In honor of my weekend experience, another free chapter of Record of Wrongs:
Mary Beaupre slept restlessly and dreamed about work.
She was pouring coffee onto customers’ plates like maple syrup, and they used their knives to cut the porcelain, spearing up bites with their forks. She wanted to tell them that wasn’t right, but then she stopped herself from speaking and cracked a smile. She passed two empty tables, each with a single dollar bill on it, and each time she reached for it, her meager tip dissolved into green dust.
Out of the cacophony of voices in the diner, different men and women called to her: “Honey?” “Waitress?” “Oh miss?” Now a bratty toddler boy in a man’s lap was pinching her on her face, pinching her hard – ow, stop little boy! And now an infant girl was biting Mary on the cheek, biting hard – stop it, baby!
Then Mary was half awake in her bed in the duplex where she lived alone, and the room was filled with buzzing. She felt sharp stabs of pain on her cheeks, arms, left ear. Dear Jesus!
Bees were stinging her, and when she flailed her arms the bugs only seemed to get angrier. There must’ve been hundreds of them, tickling her forearms and neck and buzzing, buzzing. Crushing pain at the sites of the stings, itching already starting, and all Mary could think about was her EpiPen. She wrestled the comforter and sheets and her swelling panic and stumbled through the open door to the bathroom, and they were crawling all over her and swarming around her head and stinging her more.
The shower first, the shower – she wrenched on the taps and plunged under the cold rain, stripping off the T-shirt she’d worn to bed and rubbing to make the bugs get off her. She could see by the street light that poured in through the bathroom glass that it was working; the wings of the ones that got wet bogged down, and they plummeted to the floor of the shower.
She’d stepped on a stinger. She wrenched the Shower Massager from its holder and sprayed the stream at the ones still flying, knocking down a lot of them.
Mary leaped out of the shower dripping water, oddly remembering not to slip on the tile. Now she could feel the skin of her face swelling alarmingly, her lips getting fat and her eyelids, too, making it hard to keep her eyes open. How many stings had there been? Dozens, and a single sting could be life-threatening for her. She had to give herself the shot.
She got to the medicine cabinet. It wasn’t there? It wasn’t there!
Okay, the phone. 9-1-1. Please, God, let them be fast enough. But her phone wasn’t on the dresser where she’d left it after work.
Now the bedroom light came on. She was wheezing already, her airway swelling shut.
A man’s voice: “Hey.”
He was standing in her bedroom doorway with a beekeeper’s hat and net over his head and face. Long sleeves and leather gloves.
“It’s me, Jamey. From high school. Look, I still have your picture.”
She hadn’t thought about this boy in a dozen years. Now he was standing there holding up a hand-drawn picture in a little notebook?
“You wrote them notes. You wrote them notes for them and put ’em in my locker.”
“That was,” she wheezed, “a mean thing for me to do. But a long – time ago.”
“Why’d you do it, then, if you know it was mean?”
“I was –” she breathed – “sixteen. Kevin was. So cute. But they. Just used me.”
She’d been the baseball team’s “student manager.” Kevin and his friend Elliott had used her to write the notes because they needed a girl’s handwriting. And Kevin had used her for the favors she gave on her knees in his Nissan when he’d drive her home late after away games, even though he ignored her the rest of the time. Then the other boy had driven her home a couple times after that, too.
“That – wasn’t nice,” she admitted. “But hey. Bad stuff – happens to – all of us.”
Jamey was shaking his head, his face turning purple. “You grew up in a trailer park same as me,” he spat. “You shoulda never been on the side of them country club boys, helpin’ them hurt me. You shoulda stuck up for your trailer rats. That’s a damn betrayal, is what that is.”
She thought to go after him, thought to run. Thoughts got confused and bumped together. After all the sh–ty decisions she’d made, the marriage to Ronnie, the times he beat her up, here it was: It was going to be a man with little-boy hurt feelings she hadn’t thought of since high school putting hornets in her house to kill her because he hadn’t gotten over it.
She gasped out, “How’d you know,” then wheezed in a breath, “I was allergic – to hornets?”
He shrugged. “Facebook.”
Of course. A couple of months back, she’d felt a sting on her ankle, worried it was a hornet, but it had turned out to be an ant bite. She’d posted a status update about it.
“That’s right,” he was saying. “And you thought I forgot how you did me. But I remembered. I been rememberin’.”
Mary tried to sit on the edge of the bed but slid all the way down to the floor, her vision just narrow slits through the swelling. Her breath wasn’t coming, and she was feeling a little bit drunk. She hadn’t felt this kind of happy in a long time. Yes, this was sure enough going to be the end of her.
Just like this little man here, Mary had nobody to press up next to in bed at night, and no kids to take care of. All she had was a car as old as her that barely ran, a job that hurt her feet and a s–thole two-room apartment with a 13-inch thrift store TV and an old computer somebody had put out with their trash.
Mary closed her eyes and welcomed the euphoric feeling creeping across her brain, like cold seeping through your jacket on a snowy day.
She hadn’t been to church in a while, and if you had asked her that morning, she’d have said she wasn’t sure God and heaven was anything but well-meaning bulls–t.
But right now she knew: Jesus was waiting.
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He was plenty far from the gas station or anything else out here. Just big old tobacco fields, nobody in the sagging farmhouses anymore, no other traffic. No one to see or hear.
The race-modified Chevy Monte Carlo waited still in the northbound lane of Pine Gallows Road. The straps of an eight-point harness held Jamey Epps snug in its molded seat. His fingers checked the anti-whiplash tether rigged to his carbon-fiber crash helmet, and he felt like his daddy’s hero, Darrell Waltrip, in the Tide car back in ’89.
Jamey twisted uncomfortably to his right to see the screen of a laptop that showed a satellite map of the area. The little blue car icon tagged “Elliott Garrett” was moving again, heading south, just a mile or so away now.
The hatred flared big and warm and powerful in Jamey’s belly. He got the Monte Carlo rolling.
Adrenaline dumped into his blood. He checked the speedometer and held it at 40 exactly, and the racecar seemed to tremble in anticipation on its stiff suspension.
* * *
As Elliott Garrett steered out of the Mobil station, his BMW sensed the darkness, lit its gauges blood red, and flooded the pavement with high-intensity light.
From I-85 in middle-of-nowhere Virginia, he’d taken the exit for Pine Gallows Road, a two-lane highway he used as a shortcut over to U.S. 1. He swore the route saved 10 minutes, but Laura thought it took longer.
He was maybe two hours from Raleigh. He pictured Annabelle sprawled asleep wearing her polka-dot jammies. Laura doz-ing on the couch in front of HGTV. Both of them drooling, probably. A boring but beautiful home life he had placed at great risk. He bit into his cheek.
Elliott thought over his time in Washington, D.C., marking details he could safely share with his wife. He would lie if he had to, but it was easier – safer – just to omit, especially now that she seemed suspicious. How had he made his life this damn complicated?
The first sip of coffee burned his tongue, so he parked the foam cup where he could aim an air conditioning vent at it and turned on the stereo. He called up The Allman Brothers’ “South-bound” because it was about coming home to your woman feeling lonely.
Duane Allman’s guitar riff flowed from the speakers. The dashed center stripe seemed to tick past outside the Beemer’s door in rhythm with the song’s bass line.
Oncoming headlights in the distance drew his gaze from the radio back to the road. The other car gradually drew closer, annoyingly not dimming its brights, making Elliott squint. He gave a quick brights flash of his own, eased off the accelerator.
Finally, the other car dropped its high beams.
Elliott nudged his toe back into the gas.
The other car got nearly even – headlights in Elliott’s lane!
His foot arced toward the brake; hands wanted to yank the wheel, but no time, the epithet in his mind never reaching his throat.
A colossal punch to the head, pain like a spike driven up his nose, the car spinning backward in flat, sickening ovals.
The last sensation: Scorching rain on his right cheek and arm.
* * *
Jamey’s steering wheel flick from noon to 11 chewed the Monte into the yuppie sedan with a gunshot BLAM. The hoods crumpled, blocking his view, the offset angle setting both cars spinning.
Then they separated. He stamped the brakes, tires yowling as the racecar skidded tail first into a ditch with another jolting crunch.
He didn’t know how long he sat there feeling dopey, gazing up through the cracked windshield at the starry country sky, but he didn’t black out. Naw, he was definitely alive and conscious, his bones still vibrating from the impact, which was worse than he’d expected. Could still move everything, though.
He caught himself reaching to turn off the headlights and laughed – that was pretty well took care of already. His hands undid the helmet and unclicked the harness, and he tumbled into the empty metal space that had held the coupe’s backseat. The racin’ boys he’d bought the car from on Craigslist had ripped everything out to install the safety cage. Jamey was able to climb up the metal braces and get out through the passenger window – only to fall down right on his butt.
Rising to a knee, then slowly to his feet, he felt himself shaking. It was like waking up drunk or something, seeing and hearing and remembering everything, but experiencing it through a weird kind of fog. He stepped onto the pavement and made his feet carry him up the edge line toward the gleaming taillights of the BMW a couple of hundred yards away. It was sitting on the wrong shoulder but facing the same way it’d been heading.
The fuzz was clearing out as the adrenaline kicked back in. Near the BMW, he unzipped a pocket of his fire suit, pulled out a digital camera and took pictures from all different angles. He tried the driver’s door handle – locked. So he pulled out a LifeHammer auto escape tool and popped the glass.
When he saw Elliott Garrett, Jamey had a moment of doubt that his plan had worked. To check for a pulse, he put two fingers on the man’s neck.
Yeah, buddy, mission accomplished.
The car smelled mixed up. Strong coffee and some kind of chemical – from the airbag, he guessed. He opened the door and took more photos: Blood streaming from Elliott Garrett’s nose, mouth and left eye; Elliott Garrett’s stone-still face scarlet from the airbag’s punch; Elliott Garrett’s tongue lolling out of his mouth; Elliott Garrett’s legs pinned between the lower dash and the edge of Elliott Garrett’s fancy leather seat.
Five photos. Six photos. Seven, eight, nine.
Enough. He sucked in a lungful of air and slammed the door.
Payback’s a bitch, Elliott.
Damn, he wished he had his partner Eric with him. They had planned this all out, talked about how they’d do it. They were supposed to be doing this together.
But Eric couldn’t do it, so he had to do it for both of them. Just how it was.
New headlights appeared near where Jamey had waited in the racecar, a flatbed tow truck that pulled up near the BMW. It snatched into reverse for a three-point turn and ended up with its metal deck pointing at the front of the mangled car.
Rodney Sproul dropped from the cab to the grassy shoulder. He had on a polyester cop uniform with a Virginia State Police patch and a nameplate that read, “SGT. T.B. MACON.”
Sproul leaned down and ogled Elliott Garrett. “Damn! I mean, s–t, man. Lights out! That was f—ed up. F—ed UP!” And after a few more seconds, “Hey, you okay, Jamey?”
“Yeah. I’m all right.” Jamey walked behind the BMW and reached under the rear bumper. Pulling hard to unstick the adhesive, he came up with a GPS device the size of a cellphone that had cost $399 online and let him track the car on the laptop.
Sproul was just standing there at the broken window with his mouth lolling open, staring at Elliott Garrett. Jamey wondered if the boy had lost his stomach for this.
But now Spoul hooted and smacked the roof of the BMW with his palm. “Buddy, I been wantin’ to bust his nose like that for 10 damn years.” Sproul slammed the bottom of his right shoe into the BMW’s left-rear door, making a dent.
“You’re wastin’ time,” Jamey said, knocking Sproul on the shoulder to get him moving. “Hook it up.”
Jamey reached into the BMW and stabbed the lock switch. The unison clicks around the car made it seem like the system still worked. So he walked around, climbed into the back seat behind Elliott Garrett’s busted body, and pulled the door shut.
Rodney had the truck bed tilted now and was fixing the winch cable to some front part of the BMW that was still strong enough to hold. With a racket of scrapes and squeaks, the cable dragged them up onto the deck, which went level. Rodney gunned the diesel engine to go hook up the totaled racecar and pull it along behind.
After they’d driven just a quarter mile, Jamey saw an oncoming car and smiled – finished just in time. He wiped his forehead as he checked his watch. It had all taken about eight minutes.
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Have to point you toward this excellent blog post by fellow North Carolina author A.J. Hartley, a Shakespearean scholar and prolific author of everything from grownup thrillers to young adult novels and a new novelization of Macbeth — and a great guy to enjoy a pint with at any writing conference. The basic message: Don’t be a poseur. But acknowledge that, when the world has millions of novels and stories, thinking that it needs one more from you is arrogant, anyhow, so you may as well own that and use it to propel you:
Let me add another necessary but much maligned word: arrogance. Writing requires a little of that too. I realize that plenty of writers are fairly shy, retiring types who relish the quiet and solitude of a glowing computer monitor, but I’m not talking about being an extravert in personality terms. I’m talking about the kind of arrogance that says “I have something to say: a story to tell: a way with a phrase.” I mean the arrogance which is required, which is NECESSARY to say to friends, family and (ultimately) the world in general “I’ve written this and you should really read it.” It takes courage to start writing a book, but it takes a certain monomaniacal arrogance to finish it.
Having just watched the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team lose to Florida State last Saturday because they didn’t walk onto the court with the swagger — and serious determination — they deserved to have and needed to win, this rings especially true.
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One thing that separates great writing from forgettable writing is an author who is willing to keep working on a piece to make it better. Even though the writing staff of The Colbert Report turns around each show in only a day, according to this New York Times Magazine piece, they leave at least as much good material on the floor as they broadcast. As Colbert puts it, “Make it perfect, and then cut it.” In other words, not only is the material good enough to go on the show, but is it also good enough to beat out other material to get onto the show?
I had the weird experience a few weeks back of reworking the first chapter of my third novel, Record of Wrongs, a chapter I had read and revised at least 100 times, and finding major things to fix. I rearranged two happenings, tweaked a point of view and trimmed some words from sentences. Something about that section had bugged me, and my conscious mind finally figured out what.
There is a point at which you have to let something go and find an audience. But that point is after a lot more work than most non-writers or new writers imagine. The key skill is critical thinking, always trying to see the writing as a reader will and asking yourself how you can make it more effective. Click READ MORE and give me your thoughts.
Raleigh television host Stacey Cochran was kind enough to invite me to appear on his great show, “The Artist’s Craft.” Take a look and see what you think. The interview runs about a half hour. I’ll also be appearing on a live panel hosted by Stacey in February at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. Details to follow.
If anyone has further questions not answered in the video interview, pose them in the comments, and I’ll be happy to respond. Click “Read More” to reach the comments page.”
I probably disagree with most of what Sam Harris believes (he’s antireligious a la Christopher Hitchens, while I’m a person of faith who can’t understand how it’s not obvious to everyone that God exists). However, a post on his blog fascinates me as a crime writer. He articulates a few quite sensible principles of self defense, which I paraphrase here, expanding his list of three to the four big principles he really sets out:
1. Avoid dangerous people and places. Even if you’re a Navy SEAL, don’t walk down a sketchy, dark alley at night. If a guy challenges your manhood in a bar, cede the moment to him to defuse a confrontation. Even if you can win the fight, you could be sent to prison for harming the other person. 2. Do not defend your property. Give the robber
Any good author has a few trusted fellow writers who can offer a tough critique of a draft. The key here is for the critique partner to be on the writer’s side, but still unafraid to challenge the writer to improve the piece and to get rid of elements that don’t work. Usually, you need another writer who’s a little better than you to give you a useful critique; regular friends simply won’t be tough enough or know what to suggest. You also need the courage to hear tough critique without despairing — to accept that what you first wrote can get better and to make it so. Journalism got me used to this, and writers who come from another background often need to get better at it.
To give you an idea of how tough is useful, and to smooth your transition to Happy Hour on a Friday afternoon, I’ve offered Vanilla Ice my critique of the first verse of Ice, Ice Baby. Enjoy:
In St. Louis last month, I came upon a drunk man in an alley. He was carrying a baby strapped into a car seat, but he was so impaired he kept dropping the child on the ground. By shouting at him, I finally got him to place the baby safely on the gound near a trash bin, but then he pulled a machete, raised it over his head and rushed toward me. I shouted for him to him to stop.
But he kept coming.
I drew my Glock pistol and shot him 15 times in the head and chest.
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Recently, I went to see a random bill of four unknown bands at a local rock club. One stood out.
First, the scene: The crowd was light, and many in the audience clung to the bar and the edges of the room rather than standing by the stage. The first couple of bands started their set by ordering the crowd to come close to the stage. People generally ignored the instruction. I stayed at the bar, myself, thinking, “Why should I?” When they started playing, it struck me that these bands sounded like they were trying to be other, specific bands. There was a Green Day clone. A Foo Fighters clone. These guys had a studied indie-rock look, had chosen their guitars apparently to look good on stage rather than for sound. (One lead guitarist played a $1,500 archtop with so much distortion that he turned it into a pawnshop Telecaster.) The between-songs banter was full of attitude and
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Thought some non-authors might be interested in hearing about two vexing and universal plot problems every modern crime novelist must solve in every book. If you haven’t thought about this before as a reader, you’ll spot a novelist’s solutions every time from here on out. If you’re an author, please comment and let us know how you solved these problems in your books.
1. Why don’t they just call the police? There has to be some good reason that the victim or hero doesn’t simply call the law. Possible solutions to this dilemma: The police are too far away to get there in time; the police suspect the person calling of being a criminal; the police are aligned with/co-opted by the villain; the police are the villain(s); the police are incompetent; the police believe the wrong theory of the case when the hero/victim’s theory is actually onto the true one. Or the hero is using illegal/unethical means to solve the case and so can’t let the police know it. The villain will kill the hostage if the victim or hero calls the police. The traditional solution, of course, is to have your hero BE a cop.
2. Why doesn’t he/she just call him/her and ask? With every human being in the United States carrying a cellphone all the time, it is hard to have one character know something while another related character doesn’t. Possible solutions: Battery is dead; person lost their phone; villain stole/disabled phone; phone is out of range of a tower; call comes in, but because of an emergency/tense situation, person can’t immediately answer; person answers but unknown to caller, the villain is there monitoring every word. How wonderful it must have been to write crime fiction when there was no way to reach someone if they were away from their home or desk rotary-dial phone! Not only that, from here on out, we have to assume that people are able to use Google and check email on their phones, too.
Any dilemmas I’m missing? Click READ MORE and post a comment telling us what.