Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why Isn't This A National Holiday, Yet?

Raymond Chandler once wrote, that Dashiell Hammett gave murder back to the people who really committed it.

-James Ellroy

One hundred and thirteen years ago, today, Dashiell Hammett was born. This was a great day in history, because so much of what you read and see today, was directly influenced by this man.

Crime literature was virtually one big game of "Clue." With stuffy people in smoking rooms and libraries, waiting patiently to be done away with. Then the protagonist could conveniently recite droll dialogue while both innocent and suspect alike, stood by without regard to their own personal well-being.

As Raymond Chandler pointed out in the essay that Ellroy was quoting from, he brought crime back to the people that actually committed it and for more plausible reasons then what existed in literature at the time. Thus, giving you something to be actually thrilled, shocked, and enchanted by...instead of failed academicians making inane accusations, between sips of sherry.

So raise whatever you are drinking, please and toast Samuel Dashiell Hammett.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Arms Aching"

Arms aching...and if they fail? The best I can hope for is a token trial, followed by a hanging in the town square of San Jose de Oruna. I am one of the few Courlanders that venture onto this island, outside of tradesmen and merchants. The Duchy of Courland is a fiefdom of Poland and Lithuania. Neither of the home countries nor the Duchy itself were willing to fund my ambitions, and the Spanish have repelled both secret and overt Courland opportunism to expand out of Tobago.

I am a "privateer," or at least, that's what the British call it and they have provided some of my means, but I have provided my own methods. They started me out with my first crew of fifteen men. The original crew were mostly Irish men, but all of them were people that the British wanted to be as far away from England as possible and all of them were granted their freedom on the condition that they never return to Europe. All that serve under me, do so of their own free will or I won't have them on my ship, I will not be betrayed by my own for the wrong reasons.

Unlike true "privateers," we weren't granted a "Letter of Marque and Reprisal." It is a commission that would've allowed us to seize everything and anything of any merchant ship that wasn't British, on behalf of England. I had convinced a British go-between, Nathaniel, that I knew every square inch of Trinidad well and that I could wreck enough economic havoc in two years that the entire Spanish Armada would have to shift their attention southward.

My short term goal was to plunder every non-war Spanish ship that came within eighty square miles of Trinidad. My long term goal was to free the Amerindian Natives who were enslaved by the Spanish and have them rise against their Latin masters. I would trade their lives, freedom and land back to them in exchange for the vast amounts of gold that the Spanish kept on the island for trading and commerce.

Nathaniel questioned the soundness of my plan, but he said that England would invest in me. Simply because they couldn't afford to concentrate as much of their fleet this far south as they wanted to and any campaign however successful, could help turn the tides.

My crew fought hard and they fought well during their first battle, using nothing but a few row boats to seize a three-masted merchant galleon that was anchored, unawares. We took the same galleon (which we renamed "Wilhelmina") to Tortola, where we were to be out-fitted with cannons. We were given cannons so that this dog of a ship would have a bark, but no shot or powder to give the dog a bite. So many of our earlier campaigns were carried out with guile rather than brute force and barring that, we had to flee like a dog with her tail between her legs.

This left a taste in my mouth worse than the rations that remained after twelve days at sea, including the mold and the maggots that accompanied them. In a small tavern outside of San Jose de Oruna, I complained to Nathaniel about our weaponry being a mere decoration over the strongest rum in the Caribbean, though it seemed that his mind was made up before we even sat down to parlay. He claimed that they would not provide powder because we had become too successful and due to the fact that most of my crew held grudges against the British, they were worried that we might branch off into raiding British ships.

The three crewmen that I brought to this meeting and myself, `said nothing as we simply stood and turned to go, but we were ambushed. The British Navy sealed both doors and the four windows with every available sailor in the area, almost two score. I had anticipated that Nathaniel would attempt some treachery, but not until we were under way. So my crew were at the ready, but anchored out of range of the British guns and of no use to me now.

The one thing working in the favor of we four in the tavern was that the British had only twelve rifles between them and that my father had taught me well in dealing with being outnumbered. He always said to go after the tallest and if they're all the same size, the strongest. If not the strongest, then do your worst to their leader.

I raised my flagon of rum to Nathaniel and motioned for a toast. He stood at the ready, his hand on his scimitar. "Would you not grant a man in my position, the courtesy of a toast and a drink to women?"

His face twitched, unsure if I would be as duplicitous as him. I thought it over...he wouldn't partake of women...or of men. His pleasure in life came from doing his absolute worst, to as many as possible. "Well then, if not to the fair company of women, how about to the British Empire?"

He relented his grip on his sword, reached for his flagon and our cups met. I took a shallow sip, then flung the rum at my adversary. I heard the hammers of a dozen rifles cock back as I reached for the candle on the table and threw it at Nathaniel. I knew that initial fiery scream would provide a good distraction, having seen the same thing done to someone else in Kingston some five years before.

As he spun like the embers from a burning sail and let out a chilling cry, my men and me did what we could to take advantage of the confusion, sending eight of them to the cracked British teapot in the sky. We dispatched another two before the fusillade began, the British getting the worst of it as Nathaniel and three of his own men were killed by their own, compared to one of mine.

The surviving rifle men were at us with their bayonets and one of my men took one of their rifles and became like a hurricane unto them. Steel upon steel, until it was ringing like wedding bells from a church. The screams of the dying and the screams of fear disguised as howls of intimidation, it was deafening.

All of this raged until there were ten of them and I was alone, except death and the devil in my corner...which is where I stand now. Arms aching, wanting to feel the sea breeze caress my face just one last time. They toy with me, they're too scared to come closer and seem content to just wear me down.

A cutlass in each hand, my shoulders and arms are cramped and stiff. My will to live is all that's left to fuel my limbs...

The release of the "The Pirates of The Caribbean III" made me take notice that I hadn't transferred one of my favorite stories and this is the last Friday Flash Fiction submission remaining, not to be posted to this blog. JJ's starter sentence was "arms aching."

Sunday, May 20, 2007


Whether it's in books, movies or the news, everyone wants to talk about the heist gone wrong. Yet, nobody wants to talk about the robbery gone right and the crooks that got away. Least of all, nobody in this car or we might jinx it. And when I say it went right, I mean we were out of the bank three and a half minutes early. That counts as at least five less patrol units to deal with.

The Phoenix Police and Arizona Highway Patrol had predictably concentrated the majority of their resources on the west, east and southern parts of town. They've figured that anyone hightailing it out of town would head for all points Mexican.

That's sound logic since we had taken enough money to live in Ensenada for years. By now it also might have come to their attention that we had pinched a fortune in jewels as well. Besides, don't all criminals believe Mexico to not only be haven, but a combination of Outlaw Heaven and Hell?

If we wanted to chance driving right under their very noses, we could do just that. We had changed cars and disguises twice and we've already passed three police cars without incident. So if everything has gone to plan, why tempt fate and talk about it? If the jinx is hovering around us like a score of mosquitoes around a porch, don't let it in.

Croyle, Babbo and I are going north to Utah, where Babbo has a plane fly that we're going to fly down to Ensenada.

The traffic on the Seventeen and the half hour of silence are getting to me, so I chime in my best Julio Iglesias, "Ensenada, where the food and ladies are hotta."

"Shut it!" barks Croyle.

"What, what's wrong with a little singing, Croyle?"

"Sing about anything you want, but not about that. Don't talk about our trip and don't...talk about our destination." Croyle rubs the cross that is dangling on his sweat-soaked shirt, then he rubs something else in his pants pocket that he keeps for good luck...no, not that.

He believes that part of the power of whatever it is that he carries, is that no one can look at it and break its bad luck. My guess is that it is a rock, though knowing Croyle, it's John Dillinger's gallstone. His twisted version of good luck, is to study the bad luck of others and I know that it has carried over to collecting objects of criminals with bad luck.

When we were in the holding cell at the Maricopa County Courthouse for a simple mugging, we met a guy in there that was about to be sentenced to life for a post office heist on Christmas Eve that had gone altogether wrong. Croyle asked him how much he wanted for the cross around his neck and the loser said a TV. The whole post office thing was so he could get his family a flat screen TV.

Croyle told him that if he gave him the cross, he would get a 42" plasma for the loser's family. The guy hesitated all of a millisecond and gave his address to Croyle as he handed the cross over. Croyle and I got that day on time served and probation. The very first thing he did was take the money we worked so hard to get to go get that family the damn TV.

"What the hell, Croyle? That guy can't touch you on the outside and he probably expects you to go back on your word! We worked too hard to get that cash!"

"I don't care about him or the money. The jinx has already touched this cross and it won't be coming back. Whoever wears this will be invisible to the jinx and its bad mojo."

So neither Babbo or me has so much even dared to sigh or fart since Flagstaff. We've just left the edge of the Navajo Reservation and we're on the Alternate Eighty-nine, north of the Grand Canyon. Now even I'm starting to believe in Croyle's convoluted superstition, though I won't say anything about it either way, so as not to tempt the jinx.

That cross has come in handy, in that we've met Babbo. I doubt that there is a scientist that was ever born that could calculate the chances of meeting someone who has both a disgruntled bank manager cousin and a plane. I'd tell you to "go figure," but the odds dictate that you can't.

What a shame that we had to pick this econobox for its low profile, because its handling is wasted on the long, luxurious curves of Alt. 89. As we come out a sweeping right-hander, a woman in a long white coat waves us down, though we're going too fast to stop. I look over to Croyle and he nods for me to turn the car around and see what this is about.

She is entirely too pale to be a native of these southwest states and her hair is as red as the sun just before it sets. She's wearing a white lab coat that is soiled and ripped. I look past her and I see why: she has a white van with two flats, one of them which she has managed to replace.

I look back from the van, straight into those green eyes...this is going to get complicated. I don't have time for love...or for lust.

"I'm sorry, could you give me a ride to Page, or to at least a gas station on the Reservation?" she says with equal mixture of helplessness and sultry.

I'd give her a ride to Argentina and Babbo with his tongue almost lolling out, seems to agree. It's Croyle's call, though and he decrees "we are running a little behind schedule and unfortunately we can't turn back. We can drop you off in Fredonia or any gas station between here and there."

She looks at the van and she looks at us. She seems a little spooked, though I'd love to be candid and tell her that she has nothing to be afraid of, because I'm all business at this point. As is, this detour is closing the barely left open window that is our escape.

"Hold on," she says with all the sultry and helplessness gone. She gets her purse out of the van, then she writes something on a piece of paper and puts it under the left windshield wiper. Babbo scoots over and she gets in the right passenger seat. We all nod to each (except for the leering Babbo) and we're off.

You'd think that another person would add something to the conversation...uh, no. Every bump in the road and every pebble that we run over, you can hear loud and clear. I look at her every so often, via the rear view mirror. Croyle's eyes are focused on the road and down the road into our future. I don't want to know about Babbo and neither does our new passenger, as she's definitely averting her eyes away from him.

Babbo who hasn't said a word since the day before yesterday, decides the break the ice.

"What's your name?"

She's distracted and I can imagine why, out in the middle of nowhere with three men who she's guessing are armed, and lo and behold, she's right. It takes a few moments for her to realize that he's talking to her.


"Jill, huh. I'm Ba-"

Croyle tersely interrupts "he's Bob, that's Rob and I'm Huell."

An already skittish Jill blurts "nice to meet you."

Great going Babbo, why not really try and impress her by telling her you just got through robbing a bank? But he just won't let up as his little head has taken over his all of his reasoning.

"You're wearing a lab coat, are you some kind of scientist?"

"No. Actually, I'm on my way to a conference."

I turn the radio up real loud in an effort to end this conversation before it steers back to the heist, so I don't hear what she says next. Whatever it is, Babbo has turned pale and Croyle is now redder than a lobster.

"-the car" Croyle seethes.

"What?" I ask as I turn the radio down.

"Stop, the, fucking, car!"

I stomp on the pedal and nearly lock the brakes up.

"Pull it over to the shoulder!"

I shrug and does as he says, having no idea why Mount Croyle is about to erupt, and Babbo looks like he's going to vomit. Jill's trying to figure what did she say that was so offensive and so am I.

"Get out!"

I don't know who Croyle's talking to and neither does anyone else.

"I said, get out!" he repeats. Jill reaches for her door and "not you! Him!"

I get out and Croyle shoots out of the car like one of the bullets did out of his gun, some six hours ago. He gets in the driver's side and moves the seat forward. I am just standing on the highway, trying to make sense of this and wondering how far this is going unravel.

Are we going to kill her? Has Croyle lost it completely and is he going to plug us right after that? He points to the passenger seat and I get in. Croyle puts the car in reverse and I'm waiting for him to whip it into a J-Turn or a one-eighty. It's not going to happen.

Babbo has finally lost it, he rolls down his window and vomits. With her arms and hands pushed outward and her body firmly lodged in the right passenger corner, Jill looks like a startled spider. Me? I'm contemplating putting one in Croyle as soon as the car stops...if he doesn't drive us over a cliff, first.

He has us going backwards at thirty miles an hour and this econbox has a hard enough time going forwards at that speed. Apparently the whining of the transmission and engine isn't enough of a clue for Croyle, so the car drops another hint with the smoke that is now seeping in.

"Um Cr...I mean, 'Huell,' the car isn't made for this" I offer up, as I visualize my first shot going into his chest.

I don't know if he heard me and I say it again, as I picture the second shot going right between his eyes. The glare that he gives me before he yanks the emergency break and sends us spinning, let's me know that I've gotten my point across.

We skid to a stop right in front of Jill's van, much to the detriment of us and the RV that just misses us. Croyle shoots out of the car again and whirls over to right rear passenger door. He yanks it open and Jill responds by sliding towards the nauseous Babbo. Croyle bows and does an odd flourish like some odd combination of a psycho, a modern dancer, and a chauffeur. Jill cautiously sidles around him, then sprints for her van.

Suddenly it's all so clear. I guess, we were so busy looking at her, that none of us three saw the small "Maricopa County Coroner" painted on the side of the van.

The car howls once more, as Croyle floors it and pushes it past its meager limits. I flashback on something I saw on her jacket.

"Hey, Croyle-"

"Shut up, you'll bring the jinx back."

I chuckle and say "no, you don't understand, do you know what her last name is?"

"What did I just say-"

"Her last name is 'Nix."


Babbo laughs, he gets it.

"What? What little private joke do you two have going on that's going to bring us more bad luck?"

"Croyle, think about it. Jill...Nix. Jill...Nix."

He shrugs and Babbo's quiet chuckles are annoying him even more.

"Jill...Nix. Take away a few letters and what do you get?"

It takes Croyle another few seconds, then the annoyed look is melted by a smile.