarding gastropod sexuality to know that these boys had unwittingly initiated an orgy of genetic exchange. A thought occurred to Gastro, and he began working his way purposefully through the pile of soft bodies. If his physiological changes were transferable, he would endeavor to pass on his new intellectualism to as many slugs as he could.

Visions of world domination inspired Gastro as he worked among the lesser slugs. Given time, who might guess what gastropods made self-aware might accomplish! Elimination of these humans would be only one small item on a list of potential glories!

"I think that this is enough, Jon." shouted Jimmy. "Go get the salt."

Oh, oh!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Of Humble Vegetables and Pompous Regals-

Philip K. Chesterton sat in his favorite pub, pulling contemplatively on a pint of ale. His long-time companion in this pastime and (several times removed) cousin Ralph Chesterton sat with him at the bar, sipping on a Bud Light. The pub itself was endeavoring to appear dark and oaken and at least vaguely British, generally only succeeding in the dark element of the illusion.

"You ought to at least try a real beer." mumbled Philip. "That crap is made of rice. Light beer is generally offensive on so many levels I can't even begin my usual tirade. This amber ale I am drinking has body, is full in flavor, and has a malty finish."

"You always pick on my choice of beers whenever you get bitchy after that writer's meeting you go to." Ralph said. "Why do you even keep trying at that word slinging? What kind of literary bur did they put under your saddle this time?"

"I have to write a story about cabbages." replied Philip. "Lowly cabbages. It's like trying to rhyme something with the word 'orange.'" Philip waved two fingers at the bartender, who promptly delivered two pints and collected far too much money for them. The pseudo-intellectual pub atmosphere barely made the inflated prices of tapped beer worthwhile to the aspiring word-smith.

Ralph stared blankly into space for a time, then shook his head, finished his pint and started in on the new one. "Orange. Hmph."

"Lewis Carroll commented on cabbages, briefly." said Philip. "'Let us talk of other things.' You know. Cabbages and kings." Ralph grunted, so Philip went on. "Kings, of course, are the pinnacle of social order. Cabbages are common and not much thought of. The phrase refers to a broad range of topics for conversation."

"We're in a bar." said Ralph. "We should be talking about women, sports, guns and beer. At least talk about hops and barley."

"Your beer is mostly rice." said Philip. "That being said, I am quite fond of all of those subjects. However, it is on cabbages I must think."

"Is there any liquor made from cabbages?" asked Ralph.

"Not that I know of." Philip replied. "I remember something in a role playing game, but that may have just been made up stuff."

"You are a geek." said Ralph. "You may even be gay. Does your wife know you are gay? Why do I even hang out with you?"

"Because I pay for your poor excuse for a beer."

"Oh, yeah. Thanks."

Philip took a sip from his amber ale, relishing it's complexity and the lack of rice in the making of the lovely brew. Ralph threw back the second half of his pint of Bud Light, relishing the beer buzz and the fact that it was truly less filling.

"I recall something by Alton Brown on cabbage." Philip said. "You know, the food science guy. Humans have been eating this plant in one form of another for centuries. It has been cultivated, bred, and made better over thousands of years, yet is common enough to be the symbol of commonality."

Philip noticed that Ralph had killed his pint, and ordered two more.

"Cooked properly, it is tasty and extremely nutritious. Cooked poorly and the stink reeks of functional poverty and lousy culinary skills." Philip continued. "It is sometimes fermented or pickled for preservation. Recipes for such forms are common in a vast number of cultures."

Ralph stared into his beer, not even being sure where polite grunts were appropriate. Suddenly, he lit up with a rare idea.

"Hey, Phil. You can write a story of somebody talking about cabbages. That way you could get your story done, and then we could talk about something interesting. You know, like that hot cousin of ours that is so far removed that the cousin thing doesn't matter. I think she is even legal, by now."

"You mean like that Short Story Guy on the Internet does when he gets stuck?" said Philip. "That would be just lame. I'll think about it, though, just the same. Now, which cousin are we talking about?"

Ralph regaled him with his lustful description of the barely legal and hardly related vision, while Philip sipped on his ale and contemplated the impact of inbreeding in isolated populations on human evolution. With enough time, it seemed to him, cabbages could be kings.

Slowly, a story formed in his fertile mind.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Nook and Joseph Conrad-

I have never read anything by Joseph Conrad until today. Thanks to my nook, I now have. Barnes and Noble offers free books to read with their ereader. I have the reader software on this computer, and recently got a Nook ereader machine. I had finished a free novel recently and was looking through my growing library of free books resident in my Nook for something new to read.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad looked interesting. It was just the sort of thing I wouldn't have gone looking for. Hence, a likely new reading experience. Heart of Darkness is in itself a novella by Conrad. It is also a sequel to the short story Youth which was included in the book titled Heart of Darkness along with the novella itself and several other short stories. It is Youth that I read today. It is a nautical tale set in the era during which the world transitioned from commercial sailing vessels powered by wind to steam powered ships of commerce.

Youth reminded me of the black and white movies I viewed on television in my childhood. Not all of them were black and white, of course. My own youth began in 1953 and continued for quite a number of years from then. Our television was always a black and white. My parents did not get a color set until after I left home. So, my childhood movie experiences were almost exclusively in black and white.

Those movies were filled with tramp steamers heading to exotic ports all over the world. Adventure had to sought via that mode of transportation most of the time. It was an image familiar to me. So, Conrad's pregnant prose brought forth offspring of vivid images in my mind. He proved to be a most capable writer.

The biographical information in the introductory portion of the book proved interesting as a precursor to the first tale. Conrad tapped into the memories of a twenty year career at sea, as well as experiences in distant and exotic ports. Experiences in ports less seemly and exotic, as well.

Having read Youth I am prepared to move on to Heart of Darkness. More than a high seas adventure, this novella explores the depths to which humans can sink in the quest of wealth at the expense of other peoples. It is a tale taking place in an era of imperialism and economic expansion. It exposes, to a degree, the underbelly of the wealthy nations of the world at the end of the nineteenth century as they pillaged the then dark continent of Africa.

Exposes, but does not necessarily condemn. Conrad was not possessed of sufficient wealth of his own to risk offending his readers, many of whom supported and benefited from the system of Empire. His works have been recognized as great works, often studied and analyzed. Sometimes over-analyzed, and apparently due for additional analysis from a post-modern perspective.

I suppose Conrad wouldn't mind. Of greatest importance to him, I suspect, was a sufficient income to finally overcome his debts and to live out his later years in comfort. That, and he no longer had to get his bread by going to sea.

I wonder what he would think of contemporary television programing like Deadliest Catch?

My Nook shall provide me with a wealth of similar reading experiences. Free books and a whole library I can carry with me just about everywhere makes expanding my reading horizons that much easier. Love my Nook.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Mel Patterson felt the love of Jesus. He had been saved for eight months, and he felt the love of Jesus every day. It was glorious, and Mel wanted to share it with everyone. That's the way it was with the love of Jesus. It was the love of Jesus that brought Mel to the Sunshine Home that very morning.

Mel knew that showing the love of Jesus through good works was how he could express that love and maybe bring others to Jesus. He knew that old people had many needs, and his general lack of experience in the world was not an obstacle in finding good works to do for them. At seventeen years of age Mel was quite aware of his lack of useful skills. However, he could do little tasks, useful tasks. And, he could listen.

Moving up the steps of the Sunshine Home Mel spotted an old man sitting on the porch. The old man had claimed a nice spot of morning sunshine, and appeared to be planning to make a day of it. He looked surprisingly like the old man character in the movie "UP."

"Quit staring, boy." said the old man. "I am not Ed Asner, or his damned cartoon character."

Mel halted in his ascent of the stairs, goggling at the old man and wondering if he was psychic.

"I don't have to be psychic to know what people think, boy." the old man said. "I've been around, that's all. I've seen everything. Twice. I wouldn't go in there, if I were you."

"Uh, why not?" Mel asked.

"Blatherspider." said the old man.


"Education hasn't improved much in the past eighty years." mumbled the old man. "Blatherspider." he said more loudly. "Talks excessively. Lays in wait for any pair of ears. Hunts for sympathy. Tells the same stories over and over. Not interesting stories, either. The Blatherspider will drain the life from you, boy."

Mel smiled. "Are you talking about one of the ladies living here?"

"Ladies?" queried the old man. "Oh, most of them will talk your ear off as well. Nothing like the Blatherspider, however. The ladies don't cast an invisible web over you, binding you to your fate. No, she may look like a lady, but she's a spider. A Blatherspider."

"I guess I will just have to take my chances." said Mel. "For Jesus sake."

"Better pray to that Jesus of yours, boy. Pray for strength to endure."

Mel smiled and nodded his head as he walked past the old man and began to open the door to the Sunshine Home.

"Oh, and if you survive would you bring me a lemonade?" said the old man.

"I would be happy to, Sir." said Mel, as he stepped inside.

His eyes adjusted to the gloom. It seemed a bit darker inside than he had expected. Looking about he saw nobody in the large guest lobby. Then he detected a shift in a distant corner. Something small and white. A face came up out of the gloom. It was a lady.

Her eyes locked on him from the depths of coke bottle glasses. She smiled and gestured toward him. "Come in, young man. Come in!"

He moved toward her, a growing trepidation waring within him with the love of Jesus. He reminded himself of why he was here. Putting on a smile of his own he moved more resolutely toward her in her dark corner.

"Good morning, ma'am. My name is Mel. I am from the church just down the street."

"Oh, a good Christian boy." she said, looking up at him. Mel nodded. "Would you care for some tea?"

Mel said he would love some tea.

"The tea things are over there." she said, gesturing toward a kitchenette near the back of the lobby. "It is a bit hard for me. Would you mind making the tea?"

Mel said he wouldn't mind at all, and moved to the kitchenette. As he began she started to reminisce about her church experiences and her sainted husband. Mel worked, responding where appropriate. He brought her a cup of tea. She tasted it and requested a bit of sugar. As he got the sugar she moved on to another subject. Someone from her past, someone who had not treated her well.

He returned and assisted her in getting a bit of sugar in her cup. She was frail and her hands shook. Her eyes were steady, however, behind those coke bottle glasses. She moved on to someone else who had done her dirt as he settled with his own tea. He attempted to interject from time to time, but she had the bit between her teeth and was running fast and hard with the conversation.

Mel wanted to tell her about the love of Jesus, but every turn in the conversation led back to her and her well rehearsed stories about nothing. Most were laced with bitterness and deep longing. He knew that the love of Jesus could cure bitterness and fill that longing, but he could never get in a word to share that good news with her.

Eventually he realized that he was just there to respond to her conversational needs. In the name of Jesus he settled in for the duration, replying with a polite sound whenever it seemed appropriate. His tea grew cold, and his butt began to feel like it was going to sleep. It was going to be a long morning.

It was close to noon when he stepped out onto the porch with two glasses of lemonade. He handed one to the old man, who accepted it without comment. Mel sat next to him, sipping at his lemonade and watching the nothing happening on the street.

"She must have needed to go to the bathroom, or I wouldn't be seeing you here." said the old man. "Pumping her full of tea is you best defense. She must have a huge bladder, though. She can go on and on and on..."

He expected the old man to gloat, but he just drank his lemonade and watched the same nothing. The nothing was eventually broken by a young woman walking up the path to the Sunshine Home. Mel recognized her. Jennie from the church youth group.

She bounced up the steps, waved to Mel, and put her hand on the doorknob.

"I wouldn't go in there." Mel said.

"Why not?" she asked, holding the door partway open.


"Oh." she said with a smile. "You met Mrs. Loomis, did you?"

"You know her?" asked Mel.

"Yes." said Jennie. "That is why I knew that Jesus wanted me to do the good work of serving meals. I don't know if I could have stood another hour listening to her. Jesus loves her, but she sure makes it hard for the rest of us."

"Gives you a pretty good idea of what Hell is all about." muttered the old man.

Jennie bounced on into the Sunshine Home, skirting the lobby and avoiding eye contact with Mrs. Loomis. Apparently her webs only covered her dark little corner of the lobby.

"You know, boy." said the old man, "Jesus might just be calling you to clean toilets. The staff does alright, but mine could use a little extra attention. No spiders, there, either."

"I'll think about it." said Mel, sipping at his lemonade.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Can Suicide be Painless?

Former correctional officer Matthew Kershaw knew something about suicide. Twenty eight years in jail can give a person some insight into such things. The question came up with every intake. There were constant classes in the subject dealing with indicators, inmate management, and dealing with the aftermath. Matt had participated in suicide preventions, interventions and debriefings.

He had seen numerous attempts by various techniques. Slashing, diving onto hard surfaces, hoarding medications and subsequent overdoses, and most often attempted hangings. Few were successful. He was of the opinion that most were messy and inconvenient calls for help. The correctional and medical staffs did their best to provide that help, but most of the time the clients were definitively screwed up human beings. The point at which help might have tipped the balance was long past in most of those messed-up lives.

Matt knew of messed up lives. Following his retirement he had lost his only daughter in a car accident. A drunk driver, like one of the many he had clothed, fed and accounted for in the county jail. It had hit him hard, but his wife harder. Her drinking got out of hand, and the only way Matt could save himself was through divorce. The end of their marriage left him with a profound sense of failure, which spiraled into a deep clinical depression.

He sought help, and it worked for quite a while. Then came news of his wife's death. She had not been drinking hard long enough to suffer from the alcohol related debilitations Matt had observed in chronic alcoholics who washed through the jail on a daily basis. No, she simply got very drunk one night, vomited and drowned in her own puke.

Though he had left her in order to save himself, he still loved her deeply. The vague hope of some kind of turn around, a miraculous reconciliation, died in a pool of vomit. He stopped taking his meds, and stopped going to see his counselors. He began spending a lot of time down on the wharf, looking out to sea. He took a lot of his meals at the restaurants there, and became pretty well known to the wait staff in several emporiums of  the Crab Louie and clam chowder.

He had thought about this a lot, when dealing with botched suicides in the jail. They lived next to the biggest suicide machine Matt could think of. The Pacific Ocean. Huge. Cold. Unforgiving. Just step into the water, begin swimming for Japan, and let exhaustion and hypothermia do the work.

Matt felt pretty good walking down the wharf that foggy morning. He had determined that foggy was the way to go. That way, if the swimmer changed his mind, nobody could find whoever it was that was calling for help until it was too late. If the goal was successful suicide, help had to be kept at bay.

He turned down the stairs that led to the platform at the water level. There were no sea lions on the platform this morning, which was good. The sound of a gun being fired would probably drive them off, but it would attract attention. No intervention was the goal, so the less attention the better.

Matt stood on the platform and looked into the water. Relatively calm. A ladder into the water allowed for an easy entry without the noise of splashing. He stripped off his clothing quickly, and laid his glasses on the pile. He wouldn't need them. The icy water hurt his foot as he stepped onto the ladder. He climbed down quickly and struck out toward the West.

He began shivering almost immediately as he swam toward the end of the wharf and the end of his days. The shivering passed surprisingly quickly, followed by a numbness and then a sense of warmth. He could still feel the cold just beyond the phantom warmth, but feelings were feelings. A mild euphoria came upon him as he moved past the end of the wharf and headed out to sea.

He rolled onto his back and swam slowly toward the Orient. Gentle rollers occasionally broke across his face, causing an occasional sputtering return to awareness, but for the most part he was able to lose himself in the fog that permeated his brain. It was like the fog sitting on the sea was seeping into him.

The first time he faded from consciousness and went under, his instincts brought him struggling back to the surface. He calmed himself, picked a direction he thought of as West, and struck out again. The next time he was less aware, and could not recall just what it was he was doing. Only for a moment did he think of turning back, but he couldn't recall where back might be. Back to what?

He swam. He swam forever. Angels swam with him, barking angel barks. The fog and the sea melded into one gray mass, an ocean sky filled with barking angels. A suicide sky. A theme song from a long past television show played somewhere in the gray.

This time when Matt came to himself he was deep under the water. The sense of invasion caused by inhaling that first draft of the sea caused a momentary panic. The panic caused a brief struggle for life, but Matt had insured his failure in that struggle. No gestures. No botched suicide. Matt relaxed into the darkness as the sea claimed him.

There was only darkness. Only darkness.


Little Bobby Trenton was playing near the water's edge. He could hear his mother calling him, and he intended to respond. However, something was laying on the wet sand with the waves lapping around it. The object had peaked his curiosity. It was covered with kelp, whatever it was.

Bobby padded across the wet sand, reveling in the feel of it and in the warmth of the sun on his shoulders. He wanted to see what was there on the beach. Soon, he did see, and in seeing planted the seed for an endless crop of nightmares and his own pending suicide in the year 2028.

Bobby responded to his mother's call, but it was too late.

Monday, July 5, 2010

I am an ebook reader-

I downloaded the Barnes and Nobles ebook reader last week, and began reading Dracula, by Bram Stoker. It is a free book I got with the reader. I have also downloaded about a half dozen free ebooks from B&N, offered on their website. I plan to buy my Nook as soon as I have a little spare cash. The price has dropped into the range I consider plausible for sustained ebook reading.

The biggest selling point for me was not the convenience of online shopping, or the nearly instant access to a great many books. It was the convenience of carrying a huge library in an object about the size of my hand. Additionally, I can do my reading on my Netbook computer. I am currently reading there, since I don't yet have my Nook. Indeed, I can read my books on any computer onto which the B&N reader has been loaded.

My most recent reading has been Stephen King's Under the Dome. I got it for Christmas, along with several other books. The book is a huge hardback. I would have thought little of the burden of carrying and holding such a massive lump of paper even weeks ago. Now it seems barbaric and backward to read in such a mode. The Nook would be so much more convenient. I am anxious to go ebook as much as 80% of the time. 100% is not reasonable, at least not yet. This is a transition period.

Even paperbacks have drawbacks. Several I have read have fonts too small. I can adjust the fonts on an ebook reader. Several had margins too small, and I had to bend the book back inconveniently in order to read. Ebook readers have flat screens, which are very much like paper as far as the reading goes. Nothing to fold back at all.

Why Barnes and Nobles? Why Nook? Well, B&N stores offer a free reading feature in stores, and I have always found their stores rather comfortable. The Nook, the B&N exclusive ereader, is comfortable to hold, easy to use, and my daughter has one I have had a chance to try out. Long battery life and ease of use sells the reader as an addition to my toolkit. Otherwise it would be cheaper to just read on my Netbook computer.

From this day forth I will opt for ebooks whenever possible. It is not always the proper format, but for most reading it is a very good option. Under the Dome will probably be donated once I am done. Big. Heavy. So yesterday. Yep. Ebooks.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Assault on Washington-

Brian Wilson imagined himself in a tank as he bore down on Washington, D.C. He was responding to a call that went out over the Internet to all American Veterans. He was really just chugging along in his Chevy Gladiator conversion van , an oldish vehicle that was still in reasonably good shape, much like Brian himself.

Brian held the title of Viet Nam Era veteran. He held the title with a combination of pride and embarrassment. He had some notion of what real Viet Nam vets went through, having lived among them in the Army and hearing many stories. He had lived among them long enough to also hear the stories they never told. The ones that invaded their sleep, causing them to awake screaming or shivering or just laying in the darkness that seeped into their souls.

The vision of driving a tank toward the nation's capitol was a bit silly, as well. Brian had been in stock control. Missile repair parts.  He had been assigned to Germany, and had "fought" the Cold War during the waining years of the Viet Nam conflict. Still, this was a real assault. The call had gone out to all living vets of every war in recent history. Too many lives and bodies and minds had been wrecked in too many conflicts, and too little had been done to compensate for the sacrifice.

Brian had been to Washington from time to time over the course of the years. Often enough to recognize that the traffic seemed normal enough. One concern of the organizers was raising so much concern in Washington that the veterans would be prevented from reaching the National Mall. The assault was intended to be sudden and so entrenched so quickly as to be impossible to dislodge without a huge media uproar.

Soon enough Brian was motoring past the Lincoln Memorial, and turning toward the side street recommended by his Internet contacts. He looked up and saw Wanderwolf parked near the edge of the Mall. Mike, the veteran who lived in the RV named Wanderwolf, must have been pretty pissed off to uproot from Ajo, Arizona and make his way here. Brian had read Mike's blog and knew that the lack of real care for veterans was near to Mike's heart.

Brian found a parking space not too far from the Mall, with a clear view of the Washington Monument. He secured his humble road home and got out onto the sidewalk. He shouldered the gear he had been directed to bring along, and made his way toward the Mall.

He noticed a lot of converted vans, as well as box trucks and other vehicles around that could be used as living spaces as well as vehicles. They were scattered around, not being too obvious. Many other people were making their way toward the Mall, each carrying enough gear to get the job started, but not so much as to draw too much attention.

Here was a young man with an artificial leg, trundling along. There a young woman with a prosthetic arm. One old veteran had a hat celebrating his participation in three wars. World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam. He walked with a cane, and had two younger fellows in attendance, but he made his way toward the Mall on his own two feet.

Brian wiped a tear from his eye. Tears came often, over the years, when he saw a brother or sister who had given much for the United States. Most still believed the country to be great, and worthy of their service. Still, too much sacrifice had been demanded over the years, and it was time to do something.

Finding a place that was not too crowded, Brian sat on the grass and waited. Others were finding places to wait, as well. Brian hoped that they were scattered enough not to draw the eye of law enforcement too soon. Nobody wanted a conflict, especially recognizing that many veterans had found their way into continued service wearing the badges of cities, counties, states and Federal agencies.

There were a lot of police cruisers in the area, most with two officers on board. Still, none were out on foot, and the Mall seemed surprisingly clear of blue or black uniforms.

A trumpet sounded somewhere across the lawn. That was the signal. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of veterans stood and moved quickly onto the lawn. People holding up little American flags began directing the flood of men and women. They all followed direction and fell into their assigned areas, for the most part. There were a few arguments, here and there, but no fights broke out.

Once sufficient order was established, the trumpet sounded again. Three long blasts. As one the army of veterans sprang into action. In a very short time tents were erected and a well-ordered camp sprang into being. The old veteran of many wars sat in a chair as his young attendants set up a nice sized tent for him. Most were the recommended dome tents, which were light and quickly assembled.

With that the Assault on Washington was begun. Brian sat on his patch of the National Mall and watched as the tourist cameras began the informal documentation of the event. He could see the first news crew setting up, their satellite dish pointed toward the sky and the men and women milling about.

The police finally began arriving. No big lines of cops with shields and sticks as in the days of the protests in Washington during the Viet Nam war. Just some crews unloading perimeter barricades and establishing some kind of perimeter. Perhaps the sympathies of the police ran deep.

It was a loose perimeter, Brian noted. Veterans moved in and out of the camp unhindered. Some were bringing in supplies and additional gear from box trucks nearby. A porta-potty service was unloading portable toilets and setting them up on the sidewalks on the edge of the camp.

Brian was not politically savvy. He was not part of the planning, and certainly not part of the more political body that would eventually present demands and make negotiations to end the siege. He was just there as a body, to swell the numbers and establish a presence, much like his primary purpose as a soldier in Cold War Europe.

He thought wistfully about his van. Brian was pretty sure it would eventually be impounded. He hoped that he might be able to trek back to the old beast and gather a few more of his things before that happened. Glancing at a legless fellow veteran sitting nearby in his wheelchair, Brian considered the old van to be a small sacrifice for the cause.

The beachhead was established. Now it came down to waiting. Summer was just around the corner, and Brian knew it would grow hot. By then, if they were still in place, their numbers would swell. Brian hoped that they would have things wrapped up by winter.

It didn't matter, really, how long it took to get some kind of justice for the years and years of sacrifice. This battle would demand one of the greatest skills instilled in the nation's warriors.

No matter what branch of their service, soldiers knew how to wait.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Hand of God-

Charles Taylor sat rather uncomfortably at the conference table, watching his host probe the Internet at a monitor built into the surface of the table at which they sat. Charles also had a monitor in the surface of the table right in front of him. His was blank. His hosts monitor blinked with changing screens. The mouse and keyboard also appeared to be part of the flat table surface. Impressive technology, tastefully applied.

"You can go ahead and ask questions." said his host. Bertram Felix Underhill. Man of mystery, a shadow in the Christian underground. Controversial. Frightening, in the flesh. The man radiated confidence and authority, a charisma that bordered on madness, or so it seemed to Charles.

"Well, Mr. Underhill...." Charles began.

"Whoa." said his host. The man looked up at him, the first real look since a quick glance when Charles was escorted into the room. "Call me Bert. We don't like to stand on formalities here." His eyes quickly moved back to the monitor, reflecting the changing light as the screens flickered within the table surface.

"OK. Bert. A friend at my church knew that I was seeking a new position. Some kind of ministry. He put me in touch with some people, who hustled me onto an airplane and now here I am. Wherever 'here' might be."

Bert nodded, tapped a few of the places on the table that served as buttons, and looked up again. This time the light of the monitor faded. "Yes. We have to keep a few things secret, even in a ministry. We are a mission with a mission, and not everyone would understand our work."

His words, and the fervor of their delivery, did nothing to put Charles at ease.

His host tapped another button, and a man in a dark suit appeared out of the shadows.

"Leonard, Charles. Charles, Leonard." said Bert in an off-handed manner. The man in the suit nodded, and Charles nodded in return. "Leonard, do we have a novice cell in Omaha?" The man nodded once again. "I have emailed a little matter to you. Have it take care of by our newbies. It's a chance to cut their teeth."

Leonard nodded again, and faded once more into the shadows.

"I have been going over our prayer network." explained his host. "I have a number of people who read most of the prayer requests around the world. At least, those that get posted onto an Internet site."

Charles leaned forward. This was more like it. Up until this moment he wondered what he had gotten into. Prayer, ministry, taking care of people. Being like Jesus. Yes. That was what he wanted. Christian men of action.

"Leonard is going to see to a woman's needs." continued Bert. "She is apparently being beaten by her husband, though she has never expressed that outright. Her husband is a prominent businessman in Omaha, and a pillar of their church. However, her frequent prayer requests for healing have flagged some of our first level operatives. Our front line prayer ministers, you might say."

"Someone is going to see to her medical needs?" Charles offered.

"Oh, no. She has access to that, and insurance better than most people." Bert said. "No, our newest cell is going to help her husband adjust his attitude. He seems to fail to understand his responsibilities. They are going to make a very clear argument for a significant change of behavior. A very real repentance. He should be able to walk again in about six weeks. My people are very well trained."

Charles had to close his mouth consciously. It had gaped open at this statement.

"He will hardly miss the one finger." his host mused. "Just enough not to forget, after the leg heals."

Charles tried to swallow, but found he was running a bit dry. Rather parched. His host made a gesture, and another man appeared out of the shadows. There seemed to be quite a few shadows, and a surprising number of men waiting in them. This man placed a glass of water in front of Charles, and faded again into the darkness.

Charles looked at the glass for a moment, then shrugged and picked it up. It was cool and refreshing, and cleared his head a bit while quenching his thirst. He was in a bit of shock, then. That made him feel better, knowing that. A bit better.

"Your friend recommended you to us for several reasons." said Bert. "Your zeal for the Lord. Your frustration with small opportunities for real ministry. Your skills in computers applied to satellite telecommunications. All fine qualities, and qualities we can use here."

"Where is here?" Charles asked again. "I was brought in a private jet with covered windows. I came out of the plane after several hours of flight, and went straight into a limousine. A limousine in a hanger, a limousine with windows so dark as to render no view. I haven't seen any sign of where you have brought me. It is starting to make me uncomfortable."

His host smiled. He looked.... patient. Patient, in the same way a crocodile is patient. "We have reasons for our secrecy. Most especially for the level of work I have in mind for you. I will show you the mission, and you can decide how you would like to proceed."

Charles sighed. He was in deep, and that made him uncomfortable. He was also curious, perhaps a great deal more curious than frightened. There was also a sense of excitement. A notion that he might be able to make a real difference in the world. A hope to really be like Jesus, to follow Him in a mighty work.

He nodded. Bert touched a few of the buttons in the table top. The screen in front of Charles came on, displaying a map.

"Somalia." said Bert. "Years ago aid for Somalians, humanitarian aid, was captured by warlords and used by them to secure to cooperation of starving people. A gift of generosity, much of which was in the name of Christ, was turned into a weapon and a mode of torture and domination."

The screen flickered. Another part of the Earth was presented to Charles.

"Uzbekistan." said Bert. "The recent earthquake caused a great deal of death, injury and deprivation. The government of Uzbekistan has refused the entry of humanitarian aid, claiming they can care for their own people. However, that particular part of the state has been in partial rebellion for the better part of the last year. The man managing the government aid is dragging his feet, manipulating resources to starve out the people who are seeking greater freedom."

Charles nodded. He had heard a bit about this on television. He felt a moment of shame that he had paid only the tiniest bit of attention to the problem.

"I have resources in place to remove this man." said his host. "Him, and his little army. I have everything but the eyes in the sky that the big boys have."

Charles looked up. He felt a thrill, and a moment of guilt. "You plan to kill him?"

"Oh, more than him. There is some risk, however." said Bert. "To remove him and his forces, and make a large enough impact, we will probably destroy most of a town."

"Everyone?" asked Charles.

"Yes." said Bert. "Men, women, and children. Churches, Mosques, and schools. Our prayer warriors are already praying for them."

"And you want me to hijack a satellite to aid in this?" asked Charles. He could not keep the incredulity from his voice. "Why a satellite? You said you had your resources in place."

"Accuracy." said his host. "Precision. And, to let the world know we can do it.You can do it, can't you?"

There was something dangerous in the way he said it. Charles nodded, and took a long drink from his glass. Suddenly he wanted something much stronger than water.

"I thought you could." said Bert. Bertram Felix Underhill. "The question, of course, is will you?"

Charles could not lift his eyes from the screen in front of him. Twisted and burnt bodies, many of them small and delicate, danced across the screen. No, that was his imagination. It was just a satellite image of a distant land. Mangled little bodies. Charred. Broken.

"I need time to think." he said. He could hardly hear his own voice.

His host, his captor, made a small gesture. Charles was aware of a man suddenly standing by his side.

"Show our guest to his room." ordered his host. "See that he is not disturbed. He needs to pray, and wait upon the Lord. See that his meals are brought to him, and that his needs are met."

Charles stood, and followed the man from the shadows toward the door.

"We are praying for you." called his host, as he stepped from the room.

Praying for you. It had never sounded like a threat, before.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Price of Vengeance-

Ziggy Dunbar was sitting in his cell, just "kickin' it." He had done time before, though this was just his second visit to the joint. State prison. No harder than his life on the streets. Ziggy knew his place here. He had protection, and he needed it. He wasn't particularly strong, and he knew he wasn't very smart. His place in the prison gang that protected him was not very high at all.

Still, the favors he provided for the boss prevented others from preying on him. Ziggy didn't like to think about those favors, but they did sometimes haunt his dreams. He didn't like to think about those dreams, or his crappy family or his sucky life. He mostly liked getting high, and just "kickin' it."

Ziggy was just too low on the food chain to have dreams, other than nightmares.

A shadow crossed in front of Ziggy. The hairs on the back of his scrawny neck stood up, and his bowels felt like they were full of water. He didn't move. Sometimes the predators passed on, if you didn't move.

"Hey, Ziggy." came a voice from the other side of the cell. "We need to talk."

Ziggy had heard that one before. It really meant "You have to listen." There was usually pain involved. Ziggy held on one moment more, and then looked up.

Cocoa Johnson sat on the bench in front of the small desk that made up the furniture in his small cell. Ziggy had felt lucky to be assigned to a cell too small to convert to double occupancy. He didn't feel so lucky, now. Cocoa made the room feel crowded. His lieutenant, Pepper Jones, stood just inside the door, and made the room seem like a tomb.

Standing just outside the door was another member of Cocoa's gang. Ziggy couldn't see much more than hunched shoulders and a bald head. That one was the look-out. Ziggy's spinning brain named him Paprika, a moment of cleverness born of desperation. Ziggy knew himself not to be clever, and so missed his own joke. He didn't know who the guy was, and didn't care.

Cocoa was rooting through a small paper bag that had been sitting on the desk. Ziggy's few little treats, purchased from the commissary. Ziggy didn't have much, and Cocoa confirmed it by not even bothering to steal anything. He dropped the bag back onto the desk, and then looked right at Ziggy.

Somehow, it would have made Ziggy feel better if the eyes looking at him were threatening. Angry eyes. Eyes filled with fury. These eyes were cold, looking at him with little interest. The eyes of a man with a job to do, and determination to do it.

"I don't know what in the hell you did on the streets, but you really pissed somebody off." said Cocoa. "We got orders to hurt you. Not kill you. Just hurt you. And when you heal from this hurt, we have to hurt you again."

Ziggy swallowed. His mouth was dry, but he worked up enough spit to croak out a question.

"How long?" he asked.

"Until this sucker stops paying for our 'service.'" answered Cocoa. "Whoever it is, he knows how things work here in prison. He knows, and he is pissed at you."

Ziggy tried to swallow, but could not. His one question used up all of the available liquids in his mouth, and he could find no more. His bowels felt like he was trying to keep in the contents of a lake, but his mouth was as dry as a desert.

"Getting to you this time was easy." said Cocoa. "Your boys don't know we have a contract on you. Next time might be harder. If it is, I suspect our visit might hurt that much more."

Ziggy's mind tried to race. Unfortunately, the track was short and he simply lacked the horsepower. He knew he was about to be injured, and he wouldn't be able to tell his boys anything. He had no idea how to keep them from figuring it out. Thinking was not going well, and Ziggy fell to hoping that they would just get this over with.

"Your friend from the street sent you a message." continued Cocoa. "He said for you to watch what you pick up from now on."

Pick up? What? The only thing that connected in his mind was his job, the one that got him into prison. Snatching purses for an identity theft ring. He only knew his contact, who paid him in drugs. Ziggy had been thrown to the police when they were closing in on the ring. Ziggy, his contact, and a few other nobodies went down for the crimes. As far as Ziggy knew, the big bosses were still out there cashing other people's checks.

"I will leave you to Pepper, now." said Cocoa, standing up. "He will definitely spice up your life."

Cocoa pressed past Pepper and exited the cell. Ziggy did not have to wait long. The pain began almost right away.

Carl Bergson finished his drink and pushed the empty glass toward the bartender. He counted out a few bills and paid the man, with a decent tip on top. Carl had regular habits, this drink in the evening being one of them. Same bar, same time, sometimes even the same stool. Carl stood and walked toward the door.

As he exited the bar he made brief eye contact with a young thug standing on the corner. The thug hid his momentary surprise pretty well, but Carl had been dealing with this type for quite some time. He recognized a tail when he saw one. The gang was already keeping tabs on him, and the deal was only a month old.

Carl walked quietly toward his apartment building, enjoying the dubious satisfaction of vengeance. That weasel Ziggy had really messed up Carl's life, stealing that purse. Carl's wife had one moment of inattention, and the identity theft that resulted was still causing them enormous grief. It was unfortunate for Ziggy that Carl ran in the same circles as his bosses. Granted, Carl's job was more legitimate, part of the system. Still, such grief from so small an act.

As he made his way up the stairs, Carl wondered just what he would do when they came. He knew they would come, those criminals with whom he had made the deal. So much a month to one of the inmates in the prison. Probably one of their up and coming leaders. In exchange, Ziggy was always going to be healing from one injury or another.

That had been the deal. Carl knew it would not end there. Someday the thug he made eye contact with would show up with a message. Him, or one like him. Some favor a gang boss required. It was the real price of vengeance.

Carl opened the door and was greeted by his wife. Together the went and sat down at the computer, with the phone at hand. They still had a terrible knot to untie, and little hope of being done soon. It may never really be over. Carl cursed Ziggy under his breath, and relished the knowledge that the nasty little man was about to receive another visit.

Carl would put a check in the mail first thing in the morning.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

American Terrorist-

Tommy Carlos stood on the darkened rooftop, overlooking the village square. Born Tomas Ignacio Carlos, he had assumed many other names over the years. This, however, was a night for reflection. Tonight he was Tommy Carlos, an American in a foreign land.

He gazed at the darkened village square, with the well in the center. The well tapped the aquifer that supplied nearly two thousand rural Pakistani people with water. This well was the target, and tonight was the culmination of seven months of work. Possibly the culmination of Tommy's whole career, as well. He had lived a lot in his twenty seven years, and knew that he might not have many years more.

The government of the United States had not been hesitant to use Tommy's facility with language. He had grown up in a family that valued both English and Spanish, and he had shown a knack for using those languages. The government had valued his genes, as well. Tommy had an appearance that would let him blend in. He could appear Middle Eastern, Asian, or Hispanic with little more than changes of clothing and hairstyle.

At this point in his life Tommy knew English, Spanish, two dialects that served him in Iraq, and a dialect that had opened doors in Afghanistan. He had been trained by the Army to assist special operations teams in quite a number of places. He had applied those skills for the government of the United States through two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

When he separated from the Army he had been offered jobs by the CIA, the FBI, several specialized Homeland Security teams, and half a dozen "private contractors." A number of less legitimate offers had come his way, as well. It was an obscure little group with a small presence on the Internet that had captured his attention.

Several shadows separated themselves from the dark walls surrounding the village square. Right on time. They moved into position, and all was quiet for a time. Tommy returned to his musing.

It had taken him months to get to this village. He had to contact drug dealers. He had to contact smugglers. He had to pay off petty warlords and a few politicians. He had learned who grew the opium poppies and who controlled the sales. Months of work had netted a nice little stash of the raw materials for making opium in a small warehouse just a stone's throw from where he stood.

That had all been a cover. Once he had most of his stash established his unnamed contacts had hidden tightly sealed containers in the warehouse. It had amused him that opium, a substance that was usually hidden in something else to be shipped, was itself a hiding place.

Twice since the containers were put in place his warehouse had been inspected by local authorities. They had not looked twice at the poison he was collecting to ship out of the country. They would have been quite troubled at the more immediate death that hid within the bundles.

Men began moving back and forth across the square, from his warehouse to the well and back again. They were silent, and hard to see, but Tommy knew that they were emptying the containers into the waters below. It would not be long, now.

The opium dealing was actually just a cover for this operation. A way to hide in plain site, a way of doing what needed doing for a higher end. His drug dealing connections would probably be hunting him, after this night was over. Quite a number of people would be hunting him.

The men appeared to have finished, blending back into the darkness. The night was very dark in this part of the world. Tommy climbed down from the roof and gathered his pack and other gear. He began the long trek toward the border. Afghanistan was a long walk away, and he was already adopting his next persona.


Arnie Kendricks sat at his computer, probing the Internet. He had really enjoyed his new career, reading and reporting on Internet activities for a branch of Homeland Security. He really didn't know just what branch, or how it fit into the scheme of things. He just liked the job. It was almost like his period of extended unemployment. He had done a lot of the same things, but didn't get payed.

Now, however, he was not so sure about his sweet gig. The website was a terrorist website, that was for sure. However, these were Americans conducting terrorist acts in foreign lands. Oh, and what acts! Twelve hundred Pakistani villagers killed by some kind of poison. The images were horrific. Men, women and children who died a slow and painful death.

Moving past the images was hard, but he had to read further. The group gave their name, and claimed responsibility. They promised more of the same, unless Pakistan delivered the leaders of Al-Qaeda to American authorities and drove Al-Qaeda out of Pakistan and into Afghanistan where American forces could deal with them openly.

Arnie could already visualize the reprisals that would come from this. He checked the links and found several other sites showing the same images and what he assumed was the same text in other languages. Tracking the links he could see that this was going to go viral.

He linked the site to his boss, whoever that really might be, with a quick note indicating that this was important and advising that his report would follow. Arnie wondered just how secure his homeland might prove to be, after this.


Out of the hills of northern Afghanistan a lone figure walked. He looked harried, as if the ghosts of innocents dogged his heals. Another figure arose from concealment and greeted the lone walker. The two turned and walked down a path, far from quiet American streets. They made their way to a cave, and entered without a word.

Inside they joined two dozen expatriates, to plan together and see if small actions by a few dedicated people could change the course of nations.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Knight's Tale-

Sir Claudus of Humbleshire awoke, his head ringing and rather filled with pain. He checked himself, finding he was a bit singed and rather bruised, but generally all there. His sword lay several feet away, broken in two and useless. He could not find his mace.

Looking up he could see the dragon. Long and sleek, with shiny scales glinting like fine silver and gold. The woman Claudus had tried to rescue was held in one great claw. The dragon’s eyes were upon him. Meeting those eyes, Sir Claudus glared his deepest hate. The dragon snorted a bit of smoke, nodded his head in seeming satisfaction, and leaped into the air.

The woman dangling from that great claw did not scream, or call for help. She looked up at her captor with mingled fear and awe. It almost looked like love to Sir Claudus, but that could not be right. The beast had held her captive for years, and over the years her letters begging for rescue had been circulating in the hero trade. “Save me from the dreaded dragon. Princess Mallow.”

“She does this all the time.” said a voice from behind him. Claudus turned, still on the ground, to face the source of the voice. His bruises screamed, but he used his knightly discipline to force his bruised body to respond. It was an old woman, sitting on a rock. He did not let down his guard, such as it was after his bruising, and eyed the strange creature.

“Who are you?” he inquired. His head hurt, and the sound of his own voice was like thunder between his ears.

“Her Fairy God Mother.” replied the old woman.

“If she has a Fairy God Mother, why does she sneak missives out of the dragon’s lair begging rescue from knights?” asked Claudus. “Why haven’t you just whisked her out of there? She has the Heroes Guild in a tizzy, I must say. Longest damsel in distress case on the books.”

“I have, several times.” said the FGM, with a sigh. “She always sabotages rescue attempts. She has issues. You know, psychological problems.”


“Oh, sorry. In the future they have this thing called psychology. I have been studying it in my spare time.”

“In the future?” asked the knight. “What are you talking about?”

The old woman whisked a crystal ball out of her sleeve, holding it up to catch the morning light. “It’s a part time gig.” she said. “County fairs, carnivals, that sort of thing. Being Fairy God Mother to a confused young woman who won’t be rescued leaves me with a lot of time to fill.”

The knight shook his head, and then wished he had not.

The ball vanished up the old woman’s sleeve, and she produced a pouch from her belt. Extracting a few herbs she rolled them together in a leaf she plucked from a bush next to her rock. She handed it to the knight and said, “Chew on this. It will ease the pain in your head and help you with managing those bruises.”

The knight popped the packet into his mouth and chewed slowly. It was bitter, but he felt a bit better right away.

“I don’t even recall the beast striking me.” he lamented. “Did I even get in a decent blow?” He glanced at his broken sword, hoping that it had been damaged in a mighty combat.

“Nope.” said the old woman. “The girl built up the fire you banked last night when you both went to sleep. She made it bright and smokey. The dragon flew in on this beacon, and sat with his captive until you stirred. He tapped you lightly with his tail, and gave you a hint of dragon’s breath. You went out like a light.”

“My sword?”

“You dropped it. The dragon stepped on it.”

The knight sighed, and stood up. He looked back in the direction of the dragon’s lair. The beast was just a dot in the sky, almost out of sight.

“Will she ever be free?” he asked, as he picked up the broken pieces that had been his sword.

“Perhaps, someday.” said the Fairy God Mother. “Or, she might just be absorbed into the dragon itself. Perhaps, should the dragon die, she shall become a dragon herself.”

“Why the rescue notes?” he asked, as he wrapped the broken sword in his cloak. He was going to have to find someone to reforge the broken blade. He glanced around, looking for his missing mace.

“All part of her illness.” said the FGM. She was really enjoying having the opportunity to talk about the things he had learned, peering into the future through her crystal ball. “She and the dragon feed each other’s deepest needs, in some way. I haven’t studied that far, yet. Crystal balls aren’t easy to read. Anyway, part of her thinks she really longs for rescue, but the dominant part wants to continue the relationship with the dragon.”

“Maybe I’ll just become a monk. You know, one of those hermits.” said the knight, giving up on the mace. “Well, I guess I will be off, to look for a hermitage.” He waved and began wandering off through the woods in the direction opposite the dragon’s lair.

The Fairy God Mother took out the crystal ball, and pulled up her schedule. “Ah, a nice little county fair just two days away. I guess I better get ready.”

She glanced longingly in the direction the dragon had taken her young charge. Shaking her head, she turned away and lifted the edge of her cloak. Spinning the dark cloth around herself, she turned ninety degrees from everything and returned to her home in the netherworld.

The missing mace lay deep in the shadows, under a bush not far from where the knight had been. Having little else to do, it rested there quietly, and began to rust.