Thursday, December 13, 2007

Experiment in Fiction 4

Hello again, everyone!  Continuing with the experimentation and feedback process, here's another one from that 2004 era in my writing career.  I decided to really try it at that point, and I was warming up to a story my wife and I thought needed to be told.  When I tried to tell it, though, it flopped horribly.  Anyway, this isn't that one, but another that I concocted around the same period.  The same disclaimer applies -- forgive my bad grammar and such, and give any crits you think will help it along.  Thanks to everyone participating, and I hope you're enjoying them.

East Tennessee – Appalachian Mountains

The powerful Mercedes roared along, the road winding like a ribbon of asphalt up and down the rolling hills in the mid-autumn evening. The sun was just below the horizon, and the misty sky threatened to unload the rains held back for several days, pregnant with the precipitation common with the southern states. Rick Martinson was settled into the comfortable leather seat, the sophisticated stereo system oozing the soft sounds of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from the CD player. His hands were draped over the leather-covered steering wheel comfortably, his tie and collar loosened and his suit jacked laid delicately over the back of the passenger seat.

He had a lot of things on his mind, but Martinson wasn’t concerned about any one of them in particular at the moment. He was thinking about the kids, his wife Sophie, and the array of in-laws that were waiting for him at the cabin near the lake. Deep in the woods, still some eighty miles away, there was a fishing resort where he’d rented the cabin three weeks before. It was rustic without being overly crude, and Sophie and Rick decided at once it was the perfect location for their wedding anniversary celebration. Sophie’s parents had come down from Pennsylvania to time the celebration with their own vacation in Florida (which invariably lasted for months), and the group had decided that a week in the cabin was just what the CEO of MarFeld International needed.

Martinson and long-time friend Peter Rosenfeld started MarFeld International shortly after college. The computer architecture firm had been slow to launch, and hard going with stiff competition on every side, but had managed to scratch out a terrific market niche for itself with the music industry in Nashville. Now, it was the largest independent manufacturer of computer MIDI equipment, and the plan in the works was explosive and promised to move MarFeld International into a new arena.

But I’m not going to think about that today … or this week, he promised himself.

It was a big deal, though. There were exactly five people in the world that new about it, and he was one of them. Peter, however, was not another. It was part of the deal; he couldn’t tell anyone about it, including his wife and partner. When Pete did find out, however, Rick knew he’d be ecstatic, and would understand the secrecy.

He hoped.

The big Benz was coming up behind a beat-up old pickup truck that had woven its way onto the highway from a side road, fishtailing madly before straightening its trajectory and then moving slowly up the interstate. Martinson signaled to pass, moved into the left lane and began to pass without changing speeds.

Suddenly, the truck swerved into the left lane drunkenly, and Martinson jerked the car back into the right lane quickly, eyes widening in surprise and cursing loudly, slamming on the brakes to take the sedan out of cruise control. He gently pressed on the accelerator and the engine roared, moving again to pass the truck, but again it was wracking into the same lane with Martinson. He was forced onto the shoulder, tires spitting dirt and gravel, the sedan weaving madly until the front tires caught the pavement and again. Martinson let the truck ease by him, then punched the accelerator again and roared into the left lane. The powerful touring car pulled a vacuum that sucked him deeply into the plush seats as it launched past the truck finally, even as it weaved to try and cut him off again. The horn blared from the rusting pickup, and the figure of the driver waved a distinct finger in Martinson’s direction. Martinson blasted his own horn in response, providing a one-fingered salute in return, and then gunned the motor to leave the truck farther and farther behind him.

His heart pounding loudly in his ears, he exhaled sharply through his nose in anger and tried to relax again. He gave a final backward glance in the rearview mirror, and watched the truck fade from view as the Mercedes crested a hill, the driver of the raggedy old pickup flashing lights at him as he disappeared from view.

What the hell? he thought. Jesus, it takes all kinds, I guess.

He was distracted, and hoped that he hadn’t passed his turn-off as he dodged the madman in the truck. He went into the valley between two hills, and saw that the truck was cresting the top of the rise he’d left. It was easily a mile back, and falling farther behind as he crested the next one, moving over the top and down the other side. Martinson stepped more firmly on the gas and the Benz responded nicely, smoothly accelerating to a higher speed and putting his mind more fully at ease as it moved over the brownish road.

As he sped along, he finally saw a sign for the turn-off he wanted. He puffed a slow sigh of relief. Only about another hour of driving, and this over much more scenic, two-lane road through the Appalachians. He reached down into the console between the front seats and looked at the Mapquest directions once more, just to make sure of the exit. It was correct.

He settled back into the seat again, and relaxed himself. He turned the volume up on the CD player and let his mind drift again to the scenic beauty of the cabin. Nestled along the banks of a large, placid lake in a deep valley, it was large, and quiet. The rent for a week wasn’t cheap, but the six bedrooms were perfect for their gathering. Their thirtieth anniversary, and there was good weather ahead of them. He’d have some time to do some fishing with his father-in-law, and some quality time with Sophie was exactly what he needed to recharge his batteries.

MarFeld International was more of a spouse than a company. Like many small businesses, it became a source of time theft over the years. He’d dedicated a lot of time to the company in the early years, and while the plan was to reduce the amount of time required from him over time, he learned quickly that he was being na├»ve and ridiculous just to imagine such a thing were possible. As a young, aggressive business owner, the years ahead of him were full of challenge and excitement. As he and Pete took the company through its stages, it became cancerous in the consumption of time.

It was the same story told over and over across the company; he was putting in about thirteen hours a day now, and that was actually down from the sixteen that he and Pete had put in for the last ten or more. And, getting the company off the ground had, naturally, cost him dearly. He missed a lot of the kids growing up. He and Sophie had almost split, especially during the lean years. Money was tight for a lot of those early years, and he and Pete had more than their share of sleepless nights hoping that payroll checks were going to clear.

God, it seems like so long ago now, he thought. The money, the houses, the cars, the boats, the deals. They all seem so far away sometimes. I’m glad that, when this deal closes, we won’t have those things to worry over anymore, ever again.

The deal. Everything hinged on the deal.

The plan, put together all those decades ago by he and Pete, had meant for them to retire by age forty. Of course, both of them had waved that number of years a fond farewell, but it would finally come to fruition … as long as the deal closed.

And that, of course, depended on the other four people involved in the deal.

On the one hand, MarFeld International was stagnating. In reality, how much MIDI equipment could be sold? With the down-turn of the technical industry since the end of the 1990’s, there was less and less demand for the company’s products and service. Software could be upgraded, hardware could be replaced, but in the end, it was a finite market. Turning international had helped, but not for long. Even trendy European recording studios could only upgrade so many times. Eventually, MarFeld International was going to have to branch out.

And the future? The future was in this deal, Martinson thought. The path to the future lies down this road, and this would rescue both Pete’s life and mine. We can finally, really retire. And, while we’re doing this, we can save the company for years and years to come.

Naturally, there were many variables. Five people, five different variable factors, but many more than five variables. It was all too fragile. All five of those involved knew that this was the only way they could obtain what they wanted; of course, they all wanted something different. Each of the five had their own reasons for entering into the deal. None of them were the same, and each had its own perspective on the deal. Each had something different to offer to the others. Each was a critical element, and none of them were capable of getting the plan off the ground without all the others.

He settled in to examine it again – at least his end of it – but he realized suddenly that the two lane road was winding much more sharply as it moved deeper into more mountainous terrain. He tapped the cruise control buttons with his thumb, decelerating to a reasonable speed as the car hugged a curve. He tightened his grip on the wheel a bit, and the road bent the other way. It rose and dipped, and he tapped the button again to bring the car into better control. He watched as the road bent more aggressively, and he slowed more still. The lake must be near here somewhere, he thought. The valley is getting deep and the road’s getting curvy.

He took the car around a long, shallow curve, when he caught a glimpse of headlights in the distance behind him.

Martinson looked at the clock on the dash, and realized that his musings had killed over an hour; the sky was dark and the canopy of trees and high hills around him made the terrain even darker. The headlamps of the Mercedes had come on automatically without his notice, and as he maneuvered around another corner in the opposite direction, he caught a glimpse of the headlights behind him again. This time, however, they were much closer.

The first spattering of rainfall hit the windshield as the car moved into a low opening, the road following the valley between the mountains as it wound its way deeper into the hills. The narrow, two-lane highway spilled out into a downhill grade that opened up in a wide spot between the hills, and the rain fell in earnest, gushing down from the black sky and forcing him to put on his windshield wipers and slow the vehicle to gain visibility.

That was when there was a sickening crunch that jolted through the sedan, locking the seatbelt suddenly and painfully against his chest as he was thrown forcibly forward toward the steering wheel.

He fought the pavement for control of the car, the back end sliding to the right as he fought to turn into the skid, once again feeling the aggressive slam from behind. He was still fighting for control from the first blow, and the second forced the rear of the Mercedes into a spin that pulled the front end across the divider line and the rear end off the road. The sudden loss of traction and his frantic yanking on the wheel made the big car swerve into a sideways lurch that reversed itself suddenly when a third crashing blow to the left side of the vehicle pushed Martinson’s car forward while the road bent to the left. The airbag deployed as the Benz slammed broadside into a tree, folding itself around the firm trunk of the old tree, knocking a barrage of autumnally colored leaves cascading onto the hood and roof.

He heard something hissing, the metallic ticking of the engine coughing and gasping for life, and a whimpering whine that he realized was his own voice in the sudden quiet of the road. The airbag was slowly deflating, the air in the cabin filled with the flame-retardant power from the expended safety device. He was leaning over the console between the seats, aching vaguely in his chest and neck, and he heard a growling, gravelly voice shouting something. He couldn’t see in the darkness, his eyes flashing sparks of yellowish white spots into his vision.

“You think you’re invisible in that goddamn car of yours, asshole?” the voice was shouting, approaching Martinson as he struggled to breathe through aching ribs. “You think I didn’t see you flip me off, asshole? Huh?”

Martinson still heard the simpering whining, and realized he was nearly crying as the voice approached him. He frantically fought to sit up, to gain his posture, fumbling through the cabin for his cell phone.

“DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GONNA GET AWAY WITH CUTTIN’ ME OFF LIKE THAT, FUCKER? DO YOU?” the voice continued.

Martinson jumped, crying out, as a loud, piercing crack rang out through the pouring rain drumming down atop his crippled vehicle.

His window spider-webbed into a craze of cracks, glass softening suddenly. He torqued his head to the left as a bolt of white-hot pain ripped through him, just in time to see the head of a hammer emerge through the spongy glass as it yielded to a second blow.

“Did you think I wasn’t gonna see you in there and find you, cock-sucker? WELL, I FOUND YOU BASTARD!

The window pane showered in on Martinson, allowing the heavy, pounding rain to drive into the cabin of his car. His hand jerked the suit jacket free of the seat next to him, his fingers digging wildly through the breast pocket until they closed over the compact plastic cell phone.

“I FUCKING FOUND YOU, PIG FUCKER! AND I KNOW WHAT YOU LOOK LIKE! I SAW YOU, ASSHOLE, I FUCKING SAW YOU!

Martinson ripped the phone open and began to dial 9-1-1 as the hammer fell again, on the windshield now.

He heard a sickening buzzing from the phone. He held it up in horror, the words “NO SIGNAL” emblazoned over the backlit display.

He screamed as the heavy woolen glove shot through the missing window in the car door and seized him by the collar, the large hand clenching powerfully into a knot. Martinson’s fingers felt feeble and useless as they wiggled to find purchase against the meaty bind of knuckles and muscle under the thick glove. There was a guttural shout that rang out long and maniacal into the forest as Martinson was pulled over to the opening in the door of his car like a rag doll. Then, he realized he was crying as a gun muzzle pushed out of the dark and slammed into his forehead, ripping open a cut over his brow near the hairline. Blood ran freely as it mixed with the driving rain that caused him to squint, spitting helplessly as he tried to form words. Only inarticulate sobs escaped him as the gravelly voice, thick with southern accent and ignorance, spat at him again.

“I saw you, asshole, and I found you.”

The gun exploded then … and again … and again.

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