Free Fiction—Five Fingers

[Tequila]

Photo courtesy of Juska Wendland via Creative Commons.

In a bar, a timid young man finds himself between a woman with a curious nickname and a nasty-tempered assailant.

Five Fingers

“Five Fingers,” she said.

“What?”

I could barely hear her over the noise. Someone had just
asked one of the bartenders to turn up the TV. Loud games and beery voices
usually get to me. This time, it didn’t matter, though. She seemed to bring
with her a kind of peace in the middle of all this drunken racket.

“Five Fingers,” she said a little louder, smiling to herself.

“That’s your name?”

Her face was, I don’t know, angelic—not the usual hard-ass
kind you see in these places. She was small, too. Maybe five-three or five-four.
No visible tattoos. Her long, dark hair fell softly over her shoulders. Her
clear, dark eyes seemed deep and full of understanding. I immediately felt
something for her.

“I’m Tom.”

“Okay,” she said. “What is it you do?”

“Software developer.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“Well, you know.”

The crowd roared as the ball was stolen with two minutes left
in the fourth period. Some idiot bumped into the girl, making her spill her
drink.

“Hey, watch it, will you?” I said, not wanting to sound rude.

“Watch it yourself.” His dull eyes were thick with beer and
tequila.

My stomach started to knot up. I could already see it coming.
The girl would have to understand. I’m just not good at this kind of thing. It’s
not in my DNA to take swings at other guys in bars. Besides, the last time
something like this happened, I got the crap kicked out of me. Two cracked ribs
and one capped tooth later, I felt I had learned my lesson.

She must have seen the fear in my eyes because when I turned
to leave, she reached out for my hand. It was a move anyone could have mistaken
for a friendly, meaningless handshake.

“Let me see,” she said, turning my palm up and examining the
dark lines. “You have tendencies toward Love. I can tell you care about things.”

“Not butt-kicking contests, though.”

“So what? What’s a jerk like that got to do with anything?”

“Shh!” He was still close by.

“You really need to relax,” she said. “Don’t take things so
seriously all the time.”

“You don’t get it.” Now I’m talking in a low voice through
clenched teeth like a bad ventriloquist. “These kinds of people can get mean. Then
they call you out. I know what I’m talking about.”

“Violence is useless in a literate society,” she said.

“Literate!” I laughed—I couldn’t help it. “We’re dealing with
the Piltdown Man. The Terminator. Jason Statham. Where does ‘literate’ even
enter into it?”

“Jason Statham?”

“You know what I mean.”

“And anyway, Piltdown Man was a fake,” she said.

“I know, but this guy’s for real. I’m just not comfortable.”

“Have you always been this paranoid?”

“Ever since I learned that there are people in the world who
want me dead.”

“Let me see your hand again.”

I liked feeling her fingers glide over my skin. The shiny,
dark red nails reflecting light, the soft fingertips lingering in places. It
tickled and aroused me at the same time.

“You have a very long lifeline. What’re you worried about?”

There were fifteen seconds left. Godzilla must have had a lot
of money riding on the game because now he was beating his fist on the bar.

“One twenty-eight to one twenty-seven!” he said. “C’mon, I
can’t lose now! Get me the ball and let’s go!”

It suddenly came to me that this cretin was my age. We might’ve
gone through school together, lived in the same neighborhood. His hands were
twice as large as mine. His neck was as big around as my waist. He had on heavy,
black Doc Martens that made him seem even taller. Maybe he was an off-duty cop
or a security guard. Maybe he played pro ball at one time and had to get out
when his knees turned to Jell-O.

Suddenly, he noticed me staring at him. Thinking fast, I dove
into the nut bowl.

“Cashew?” I said to the girl.

She laughed at me. The way she looked at me then, it was like
she was peering through glass at a frozen specimen of something delicate. Something
never meant to survive in the real world. And in her laughter, I could hear
pity for a person who was unable to stand up to stupid threats and leering
insinuations. At the bottom of it, though, there was forgiveness.

“Don’t worry,” she said. Her voice was calm.

I didn’t know if she meant not to worry about that animal
punching me in the nose or about my chances with her. In a little while, the
game ended. The Demogorgon lost by one point. He was furious. And drunk. Scooping
up his change from the bar, he faced me, a vicious light in his red-rimmed eyes.
It was like I had been the cause of his bad luck.

“You piss me off,” he said like a hairy boar.

The girl was sitting between us. I panicked. What if he
attacked her? I’m just not equipped to handle a situation like this. These
bartenders should have a crowbar or something they keep hidden on the floor
just in case. I didn’t want to get involved.

“Let’s get out of here!” I said and hopped off the stool.

“What?” The girl had been using a small mirror to check one
of her contacts.

He blinked at her, hoping, I guess, that she would get out of
the way so we men could have it out. But she just sat there, examining her eye
and flipping her hair back.

Desperate, I searched for a bartender. Most of them were busy.
One of them was way at the other end of the bar, laughing with one of the
cocktail servers.

“Hey, weenie!” Bluto said, sucking the phlegm from his raw
sinuses and swallowing it.

I refused to meet his eyes and instead shot quick darting
glances at the girl, who appeared rested and tranquil. This was like one of
those nightmares where you’re running around screaming your head off while
everyone else is stupidly blissful. Sweat was pouring from my pits. My legs
were twin lead pillars. I could hear my own scared breath rattling around
inside a puny chest cavity like the chains in some horror dungeon.

“Chris, no!” someone said.

But as the Hulk went for me, the girl stood quickly and
smacked him hard across his fat, fulminous face with her open hand. I couldn’t
believe it. He reeled back for a second, surprised more than hurt. That’s when
I saw it—the outline of five fingers, red and pulsing across the front of his
face.

Coming to his senses, he tried grabbing her. She took a step
back and fired an incredible kick to the head. It was like a lightning bolt. Then
she smashed each of his kneecaps. Finally, she finished him off with a
well-placed knee straight up into his groin. It was as if she’d seen the whole
thing in her head and had simply gone through the steps, one after the next; her
opponent had merely played his part in this weird Kabuki dance. The whole thing
took maybe five or six seconds.

The assclown sank to the floor sickeningly like a bag of wet
sand, moaning and holding himself in as many places as he could think of. There
was hardly any blood. Mercifully, his friends got together and dragged him out
through the back entrance. Straightening her skirt, the girl sat down again, seemingly
unaware of the wild stares and waggling tongues of the others.

“Tequila!” she called out to one of the bartenders who nearly
tripped over himself trying to take her order. “Five fingers!”

“Yes, ma’am!”

“What’re you having, Tom?” Her voice was silky and seemed to
float above all the commotion.

“The same, I guess.”

“Good.”

“I thought you didn’t believe in violence,” I said.

“I don’t. But some people need to be taught a lesson.”

We sat there awhile, sipping our drinks and watching the
post-game show. I turned to her and saw that she was smiling.

“What happens next?” I said.

“You walk me to my car. There’s no telling what’s out there
this time of night.”

I can do this, I told myself. Then I paid for the
drinks and helped her off her stool.

Free Fiction—The Final Soup

[Cauldron]

Photo Courtesy of Kevin Friery via Creative Commons

Using her acclaimed culinary skills, a determined woman decides to teach her philandering husband a lesson. Unfortunately, the whole town ends up suffering.

The Final Soup

Marta Gutiérrez de Alma had been cooking soup for days. She
told her friend Teresa that this was going to be the best soup she ever made. What
she didn’t say is that it would be her last.

She had dug out every pot she owned. Then she went to her mother’s
house and got more pots. Soon she was asking people for pots after Mass. The
town began to suspect that something was wrong with Marta.

To be honest, she hadn’t been right since her husband Cinto
went off with “that woman.” Making soup, people felt, was her way of keeping
herself occupied. And they had approved at first.

Marta’s mother Juanita became alarmed when she discovered
that the children hadn’t been bathed in days. The house was filthy, and there
was no food in the kitchen—except for the damned soup ingredients.

Something needed to be done.

So Juanita moved in with Marta, explaining to her own husband
that it was the only way to save her grandchildren from turning into criminals.
They were five and seven.

Juanita cleaned the house, bathed the children, and did the
dishes while Marta went out shopping for only the freshest ingredients to make
her amazing soup.

Marta bought ranch-fresh chickens and slaughtered them for
their necks and gizzards. She chopped, diced, peeled, minced, and sautéed until
her hands were swollen and bloody. The town felt that, even if Marta was well
on her way to the loony bin, she would leave behind a soup never to be
forgotten.

Finally, after seven days Marta said, “Está lista, mamá.”

With tears in her eyes, Juanita watched her poor daughter go
off to the bathroom to have a bath. As soon as she heard the sound of water
running and Marta singing a lively canción, she found a spoon and tasted
the soup. It was magnificent.

“¡Ay, pobrecita!” she said, weeping.

While she finished her second bowl, Juanita recalled that Cinto
had insulted Marta badly before walking out on the whole family. In his
pathetic drunken rage, he called her a soup monger and a hard-hearted cow.

He added that she never loved him and that cooking all the time
was her way of avoiding intimacy. He even went so far as to suggest that Marta
had grown their two children out in the little vegetable patch in the
back because he could not recall the last time they had slept together as man
and wife.

“¡Qué lástima!” Juanita said as she started in on her
third bowl.

When Marta was finished bathing, she announced that she was
going to get the biggest kettle she could find, fill it with the delicious sopa,
and take it to the plaza on Sunday. At first, Juanita didn’t hear her because
she was slurping so loudly. But as Marta repeated her intentions, Juanita began
to worry.

Her distress multiplied as Marta rummaged through all of the
pots she had borrowed, made ear-splitting clanging noises, and uttered strange
incantations under her breath. When she observed Marta setting aside an
enormous cauldron—one so big she could have bathed both children in it at the
same time—she nearly choked on a lemon seed.

“Marta, ¿estás loca? You’ll break your neck carrying
that thing all the way to the plaza!”

“Oh, no, mamá,” Marta said, laughing. “Don’t you worry
about me. I’ve carried around that drunken louse of a husband longer than that.”

“Hija,” Juanita said and crumbled back into her chair
at the kitchen table, burping politely into her napkin.

The plaza is paved in ancient cobblestones. There is a
beautiful fountain in the center covered in blue-and-white tiles. On one side
next to the girls’ academy is the Church of the Wary Bystander. Directly across
from it among the shops is the Bar Social.

Cinto and his woman spent Sundays there eating and drinking
like pigs while everyone else went to Mass. Marta knew this because Teresa had
heard it from her husband who claimed he heard it from a sailor who was
presently suffering from a dose of el chancro.

On Sunday morning Marta washed and dressed the children. Then
she bathed, put on the most seductive dress she owned, and prepared to deliver
the soup to the plaza. Juanita still couldn’t believe her eyes and tried to
stop her. But Marta was final.

“Look,” she said. “I’m taking this soup down to the plaza
whether you like it or not. Now help me get it up onto my head.”

For fifteen minutes the two of them struggled with the pot. Marta
had piled several towels neatly on her head to cushion her from the weight and
the heat. But it was no use, they just couldn’t lift it. Just then José Luis
came by.

José Luis was madly in love with Marta and was glad when Cinto
ran out on her. He saw this as a sacred sign from Almighty God that Marta would
finally be his.

After exchanging the usual greetings, she ordered José Luis
to help balance the soup on her head. With a lover’s devotion, he lifted the
cauldron and placed it on top of the towels as Marta crouched down.

Once everything was in place, she slowly rose and
straightened her back. Juanita, José Luis, and the children stared wide-eyed. And
when she jittered out the front door, the sound of soup sloshing inside the
pot, they were astonished.

It took Marta nearly an hour to get to the plaza, which was
only a mile away. She had to keep stopping and starting so as not to collapse
from martyrdom.

Juanita, José Luis, and the children followed a little way
behind commenting on the fact that Marta not only cooked an excellent soup but
carried it wonderfully. Then other townspeople saw the procession and began to
follow.

Crusty old men sitting in doorways, smoking and drinking
coffee with brandy, stopped in mid-conversation and watched as Marta struggled
past with a look of pride and determination. Rising painfully from their wicker
chairs and brushing the ashes from their faded sweaters, they decided to join
the parade.

By the time she reached the plaza, three hundred cheering,
pan-waving people had gathered behind Marta including two priests and six
acolytes. They watched deliriously as she knelt at the edge of the fountain and
waited for José Luis and another volunteer to lift the soup from her head. Then
carefully she removed the towels, wiped her face and breasts, and took a deep
breath. One of the priests was so moved by the spectacle that he started to
bless the soup. But someone cut him off with a vulgar noise.

A small boy ran to the door of the Bar Social and shouted to
everyone inside that Marta Gutiérrez de Alma was in the plaza with soup enough
for everyone. People began pouring out of the building with any glasses, bottles,
and funnels they could get their hands on.

Cinto and his woman just sat at their table with suspicious
looks on their faces, trying to fathom the significance of the strange news. Reluctantly,
they got up and went outside to join the others.

Cinto had to cover his eyes a little until they adjusted to
the bright sun. Then he spotted Marta looking more beautiful than ever, sitting
on the edge of the fountain and politely turning down the many requests for
soup.

He heard her say, “No soup. Not until Cinto has had his.”

With tears in his eyes, he realized that Marta loved him
after all and wanted to go back to being a devoted wife. When he suggested this
possibility to the other woman, she cuffed him on the ear, called him a sea
hare, and marched back inside.

“Marta!” Cinto cried as he pushed his way through the crowd holding
his ear. “I knew you still loved me! I knew it! You see, everybody! A good wife
knows how to please her man. Marta has made this whole caldera of soup
just for me, but I’m going to share it with the entire town!”

Marta smiled as people offered their congratulations and
admonished her to serve the stinking soup before it got cold.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s still plenty hot.”

Then she removed the cover and with the strength of an animal
lifted the colossal pot by herself and dumped its contents onto her startled
husband. People gasped in terror as the boiling carrots, onions, and potatoes
turned Cinto red like a giant lobster. His unholy screams could be heard for
miles.

“That is the last soup I will ever make for anyone!” Marta said.

As Cinto lay on the ground twisting in pain, Marta gathered
up her family and walked back to the house. The people watched her go, stunned
by the experience. Though they felt all kinds of sympathy for Cinto, they
couldn’t help but harbor a nagging resentment toward him since it was his fault
that they would never again enjoy the wonderful soup.

 

2016 Top Ten Posts

“[Sparkler]”
Photo courtesy of Evan Long via Creative Commons

Personally, I won’t be sorry to see 2016 go. Good riddance, I say. Rather than dwell on all the bad news from the past year, though, I thought I would list my top ten articles instead. Here’s to a better 2017!

 

 

 

Damn You, Netflix—Another Distracted Writer
Fiction and Profanity—F-Bombs Away!
Free Fiction—Something to Hold
Free Fiction—The Traveler’s Tale
Getting Away with Murder
How to Write Better Dialogue ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Style
I Used to Write Poetry
Pulp or Poet?
What in the World Is “Family Fiction”?
Writers, Your Cell Phone Is out to Get You!

And if these aren’t enough to put you in a better mood, check out this Bruce Willis mashup. Seriously, the man just won’t die!

Christmas 2016

[The Adoration of the Shepherds]

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Now holy Peace may smile from heaven,
And heavenly Truth from earth shall spring:
The captive’s galling bonds are riven,
For our Redeemer is our king;
And He that gave his blood for men
Will lead us home to God again.

—Anne Bronte

Free Fiction—The Traveler’s Tale

[Old Man Face]
Photo courtesy of Andrey Samsonov via Creative Commons

You’ve probably noticed that my work is somewhat different. There’s always something, well, off. And the Nativity story I am presenting today is no exception. There are no little drummer boys or Wise Men, but there is an unexpected visitor. I hope you like it.

 

The Traveler’s Tale

He had been standing on the distant hill in the blackness of the night, observing the bright star that seemed to hover just above the small, unremarkable town located south of the holy city. Below, he could see hundreds of shepherds moving toward a modest house accompanied by their animals—sheep and goats baaing and bleating, driven forward by wooden staffs. These are devout men, he observed. Men who, even though they didn’t have a clue what they would find, nevertheless were compelled to approach the dwelling and pay homage. Because the angels had told them to.

The wind cut across the rocky hill like a gatherer’s scythe, but he wasn’t cold. Having taken on the appearance of a traveler, he looked old, with leathery, sun-baked skin and gray, watery eyes that had gazed upon the world for so long with feelings of mirth, envy, and promise. Scratching his scraggly white beard with curved black fingernails, he wished he could join the others and pay homage himself. But that was impossible. Other angels with flaming swords guarded the entrance to that house. No one but he could see them, and despite his immense power, he feared them.

Below, someone shouted. The men were close now and quickened their pace as a door was flung open. A bright light shone from inside—brighter than any lantern—bathing the congregation in its divineness. He knew the light was coming from the child—the one Herod was looking for. If he had been permitted, the traveler would have transported the arrogant swine and his men to this place so he could slaughter the defenseless baby and its family. Over the millennia he had pictured that exquisite moment—a dream that filled him with longing. And joy. But joy would be hard to come by, now that the infant had entered the world as prophesied.

Music broke the still night—a kinnor perhaps. And men’s voices singing a hymn. The crowd was so large now and the animals so numerous, he could no longer see the entrance. People chanted, repeating what the angels had said. “Glory to God in the highest!” The words made him sick, and he wished he could smite them all. Even the animals appeared to show respect, kneeling on the ground—none making a sound.

“Let them rejoice,” he said to the rocks and the dead grass. Thirty years was a blink of an eye, after all. He would get his chance—God had promised him. The child, now a man, would be hungry, tired, and thirsty out there in the unforgiving desert. Prayer couldn’t possibly sustain him. Being partly human, he would be wonderfully open to suggestion. I will offer him all the riches of the world, the tempter thought. And he laughed at the irony—he giving that lonely prophet the very things God would deny him. As he turned to leave, he noticed a line of torches moving toward the town. More of the faithful coming to worship…what? A baby in a manger.

Shaking the dust from his feet, the traveler departed for a time.

 

How to Write Better Dialogue ‘Schitt’s Creek’ Style

[Schitt’s Creek Poster]
Photo courtesy of IMDb

I’ve read a lot over the years—not as much as some of those insane speed readers who seem to devour a book a day, but a lot. In fiction, my tastes vary between pulp and literary. And I have to say, a lot of literary writers write dialogue that is wooden and boring. I mean, I know this stuff is supposed to be highbrow and all, but honestly! Sometimes, I want to reach in between the pages and strangle the writer with his typewriter ribbon while screaming, “Nobody talks like that in real life!”

If you are, like me, a modern writer, and you suspect your characters’ speech is less than scintillating, then I have a tip for you: watch more movies and television—especially TV. And I’m not talking about network sitcoms. There’s nothing worse than trying to pass off bad writing by adding a laugh track. ‘Schitt’s Creek’ is a Canadian show I had the pleasure of watching on Amazon Prime recently. At least two of the stars—Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara—you will recognize from their work in many of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries like ‘Best in Show’ and ‘A Mighty Wind.’ This outing, if you check the credits, seems to have required the entire Levy clan. Nevertheless…

It’s Not What You Say
Let me start by saying that the show is hilarious. Not so much the situation, though. Essentially, this production is a reimagining of the old fish-out-of-water series ‘Green Acres.’ You know, cultured, affluent people finding themselves in the middle of Armpit, USA. What’s funny is the dialogue, which is very well written and real. And it’s different from what you’d find in a David Mamet script (think ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’) where words are more weapons than communication, or in an Aaron Sorkin show (think ‘The Newsroom’) where everyone is super-smart and acts accordingly. (Both are outstanding, BTW.)

In ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ the way people speak is authentic. I mean, I’ve heard people in the street who carry on like this. I’m not going to go into the plot; you can watch the show for yourself. I want to focus on the dialogue. Now, I’ve identified four qualities I think writers will find useful:

  • Everyone is passive-aggressive.
  • People speak past each other.
  • Characters lie their ass off.
  • There’s a boatload of upspeak.

I Love You—I Hate You
Practically every time someone attempts to give a compliment, what comes out is laced with venom. But in a nice way! Here’s an example. Johnny, Moira, and their son, David, arrive at the Mayor’s house for dinner—a meal none of them are not looking forward to sharing with their hosts Roland and Jocelyn.

DAVID

You have a really lovely home. It’s really, um,

understated.

JOCELYN

Thank you. I get a lot of my ideas from magazines.

MOIRA

Don’t be modest. This is one hundred percent you

and only you.

In lesser hands, this scene would have been written broadly, with someone making a tasteless wisecrack about an ugly table lamp. (Cue laugh track.) In this scene, however, everyone knows what’s being said, and no one is fooled. But each character still manages to maintain a razor-thin veneer of social grace. Think about adding this layer of subtlety to one or more of your characters and see what happens to your scenes.

Hello? Is Anyone Listening?
There’s a wonderful exchange when the motel manager, Stevie, lets David know she’s going to a “sketchy” bar later. David immediately invites himself, but it’s clear she’s not comfortable with that.

DAVID

We’re going to be each other’s wing people tonight.

Um… Now, how diverse is the clientele at this local

drinkery?

STEVIE

I would say, very diverse.

DAVID

Do you remember what life was like before dating

apps? Both excited and terrified for tonight.

STEVIE

I don’t think I ever said you could come.

DAVID

Okay, so what time, though? Um… And is there a

dress code? ’Cause I want to come prepared.

For me, this scene illustrates so well that each character is determined to further their own agenda. So, even though these two are having a conversation, they are actually talking past each other toward the outcome they desire. Stevie doesn’t want David to go, and he wants to.

I Can See Why You Would Think That
Lying is a staple in television comedy, but these guys do it with elegance and grace. So much of it is used to cover something up, but sometimes, it’s to shield the other person from reality because, well, it’s just too much trouble being honest. In this exchange, David has reluctantly decided to find a job, and he’s asking for Stevie’s help:

STEVIE

Do you have any other skills or areas of expertise?

DAVID

Uh, I’ve been told I have really good taste?

STEVIE

Uh, well, that’s good. Um, let’s see… Oh! Bag boy at

the grocery store.

DAVID

I don’t know what that is.

STEVIE

You put groceries in bags so that people can carry

their groceries out of the grocery store.

DAVID

Okay. And how much do you think that would pay?

STEVIE

Mm… I’m gonna say minimum wage.

DAVID

Which is what, forty, forty-five something an hour?

STEVIE

Exactly.

This Is a Statement of Fact?
I’m not really sure where upspeak (or uptalk) came from. I want to say it all started with the movie ‘Valley Girl.’ But today, everyone does it—even me, sometimes. And if you don’t have at least one or two characters speaking that way in your book, you’re probably not trying hard enough to get some variety in your dialogue.

In ‘Schitt’s Creek,’ David and his sister, Alexis, do it a lot. In fact, most of the townies don’t speak that way, so there’s a nice contrast. I won’t provide any dialogue examples here because there are too many. But here’s a clip to get you started:

Wrapping Up
So, there you have it. For me, a big part of writing great dialogue is introducing variety. A good test is to switch the names of characters speaking and see if the scene still makes sense. If it does, you’ve got a problem. Getting back to literary fiction, as far as I’m concerned, many characters are interchangeable regarding speech. Some great authors have an incredible ear, though. Whether or not you like Charles Dickens, the man knew how to make each of his characters shine through dialogue. (I’m thinking in particular of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House.)

As writers, we spend so much time figuring out the plot and writing about a character’s inner life. But don’t forget, when someone reads your book, they are saying the words aloud in their head. And when they get to the dialogue, they hear your character’s voice. Make sure they can distinguish one person from another. Now, enjoy the trailer from Season 1, available for free at Amazon Prime.

Free Fiction—Something to Hold

It’s my birthday today, and there’s nothing I like better than giving a gift. Here’s a short story that’s a little dark—you know me. I hope you like it.

Something to Hold

There are cops everywhere, Brooke reminded herself as the intruder tried again to force the front door open. Jeffrey had just gone out for the wine he wanted with dinner. Dinner! She hadn’t even started yet. It was dark out. Their house was at the end of the cul-de-sac somewhere in Coto de Caza, and it was dark. She had wanted a streetlight installed in front of their house, but Jeffrey had never contacted the association, she was sure of it. It was so dark.

What to do? They didn’t keep guns in the house. That left kitchen knives and—

There was a crash as a metal trash can flew through the large front windows, spraying glass everywhere. Not looking back, Brooke ran to the kitchen to see what she could find.

Knives, knives but which one? This!

As she reached for the Henckels 10-inch chef’s knife, someone grabbed her from behind and pulled her around.

She saw him clearly—a man who looked to be in his sixties with salt-and-pepper hair wearing blue jeans, a black turtleneck sweater, and running shoes. He could have come from dinner at Basilic. She remembered the knife and swiped at him, cutting off half his left ear. He let go, and covered in his blood, she scrambled past him toward the narrow door that led to the garage.

As she ran down the three steps, the lunatic grabbed her by the hair. Screaming, she swung the knife crazily behind her, hoping to catch his arms or throat.

He had her firmly by the hair now. With a fury she could feel in her bones, he ripped the knife from her hand and threw it away. Now he was trying to lead her back into the house. Frantic, she scanned the garage and saw the pegboard. They had just put it up, and Jeffrey hadn’t yet mounted his tools. As her attacker pulled her backward toward the door to the kitchen, she accelerated, pushing him past the door and toward the pegboard.
She knew she would only get one chance.

He grunted hard as he tried to pull her toward the house. Then, with all her strength she charged backward toward the pegboard. She felt the man shudder. Then he released her.

She pulled away quickly and turned to face him. He looked serene. She was sure now that one of the naked peg hooks had gone through the base of his skull, holding him there. She could hear him breathing. Every so often he would tremble from an involuntary muscle spasm.

Brooke didn’t have her cell phone. She wanted to call 911 but was afraid to leave the intruder out here—in case he extricated himself and came after her again. Where was Jeffrey?

Gritting her teeth, she felt around his front pockets and extracted an iPhone. When she pressed the Home button, she saw the photo. It was a lovely woman. She looks lost, Brooke thought.

She slid to unlock the phone so she could call 911, but a hand touched her hand. She looked up and saw the man’s face. He seemed ancient. His sad eyes stayed on her while pressing on an app. A video started playing.

Taking the phone back, Brooke watched the video. This man—the intruder—was sitting in what looked like a den, dressed exactly the same. He was speaking directly to the camera. This is what he said.

#

This is the story of a collector—a tyrant—who was married to a beautiful woman. They didn’t have children, and he treated her as just another of his possessions. His most prized possession was an eighteen-inch vase made by the famous nineteenth-century Venetian glassblower Di Piazza.

Over the years, many fakes were sold to gullible collectors. Ironically, the only way you would know the glass was authentic was if it broke. It wouldn’t shatter into dangerous shards like ordinary glass but would disintegrate into a pile of smooth beads you could hold in your hands.

No one ever discovered Di Piazza’s secret; he took it to the grave.

All these years the collector treasured this vase, convinced it was authentic. He was a jealous man who was never sure of his wife’s love, so he always tested her by being mean to her—nothing physical, though. What he did could be called emotional violence.

One night, he invited an acquaintance—another collector—over for dinner. Over an extravagant meal, they talked about art and life, and the acquaintance saw immediately how the wife acted in her husband’s presence. After dinner, the collector could not resist showing off his vase. The other man carefully examined it and declared it a fake.

The man was incensed and insisted it was real. But his guest confidently stated that he knew what he was talking about. He claimed to have lived in Venice for some years, and during that time he had acquired many rare glass objects. He had even studied with a famous glassblower. He studied every important work there—including everything Di Piazza ever made—and he was certain this vase was a fake.

“But the only way to actually know,” the collector said, “is to break the glass.”

“Then why don’t you break it?”

“Get out!” the collector said.

“What are you afraid of?”

The acquaintance spoke of the power of Faith in things authentic. He used Love as an example, then mentioned religion. The collector became sullen and started drinking.

After the dinner guest had left, the collector sat dejectedly in front of his vase. It was then that his wife, wearing her coat and carrying a bag, announced that she was leaving him forever. She said he was incapable of true love and that after all these years he even doubted the vase he was so protective of. Then she laughed in his face and called him a fool.

In a drunken rage, the collector threw the vase to the ground. It disintegrated into a pile of sparkling glass beads he could easily hold in his hand.

“I don’t understand,” he said, looking at the beads. “That man was a liar—he couldn’t even tell genuine from fake.”

“That’s because he’s not an art collector,” she said. “He’s my friend and knows nothing about Venetian glass. I asked him to come here tonight. I wanted to make sure you were left with nothing—not even the vase. I wanted you to feel what I’ve felt for twelve years.”

“But I love you,” he said.

Then she went away.

#

As the video ended, Brooke looked at the man who was barely alive and put down the phone.

“Why did you tell me that story?” she said. “Are you that man?”

“Jeffrey won’t be coming back,” he said, barely able to breathe now.

“What?”

“He won’t because I can’t give him the signal. The signal that it’s safe to return.”

The man was silent now as Brooke stared at him in horror. They’d been married five years—a long time in Coto de Caza. How could Jeffrey want her dead?

She started to ask him. He sighed, looked up, and smiled at her. Then he was dead.

As she dialed 911, the garage door opened suddenly, almost causing her to drop the phone.

It was Jeffrey.

The man had lied. Jeffrey had come back. Instead of pulling into the garage, he turned off the engine and got out, forgetting to switch off the headlights. He stood in front of the car, looking first at the dead man, then at Brooke.

She wanted to say something but couldn’t. The voice of the 911 operator came on.

“A man is dead.” She gave the address. “I’m okay. Yes, send an ambulance. He didn’t have a weapon. Yes, he’s still here in the garage. I don’t know his name. He’s in his sixties. No, I don’t think he was high on anything. No, no children. I’m the victim.”

As she answered the questions, she kept staring at Jeffrey who made no move to come inside. After a few minutes, she disconnected. But she didn’t put the phone down. She kept it because she needed something to hold.