Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Another story, courtesy of the Terrible Minds blog Flash Fiction challenge. This time, the challenge was to create a superhero remix. I chose to combine a superhero story with a locked room mystery. Perhaps the title is a little too on-the-nose?


Glover stepped over a pile of splintered wood and into the apartment of one of the most powerful people in the world. His partner, Hollister, met him at what was left of the door.

“Why in the Hell is there already press outside? How did they know this was an Ultra?” After 10 years as a detective, Daniel Glover was used to having meals interrupted, but wading past film crews before he even saw a body pissed him off.

“OctoZeus discovered the body. You know he always attracts attention, especially after he smashed through the door.”

Glover glared at his partner. “You mean especially when TMZ is slipping cops two grand for tips on Ultras.”

Hollister looked away, then said, “The body’s in here.” Glover followed his partner into the room, which was more like a movie theater than living space. An 80 inch flat screen TV was mounted on the wall, with more than a dozen speakers scattered around.

In the center of the room, the dead hero was naked, slumped over on a cream colored sofa.

“Give me the rundown of what you’ve got so far.”

Hollister opened his notebook, but didn’t read from it. “Victim is Ian Thomas Brill, better known as the Human Beam. A level 5 ultra with the ability to create constructs of crystallized light.”

“Yeah, yeah. I don’t need the stats from his goddamned trading card, fan boy.”  Glover looked at the TV and noticed it was dark, but still powered on. “Maybe he finally died of embarrassment from calling himself ‘The Human Beam.’”

“When Brill didn’t show up for a scheduled meeting of the Honor Guard, O.Z. checked the place with his x-ray vision and saw the body. He punched through the door, but Brill’d been dead a while. It’s looking like he’s been dead since some time last night.”

“What happened to OctoZeus? You let him leave?”

“He… uh… said he heard an emergency signal.”

“Well, Hell, that’s okay, then. I need to try that next time the Captain calls me to his office. At a bare minimum, he destroyed evidence when he bashed the door in.”

“He thought he might be able to save him.”

“Yeah, and before that he was peeping into a private citizen’s apartment. You could have held him for that alone. I get that this is your first Ultra case, but you treat them like any other witness.”

Next to the body, Glover saw the TV remote. He pulled rubber gloves out of his jacket pocket and put them on as Hollister continued, “From what we can tell, the marks on his neck are consistent with strangulation, but it doesn’t look like it was done by hand and nothing nearby looks like it’s the weapon.”

To the right of the entertainment center, the lead tech walked out of the bedroom. She looked up from her tablet and nodded to Glover.

“Quiz time, Hollister. What are the known ways an Ultra can get into or out of a locked room?”

“Geez, there are a bunch. Teleportation or dimensional travel, using telekinesis on the lock, coming in under the door by shrinking or turning into a gas, ghosting through the wall.”


“Or floors or ceilings.”

“Anything else?”

“Doc Shock can travel through wires and… there’s one more.” Hollister looked around the room for ideas. “Time travel. Getting into the room when it wasn’t locked and then moving through time.”

“Any of those likely here?”

Hollister shook his head, “Not very.”

“Why not?” Glover picked up the TV remote and pressed the “Source” button. The screen came to life with the words “HDMI 1.”

“First, probabilities,” Hollister said. “Even without powers, locked room deaths happen all the time. If it’s not suicide, it’s from an illness or injury that’s not treated. Nobody bothers to lock a door after killing someone.”

“But this looks like strangulation.”

Hollister said, “True, but Brill was incredibly powerful and there’s no sign of a struggle. From what I’ve read, there’s a crystalline substance left behind when his solid light formations break apart. If he put up any kind of a fight, we’d see piles of the stuff.”

“Any sign of photonic residue, Jennings?”

The tech said, “Sure, there’s a bit of it all over the place, but that stuff’s like using glitter on a school project. Everyone he fought probably found it in their clothes for a month. His bedroom looks like the aftermath of a rave.”

Glover walked over to the entertainment center. “Any in larger quantities?” he asked. He felt around behind the TV, then used his hand to follow a thick cable to one of the cabinet’s lower shelves.

“Just that.” Jennings pointed to the victim’s upper chest and several small piles of sparkling dust. “Not enough to be from a fight. I already took samples.”

Glover pressed the power button on the Blu-Ray player, then another button to eject the disc. “So, he’s sitting here in his apartment. Naked. And someone strangles him without him fighting back.”

Hollister jumped back into the conversation. “I figure he was caught by surprise somehow. Maybe seduced or put into a trance. I can go through the list of Ultras he’s run into and see if any have that kind of power.”

As Glover pulled the disc out of the player, he said, “You’ve got a more important job, my friend. You’ve got to figure out how to tell his family he killed himself. And then come up with something for the press that’s not going to ruin the rep of one of your idols.”

“You think it’s suicide?”

“No.” He handed the disc to Jennings. “One thing your fan magazines don’t tell you is that these Ultras always have extreme tastes to try and live up to the rush they get from playing hero.”

He peeled the rubber gloves off and stuck them back into his pocket. “Looks like he was using his own powers for a little self-photonic asphyxiation and went too far.” 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Death Troll

This story is a little bit of a remix a la Stephen King/Richard Bachman with Desperation/The Regulators. Some of the same characters as the last one, although I never really described the woman in Console Freak. In my head, the photographer here is the same guy who "played" Tim in that. But the core of the story is based on the same photo of a priest shaking hands with a man in a coffin. A bit of a cheat this time, because the story picks up a couple of hours after that scene. 

The part that's fascinating for me in this one is how my brain takes me to places I don't expect. When I originally thought about the story for this, I envisioned it as an over-the-top crime comedy. Where it ended up is about as far from that as you can get. 


Death Troll

The last thing Father Lynch wanted was for any mourners to show up, but there she was. The priest took a quick inventory as she walked in. Average height, hispanic, shoulder length hair in a messy side bun, dressed in black pants topped with a woven teal green shirt, a small black purse dangling from her hand. Overall, a clean, but uninspired look.

The photographer looked up from his camera and stared. They’d been through this routine more than a dozen times and this was the first time anyone had been here other than the priest and the body.

“Excuse me, is this where you’ve got my brother?” The woman walked through the maze of folding chairs that had been shoved aside to make room for two reflective umbrellas.

The priest looked at her, his mouth moving, but it was a full 3 seconds before words came out. “No, ma’am, you’ve got the wrong place. This is a private viewing.” He added a sympathetic look to his face as he moved to intercept her. While not a large man, Lynch easily filled the narrow aisle between the pews.

She stopped in front of him and looked into his eyes. “You’re saying that’s not my brother Ron?” she said. “I saw the notice in the paper. He disappeared almost 5 years ago and, to be honest, I figured he died a long time ago.”

Father Lynch was about to respond, then stopped himself and turned to the photographer. “You can go now. We’ve got enough pictures.”

“You sure? We don’t have as many as you usually need.”


Lynch turned back, locking onto the woman’s brown eyes. They stared at each other silently, as the photographer collapsed the towers of his lighting equipment. It was a small set-up, but still took him a bit of fumbling to carry it all in a single trip. The priest let her slip past as he went to hold the front door open.

The lock clicked as the woman called to him from the casket. “Hmm… I’ll give you credit. He looks a lot like Winston. Not exact, but close enough.”

“Who are you, really? Nothing was in the paper.”

“Sure it was. It was in the paper that showed up on my desk with a big ‘Fraudulent Claim Likely’ note on it.” She reached into the front pocket of her pants and pulled out a business card that she handed to him.

“I’ve been digging for a couple of weeks and the only thing I haven’t figured out is how you find bodies that look so much like the people in the fake policies. The real people’ve always been buried for months, so where do the fresh corpses come from?”

A hint of a smile broke through her anger as she looked into her purse and pulled out her phone. While turning back to the casket, she unlocked the device and activated the camera app.

“Los Angeles is full of actors, Miss Alvarez." Lynch spoke in a calm voice, while loosening the cincture around his waist. "No matter what type of person you’re looking for, an ad in the Pennysaver does the trick.”

Staring intently at the small screen, she zoomed in on the unidentified body in the casket and pressed the shutter button. The flash of the camera was followed by the flash of a satin belt crossing in front of her face.

The pressure on her neck was immediate and tremendous, restricting her airway so much she couldn't even choke out a sound. No matter how hard she tried, it was impossible to get her fingers around the belt or the man holding it as he forced her to the ground. “Every homeless person who dies on the street has at least one doppleganger who will jump at the chance to be in a film shoot. And in this town, no one misses either one them.”

As the investigator’s struggles ended, Lynch dropped her body to the floor and again applauded his own foresight in covering the viewing room with vinyl runners. They were so much easier to clean and replace than carpeting that refuses to let go of all that stray hair.

He stood up and looked at the two bodies.

“It’s going to be a lot harder to do this in reverse, but I’m sure I've got an obituary in my files for someone who can fit the part.” 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Console Freak

A little story, again inspired by Chuck Wendig's Terrible Minds Flash Fiction Challenge. This time, we had to select a bizarre stock photo and create a story around it. My photo was a man in a casket shaking hands with a priest. Here's what I came up with:

Console Freak

Every year, the gathering for Ron Winston’s funeral was a bit smaller. At first, it was a novelty that they all chalked up to his infamous eccentricity, but after 20 years the only attraction left was some top-notch food and wine. No one knew exactly why he hosted this annual fake memorial service and Winston always refused to answer questions about it.

The line of mourners passed Ron in his casket, squeezing past more than three dozen sympathy wreaths and arrangements sent by various vendors and friends. After the service, someone could make serious money selling admission to the small room as a haunted floral maze.

“Who’s the woman?” Paul’s whisper was more conspiratorial than respectful.

Regina looked up from her phone and saw her on the far side of the room. The woman was dressed in black, a practice that the rest of the mourners had long since discarded. Regina shrugged and went back to watching YouTube videos.

Father Lynch wiped his mouth with the cloth napkin, then stepped away from the catering table toward Winston’s body. “We have a special request from Ron. He has asked that anyone who would like to say a few words do so here at the memorial gathering, rather than at the funeral itself. ”

Everyone in the room remained glued to their phones, except the woman in black, who studied the faces of the rest of the group. After a few moments, the silence was broken by Ron’s brother Tim, who pushed out of his chair. The largest man in the family, Tim looked down at the heads of his relatives, then across the room at his brother’s motionless body. He turned and headed toward the catering tables.

As Tim refilled his glass, the priest made another plea. “Please, someone, I know Ron really wanted to hear from those he loves today.”

“Ha! Right!” Tim said. “Okay, Ron, you want someone to speak? I’ll speak.”

Tim pushed past more than a dozen funeral arrangements, knocking two of them onto the carpet. The impact with the floor dislodged loose petals, leaving a corona of dust around the dead flowers.

He approached Ron, who was laying still in the silk-lined box. Tim reached in toward his brother’s lapels, with every intention of drunkenly dragging him out in front of the crowd. His fingers curled into fists before he withdrew them and began to yell.

“Why are we doing this AGAIN, Ron? This is the 20th time we’ve all had to go through this for you and none of us know why! Is it so you can hear all of us praise you once a year? You don’t get enough of that at work? We already kiss your ass at the office every day, so this stupid little gag has worn thin.”

Father Lynch reached up to rest a hand on Tim’s shoulder. “Mr. Winston…” Tim pulled away from the priest’s hand and turned to face his family.

“Why do we still indulge him? Lorna, Ross, aren’t you as sick of this as I am? Do we just keep this up forever? It’s been 10 years since I started wishing he actually WAS dead in that box.”

“Shut up, Tim.”

Three mourners who still hadn’t looked up from their phones finally did, as Ron rose in the casket and looked out at the group. It was only mildly less shocking than seeing someone actually come back from the dead, because for two decades Ron had always played the part until everyone was long gone. In 2005, he had terrified a caterer who had come in early to clean up.

“You finally showed a little passion. It only took twenty years, but there you go.” Ron flipped the lower half of the casket open. “I was curious if any of you would start to understand at some point. But none of you did.”

He stood up in the pine box and gestured to the priest, pointing to the ground. After a moment of confusion, Father Lynch looked around, then grabbed a step stool that had been placed behind the casket.

“When dad died and I was left in charge, I was lost. I had no motivation to do anything, much less run HIS company. So, I started this little game to remind myself that I’m NOT dead yet, but that it’s coming. Maybe that’s stupid, but it gave me what I needed to push forward in life.”

With the stool in place, Ron climbed down toward the floor. “None of you ever figured that out, but more importantly, you never found your OWN motivation. At home, at work, I tried to get you all involved, but nothing took.”

He paused, looking over the faces of his brother, sister, cousins, aunts and uncles. While they stared at him, saying nothing, he poured himself a glass of red wine. “It didn’t matter to me what you did. I wanted to see you get passionate about ANYTHING, but it never happened. Your families, your jobs, charities, hobbies. You could have painted watercolors of demented clowns playing poker, if you wanted. As long as there was some spark in you.”

His expression softened as he looked at the woman in black, then he faced his family again. “Every year, you lived your lives the way you attended this ceremony. You just showed up.”

Ron walked toward the woman, while pulling a flight confirmation out of the interior pocket of his suit. When she saw the tears in his eyes, she smiled and wrapped his hand in both of hers. Smiling back at her, he raised his glass. “Well, there’s a real death to celebrate this time, so drink up.”

Throughout the room, a mixture of ring tones and buzzing came from the phones everyone clutched in their hands. “I killed the company. And you’re no longer employed.”

Ron Winston kissed the hand of the woman he loved. Together, they turned toward the priest.

“Now, Father, how are you at weddings?”

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Adolescent Vice

I bought the first thing I ever stole. Maybe it wasn't even stealing, but was really just a bit of smuggling.

The sole place I could buy comics when I was young was the local grocery store spinner rack. Comic book specialty stores didn't exist yet, and especially not in small towns in the Midwest. The problem with the spinner rack is that you were held hostage to buying whatever happened to be there that week, which often meant that you couldn't find consecutive issues of a favorite comic.

About the time I turned 12, that changed. While there weren't comic stores in our neighboring city, I did discover The Book Nook, a used book store which also kept a healthy supply of hand-me-down comics. It may not have been in my town, but it was close enough that I could ride there on a bike.

The Book Nook became my favorite hangout through my early teen years (aka pre-driving license). One of the most amazing revelations was that I could actually buy BOOKS there. Prior to that time, my only access to books was the school library. For a school with just under 300 people in junior and senior high, the library had a decent selection, but once you got past the reference and non-fiction sections, the pickings were pretty slim.

Even then, the book selling business wasn't a great one so the owner committed half of the shop to selling tobacco. The main room was split down the middle, with glass cabinets displaying dozens of flavors and varieties of tobacco on the left, while former bestsellers filled shelves on the right. The packages of tobacco were mainly for pipes, although I’m sure he also sold rolling papers to make your own cigarettes. There may even have been a small humidor on the counter in the back corner.

Odors have never really caused my brain to spiral into childhood memories, but the scent of pipe tobacco is a lone exception. If I ever did decide to take up smoking, I’d do it on a patio with a pipe and a paperback.

Although I originally went there seeking the rare gem of a back issue comic, thousands of books kept me exploring. A cavernous back room held the real treasure of pulp novels and genres you couldn't find in the drugstore book rack. This was where I discovered Gregory MacDonald's Fletch series, colorfully titled Travis McGee novels and a whole bunch of trashy 1970's sci-fi that followed in the wake of Star Wars.

That back room was also the vault that held the used magazines. Every so often, someone would dump off decades of history – 1950's era Life magazines and a lot of classic Sports Illustrated. When I was really lucky, I’d stumble onto an issue of Starlog or Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Eventually, I discovered pictures of naked women. People who have lived their whole lives with the internet may not be able to imagine this, but there was a time when the only release for a young boy going through puberty was looking at bra ads in the Sears catalog. Finding Playboy or Penthouse was the Holy Grail, and usually involved digging through someone’s trash or finding a hidden cupboard in your dad's den.

For the next few visits, I sorted through the skin mags to see what kind of variety they came in. It was a surprisingly robust assortment for a small town book shop, although I quickly discovered I didn't have a taste for the more explicit ones. Penthouse was my choice, because 15 year old me didn't really appreciate all the filler in between the pics in Playboy, even though the "real-life" encounters of Penthouse Forum fascinated me.  

At that age, I couldn't very well plop them down on the counter to buy. Shoplifting wasn't an option for me ethically, plus tucking magazines into my clothes would have been particularly challenging after looking at photos for a while.

My plan was a simple one. For the next few weeks, I found worn issues of Sports Illustrated with loose staples, which were precariously close to falling out of their covers. Then I gave them an assist, pulling the guts out and slipping the remnants deep into long-neglected stacks of Woman’s Daily.

With that slick, colorful wrapper featuring baseball’s finest pitchers in hand, I’d neatly tuck in whichever issue of Penthouse had caught my eye that day. Taking a cue from The Purloined Letter, I’d then slip that masked mag between a stack of three or four more mundane selections along with a couple of books for good measure.

Shaking like a leaf, I carried the whole bundle up to the cashier counter. The owner (and only staff of the shop) chatted with me as I showed him what I was ready to buy. Fortunately, the magazines were all the same price, so he merely rifled through them to take a count and didn't have to inspect each one to ring up the purchase.

Over the next couple of months, I probably smuggled 4 or 5 out of there. While I never had any close calls, I was sure I'd get caught if I didn't quit. If not by him, then by my parents discovering a massive stack of porn under my bed. I’m actually pretty sure they did find it at one point, but that's a story for another day.

On my last visit to my hometown, I drove by the location of the shop and it was long gone. I have no idea if the owner is still alive or if he just closed because he lost his business. In the years since I left, both Wal-Mart and K-Mart moved into town, so any other outlet for books is now a a boarded up bit of nostalgia.  

The Book Nook helped me grow up in a lot of different ways and it still holds a place as one of my fondest childhood memories. I know it would be impossible to make a living with a small shop like that, but as a retirement plan, it's still a dream I entertain now and then. 

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Wish Derailment

I can't even call this one a story, but over the last couple of days I've seen two different writing prompts that asked questions like "if you had three wishes from a genie, what would you wish for? Why?" 

So, that just started me on a mind spiral pretty much unrelated to the actual answer to the question. There's something in this that may become a story some day, but for now, here's what popped out:

Wish Derailment

If I dared to say anything, my first wish would be to make my hands stop shaking. Instead, my mouth stayed shut. I've heard too damned many stories about people who were given three wishes and then end up screwing up something major because they didn't think it through.

You know – like “I wish for World Peace!” and then everyone on the planet is dead.

So, yeah, as I looked down at the dingy hunk of brass, I realized I had to stay quiet and figure some shit out. For his part, the genie just stared down at me, an unreadable expression that nevertheless felt smug.

Does every question count as a wish? How does he not come with a rule book? How does this all work? Do I have to say “I WISH” in capital letters before what I say becomes a command? What if I say “I’d like” something? Does that count? I feel like Ralph on Greatest American Hero. I've got powers, but no damned instruction manual.

What about additional clauses? If I say “I WISH FOR the powers of a genie, but I want to still be my normal self in every other way” – does he cut it off before it gets to that caveat? If clauses are okay, are there any limits? How does he know when a wish stops and it’s not just a run-on sentence? Does he have some sort of grammatical rules? Does the wish have to be framed according to some mystical Chicago Manual of Style I need to study?  How does he even know English? He’s not exactly dressed like a local, unless he’s been hanging out on Venice Beach with the hippies.

What about homonyms? Does my intent count for anything or just the words? Is he allowed to misinterpret what I say? Whose fault is that? If I said I wanted to go to Greece, would I be stuck watching some revival show in a Broadway theater? Or worse yet, transported to an auto shop?

Who exactly wrote the “Genie Rule Book?” I’m pretty sure I can’t ask for more wishes. That’s pretty much always against the rules. What are the other ones? There’s the one about not bringing someone back from the dead – but this is a big guy with a hoop earring, not a monkey’s paw.

Then there’s the rule against making someone fall in love with you. That one was in the Disney movie, I think. That’s no problem. Who the Hell has to force someone to love them by wishing for it? Okay, I guess a lot of people TRY that, but it’s not exactly effective. Then again, they don’t actually have a way for those wishes to come true.

Dammit, I don’t even know if it’s three wishes or not. He didn't say anything about that. Is that a rule? I can’t remember if Aladdin had three wishes, but it seems like he just had a genie who would do anything he asked.

I started freaking out when I realized I couldn't even safely fall asleep. It’s not like talking in my sleep has been a big problem, but who knows? I might wake up and all of Los Angeles could be filled with marshmallow fluff. Does he keep hovering over me day and night until I make my wishes? That could get really awkward when I need to go out to get some dinner.

Let’s try to think through this logically. How powerful can he be? He's not God, right? So, if I ask to be rich, he finds money from somewhere, he doesn't create it out of nothing. It's still got to be verifiable by the Federal Reserve or something. Or maybe that's the trick. Shit, I’m fucked either way. It’s money he creates out of thin air, so I’m in trouble for passing off counterfeits or he “finds” real money somewhere. Who knows where that might come from? Maybe I could specify where it needs to come from, so no one would notice it. Like how in the movie Office Space, they just took fractions of a cent from thousands of transactions. Am I allowed to do that or will I end up in Federal pound-me-in-the-ass prison?

Fuck it.

“Okay, Genie, I wish you’d just go away.”