November 2013

“Who’s this strumpet?” asks my muse as he walks into my writing den–otherwise known as the single room comprising my kitchen and living room.

Sure enough, a young woman in a duster and hat, both heavy with dust, is sitting on the couch, arms folded, and glaring bullets at me. Luckily, the revolvers heavy on her hips are loaded with strictly imaginary bullets.

“This is Virginia McNeill, the heroine of my National Novel Writing Month novel for 2013,” I say. “I’ve been toying with her as a character since 2007 and finally got her story underway this year.”

“Uh, okay, great, sure,” says my muse. “I’m very happy for you. But why is she here, on your couch, which ought to be my place of honor? I am, after all, the imagined personification of your muse, shamelessly ripped off from an author so much richer and more powerful than you that I’m surprised you haven’t been sued back to the stone age?”

“If anyone asks, you’re fair use,” I say. “Or one of Stephen King’s Dollar Babies.”

“Whatever boats your float, slick,” says my muse with a hearty belch. “Now answer the damn question. What’s Annie Oakley doing in my ass groove?”

“I’m cross at him,” says Virginia. “I don’t like how my story turned out.”

“Ohh, and the crowd is crestfallen!” crows my muse. “All those years of thinking about Virginia’s story in the shower and you whiff on it like Casey?”

“I didn’t do any such thing!” I cry.

“I beg to differ,” snorts Virginia. “I thought my characterization was trite and two-dimensional, my character arc was more like a straight line, and that more often than not you were making fun of me.”

“Sounds like she has your number, slick,” says my muse. He tosses the cowgirl a cold beer from the fridge. “Here, have a brewski.”

“I for one think her story turned out well,” I say. “Sure, there are always edits and revisions, but-”

“Did you finish it?” snaps my muse.

“-I feel that I did enough justice to the outline of the tale that-” I continue, trying to ignore the question.

“DID you FINISH it?” my muse says again with exaggerated emphasis. “That WAS your resolution, wasn’t it?”

“It’s finished enough for now,” I say airily, evading the question.

My muse rolls his eyes afresh and turns to Virginia. “Did he finish it?”

“Far as I’m concerned,” she drawls acidly, “he never started it.”

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This entry is part of the NaNo Excerpt Blog Chain 2013 at Absolute Write.

“I tell you, it’s criminal, and I know criminal.” Old Man Morrison was pacing back and forth in the dining room of the McNeill Ranch house. “I saw it when your rotten sister tried to tip my cows, I was it when the O’Callahans were rustling my cows, and I see it now.”

“I’m sure,” said Adam McNeill. Seated at his kitchen table, he had been listening to Morrison ramble for nearly an hour about problems in Prosperity Falls. Time was, Adam would have shown the old coot the door with a Remington in his face for his trouble, not least of which because he had an inkling that the Morrison’s Wonky M ranch had been quietly rustling and rebranding his cows for years now.

But in the atmosphere of fear and paranoia that now ran rampant in Prosperity Falls, Morrison was one of the few Adam could talk to without fear of recrimination.

“The militia took another one of my boys yesterday,” Morrison continued. “For ‘questioning’ as an Ide sympathizer and traitor. Jail’s packed to the gills with ’em! Rangers and the militia is doing as they please and not a soul can raise a finger to stop them.”

“I heard that they seized Scroggins’s store yesterday,” Adam added. “Just threw him into the street and took everything he had for their ‘war effort.’ Deerton’s is the only shop on Prosperity Square that’s still open, and that’s only because Marshal Strasser has them making uniforms for her Rangers and her militia.”

“Militia,” spat Morrison. “Bunch of thugs too low to pass the Ranger Trials even with the bar lowered the way Yale left it.”

“Yeah,” Adam said, thinking ruefully of how many of his ranch hands he’d lost to prison and impressment—or fleeing to Dunn’s Crossing. “Or impressed to fight against their will. I’d raise holy hell about it, or gimp downtown to do something myself, but Marshal Strasser has the City Council in her pocket. Bunch of sheep, letting themselves be led around by Sullivan when she’s just on Strasser’s leash all the same. And the woman took over Strasser Smithy and threw her own uncle out on the street—you can’t reason with a creature like that.”

“You sound like you’re about ready to yellow-belly it to Dunn’s Crossing,” said Morrison.

“No. I don’t care if half the town has gone, either. My parents worked hard to build a life here, and I’ve worked hard to keep this ranch going. Nothing’s going to get me squealing out of Prosperity Falls with my tail between my legs.”

“Not even that rotten sister of yours?” Morrison said, arching an eyebrow over one cloudy eye. “Running off to go join up with the Ide, trying to overthrow Prosperity Falls from without even as Strasser breaks it up from within?”

“Don’t you say a word against her, Morrison,” Adam snapped. “Virginia’s got a lot of my parents in her, and they didn’t always think things through either. I love her, and I trust her, and if you so much as suggest that I do things any differently, I’ll rebut you with my Remingtons.”

“All right, okay, whatever you say, Adam.” Old Man Morriosn held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Guess you’ve got more than a little of her in yourself.”

“The responsibility of running a ranch tends to bury it deep, as I’m sure you know,” Adam said. He was about to continue when a heavy knock sounded at the door.

“Dale! Jeanette!” Adam cried out to his replacement ranch hands. “Whoever that is, let them in so I can tell them to go to hell for bothering me when I’ve got company!”

Before they could do so, if they even heard the command, the front door splintered inward. Two militiamen—identifiable by their pressboard Ranger badges—entered, guns drawn. Rangers Otto Luther and Shemaiah Talbot followed, their deputy marshal badges glinting in the late-day sunshine. Behind them, Marshal Ellen Strasser. Her outfit was immaculate, and she sported her old Colt Lightning revolvers with new ivory grips and the golden mashal’s badge buffed to a fine shine.

Morrison grasped for his double-barreled shotgun, which he’d left on the kitchen table, but Adam waved him away. “Marshal Strasser,” he said. “I’m honored by your presence. You’ll forgive me if I don’t stand, but I’m sure you know my leg’s no good.”

“Adam McNeill,” Strasser said. “You’ve ignored my requisition order. The people of Prosperity Falls need your head of cattle to feed the punitive expedition the Rangers are planning into Ide country.”

“Oh, I haven’t ignored the order, Marshal Strasser,” said Adam. That much was true; he had torn it up and burned the paper. “I’m afraid I was never properly presented with it is all.”

“And yet you are sitting here, well-fed—and armed—at your table while Rangers and militia go hungry for want of beef,” said Strasser icily. “That, to me, smacks of a lack of civic virtue. Or, to be less generous, conspiracy.”

“Oh, these?” said Adam, nodding at the twin Remington model 1858 revolvers on his table. “They are heirlooms. Belonged to my parents.”

“I’m sure you are aware that the requisition order extends to personal weapons as well,” said Strasser. “Even a pair of antiques like that could be made useful. And yet you’ve chosen to hoard them.”

“I keep them loaded with a blank charge and use them to startle cattle and wake up my sister,” Adam said. “Hardly hoarding, and they’re doing me more good than they would any fool used to cartridge guns instead of cap and ball.”

“Ah yes, your sister,” said Strasser. “Virginia. A name sure to eclipse even that of Jubal Sullivan in traitorous infamy.”

“Don’t you say a word against her,” said Adam, his calm slipping a bit. “I will not have my sister, no matter what she is held to have done, slandered in my own home.”

Strasser raised her eyebrows. “Perhaps your…lethargy…in complying with my lawful requests has something to do with that? Could it be that you, too, are in league with the Ide, plotting the destruction of everything I am sworn to protect?”

“Yes, I’m sure the Ide have great need for antique guns, cattle malnourished from confiscated feed, and fighters with useless legs.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Strasser said. She nodded curtly to her escort, who began to advance with their guns drawn. “Even so, you might be a useful tool in bringing that girl to heel. A useful example to anyone else with your same…recalcitrance… as well.”

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“Addressed to Bianca Lattimer, no return address.” I said, examining the envelope critically. “How’d it come? I don’t know any Bianca Lattimer.”

The student shrugged. “It was in your pile, I put your pile in your office.”

I shot him a poison arrow look–that’s what happens when you aren’t in charge of hiring your own office staff. “Wow, so very helpful. Take it back.”

“There’s no return address,” he said. “It’ll just end up at the dead letter office. Open it and see what’s inside.”

Ignoring him, I marched to my office, the size of a monastic cell but crammed with far more books and Chinese takeout containers. The letter sat on the corner of my desk as I graded papers for about two hours; in time, though, curiosity got the better of me and I groped for my letter opener.

The message that fell out was typed in bog-standard Times New Roman and dated midnight yesterday:

Bianca Lattimore,
We have your daughter. Bring the package to us within 48 hours of the marked date and time, or she dies. We are monitoring police scanner frequencies; any attempts to contact the authorities would be most unwise.

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“Take this here,” said Cándida, speaking to her trainee in soft Spanish so as not to disturb or be comprehended by the Anglos still sleeping off hangovers nearby. “Bed unmade, one pillow propped up, and the comforter thrown across the room to cover the air conditioner. What do you think made it like this?”

“Hm,” said Silvia. “Well, I think that maybe the gentleman wanted to read in bed, so he propped up the pillow. And it’s been warm these past few days, so he threw the comforter over there because it was too hot.”

“Maybe,” said Cándida. “But that’s awfully naive–and awfully tame. When you’ve been here awhile, you’ll see it differently. We cleaners notice things that other people don’t.”

“Well, what do you see here?” Silvia asked.

“It was a booty call, and things got so rough that he needed to put a pillow up to keep from bashing his brains out on the headboard. And he threw the comforter across the room in a fit of passion–or, more likely, to make his pretty little girlfriend think it was passion, which would make her less likely to tell her husband about it.”

“Does everyone who works here get that cynical?” said Silvia, beginning to gingerly pull the sheets off the hotel bed.

“Sooner or later,” said Cándida. “But I’m sure that my version is the right one.”

A knock at the door interrupted her. “Hey, can I tiptoe in?” said the Anglo lady standing there. “I forgot my book.”

Silvia folded her arms and gave Cándida a self-satisfied look as the woman retrieved a novel from the bedside drawer nearest the propped up pillow.

“Come on, honey! It can’t be called sex on the beach if the tide has come in!” Another Anglo, this one in a bikini and thong, was at the door.

“Coming, honey!” The other woman skipped off carrying her book, leaving Cándida with an expression that was half-surprised, half-smug.

“Let’s call that one a draw,” said Silvia.

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The loneliest people ever accosted by bright lights and blaring sounds
Flow about me like a river, borne in currents of cheap tobacco smoke
Either window dressing or bad luck, they bark at me for losses
Blame the interloper, not the machine designed for soft bankruptcy
I dare not pull the lever myself, even as the lights twinkle and sing
For the dead eyes I see at every turn, the listless mechanisms of loss
Were they once as wary as I, before beckoned into the neon arms
Sure that just one pull, just twenty dollars, would be the end of it?

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Ravenna, 1421:

“I would speak with you, my lord, of Ovidius Amello,” said the Chamberlain.

Obizzo da Polenta, Lord of Ravenna, gave a disinterested sigh. “Do you think,” he said, “that the affairs of a court scribe even merit a mention? I am balancing on a knife’s edge between Venice and Ferrara, seeking to placate them both and secure the seigniory of Ravenna for my son. What do I care of Amello, so long as he continues to write what I command him to write?”

“That is just the issue, my lord,” the Chamberlain said. “Amello has become…disturbed. He claims that he is writing what he has been commanded to, but the parchments are covered in gibberish that only vaguely resemble what you or I would call language. His illustrations, too, have taken on strange forms, though when I can understand him he says that they are the same portraits of men and kings that he has always painted.”

“When you can understand him?” snorted da Polenta. “Speak not in riddles.”

“Amello’s habit of speech has become…disorganized…of late, my lord. He will often slip into and out of speaking in tongues in the midst of his speech, and seems to note no distinction therebetween. I fear he may be possessed.”

“Possessed? Bah, what use have I for the useless meddling of the Church that accusation brings? Trump up a charge against Amello, have him executed, and be done with it.”

The chamberlain tented his fingers nervously. “As you recall, my lord, though Amello be officially of low birth, he is actually the illegitimate bastard of-”

Da Polenta rolled his eyes. “A pox on that old wretch! May his signet ring saw his bony finger from his lecherous old hand. Very well, take Amello out of the scribal pool and quietly isolate him. See to it that he is supplied with parchment, vellum, and ink, and let him scribe and babble what he will.”

“By your command, my lord,” said the chamberlain.

And so it was that the scribe Ovidius Amello’s disorganized schizophrenia, which would not even be named (let alone understood) for 500 years, was allowed to develop unchecked. Though the scribe himself thought that the volumes he prepared were routine pharmacopoeias, bestiaries, and astrological treatises of the sort that most scribes of his station wrote, instead be produced and lovingly bound volumes of bizarre symbols and illustrations. The disorganized nature of his schizophrenia meant that none but Amello himself could link his scratchings to any meaningful concepts, as the internal links between language, concept, and expression had broken down.

On Amello’s death in 1431–ironically, not long after that of Obizzo da Polenta–all but one of his books were burned, that last volume being saved as a curiosity by Ostasio III, Obizzo’s son and successor. When Venice took Ravenna in 1441, the book was looted along with the entire da Polenta library. The Holy Wars that followed saw that library sold to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II for 600 gold ducats; perplexed, he gave Amello’s book to his botanist to try and decipher the many plantlike illustrations therein.

Finding its way from that botanist to an alchemist, a university rector, a Jesuit scholar, a religious library, and finally a book collector. That collector’s name would become affixed to the text and the mystery of its contents–described by one owner as a “sphynx taking up space uselessly in my library.” That last owner’s name?

Wilfrid Michael Voynich.

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The Sav-Mart Express on the corner of Van Buren and Jefferson was like every other Sav-Mart Express: an overpriced drugstore designed to drive Walgreens out of the overpriced by convenient stand-alone pharmacy business, a niche the full-size Sav-Marts were ill-equipped to fill. And a big part of that gouging was tantalizing people with glistening bottles of caramel-colored liquid toothrot at checkout with vast coolers filled with every variety of soda pop known to man.

The Sani-Cola delivery man arrived one day with a pallet of fresh-bottled Sani-Cola, Diet Sani-Cola, Sani-Cola Classic (with chlorophyll!), only to find that another bottle truck had pulled up to the other side of the Sav-Mart Express, which lacked a loading dock.

“Well, well, well,” said the the AtlantiCola driver, his yellow shirt a keen contrast from the Sani-Cola driver’s green. “Look what the cat dragged in.”

“Still pushing your knockoff sugar water on people who think that drinks taste better when you’re skydiving?” sneered Mr. Sani-Cola.

“Only if you’re still hawking that ancient patent medicine snake oil that you call a drink,” Mr. AtlantiCola responded.

They regarded each other over the two competing soft drink pallets gumming up the aisle. “So what are we going to do about this, huh?” said Sani-Cola.

“I think we both know the answer to that,” drawled AtlantiCola.

Sani-Cola seized a pair of glass Commemorative Edition bottles, smashed each, and assumed the Creeping Soda Lotus ready position. The raw chi of his Classic Cola Combo fighting style made the spilled liquid orbit him like a protective shield as he held up a jagged bottle in either hand.

AtlantiCola countered by grabbing a six-pack of AtlantiCola Xtreme held together by fish-trapping plastic rings. A few quick snaps and it was a long, weighted chain of bottles, ready to be grappled with extreme, deadly accuracy. The chi of nearby dead fish surrounded him, summoned by the Ten Thousand Broken Jade Fish Rings fighting style.

The Sav-Mart counter jockey sighed, and sank beneath their counter.

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