To recap…

Today is the final day of NaNoWriMo. The goal was to write 50,000 words in a month. Question is, did I do it? Did I win?

No. Not even close.

In my defense, I found this to be probably the busiest month of the year with work and school. But I tried to find time to get writing done. I got just a little over 9000 words in total, which is at least a personal achievement. But I don’t plan on giving up either. I’m going to see this story out to the end. My new goal is to finish the first draft by the end of the year.

I learned something this time around. First drafts are awful. Every time I’ve attempted to write a novel, I’ve drowned myself out in editing and reediting everything. This time, I refrained from editing at all and just focused on getting words on paper, even if it sounded bad. And boy, do many of these sentences sound bad! My inner editor is screaming as best he can with the duct tape I placed over his mouth.

I’m adding an excerpt of my writing here, as a sort of milestone. Keep in mind what I just said: First drafts are awful. This excerpt is not the best thing I’ve written. But I want to include it as a celebration of this month. I look forward to the day where I can make it sound fantastic.

Without further ado, a portion of Plunder the Children.

***

Tom came back into the realm of the conscious when his knees were slammed into cold concrete. His hands were tied behind his back. His head was inside a small black bag. He attempted to move his arms, but relented, unsure of how many men (or weapons) were in the room with him. He did not feel his holster in its usual spot and tried to remember if he had taken it off at home. He didn’t think so, but his head was throbbing so he couldn’t be sure.

He suddenly realized he was breathing incredibly fast. He tried slowing down his breathing rate, but realized it would probably not matter anyway. Whoever this Zay person is already had him. They had his family. They’d be doing whatever it is they wanted to be doing.

The bag was suddenly and violently ripped off his head. It caught on his chin, lifting his head up so he was staring directly at bright lights before his eyes tried to adjust. He made a small whimper in pain, but concealed it before it grew into something bigger. His eyes finally began acclimating to its new light so he took in his surroundings. He was in a cold, prison-like room, with sea foam green paint flecking off the wall. The lighting was dim. There was an intricate cherry wood table maybe twenty-five feet in front of him. One man, well built, sat on top of it. Two men stood against the wall on the right. One stood by the wall on the left. And one man sat behind the table. This man was different than the others. Everyone else wore tight leather jackets or tank tops. This man wore a sharp, perfectly-tailored business suit. Everyone else looked menacing and threatening. This man was calm. No scowl on his face or tattoos on his biceps. He looked as out of place as the table he sat behind. Tom looked behind himself quickly. The room extended several feet that direction, but no one was there. Looking back, he realized there was no escape. The only door in the room was in the far corner on the left. All five men could get to him before he could get to the door.

The men simply stared at him for a while. Tom was unsure if he needed to say something or not. He still could not control his breathing, but tried to puff his chest out nonetheless. He thought it probably looked stupid, but if there was any way he could look more intimidating, he would take it. His life would not end without a fight, especially if there was a chance to get his family back.

“Thomas McQuinn, correct?” The man behind the desk broke the silence, every word echoing ominously in the room.

Tom considered doing this the hard way, without cooperation. But as he thought about it, he realized it was probably better to play along. “Yes, that’s me.”

The man looked down at a stack of papers on his desk. “Ah. You are the one in charge of the investigation against Lakes Army at the Phoenix Police Department. Is that correct?”

Should I just say ‘Yes?’ He does not seem to be a typical gang member… “Somewhat.” He waited for the man to shout something like, “That’s a yes or no question.”

“How so?”

Tom blinked. “The investigation has been ongoing for several years and the man who started it retired two years ago. It is not an active investigation, but we have been having recent success against you—er, the Lakes Army gang.”

The man nodded. “I see. You are, however, the officer in charge of arresting Howard Dunham?”

Does this man not use street names? “Yes, that was me.”

“Ah. Well, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I—”

“I’m not your acquaintance,” Tom snapped, before he could stop himself.

The man paused for a moment. “I’m sorry. No doubt you are worried about your family. Well, put your mind at ease. They are safe. They are in our custody and our care. A little shaken up, but then again, so are you. We would have taken you at the same time, but you oddly weren’t around when we showed up. Is everything okay at home?”

Tom clenched his fists, but held himself back. He already lashed out once. Here it would be more justified, but he still could not risk it. The man must have sensed his tension, as did the others in the room, who stood more alert, ready for a move from their captive.

“My mistake. Your personal life should remain yours. I meant no offense.” He waited for a reply. Receiving nothing but an intense stare from Tom, he continued. “I should introduce myself. My name is Exzayvius VonTrapp. Many call me Zay, but I am not a big fan of nicknames.”

Tom sat up straight upon hearing this. This man sitting just a few feet away, was Zay? The Zay? The mythic leader of Lakes Army was here in this room talking to him as casually as if they had been best friends?

Zay continued. “You are a good man. You uphold the law and everything decent in this country. I respect that and I respect you. That is why we have not done anything to impede your arrests of our gang members. You have to make a living. Unfortunately, I have to make a living as well.”

What is this guy talking about? Respect? He’s going to say he respects me after he just kidnapped my family?

“One of my associates was unavoidably involved in a large scale drug deal in person. We usually like to do things like that in a satellite location, you see. But technology being the mess it is, we had to send him in. But as he was leaving the location, you were able to grab him before we could conceal him. I’m not certain of all the details, but I must congratulate you. There was a very small window of opportunity for you, and you were able to take it. Bravo. But that puts me in a difficult position.” He cleared his throat.

The room suddenly seemed taller to Tom. He felt everyone’s eyes burning holes in his neck.

“Mr. Dunham was an integral part of my plans. He and another member of our company were in charge of narcotics. He is now in your custody, so we need to replace him.” Zay stood up, looking as frightening as ever. “This is where you come in.”

Tom looked at his captor. He hoped his face didn’t show it, but he was terrified.

“You are going to be with us for two weeks. Day one starts tomorrow morning. You will do whatever we tell you to do and you will not alert the police or raise suspicions in the minds of anyone at any time. You will be able to see your family every other day, as long as we receive your full cooperation. Once you are released, you are free to live your life. However, you must discontinue your investigation of Lakes Army. Do you have any questions?”

Tom had a million questions. He thought about asking one, but took it back. His face must have betrayed him.

“Was that a question? Anything at all, sir. I want you to fully understand what is happening here.”

Tom remained silent.

“Very well then. You will be put in the care of Emery, here.” He gestured to the man sitting on the desk, who then stood up, arms folded with a don’t-care attitude etched into his face. “You will be with him for these two weeks. He will guide you to and from your cell, will serve you food, and will take you to wherever we need you to go. Be nice to him.”

Emery walked over to Tom and stood beside him. He clasped his hands in front of him and cocked his head up, staring at Zay. Tom looked up at him, unsure if he was unhappy with being assigned to “serve” him, but he didn’t personally relish the idea. He wanted to see his family now. He wanted to let them know that he would do anything possible to get them out of this hellish experience. He wanted them to know he loves them dearly. But he saw no way to escape at the moment.

Zay pulled his suit down and wiped some dust from the breast pocket. “It has certainly been a pleasure to meet you and I sincerely hope this ends well for you and your family. This should be the last time you will see or hear me.” He turned abruptly and walked out the door, one of the goons following him.

Plunder the Children IV – A Still, Sorrowful Night

Greetings! I’m making good on my goal of one minimum post a month by barely making the cutoff for August. But I’ve made it, so here you are. It’s my fourth installment of Plunder the Children.

***

Tom looked at his family, streaming to his laptop in classic low quality video. Their mouths were taped shut. Their arms were tied to a pole. Their eyes were puffy and red. He wished he could hear their voices too, but for now it was enough to know they were alive.

“I’m going to get you out of this as fast as possible, I promise. I just have to do whatever he tells me and he’ll let you go.” Tom was fighting back tears. He wanted justice. His family did not deserve this. They had no knowledge of the cases he worked on (Tom made it a point to keep work and home life separate, if only for his own sanity). He gritted his teeth as he watched his family struggle against the ropes, desperately trying to get closer to the screen, as if somehow that would ease the inflicted wounds.

“Relax, guys. Calm down. Calm down,” he said, hating himself more with every word.  He couldn’t tell them to calm down when he hadn’t calmed down for days. He looked toward the back, where Brendan, the baby, lay on the only comfort in the concrete room—a small plush pillow. He wanted desperately to hold him and rock him to sleep. Brendan did not cry. He just lay there, not understanding how different life had instantly become.

The guard looked at Tom. “Time’s up.” He strode from the door to the laptop.

“Guys, I gotta go. Just know that I’m safe and you’ll be getting out of here soon. I lo—“

The laptop was snapped shut.

“On your feet.” The guard’s cold voice snapped Tom out of the temporary, minute joy he felt at seeing his family again. A rifle was tapped against Tom’s back, directing him to the exit. Each step became harder for him, as he realized there would be at last one more crime to commit before he saw his family again.

The guard directed him to the left as he entered the hallway, following his cadence with military precision. The hallway ended shortly in front of the men, with a guard standing by a door to the right.

“In here,” came the guard’s harsh speech. “You sleep here tonight. Food comes shortly.” He waited for Tom to enter the room before slamming the door shut behind him, locking him and any chance of escape inside.

Tom looked at his surroundings, wondering where he was. The room contained a bed chained to the wall, a sink, a toilet (no toilet paper), a Gideon Bible, and a window, neatly patterned with four rusted metal bars. He guessed he was in an abandoned prison of some kind. The heating either did not work, or was a luxury Zee did not afford him. The concrete room was incredibly cold.

Dinner indeed came to him, via a slit in the metal door. It looked like a microwavable Stouffer’s dinner—lasagna, green beans, and a roll, with a small glass of water.

Tom did not rise from the bed when the metal hatch opened to serve him, nor did he rise the rest of the night. He stared at the flaking ceiling, thinking of his wife and children. His sobs reached the ears of the nearby guard at various intervals during the night. But nothing more happened. It was a still, sorrowful night.

500 Words III – Plunder the Children

I was not sure when I started this story if I would continue it. It was just supposed to be a writing exercise. But I find I am enjoying the story, despite any sort of planning on it (something that many writers would balk at). I have missed a couple days on writing my 500 words a day, though, but here is another section of it. It’s probably the section I’m least proud of, but since I seem to be posting everything else, it’s good to get some stuff out there that’s not the best too. You know, keep it interesting.

Also, I’m calling the story Plunder the Children for now. Here’s the next section:

***

The crime syndicate working in the greater Phoenix area was not based there, and had reaches in all fifty states and most first-world countries around the world. The men in charge kept their underlings in confusion for safety purposes. In truth, there was no single name for their gang, and Exzayvius VonTrapp did not exist. The man in charge, the president and CEO of the company, the mastermind behind the whole business was a man who had no identity. He had been scrubbed of his American citizenship, including name, place of birth, and social security number (no small feat!), and had fled to the country of Namibia. He spoke English, Afrikaans, and German in incredibly accurate accents with all the quirks of a native speaker, that those who would speak to him in these languages would figure he grew up across the street from them. Only two people within his massive criminal empire had ever met him, referring to him by the only name he used in public: Zee.

Zee was very careful to send investigations into wild goose chases. The CIA and FBI had long since given up any related cases years prior. As the years progressed, the methods of cover-up became more sophisticated so that new crimes could not be traced to a larger organization, but just to localized gangs. Even members of the gangs had no idea they were working in a bigger picture. They developed their own practices, such as sticking baby blue handkerchiefs in the pockets of their victims or including a candy bar with every cocaine purchase (seriously). But none of these were used in the broader picture. Drugs were sold, enemies were killed, and Zee grew richer and richer. All the while, he lived a life of luxury in a country not known for its luxury.

Then one day, Zee had reason for concern.

In Phoenix, Arizona the chief of police made a statement about soon solving the cold cases of the murders of the Swartwood and Viggin families in the 70s, due to a bright spark who found clues where others did not. He was learning that there was a bigger picture involved in local crimes that, he believed, may even reach to other states. If only he knew. Local gang managerial members passed the information up the chain of command until it finally reached Zee’s ears.

Zee had an intelligence team of his own who were surprised to find this Bureau of Latent Investigations employee had found enough information to begin to connect the dots. He knew that there were not multiple gangs in the area, but just one. He knew many members of these gangs had no idea what they were getting into. And he knew that Exzayvius VonTrapp was a red herring. He knew too much.

Zee was not scared. But he did not want this man killed. He wanted his mind changed. It was not enough to end the flow of information. It must be changed. He must be changed. The very way he thinks must be rewritten.

***

Hey, let me know what you think. Read the previous two, much better, segments if you haven’t yet!

500 Words (II)

Well, here we are once again in my goal to write 500 words a day. I had said I wouldn’t be posting everything, but I wanted to post this. It’s a continuation of the last post, written in a sort of episodic format that is either ingenious or maddening. Also, I prove that I don’t know how to speak Thug. You’ll see. It’s embarrassing.

***

The mockingbirds and finches sang their happy tunes as Thomas walked into a building too cheery to be government-related. The sun glinted off its glass-and-steel modern architecture in a playful way. In stark contrast, thunderstorms were roiling in Tom’s mind as he walked with heavy steps toward another day of disappointment. The Bureau of Latent Investigations was not a well-known branch of the government and was even forgotten by those whose political prowess acclaimed them to both public scrutiny and laud. Being forgotten had a way of affecting one’s mind. Another dead-end case. Another “Who cares?” from Uncle Sam.

Tom slammed his suitcase on his desk in his floor-three cubicle and fired up the computer. He shuffled around some of the files in the cluttered area, trying to pull up anything he had on Exzayvius VonTrapp. After he gathered it all, he examined the paltry excuse for a pile: Exzayvius (Zay for short) was the criminal kingpin of an international gang, the name of which was undetermined. Tom got a million answers: The Church, Tyrants, Vein Juice, The Bowling League… They ranged from the idiotic to the menacing.

A woman had been murdered last week in Tucson. A baby blue handkerchief had been put in her right front pants pocket. It was difficult to connect the murders with Zay’s gang, but a few former members came clean. They would not say how or why, but the gang was associated with baby blue. Tom looked at one of the interview transcripts in his pile.

NAME: [REDACTED]
REASON FOR ARRREST: Resisted arrest. Dealing drugs. Suspected gang involvement.
INTERROGATION OFFICER: Do you know why we arrested you?
CRIMINAL: ‘Cuz I’m in a gang. I don’t know nothin’ bout Zay.
IO: Who is Zay?
C: Shoot, you cops ain’t got nothin’ on us. Zay’s head of the Fish. We don’t care about anyone else. We’re just fightin’ for ourselves.
IO: The Fish is the name of your gang?
C: Yeah.
IO: Have you heard of the Bad Bloods?
C: Psh, they’re made up, man.
IO: I had a member of the Bad Bloods in here just yesterday. He said Zay was his head.
C: He’s a liar. Bad Bloods don’t exist. Only other gang in town is the Snap.

Tom moved his attention to a new interview transcript.

NAME: Darius Feld (D-Pain)
REASON FOR ARREST: Breaking and entering. Drug possession. Suspected gang involvement.
INTERROGATION OFFICER: You admit to murdering Donna Vanderpool?
FELD: Of course I do. I ain’t ashamed. She deserved it. Couldn’t pay me back. Held out on what she owed me. She knew what would happen.
IO: I see. Are you aware you’re suspected of involvement with a gang?
F: Yeah, maybe because I’m in one! Bad Bloods, representin’ right here. You arrest me, you goin’ get Zay comin’ after ya.

He scanned through the file. This particular member became emotional and broke down. The interrogation officer was quick to jump on the opportunity, but gained little information.

IO: How? How did they torture you?
F: Baby blue… Baby blue…

Tom closed the file in defeat. He used to love his job. This one particular case changed him. He was tired of false leads and vague identities. He wanted to know who this Zay character was. He wanted to know what the goals of the gang were. He wanted to solve years of unsolved mysteries through piecing all the clues together. There just weren’t many clues.

The finches continued their song outside, out of earshot of the officers locked away at their desks.

***

“Hi there, neighbor! I’m from R+F Research Marketing and I’d love to tell you about our fantastic line of makeup products.”

Tom pointed to the No Soliciting sign posted on the side light. “Sorry, buddy. Not today.”

The salesman did not seem to care about the McQuinn vendor policy. “You got a missus?”

Tom blinked.

“Check it out.” He began to reach into his suitcase to pull out samples.

Tom breathed heavily. “Get off of my property. I’m not interested in your crap.”

“B-but, sir, this will only take a second—“

The door was slammed shut.

Tom walked back into his living room, cursing when he saw he missed a touchdown. He flopped down into the couch, more than a little annoyed, but was able to quickly immerse himself in the game to forget about the incident. His television volume was also loud enough that he did not hear the rustling of backyard bushes of a man casing the house.

***

“He should get the death penalty.” Tom was adamant. He looked around at the group of people at the Bible study, wondering if he was the only one who had been dragged there by his wife. “Plain and simple. Any sort of scumbag who would just murder people like that should have the same thing done to him.”

Tara was slightly embarrassed by her husband’s no-holds-barred attitude, though she agreed with the general sentiment. “I mean, if he doesn’t die, where is the justice?”

Pastor Sheffield spoke in his calm manner. “Ah, but is our sense of justice coming from ourselves or from God?”

Tracy Burnum spoke up. “Well, for certain sins in the Old Testament, the punishment was death. So, it’s not like it goes against God. I think the death penalty comes straight from the Bible.”

Bubba Truman was next. “But didn’t Jesus’ sacrifice get rid of that need? I mean, I think we should pray for that guy. Maybe in jail he’ll come to know the Lord.”

“But didn’t he give up that right when he committed murder?” came another reply.

“Well, is it ever too late? Did God ever give up on us?”

“No he didn’t, and I don’t think he gave up that right either,”” someone else exclaimed.

“He might not have given up that right, but he should still be given the death penalty. Maybe he could accept the Lord before he dies.”

“All I know is I want to see justice done. That poor boy is missing a mother now. How do you think it’d feel to him knowing that the man who killed his mother is still out there living? Sure, he might be in prison, but they get movies and internet access and conjugal visits and all sorts of stuff. And it’s all paid for by your tax dollars! I’m sorry if it makes me a terrible person, but he deserves death.”

Pastor Sheffield interrupted the conversation in an effort to bring the group back to discussion on the book of Galatians. The Wednesday night study often went into tangents, especially on current events, but the conversation was becoming too heated for the Pastor’s liking.

No one walked away from the meeting that night with a different opinion on the death penalty. But Tom often thought about that night. He wondered how anyone could be so dense. The murderer deserved murder. No questions asked. He wondered if anything could happen in the future to change his mind on that.

***

What do you think? Please let me know. I’m always looking to improve my writing.

500 Words

I am trying to write more. I seem to express that in a lot of my blog posts of late… But now I have a goal: 500 words everyday until it becomes second nature. I can do that, right? No problem.

Here are two days worth of that goal. (I’m not going to publish every single 500-word snippet, but I did want to publish this.)

The following is a story idea I started years ago but never finished. Story of my life, right? Please excuse the poor quality of this introduction. My brain is not braining well tonight. Here goes:

***

Thomas McQuinn walked down the street, legs quivering in fear as three police cars shot past, their sirens ominously blaring in his head long after they passed out of sight. With every step, the bulk in his right pocket bounced against his leg, still slightly warm, not letting him afford a moment to forget about what he just did. He could hear newscasts yet to be aired, detailing the brutal acts committed against an entirely innocent family. He was a monster.

He had done many criminal deeds in the past few weeks, but none of them involved murder. Ordinarily, he would rush home to see if his family was still alive… But not this time. He let the weight of his actions settle in the crevices of his mind. He wanted to feel the strongest sting of self-condemnation. He wanted it to burn in his mind. He had committed murder. He had never killed a soul prior to that day. Now he had killed three.

As he continued down the road, another police car roared through, disturbing Tom’s self-loathing. A cloud of dust kicked up from behind its tires, hanging in the dry Tucson air. He reached a crossroad and turned left, walking through the dust cloud that had yet to settle. He watched as it clung to his clothes and his skin, wishing it would completely cover him; hide his shame.

A taxicab sat waiting for him, engine purring. He got into the back and sat there without a word. The driver did not look back at him, nor ask him “Where to?” but drove him to the destination set out for him.

Tom rested his hands on his gut and tried to hold in his sobs. What would he tell his family if he ever got to see them again? Would they forgive him if they knew it was to save them? Would he ever be able to live with himself?

He tried gulping in air between dry heaves. The driver still did not look back. Tom began thinking about the family he had killed: a couple and their child. He wondered about the intricacies of their lives. If they were a blue collar family or a white collar family… If the kid was in fourth or fifth grade… If they ever went to the state fair… What they thought about the current president… If they believed in God.

Do the ends justify the means? If he did not kill this family, his own family would be killed. Zee made that very clear. Was it right? If his family knew, would they, in their sense of justice rather be killed?

Would the madness ever end?

The taxi began taking roads he was unfamiliar with. He had thought he was done for the day and he was supposed to be going home. Apparently not. Something within him raised alarms in his head, but the rest of him drowned them out in sorrow. It did not matter what happened next—it was unforgivable what he did.

***

He turned onto his avenue a little later than normal Friday night. The dog at the corner house started barking at him as he drove past. He winced, hoping none of the neighbors would awaken because of it. As he pulled into the driveway he began thinking of dinner. His oldest son was eating more than his fair share—the growth spurts of adolescence were hitting him hard—and would often not leave enough leftovers for his hard-working father.

Tom grabbed the key to turn off the ignition, but held it and sighed. He and his wife got into a fight just a couple days ago over his recent rash of late homecomings and the thought of going inside to get confronted yet again was less than heartwarming.

“I’m doing it for you,” he said out loud before finally twisting the key. “I hope you understand that.”

When he walked inside, it was completely dark. Not a light was on. Strange, he thought. I guess she went to bed. He couldn’t blame her. She spoke her piece. He was still late.

He waited for his eyes to adjust before heading upstairs, trying to avoid the spots on the stairs that squeaked so he wouldn’t wake the kids. His bedroom was door was left open just a crack. No light inside either. He noted it felt rather chilly as well. Tara must have forgotten to turn on the heat. Stranger still. He walked into the bedroom and began taking off his tie when he noticed the bed. Empty. Still made.

He left his tie half-finished and began walking to the master bathroom. “Tara? Honey?” No answer. No one in the bathroom.

He walked back downstairs. Maybe he had passed her in the living room and hadn’t realized it. He stood on the staircase and looked out from above the railing. No one was in the room. Fear was rising in his heart as he ran back upstairs. He ran to his son’s room. “Tara?” He opened the door, still somewhat cautious of awakening the children. Darrin’s bed was empty and made as well. Then to Liz’s room. Her bed was made. Brendan’s crib was also empty.

He began to get scared but was sure there was some logical answer. He pulled out his phone and called Tara as he walked back downstairs. He could hear it ringing from the bedroom. Fear grew. He called Darrin. No answer. Fear grew. He called his mother-in-law, thinking she might know something. Voicemail.

“Hey, Susan. It’s Tom. Just wondering if you’ve seen Tara recently. Call me back soon, please.” He hung up, hoping his panic didn’t come through in the message. He ran into the kitchen. “Tara! Darrin! Liz!” He thought for a moment and even screamed for his two month-old, hoping a stray “goo” would graze his ears and allay his worried mind. He didn’t hear a thing. He ran out the front door and paced on the porch for a minute, scanning the dimly-lit street as he searched his mind for answers. He ran back inside and screamed, “Anyone!” No answer.

He ran back outside and looked, then back in again. He knew it made no sense, but he hoped to somehow catch a glimpse of them. His breathing intensified. “Where are you?” He rested on his knees to catch his breath and looked up. And that’s when he saw it.

The mailbox post for his house was cemented in the ground at a cockeyed angle. This was no doubt frustrating for the mailman, but was more convenient for the McQuinn family because they had a better viewing of the red flag. Tom looked out the window and saw the red flag was up and the mailbox door was open. He ran outside and leapt across the yard to the mailbox. Maybe, somehow it was a clue. Reaching inside, he was somewhat surprised to pull out a piece of paper. His nerves shook his arms as he read the note.

Mr. McQuinn,
Please do not worry. Your family is safe. And with your cooperation, you will be safe too. You and I have a little misunderstanding to settle. If you do everything I require of you, your debt will be paid and your family returned. Once you have finished reading this, you will be taken into custody where you will await your first orders. Thank you for your patience.
Zee

Tom was confused. He reread the note as his pulse and breathing began to increase. He looked up.

There was a sudden burst of motion and noise from behind him. Before he had time to react, something was pressed into his face.

Blackout.

***

Well, what say ye? Please leave any sort of constructive criticism in the comments section.