Fiction Friday: The Boltcutter – Alor

The Boltcutter: Alor

The “Arrivals” are at that East African airport consisted of one small room. After each flight, bodies packed it. One of the four ceiling fans turned slowly, uncertainly, a fair wobble as it rotated. The other three showed no signs of life. Each body in that room sweltered; most also sweat. Three lines had formed on one side of the room and a cluster on the other. The lines led to passport control. The cluster watched luggage tossed into a pile in the centre of the room.

He only had his two carry-on pieces: a rather large backpack and a messenger bag. He stood in the “Other” line while most stood in the “Visa” line. The gentleman in front of him argued. He was in the UN. He didn’t need a visa. The thug in the suit (a very nice suit, and much more fashionable than the uniforms worn by the other thugs at passport control) ignored his protestations and refused to return his passport.

“One hundred dollars.” He had repeated that as an answer for every argument UN Guy voiced. Sure, the thug worked for the government, but damned if he’d take its currency. American dollars, post-2008, crisp and clean and no sign of wear, only 100s–he made certain UN Guy understood this.

Ignoring UN Guy wailing to someone on his cell phone, Reno offered his passport to the be-suited thug.

“Mister Reno, you need a visa.” Suit-Thug pronounced the name as though Reno were in the old west, a gambler, or an American city. No one ever read it right.

“Page twenty-one,” Reno said.

“It’s no good.” The thug didn’t even bother to look at him. Reno obviously bored him. “You need a visa. One hundred dollars American.” He went on about the specifics. Reno already knew them.

What was the point of arguing? From out of his pocket, Reno drew a single, pristine one-hundred dollar US note with only a single fold. Thug took it, slapped a visa in the passport, filled it in from the information on the ‘no good’ visa, stamped it and sent Reno on his way.

Bags had to be searched. Other thugs in other uniforms had to intimidate Reno with their hard looks and sneers. Reno swallowed it all, gave nothing back. He knew their kind and they honestly weren’t worth a bead of sweat.

Passing through the gauntlet left Reno outside. Crossing a road, Reno entered the ‘waiting room,’ an area covered with a hard plastic roof, wavy like corrugated tin. Tables and chairs and vending machines that looked like they had seen worse abuse than the rest of the airport sheltered under this paltry roof.

The country had been independent for five years, autonomous of six before, and the current civil war – the most recent of three decades without peace – had erupted a couple of years back. One really couldn’t expect much, not even at the capital’s international airport.

At one of those plastic tables, sitting in a battered plastic chair, Reno’s fixer waited for him. Abraham Deng, big and bald, used the name Ibrahim whenever he needed to play Muslim. As far as Reno knew, Deng hadn’t been back to this city – to his home country at all – since 2006. Deng didn’t say a word, just gestured to the parking lot with his chin and started walking. Reno followed.

Inside the Prado (right-hand drive so it came from Kenya or Uganda, as likely had its driver) Deng turned the CD player and the AC on. Reno stashed his bags in the back seat and settled into the front.

“Surprised to see you here,” he said to Deng.

“I could say the same.” Leaving the airport, Deng drove straight through the fork. The right would have taken them to the main UN base. Straight took them a lot of places.

“Who are we going to see?” Reno checked the glove compartment. He pulled out a NORINCO knock off of a P226. He did a quick inspection. The piece looked tip top, with a full magazine and one in the chamber.

“You remember Alor? The big captain?”

Reno did. Back when he had ran guns and trained commandos, Captain Alor had been a sadistic military intelligence tough. With arms almost as impressive as his expanding gut, Alor had connections and a willingness to do anything to please. Last Reno had seen him, back in the summer of 2006, Colonel Alor had a future far brighter than his intellect intimated. “You’re working for Alor?”

Deng turned onto the road leading to the main army base, west of the capital. “We are.”

“That remains to be seen.” Reno put the pistol back in the glove compartment. He wanted to carry, but he left it to Deng to make the call.

They still rode smooth. The eight main roads in the capital boasted pavement. The rest turned into muddy swamps when the rains came. Those would come in about two weeks. Reno noticed the lakes cutting through a few of the side roads, meaning some storms had already arrived. Other roads still relatively dry had huge divots – riverbeds really – bisecting them, turning them into obstacle courses for even the stoutest of four-wheel drives. Good luck in anything smaller.

The squat, square structures with thatched roofs denoting a military camp began to increase in frequency to Reno’s left – round huts were civilian and those were few and far between along that road. He could see the gate to the military compound just ahead. “Alor the one that got you back into the country?”

Deng scoffed at this. “I drove in through Uganda. Do you think passport control actually means control?”

“Did you have to pay a hundred bucks?”

The sideways glance meant Deng didn’t know if Reno joked. “I’m on a goddamn Kenyan passport. Damn right I had to pay.”

“You using an alias?”

“You think Deng isn’t one?”

“Touché.” They didn’t turn at the gate. There wasn’t much past the camp. Did Alor have an estate outside of town? Doubtful. Anyone who thought he was anyone lived in the city. “Where are we going?”

“You getting nervous?” Deng smiled. It might look evil to someone who didn’t know Deng well, but to Reno that smile meant mild amusement.

Reno only offered a slight chuckle, his insider chuckle, the one he used when his friends weren’t particularly funny. “Yeah, I’m getting the vapours.”

“Alor’s a major general now, real important, deputy chief and all that.” Deng steered with his knees while he took out a cigarette and lit it. “He has some problems he wants corrected. He wanted us. Remembered us from the North-South wars.”

“I’m a long fucking way from those, man.”

“I’m not far enough.” Deng lowered the driver’s side window without shutting off the AC. Most of his smoke got dragged out. “I don’t know about you, but time has not been kind. I’ve been in some shitty places doing some shitty things. I need to put it all behind me.”

“This’ll do that?”

What came out of Deng wasn’t exactly a growl, but Reno wouldn’t have called it laughter either. “If it doesn’t, nothing will. Somewhere I’ve got a home. I want to go there.”

That sealed it for Reno. He didn’t respect much, not money, not position, not influence. He did respect loyalty. He respected trust. Of the currency of his trade, nothing had a higher value. Deng had done him right on every job they worked together. Reno would do him right on this one. “Do I need the gun?”

Deng frowned, turning his eyes dark, his demeanour deadly. “Maybe.”

Pulling his messenger bag from out of the back seat, Reno stashed the fake SIG in it. He had a special pocket for just such an occasion. “I don’t suppose you have anything else?”

“I’ve got an Uzi and an MP7 in the spare tire well in back. A little bit too obvious for the meet, but if things go south . . .”

Reno pocketed the P226’s two spare magazines. “Yeah, don’t lock the doors, okay?”

The pavement had ended. About five minutes of silence later and they turned right onto a trail. This led to a few walls encompassing the yards of some small homes in the middle of nothing. Off in the distance, a handful of lights run off generators illuminated the city. Deng stopped the vehicle, threw it into park, and tossed his stub of a cigarette out the window. Their soon to be employer stood in front of a black, Mercedes M-Class SUV, flanked by a couple of boys playing badass. Around them: scrub, dirt, and the denizens of the wild.

Reno noted the briefcase on the vehicle’s hood.

“There’s still time for you to duck out of this one.” Deng looked through the windscreen, not meeting Reno’s eyes.

“Like fuck there is.”

Their perspective boss eyed them in their vehicle. Alor looked bloated. Not fat. His face had some flesh and his arms, while big, lacked muscle, but his protruding belly looked bulletproof.

Bloated.

He wore the uniform of the general staff, with all the piping, all the ribbons, all the markings of his rank. This major general, deputy chief of staff in charge of something or other had two bodyguards in camo with red berets standing behind him. Commandos. Reno didn’t know them, but he had trained their like. Some were good men, but the leadership had mostly sent him thugs, men who liked to hurt others.

These two looked of that mould. They held their AKs loose, non-chalant, giving Reno and Deng the insolent eye. We’ll gut you, they tried to project. We’re bad men and we’ll hurt you if we choose.

But Reno knew the lie of it. Need be, he’d have one of those AKs in his hands. Deng would have the other. He exchanged a look with Deng, and tucked his bag under his legs. He didn’t need that weapon when two others offered themselves to him. Deng took the hint and casually slipped out his pistol. Reno only caught a glance of it, but it looked like Deng still favoured the Browning Hi-Power he had carried almost two decades back.

The two exited the Prado. Alor approached Reno first, hand out, a bright smile on his face.

“John, John, I am so glad you came.” Alor never got Reno’s given name correct.

Shaking Alor’s hand, Reno put on a polite smile, the kind of polite smile he had used with men like Alor, a smile Alor might remember. “I’m glad to be of service, sir.”

That made Alor chuckle, and Reno thought he heard real mirth there. “You still have deference, respect. For the rank, yes?” Alor shook off the retort Reno hadn’t been preparing. “I joke, of course.” He turned to Deng. “Abraham, you look good. You had no trouble at the border?”

“No trouble, sir.” Deng’s voice came quiet, subdued, something Reno had never heard before.

If Alor noticed the change in Deng, he didn’t show it. Reno doubted Alor had ever really listened, at least not to them if anyone. He didn’t listen in the 90s when Deng was doing counter-intelligence, he didn’t listen in the “aughts” when Reno was training his “Falcon” Brigade, and he sure as hell hadn’t listened after the truce with the North, when the two of them made their excuses and got clear of him.

Out of the briefcase, Alor took a manila file, lacking markings, thin. He passed it to Reno. “I need this man disappeared. Like you did before, like you did for the government men.”

“That was long ago, sir, during a war,” Reno said. “If this man is an enemy of the state, you have forces and agents that can take care of this. If this is personal, I believe you have the necessary forces to handle one man.”

“No, this is different.” Alor’s smile had gone. “This man, he is a government man. He is from the North, and there are people who protect him. I cannot have my men do this. I need someone from outside.”

“We can do this.” Deng took the folder from Reno. “Do you know my price?”

“I have your record erased,” Alor said. “It is done. There is money also.” He gestured, and one of the bodyguards slung his AK and passed the briefcase. Alor gestured to Deng, and the guard gave it to him. “American dollars, of course. There is more when you do this.”

Deng offered the briefcase to Reno, who took it. Of course there would be no contract, not for this job. No contract would matter if Alor decided to screw them.

“I need this soon.” Alor walked back to the Mercedes. “I must report this done by the end of the week.”

“Three days?” Reno didn’t like tight deadlines, not on a job with so little information.

With one of the guards holding the door open, Alor paused. “You can do it. You have done more. I remember.” And then he was in the SUV, and the door closed. The guards directed harsh glares at the two before they t0o entered the vehicle. A gunned engine, dust raised, and Alor and his men left.

“Are you shitting me?” Reno snarled out the words. “Three days? No questions asked? Who the fuck is this guy you’ve promised we’ll remove?” The passport information page in Alor’s file included both a photo and the name Ahmed Hussein Qassim. “You know this Qassim guy?”

“I know the face.” Deng’s shoulders slumped, his body relaxed. “I’ve heard him called Okema. In Somalia, they call him the Bolt Cutter. He’s a Ugandan who did work in Mogadishu. He’s worked for the Ethiopians, Kenyans, and maybe the French, but not the North. I have heard he is now taking the Americans’ money.”

“A Ugandan working Somalia who’s now the Americans’ boy?” That sounded too crazy, but Reno had encountered crazier. “And we’re going to take care of him for Alor?”

Deng took the briefcase from Reno and slid the folder beneath his arm. “No, we’re going to talk to him and find out why Alor wants him dead.”

As Deng tossed the briefcase in the back, Reno got into the Prado. “Bolt Cutter?”

“I have no idea.”

Reno slid on his safety belt, a strange sensation in that city. “We need more. I think I might know someone who can help.”

The Prado roared with vitality. “I still have some friends.” Deng made the vehicle whine. “I need to get some of my kit. I have a safe house we can use.”

“More guns?”

With silence as an answer, Deng bounced the vehicle along the dirt track, jamming into holes and lifting out of them. They didn’t talk much on the drive, Deng focused on the road, Reno focused on the likelihood that Alor planned to betray them.

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Outlining and Inspiration

I’ve spoken about my writing process before and I am a planner. I need to outline my stories and novels or else they just keep drifting along, trying to find an ending, but instead always finding different ideas and conflicts to keep the story moving but pointlessly so. One concern I recently heard regarding outlining was that once the story was on the page, the motivation to write it would be lost.

To which I replied: then it wasn’t something you should be writing.

Listen, maybe you aren’t interested in finishing stuff and marketing it and hopefully selling it. If writing is a compulsion forcing you to put words on to paper, then you don’t need outlining. Ignore me. I’m not the droid you were looking for.

If you do intend to get work done, there’s going to be a method that works for you. Outlining might be part of that method. And here’s the thing: if you are doing this right, you aren’t waiting for motivation or inspiration, you are creating it.

I’ve mentioned before about setting a specific writing time and always working at that time. That works best for me. Motivation and inspiration? For me that led to a lot of staring at blank pages or re-working a piece because I didn’t know how to move forward. Forcing myself to write led to my brain understanding that this was working time when it would be creative and fingers would type.

So, no, outlining does not cause a problem. Not sitting down and writing causes a problem. Making excuses for not writing causes a problem.

But you mileage may vary. Just give outlining a try if you haven’t. It might work for you.

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Happy Victoria Day

To all my Canadian brethren, I hope you enjoying the first long weekend of the summer. When this goes live, I’ll be on my way back from Halifax after attending my wife’s convocation. Not a bad way to celebrate, if you ask me.

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Storyteller Tools Review

I’ve been writing for more than half my life time. My first publication credit was in 1994. When I got started, in university, I read voraciously about the process of creative writing. I spoke with other writers. I belonged to writing groups and critiquing groups. Over the years, I’ve developed my own process and found what works for me. I no longer read Writer’s Digest nor do I belong to any writing groups. Now part of this is because I am not writing fiction as regularly as I once was – I’m mostly writing for RPGs or keeping this and SEP active – but also I’ve learned much about my craft, and find discussions of process less and less helpful.

But that doesn’t mean my process is set or perfect.

When M. Harold Page offered me a courtesy copy of his book Storyteller Tools, I accepted it and had a quick look at the table of contents. Some of the chapter headings piqued my curiosity, and mostly I dipped into it on the bus, waiting for my daughters, anytime I had time on my hands and my cell nearby. I think I’ve gone through most of the book, but not in the standard manner.

And I have found utility in it.

I’m not going to say that it changed my process or approached my craft, but it did make me consider different methods, it made me re-think my assumptions, and it inspired me. Thinking about writing is a good way to get back into writing.

I think this book has a lot more value to new writers, people like me back in the early 90s, having gone as far as the creative spark can take them and ready to get serious about figuring out how to find their own path. It was books like this one that gave me ideas, got me to try out structures and methods and find out what worked for me.

Having said that, there is value in this book for writers like myself, who have a process, and who have researched and tested methods and approaches before. This book will help to re-examine your process and if you’ve had some issues with getting words on the page, reading about the process – at least for me – helps to get you back to putting butt in chair and fingers on keyboard.

I would recommend Storyteller Tools to writers, especially those who are trying to find a process that works for them, but also to those who have a process but are always willing to re-consider their approach.

You can find Storyteller Tools here.

You can find out more about M. Harold Page here.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

So, I finally saw X-Men: Days of Future Past thanks to it being on Netflix. I have to say, while I enjoyed the movie, I wasn’t that impressed with it. I had been thrilled with X-Men: First Class when it came out – though it too had its issues – and was interested to see how Bryan Singer returned to the franchise. While it was an interesting story and I loved seeing the intro of characters like Warpath and Blink, all in all, the movie didn’t blow me away.

I didn’t find the movie all that tense. There were no periods in which I felt actual tension. For me, it seemed too artificial. I’m thinking especially of the ending and the two storylines moving to convergence. The delays in the one timeline didn’t work for me, and seemed too much like manufacturing indecision in an attempt to create apprehension in the audience. It lacked any emotional punch.

And I think that’s where the movie fell down for me. The performances were solid enough – as one would expect from this stellar cast – but I just don’t think the writing was up to the task. The movie needs to create excitement and audience investment in the characters and their predicaments. I don’t feel this movie did that for me.

As much as I blame the writing, the director is the final arbiter – generally – for what appears on the screen, and I don’t think Bryan Singer delivered much emotional depth. It wasn’t that the actors didn’t portray their characters’ pathos or fears well, it is just that – like the tension – it all seemed artificial, like there were a collection of boxes he was checking off: “This is the part where Professor X needs to be redeemed,” “this is the part where Logan’s past/future catches up with him.” It’s funny, since after the first two X-Men movies, Bryan Singer hasn’t had any more big successes. Superman Returns and Jack the Giant Killer didn’t seem to find audiences, although Valkyrie did well.

I don’t have much more to say because this movie didn’t incite any strong emotions. I think it was a fair enough movie, and certainly a fun movie to watch on Netflix, if one is looking for something to watch one night. This is not a movie I’ll be seeking out again.

I give X-Men: Days of Future Past 3 giant, turbofan, polymer robots out of 5. It’s a fair enough movie and fun, but it lacks power and impact.

You can find more information on X-Men: Days of Future Past at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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Vision for Fiction

Listening to Slate’s Money podcast, Carl Richards was speaking about one page financial planning, which in itself sounded fascinating (seriously, it sounds like something imminently sensible as a first step) and he was talking about vision. Why are you investing? What is your goal?

This got me thinking about my goals. Not for my financial planning but for my writing. What am I doing and why am I doing it?

For riches and glory! Not going to happen. Listen, I might have believed there was a shot of this just after I got out of university. I may have thought this while I was writing regularly, when I got my first story published, but somewhere along the line reality caught up with me. I am not saying that there is no possibility that I won’t make it big as a writer, but I am not putting the work into marketing myself – both inside the industry to editors, publishers, and agents, and outside of the industry to readers – to make that happen.

And frankly, if Howard Andrew Jones can’t make it happen, what chance do I have?

Am I compelled to write? I kind of am, but not as much as I once was. I have so many outlets for my ideas these days through RPGs – playing and running as well as publishing – that they have become my primary creative outlet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I find fiction much more creatively fulfilling. There is more cachet to being a fiction writer, but that’s not it – fiction does not have the mechanical component of RPG writing and design, so it is much more creatively free than RPGs.

Do I like to entertain people? Yeah. I definitely do. It’s why I like to GM rather than play.

So what does that mean for my writing?

Well, I am still mercenary, so I would really like to see money for my fiction. When it comes to something that is marketable, I’ll try to sell it first, but a lot of my writing is either not marketable or am I completely ignorant of the markets into which it might fit. I’m thinking specifically of my modern action stories.

I have three stories in various levels of completion that have laid by the wayside because I don’t really know what to do with them. I have other stories that don’t really fit into the modern fantasy market, at least not in venues that pay professional rates. This means I have a small collection of stories I could share.

I figure once a month I can share some fiction – sometimes a whole story and sometimes part of a story. This will give me impetus to finish some of the stories that have languished and hopefully give me a chance to entertain some people as well.

I guess that’s my vision. I aim to please.

You can find the Slate Money podcast here.

You can find out more about Howard Andrew Jones here. He mentions the poor sales of his Dabir and Asim novels in this post.

I have two short stories collections – For Simple Coin and Gifts of the Elder Gods – because I am mercenary.

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Disney’s the Black Hole

Every weekend I’m watching a movie with my daughters, six and eight. Their mom isn’t exactly thrilled, especially when it’s a beautiful day out, but we spent the late morning and the hour after lunch cleaning up the yard and washing the car, so there’s not too much she could say yesterday.

This weekend was Disney’s the Black Hole. This is a movie of which I have very fond memories. I absolutely love the soundtrack by John Barry (who also did a bunch of scores for the James Bond movies) and the concept of “Twenty Thousand Leagues Over a Black Hole” is outstanding. The cast assembled is also pretty darn good with some real standouts – Robert Forster knows how to play a captain and you can’t do mad scientist better than Maximillian Schell.

The biggest problem for me was that Disney couldn’t seem to decide if this was a kid’s movie or an adult’s movie. Now, it is absolutely possible to do both, but it’s hard and I don’t think that happened here. The character of “Bob,” the beaten up old robot voiced by Slim Pickens and S.T.A.R., the sentry robot prototype that pretty much self-destructs after a loss and some juvenile taunting, are examples of ideas that really only works for kids. The main narrative purpose of Bob seemed as a way to get confirmation of information the main characters had already gleaned for themselves, and it might have worked better to excise that character and allow the protagonists’ suspicions to only be confirmed by Alex’s action on the bridge.

It certainly worked for my girls, except for the ending, which left them perplexed. It gave me a chance to discuss how sometimes it’s up to you to decide how a movie ended and to try to explain imagery and ideas in movies. I think they got it, and my eight year-old made her interpretation of the ending that we all accepted (riddled with holes though it might be – she’s eight!).

I would cautiously recommend this movie to fans of sci-fi, but provide a stronger recommendation of it as a serious sci-fi movie one can watch with children. I give the Black Hole 3.75 huge red psychotic robots out of 5. It’s an entertaining enough movie, but it has some real issues with tone and consistency.

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