Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday (Cycle 28) The Sudden Goodbye

Flash Fiction Friday Prompt: RANDOM FIRST SENTENCE – Following the rules of the game listed above, find your first sentence.
Genre: Open, though Hardboiled, noir, crime action would be nice.
Word Count: Under 700 words
Deadline: Thursday, April 28, 2011 4:30 pm EST

(Author's note: Here was the rule. "It’s pretty simple, grab the book closest to you right now. Open to pg. 70. Choose the 7th sentence. In the meme, you would then post that sentence to your status, but for our purposes I want you to use this pseudo-random sentence as your start sentence." Grabbed the closest book and it was "The Castaways" by Elin Hilderbrand.)

The receptionist at Addison’s office, Florabel, answered the phone. Though muffled by the wall separating her work area from his inner office he heard the extreme distaste in her voice suggesting his current client and lover was on the way up from the lobby. It was confirmed a few seconds later as his silver-haired, 60-something assistant opened the door and leaned in. “Mrs. Foster is on her way up boss,” she said with a look of disgust on her face. “Would you mind if I take the rest of the day off so I can go home and take a long shower, whenever she is within fifty-yards of me I suddenly feel dirty.” She finished with all seriousness.

“Sure Flora,” Addison Blake replied, “this meeting should be quick.”

“What?” Flora said taken aback. “I guess it’s then up to her penthouse love nest where your sweaty bodies will clash in ecstasy.” Addison looked at her deep in thought for several seconds without saying anything. Realizing something was wrong Flora backed out silently and closed the door.

Minutes later Sharon Foster walked through the door into Addison’s inner office, her fiery red-hair bouncing on her shoulders and her green eyes gazing adoringly on him as he sat in his old office chair. She was wearing a purple evening gown that paradoxically both clung tightly to her athletic body and was seemingly loose enough that on a whim it could slide off her and fall to the floor.

“Darling,” Sharon whispered in her angelic voice, “I haven’t seen you in days and we’re over an hour late for the Charleston charity benefit tonight. I’m all for being fashionable but this is just rude, and you are not even dressed for the occasion.”

Addison could not help himself but smile at her beauty and the sharp intelligence of the women he had come to know over the last year. As teenagers they had known each other back in high school but traveled in far different social circles. She was the queen of everything, both worshipped and feared by the entire student body and most teachers, on the other hand he was the second-string quarterback playing under her talented and college bound boyfriend. After graduation, she became famous and he discovered how badly people treated each other first in the army, then as a cop, and finally as a private investigator.

When their paths crossed again, she was the distraught wife of a missing investment banker, Thomas Allen Foster, while Addison was a highly recommended private investigator she personally sought out. Addison had taken the case not just for the monetary reward but the chance to be next her again. Sharon’s husband had suddenly disappeared in the Caribbean right before being indicted for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from investors.

Sharon came to Addison in the hopes of finding her husband, or at least his remains allowing her to take control of the rest of his sizable estate. She stood to inherit at least three-hundred million dollars after all the lawyers finished picking over the eighty-billion dollar corpse of his investment firm. Addison began the search and after some possible sightings on various islands Sharon had recommended they use her sailboat and look for him together.

Thomas had scores of hidden condominiums, beach houses, and yachts all through the Caribbean in places way off the tourist track. He often boasted to his wife that he could live in luxury with the money he had in secret accounts and stay hidden from the world. At first Addison was a total professional tracking down the man who had ruined thousands of lives. However, the allure of the Caribbean and the beauty of Sharon Foster slowly challenged this behavior. Before long, they were making love on deserted islands underneath the moon with Addison slowly succumbing to her hints that they could make a life together.

But things about Thomas’ disappearance never added up, his last confirmed sighting had him living on Cat Island in the Bahamas where he owned a beach house. During this time Sharon had witnesses placing her in Nassau for several days shopping while staying at a condo on the island. Her main witnesses confirming her alibi were her maid and a young doctor rumors had was her lover. Neither was with her all the time but the local police were convinced their testimony accounted for Sharon's whereabouts at the time Thomas went missing.  

The home on Cat Island had the latest in security systems including cameras that recorded everything inside and on the grounds in great detail. Various law enforcement officials had already reviewed the videos showed him living a quiet, if not monkish life until he simply disappeared. It was obvious the recording device was tampered with for the crucial time Thomas went missing but it would take a password to be allowed into the security system that everyone knew the paranoid banker always kept to himself.

Important people in America were increasingly eager to expedite Thomas being declared dead with Sharon being one of the most active, so after many months of searching they finally sailed back home. It was during one of Addison’s many nights with Sharon in her home that he began to notice all of Thomas’ memorabilia, of particular note was the title of “Emperor of Wall Street” a business journalist on television had given him on one of his many interviews with her. The rest of the business community had run with the title to the point Thomas made the cover of "Time” magazine looking all regal while wearing a crown. It was then that Addison remembered the bust of Julius Caesar sitting in a corner of the Bahamian beach house next the computer that controlled the security system. On a whim and without telling Sharon he caught a flight back down to Cat Island to test a stupid hunch.

Addison remembered sitting in front of the computer and thinking it shouldn’t be this simple but when he typed in “Caesar” the system accepted the password. A few keystrokes allowed him to recover the deleted video segments and it showed Sharon and Thomas enjoying a pleasant breakfast. The resolution on the screen was high enough that it allowed Addison to see the poison she poured into his orange juice and how a few minutes later she dragged his dead body from the house. The outside cameras showed her dumping the body into a speed boat tied up at the dock then riding off on the beautiful electric blue ocean.


Shaking off the memories of their time together and of the video showing Sharon murdering her banker husband in cold blood Addison reached for a small television remote in kept in the drawer of his desk. "Sharon there is something you need to see." He said while turning on the television and starting the DVD player holding a copy of the security video showing Thomas' last day alive.

As the incriminating video ended with Sharon in the speedboat taking her husband's body out to sea to be dumped Addison was only slightly surprised to see she had whipped out a nasty looking small semi-automatic pistol which was pointed straight at his heart. “Couldn’t leave well enough alone you stupid fuck,” she hissed at him. “We had our good times and you would have been well paid, but now you are just one more loose end I will somehow have to clean up. I have enough money and power to clear my name even here in Charleston.”

Still sitting in his office chair Addison figured this was it, she was only three feet away and while the bullet would be small, at that distance he had no chance. Addison did see a blur on the other side of his office door and was very surprised to see Flora kick it open and pointing a plastic looking toy gun at Sharon who was spinning around trying to aim her weapon on the sudden disturbance.

Two small darts embedded themselves in Sharon’s chest after a popping sound came from the toy, Sharon then went into spasms and fell to the floor unconscious. Just out of simple spite Flora kept the voltage flowing on the tazer with Sharon’s body still twitching and her eyes open but sightless.

“Glad I came back to check on you boss.” Flora said with a bemused tone in her voice. “Never liked that woman, I always felt she was trouble.” Flora said with the sound of police sirens in the distance growing louder.

Addison got from his chair and walked over to Sharon, looking down on the unconscious lady he silently thought himself a fool while wondering what could have been.

(Another author's note: Yes, it is WAY over the word limit and I apologize, as usual it was tough just being able to sit down and write without having someone insanely screaming my name every two minutes. When I started writing things got out of hand and I just kept going. The last twenty minutes trying to get this done was wild, I will now go have a couple of beers.) 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Milestone in the Road of Life

The incessant banging on my bedroom door last Tuesday afternoon forcing me back to consciousness from a deep sleep was the signal that my son, Darth Spoilboy, had returned from his last formal driving lesson with a professional instructor. It was also the indication he was more than ready to take the driving test at the local department of motor vehicles office, which unfortunately for me meant I would have to go with him.

For a few moments I continued to lay in bed struggling to find the motivation to go visit a place that even the most radical atheists often described as hell, despite the fact my son’s pounding threaten to shatter the door into a million pieces sending a swarm of deadly wooden splinters my way. The thought did cross my mind that such a fate might just possibly be preferable than having to spend time dealing with low paid and irate civil servants along with the hordes of spoiled civilians with bad attitudes.

In the end for my son, I did get up, slip on my sandals, and get out of the room before any real damage was done. I owed Spoilboy that much, Monday marked the last day of a desperate six-month waiting period after taking the written examination for his driver’s permit allowing him to take the road test and get his restricted license. Aside from a horrible condition, he suffered from back in 2005 resulting in massive surgery to his intestines and several weeks of painful recuperation, the six-month period waiting for his driver’s license was the most anguished time in his young life.

The driver’s permit allowed Spoilboy at the wheel of a car only while accompanied by an adult, which was problematic when we came anywhere near his friends resulting in severe embarrassment for him being seen with his parents. Several times Spoilboy asked my wife or me to slump down in the car in an attempt not to be seen as we passed close by someone he knew. He stopped making this request after I started picking my nose and eating phantom buggers in clear view of anyone nearby in their own cars. So you can understand how he viewed his driver’s license as a form of personal liberation for his young soul.

Now our battle plan was to arrive at the DMV around 1:00pm, the time we theorized the least amount of people would be there trying to get business done that particular weekday. Walking into the confines of the building, a glorious testament to bureaucratic architecture, we were first assaulted by the heat from the lack of air conditioning and then by the sight of long lines at the counters and the unwashed masses sitting in uncomfortable chairs certainly designed by one of Satan’s minions. After grabbing the ubiquitous slip of paper with a number printed on it signifying our place in line and the greater scheme of things we joined the sad group with me wondering if we would leave before Doomsday arrived.

As we waited I could not but help wonder why such a pro-business and free enterprise state like South Carolina had not installed a bar in every DMV office not only as a money making venture but a way to alleviate the depressing mind funk that hang over every building like it. I figured after hanging a few tropical posters showing beautiful Caribbean islands the hypothetical bar could sell non-alcoholic beer, low sodium pretzels, and hypoallergenic peanuts at exaggerated prices. The marketing of those items could certainly offset the salaries of many of the civil servants and possibly make the state a little money. And I will not even mention the cash bonanza corporate endorsements of beer, tourism, and snacks would bring.

Going further on making the DMV friendlier, I figured they could throw in a little steel-drum music over the intercom, place several fake palm trees in strategic locations, and have the staff wear Hawaiian shirts complete with colorful leis. Of course, its common knowledge that all DVMs are run by Nazis, ever eager to inflict suffering on people, as well as being gateways to hell so any attempt to humanize such places is simply impossible.

Just as misery from waiting threatened to overwhelm me my son’s number was called and we quickly jumped toward the counter with the smiling clerk waiting to serve us. The clerk was very life-like, almost as good as the automatons in the hall of presidents at Disney World and after checking the various forms to assure the state that Spoilboy was who he was we promptly sat back down to wait for the examiner who would test my son.

With my usual luck, right as I struck up a conversation with a redneck MILF (imagine a 40-something, chain smoking Kate Middleton dressed in an AC/DC t-shirt and tight jeans) there with her daughter the examiner called Spoilboy for the test and wanted to speak to me for a moment. The examiner just wanted to inform me what he was going to test my son on and how long it would take. It was an extremely professional thing to do but annoyed the shit out me since my spot next the hot redneck lady was lost the second I vacated the seat. Looking back, I saw two generic bubbas competing for her attentions and the possibility to join her list of boyfriends with the chance to vie for the grand prize of being her fourth husband.

After a mandatory check of the vehicle by the examiner, he and Spoilboy drove off for the test leaving me waiting outside. Without sounding too much like the proud father I figured my son had the test in the bag, along with several sessions with a professional driving instructor, Spoilboy and I had spent many hours just driving around. I found him a careful and considerate driver, which was good for my heart given how teenagers usually are when they first start driving.

During this time what was funny was seeing his intense focus on getting the parallel parking portion of the test right. A few times during these practices, I started feeling the first symptoms of motion sickness as he repeatedly ran through the maneuvers it would take to get him inside the assigned space. So, when he and the instructor pulled back into the DMV area and drove up towards the barriers that served as the parallel parking test site I was sure he would make it but I still found myself holding my breath.

With a deftness and skill I admired, Spoilboy whipped the car inside the required space completing and passing the test. Soon afterwards, my usually levelheaded and calm son was clearly walking amongst the clouds as we waited for his driver’s license to be made. Out of all the uncomfortable waiting in a place I almost would not wish on my worst enemy it was totally worth it to see him pass this milestone on the way to adulthood.

The only problem now is that Dragonwife and I are feeling the pressure by Spoilboy to purchase him his own car. I just wish his driver’s education had included a lesson on how insuring teenage boys cost their parents several body parts along with the pawning of younger siblings. That reminds me, I have only seven years before Miss Wiggles gets her license, any prayers and funds sent my way would be greatly appreciated.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Agora- A Parrothead movie review

Starring Rachel Weisz

Someone with a better understanding and knowledge of the cinema arts will rightly disagree with me but from my perspective most movies these days seem a morass of sequels, prequels, reboots, and remakes leaving little in the way of originality. Yes, I understand great movies exist like “The King’s Speech”, Schindler’s List, and others but for every one intelligent and thoughtful film seeking to explore life ten others of the lowest common denominator dominate the local multiplex.

I enjoy a good horror, action, or mindless comedy movie like everyone else but there are times I long for something that doesn’t depend on rivers of spilled co-ed blood or massive explosions blowing the bodies of generic evildoers apart to entertain or make a point. When I am lucky enough to stumble across a movie that not only enlightens something of the human condition as well as entertains I move heaven and earth to be left alone and see it before it disappears. I recently found such a movie and as usual, it was strictly by accident.

Dragonwife popped for Showtime last month because of the upcoming series on the Borgias, which meets my snobbish criteria but it was another movie showing this month that I found to be a very pleasant surprise.  Last Saturday morning while surfing the television I stopped just long enough to catch sight of the beautiful Rachael Weisz dressed in some sort of ancient Roman female attire, thoughts of Roman-era escapades passed through my largely empty brain and froze me in place. For the better it turned out to be nothing of the decadent and immoral sort but the unknown movie I found still held me in place.

Turns out Ms. Weisz was portraying the ancient real-life mathematician Hypatia, born in Roman Egypt somewhere around 350 to 370 AD. The movie is called “Agora” and while it took me a couple of days to find time to sit through the entire movie I was very satisfied when I was at last able to experience this film that, to my knowledge, went largely unappreciated.

The movie is set in ancient Alexandria, Egypt in the year 391AD with the Roman Empire in steep decline and the new Christian religion on an equally steep ascension. Hypatia is not only a mathematician but a teacher, philosopher, and astronomer puzzled by the flaws of the Ptolemaic view of the universe putting Earth at the center of everything. She knows of the heliocentric theory putting the sun at the center but she can’t overcome the discrepancies involving the strange path the “wanderers”, or other planets of the known solar system, take in the night sky.

While this is going on Hypatia is caught up in the Christianization of the decaying Roman Empire and the attentions of one her students, Orestes, who eventually becomes the Roman appointed ruler of Alexandria and her slave, Davus who is both an assistant, servant and who loves her in secret. In the backdrop of this is the lost wonder of the Library of Alexandria where she teaches and the interaction of the two men who love her come into play. Hypatia is far more interested in science and very resistant to the romantic attention of Orestes, she knows the minute she marries her rights are greatly hamstrung with her becoming subservient to any possible husband. Given that Davus is a slave Hypatia is completely oblivious to him other than as a useful tool.

At the same time conflict is slowly brewing between the pagan believers of the old Roman gods and those believe in the emerging Christian faith. When the Christians start defiling statues of the pagan gods the pagans, filled with rage, rally and attack the Christians only to be overwhelmed and retreat, taking refuge in the Library which the Christians already have a problem because of what it represents. Under siege the pagan holdup in the library until an envoy of the Emperor comes from Rome and pardons them but turns over the Library to the Christians who promptly burn it and the priceless contents inside.

Hypatia’s slave, Davus who had been flirting with the idea of becoming Christian joins them after being insulted by Hypatia who is panicking while trying to save at least some small portion of the library’s contents. In a rage Davus almost rapes his mistress but doesn’t, the aftermath in all this is that Hypatia frees and allows him to run away.

Years later Hypatia’s former student Orestes is now the ruler of Alexandria and a Christian. Hypatia is still investigating the heliocentric theory which many of the Christians ridicule along with resenting the influence she appears to have over Orestes. Alexandria is still seething with religious turmoil as the Jews and Christians now come into conflict with the Christians ultimately taking total control of the city. This sets the stage for Hypatia and the Christian leaders of the city to clash with Hypatia losing in the end.

Two things drew me into this movie, the first being that I was “introduced” to the person Hypatia years ago by Carl Sagan in his series “Cosmos.” He spoke of her brilliance and wistfully of her reported beauty, and how she was a lady thousands of years before her time. Whenever I learn of such a person in history I wonder what their intellect could accomplish. On that same note, how many Hypatias, Da Vincis, and Ben Franklins waste away now unable to develop their talents for stupid reason like lack of money for education?

The second thing that drew me into this movie was how as angry and ignorant men hacked everyone within reach to pieces over superstition, the center piece of their existences, the scene would pull away eventually showing the small blue marble we all live hanging in space all alone. For me it was a testament that most of things we humans believe and do are as inconsequential as the particles of dust drifting in the air around us. I don’t mean to attack anyone’s faith, but I find it funny that while the tenets of all major religions teach of peace, brotherhood, and love many of the followers of these faiths go out of their way to make up loopholes allowing them to slaughter unbelievers and heretics.

Needless to say I very highly recommend “Agora” and suggest you either catch it on Showtime or rent the DVD. I wish more movies like that were made and had a wider American audiences.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Flash Fiction Friday (Cycle 26) Secondhand Redemption

Flash Fiction Friday Prompt: THEMED WORDLIST – Fist, Jab, Knuckle, Spirit, Fighter, Rhythm
Genre: Any
Word Count: 1500
Thursday, April 14, 2011 about 4:30 pm.

Walter Jamison sat on the trunk of his old Chevrolet Impala watching his nephew Chuck jog off down the road in preparation for his next boxing match, a critical bout that could propel him into the big time. Chuck’s size and his steady increase in pace put images of a massive locomotive leaving a train station in his uncle’s head. Walter enjoyed watching the boy workout; he had an easy rhythm to everything he did in life making it look effortless. As Chuck ran, he jabbed at imaginary fighters in front of him with his tapped fists. His punches were quick and powerful, so much that most of the opponents he faced in the ring left it unconscious.

The kid oozed steel-plated confidence and extreme talent, which was why national promoters would be watching him at his next boxing match. Big money was being placed on him and his opponent, another supposed progeny reported to be as good, if not better that his nephew.

The morning chill seeped through Walter’s jacket and two sweatshirts he was wearing reminding him of the thermos of coffee waiting for him in the passenger seat. With one last glance at the boy as he reached the top of the small hill Walter got back in his car and opened the thermos pouring himself a cup of the hot liquid. Carefully, he willed his hands not to shake as the liquid filled up the small cup that came with the thermos. Proud of that accomplishment, he never the less knew it was a small task that was becoming increasingly difficult. While sitting there sipping the drink, Walter popped two pills into his mouth not prescribed to him but that he desperately needed, he figured it was best to get a handle on the daily reoccurring headache before it overwhelmed him.

With the warmth of the hot coffee running through his body, fighting off the chill and the illegal prescription pills he had taken standing guard against the ice picks in his head Walter leaned back and tried to sleep. He knew his nephew would do at least ten miles on his run leaving ample time to rest and let the pills soak his brain but before sleep could take him away his cell phone buzzed him back to consciousness.

“Hello, you got Walter,” he said after activating the phone. The second the person on the other end started talking he inwardly groaned.

“Walt,” the bookie Thin Pete said, “I just got word that you’ve laid a huge load of money against your nephew in his next fight. I’ve seen plenty of cold blooded things in my life but Walt, but he’s your only family. Has your health problems finally messed up your head?”

Despite the heavy duty pills Walt had taken, this unexpected call from a certified scumbag and snitch had resurrected the ice picks in his head, which were now pushing their way out from behind his eyeballs. Walt pictures the rail thin man wearing his usual leather jacket and pants with his heavily greased hair sitting in his small office. Picturing the cloud of cigarette smoke that always hung in the air around him brought about a wave of nausea that paired up nicely with the migraine. The bookie was in no way concerned about the possible betrayal, like some vulture smelling dead meat he just wanted the information confirmed so he would know where to place his money.

“Pete,” Walter said feeling the rage build up inside him and speaking through the pain, “if I even get a hint Chuck learns anything about this I will kill you. Remember, I’ve killed before and I would actually enjoy seeing your head explode in a find red mist.”

“Easy Walt,” Pete said stumbling over the words, “don’t blame me for the loose lips of the bookie you used across town. If you had come to me this would still be a secret, as for your anger buddy, it’s common knowledge that you threw many a fight for the right price years ago.”

Because of the pain in his head Walter could feel his mind slipping, something that doctors told him would increasingly happen as time went on. “Yeah Pete, but this is not my future or life we are talking about, you find a way to keep this quiet or your days are numbered. I did throw some fights years ago but you should also remember that I was a sniper in Vietnam.” Pete stammered something about taking care of everything before he hung up, all Walter could do was throw back several more pills and hope oblivion took him before the full force of the pain arrived.

Memories of Chuck as a young kid passed through his mind, the son of his youngest sister and a slime that skipped out after he was born Walter started babysitting the boy when he was about five years-old so his mom could work. At the time Walter was dealing with his own demons, two tours in Vietnam had left him mentally scarred. Returning back to the States had only made things worse, his first marriage ended quickly mere months after coming home with his wife not wanting to be the object physical abuse. A second marriage began and ended almost as quickly with Walter this time spending three years in prison for trying to kill his second wife.

While serving his time Walter found boxing, it was the perfect outlet for his rage allowing him to tame the monster he had become. After prison, Walter began a boxing career that at first showed some real promise but fizzled out after an injury. When his injuries healed he tried to return but promoters had found younger kids with more talent forcing him to take second-rate bouts and eventually dives for lesser fighters. A long series of alleyway, knuckle busting brawls for easy cash only resulted in permanent injuries that the years would only make worse.

When he finally could not fight anymore one of his buddies, an owner of a small gym, hired him as an assistant trainer, which was the time Chuckie entered his life. Walter found the boy smart, agile, and possessing a strong spirit all of which worked to the advantage of a boxer.  For Walter the boy became his last outpost of sanity and the two became inseparable with him being the closest thing Chuckie had to a father. Walter had hoped he could see the boy go all the way to the top but his health had taken a turn for the worse with the doctor's giving him about a year left to live. That was why Chuck's upcoming match was so important, that was Walter's last chance to finally get everything right for once.

The weeks flashed by quickly and the night of the match Walter found himself sitting outside the ring watching his nephew squaring off against his opponent. He and Chuck were about equal in all matters but Walter could see his nephew had the slight edge in simple desire. Chuck had taken several blows to the face with his blood spotting the gray surface of the ring but he still fought on seemingly unaffected.

The match was in its sixth round when Walter slipped his nephew the specially prepared water bottle. The kid drank the whole thing, his usual habit, and at the sound of the bell rushed back out ready for the attack. The sixth round ended with Chuck staggering from several blows to the head that physically hurt his uncle just as much.

"Uncle Walt, something is wrong," Chuck hissed over the roar of the crowd, "I can't think straight and my timing is off."

Walter quickly made a show of flashing a small penlight in both eyes to check his pupils. "Kid, I don't know," he said, "your eyes aren't reacting fast enough. You may have a concussion, it happens sometimes. I want to throw in the towel, we can always work our way back again."

Chuck froze in place, his bruised and battered face showing an expression of utter shock. "You know this is my one chance Uncle Walt, if I fail here I have no future in boxing."

The ring of the bell signaling the start of the seventh round prevented Walter from saying anything else. Chuck jumped up and again rushed back out to meet the other fighter. Less than a minute later a blow to Chuck's head brought him down for the full ten count and the ending of his boxing career.

Days later Walt approached the defeated boy about his future. Chuck was in his small apartment propped up on the couch watching television, while his face was still heavily bruised the doctor had confirmed he never had a concussion and would be fine.

"Listen Chuckie," Walter began, "yeah you went down and this makes its almost impossible for you to ever make the big time but I want you to think for a moment. You can do far more with your life than you think. I want you to be the first in our family to graduate college, any fool can fight but Chuckie here is the big thing you're no fool.

"But we never had the money for that and before mom passed away she made me promise not to join the military." Chuck said in despair.

For Walter hearing his nephew speak with a wishful but sad tone of voice caused a feeling of redemption to take hold of him. "Son about that, I've been making a backup plan and I have good news."

Hours later Walter walked back out to the street a happy man, Chuck was a smart kid and would ultimately learn the truth about how the match was fixed, by that time he would be long gone and Chuck would be safely on his way with a real life.

(Author's note: I was very rushed, so this story is botched and is ten levels under "hack" status. Will do better next time.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Springtime at Riverbanks Botanical Gardens and Zoo

One of the jewels of the city of Columbia and a source of real pride for South Carolina is Riverbanks Zoo. It is not only listed as one of the best zoos in the country but if I am correct it is the largest tourist attraction in the state. When I first moved to the Midlands in 1993 it was already a well respected site for the protection and care of animals and a place of education about the natural world. With a superb and dedicated staff the years since then have only made it better with continuing efforts at expansion to house more animals and upgrading the conditions of those already living there. The addition of the botanical gardens a few years ago opened a new avenue for learning and appreciation of many forms of plant life, both native to the area and from other parts of the world.  

Last Sunday the pleasant Spring weather had most members of my family restless and unwilling to stay inside. As you might expect this condition is chronic for me and if I had not been on call for my job I would have long been on my way to Charleston for one of my numerous short day trips. The surprising thing was that Dragonwife also had the urge to get out of the house and came up with the idea to visit the botanical gardens. Since our son flew the coop earlier that morning with his buddies my daughter, Miss Wiggles, was forced to accompany us. Her idea was to visit a local fun park filled with video games, put-put golf, and go-karts but I was feeling in a cultured mood and agreed with my wife. Frankly, the idea of being around scores of screaming kids hyped up on soda and candy just did not appeal to me right then. We hit the gardens at almost the perfect time, the breeze was comfortable and the plants were blooming. The colors were spectacular and I found myself wishing my wife and I had caught our son before he skipped out so he could have watched Wiggles for us. It would have been nice to find one of the many benches throughout the garden and just sit.  .      

Hey, before anyone makes a crack I seriously dug the plants that day and spent a good amount of time trying to take some decent pictures. This tulip was one of the few that seems okay, out of sixty some odd pictures taken only about twenty were decent enough to keep. No, I will not abuse my readers and have any more posts showing off my lack of photographic talent. 

Back on the other side of the zoo amongst the animals the number of people also enjoying the nice weather was very large, almost in the theme park range of being crowded. This is the elephant exhibit, it is a relatively recent upgrade with the pachyderms enjoying ample space and company. Maybe my mind is a little too weird and maybe I'm too caught up in elephants but when I was kid living around Wilmington, North Carolina there was a roadside zoo that we would visit occasionally.  It was a pretty seedy place with a few monkeys and other relatively low maintenance animals but it's star attraction was a lone elephant that the owners let kids feed slices of plain white bread. As kids we really did not know any better but at times I could almost feel the loneliness of the animal. The only thing holding it in its confined space were ropes and if it had ever gotten irritated at us puny humans it could have very easily broken out and trampled anyone nearby. Now that I am older I realize it was a horrible existence and hope it was eventually moved to someplace better, although I know that is wishful thinking on my part.      

The gorilla exhibit is also a recent addition with two of the large primates living permanently here in Columbia. This is where I could add some statement about their presence raising the average IQ of the area since the city is usually awash in state and federal politicians. This guy was in the far corner of the habitat well away from his buddy who I understand is top dog. Truthfully he could have also been avoiding the people since I often feel the same way.    

This old codger is one of the resident Galapagos tortoises of Riverbanks zoo. These tortoises have an extremely long lifespans and if this guy is any indication a very strong sex drive. During one of the previous visits a few summers ago my daughter and I walked through the gates hearing loud, god-awful moans and grunts coming from inside. Being a healthy adult with his mind usually in the gutter the first thing that I thought involved nasty images and deeds of a man and a women. As my daughter and I made our rounds through the zoo we eventually came upon this old fellow on top of a smaller female. The people around the tortoise enclosure were giggling and in some instances trying to explain to their own small children what the reptiles were trying to accomplish. As we passed by the old guy last Sunday he seemed more inclined to just enjoying the warmth of the sun. I am debating with myself whether I will post a video of turtle porn if I am lucky enough to catch them in the act again. I really don't want any heat from some irate person who might turn my butt into Blogger forcing a warning on my site before a reader enters. Lastly, take it for what it is worth but during that visit when the tortoises were "busy" the old guy was definitely into his reproduction duties, his female partner not so much. In fact she looked rather bored, a fact commented on by several human females who also expressed some sort of solidarity with the female tortoise.           

Monday, April 4, 2011

Friday Flash Fiction (Cycle 25) The Real Fool

Friday Flash Fiction Prompt: Someone is caught with their pants down
Genre: Any
Word Count: I don’t honestly know what 1500-1800 words looks like, so let’s say keep it to less than two 8×11′s.
Thursday, April 7, 2011 A.D., on or about 4:30ish.

****Massive rewrite as of April 6, 2011*****

The job offer seemed like a no-brainer, instead of reenlisting for another four years in the army I would exchange my BDU’s and more combat rotations in some desert wasteland for a suit and tie while sitting in the comfort of an air conditioned office. That the offer originated from my father-in-law bugged the hell out of me but the phone call from the corporate headhunter came while I was sitting on my small patio watching my three year-old son intensely examine a cricket traveling through our yard. There was simply no choice in the matter, I was in Afghanistan when he was born and my son was over a year old before I ever met him.

My in-laws never liked me, a couple of both power and money their daughter and I met in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina while she was on spring break. I was a lowly enlisted soldier on leave from Fort Bragg and as it is often written in storybooks, we fell in love pretty much on first sight. So much that when her parents cut her off financially Cindy willingly accepted the life my status and pay allowed.

Several years later both Cindy and I were growing weary of the army life but nothing in the civilian job world offered as much as what I was making as a Sergeant, until the birth of our son Caleb jarred my father-in-law into action.

“Mr. Jeffery Connor,” the human resources lady said on the phone, “after reviewing your interview with us and the highly valued recommendation we received about you, we have decided to offer you a position as an assistant security agent. Do you accept the offer?”

Sitting on the patio it did not take a sleuth to understand her wording, the recommendation she spoke of was my father-in-law. Even after years of marriage to his daughter at best he thought me a stupid fool and his “help” was certain to be an attempt to make me look bad in front of her. He figured that I would either fail at the job or turn it down. “I’ll take it,” I replied and after learning where and when to report I hung up the phone, picked my son up off the ground, and with a grim determination decided to prove my bastard of a dad-in-law wrong.

The corporation I found myself working for was one of those outsourcing businesses that did various mundane services like payroll and bookkeeping for other companies. It employed almost exclusively accountants and computer programmers with both positions overlapping greatly. After that were the high paid suits, a few janitors and those like me in security making up the company.

Far from being a simple rent-a-cop my job involved both physical security of the property and making sure the accountants and programming drones did not walk in the building or leave with any memory devices. After a few questions I was assured our department's duties were normal since many of our clients wanted to keep the nature of their own businesses confidential.

At first, the job was fantastic; my boss was ex-army himself and took me under his wing helping me to understand the business and how to keep the suits happy. After a year he started pushing me to take programming and other computer related classes at the local college so I could move up the corporate ladder. I did and when the position of computer security supervisor opened, I got the job. Right after that my old boss retired and it was then I became aware of the true nature of the corporate world.

My new position had me reviewing lines of programming code looking for “anomalies,” office terminology for program subroutines put there by hackers outside the business or by employees. I excelled at my new job quickly uncovering several ongoing hacking attempts. It got me slaps on the back by the grateful suits and more responsibilities, this time watching the actions of employees in day-to-day operations.

This went as far as reviewing arrival and departure times by the employees, their rate of workload efficiency, and even how long they spent at lunch and the bathroom. The weirder part was yet to come. I was eventually pulled aside by the VP of operations and was told to watch for something he described as “visible demeanor.”

“Get to know as many of the workers as possible and understand their habits and usual attitudes. Be suspicious of any change in their behavior whether they become suddenly cheerful or if they abruptly seem disgruntled.” The well-groomed senior company vice president said in his office. When our meeting was over, he handed me a report stamped “Top Secret” explaining my new duties and the tools available to accomplish those ends.

Back in my new office, I was stunned, my new security duties made me look like the Gestapo and the “tools” I had available were an Orwellian wet dream. They consisted of hidden cameras installed in places that stretched legal concerns to the breaking point. Still, I had a wife and child to provide for and while it was against my principles, I had no other choice but to work in the system.

Two years went quickly by with my reputation at work suffered. Whenever I ventured out among those working in the cubicles conversations immediately went silent and no one ever looked me in eye.

I came to understand my coworker’s apprehensions, from my Big Brother office, I began to view the cubicles the accountants and programmers labored not an open, inviting workplace but a well-lighted prison. The group supervisors were oppressive thugs and more than once I saw a worker crack from the stress and just walk out.

Things came to a head with the disappearance of Robert Carter, one of the company’s senior programmers. The high ranking suits in the upper offices busted a gut one morning after Carter’s supervisor called them saying he had missed three days straight without calling in sick. I was ordered to review all security video in his area and confiscate his work computer. By this time, I had a staff of two and I left them to do the drudgery, while I took a more active role checking out his apartment.

My training had me obtaining a private investigators license along with an education in more underhanded means of gaining information. After briefly interviewing his neighbors saying I was a long lost cousin just to make sure Robert was not home I picked the lock to the door of his apartment and went inside. It was clear the man lived a spartan life; his apartment was empty except for a couch, small bed, and a television. The only picture on his wall was that of him with a lady holding a child.

Robert was the quiet sort who I had never spoke with so he was a mystery to me. After a call to his supervisor, I learned that the lady and baby I saw in the picture were his wife and child mere months before they were killed in a car crash. Feeling the wheels turn in my head I placed a call with one of the company’s law enforcement contacts and learned that while Robert had recently renewed his passport, as of yet he had not left the country. After that all it took was finding out where his family was buried.

For a week, I waited close to the cemetery watching people go in and out. My two underlings were still reviewing the security video and computer while the senior staff was okay with me being out of the office as long as I found Robert. While I waited, one of the guys on my staff discovered Robert had secret company records on his computer, making him no longer just “missing” but officially “wanted.”

Robert showed up early one afternoon and I followed him to a couple of simple graves in the far corner of the cemetery. Despite my attempt to quietly approach what looked to be the epitome of the computer nerd he somehow knew I was behind him. “They were my whole world,” he said without turning around, “I wasn’t supposed to work late but the company demanded I have the new programming code up and running. My wife didn’t like driving at night but our son, David was sick and needed to go to the emergency room. The road was slick from rain, the other driver took the curve too fast, they collided and all three were dead by the time the ambulance arrived.”

“Robert why did you have secret company files on your computer?” I asked reaching for my pistol after noticing a bulge underneath his jacket.

“The company,” Robert began again, “didn’t give a damn about my family or me. They just needed code additions so they could start skimming money off certain clients, while hiding money for others from the IRS. They said it was a mutually beneficial situation, that it would insure the health of the company. That is when I started skimming money for myself, just pennies at first but more as I went along. The company had over five-hundred clients each with hundreds of employees. It surprised me how quickly the money accumulated. My plan was to build up enough cash to leave the country after turning over the documents implicating the management, but that was years ago.”

“Why didn’t you leave Robert?” I asked.

“I found I couldn’t abandon them,” Robert said motioning to the graves of his wife and child. Robert turned around and tossed me two flash drives. “Here,” he said, “one drive has the documents and the other the account numbers to the money I stole and authorization codes to access it.”

My mind was whirling at all I heard, so much that Robert caught me off guard as he pulled out his own pistol and put a bullet through his head.

No matter what I was not a “company man”, so it never turned over either of the flash drives to the corporate suits, but I was smart enough not to try to access either memory device at work or home. After the dust Robert stirred up cleared, it was obvious both of the guys on my staff were watching me and I had to figure my home was bugged. A year later, I felt safe enough to take the family on a Bahamian vacation, while in Nassau I bought a laptop there to review the files. Robert had the company, scores of clients, and curiously enough, my father-in-law caught in what amounted to hundreds of felony crimes.

I didn’t immediately turn over the files to the police, once the company knew for certain the stolen files actually existed their lawyers would have buried the information under a ton of legal mumbo-jumbo. Seeing Robert's body slumped over the graves of his family I knew what to do.

The first thing that happened were documents showing up anonymously at the offices of clients that were having payroll funds skimmed. After that, it was a bloody feeding frenzy with lawyers all around battling to the proverbial death. Deep down I knew the main answer to this predicament would never be the legal system, corporate interests were to well protected these days but I did know who could bring down all those with their expensive pants down around their ankles. Through an attorney I turned all the files over to the IRS, with them involved hundreds of executives, including my dad-in-law quickly ended up in federal prison.

What about the money Robert stole? That turned out to be over twenty-million dollars, all in overseas and untraceable accounts. With those funds, my family and I moved to Costa Rica and now live in a fine beach house. As I look out at the ocean watching the sunset I often find myself wondering who my father-in-law now thinks is the fool?

(Author's note: I kind of like this story, comments or reactions would be greatly appreciated.) 

Friday, April 1, 2011

A Nation of Cowards

“You block your dream when you allow your fear to grow bigger than your faith.”
Mary Manin Morrissey

There was a time when most people in the United States looked to the future with hope willing to face its challenges with confidence in both themselves and each other. Where those brave people and the strength they once possessed that carried them through scores of disasters and crisis have gone is anyone's guess. Of course, exceptions to the tepid and shallow souls that abound now exist in many forms but all signs suggest they are isolated examples surrounded by the majority that either avoids the future by submerging themselves in idle and idiotic diversions or who eagerly await and prepare for some nebulous Doomsday.

Its one thing to plan and prepare for all sorts of bad times but to blatantly surrender while countless others suffer from war, disease, and famine is a form of cowardice that exceeds all others but it seems we have devolved to that point. Not surprisingly it is the rich that are leading the way in this unexplored avenue of decadence but such panic and fear is willingly purchased by less financially endowed Americans that started record buying of weapons the minute President Obama was elected.

This climate of fear is enhanced by shrill little men who ride the television and radio airways broadcasting every psychotic scenario of doom one minute then speak about "honor" and "love" right before they exclaims the benefits of buying gold and emergency food rations.

The biggest thing sacrificed in this insanity is not just the brighter future we want for our children, that was abandoned and left to rot decades ago, but our unity and belief in each other that we once held up to the world and dared them to approach. America is as good and balkanized as they long defunct Yugoslavia, the only thing holding the house of cards together is simple inertia. The minute the credit cards stop working and the shelves in Walmart go empty for whatever reason the pleasant and civilized suburbanites will be at each others throats.  But hey, if you can scrape up the money you too can leave out the Apocalypse in high style.

Going underground? Sales of spaces in U.S. doomsday bunker soar 1000% after Japan quake reawakens nuclear fallout fears 

Reservations for a doomsday bunker in the U.S. have rocketed since Japan's catastrophic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown.
The 137,000sq ft bunker - designed to house 950 people for a year and withstand a 50 megaton blast - is currently being built under the grasslands of Nebraska.
Vivos, the California-based company behind it, is taking $5,000 (£3,100) deposits, which will have to be topped up to $25,000 (£15,600) to secure a place.
It says applications have soared 1000 per cent in the wake of the disasters in Japan. And the bunkers will be kitted out with all the modern conveniences the American consumer has come to expect.
Once finished the complex will feature four levels of residential suites, a dental and medical center, kitchens, pet kennels, a bakery, a prayer room, a fully stocked wine cellar and even a prison to detain any misbehaving residents.
There will also be a 350ft tall lookout tower so residents can see what is going on around them - and if it's safe to emerge.
'People are afraid of the earth-changing events and ripple effects of the earthquake, which led to tsunamis, the nuclear meltdown, and which will lead to radiation and health concerns,' said Vivos CEO Robert Vicino.
Mr Vicino added: 'Where it ends, I don't know. Does it lead to economic collapse? A true economic collapse would lead to anarchy, which could lead to 90 per cent of the population being killed off.'
The company claims its bunkers are designed to withstand a range of catastrophic events, from nuclear terrorism to the gravitational havoc a rogue planet sweeping across the solar system could cause. 
Interest in doomsday bunkers has grown over recent years, but critics say developers are simply trying to cash in on public panic. Oleg Repchenko, the head of Russian analytical centre 'Indicators of Real Estate Market', told The Voice of Russia: 'These fears emerged in the US a long time ago back in the Cold War era.
'September 11, 2001 has seriously affected the psychology of common Americans and part of the population is afraid of disasters and terrorist attacks.
'Panicking is quite typical for Americans even when a disaster happens not on their territory but across the ocean in Japan. Once something terrifying happens it makes people think more about their future.'

Good night and good luck, seems like we all need it.