Sunday, August 31, 2008

Powder Burn Flash #101 - James C. Clar


The moment Paul Blaine boarded the train in Delhi he felt an enormous sense of relief. No, that wasn’t quite accurate; it was more like elation. In fact, as they pulled out of the station he was ecstatic, almost giddy. Fifteen years in this wretched country as a mid-level colonial bureaucrat and he was finally going home. As far as he was able to size up the situation it was just in time too. He gave it maybe five more years, probably less, before the blighters were granted independence. And after that, well, he reckoned there would be chaos within a fortnight. Anyone who thought that these people could govern themselves was a bloody idiot. But, so far as he was concerned, it would be good riddance to bad rubbish. Not even the thought of the forty-eight-hour journey to Bombay or the long voyage from there to England by sea could dampen his spirits. He was on his way home and that’s all that mattered. Besides, if all went according to plan, he wouldn’t be sober long enough to remember much of the trip anyway.

Later that evening, Blaine entered the dining car. He was pleased to see the usual small army of liveried waiters bustling to and fro. There were linen napkins, heavy silver cutlery and crystal stemware on the tables, of course. The sun might be setting on the empire but damned if his people didn’t still know how to run a railway. There was no reason whatsoever why one shouldn’t continue to travel in comfort. He ordered a bottle of wine and the beef curry. There was precious little that he fancied more than a good curry. For his money it was the subcontinent’s only contribution to civilization. He understood from his various correspondents back home that there was plenty of good Indian food to be found in London these days. He’d be the judge of that for himself, thank you very much!

When his meal arrived he set to work with gusto. After four or five mouthfuls he pushed his plate aside. It was hard to tell owing to how heavily-spiced the dish was but the whole lot tasted a bit dickey. Blaine suspected that they had used an inferior cut of meat. He just hoped it wasn’t water buffalo or yak or some nonsense like that. He had heard horror stories of native cooks making do with whatever happened to be at hand. He had half a mind to complain but thought better of it. What did one expect in this country anyway? The jewel in the crown; what utter rot that was. There was no point in making a scene. He drank his wine, ate more of the bread that had come with his meal and finished with coffee and dessert. When he rose from the table he belched quietly to himself.

Paul Blaine passed the rest of the evening in the smoking car reading the newspapers and drinking whiskey and soda. When he left to turn in, he attributed his somewhat queasy feeling to the fact that he had consumed a fair amount of alcohol on what was, for all intents and purposes, an empty stomach. He tossed and turned in his berth. At some point during the early hours of the morning he became violently ill. He was not alone. It seems that anyone who had ordered the beef curry at dinner suffered from the same gastrointestinal distress. When the train eventually entered the station in Bombay a number of the passengers, in fact, had to be hospitalized. All things being equal, Blaine had been lucky. His symptoms passed quickly. He was weak and dehydrated for a day or two but by the time his ship sailed he felt none the worse for wear … and, besides, he had needed to lose a few pounds anyway.

The authorities conducted a rather perfunctory investigation. The kitchen staff was interrogated and the facilities aboard the train were inspected but to little effect. Everyone knew how ferociously difficult it was to keep meat from spoiling in this climate. Besides, as one of the ministers remarked, mysterious maladies were hardly a rarity in these parts.


Some days later when the train was making its scheduled return to Delhi , one of the supply stewards entered his quarters and locked the door. He pulled open a drawer and, reaching underneath, extracted an envelope which had been carefully secreted there. It contained a rather large sum of money. The man began counting. He knew it was all there, he had checked at least twice already today, but it never hurt to be sure. What a remarkably easy way to make a profit! He smiled when he thought of what his wife would say. He was well on his way to having the funds necessary so that he and his family could finally return home to Essex . But he had to be careful. He had to hold off for a bit now. No one had ever gotten sick before. There had been some complaints, to be sure, but that wasn’t at all unusual. If people fell ill again too soon, however, everyone would become suspicious and they might be forced to look into the matter much more closely. No matter, he and his native partners could afford to be patient. There was certainly no shortage of corpses in India … and there were more than a few overworked and underpaid functionaries desperate to dispose of the bodies in the most efficient manner possible. If someone took advantage of that deplorable situation, so be it. The British were always complaining that the people in this insane country weren’t enterprising enough. He wondered what they would think if they only knew. Next time he’d make certain that the shipment was packaged as chicken.

Paul Blaine, for his part, eventually arrived home safely. It was quite some time, however, before he fancied another curry.


BIO: James C. Clar teaches and writes in upstate New York. Most recently, his short fiction has been published in The Taj Mahal Review, The Magazine of Crime & Suspense, Orchard Press Mysteries, Shine: The Journal of Flash, Pen Pricks Micro-Fiction and Coffee Cramp Ezine.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Powder Burn Flash # 100!!!! - Robert Aquino Dollesin

Under the Aztec Sun

As he slowly regained consciousness, Martinez felt he was dreaming. Confined in a small dark space, he was being jostled up and down. It took several minutes for his head to clear, but once it did he was able to identify the steady humming noise as that of an automobile engine. In the dark he tried to stretch his legs, only to realize that someone had him hogtied.

Maria? He pictured his wife, Maria. God, why couldn’t he think straight? Straining to recall what had happened, Martinez drew a blank. He’d been angry with Maria. But angry about what? Each surfacing image was unclear. Like fragments of a faded photograph or puzzling scenes of a movie incorrectly stitched together.

Realizing he was in the trunk of a moving car was easy. Figuring out how he got there was not. He breathed in the hot musty air. Was he inside Maria’s Pinto. Wait. The Pinto was a hatchback. No trunk. By the roughness of the ride he easily determined the driver was speeding down some unpaved road. But headed where?

The bumping suddenly halted, the engine quieted. Martinez heard the driver’s side door being slammed shut. Footsteps crunched over gravel. Someone fumbled with a key. And then the trunk flew open and Martinez closed his eyes against the blinding sunlight. When he opened them again, he recognized the Indian blanket he sometimes spread out on park grass so Maria could sit without staining her clothes. He was in his own trunk. But who was outside? Martinez squinted, but only saw mottled colors floating against a dark silhouette. Maria? No. The silhouette belonged to a man. A large man.

Still unable to make out the shadowy figure, Martinez cleared his parched throat and said, “Who the hell are you? What the hell do you want?”

A solemn, low-pitched voice answered, “I’m the man whose life you destroyed.”

The big man slowly eased into focus. Martinez watched him pull a white handkerchief from an inside pocket of his black coat and wipe his pockmarked face. His hair was tucked beneath a tilted fedora. Behind the man, Saguaro cactuses stood apart at irregular distances with their limbs held up like scarecrows guarding an endless stretch of baked red earth.

“I don’t know you,” Martinez said, feeling dampness under his arms. He tried, but was unable to squirm free of his restraints.

Maria. Something about Maria filled his mind. A Taco Bell on Sepulveda. It grew clear. He remembered now that he had caught her coming out of the restaurant with another man. But it wasn’t this man who stood outside the trunk, was it? No. The man with Maria was much younger, much thinner. But who was that man with Maria? More importantly, who was this man in front of him?

The big man turned his back to Martinez and raised an arm. He removed his fedora and swiped a forearm across his forehead. For a long time he stared into the thick emptiness of the desert. When he finally turned around to face Martinez again, the man said, “It was my daughter’s fifteenth birthday.”

Martinez closed his eyes and tried to draw out the memory of this man. Nothing. All he could recollect was Maria. She and her companion had sat down beside each other at a patio table. They laughed and touched fingertips under the shade of a large green-and-white umbrella.

Martinez remembered the hurt he felt when seeing his wife with another man. The physical pain in his chest. The turning in his stomach. The wobbling of his legs. All that rushed back. But the man outside. Martinez had no recollection of him.

“She was all I had,” the big man said. He turned back around to face Martinez and slowly leaned his head into the trunk, so close that Martinez could smell the alcohol on the man’s breath.

“Who are you?” Martinez said.

The man pulled away and said, “I am a man with nothing left to live for."

“Oh, God,” Martinez murmured.

The big man shook his head. “You remember now, don’t you?”

Martinez remembered.

While he’d sat watching from his car, Maria had leaned into her companion. They kissed. Martinez had gripped the steering wheel. His vision blurred. He recalled with clarity how he reached beneath the seat and felt the cold steel of the pistol. Then everything happened quickly. He pointed the weapon out the window and kept squeezing the trigger until the magazine was empty. Maria was on the ground. Her lover, too. But it was the table behind Maria and her lover. That was where he’d seen him. Martinez’s eyes widened. “God. I didn’t mean to hurt your daughter.”

The big man closed his eyes and raised his head to face the blistering sun. He breathed in deeply as if he needed his lungs to hold every bit of the desert air. His eyes welled. Red flecks were visible on his pulsing neck and his twitching nose.

Closing his eyes again, Martinez replayed the final moment in the Taco Bell parking lot. The big man was weeping, holding his daughter in his arms. Then when the man spotted Martinez, he had carefully laid his child onto the ground. When the man got to his feet and started across the lot, Martinez squeezed the trigger. But the weapon had been empty. He could still hear the hollow clicks. He had tried to restart his car. Then the big man was upon him. Nothing after that.

“Don’t kill me,” Martinez said.

The big man shook his head. “I’m not going to kill you.”

Relieved, Martinez sighed.

Once again the big man raised his face to the sky. “The Aztec sun will take us both.” He then turned and started across the earth. Martinez screamed, but the man continued on until he reached the nearest Saguaro. There he sat and closed his eyes. While Martinez screamed, the big man removed his cap and set it in his lap.

*** End ***

BIO: Robert Aquino Dollesin was still a kid when he left the Philippines. He now resides in Sacramento, where he writes now and again. Among numerous other venues, some of his work can be found on Storyglossia, Nossa Morte, Big Stupid Review, Thug Lit.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Powder Burn Flash # 99 - Cormac Brown

Peanut Oil

It’s hot. Almost “ Death Valley kills the pioneers” hot. Which is no easy feat, considering that this is October in usually foggy San Francisco . But the Northern Californian version of Chandler ’s Santa Ana winds, the Diablo, is seeing to that, making everything as arid as the Sahara .

Kelly Boles has it in his head to take a week off…unpaid. Fuck the mounting pile of bills on the stand by the door; he feels a novel running through his head like a dam about to burst. Kelly though he would he would try “kickwriting” like Kerouac did with “On The Road,” minus the rolls of tracing paper taped together and the Benzedrine.

Nothing doing.

He over-caffeinated himself and as a result, every single thing is a distraction: the wailing cries of his computer’s overworked fan, his dying piece-of-shit refrigerator, his growling stomach, and the ambient noise of his neighbors that is bouncing off the heat and into his open windows.

The couple next door is particularly vexing, as they argue about how to prepare a dish.

“It’s not Szechwan beef if you cook it vegetable oil! You have to use peanut oil!”

“Then why don’t you go buy some fucking peanut oil, already?”

“I will!...uh, can you lend me some money?”

Kelly cannot believe that she tolerates this tool. She’s beautiful and she can cook? That idiot should be kissing the very ground that she walks on. Women like that might become extinct within his lifetime.

Kelly’s stomach is grumbling, so he drinks a glass of water to shut it up. He looks across the street and sees “Szechwan Beef” dash into the corner store. Kelly thinks about the wonderful aromas from next door that are to come and his stomach grumbles again. He gulps down another glass of water.

As he puts the glass in the sink, he notices a balding man in a trench coat dashing into the store. Who the hell wears a trench coat in this kind of weather? A flasher? The guy has to be a flasher, because porn theaters don’t exist anymore.

“Open the register now!”

“Jesus, that guy had a shotgun under that trench coat” whispers Kelly. The store’s owner reaches under the counter and oh shit, watch out Szechwan Beef! He didn’t see or hear “Trench Coat” and he panics, dropping the bottle of peanut oil and startling everyone.

The store’s owner brings his pistol up and “Trench Coat” pulls the trigger. Good God, the roar is deafening as the heat ricochets the sound all over the neighborhood. The store’s windows are peppered with blood, gore and holes. The store’s owner is nowhere to be seen. Trench Coat turns toward Szechwan Beef, but he already fled during the first shot.

Trench Coat pumps a shell into the chamber and takes a step. He slips, he disappears, a foot comes up, and there’s a muffled boom.

Kelly looks left and right, but there seems to be nobody in the store. He gets his phone and dials 911. He grabs a chair and stands up. Kelly can barely see Trench Coat’s feet twitching in the window and he sees what he guesses are teeth or bits of bone, right by the front door. It’s hard to tell from this distance.

As the 911 operator puts him on hold before he can say anything, Kelly shakes his head. Not because of the operator, but because this would’ve made a great story. Unfortunately, Kelly feels that just like stickups, crime fiction doesn’t pay enough.

BIO: "Cormac Brown" is my pen name. I'm an up-and-slumming writer in the city of Saint Francis, and I'm following in the footsteps of Hammett...minus the TB and working for the Pinkerton Agency. A couple of stories that I've stapled and stitched together can be found at