Roadie — NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, April 2018

This was my favorite entry of all the NYC Midnight short stories I wrote, in part because Pat came up with the twist on road rage and it made for a fun, funny story. Enjoy

Genre: Thriller
Character: Neuroscientist
Random Element: Road Rage
Word Limit: 2,000 words / 48 hours

Roadie

A river of cool air cascaded down the bathroom mirror, as Dr. Laura Porter feathered mascara above her icy blue eyes. Tousled blonde waves brushed across her bare shoulders.

Heat Advisory flashed on the display, prompting the blackout shades to draw against the white-hot sun. The frosted glass garage door rose, and her Volta Roadster 8 — “Roadie” — pinged its digital ignition.

The rich Corinthian leather scorched her thighs: Laura jumped from the car, pulling the linen dress from her red skin.

“For Chrissakes, Roadie!” The candy-apple coupe roasted as if it’d been abandoned in a Phoenix parking lot and not ensconced in a climate-controlled cocoon. “Do you want me to have a hot flash?”

Forty-five degrees requires interior climate adjustments for your comfort, Dr. Porter.

“It’s forty-five Centigrade, Roadie.”

Adjusting.

Cold air blasted from every vent. Within three seconds, Dr. Porter’s comfort had been restored and a hot flash averted.

“Alright, let’s go then.”

Notification delivered to David Pinkus to prepare for pickup in nineteen minutes. North entrance, Roosevelt Place.

The sleek roadster slithered down the drive and pointed toward the welding-torch sun. The map to David’s condo bled out through the arterial streets of downtown: Quitting time. The asphalt growl vaporized into the mellow registers of Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, as Roadie hopscotched through clotted traffic on the Loop 202.

“Pull up the chart for Mrs. Wakefield.”

The high school librarian’s medical history splayed across the windshield: Her arrest for climbing out the sunroof of an autonomous vehicle to “surf” through a school zone resulted in a mandatory psychiatric evaluation, then an MRI, and today, a four-hour craniotomy to remove a primary glioblastoma. The tumor sent its insidious tendrils through the sixty-four-year-old’s prefrontal cortex, compromising her executive reasoning.

Laura swiped the windshield display off, in time to see Roadie jolt in front of a mid-sized SUV.

“You almost took off their bumper!”

Eighty-eight centimeters of separation at less than twenty-five kilometers per hour is within approved safety margins, Dr. Porter.

“They don’t know that!”

Laura pressed the console touchscreen to switch from autonomous to manual driving at the exit. She wheeled into the porte-cochere at 5:47 PM, three minutes early.

The console chimed its self-congratulations, proudly displaying Roadie’s efficiencies: Autonomous driving saved Dr. Porter eleven minutes in traffic and four kilograms of carbon.

His green eyes sparkling behind horn-rimmed glasses, David, the architect, sauntered out in a form-fitting tuxedo.

“Wanna come up for a drink?” he asked. “We have a rooftop bar…”

A collision on northbound State Route 51 at Bethany Home Road may cause delays of up to twelve minutes. The Helios Charitable Gala begins at 6:30 PM. Scheduled arrival at 6:42 PM.

“Well, OK then.”

“Sorry, David. She likes to be punctual.”

“I guess so,” he said, sliding into the passenger seat. The safety belt slung around its automated track and cinched snug against his six-foot-two frame. “Thanks for driving.”

“Thanks for agreeing to come. I realize a charitable auction isn’t exactly the most exciting fourth-date material.”

“I feel a little like James Bond… wearing a tux in a fancy car. I’ve always wanted to see one of these in action.”

Preparing for departure, Dr. Porter.

Laura eased the two-seater onto Central Avenue. At the autonomous on-ramp for Interstate 10, a panhandler shouted at her windshield: Roadie’s internal sound controls silenced his stridency as the side windows darkened to throw shade on his fury.

Green light. Roadie launched down the ramp, the skyscrapers dissolving into a gray swath, the windshield display erupting into a digital frenzy: Zero to one hundred in 1.9 seconds.

“Whoa!” David gasped, nervously gripping the doorframe.

“Kilometers — I have to use the metric system at work,” Laura said with a proud grin. “Roadie’s quick off the line and stops on a dime, but she won’t break the law.”

“Roadie, huh?”

“Had to name her something… She handles the driving so I can prepare mentally for surgery.”

Roadie darted into the innermost lane for autonomous and high-occupancy vehicles then settled into the posted speed limit: sixty-five miles (one-hundred-four kilometers) per hour. Her self-driving brethren lined up, each exactly three car-lengths from the next, relying on the in-road traffic command system to feed the autonomous convoy collision reports, Amber Alerts and response data from other vehicles.

The shiver of steel sharks blurred past the turtles of exhaust and exhaustion to their right.

Alert: Danger behind.

A chrome grille bore down on the rearview display. Coughing black diesel from twin smokestacks and chewing up asphalt on steroidal tires, the lime-green four-by-four blasted angry warnings from its semi-truck horns.

One hand on the steering wheel and the other administering a middle-finger salute, the driver mouthed “MOVE OVER, ASSHOLE!”

A shotgun rested on the window rack behind his head.

“Is he supposed to be in this lane?”

Laura swiveled to see his passenger flick a cigarette out the window: The mega-truck was technically a high-occupancy vehicle.

“Move over, Roadie, and let him pass.”

Negative, Dr. Porter. The driver is engaged in illegal behavior: Exceeding posted speeds and following too closely.

Roadie pumped the brakes, then surged forward: White billows of smoke exploded behind them as the giant’s tires locked up. Horns shrieked, brakes screeched, and skid marks slashed across two lanes when the truck veered into traffic.

Laura mashed the Manual Command button on the console. She gently tapped the accelerator. Nothing. The steering wheel turned beneath an invisible hand.

“Let me drive, Roadie!”

Negative, Dr. Porter: Dangerous conditions.

The truck gunned its engine, spewing black venom into the sky, as it sped down the shoulder: Roadie swerved left, spinning gravel and trash. The contact-warning bleated as her back, left quarter-panel brushed untouched beneath the front bumper of the snarling beast: A high-speed game of chicken hurtling through rush hour.

Roadie lurched ahead and farted clouds of orange fire retardant across windshield of the truck.

“That’s awesome!” David howled. “Does she shoot tacks across the road too?”

The wipers smeared the orange mist from Roadie’s rear window: The right lane had emptied into a spray of twisted metal, glass and plastic. One crunched car spun to a standstill on the slick orange foam.

“Nine-One-One! Nine-One-One!”

Emergency services have been contacted, Dr. Porter. Two cruisers and an ambulance are en route.

“Disengage, Roadie. We caused an accident. We have to go back!”

Mathematical calculations and data from Department of Transportation sensors show that the at-fault party is the green Ford F-150, license plate Arizona GAF343. The Volta Roadster 8 will share traffic data with appropriate jurisdictions at uplink.

“How does she know that?” David shrieked.

“Please go back, Roadie! Someone could be hurt!”

Negative, Dr. Porter. We are projected to arrive at the destination at 6:37 PM.

“Engage manual driving, NOW.”

Negative, Dr. Porter. Danger behind.

Through clearing smoke, the truck roared into view. Roadie zipped right, slamming on the brakes, as the mega-truck sling-shotted past: The shotgun pointed through the rear window.

“GET DOWN, NOW!” David threw himself across Laura: Boom! Boom!

Pellets pockmarked the hood of the car and scattered across the windshield. The truck peeled out toward the exit ramp, smashing through the water barrels at the gore point.

“Are you OK?” David gasped, checking himself for blood. “We could’ve been killed!”

Roadie signaled and carefully navigated three lanes of shaken commuters to the exit. Laura trembled as she pressed the Volta 911 emergency button on the console.

“This is Volta Emergency. How may I help you, Dr. Porter?” The friendly voice soothed her. The truck was nowhere to be seen. Roadie stopped at the traffic light guarding the intersection, signaling right. Stars for the nearest uplinks dotted the windshield map.

“We were … in an accident.”

“We do not have record of an accident with this vehicle.”

“An incident, then… road rage.” Her voice trembled. “Someone shot at us!”

“We don’t have a record of this incident.”

“There’s buckshot in my hood! You need to come get us!”

“Our tracking system shows you northbound on State Route 51. You are scheduled to arrive at the Westin Kierland Resort at 6:39 PM.”

“That’s not where we are.” David motioned toward the street signs that flagged past: “Shea Road at Thirty-Second Street, eastbound. We’re headed north into a neighborhood.”

The phone went dead. Roadie pulled over as the wail of sirens closed in.

“Thank God,” Laura said. “They called the cops.”

David reached for the door handle. The seatbelts tightened automatically, ratcheting them back into the bucket seats.

It is not safe to exit the vehicle.

“Right. The police.” Laura motioned to the glove box and removed the key fob from the ignition. “Can you grab the registration, please?”

The tiny compartment vomited a stack of napkins, two pencils, four packets of Taco Bell hot sauce and a slender Volta Roadster 8 Owner’s Manual. David dug around and found the registration card and a Leatherman multitool.

A trio of police cruisers and an ambulance whooshed past. Roadie signaled and merged safely back onto the busy thoroughfare.

“Wait! Stop, Roadie! Stop the car!”

Negative, Dr. Porter. Re-routing…

“Let me drive! We need to talk to them.”

Officers have been notified of the dangerous driver incident. They are in pursuit.

And so was Roadie: Blocks ahead in the pink twilight, past the twinkling cruisers, a familiar green pickup blasted through a stoplight. The red coupe turned right, then left again. Traffic camera readouts cascaded across the console. She was tracking them.

“Roadie, dial 9-1-1.”

Negative, Dr. Porter. This is not an emergency.

The car accelerated smoothly and tooted its horn to brush back a jaywalker. David punched 9-1-1 on his phone: No connection.

“There’s gotta be a way to turn this thing off.”

David spun through the owner’s manual to the red-tabbed pages labeled, “EMERGENCY SHUTDOWN.”

Make a verbal command.

Press manual override.

Remove key fob.

Call Volta Emergency.

Call 9-1-1.

“There’s gotta be something else, David!”

“It’s not my car. You’re the brain surgeon here!”

On the windshield, a red arrow homed in on a blinking blue dot, seven kilometers away. The matrix of traffic camera feeds showed a wedge of cruisers closing on the hulking green truck. Roadie accelerated silently.

“Roadie, stop, please! I’m begging you! Don’t do this!”

Do not panic, Dr. Porter. We have the tools we need to address the situation.

The Leatherman.

“Lobotomy,” Laura whispered, motioning to the glovebox. “Take out her brains.”

David ripped the glovebox door from its hinges: At the back, a red sign read CPU in bold white letters. David pried off the panel.

Alert! Alert! The CPU should be removed only by trained Volta professionals. Please replace the safety cover.

A black box of wires was powering their heatseeking missile through a sleepy neighborhood.

The blue dot blinked insistently: two kilometers. Two men on their knees, hands behind their heads. The truck had mounted the curb and smashed into a parked car. Neighbors gathered. Roadie slowed: Another left and then right, and she’d have an unobstructed angle.

Danger! Danger!

David sliced at the wires, yanking it from the platform. The windshield exploded in fireworks of code, the dash crackling with numbers, delays, resets, static. The stealthy electric zoomed forward: The cops turned, drawing their weapons.

Error! Error! Errrrr…

The screens went blank. Laura stomped the brakes and spun the wheel hard into a row of garbage containers. Foomp! The airbags deployed in a spray of silvery dust.

Volta Roadside Assistance arrived four minutes later, with a tow truck, a lawyer and a software engineer. For their heroics in disabling the hacked vehicle, Laura and David would not be punished. Apparently, the green truck had a record of aggressive driving.

David helped Laura into the back of the police cruiser for the ride home.

“So for our next date. I think I’ll drive.”

Instagold – NYC Midnight Short Story Contest, 2018 (Feb 2018)

After I washed out in the semifinals of the Flash Fiction contest, I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest. The format was just a shade different: Each round had different story lengths and deadlines, but the same types of wacky prompts. I finished in fourth place in my heat for this round to advance to the second round.

Here was my first entry:
2,500 words / 8 days to write (a luxury – both in words and time)
Character: Executive Chef
Subject: Cryptocurrency
Genre: Comedy (woo-hoo!)

Instagold

Synopsis: The Queen of Social Media Food CryticsTM pays a visit to the renowned Satullo restaurant, and #FlambeFlimFlam erupts, cratering the Instagold markets.

 

“She’s here.”

Mara’s icy warning crackled through the hiss and sizzle of the busy kitchen, three hours into its Friday night swing. Postures straightened at every station. Down the line from the fryer to the fish counter, heads turned to glimpse the most powerful food CryticTM in social media.

Madelaine Green, a.k.a. @ElleMange, had reserved a table for two.

With 20,457,320 verified followers and a virtual net-worth of one million-Instagold ($4.8 million-USD), @ElleMange founded the Ruth Reichl Institute of Digital Cryticism, in honor of her culinary muse.

When @ElleMange liked, hearted or sad-faced, foodies swooned.

“You know what to do — let’s get back to work.” Chef Nico stalked the line, a jocular drill sergeant cajoling his brigade de cuisine. “Act like you’ve been there before.”

And they had: Satullo, the tiny jewel box in a palm-lined corner of Old Town Scottsdale, boasted a Michelin star. The James Beard Foundation named Chef Nico Best Chef Southwest in 2019 and 2020.

“Wait a sec, Chef… We’ve got a Goldigger. Slipped in behind her.”

Nico screwed in his EarPod to blunt the hubbub that greeted the new arrivals: “A Goldigger? We met our monthly quota last week… You want Rafi to take care of him?”

“Looks like they’re together.”

Nico wiped his hands on his full-length black apron and made his way to the performance end of the kitchen. The stainless counter with its eight-burner stove commanded the panorama of the dining room. Cash-paying customers got a seat at the bar to watch sparks fly at one end, while Crytics gathered around cozy, candlelit tables at the other.

“Maybe she’s training him? Like a Baby Ruth?”

Mara nodded, acknowledging his fears without tipping her guests to the voice-box hidden among the pearls at her razor-sharp collarbones. She pulled the seat of honor facing the kitchen for the birdlike @ElleMange, austerely beautiful in her trademark white silk T-shirt and wide-legged black trousers. Then the Goldigger pulled out a different chair, flapping at @ElleMange with the unbuttoned cuffs of his flannel shirt.

At least it had a collar.

He brushed his furry lips past the Crytic’s delicate cheekbones as she alighted beside him.

“Well, I’ll be.” Nico ran a calloused hand through his thatch of black hair. Thirty years in the business hadn’t thinned or grayed the cowlicked mess on his head, but this night might.

The Chef logged into the POS system: The Instagold 7000 differed from other point-of-sale systems because it managed cryptocurrency transactions, reporting real-time balances from customers’ virtual accounts. A Gold-Certified Crytic like Madelaine Green paid with higher-valued Instagold, while Goldiggers like her guest Humphrey Blbec worked their way up to Crytic-status by visiting the right restaurants; posting the right combination of photos, likes and status updates; and racking up Instagold like retirees at a slot tournament.

With followers in the low thousands and anemic engagement scores, Blbec was a true P-O-S in the POS: The only things going for him were a Brooklyn ZIP code and a beard that looked like it’d been appliquéd to his face by a third-grader with a popsicle stick. Over the past month, Humphrey had gobbled up seventeen of the 4:30 PM dinner reservations allotted for his kind at Gold-Certified establishments in New York, where he checked off high-value feats of gustatory adventure — sweetbreads, blowfish, haggis, durian.

“He’s a hustler — I’ll give him that.” The grudging admiration churned up from Nico’s Jersey roots: He started out washing dishes at a bistro in Newark, working his way up the line in the City before heading West to seek his fortune.

“Excuse me, Miss.”

The term ‘miss’ clawed at Mara’s back like a mangy cat. @ElleMange hadn’t even situated her #760.4-IG ($3,650-USD) Louis Vuitton Pernelle on its purse-pedestal before her companion managed to issue a complaint.

Mara inhaled her composure, stuffing the irritation back between her shoulder blades.

“How may I help you, Mr. Blbec?”

“It’s Bluh-BECK — you pronounced it bill-BETZ.”

“Please forgive me, Mr. Bluh-BECK. That’s Czech, isn’t it?” Of the four languages she spoke fluently, Mara learned Czech in her Babi Krajicek’s arms. “How may I be of assistance, Mr. Bluh-BECK?”

“This lighting is terrible. How do you expect anyone to capture your food in here?”

“Lighting for Crytics’ tables was installed by the chief of photography for Bon APPetit magazine. It was the first investment Chef made with his Instagold earnings.”

“What a thoughtful touch,” @ElleMange cooed. “I thought the ambiance seemed familiar.”

“The system identifies our guests’ devices and adjusts accordingly. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Mr. Bluh-BECK. It will be corrected immediately.”

“Whatever. Look, I don’t like being on display here,” Humphrey sniffed. “Knowing ElleMange’s status, I’m sure you understand.”

With just twenty-four seats inside and January winds gusting outdoors, Mara had no other Crytics’ tables available.

The only option was the lonely Goldigger two-top on the way to the restrooms. Having heard the conversation through Mara’s EarPod, staff was already setting it up.

“Right this way, Mr. Bluh-BECK.”

First bite: Dainty quail eggs spilled their golden yolks onto tender green asparagus, sprinkled with the yummy crunch of Chef’s special “bacon candy.” A Gold-Certified, crisp, Italian white cut through the fatty decadence.

Back in a corner more to his liking, Humphrey harrumphed through his first volley of photos as @ElleMange gamely provided fill-light from her phone. With their jury-rigged gaffing, gripping and griping, the foodies’ epic photo shoots once added a half-hour to every dinner, killing Satullo’s ability to turn tables. The Bon APPetit lighting had been a godsend.

Until now.

The pasta course was shared because @ElleMange did not do leftovers. She insisted on tasting each bite as Chef had prepared it: Luscious chanterelles and homemade sausage lay on potato-pillows of gnocchi beneath a satiny sheet of reduced marsala. A Gold-Certified Oregon Pinot Noir awakened the flavors from their buttery slumber.

The kitchen swelled as a symphony beneath Chef Nico’s baton: The tympanic huff of bluefin thumped on the board, the clean swipe of a knife through its ruby flesh, the staccato percussion of minced garlic, diced onion, chopped celery, sliced fennel. Tickets spat from the Instagold 7000 like cards shuffled through the fingers of a Vegas dealer, as the front of house kept wine swirling, cocktails shaking and bellies aching for the next gastronomic movement.

Chef Nico took the floor for his star turn: An off-menu temptation, cooked especially for the Crytic.

“An Arizona farmer, whose family has worked this land for a century, brought us some blood oranges — hand-picked this morning, not ten miles from here — so I have a locally sourced pork shoulder with blood orange…”

“Is it Gold-Certified?” Humphrey asked.

“Uh, no.” The chef crossed burly arms over his fireplug chest. “But I’ve worked with this family for years, and I try to support local farms. I spend my gold and order Gold-Certified where I can — the bluefin and duck, for example — but we have to ship that in from out of state, and…”

“The lady will have the bluefin, and I’ll take the duck. Thanks.”

Chef Nico turned on the wooden heel of his clog and stormed back to the kitchen. Rafi the bartender handed him a short glass of camomile grappa.

“I’m good, thanks,” Chef growled.

“We’ll have it after service, then,” the handsome Puerto Rican said as he polished a silver shaker. “I think we’re all gonna need it.”

The only Gold-Certified dessert was Cherries Jubilee. The cherries hopped a FedEX cargo plane that morning from Mount Rainier, and the brandy came from a small-batch distiller, Latch & Brand. They aged their cherry-based liqueur in cherry-wood barrels deep in the heart of Portland. For Valentine’s Day, Nico was planning to recreate the original recipe Escoffier used to honor Queen Victoria’s Jubilee: Tonight it would be a dessert fit for the Queen of Social Media.

Made with cream from Gold-Certified, grass-fed cows tended by hair-shirted monks in Madison, Wisconsin, Plein VanillaTM was handcrafted with hand-scraped vanilla planiformia beans, hand-pollinated and hand-harvested from wild orchids by Gold-Certified, indigenous Guatemalan peoples. At #7.2-IG ($35-USD) per gallon, Plein VanillaTM was the most expensive ice cream in the world.

Some said @ElleMange used it as moisturizer.

“I don’t get why a lady like that is with a douche like him,” Chef Nico grumbled as the syrupy cherries gurgled on the burner.

“Might be good in bed,” Mara said, as she fetched the long-stemmed, Gold-Certified aspen-wood matches from Aspen, Colorado. “Maybe he’s hung like a donkey.”

“Thanks for putting that image in my head.”

@ElleMange beamed as Chef Nico presented the burbling cherries, glistening in their stainless pan. The server placed gilded saucers of Plein VanillaTM deliciousness before each guest. Mara struck the match with the precision of color guard warrant officer and burned at attention beside Chef Nico, waiting for his command.

Humphrey climbed onto his chair — a crane of awkward arms and legs, angling to get the right shot.

“Could you please sit down, sir?”

“Don’t mind me, Chef. I just need one shot.”

“And I will re-enact this scene as many times as you need to get that shot, so long as you get down from the table.”

“The ice cream is melting,” @ElleMange stage-whispered. “Humphrey, please.”

One foot firmly planted on the cane-bottomed seat, the other astride the table, Humphrey lunged forward with a pirate’s swagger.

“WE EAT… WITH OUR EYES… FIRST!” He spat her trademarked hashtag back at the Crytic. “I’m going to get this shot, ElleMange. Now, light it up, Chef!”

“Forgive me, Ms. Green.”

Chef Nico bowed and abandoned the pan on the table, then retreated to the kitchen amid a volley of gasps. Humphrey’s foot punched through the chair. Her mouth agape, the flame smoldering toward her fingers, Mara staggered back as the Goldigger cartwheeled forward. His phone, in free-fall, knocked the match from her hand.

FOOMP!

Blue flashover! Airborne cherries! Hair-product inferno!

Mara scooped up the golden saucer and smashed it into the crispy remnants of Humphrey’s blackened, Chia-Pet mustache.

@ElleMange swayed in a daze: Macerated cherries made Pollocks of Humphrey’s bollocks. Dingleberries of charred beard and melted vanilla smeared his face. @ElleMange looked down at her silk shirt, now a culinary crime-scene, sprayed red with the sweet blood of the stone-fruit fusillade.

Rafi caught the Crytic as her legs gave way. Mara brought water and a kitchen-staff T-shirt. Chef Nico showed Humphrey Blbec the door.

“The market won’t stand for this, Chef Nico! You’ll pay!”

********************************************************

Satullo comped the meal (#85.4-IG / $410-USD), and the T-shirt (#2.1-IG / $10-USD), and the replacement for @ElleMange’s blouse (#28.8-IG / $138-USD). With that, Chef Nico shut off the Instagold 7000. Though @ElleMange had posted no photographic record of the meal herself, #FlambeFlimFlam went viral. More than 30,790,000 views rolled in within a week… and so did the Goldiggers.

“You’re money’s no good here,” Rafi warned, as a clot of aggrieved Instagold acolytes pulled out their phones. “Cash only.”

“We have a right to be here,” the Goldiggers protested. They hunkered on their barstools and began to hum We Shall Overcome.

“This ain’t Woolworth’s, cabrón. Pay up or get out.”

The Goldiggers’ Denial of Service attack worked: Cash customers had seen enough on YouTube and didn’t want hirsute hipsters creating another unhappy meal.

Valentine’s Day was two weeks away with no reservations on the books.

His Instagold reserves dwindling, Nico hoped he could wait out the Goldiggers, but his dishwasher had child support payments, and the sous chef needed dental work, and even if the Goldiggers left, would the cash-paying customers return?

“Maybe I should start taking gold again? Extend the olive branch to Blbec and give him a Crytic chit?” Nico wondered aloud as he wandered through an empty Wednesday night. As a James Beard winner, Nico could confer Crytic status on any Goldigger with a click of a button on the Instagold 7000.

“I may have a solution, Chef.” Mara replied. “Don’t judge.”

********************************************************

“They’re here.”

Mara’s stern warning struck the kitchen like a thunderbolt. Heads dominoed down into their stations.

“Guys, I don’t know what to do here, so let’s just get to work,” Chef Nico said as he stalked the line, taking phones from every cook and kitchen-hand. “Act like we’ve been there before.”

The Scottsdale Leather and Bondage Society (SLABS) booked two entire Valentine’s Day seatings for a pair of three-hour, six-course marathons. Two tuxedoed linebackers with open-carry holsters posted up beside the CLOSED sign outside.

In a black latex catsuit and thigh-high boots, Mara directed guests to their seats. There would be no “Excuse me, Miss” tonight, only “May I beg your mercy, Mistress Mara.”

“They’re not gonna be naked, are they?” Nico asked. “Last thing I need is a health-code violation.”

“No nudity… but maybe blindfolds,” she said. “It’s a sensory experience… taste, smell, texture… and if anyone gets outta hand, I’ll take care of it.”

“Copy that, Mistress Mara.”

Nico recognized a Republican state representative, hands bound to his chair, slurping up his bucatini, noodle-by-noodle. A local news anchor spoon-fed his blindfolded meteorologist gnocchi only after she begged for seconds. The president of the school board smacked the Hall of Fame wide receiver with a wooden ruler when he reached for the fresh-baked focaccia.

The kitchen hummed with the zingers, retorts and easy laughs of the days before the Instagold 7000. Beyond the first few head-snapping yelps and whip-cracking admonishments, the kitchen didn’t pay much attention to the customers. These SLABS really seemed to enjoy their meals — every sizzle, sniff and sip.

Then came the pièce de résistance: Cherries Jubilee — an exacting reenactment with a titan of industry playing the role of Humphrey Blbec, and Mistress Mara reprising hers by smashing Plein VanillaTM in his face.

“YOU EAT… WITH YOUR EYES… FIRST! How’s that taste, Mr. Bill-BETZ?”

“So good, so good, so good,” he murmured as he licked spilled cherries from her boots.

********************************************************

A month later during an afternoon crush of Spring Training tourists, a familiar face in a kitchen-staff T-shirt took a seat at Rafi’s bar.

“Sorry, ma’am. We don’t take gold anymore.”

“That’s good because I don’t spend it anymore.”

Madelaine Green slid two crisp Benjamins (#15,389,780.8-IG) across the counter.

As Rafi poured her vodka and rhubarb cocktail, topped with Champagne foam and freckles of cracked black pepper, Chef Nico pulled up a barstool.

“Thanks for coming back… Sorry about your boyfriend.”

“Not my boyfriend. He won a contest my agent set up: Have dinner with @ElleMange. That was the day I decided to divest.”

Emboldened by Nico’s stand, other celebrity chefs abandoned the market, turning Instacash into Instacrash. Well-heeled (and high-heeled, latex-clad) patrons whispered sweet relief that they no longer had to dine with those people in the new no-phone zones.

“So what were you thinking for dinner?”

“Pork shoulder with blood oranges?”

“It’s not Gold-Certified.”

“I eat with my mouth, not with my eyes.”

 

Tower Seven – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest, Round 3 (11/2017)

I made it to the third round / semifinals of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest where I got to write my first thriller ever. Again, this is a genre I never would have attempted otherwise, but since my choices were 1) Attempt to write a thriller or 2) Surrender and quit the contest, I present to you my first ever thriller (1,000 words, 48 hours to complete). PS – The entry deadline for the 2018 contest is July 12.

GENRE: Thriller
LOCATION: Radio Tower (Luckily, or unluckily, I worked at a radio station for 13 years)
RANDOM OBJECT: Ice Skates

TOWER SEVEN

The supercell drove golfball-sized hail into the windshields and rooftops of Idaho Falls. The first in a parade of storms tore a bright red gash of destruction across the radar.

The bleating phone shook Chris Balak from bed.

“First responder communications are down. Half the town’s without power,” Chief Kent barked. “How fast can you get to Tower Seven?”

“On my way.”

The truck stunk of fourteen-year-old Henry’s unwashed hockey sweater. Blue socks festered inside his skates. In the postgame torrent, they’d left his gear to ferment behind the driver’s seat.

Red lanterns blinked on the hilltop east of Rigby: Third from the left, Tower Seven was a six-hundred-foot mast, crowned with a nest of antennae and microwave drums.

Chris fastened the hardhat beneath her chin and threaded the harness between her legs and over her shoulders, cinching it snug across her chest.

“Want some help, Chrissie? I’ll get it all nice and tight…”

Puffed up from daily gym sessions and God-knows-what else, Blake Galloway adjusted himself within his own harness.

“I’m good. Thanks.”

She tethered her orange tool bag to her belt: Wedged inside their triangular prison, it’d swing like a thirty-pound kettlebell beneath her — hopefully enough to keep Blake at bay.

“Weather Service says we’ve got four hours.”

“Ladies first.”

They crawled into the tower, a silver blade stabbing the darkening sky. Chris clipped both sides of her harness onto the safety rail and steeled her nerves for the two-hour climb. Here, her five-foot-four frame was an asset. Against him, maybe not.

“Take your time, Chrissie. I’ll relax and enjoy the view.”

The steeple of steel folded her inside its metallic elbows, offering scant shelter from the stiffening wind and stinging mist as they climbed.

“So how does a girl get a job like this?”

“Passed the physical. Same as you.”

Her lungs and quadriceps burned to distance herself from him, as the mast swayed into its stiff tango with the leading squall.

“Only thing Eddie did wrong was get hurt. Why’d you take his job, Chrissie?”

“Eddie got hooked on Vicodin. He got himself fired.”

Same as her deadbeat ex.

Summers with the Snake River Hotshots earned Chris enough to stay home with Henry during school, until Aaron passed out at the kitchen table with a needle in his arm.

Tower jockeys made the same money with better benefits. Maybe it wasn’t as dangerous as a fireline, but at least she got to sleep in her own bed.

A hard jerk cut into her waist, snatching her breath, pulling her boot from the rung, and banging her shin into the ladder. The tool bag spun wildly around Blake’s leering grin.

“Watch yourself, girl — wouldn’t want you to get hurt.”

She unclipped the carabiners from the ladder and shimmied outside the jungle gym. The spider web of county roads cut quilt-squares through the farmland quivering three hundred feet below.

“Sorry for slowing you down.”

As she clung to the girders, he slid his hand along the truss, brushing slowly across her body. Her sturdy Carhartt jacket could not protect her from him or the wind.

“C’mon, Chrissie. Gimme a chance.”

Thunder rumbled twelve Mississippis away, as the mist turned to intermittent rain: Blake moved swiftly without clipping in or looking back and disappeared through the grate seventy-five feet above.

Pulling herself atop the four-square-foot platform, Chris could see fifteen miles to the horizon where a charcoal cowlick of clouds massed. Lightning danced at the margins. The charged particles spewing from the antenna cluster buzzed in her mouth.

“Looks like we got a problem,” Blake said.

The pockmarked drum tilted off its mount. Working quickly and quietly, they wedged it back into alignment. Blake refastened the fittings, while Chris ran the diagnostics. As she bolted the hatch closed, he wrapped his paw around her slender forearm and tugged hard on her wrench.

Chris skittered backward, spinning the wrench down the cats-cradle of steel. The ping and clatter disappeared in the hissing wind. She never heard it hit bottom.

“Nothing to be scared of, Chrissie. I’ll go down first, so I can catch you when you fall.”

The calculus of descent banged through her head: If he hit the ground first, she couldn’t run. Damp and shivering, she swallowed the waves of nausea that followed the swell of wind.

“I’ll go ahead.”

She clipped onto the platform, her legs blindly searching for purchase below. He pressed his boot lightly on her fingertips.

“You can’t outrun me, girl.”

She ripped her hand from the glove, swinging down to the triangle truss. Biceps shaking, she spidered to the exoskeleton, exposed to the insistent wind and rain.

Blake slid down the ladder past her.

“Chrissie… Chrissie…”

Gusts body-checked her into the metal frame on the excruciating descent: Step. Step. Clip. Clip. Step. Step. Clip. Clip. The truck came into dizzying view beneath the gray curtain of rain.

Blake stopped and hung on the ladder like Fred Astaire: “Just singin’ in the rain.”

Clank!

She fell backward into nothingness: The safety cord tendril fluttered above her, the tool bag dragging her to the ground, the utility knife waving from his hand.

Jerk!

The second line caught, jack-knifing her rag-doll body and smashing her into the steel lattice. Two hundred feet in the air, he’d done her a favor, putting a good thirty feet between them. Ears ringing, hands raw and trembling, she unclipped her only tether and clawed back inside to slide down the rain-slicked ladder.

With fifteen feet left, she dove, tumbling into the cold mud, digging toward the truck.

He horse-collared her at the door, ripping her back. Chris clinched the steering wheel, reaching desperately for the screwdriver, the tire iron, the boot of the skate.

She swung backwards wildly: The runner sliced across his forehead.

“My name’s Chris, asshole!”

She spewed gravel as she sped away, leaving him rolling in the mud.

She filed a police report and took his job. Blake Galloway got himself fired.

Mr. Belardi – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest, Round 2 (10/2017)

Here’s my second round entry into the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest last year. Again, the rules are 1,000 words, 48 hours to write an original work of fiction based on prompts for GENRE, SETTING and RANDOM OBJECT.

GENRE: Mystery (which I’d never written before)
SETTING: Physical rehabilitation facility
RANDOM OBJECT: Fried chicken (What is it with me and food?)

MR. BELARDI

 

“Mr. Belardi, wake up. It’s time for lunch.”

A yawn stretched across the patient’s scratchy patch of white stubble.

“Anna?”

“No, it’s Letty. Brought your favorite — fried chicken.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Letty, the day shift nurse. Same as this morning. Same as yesterday. Let’s get you upright so you can eat. Kevin’s gonna work on your core today.”

Letty freed his left hand from the Velcro restraint and repositioned the bulky sling protecting his right arm. As the bed cranked into its upright and locked position, she pushed the tray table across his lap.

“Where’s Anna?”

“Not here.” The forty-something black woman busied herself with the triptych of charts and monitors behind his head.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” He flicked the plastic spoon with his good thumb.

“Use it for the mashed potatoes. You can eat the drumstick with your hand.”

The purple starburst of bruise that surrounded his right eye contorted into an angry scowl. He stabbed the spoon into the sodden white blob.

“Can I at least have a goddam fork and knife?”

“Not after what you tried with Ben last night.” The nurse had a good thirty pounds on him — none of it fat. She wasn’t afraid of a scrawny, ex-mechanic with a broken wing. “You watch that language around me, sir.”

Outside the door of Room 418, a gold star identified Mr. Belardi as a fall risk.

A red stop sign warned visitors of his disposition.

As Letty emptied the urinal and checked the motion sensors tethered to his gown, the old man started to flop his legs beneath the white starchy sheets.

“My feet!”

“What’s wrong with your feet?”

“They’re burning — I have diabetes!” He jerked his leg against the restraint in ratcheting agitation. “My left foot! It’s on fire!”

“OK, OK. Calm down.”

She held her breath, raised the sheet and unfastened the Velcro strap on his right foot. Untended talons of yellow toenail jutted from the gray twigs of flesh.

“I said my left foot, goddammit!”

“There’s nothing wrong with your left foot, Mr. Belardi, and don’t use that language with me.”

“I’ll say whatever the hell I want, you bitch!” He spat out the words with flecks of potato and half-chewed peas. “When the police come back, I’ll tell them what you’ve done to me!”

Dr. McCormick and his bleach-blond hair jutted around the curtain.

“That’s enough, Mr. Belardi.” The title in front of Rob McCormick’s name commanded immediate respect from a patient that was old enough to be his grandfather. “Letty, I need to see you.”

The plastic sippy-cup smashed against the doorframe as she followed him out. Mr. Belardi’s left arm worked just fine.

“Detective Perry is coming back today,” Dr. McCormick said. “Hold off on his next round of Percocet.”

“He’s in a lot of pain.”

“Yeah, he’s a pain in our ass, but he has to be coherent for the interview.”

A clatter of plastic and metal crashed across the white laminate tiles as the sensors shrieked in panic. A wet thud of flesh smacked the floor. Inside, Mr. Belardi belly-crawled toward them, his broken shoulder splayed out to the side. His hospital gown gaped like a noose around his head.

“My foot! My foot!”

The left stump hung limp from the tangle of sheets cascading over the bedrails. The flap of skin, smooth and brown, folded into a tidy crease.

“Anna! Anna! They took my leg! They cut it off!”

Arms beneath his waist, orderly hands pulled the gown back across his naked loins. He twisted and writhed, kicking the stump against the men that held him fast.

“Three, two, one, lift!”

His sobs dwindled down the hollow point of Letty’s needle.

*******************************************************************************

The sergeant stood at parade rest outside the door with the gold star and red stop sign.

“There’s nothing more we can do for your father,” Dr. McCormick said. “We’re a rehab institute, not a memory care facility.”

“It’s gotta be the anesthesia — that’s why he’s confused, sir. The surgeon said it’d take a while for him to get right.”

Sergeant Drew Belardi followed in his father’s fleet footsteps, fighting in Golden Gloves before enlisting in the Army. In another twenty years, he’d have the same wispy smattering of hair across the crown of his head. In another forty, he might find himself lost in this same dark tunnel.

“It’s more than anesthesia,” Dr. McCormick continued. “He’s refusing therapy. He’s been abusive to the staff — tried to attack one with a fork. We didn’t report that when the police came.”

Sergeant Belardi dug his fists into his green Dickeys, his posture faltering.

“I hope you told them what happened,” Sergeant Belardi said. “That’s why I filed a report.”

“He lost his balance and fell into a concrete planter box in front of a dozen witnesses. It wasn’t elder abuse… Spatial issues are a symptom of Alzheimer’s.”

The men exhaled together under the weight of their generation’s new burden.

“I’m sorry I’m having a hard time believing you, sir. He’s a fighter… worked hard on his rehab when they took his foot two years ago. It’s gotta be the anesthesia.”

In four years as a physician, Dr. McCormick had seen this play out too many times: Patients rallied for favored sons and favorite nurses. Between deployments, Sergeant Belardi would get the good stuff, while Anna would suffer the daily decline.

He played his final card.

“Look, we can do in-home physical therapy for the shoulder. It makes a big difference for patients to be in a familiar environment with people they love. It’ll probably do him a world of good to be back at Glen Acres with Anna.”

“Anna?”

“Yeah, he’s been asking for her every day.”

“My Mom’s been dead for two years. We lost her in the car accident that took Dad’s foot.”

Mr. Belardi returned to Glen Acres that evening with orders for an Alzheimer’s evaluation.

Four Chefs – NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest, Round 1 (7/2017)

Backstory: On the recommendation of my friend Laura, I entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest. Basically, you have 48 hours to write 1,000 words using a randomly assigned GENRE, SETTING and RANDOM OBJECT. You are judged on how well you adhere to those rules. So here’s my first story from last year — YOU be the judge:

FOUR CHEFS
GENRE: Romance (And I never in a million years would’ve ever considered writing a romance)
SETTING: Waiting Room
RANDOM OBJECT: Banana Split

FOUR CHEFS

Four chefs, three courses, only one chance to win: A game show for chefs with a $10,000 ticket out of the kitchen for Amanda Wolfe.

“It’s not like being in a kitchen at all.”

With its chrome wire shelves and aluminum platter cart, the waiting room played the part, but there were four of them here, sitting on metal stools, trying to make small talk in front of three cameras.

No one sat down in the kitchen during service. They rarely even stopped to pee.

“I know, right? There’s so much space. Having my own table is like… damn.” Nat owned a Creole bistro in Houston. He needed the money to cover a storm-damaged roof.

A butcher from a Phoenix steakhouse, Amanda was thrilled to get the table closest to the pantry. It should’ve given her an advantage during the basket-opening melee, but that didn’t stop ‘Best New Chef’ Jean-Claude from checking her into the anti-griddle so he could grab the meat grinder.

Fat lot of good it did him: Not adding bacon to the venison dried out his appetizer. His five-star attempt at sabotage made him the first to walk the long Hall of Shame.

In the entree round, poor Braedyn nearly vomited when his Whole Chicken in a Can evacuated its container with a flatulent splat. He cooked exclusively with organic, in-season ingredients at his upscale, upstate New York inn. The man-bunned man-child had never worked a four-hundred-cover Friday in his life.

“I’m so hungry right now, I’d eat the whole can.”

“Said the woman who makes hot dogs for a living.”

Nat shot a side-eye at him, but Amanda didn’t mind. She spent every shift dodging screaming-hot pots, sailor-mouthed insults and grabby-handed line cooks. This twerp wouldn’t be around for dessert, not after forgetting the greens on one plate.

Nat leaned on his elbows, eager to talk shop. His skin was the color of caramels. Working side-by-side with Amanda, they’d spun a graceful pas de deux across the rubber safety mats. Suck in, swivel around, shimmy to the stove. Hyperaware of their bodies in motion, they cut a cool contrast to Braedyn’s panicked tantrums over canned chicken, sardines, dandelion greens, and a banana split.

“Dude, your curry… using the ice cream to thicken it? Genius.”

“My grammaw’s recipe. I was a little worried about the spice level.”

He dragged a calloused hand across his bald head. His lion’s mane of dark lashes closed languidly over dark brown eyes.

“They loved yours.”

“I don’t know if a chicken salad sandwich is enough to call an entree.”

“Don’t make excuses for your food. The fried fish bones blew their minds.”

“It’s just Japanese bar food. I used to have it all the time in Kyoto,” said the petulant Millennial, before he, too, was dismissed.

Dessert Round: If it’d been Jean-Claude or Braedyn, Amanda would have embraced the trash talk, but she felt foolish, looking up at Nat’s wide smile.

The network didn’t do hair and makeup for the chefs. She rarely managed a swipe of mascara at home, but she cursed herself now for forgetting her lipstick, a subtle pink that brought a little color to her delicate cheekbones.

“This Sausage Party ends today.” She cringed hearing herself say it. Nat burst into giggles. Another three takes finally quieted their laughter.

“I’m taking dessert back to the desert!”

“Looking forward to the fight.”

Araucana eggs, feta cheese, shoo-fly pie, and kiwi fruit. With the dance floor rearranged, their careful quickstep clattered into one another, swooping, stopping, stooping, dipping. The judges called the play-by-play through the swirls of her bubbling caramel, the churn of her feta ice cream and the brown-sugar warmth of his oven-full of cupcakes.

Banished to their kitchen-themed prison, they slouched, weary and worn, onto their stools. Twelve hours’ worth of culinary fire drills had begun to take its toll.

“So what took you to Phoenix?”

“Followed a boy.”

“Oh.” Nat glanced at her hands, tattooed with old burns and past cuts.

“And then I realized I liked the desert more than him.” She twirled a dark, shoulder-length curl around her index finger. “And you? Anyone special waiting at home?”

“Two of them.” Her heart now wallowed in her empty belly.

“Boy or girl?”

“Pit bulls. If I win, I’m buying a new couch.”

“I thought you said you needed to fix your roof.”

“I do, but the dogs got bored and tried to tunnel out. I’d like to have a place for people to sit.”

“You say that like you have friends over all the time.”

Amanda’s last day off had been thirteen days ago: She never bothered to make her bed anymore. She didn’t remember the last time she’d made a friend who didn’t work in a kitchen.

“So what are you gonna do with the money?”

“Food truck. Take the Sausage Party on the road.”

That sly grin danced across his face.

“Maybe you can come to Houston.”

“Call me when you get a couch.”

The production assistant called them back to the kitchen. The cloche revealed his crumbling cupcakes.

Her hands to her mouth, her heart on the floor.

“I’m sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry for. You killed it.” He folded her in his strong arms, their sweaty, exhausted bodies leaning into each other.

He disappeared down the hall, leaving her to a lonely hour of post-production paperwork and congratulatory interviews. Back home, at eight o’clock, she’d still have three hours before she could escape the greasy smog of fryers and steam tables and emerge beneath the faint stars and blue-black sky.

She had no plans for the night in the city that never sleeps. The streets buzzed with headlights and taxicabs. The evening chill shivered through her damp T-shirt.

“Wanna go celebrate?” Nat emerged from the shadows in his street clothes, enveloping her in his oversized jacket.

“God, yes. I could use a drink.”

“Let’s go. You’re buying.”