John Hornor Jacobs’ The Shibboleth

First and foremost, if you’ve not picked up The Twelve-Fingered Boy you need to go and do that, and quickly. Seriously, the book is one of the best books I read last year, a truly stunning work. It’s also essential to read it before picking up the recently released second book of Jacobs’ trilogy, The Shibboleth.

And you’re going to want to pick that up, because The Shibboleth is amazing. Jacobs picks up shortly after the events of TFB, with Shreve Cannon back in Casimir Pulaski Juvenile Detention Center. His friend Jack is in the clutches of Mr. Quincrux, training with a secretive group to face the mysterious force gaining strength on the East Coast.

That force is affecting people worldwide now. An epidemic of insomnia is eating away at society. Violence is up, people are falling apart, and the world’s on the edge of burning. The other wards of Casimir Pulaski are being effected as much as anyone, and they’re directing a lot of that violence towards Shreve. He’s under near-constant assault from those around him, who all seem to believe he’s a thief. He’s not afflicted like the others, a result of him using his powers to pry into people’s minds. This allows him to soothe himself with their happier memories. He soon learns that he can now “eat” people’s memories, taking thoughts out as well as manipulating their actions.

It’s a tool he can use to help, removing their pain and taking away their insomnia. It also puts him back on Quincrux’s radar, now that he might be useful to his cause. With this new understanding of both what he can do and the continuing threat Mr. Quincrux poses, Shreve sets out to find and free Jack. He’s captured, and forced to join Jack in training as Quincrux and his operatives refine a group of super-powered children they’ve taken to calling “extranaturals,” or “Post-Humans.”

The Shibboleth is darker by a fair margin than TFB. Jacobs doesn’t shrug away from the more painful fallout when Shreve chooses badly, or when more powerful people assert themselves on him or his friends. This is still a young adult book, but on the decidedly more intense end of the YA spectrum. No punches are pulled, no quarter is given. Shreve still has his humor, but it’s taken a world-weary edge. His voice as a character just as strong as it was in the previous book, but also more interesting in the way he “borrows” turns-of-phrase or cultural references from the minds he delves into. He carries not just his experiences, but the emotional toll that accompanies the memories of those he’s near.

Once he’s taken into Quincrux’s clutches, he finds a group of allies and friends among the other kids being trained. Their mix of powers are being honed to face a terrible evil, and failure is not an option. Severe consequences await those who aren’t up to snuff. The mix of new allies takes some of the weight off Shreve; he’s much less isolated than in the first half of the book, but no less aware of how much danger surrounds those he loves. Widening that circle of people he cares about becomes both a blessing and a curse. Not being so alone also means having much more to lose, after all.

By the end we’re left with more of a cliffhanger than the first. This is in all ways a middle portion. In the same way The Subtle Knife or The Girl Who Played with Fire suffer if you haven’t read The Golden Compass or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, it’d be difficult to jump in here without having read the first part. Also the end will definitely leave you eager to read the conclusion, which is thankfully due next year.

John Hornor Jacobs is fearless in his execution, taking the fascinating world-building of the first book and guiding it deeper into a dark and dangerous world. You’re anxious going so far down into the pitch black territory he goes. It’s completely worth it, and you’ll be left desperate for more.

Flash Fiction Challenge : Must Contain… “One Last Request”

This week’s Flash Fiction Challenge at Terribleminds was to choose an item at random from each of two lists and use them in a story. A random number generator gave me (3) “A mysterious-perhaps even magical-photograph” and (8) “A plane or train ride.” The story I came up with is a letter, relating the true story of the night a couple first met. It’s touch over 1100 words, and was a pleasure to write.

***

Dearest Penelope,

I found the envelope on your kitchen counter, held in place with a bottle of sherry. I had never tried sherry before, but the dark, mysterious bottle was intriguing. On the envelope, you’d written “Drink Me” in your finest penmanship.

You passed away earlier that night, and I was lucky to be in the room when you did. I was new to my residency, and that was the first time a patient of mine had died. I was surprised at how much it affected me. As I write this the memory has so much more weight, alleviated only by knowing the purpose of this letter.

You were so charming to visit on rounds. You told such fascinating stories, and had such a sharp wit, I looked forward to visiting your room each day. When you passed, I looked in your purse for your sister Marcie’s number. I couldn’t find your address book, but I did find your keys. On the chain was a photo of you and Bertie, the spaniel you told me about many times, and I was worried the poor thing was alone in your flat.

I finished my duties quickly, went off shift, and proceeded to your apartment, where I found no dog. I hadn’t considered the age of the photo, much less the attractive woman in it. If I’m being completely honest, I’m certain I had considered that, but at the time Bertie was the only reason I had to justify going to your apartment.

It was such a warm, inviting place, and walking into it was like entering my own home. After finding the bottle and no dog, I browsed your books and the art on the walls. I shied away from your photo albums, that felt like too intimate an intrusion. I stopped at the poster of John Coltrane, remembering when Marcie came to visit and you talked about sneaking out of your parents’ to see him at L’Olympia. You both laughed as you told me about spotting a young man you’d never seen before, waving to you from the train while the two of you stood on the platform at Pigalle. You spoke of your surprise at running into him again outside the theatre after the show, and how he told you he’d wandered the streets of Paris after seeing you, searching for the girl of his dreams. Marcie spoke of it with amazement, while you spoke with such wonder and joy.

Something in that story, among the others the two of you told, resonated with me. I’m not religious, but the way you marveled at the flash of light that drew your attention to the train and the meeting it led to was charming. In the way you spoke, and the way you laughed, I could understand how that young man would be enchanted by you. I felt he must have been very lucky.

I saw your copy of Alice in Wonderland, the one you bought in London, on the coffee table. I smiled, remembering the note you left with the sherry, and went back to follow your instruction. I toasted your memory, and tasted the sweet wine. I found it pleasant, and I admit I indulged in a second glass. After setting down the bottle, I took up the envelope and turned it over. It was unsealed; the only item inside was a photograph.

I understood even more why that young man was so drawn to you when I looked at that picture. It was of you and Marcie, on the platform at Pigalle, laughing. The image was blurred slightly with your movement as you laughed with your whole body, but I could see such warmth in you. It made me smile, as I remembered how that laugh sounded.

I finished the second glass of sherry before going to the Metro. I found a seat in a nearly empty car and took my coat off. When I was folding it, I found I had slipped the photo of you into my pocket. I considered returning to your flat and putting it back, but the train pulled away from the platform. I sat down and stuck the picture in the frame of the window, to watch how the light flashed past behind it. The long day, the emotion from losing you, and the sherry all overwhelmed me, and I fell asleep.

I was awakened by a flash, and by being jostled. A young man with a cheap Kodak was apologizing profusely to me in terrible French. He was a tourist, and trying to explain that he was leaning in to take a photo. I turned to look where he gestured, and saw you and Marcie, looking at the train in confusion. I waved. I should have gotten off, but I was dumbstruck. The photo was gone from the window, and you were there instead. A moment later the train pulled away.

By the time we reached Abbesses, I had struck up a conversation with the man with the camera. He was visiting Paris for the first time, and I offered to buy him a drink and tell him some sights to see around the city, aside from the normal tourist spots. A couple of drinks in Le Dorner later, he got up to use the bathroom. I took his wallet and the camera. Years later I sent both to the address I found in his wallet, along with more money than I took from him and a letter that may have sounded more crazy than this one. I felt terrible borrowing them, but as you can see I needed both the money he carried and the picture he’d taken.

I rode back into the city, both anxious that I had stayed too long with the American and certain that I hadn’t. The whole experience was astounding, which I imagine is how you feel reading this letter, and how you will feel when you see me at the hospital. I stood outside L’Olympia, hearing brilliant jazz bleed through to the street, and waiting for you to come out.

I know this is all a shock, so soon after I’ve passed. For fifty years there was so much more to the story of how I saw you from the train, and found you in front of that theatre. I wanted to tell you countless times, and show you the photo, and share this moment, but the unbelievable truth meant telling you things I had no business to, until now. I am enclosing with this letter the photo of you and Marcie. I don’t believe I need to tell you when to arrange the things I’ve mentioned above, I feel the same impulse will grab you that convinced me to go to your apartment that night. When it does, and if you can forgive me holding all of this back for so long, please leave it on the kitchen counter, with the sherry we bought in Barcelona.

Eternally yours,

Charles.

Waiting Vs. Binge-Watching

I mentioned recently how much I’ve been enjoying True Detective. I binge-watched the first five episodes, and watched the last couple within a day or two of their debut. Sunday is the finale, the capper to the impressive first season. Sunday also happens to be the day the new iteration of COSMOS debuts, at the same time.

When we heard that COSMOS was being relaunched, we immediately decided it would be perfect for family viewing. My son loves science in general, and space in particular, and so this is a perfect opportunity for us to sit down together and watch the same show at the same time. So I’m delaying watching that last episode of True Detective. It’s not even a hard decision, given why I’m delaying it. (I did the same thing with the seventh, attending a yearly Oscar party with friends instead of holing up with Marty and Rust). I’m anxious about spoilers for the conclusion, but not nearly enough to skip watching COSMOS with the family.

Last week Hannibal also returned to television. That is a show I’d struggle more with giving up (still not really a struggle, just slightly more difficult), though not because it’s necessarily better than True Detective. I feel that way in part because it’s been a while since the first season ended, and I’ve had to wait to watch this particular story continue. And, now that it’s back, I still have to wait, week after week.

I like the experience. I’ve actually missed it, as I’ve fallen more into binging shows. Even House of Cards – which is excellent – doesn’t hold the same kind of pull because I can watch all of it now if I chose. I know that, as an original Netflix show, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Hannibal, on the other hand, only has so many episodes on demand at a time. Then there’s a lag between the show’s end and DVD release. I could stream the episodes, but I seem to find it easier to pause or stop a streaming movie or show and walk away, whereas when I watch on disc or while it’s being broadcast I give a show more attention. Hannibal, like True Detective, benefits greatly from that attention. It’s filled with details and entendres and implications that tease the viewer, all in service of drawing out the tension exquisitely. It’s that feeling I crave. That sense that the inevitable is waiting, but I’ll have to wait longer for it to play out.

Binge watching is still entertaining, but it feels more like speed-reading. Like I’m doing it to catch up, rather than savoring an unfolding story for myself. I know where the larger plot of Hannibal is going, everyone does. Lecter’s going to end up in a cell. At some point Francis Dolarhyde may arrive, possibly even Agent Starling will appear down the road. Even with this season, the show runners opened with a brutal fight between Lecter and Jack Crawford before jumping back in time twelve weeks. Now the run of season two will be about seeing the bulk of those weeks unfold, and not knowing the resolution of that battle until the season finale.

I appreciate that we’re in an era where we can save up episodes, and descend deeply into a show for days. It’s comforting to know missing or skipping an episode doesn’t mean it’ll be months before getting the chance to see it. But none of that detracts from the opportunity to watch as a show brilliantly teases out a story. Sometimes waiting can be difficult, but sometimes that anticipation is just what I’m looking for.

Reviews of Two Novellas: “Fierce Bitches” and “The Burning Men”

You have to know when to stop—and it’s a lot harder than you think. I’ve read several books that made me wish I had stopped at the actual satisfying conclusion instead of following the author into a hellscape of epilogues. This problem sometimes leaves me preferring short stories and novellas, in large part because the slim form keeps authors from rambling.

Two recent examples are Christopher Farnsworth’s “The Burning Men” and Jedediah Ayres’ “Fierce Bitches.” The Farnsworth is a newly released Kindle Single featuring Nathaniel Cade, while Ayres’ is an original short that got a lot of praise last year.

Taking Ayres first, “Fierce Bitches” represents my introduction to him as a writer. The thrill of discovering a new author usually has a tendency to raise their perceived value, but it’d be hard to overstate how talented and sharp he really is. In this novella, Ayres presents three linked stories that are as burned-black as noir gets. Set just over the Mexico/U.S. border, Politoburg is nothing more than a bar around which some shacks have been erected to form a makeshift town. It exists as a place for a crime boss in the U.S. to send his hired goons to disappear, where he then helps them burn through whatever he paid them buying his booze and drugs and prostitutes. The action kicks off when one of these goons tries robbing the bar and running away with the woman he’s gotten pregnant. Their flight leads into a story about how she ended up in Politoburg to begin with, which then flows into a tale about how the man tasked with running the town finds the tattered remnants of his humanity.

Ayres is a fearless writer who effortlessly swings between points of view and points in time. He even writes a section in second person without coming across as cute. He keeps his focus sharp and his words biting. None of these characters are anyone you’d want to spend time around in real life, but each one is engrossing to read about. There’s ample ground for more stories about Politoburg, so a return on Ayres’ part is possible, but this book as a whole is so clean and efficient it’d be a shame to pad it out. Thankfully Ayres doesn’t.

Taking a different tack, more towards the thriller and definitely into the supernatural. “The Burning Men” is Christopher Farnsworth’s latest adventure featuring Zach Burrows and Nathaniel Cade. I’ve written about the Cade books before, but to summarize: Nathaniel Cade is a vampire, bound by blood to serve the President of the United States, and tasked with defending the U.S. from supernatural threats.

I really loved writing that summary, because it sounds totally ridiculous distilled that way, and therefore leads to the inevitable follow-up “why would you read that?”

Because they’re remarkably entertaining. Farnsworth excels at writing political thrillers, and the supernatural underpinnings give them the perfect popcorn-like snap. Cade has the amoral, single-minded drive of Jack Bauer tinged with the sociopathy and brilliance of Sherlock Holmes. He’s smart, cursed with preternaturally sharpened senses and physical attributes, and unrelenting in his commitment to his oath. His partner, Zach, is a classic political shark, sidelined from a promising career into handling a powerful creature who’s natural predilection is to kill, not maneuver.

The Burning Men” is a standalone, a placeholder until the next full adventure. Here, the broader political intrigue of the others in the series gets dialed down as Cade and Burrows investigate a case of human combustion that seems decidedly less than spontaneous. That leads them to a domestic terrorist group using dark magic to pass through any security, stand in a crowd, and engulf their victims in flame. This outing is a standalone, a satisfying taste of what the series does well. “The Burning Men” lacks the historical asides intimating Cade’s long history of service in the shadows, but it deftly shows off how effective – and to us, entertaining – he is. If you’re already a fan of these books, you’ll be satisfied, but probably eager for more. If this is your first taste, just know there’s three more excellent novels waiting when you finish, and hopefully more to come.

Both “The Burning Men” and “Fierce Bitches” are fast reads, and while Ayres and Farnsworth are very different in terms of style, but both are well written and damn entertaining. Both authors know how to get to the point, satisfy without wearing out their welcome, and leave the reader eager for more without feeling cheated or shortchanged. I already knew I liked Christopher Farnsworth, so “The Burning Men” just reinforces that knowledge. I had no idea what to expect from Ayres, but after reading “Fierce Bitches,” I’m absolutely going to be on the lookout for more.

Flash Fiction Challenge: Bits and Pieces

This week’s Flash Fiction Challenge was to choose a song title at random and make that the title of your story. The great god “shuffle” gave me Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s “Bits and Pieces,” which is some excellent Texas swing. It’s also instrumental, so no preconceived subject matter, though it does soundtrack the story I wrote pretty well. I pulled together a thousand words on a cook turned killer, and looking to switch careers. Hope you enjoy!

***

Greg Lange’s corpse slumped onto the tarp Kim Nash had spread on the tiled floor to avoid having to scrub blood out of the grout. She was thankful his house was so remote; carving a body his size for disposal wouldn’t be a quick process, so the less time she spent on cleanup, the better. Besides, as executive chef of Max’s, one of Seattle’s best restaurants, Lange had once made her scrub the restaurant’s kitchen floor as punishment for changing one of his dishes, and then fired her anyway. That had been embarrassing as hell, and she’d be damned if she’d scrub another floor because of him.

After he’d tossed her out, Kim found work with Tommy Robinson, a local butcher, who introduced her to Clarence Berry. Clarence was Tommy’s “silent partner.” Tommy introduced them when Clarence needed her skills to make an “unfortunate accident” of his easier to dispose of. In truth, most things Clarence did fit nicely between quotation marks.

The first time she took a hacksaw to a corpse was nauseating, until she convinced herself meat and bone were always meat and bone, regardless of what they’d been in life. Even so, it was hardly where she imagined finding herself after years of culinary training.

When she heard Lange was on Clarence’s “list,” Kim offered to take him out herself if Lange didn’t turn things around to Berry’s satisfaction. While she’d enjoyed her fantasies of ending the man responsible for her current career path, once he’d bled out, so had her vigor. In the end he was just another carcass.

Now she sat in his well-appointed Kitchen and wondered what he had to eat. There was nothing on the counter save a couple pricy bottles of wine. She was curious what he cooked for himself, so while she waited for Lange to stop draining, Kim took a look around. Takeout containers abounded; no raw ingredients in the place.

Greg often left others to cook his recipes, and he never spent longer in the kitchen than necessary to bark at the staff. It made sense for a jerk like him to have a showroom kitchen with no food in it. She had a ninth-rate setup at home, but she also had a loaded spice rack and always kept fresh ingredients on hand. Cooking energized her, no matter how long, tiring, or bloody her workday had been. Lange hadn’t deserved this kitchen, or the one in the restaurant. Now that he was gone this one’d be sold off, and Clarence would take over Max’s.

Clarence. He’d be coming to her place this evening to see how things had gone. He was chatty around her, and prone to linger. A little wine and something tasty might make him amenable to the right business pitch. It was just a question of what to prepare. As she knelt down next to the body and unpacked her tools, Kim began menu planning.

***

“Shit, you can cook.” Clarence hungrily scooped forkfuls of the meal she’d created into his mouth. The enticing scents of thyme, garlic, and rosemary still hung in the air. She leaned forward to tip more wine into his glass, and to push a plate of crusty bread closer.

“Glad you think so, it leads to a question I have.” Kim felt encouraged, warmed with the same joy that followed whenever she watched someone devour her cooking.

“First, you gotta tell me what this is again.”

She sat back with her own half-filled glass. “Bourgignon, but instead of the usual beef, I used offal. Sweetbreads, liver, kidney, and heart. I like using them because I don’t like wasting, and adults shouldn’t be put off just because it’s not what they’re used to. These are delicate cuts of pork, deeper in flavor than regular beef would be.”

“No arguments here.” He chased another bite with a sip of wine, before picking up his knife and fork and tucking back in.

“I was wondering about your plans for Max’s. I appreciate the work you’ve sent my way, but I wanted to show you that my real talents are wasted there, and might fit better if you need someone to take over the restaurant.”

Clarence swallowed another morsel. “Seriously? I mean, what you’re doing now gives you more free time…”

“Thanks, but c’mon, look at what you’re doing to my food. Any asshole can grill steak. Did you even know food could taste like that? Did you even realize or care what was in that meal before I told you? Offal is cheap meat, too. I could have your customers salivating and paying good money to do so. Meanwhile that wine pairs well with a meal like this, and it’s nowhere near cheap. Low cost for high quality, gourmet meals that also sell expensive wine?”

He sat back and grinned broadly to match Kim’s own generous smile. “I gotta say, you make a hell of an argument, verbally and otherwise. That payroll’s on the books, though. You’re not gonna make the money I pay you for the other thing.

She waved a hand to bat away the suggestion. “This isn’t only about money. I mean, don’t think I didn’t appreciate what you paid me. I’m not even saying I wouldn’t be available if you’re in a pinch. But whatever taste I had for that work is mostly gone. Give me the chance to do a job I’d actually kill for.”

He laughed at that, with the genuine, genial laugh he saved for partners like Tommy. “The job’s yours, and I hope this is on the menu.”

“Tommy doesn’t carry this particular breed of pig, but what he gets is good enough you’d barely know the difference.”

“I hope so, because that was amazing. I’m feeling good about this, Kim. I could eat like this forever.”

Kim sat back with her glass of Merlot, and contentedly watched as her former and future boss took bread, and sopped up the vestigial evidence of her previous career.

Thoughts on True Detective

Like many, many people, I’ve fallen down the “True Detective” rabbit hole. The series, which runs a scant 8 episodes in its premier season, is only just over halfway through. It’s hypnotic to watch the labyrinthine story unfold. There’s so much to enjoy here, beginning with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s jaw-dropping talent. Watching them embody two sharp takes on tough, guarded men has been a joy. McConaughey’s Rust uses philosophical rambling and an almost zenlike calm as armor, defending a corroded husk of a man, while Harrelson’s Marty imposes a compartmentalized simplicity on his life, often punctuated with explosions of rage. They both stand on the edges of different emotional cliffs, and a big part of the tension is waiting to see who falls, and when, and what sends them all the way over (assuming they haven’t already cracked, and we’re just waiting to see the true impact revealed).

I’ve also really enjoyed how, to date, Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunawa have written and directed each episode, rather than handing the series off after the pilot. The best series television doesn’t usually suffer too much from different writers and directors taking episodes, but watching a cohesive vision executed does make a difference I hadn’t really noticed before. Normally, the effect is only noticeable in the inverse, when someone truly notable steps in for a pass, such as when Stephen King or William Gibson wrote “X-Files” one-offs. Having a show with no deviations from the style and voice of these two really adds a tightness to the entire affair.

But overall, I’m in the camp who’s most drawn to “The King in Yellow” implications. The slight hinting at something more sinister than even the extensive human evil the show’s explored is fascinating, in large part because it feels much more true to what makes Lovecraftian horror tick. The monsters there lurk, spreading madness to the unfortunate souls who brush past them. “True Detective” is most likely not about to go into a full-on horror freakout, Cthulhu and all, but the way it teases that possibility adds a whole additional level to the storytelling. It functions in a very similar way to the opening of Jaws, or the root idea of what might shamble up from R’lyeh. The horror isn’t in seeing the creature crawling out of the abyss, it’s in the realization that something is moving in the dark water, just past your vision.

In spite of this, I find myself hoping they don’t go over that edge. I’m interested in how long they can preserve that sense of something terrifying out there, just past our reach. We’re plagued with a curiosity that demands we keep looking for it, even though we fear what we might find. Often, when movies and shows cross that line, and reveal the unknown, the fear seeps out. We have a tendency as readers and viewers to adjust quickly to things once they’re presented as “real” in their context. I’m as curious to see how long they can stretch out that tension, as I am to see what happens when – or even if – they finally pay those ideas off. The plan is for next season to follow a different story, with a different cast, similar to “American Horror Story.” Whether the show reaches the overall level of great HBO programs will have to wait for those future installments. For now, though, “True Detective” has shown itself the master of many things, and the art of teasing the audience irresistibly is right at the top of that list.

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20 Black Women in Horror Writing

mikes75:

An excellent and valuable list here. I’ve read some, but ultimately too few of these authors, so I’m leaving this here more a reminder to myself the next time I’m looking for new authors to try.

Originally posted on Sumiko Saulson:

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Black History Month 2013

February is Black History Month here in the United States. It is also Women in Horror Month (WiHM). As an Ambassador for WiHM, and as a woman of color (I am Black and Jewish) who is a horror writer, I am poignantly aware of the fact that while women writing horror is a rare occurrence – women of color are exceedingly so. The number of black women writing horror that most people are aware of can still be counted on one hand. For a lot of people, in fact, it can be counted on one finger: “Octavia Butler“. Most people are aware that the talented Ms. Butler, best known for her Science Fiction works, has also written horror. Far too many fans of the genre are unfamiliar with Linda Addison, first African American winner of the Bram Stoker award, or Stoker award nominees 

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Flash Fiction: Never Talk to Strangers

Another week, another Terribleminds Flash Fiction Challenge completed. I’m planning to post other things this year, really I am, but so far these have been too fun to resist. Take this week’s: a story coupled with a drink, title and all. The timing really couldn’t have been better. A short while ago I got a bottle of Creme de Cassis, and was looking for recipes I could use it in. In searching I came across Jeffrey Morganthaler’s very tasty recipe, called Bourbon Renewal in it’s regular form. I decided to tweak it, re-title it “Never Talk to Strangers,” and build a story with that title to fit the challenge. The story’s below. It’s a meeting at a bar, with a tasty drink helping break the ice. The recipe follows, hopefully you’ll find it – and the story – delicious.

***
Never Talk to Strangers

The Preston was busy, but not full, when Molly walked in. The vibrant, upscale room was alive with potential. She looked out over the crowd, and considered mingling for less than a minute before her nerves wavered and she resigned herself to an open space at the far corner of the bar.

“I’d like a Manhattan, please.” One quick drink, then she’d put her new black cocktail dress to full effect.

The bartender nodded and reached for his shaker, when a blonde woman in an elegant red dress spoke up. “Hold up, Tom. She’s not ready to order just yet.”

He shrugged and, before Molly could protest, moved to take another order.

Molly turned, annoyed at the woman’s rudeness. “What? No, wait – this is a move, right? This is your thing?”

“My ‘thing?’” Molly’s sarcastic half smile was returned warmly.

“You see a girl alone, and get your buddy to hold off on her drink. So what’s the follow up? ‘Have we met?’ Maybe ‘what’s your sign?’”

The blonde laughed, a charming, crystalline sound radiating from ruby lips. “I’m Laura. I just stopped you because that Manhattan you nearly ordered would’ve been a mistake.”

“Really.” Despite the dry tone of Molly’s voice, curiosity had gotten the better of her, along with a growing interest in this attractive – if forward – woman. She sat down beside her, turned to lean on the bar, and waited for a fuller explanation.

Laura continued. “You’re too experienced a drinker to settle for what I guarantee is going to be a substandard cocktail – no offense to Tom, who’s very good at his job.”

“I’m sure you’d know if he was, but I’m not convinced. What makes you so certain I’d be let down?”

Laura smiled at the challenge before launching into an explanation. “First off, I’m just guessing about your taste in cocktails, but most of the women who frequent this bar tend to be vodka drinkers, more of the Cosmo set? They prefer their alcohol hidden, which is a tragic thing to do to rye or bourbon. Plus, you knew what you wanted right off the bat so I guessed you order Manhattans out of habit.”

Molly arched an eyebrow. “I’ll give you clever, but that doesn’t explain my impending disappointment.”

“They ran out of Carpano Antica just before you came in, and the other sweet vermouth they use here is weak sauce. I was getting ready to leave, but I saw you and changed my mind. Anyway, don’t you get tired of the same old? Isn’t the crowd here disappointment enough for one night?” As Laura spoke, she leaned in conspiratorially.

Molly leaned in closer as well. “So, that’s your line? I just got here, so I’m not ready to say everyone in the place is a lost cause quite yet, but why should I suppose you’d be any better?” It was meant to be a playful question, but didn’t come out that way.

Laura blinked, and some of the warmth went out of the air between them. “Okay, I get it. Friendly conversation disagrees with you. Let me buy your drink and then I’ll get out of here, okay?”

“Wait, I’m sorry, that wasn’t nice.” Molly set a hand on Laura’s, and told herself it was only to stop her flagging down the bartender, not to keep her from leaving. “I’m trying not to show it, but it took some bucking up on my part to even come in here tonight and I guess that’s put me on edge. A drink would probably do me good, and I’m curious about what you were going to recommend.”

Laura looked at Molly’s delicate, warm hand on hers and, after a moment, smiled. “Well, if you’re truly interested. What I’m suggesting is a clever variation, and not too far from the drink you ordered. But it’s worth it if you’d like to give it a try.”

The warmth of their conversation restored, Molly relaxed and tried out her “playful” tone again. “I guess it depends on what you’re talking about.”

“Well, you’re comfortable with whiskey, so let’s keep the rye the same. We’ll still include bitters, but orange instead of angostura.”

“Those aren’t impressive changes. I thought you were offering something to surprise me?”

“We’re just getting started. When we replace the Carpano things get more interesting. .”

“But they’re already replacing that. Subbing in cheap vermouth, you said.”

“If we were just making a Manhattan, we’d go with that, and take our chances, right? It’d mostly be the same drink, but that only works when you’ve got quality ingredients. With good vermouth and rye, you’d get something deserving of the setting and present company. But in this case something downmarket’s hiding in there instead. The problem is that the expectation diminishes the overall experience. You’re hoping for the good stuff, and what you end up with leaves a bad taste. So let’s take the threat of cheap vermouth out of the equation entirely.”

“What about switching to dry?”

Laura shook her head, never breaking contact with Molly’s soft green eyes. “Nothing wrong with a Brooklyn, but it’s hardly a Manhattan, is it? In any case it’s the same problem. Regardless if it’s dry or sweet, vermouth can be wonderful or awful. The brand matters, and coming to a nice place like this you’d be right to expect wonderful. Anything else disappoints. Use a different liqueur you’re less familiar with…say Creme de Cassis…and you’ve got no preconceptions. Right? Unless you frequently dabble in Kirs, the flavor would be a surprise.”

“I suppose it would, but changing a familiar taste for something you’ve never tried before hardly seems inviting on its own.” Suddenly aware that her hand was still on Laura’s, Molly moved to push a lock of hair behind her ear.

If she was disappointed by that move, Laura hid it well. “Perhaps, but that’s why you don’t stop there. You back it with a kiss of lemon, and a hint of honey syrup, to punch up the tart and the sweet. And you increase the rye a bit for a stronger kick.”

“Hmm. And what do you call it?”

Laura paused, as if in consideration. “‘Never Talk to Strangers.’ I know it sounds more like a motto than a cocktail, but it’s really the truth, if you think about it.”

“Because you never should?”

“Because you never do. You never talk to strangers because, really, every stranger is only unknown until they’re not. In the same way you never really know someone, even if you’ve been acquainted for a time. After all, weren’t we perfect strangers when I stopped your order? I don’t even know your name, but that hasn’t stopped us talking. I’d go so far as to say there’s a rapport here, an ease of conversation that has potential, don’t you think?”

Laura continued. “You’re used to a Manhattan. You’re willing to trust its rusty red hue even if it disappoints when cheap booze is slipped in unawares. This cocktail’s more honest about its difference from the expected. That rusty red is now the purple of a tender bruise. If you tried it, say out of curiosity …or possibly even trust in the person recommending it …I assure you you’d find it warm and familiar, even though it’s completely new.”

To resist returning her hand to Laura’s, Molly brushed her fingers across the delicate silver chain around her neck. “I like that. It suggests a little more bravery on both our parts than I’m sure is justified, but I like it. I’m Molly, by the way. And perhaps you’re right, perhaps there is potential. I just wonder if you’d mind explaining something else first?”

“Well, Molly, I suppose that depends on the question?” The purr of her voice was a coy response to an equally flirtatious question.

Molly looked briefly away, towards the crowd she’d nearly forgotten occupied the room, before deciding no one out there was more important than the fascinating blonde next to her, or the last question she needed answered. “I’m wondering how you knew I’d be interested.”

“Well, I saw you walk in, beautifully dressed for a night out. I saw you scan the same room I did when I came in earlier, and note the paucity of singles. I saw you start towards the bar, where the only open space doesn’t have a very good view of the door.”

“If it doesn’t have a good view, how’d you see me come in?”

“Well, to confess, I wasn’t here when I noticed you. I moved when I saw you decide to stay.”

“So all that told you I’d be interested?”

“It gave me the courage to stop you ordering. I wasn’t sure of anything else until you sat down.”

A moment later, Tom brought two crystal glasses of the much discussed cocktail. A flush touched Molly’s cheeks as she took up the offered glass. “Wait, we should toast this.”

“You always toast the first time you try a new drink?”

She nodded. “I like to toast beginnings, for luck. In the hopes they linger.”

Laura smiled, and took her own glass. “I think I’ve monopolized the floor enough for now. Maybe you have one in mind?”

As they raised their glasses, Molly said, “To perfect strangers; may they soon be strangers no more.”

***
Recipe for Never Talk to Strangers

2.5 oz Rye Whiskey (ideally Bulleit)

.5 oz Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice

.5 oz Honey Syrup (see below)

.5 oz Creme de Cassis

Couple of dashes of orange bitters (angostura will work if you have those instead)

To make the honey syrup, combine equal parts good honey and water by first warming the honey in a saucepan, then stirring in the water. Let it cool some before using. I’d recommend making extra and using it in place of simple syrup, a good clover or blueberry honey syrup adds an extra dimension to cocktails.

Add the lemon juice, syrup, Creme de Cassis, rye, and orange bitters to an ice filled cocktail shaker and stir vigorously to combine ingredients thoroughly. Can be shaken if preferred, in which case shake until the shaker is cold enough it hurts your hand a little.

Strain over fresh ice in an old fashioned glass (or serve neat in a chilled martini glass). If you’re into garnishes, a twist of lemon would serve nicely. Makes one drink so I’d encourage you to double everything and share.

20140206-194807.jpg

Fairy Tale, Remixed: Drawn Out of Need

Since the last time out was such fun, I’ve decided to keep trying flash fiction. Luckily, Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds flash fiction challenges offer fantastic prompts, with the kind of insidious complications thrown in to make me take chances I might not normally consider.

Take this most recent one: the challenge is to rewrite a fairy tale, no more than 1,000 words. Piece of cake for a parent; bedtime often means practicing script-free re-tellings of classic tales. I had a couple I used to tell my son; surely one could be adapted to fit. I began thinking about one in particular, a Japanese tale about a boy who conquers demons with the help of his drawings of cats.

The twist in the challenge was to roll (or use a random number generator) to pick a number between 1 and 20, and write the story in the corresponding genre. I rolled three – erotica. Well fuck.

Still, the purpose of a challenge is to get out of one’s comfort zone, right? So I (sort of) kept the tale, flipping the hero’s gender, and making it a story about a woman drawing a different sort of cat to help her conquer a more personal demon.

***

As the night wore on, more and more couples drifted upstairs; Kira accepted she was the “extra” guest at the party, and resigned herself to a night in her room, alone.

Lying in bed, she wondered why she bothered to go in the first place. Her friend Cathy had said there’d be lots of guys, and even offered to introduce her to her fiancé’s roommate, Curtis.

“He’s right up your alley. You know, quiet. Like you are.”

Kira smiled. “Sure, like Sam was.”

“Sam was an asshole,” replied Cathy. “You were right to leave him.”

“He left me, remember?”

“The one time he did something good for you! Kira, he was a lousy boyfriend and-your words-’a terrible fuck.’ Forget him. Move on.”

She hadn’t really been out with friends since the split, and as introverted as Kira sometimes felt, isolation was worse. “Fine, but please don’t push me on Curtis. I don’t like being rushed.”

“OK, move at your own pace. I’m warning you, though; I’m getting married next year, and no one under 15 is invited without a date-especially my oldest friend.”

“Whatever. Just help me find an outfit.”

She settled on a t-shirt with a barely too-low neck and form-fitting jeans. She wore her straight black hair pulled back and was more careful than usual to get her makeup just right. Kira went downstairs feeling every bit as attractive as she looked.

She might look pretty, but no-one approached her. None of the guys, and not even her friends. They had already paired off, aware enough of her presence to shift forward or back to avoid bumping her, but not enough to converse.

Eventually she stopped even trying to mingle. Kira found a seat, a pencil, and a napkin. Knowing no one would notice, she began to sketch a face using her favorite features from the men present. Warm brown eyes behind wire-framed glasses from one, soft lips and an easy smile from another. Tousled hair, strong chin; eventually she stopped glancing up for reference. When she realized the party was winding down she headed to bed, her sketch in her pocket.

Lying there, she wished things had gone better with Sam. Their one time together-her first time-had been terrible; she hadn’t known what to expect, and he hadn’t cared. Sam dumping her was inevitable, and her only regret was that she was left knowing what she didn’t like, but clueless as to what she did.

Cathy was right about Curtis; he was someone she could see being with.  But he deserved better than someone looking for “Not Sam.” If she were going to be with him, she wanted it to be for a while.

Unable to sleep, she pulled the sketch from her pocket and imagined the man who could get her past Sam. She unfolded the napkin; smoothed it out on the bed next to her. She found another pencil and, eyes closed, sketched other parts of the man she’d started assembling in her mind. She drew broad, strong shoulders above a toned chest and powerful, athletic legs. Feeling warmer in her cheeks, she continued, adding defined arms and the hint of a cute, firm butt. With a lazy smile, she set the pencil down and rolled over, asleep almost immediately.

Later, under warm blankets, she felt a new weight on the mattress behind her, a welcome firmness against her back. A soft breath crossed her ear, whispered “Kira.” A strong hand rested on her bare belly. She didn’t tense; Kira somehow knew this was the man she’d envisioned, this was how she’d move on. She lifted her head and lowered it onto his bent arm, and allowed his other hand to pull her flush. She arched back to press against his hard, eager flesh.

His hand stirred from her belly and skilled fingers feathered over her breast, teased the nipple hard. She rocked her hips, her butt pressed against him, moaning as his tongue brought the lobe of her ear between his lips. Kira rolled over and pressed herself into his chest. His hands found her ass and drew her still closer. Their lips met, parted, then pressed harder together.

She didn’t need to look at him; she knew each contour of his body. He eased her to her back and moved his mouth from her lips, to her breast, to her belly. She opened her legs wider to allow him space between them, to let him continue down her body. His fingers, then his skilled tongue, found her center. She ran her hands through his hair as he tasted her, before flinging her arms wide as heat coursed throughout her body. He rose and, lithe and intent, entered her.

Kira wrapped arms and legs around him as he pulsed in tandem with her, whispering her name a breath above her lips. She kissed him, and wished she’d written a name beside her sketch that she could scream out, just before they both stiffened and she lost all knowledge of speech.

She slept soundly the rest of the night, first with her arm draped over his shoulder, then with a hand resting on her sketch. In the morning she dressed, made the bed, and set the napkin on her desk.

Cathy was downstairs, laughing at something her fiancé had said. Kira saw that her friend had made coffee before they tackled the party’s aftermath, and she helped herself to a cup.

“I was wondering if Curtis met anyone last night?”

David smiled. “He helped Jenna find a cab, then went home alone.  Why?”

Kira pretended to ignore the knowing tone on that ‘why.’ “I was just thinking about Cathy’s suggestion…”

“Really? You’d let me set you up with him? That’s great, I really think you’d be good together!”

Now Kira let slip her own knowing smile. “Well, I certainly have some ideas…”

***

Flash Fiction: Griefstruck Skull

It’s a new year, so in the grand tradition of trying something new, I’ve opted to dive headfirst into one of Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenges over at Terribleminds. I’ve lurked there before, but this time around I decided to try the random number generator challenge, and the two words I got were “Griefstruck” and “Skull.” I really couldn’t pass up the chance to write something with a title like that, so I dove into an on-the-button thousand word story of a boxer quitting the game, with the reluctant help of his shady promoter.

GRIEFSTRUCK SKULL

The dimwit hillock with a lazy smile strolled into Joe’s gym and drawled, “I got your message – Hey, that a new tat? Looks good.” Shawn peeled off a pair of too-narrow aviators to see better in the dimmer-than-outdoors room.

Nicky was leaning against the gym’s centerpiece ring, wrapping his hands, mumbling down into the damp rags. “Thanks, I got it after the Boyeda thing.”

Shawn continued addressing the top of Nicky’s head as he walked further into the room. He chuckled once he could better see the jagged skull just above Nicky’s heart. “That a tear on it? Never took you for sentimental.”

Nicky looked up and sort of grinned, “You think? The hospital had these x-rays up in our room. I couldn’t stop looking at ‘em, you know? Didn’t have much to do, so I looked up the parts of the skull; the names of the bones. I knew there’re these tiny ones in the hands – I break ‘em enough, how could I not, right? But did you know there were all these different ones in your head? Like in Ray’s; I broke this front part, the zygomatic process? Under the eye socket. Broke a smaller one inside too, the lacrimal bone. Those weren’t the worst cracks I gave him, but on the x-rays the first looked a little like a tear; and I learned the other protects the tear ducts. Couldn’t stop thinking about that.” Nicky wrapped his hands slowly, with almost sacred precision.

Shawn stood agape. “Wait, that’s Ray?”

Nicky nodded, stood, and circled Shawn, wandering slowly, as if in thought. “I wanted to tell you I quit. I messed Ray up a shit-ton worse than he deserved, but I guess you had a reason to want it that way.”

Shawn stared slack-jawed at the black outline on Nicky’s chest, and couldn’t hide his revulsion. “Dude, why’d you ink his fucked-up skull onto your chest? I mean, Jesus…”

Nicky finished the crescent, which now put Shawn between him and the training ring. “I fought Ray before, and I beat him before. I just don’t get why I had to beat him that way…”

“You don’t need to get why. It’s what I wanted and you did it just the way I asked.” The constant throbbing lividity that was Shawn’s neck and face flared redder to emphasize his temper. “Actually? fuck that. You think we’d do half as well with mainstream fights? Boxing’s dead, wrestling’s a fucking soap opera for boys still don’t know why they get hard watching it, and MMA’s locked up way too tight for us to get into. This way, we make good money, and we all get what we want, right? You did your fucking job, now’s the part where you take your money, keep your mouth shut. which is what Ray sucked at. Look; I don’t know if you were drunk or high when you got that; if you want it removed I’ll gladly pay for it. What kind of morbid fuck wears a dead man’s skull on his chest?

“It’s a ‘Memento Mori.’ I killed a man, with my fists. I never did that before, and I shouldn’t have done it then. But Joe listened to you, and soaked my wraps just like you asked, so they’d set heavy. I worked extra weight training to hold my arms up like he told me to, then that night he cast my hands and I went to work. You know how hard it is to hold extra weight in a fight? To keep your arms up and keep swinging? I was burning, and kept hoping I’d put him down in a round or two. We went seven rounds, and the sin of it seared all the way up into my chest. I broke bones in my hands in fights before, but I broke more that night. This was a different kind of pain, like my body knew what I was doing was wrong, and tried to hurt me to stop it. Joe couldn’t take seeing it, said he almost stopped the fight and turned us in.”

“I heard that. I also heard the lush drowned himself in his fucking tub.” Shawn spat the words at Nicky.

“Yeah, well, somethings don’t wash away so easily.” Shawn watched Nicky advance, realizing at the same time not only was his back to the ring, Nicky was now between him and the door. “Hey, You OK?”

“Nope. Not for days.” Nicky close now, raising his arms and curling tight fists. Shawn had another moment to see them come up even with Ray’s broken skull.

“Look, this was all just business-”

Shawn’s head snapped back before he could register the punch. His vision swam and he staggered back, finally colliding with the training ring. Dazed, he offered no resistance as Nicky looped his rag doll arms over the lowest rope.

“In seven rounds I hit Ray Boyeda thirty times in the head, Broke his skull in nearly every place a person can. He stayed on his feet while I hit him in the face with fists cast in plaster, and that’s just business to you? We both have debts we owe the dead. It’s painful, Shawn, but pain is catharsis. I need that, and you might not deserve it, but I want to give you the same chance. Fair is fair. I’m done. I’m done with using my fists, but I’m afraid that’s not going to be enough, so I’m gonna break ‘em one last time, with your help, so I don’t forget. When I’m done, I’m walking out of here, and then I’m gone. I’ll leave the door unlocked; I’m sure your cell’s in your pocket. Ray wasn’t a saint, but he had enough heart to hold on for two days after I beat him bloody. I’m betting you don’t have half the heart he did, but I’m not the gambler here. Now strap in, Shawn, ’cause that was one; we’ve got twenty-nine more to go.”

Without Definition or Reservation

Whatever

I'M LOOKING AT THE BIG SKY NOW

Nicole Smeltzer

Illustration + Sketchbook

The Molotov Cocktail

A PROJECTILE FOR INCENDIARY FLASH FICTION

Angel Luis Colón

Writer|Blogger|Beer Lover|Curmudgeon

Nothing But the Rain

A SciFi/Fantasy Culture Blog

FiveThirtyEight

FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver’s newly launched website at ESPN, uses statistical analysis — hard numbers — to tell compelling stories about politics, science, economics, lifestyle, and sports.

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