Murder By Semi-Colon – A Quick Fiction

Last week, in my critique group, someone had the audacity to slip a colon into his pages for the week.  Can you believe it? A colon?  Wow.

It is said that an author is allowed one semi-colon in the course of writing a commercial length novel in today’s publishing world.  The colon seems to have no place at all.  The colon is used for business letters, immediately before a list of product features or reasons to buy something.

The Merriam Webster’s Secretarial Handbook has succinct descriptions of both, and how they are best used.  And if it’s Merriam Webster, it must be so, right?

There is no need for either colon or semi-colon mark in a story, even in a novel-length work.  This takes me immediately into the wonderful world of how-did-that-come-to-be? And what-if? From there, my imagination takes a leap, and I see the following scene:

Hands at an Imperial 58 TypewriterMatt slumped back to his copy writer’s desk, his beloved manuscript in hand.  It was a story he’d worked on for years, click-clacking away in the wee hours on his Imperial typewriter; a good story with drama, character, and a great story arc.

It had taken another two months to work up the courage to take this offering to his editor, Tom Eliot. Eliot took another few weeks to agree to read the manuscript, “on condition,” said the venerable editor, “that if I don’t like the thing, you’ll never bother me with another.” Eliot had been published multiple times, and with every publication of his work came another onslaught of would-be writers looking for suggestions, criticisms, even publication. Matt understood how the great man was plagued by others and agreed to his boss’s condition. Mr. Eliot took the manuscript home.

A few weeks later, Eliot called Matt into his office. Matt eyed the kindly editor with hope in his heart and a tentative smile hovering about his mouth.  Surely Mr. Eliot had seen that he, Matt, was a young man with big talent.  The great war had stolen Matt’s right leg, but left him with a spirit that was strong, a mind as sharp as any in the great Faber and Faber publishing house, and a hunger for publication with his own name behind the words.

“Madison,” said Eliot, “I’m going to do you a big favor. I’m going to immediately cut off your desire to write. This is the kindest thing to do.”

Matt’s jaw dropped.  He’d worked so hard and long on this project!  In the trenches of those rat-infested holes in Europe’s main land, he’d scribbled the plight of the world.  When the other soldiers were writing to girlfriends and mothers, Matt had kept a journal of worldly observations.  Why would Mr. Eliot want him to stop writing?

“Your prose is decent enough, son, but your total lack of talent with the semi-colon is repugnant.  A semi-colon is not a period, though to be sure, the semi will end a thought.  It is not a comma, or the indication that one should take a breath on the thought that preceded it.  A semi is a precious mark that bridges two separate thoughts that are yet, somehow related.  The semi allows your reader to know what you think, and that there’s more.  If I had a nickel for every young whippersnapper who peppered his prose with improper semi-colons, I’d be a rich man indeed.”

“But the story, sir?” said Matt, hope fading even as he voiced his question.

“Blasé at best,” said the older man. “Reminds me of Canterbury Tales; bunch of people sitting around with nothing in common but their need to tell a story.  And you end on such a happy note!  This needs a hopeless ending.”

“If I rewrite the ending, sir?”

“Ending, schmending. The world wants happy these days.  It’s the twenties after all.  War is over; time to prosper. So your “book” would probably sell, but I’m not the editor to go through and correct your use of colons and semi-colons.  One rule for you and every new writer I speak to will be, ONE SEMI-COLON PER NOVEL, from now on.”

Matt went home, devastated by the great T.S. Eliot’s words.  Shortly he died.  Some say gangrene crept up the sawed-off-leg. Others who knew him better said Matt succumbed to a broken heart.  Personally, I think he was murdered for the poor use of semi-colons.

And in 1922, a year after Matt’s death, T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land.

DAISY NOTE:  Hi Reading Friends.  Just wanted to let you know I’ve added a new page to this website.  Looking Forward To Seeing You is listed under the Press Kit & Public Relations tab. It tells where I’ll be doing book signings and giving speeches.  Hope to meet you face-to-face soon.  Have a great reading or writing day–with or without semi-colons.

Bedazzling Dress

Hello Reading Friend,

As promised, here is a short mystery for you to solve. The winner of this reading contest will receive an Advance Reader Copy of my upcoming book, “Faith on the Rocks.”

Here are the contest rules:

  • Read the mystery
  • Solve the main question of Who Dunnit and how you know this (Check out Women’s World–”Solve It Yourself Mystery” for ideas on this)
  • Click this link that takes you to the submission form
  • Be quick!  I can only send an ARC to the first correct submission

Bedazzling Dress

The tall, elegant woman approaching Rita May and Daisy looked none too pleased. Her heels clicked on the white marble floor of the famous Broadmoor Hotel. She took a garment bag from over her forearm, and shoved it toward Rita May.

“Tell me I did not pay $7,000 for this!” said the woman in a thick eastern European accent. Her voice echoed off the walls of the hall leading into the Grand Ballroom. “Rita, I did not stand for over 30 measurements, only to have you produce a dress I couldn’t wear at all, much less for my dance competition in two hours!”

Rita looked dismayed as she started to unzip the bag. “But Annika–Dr. Habsburg–this dress is—” Rita stopped.

“This is my garment bag. You can see my logo on it. But this is not the dress I made for you.” She pulled a poorly constructed Latin dance dress from the bag. “It doesn’t even come from my off-the-rack collection.”

“It is the dress you delivered through the hotel,” said Annika. “Where is the beautiful outfit of pearlescent cream we’ve talked about? I need to waltz and slow Foxtrot in that.”

“I don’t know, Annika, but I’ll find out,” said the dress designer. Rita turned to Daisy, then back to her client. “My friend here has worked with the Littleton police on some cases, and I’m sure she can help me find out what happened.”

Dr. Habsburg turned to look up and down at Daisy. “Well. Maybe there’s more than meets the eye here.”

Just then, a similarly tall young woman walked up to the group in front of Rita’s dress display. “Something amiss?” asked the young woman.

“Mallory!” said Rita. “Just the person we need here. Daisy, Mallory is my assistant. Mallory, Dr. Habsburg’s dress has gone missing. You did stay here and watch over the booth of designs while I parked the van, right?”

“Right,” said Mallory.

“Did you see anyone go near the garment bag with Dr. Habsburg’s dress in it?”

Mallory bit her lip and scrunched her forehead. “Not that I saw.”

“Two hours,” said Annika. “I must have that dress back in two hours!” She stalked off.

Rita wrung her hands. “Daisy, what am I going to do? Dr. Habsburg is one of my best clients. She’s even been invited to dance at the all-famous Blackpool competition later this year. The Glimmer Ball, here in Colorado Springs, was to be her warm up for that competition. If we don’t find her dress, she won’t be able to dance tonight, and that will hurt her chances of high placement at Blackpool.”

“Hmm,” said Daisy. “Someone obviously replaced your real gown for the other. And the good doctor didn’t ask for a loan from your collection here.” Daisy swept her arm toward a line of dazzling dresses on Rita’s rack. “Could it be our dancing diva has cold feet about Blackpool?”

“Your puns are not appreciated right now,” said Rita, but she laughed just the same. “Cold feet. Dance. Seriously, it’s a thought. But Dr. Habsburg is a renowned organ transplant surgeon at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. She doesn’t crack under pressure that I’ve ever seen.”

“The dancing doctor? Impressive,” said Daisy. “Let’s keep in mind though that even the toughest amongst us has a weak spot.” Still she looked around the hall. Other vendors had displays of shoes, jewelry, and more dance dresses. “Perhaps there are witnesses in the other booths. Let’s go ask them if they’ve seen anyone near your collection.”

Together Rita and Daisy spoke to the other vendors. Almost no one had seen anything, as they were busy with their own customers. The last vendor was a young friend of Rita’s, Ryan Stoner.

“Ryan used to be an ice skater,” said Rita to Daisy as they walked over. “But a couple of blown knees later he followed his mom into dressmaking for ice-skaters and ballroom dancers. Hi, Ryan. Have a couple of minutes?”

Daisy told Ryan about the missing dress and asked if he’d seen any unusual activity near the Rita May Designs booth.

“Stolen dress? I’ll have to keep a closer eye on my designs,” said Ryan. “Mine aren’t as perfect as yours, Rita, but if I had a seven thousand dollar dress, you can bet I would hire extra security to watch my booth. Now you mention it, I did notice your booth was empty for a little while.”

“Empty?” said Rita. “But I left my assistant there.”

Ryan shrugged. “I saw her pick up a cell phone and walk away.”

“Thanks, Ryan. You may have helped solve this mystery!” said Rita. She grabbed Daisy and walked back to her booth.

Mallory met Rita and Daisy. “I just remembered something, Rita. Dr. Habsburg told you she was nervous about dancing in the Broadmoor. The architecture and elegance are so reminiscent of her days growing up in Prague, and her end to dancing when she was intimidated as a little girl there. Do you think Daisy might be right about her being afraid to dance? Could she have switched out dresses?”

“I’ll think about it, Mal, but for now, are you absolutely certain that you didn’t leave our booth here for even an instant?”

“Let’s see,” said Mallory. “We brought the dresses in from the van and hung them up. Then we took Dr. Habsburg’s dress out of the bag to show Mrs. Winger, that nice lady who is looking for a new designer. Remember? She was very impressed with all the beads you and I put on Dr. Habsburg’s dress.”

“You’re right, Mal,” said Rita. “Over ten thousand beads, each put on individually will do that for a person. But I put the dress back in my bag immediately after that. I hung it right here, and asked you to watch the booth while I went to park our van.”

“And so I did,” said Mallory.

Daisy cleared her throat. “Mallory, I see you have a little tissue stuck on your shoe heel there. Are you sure you stayed at the booth the entire time Rita was gone?”

Mallory blushed. “Oh! I may have stepped away, but I was only gone for a minute. That doesn’t count, does it?”

Rita glared at her assistant. “I know how much you like the Habsburg dress. I know how much time you put into helping me bead it. But Mallory, would you really have”—

“Mallory isn’t our thief,” said Daisy. “But I think I know who is. Let’s go find hotel security.”

__________________________

While the characters and events in this story are 100% fiction, I couldn’t have written this without invaluable help from Joey of Joey Santos Designs, a wonderful dress-designer in Littleton, Colorado.

The Encounter–Part Two

“Now, boys, take yourself back to the year 1874, to a winter so cold and harsh no sane man would venture out past the campfire.  We was there in Chief Ouray’s camp, all debatin’ ’bout whether to head east toward Denver and the gold of the Rockies.”

Alfred Packer Headstone

He had a distinctive laugh.

“Wait a minute,” said Fox. “You weren’t there.  That’s too many years ago.”

“Oh, but I were,” said Al.  “Indeed, I were.  See boys, I’m a ghost.”

“Good try, old man.” Fox stood up. “But ghosts don’t form people shapes like in the movies, and ghosts don’t smell.  No offense, but a skunk has a better odor than you.”

The old man looked hard at Fox.  He might lose this one, lose another chance at redemption. He decided honesty was his best tool right then. “Yep, I smell.  I smell from the fires of hell, from the brimstone.  Believe me, you wouldn’t want my smell attached to you.” A long, eerie wail bubbled up from Al’s chest and swept west over the graveyard, off toward the mountains, too dark to see at this time of night.  The sound danced on the wind and was shrill enough for a coyote somewhere to respond in that same, lonely, hollow whistle, that could chill the warmest of spirits.

“That noise is as creepy as your laugh,” said the Alien kid.  “Do it again.”  He giggled and edged closer to Al.

“If I can catch a kid and scare ‘im straight, I earn a step out of hell,” said Al.  “So sit down, both of you and listen.” His voice, now full of quiet fury, must have hit a note with the boys. Alien boy stiffened and sat up straighter, eyes wide. Fox shrugged a skeptical shoulder and sat on Al’s other side again.

“Now where was I? Oh, yeah, the tent in Ouray’s camp.” Al told the tale of gold fever that ran rampant through the white men, and the wariness of the Native Americans.  He told the boys about the decision to go off, even in the midst of a winter storm; of the deaths of his five companions.

“What made you eat them?” said Alien kid, engrossed as any pre-teen might be.

“I blame it on the cold, on the dead of winter.  But mostly, boy, I blame it on that axe.”

“Axe?” said Fox.

“There was an axe at Ouray’s camp.  We weren’t ‘sposed to touch it on account of it havin’ what they called “bad spirits.” But the gold fever was stronger in Frank Miller than the fear of some bewitched axe.  Said that axe would come in handy on our travels.  He stole it, God help him. He stole it, an’ he used it to kill our buddies out in the wild.  When he come for me, I grabbed that axe–oh I wish to God I hadn’t–but I grabbed it, and I made it work for me.”  His creepy laugh rang out across the Halloween night.

“I smashed Frank with that axe. Split his head like a over-ripe watermelon on a Sunday picnic near the river. Pop! That head burst with all the blood and guts a man could tolerate in a lifetime.  Worse than lookin’ at all the bodies I saw in the Civil war. Squish and slime and the eyes–oh those eyes just poppin’ out of their sockets, juicy, warm and ripe.  I et them first.”

“Eew,” said the Alien. “How could you?”

“I was hungry boys, with a hunger so deep and frigid it twernt natural.  Sure, we’d had slim pickin’s for days, but my hunger came the minute I touched that axe.  Hunger and cold past through my body and settled into my soul.” Another long wail. This time the boys didn’t bother to interrupt. “Now I wander the earth, and hope to scare nice boys like you to travel the straight and narrow road of life.”

Fox’s voice dropped to a whisper. “What happened to the axe?”

“Why, I have it shackled to me, a reminder to all to obey the Injun spirit men.” He reached down and pulled upan old wooden axe.  It was indeed chained to the old man’s leg.  The axe’s head caught on moonlight and glinted.  Al made a move to put the axe away.

“Wait,” cried Fox.  “We haven’t had a chance to see it.”  He reached out for the axe.  Al pulled it back, but the Alien kid reached from the other side.

Just then, a car pulled to the side of the road in front of the boys. The driver didn’t acknowledge Al’s presence at all. She simply yelled through the open window:

“Eric David Harris, you get your butt in this car.  Do you know what time it is? You were supposed to be home an hour ago.  Come on Dylan.  Your mom’s been calling our house to look for you.  You both are in such trouble!”

“Bye Al,” said Fox-now-Eric. “Been real nice meeting you.” He stroked the axe and smiled.

“Thanks for all the creepy tips,” added Dylan Klebold, mimicking Eric’s move.

The boys looked at each other and laughed.  It was Al’s own hauntingly familiar laugh.  He shook his head sadly, knowing his step out of hell had failed.  Then he  felt a chill to his very soul.