Sunday, June 17, 2012

...and so it begins.

In a few short minutes I will attend the first orientation meeting for the Clarion West Writers Workshop, and then, for the following six weeks, I'll be writing... and learning to write, and writing, and reading others' writing, and writing, and hearing all about what's wrong with my writing, and writing, and writing, and writing.

If I get time, I'll drop a few notes here about how things are going, but if you don't see anything, don't worry. I'm probably still alive.

Cheers.

Timed Writing: 6/15/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... 'you will never know,' he said. 'It is a forbidden book.'..."
Source: Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez

"What about that one?" I asked the old man. I pointed at the little gray book on top of the bookshelf behind his desk. I had caught him reading it once, when he thought I'd left for the day, and when he noticed me watching, he'd snapped it shut before I could see any of its contents. Now he pretended not to know what I was talking about.

"That one?" he said, as he reached for an altogether different volume -- a manual on book cataloguing in the absence of computers, published decades ago by some post-apocalyptic regeneration preparationists who'd thought we would be in another stone age by now. "You've already seen this one," the librarian said. "Six months ago, as I recall. You complained that it was irrelevant and returned it to me in under a minute."

You know that's not the one I mean," I said. "I want to know what's in the gray book."

The librarian pushed his eyebrows together above the bridge of his hooked nose, and in a low voice, as though he were trying to sound mysterious, he spoke.

"You wil never know," he said. "It is a forbidden book."

He tried to maintain the serious expression, but when I started laughing -- how could I not? the very idea of a forbidden book was so ludicrously antique! -- his face broke into a grin, and he said, "Alright, my dear, what would you say if I simply asked you not to read it? As a favor to me, your oldest friend?"

(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 6/14/2012


Time: 5 minutes
Prompt: "... had a faint ringing in his ears..."
Source: Mortals by Norman Rush

When Marcel woke he still had a faint ringing in his ears from the heavily amplified instruments and voices of the previous night's concert. He also had a full bladder and no notion of where the nearest toilet might be. He lay on an unfamiliar couch in an unfamiliar living room decorated with unfamiliar prints of nauseatingly familiar works of art.

Marcel sat up and the urgent, pressing pain near his groin was momentarily eclipsed by a dull throbbing that started somewhere behind his eyeballs and quickly spread to his entire head. The sitting position constrained his bladder, however, so the two discomforts battled mercilessly for dominance while Marcel tried to piece together the fragments of his recent past.

He remembered arguing with Harris about driving. Harris had insisted that Marcel was too drunk. Whatever Marcel's response had been -- he could not remember what he'd said -- he was now inclined to agree with Harris. But this wasn't Harris's apartment, so he must have found someone else to put him up for the night. One of Harris's other friends? One of the musicians? Someone from the after party? After party. What was the monstrous stuff they had given him to drink in that warehouse loft?

(about my timed writing exercises)


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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Timed Writing: 6/13/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... he was never invited to accompany his masters..."
Source: The Secret of the Tower by Anthony Hope

Although he was never invited to accompany his masters into their own homes, and had, rather, to sit quietly on their porches, Jake led the way when those same masters entered the homes of their quarry. That was Jake's purpose.

The hammer would fall or the ram would batter, and Jake would plunge through the breach, barking and growling. Sometimes, if the fugitive were a public figure -- a celebrity or a politician or a banker, Jake would be given the "gentle" command, or maybe just "no face." In the absence of such verbal behavioral attenuators, however, Jake was free to do anything short of kill. Unless, of course, the "kill" command was issued. Then he killed.

Jake was feeling content -- satiated -- after a meal of ground beef and canned vegetables. He could have done without the vegetables, but the thin master -- the one whose porch Jake occupied tonight -- insisted that vegetables were good for Jake's digestive tract. The vegetables weren't really that bad -- soft chunks of carrots, bland green beans, corn -- and the thin master mixed them into the ground meat so that it would have been more trouble than it was worth to eat around them.

Jake stretched out long on the warm wooden floorboards of the porch. A tightness caught at his midsection. He twisted his head around and sniffed at the area. Blood had dried there, matting the fur together into a rigid patch. He licked it, moistening and softening it, then thoroughly clearing the fur of the sticky mess. There had been a lot of blood today. It was all human blood -- Jake had not been injured. The thin master always washed Jake down after a job, but this time, there had been quite a bit of other clean-up for the masters, so their attention to Jake had been less than thorough.

(about my timed writing exercises)


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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Timed Writing: 6/12/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... I'd carry a knife, if I were you..."
Source: Solar by Ian McEwan

"I'd carry a knife, if I were you." I looked up from where my hands were busy re-checking the valves and manual command points on my suit's pressure cells. Burkson stood in the doorway, his burly frame dressed in the standard gray coveralls and his monstrous feet stuffed into a pair of ship slippers.

"I'd sooner have nothing sharp about me in this suit," I said, "and nothing that might be seen as a weapon."

"Wise measures, both," Burkson replied, "but I've been down there before, and you'd be wiser still to have this to hand." I saw then that he held a narrow metal box, a bit longer than his hand and only the width of a thumb. Two straps hung from it.

"Never you worry," he said, "they'll not see this as a threat. You're right-handed, no?" He approached and I extended my arm. He bound the straps snugly around my wrist, with the box positioned on the dorsal side and one end extending over the back of my gloved hand, toward my fingers.

"That's a knife?" I said. Burkson remained silent, but he extracted a wire from the near end of the box and  inserted it into a free device port on my suit's sleeve.

"Alright," he said, "choose a command you're not like to forget when tight bound in creeper vines or kelp string." He depressed the program record spots corresponding to the device port and aimed my arm at the far wall, ten paces away.

"Burkson's Blade," I said. A red dot flashed on the wall and a metal rod shot from the box on my wrist. It extended to within a finger's width of the spot on the wall. It was no more than eighty hairs in diameter, and appeared to have a round cross-section. "Not very sharp," I said.

Burkson touched the subcommand spot and whispered, "tell it to cut."

"Sharp," I said, and the cross section of the rod instantly changed to a tear-drop down its entire length. Burkson picked up a role of patching cloth and slid it along the fine edge. Several split rings of the heavy fabric fell away as though sliced by razor.

"You see," he said, "it's a knife when it should be."

He touched the counter command spot on my sleeve and I said, "retract." The blade slid back into its box. "A bit long, perhaps," I said. "How do I control the extension?"

"Ah, that's the beauty of the thing," Burkson replied. He took my arm in his hands and pointed the box directly at his own chest, with my hand just a finger away from him. "Give the word, my boy." I tried to redirect my wrist away from him, but he held it firm. "Trust me, lad. I won't be hurt by a tool of my own making."

"Burkson's Blade," I said again. The red dot flashed on his gray top and the rod followed. This time it stopped much shorter though, just a finger shy of Burkson's chest.

"There, you see -- it'll never injure anything. It always knows it's proper size. Would the same could be said for some of the human folk around this place." He smiled and patted me on the shoulder. "Hurry up and finish dressing. You're off in ten."

(about my timed writing exercises)


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Monday, June 11, 2012

Timed Writing: 6/11/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... the shop window with the liqueur bottles and the stuffed rats..."
Source: The New Life by Orhan Pamuk

Sometime during the night, rioters -- vandals -- had assaulted the shop window with the liqueur bottles and the stuffed rats from the specialty distiller's and the taxidermist's shops that sat to either side of my own establishment. Broken glass and tailed bundles of gray and brown fur lay in puddles of rain-diluted sugary, intoxicants -- along with my tumbled wares. The floor of the taxidermist's shop was, no doubt, littered with his creatures, as well as candles from the shop beyond, and the paper, cloth, and leather-bound books from my shelves and table displays. The rain, blown by heavy gusts, had finished the work of the destroyers, leaving even the shelved volumes damp and poised to mold.

Out of habit, rather than necessity -- the windows were adequately large and entirely ruined -- I turned the key in the lock and pushed the open the door -- pushed it through its familiar sounds: ringing of the little bell that hung above, creaking of the ancient hinges.

"Makes me want to cry." The taxidermist appeared beside me, a man of seventy with dry, papery skin and a weepy eye, at which he dabbed continually with a cotton cloth when engaged in conversation. I did not point this out to him -- that he was already crying.

"Or vomit," I said. Nausea was all I felt then. Just sick. Somewhere, deep in my head, machine-like business parts were clicking away, taking inventory of damages, losses, weighting them against insurance deductibles, costs of repairs, availability of replacement stock, delays in filling orders, loss of clientele, et cetera. But that was all buried down in the recesses, running autonomously while the conscious me -- the me encountering the wreckage of my livelihood -- wallowed in the visceral manifestation of my anger and grief.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 6/10/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... the backyard lit up in sudden flashes..."
Source: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The backyard lit up in sudden flashes that revealed the spots of rust on the sing set, the cat poop in the sand box, the uncut lawn, and the banana slug climbing the wall of the raised flower bed. With the lightning came rain. It beat, tympanic, on the rolled steel roofing, accumulated in gutters, and when the neglected autumn leaves occluded the downspouts, spilled over the sides in curtains of wet that rendered entrance or exit of the house impossible without a drenching.

In one such instant of illumination I saw a shape that was foreign to the scene -- a silhouette of a man, black against an electric white sky. By the time another discharge occurred, however, the figure was gone -- the backyard empty of aught save the usual detritus of a ruptured marriage and a sundered family.

I filled a glass of water and downed an omeprazole tablet -- a pharmaceutical lightning rod to dispel the unrest storming in my gut. Two or three slow circuits of the kitchen, feet falling sockless on the cold linoleum, gave the beverage and pill time to reach some sort of agreement with my stomach and esophagus.

I returned to bed. I did not sleep though. That image -- that dark shape -- appeared whenever I closed my lids. I knew who it was -- or who it had been, rather. He was dead. He had died six years before, but I had seen him on occasions such as this -- moments when he might appear and flee without disturbing anyone but me, and always in circumstances that would leave me, as well as those in whom I might confide, doubting the veracity of my vision.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 6/9/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... flatulence withered the flowers..."
Source: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

John and I sat in the bleachers surrounding the football field, along with a couple thousand of our fellow townsfolk. We, like all of those around us, were eating hotdogs and potato chips, drinking soda, and watching the sky.

We'd all seen the big city landings on TV already. We knew what to expect -- the bulbous capsule dangling by sinewy cables from a swarm of engine pods, the legs that would extend from the belly of the craft, and the puckered hatch on its underside, through which the visitors would squeeze. We'd watched it a dozen times already.

We'd even seen still images from the first landing -- the infamous one in the Luxembourg gardens -- so we knew better than to welcome the visitors with bouquets and garlands. That first time the ship's sphincter hatch relaxed to release the suited aliens in a cloud of their own atmosphere, the flatulence had withered the flowers. It had nearly overwhelmed several of the nearest observers too. So we were staying well back  from the center of the field, despite our enthusiasm and excitement.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 6/8/2012


Time: 4 minutes (got interrupted)
Prompt: "... the diamond bright dawn woke men and crows..."
Source: Kim by Rudyard Kipling

The diamond bright dawn woke men and crows, and the crows came to dine on the men who did not wake and in some cases, the crows, in this manner, woke men who might otherwise never have woken.

One such man, after chasing off the death birds that had teased him away from his seductive dreams of food and warmth and rest, adjusted a bandage on the stump of his shortened left arm, and stood to survey his position in the morning light. He knew none of the men or corpses that he saw, but the crows looked familiar.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 6/7/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... the kind of muscle it will take to fight..."
Source: After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

"I can see you're all fit -- in peak condition." The instructor sang her words in a twang that cut through the murmured conversations and the whispers of anticipation. "You were selected based on a long list of desired attributes."

She was tall and thick. Not fat, but not just muscly either. Her physical presence demanded recognition and her plain uniform, cut close to her feminine curves did nothing to mitigate the strength of that presence.

"You all have the best bodies that our species can grow," she continued. "You are free of known heritable risk factors for disease and you have no allergies, food intolerances, or history of untreated injuries. You are strong. Anchored to your granite-dense bones are thick, toned muscles. But today we will learn whether they are the right sort. Do you have the kind of muscle it will take to fight?"

She paused while we all waited, listening, puzzled. I stood near the back of the group and from what I could read of their body language, none of the other nineteen recruits were any more comfortable than I with the possible implications of the instructor's words.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 6/6/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... looks worried, but not yet upset enough..."
Source: 3 x 6 x 2 + 6 x 4 + 4 = American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis

Helen takes another step towards the ledge. She is partially obscured by the mist thrown up from the crashing water below. Jack looks worried, but not yet upset enough to make a move. He lowers his camera slightly, looks over the top of his enormous zoom lens at his wife, and says something. Whatever he says, it's lost in the roar. I can't hear it and I doubt if Helen can either.

I think I know what's going to happen, but I'm not sure, and it's my uncertainty, in the setting of my perpetual curiosity that keeps me riveted to my seat. I'm perched on a park bench, just twenty feet away and completely invisible to the people I'm observing.

I met Jack and Helen two days ago, back at our luxury resort masquerading as a game lodge -- twenty miles out of Vic Falls Town. That's just far enough to be inconvenient for the beggars and petty thieves, but close enough for easy shuttling of guests to and from the falls. We met at the bar, savoring our gee-and-tees. Without them we can't feel like we're really in Africa. The locals drink beer or whisky.

The bar overlooks a man-made watering hole and that evening several impalas and a herd of zebras milled about muddy water. The sun was low and soon these animals would move on, to be replaced by others. Eventually the lions would come.

"It's so beautiful here," a woman said to nobody in particular. She was forty-five and wore a white cotton shirt and a khaki skirt. Her hair was blond with a bit of gray. The setting sun picked out some red highlights. She sat on a high bar stool, staring out, past the watering hole, at the horizon and the orange sky. A tall, heavy man with dark curly hair and a fresh shave ambled over with a pair of drinks and sat beside her. "Just beautiful," the woman continued, as though her companion had been there all along.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 6/5/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... it is easy to predict the response of the other prisoners..."
Source: 6 x 1 x 5 + 6 x 4 + 4 = Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

After so much time spent watching them, when a change occurs -- a new arrival, or an alteration to our diet -- it is easy to predict the response of the other prisoners. For them, however, I am the new arrival, and they make predictions about me based only on past experiences with other new arrivals that predated me. In my predictions about them, however, I benefit from having previously observed these specific prisoners.

I know these men and women. I know them, in some ways, better than they know themselves. I know not their pasts, but rather their presents and, with only a shade of uncertainty, their near futures. I know them at this exact moment when the door opens on the common area and some of them glance up from their porridge or their cast-off newspapers to meet the trying-to-appear frightened face of me, the inductee. I know them at this moment in time because this is the seven thousand, four hundred and twenty-fifth time that I have walked through this door, at this exact moment.

The only difference, at each of my entrances has been my age. It is a short experiment that I run with this cohort of prisoners, but even so, it requires between seven and thirteen minutes of my life each time I perform it. The distributions of durations is slightly skewed such that on average, it is an eight-point-five minute operation. Following each repetition, I must spend between ten and twenty-five minutes in a debrief and analysis session -- call it seventeen minutes average. Thus, in a given five-hour shift, I can, perform my task twelve times. When weekends, holidays, academic conferences, family emergencies, and sick days are factored, I work about eighteen days per month, and average one-point-seven-five shifts per day, for a grand total of three hundred seventy-eight repetitions of the experiment per month.

Obviously, the evolution of my physical appearance due to aging, is negligible between any two successive repetitions -- or even between two repetitions separated by less than a few months. However, I am now in my twentieth year of this series of experiments, so my own age has become quite important, necessitating modification of our analytical methods. There was even talk of replacing me entirely -- of finding a younger operator who might, in physical appearance more closely resemble my early self. Given the replicability of the study scenario, however, it was ultimately determined that while the observations of other, younger operators would be valuable in parallel to my own, I would provide vital information about the effects, on the subjects, of subtle differences in the operator across observations. And so, I continue my work.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Monday, June 4, 2012

Timed Writing: 6/3/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... features, well formed by nature, modelled by art..."
Source: 6 x 5 x 6 + 3 x 6 + 5 = 203 = Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Someone -- one of the early and/or great statisticians, or maybe just a popular professor -- said that in statistics, as in art, one should avoid falling in love with one's model. The first time Vince heard the quote he laughed. Later, when he'd spent some time modeling multivariate time trends using mixed effects regression models, he understood that it must not have really been a joke -- not unless maybe it had been misquoted and misattributed, and it was really an artist joke. But then it didn't make sense that it had been told in a statistics class. He put it from his mind.

Early on, Vince avoided talking to non-statisticians about his work because they wouldn't understand and the entire conversation would be a waste. He would have to walk the listener through the most elementary concepts just so that he or she would possess enough of the necessary vocabulary to comprehend his heavily watered summary of the theories behind his pursuits. Later, he avoided talking to people for another reason: conversation was a sure way to squander time better spent with maximum likelihoods estimators, multiple imputation algorithms, or validation methods for measurement error corrections.

One day, an aesthetically pleasing female student in his program asked Vince to attend a Christmas party with her that evening. Vince never even looked away from his monitor. He sent her an email listing half a dozen dilemas that he was busy untangling, all of of which would prevent him from joining her. He wasn't rude. It was just that he could type faster than he could talk, so a reply by email was a more efficient use of his time. She received the email on her phone and read it while she was still standing beside his desk, waiting for him to acknowledge her presence. She didn't say anything. She just read the message, looked over his shoulder for a few seconds while he worked, and then walked the seven feet to her own cubicle and sat down.

Two hours later, Vince received a reply to his email reading, "see attached." The text file consisted of some ninety-five lines of R code referring to the data set on which he was laboring. He ran the code to discover that the girl had provided solutions to all of the problems that he had catalogued in his initial message. Among the command annotations, random text phrases were scattered. Some of them were snatches of poetry. They had nothing to do with the statistical analysis, but they did share a common theme: the benefits of social engagement. Vince deleted the irrelevant characters from the page -- cleaned up the code.

Vince did not not resent the girl's help. He appreciated it greatly. It allowed him to proceed to the next stage of his analysis all the sooner.  He meant to thank her. Later, he couldn't remember whether or not he ever had. He did not attend the Christmas party. He was vaguely aware of movement in the shared office area when the girl and some of the others exited. His mind wandered for a moment. Why would such a talented mind as hers be distracted by a social engagement. The question bothered him for only that one moment and then he returned to his work.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 6/2/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... cut his old backbone in two with..."
Source: 6 x 6 x 3 + 3 x 5 + 1 = 124 = The Bears of Blue River by Charles Major

When Ed Foster's ghost showed up in the latrine one night while I was making room for my next meal, I wasn't surprised. Sure, I was spooked and all, but having known the bastard pretty well when he was alive, it kind of seemed natural to me that he'd be a pain in the ass when he was dead.

"Surly Jim," the ghost said, while I got myself wiped, dressed and out of there -- I didn't want him to get any ideas about shoving me down the poop hole like me and him had done to Greg Hanson two years before. "I need you to do something for me," he said.

"Leave me be, Foster," I said. "I don't treat with no ghosts and I don't like you comin' in the latrine when I'm busy neither. You lonely, you go talk with Father Gilgamesh... or the boss. I'm goin' to dinner."

"It's gotta be you, Surly Jim. Can't be none of them," he said. "The priest won't listen and the boss can't even see me proper."

"My name's not Surly anymore," I said. "Just Jim." I buttoned up my coat and strode away, hoping he'd leave me be. My bowels was feeling relieved, but my chest was tight and I was pins and nails up my neck and spine on account of having a ghost behind me.

"You come back here and listen to me, Surly Jim," he says. I'll call you whatever I want to. But you do like I say and I'll never call you nothin' again."

"And how about I just don't listen to you," I called back over my shoulder, "like Father Gilgamesh. Just ignore you. What then?"

"Try it if you want," he said, and then when I took another step, some big gust of wind came up and slammed me in the chest and I landed hard on my backside in the rocks -- left my tailbone throbbing. "I can be a real pest if you ignore me," he said. "A right pain in the ass."


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 6/1/2012


Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... most of them lived in isolated circumstances without feeling..."
Source: 6 x 5 x 2 + 4 x 3 + 2 = 74 = The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss

The aboriginal species of this planet demonstrate markedly less diversity than has been observed on other life-bearing worlds explored to date. This planet is remarkable, however, for the presence of at lest one possibly sentient life form. We have dubbed it hydra for reasons that must become apparent from the following description of their anatomy.

The portions of the hydral body that we have been able to observe consist of a squat trunk, roughly a meter in length and the same in diameter, topped by a crown of tentacular appendages, each of which appears identical to its neighbors, when in neutral form, but all of which possess a delightful capacity for transformation. The tip of each of these arms may at times shape itself into a radially-symmetrical hand-like tool with between two and twenty iron-hard claws, or may also take the form of a multi-lensed spheroid polyhedron -- most often either an icosahedron or a dodecahedron -- introduction of visual stimuli to which elicits responses from the organism as a whole.

We have counted some three thousand individuals, thus far, each inhabiting its own narrow cave in the face of a cliff or the side of a rocky hill. Most of them live in isolated circumstances, without feeling the impact of their fellows in any manner that we can identify. However, there must be some form of communication between them, for upon our initial visits to several of the more recently discovered specimens, they have commenced a rapid decoration of the rocky surfaces around their habitats with the very same human images and text inscriptions that we showed only to the first several hydrae that we encountered upon landing. Whether they comprehend the meanings of the symbols or not, they do seem to understand that these shapes and figures are associated with, and meaningful to us, their aliens.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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Timed Writing: 5/31/2012



Time: 10 minutes
Prompt: "... Ralph was rifling through the dead man's pockets..."
Source: 4 x 5 x 2 + 6 x 2 + 4 = The River Why by David Jones Duncan

Ralph was rifling through the dead man's pockets when I arrived. I hoped that he was just looking for identification.

"You call the police already?" I asked.

"I wanted you to see him first. I though if you..." He drifted off mid-sentence, as he so often did.

"You thought what? I might be able to do something? About this? I'm a doctor, not..." I got a better look at the body. "Jesus," I said.

I stepped closer and knelt on the pavement beside the corpse. There was no head. The body was that of a tall, heavy man, dressed in a shabby tweed suit, with dirty, worn-down, gray athletic shoes on the feet, but where the head should have been, there was just a stump with the skin stretched over and joined in a puckered seam. There were a few drops of dried blood along the closure, but none to be seen on the ground or the clothing.

"Call the police," I said.

Ralph hadn't found anything in the pockets. He stood up and padded down his own chest and pants with both hands. "I guess I left my cell at home," he said. "Mind if I..."

I gave him my Blackberry and turned back to the corpse. When he stepped out of the light, something glinted near the corpse's neck. I bent close and saw that it was a curved needle, maybe half an inch long, dangling by a monofilament suture from one end of the neck seam.

A simple decapitation wouldn't have left enough skin to stretch over the stump -- the skin must have been cut high, just below the chin and the base of the skull, and then stripped down like a sock being bunched around an ankle, before the neck was severed at a lower level. That would have left enough excess skin to cover the wound. The final subcuticular stitch with the monofilament provided excellent cosmetic closure and occlusion, but would not have been structurally sufficient for such a long wound. It was probably added after a couple lines of subcutaneous and dermal stitches. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble... and yet they'd left a loose end, this dangling suture with the needle still attached.


(about my timed writing exercises)


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