The Worth Of A Smile (Near-future noir, 960 words)

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reiver33

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Posted here to test the source document, as it won't fly over on Absolutewrite.com. This goes down the 'New Rose Hotel' route...


We walked through a cathedral of oaks, along a path of dappled sunlight. The open park lay ahead, consumed in heat haze, but our avenue remained cool and airy. Other than our voices and the background stir of leaves, the only sounds were of children at play.

Jean-Paul and I flipped a Frisbee back-and-forth while arguing over some great issue of the moment. Marie-Claude followed behind, laughing at our over-earnest but inconsequential debate. She carried lunch in a hessian shoulder bag: a long baguette, cheese, two bottles of wine and glasses wrapped in scraps from a velvet skirt.

The rusting vespasienn, with its Banksy mural of a figure in yellow jacket – Gilet; The best a man can get (away with) – still attracted a few tourists, but La Grande Convulsion was from my father’s time and the pun had not aged gracefully. In some respects the park was a reaction to the fear and violence that had gripped society back then - an oasis of calm from which all electronic equipment was barred, along with anything construed as a weapon. All patrons were subject to scan, but thankfully Marie’s short ceramic bread knife had passed muster, so as not to inconvenience our rustic repas.

And to this Eden we came as Death, bearing gifts.

At the end of the avenue the trees split, marching off left and right to encompass the great oval sweep of well-watered lawn. The scattering of families out to enjoy the sunshine were all off to our left, where the oaks afforded some shade.

Marie took up residence on a bench and removed a bottle of wine from her bag. Jean tore off a small handful of bread but paused in the act of transferring it to his mouth. “It would appear we have company.”

Some fifty meters to our right stood a small gazebo. Two men sat inside while another three formed the points of a surrounding triangle. The trio could not been more obviously bodyguards apart from holding placards. The nearest man started towards us; broad-shouldered and blank-faced.

Our own small group exchanged smiles. Marie pushed her sunglasses up to her hairline and laughed, making her nose crinkle in a heart-breakingly fetching fashion. “Let’s not let them spoil our fun.”

I winked, “Fun it is, then.”, and pulled the handgrip on the underside of my Frisbee. The rim sprung away in eight segments, each trailing a strip of transparent plastic that went rigid, similar to a snapscreen.

Jean tore the baguette in half, revealing four short glass javelins.

Marie twisted the cork on her bottle, allowing the binary explosive to mingle. “Twenty seconds, boys. Let’s hustle.”

I spun the blades of my repurposed toy, acting as Jean’s paviser. Three objects bounced off my blurred shield, a fourth grazed my upper left arm; ‘mice’ – small weighted throwing darts. As the nearest bodyguard drew another handful from the pocket of his safari jacket, Jean stepped out from behind me and nailed him in the chest at a distance of thirty metres. The tip of his javelin was needle-sharp, easily penetrating whatever ballistic cloth and anti-stab vest his target was wearing, and the man collapsed in a heap.

Jean slid in behind and tapped my shoulder. “Advance.” We closed the distance to the gazebo at a quick jog with Marie in our wake.

The next-up bodyguard sprinted towards us, carrying a telescopic baton in one hand, darts in the other. The remaining guardian ran for the gazebo, where both occupants were now standing; Hugo Bix – populist politician with links to right-wing agitators – and Viktor Hanesh – criminal entrepreneur with interests in drugs, prostitution and arm trafficking. Our employer wanted either man dead, with a 50% bonus for both.

Another tap. “Halt.”

Marie lobbed her bottle-bomb at a distance that belied her slender flame (sinew augmentation). It flew true. We ducked down.

The blast, the roar of flame.

Two figures of fire staggered from the ruined structure, but it was impossible to identify who.

“Thirty seconds to police response!” Marie turned and ran back towards the bench. Jean launched his remaining javelins at the remaining guard, but he was already in full retreat, tearing off his jacket to cast as ersatz fire blanket. Jean raced away but I had to pause, collapsing each blade of my shield in turn, until I was once again carrying a mere toy. However I’ve always been faster over open ground and was only a step behind when he caught up with Marie at the long avenue.

We hurried on together – three scared patrons now joining an exodus from the park. I wasn’t worried about being identified to the park attendants by some helpful eye-witness. With gunfire people may hunker down, but they generally try to spot the where, and with that comes some knowledge of who. But give them an explosion to react to, especially one designed for maximum visual impact, and fleeing in the opposite direction is instinctive.

Two Gendarmerie drones sped overhead in the direction of the towering column of smoke, displaying ‘deadly force’ running lights. A third slowed to a halt, but merely as guardian angel for the crowd how storming the exits. We spilled out across the boulevard, bringing traffic to a halt in a chorus of horns, even as sirens heralded the ground response teams.

Our team cut diagonally across to the small lane beside Café Macon, slowing our pace from ‘flight’ to ‘uninvolved’. Some 50 meters on, Henri stood waiting, a raised hand on the handle of the metal roller door. He brought it down in a creaking rush immediately we stepped inside, and barred it.

We stood for a moment, just looking at each other, then smiled, grinned, hugged, laughed out loud.

That was our last joyous moment together.
 
Beautiful... To my untrained eye I did spot this though:
A third slowed to a halt, but merely as guardian angel for the crowd how storming the exits.

'Now' perhaps?

K2
 
The Typo Police award you 10 points...
 
I will say this: I like it. But I am a nit-picker, and there are a few nits to pick here.

This is nearly 1,000 words into the story and I still don't know the main character's name. I didn't even know the character was male until Marie said “Twenty seconds, boys." That kind of shook me because I had been picturing the narrator as a woman up to that point.

The rim sprung away in eight segments, each trailing a strip of transparent plastic that went rigid, similar to a snapscreen.
I've never heard of a "snapscreen," and when I Googled it, all it came up with was a magnetic mosquito net that forms a flexible screen door. This doesn't seem to be what you were describing at all. Rather, your character seems to have a plastic, multi-bladed weapon. I think mentioning a snapscreen makes the description a bit confusing.

Marie lobbed her bottle-bomb at a distance that belied her slender flame (sinew augmentation).
I'll assume you meant "frame," but the parenthetical remark throws me off a little. Are you saying that she's been biologically enhanced? Stating this in parentheses feels like a micro info dump, and it takes the reader out of the immediate action.

Our team cut diagonally across to the small lane beside Café Macon, slowing our pace from ‘flight’ to ‘uninvolved’. Some 50 meters on, Henri stood waiting, a raised hand on the handle of the metal roller door.
The door of what exactly? The café? I can't tell where Henri actually is.

He brought it down in a creaking rush immediately we stepped inside, and barred it.
I'm wondering if you forgot a word here. As written, it sounds like he closed the door and then they went inside.

We stood for a moment, just looking at each other, then smiled, grinned, hugged, laughed out loud.
A bit redundant with the smiling and the grinning. Maybe cut one out?

I think the writing is pretty good. The action sequences are very clear--not slowed down by too much description and not too skimpy with the description to understand what is going on. Kudos for finding that Goldilocks zone! I also like the opening paragraphs, though you could (if you wanted) add some dialog as Jean and the narrator are arguing. This would give one of the characters the chance to call your narrator by name, thus establishing the main character's identity and gender early on.
 
Jules et Jim et Neuromanceur!

I think this is really well written and works very well. In particular, the world-building is excellent. The sense of a setting with a bad history and a bad present is very strong, as is the sense of it being our world. That feels very cyberpunk, and I think you've got the balance right between brevity and coherence.

I too didn't really like the brackets, which jarred for me. Otherwise great.
 
This is outstanding. I love it.

One thing often missing in Chrons is author identity. We often talk of getting out of the way of the story, not being self-conscious or egotistical, and that's generally good advice, but what we often chop from our prose is our voice and tone. Think about musicians we adore and their idiosyncrasies. And whilst it's one of my least favourite of her songs who else could have executed Wuthering Heights than Kate Bush?

It's incumbent on us as writers to have such signature styles as this piece has. Within the nuts and bolts of writing, we should also strive for the flair of genius -and I don't use that word lightly. I've often enjoyed your contributions to the 75/300 word challenges and I suspect here is an example of what I like about your stuff. It's the insertion of your personality/morés or whatever into your writing.

You open with:

We walked through a cathedral of oaks, along a path of dappled sunlight. The open park lay ahead, consumed in heat haze, but our avenue remained cool and airy. Other than our voices and the background stir of leaves, the only sounds were of children at play.

An outstanding example of successful mise en scene.

I'm not going to go on and on and make a fool of myself gushing but:

The rusting vespasienn, with its Banksy mural of a figure in yellow jacket – Gilet; The best a man can get (away with) – still attracted a few tourists, but La Grande Convulsion was from my father’s time and the pun had not aged gracefully. In some respects the park was a reaction to the fear and violence that had gripped society back then - an oasis of calm from which all electronic equipment was barred, along with anything construed as a weapon. All patrons were subject to scan, but thankfully Marie’s short ceramic bread knife had passed muster, so as not to inconvenience our rustic repas.

Why aren't you on my bookshelves?

pH
 
My thanks to all for the comments and critique. This would definitely appear to be a 'European' piece - I also posted it over on AbsoluteWrite.com and the (predominantly) US commentators found the opening lacked urgency and didn't 'hook'. One suggested starting with 'And to this Eden...', ditching the 'preamble' as he saw it. The Banksy reference either escaped them or drew the comment the use should be 'Les Gilets'. Ho hum.

The observation was made that it came over as stage directions, and in a way I'll hold my hand up to that. Writing this opening was an attempt to express what I can see in my head; the languid stroll, Marie brushing her long brunette hair away from her sunglasses, the two men indulging in intellectual point scoring as the Frisbee flips between them. All an illusion, of course, a con - followed by sudden violence and flight - in the next section they shed their current personas like soiled clothing.

Jean-Paul and Marie-Claude are characters from Longmans Audio-Visual French, which I encountered age 12. The damn thing haunts me still...

I'm not a commercial writer because I lack both the time and energy to promote my work in the way the current marketing model requires. I can end up working 54 hours a week, have a minimal online presence, don't blog, and neglect forums such as the Chrons due to other commitments. I'm plagued by too many ideas, too little time - nothing new there, I suppose.

The fact that I'll never be a success, in the sense of sales, doesn't bother me. I don't have that burning desire to see my name in print that that drives some authors. I remain an aspiring writer, one who enjoys storytelling, and that's fine...

Regards,

Martin
 
My thanks to all for the comments and critique. This would definitely appear to be a 'European' piece - I also posted it over on AbsoluteWrite.com and the (predominantly) US commentators found the opening lacked urgency and didn't 'hook'. One suggested starting with 'And to this Eden...', ditching the 'preamble' as he saw it. The Banksy reference either escaped them or drew the comment the use should be 'Les Gilets'. Ho hum.
As another US commentator, I will say that the opening paragraph did hook me. Also, Americans know who Banksy is, so I don't get what their problem was. It seems that Absolute Write has a lot of romance writers that like to critique works in genres they don't write or read, and I'm wondering if that's what happened to you. I don't know why they do this. I would never critique a romance novel because I know I would end up saying, "This is so boring and sappy! Can you please just add an alien invasion or a cyborg serial killer or something? Anything to make the sappiness stop!" For the same reason, I don't think romance writers should be critiquing SFF. How would they know about the importance of world-building if they've never had to write anything that required world-building? That's just my opinion, but it is based on my experience with AW. I thought you handled the world-building really well.

The fact that I'll never be a success, in the sense of sales, doesn't bother me.
Everyone here likes your writing. I think you're selling yourself short, and I hope my nit-picking didn't contribute to that. I wish I could write visual descriptions as well as you. You're a good writer. Have a little faith in yourself. :)
 
Another rogue post I just spotted and removed...
 
The opening did feel slow, but as soon as I realised what was going on that slowness made perfect sense - and you had enough hints in there to keep me interested and aware that there was more going on than the beautiful descriptions. Also I learned what a paviser was. I definitely didn't regret reading this.
 
I thought that this was excellent. I was especially impressed with the sense of place and mood you created with practiced ease.

I would, however, agree with others regarding the...(sinew augmentation)

If you want to keep that information in there, I think you need to rewrite how you do so.
 
My thanks for the continued interest and critique. Last week was my 54 hour stint so I’m still just uggg, but will look at this ‘soon’.
 
Just a nit-pick about the opening.

We walked through a cathedral of oaks, along a path of dappled sunlight. The open park lay ahead, consumed in heat haze,

I was surprised to find this jarred with me, when it should have been right up my street. After some thought, I believe the cathedral metaphor doesn't work. There's no sense of awe, nor any reason for there to be. Also, in my experience oaks don't grow like cathedral columns, but throw out branches at the first opportunity. (I'm not sure I've ever seen an avenue of them, possibly for that reason.)

I also feel "consumed" is a bit strong, with its overtones of destruction. The combined effect of these two things, for me, is that the opening feels like it's trying too hard.

Apart from that, it's well done, and I don't agree with the AW crowd who feel it begins too slow.
 
I once saw an avenue which had been trimmed? docked? (unsure of the correct term) to remove the lower limbs so as not to impede vehicles, but any tall trees with sturdy trunks would suit (I'm always open to suggestions).

'Consumed' came to mind rather that the usual 'shimmering', and 'in a blur of heat haze' seemed redundant. In my mind its one of those days where the heat is becoming oppressive by mid-morning, why the other park patrons were clustered in the shade.
 
I once saw an avenue which had been trimmed? docked? (unsure of the correct term) to remove the lower limbs so as not to impede vehicles, but any tall trees with sturdy trunks would suit (I'm always open to suggestions).

'Consumed' came to mind rather that the usual 'shimmering', and 'in a blur of heat haze' seemed redundant. In my mind its one of those days where the heat is becoming oppressive by mid-morning, why the other park patrons were clustered in the shade.

Limes or chestnuts would be good avenue trees. (But it was more the cathedral that I felt didn't quite work.)

I might be overthinking this now, but I'm not sure the "in" of "consumed in heat haze" is grammatically correct. I can't find a Google reference to support it. You can't use "in" with a synonym of consumed, like devoured. But clearly you can't use "consumed by" in this case. I think you're right to avoid the obvious shimmering, but I think something like "hazed by heat" or "oppressive with heat" would do its job without drawing so much attention to it. But that might be just me.
 
Not to split hairs here, but in the southern U.S., there are many oak avenues. This is a picture of Oak Alley Plantation which has the most famous oak avenue, but there are plenty of others. The words "cathedral of oaks" immediately called this place to my mind because the branches form an arch like the ceiling of a cathedral. I may be in the minority there (not everyone has lived in the southern U.S.), but that's why the imagery used in the beginning worked so well for me.

50653
 
I might be overthinking this now, but I'm not sure the "in" of "consumed in heat haze" is grammatically correct. I can't find a Google reference to support it. You can't use "in" with a synonym of consumed, like devoured. But clearly you can't use "consumed by" in this case. I think you're right to avoid the obvious shimmering, but I think something like "hazed by heat" or "oppressive with heat" would do its job without drawing so much attention to it. But that might be just me.

Is 'enveloped' perhaps a word that might work?

As it is: ...lay ahead, consumed in heat haze, but our...
To...
...lay ahead, enveloped in a heat haze, but our...
or
...lay ahead, enveloped in a veil of heat haze, but our...
or
...lay ahead, enveloped in a heat-haze veil, but our...

Not to split hairs here, but in the southern U.S., there are many oak avenues. This is a picture of Oak Alley Plantation which has the most famous oak avenue, but there are plenty of others. The words "cathedral of oaks" immediately called this place to my mind because the branches form an arch like the ceiling of a cathedral. I may be in the minority there (not everyone has lived in the southern U.S.), but that's why the imagery used in the beginning worked so well for me.

Personally, I don't find issue so much with the exact tree, though perhaps the position/association of the phrasing might clarify it more to how you're envisioning it (at least in my mind).

As it is: We walked through a cathedral of oaks, along a path of dappled sunlight. The open park lay ahead, consumed in heat haze, but our avenue remained cool and airy.
To...
We walked through a cathedral of oaks, along an avenue of dappled sunlight. The open park lay ahead, consumed in heat haze, but our path remained cool and airy.
Or...
We walked the dappled sunlit avenue along a cathedral of oaks. The open park lay ahead, consumed in heat haze, but our path remained cool and airy.

How @reiver33 sees it may be exactly as stated. A path through randomly placed trees, which is how it reads to me.

K2
 
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Not to split hairs here, but in the southern U.S., there are many oak avenues. This is a picture of Oak Alley Plantation which has the most famous oak avenue, but there are plenty of others.

That's interesting. Are the two lines of trees usually that far apart? (Which would suit oaks.) In the avenues I've seen here in the UK, the lines tend to be much closer together. But in the US you have all that space to fill. :)

I can see that "cathedral" would suit that, as it would suit many others. But my point about cathedral wasn't that it was unfitting as a description, just that it seemed a bit throwaway. A medieval cathedral to me isn't just the physical thing of regularly spaced columns going up and then spreading out into the vaulting; there's a whole feeling that comes with that, of awe and wonder (not necessarily religious, but coming from the history, space, hush, etc). That would work if there was a suggestion that the characters were experiencing similar feelings, or looking all about them and upwards in appreciation, but they don't. The avenue is just a route they have to walk along. (I realise I'm banging on about this as though it were the crux of the whole story, so I'll stop.)
 
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