Never Apologize – an excerpt from The Back Roads of Limbo

Telling Fiction
The apartment was filled with the smell of chicken soup on the stove, and there was a faint staccato melody of birds chirping and eating birdseed on the lawn outside of the kitchen, which the resident Ocelot was watching avidly. Vlad had given up because there wasn’t enough room for both of them in the kitchen window these days. Richard was sure that, if Limbonese Panthers could speak English, there would be a stream of grumbling about weight gain in teenaged ocelots.

Both of L’il Wendy’s monitor screens were blank, but Julian Lennon singing about finding love again poured out of her computer speakers heedless, as Richard typed the first tentative lines of the story into the blank Scrivener project.

Nick Stone stared at his telephone, silently perched atop the corpse remains of bills he’d disemboweled over coffee. He was wearing his lucky fedora and thinking about a large truck full of money pulling up outside of his office. He’d read in one of Josie’s business magazines that visualizing success was an important component of becoming successful. Where he grew up, that was called make-believe, and usually got you looked at funny by your father, or, as the years got away from you, by your family doctor. Right now, his need for real money far outweighed his fear of being committed. Besides, it wasn’t insane to wish for money. It was just insane to expect the universe to deliver it on command.

Kara was quietly sitting at her desk with her eReader, which she did a lot when she was trying not to disturb his concentration. He started wondering if the soup was ready yet. His belly added a gurgle to this, which he interpreted as the gastrointestinal equivalent of clicking the “Like” button. Repeatedly.

His head, by contrast, hadn’t posted a status message since he woke up, and he wasn’t sure if he was depressed or just feeling a little under the weather. It was hard to tell with the constant weather changes and the pressure in his sinuses, for which he was still awaiting notification of an ENT appointment being scheduled by his doctor’s office. At least he wasn’t clenching his jaws anymore, but the phantom sensation of liquid building up behind his lower eyelid was somewhat distracting. Kara was convinced it was all sinus-related. It just remained for Nurse Merry to send out the notification, once Doctor Hart had seen the x-ray results.

It crossed his mind that he hadn’t checked the mailbox in a day or two, and he stood up, kicked off his bear slippers and unhooked the keys from the side of his desk. He didn’t particularly enjoy walking around on cold concrete in bare feet, but the leather soles of his slippers had worn through again, and he had taken to wearing them only when he was sitting at his desk, writing. Kara had a tendency of complaining about his perpetually cold feet. She complained about the cold knees, too, but he had belligerently elected to wear his heavy walking shorts despite the autumnal chilliness.

The hallway outside the apartment was even cooler than the apartment, so he quickly scurried through the door to the line of mailboxes near the front door. He let out a customary sigh of relief at the lack of evidence of the mailboxes having been broken into. Probably overreacting; it wasn’t the end of the month yet.

October. Saturday. He shouldn’t be working today. It usually bothered Kara if he spent the weekend working. She was still tied to the office hour mentality, even though they’d both been unemployed for over a year. Disability money had been mostly keeping them afloat, but he was writing most days now, in the hope that something he wrote would earn them a bit more money and get them out of the hole they’d been sinking into.

He opened the mailbox, and a Visa bill fell out.

He returned sullenly to the apartment, stacked the disemboweled remains of the bill to one side, sat down at his desk, inserted his feet back into his careworn teddy bear-headed slippers, and returned to his story. The bill taunted him, but he had nothing to say to it. Even writing fiction, usually a meditative process, could offer no surcease from the wailing siren song of mounting debt. Julian was singing about saving yourself. Richard wondered if Julian had a few tips for him.

Kara returned from the kitchen and wordlessly placed a large bowl-sized mug of home-made chicken soup beside the laptop for him, and then proceeded to get Vlad ready for his walk. BabyKat started scratching madly at the larger of two scratching posts, demanding she be taken out as well, and Richard looked forlornly at Kara, who waved him back to work and then turned to escort the panther out on his leash. The ocelot gave up clawing and went to curl up in the club chair he had, until yesterday, been occupying with the laptop.

He supposed he couldn’t justify removing her, as he had relinquished it fair and square when he started trying to transcribe his hand-written notes for Megalopolis Rising. The chair was comfortable enough for typing, but the board he used as a makeshift laptop tray left no room for any sort of stand to rest his notes on. Maybe it was his erratic emotional state, but looking sideways to transcribe on the laptop irritated him. Sitting at his Frankendesk was only marginally better, but at least he could prop the notes up against the modular shelves. However, it also meant he was further from the window, and couldn’t enjoy what remained of the natural light. His vision was still pretty good, but he had come to find most fiction writing went a little more smoothly while basking in ample daylight.

Perhaps that explained the lack of progress over the last few days; It had been raining off and on for days, with the chill from the open window getting into his aching back and the general lack of light driving his mood further south for the winter. He had always enjoyed cool autumn air, but his back had other ideas these days. However, he hadn’t really noticed suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Or perhaps he just hadn’t been paying enough attention. It occurred to him that the last few winters had been far less relaxing for him than he liked. He dearly hoped that the solemn hush of snowfall would work its invigorating magic on him this year. He felt as if he’d been running on empty for far too long.

Oddly enough, despite sitting in the dimness of the room that the Frankendesk resided in, Richard had woken up with an idea for a piece of light fiction completely unrelated to Megalopolis Rising. The prospect of wrestling with those scribbled notes had made much of yesterday an uphill slog, but the muses had voted to grace him with something fun to do instead, today. He hadn’t written a Nick Stone tale since A Serenade of Bullets, the musical adaptation of Bullet Rain Symphony, the play he’d received good notices for back in college. Sadly, the few producers who had been willing to back his earlier professional efforts had all but given him up for dead. Even his old buddy, Brody Prosser, had told him genre plays were dead.

“A singing detective, Rich? You’re not serious, are you?”

“Look, Brody, it did great as a stage play, but the big theaters are all showing musicals these days. Doesn’t take a bachelor’s degree to see where the money is.”
“True, but listen, Rich, detectives are done to death. Nobody wants to sit through three hours of songs about how great it is to be a gumshoe. People expect a little relevancy these days, even in musical theater. No one has forgotten Dick Tracy, you know.”

“Nick Stone is more relevant to today’s audiences than a guy in a yellow trench coat, or wearing a white mask, for that matter.”

“Maybe, but Phantom was twenty-five years ago, and besides, you’re not Webber, Rich. He could put a chorus line of Samoan Morris dancers on stage wearing sequined tutus and singing pages torn from the Pataskala phone directory and still sell tickets. If you sold a tenth as many tickets, I’d back you. But the fact is, nobody comes to your plays anymore. Adding music isn’t going to help your case. Your stories just aren’t any fun. Isn’t it time you faced reality, Rich? How much longer you gonna put Kara through this, huh?”

“Thanks for nothing, Brody,” he’d muttered and walked out. That was the last time they’d spoke, eight years ago.

If even his friends were convinced he’d washed out, what were his chances for a comeback at this point? He was forty, neck-deep in debt, with a wife who wanted nothing more than to have children and raise a family before she got too old. Nothing he’d tried in the last few years had stuck.

Even Megalopolis Risen, which he called Uptown for short, was really a shot in the dark. A video game. Not even a nice, juicy Triple A project with a movie tie-in or whatsit. Just an indie developer looking to create something new in a market that only wanted safe, proven IPs. He’d signed on for a percentage, against Kara’s objections, and started pouring himself into the work like a man possessed, while the bills kept arriving and the last of his favours had been called in to keep them from shutting off the hydro.

He needed one thing, just one thing, to pan out, and the only thing he had left was writing.

So why in the hell was he writing a Nick Stone story?

He suspected it had something to do with the fact that Nick was probably the last thing he’d written that had actually felt like fun. Every time he’d started a new project that sounded like it would be fun to write, he always got bogged down in worries about money and marketing and promotion, and the writing just fell by the wayside. With Nick Stone, there was really no market. No expectations. No pressure.

With games like L. A. Noire out, he knew there was some small interest in the period he wrote Nick Stone in, but where a dirty cop procedural might draw some interest, private detectives were old before Richard was born. He just wanted to write something fun, and of all his creations, Stone still made him smile. Stone never asked him to jump through narrative hoops or write complex character studies, or fuss about a lot of forensic details. Stone just had to have internal logic and solid timing. This allowed Richard to exercise other skills, which was always a good way to break a stalemate. But when he was really honest with himself, Rich had to admit, Nick Stone was his alter ego, doing literally what he could only do figuratively, solving crimes and saving lives while Richard cheered from the sidelines.

It wasn’t that he didn’t have the courage to be a private detective. It was that he knew real P.I.s didn’t have nearly as much fun as Nick Stone did, which was one of the myriad reasons he’d stopped writing Nick back in the old days. People who read it knew it was escapist fun, but people who were into True Crime novels dismissed Nick as a fictitious character, never mind that his foibles made him a more human, more interesting character than the average stoic hero of a True Crime novel. This usually meant some guy who took himself and his job too seriously, some guy who didn’t take the job seriously enough, and a department chief that would rather hire women, if only he could get the Commissioner to let him fire his entire staff and start fresh with no crooks, bums, pedants, ass-kissers or cowboys. An entire department of women cops. Now that would be something, Richard thought, unsure if he were channeling the Chief, or just musing over a possible plot device. He jotted down the idea, just in case, and put the sticky note up on the edge of his desk where he could see it.

Richard thought it might be a good time to go out for a ride, just to clear his head. He got up and fetched his shoes, lacing them up just as Kara came in with Vlad. When she saw him dressing to go she gave him her patented Look. He gestured to the bikes stacked against the wall by the door, and she removed Vlad’s leash and set it up on the hook on the door.

“Do you want me to come with you?” she asked.

“You can come if you want. I was just going to go for a quick spin to blow some of the cobwebs out of my head.”

“I thought you were working on Nick?”

“Just a minor case of Writer’s Block. I’m sure it will pass. The story just hasn’t fully sunk in yet, so I’m treading water.”

“Kind of like this story, huh?” she teased.

“Hmmn?”

“Oh, nothing,” she grinned.

“Okay, did you want to come with me?”

“No, you look like you need some time alone. Don’t be out too long.”

“I shouldn’t be too long. Just a quick spin around the neighborhood.”

He freed up his bike and returned to give her a kiss before leaving. Babykat tried to get into the hallway as he left, but he managed to shoo her back before closing the door and wheeling the bike out of the building.

…to be continued…

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

(and yes, for the record, this story IS already finished. I’m just trying to give people incentive to purchase the new book when it comes out. Very soon.)

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