The Night Manager

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The Night Manager exuded quiet confidence, taste.

His Gieves & Hawkes suit was impeccably tailored, yet not at all ostentatious. The subtle pattern of his Brioni necktie quietly matched the hotel wallpaper. In five languages he would give guests comfort, guidance, bits of colorful lore about the city or the hotel itself.

He solved problems efficiently, discretely, his demeanor projecting an almost overwhelming calm. There was nothing about the hotel or the city he did not know, no specialization of service in which he was not expert.

He would tell arriving guests about the amenities and luxuries they could expect, the small touches that made his hotel one of the finest in the world– sheets of Egyptian cotton with so high a thread count that their softness could not be measured, bottled mineral water from an ancient village where people routinely surpassed their hundredth birthday, the healing powers of the hotel spa.

He did not tell them of the man in room 2146 lying naked in a tub of ice, his newly harvested organs stored in the basement refrigeration units, nor of the background checks routinely performed on guests to see who might make inquiries should they suddenly go missing.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

Credit for the idea must go to the lovely K. Rawson, who has a sick mind but insufficient time to express it.

Irrelevant and Idle Questions

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I passed the stunning Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square without seeing it.  A quote from Anna Karenina rolled through my mind, where Levin avoids “any long look at her as one avoids long looks at the sun, but seeing her as one sees the sun, without looking.”

I was like that with Red Square. With all of Moscow, now.

The promised black Mercedes sat idling. I caught the pale streak of my distorted reflection in the tinted glass  as I opened the door and got in. Seated opposite me was a middle-aged man with bags beneath his eyes. His looks did not match his reputation, though Yuri had assured me that this man was indeed the murderer of Nemtsov. Here was the assassin who had defied Putin and made his vaunted secret police look ridiculous.

I set the suitcase beside him. He did not open it.

I nodded and let myself out.

 

What Pegman Saw

 

Late in the evening on February 27th, 2015, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated as he walked home across a bridge that spans the Moscow River, not far from the Kremlin and the bulbous domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The killer shot Nemtsov four times, from behind, as his girlfriend watched in terror.

Nemtsov was once a precocious political talent, rising from provincial governor to become to become President Boris Yeltsin’s deputy prime minister. He never found his way in Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin, and left government when his party was voted out of parliament, in 2003. He became one of the more energetic and charismatic figures in the country’s beleaguered political opposition. He was handsome, with a lively mane of light brown hair that turned silver over the years, which he swept to the side in the style of a television news anchor.

His murder was a terrible blow to the opposition and an unwelcome jolt to the political élite. Gleb Pavlovsky, a former political adviser to Putin who has become a critic of the Kremlin, remarked that Putin was stunned that this murder took place under his nose.

 

Well, I Think I’m Ready

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When I told him I was ready to take the vow, Brother Xavier’s kind face wore a look of concern.

“I’ve been here for a month now, Brother,” I said. It felt strange to talk, “During this time I have spoken twice. When I arrived, and now.”

He smiled.

“I believe I understand it now. The vow of silence especially.”

His soft eyes continued to gaze into mine.

“I see the silence draws us together. A community of solitude. We are alone with God, yet together.”

He smiled, got up.

“Talking seems silly now,” I said as he walked away.

 

Friday Fictioneers

 

Sunlight of the Spirt

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I tried to make sense of his note, but it was just gibberish. He had taken them books with him, so I knew he wasn’t going off to kill himself. When I checked with the bank, they said he’d cleaned out his college fund on Friday. That bothered me, but not for the reasons you’d think. There wasn’t all that much in it, for one. And the money was his, set aside for his future.

Other than that, I had nothing to go on. I didn’t even know the names of his friends. I never stopped thinking about him, but there wasn’t nothing I could do.

One October day about a year after he left, I got a postcard. On the front was a cactus. He’d wrote a single sentence in ballpoint pen, all capital letters:  SUNLIGHT OF THE SPIRT. That boy never could spell.

The postmark read: Landers, California.

 

What Pegman Saw

 

 

A Breezer’s Yarn

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Me and Red tramped all over. The Apple Butter Route to the big G, the BN down south to the Bitter Biscuit line. Couple of boxcar Willies such as you’d see about anywheres.

I met him when I was just sixteen, run away from the Oklahoma dirt farm where Pap would take out his meanness on whatever was handy, usually me. I’d lie awake nursing a fat lip or wrenched arm and listen for the lonesome moan of the night freight, steel wheels rattling my mattress springs from a mile off.

One night I just lit out. Never went back.

 

Friday Fictioneers

 

It’s a huge temptation to go hog wild with Hobo speak since discovering this treasure trove of slangbut the strict adherence to 100 words forbids this. I’ve always loved hobo lore, and once hopped a freight myself to see what it was like. It’s a powerful piece of Americana, at once impossibly romantic and deeply tragic. 

Holcomb Sunday

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“Not like her to oversleep,” said Sue. “Especially on a Sunday.”

“Well, I suppose we’d better go in,” said Nancy. “It looks like they all might be sleeping.”

Sue had a strange feeling as she knocked on the kitchen door. Mr. Clutter and Kenyon were always up early on a Sunday, though Mrs. Clutter usually stayed in her bedroom.

Nobody answered. She knocked again.

“Maybe Mr. Clutter and Kenyon went into town early for some reason,” said Nancy.

“His truck is in the carport. Should we go in?”

The door was unlocked. Nancy saw the telephone was torn out from the wall, its wires trailing like broken legs. The kitchen clock ticked, the only sound in the house. An opened bottle of milk stood on the counter.

“Hello?” called Sue. “Anybody home? We’re going to be late for church.”

There was no answer.

Neither girl wanted to go upstairs.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

On November 15, 1959, the Clutter family—Herb and Bonnie, their daughter Nancy, and son Kenyon—were brutally murdered in their Holcomb, Kansas, home. Convicted of the crime were Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene Hickock, who were sent to the Kansas State Penitentiary. Soon after, the killers became the subjects of Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood. Capote conducted a number of interviews with the inmates before they were executed by hanging on April 14, 1965.

 

At Shahi Qila, 1849

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The Punjab sun lay across Lieutenant Maclean’s back like a heavy wool blanket. He ignored it as he climbed the steep stairs of the citadel. Beside him, Sergeant Ross puffed like a dray horse. They passed through the high arches and strode through the shade of the now-deserted fort.

“Bloody hell, sir,” said Ross. “It’s a good thing we beat Maharaja Singh on the plains. We’d have had a job taking this place.”

Maclean agreed, but offered no comment. Ross was a fine sergeant who had proven himself many times to be resourceful and courageous, but his friendly tone grated on Maclean. That Maclean was the only Scots officer in the regiment was neither here nor there. Perhaps Ross thought that because he had saved the lieutenant’s life that morning it gave him special license to be so familiar.

He’d put a stop to that, then. Just as soon as he caught his breath.

 

What Pegman Saw

After the February, 1849 Battle of Gujrat, the British Army took control of the enormous Lahore Fort that was the ancient seat of Punjabi Power. The Sikh regime’s treasury was then inside the Moti Masjid, a Gudwara created by the Sikhs as a place of worship within the fort itself.
The British governor of Lahore, John Spencer Login, was amazed to find “precious diamonds kept in rolled up bits of rags which were placed in velvet purses.” These purses were found strewn all around the floor, in corners and tucked between stone. When Login placed one of the diamonds on his palm, he wondered about its price. It is believed that the famous  Koh-i-Noor diamond was part of this treasury.

This inventory was presented to the The Earl of Dalhousie, Governor-General of India, who, in consultation with the British government in London, was to dispose of all the Fort belongings “in a befitting manner.”

Rencontre Chanceuse

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He bought a basket of new plums, ate them while he watched the girl exchange pleasantries with the miller. He was struck by her  beauty, her freshness.

“Who was that maid?” he asked the miller after she had gone.

“That’s no maid, sir. She’s the daughter of Florent the silk merchant.”

“Is this Florent a member of the guild?”

“A prominent member, sir.  Florent Guyart owns a large warehouse and several wagons. And this mill. Very well-off. I’m surprised you’ve not heard of him.”

“I am new in town, friend. But it happens that I am a silk artisan myself.”

Friday Fictioneers

This is a tiny excerpt from L’Incarnation,  a novel in progress which is partially set  in seventeenth century France.

Night of Horrors

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The horsemen ride into the square with blood-curdling yells. They look like something from a history book, Mongol warriors of Genghis Khan’s time. Oriental faces, fur leggings and hats. Many of the Germans go to pieces, drop their guns and run. The riders cut them down. They are wonderful horsemen, slashing and stabbing as they weave among the terrorized soldiers.

Some of the Germans fight back, firing rifles and machine guns at the riders. A few are shot from the saddle, but the Germans are soon overwhelmed. All three tanks burn, their fleeing crews run down and killed like vermin.

The Mongols dismount and busy themselves among the corpses. They cut off heads and jam them atop their spears. The cobbles are slick with blood and gore. Body parts and offal are scattered everywhere. The raiders are efficient as workers at a slaughterhouse, yet they seem to enjoy themselves. They hold up various parts and compare them, laughing and joking. Some of the Germans, not yet dead, lie squirming and screaming as the victors cut off ears and fingers.

Two Mongols toss the German heads into a pile. A blonde head bounces off and rolls unevenly across the courtyard. One of the Mongols moves to stop it with his foot, tries to kick it back atop the pile. He misses. The other joins in, trying to block him as though playing soccer.

The Soviet officer  blows a whistle. They stop, turn to stare at him. He climbs out of the motorcycle sidecar and strides over to the Mongol chieftain, yelling. He gestures and points, his face mottled red with rage.

The chieftain stands silent, arms crossed. When the officer is finally done, the chieftain turns to his men and says a few soft words. They begin to stack the heads neatly, like cabbages in a vegetable market.

 

Sunday Photo Fiction

 

This is an excerpt from my first novel Hawseravailable on Amazon  (or free from me, if you are willing to review it). With the new Pegman prompt and a novel in progress, I didn’t have the time to do something fresh today. Thanks for reading. -JHC

Query-Go-Round

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In 2013, I self-published my first novel, Hawser. I expected that I would sell a few of them and then get picked up by one of the traditional publishers who would doubtless be beating down my door. A large box arrived at my house containing five proof copies. Eagerly, I cracked them open and was appalled at the myriad typos, formatting errors, blank pages, etc.etc. And then as I read the book for the twentieth time, I began to realize what every writer from Chaucer to Nathan Hill has learned: I need an editor. Not just a line editor or a copy editor. I need an editor editor. I need a Max Perkins or a Ford Madox Ford.  Dear God, even a Gordon Lish.

Ford Madox Ford looks remarkably like Leon right before he gets upset about his mother.

But such people do not come cheaply, and their services are standalone. They are mercenary beings as powerless in the world of publication as I am myself. To be one of a yearly million new Amazon titles is not exactly publishing. Nobody will review it, and nobody will sell it. This means that almost nobody will read it. And if nobody reads it, the rationale for writing it is seriously in doubt. Most self-publishing success comes from either blind luck or months of toil. Andy Weir’s The Martian  was an overnight success years in the making. He has said that most of the hardest work came after the book was finished. Marketing, marketing, marketing. Blogging, emailing, sending free copies, begging, pleading.

The bitter lesson is this: If one wishes to expand the readership beyond a circle of friends or the local public librarian who grudgingly took a copy and buried it in the stacks, the way to do it is still traditional publishing.

SS Traditional Publishing. Amazon submarine not pictured

Yes, I know. Publishing is on the ropes. Nobody reads. Airport books are all written by James Patterson and Dan Brown. Creative Writing MFAs are cranking out literary writers like Denny’s makes pancakes. There’s no money in it. Blah blah blah. There actually still is a vibrant traditional publishing industry outside of the big five. Small presses, satellite publications and other independent scrappers are out there churning away. Sure, the margins are smaller, but people still need stories. They want to read them. And the stories are out there. Great books are still being written. I read two excellent novels that were written last year, novels that came from traditional publishers.

So my goal for this new year is to get my latest novel Miramar published. Revolutionary Cuba is timely and interesting, and the story of corporate corruption overthrown by equally corrupt populist socialism might resonate with people today. In order to do this, I need an agent in there swinging for me. My friend Alex  just started a blog, so I thought I’d write a post about querying agents.

I took an Iowa Summer Writer’s Festival  class last year where an experienced author talked about how to write a query. There are hundreds of books about it also, so I won’t go into it except to say that query needs to demonstrate that you can
a. write, and
b. tell a story.
Good queries are short and engaging. It’s also crucial to follow the rules set out on the agency site. They get thousands a year, a giant inbox packed with turds and turds and turds. Whatever intern or slave who is in charge of gatekeeping is more than  eager to immediately reject you so they can get on to the next unreadable piece of shit about lesbian Mormon vampire zombies.

But they are also eager to bring home a big fish. If you can gain their advocacy right away, you stand in good stead to move up the chain.  The crowning glory is a request for the full manuscript.

As I said, you can learn all about how to jump out of the slush pile with just a little effort on your part. Be prepared to suck for a while, too. Nobody ever does it right the first time. Remember, rejection is  your friend––but only if you are willing to learn from it.

And be prepared to be googled. A blog, a twitter account and (dear lord) a Facebook page are all base expectations. Like it or not, you’re a product. The days of Pynchon leaving a typed manuscript on a hollow tree for his agent to find are long over (and that old story is likely bullshit anyway. I mean, can you imagine Mason & Dixon in manuscript form? It was probably a foot thick.)

One last thing: QueryTracker is worth its weight in gold, especially if you follow Writer’s Digest to find out which agents are new and especially hungry. Good hunting.