Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Powder Burn Flash # 62 - Cormac Brown

If Twelve Were Nine

When it’s ninety-nine degrees in the shade, this is no time to wear green windbreakers, but they have to keep theirs on. Because this is when things tend to get confusing and confusion is bad in this business, because that’s when people get killed. As sunny and obnoxiously bright as it outside, it’s almost the exact opposite inside the hallways of this apartment building in Phoenix .

Aaron hates the way these jackets rustle and make noise, anybody with decent ears can hear them coming and he silently breaks off from the pack, like the wolf that knows that the rest of the pack are going on a futile hunt. No one notices as they are too pumped up and too distracted by the dimness.

They let loose clipped whispers in frustration-

“What are these, twenty-watt bulbs?”

“The building’s superintendent should be fired, the numbers are all jumbled up and-“

“Shhhh! There, two doors down.”

Two go to the left side of the door and two stay on the right. Two more come up with a heavy object and they hit the door-


…twice and they pull clear, as the lock gives way and the door splinters open.

“Maricopa Sheriff’s Department! Get your hands up!”

To the left of the threshold, a pokes through high and another to the right comes juts through low. The apartment is barely brighter than the hallway, though now the green jackets with yellow lettering are visible on the male and female deputies for the city of Phoenix . With their guns out, they make their way across the dimness and search for suspects, yet they’re careful not to get in each other’s crossfire.

They quickly check the rather large living room and its adjacent closets. As they enter the kitchen, they come across a man who seems oblivious to them. He leisurely chews on a bowl of granola and as a gun points at him from across the table, he tilts his head, barely registering it.

“Put the spoon down, slowly. Put your hands up” Delia, the deputy in charge says slowly.

He complies, though he looks both surprised and baffled. Two more deputies have already broken off to search the bathroom and they yell “clear!” as they find it empty. Delia motions the man towards the kitchen floor. Two other deputies handcuff him and search him for weapons.

The man in the kitchen does not seem to match the suspect that they are looking for. He is average in size and the description of the suspect is more like an overweight boxer. The suspect has tattoos from the neck down like an American version of a Yakuza member and what skin this man has exposed from his tank top, suggest he has no ink on him at all. His hair color is different from the suspect’s, as is his face. He has on glasses and the suspect allegedly doesn’t wear any.

One more deputy breaks off to help the first two sweep the bedrooms. “Clear!” comes the first shout after about the first two minutes and the “all clear!” comes after three more minutes.

The prostrate man cranes his neck slowly and groans “did you check the apartment number?” One of the deputies runs to the front of the apartment and sees the number “twelve” on the door.

Embarrassed the second deputy mutters “shit” and uncuffs the prostrate man. The deputies rush out of there, fearing that they’ve already tipped off the real suspect and he might’ve fled.

The man gets up. He rubs his sore wrists, eats another spoonful of granola and gets a small backpack out from a cabinet. He quietly slides open the kitchen window, tosses the backpack out of the window and follows it, some seven feet down.

“Don’t be stupid! Slowly toss the backpack to your right!” Aaron yells at him. He does as he is told and Aaron stops just short, behind him.

“Put your hands on your head and spread your legs.”

Aaron keeps the gun trained on him as pats him down. He tells the other deputies that he has secured the suspect in the alley east of the building via his radio handset.

Aaron says “get down on your knees” and the man complies. “Now lay flat, facedown on the ground.”

Aaron handcuffs him and waits for the others. Delia comes out, followed by the other deputies and they all look as shocked as she is.

“What the hell are you doing? Are you crazy?”

“No, check the picture of the suspect again, this is Barry Rose.”

Delia looks the picture over, then the man lying cuffed on the ground.

“They could be cousins. Where are the tats? The hair color is wrong, the weight is wrong, he’s got on glasses.”

Aaron hands a bandana over to one of the deputies and says “John, wet this up with that garden hose.”

John dampens it, wrings it out a little and hands it back to Aaron. Aaron rubs the wet bandana across the prostrate man’s back and like magic, tattoos appear.

“Movie stars use makeup to cover their ink all the time. Anyone can lose fifty pounds, especially if they get liposuction to go with their plastic surgery and just because it says “Miss Clairol” on the box, doesn’t mean that a man can’t use it. As far as the glasses? Don’t tell me that you can’t tell Clark Kent from Superman.”

John and another deputy take Barry Rose away. Delia whispers “how did you know?”

Aaron whispers back, “I didn’t. I saw that all the apartment numbers on the door were in the wrong order and figured it out from there.”

Delia looks Aaron in the eye and says firmly “just the same, don’t break off like that without telling me. You’re lucky that nothing serious happened. Understood?”

Aaron nods and mumbles “yeah.”

Delia taps Aaron in the jaw with playful right cross and back slaps him.

“Well done.”

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 http://cormacwrites.blogspot.com

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Powder Burn Flash # 61 - Barry Baldwin

Campus Capers

As so often with academic activities, the departmental Christmas party is late getting under way. That's because the faculty member deputed to do the arrangements has managed to forget the liquor permit. It's been said that you can't run a university without sherry, but without that papery presence on the dingy (no money in the budget again for repainting) wall of the main office, to take so much as a sip of alcohol is a turpitude somewhere between seducing the president's wife and seducing the president's dog. But, it's here at last, taped up alongside some faded notices, so the licensed hilarity can begin.

"Well, we sure did a great job on the decorations," one associate professor says to the secretary.

"We sure did," chime in others, like a Greek chorus.

"Didn't we just," replies the secretary, whose appeal for help with this chore had gone unheeded and who had had to do it all by herself, on top of e-mailing the head's seasonal greetings; after hours as well, and not one cent in overtime. This associate professor would be bottom of her typing priorities next term, were either of them still to be around.

A newly-appointed instructor is tentatively sipping a rum-and-coke. He knows, courtesy of his 1960s hippie father, that this concoction was popularised in that curious era by the Beatles. A real scholar would have traced it back to the 1945 song of that name warbled by the Andrews Sisters.

His parent would have done well to linger over one of those beverages, rather than the habitual swilling down of bourbon and pills, which had first cost him his left leg when he wobbled on his bicycle in front of a San Francisco bus, and later his demise, the manner of which gained him his fifteen minutes of fame without his being around to savour them. He was electrocuted while urinating near a power pole on the side of a highway. The coroner, finding it difficult to compose his features, pronounced on the evidence of the deceased's companions that he had peed on a flooded ground line, causing his prosthetic leg to act as a strong conductor.

This instructor is standing off by himself in one corner. Nobody was paying any attention to him before, but that's not why. He's been agonising for weeks over whether or not to buy the department head a present. If he does, will it look too obviously like sucking-up? But what if he doesn't, and everyone else does? He's tried asking people in a roundabout way what they've done in previous years, but they are no better at answering subtle questions than he is at posing them. He's considered a possible compromise, a joke present, something to demonstrate thought without ulterior motive: but what kind of rib-tickler do you give to somebody famous for having no sense of humour?

That's actually not quite fair to the department head who, strictly speaking, should these days be called The Chair, but not eveyone can bring themselves to address him thus with a straight face, despite a woodenness of character often compared to that particular piece of furniture - "O Chair" seems a locution more suited to the soon-to-be-eliminated Classics Department in the basement and its first-year Latin grammar drills. Right now, he is putting on his party hat. He's made it himself, with folded pages torn from an academic offprint. He does this every year. It's always made from the same offprint. He's only ever published the one article. "All this administration," he pleads, "gets in the way of the real thing."

Wearing this carefully contructed jester's cap, the head thrusts a styrofoam cup of punch, his own speciality, an obscure concoction, multi-hued like liquid Crayola reflecting in a puddle of sunlit gasoline, into the hand of the nearest graduate student. "Well, Merry Christmas," he says, as though reading from a teleprompter, "Have a good one."

This graduate student, present only for tactical reasons, is the lone Jewish one among them. Her name is Hagith Levant, evidently not a good enough clue for gentile men and scholars. Those few faculty members who do register the faux pas snigger cautiously behind their own drinks. They would like to register their sympathy and contempt, but without making it too obvious which sentiment is for whom. After all, they may have tenure, which emboldens them to ignore the head's punch, but there's nothing to stop her from dreaming up a sexual harassment charge against them, or him from assigning them an eight a.m. class in the winter term or putting them on the committee that is mulling over a proposal to install pay phones in faculty offices.

The other graduate students, who had been pointed as they arrived towards a crate of rum-less cokes, look uneasily at each other: are they seeing themselves as they will be in ten years time?

Hagith Levant, an atheist except when she goes home, is not genuinely upset, but decides to stage an indignant walk-out. She was leaving soon, in any event, for a more private engagement. She calculates that, should she need it, future memory of this episode will make a useful marker to call in: a late essay, for example, or getting out of a second section of bonehead freshman language laboratory supervisions.The instructor sidles out a few moments later. More sniggering, less concealed, from those who notice: what chance does he think he's got?

Even before this little melodrama, people have been generally standing around wondering what to say next. Except for two full professors, who now break the stagnant silence by squaring up to each other in a well-honed routine designed to clothe their decades-long feud in a diaphanous dress of duologue, emphasised by their brandishing like rapiers the Bavarian beer steins each always brings to these gatherings as a reminder to hoi polloi that they have had sabbaticals in Europe.

"So, you going to the MLA this year?"

"That slave auction? Not on your life. They wanted me to do a panel, of course, but I told them where to stick it. Why, are you?"

"I'm giving a paper, if that's your question."

"Well, maybe I will come after all. Just to give myself the pleasure of being there and not going to hear you."

The secretary, who had once tacked up a Time magazine profile of the MLA meetings which amongst other disparagements quoted a hotel desk clerk as saying he'd never known a conference with less screwing or more drinking, judges this a good moment to urge people's attention towards the hitherto neglected foodstuffs meticulously arranged in her in-trays and out-trays: nondescript sandwiches, sawdust shortbreads, and a crazily-angled Christmas cake, a tumid stylistic mix of Dickens and Dali, topped by plaster robins which she does not warn people to avoid. Who knows? In her previous post, the most important person there had not realised the artificiality of festive robins; it had required a hyper-Heimlich manoeuvre to expel the powdery beak from his throat."

Oh, look," says someone, "Entrees in the in-trays, isn't that cute?" This draws no response. Somebody else suggests dancing to the background drone of seasonal songs coming out of a now old-fashioned portable tape-deck perched on a chair. There is no response to this, either.

Worrying over the possible Hagith Levant repercussions, the head recalls the time she sat on the department's photo-copying machine and xeroxed herself. Political correctness hanging over them like stale gun smoke, no one ventures beyond "Well, that could have been interesting..."

It wasn't. Hagith Levant was "really into Absurdism," hadn't even taken off her coat. On another occasion, when pressed by an activist group with which she had been very briefly associated, to enhance one of their regular 'anti-Fascist' demonstrations by pouring sugar into the tank of the designated villain's car, she'd thrown in sachets of Nutrasweet instead.

At 4.55 on the nail, the secretary plays her intended ace, hoping to make everyone feel a louse by handing out carefully though not colourfully wrapped presents, knowing that she wouldn't get anything from them. But her ace is trumped, there's no time for even a mouse-squeak of guilt, thanks to the head who removes his party hat, consults (not for the first time) his watch, and announces as though bringing a seminar to a close, "Well, that's it for another year. We'd better get going before our vehicles freeze up. You know the administration switches the power off at five sharp, and it must be twenty below out there."

To himself he's also saying, in words that he would never frame in public, I wonder why that asshole instructor quit so early? I really needed to finalise his winter term schedule before the break. I should maybe think twice about having him back next year.

"Oughtn't we to clean up this mess first?" some fool asks.

"No, the secretary can do that."

She leaves alone, humming a snatch of 'Eleanor Rigby'. Her shopping-bag clinks with the left-over bottles. Blame for such appropriations can always be diverted to the Korean cleaners, one of whom will soon be puzzled by his discovery in a lecture room of a pair of panties. Even if his English were better, their HL monogram would mean nothing to him. He slips them into his pocket to take home as a present for his wife, an act that will cause him some trouble when the police find them in the course of their investigation into their owner's disappearance.

The instructor will also be under suspicion, but nothing will be found against him. In any case, the police have their hands full with the deaths of everyone else at the Christmas party, thanks to what had been mixed in with the refreshments. They would very much like to talk to the secretary, but no dice. She is tucked away somewhere in South America with Hagith Levant, whose treatment at the party and enforced Yuletide congress with the instructor has finally convinced her that men, epecially academic ones, are not for her.

Hardly is everyone in the ground, or in urns on mantlepieces, before the temporary secretary must cope with the fax machines spitting out multi-paged applications for the vacancies that thanks to the next round of budget cuts will be filled only at junior levels or not at all. She will be re-shuffled into the Computer Sciences' ever-growing steno pool. His fixed-term position means curtains for the instructor who after two years of expensive and futile job-hunting will choose in the last of his increasing moments of alcohol-fuelled despair to join his late colleagues, wherever they are.

Biographical Note: Born (1937) and educated in England; college-university lecturer in England/Australia/Canada. Now Emeritus Professor of Classics, University of Calgary, and Fellow of The Royal Society of Canada. Published 12 books and c. 600 articles on Greece, Rome, Byzantium, 18th-Century History & Literature, and Albanian History/Language/Literature. As freelance writer, have contributed many magazine and newspaper articles on many subjects in various countries. Did a 2-year stint as regular columnist for the British daily newspaper Morning Star. Currently write regular columns for (e.g.) Catholic Insight (Canada); Fortean Times (UK/USA); Presbyterian Record (Canada); Stitches (Canada); Verbatim (USA/UK).

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Powder Burn Flash # 60 - Cormac Brown


As the wind whipped the snow into Jed Thane's face, he pulled his collar up around his neck and pushed the door open to the empty meat processing plant. Nothing kills your soul faster than being the only human being for ten square miles around with nothing but the cow carcasses, blood, flecks of gore, and the stench of the killing floor to keep you company.

Though tonight for Jed, alone is a relative term.

Seriously, I really need to go back to school. Waking up at nine in the evening and driving nine miles through ice and snow, just to clean up a slaughterhouse? Using a water hose that has almost twice the pressure of a fireman's hose, has lost its appeal to my inner-child. People with severe learning disabilities get better jobs than this without even trying.

Well, Terry isn't here, so I guess I'll be working by myself-ooof!

What the hell?!

"How are you doing, Thane?"

It's some madman with a baseball bat. He's angry and Jed wonders if has something to do with the steroids that the guy must obviously be on, because he is yoked. The guy is about three times Jed's size, he has a haircut that probably costs more than Jed makes in a week and leather jacket on that definitely costs more than he makes in a month.

Oh, Christ...that hurt. Who is this dickhead? Why is he calling me by my last name and what's up with the Louisville-

"No, no. There's no need to get up on my part, just make yourself comfortable right there on the floor. "

Ow, shit! That's okay, I don't need those ribs, I have a bunch more.

"Because that's going to be your new home, Thane. You think that would be able to help yourself to my girlfriend and I wouldn't find out about it?"

Gahhh! I guess I didn't need those teeth either. What the hell "girlfriend" is he going on about? Jesus, is this guy a drunk, or is he a crack head?

Jed mumbles through the blood and pain, "I don't know what you are talking about, man. I haven't been with a woman for months."

"Yeah, that's original. Let's see if this jogs your memory."

Shit! I can't breathe! How do I talk to this guy? He must be high out of his skull? What do I do? Just come up with something!

"See, I knew something was going on, but I didn't know just with whom it was until you went and got stupid, leaving your dry cleaning receipt...right under Joan's side of the bed."

C'mon man, think on your feet...your knees, whatever! Crap, that's it; I'll crawl towards one of the stations.

Jed manages to stop wheezing for a moment and he spits out "look at me. Do I look like I would need to have anything dry cleaned?"

C'mon, Barry Bonds. Just follow me a little further and we'll see how you swing that bat, then.

"Don't try to weasel your way out of this! I got your address off the receipt and I matched it to your trailer! I followed you out of your miserable trailer, all the way to over here!"

Oh, so that's why he's calling me by my last name. It must be my brother that is messing around with his girlfriend.

"Listen, Thane, listen. Can you hear that? The way that song just wafts through here? It's the fat lady and here comes her aria."

Jed crawls a little further. His assailant raises the bat and goes after him...for all of one step. The baseball wielding cuckold slips in blood and falls on his ass. He reaches for the bat, but it is too slippery with all viscera on the floor and it wouldn't make a difference, because it's too late. Jed grabs a boning knife and drives it downward through that two-thousand dollar jacket.

In a sickly combination of sputter and snarl, Jed sneers "I'm tone deaf and besides...I hate opera."

One minute later and the only thing left breathing in the building is Jed, albeit poorly.

He is in a tremendous amount of pain and he is sure that at best, three of his ribs are fractured.
He licks his mouth and his initial count is five teeth that are missing or chipped.

Hell, on top of trying to figure out a way of getting rid of this body and the car that brought it here, Jed still has to have at least half of this place clean before the 3 AM shift comes on, or he's fired.

All I can say is that after all this? My brother better sign his Mustang over to me.

The End

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 http://cormacwrites.blogspot.com