Character sketch: The Debutante

It felt like yesterday despite being almost 15 years ago when Billie Jean Carusoe walked down the country club’s grand staircase — left standing just for this purpose — in a white satin gown with matching gloves. Head-to-toe in status symbols, from a great-grandmother’s add-a-pearl necklace to her very own diamond tennis bracelet, Billie Jean floated along with ten other girls her age, all competing to outdo each other with the perfect blend of Mommy and Daddy’s dream and teenage rebellion.

Thanks to the full white skirt, no one could see Wendy Jackson’s black lace thong, shoplifted not because she couldn’t afford it but because she couldn’t risk her mother finding the receipt. The white satin bodice hid the diamond stud in Trina Sawyer’s navel (though her mother didn’t mind that, as she had been the one to take her to Spencers for that little 16th birthday gift). Sniff close enough and you might detect the weed Loretta Debs had smoked the night before, if you didn’t suffocate from the smell of Ed Hardy perfume she had bathed in before slipping on her bespoke gown.

And as for Billie Jean? The white gloves hid her knuckles, bruised and swollen from the week’s boxing matches at Arturo’s. Her slight black eye had healed in time, and with an extra coat of makeup expertly applied by her sister, no one was the wiser as to what the tallest of Poppleton Fields Country Club’s debutantes did after school every day.

Now Billie Jean silently guarded an event filled with the same kind of tycoons, socialites and ladder-climbers who politely applauded her ability to be 17 and walk in a glorified Disney princess costume. Her gloves were no longer white satin, but indestructible teflon-coated fibers that firmed up when she made a fist so that every punch landed twice the blow. While the gown decayed in her mother’s closet, her cowled coat fluttered in the night air. But despite leaving that traditional Southern lifestyle behind, Billie Jean refused to forget the feeling of satisfaction she had when her parents beamed all summer after her debut.

Her enemies knew her by the beatings she delivered in dark alleys and on slum rooftops, but she prefered another monicker: The Debutante.

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#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 30: An ending for ‘Nobody’s Hero’

The next morning, they packed up the lab and called a local charity that was willing to take the furniture for their resale shop. Foster picked up the U-Haul and drove it into the bay where the Corvette used to be parked, and together they loaded all of the papers, armor, weapons and hard drives.

They drove to the field where Foster and his buddies had experimented with flame color via fireworks and stolen chemicals from the industrial park surrounding their subdivision. Someone had left a Very Best of Cat Stevens CD in the truck’s disc player, so they listened in comfortable silence. Pru had heard it before —Yusuf Islam was a fixture in her childhood as her parents revisited their hippie days whenever the bohemian style came back en vogue — but she had never really heard it. But now “Wild World” patched the silent gap between her and Foster in the passenger seat, and she found herself moved by it. 

“Ooh baby baby, it’s a wild world,” Stevens sang. “It’s hard to get by on just a smile.” 

And yet that’s all she had anymore. She had alienated her parents, destroyed her career and almost burned down half of Centropolis in her pursuit of saving it. The FVA didn’t want her back as Nightfire, and she couldn’t think of who to call about a job now that she had wrecked her parents’ reputation (not that they didn’t deserve it in the end, of course). No PR firm was going to hire a whistleblower who had ratted out her own parents’ unethical practices.  

What irked her the most was that she wasn’t even sure what she wanted for herself next. There was enough money in her account to sustain her for a year, but what she needed sustenance for was the question. She didn’t mind driving this truck while listening to Cat Stevens, who had now gone on to sing “Where Do the Children Play?” Maybe she could get a job driving a rig for a while. Get out of town, see the country. Listen to all the Cat Stevens, Stevie Nicks, Nick Cave she wanted. Wear denim jackets and T-shirts under flannel. Find herself under all the makeup and nail polish that she’d layered on throughout the years. 

This is an excerpt from the ending of my NaNoWriMo project this year, though the book isn’t nearly finished yet. Stay tuned for a post-mortem on the month and lessons learned. For now, I’ve got 2,000 words more to write by midnight!

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 27: Amorous Congress

Having been a bartender for ten years, Nick Matthews could tell when a date was going well, and when the dude should just put down his card and call it a night. It usually had to do with how long either person took to look through the ten to twelve cocktail cards and pick their drink. If only one of them picked it right away, it meant they wanted to get the hell out and on with their separate life. If both were antsy to order, it meant they wanted to knock it back and leave to the next thing (depending on the hour, dinner or bed). And if both mulled over the menu because they were too busy talking about other things, it meant that this was a long-term relationship in the making.

The couple that had come in tonight — Lou, the owner, had told the hostess to move them up the list for a coveted spot at the bar because he recognized them from TV — were so busy talking that Nick wasn’t sure if they’d ever order. Finally they decided on something and put the order in. Two cocktails with egg whites. Nick would have to strangle whoever decided the menu tonight should have three different shaken egg white cocktails on it. His arms were killing him. 

“An Amorous Congress and a Screaming Mimi,” he said, pushing the drinks across the bar at the couple. They hardly noticed him, but the man flipped a card out of his wallet.  

“Tab?” Nick asked. 

“Sure, why not?” the man said with a smile.  

The name of the cocktails were also a sign of where things were going. If the woman wasn’t interested in her date, no way would she have ordered a drink called Amorous Congress. There were others on the menu sometimes — Or Gee, It’s Punch!; the Boot Knocker; and the Bondage Night Special — that could be used to subliminally tell a drinking partner (or partners) what you might be up for, but there were others like Not Tonight, Satan, and We’ll Never Have Paris that hinted the other direction.  

Two Amorous Congresses, one Screaming Mimi and a draught of Whistle Pig scotch later, Nick was hoping they’d either get another round or get the fuck out. His girlfriend had texted to say she and a friend wanted to stop by, and he could use the two seats. 

That wasn’t to say he wasn’t thoroughly entertained by the couple. They had turned out to be all right folks: well-versed in their brown liquors and convivial toward him. Unlike some of the more stomach-churning dates he had seen, there was never a dull silence or barbed comment. He didn’t know where some of these guys got the idea that insulting a woman was the best way to gain her favor. 

#NaNoWriMo2018 Day 10: Meet Foster Updike

Foster Updike was a tall man, had been a tall teenager and a short kid. The summer between freshman and sophomore year in high school, he had shot up six inches. The pain in his legs had been agony, but the way the girls and some of the boys looked at him that September was worth the sleepless nights, throbbing shins and, perhaps most excruciating of all, endless department store shopping to with his mom to buy new pants and shoes.

Perhaps it was his height that made him impervious to the 27-year scotch Pru had put in the monogrammed silver flask she had given him last Christmas. Not liking the taste of it — it made his mouth dry and smokey, like he had French-kissed a peat brick — he had left it in the bottom drawer of his desk. Tonight, however, had called for a celebration, and he gladly offered it up to his triumphant boss.

“You know what I like about you, Foster Up-Updike?” Pru hiccuped as she examined the flask now back in her hand.

He took it back from her but didn’t drink.

“Your name starts with an F and a U,” she said, drawing out the last vowel sound. “It’s like your parents knew you’d be too polite to tell people to fuck off, so they wanted your initials to do it for you.”

Excerpt: On the business of hiring henchmen (from “Nobody’s Hero”)

This is an excerpt from my work-in-progress, inspired by the Man Who Wears Time on His Arm when he asked me what I thought the life of a henchman would be like. We were watching The Equalizer at the time.

“As I’ve learned, there are two kinds of people looking for a job as a super villain’s henchman,” Wilcox said, tenting his fingers like he did during his lectures. “There’s people with nothing to lose, and people with everything to lose. Both have their pros and cons, of course. People with everything to lose will do anything to protect it, and people with nothing to lose have fewer inhibitions — you’re smart enough to surmise that. But they all have one thing in common: They’re dangerous but necessary liabilities.

“Sometimes they think they can double-cross you. Sometimes they decide they have a thread of moral fiber in them and go to the authorities. I had one guy try to use his brief time studying psychology to psycho-analyze me, which I must admit was entertaining. But as annoying as they can get — and I hope Todd can forgive me for this —” Wilcox turned, and for the first time Pru noticed that the burly man who had dragged her into the room was still standing by the door, silent as a suit of armor and twice as stiff. “They’re protection.”

Todd gave a thumbs up, as if the statement was praise for the job he was doing. Wilcox returned the gesture and leaned in to seek another pastry from the plate. Really, it was so Pru could hear him speak softer now:

“Ever notice how it’s always the henchmen who die first? The main villain is always the last to go. So you see, I have to staff my operation with as many desperate and-or delusional people as I can as a means of survival. Smart people need not apply — the more useless intellectually, the more useful they are physically.”

“So Todd there?” Pru asked, leaning in to survey the snacks herself.

“Linebacker for my high school football team,” Wilcox said. “Went through senior year twice, and not because he was challenged in his learning but because he was challenged in his motivation to do anything but body slam other teenagers. Our 20-year class reunion hit at just the right time for both of us. He had just gotten let go from his park district coaching job, and his wife had left him in debt up to his eyeballs. And I had just started this research, so I gave him a job.”

“Do you pay benefits?” Pru asked half in jest as she lifted her teacup to her lips, relieved that the handle had cooled down. He was right — the raspberry flavor was much better when added as syrup after the brewing process.

“Of course,” Wilcox said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “With life insurance to be paid out to his two kids, Bianca and Trevor. They’re only 10 and 12 now, but it’ll be waiting for them when they’re 18.”

Excerpt: Finding Agatha

I recognize the back of Agatha’s head from the tangled hair falling out of its ponytail. But as I take a seat next to her in a metal chair built to keep visitors from outstaying their welcome, I find that this isn’t the same woman who had sat in my office just weeks before.

“They called me this morning,” I say, hoping to pull her glazed eyes away from the obvious one-way mirror on the opposite wall. The chair is bolted to the floor, so instead of turning to face her, I settle for looking at her reflection.

“Can I get you anything?” the nurse asks.

I nod, “Water, thanks.” Agatha doesn’t move.

Too many things to say mean I say nothing, just stare at the linoleum floor. The tiles’ yellow edges glow in the shadows, and I wonder how many of Moundsville’s mental patients have pissed, shat or vomited on the exact spot between my feet.

I’m shaken from my thoughts when the door shuts behind the nurse. Lifting my head, I come nose-to-nose with Agatha. She’s turned to face me, her ear resting against the recliner’s back.

This close, I can see her cheeks are no longer flecked with crumbling drugstore mascara. Now they’re pale with exhaustion and resignation. She smells strongly of shampoo. The nurses hadn’t given her a thorough rinse.

Unable to tolerate being this close to her — the period at the end of my failure — I strain my eyes against the mirror and try to catch a hint of movement on the other side. All I see, however, is how much older I look since Agatha disappeared.

I turn back to the breathing corpse still gaping at me.

“I feel like this is where I’m supposed to say this is my fault,” I say. “But I don’t think it is. I think it was those two — or maybe it was something else. I think you were overwhelmed.”

To avoid saying anything more, I sip the water. It’s sour from the Styrofoam, and I put the cup back on the table in disgust. Agatha’s empty eyes don’t leave me the entire time.

“Tell the nurse to call me if you want to talk,” I say as I rise, sensing that there isn’t more to say and even less to hear. Agatha’s head slowly turns back to the mirror, and I meet her gaze in the glass before admitting, “I want to know what happened to you.”

The words have left my mouth so dry that I take a second bitter sip of water and start to leave. At the door I turn around one last time to find Agatha staring at my reflection. Maybe it’s just the dark glass, but I swear something black — like ink or smoke — curls from her lips.

Excerpt: Meet Pru, from “Nobody’s Hero”

When the world needed saving, Pru needed a manicure.

It was her client’s job to fight evil. It was the nail technician’s job to fight overgrown cuticles. And it was Pru’s job to make sure that once the threat was vanquished, the world restored to harmony, that her nails looked good as she waved the press away from her sole responsibility as a public relations agent: Miss Opal Hayes, alias Nightfire, one of the most popular state-authorized masked vigilantes.

While the manicurist filed away what was left of last week’s Fleetwood Black Cherry from her left hand, Pru scrolled her phone with her right, scanning her newsfeed for any live streams of her client’s heroics. Unlike some of her peers who represented other vigilantes with checkered pasts, she never asked Nightfire to wear a body camera during combat.

Not that Opal would have acquiesced. While she was almost too open about her past for her own good, she demanded her privacy when not wearing the mask. No one had ever seen her face, and even the name Opal Hayes was a pseudonym, as if anyone would think someone named Mr. and Mrs. Hayes had looked at their perfect baby girl born more than a century after 1890 and think Opal was a fitting name. They may have given her a severe nut allergy, but not a name fitting for a 1920s ingenue.

Pru Mornay’s parents gave their daughter a perfect powerhouse name — a one-syllable punch followed by the soothing balm of a French-sounding surname with a phonetic spelling. It was a name made for a high-profile, high-demand woman, given to a girl raised to be a high-profile, high-demand woman. And that’s exactly who she became, against her best efforts.

Her scrolling came to a halt when a call came through. She stared at the three letters glowing on her phone and debated whether to answer. If she didn’t pick up now, the caller would just keep trying, and Pru couldn’t risk the distraction later. She hit the green button and lifted the phone to her ear.

“Hi Mom.”

“I wanted to remind you that this weekend is the Gladstone Gala,” Lilah Mornay said without a greeting. “You still haven’t told me if you’re coming with us this year.”

“Because I don’t know if I’ll be working.”

“That’s our game, sweetie,” Lilah said. “But you still have to have a life.”

It occurred to Pru for the thousandth time since her birth that her mom only gave advice that would steer people to help her achieve some personal goal. It was how Lilah came to have her own public relations firm. It was also how Pru ended up at the same college, in the same degree program, and now a senior private representative at D&L Mornay PR. In this case, Lilah wanted her whole happy family — philandering husband, cuckolding wife and I-need-to-focus-on-my-career daughter — to be present for a ridiculously opulent charity event that would have seemed the stuff of satire if not for its ability to get rich people to open their wallets.

“I have nothing to wear,” Pru lied, switching her phone to the other ear and allowing the manicurist to yank her arm halfway out of its socket so she could attack the other half of Fleetwood Black Cherry.

“We’ll go shopping. Make it a girls’ day.”

Girls’ Day with her mother usually involved a maxed-out credit card, more martinis than Pru could handle and off-the-record rants about office assistants with caky makeup, thick legs and names like Astrid or Ashley or Ammanda With Two M’s.

“I don’t have time, Mom. Have you been watching the news? Op- I mean, my client is a little busy today, and that means I’m on deck for the next 48 hours.”

Pru felt the excitement flush her face. She didn’t particularly like the hurry-up-and-wait that came with relying on havoc — and the subsequent vanquishing of it — to give her life purpose, but she did enjoy the adrenaline rush that came with knowing her next 48 hours would involve drafting remarks for Nightfire’s press conference, accepting and rejecting interview requests, and perhaps most exciting of all, participating the Federal Vigilante Unit’s debriefing, which only she, her client and a handful of FVU officers were allowed to attend.

“Well why didn’t you say so? Go get ‘em, baby girl,” her mom said, clicking the call to a close.

Pru went back to scanning the news feeds. A few posts from unverified sources using the hashtag #Nightfire had surfaced, but nothing from any official accounts. She read them to see what public opinion had to say on her client’s behalf.

@Bocknstein29: Holy shitt #Nightfire is on my block blasting some dude with a green ray gun. GO GET EM GURL.

@Glamazon_3: Uh, I think I just saw #Nightfire outside the Starbs and Green and State.

@B!ggusD!ckus: Hey #Nightfire when ur done kicking ass, I’ll gladly eat urz. Hit me up. #Nightfire #SexyLady

Pru had discouraged her client from having any personal accounts, recommending she use a special service that could keep her online reputation clean but still give people what they want. After another vigilante, Quantum, had gotten drunk at a convention the year before and posted a video of himself describing how much amputees creeped him out, it wasn’t just his reputation that had tanked. His PR rep, one of Pru’s former acquaintance from college, had closed shop and started experimenting with apps that used photo recognition to identify any breed of dog. There was no way Pru would let Nightfire take to the web, though she wasn’t sure Opal would be willing to do that, either.

“Color?” asked the manicurist, allowing exasperation to creep into her voice now that she had tried three times to get the woman’s attention. She knew this woman. There was nothing about her behavior that separated her rom the other clients: She was more interested in her phone than in the human being shaping her sorry-ass fingernails, all the while trying not to get caught watching the dancers bouncing and grinding in the muted music videos playing on the screens above each table. The salon manager insisted that this woman was famous — that he had seen her on TV before, and therefore she was an important client — but to Angelique, she was just another set of dull, picked-apart nails begging for love and attention. At least she tipped well.

“Sorry,” Pru said. “Number 67.”

Angelique retrieved You Look Radishing from the storeroom and returned to see the rap videos on the screens had been replaced with a live news report from just a mile away. Almost everyone in the salon was watching it.

“Is that Scarlet Sword?” Francesca asked from behind the reception desk. “I like her.”

“Nah, she’s not carrying a katana,” the salon manager said. “That’s gotta be Nightfire.”

Pru’s head snapped up.

“Shit,” she hissed, pushing her chair back with a loud scrape. Turning to the manicurist, she uttered her apologies and dug in her wallet for two twenties. “I’ve got to go. Raincheck on the color?”

She didn’t wait for answer, just blindly took a pump of almond oil hand lotion and strode out of the salon, taking a hard left and disappearing from view before the bell above the door stopped ringing.

Fifteen minutes later, Angelique would see the woman on the TV talking live to a field reporter a block away from the scene and explaining that Nightfire’s first and foremost priority was the safety of Centropolis’ citizens and the preservation of their liberty, dignity and integrity.

This is the first chapter of a novel-in-progress called Nobody’s Hero.