Saturday, February 25, 2017

Life Update: Book Talk, Mystery Party, New Book Project, Oh My!

I'm in an exciting time of life right now. There have been a few different interesting happenings this month, and I ought to bring my friends and followers up to date.

Linda of Brice's Mice Christian Book Reviews once called me "creatively insane," and sometimes, I really think that phrase fits the ideas and activities in my life, particularly the insane part.

Earlier this month, I hosted a belated birthday party for myself. I should explain that my birthday is January 9th. My birthday comes so close on the heels of Christmas that it can be tricky to make birthday plans on the actual day of my birthday, especially one as elaborate as what has become a bit of a tradition for me.

Three or four years ago, I hosted my first murder mystery party to celebrate my birthday, not with a kit you can purchase, but with one I created myself. I essentially created the game itself, not just the mystery story. Not ever having used one of those kits, I'm pretty sure my game works differently than others available. For one thing, in others I've seen, the guests are both suspects and sleuths. In mine, my guests are detectives, and my cast of suspects, this time, was made up of family members and one close friend. This friend, Lisa, who played the head housekeeper in my 1920s English manor mystery, had to be a pretty good sport, because I gave her a funny name, Miss Ellie Shufflebottom. Yes, Shufflebottom is a real name. I found it on a list of "funny British surnames."

I'm sorry to say that this photo below is just about the only photo I have of that night.

Here I am on the right, sporting my attempt at Gatsby hair. We didn't get too carried away with costumes. I didn't want to put that pressure on my guests. Lisa, in the center, was wearing a cute white apron and cap for most of the night. To the left is our friend Laura.

I was too busy hosting, and my guests were too busy running around to different rooms in search of clues for any of us to take many photos. At times, it made me think of this scene from Clue.

Okay, maybe it wasn't that exaggerated, but it did seem that guests, which were divided into two teams of detectives were fairly often on the move, either to question a suspect in a certain room or uncover a clue.

I had two decks of identical cards, one for each team. The decks were shuffled, so the cards weren't necessarily in identical order. Each turn, the team would draw a card which would either instruct them to ask a particular question of a particular suspect or go into a particular room to find a clue. All questions and answers were scripted. Scripted answers from the different suspects were also on cards and were collected by the teams for their evidence folders. Clue objects, which were marked with yellow Post-Its and numbers, were also accompanied by cards and information for the evidence folder. Sometimes, a clue information card gave instructions to search for a second clue. Does it sound complicated? It was, a bit, (but more complicated to create than to play.)

With this one, the third game of its kind, I was inspired by P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves and Wooster, as well as Agatha Christie and other Golden Age mystery writers. There was quite a bit of humor worked into the script and story. I had my family cast members saying Britishisms like "jolly good" and "barmy" and even "what, what?" My brother Bruce had a different challenge. He played the French Chef Antoine. He struggled with the French accent but really got into the role and had a kind of Peter Sellers/Inspector Clousseau sort of French accent. He even ad libbed between his scripted lines. I caught him in the kitchen with the mortar and pestle talking about grinding up the gunpowder very fine.

I do have one other image related to my mystery game night. I created this cover art with the hope of making my game available in PDF format for sale from my website. What do you think of this idea?

On Valentine's Day, I gave a book talk at my home church to the ladies' group on my action comedy novel, Action Men with Silly Putty, which was just released to print this past December.

As the date for the talk fell on Valentine's Day, I decided to share excerpts from my book relating to the friendships and what one book reviewer called "a whisper of romance." I projected forty-three images throughout the presentation, some of which depicted an inspiration behind some aspect of my story.

Here is my opening slide.

Yes, it was a bit comical to talk about "bromance" to a ladies' group, especially one consisting of mostly senior ladies. Honestly, "bromance" isn't a word I use commonly in my own vocabulary, but I do pay attention to new and trendy words and it does seem to fit the friendship between Jack Donegal and Andy Westin.

I also showed them some slides of some fairly manly things like sports cars and robots, so I'm pretty sure I don't fit the profile of their usual speaker. (The ladies were lovely to me, really.)

Lars, Jack Donegal's retro Volve

But there was also some gentle romance and love advice from Jack Donegal such as ...

What else is new? Well, I have a new mystery short story coming to Kindle soon, "The Lit Club Mystery," starring my English professor sleuth, Grace Darby. Here is the cover art for that one.

I've been ghostwriting a biography for an amazing 11-year-old girl, Paloma Rambana. Paloma is legally blind and successfully lobbied the Florida legislature for $1.25 million for visually impaired children. You can follow her on Facebook or check out her personal website. Can I just take a moment to brag on this kid? Paloma was recently awarded the Hasbro Community Action Award in New York City.

Here she is in Times Square with her image on an eight story billboard!

I have recently launched a page on Patreon, a kind of crowdfunding site for creative types. As I'm trying to transition from newspaper reporter to full-time freelance writer with some other creative initiatives, a sort of multi-faceted creative business, I thought this might give me a boost and help me fund some of my expenses to get started.

You don't need to feel pressured to donate, especially if you can't afford it. Many of my friends and followers are also writers and artists themselves. Please, do check out the page in any case. The page will mention just a few more creative plans not mentioned in this post. If you are able and do donate, I will try and make it worth your while, providing special content to patrons.

Thank you for reading as I tried to give you a whirlwind tour of this month so far. :)

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Action Men and the Great Zarelda (Part 11)

Continued from Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 ...

Recap from previous episodes ...

 Andy thought he could act as Zarelda's magician's assistant and investigate into her side activities at the same time. Just as he discovers something possibly incriminating, he goes through with their first show. At the finale of the show, just after the vanishing trick, he remembers smells something chemical before losing consciousness. Andy wakes up locked in Zarelda the magician's sword trick box in the theater's storage room.

Part 11 

I don't know if I was under the spell of Stockholm Syndrome or not, but I felt almost relieved when Zarelda came into view. I could hear her shoes clicking against the floor as she approached. She sat down on something – whether on a box or a chair, I'm not sure – and situated herself near my face. She hovered her face over mine so that she could look me in the eye. Her hair draped down and tickled my neck. “Hello darling.” She slid her hand down my cheek and jaw in a way that was surprisingly tender, considering the fact that I was her prisoner.

I wish I could say that I was totally unaffected by her manipulative ways, but my mind, or maybe my body, was doing strange things to me. It's true that I didn't have the same feelings for her that I had when I first spotted her, a beautiful woman on a plane. The fact that she had kidnapped me and might possibly kill me had put a damper on things. Even so, my hormones had a mind of their own.

So,” I said, trying to keep my voice from squeaking. “I suppose this is just practice for one of your tricks?”

Tricks? You know all about tricks, don't you, darling? I thought I could trust you, but you're full of tricks, aren't you?”

Her hand still rested on my cheek, and her fingertips caressed me. What a way to confuse a guy.

I found your phone,” she said. “I know you know my secret. I know you've been telling your friend, Jack, about my little … side business.”

Was Jack in trouble now?, I wondered. “It's okay,” I told her. “You don't need to worry. I won't get you in trouble. I'll be a good boy. I'll do anything you like. I'd do anything for you. I'll travel with you to Brazil and hide a whole pandemonium of parrots in my gaucho pants …” I paused. A gaucho was a Latin cowboy, I knew, but now that I'd blurted out that statement, I wasn't one hundred percent certain that gaucho pants were menswear. “... I mean in my chaps. We could be the Bonnie and Clyde of animal smuggling.”

She smiled at me in a peculiar way, perhaps derisively. “No, darling. You are a good boy. I know you, Andrew.” She slid her fingers through my hair. “You are someone who likes to obey the rules. I like to break them.”

She stood up suddenly and walked away. When she returned, she hovered an object over my face, a sword, the kind I supposed were used with the sword box in which I was trapped. “Beautiful bit of workmanship, isn't it?” she asked.

Yes,” I answered, trying to keep my voice steady. The grip of the sword was a spiral twist of reddish cherry wood. The pommel at the end was a rose worked in gold. The guard similarly was a rose worked in gold with a gold leaf protruding from either side. I took all this in, while wondering what this unpredictable woman planned to do with this dangerous item.

She touched my face again, her hands on either cheek, and her hands felt cold and wet. It took me a moment to realize that she was applying shaving cream to my face, which she then proceeded to work into a lather.

What? What are you doing?” I asked. “Do you always give your victims a nice shave before you … before you kill them?”

Zarelda didn't directly answer my question. She continued to massage my face with lather. This had to be, by far, my most bizarre experience “This sword was a gift, as were the others, from my father, when I first began my career as a magician.”

She held my head and face, pulling my skin taut, with her left hand, while she touched the sword edge to my face with the right hand. She was shaving me with the rose-hilted sword. “You see. It gives a nice close shave,” she said. “This is the real McCoy. You, my friend, might be in the toy business, but this is not a toy. It's not merely a prop either. People often wonder if I use real swords in my act.” She slid the sword's edge along my cheek, my jaw and throat. I didn't answer her. I was afraid to even twitch. At any moment, I wasn't sure if she was going to groom me or slit my nicely available throat. I suddenly realized I was bracing my hands against the top of the box.

Just as suddenly, she was done, and to my great relief, she set the sword down somewhere beyond my line of vision. I started to breathe a little harder, feeling my chest rise and fall, as if I'd forgotten to breathe in the past minute or two.

Zarelda leaned over me once again and, inexplicably and confusingly, put her lips to mine and gave me a rather long kiss. A sensation that was part thrill, part chill traveled down my body. It didn't feel so terrible … stupid hormones … traitors! “Listen carefully, Andrew,” she said. “I will do anything, anything to avoid going to jail. Do you understand me?”

Yes,” I said. My voice came out weak and breathy. Under my current circumstances, I felt practically emasculated. I suppose she knew it and liked it that way.

Good.” She stood up and lifted the sword once more in a way I didn't like, hefting it high in the air, point down. She stepped away from my face and moved further down the length of the box and of me. With sudden force, she plunged the sword down through the top of the box and between my open legs. I wasn't hurt. I wasn't even nicked, but the sword came within what seemed like centimeters to a very sensitive bit of my anatomy.

From my current perspective, I couldn't really tell how close the sword was to touching me, but I sensed it, and it caused me to hold my body in a kind of permanent flinch. After just a few seconds of this, I felt searing pain through my sore back. My eyes teared up from the pain, and I couldn't even wipe away the evidence of my weakness. My agony was beginning to feel psychological in nature.

She walked away then, leaving me alone, the sword still in its place. I heard rattling, and I realized after a while that it was my body trembling inside the box.

Dangle Schnot and Boogers,” I muttered under my breath, and then, quoting Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, “You wicked old witch.” After that, I might have said something that rhymes with witch. Where was Dorothy with her bucket of water to throw on this evil creature?

I thought of The Princess Bride's Wesley in the pain machine, after his torturer calmly asks, “So, tell me how do you feel, and remember, this is for posterity, so be honest.” All Wesley could do at that moment was whine and cry, to which his torturer replies with a deadpan, “Interesting.” Feeling some sort of kinship with Wesley almost lightened my mood … almost that is.

I told myself to calm down. This emotion wasn't helping my case at all. Zarelda was out of sight. I could remove my shirt altogether – not an easy task in this confined space – yes, pull off the dangle-schnotted zipper pull, remove a button from the shirt cuff, attach the zipper pull there with the remaining thread, poke the sleeve out through a sword hole and pick the lock, with my fingers reaching out through a sword hole below it. Yes, there was a possibility that Zarelda would return to find me semi-naked, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Anything was better than passively waiting in my prison for whatever came next.

To be continued ...  
© 2017 Susan Joy Clark

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Action Men and the Great Zarelda (Part 10)

I know it's been a while since I've posted an episode, so here's a little recap. If you're new to this, you may want to start at the beginning. Continued from Parts 1,2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9

From the previous episode ... 

There was nothing particularly menacing about Zarelda that night. She seemed charming, delightful, a flirt with the audience, and yet I couldn't push away a certain foreboding sense of premonition as the evening wore on. I looked out sometimes at the audience and wished I could discreetly signal Jack about my sense of unease. I could pull on my ear lobe like Carol Burnett, but what would that possibly accomplish? I could signal like baseball players, only we hadn't established any such system of communication, and my sense of self-dignity was too great to make myself quite that foolish looking, tapping and pulling at random parts of myself. I had read once about a hostage blinking SOS in Morse code on TV. Would Jack pick up that signal or would it simply look like I was having an episode of petit mal epilepsy? Really, the performance and my role in it took up so much of my concentration that I was unable to sufficiently come up with a plan that actually made sense, and I really had no idea what I was expecting anyway.

I successfully maneuvered my way out the escape hatch of the vanishing box for our final act. Zarelda joined me in this private space behind the contraption briefly before she would appear in my place. It wasn't until she reached her hand up to my shoulder and then my face almost tenderly that I caught a whiff of a chemical smell, and everything went black.

 To be continued ...

I woke up and, before even opening my eyes, reached my right hand out as if to touch my nightstand and alarm clock. It didn't touch a nightstand but, instead, a sort of wooden wall. I jerked, and my left hand also sprung out, hitting a wall. As I jerked and moved, I was surprised at how sore my back was and for no reason I could recall. What had I done to myself? Had I finally allowed the guys to convince me to go bungee jumping?

I opened my eyes. Overhead, instead of my bedroom light fixture, giant papier-mâché tragedy and comedy masks glared at me. I knew now where I was, in the prop storage room at Zarelda's theater, and in one of her coffin-like boxes. Happily, my head was not enclosed. Looking up – and I really had not much of an alternative but to look up – I tried to decide whether my current dilemma was more comic or tragic and if either of those masks were mocking me.

I felt along the inside of my prison with my fingers and felt intermittent holes in the sides. I knew now that I was in the sword box for the sword trick, a trick we had never performed together or practiced. How did it work? There had to be a false bottom to the box. I felt along the bottom, but I couldn't discern any secret compartment. My hands were free, so that was to my advantage, but when I jerked my feet, they were fastened fast.

Looking to the ceiling again, I saw an opened stage trapdoor. This, perhaps, explained part of my present dilemma, how I had an abrupt exit from the stage to my current creepy situation. I recalled the last moments I could remember before blacking out, Zarelda's hand near my face and a chemical smell. Had I been positioned directly over the trapdoor while I was on the stage for our final trick? Did my subconscious know in order to give me premonitions?

Just below the stage trapdoor, I could make out the beginnings of something blue and red and plastic-looking. I imagined it was part of one of those inflatable rentals, some sort of bouncy playground inflatable. It might have been the start of a slide I was seeing. Had this contraption cushioned my fall? My back was sore, but nothing seemed to be broken. How thoughtful of Zarelda. She had drugged me and locked me in her magical prop box, but she hadn't crippled or maimed me. I wasn't sure this was entirely reassuring. I was still in a coffin-like box, and I hadn't yet explored how secure my trap was or wasn't.

How had she managed to get me from where I had landed into this box? I'd have to be carried. John? Kumar? The two of them put together? Those two thin as fettuccine guys? I supposed so, although they hardly seemed capable of hefting my dead weight. They must be like worker ants. I remembered seeing a troop of ants carrying a dead frog like a procession of islanders with a roast pig.

Remembering the chemical smell just before I lost all memory and, apparently consciousness, I wondered how much chloroform or drugs were in my system. I felt completely normal, not like that time after getting my wisdom teeth removed, when I was singing “I'm Bringing Home a Baby Bumble Bee” on the drive home and talking about living on the planet Rupert and, apparently, quoting the entire parrot routine from Monty Python.

I moved my hands, flexing my fingers in and out. I couldn't move my feet, at least not much. They seemed to be in handcuffs or whatever handcuffs are called when they are around your ankles. What's more, they seemed to be chained to the foot end of the box. As I flexed my insteps up and down, my heart started beating a little faster, and I could feel my shoulder blades rattle against the bottom of my prison.

My hands were free thankfully, although I was not sure what good they would do me in freeing myself. I was an extremely amateur magician's assistant, not an escape artist. I felt along the sides of the box. There had to be a lock here. I hoped it was a combination lock, even though I'm no Houdini or James Bond, either one. There still seemed to be more potential in breaking open a combination lock than some other sort of lock.

I found the lock on the side of the box to my right. It felt solid, with no dials or moving parts with which to play. How would I break myself free? With my bare hands? My fist? I imagined myself breaking my knuckles. Where was my Swiss army knife?

My heart sped up with a surge of hope, but when I felt for my pocket, I remembered what I was wearing or what I had been wearing before passing out. I was still in the stupid glitzy tuxedo, sans the jacket. I'm not sure if the jacket was removed for my comfort or because Zarelda wanted to protect the costume in which she'd invested. I didn't have any useful tool in my pocket – no Swiss army knife, no cell phone, no car keys, no anything. Where was McGyver when you needed him?

Dangle Schnot!” Dangle Schnot? What in the world? Jack was having such an influence on me that, even alone, I was coming up with bizarre and kooky euphemisms for curse words. I hardly knew what I was saying. I might as well be speaking in tongues.

I wished Jack were here. If he found himself in my position, he'd find a way out. I was sure of it. He'd remove a button from his shirt, attach it to a string or a strip of fabric, poke it out through one of the sword holes and pick the lock open. Would that work? A shirt button couldn't do much with the lock's keyhole. I needed something longer and stronger … like maybe a zipper pull. I thought about that. I didn't think I really wanted Zarelda to discover me sans zipper. I felt humbled and vulnerable enough as it was. I started to feel overheated and headachey, my heart pounding. I had to calm down.

A new thought of a less than comforting nature intruded. What if I felt the call of nature and had to, er, use the facilities, what then? Would Zarelda be reasonable enough to let me out long enough to do my business? I had been semi-kidnapped before and had gotten away from my captor temporarily by this means. Somehow, I doubted Zarelda would extend this mercy in my current predicament. She had the upper hand now, and she knew it. She wouldn't put herself in a position for the situation to potentially reverse. I just wouldn't think about it. That's all.

I wouldn't think about vacationing at Niagara Falls or at Yellowstone National Park watching Old Faithful. I wouldn't think about the dishes at home at the condo that needed washing or giving George the beagle his much-needed bath. I wouldn't think about water at all.

In spite of telling myself to remain calm, I was beginning to feel agitated and stressed. My forehead was beading up with sweat, and I couldn't even wipe it. I would go to my happy place. I imagined myself at the beach somewhere beautiful, on the pink sands of the Bahamas perhaps, underneath a giant old beach umbrella with a 30 SPF sunscreen at my side … and the waves crashing to the shore. Maybe I needed a new happy place.

I thought of our recent business trip to Texas and imagined myself the hero of a Zane Grey or Louis L'Amour western, riding a galloping horse, completely free, the wind whipping through my hair … What was it with my subconscious and York Peppermint Patties?

It was at this point that I engaged in a strange activity for an agnostic. I started to pray. I didn't speak my prayer aloud. Jack would say that was unnecessary. I mentally composed my prayer. “Okay. I don't normally do this. I don't know if You're real, and even assuming that You are, whether or not you care. But if You can get me out of this … I promise … I promise to go back to church with Jack … at least one more time. Maybe I haven't thought about this enough.”

Go back to church one more time? Was this seriously the best I could do? If someone saves your life, shouldn't you be prepared to offer them a lifetime of service? I added a postscript. “I'm sorry if that's a pathetic offer. I'm afraid to promise something I can't … or won't keep. I'd like to stick a toe in the water before I take the plunge.” I didn't even add an “Amen” at the end. I just hung up the line, assuming there was a line.

I tried to let my mind gradually slip back to a happy place. Strangely, sexy women sitting next to me on airplanes had nothing to do with my happy place. I thought of George, that crazy beagle that could be such a bother but knew to give you a cuddle when you were sick or sad or out of sorts. I thought of Jack, my quirky, sometimes annoying friend, who would lay down his life for me, who would come to me rescue now if he knew I needed him. I thought about Jack's niece and nephew, Bronwyn and Declan, who had adopted me as their Uncle Andy, sitting with them in a homemade blanket fort, eating circus peanuts and popcorn and watching animated movies, testing out all our pre-production toys on them. I thought of Janie Duveau at the Salvador Deli. When I got out of here, if I got out of here, I would hug her and call her a ferret-nosed flibbertigibbet. She'd like that one, and I would eagerly anticipate her comeback.

To be continued ...

© 2017 Susan Joy Clark