alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Esther Dodgins clucked her tongue as she used her passkey to let herself into the rent house she had leased to Kurt Cobb and his friends. Not answering the door might suggest there was nobody home, but the two motorcycles and car in the driveway said otherwise. Despite her seventy-three years, diminutive physique, and seemingly delicate appearance, she did not faint or scream when she beheld the bloody scene in the large living room off the entry foyer. She did, however, have the good sense to step back outside the house to vomit before using her cell phone to call the police.

* * *

"The place looked like a slaughterhouse," said Detective Junior Grade Frank O'Malley. "According to the doc, it looks like someone tried to decapitate the base player, Mike Craft, with Kurt Cobb's guitar, and almost succeeded. Then…"

"Spare me the recitation, O'Malley," said Chief Detective Jack Naquin, who was in charge of the investigation. "I'm sure I'll get all that from the doc in his report. Aside from the victims, did you find anything of interest?"

"Yes," said O'Malley. "There was a video camera set up to catch whatever it was the band had been doing, but there was no memory card in it when we checked. The perp—or perps—must've taken it."

"Any suspects?"

"Nope. The landlady suggested drugs might be involved, but we'll know better once the tox screens come back." The tests came back several weeks later, but as it turned out, no member of the band had taken so much as an aspirin in the hours before death had come calling.

A closer examination of the crime scene had not yielded anything concrete, except for the fact that blood spatter patterns made it physically impossible for any outsider to have been involved during the deadly mêlée. The last man standing—Babin, the drummer—had committed suicide in a most improbable manner. Naquin had also made extensive notes regarding entries in the band leader's "journal," which tended to ramble along with all sorts of yearnings for stardom, and kept returning to the idea of "an exciting new sound" that would "compel people to act out being happy," but ultimately, the scribblings led nowhere.

"Nowhere" was where the case remained, and Naquin couldn't help but wonder, from time to time, whether the band hadn't indeed found a "new sound," but not the one Cobb had been searching for. Instead of happiness, maybe what the band had stumbled upon was music that compelled people to a murderous and ultimately self-destructive rage. He recalled the Cajun stories of his youth, which included rumors of music that compelled people to fall in love, and researched a song titled Szomorú Vasárnap that was written and recorded in Hungary in the early 1930s, and was widely considered responsible for a rash of suicides in Budapest. The song was eventually banned in that country.

Six months or so after the Cobb killings, a call came in about what looked to be a double-murder with a strikingly similar look and feel to it. The victims turned out to be a well-known music and video bootlegger and her boyfriend.

"I think we found the memory card from the Cobb case," said O'Malley when he reported to Naquin. "A card of the same type was found inserted in the dead woman's computer. The evidence tech did a quick check, and the files on it are dated the day Cobb and his buddies died. There was a DVD-burning app open on the desktop, the optical drive was cracked open, and a package of blank DVDs—with one disk missing—was sitting on the desk. Considering the business she was in, I'm figuring she acquired that memory card from someone we should talk to, so I've ordered a check of her recent financial transactions."

"Good work," said Naquin, and then, after a moment, added: "Is there any chance this was a murder–suicide?"

"Well," said O'Malley, "after the woman was killed, someone flung the boyfriend headfirst so hard against the steam radiator that it actually bent the pipe it was attached to. I can't imagine anyone getting up that much of a head of steam to do something like that on their own, but the doc can answer the question better than I can when he's through."

Naquin nodded, and asked: "You find the burned DVD?"

"That's the funny thing," said O'Malley. "The evidence guys about tore the apartment up, but aside from a bunch of commercially produced CDs and DVDs in their respective cases, there wasn't a single burned disk of any kind in the apartment."

"What do you think?" asked Naquin. "Someone killed the girl and her boyfriend and then burned and took a DVD?"

"It doesn't make sense, boss," said O'Malley. "It'd be easier to just take the memory card. And even if you did want to make a DVD, why leave the memory card behind?"

The two men sat quietly for a minute. Then Naquin spoke.

"Why don't you detail a couple of your guys to canvas the area within a five-block radius of the apartment? Maybe our girl took the DVD somewhere. Maybe someone saw her and followed her home."

"Will do, boss," said O'Malley, and left, as Naquin turned to pick up his ringing phone.

"I've got some bad news for you, Jack," said the senior computer forensics tech at the other end of the line. "When my guy checked the date and time of the files on the memory card, it triggered some custom system code that automatically deleted the files on the card."

"Can't you recover the files?" asked Naquin.

"Nope," came the answer. "It wasn't a simple deletion. Not only were the file entries removed from the card's directory, but the file data was overwritten with garbage. In effect, the memory card has been wiped clean. Whoever did the programming had some serious skills, let me tell you!"

* * *

The dead bootlegger's financial data revealed that a sizeable payment had been made to Esther Dodgins, the landlady. When she was brought in to the station for questioning, Esther admitted to having taken the memory card with the idea of eventually selling it, justifying her action as a way of collecting the back rent owed to her. After establishing that Esther had not viewed the recording—"Heavens no!" had been her response. "I'd rather be struck deaf and blind than have to listen to the awful noise those boys made!"—Naquin personally read the old woman the riot act about tampering with crime scene evidence, whereupon she was set free, with a warning not to leave town in case the district attorney elected to pursue the issue further and press charges.

The canvas came up with one hit. Someone had seen the dead woman at the post office, but she had not shown up in any of the surveillance video recorded of the counter area. Naquin decided to follow this lead up himself.

* * *

Naquin stood in the post office lobby and did his best to take in every detail of the place. The place was clean and well-maintained. There were no places one could reliably hide anything the size of a DVD for very long. The post office boxes were key operated, but there was no corresponding key on the dead woman's key ring.

As he stood in the lobby, twirling the key ring around his finger and wondering what to do next, Naquin allowed his attention to be drawn to the shapely figure of a young woman who had entered through the same set of doors he had, not to conduct postal business, but to cut through the lobby to the next block. On a hunch, he followed the woman's example, and mentally cursed himself for telling O'Malley to have his men canvas a five block radius, because apparently, the instruction had been followed literally. There, in front of him, six blocks from the crime scene, was the storefront to an Internet café.

* * *

"Have you seen this girl, Izzie?" asked Naquin, after glancing at the name tag worn by the bearded young man behind the counter. He flashed a photograph of the dead woman in Izzie's direction.

"Yeah," said the man. "She does some work for me, from time to time."

"What kind of work?" asked Naquin.

"She's my sysadmin," said Izzie.


"She takes care of the computer and network setup in the store," explained the man. "Before she came, every wannabe hacker and script kiddie in the neighborhood was in here trying to screw with my computers, but she put a stop to that right quick. What's the deal, is she in trouble?"

"She's dead," said Naquin.

"What? That girl in the news, that was her?" said Izzie, wide-eyed. After a moment, he added: "I had nothing to do with that!"

Naquin ignored the outburst, and asked if the woman kept any of her stuff at the café.

"Sure," said Izzie. "She's got what she calls her 'office', though it's really an old closet I let her use for free in exchange for her keeping my system humming and the computer creeps at bay."

"You mind if I take a look?" asked Naquin.

"Knock yourself out," said Izzie, "but I don't have a key. She had the lock changed and she doesn't—didn't—let anyone in there."

The key to the door was on the key ring. Naquin opened the door to reveal a neat, clean work space with neatly stacked boxes with hundreds of burned CDs and DVDs. And there, leaning up against the monitor, was a DVD neatly labeled with a date and the words "Last Cobb session." The way Naquin figured it, after burning the DVD, the dead woman had apparently made a special trip here just to put the disk in a safe place, and then returned home to actually watch the recorded performance, and then meet her maker.

Naquin picked up the disk with his fingertips and looked around. He was alone. He mentally reviewed what was known about the case, recalled how utterly depressed his uncle Ambrose would become every time he listened his recording of Billie Holiday singing Gloomy Sunday—it was like the music itself was making the old man play the song over and over—and wondered how, if his suspicions were correct, anyone could listen to the music in the video and survive the experience.

Could his hunch be wrong? Might the music be harmless and the video a key piece of evidence? Maybe. But the way it stood, its continued existence could result in more death, and if it really got loose in the world—if it got onto the Internet and went viral—it could be more devastating than a plague or asteroid impact.

His decision made, Naquin grasped the DVD with both hands and exerted mild pressure until the plastic snapped in two. He then put the halves together and snapped the pieces into four segments before leaving the café. As he walked briskly back to the precinct with a clear conscience, Naquin disposed of the pieces in different trash bins along the way.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
"Son, you mind telling me what it is that has so completely captured your attention since we left Kansas City?" said Mordecai Collins, as he guided the truck he was driving off the Interstate. The young man in the passenger seat, whose name was Bill and who was, in fact, no relation to Mordecai, looked up from his iPad, took off his glasses, and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"I've been reading about some legendary Hungarian gypsy tune that's supposed to make people feel so sad they want to commit suicide," he said. "It's part of some research I'm doing to fine-tune the act by adding some sound effects."

"So playing music that'll have people want to do away with themselves while watching my 'Amazing Mordecai' act would be beneficial, exactly, how—?" asked Collins.

"Don't be a jerk," said Bill, though Mordecai was old enough to be his father. "I'm researching how sound affects people—and audiences."

"Sounds like a gimmick to me," said Collins, and then: "You really think there's anything to it?"

"Yes, I do," said Bill, "but it's hard wading through all this stuff—there are no definitive answers, except maybe for this gypsy tune thing, which is almost certainly a myth. There are people who swear that music played in minor keys—and D minor in particular—makes people sad, but others disagree. One piece I read debunked the idea with examples from Spinal Tap, Miles Davis, and Eric Clapton."

"All very fascinating, I'm sure," said Collins. "Is there a bottom line to all your 'research'?"

"Hey, research doesn't necessarily have a 'bottom line', y'know?" said Bill. "But in the long run, it could come in handy."

"In the long run, kid, we'll all be pushing daisies," said Collins.

"That's as may be, but your act still needs updating."

"One step at a time, junior" said Collins. "I realized, back when I hired you, that the act needed to be reinvented, and you've made a lot of decisions that turned out well. You said: 'Get rid of the capes,' so I did. No capes. You said: 'Touch up the hair,' so I did, and now I don't look so much like a geezer. And branching out from straight read-your-mind mentalism to include a 'speak to the dead' spiritualism segment at the end was sheer genius, the way people lap it up. By the way, how big did the book on this next stop turn out to be?"

By "the book," Mordecai was referring to a printout of information about a town and its inhabitants, which had been collected on the Web by a group of "intelligent software agents" programmed by Bill to gather certain kinds of information that could be skillfully exploited by Collins while pumping audience members and purporting to speak with the dead.

Bill answered the question and was happy that Mordecai had changed the subject. He wasn't eager to mention the new infrasound equipment in the back of the truck, preferring to rely on Hopper's Law— It's easier to seek forgiveness than permission—with respect to his latest intended improvement to Mordecai's act.

* * *
The truck turned into the parking lot of the civic center in Novin, Kansas, early that afternoon. Mordecai and Bill got out of the truck to stretch their legs and take a good look at the performance venue.

The building looked as if it had once been the home to some fraternal order. Moose, maybe, or Elks. The portico at the entrance seemed out of place, resembling an afterthought that had been affixed to the main building with spit and scotch tape. There was no auditorium inside, just a raised platform that served as a stage at one end of a long room where folding chairs would be set up for that night's performance. "Reinvented" though Mordecai's act might have been, he and Bill still had a long way to go before they could hope to escape the sub-small-town circuit.

"So what do you think?" asked Collins after the pair had gotten back in the truck, but with Bill behind the wheel now. "Shall we quit while we're ahead?"

"What… and give up a career in the theater?" replied Bill, and started the engine. This exchange had become an arrival ritual for the two, with Bill's response quoting the punch line to one of the oldest jokes in show business.

The two men laughed soundlessly for a moment, and then Mordecai said: "Let's go find the hotel. We'll check in, and while I review the book, you come back and set up for tonight's show. Standard drill."

"You got it, boss," said Bill, mentally adding with a little something extra! as he put the truck in gear.

* * *
The size of the civic center belied the local population's thirst for entertainment that didn't consist of the usual shadows flickering on a television screen. The house, as one might hear said on Broadway, was packed. And Mordecai had the audience eating from the palm of his hand, even if most of the mental effects he performed were old before television was invented. Then again, "old" is new if you've never seen it before.

And, as it turned out, "the book" for Novin, Kansas, had been particularly useful for the spirit part of the act. As a typical example, Mordecai was able—using information that Bill's cybernetic "agents" had gleaned from public records, newspapers, Facebook, Twitter, personal blogs, and a number other sources—to "channel" the spirit of a beloved grandmother to convey some sage (yet noncommittal) advice about a recent long-distance breakup that had been suffered by a young woman in the audience.

For his finale, Mordecai had decided to focus on a local mystery: the disappearance, a decade earlier, of—of all things—a magician who, as best as Collins could figure out, was performing at this very civic center. According to the stories in the press, at the end of the last of six performances in Novin, Peter Templar had been locked in a trunk by his assistant, who then climbed onto the trunk and raised a curtain around herself and the trunk. At the count of three, the curtain fell to reveal the trunk, but unlike in the previous five performances, Peter Templar was not standing on the trunk. When the trunk was opened, the assistant was inside, unconscious. And Peter Templar had simply disappeared.

"It is time to bring this evening's demonstration to a close," intoned Mordecai, "but it would appear there is an insistent attempt at communication from the other side, from someone who walked as a mysterious stranger among you years ago." He closed his eyes and stretched out his right arm. He could almost feel the silence in the room. But there was something else, as well. Collins put whatever it might be out of his mind. The show, after all, must go on.

"I'm getting conflicting messages, as if this stranger was both supposed to disappear, and at the same time not disappear. Does that make sense?" Most of the faces in the audience nodded, even if nobody said anything. All the locals, apparently, remembered, or had been told about Peter Templar. The tuxedoed performer was supposed to disappear as part of his act, not disappear for real.

Mordecai closed his eyes again. After moment, he intoned: "The stranger says he is not far away." And as he said it, a chill ran down Mordecai's spine, which had never happened before during a performance. Mordecai quickly opened his eyes and saw a gray blob out of the corner of his eye. When he turned to face the blob, it disappeared.

"Did you see it?" cried a voice from the audience. "Yeah," said someone else. "What was that?"

The blob reappeared out of the corner of Mordecai's eye and again disappeared when he turned it its direction. By now, he felt a pervasive uneasiness. His face was drained of color and his mouth hung open. He raised his arms in supplication. The audience, individual members of which apparently were also perceiving some kind of elusive phenomenon, was on the verge of general hysteria when a crash was heard from the direction of the front door.

While most of the audience quickly left the building via the emergency exits, some venturesome souls—including Mordecai, who had recovered quickly and no longer felt anxious—cautiously approached the front door and opened it to see what had caused the crash.

There, on the other side of the threshold, lay the portico, which had become detached from the building and had collapsed outward. As it fell, anchoring sections at the bottom of the structure had scooped out the ground under the tile work that had formed the floor of the portico. And there, sticking up out of the ground at an impossible angle, were several bent lengths of rebar, to which were tied the skeletonized remains of a body, wearing what appeared to be a tuxedo.

* * *
The appearance of a body finally gave the police a basis for judging Peter Templar's disappearance to be the result of foul play, but after so many years, the case turned cold the moment the paperwork was filed.

As for Bill, he eventually admitted to Mordecai that he had set up an infrasound generator at the civic center as an experiment. He had read how infrasound—vibrations below the threshold of human hearing—could induce uneasiness and goose bumps in people, and how vibrations at a certain frequency actually caused eyeballs to resonate and create optical illusions. An unintended consequence of Bill's experiment was the generation of a resonant frequency in the building's structure that caused the portico to detach and collapse. In between all the activity associated with the finding of Peter Templar's body, Bill was able to pack up all of the act's props—including the infrasound setup—and stow it all in the truck without anybody being the wiser.

"Well, despite the grand publicity," said Mordecai, sitting on the passenger side with a pile of newspaper clippings in his lap as Bill drove the truck out of town, "I hope this escapade has taught you a lesson."

"Consider me taught," said Bill. "By the way, do you mind if I ask you a question that's been bugging me since that night?"

"What?" said Collins.

"Whatever possessed you to go out on a limb like that and say the stranger was 'not far away'?" asked Bill.

After a few moments, Mordecai turned to Bill and said: "To tell the truth? I've been wondering that myself, because—I kid you not—the words just came out by themselves."

In this week's Exhibit B, I'm intersecting with [ profile] acalculatedname (whose entry is here).

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Until I went outside to look for the Northern Lights at a few minutes past midnight a couple of nights ago, I hadn’t really realized just how civilized our little corner of the desert steppe here in Kazakhstan had become, for now there were lights along most of the roads and walking paths of our area, which meant that many fewer places where one could look up at the night sky and get a good look at the stars without the lights effectively washing them out of the sky.

Most people don’t think about star-gazing much (if they think about it at all), but it likely strikes them as a pretty staid pastime. And while it's true that the deliberate contemplation—even with the unaided eye—of the objects adorning the inverted bowl of night provides an easy avenue to a state of serenity, that state is almost always punctuated by phenomena that draw the observer's attention.

I happened to be in Kazakhstan a few years ago as well, on another launch campaign, when I struck up an acquaintance with the campaign's senior manager. As it turned out, he and I shared similar backgrounds (engineering), grew up in the same part of the country (more or less), enjoyed watching Firefly (among other shows), and had worked during a number of years with roughly the same circle of people in the aerospace industry (he as an executive and entrepreneur, and I as an interpreter and translator).

We also shared an interest in what happens in the sky above, although in this department, his knowledge outstripped mine. He introduced me to "Iridium flares," which occur when sunlight is reflected from one of the highly reflective antennas on one of numerous Iridium satellites (which orbit at an altitude of about 500 miles) onto a point on the earth. If you are in just the right place and are looking in just the right direction, you'll see a bright light appear in the sky for a few seconds and then quickly fade (this can even happen in broad daylight, as the brightest flares are about 100 times as bright as Venus when that planet appears in our sky). These flares can be very jarring if you don't know what you're looking at.

One mid-August evening during that campaign, we killed some time over a couple of beers, chatting about nothing in particular, until well past midnight when it seemed feasible to go outside and see if there were any Perseid meteors to be observed. We grabbed a couple of chairs, went out the front gate of the hotel, found a place about 40 yards down the road where we would be out of the glare of the hotel's lights, seated ourselves in the middle of the road, and looked up toward the constellation Perseus (from which the name Perseid is derived for this meteor shower).

We did see a number of meteors, but not the 60-80 per hour that had been predicted, and even though we were observing a few hours after the "published" peak had occurred, the Perseid shower actually occurs over a period of a couple of weeks, not a couple of hours, so anything is possible. We continued to chat as we sat, and were distracted at one point by some Russian voices from some distance away, but after a few moments, it appeared that some of our Russian colleagues had simply stepped outside to grab a smoke.

Redirecting my gaze upward, I noticed a star that seemed to be moving slowly away from another, neighboring star, but so slowly that I wasn't sure it was actually moving (I thought perhaps it was an optical illusion, the result of staring at two points of light for too long). Then my acquaintance said, "Hey, will you look at that!" It turned out he was looking at the same point of light. A few seconds later, the moving star winked out, which would suggest it was a satellite that had passed into the earth's shadow, but as it was after one in the morning, that also suggested the satellite was in a sharply inclined orbit. Or perhaps it was a UFO? (Technically, it was, as far as we were concerned, because we could not identify the object.) We didn't have much time to think about it, in any event, as it had became apparent that the Russian voices we had heard earlier were now moving in our direction. I noted, in passing, that the owners of those voices would not pass any kind of sobriety test.

So now imagine, dear reader, that you have been celebrating a bit with friends and have now decided to walk back to your hotel room along a road where there is no traffic, at a time of night when all normal people in nearby buildings are sound asleep. Now imagine that, as you walk along, you almost literally walk into two indistinct figures sitting quietly on chairs faced in your direction in the middle of what is a particularly dark stretch of road.

The chatter stopped abruptly. We had been discovered.

I toyed with the kafkaesque idea of growling the Russian equivalent of "Hand over your papers!"—but only for a millisecond or two. Instead, I said "Good evening," even though it was well past midnight. The newcomers approached warily, and then recognized us and we all shook hands (apparently, one of the Russians had played basketball with my acquaintance a few days previously), and a short conversation ensued. All's well, as they say, that ends well, but I will tell you, just between us, that every member of that homeward-bound group had been sharply yanked in the direction of "more sober" upon spying us like that in the middle of the road.

So while it's almost certain that all the new lights in our area were installed to address safety concerns, I could not help but wonder, as I sought a dark stretch of road couple of nights ago to view an aurora that wasn't there, if—among those concerns—there might have been a strong desire on the part of a decision-maker or two to avoid ever again bumping into shadowy figures while walking home in the dark.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Alice Lance's first day of work at Munro Associates was a grueling grind. It involved an extensive series of tests designed to assess not only the young woman's skill in handling playing cards, but also her overall dexterity, her skills at misdirection, calculation, and memory, and her physical endurance and resourcefulness. She scored at or near the top of all these categories, as well as in several others whose precise nature was known only to George Munro, the head of the company.

Alice had been among those who had responded to a call for—believe it or not—close-up magicians, and in fact, a good dozen of the other applicants who had shown up for the unconventional "interview" eventually landed well-paying jobs through Munro, performing magic at high-end bars and restaurants around the country. Alice's career, however, was directed along a different track.

"Ms. Lance," said George Munro after introducing himself, "your talents show quite a bit of promise for what we have in mind for you. Have you ever heard of 'gambling detectives'?"

Alice pursed her lips. "I've read about them, somewhere—they used to catch cheaters in various games of chance, didn't they?"

"Exactly correct!" said Munro. "Except they are still used for that purpose. In fact, uncovering cheats is a lucrative part of our, uh, business model."

"But what can a gambling detectives do in today's world, with all of the technical resources available to find crooks?" asked Alice, with genuine curiosity.

"Indeed, young woman," said Munro, "it is precisely the advent of all this high tech sophistication that has driven gambling criminals to return to basics—the false shuffle, the palmed card, the crimped corner, and cards dealt from anywhere but the top of the deck. As it turns out, these skills are, basically, those of top-flight close-up card magicians, and we train candidates who have such skills, such as yourself, to detect others engaged in dishonest play. Are you interested?" Alice was.

And so began the hardest year of Alice's life, during which she assimilated a tremendous amount of technique. Double and triple lifts, setups, passes, second and bottom deals, forces, one-off shifts, every kind of deceptive shuffle imaginable (including one of her own devising), and more were mastered to a breadth and depth that would have been the envy of the finest card magicians of all time.

Early during her training, when Alice expressed concern that she was learning how to be a card cheat rather than how to uncover card cheats, Munro reassured her. "Learning how to cheat is the best training for learning how to catch a cheater. Just keep in mind you're not focusing on identifying false moves, but on learning how to perform them so well that anyone less skilled who tries to pull them off will stand out like the proverbial sore thumb. I'm convinced these skills are beneficial to you in many ways for this job." Then he added, as an afterthought, "Just don't get any ideas, okay?"

All throughout the year, as her skills were honed to a razor edge, technicians collected data on Alice's performance, which George Munro reviewed weekly. At the end of the year, Munro called Alice into his office.

"We've got a little test lined up for you, Alice," said Munro. "There's a weekly game held downtown that attracts out-of-towners, some of whom invariably consider the game a golden opportunity to cheat. We want you to attend the game this coming Friday night with Archer—whose job it will be to stay in the background and provide muscle, in case you need it—and I'll want you to report to me the next morning regarding what you saw, felt, and so on. Any questions?" Alice had none.

As far as Alice could tell, the test was a complete fiasco. Everything felt wrong from the moment she entered the suite in which the game was being held. Specifically, Alice felt that everyone knew who she was and why she was there, and she told Munro exactly that the following day. Archer was entirely too relaxed, she added. He wasn't paying attention to much of anything. To add insult to injury, everything she had seen the night before seemed perfectly above board. Everyone played honestly; nobody tried to cheat.

Munro steepled his fingers as he considered Alice in a new light. In over twenty years of sifting the dozen or so candidates that had gotten this far, most had correctly reported that no cheating had occurred at the game. However, only Alice had, in effect, tumbled to the fact—and just how was only beginning to dawn on Munro—that the "Friday night game" was a complete setup on the part of Munro Associates, as it was staffed by employees from a small subsidiary Munro had set up to, among other things, test "graduates" like Alice.

As he mentally reviewed Alice Lance's performance over the past year in this new light—especially her ability to misdirect, where she repeatedly demonstrated a knowledge of precisely the moment when her audience was most vulnerable to distraction—Munro came to the sudden realization that the young woman sitting in front of him was more special than anyone could imagine.

For you see, Alice Lance had become, without knowing it, far more than a skilled card mechanic with finely tuned instincts. What her training had done, concluded Munro, was unlock some deeper abilities in her mind. And if any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, then so is any sufficiently advanced human ability.

In effect, Alice Lance now actually was—for lack of a better term—a magician. What's more, she didn't know it!

How much further can she develop? wondered Munro, as he drew breath to tell Alice what she had become.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
"Excuses," bellowed our Senior Drill Instructor, enunciating each syllable individually, "are like bellybuttons. Everybody's got one, and they serve no useful purpose."

Other D.I.'s had their own version of this expression involving another part of the body, but according to our Senior, that other part actually did serve a useful purpose from time to time, which made it superior to (and placed it in a class separate from) navels and excuses. His aphorism, repeated at intervals during the course of boot camp training, made it pretty clear to us recruits: nobody's interested in excuses.

Ever since, I've had a pretty steady rule about apologies, and it's basically this: Say "I'm sorry," and shut up. Stifle the temptation to add an excuse, especially if it's a good one.

Why waste a perfectly valid excuse, you ask? It's for the simple reason that extenuating circumstances don't change outcomes, which is what the person you're apologizing to is all worked up about. If nothing else, a simple, excuse-free apology will almost certainly surprise the recipient, who likely has become weary of listening to insipid explanations of why things happened the way they did Scotch-taped to the tail end of, or offered in place of, an apology.

As with so many essential life skills, apologizing is not something that's taught in school. In fact, by pressing students to provide reasons for their transgressions, teachers can end up nurturing a mind-set that will seek to offer excuses forever after. In this regard, I was somewhat fortunate, though it took me years to realize this.

You see, back in fourth grade, several drawn-out exchanges took place between myself and my teacher (aka, "The Pill") where she would badger me to explain exactly why I had done (or failed to do) something that had been required of me. (This was something that occurred pretty regularly with me in fourth grade, but I digress...) As unsophisticated as I was, I honestly had no idea why, and said so repeatedly, to the great amusement of my classmates and The Pill's ever-escalating irritation.

It was only years later, after reading Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, that I realized why my responses had so irritated The Pill: they didn't provide enough "wind" (to borrow Carnegie's analogy) with which she could "fill her sails." Carnegie observed, correctly, that most people respond to criticism by trying to justify themselves, or by offering excuses, and in doing so they only provide critics with the means with which to criticize further. Carnegie's proposed solution? "Take the wind out of their sails."

I had occasion to make use of this principle back at my first publishing job, working as a low-level production editor in charge of sending scientific journals to the printer each week. One time, I must have left my brain at home on the day journals were put to bed, because one of my journals was sent to press with the wrong date on the cover. Yikes!

Naturally, a mistake of this magnitude became known only after the issue had been printed and bound, and to say that my boss was upset underscores the inadequacy of the printed word as a medium of communication. He was furious, and as I was heading toward his office in response to his summons, I was told (by older and wiser editors) to expect a rather lengthy session on the carpet. I thought I detected a whiff of Schadenfreude in the air, as well.

"So what do you have to say for yourself?" said my boss after I closed the door to his office behind me. He held the journal up for me to see and continued, "Because if you think this is funny—you know, like ha-ha funny—you'll forgive me if I don't laugh."

I took a deep breath.

"Boss, I've seen the cover and I think I'm more upset about it than you are. It was my responsibility to make sure it was done right, and I dropped the ball. I made my department look bad and you look bad. It was entirely my fault. I'm sorry. It won't happen again."

What was my boss going to do, argue with me? I had emptied his sails of wind. And while my choice of words was intended to reduce the severity of the dressing down I was in for, I meant every word I said.

My boss gave me a hard look, threw the copy of the journal that he was holding in the trash, and said, "Right. Make sure that it doesn't. Now get out of here and get back to work."

The total time I spent in my boss's office was probably under two minutes. When discreet inquiries on the part of my peers (made to our boss's secretary) revealed that I hadn't been simply fired outright, they were frankly amazed. What had I done to escape a long, excruciating chewing-out?

I had apologized and then shut up.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
The Great Leader's recent death had not changed day-to-day life much, if at all. There were still lines to stand in and small bribes to be paid to be assured of life's necessities, and everyone still spoke guardedly and then only after glancing around to see who might be within earshot.

If life was difficult in general, for travelers it was difficult in particular. Petrov had been on the road for three days, and had lost track of the number of times he'd been required to produce his papers, not to mention how, on the afternoon of the first day, some young snot with a badge had made him open his small suitcase for inspection, right there on the platform of the railroad station!

It was on the train that, as he sat with his head down and eyes closed, he had overheard a man seated behind him tell his neighbor of a novel way to get fellow guests to give one a wide berth upon entering the typical "communal" accommodations offered to travelers at hotels.

“You see, my friend,” said the voice, “there is a natural pecking order in such places, almost like in prison. The man most recent to arrive starts at the bottom, if he is of ordinary appearance, and unless something happens to change that, this means he will sleep in the least desirable spot and maybe even have to give up a few personal possessions just to be left in peace.”

“So it occurred to me, you see, this one time, after having finished filling out the papers at the registration desk, to stop by the hotel's kitchen and ask the person on duty there to bring some tea to me in my room in a few minutes, for which service I pay a little extra. Then I go up to the room and, upon first entering it and while those already in residence are starting to size me up, I look neither to the left nor to the right but march up to the best cot in the room, put my belongings on it, and then step over to some prominent item—a light fixture or a mirror on the wall—and say something like 'Would you be good enough to bring me some tea in a few minutes? I am in need of refreshment.'”

“As you may imagine, this throws the other room occupants into a little panic, until it occurs to them to wonder 'Hey, this old coot is just pulling our leg!' By that time, however, a knock is heard at the door as my tea is delivered, and the reaction in the room is often a sight to see, let me tell you! I then drink my tea in peace, and thereafter, everyone leaves me and my belongings quite alone.”

That night, still two days travel from his destination, Petrov unconsciously lit up with a broad smile while standing in line at the hotel registration desk, eager to try out this newly learned stratagem to mislead other occupants into thinking he had friends in the secret police who, as everyone knew, had ears everywhere. Alas, this untoward public display drew the attention of a uniform standing just inside the door, who approached, gave a little mechanical salute with his baton and took Petrov's papers from his hand as he was standing in line.

“You seem altogether very happy, comrade... Petrov,” said the policeman, reading the name from the identity document. “We are all in need of having our spirits lifted in the aftermath of The Great Leader's passing, so if you please, tell me what it was that brought a smile to your face?”

“Well, comrade policeman," said Petrov, thinking quickly, "I was just recalling how, just as I was leaving on this trip, my baby daughter pronounced her first sentence.”

“And what did she say?” asked the policeman, with a pleasant voice but very unpleasant eyes.

“She said, 'Oh, how tasty!', comrade. It was her meal time.”

After a moment, the papers were returned. “May your daughter grow into a citizen worthy of our great homeland!” The policeman turned on his heel and left.

After registering, Petrov gathered his suitcase and key and went by the kitchen. The boy on duty was talking with some men, so he stood at the door until the transaction was complete and the men had left. He then explained what he wanted, paid for the tea and the "extra" service and went up to the room.

His lodgings turned out to be a rather long room that stank of alcohol and urine and sweat. It was dark, because only one of the three light fixtures—the one nearest the sink on the back wall—had a working bulb. There were four other men in the room, and they all stared at him when he entered.

Without looking too closely at them, Petrov walked over to the most comfortable-looking cot, which had a rucksack on it, moved the rucksack to the floor, put his suitcase on the blanket, and then walked over to the mirror over the sink at the back wall of the room.

“Would you please be so kind to bring me some tea?” said Petrov, to the mirror. “It's been a long day, and some tea would really hit the spot.” As he turned back to face the room, he could not help but glance at the faces of the other men, to see their reaction.

They were all staring at him, but not in the way he expected. There was no apprehension, only contempt thinkly masked by smiles.

A moment later, a powerfully built, bearded man got up from a chair next to the cot where Petrov's suitcase lay, picked the rucksack up off the floor, replaced it on the bed, picked up Petrov's suitcase, and walked up to and past Petrov, who turned to keep his eyes on the man. The man stopped by the mirror, leaned in close to it and said, “And while you're at it, make sure you bring the rest of us some beer and dried salt fish! And hurry!” The man dropped Petrov's suitcase on the cot nearest the sink, where the stench of urine was strongest. He then leaned against the wall next to the mirror, and crossed his arms, as if waiting for a bus. Petrov looked about, only to find he was the center of attention.

Nobody moved for what seemed to Petrov like an hour. And when a knock came on the door, it was Petrov who about jumped out of his skin. The man closest to the door opened it, letting in the kitchen boy, who was wheeling a cart in front of him. “Right,” said the boy, unloading the cart, “tea, beer, and salt fish, just as you ordered.” He closed the door behind him as he left.

Utterly confused, Petrov turned back to his suitcase and saw it was lying open on the bed. The bearded man was extracting a cigarette from the pack Petrov had kept there. “Thanks. I don't mind if I do,” said the man. “Hey! Anyone else want one?” And the rest of the pack sailed past Petrov into the hands of the others.

Shoving Petrov out of the way, the bearded man rejoined the other three men, and they proceeded to open bottles and tear apart the fish. They smoked and told stories as they drank and ate, laughing and nudging each other as they glanced in Petrov's direction from time to time. Petrov thought he heard someone say something about wishes and horses, but stayed out of the conversation, working up only the courage to pour himself a glass of the tea and go back to his cot near the sink. When the time came to go to sleep, it turned out there was no way to turn off the light over his head. He slept fitfully.

Petrov got up early the next morning, dressed, went down to the front desk, and returned his key. By the hotel door, as he paused outside for a moment before heading out, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to see the front desk clerk standing there, offering him a cigarette, which he accepted. It was a foreign-made cigarette.


“It's really too bad your little escapade backfired on you last night,” said the clerk, after lighting both his and Petrov's cigarette. “But that big bearded one, he's a fast thinker, and figured two could play at your game. You see, a couple of the others had just been in the kitchen before you to order some beer and fish up to the room.”

Petrov had a little trouble comprehending what had been said, as all he could do was wonder ”Who is this 'clerk' who smokes foreign cigarettes? And how does he know all this?”

“I will say this, however,” added the clerk. “You were much more polite when you spoke into our microphone behind the mirror than was the bearded one. We appreciate that.”

And with that, the clerk took one more deep drag, and then pinched his cigarette out and went back into the hotel. After a moment, Petrov hesitantly picked up his suitcase and moved off, down the street, walking ever more quickly toward the station.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
When I saw who was sitting next to me in first class for the flight back to the States from London, my gut did a little flip. There he was, in the flesh, the guy whose work on the big and small screen over the past thirty years had made him a recognizable celebrity on several continents, though not the kind of superstar that would be flying home in a private jet.

He was good at the acting craft, because it was easy for me to suspend my disbelief and quickly think of him as someone other than himself, which helped me get over that dull stab of pain I felt whenever I would first see his face. But seeing him here, big as life and just himself, was a little like having a wild animal rake its claws over old wounds.

As you've probably guessed, I'm no fan. You see, this is the guy who stole my girl's heart before she and I had a chance to see if what we had was going to work.

Alice was her name. The lovely, beautiful, intelligent, sharp-as-a-tack Alice. The Alice with sunlight in her laugh and an elephant-shaped birthmark on her shoulder blade. And while there was an unmistakable attraction between us, it eventually became clear—to both of us—that she'd never really gotten over what had been a one-night fling with Jeff Marsh, the guy sitting next to me. Eventually, there came a moment when she brought this guy's name up just once too often, whereupon I lost it. We weren't talking about this guy again, were we? And then I packed my bags and left, with my tail between my legs, carrying wounds I licked for years.

And so here we were, in adjacent couches, aboard one of those packed flights with no empty seats—certainly none in first class—so I sat down and buried my nose in a book.

But I could not concentrate on reading. Mentally, I was trying to dispassionately step back and take a good, hard look at myself and understand my emotional state. I glanced over at Marsh. He was looking somewhat vacantly out the window at whatever there was to see out there and idly swirling what was left of his drink in his glass. He actually looked fairly harmless.

Have you ever heard of exposure therapy? It's a technique used to treat anxiety, PTSD, and the like, and to describe it in overly simple terms, it consists of getting a subject to come face-to-face with fear in a controlled environment. It occurred to me that, in point of fact, Marsh had never consciously done anything to hurt me, obviously posed no danger to me here at 36,000 feet, and so I was actually in a pretty good place for some impromptu self-therapy, because deep-seated hostility is not healthy unless there's a good reason for it.

So, by the time the attendants were preparing to serve the main meal, I had settled down, put the book away, and had started to do what I do for a living: I struck up a conversation and got him to open up. It's a talent of mine that's let me to make a comfortable life for myself and my family, and by the time our dishes were being cleared away, it was as if Jeff and I were old friends, and the feeling I had started with—that he was somehow Fortunato to my Montresor—had dissipated completely.

“So, is it true what they say about all you Hollywood types,” I said, sotto voce, in my best nudge-nudge-wink-wink manner, “how members of the opposite sex simply throw themselves at your feet?”

After a moment, his eyebrows shot up and he gave a little shrug. “Well, I've been married and divorced three times, if that answers your question.” He smiled a little and took a sip from his scotch-and-soda.

“Tough to find the right lady, isn't it?” I asked.

He didn't say anything and, after a moment, went back to looking out the window and swirling his drink, as if he hadn't heard me. I supposed I had crossed some line, but I held my peace. After a minute or two, he turned in his seat and faced me directly.

“The trick isn't finding her, Rhys, it's realizing when she's standing there, in front of you, when you weren't looking for anyone at all,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I said.

He sat back in his seat and took another sip of his drink. “A long time ago—oh, it must've been thirty-something years ago, before I hit the big time—I met this one girl and we hit it off from the get-go. Man, we had a great time... but it wasn't just the physical part that made it so fantastic. We were... so completely with each other, you know what I mean?” A moment later, his body seemed to deflate a little and his eyes drifted away again, toward the window.

“So what happened?”

“We said our goodbyes the next morning, and dashed off to wherever we were going that day, that's what happened. And then try as I might, I couldn't get her out of my mind. Heck, after all these years, there are still moments when I think of her.” He finished the rest of his drink and pressed the call button for the attendant. “I don't know why I'm telling you this.”

“Why didn't you go after her, tell her how you felt?” I said, while I thought What were the odds...?

“I would've, but—well, what can I say? I lost the scrap of paper on which she wrote her name and number, and the private detectives I spoke with said they'd need something a little more substantial to work with than 'green-eyed redhead with a curious birthmark'.”

“A birthmark?” I asked, and was struck by a unsettling combination of dread and relief.

“Yes, a birthmark. On her shoulder. It looked like an elephant. Can you imagine that?”

As we flew eastward, we spoke at length about other subjects, and by the time we landed, we'd exchanged business cards and our private phone numbers. We hugged like a pair old frat brothers as we parted company at the entrance to the immigration area, and I soon lost sight of him in the crowd.

As I walked out of the arrivals terminal into the New York sunshine after clearing customs, I looked at the card Marsh had given me, ran the ball of my index finger lightly along its edge, and wondered what Alice had done with her life since I had seen her last.

Week 3. Intersection!

I have been fortunate to be "intersecting" this week with that incomparable wonderer, [ profile] adpaz!

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
Writing this now, two decades and some months after the fact, the only other things I remember about that Thursday was how the California weather was bright and sunny, and I had about a million things on my to-do list when I was called into my boss's office.

“Alex,” my boss said once I sat down in the chair across the desk from him, “I'm sorry, but we're going to have to let you go. Your position is being eliminated, effective today.”

I may have said something intelligent, such as “Um...,” or I may have said nothing at all in immediate response to the news. But once that crushing “I-don't-believe-this-is-happening-to-me” wave of feeling had ebbed, I stood up, turned away from my now-former boss, went to the window, and spat out a pithy, Anglo-Saxon expletive or six, directed at nothing and nobody in particular.

I did not stop to catalog my reactions at that moment, but I recall feeling a range of emotions that included rage, betrayal, and helplessness. Then I took a deep breath and felt a kind of calm come over me, despite the nagging little voice in my head urging me into all-out panic mode with taunts along the lines of "Oh, man, you're so screwed!” and “You're toast!”

As the calm intensified, my self-talk changed, to simply an urgent “Okay, calm down and figure out what you're going to do!" In retrospect, I figure the calm I felt was that odd sort of high that hits when the adrenaline kicks in. Fight or flight, dude. It's wired into our DNA, and makes an ancient, reptilian part of our brain tick.

I was no stranger to layoffs. I had worked as an engineer for nearly 15 years prior to coming to work in Silicon Valley and I had emerged unscathed because I always had a full helping of work on my plate—or at least that's how I figured it.

Humbug, as it turns out. In the end, having something to work on may keep you from getting laid off, or it may not. Security is, at best, a mirage; at worst, a superstition. The idea that your job can be somehow "secure" is as goofy as the idea that a college degree can somehow "guarantee" a good job upon graduation.

A little while later, after the formalities of the layoff had been completed, I realized, as I walked back to my office, that I was actually experiencing a feeling of liberation, my mind having gravitated to the idea that what I was now facing was an opportunity, even if it had crashed the party wearing a keenly unhip set of threads.

* * *
Other employees who lost their jobs that day took the news in various ways, and I sometimes wonder: What it was that caused me to react the way I did? Was it because that's “just the way I am”? Or was it the result of a lot of previous decisions I'd made to react in certain ways to that sequence of stimuli that is more commonly referred to as "life"?

Are there “naturally optimistic” (and by extension, “naturally pessimistic”) people out there? I don't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were true. But I also know that people can and do change—optimists can become pessimists; and pessimists, optimists.

This convinces me that whichever way you may “naturally” start out, it is the choices you make—consciously or otherwise—in response to life's laurels, slings, and arrows that will either help you maintain your attitude, or impel your attitude to change. In other words, your past choices determine how you'll react in the future.

Said another way:
You don't smile because you're happy; you're happy because you smile.
* * *
When I got back to my office, there was a telephone message waiting for me, from my now-former employer's biggest competitor. Would I be interested in flying up for an interview?

“Impeccable timing,” I thought to myself, "but it can wait," and picked up the phone to call my wife with the news.

alexpgp: (Aaaaarrrggghhhhhh!!!!!!!)
I can think of no better tonic for the nerves than to spend an afternoon rummaging through other people's mail. That said, you'll probably be surprised to learn that I'm not engaged in some criminal enterprise, but rather, I'm a stamp collector—more precisely, a collector of “covers,” or envelopes with their stamps still stuck to them—and call me crazy, but I enjoy picking my way through large boxes of envelopes that had passed through the post, especially those that did so long before I was born.

The most interesting thing I had found during one memorable visit to a stamp dealer's shop last year was an envelope addressed to John D. Rockefeller and sent to him from Paris around 1885. While certainly not as valuable as would be an envelope addressed in Rockefeller's own hand, it had a certain “curiosity” value, so I had set it aside as I continued to go through the box at the dealer's shop. Envelopes, you see, always have a story to tell, even if most of the time, you have to make one up yourself. Who had written Rockefeller a letter, and about what? Was it to ask for money? to propose some kind of investment? Did Rockefeller actually read the letter, or was it handled by his secretary? Who knows?

A few minutes later, though, I caught sight of an unusual-looking cover, with a handful of Imperial Russian stamps—compact, bearing the two-headed eagle—whose appearance (new values printed in black on the front) strongly suggested they had been used during the bloody Civil War that had broken out after the Bolshevik Revolution and the end of The Great War. Besides the stamps—carrying a January 1919 postmark from Vladivostok—there was also a censor's mark and what appeared to be a “postage due” notation on the envelope, which had been addressed to a town in Czechoslovakia, in what is today Slovakia.

So I got to wondering, “What was someone from Slovakia doing at the east end of Siberia in 1919?” And so that cover was set aside, too.

Upon returning home with my purchases, I discovered the envelope still contained a letter, written in a precise and legible hand, for the most part. And though I'm not very conversant in Slovak, and the language has changed somewhat since the time the letter was written, between visits to several translation sites to make sense of the text, and a little research to find out more about the role of Slovakian forces in the Russian Civil War, I managed to squeeze some snippets of information out of the letter, and make a few educated guesses as to its writer.

And think a little about life... and love.

As far as I can tell, the author was a young lieutenant serving with the Slovak Legion in Siberia. He began his letter on a light note, not really talking about anything at all, and not complaining much about how things are going. According to the history books, however, the part of Siberia he was in at that time was suffering a horrendously severe winter, with week-long blizzards, short rations for the entire army, and temperatures cold enough to freeze locomotives to the tracks they stood on. It was too cold to engage with the enemy, most days, but not cold enough to keep the influenza at bay, and the bodies of the flu's victims were stacked in piles because the ground was frozen solid. At first, I had a little trouble reconciling that reality with what this young officer was writing to his wife at home far away, telling her that things were fine (though not exactly his situation as a picnic in the park), and that she should not worry, and so on and so forth along those lines. I could only conclude this was written so as not cause undue distress back home.

But then, one third of the way down the second gossamer-thin page, both the penmanship and tone of the letter changed abruptly. Here's my translation, warts and all:
“The cause in which we are now engaged is just. I pray hostilities will end soon. I will do my duty as I see it, and if it be God's will that I die—that I give everything of myself I possibly can—then so be it. And should that come to pass, know only that my love for you is true and full and eternal, and that only my love of God and country is greater.

My love for you is like... the universe—without end—and my recollection of our happy moments together are and will always be the source of my greatest happiness. And should it be fated for me to die here, far from my homeland and my own true love, surely I will whisper your name with my last breath.

Forgive my faults, and the many pains I have caused you. It stings me now to think of how thoughtless and foolish I have often been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and staunchly stand between you and all the misfortune of this world.

Ana, my darling! If the dead can come back and stand unseen around those they loved, I shall always be near you; in winter and in summer—amid your happiest and saddest hours—always, always... Anichka! If there be a soft breeze upon your cheek, it shall be my breath; or if a cool stream of air caresses your shoulder, know that it shall be my spirit passing by.”
It was past midnight when I finally rose from my desk, and as I picked up the letter to put it away I wondered, "I wonder if this fellow made it home okay?" And then, as I looked closer at the paper the letter was written on, I could see the many, many little mottled spots that attested to the teardrops shed by whoever read the letter—shed, and quickly blotted, lest they wash away those precious words. Since then, I find myself sometimes wondering what happened to cause the tone of the lieutenant's letter to change from chatty and carefree to serious and foreboding. I guess I'll never know.

As it turns out, that cover—with its stamps issued by Kolchak's White Army—is not worth much from a collector's point of view. The letter, on the other hand, makes this cover a very precious thing!

Week 1. Intersection!

I am "intersecting" this week with that inimitable world-traveler and apiarist extraordinaire, [ profile] emo_snal!

alexpgp: (Visa)
I had my phone to my ear and was just leaning back in my chair when Sam picked up at his end.

"Hey, Sam! You there?" I asked, after a second or two of silence.

"Don't shout," he croaked, and there followed the scrape of a match being lit. A moment later came the sound of a long exhalation, after which he said "I was on a stakeout all night. You woke me up. What can I do you for?"

"I just called to talk," I said. I tried to sound casual.

"Better watch it, sonny," he said, "you're starting to sound like that Gutman character, with his 'I'm a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk' gobbledygook. Spit it out! You in a jam?"

"Sort of," I said.

"Get to the point, then. What's the deal?"

I took a deep breath. "Well, I'm supposed to introduce someone I don't know and have never met to a bunch of other people I mostly don't know and haven't met."

"Aha. Why am I not surprised? And you're supposed to do this with this computer thing you keep telling me about?"

"Yeah," I said. A moment passed. Another exhalation.

"That's the screwiest thing I ever heard of," he said.

"Screwier than having an imaginary phone conversation with a character from detective fiction?" I asked.

"Point taken," he said. "So, do you know anything about this person you're supposed to introduce? Like, maybe, a name?"

"The LiveJournal name's [ profile] kf4vkp, but her real name is Jessica," I said.

"A pretty enough name, but that first mouthful sounds like..." he paused, as if trying to remember something. "Like one of those call signs amateur radio operators use," he said.

"It is and in fact, she holds a General Class license," I said.

"That doesn't mean much to me, but since you mentioned it, I guess it's significant," he said. Before I could explain, he asked "What else do you know about her?"

"Raised in Georgia, went to public schools in Jasper. She's got a degree in biochemistry. She lists about as many interests on LiveJournal as I do, but only three of them mesh with mine."

"How fortunate for her," he laughed a little. "You got anything else?"

"She was born on the same date as Mother Teresa and Macaulay Culkin."

"Well, since it's always 1930 here at my end, you'll understand when I say those names don't mean anything to me." Another pause, another exhalation. "So far, all you've told me that makes sense is that Jessica is from a small Southern town and is technically inclined. I take it she's a working stiff?"

"Yeah. How'd you know that?"

"I'm a trained investigator. Now tell me more."

"Jessica's a chemist. Seems to do pretty routine stuff for a company in the calcium carbonate industry, and says she wants to do more on the research side. In her personal life, Jessica seems to have a lot of plates spinning, if you know what I mean."

"Knowing you, that could mean anything," he said, "but I can guess. So she's also in this 'idol' thing you keep blabbing about?"

"Yeah, it's a shortened version, but it's still the same guy in charge, so it's bound to be a pretty wild ride."

"You can say the same thing about life in general," said Sam. "Which means that if you, or me, or Jessica, or whoever wants to do something—and I mean really wants to get something done—you're almost certainly going to have to make the time to do it." I could hear Sam mash out his cigarette. "You getting this all right, sonny, or am I going too fast for you?"

"I got it, Sam," I said, "but I still don't know how to do the introduction."

A match scraped, followed by another exhalation.

"The best I can offer is to just set it out the way you set it out for me. The result might be excellent or it might be crummy, but Mrs. Spade didn't raise any children dippy enough to give out advice on how to write. What I can say—and I got this from a guy you might've heard of, named Hammett—is that writing's something you can't do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. And that's true for more than writing—trust me on that."

"Okay," I said. "Thanks for the advice, and sorry to have awakened you."

"Any time," said Sam, "and it was time I got up anyway. I'll have plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead." A moment later, he hung up.

alexpgp: (Default)
The young man stepped into the rectangle of light under the bus stop shelter, glanced at his wristwatch, and let out his breath. Good, he thought, he was early. He turned his head and examined the figure huddled on the bench in the corner of the structure. Some homeless person, he guessed, but he’d keep his eye on whoever it was, just the way his squad leader had trained him. “You’ve got to maintain situational awareness all the time,” his squad leader had said, “else some toothless old geezer selling almonds on the street somewhere will blow you away with the surplus AK he’s hiding under his robe.”

His thoughts turned to his girlfriend and the evening he had spent visiting her at her parents’ house, listening to her visiting loudmouth uncle sound off. It was enough to make his jaw muscles clench.

The uncle had been a Marine, too, back in Vietnam, and once the dude got started, he kept yammering about the “Old Corps” with the seriousness of a heart attack, bragging about how tough and rough it had been to be a Marine back then, and how the newest gyrenes were a bunch of pogues who couldn’t even stand in a chow line - much less go into battle - without the Internet and an iPod. The young man hadn't wanted to make a scene, so he kept his peace and didn’t argue, but the words still stung.

“You a Marine, laddie?” asked a thin voice from the direction of the figure in the corner, who turned out to be an old man, whose eyes were sunk so deeply into his head that they resembled points of reflected light in two black holes instead of eyes. The ghoulish effect was intensified by the straggled, straw-colored hair that parted in the middle and fell in disarray down the sides of his long face.

The young man nodded in the affirmative, not wanting to encourage conversation.

“I was a Marine once, myself,” said the old man. A moment passed.

“Look, buddy... I don’t have any spare change,” said the young man, who really only did have about enough cash to cover his bus fare back to the base. The old man cocked his head in surprise, then looked down, as if seeing his clothes for the first time.

“Well,” said the old man, looking back up a moment later, “I can see where you might get the notion that I’m appealing to your charity, but that’s not the case at all. Just making conversation, I am. Sorry to have disturbed you, my fine young Marine.” The old man turned away and appeared to settle back down to sleep.

I’m turning into a cantankerous dumbass, thought the young man, regretting his just-uttered words, so he said, “Listen, uh, mac, I’m... I’m sorry if I offended you.”

The old man didn’t move. The young man walked over to the bench, a few feet away from the old man, and sat down.

“Anyway, you know... they say there’s really no such thing as a former Marine.”

The man in the corner stirred and looked over at him. ‘That’s as may be,” said the man after a moment, “but there are limits, after all.” The old man withdrew a bony hand from under an armpit and scratched his chin. “Once one dies, for example, wouldn’t you agree?” asked the old man, with a little shrug. The young man didn't know what to make of the remark, so he said nothing for a little while.

“When were you in?” asked the young man, to keep the conversational ball rolling.

“I signed up back in ‘75,” said the old man.

“The year Saigon fell,” said the young man. “Did you serve in ‘Nam?”

The old man opened his mouth as if to offer a correction, then apparently changed his mind. “No,” said the old man. “I served my tour on a navy ship out of Providence, Rhode Island. I saw some action, but mostly it was work details and a lot of pretty bad chow.”

“I guess you didn't see much action then,” said the young man. The old man shrugged his shoulders philosophically and said, "I saw my share." A few more moments passed.

“So are you one of the ‘Old Corps’?” asked the young man suddenly, thinking of what his girlfriend’s uncle had said. “Do you look at guys like me and think what a sorry-ass bunch of losers we are because you guys used to chew nails for breakfast and do two 20-mile hikes a day, uphill each way, barefoot, in snow?”

“What are you talking about, lad?” asked the old man, and he seemed genuinely agitated. “Who’s been filling your head with such bilge?” He rose, and through the moth-eaten holes of what seemed to be an old green uniform with white facing, he posed an emaciated figure of parchment-like skin stretched over bone. This fellow's way old, thought the young man, and it's way late for Halloween.

“God’s wounds, boy,” continued the old man, taking a step forward, “I’ve seen you modern Marines in action, from my own unique perspective over the years, and while it’s true that, by all accounts, life is not as hard as it was when I was your age, I can tell you this: you’ve more than enough grit for the job, and back in the day, me and my lads would’ve been proud to have any of you leathernecks of today by our sides or at our back in a fight! And don’t let any son of a whore of any stripe tell you any different!”

The young man blinked a few times, then swallowed hard and nodded slightly. He was wasn’t quite sure what the old man’s “own perspective” might be other than a television tube, which couldn’t all that informative, but his attention was distracted by the sound of an approaching bus. His bus. As it slowed down he got up, nodded to the old man and said, “See you around, mac. Thanks. Take care of yourself.”

“And you, too, Marine,” said the old man. "Remember what I said."

The young man had taken two steps up into the bus when a question crossed his mind, but when he turned around to ask it, the bus stop was empty.

Postscript: The next day, instead of going on liberty, the young man visited the base library, where a dusty tome confirmed that Marines hadn’t deployed from Providence, Rhode Island aboard ship since, well... the year the Corps was established, in 1775.

* * *

Voting has begun for Week 2 of LJ Idol and closes at 8 pm EST on 11/2. The poll can be found here (along with links to everyone's entry for the week). Voting is open to all logged-in LJers and you can vote for as many (or as few) entries as you like.

alexpgp: (Default)
I put down the handset and stared at the phone for a minute. Then I got up, crossed to the window of my hotel room, and looked out at that part of the late-night Moscow skyline that I could see. I was lost in thought.

I had just gotten off the phone with my new boss, Philippe Kahn, who had called to have me arrange a midnight limousine tour of central Moscow for himself and some VIP friends. I had gotten the call because I was the “go-to” guy on our team for all things Russian.

Our team, from Borland International (a widely known software publisher known - among other things - for its hugely popular Turbo Pascal programming language) was in Moscow for something called the First International Computer Conference and Philippe, our CEO, was our team lead. I had managed to create a place for myself on the team, despite being a relatively new hire, by my knowledge of Russia and the Russian language, and by demonstrating an impressive single-mindedness on the job in achieving important goals.

This was a problem, because despite the fact it was 1990 and a great many things had changed since I had worked in the USSR fifteen years previously, I knew - with no doubt in my mind - that one didn’t just pick up the phone in Moscow at 10:30 pm and arrange to have a limousine pick you and some friends up at midnight just so you can drive around and catch the view from Red Square.

I knew this because when I had worked in Moscow fifteen years previously, I had come up against a set of fixed rules that affected just about everything. Changing those rules was simply not in the cards for merely mortal beings. Schedules were set in stone and “impossible” was not just a word, but a way of life. No deviations - no exceptions - this means you.

That knowledge had been driven home particularly hard back in the day while escorting a tour group consisting of retail merchants and their spouses. The leader of the group complained about everything. The group didn't want tea, he said, they wanted coffee with their meals. They didn't want eggs and toast for breakfast, he whined, they wanted something “Russian.” Ballet was boring, he insisted, people wanted to go to the circus.

The man was an irrepressible fountain of suck.

For the sake of form, I brought up the first few complaints to Intourist (the USSR's state-run travel agency) but the answers were all the same: “Impossible!” After a while, I stopped asking, because I knew what the answer was going to be. I recall that somewhere along the group’s itinerary, my nemesis took a break from complaining to observe that I seemed to have been beaten down by The System.

“You always assume they’ll say ‘no’, and that’s self-defeating” he said, adding: “Faint heart never won fair lady.”

Whatever. I smiled and said something inoffensive, but deep down, I knew he just didn’t get it. This was the Soviet Union, for Pete's sake, not Philadephia, and one simply had to face the realities of the situation.

The reality of my situation fifteen years later was that Philippe has assigned me a clearly impossible task. I toyed with the idea of sitting on my hands and then calling Philippe back to say I couldn’t arrange the limo, but instead - don't ask why because I can't explain - I decided to make an empty gesture and place the call, so I tracked down the number of the limousine service at the nearby Ukraine Hotel, and dialed it.

The call was answered on the second ring, which surprised me, as it was nearing 11 pm. I introduced myself, explained the situation, stated that expense was no object and was told in no uncertain terms that the limo would be at the hotel entrance at the appointed time. I was stunned, and Philippe and his friends had a great time checking out the nocturnal side of Moscow from the back of a stretch Lincoln Continental.

Early in their careers, successful sales professionals learn that only actions reliably produce results. You want an appointment? Ask. You want to close a sale? Ask. You want to get something done? Ask!

The emptiest gesture is not one that produces no result, but one that is never made.

alexpgp: (Corfu!)
Fingers hover above a keyboard, and their strokes tell stories that can vault the hurdles of time and space.

Mostly they don't, though. Instead, our keystrokes are more likely to remind us to pick up the cleaning, or pay the bills, or deal with the myriad other mundane aspects of our lives, thus marking out a fairly broad range of what we can write about. It's what one might call a "target-rich environment."

Hi, my name is Alex, and I’m a compulsive writer.

Not unlike the unfortunate artist who dreams in brush strokes and earns a living painting houses, I spend my time translating technical documents from Russian and French into English, putting my words to someone else’s thoughts. Any residual urges to tap upon a keyboard have been kept under control - mostly - by posting to my LiveJournal, which was created back when membership numbers were four digits long.

This is my second year participating in LJ Idol. I was fortunate enough to survive for quite a while in last year’s event, and along the way, I was able to realize my twin goals of rubbing elbows with others who share my compulsion and of learning something new.

Some of what I learned the last time around, I’m still struggling to understand, and some of what I understand raises my eyebrows. In the meantime, here I am, back again, seeking to broaden my horizons once more, and to reinforce those mental processes and pathways that guide my fingers over that keyboard.

Good luck to everyone!
alexpgp: (Default)
...and to one of the Major Truths™ learned in boot camp, I have decided to participate in LJ Idol Season 6.

If they'll have me, of course.

alexpgp: (Default)
I could not help but notice that this is the week to declare one's participation in Season 6 of [ profile] therealljidol.

It's easy enough to come up with reasons to participate, and with other reasons not to. And like any really good reasons, the arguments are double-edged.

For example, one of the primary reasons to participate again is that Season 5 left me with about 30,000 words of material that I wouldn't have written otherwise; Season 6 would add to that number. However, allowing the sword to cut in the opposite direction, the question arises: "What kind of writer are you if you can't work up the discipline on your own to sit down and write on a regular basis? Do you really need someone - an outside agency - to assign a topic and a deadline?"

There is a counter-counterargument - which starts with "No" followed immediately with "but..." - and there are other reasons (with their respective arguments pro and con), but I've got almost 1,900 source words that require translation now, and so I shall have to defer making any decision until later. My understanding is that today was the first day of "declaration week," so there is some time, at least.

As of now, I feel the pros and cons of throwing my hat into the ring are about equally balanced.

alexpgp: (Default)
I plucked my opponent's pawn off the board and planted my bishop in its place, adding a flourish by twisting the piece slightly after it was down, as if I was screwing it into the wood. Capturing the pawn increased my material advantage to two pawns, formed a potential "steamroller" of my pawns on the left side of the board, and created what I thought was a very uncomfortable position for my opponent in the center.

Having made my move, I got up to stretch my legs and meandered over to check for any late changes in the standings on the tournament crosstable, which was posted over by the director's desk. It also gave me an opportunity to crack a wide, dopey smile out of sight of my opponent, secure in the knowledge that I was going to win the game. Bobby Fischer may have said "I like the moment when I break a man's ego," but I didn't play chess like that.

It was the last round of the competition - a regional team tourney - and our team, which went by the name of "Spassky's Drawers," was in the running for a class trophy. Our team's whimsical name was a pun referring both to underwear and the fact that I and another member of our four-man team had played to a draw in our respective games against ex-world champion Boris Spassky in a simultaneous exhibition arranged by our local club three years before.

I returned to my board to find that my brilliant move was, in fact, an awful blunder. I had overlooked a response that simultaneously attacked both my recently moved bishop and its supporting rook, and my material advantage was about to do an about face, leaving me to fight an uphill battle. More precisely, after a few moments of reflection, I realized it would be a losing uphill battle.

If you hang around chessplayers for any length of time, you'll hear them talk about material, time, space, and initiative. These are all concepts that help a player figure out where the game is going, whether he or she is winning or losing, and what to do about it.

Material, for example, is all about the pieces that are on the board at any given time. Conventional wisdom says that, all other things being equal, a queen is worth 9 pawns; a rook, 5 pawns; and knights and bishops, 3 pawns. Thus, exchanging a rook for a rook is an "even trade"; giving up a bishop for a pawn puts you at a disadvantage.

Though easy to understand, the concept is not very subtle, and relying on this wisdom will only get you so far, since all other things are typically not equal on the board. Sure, there are many pretty games out there in which one side sacrifices piece after piece, ceding a tremendous material advantage to the other side in order to checkmate the enemy king, but such games are relatively rare. More often than not, an advantage of a single pawn will decide games at the grandmaster level.

I spent about fifteen minutes staring at the board, not so much wondering what to do - I really only had one move available to me - but what to do after the ensuing mêlée in the center of the board, which would leave me in a pretty bad spot and deficient in material after the dust had cleared. I pinched the bridge of my nose, then rubbed my temples.

My opponent sat opposite, making a poor effort to hide his elation. Other players came by, stopped, looked at the position, and whispered among themselves. His teammates went away smiling. I wanted to scream. Twice, I came within a heartbeat of angrily tipping over my king on the spot, resigning the game without playing it out to checkmate.

I was not a happy camper.

To take my mind off the idea of resigning, I played my one-and-only move, pushing my king up one square to protect my rook.

Bam! In one smooth motion, my bishop disappeared from the board. Now our rooks were nose to nose, like two bullies in a bar fight. If I traded rooks, they'd come off the board, but my opponent's surviving bishop would then gain the initiative, allowing it to harvest my exposed pawns like a scythe going through a field of ripe wheat, before I could mobilize them. What I needed was time, which in chess translates as a few extra moves, to get my pawn steamroller moving.

The way to gain that time was to figure out a way to force my opponent to make moves that didn't help his position, while at the same time making moves that helped mine. The problem was - given what was on the board - it couldn't be done. With this in mind, I again eyeballed my king and thought about ending the game with a flick of my finger.

Instead, I pushed a pawn to support my rook. If my opponent wanted to trade rooks, the pawn would recapture with check, forcing my opponent to waste time moving his king away from the pawn. I would have gained one move, true, but after that, I'd be left twisting slowly in the wind, with no way to keep my opponent from marching into my position, using his king and bishop like a hammer and anvil to ultimately sweep my remaining pawns from the board. I felt like I was about to be squashed as flat as a bug on a racecar windshield.

My opponent pushed a pawn in response, and my heart skipped a beat. The pawn move was… a waste of time. It served no good purpose at all, and I suddenly felt as if I had been given an early Christmas gift. I advanced the pawn next to the one I had pushed the move before, thus mobilizing two-thirds of my as-yet unopposed "steamroller."

My opponent seemed not to care, and played another pawn move! What was he doing? What was he thinking?

Pawns are doubtless the product of a brilliant, but diseased mind. You see, unlike all other chess pieces, they can only move forward; they cannot move backward. They cannot budge an opposing piece standing in front of them, because they can only attack (or protect) squares that are diagonally in front of them. This makes pawns the weakest of chess pieces.

Yet as weak as a pawn may be, it can still capture enemy pieces and even deliver checkmate, if the opportunity presents itself. Further, inside of each pawn is this crazy ability to be "promoted" to any piece of the player's choosing - most often, a queen (the most powerful piece on the board) - but only if it can reach the opposite end of the board.

Now, the thing that made the pawns on my left flank so potentially powerful was the fact that there were no obstacles between them and my opponent's side of the board. This, combined with the ability to support each other as they advanced, was what created the "steamroller" effect. (To make a rough analogy with hockey, think of a "power play" situation where the entire defending team is sitting in the penalty box!) On the other hand - and on the other flank - my opponent's pawns could be easily stopped, because I still had a couple of pawns left on that side of the board.

With his last two moves, my opponent betrayed a fatal flaw that is common among amateurs: an inability to win a won endgame. (I recognized this because I myself have been troubled by this affliction from time to time.)

Broadly speaking, the game of chess is divided into the opening, the middle game, and the endgame. Which is most important? Well, the legendary Cuban World Champion Capablanca maintained that the most important phase for a beginner to master first was the endgame, and today, this is still considered the case.

However, generations of amateurs have ignored this advice, reasoning that without a good grounding in the opening and middle game, they'll never manage to reach an endgame, much less one they can win. Yet the flip side to ignoring conventional wisdom is ending up with a won endgame that you lack the technique to win.

I began to hope this flaw would provide me with the time I needed to save my game. It did.

Seven moves later, my steamroller had become an Irresistible Force, while my opponent's pawns were stuck fast, his king had retreated, and his bishop was trying to simultaneously attack in one direction and defend in another, leaving me with a position with - speaking euphemistically - very definite possibilities. In short, a win.

I had managed to weather the despair of a serious blunder, but now, it was my opponent's turn to kick himself, because he knew exactly what his problem was, and there wasn't anything he could do to stave off the inevitable. His teammates, who had been hovering near our board, moved away, leaving him to deal with his situation.

His brow wrinkled. His upper lip started to curl, hinting at a snarl. He started to run his fingers through his hair, and then began to rhythmically pull his hair. Then he stopped, cupped his hands together vertically in front of his face, covered his nose and mouth, and breathed heavily a couple of times. His eyes met mine, and I saw something change, subtly.

Then he reached down and tipped over his king.


P.S. Our team won the trophy!
alexpgp: (Corfu!)
I made resolutions in 2002, 2003, and 2004, but then gave it up.

Why? Because when the time came to "settle accounts," so to speak, at the end of the year, it uniformly turned out that (surprise!) I did pretty well at the stuff I was good at - "pursue excellence as a wordsmith, interpreter, and translator" - and not so well (sometimes spectacularly so) in areas I wasn't so good at, which included almost everything else. Basically, in most areas, I hadn't changed at all.

According to articles published several years ago in The Wall Street Journal and Wired, this turns out to be about par for the course for most people, which is little consolation. According to those articles, something like 94 out of 100 people fail to make important personal lifestyle changes even if there is very clear and direct evidence that such changes will, with near certainty, prolong their lives.

So I "backslid," if you will, in terms of improving my life. I just kept on "keeping on." It worked, sort of. Or then again, maybe not.

Doing things I excelled at gave me a pretty workmanlike feeling of overpowering my shortcomings, but in truth, I was running around at Mach 2 with my hair on fire, letting stuff get out of control from time to time. Tempers flared; communications collapsed; credit scores suffered.

I think it took the relatively recent deaths of my parents, one year apart, to jar me hard enough and make me acutely aware that life isn't static, that I'm closer to the end of my life than to the beginning, and that if I don't start to apply some boot to buttock real soon, there will be that much less "later" in which to live a better life.

So, I've decided it's time to once more enter the lists, because if there's one thing the end-of-year holiday season brings out - at least in most of us - it is the irrepressible idea that it is possible to turn a new leaf and improve one's life. And this year, I've decided to pay attention and do something about it. (I can almost hear Paul Henreid's voice saying "Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.")

So, just as you'd want to launch a rocket toward the east from the Equator, thus taking advantage of the fact that, from your position, you're already moving east at 1000 mph without having done a thing, I figure, "Why not take advantage of the jump start associated with the 'starting with a new slate' feeling of the New Year and go with the flow?"

Hey! It's only a few hours to the New Year!

In those earlier years, my list of resolutions was pretty impressive in scope. However, a dip into Ben Franklin's seminal work in the self-improvement field (his Autobiography, which should be read even if you have no intention of making New Year's Resolutions) shows that ol' Ben hewed to the simple approach, keeping his goals down to thirteen areas of interest, which he called Virtues, each described in one or two sentences (e.g., "11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.").

Heck, I can do that! Anyone can!

What I failed to do, in those years where I made no progress, was what Franklin did back before the advent of the BlackBerry and the Moleskine, and that was to review his personal behavior on a regular basis (each day, in fact) and, in a notebook of his own design, to
mark by a little black Spot every Fault I found upon Examination to have been committed respecting that Virtue upon that Day.
With such a system, it was easy to see how he was doing at any point in time, although I think the real purpose of his notebook was to help him stay focused on his goals.

Furthermore, he concentrated on strengthening each of his Virtues individually, on a successive weekly basis, rather than trying to improve them all at once. Rome was not built in a day, and any of us is a much more splendid work, worthy of greater care and attention.

So the key isn't the goal you set, but how often you pay attention to what and how you're doing, making any necessary "course corrections."

With that little lecture under my belt - directed more at myself than at you, kind reader - and with the assumption that I need little encouragement to excel at things I am already good at, herewith are my modest goals for 2009, which have been chosen precisely because they are goals I have not able to so much as dent in years past:
  1. Improve my relationship with my wife, children, and grandchildren.
  2. Get medieval on my lack of facility with money.
  3. In connection with #2, make an earnest effort to understand investments.
  4. In connection with #2, stamp out "leaks" of cash from our household.
  5. In connection with #2, plan and start an online enterprise of some kind.
  6. Take control of my health, especially my weight.
  7. Expand the scope of my one-man shop.
  8. In connection with #7, market my company's services more aggressively to end clients.
  9. Acquire improved fluency in speaking French.
  10. Finish the story I started to write during this past Nanowrimo.
In closing, whether you choose to make resolutions or not, dear reader, please accept my best wishes for the coming New Year!

alexpgp: (Default)
I do hereby toss my hat into the LJ Idol ring.



alexpgp: (Default)

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