Pawn & Gun

Pawn and Gun

It was my summer job, working with old man Jenkins at the Pawn & Gun. I just swept up, polished the sweaty fingerprints off the glass in the cases, opened boxes and stomped them flat to fit in the dumpster behind, and many other such chores. I didn’t get to sit behind the counter with the guns and watches and jewelry and all the glittering things. That was Mr. Jenkins’ privilege as owner. At the time I envied him his throne.

The shop was huge to me, and like a treasure trove, with the jewelry and gold and silver sparkling from end to end of the glass cases that formed the counter, with old man Jenkins sitting behind it all on his swivel stool, register right behind him in the center. He had a big pale green paper blotter on the counter in front, where he’d put the object, whether a watch or ring or coin, while he discussed a deal with its owner.

I would stop sweeping at first, and watch and listen to Mr. Jenkins smile and speak softly and amiably to a customer, whether buying or selling, genuine friendliness in his voice, but with an unstated savvy behind his figuring and offers. By the second or third week, though, I’d quickly resume when Jenkins would cock his head at me while he was negotiating, showing me he’d noticed. He was kind but firm with me about getting his two dollar’s worth out of each hour I worked. “It takes a certain amount of money to keep the shop profitable, Sam, and I can only make so much from a small town like ours.” He was always going over the store’s books when business slowed, and then slide them away under the register when the bell on the door went ding.

In high school, we’d studied Greek Mythology, and I’d listened because the stories were so fantastic. My favorite was about the Fates, three sisters who spun the threads of each person’s fate into our common destiny. In their hands, as they sang and wove were a man’s, or a woman’s, or a child’s fate, and they determined what happened to each.

Soon I realized that old man Jenkins also held the threads of people’s lives in his wrinkly hands, even with his ever-present smile, because I would see how people used the store to see them through life’s high and low points. A couple in love would come in and shop for a set of wedding bands, alcoholics would pawn something every day to feed their habits, a man whose paycheck didn’t stretch far enough would bring in something, maybe a clock, or his father’s watch, and put their immediate future in old man Jenkin’s hands as he put his jeweler’s loupe to his eye, a bright light on the item of value, and hum lightly as he evaluated it. Then he’d lay it down on the blotter and softly announce what he’d give for it, either in pawn or sale.

I saw people pawn the prized jewelry of their dead mother to help bury her, and another pawn his gun to buy a bassinet. And… once a nervous, jittery man with thick curly hair and a thick jacket not well-suited for a hot summer day came in and asked to see a rack of gold bracelets and reached under that bulky jacket, only to see genial Mr. Jenkins unsnap his holster, the holster that held his Colt .45 ACP pistol — he’d bought it after his service in Korea as a Marine. The nervous man turned around and left the store without a word. Mr. Jenkins thought for a moment, and then turned and picked up the phone and called the police. Only then did his smile return.

Threads were paid out like lifelines but sometimes snipped off short too. A man who had pawned his wife’s jewelry, being told the goods were sold, long after his loan was due, long after many letters were sent, asking in a low moan, “How am I going to tell my wife? She trusted me.” A man just short of his rent bringing in a phonograph to sell, and Jenkins sadly shaking his head no. So many sad times in a pawn shop.

One unseasonably cool June evening I heard Mr. Jenkins get philosophical about the effect his business had on his customers. He’d just bought a fancy guitar from a college coed home for the summer. Her ex-boyfriend had bought it for her and she couldn’t stand seeing it around. “I love playing, and I want to get better, but having the guitar… it hurts every time I see it,” she said. Mr. Jenkins bought the guitar, hung it up, and persuaded the girl to keep playing, and offered her another less fancy guitar at a good price. When she left the store, a bit happier, he said, “People bring me their problems and I give them what I can. Sometimes advice, sometimes cash, and rarely, redemption.”

Pawn & Gun was seasonal, I found out during my three months there, as a burly gentleman in jeans and a flannel shirt came into the shop my first week and paid off his loan, interest and fees and all, and reclaimed his carpenters’ tools, a yearly ritual for him. Hunters came in just before fall to look at shotguns and jackets, and in the back lot, there were a couple of boats that made their way back to the water of our nearby lake that summer.

But there were circles of thread that trailed only down, down, down, as I soon found out. In my first week, there was a Mr. Palmer in to sell some antiques that belonged to his parents, and he muttered low to old man Jenkins, who wrote up his ticket for sale. He started coming in every month, sometimes more often, and he sold jewelry, a coin collection, and so much more valuables over the weeks that I thought for sure he had a bad habit, like cocaine, as he became visibly thinner in the summer I worked at the Pawn & Gun.

It was Labor Day, and Mr. Jenkins was paying me my last wages before I went back to school, shaking my hand and telling me he hoped to have my help again in the holidays, when Mr. Palmer shambled unsteadily into the Pawn & Gun, his face yellow and drawn. He smiled at me, but it was a smile of lips and teeth only, nothing in the eyes. I looked at something else, I had to, his eyes were empty, like none I’d seen before.

“Hey Sarge, I’m looking for something in the way of protection. Had a break-in last night.” Jenkins looked closely into Mr. Palmer’s eyes, and spoke slowly, low but clear. “Now, you know, Carl, nobody calls me that unless they’re reminding me they served too. You know I won’t give you much advantage as an ex-Marine. Call me Matt, like you did before.”

They discussed guns for a few minutes, about caliber, and type, and grip and finally Mr. Palmer purchased a .32 Browning revolver and a box of ammunition. The purchase was tucked neatly into a brown paper bag and stapled shut like a package. Then old man Jenkins did something very odd to me. He stood up, walked around the counters, and hugged Mr. Palmer. The doorbell dinged as Palmer left.

Mr. Jenkins sat down, looked at his hands, and thoughtfully said to me, “Sam, you know we’re going to get that one back soon.” I asked, “You mean Mr. Palmer?” He blinked once and looked at me with a worn-out expression. “No, son, I mean the gun. Carl Palmer has late-stage liver cancer, and he’s at the end of his rope. I imagine his son will come back to our town to bury him, and of course, he won’t want to have it around… to remind him.”

Writing a Short Horror Story


Everyone enjoys a good scare. The breath pulls in, the heart skips a beat and then races, adrenaline flows — it is a stimulant and even a catharsis. If you’re not harmed, the momentary perception of risk is sublime. What could be better? I’ll tell you. To draw that five seconds out to five minutes, or even an hour. That’s horror fiction. It’s the combined effect of a good story with a prolonged sense of unease, culminating in existential dread. Best of all, after the climax, you can close the book and stand up unharmed. Your knees might be a bit weak.

My own opinion is that the short story is the best form of horror. You can build quickly and pull the reader’s head back and frighten them, or engage a deeper sense of horror. The difference between a short story and a novel is the difference between dropping a fake spider in someone’s lap or doing a long con like arranging a fake séance. The longer form can fall down of its own weight.

So you’re going to write a short horror story. What are the important things you have to do?

Your ingredients should include:

Identity. Your reader needs to care about someone in the story, caught up in a situation that is increasingly dark and fatal. Give them someone they can identify with.
Care about your protagonist(s):
– The reader should fear for them, and thus feel fear themselves.
– Your main characters should reflect the reader’s own persona.
– Horror is the loss of control in what should be familiar and safe.
Show them a character they can feel for, then put them in jeopardy.

Fear. Some primal fear needs to permeate the story. The story needs to be soaked in something simple and inescapable. It needs to ooze fear. At any point, the reader should be feeling trepidation as if some unknown person is going to draw the point of a razor across their palm.
But, evoke other strong emotions if you can:
– Revulsion and possibly disgust.
– Pathos, empathy, sympathy, even for the evil you invoke.
– Panic. Difficult to do on a printed page, but even its shadow is effective.
– Sadness which is pathos’s cousin. Horror shouldn’t be happy, usually.
Play on their heartstrings with a claw hammer.

Plot. You need a strong story.
Go to the well:
– What scared you in your favorite horror stories?
– What myths or ghost stories can you crib from?
– What true-life horror can you use as a base?
You have many cultures to chooses from, they all have ghost stories and tales of pride fallen.

Suprise. You need to lead your reader in one direction, raise their expectations, and then jolt them, get them off balance. Throw their belief system into shock. Show them, and through their senses, your reader; something awful, and familiar, and unbearable.
Be precise in your use of gore and squick.
– The genre varies in this, dial it up, carefully.
– What level elevates the story?
– What audience do you want?
Pick your market, how explicit your story is will differentiate pulp from literature.

Mystery. Your protagonist or the reader must be provided with a mystery, one which increases in importance through your narrative until the consequences of solving it or not become fatal.
You can make this a minor element or blend in mystery as a major component:
– Your degree of mystery can range from ‘What is behind the door?’ to ‘Have they really walled up the Baroness in the cellar?’
– The protagonist can be led by details, clues in manuscripts, or their own endeavors.
– Hiding a mystery inside another mystery is quite realistic.
Best of all, getting an answer that is shockingly unlike the ones they expected can be a climax.

Foreshadowing. A cloud no bigger than a man’s hand foretells the storm. Any sign, from a gloomy day, a dead sparrow on the windowsill, or the shadowy figure of a man in the forest.
Show the doom that is coming:
– Give your reader the small signs of a greater evil.
– Help them to a stunning realization in small pieces.
Foreshadowing can help walk the story from normalcy and safety towards the pit of horror you are about to throw everyone into.

Suspense. Your story has to follow a rising arc, one where a shadow first appears, then events draw and stack one upon each other towards a crisis. The turns and twists after this are where your story can pull the curtain aside suddenly, or roll towards an inevitable doom.
Make your reader want to stop, but compel them to keep going:
– Make your story strong, and make your characters drive the story.
– Consequences should be fatal or worse.
– Walk the reader through a course of action.
– Accelerate the pace.
– Slap the reader in the face with a climax.
This is how you make it a page-turner.

Block out a story arc, storyboard it, do research to flesh out believable details, then write, write, write. Make yourself shiver.


Warehouse sketch

Ming Zhao wiped his forehead with a gloved hand and adjusted his mask. The lousy vent hood was malfunctioning again, and he could feel the heat through his lab coat, his body sweating and his clothes damp, sticking to him tightly. The new batch of fentanyl, blended with carfentanil, was a perfect designer drug. He was testing the end product, fresh from a ball mill, a dust almost as fine as smoke, so easy to mix and ‘cut’ with filler for the end customers, distributors in America. He placed a cotton swab in a test tube and watched the reagent change color. Excellent.

Zhao noticed, almost incidentally, that he had stopped breathing. He dropped the test tube and grabbed his throat, making a small pitiful sound as air bubbled through his lips ineffectually. Zhao tried to calm himself and reached his hand for the pre-filled syringe next to him, loaded with naloxone, an opioid antagonist used to instantly reverse overdoses. In a triumph of concentration and will to survive, the chemistry student jabbed the syringe through his jacket into his arm and pushed the plunger all the way down. He relaxed, waiting for relief. He found a few moments later that now he could no longer close his eyes or move. A fellow chemist found him dead a few minutes later, wide-eyed and mouth open, slumped on the workbench.

Business is business and proceeds regardless of small accidents. The tested product was heat-sealed by masked workers in small bags, padding wrapped around them, carefully packed in cardboard boxes. The boxes were stacked inside a bin marked in Chinese, words which would translate as ‘Guangzhou Circuit Board Components’ — although both the company name and the paperwork attached to the bin were elaborate fiction.

Men in white coveralls loaded the bin onto a plain panel truck while a man in a brown uniform and two armed soldiers watched intently. Once the truck was sealed and locked, the brown-suited man banged on its side and the truck drove off down the dusty road, its cargo headed for a seaport and eventually the United States.

Six weeks later, in Long Beach, a worker at GreenShip Services (a new competitor in the shipping, freight, and logistics business) lightly tossed package after package onto conveyor belts. One small box hit the metal guard of the belt and ended up crooked and half off the belt itself. The box slammed into a steel support strut, and flew off the belt to the concrete floor, landing on the point of a corner and getting slightly crushed.

The worker retrieved the package from ‘Guangzhou Circuit Board Components’ and handed it to his manager for examination. Mel the Manager’s job was snap decisions. He pulled the box back into shape and slapped some brown tape on the corner. He couldn’t see a few fine particles puff out from the taped tear and didn’t even suspect that he inhaled them.

Mel put a sticker on the box that said ‘Damaged and examined’ and put the box back on the belt. He watched his workers and the endless streams of packages bumping each other along the conveyor belts and plopping into canvas bags. His mind was more on the bowling league game that night than on his job. Mel coughed a couple of times, grabbed his chest, and fell to the floor dead.

The damaged package dropped into a canvas bag at the other end of the facility at about the same time Mel’s heart stopped, and while Mel’s employees tore open his shirt and gave chest compressions, the bag was loaded onto a truck headed to Los Angeles.

Mindy Dawson backed her green truck up to the loading dock at the main GreenShip facility on North Main Street. She set the brake, hopped out and sprinted up the ramp, and pulled her seven mini-pallets of packages up to the truck and started building her load, checking which locations on her route she’d stop at last, and stacking those packages in first, running her dolly in and out of her truck as she stacked heavy boxes down at the bottom of the stacks, and shoving smaller boxes and envelopes into shelves and cubbyholes along both sides. Soon the inside of the truck was a maze of packages with just enough room for her to squeeze through the stack and piles.

Mindy latched the back of her truck and jogged back to the driver’s seat, chestnut ponytail wagging. She set her cap on her head, smiled at herself in the rear-view mirror, and put the truck in gear. She enjoyed her job, loved to drive, and especially liked meeting people along her route.

Back at the loading dock, a stocky man known to everyone as ‘Gooch’ pushed one of the mini-pallet jacks Mindy had returned over to another stack of packages. He rubbed his eyes and felt dizzy. “Hey Gooch,” another worker called out, “Whaddya think about the Chargers game last Sunday?” Gooch smiled and walked over to his friend, but suddenly went wobbly in his knees. He sat down abruptly on the cement floor, feeling numb and sweaty all over. “I-I don’t feel so good…” An ambulance took him still alive to the USC Medical Center emergency room where he fell into respiratory arrest and passed away. Nobody at GreenShip connected Mel’s and Gooch’s deaths to a single cause.

Mindy and her green truck with the GreenShip flower-petal logo sped along State Highway 110, and took the offramp at 3rd, turning at Sepulveda to the jumping-off point of her route in the Financial District. GreenShip Dispatch tracked their drivers and vehicles carefully, from the moment Mindy snapped her seatbelt on through the receipt of each package, and even how fast she was driving and what route she took.

Her first drop-off was at the stately Hotel Buenaventura, a classic building design from the 1940s. Mindy pulled four boxes onto her green dolly, bumping into the shelf where she’d earlier deposited the small box from ‘Guangzhou Circuit Board Components.’ A small amount of white powder smeared onto her uniform sleeve just below the shoulder. She was a bit distracted thinking about the doorman at the Buenaventura, who Mindy thought of as a big hunk of beefcake.

Maximo Rodriguez pulled on his white gloves. He was still relatively new at his job and didn’t feel comfortable in his suit, cap, and gloves. He knew he was part of the reason guests paid four hundred dollars a night at the Buenaventura, part of the atmosphere, right there with the faux Roman columns, the deep pile carpet, the magnificent staircase that swept in an arc up to the inside balcony, and the tall glass doors he guarded.

His eyes flicked to the brick sidewalk flanked by reflecting pools, and the figure in green rolling a dolly towards him. Maximo’s smile broadened and he pulled opened the door. He knew this chica, with a bubbly personality, a wash of freckles across her nose and a slim body. He deeply appreciated another chance to chat with her.

“Mindy! Mi corazón…” He tried his best to be suave and saw the amusement in her smile as she pulled the dolly into the lobby. She plopped the packages on his desk and presented her electronic tablet to him. “Maximo, you flirt. Honestly!” Mindy smiled warmly back at him regardless. He picked up the stylus, signed for the delivery, and watched as she rolled the dolly back to her truck, her firm buttocks and slim hips receding. At least she remembered his name, and so he had hope.

Maximo picked up the packages and carried them into the office, where his manager Barbara was typing away at her workstation. She thanked him without looking up. The door to the office did not close. Why didn’t it close? she thought, not quite paying attention. She was still half-focused on her spreadsheet when she heard Maximo fall heavily to the ground when he finally let go of the door. Maximo was shuddering, convulsing, his tongue sticking out. Barbara was frightened, but apparently felt he was having an epileptic seizure. She took her sweater off, folded it, and put it under his head, then picked up her desk phone and called 911.

Dispatcher: 911 — Where is your emergency?

Caller: I need an ambulance at 408 South Figueroa – The Buenaventura Hotel, in the lobby! My doorman, he’s having a seizure!

Dispatcher: Is he conscious? Can he speak?

Caller: Send an ambulance! No, he’s shaking all over and his body is jerking around.

Dispatcher: I am sending an ambulance. Keep him from striking himself on furniture if you can.

Caller: I-he’s not breathing! What should I do? Oh, God! He’s going to die!

Dispatcher: Ma’am, I am going to instruct you in this. Please put your phone on speaker if you can. Follow my instructions until the ambulance arrives.

Caller: (coughing)

Dispatcher: Ma’am, are you there?

Caller: (gagging sounds) (coughing) (apparent Cheyne–Stokes breathing)

Dispatcher: Ma’am an ambulance has been sent. It will arrive shortly. Please talk to me.

Caller: (apparent Cheyne–Stokes breathing)

Dispatcher: Ma’am, are you there?

Dispatcher: Ma’am, are you there? Please respond. The ambulance is on its way.

(No further response)

The EMTs arrived in a Fire Rescue Unit eight minutes later. They entered the hotel lobby, looking around for the patient. One noticed the manager’s office door was ajar and walked over, discovering Maximo’s body on the floor, partially blocking the door. He bent down to check the body for vitals, noticed Barbara’s body just beyond, and yelled to the other EMT. She didn’t answer. Alarmed, he looked up over his shoulder just in time to see her collapse on the floor. He managed to drag her outside before he became dizzy. The Fire Rescue Unit driver called in for more units and for LAPD response. The driver was the only survivor.

Lt. Amanda Fergus of the LAPD Hazardous Materials Unit looked at the scene behind her. She’d ordered a perimeter set up a block back from the hotel and had the residents evacuated through building fire escapes. The crowd forming up behind the tape and barricades bothered her and she picked up her handy-talky. “Sargent, that crowd needs to break up and head out. They’re pressing in too much. Call in more units if you need to.”

She turned her attention back to her laptop, a cardboard shade on top allowing her to see the picture clearly. Two HMU officers in full biohazard gear had bagged and removed the bodies and one officer had taken the initiative to find the DVR for the hotel’s lobby security camera and rolled back the video to a few minutes before the 911 call.

Fergus watched the replay and ordered the HMU officers to remove the DVR and bag it for evidence. She called the Chief of Police. “Sir, this is Lt. Fergus. Just before everything happened at the hotel there were packages delivered by a female driver from GreenShip. She arrived at 0912. She came in the door, chatted with the doorman, dropped the packages on his desk, and left. Then people started dying.” She heard an authoritative grunt on the other end. “Calling GreenShip and asking for cooperation?” “Yes, sir.” “Keep me in the loop, Lieutenant.”

By the time GreenShip instructed their dispatcher to work with Lieutenant Fergus, it was a few minutes after eleven. Mindy pulled up next to a food truck painted fire engine red that advertised ‘Flaming Burritos!’ While she waited impatiently in line, Mindy noticed the white powder on her shoulder and brusquely brushed it off with her glove. She paid for her burrito and dashed back to her truck. Drivers were allowed brief breaks, but the GreenShip dispatcher was known to get testy if the truck was stopped for longer than ten minutes. Mindy hopped back in the truck and looked at the tablet. Her next stop was City Hall. She turned up Broadway. She could eat the burrito after her delivery there.

As she turned the corner, a man in khaki pants and a blue shirt with an embroidered name tag that read ‘Ken Taylor’ climbed up into the cab of his truck and placed the bag with his burrito under the seat. He eased out into a turn, on his way to the next gas station. He keyed his radio. “Dispatch this is 5755, I’m on my way to CE #161 at Naud Junction. Out.”

Ken began to feel a familiar and unwelcome sensation. This confused him. He’d stayed clean from heroin for more than a year. How could he be getting high now? The gasoline tanker turned onto the freeway and accelerated, even as Ken became less coherent in his line of thinking. He became convinced he was still in his apartment, a piece of rubber tubing around his arm, vein popped, injecting… He shook his head. No. He looked out the window and pulled his tanker back into the left lane to pass a flatbed hauling cable spools and in his mind he was right back at the apartment, pressing the plunger on the hypo… …and flying, flying…

The tanker smashed through the freeway railing and plunged to the ground, turning over and over as it crashed through a sandwich shop, a hamburger place, and a pizza restaurant. Flaming gasoline spread everywhere. Unfortunately, since it was lunchtime on a weekday, the fire department was soon pulling dozens of bodies from the mess after the fires had been knocked down.

Back at the food truck, a man pulled out a knife and began screaming unintelligibly. He tried to climb into the food truck and began slashing wildly at people trying to pull him back. He collapsed on the ground, foaming at the mouth. Two of the people trying to hold him down became dizzy and faint and lost consciousness soon after.

The dispatcher called GreenShip #57, driver Mindy Dawson. They called again and kept on calling. They then informed Lt. Fergus that their driver was not responding, and her truck was parked on North Main adjacent to City Hall — and that there were six packages addressed to the Mayor. Subsequent reaction to the GreenShip Incident could be described as ‘frantic.’

Mindy rolled her dolly up to the security checkpoint and flashed her ID to the officer present, who waved her around the X-Ray machine. She swiftly rolled down a hallway and around the corner, whistling to herself. She saw an arrow on the wall, indicating she was approaching the mayor’s office. Mindy paused, took out her pad, and keyed up the delivery. She didn’t notice a blinking square in the upper right corner. No one at GreenShip had ever sent her a live alert before. She laid the pad on the packages and began to push the dolly again, and stopped.

A police officer, with sweat running down her face, was pointing a Beretta right at Mindy’s chest. “Halt—Halt—Halt! Hands up in the air, turn around! Down on your knees!” Mindy complied, her heart racing. “W-what’s wrong! What’s happening?” She turned her head around and saw a line of police running towards her, guns drawn. The first officer was walking slowly backward, away from her, keeping her gun aimed at Mindy’s center-of-mass. “Lie down! Lie down and don’t move! Face down!” The officer’s voice was shaky and uncertain. Mindy flopped onto her stomach just as a wave of police officers came around the corner, saw her, and confusedly turned around and ran away.

The first officers from the LAPD Hazardous Materials Unit arrived ten minutes later and Mindy’s panic and confusion reached a peak. She raised her head and the closest officer yelled, “Head down! Or I will shoot!” Mindy plastered her face to the floor, breathing heavily. The closest HMU officer came up in her positive pressure suit and told Mindy, “Please stay still.” She fastened a mask to Mindy’s face. The HMU officers began covering Mindy’s dolly in plastic wrap and other officers set up cones at either end of the corridor and escorting officers outside where they could get sprayed with water and sent through a tent for evaluation. Four were sent to the hospital showing signs of intoxication from what was identified as fentanyl. They were given Narcan and soon recovered.

Officers and detectives with strict instructions were sent back along Mindy Dawson’s route to perform wellness checks on package recipients. Some were found in good health and their packages properly isolated to be retrieved later by HMU. Some others were not as fortunate, and the death toll steadily increased. As Mindy was interviewed, she mentioned the food truck and several units were dispatched along with Fire Rescue. The tanker crash and inferno came into focus as part of the GreenShip investigation.

A custom design and fabrication shop, in a quiet industrial building, was visited by a pair of officers wearing masks, with Fire and Rescue outside. The police had been told by GreenShip that the package recipients had been called many times, with no answer. The officers pushed open the door and saw a woman sitting at a reception desk with a pleasant smile, a phone headset on the desk, a magazine open before her. One officer spoke to her. “Miss, we need you to…” He stopped. The woman’s face was motionless as wax. The officers backed out of the office, and called in the last available Hazardous Materials Unit. All four occupants of the office were already long dead. In the back office, the package from ‘Guangzhou Circuit Board Components’ lay unopened next to a bench with masks, gloves, a ventilation hood, and various chemical supplies.

At the drug factory in China, production continues and generates a great profit. The plain panel truck drives away from the factory down the dusty road once a week, and the name of the company on the packages is different every time. Business is business and proceeds regardless of small accidents.

Paint a Scene for your Reader

A scene in a story is just words on a page. In your story, it had better have a purpose. If it doesn’t, get rid of it.

But let’s assume the scene belongs in the story and not on the cutting room floor. How do you keep the reader interested and focused on your writing?

Here’s some writing from a first, very rough draft of a short story in the Horror genre:

An unmarked warehouse stood at the end of a dusty road where a farm once was. A rolling steel door wound itself slowly open, and a panel truck drove inside. There was a group of boxes stacked inside a bin marked in Chinese, which would translate as “Guangzhou Circuit Board Components” — although both the firm and the paperwork attached to the bin were elaborate fictions.

Men in white coveralls loaded the bin onto the truck while a man in a brown uniform and two armed soldiers watched intently. Once the truck was sealed and locked, the brown-suited man banged on its side and the truck drove off down the dusty road, its cargo headed for the United States. Inside the warehouse, in neat separate laboratories, with vapor hoods, pressure vessels, and all sorts of elaborate equipment, several dozen chemical technicians worked synthesizing powerful narcotics for the international trade.

The narcotics just shipped were worth many millions of dollars, separated into small packages on their way to many independent distributors, who would ‘cut’ the pure product to only a few percent active content, for the undiluted synthetic narcotics were far too potent for use and ultimately deadly. Each package, small enough for a child to hold, had enough poison inside to potentially kill thousands of people. The drug was at least 200 times deadlier than heroin and a fatal dose was measured in picograms.

The bin joined many such bins inside a shipping container at the port of Tianjin, swung on board a massive cargo vessel, and out to sea, where it traveled for almost three weeks to the Port of Long Beach. In a customs center, the bin was opened, and the packages transferred and their barcodes scanned as package companies took their assigned parcels to their regional sorting facilities.

As a first draft, it’s not horrible. It’s complete, it’s obviously an expository scene, explaining something important to the story. The problems at first glance are that it’s not exciting and it’s too wordy. The pace is slow. It has little human interest. People are going to die later in the story and it has little foreshadowing.

You should show the reader an interesting person right now and then kill them. Give them a very temporary background character.

Say hello to Ming Zhao, a 22-year-old chemistry student who moonlights three days a week at an illegal factory making synthetic fentanyl and an analog of carfentanil, in the form of a finely milled powder ten thousand times more powerful than heroin.


Oh don’t worry, fella, you’re a non-player character. Go put on your lab coat and sit over there, please.

Ming Zhao wiped his forehead with a gloved hand and adjusted his mask. The lousy vent hood was malfunctioning again, and he could feel the heat through his lab coat, his body sweating and his clothes damp, sticking to him tightly. The new batch of fentanyl, blended with carfentanil, was a perfect designer drug. He was testing the end product, fresh from a ball mill, a dust almost as fine as smoke, so easy to mix and ‘cut’ with filler for the end customers, distributors in America. He placed a cotton swab in a test tube and watched the reagent change color. Excellent.

Zhao noticed, almost incidentally, that he had stopped breathing. He dropped the test tube and grabbed his throat, making a small pitiful sound as air bubbled through his lips ineffectually. Zhao tried to calm himself and reached his hand for the pre-filled syringe next to him, loaded with naloxone, an opioid antagonist used to instantly reverse overdoses. In a triumph of concentration and will to survive, the chemistry student jabbed the syringe through his jacket into his arm and pushed the plunger all the way down. He relaxed, waiting for relief. He found a few moments later that now he could no longer close his eyes or move. His fellow chemist found him dead a few minutes later, wide-eyed and mouth open, slumped on the bench.

Business is business and proceeds regardless of small accidents. The tested product was heat-sealed by masked workers in small bags, padding wrapped around them, carefully packed in cardboard boxes. The boxes were carefully stacked inside a bin marked in Chinese, words which would translate as “Guangzhou Circuit Board Components” — although both the firm and the paperwork attached to the bin were elaborate fictions.

Men in white coveralls loaded the bin onto the truck while a man in a brown uniform and two armed soldiers watched intently. Once the truck was sealed and locked, the brown-suited man banged on its side and the truck drove off down the dusty road, its cargo headed for the United States.

See, all you had to do was give the reader someone to identify with. You don’t have to kill them in most genres. You also used the action to reveal details previously buried in the rather thick expository text of the first version. Now the scene moves, it has a rhythm and power. You’re showing along with telling. It has some suspense and plenty of foreshadowing. The reader is paying attention and in their mind’s eye is following those packages.

It was best to lop the last two paragraphs off and shrink it into part of the next scene’s description. They really didn’t belong in this scene, anyway.


Quiet, Zhao, you’re dead.


Flowers of Fate

Stone Bench

The boy ran up the lane, his thoughts filled with a sweet tension. What would she say? How did she feel about him? Did she know he loved her? His heart beat faster, and his hands were hot. The wind whipped around him, trees sighing like his heart as the leaves moved against each other in waves.

Far away, men sat in a room filled with another type of tension. Pride fought with fear, and anger contended with both. Would their preparations go unnoticed? Were their plans subtle enough? Would they live to see the next minute? A technician pressed switches, and two men grimly stepped up to the console, produced twin keys, inserted them and twisted.

The girl walked along the street, almost skipping. Her heart was light and without care. Her hair was long, black, and braided on the sides. Her eyes were brown with golden flecks, and her skin smooth and olive. Her best feature was that she did not know her own beauty.

The boy slowed a little, out of breath. He needed to bring a gift. There was a flower stand, and he saw a rose of uncommon size. It was pink and red with violet streaks, and he knew that it would be fitting. He emptied his pockets, and gave his money to the vendor, who seeing his fever returned a few coins with a smile.

Lights raced in lines along the console, and the room shook. Men leapt to their feet, and as the fire blossomed outside, they cheered. Their country would join the ranks of the wealthy and powerful. They too could reach far and crush those they opposed. The blood ran hot in their bodies as the flames rose and diminished. They called to their God and praised Him by way of praising their own ingenuity.

She stopped for a while and watched the ducks glide along the pond, and then turned her slim wrist around and saw it was time to meet him. Her pace quickened. She found herself in a favorite place, a lane of cherry trees, the blossoms falling like snow around her. She turned around and stared up through the blossoms at the blue sky.

He held the rose in his hand, the green paper crinkling as he walked towards the park. His sharp eyes saw a tiny form, spinning among the cherry trees. He ran one hand through his short black hair, and wished he was taller, and his face less round. He touched his chin, and almost turned away. Courage blossomed in his heart, and he walked faster.

The fire climbed higher and faster, orange and red becoming blue and cold. When it was no larger than a dot from the ground there came a splash of white and red and blue, shimmering in the stratosphere like a ribbon as the larger portion fell away. The hopes and fears of the men crossed into space, where the sky was darker than their hearts, and the fire spread out into the vacuum like a ghostly violet orchid.

She pirouetted once more, and reached up to the petals, and made a wish with her eyes shut, long lashes over her smooth eyelids, and her mouth forming a perfect bud. She slowed, and felt a hand touch hers. She knew the touch, and her eyes flew open in glee. It was he, and he held her fingers with a delicate grip. The girl smiled, for her wish was true. He came.

The rose he held behind him for only a moment, for he blushed and brought it out. Her eyes shone with a pure light, enjoyment and not greed, and he loved her even more. Her delicate fingers took the rose, and she brought it to her nose, and closed her eyes. He held her hand more firmly, and they walked between the trees, the cherry blossoms falling around them.

It spun slowly as it separated, its cover falling away like leaves behind it, and tiny jets sprayed here and there to slow its rotation. Silent here in the darkness, the sun rose behind the limb of the Earth and rainbow colors surrounded the small cone as it reached its zenith. Gravity won over momentum, and it arced downwards. First violet, then orange and yellow streams washed along and away from it.

The couple found a stone bench at the end of the path, a little away from the rest of the park, and they sat on the cool stone, only their hands touching. The boy knew what he wanted to say, but a cold hand seemed to grip his heart, until he looked in her eyes and whispered to her. She brought the rose up to his face and leaned towards him, for she knew. She whispered back to him and the world seemed to stand still.

The wind buffeted the cone as it slowed, and complicated things began to happen inside. A steel rod pushed two pieces of metal together, a tiny computer calculated speed, altitude and position, and made a decision. Strong pulses of electricity, exquisitely timed, raced to their destinations, and fired the many small charges in a graceful symmetry. The device disappeared, to be replaced by a light and fury too powerful to have a color, as death unfolded for the city below.

She kissed him, her hand in his, their bodies yearning towards each other, the rose almost forgotten in her other hand. Their souls met, their love was all there was, and they passed from this perfect bliss without pain to the other side of existence as their world disappeared in a white wave of heat and light. Trees, buildings, and all life were swept away.

The only solid object remaining in the park was the thick stone bench, and as the ashes fell like the cherry blossoms before them, the light of the sun broke through the gritty clouds. If anyone had been there, they would have seen the shadow of the lovers burned into the stone of the bench, and faintly an image of a rose in a shadow of a hand.

La Pâtisserie

la patisserie

The scent of cinnamon and honey rolled in the breeze, and I followed the trail down the cobbled road. The pastry shop was small and old, but was well-kept and clean. As I entered, a small bell on the door chimed.

An old woman was rolling dough out on a stone slab, and I watched her for a while. She patiently rolled the dough paper-thin, folded it over on itself, and rolled it again. She held up the strip, measured it with her eye, and cut it with kitchen shears. She laid a thin cloth over the dough, her eyes came up to me, and she gave me a sly slight smile.

“Welcome to Âmes Douces. My apologies. Our filo is the hardest dough to roll out. You have to finish what you have started. Then you must cut it short.”

She wiped her hands on a towel, and came up to the register.

“What can I get for you, monsieur?”
“What is your best? I fancy myself to be a gourmet.”
“We have a famous baklava. It has a rich, subtle flavor.”
“May I try some?”
“By all means. Here.”The morsel of pastry vanished as it entered my mouth, and a symphony of flavors emerged – honey, cinnamon, almond, and a smoky undertaste gave way to a mournful sweetness of lemon zest. Suddenly I imagined a small girl playing at the beach, throwing a ball in the surf. Then I was back in the bakery, and I shook my head.
“I’ll take some of that. It’s incredible. A very refined taste.”
The old woman smiled and slid some of the treat into a bag.

I walked back to my hotel, and laid the bag on the dresser. I opened the top, snagged a piece, closed the bag, and plopped down on the bed, intending to watch the news. I took a bite of pastry… She was walking along the sidewalk, looking in windows, and I could feel her sadness. Where was her mom? The girl stood up on tiptoes, holding a small purse in one hand, and craned her neck to see inside the store. There were toys and stuffed animals inside, so she skipped inside. The light seemed different somehow, hazy and colorful…

I was back. I looked at the pastry in my hand, and took another bite…

She picked up a stuffed bear with large eyes and a blue ribbon around its neck. A remote voice spoke, with no words audible. Her head turned, and a rush of sensations poured over me – a hint of perfume, a slight coppery taste, a chill on her skin, and a view of a well-pressed red skirt, nylons, and black shoes. The voice gelled and became coherent. “Can I help you, miss?” A hand softly gripped my shoulder…

The hotel room had a slight smoky taint to the air. I got off the bed, shakily, and stumbled to the bathroom. I stared at my reflection. My eyes were shiny and cruel-looking, my skin taut. I splashed water on my face.

When I returned to the bed, the bag was still there, of course. There were a few crumbs of pastry on the bedspread. I opened the bag and looked inside. There was enough pastry left to spend the whole night, perhaps, being… what, precisely?

The aroma from the baklava was enticing…

I was haggard the next morning, and my feet moved by themselves. The bell chimed, I passed within, and faced the old woman again.

I leaned wearily across the counter and whispered to her…
“How do you do it? Why?”

Her smile was an amiable web of wrinkles.
“I hope you enjoyed your treat, monsieur. I recommend the miniature Apfelstrudel…”

I interrupted her and gripped the edge of the counter so hard my fingers turned white.

“No! What happened to me? Why did I see those… things? What is in your pastry?”She tightened her lips, though her smile did not disappear, but simply became sardonic.

“Vous êtes drôle… Monsieur, you see our sign. Vous parlez français. Would you ask the butcher whether he puts blood in the sausage? You are a gourmet. You know that great cooking, like all art, requires… sacrifice.”

She wrapped up the strudel in a bag and placed it on the counter. Her eyes gleamed.The world spun around me and I looked into the fires of Hell.
Âmes Douces… Sweet Souls. How low and foul a being would I be if I did this?

I laid the money on the counter, took the bag, and left.

Gone Before

gone before...

The sun glinted off a small object, tumbling slowly end over end. Maxwell breathed slowly, smoothly, and pushed away from the airlock with his legs. He saw in his rear view video feed the ship receding quickly. A moment watching this, and Maxwell whispered, “Select Ranged Target 122798, cross-hair image superimpose, forward feed.” Now he saw the tiny cylinder approaching in the reticule the tracking computer provided.

He breathed again, air like silk in his throat slipping away. The image steadily grew in his visor, and merged almost seamlessly with the glinting, blinking thing he saw with his eyes. A jet on his suit fired once, instantly opposed by another, and the two objects became one.

Maxwell brought his arms slowly towards his face, and muttered another command to the computer. A few hisses and thumps and his velocity relative to the tumbling object slowed to a crawl. Slowly, slowly, slowly. His fingers touched the object, and he expertly opposed the spin with one hand and caught it with the other.

He drew his legs up, and spun slowly around. Maxwell examined his prize, and read the inscription: James Montgomery Doohan (March 3, 1920 – July 20, 2005)
The stars spun in his visor as he rotated, and he tucked the cylinder, shiny but slightly pitted, into a belt loop and pushed some webbing around it, then tugged the covering tight. He smiled as he noted the ship coming into view again. “Let’s take you home, Scotty.”

Commander Jai Tiberius Maxwell, Chief Engineer of the United Earth StarShip Enterprise, first of its class, landed feet first on the airlock hatch.

On Alien Biology and 'Hard Sci-Fi'

Monster by Piolinfax

Monster credit Piolinfax – Image on Wikimedia Commons

I’m making up stuff again. The squishy sort of stuff, things an autopsy, a scanning electron microscope, centrifuges and spectrometers might be involved with if these were real-world organisms.

Building a monster requires some science. It’s best done if you’ve studied a soupçon of biology, a bit of chemistry, maybe even engineering if you’re fabricating a serious danger to your protagonists—say something that can survive in the dark vacuum of space, slice your arm off and eat it, break down a door with ease, is absolutely paranoid about its own survival and looks really ugly to us wee humans.

The alien race I’m designing is called the Sigotha:

The Sigotha as adults are about six feet long, and can rear up to twice that height. They resemble a cross between a lobster and a scorpion, and actually have both an internal and external skeleton. These apex predators are armed with a retractable scimitar blade on each leg, claw-hands on the front legs, a stinger tail, and four mandibles that are capable of slicing through metal conduit. A blow from one of their legs or the tail can send a man flying down a corridor. Their limbs can be coordinated in an attack that would reduce a cow into steaks and choice cuts within moments. They have two sets of eyes on the head, one set usually retracted, and speak in a series of clicks from their claw-hands, which also have prehensile appendages for manipulating tools. There is a tympanum or drum mouth on their upper thorax which they use to mimic sounds. Hearing, vision, sense of smell all surpass humans. The Sigotha are faster on ‘foot,’ amazingly agile, and have somewhat quicker reflexes than human beings. Their exoskeletons resemble metal armor, although the carbon-silicate material is much lighter and more difficult to penetrate than any material we use as armor today.

Yet again the humans have expanded out into the galaxy and encountered another sapient apex predator.  There are lots of fascinating and horrible creatures in science fiction. Some are filled out only enough for a plot line, others are built into waking nightmares.

There are many creatures out there, but this one is my own (hugs his Sigothan, which emits a sibilant series of buzzes and tries to reach his head with a rapidly-clicking lobster-like claw). We’re going to have so much fun together!

Welcome to Often Inspired!

Thrilling Detective 1935

“If the public likes you, you’re good.” — Mickey Spillane


Our signature motto is “Be true to your reader and the rest will follow.”


Have faith in your reader, but earn their trust first. Write something they would enjoy.

We hope you have a lot of fun here. Read. Critique. Create. Make friends.

— William V. Burns

Blood and Guts and Brains

U.S. Soldiers in Iraq


Writing about those who stand in defense of their country is a challenge. If you’re close to your subject, if you’ve lived it, then you may have trouble stepping back to gain perspective. If you have never served, then you have to gain currency with terminology, basic tactical concepts, and may never capture the gut feelings of combat or even being a member of the service.

History can lend a hand. There is much source material. Possibly more has been written about war than any other human activity. I would guess from the books I’ve read that the leaders in war were favored first, and only during the last two hundred years have the front line soldiers’ stories gained prominence.

Soldiers serving under the command of General George S. Patton, nicknamed “Old Blood and Guts,” used to quip, “our blood, his guts”. Combat requires both, and a successful commander must also have the brains to see the battle in the context of history, to build a bold plan, and know when to hold to it or abandon it in the fog of war.

If you write about war, you will have to possess all three of these qualities.

Life in the military has been characterized as long periods of waiting patiently, punctuated by moments of heart-pounding action. A writer’s lot is not near as hazardous, but does involve working steadily, training yourself to know your genre and your craft, and then that moment of decisive action when you present a manuscript or a pitch for a book to an editor or agent.

It all comes down to that opportunity, maybe the only one you will get for your work to succeed.

Are you ready? Have you prepared, drilled, practiced? Has someone competent in the field checked your work? Are you using the right tools, tactics, strategies?

Will you pass inspection, will you reach your objective? Will you win?

–William V. Burns