Month: March 2010
Feedback on Left Coast Crime
This year, Left Coast Crime was held in Los Angeles, and three of our WinRs attended
Here’s what they had to say about the good, the bad, and the nefarious!
Photo: Left to Right is Rosemary Lord, GB Pool, and Jackie Houchin.
I loved riding up and down on the historic Angel’s Flight funicular at Michael Connelly’s luncheon!
But I also thoroughly enjoyed meeting such an assortment of other writers from all over the world. Wherever they had come from (England, Canada, New York and further afield) we all had a common bond: a love of writing and mysteries – in varying degrees of immersion. From the ex-soldier, retired cop from Yorkshire (Colin Campbell) who was working during the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror – to the elegant New Jersey writer, Sheila York, who seems to channel Raymond Chandler via Lauren Bacall for her 1940s sleuth Lauren Atwill. And, of course, our forensic champ Doug Lyle was there guiding us through fascinating ways for our villains to kill people and almost get away with it. My head is still buzzing with all the new writers I discovered and the voices of characters yet to be written.
I can’t wait for the next conference.
Left Coast Crime left me breathless, speechless, and tired. Getting downtown in early morning traffic in Los Angeles had me white-knuckled, but the hotel staff was very accommodating and I liked the venue. (Note: The Omni Hotel downtown LA)
What I liked most was seeing people I actually know, many of them friends, and meeting some really great mystery fans. They were so much fun to talk to – all of them. And then I got to be on a panel (The Art of the Short Story). I will never forget that.
I picked a variety of panels to watch, tending more toward the darker ones since my own work is less cozy and more the traditional gumshoe variety. I had heard many of these authors before, but there were still some fun stories, and a few surprises.
There was always something to do. I loved riding Angels Flight, the shortest railroad in the world, for its first run since 2001. Author Michael Connelly helped facilitate that experience.
The biggest disappointment was listening to Lee Child expounding on some half-baked idea that we all came from sea creatures living in salt water. Since no one was laughing, I guess it wasn’t a joke, and the guy believed what he was saying.
One rule people should have in polite society: No Religion/No Politics. A half dozen people on various panels talked about Dick Cheney. He was mentioned more than any other single person. Go figure.
I went to the bar and had a martini and thought about what I would like to say to Dick Cheney if I ever met him.
Cozies, humor, geezer lit: are these (dare I say, “frothy?”) mystery sub-genres going out of style? According to the panels I attended at the recent Left Coast Crime convention, the answer is a resounding “No!”
LCC even awarded the prestigious “Lefty” to Rita Lakin (70+) for her “Geezer Lit” mystery series with a sassy (and funny) 75-year old protagonist. Go Grandma!
Look at some of the panel titles offered: “Bring Your Blankie, Let’s Get Cozy!” “Die Laughing,” “Cozy Up,” “Geezer Lit,” “Thrilling Cozies,” “LOL,” and “Liars.”
Sure there were “hard boiled” panels, noirs, and true crime (and of course talks and interviews by stellar crime-fiction authors), but I was there for a light-hearted good time.
Earline Fowler (Benni Harper series) is one of my favorites. She’s been writing good, clean, heartwarming, (and yes, suspenseful) mysteries for 17 years. She writes a book every 18 months, and says “You can push back a little” if you don’t like your publisher’s demands. (Oh, ho!)
Another of my favorites, Parnell Hall (Puzzle Lady series), got laughs simply by walking into a room. (No wonder they chose him for Guest of Honor at Malice Domestic!) And then there was Mike Befeler (Retirement series) whose “Geezer Lit” hat soon became recognizable everywhere in the hotel.
Annette Mahon (Quilting Bee series) writes about a group of elderly ladies who meet at church to stitch and solve mysteries. Cynthia Riggs published her first book at age 70. Her protagonist was 92. She hopes to keep her going to 99 and beyond!
Older, funny, “delicate but dangerous” protagonists are alive and well. Long may they live!
PS: From the silent and live auctions, over $7,000 was raised for the Los Angeles Public Library Adult Literacy Program, and over $7,500 for the Crime Lab Project. Way to go Left Coast Crime!!
Short Story "Special Delivery" Part 4
Continued from Wednesday….
Grady weighed his options. If he paid Tom Simms a visit, he might just spook Patty Simms back underground. At this point, Grady was ninety-nine percent sure that Patty Simms was alive. If he had to guess who died in the car fire, his first pick would be a homeless person.
Once he decided against the direct approach, the only option left to him was to watch the Simms house. It would be difficult to go unnoticed in a neighborhood that generated half of the Wilton emergency phone calls – most of them paranoid, false alarms. Grady just knew he had to make a move before that check came in. Once Tom Simms got his hands on the money, he would be gone.
He slipped on his leather jacket, the only dark jacket he owned, and decided to walk. It was only six blocks. Without a car, he wouldn’t stand out so much. At least he hoped not.
Roxanne flipped an evergreen branch away from her ear.
“Watch it,” Vanessa hissed.
“Quiet, both of you.” Deanna parted the bush and peered through the opening.
The women were crouched behind the neighbor’s bushes and peering into the Simms’ house. The light that shone through the kitchen window was suddenly joined by an upstairs light. The entire side yard was suddenly in the spotlight.
Deanna pushed her daughters back, warning, “Stay out of the light.”
Roxanne landed on her butt, holding the camera safely in the air.
A woman giggled from the upstairs room.
“Gross,” Vanessa said.
“I thought you were all for Tom moving ahead with his life,” Roxanne said.
“Privately. I don’t want to hear it.”
The naked torso of Tom Simms stepped in front of the window. From behind, a woman’s arms reached around his middle and began to play with his nipples.
Vanessa held her hands over her eyes. “Tell me when it’s over.”
“I can’t see her face,” Deanna said. She crawled around the bushes and into the Simms’ side yard. Roxanne and Vanessa followed.
Tom turned and embraced the woman, blocking their view of her.
Roxanne searched for something to stand on. She spotted a metal trash can and carried the empty canister over.
“Stand still,” she ordered Vanessa. Using her sister’s shoulder for leverage, Roxanne hoisted herself on top of the can.
Her sudden movement triggered a motion-sensitive security light. The three women were now backlit by the blinding light coming from the neighbor’s side porch. A dog barked.
“Crap!” Deanna crawled on hands and knees to the far edge of the yard. When Roxanne made to step down from the trash can, Deanna motioned her to stay put.
“Stay there,” she hissed. “You won’t be able to see a thing from here.”
Tom Simms chose this moment to turn toward the window to pull down the shade. His partner was exposed, and Roxanne snapped the picture.
She forgot about the flash. One bright burst dazzled Tom Simms, and he opened the window and leaned out.
“What the hell?”
Roxanne didn’t hear him. She was already on the sidewalk, running full speed, trailed closely by Vanessa.
“Where’d Mother go?” Roxanne asked, after she caught her breath.
“We have to go back.”
“Back where?” said a male voice.
Both women screamed.
Deanna Wilder, afraid to move across the illuminated yard, opted to press herself farther back into the bushes. She squinted in an attempt to see, but the security light still blinded her.
She felt something against the back of her head and reached back to swat away another branch. Her hand grasped something hard and cold.
“I don’t think you want to jostle that.”
“Crap,” she said. “Can you at least help me up?”
A strong hand grasped her elbow and pulled her to her feet. Spots danced in front of her eyes, but she could make out the shape of Tom Simms.
He sighed, sounding disappointed. “Lead the way.”
He jabbed her with the butt of the revolver, so she did as instructed.
“It’s this button.” Vanessa reached over Roxanne’s shoulder and pressed. The word erase flashed across the screen.
“You’ll have to trust me,” Roxanne told Grady. “We had a picture.”
“You’re sure it was Patty Simms?”
Vanessa and Roxanne exchanged looks.
“We’re sure it’s not a blonde.”
Roxanne craned her neck to see down the street. Her rush to freedom had brought her three houses down from the Simms’ place.
“My mother was right behind us…I thought.”
Grady scratched his neck. A hostage. Not his specialty.
“You girls stay here. I’ll –“ He struggled to think of some brilliant plan of action. “Do something,” he finished.
“That sounds promising,” Vanessa said, but not as if she meant it.
Grady took the camera from Roxanne, hunched his shoulders and headed toward the Simms house. He was impressed that the women had come to the same conclusion as he and just as fast. He was not impressed by their actions tonight – invasion of privacy, throwing a potential hostage to the criminal, and possibly spooking his suspect. At least he now had a good reason to visit Tom Simms. That thought cheered him.
He passed the row of hedges separating the Simms’ residence from their security conscious neighbors. The bushes were broken on the Simms’ side, and an empty trash can lay on its side in the yard. The only lights on in the house came from somewhere downstairs, toward the back of the house.
A harried-looking young man answered the door. He was fully dressed, and did not strike Grady as being in an amorous mood.
“I’m looking for a missing woman,” he said. Grady figured the direct approach was his only option.
Grady reached into his pocket and pulled out his identification. “I have a report of a missing woman. She disappeared in your yard.”
Tom’s face took on a look that said, Oh. That woman. “I heard what I thought were prowlers, but they were gone by the time I got outside.”
He started to close the door. Grady shoved his foot inside.
“I’d like to take a look around, if that’s alright with you.”
Tom started to protest, but Grady interrupted.
“She’s been known to break into people’s homes. Very unstable.”
Tom’s face paled. He licked his lips and looked over his shoulder.
“Maybe you could ask your wife if she’s seen anyone creeping around.”
“My wife?” Tom’s voice cracked. Grady liked that.
When Tom Simms made a break for the back door, it was an unwelcome move but not a surprise. Grady’s primary concern was Deanna Wilder’s safety, so he let him go.
“Anybody home?” he called out.
As he passed the hall closet, the door bulged out with a thump. He remained behind the door as he turned the knob, and Deanna Wilder, bound and gagged, tumbled out. A brown-haired woman in a negligee landed on top of her. Grady helped her to her feet.
“Detective Sean Grady.” He smiled and grabbed the young woman’s hand, admiring her wedding band. “I’m glad to see you’re no worse for wear. That car fire was a doozey.”
“So, who died in the fire?”
Grady allowed Vanessa to refill his beer and nodded his thanks. “That would be some unfortunate street kid.” He stopped, his glass midway to his lips. “They didn’t even bother to get her name before they killed her.”
Deanna tapped her empty glass on the table, waiting for Vanessa to tend to her. “I’m parched. Being gagged will do that for you.”
“That was three days ago, Mother,” Roxanne said. “Give it a rest.” Her voice betrayed her. It was distinctly missing signs of irritation. She slid her glass across the table to Vanessa.
“Can I get a drink, too?” Vanessa snapped. Grady held a ten dollar bill in the air, and a waitress hustled over with another pitcher of beer and cleared away the empty pizza pan.
“We’re all agreed that they did it for the money?” Deanna said.
“Duh,” Vanessa said. “For one million dollars I’d set you on fire.”
“With the signed receipt that Regina collected, we’ve got them on insurance fraud.” Grady ran his thumb around the top of his glass. “You know, I never would have figured out the meaning behind the scented paper.”
“You mean the perfume?” Roxanne asked. “Didn’t you smell it that night in Abigail’s house? It reeked.”
“I thought that was –“Grady stopped short, as if suddenly aware he was in mixed company. “Never mind.”
Ida and Mabel entered the pizza parlor, and Deanna waived them over.
“Is everyone here?” Ida asked.
Deanna pulled out her silver briefcase and flipped the latches. As she tossed a deck of cards to Grady, she asked, “You are going to show me how to cheat, aren’t you?”
Short Story "Special Delivery" Part 3
Continued from Monday…
“Tom Simms has a girlfriend.” Deanna made this pronouncement while slapping a wad of mashed potatoes onto Vanessa’s plate.
“I saw her,” Roxanne said. “At least I assume I did. Is her name Daliah?”
“How would I know? I only heard from Regina -”
“Can’t anyone keep their privacy in this town?” Vanessa said, stabbing at her pork roast.
Roxanne blushed. “I’m not judging him. I only said I saw him with a blonde woman today.”
“It seems soon,” Deanna said. “His wife’s only been gone a short time. Still, he is a young man.”
“You think Abigail was referring to Tom?”
Vanessa looked confused. “Abigail’s dead.”
“The day she died, Mother heard her make an odd comment.” Roxanne searched Deanna’s face. “You think the comment had something to do with her death.”
“It’s pretty far fetched,” Deanna said. “However, Tom’s been getting perfumed letters at the post office.”
“How in God’s name would you know that?” Vanessa demanded.
“Maybe it’s the same woman,” Roxanne said. “I don’t remember seeing her in Wilton before. One thing that is odd… I saw the couple leave Pepe’s Restaurant, so I went in and asked the hostess about them. They came in together.”
“You spied on them?” Vanessa threw down her fork. “I’d expect that from her,” she said, jabbing a finger in at Deanna.
Roxanne ignored the comment and instead asked Vanessa, “Do you remember a certain smell at Abigail’s house that night? Sweet?”
“I’m going to be sick.” Vanessa pushed her plate away.
“I mean like bad perfume.”
This caught Deanna’s attention. “Abigail Watts never wore perfume. She was allergic.”
“When I walked in, the restaurant had that same smell up by the hostess station. Tom and the Daliah had just passed through. I found out the scent is called Halo. They carry it at Bently’s, where they kept it in stock…for the late Patty Simms.”
“That’s a coincidence.” It was clear from her tone that Deanna did not approve of coincidences.
“Especially when the scent is so…” Roxanne struggled to find the right word, “Unique. Marla, the sales clerk, told me that Tom Simms bought a bottle last week.”
“That’s creepy,” Vanessa said. “If I was his girlfriend, I’d demand my own perfume.”
“The smell connects Tom, or at least his girlfriend, to the murder scene. And Tom was in line that day.” Deanna’s voice trailed off as she considered the possibility.
“But that’s ridiculous,” said Roxanne. “People don’t get murdered because they disapprove of the length of your mourning period.”
Vanessa grabbed the coffee urn off the countertop. “Don’t you think you should share your theory with Detective Grady?”
Roxanne stammered. “It’s hardly a theory.”
Deanna smiled. “I’m sure Detective Grady has his own theories to keep him occupied.”
Grady was stumped. He had an unpleasant, generally disliked dead woman who was celebrating an expected income. There were no recent deposits in her bank account, no recently deceased relative who might have left her money, and little possibility of a sudden career change. If Grady considered Abigail Watts’ character, blackmail seemed likely.
Since she had yet to receive a payment, Grady assumed the target must be recent. Unfortunately, a search of her personal papers left him without any clues. Of course, if the blackmail victim had killed her, he or she would hardly have left the evidence behind. Who in Wilton had undergone a recent change in fortunes? Was there any place he hadn’t looked? Some secret place that Abigail might use to hide information?
On a hunch, Grady grabbed his jacket and headed for the post office.
Regina Potter held the envelope up to the light and gasped. That is a lot of zeros, she thought. The envelope, addressed to Tom Simms, bore the return address of Travelot Insurance Carrier. Regina had an inkling the envelope contained the insurance payout for his wife’s death. Good thing she had peeked. Only a personal delivery would do for a check in this amount.
The envelope was marked return receipt requested, signature required, and she could collect that signature and see the look of pleasure on the young man’s face for herself. How fortuitous of Tom to insure his wife so well, she thought, especially considering they were newlyweds. One hardly thought about the possibility of bad things so early in life. Unless, of course, you were a pragmatist, like Tom Simms.
When asked, Leonard Miles confirmed that employees received a free box as part of their benefits package. He didn’t recall Abigail ever putting hers to use. Fortunately, Leonard was wrong.
Grady dumped the former box contents onto his desktop and studied them. There was a blank sheet of pink paper, scented. His eyes watered from the smell. He slipped this piece of evidence back into the envelope and slid it into a drawer.
On an unscented, white sheet of paper, an eight hundred number was scratched in pencil alongside the name Barnaby. He dialed an outside line.
“Travelot Insurance,” said the perky voice that answered.
“I’d like to speak to Barnaby.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Grady rubbed his temple. “What kind of insurance do you sell at Travelot?”
The receptionist recited the company line. “We service the personal needs of average Americans. We offer life, health, disability –“
“Which department do the Barnaby’s work in?”
“One.” He completed the sentence for her. “Just transfer me to anyone named Barnaby.”
On the second ring, a young man answered the phone. “Barnaby Miller.”
“This is Detective Grady from the Wilton police force.”
“Wilton. As in Wilton, Illinois?”
“Never heard of it. I handle the East Coast.”
Grady had a glimmer of hope. “Is there a Barnaby who handles the Midwest?”
“Barnaby Taylor. I’ll transfer you.”
Barnaby Taylor was a busy man. Grady went directly into his voice mail. He left a message and made sure to add that his enquiry was regarding murder with the hope that this would expedite the return call. By two o’clock, the insurance man had not touched base. Grady left another message, this time including his home phone number, and went in search of a late lunch.
Regina Potter peered through the screen door of Twenty-five Minnow Lane. A woman’s soft laughter drifted through the house from a back room. Regina struggled to hold onto her confidence and push away the voice in her head that berated her.
Interloper. Intruder. You’re a chip off the ol’ Abigail block, aren’t you?
A handsome face, vaguely familiar, appeared in response to her knock. Over his shoulder, Regina saw a dark haired woman wrapped in a towel dart up the stairs. She pulled her eyes back at the sharp tone of his voice.
The grand pronouncement she had practiced on her walk up the driveway abandoned her.
“I’ve come from the post office.” She stuck out the hand holding the check.
Tom Simms opened the screen door and leaned against the frame. He took the envelope, raising a brow after reading the return address.
“Harvey’s already been by,” he said, referring to the mail carrier.
Regina blushed. “This came after the mail had been sorted and it seemed kind of important. It needs a signature.” She stumbled along, unable to stop herself. “I assumed, with the death of your wife and all…a tragedy. You have my heartfelt sympathy.”
Regina relaxed when Tom offered her a boyish smile.
“I hope my sister didn’t shock you. She’s visiting.” He glanced back at the stairway and rolled his eyes. “I told her she should get a robe. It’s not decent, even if I am her brother.”
Regina, emboldened by this confidence, smiled and told Tom not to worry. All girls grow out of it. “How old is she?”
Tom replied, “Teenager,” and the two shared an understanding chuckle. Then he grew serious.
“Thanks. For what you said about my wife. I still miss her.”
Regina jumped at the chance to offer consolation and left him with a few words of advice about mending hearts and life marching on. When she walked away from the Simms house, it was with a light step and Tom Simm’s signature.
The phone rang just as Grady peeled the lid from the top of a microwave dinner. He tossed the hot plastic between his fingers and dumped it in the sink, managing to answer on the fourth ring.
The caller was Barnaby Taylor.
“I was concerned by your message, naturally. Didn’t get it until five minutes ago. So are you saying a client of mine was murdered?”
“Not unless Abigail Watts was a client.”
“Doesn’t sound familiar.” Grady heard typing. “No. Good thing, too. Our policies don’t pay out on murder, as you’d imagine.”
“Mr. Taylor,” Grady asked, “do you have any clients in Wilton?”
Barnaby Traylor paused a moment. “Hard to say. What’s the zip code?”
Grady supplied it and Barnaby typed it into the system.
“I got one hit,” Barnaby said. “And you’re lucky I got it. That policy was purchased seven months ago, but not in Wilton. We’ve only just updated our system search to include a change of address. Tom and Patty Simms.” Barnaby grunted. “Seems there’s been a payout recently.”
Grady waited while Barnaby compiled his information.
“That’s too bad. Looks like the wife died in a car accident a couple of months after they were married. I hate that.”
Barnaby sounded devastated.
“Can you tell me when that check paid out?”
“The check was cut two weeks ago. Then it would have been routed for signature and mailed. We send payouts return receipt requested, and we need a signature as well. Haven’t gotten anything back, so the check is probably in the mail.” Barnaby laughed at his own joke.
Grady thanked him for the information.
“Hold on,” Barnaby said. “What does this have to do with murder?”
“Can you tell me how much the check was for?”
Barnaby paused. “One million dollars.”
Bingo, thought Grady.
This time, Roxanne accompanied Deanna into the post office. She worried that Regina might not be forthcoming in her presence, but Roxanne wanted to make sure she got the facts directly from the woman. She needn’t have worried.
Regina was bursting to set the record straight.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said to Deanna, with a nod to Roxanne.
“I feel I’ve done a bad thing.” Regina administered her own version of corporal punishment, slapping her left hand with her right. “Shame on me, maligning that young man’s character.”
She explained about her duty to deliver the check from the insurance company in person.
“And then I met his sister, a sweet young thing. She must have been the one writing the letters. So you see? It was all so innocent. I feel terrible for making a fuss.”
“Was she a blonde?” Roxanne asked.
“Brunette.” Regina frowned. “Why?”
“Did you get her name?”
Regina stammered. “I didn’t think to ask. Does it matter?”
“What did she look like?”
Regina blushed. “I didn’t get a good look. You see, she was running up the stairs in a towel and –“
This time Deanna spoke up. “She was running around in front of her brother in a towel?”
“She’s only a teenager and…” Regina frowned. “I believe he gave her a talking to.”
Roxanne asked, “Did you smell anything peculiar?”
Regina gasped. “You mean like drugs?”
“No. Like bad perfume.”
Regina narrowed her eyes and clutched the top of her blouse closed. It was clear she thought Roxanne was making fun of her. For the second time in her short career, Regina put up the closed sign and took an unscheduled break.
Grady held the line for the Dane County Coroner. It took three transfers, but he finally hooked up with a doctor who remembered the accident. Dr. Kohler had been on duty the night that Patty Simms died.
“It’s pretty straight forward, Detective Grady.” Dr. Kohler explained how the body had been burned beyond recognition after the engine caught fire and the gas tank exploded. “It was labeled a freak accident by the fire department. She lost control of the car. Although, come to think of it, they were never sure why. Route Fourteen is a straight shot at that point, and the night was clear. It’s possible a stray deer wandered into her path but there were no skid marks.”
“Who identified the body? And how?”
Dr. Kohler shuffled through his report.
“The husband was forced to do it, poor sod. Identification came from the wedding ring she was wearing.”
“What happened to the ring?”
Dr. Kohler seemed surprised by the question. “It was an accidental death. I suppose it was returned to him with…well, there really wasn’t anything else to return.”
Grady thanked the man and settled down to a luke-warm meal.
“What are we going to do?”
When Deanna spoke, she had a glazed look in her eyes that worried Roxanne.
“Mother, define “do”?”
“About the woman who is obviously not Tom Simms’ sister!” Deanna practically screamed.
Vanessa stuffed a handful of chips into her mouth. “Who cares? So he has a date. Lucky him.”
Roxanne kept her focus on her mother. “I agree that something doesn’t smell right.”
Vanessa rolled her eyes.
“Sorry. It slipped. Anyway, I’m saying that, whatever is going on, it doesn’t mean murder.”
Deanna waived her hands in the air. “Do the math. First, Abigail says someone’s looking better than they have a right to.”
“Tom Simms.” Vanessa snapped open a can of cola and took a long slug. “Because he’s happy?”
“Or was she talking about someone else?” Deanna looked so pleased with herself that Roxanne shivered.
“Who else could she have meant?” Roxanne asked.
Deanna looked back and forth between her daughters, coaxing them to say the right answer. Finally, she shook her fist in the air. “Did I raise a couple of morons?”
Vanessa reached for the chips again. “Obviously, because I have no idea what you’re going on about.”
“I know where you’re headed with this,” Roxanne said. “You think the girlfriend is really Patty Simms. Tom’s wife looks better than she has a right to, because she’s supposed to be dead.”
Vanessa’s jaw dropped.
“I don’t even remember what his wife looked like,” Roxanne said, pointedly. “You would need an old picture of her –“
“I can get that from the news story about her death,” Deanna said. “Or even from their wedding photos. The news office should have something. Then we can compare that photograph to a new picture of this alleged Daliah person.”
Vanessa blustered and then demanded that Deanna take this information to Detective Grady.
“Not without proof.”
“And how do you get proof?” Roxanne asked, edging toward the door.
Deanna pulled out a digital camera.
“Do you even know how to use that thing?” Vanessa asked.
“No,” Deanna answered, as she turned to leer at Roxanne. “But she does.”
To be Continued…
Short Story "Special Delivery" Part 2
Continued from Monday, Part II of “Special Delivery”
The following morning, Roxanne brought pastries and coffee to her mother’s house. She felt bad about the failed poker night. From what she could see, her mother needed the practice.
Deanna scribbled away on a pad of paper and looked up only after Roxanne emptied the donuts onto a plate and slid them in front of her.
“What’s that?” Roxanne asked. “Cheat sheet for the test?”
“I’m trying to remember who was in line at the post office, yesterday. I went to pick up a package and overheard Abigail make an odd comment about someone in line.”
Roxanne shrugged. “Abigail Watts had a comment for everyone.”
“Whoever this person was, seeing them was enough to distract her from hassling me.”
“That is a big deal,” Roxanne agreed. “So who have you come up with?”
“Annie Jibbs stood right behind me.”
“Ginny Jibbs?” Roxanne referred to the woman’s unhealthy fondness for liquor.
“But that’s nothing new,” Deanna said. “Abigail had been passing her temperance flyers for years.” She went back to the list.
“Tom Simms was next in line.”
Roxanne made a sympathetic noise. “Didn’t he lose his wife a few months ago?”
Deanna nodded. “Car accident. It happened on a trip up North, in Wisconsin. I think she was visiting relatives.”
“They were married less than a year, weren’t they?” Roxanne asked. “I can hardly remember what she looked like.”
“That’s not surprising,” Deanna said. “She died a few weeks after they moved here.”
The women shared a minute of respectful silence.
“I think the next in line was Old Homer.”
Roxanne figured if anyone could intimidate Abigail Watts it would be Homer Tidwall. A prominent member of the Wilton City Counsel, he was impervious to ill will, as he possessed so much of it himself.
“I also saw that young woman with the twins, the one who’s always falling over things.”
“Carrie Hall. It must be hard to keep your balance with two three year olds hanging on you,” Roxanne said.
Deanna tossed down her pen. “I can’t remember anyone else.”
“What exactly did Abigail say?”
“Something about the person’s looks – they were too lively, or something. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“Did Ginny look too healthy for a drunk?”
“I thought she looked pasty.”
“What about Homer? Was he looking satisfied? Have there been any recent City Counsel decisions that might make him happy and tick off Abigail at the same time?”
“The City Counsel doesn’t meet until the end of the month. Besides,” Deanna added, “Homer was looking glum, as usual.”
“How did Carrie look?”
“Was she wearing new clothes? Spending outside her budget? According to Abigail, that is.”
Deanna wrinkled her nose. “Carrie smelled like poop and there was something crusty on the front of her shirt.”
“That leaves us with Tom.” This conclusion angered Roxanne. “What did Abigail expect him to do? Cry in public? Mope for the rest of his life? There is such a thing as bearing up with dignity.”
Deanna agreed. “None of the options make any sense. But there may be someone who can give us some inside information.” She wiggled her eyebrows. “Abigail’s replacement.”
Mrs. Regina Potter stepped into her predecessor’s shoes with a refreshing professionalism. She retrieved packages promptly and without hassle, she greeted the public without rancor or derision, and the general fears over privacy from the post office box holders seemed to evaporate the moment she agreed to take on the job.
Deanna counted on this efficiency being a front. She waited for a lull in business and made her move. She approached the window under the pretense of asking Regina to be the sixth player in the card game next Monday night.
Regina’s response was a look of horror.
“Gambling?” The word echoed in the empty room.
“We don’t play for money,” Deanna said, trying to sooth the woman back onto friendlier ground. “It’s for practice. For my test. I’m taking a class –“
Regina waived an impatient hand. “I know all about what goes on at WACKED – card playing and astrology and Taro classes… an invitation to devilry of all kinds.” She narrowed her eyes. “People shouldn’t tempt fate.”
“It’s all for fun,” Deanna said, embarrassed.
“Fun.” Regina snorted. “There’s all sorts of fun going on in this town.” She leaned across the counter, eyes gleaming. “The stories I could tell you.” She caught herself and stood upright. “But that would be gossiping.”
Deanna held back her excitement and hoped that Regina might loosen up if she was offered a bit of information first. “I heard…” Deanna looked over her shoulder, unnecessarily as the room was still empty. “I heard that somebody is looking better than they have a right to.”
Regina narrowed her eyes. “How do you mean?”
Oh, hell, Deanna thought. She picked the most obvious interpretation. “Happier.” It came out as more of a question, but Regina nodded in agreement.
“I think that with someone’s wife just dead, it would be nice to at least pretend to be in mourning.” She shook her head. “Of course, I didn’t know Patty Simms that well. Maybe she was lacking as a wife.”
“Have you seen Tom with his new lady friend?” Deanna posed the question as if she, herself, had witnessed a public groping.
Regina looked disappointed. “No. But his post office box reeks of perfume.” Regina sounded as if she was seeking approval when she explained, “I thought, it being my first day on the job, I should familiarize myself with everything.”
Deanna agreed that this was Regina’s duty.
Unfortunately, this praise caused Regina to switch on her professional persona. When Deanna asked who might be sending Tom Simms scented letters, she placed the closed sign in her window and said, “I’m sure I don’t know.”
Detective Grady sat across from Henrietta Pilfridge and waited for her to rouse herself. Again. For the last half hour, the old woman had alternated between animated stories about her beloved dog and deep sleep. Grady eyed the curly mop of fur stretched out in a patch of sunlight; it’s plump, white belly looked ready to pop. Henrietta’s last period of dozing started four minutes ago, and Grady was uncertain as to whether he should show himself out or if he should give the old gal a light shake. Henrietta was his final interview, and Grady hated to give up. He opted for a loud, throat-clearing cough.
Henrietta’s head jerked up and she picked up the conversation without pause.
“Maxamillion never has to tinkle at night. At least, not before I put him in the bathtub for the evening, with newspapers, of course.”
Grady covered his gag with a faked sneeze.
“So when he scratched at the door, I became concerned. That’s usually the first sign of aging, the need to tinkle all the time.” She nodded. “In people, too.”
Grady’s gaze wandered back to the regally named pooch. Maxamillion was probably closer to the last signs of aging. As if reading his mind, the dog raised his head and flapped his lips in an attempted “Woof”.
“Did you hear anything outside?” he asked. “Anything that might have caught Maxamillion’s attention?”
“I fastened the security chain and left everything in God’s hands.”
“Maybe you peeked out the window?” he prodded.
Henrietta looked offended, so he hastened to add, “I would have.”
She relented. “Maybe I did see the light from Abigail’s front door.”
“What time was this?”
She tapped her chin with her index finger. “The street lamps weren’t on but it was very near dark. This time of year…that would make it…seven forty. Give or take five minutes.”
Her specificity surprised him, and he said so.
She flushed with pleasure.
“I’ve lived here all my life. Raised three children in this house. You get to know these things, even if it’s not in a conscious way. I’ve always used the streetlights to measure the time. When the lights went on, it was time for homework.”
Grady finished his tea, pat Maxamillion on the snout and let himself out. He had confirmation that Abigail Watts’ front door was open around twenty minutes to eight. The killer could have been coming or going. This new information wasn’t much help.
Roxanne stepped out of the convenience store and checked the next item on her shopping list. As she opened her car door, she caught a glimpse of Tom Simms leaving Pepe’s, the Mexican restaurant next door, with a blonde woman on his arm. She closed the car door and went into the restaurant. The smell of garlic and cilantro was strong, but there was another odor, too, sickly sweet and familiar.
The hostess, a young girl in an off-the-shoulder dress of vibrant colors, grabbed a menu and greeted Roxanne.
“I’m afraid I just missed some friends of mine,” Roxanne said.
The girl toyed with the giant gardenia stuck behind her left ear.
“What’s their name?”
Roxanne thought about using Tom’s name and changed her mind. The hostess might be more interested than she looked.
“It’s embarrassing,” Roxanne said with a laugh. “She’s recently married and I don’t know her new name. She’s blonde,” Roxanne held out her hand, “about this tall. Did you see her come in with a tall, young gentleman?”
“I remember her. She came in here with Tom Simms. Daliah was her name.
Roxanne nodded encouragement.
“You just missed them.” The hostess scrunched up her nose. “It still stinks in here. Can’t you smell it?”
“I wonder what brand of perfume that is.” Roxanne said, letting her gaze rest hopefully on the girl. Off the hostess’s offended look, she added, “Like you, I want to avoid it.”
“It’s one of those crap celebrity scents. Halo.”
The hostess held up the menu. “So, are you going to eat, or what?”
Her next stop was Bently’s Drug Store. She waited at the perfume counter while an elderly woman with pinkish-orange hair bartered extra samples out of a bored-looking employee. The old lady walked away victorious, clutching three. The sales woman sauntered over to Roxanne, mumbling under her breath.
“She comes in constantly for samples but never buys a thing.”
She threw back her head and adjusted her spectacles, trying to place a name with Roxanne’s face.
“Can I help you?”
The employee name tag, clipped to a white jacket identical to the one worn by the pharmacist, identified the woman as Marla.
“Do you ever carry Halo? It’s a celebrity perfume, although I don’t know which celebrity.”
Marla raised her brows, distinctly questioning Roxanne’s taste. “I know what it is.” She held out a bottle shaped like a woman’s bottom. “This is the last bottle, thank goodness. Please take it outside if you’re going to try it on. It gives me a headache.”
The price tag read sixty dollars.
“Pretty expensive.” Roxanne’s glance took in her surroundings.
“You mean for this place?” Marla nodded. “We had one customer who loved the stuff. That’s the only reason we have this bottle.”
Roxanne handed the perfume back. “If she’s expecting you to have it in stock, you had better keep this one”
Marla gave the bottle a shake. “Don’t worry. She’s dead.”
Roxanne opened her eyes in mock surprise. “You don’t mean the late Mrs. Simms?”
“That’s the one. She seemed to have good taste, from what I can remember, so it ran my nylons when she requested this junk.”
Roxanne agreed that it was quite shocking.
“I don’t want to talk dirt about the dead, but she was a plain girl. Maybe she was trying to make a statement.”
“Has any one else been asking after this particular perfume?”
Marla recognized an opportunity. Before answering, she asked her own question. “Do want this wrapped as a gift?”
Walt’s Grocery Store was Wilton’s final holdout against the giant conglomerates that threatened to do away with local butchers and bakeries. Walt’s was the kind of place where the customers knew the owner as Chuck and he, in turn, asked after their children, remembering at least their ages if not their names.
Shirley Jakious entered the work force twenty years ago as a bagger. In two years, she made checker. Now she was the head checker and one of the only original employees remaining, which made her a valuable ally to regular customers. She knew their preferences, alerted them to sales, and shook her head discretely when the quality of fresh chickens wasn’t up to her standards.
“Yeah, I remember.” Shirley snapped her gum as if it aided her concentration. “She bought Starbuck’s coffee and lamb chops. The chops weren’t even on sale.”
“Was Abigail a frugal shopper?” Grady asked.
Shirley barked out a laugh. “G&C. Generics and coupons. And her usual shopping day is Wednesday, after the sales flyers are out.”
“How was her mood?” Grady asked. “Anything unusual?”
Shirley didn’t blush, but she hesitated long enough to validate her reputation – tough on the outside, a softie on the inside. “Let’s say she was unusually smug.”
Shirley smacked Grady on the arm. “You know how she was, Sean. Full of hints without saying anything. I asked her if she’d won the lottery. She smirked with those little puckered lips of hers and said her salad days were over.”
Grady didn’t like the feeling that settled into the pit of his stomach. He doubted Abigail was referring to a hefty raise from the U.S. government.
Shirley wrinkled her brow and sadness settled over her features. She even stopped snapping her gum. “The thing is, instead of being happy for her, I found it kind of repulsive.”
Grady reassured her. “Abigail Watts had that effect on most people.” He added to himself, one in particular.
Short Story "Special Delivery"
This short story by Jacqueline Vick first appeared in “Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine”.
Deanna Wilder clutched her delivery notice–by now a crumpled wad–and leaned forward onto the balls of her sneakers like a sprinter preparing for takeoff. After waiting in line for twenty minutes, she now looked on the postal window as an unclaimed prize.
Behind the counter, Abigail Watts puttered about: straightening the supply of stamps in her drawer, adjusting the tape in her adding machine, recapping her rubber stamps. Her position as the lone counter clerk of the Wilton Post Office gave Abigail power, a power she delighted in and exercised with impunity. Birthday gifts from distant relatives, anticipated catalogue orders, private correspondence intended for the post office box, the fate of these lie entirely with Abigail. And so the people of Wilton put up with her probing questions, her disapproving clucks, and her malicious gossip.
When she finally called out, “Next!” her tone suggested that it was she who had been kept waiting.
Deanna slapped her notice on the counter and, with a look that threatened violence, said, “I’ve come for my package.”
Abigail leaned forward on plump arms and gave the paper a poke. “Where were we on Saturday that we couldn’t accept delivery?”
Deanna clamped down on a retort and feigned a polite laugh. “We were running errands.”
The interrogation had only begun.
“I understand you interviewed a contractor to put in your new pool.”
Abigail said the word contractor as if the man’s qualifications were suspect. “Betsy Riven saw you having lunch with him at the Main Street Café.”
Deanna, assuming the woman had been coerced into offering up this tidbit in exchange for Abigail’s services, forgave Betsy immediately. She tapped the receipt. “My package?”
Abigail continued as if Deanna had not spoken. “Mulrony’s has the best reputation in town.” This was her nephew’s construction firm. She sighed loudly. “But, I expect you know what’s best, being the one with money to throw around.”
Deanna sniffed. “It is my house,” she said, but Abigail was no longer listening. Her black eyes beaded in on a new target in the long line behind Deanna.
Abigail pursed her small lips in disapproval. “Some people are looking better than they have a right to. Much too lively for what’s right, if you know what I mean,” she muttered. Deanna turned her head. Blank looks stared back.
Abigail toddled to the back room and returned with a medium sized box.
“Buying bras through the mail again?” Abigail referred to the return label, Silky Comfort. “I’d have thought you’d want to try them on first. A woman’s shape changes after gravity sets in.”
Deanna blushed and grabbed the box. Abigail called out after her retreating form.
“See you at seven!”
Deanna ignored the raspy laughter that followed her out the door.
As she adjusted her seatbelt, Deanna decided to make a concerted effort to find somebody else, anybody else in Wilton, who knew how to play Texas Hold Em. Doing Vegas in Style was Deanna’s latest class at the Wilton Adult Center for Knowledge and Education, known to the locals as WACKED. The final exam, a Texas Hold Em tournament, was less than three weeks away. Deanna had arranged a weekly Monday night game for practice. Not wanting to give an advantage to any of her classmates, she had scrounged up five satisfactory players to join her. But Abigail was wearing on Deanna’s last nerve. As she turned the key in the ignition, Deanna Wilder decided that tonight’s game would be Abigail’s last.
Harmony Drive was a short, dead end extension off Edinburgh Road. It ended abruptly in a small thatch of thorn bushes that separated the residential area from the lawn that surrounded Champs Middle School. The people who occupied the small, ranch houses that lined the drive felt no resentment over their limited options for escape; most of them had no place to go. The majority of residents had retired years ago, and their infrequent social visits, mainly grandchildren, came to them.
Midway down the block, at a shabby white house in need of care, Abigail Watts answered her doorbell. Her large frame, illuminated by the light from her living room, filled the entryway as she peered out at her visitor.
“I’m not surprised you came,” she said, her tiny lips puckering into what could pass for a smile. She stepped aside to allow the visitor entry into her home.
She leaned out onto the porch and searched the street. Although evening had progressed to the later hours of dusk, the streetlamps remained unlit. Shadowy mounds of hedges blocked her view.
“You’ve come alone?” She turned in time to see the visitor nod. “That’s a disappointment,” she said, closing the door and leaving the street in darkness. Anyone within hearing distance would have witnessed Abigail Watts’ final words.
“Now about that letter…”
Deanna Wilder nudged her daughter, Vanessa, with a sharp elbow to the rig-cage.
Vanessa glared at the grandfather clock and said, “You promised I’d be home in time for CSI: Miami. If we start playing now, we have time for a couple of hands.”
“It’s a re-run, for God’s sake.”
Ida Nichols, Deanna’s sister-in-law, shuffled a deck of cards with the skill of a Vegas dealer. “Young people aren’t the only ones with lives. Maybe we should call her again.”
“Maybe we should.” The woman mimicking Ida was her fraternal twin, Mabel. Mabel entered the world twenty minutes after her sister, left to scrounge up whatever attributes Ida had seen fit to leave behind. Mabel stood two inches shorter than her twin, was less striking in appearance and manner, and lacked a mind of her own.
“Abigail didn’t pick up the last three times I called,” Deanna said. “What makes you think four is the magic number?”
Roxanne, Deanna’s youngest daughter, had until now suffered the evening in silence. She set down her poker chips and said, “I’m driving over to see what’s keeping her.”
As the evening’s host, Deanna opted to remain behind in case Abigail showed up. She convinced Ida and Mabel to stay, primarily because she couldn’t trust the twins to return. Roxanne was stuck with Vanessa.
The drive across town took ten minutes, ten minutes filled with Vanessa’s complaints about her wasted evening.
“Just because Mother thinks I don’t have a life…” Vanessa fingered her curls and sniffed. “Well, if I don’t, it’s her fault. Every time she takes a class, I wind up as her guinea pig. Today it’s poker. You watch. Tomorrow it will be mind reading and I won’t have any secrets left.”
“I don’t know why you bother to argue,” Roxanne said. “I just agree with her and do what I want.”
“Then why are you spending Monday night running around town looking for some old hag?”
“You mean instead of learning the finer points of forensic science from David Caruso?” Roxanne referred to the red-headed star of CSI: Miami.
She turned the Chrysler New Yorker into the driveway of Fourteen Harmony Street and left the car idling. The windows of the house were dark.
“We probably just missed her.” She instructed Vanessa to wait and ran up to the front door.
Roxanne might have knocked harder than she intended because the door creaked open after the first hit. She leaned her head in.
There was no response.
The car headlamps cast a dim light over the living room, and Roxanne could make out the outline of a large lump in the middle of the rug. She felt along the entry wall for a switch.
Blazing light filled the room and exaggerated the purple, bloated features of Abigail Watts. Her large arms lay thrown over her head, the hem of her housedress rested in a position to expose the varicose veins threading up her plump thighs. A sickeningly sweet odor hung over the room.
Vanessa appeared at Roxanne’s side.
“What’s taking so long?” she asked. Then her eyes followed to where Roxanne pointed.
“I’m going to miss my show, aren’t I?”
Detective Sean Grady had a face like a bull and a body to match. Men who now resided at Joliet State Penitentary had mistaken his blank expression for a lack of intelligence. Others thought his shock of red hair might indicate a quick temper, but no one had ever witnessed him lose it. He sat at a small, square table opposite the Wilder sisters in Interview Room A.
“Tell me again what time you arrived at the victim’s home.”
Roxanne opened her mouth to speak, but Vanessa cut in.
“We already said. Ten minutes to eight.”
“And you’re sure of the exact time because –“
“I was watching the minutes tick away until my favorite show started.” Vanessa snorted. “Don’t worry yourself. It’s over now.”
Grady ignored her outburst and addressed Roxanne.
“You said the door wasn’t locked?”
Roxanne shifted in her seat, her rump sore after an hour on the cold, hard metal. “I only knocked once. The door opened on its own.”
“Abigail Watts was late for a poker game at your mother’s house.” Grady read from their statement. “Your mother, Deanna Wilder, tried phoning Ms. Watts three times, starting at twenty minutes after seven.”
“The game was set to start at seven,” Roxanne explained, shooting her sister a look. “Vanessa was impatient and insisted we call.”
Vanessa leaned toward the detective. “I do have better things to do than sit around playing cards with my mother.”
“I’m sure you do, Miss Wilder,” he said with practiced neutrality. He closed the file and folded his hands on the table. “I think that’s all for now.” He added the perfunctory, “Please be available for further questioning.”
Roxanne agreed for them both as Vanessa disappeared out the door.
Grady’s desk was one of several in a large open room that made up the Wilton Detective Squad Headquarters. It was now eleven o’clock at night; he had the room to himself. He scribbled notes in a manila folder that bore a handwritten label – Abigail Watts.
He considered the facts he had gathered so far.
Abigail Watts left her job at the Wilton Post Office at five-thirty in the evening, the usual time for her departure according to her boss, Leonard Miles. Leonard Miles’s reaction to the death of his long time employee was gratitude at having enough notice to find a replacement.
Abigail then proceeded to Walt’s Grocery store where she purchased a can of gourmet coffee beans and a package of lamb chops. He knew this from the dated receipt on her kitchen counter, verified by the pile of chop bones in her trash bin. The can of coffee, Starbuck’s, remained unopened at the time of her death. Walt’s had been closed since nine but Grady knew that Shirley Jakious worked the evening shift. He could question her tomorrow.
Grady reasoned that Abigail’s errand would have placed her back at home by six fifteen at the latest. Then she took the time to cook her dinner and eat it. That would place the time of death between a quarter to seven and eight o’clock at night. There were no signs of forced entry; Abigail Watts allowed her killer entry into her home.
First thing tomorrow, he would interview the neighbors. If he was lucky, someone would admit to poking their nose through their blinds around the same time that Abigail Watts received her visitor.
To be continued….
The Challenges of Putting on a Children’s Literacy Presentation
I was recently asked by a school administrator to put on an Author Presentation for Children’s Literacy Day. Having written an early middle reader, a talk to third through fifth graders sounded like an excellent opportunity. What a learning experience!
Fight to Get the Details
As the first Literacy Day this school had ever put on, the details about what the organizer needed and wanted were hazy, and they kept changing. I assumed the woman in charge would let me know what she finally decided on once she figured it all out, but we all know what Felix Unger said about ass-u-me. Mistake. Even as the day approached, the emails I received were few and lacking detail.
If the school is unclear about what they want, take charge and tell them what you’re willing to do. You may help them come to a decision. At the very least, if what you are willing to do and what they want are two different things, telling them may force out additional details they “thought” they had already given you.
At first I was one of several authors giving a half an hour presentation. A week before the event, that changed. I was the only author giving a forty-five minute presentation twice the same evening to two different groups of students. When I arrived, I discovered I was one of four choices that the students would be assigned and was assured that, however long my presentation was, it would be fine and I could dismiss the students when I finished. Then the administrator told me I needed to fill an hour and a half!
Prepare More Than You Need
Before the event, I worked to fill the original half hour and then quickly added a few thoughts for the extra fifteen minutes. When I discovered upon arrival that I had to fill an additional foty-five minutes, I had to wing it. Not a pretty site.
Even Young Audiences Need A Warm Up
When the kids took their seats, I jumped right in. I had arranged an interactive presentation and was surprised by how shy the kids were when it came to participating. They finally got into it at the very end of my original presentation, which, due to a lack of participation, only filled ten minutes! Had I warmed them up with questions and jokes and stories, they would have been ready to jump in and enjoy by the time I started asking for volunteers.
Understand How Kids Learn
I thought that an interactive presentation would keep the children from getting bored, but jumping around and shouting in the classroom was foreign to them, and it took the kids a while to get used to the idea. When I ran out of content, the school administrator rustled up paper and pencils and we asked the children to use the information I’d given them to write their own story. Writing an assignment and then reading it aloud was something they understood! I like to think they enjoyed my original presentation, but like good little students, they were comfortable with familiar “homework”.
Literacy Day was a fun experience, and I hope to do more Author Presentations for other schools. Next time I’ll come prepared. I’ll take control by telling the school what I’m willing to do. I’ll prepare extra content for last minute surprises. Warming my audience up will take priority, and I’ll be sure to include some traditional methods of learning.
Does anyone have experience with these types of presentations? I’d love to hear about what you did to ensure a fun and educational time for the kids.
Interview with Author/Artist Gay Degani
Gay Degani writes surrounded by the frantic chortles of parrots. She has published in journals and anthologies including The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 and TWO (2009). Her stories online can be read at The Battered Suitcase, Night Train, 10 Flash, 3 A.M. Magazine, as well as other publications. Pomegranate Stories is a collection of eight stories by Gay. She is the editor of EDF’s Flash Fiction Chronicles and all her online fiction can be accessed from her blog. Welcome Gay!
Gay, you have an impressive list of short story credits. What attracted you to fiction in small packages?
Gay: Two reasons are at the bottom of my adventure into short stories. The first was to use short stories to help me learn the craft of fiction writing and the second was to actually publish something. I love movies, so when I started writing “with intent,” I wrote screenplays. I live in LA, what can I say?
I worked hard to learn the basic format—this in the old days with no Final Draft—and to write dialogue and lean narrative, and to master structure. Eventually, I decided to shift to novelizing a couple of my scripts, but I had trouble keeping track of the plot, the characters, the structure, and the language. Although screenwriting taught me some skills, I didn’t really know how to apply all of them to one integrated piece of work.
Solution: write short so I could practice using content, language, structure, and purpose all together in a manageable length. Also with the advent of online e-zines, short stories began to have real market value (if not monetary) and I was dying for a publishing credit. Not just so my family and friends would take me seriously, but so I would take me seriously.
What should a writer keep in mind when writing short stories versus longer narrative form?
Gay: The basics of short or long fiction writing are the same: tell a good story. The difference is that language, while always important, becomes uber-important in a short piece. There can be no wasted words. Vigor in verbs and specificity in nouns are essential to short fiction.
In a novel, a writer may get away with calling a tree, a tree, but in short fiction, not only does the tree have to be specific, it must do more in the story than offer the information that a character happens to be outside. It must set up a specific outside and be a tree that will suggest something else in the story, add another level, or give the reader symbolic visual. This something else may not be picked up by the reader on a conscious level, but on a sub-conscious level. A palm tree suggests California. A naked stick of a palm tree suggests something that has lost its beauty; it provides a more powerful image and therefore, does double-duty for the writer.
How long, on average, does it take to complete a short story? And do you adhere to a writing schedule?
Gay: Each story is different in its development cycle. Sometimes, but rarely, something will be fairly complete in an afternoon, but most of the time stories go through a slower writing with me.
For the last two or three years I have written something most days, either a free write from a prompt, or a piece for an e-zine I would like to get into, or because there’s some phrase or image or structure I want to play with. A part of my day is spent revising. And of course, there is the “novel” which I have written, but can’t bring myself to finish the editing process.
I go into my office in the garage around 6:30 and stay out most of the day, coming in for meals and breaks. I waste time out there too, occasionally painting or dare I admit it, napping.
Do you have several stories in play at one time or do you take one piece through the final editing process before beginning another?
Gay: As a devotee to the idea of process, I always have stories at different stages of the writing process. My first step with any story is to take whatever inspiration I have and draft a fast draft to discover where exactly it will take me. Ron Carlson’s little book Ron Carlson Writes a Story helped me to embrace this idea. Unlike Ron, however, my initial draft is never good-to-go. My work is strongest when I let something rest for a couple hours or days and then go back to it.
This second stage is when I discover what the story is really about, its purpose. This can be a single moment in a flash fiction piece, what that moment means to my character, good or bad. Or in a longer work, that purpose is what gives me the story arc. Once I know that, I can rewrite and edit so that everything in the story serves the story arc. This idea of serving the story is at the bottom of most strong short writing: no extra sentences can be kept because they are pretty, all unnecessary words are edited out, and a steady focus is maintained to achieve the impact the writer wants to leave with the reader.
In my short collection Pomegranate, the story, “Pomegranate,” is served by the story question, “Will this girl ever find her way home again and more importantly, will she be satisfied with her fate?” I didn’t know this when I started the story, especially the second part of the question. I only knew when I’d finished the first couple drafts.
The third step is to work toward the right language and tone, to make certain all aspects work, at least to me. This is the editing, revising, polishing, proof-reading stage that might take two drafts or even ten drafts.
At different stages of each story, however, I don’t count just on my own impressions. I have “designated readers” to help me see a piece the way the reader will see it and make any needed changes. Many online writing friends from communities such as Every Day Fiction, Facebook, Zoetrope, and Fictionaut have become my DRs.
Pomegranate is a compilation of short stories released in 2009. Could you tell us about your decision to put this book together and what steps you took?
Gay: Many publishers in the online writing community have chapbook contests and after entering a couple (and not winning), I decided sending off 50 pages of stories to various publishers and getting selected seemed to be a roundabout way to do this with sites like Lulu.com out there. Most convincing for me was that print publishers are even less likely to publish a collection of short fiction than online publishers because collections are less saleable unless the author is already an established novelist.
Could you elaborate on the theme of Pomegranate?
Gay: I wanted a theme for my chapbook contest entries because I thought I’d have a better shot at getting selected if I did. The most common thread seemed to be “ mother-daughters.” This made me think of Demeter and Persephone and if I wrote a story with this classic myth in mind, I would have something to tie everything together. I’d earn both my title and my theme. I made this decision at the same time that Jaycee Dugard was found. Something gelled for me and out came “Pomegranate.”
As an artist, you also did the artwork for the cover of Pomegranate. How do you turn a painting into a book cover?
Gay: I’m an abstract painter working in metallic acrylics, so I took about 20 photos of pomegranates and ran my favorite through Photoshop using several different filters. Part of this was because of time constraints since I wanted the book printed for Christmas of 2009. but also because I have less confidence creating representational art than abstract. Self-publishing, if you are cheap like me and you don’t want to hire one of the publishers’ consultants, is very demanding. I didn’t really have the time to stress about whether I could come up with a painting that would be graphically eye-catching.
Do painting and writing complement each other, or does each offer a different release?
Gay: The two arts offer me different experiences. They are a wonderful combination for me. I have no angst about painting whatsoever (unless it’s going to appear on the cover of my book!) I paint to please myself, but my ego is all wrapped up in writing. I have a desire to be good and continue to strive toward that goal.
What’s next for you?
Gay: I plan on continuing to write short fiction. It’s so much fun to experiment with different structures and subject matter that I can’t really see giving it up, but my major goal this year is to finish my novel. I’ve worked on it for a long time and I feel it can be good if I can force myself stay focused on it long enough to get it revised and polished. If anyone would like to read a version of the first chapter, I adapted it to flash form at Every Day Fiction. It’s called Stranger on the Porch.
Thank you so much for taking the time to be with us today!
Wishing everyone at Left Coast Crime a pleasant and fruitful conference!
Writers in Residence
Ladies Man – A Short Story in Four Parts – Part Four
Continued from yesterday…
Now, I’m in L.A. Opportunity beckons.
Whataya know. The brown guy came back. He’s got a plate of food. For me? Hot dog. I found another friend.
I limped toward him. Sympathy never hurts. Unless they throw another rock. He set down the plate and pointed to it. I gave him a good long stare just to let him know I’m proud. I can take it or leave it. See?
He left it. Good. I’m starved.
I ambled over to the plate and darn near licked the restaurant’s name off the china. That’ll hold me for another day. I wished the brown guy would step back outside so I could let him know how much I appreciated the meal. But, hey, I’m really not the sentimental type.
Now let’s see what L.A. has to offer a guy like me. I’m resourceful. I sauntered down the street, feeling pretty sure of myself. The street was crowded. This time of day in Las Vegas, I’d be chillin’ somewhere until nightfall.
That’s when I saw him. He ran out of an alley and made a grab for some old broad’s purse. The woman tried holding on, but she was no match for the thug. He pushed her to the pavement and ran back down the alley.
I was after him in a flash. I could outrun the bum without breaking a sweat and was crawling up his back before he knew what hit him. I landed a few good swipes across his neck and he shrieked like a girl. The purse fell from his hand as he tried to stop the bleeding. I gave him a few more whacks and then got off him, snatched the purse, and dashed back up the alley.
People were helping the old woman off the sidewalk. She was pretty shaken, but when she saw the purse sitting at her feet and me smiling at her, she looked a whole lot better.
“My hero,” she said in a soft voice. “Wanna come home with me, big guy?”
I might stay a little longer this time.
I’m gettin’ old.