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An open letter to alt-right, paleo-libertarian, “cultural Marxism”-hating, red-pill-popping dudes.


Hi.

It’s come to my attention that you’re worried about the direction of this country. Specifically, you’re worried that America’s culture is shifting in ways you see as anathema to America’s values, by which you mean your values. The values of white men of a certain sort.

And I hear you. You’re upset, and you’re pretty sure you have reason to be upset, and that reason has something to do with women and the Jews and political correctness, maybe? Anyway, I want to let you in on something the rest of us, who don’t so much share your concerns, are already aware of, but you appear not to be.

Here goes.

America is not abandoning your culture, or what you imagine to be your culture, or what you imagine to be the true American culture, because of some Jewish or black or gay or feminist conspiracy, nor is it because of women or the feminization of men or social justice warriors or atheism or people eating soy.

American is abandoning your values and your culture because your values and your culture kind of suck, aren’t terribly appealing, don’t contribute much to the world, don’t lead to much in the way of happiness and satisfaction but instead to resentment and rage and cultural and social impotence, and are, frankly, just really, really boring.

America is over you. Deal with it.

Aaron

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Mr. V: A Serial Occult Mystery — Part 3


An ongoing serialized novel about an ex-cop, a small town, and some very dark goings on. From the author of “The Hole.”

All prior and future installments of Mr. V, as well as a quick introduction to the novel, can be found here:

View at Medium.com


Feargus’s restaurant turns out to be a little Cuban joint next to a pawn shop. One of those places with probably a lot of regulars, a good chunk of them homeless. Shabby, but you suspect the food’s pretty good.

Along to the right is the alley where the kid died — if Ricky and Izzy aren’t just making shit up. Enough bums stumble through the neighborhood that poking around back there shouldn’t draw too much attention.

So I start by standing right inside the alley, and I observe.

Immediately I get a funny feeling. A tingle and metallic taste in the back of my mouth. Throb in my joints. The throb is shit you expect when you get old, but this comes on strong. The metallic taste I’ve never had before. I back out of the alley to get some air and it subsides — but comes back as soon as I step in again. Anxiety. Ricky’s bringing back memories of the job.

I see blood. A little ways in, on the cracked concrete ground, and then next to it, along the wall, a bundle of hair. Don’t know if it’s Feargus’s, but it’s too much hair to just be sheddings. I crouch down next to it but I don’t know what I’m looking for. It’s not like evidence of a murder’s just sitting there.

And that’s the thing, really. Because if Izzy and Ricky are telling the truth, then evidence of the murder wasn’t there when the cops showed up, either. Sometime between Feargus buying it and the police arriving on the scene, somebody took the corpse. Or, more sinister and conspiratorial, the cops hid the corpse themselves, secreting it away as soon as Izzy reported the crime. And the more I think about it, the more I figure that second one’s probably the case, because this was broad daylight. You don’t steal a dead guy in broad daylight, and you sure don’t do it without the police, showing up right after, knowing a body’s been moved. At the very least, they’d cause a sink about it. So if there’s silence on that matter, the silence begins with the police. Which means they’re in on it?

It’d be easier to think the junkies are feeding me a line. Not like it’d be out of character. Fucking junkies. You’d think kids would see where the drug use goes, how it fucks up everyone who starts on it, and they’d decide that’s a dumb road to go. Wouldn’t bother me much — to each his own, everyone sleeps in the bed he makes, and so on — but I keep getting sucked into their orbit. As a cop, sure, but even now. Goddamn Ricky.

So the hair. There’s scalp still on it, a wrinkled nub, tacky a little. Did Izzy tell me Feargus’s hair color? I can’t remember. I’ll ask. This stuff’s brown, with a couple white strands. Age or stress or both. Somebody tore it out or cut it off, and it hurt like hell if the owner was alive when it happened.

Blood on the wall behind it, more off to the left, further into the alley. Splashes. Big ones. More than you’d get from punching a broken nose. This is severed artery level. Again it’s weird the cops didn’t take this more seriously. Even if they didn’t find a body, this much evidence of violence you don’t ignore.

I pull out my phone, take some pictures. Thinking maybe that’s a mistake, because if things go bad and I get arrested and searched, they’re going to wonder why I have photos of a crime scene. Not a huge risk, though. It’s all out in public, and I’m an ex-cop. Still, makes me think I should tread carefully if I stay with the case. I don’t even have a PI license. This is straight up vigilante stuff I’m pulling.

The taste and the throb are still there, but fading maybe. Can’t be sure. Maybe I’m just getting used to it.

I leave the hair. My instinct’s to bag it, but I’m not official anymore, and if the good guys would spook over photos of a crime scene on my phone, they’d have a delightful time finding me with a baggie of bloody scalp. Nothing more to do here. I’ve confirmed — sort of — Izzy’s story. Somebody suffered a whole lot of violence here, and recently. Somebody probably died. I could confirm it was Feargus by asking around in the Cuban joint, see if he’s turned up for work. See if he even ever worked there. And there I am again with the not trusting Izzy or not trusting Ricky. Instinct. Gut.

I’m not going to ask, not going to stick my neck out that far. Too risky. Too much telling other people I’ve involved in whatever the hell I’ve got involved in. So I stand up, my knees pop, and I head back to the hotel, done for the night.


Back at the hotel, I remember Ricky telling me about the politician, Connolly, who’d been asking around about the junkie murders. If he knows about Feargus, maybe he knows something too about why the cops didn’t look into it more. It’s almost nine o’clock, but if the guy’s running for office, he’s probably still at it. I google for him, find a number for his campaign headquarters, and give it call.

He picks up on the second ring. Not a secretary or campaign volunteer, but the man himself. Which means he’s not all that important, has no chance of winning, or both. I tell him my name’s Stevie Winthrop — a kid who used to work at the station and got killed by a drunk driver — and I’m working on a story about the local election for a new blog. Can I come by to talk with him a bit?

“A blog?” he says.

“A new one,” I say. “Hasn’t launched yet. We’re hoping it’ll be pretty big.”

“What’s it called? You sound old for a blogger.”

“Damn kids putting us out of work,” I say. “Can’t beat ’em, join them. It’s called D-mocracy, without the ‘e’. Stupid name, I know. Not classly like the Something-something Herald or the Something-something Register. But that’s how shit goes now. The internet, you know?”

Connolly says, suspicious, “Why do you want to talk to me?”

“I’m writing up a piece — a post — about the local election, trying to do profiles on all the candidates who aren’t the crazy ones. You think I could come by? I still like doing interviews like this in person. Old fashioned, and all that.”

There’s a pause. I hope he’s buying it. I need to see him when I ask questions. It’s the only way to know for sure if he’s on the level. The silence drags. Then he says, “Sure, okay. I’m going to be here maybe another hour. You know where it is?”

I find it pretty easy. In fact, it’s only three blocks from my hotel, which I guess isn’t too surprising when you’re talking about a “downtown” the size of this one. It’s the bottom floor of a three story brick building wedged between other three story brick buildings, all on a street perpendicular but only a little ways off of Main Street. You get the sense they build these back when they figured coal mining would grow forever and that the town would grow with it and then things didn’t turn out that way.

The building has an opolstry company’s name carved into the brownstone along the top, but they’re long gone, replaced by a computer repair shop, a dance studio, and Connolly’s campaign headquarters. Which has a couple of lights on. The door’s propped open with a brick.

I go in, saying, “Hello?”

Connolly’s voice says from far away, “Back here, Mr. Winthrop,” and I follow it to a tiny office hidden behind stacked boxes of sticker, fliers, and yard signs. The ceiling above them’s missing tiles and one light off to the right flickers. A classy joint.

Connolly’s standing in the doorway, leaning against the jam. He’s a big man, stocky but not fat, maybe in his early 40s. Old to have only made it this far in politics. Must be bad at it, or made mistakes that cost him. He’s ruddy and has three days’ worth of beard. He holds out his hand. “This’ll be a friendly profile, I hope?”

“I’m not doing gotcha journalism here, “ I tell him. Then smile. “That’ll come later, you get far enough in the race.”

He laughs. “I’m not too worried about it. Nobody takes blogs seriously. Not in these parts.”

“A bad story can follow you,” I say.

He laughs again, and waves me into his office. Which is just two folding chairs and a card table, stacked with papers and an old laptop computer. No matter his prospects for elections, the guy’s clearly not vacuuming up donations.

He tells me about his upbringing, about how he learned the value of hard work helping his grandparents on their farm during summers away from the city. How he got a sense of the hardworking men and women who make this country great, and how government should serve them as they’ve served the rest of us. It’s dull and cliche and makes me think of 30 second ads of horses and cornfields and sunlight through glasses of iced tea. I let him go with it because you get a politician talking and he’ll keep talking, and there some things I want to hear him talk about.

Connolly says, “And I know how elusive and fleeting opportunities can be. Which is why I want to be sure nobody falls through the cracks,” and that’s my opportunity.

“Like the homeless and the drug kids?” I say.

“Of course. So many of them are where they are because the economy’s not working for them or because of bad luck.”

“It’s good,” I say, “when a politician takes an interest in them. In the local street kids.”

“Everyone needs help sometimes.” But he’s clearly suspicious now, leaning back, eyeing me. I used to be better at this.

“Seems like things have been particularly bad for them lately.”

“How so?”

“The animal attacks.”

He stares at me.

“I heard about it from one of them I was talking to. He actually mentioned you. Said you were the only person running for office who seemed to care about about him and his friends. He thought maybe you could get the police to do something about it.”

Connolly says, slow, “Who was this?”

I give him a cocked smile. “Not going to reveal my sources, right?”

Then the politician’s veneer is back, that sheen of charm. He says, “Of course I’ve heard about that. Difficult to know if it’s for real with people like that. They’re down and out, but a lot of them it’s because of mental issues. Some of them run off, or overdose, and others start telling stories about it. But, yes, I’ve talked with them about it. If it’s happening and the police aren’t taking it seriously, that’s a problem the people of this town ought to know about.”

“What have you heard?” I say. “This blog launches and I’ll do a story about it to get the word out.”

“Who else have you talked to, Mr. Winthrop? I’m curious. Am I the first person you’ve profiled?”

“I haven’t profiled anyone yet. You’re the first I’ve talked to.”

“Because of what that street kid told you?”

I nod. I’ve fucked this up. He’s not buying my line. Time to get out of here before things go any worse. “Things I’ve overheard,” I say. “Place I spend time, they do sometimes too. You hear things. These kids get excited, they talk loud. But you’ve confirmed it, right?”

“I’ve confirmed they’re telling the same stories to me you heard them telling each other. Like I said, Mr. Winthrop, I don’t know if what they’re saying happened happened.” He leans forward. This is going bad. “Here’s the thing, Mr. Winthrop. I beginning to wonder if what you’re saying, about this blog and you being a reporter, I’m beginning to think perhaps that didn’t happen either. Is there a blog, Mr. Winthrop? Or do you have some other motive for being here?”

“I’m sorry if I’ve upset you,” I say, standing up. Sticking my note pad in my back pocket. Clicking the ballpoint pen closed. “I won’t let these accusations color anything I write in the profile.”

I turn and walk out and behind me I hear Connolly’s chair slide back and then footsteps in the big, empty room. “Mr. Winthrop,” he says, his voice low enough that I have to cock my head back to make it out. “I’m going to recommend you don’t ever lie to me again. I’m going to recommend, in fact, that you don’t speak to me again or write anything about me. For your sake more than mine.”

Then I’m out the door and standing in the street. My knees hurt like hell and my mouth states like aluminum foil. I should leave, go home, forget all this, and let Ricky’s junkie friends die one by one. Fuck them. Fuck this. I’m retired. At least with old lady Prideaux, I got paid.

But I’ve got the goddamn bug. I’m in this shitty city, away from the quiet and peace of my small town, a place populated, it seems, entirely by assholes, and yet I need to see this through. Which makes me an asshole, too?

I look back. The lights are out in Connolly’s place. I hope the fucker gets clobbered in the election. Because he’s hiding something, obviously, and knows more about the murders than he claims, obviously. And I’m going to find out.

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Aaron Ross Powell’s Fiction

Horror, mystery, crime, and science fiction novels and short stories.

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Current Serial Novel

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Mr. V: A Serial Occult Mystery — Part 2


An ongoing serialized novel about an ex-cop, a small town, and some very dark goings on. From the author of “The Hole.”

All prior and future installments of Mr. V, as well as a quick introduction to the novel, can be found here:

View at Medium.com

Now on to Part 2.


Ricky walks me out of the museum and down the street, past the park and another block. The whole way saying, “Not here,” when I ask for more about these murders. “People could be listening,” he says.

Which is why it’s confusing when we end up in a coffee shop, not a Starbucks or anything like that, but one of those neighborhood joints where everyone’s got a laptop and looks like they’ve been there hours going on days.

But then Ricky points to the back, a smaller room you’d think is employees only but is really just a bunch more tables. He says, “We can talk in there.”

And we do. Neither of us orders anything and the folks who run the place don’t seem to care. Ricky says, sitting in a chair that doesn’t match any of the others in that stylishly eclectic way, I guess, “Clint, I got friends around here. We… Well, some of us still deal, Clint. But that’s not the point. What is is it’s not like this town’s dangerous for people like us. It’s all low key. But not anymore. Three of us have died, Clint. Not oh-deed. Killed. More are just missing.”

I wonder if maybe this place can make me an Irish coffee. “How do you know they were killed?” I say.

“Ones gone missing, I don’t. But the three I mentioned, they was definitely murdered. Right around here, too. In fact, two of them, their bodies turned up on the museum grounds we were just on, Clint. Those I actually saw afterwards, before the cops found them and the city took them away. They were all cut up.”

“Cut up like how?”

“Tears all over. Gouges. On their faces, hands.”

“Like bites?”

Ricky thinks this over. “Yeah, maybe,” he says.

“So like they were attacked by wild animals? Or chewed up after they’d already died from something else? Because, Ricky, you know there are mountain lions all through here. One of your friends smokes too much, keels over dead — even just passes out — it’s not crazy to think one of those big cats sees an easy meal and takes advantage of it.”

But Ricky says no, it can’t be mountain lions. “Because Clint, we’re not talking bites — if that’s what they are — bites of that sort. I’ve seen mountain lions. They’re too small.”

“Mountain lions are pretty big, Ricky. So how big of bites are we talking here?”

Ricky sits up and holds his hands apart, curling his fingers, miming jaws. “Like this,” he says, and his palms are a good thirty-six inches away from each other. “Like a fucking alligator, Clint.”

And I see the blood on the museum steps. More, if I’m honest, than you’d get from cracking your head really good falling off a skateboard. I say, “What about the police?”

“You mean are they on it?”

I nod. “You said they showed up, took the bodies. They doing anything?”

Ricky says, “Shit, Clint, you think cops care about junkies? Dealers? I mean like care about what happens to ’em, and not just about locking ’em up?”

“If they’re being murdered,” I say.

Ricky shakes his head. “No,” he says. “The cops sure aren’t doing anything about it. I mean they said something about it back when the news guys did a story. Cop lady on TV, she says about how it’s like what you said, probably an animal attack. But they only talked about one of ’em, Clint. And there were three.” Ricky stops. Stares at me. “You don’t believe me.”

I shrug. “You say one of your buddies died, I’m sure it happened. That he was eaten by something as big as an alligator? I don’t know. Ricky, how often you get high?”

He leans back, looking at the ceiling. Rolls his eyes. “I knew it. You think because I cooked some crank, because you pinned distribution of it on me even though I did no such thing, and you think because I got a problem I sometimes smoke the stuff, all that means I’d lie about something killing my goddamn friends?”

“Didn’t say lying, Ricky.”

“So you think I’m crazy, then? Out of my head on dope and I don’t even know my friends haven’t been eaten?”

“Ricky, calm down.”

The front legs of his chair slam back on the hardwood and he’s right in my face, all yellow teeth and watery eyes. “I need your help, Officer Varne. I’m not shitting you. This is all real. We’re dying.”

“Okay, Ricky,” I say, leaning away from him. “Okay.”

Ricky says, “But it’s not just me knows about it. You gonna be here I bit? Let me round up a few of us haven’t been killed and let them tell you. They know about it, too.”

I get dragged along to a Denny’s, where I’m now sharing a booth with Ricky, this other guy who looks even more like one of the walking dead, and a slip of a girl pretty enough but with hair on her legs and sprouting out her armpits.

“I don’t sell it,” the girl tells me, her voice slow, like some charlatan just hypnotized her. “If you were thinking I did, I don’t. Hooked on it, yeah, but that don’t hurt nobody.”

“Sure don’t,” the other guy says.

The girl says, “I just wanna clear that up so you don’t go thinking you need to lock me up or nothing. Because Ricky says you’re a cop.”

Ricky, who’s on the bench seat with me across from these two lunatics, reaches out and touches her wrist. “Used to be a cop. Tell him what you seen, Izzy. He don’t care about the drugs. He’s here to help.”

Izzy inhales big and dramatic. “It was like two nights ago, maybe. I’m out with Feargus — “

“Her boyfriend,” Ricky says.

“ — and we’re hanging out in that park, one across from the museum. It’s late. I don’t know what time. Feargus wants to score us some pot and so he tells me to wait for him. He’s sweet like that, buying it for me but not wanting me talking with those people myself. So I’m sitting there by the fountain, Feargus running over across the street, where the restaurants are, because the guy he buys from works dishes in one of them.”

Ricky’s hand still on her wrist, she says, “I don’t see him for like ten minutes. Feargus never takes that long because it’s not like this dishwasher goes on break to sell it to him or anything. It’s real quick. So I’m sitting there and I’m getting nervous because what if they got caught, busted by the manager or something? What if somebody called the police?”

Ricky says, “But then tell him what you saw.”

The other guy, the real skinny one, he’s staring at Ricky, but he says, “Yeah, Izzy. It’s okay.”

“I decide — I don’t know, it’s been like twenty minutes now — but I get up and start walking over there. It’s not like I’m gonna go in, so I don’t really know what I’m doing, but I can’t just sit there any more with Feargus maybe in trouble. And it’s when I’m still in the middle of the street when I hear people talking in the ally next to the restaurant. Feargus and another guy, I’m pretty sure. Not like I can hear what they’re saying, but the voices, I know one’s Feargus.”

All this and she’s staring right at Ricky, gaze not moving from his, and her eyes keep getting wider until I can see white all the way around her irises. Fear.

Izzy goes on, “Feargus says something like, ‘You sick?’ Maybe ‘disturbed,’ I can’t remember. He says it like this other guy wants him to do something fucked up and then Feargus is saying, ‘Stop it.’ I hear him say that: ‘Hey, wait’ and ‘Stop that!’ And then — “

She stops. We all wait for her. I see tears on her cheeks. Ricky says, “I’m here, Izzy. We all got you. Nothing’s gonna happen, you here with us. It’s safe.” Ricky pats her hand. “You need to tell him, Iz.”

Izzy moves that weird, wild gaze from Ricky to me. I lock eyes. Try to look encouraging.

Izzy sniffles. “It’s just that it’s so awful,” she says after another fifteen seconds of staring. “You know how there’s things, you see them, but even after you can’t believe it really happened? Like it’s so bad that you just go on thinking it must’ve been a dream?”

I nod.

“Feargus, I see him come out of the alley. He’s looking scared. Never seem him like that before, not even the time we were squatting and high school kids broke in with gasoline. He was always so tough.”

“Did you recognize the other guy’s voice?”

She takes a second to process the question. She shakes her head. “Didn’t hear it good enough.”

“What happened next?” I ask her.

“It’s like Feargus was pushed out of there,” Izzy says. “Like someone behind him gave him a big shove. Because he kind of stumbled, coming right toward me, and then I saw — “ She breaks off her stare, pulls her hand away from Ricky’s, covers her face. “Oh, God,” she says.

I’m about to pat her, give her coffee, something to comfort her, when she wipes her face with the back of her hands and says, “He got eaten, Mr. Varne. That’s what happened. Something ate him and it wasn’t no animal, either.”

They’re all junkies, I think. Get enough of that shit in your system and you think anything’s anything. Feargus could’ve got mugged, nothing special about it, and Izzy would swear she saw a minotaur do it.

But I don’t say that. Instead I say, “You’re sure?”

She nods. “I saw its arms. This thing grabbed Feargus right around his chest and its arms were human.”

“In a jacket and everything,” Ricky says. “A fancy one. Kind of businessman wears.” Izzy glances at him, her look blank.

“You said he got shoved out, the pulled back in. Are you sure about that? Could he have been trying to run away instead of pushed? He’s running, panicked, that might be why he stumbled.”

“I guess so,” she says. “I don’t know.”

“So someone beat him up, is what you’re telling me. Maybe knifed him?”

“No. Feargus got eaten. I saw it. This mouth, big and coming out of the dark.” Izzy stops, and brushes Ricky’s hand off hers. “I can’t talk about this anymore. Jesus.”

Ricky looks at her, then inches away, embarassed by the rejection. He tries to cover by taking charge of the conversation. “That’s when we called the cops, Clint. We told ’em Feargus got killed and they had to make this shit stop.”

“What’d they do?”

“Nothing. Not a fucking thing. I mean, they sent someone out there, but he tells Izzy there’s nothing to see. Like Feargus is gone. There’s some blood. No real ‘physical evidence’ he says. And everyone knowing Feargus smokes and shit, the cop says he probably just ran off. Is high or doesn’t want to pay whatever he owes somebody. Junkies disappear, you know? Maybe the blood’s from him stabbing himself wrong shooting up.”

“Yeah,” I say.

“And it’s the same shit they gave us the two times before. Run off and maybe got taken out by a mountain lion out in the woods. They don’t give a shit about us.”

“They don’t,” Izzy says.

“You didn’t see anyone take the body?” I say. “It really just vanished?”

Izzy nods.

Ricky says, “Gone when we got back. Next time, we’ll maybe leave someone to watch. Because, Clint, I just know there’s going to be a next time.”

“I don’t see what I can do,” I say. “The cops think it’s nothing, it’s not like I’m gonna tell them different. You say you saw something, sure, but if they’re right and there wasn’t any sign of foul play in that alley, then maybe Feargus did just run off. Sorry, Izzy, but it’s not unlikely.”

She shrugs and starts to cry and Ricky tries to put his arm around her, but she gets up and walks off. The guy sitting next to her, who hasn’t said a thing this whole time, he just keeps on sitting, but looks at me as shrugs, apologizing. Ricky starts after her, but stops before he’s even out of his seat. He decides to stick around and says to me, “Clint, really, you gotta help us. I’m not making this shit up. Neither’s Izzy. I know what you’re thinking. I ain’t stupid, Clint. I know what you think me and Izzy are. But we still got a right to protection. We still got a right not to be killed.”

“What do you want me to do?” I ask.

“Just give it a few days. Please, Clint. Stick around and I’ll get some other people you can talk to. It’s not just us seen this stuff. You give me a few days to prove it to you.”

The thing is, it’s not like I was planning on heading home tonight anyway. Who wants to drive home in the dark?

But I make Ricky think I’m doing him a favor. Because it’s Ricky.

“Yeah,” I say. “You don’t have anything for me tomorrow, I’m leaving. I’m not wasting my time more than that.”

“Right, Clint. Right. I can do that. You’ll see.”

He tosses some cash on the table to cover the coffee. He says, “Oh, hey, I do got one thing, Clint. Not sure if it’s anything, but I know you cop types thing anything’s important, right? It’s this guy, Connolly. Don’t know his first name. Only know his last name on account of all the TV ads he’s running because he wants to get himself elected to something or other.”

“What about him?” I say.

“Well, here’s the thing, Clint. This Connolly, he’s been talking to my people.”

“Junkies?”

“You gotta call ’em that, yeah. Junkies. He’s been talking to them, asking them if they’re okay, if they need anything from the city.”

“He just wants something to campaign on,” I say.

“Yeah, except here’s the thing about that. Guy’s been running for a while, because I’ve seen the ads going back a while, too. But it was only recently be started talking to us. Only in fact right after the murders started.”

“Junkie deaths just put you kids in the news. He wasn’t ‘empathizing with your plight’ until he hear about you getting killed.”

“You’re probably right, Clint. But I thought I’d tell you about it even if it’s nothing. Because it might be something, right?”

“Sure, Ricky,” I say. “It might be something.”

I’m heading out when I turn glance back at him. “Before I go, Ricky, tell me where the restaurant is. The one Feargus worked at. Where’s the alley?”

Continue to Part 3…

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Mr. V: A Serialized Occult Mystery Novel


An ongoing serialized novel about an ex-cop, a small town, and some very dark goings on. From the author of “The Hole.”

My first novel, The Hole, began life as an online serial. I published a little every week as I wrote. It worked well and lead to a publishing contract. For my next book, I’d like to try it again.

Mr. V continues the adventures of ex-cop Clinton Varne, who first appeared in the short story, “Old Lady Prideaux’s Terrible Menagerie.” Mr. V takes Clinton’s involvement in weird occultism and mystery a good deal deeper.

A quick note on the nature of this serial: I’m publishing as I write. That means what you’re reading is a work-in-progress, with all the caveats about occasional mistakes and lack of polish that go along with that.


To be continued…

https://upscri.be/e5ce70

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Mr. V: A Serial Occult Mystery — Part 1


Clinton Varne, ex-cop, meets a man he locked up years ago, and gets dragged into investigating more than few murders.

My first novel, The Hole, began life as an online serial. I published a little every week as I wrote. It worked well and lead to a publishing contract. For my next book, I’d like to try it again.

Mr. V continues the adventures of ex-cop Clinton Varne, who first appeared in the short story, “Old Lady Prideaux’s Terrible Menagerie.” Mr. V takes Clinton’s involvement in weird occultism and mystery a good deal deeper.

A quick note on the nature of this serial: I’m publishing as I write. That means what you’re reading is a work-in-progress, with all the caveats about occasional mistakes and lack of polish that go along with that.

Links to all current and future installments of Mr. V can be found here:

View at Medium.com


I’m in my living room and Deputy Neblett tells me I should get away for a while. After what happened with old lady Prideaux, he has a point.

He says, “There’s this exhibit, Clint. In the city, at the big museum they got there. Artifacts.” He looks around my living room. “The kind of stuff you like, right?”

I nod. Neblett had come over to give me a check from the county, payment for “consulting services” they called it. He could’ve mailed it, but that’s not Deputy Neblett’s style. He’s the hand-deliver sort. Likes to be old-fashioned.

Neblett continues, “I saw the flier, up at the post office, Clint. Real pretty flier. Full color, even. With pictures of spears and masks, all that.”

“Yeah?” I say. He hasn’t actually given me the check. Still has it and he’s gesturing with it. “Spears?”

“And masks.”

“They got an admission fee?”

“Think so. You can pay it out of this,” he says, finally handing me the envelope.

I take it but don’t bother opening it, knowing it’ll be less than I’d like but as much as they can afford. “I just might,” I say.

“The museum?”

“Yeah.”

“Bet you’re gonna love it, Clint. Masks and spears and artifacts. Bet you’re gonna split.”

So that’s how I ended up driving three hours, stop to eat at a shitty diner growing out the side of a gas station, and then another two hours. Getting a hotel, because there’s no way I’m driving back, on those roads, at night.

And now I’m standing in front of the museum, the building looming, bricks covered in old soot stains from when the city burned a hundred years back, and I think maybe the dark stain there on the steps is blood.

A kid cracked his head skateboarding’s what it is. I don’t bother giving it another glance as I walk past. Up the stairs and through the front doors, propped open with a concrete planter full of half-dead geraniums, there’s a cramped foyer. A desk sports a bored security guard and a narrow hallway forces visitors single file if they want into the museum proper. I queue up, pull out my wallet, and pay fifteen bucks when I get to the front of the line. Which, Jesus, they expect kids to get an education in the ways of the past if it costs sixty bucks for a family of four?

Then I’m through and Neblet’s right. They’ve got spears and masks and all sorts of things, and I have to admit it was a good idea coming here. I think maybe I’ll tell Neblet when I get back, seeing how much he’s always after my approval. Kid never served under me — I retired from chief a couple of years before he showed up — but he’s trying to live up to my example is what he told me once. “You’re a legend, Clint. The best there was.” Which is another thing Neblet’s right about, mostly. I’m by no means a legend, but I probably am the best chief the little department ever had.

I wander. You always get the sense in places like this that the past knew something we don’t. That they cared about better things. More fitting things. Love and soil and hunting and gods. Simplicity and focus. I know I’m the one being too simple when I think that way. That I’m the one focusing on the stuff that’s survived, on the artifacts worth keeping and displaying. That most of the past was as much crap as most of the present. But still. One can dream.

I finish in the special exhibition and still have an hour or two before I’m going to feel like lunch. So I wander to the museum’s permanent collection and end up looking at the bones of the earth’s last rulers. I’m standing there, staring up at a skull the size of my bathroom, when I see him. Ricky Hepburn. I remember because that last name, who could forget? Kid used to live in my town, back when I was still a cop. Homeless most of the time, and rumor said he cooked meth up in the hills. Nobody knew for certain, and Ricky never went around saying it’s what he did out there, but it got to be an urban legend, and then assumed truth. Except you couldn’t find the place and Ricky never got caught selling.

But I found him eventually, found his little shack and his equipment and his drugs, and sent him away. For just three years on account of how young he was and how the judge had a son about the same age.

You want to think, when they’re as young and strung out as Ricky, that they’ll thank you for busting them. Like maybe it’s a state-funded intervention. Rehab. But it’s never like that.

Which is why when I see him standing close to the rope barrier, craning to look up the neck of the museum’s big tyrannosaurus rex, I don’t for a minute consider saying hi. Who wants to cause a scene? I’m on vacation.

But then Ricky, he’s still looking up, but he pivots, like he’s trying to make himself dizzy, and he’s staring right at me. Over the heads of a pack of school kids, I give him a tough nod and stroll in the direction of the pre-historic sea life.

Ricky shouts, “Hey, Mr. Varne! That you?” And I smell him behind me, knowing by that smell the kid’s still hooked on crank.

I turn. He’s got scars on his face and he’s skinny like a dead fashion model. He says, “Jesus, finding you here, what’re the odds?”

I say, “Ricky.”

He’s not smiling. Ricky always smiled. He says, “It’s fucking fate, Mr. Varne. Gotta be. Because I really need your help.”

“When’d you get out?” I’d put him away for longer than this. Even if he’s the good behavior type.

Ricky shakes his head. Dismisses my question. “Little ways back.” Then he’s glancing around, making sure nobody’s in ear shot even though of course there are, how crowded it is. Not going to stop Ricky, though. “Listen Mr. Varne,” he says. “We gotta talk. I’m serious.” He whispers, “It’s about murder.”

I think, Shit. I say, “You kill someone Ricky?”

A scrawny mom walking by with her fat kid goes wide eyed at me at me. Flashes irritation. Ricky says, “Oh, Jesus, no. Not me. There’s been a murder. Murders, actually.”

“Who?” I ask. The scrawny mom pulls her kid close and shuffles him away.

“Dude I know, most recently. Some other people I know, too.”

He’s fucking with me. I don’t want anything to do with it, real or not. I say, “You should tell the police, Ricky. I’m retired. This isn’t even my town anyway.”

Ricky grabs my hand, starts pulling me. His grip’s cold. “Not here,” he says. “We gotta talk and it’s gotta be somewhere else. Here isn’t safe.”

That tug, the look on his face when he does it. His eyes. You’re a cop, you get a kind of sense about these things. You know when someone’s bullshitting you. Ricky’s not. He’s legit. Which means I can’t ignore him, even if It’s not my job anymore. People getting killed, the police here need to know. If Ricky’s not going to tell them, I need to know enough to do it myself. I’m stuck. Ricky’s dragged me in.

So I let him lead me to the front of the museum and then outside, telling myself the exhibits weren’t that good anyway. Saying again and again this is the right thing to do. Even if it’s Ricky. It’s the right goddamn thing to do.

Ricky says, “Place is just up the block.”

Read Part 2… (but please clap for this first)

https://upscri.be/e5ce70

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What Kind of Libertarian Are You?

I was recently asked on Twitter whether my libertarianism is of the consequentialist or deontological variety. For those not hip to the terminology, the question is about what sort of moral theory underpins my political theory. Those two — consequentialism and deontology — are, for many, the default choices when it comes to libertarianism. You can believe in political liberty because free people in free markets lead to the most wealth and happiness — and so liberty is valuable because of that, in which case you’re a consequentialist. Or you believe that there exist hard and fast, unavoidable moral rules — about obligations or prohibitions or rights — that we must respect, and doing so demands, at least in part, respecting the liberty of individuals. If that’s your line of thinking, you’re a deontologist.

My answer to the question-as-framed is “Neither.” I’m not a consequentialist, nor am I a deontologist. I believe, of course, that the consequences of actions and of political systems matter a great deal. But I don’t believe that consequences are all that matters in moral or political considerations. And I believe, of course, that we live with certain obligations towards others, among these a respect for rights. But I don’t believe that articulating a set of rules and then following them is the most fruitful or psychologically authentic way to think about morality.

If a consequentialist believes that what matters when faced with a moral choice is which option creates the best consequences or results in the most overall happiness, and a deontologist believes that the correct action is the one that follows from a set of moral rules, a virtue ethicist says the right action is whatever a truly virtuous person would do when faced with a similar choice.

What, then, is a virtuous person? It’s a person who has cultivated and possesses the traits of virtuous character. She’s honest, benevolent, generous, courageous, has great integrity and wisdom, and so on. She is, in other words, the best person you can imagine, the kind of person you ought to strive to be yourself.

As such, virtue ethics is less focused on how to decide the right action at any given time — though of course it cares about that — and instead looks to what sort of traits a virtuous person possesses, and how we can develop those traits in ourselves. In a sense, once we are virtuous, the moral choices will take care of themselves. We’ll do what’s right, and we’ll do it naturally.

The Aristotelian portion of my answer speaks to the kind of virtue ethics I find most appealing, namely one grounded in the ideas of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and having to do with the relationship between virtue and eudaimonia, or the sort of happiness and flourishing we imagine when we think of “a good life.” The intuitionist tendencies are about the fact that I think our moral intuitions are an important source of knowledge in filling out the content of the virtues and their application.

My libertarianism, with its virtue ethical foundations, thus boils down to a deep conviction that good people, acting out of virtue, will treat each other will kindness, benevolence, respect, and so on. They will seek to engage each other through our most human of faculties, namely conversation and persuasion, and will not seek to get their way as animals do, with violence and threats. A political system built on that will be one of liberty, not coercion. That’s the kind of libertarian I am.

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“Should Twitter Ban Donald Trump?” is Really a Question About Government Legitimacy

Donald Trump has, on more than one occasion, used his Twitter account to threaten violence on a scale the rest of us, not being presidents ourselves, can never hope to achieve. You and I don’t have a nuclear button on our desks — even a very small one. Even when he’s not telling North Korea how close he is to incinerating them, however, he’s making explicit threats against political rivals, threats his position in the chain of command and his access to men with guns make a good deal more credible than when an angry video gamer all-caps shouts at a female Twitter celebrity.

In light of all this, many have pointed out that, well, Twitter has a policy against such behavior. In fact, Twitter routinely bans users for making far more minor and far less credible threats than those ejaculated daily, 280 characters at a time, by our president. Yet his account persists.

Why?

Why does Donald Trump get away with threatening violence, while we don’t? Why does he suffer no consequences for his actions, while you or I would be swiftly banned? Why, in short, does President Donald Trump of the United States live by a different set of rules than the rest of us?

The first, and easiest, answer is “Because Twitter says so.” It’s their platform, they can police it as they like, and in December, Twitter updated its terms of service to include a specific carve out in its “Violence and Physical Harm” policies for “military or government entities.” Trump, as the head of the Executive Branch, is exempt from Twitter’s rules regarding threats.

But that’s too easy an answer, and not just because the “military and government entities” exemption didn’t exist before December 2017. No, it’s too easy because this isn’t a question about Donald Trump and Twitter, but one muchbigger, about the very nature of the state itself.

Put simply, the state is, by definition, an organization that claims a geographic monopoly on the right to make threats and carry out violence. Law, written into regulations, legislation, and court decisions, is nothing more than a command and a threat to carry out violence against those who disobey. Without violence, you don’t have a state. Without threats of violence, you don’t have governments in any recognizable form. Donald Trump’s Twitter account is only an avatar of this most basic principle.

Thus the real question when we argue about whether Trump should get to make threats the rest of us can’t is whether that geographic monopoly on such behavior is permissible in the first place. Whether there’s something different about the state — and its agents — that allows it to legitimately and morally engage in behavior that would be seen as immoral, even monstrous, if any of us did the same.

That’s not a question to brush aside. The answer isn’t obvious, especially if you take the position that state violence is okay. It’s a question I’ve writtenand talked about at length here on Libertarianism.org. I believe the answer is “No.” No, we can’t meaningfully justify a special exemption from basic morality for state violence. No, it’s not okay for agents of government to behave in ways impermissible for the rest of us. It’s a deep, and difficult, aspect of thinking about government, and one we ignore at our peril.

If you genuinely believe Donald Trump’s threats of violence should be treated like any other threats of violence, and that threats of violence are never permissible, then congratulations, you’re an anarchist. But if you think it’s not okay for the president to threaten violence on Twitter, but it is okay for him to threaten and carry out violence via diplomatic channels, signed legislation, drone strikes, SWAT teams, ICE agents pounding on doors, business regulations, minimum wage laws, or IRS agents demanding jail time unless we hand over cash for the welfare state, then it’s likely you don’t have a realistic understanding of just what government is, or how its very existence depends on the threat and exercise of violence.

Originally published on Libertarianism.org.

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Addressing Criticisms of “The Last Jedi Betrays the Original Trilogy and its Heroes”


Many of the most common responses rather miss the point.

My dashed off essay, “The Last Jedi Betrays the Original Trilogy and its Heroes,” has gotten, well, quite a lot of attention. It’s now the most read post I’ve ever written, and it continues to be shared like crazy on social media. While many people have said it gives voice to their own disappointment with the movie, an equal number have told me I’m out to lunch, or not understanding the movie, or stuck in my ways and so incapable of seeing what makes The Last Jedi the best since The Empire Strikes Back.

View at Medium.com

Here I want to address some of the most common rebuttals, not just because they’re common, but also because they appear to miss much of what I tried to get at in my review.

Watch out for spoilers below.

“All your questions are answered in the novels and comics.”

Yes, I am familiar with the supplemental material in the novels and comics. I’ve read all of them, in fact. But far from lessening the problems with the The Last Jedi, knowing that backstory only highlights those problems.

What the novels tell us about the state of the universe in the time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens just doesn’t fit with what we see in The Last Jedi. It does fit with what we see in The Force Awakens. Episode 8 deviates not just from TFA, but from the novels, too. I’m not going to dig into the details, but what the novels tell us about the New Republic and what The Force Awakens establishes about the location of the First Order, the role of the Resistance, and damage done to the Republic by Starkiller Base, don’t support the utterly dire situation our heroes find themselves in throughout The Last Jedi.

“You’re just mad that the universe took a dark turn.”

No, I’m not upset that things are bad in the universe compared to the happy place Return of the Jedi left us, nor am I upset that, in the end, our Original Trilogy heroes didn’t win out entirely over the Empire.

That things turned dark in the decades since the Battle of Endor is just fine, and conflict’s needed for a good story. But TLJ doesn’t earn that dark turn, because the way the darker universe is presented to us doesn’t make much sense.

We’re given no real inkling of how things turned bad. They’re just bad. And they appear to be bad just so we can have another set of Rebels fight another Empire, rather than as part of a meaningful narrative that builds on what came before.

“You’re just opposed to change.”

Likewise, my objection to The Last Jedi isn’t that I think Star Wars movies should slavishly be about old characters and old themes. I’m not against change in Star Wars. I love it and want more of it.

But that change needs to be interesting, it needs to feel like Star Wars, and it needs to build on what we’ve established over eight prior movies — not to mention two TV shows, a dozen plus novels, and countless comics. Star Wars needs change, but The Last Jedi isn’t interesting change.

In fact, it’s not really change at all. That’s what so frustrating about this particular response. The Last Jedi begins with the Rebellion (sorry, Resistance) fleeing its last base as the Empire (sorry, First Order) closes in. It ends with the Resistance in tatters, the Empire ascendant, and with a young Jedi just learning the way as the galaxy’s last, best hope. Along the way we get a Jedi master in isolation teaching a young force users from a backwater desert world about the ways of the Force, and we get a trench battle against Imperial (sorry, First Order) walkers.

The Last Jedi is change in the sense that it ignores the state of the universe it was handed by The Force Awakens and the novels, particularly the Aftermath trilogy and Bloodline. But it’s not nearly enough change because it ignores the state of the universe in order to unthinkingly return us to exactly what we’ve already seen, and without rhyme or reason.

“Aren’t these really problems with The Force Awakens?”

No, they’re not. Here’s why. The Force Awakens is a movie about setup. It’s the start of something new, and so its job is to introduce us to the world and its characters, not to explain everything and resolve all mysteries. TFA does a good job with that.

Yes, its opening crawl is confusing. We don’t quite understand who the First Order are, or how Leia’s Resistance is related to the Republic. The crawl should’ve been revised, because the answers are both simple and make for a pretty cool setup. In short, the First Order is an Imperial remnant, way out in the fringes of the galaxy. The Republic knows about them, but doesn’t consider them a threat, which is why they’re not sending their military to interfere. Leia’s convinced the First Order does pose a significant threat, so she’s setup the Resistance to keep an eye on them. (In the novels and comics, we learn that there’s actually a non-aggression treaty between the two sides.)

That all works. It makes sense that there’d be Imperial remnants. It makes sense that Leia, given what she went through in the Original Trilogy, would consider them a threat. It makes sense that the Republic, tired of war, would want to believe they can safely be ignored.

The Force Awakens has, in other words, good and interesting world-building. And the mysteries it sets up are themselves good and interesting. The Last Jedi discards all that without earning it from a narrative standpoint. The Republic was rocked, yes, by the loss of its capital and senate at Hosnian Prime in the Starkiller attack. But it beggars belief that such an attack would mean the galaxy is now without any military force capable of fighting back against what looks to be a not-too-large First Order fleet. We’re told in TLJ that the Resistance is all that’s left. Why? How? Rian Johnson doesn’t care.

“You’re just racist and sexist, and that’s why you don’t like the movie.”

Um, no.

https://buttondown.email/aaron

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The Last Jedi Betrays the Original Trilogy and its Heroes


Through sheer storytelling laziness, it tells us that nothing that came before mattered.

The Last Jedi is the most disappointing Star Wars movie since Attack of the Clones. I don’t believe I’m overstating that. It’s a movie that, through its plot developments and characterization, makes the whole of the Star Wars saga less interesting and less compelling.

Its plotting undermined the characters. What was accomplished by Luke, Leia, and Han in the Original Trilogy? In light of The Last Jedi, they basically failed. The ending of Return of the Jedi is moot. We don’t know why it’s moot. We don’t know why the Rebellion’s victory turned out to be, well, nothing at all. Episode VIII doesn’t bother to tell us, because it just doesn’t care.

Instead, The Last Jedi says, “Return of the Jedi never happened. Our characters failed. The Empire still lives, somehow, though we’ve changed the names. Everything’s as dire as it was after Empire Strikes Back, without explanation, and without earning it. We simply couldn’t come up with a new story, so we inexplicably reset the universe to repeat the same story we’ve already done, with a handful of new characters.”

Why did the Rebellion fail?

Why did any of the Original Trilogy matter?

That the Rebellion failed could be an interesting story. That our characters ultimately failed could be an interesting story. But Episodes VII and VIII don’t concern themselves with that. They just want to have another Empire and another Rebellion, because that’s as ambitious as they want to be. And in doing so, without telling the story of how we got there, they’ve sapped the Original Trilogy of its meaning, and made the fight our heroes fought through three movies pointless.

Luke’s a loser. Han’s a loser. Leia’s a loser. There’s your characterization. But, hey, we got some porgs, Luke can make a hologram across planets, and Snoke’s is a generic bad guy in a bathrobe.

Let’s talk about Snoke. Here’s a guy who somehow built a war machine that toppled the New Republic, and built it out of at best a fragment of a bit of ships remaining from the Empire, which could be a great story and a great villain. But The Last Jedi doesn’t care about that. Snoke’s just, well, a plot point.

One might object that Episodes VII and VIII neededn’t answer all such questions. Except that these questions are central to what these movies are about. They’re the why that gives purpose to what we’re seeing, and that give purpose to the sacrifices the characters make.

For instance, they play up the conflict in Kylo Ren. Great. That’s important, and very Star Wars. But then they reduce his fall to Luke saying, “Snoke got to him,” and then a single scene of Luke trying to kill him. But not knowing anything about Snoke, we have no appreciation for what it means that Snoke got to him, or why Ren turned from Han and Leia’s son to someone who would murder both. He’s just bad because — handwave — some random dude made him bad?

In other words, our characters lack motivations for their actions, and so the actions are without much emotional weight.

The Force Awakens skirted this, because it was setup. We assumed we’d then learn why they were doing the things they were doing. The Last Jedi said, “Nope, we’re not going to bother with that.”

That’s why this movie was nothing like Empire, even though so many of the inexplicably glowing reviews want you to think it is. Empire was about building characters. It was about the “I am your father” realization that gave Vader so much more weight, and made everything matter in a much deeper way. That drove the characterization, making it all richer.

The Last Jedi just had characters fight. It had Luke be sad because he screwed up, somehow, but we don’t know how, because we don’t know who or what Snoke was and why he was so powerful. It had Leia lead a dwindling Resistance, but we don’t know why she’s doing that, because we don’t know why it matters what the First Order’s up to, because the universe is suddenly reset to a pre-Return of the Jedi order so there’s something to do? We’re just told the Resistance is the last line of defense, and so it matters, but we’re not shown that. The movie is all tell, not show.

The Last Jedi fakes its “emotional” weight because it has characters we love pop up, and it has characters we love in danger or dying. But why they’re doing any of that is just ignored.

It’s a remarkably lazy movie, and arguably the worst of the whole saga. The Prequels were bad, yes, but they left the Original Trilogy intact. The Last Jedi betrays the legacy of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. It cheapens the most inspiring rebellion in film history, and turns its heroes into failures. For shame.


Update: Responding to Criticism

This essay has received a lot of attention. Which is great, especially when I hear from people who say it articulates their own reaction to The Last Jedi. At the same time, it’s received a lot of criticism, much of it good and thoughtful. In light of that, I’ve written a follow-up essay responding to some of the most common rebuttals. Here it is:

https://aaronrosspowell.com/addressing-criticisms-of-the-last-jedi-betrays-the-original-trilogy-and-its-heroes-d00c57ae59e2
https://upscri.be/06bf84/