Saturday, February 12, 2011


Deadlines motivate me.

For instance: at this very moment, I should be writing. I'm participating in a short story contest in which I'm given eight days to write 2,500 words of fiction based on a randomly-assigned genre/subject combination.

The assignments were given last Friday night. I'm in the final 21 hours of time available to me. When did I do my writing? All last night and tonight.

Of course, I tried to write during the week. I had my story concept by the middle of the day Sunday (it was a very busy weekend what with dinner parties and lunch dates and things of that sort, so I was kind of preoccupied), and I hemmed and hawed over characters and concepts. I even opened a blank .doc file and tried to throw some words in it. All crap. I need pressure of the most urgent kind to get me to spit out language; it's just the way I've built myself over the years. The real writing happened in the last 36 hours.

So. The first draft is written, and off to my own personal editor (now if only he would get home from the bar and get to work!) (you know I love you, beloved editor), and I'm giving myself an hour or two to step back from it, and come at it fresh. Maybe I should give myself the night, but I just downed a cup of coffee, so I have a feeling I'm going to be up for a while. Sleep is for the week. Plus, if I make it through this first round, I'll get the pleasure of doing the whole thing over again, but on terms I'm more suited for: the second round takes place in a 24-hour period. I drool for that kind of pressure. Gotta prepare myself for the all-nighter that will be.

At any rate, right now I'm still in a writing mood. Hence, I am here, feeding my wee audience with some "entertainment". Not that my pontifications are all that entertaining.

By the way, I did this same contest last year, and it looks like I never shared the story with all of you. If you feel like reading 2,500 words on top of what you've just read, please be my guest. And feel free to comment on my crap.

"Paint You a Hero"

“How do I know you're not the bad guy?” Gary paused: this evening was a little more than he had bargained for. “How do I know you're telling the truth?”

Brenn – Agent Saunders – regarded him for a moment. “I guess you can't be sure,” he said coolly, then glanced at the still body and coagulating pool of red. “But right now you've got a corpse in your office, and we need to get rid of it, or someone will be asking questions. I highly doubt you want to have to answer those questions, yes? Good. Then I guess you'll just have to trust me.” Saunders bent over the dead man, hunting through his jacket pockets. “Don't worry. I know it's not easy to trust a spy. Hazard of the job.”

He was right, Gary realized. Right now, there was nothing to do but trust that this stranger was who he said he was, help him get the corpse out, and decide from there. “What do I do?” he asked, stripping himself of his show jacket and undoing his cuff buttons. “I'm guessing we can't just waltz out of here with him in a bag or something simple like that, can we?”

Saunders had uncovered a wallet, was flipping through it. “You have a broadcast in 10 minutes. Go get ready for that. I'll handle this mess in the meantime.”

“But –”

“Go. People will get suspicious if you do anything out of the ordinary – the show must go on. I said, I'll handle this.” He took off his own jacket, put it aside. “Trust me: I've done this before. We'll talk after.”

And so the show had gone on. Gary kept his focus on the evening broadcast, and as always found a kind of zen in it. He was good at his job, suave, the most trusted voice now on television, at least in the Los Angeles metro. I'm no Cronkite, but I do my best, was his mantra.

He'd almost forgotten about the body in his office, the intrigue to blow up L.A., by the time he was halfway through the intro segment: the ability to suppress the real world, his life, was one of the reasons he was among the best in the business. Even during the brief about the Middle East, his gray-green eyes showed nary a flicker, his clean-shaven cheek not a twitch as he pronounced the words “bomb”, “murder”, “plot”.

Sue’s face also appeared untroubled as she sat next to him at the anchor’s desk, but he felt sure that there were no undercurrents of worry beneath that composed surface. At least she's uninvolved in this, at least she can go home safe tonight, he reflected during one of the commercial breaks. As for me, well, this adventure’s started to lose some of its charm.

“How many times have I told you, dear? You won't find Pulitzers lurking in my desk,” he said, closing the door to his office behind him.

Sue looked up from the blueprints she'd spread over Gary's desk and smiled, not even trying to look guilty as she sat up. “One can always hope, can't they?” She stood and leaned against the chair, stretching her long legs a bit, twirling a lock of her wavy brown hair mock-playfully with one finger, and gestured at the desktop. “Is this the newest information?”

“Yes,” he sighed, becoming serious. “I wish I'd never told you about that.”

“Why? You told me you felt such a relief, being able to share all this with someone else, someone you could really talk about it with.”

That was true. It had been a weight off his shoulders – a weight he hadn't even realized was there – to have her find the package that his contact had slid under the door, a relief to finally have to tell her about it.

Sue was a hard person to keep things from; he'd found that out quickly in the last two months since she'd started working at the station. A powerful, confident, intelligent woman, yes – something every man in his profession liked to see – but so impossible! She pushed him around, rewriting his scripts, criticizing his work. (He never admitted aloud that, in the end, they were improvements.) And asking questions: it had been awkward keeping the whole thing from her for weeks. She noticed everything.

Truly, it was nice. But it still made him nervous.

“I did bring those blueprints in for you to have a look at, I wanted your opinion. But maybe that wasn't such a good idea. It's dangerous, love. Better that you don't know anything, just in case.”

“Dangerous for me, but not for you?” She laughed. “Gary, it's my job to know everything that's going on in my co-anchor's life. Especially when it interferes with our dinner plans.” She winked. “You know I would have found out eventually.”

“Well, yes, but I wanted to tell you when we were ready to tell everyone else. When those terrorists have the final plans in place. And of course this is dangerous for me, too, but I can handle it.” He picked her hand up off the paperwork and kissed it. “We have a rundown meeting in 20 minutes. We should at least check the AP feed before it starts.”

Sue waved her hand dismissively. “Done already – another celebrity death, one suicider in Gaza, and some ex-politician got an award.” Another great thing about working with Sue: she was always on top of things. “I'm still bothered by something. How can you trust this – ‘friend’? You’ve never even seen his face, have you?”

“I don’t need to see the messenger, Sue. The evidence speaks for itself. You saw the letters. The blueprints. And the recordings – I left those at home. Like I should be leaving the rest of this stuff.”

“But why would this person come to you?”

“I used to wonder the same thing myself,” Gary grinned. And he had wondered that … for about a moment. “But I guess when you know there's a mole in the LAPD, the CIA, the DHS … well, I am the most trusted face on television. I think, given the options, my 'friend' made the obvious choice.”

“Hmph.” Sue picked up her pocketbook off the floor, dug out a notepad and tossed it to Gary. “Fine, then. Here's my notes for the rundown, feel free to add your own. And dinner tonight? I hear Rialti's has a new chef.”

A week later, Gary was trying to wrap his mind around the handwritten note that he'd found slipped under his front door that morning. It had intruded on his thoughts during the course of the day, distracting him through the rundown meetings, to the point where Sue noticed and pulled him aside to make sure he was all right. And of course he was. He'd assured her as much, told her that he couldn't talk about it, “not here.” She'd understood immediately, and let him finish preparing for the show. It was 45 minutes to air time, they could discuss this later.

The first half of the brief message had been exciting: “I will meet you tonight.” To finally be face-to-face with his source, own personal Deep Throat (as he'd taken to secretly calling him); finally, this would all be over, and they would have a real story to tell. Something that wasn't just the ludicrous war in Afghanistan or the traffic on the 405 or the latest Storm Watch. Something big close to home, something he could actually have the scoop on for once. It was exhilarating.

But the second half of the note … could that be true? And who could it mean? He reached into his pocket to read it again as he opened the door to his office, stepping inside, to find the room already occupied.

The man on the ground, a mess of raw flesh where his left eye should have been, had been dressed in loose-fitting clothing, khaki and white linen, his thick beard and face dark in color. The other, the one still standing, was a contrast: tall and fit, with clear tanned skin and clean-cut light brown hair. He was wearing, of all things, a tailored pistachio suit, looking as comfortable in it as most people do in their pajamas at home. The collar of his lighter-green shirt was corralled by a tidy black bow tie, lying neatly beneath his freshly-shaved neck and chin. He had not a hair out of place, and except for the flickering of his gray eyes between Gary and the bearded man, moved not a muscle, holding what looked like a shining 9 mm pistol steadily pointed right at Gary's forehead.

He looked like a 007. Or a really tall, stylish leprechaun.

“What the --” Gary's mouth flapped, and he tried to wrap his mind around what he was seeing, tried to control his confusion. “You killed him!”

The tall man lowered his gun, and cautiously stepped across the room to the corpse, nudging it gently with his toe until he was sure that his victim would not rise again. Satisfied, he opened his jacket and thrust his gun gently back into a holster against his left breast, then looked over at Gary, finally speaking, his words enunciated and properly British: “Mr. Allen. My name is Agent Saunders – Brenn Saunders. I am the man you were to meet tonight. And this man,” he nudged the body again with his foot, “was here to murder us for what you know.”

Even after the broadcast, he managed to act normal, taking the usual shower of compliments, harassing the technicians again about the contrast on the teleprompter. As he neared his office, his pace quickened, his cheerful smile faded, and he stepped in, secretly hoping that neither the body nor Saunders would be there.

The body wasn't. But Saunders was. And he had his gun out again, pointed at the couch, right at –

“Sue!” Gary stepped into the room.

“Stop right there, Mr. Allen,” Saunders said, his eyes on Gary but his gun still focused on the woman. Gary didn't doubt that he could kill her from there, even without looking, so steady was his aim. “You tell your lady friend a lot, I hear. Lucky for me she decided to wander in here after the show. With our leak plugged, and now you both, I think I've got everyone I need to deal with.”

“Gary,” Sue murmured. “I'm so sorry.” Her expression was flat.

He could tell she was trying to keep her cool, to not show fear. He wanted to go over, comfort her. Instead, he glared back at Saunders. “You're not the person who sent the note.”

“I admit, that was a small falsehood,” the spy – or whatever he was – smiled. “That was your friend, Dan. The corpse. Fortunate that he showed up here so early.”

“You're not with the CIA,” Gary did not ask.

“Definitely not,” said Saunders. He turned his eyes back on Sue, and gestured with his gun. “Get up. The three of us are going for a little drive.”

“Pull over here,” Saunders said. They were a few blocks off Wilshire, on a darkened street with little foot traffic. They had taken Gary's sedan, Saunders in the back seat with the gun still in his hand and a significant look at Sue as the front passenger. Gary obeyed, turned off the ignition. “Now, get out. Just you. The lady stays in the car.”

Gary turned to Sue briefly, took her hand and squeezed it. Her eyes were still blank as she looked at him. She's so scared, he thought. He leaned over and kissed her cheek reassuringly, then got out of the car.

Saunders walked him a few yards down a darker alley, all the while pointing the gun at Gary, letting him lead. “That's far enough,” he said finally.

Gary stopped and turned around. “This is insane, really. You're not going to kill me, are you? Because people would notice. And once they go through my house, see the notes I have on this thing, everyone will know.”

“But,” said a voice behind Saunders, a woman's voice, “you weren't murdered by an assassin tonight.” Sue had gotten out of the car, was walking towards them, a chilling – unnatural – smile on her face. Gary stared at her, nonplussed. “We got mugged tonight on our way to dinner. The man took my purse,” she tossed her handbag to Saunders, “and I stood helplessly by as he shot you dead and ran off.” She stopped finally, standing near Saunders. “Don't worry, when I go on the air with your death, I'll be sure to paint you as my hero, dying in the attempt to save my life. And,” she added, “as your bereaved partner, they'll let me be the one to go through your papers and sort everything out, if I ask. No one will know anything … not until it's too late.”

“Sue. What are you talking about?”

“I'm sorry you got caught up in this, Gary. Unlike most newsmen I've known in my time, you really were almost a wonderful guy.” Sue sighed at him. “But, like you said: this is too dangerous to know, we can't just let you go back. Thank you for helping us lure Dan out. I would never have suspected that he was the one leaking information.”

Saunders interjected: “Boy got too far in, lost his balls for it. I knew we never should have trusted the scamp, Sue.”

“Us? Sue, you're not making much sense right now,” Gary took a step forward, ignoring Saunders's gun. “Why would you be involved with a band of terrorists?”

She ignored his question. “We're just lucky that Dan didn't realize until too late that we'd planted a mole here in the news station, too, once the leak was discovered.”

Gary suddenly understood, the second half of the note coming back to him: There is a spy in your station. A mole. Be careful who you speak with. “You.”

Sue smiled coldly once more and nodded. “Me.” The smile dropped from her face, and she bit her lip, pausing for a moment. “Brenn,” she said, staring into Gary's eyes. “Kill him.”

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