What the Chat Dragged In: The Creative Process from whence it sprang

My creative process at work is fairly straightforward. I get assigned a task with a deadline and I come up with copy and edit material to go with it. Sometimes the turnaround is 3 days, other times 45 minutes.
The fiction creative process is much different. I’m pretty much on my own time table and can do whatever I want.  I have written 25 complete novels. Characters are swirling in my mind all the time. I once told my husband that the inside of my head is like a Robin William’s stand-up routine. The fact that I transcribe it all is what differentiates me from that dude talking to himself on the bus. What’s interesting is how the characters get there. Often they have been cooking in my imagination for years, but not always. Case in point: Last Week.

Last week I was Facebook chatting my friend Maria about something and said I had a good title for a story. We are always saying random things would make good titles. But usually not much comes of it. Then the next night I inquired about a news story in her area and that put a bug into my brain about a story. Then I was trying to take a quiz to win a Kindle and I saw a random photograph entered into a contest on that site and something else clicked. I had a story idea forming in my head. My midnight that evening I knew who the characters were. The next day I went on a hike with my husband and listened to music and by the end of that two miles, I knew almost everything about the characters. One of the ways I compose in my head is to listen to a song that makes me think about my characters over and over and over.  For this story two songs kick my mind into gear

Collide by Howie Day

Whatya Want From Me by Adam Lambert.

So what does that have to do with my story?  How about I let you read the first chapter in the lives of my newborn characters barely 24 hours old and you can tell me. As always, all my fiction is property of me and I can prove it and if anybody attempts to make off with it, I will get them good.  This one’s for you Maria. Thanks for helping toss random good ingredients into the salad bowl of my brain. So here it is:

Chapter One of “What The Chat Dragged In”

So I’m dancing naked in the moonlight. Done a lot of interesting stuff in my life, including a seven year stint as a Special Agent with the FBI; but never danced naked in the moonlight either alone or with a strange and wonderful man. I’m also seriously considering aiding and abetting a killer. Which is odd considering that I once had a sworn duty to uphold the law. Actually, what I swore to uphold was the Constitution. And I don’t remember anything about a duty to protect monsters. All I said was this:

I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

As far as I’m concerned, some people are so evil that just by existing they are a foreign and domestic enemy. Defiling and twisting others to make more like themselves. Like damn vampires. And I don’t care what happens to them, so help me God. And I figure that once you’ve had a nervous breakdown in the line of duty, you can probably get away with a lot. So blame in on the PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or blame it on love. I seem to have a pretty bad case of both of ‘em lately.

So I went nuts on the job. At that point I’d worked for the FBI or a long time. Seven years of my life. It was a good job with decent pay, good benefits and the opportunity to help make the world a better place. That’s what the recruiter told me, anyway. I had the required Master’s degree and knowledge of a foreign language, no criminal record and I kicked major butt on the entrance exams and survived an unnerving interview process. Then I went to Quantico for six hundred forty-three and one half hours of training which included firing about 3,500 rounds of ammo from handguns, shotguns & machine guns. That was way cool. I really didn’t have much need for a weapon where I ended up working. But it’s a skill set I enjoy having. And odds are, I can kick your ass if it comes down to it. Unless you are really big and strong, in which case I can shoot you. It turned out that I had a particular talent for impersonating perverts. You’ve read about middle-aged male cops pretending to be fourteen year old girls to trap pervs trolling the Internet for kids. Well, I’m a woman who is talented at pretending to be a middle aged pedophile trolling the Internet to meet like-minded freaks for business and pleasure. Not to just single out men, I’ve come across women more than willing to pimp out their little children to whoever wants to offer them some cash or crack. Mostly it seemed to be men. I worked in a dark windowless room, which worked out just fine for the purpose it was intended. It was often a second or third shift job, which was fine by me. I’m not one of those people who are an early bird or a night owl. I can adjust to about any schedule. And though, you’d think it would be a depressing job, I liked it. Every single one of those freaks I helped trip up meant possibly hundred of children were saved. My wonderful mentor Special Agent Don Vasquez had helped me understand that. Don had twenty-five years at The Bureau and had been in the forefront of turning the tables on predators that use the Internet to hunt kids. Don & his wife Connie were like a second set of parents to me.

Don was at work with me when I hopped aboard the crazy train.

Special Agent Carmichael has called out. “Don, Martie won’t stop screaming!”

And I realized that the woman screaming was me.

“Get her some medical help.” Don said. He was busy with the matter that had pushed me right over the edge. On the phone with a police department in Texas. They were sending a SWAT team immediately to an unassuming ranch house in the suburbs where the devil lived. My ambulance arrived before the SWAT team made it to the house in Texas. At first the medical personnel thought there was some kind of environmental problem because Don was throwing up in a wastebasket. Carmichael has enough presence of mind to explain that it was just revulsion. He hadn’t seen it. Lucky bastard had been busy with something else and then smart enough not to look. I was actually in shock, buttwo hours later I was in a nice hospital room; full of sedatives but with stable vital signs. Taran Summer Murphy was dead. Fifth child of Tammy Jo & Butch Murphy and their only girl. Winner of three beautiful baby contests and the spokes-baby for the Happy Home chain of drop-in childcare sites. And I just couldn’t deal with that.

So I ended up with stress induced medical leave. That involved sitting at home a lot and going to therapy sessions to discuss my feeling over seeing something unspeakably evil unfold and not being able to do a damn thing to stop. In a nutshell: It makes you feel BAD! And sometimes, it makes you go crazy. I filled some time by breaking up with my boyfriend of four years. He’d never understood how I could do that particular job in the first place and thought my collapse was a great opportunity to say “I told you so.” It was very helpful. So he took the cat and the plants and moved out. I couldn’t see my way clear to take care of anything at that time, even myself. My parents wanted me to move home to Ohio, but I resisted. Not that Columbus was such a bad place to be, but I knew that if I went to hide out in my room that I would never come out. I was lucky to have Don and Connie there for me at about every turn. And Don really was the only one who understood just what I was going through. He wasn’t sleeping so well these days either. But he was more experienced and just plain stronger than me in every way. So he didn’t fall apart. Because he knew that even though Taran Murphy was dead, other kids needed to be saved. My only contribution to making the world a better place was to stare at the wall thirteen hours a day.

Connie Vasquez called me up one afternoon and said. “Hey, you’re coming to an art exhibit with us tonight.”

“Uh.” I said. “I can’t.”

“You have nothing going on.” She said authoritatively.

“I have nothing to wear.” I countered.

“This isn’t some fancy thing.” She said. “It’s a photo exhibit at the library. There’s a little reception tonight to raise money to help veterans. Don’t you want to help veterans?”

There wasn’t much to say to that, but I tried. “I just don’t know…”

“This isn’t depressing stuff.” Connie continued. “It’s pictures of flowers and cows and flags. I know you like flags. Doesn’t your mother sell flags?”

My mother ran a store that sold American flags, nylon banners and an endless array of Ohio State Buckeye decorations.

“Yes, I do like veterans and flags.” I said.

“It’s art from a calendar that Seth Christopher put out. You know about Seth, right?” She said.

“I know who he is.” I said.

“You know how much Don thinks of Seth. And he does take wonderful photographs. Have you ever read his blog? So we’ll pick you up about six-thirty?”

There was no way out. Connie has decided it was time for me to get out of the house and I was pretty sure, Don would drag me out and carry me to this art exhibit if I didn’t cooperate. Don called her “The Boss” and he meant it. He would always smile and say, “Connie ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. So I keep Connie happy.”

I was surprised to find my dressy casual little black dress still fit fine. I had been getting zippo exercise. But I wasn’t eating much, so I guess it balanced out. I hadn’t worn real shoes in so long that my feet were throbbing like hell even in medium heels. I needed a haircut. And my mascara and foundation had gotten all dry and cakey. So I had to run out to the drugstore before I could even start fixing my face. Smooth move Connie, you got me out of the apartment twice in one day. Then I realized there was no hairspray, so I had to make another trip to the store. It was my busiest day in six months.

“You look great.” Don said when they picked me up.

“No visible trace of crazy.” I said.

“You aren’t crazy.” Connie said. “Crazy means you’re unaware of reality. You’re just a little too aware of reality.”

“I’m writing that down.” I said.

“You do that. “ Connie took a picture of me with her phone. “You look so cute.”

We drove to the lovely little library in an upper middle class Virginia suburb that people moved to because of the good school system and pretty parks. Connie was fiddling suspiciously with her phone in the front seat.

“Are you sending my picture to someone?” I asked.

“Just home to myself.” She said. “In case I want to use if for scrapbooking.”

It occurred to me that Connie might be putting together a commemorative page for my nervous breakdown.

I didn’t think Don had any shots of me rolling on the floor. But maybe someone had gotten a few good pictures of them strapping me down at the hospital.

It was a newer library, though built in a Colonial Revival style with all sorts of amenities. There was a gallery for art displays, two nice meeting rooms and even a little coffee bar. The library was closed for the day and the bartender had set up behind the coffee bar. There was kind of a skimpy looking display of hors d’oeuvres. I wasn’t supposed drink with my anti-anxiety medication, so I settled on some sparkling water with a twist of lime. I did not look out of place among the gussied up soccer moms. In fact two of them were wearing the same black dress as me. They had accessorized better. I’m horrible with jewelry. One of them had turned a necklace into a belt. Or maybe it was a bracelet, she couldn’t have weighed ninety pounds.

“There’s Seth.” Connie said pointing him out to me.

Seth Christopher had shaggy collar length hair befitting an artistic type. He was tanned, but just enough so that you could tell he liked to be outside, not like someone who frequented a tanning bed or had an Oompa Loompa orange glow sprayed. His light brown hair had gold streaks. The kind people pay big money to fake in a salon. But like the tan, it was obviously provided by nature. It looked as if he’d purchased new clothes for the event. Perhaps he had a lot of events coming up. Seth was wearing pristine jeans, a white shirt with no tie and a blue jacket. I thought I could see a plastic cover still wrapping one of the jacket buttons. He pulled off the casual but crisp thing well. It was the first time in a long time I’d noticed that someone was particularly good looking. I’d seen photos of him before, but not paid a lot of attention. He looked like a man who’d never had a care in the world and I knew that was not the case. Seth saw Don and smiled in acknowledgment, but he was cornered by a couple of women who had the air of committee chairwomen about them.

Don, Connie and I went to view the photographs. The show featured images from several calendars featuring shots of Americana. They were nice and they did cheer me up. Flags were flying, flowers blooming, parades were in progress and soldiers were being warmly greeted on their return home. I had almost forgotten there were happy things in the world. It was interesting to me that this was Seth Christopher’s view of the world. Cause God knows he’d experienced the bad things. Except that he wasn’t holed up in his apartment feeling sorry for himself.

I was sitting out on a stone bench in the little courtyard of the library, just starting at the fountain and contemplating my own pathetic weakness when Seth Christopher sat down beside me.

“Connie says I have to come and talk to you.” He said.

“Well, hi.” I said.

“Seth Christopher.” He said offering his hand.

“Martha Garrett.” I said. “Martie.”

“Pleased to meet you.” He said. “Don talks about you a lot.”

“So you’ve heard I went nuts?” I asked.

“In passing.” Seth said. “You know about my other claim to fame besides pictures of daisies and flags?”

“Yes.” I said.

“Good.” He said. “I hate explaining my career as a child porn star. Kills a lot of second dates.”

I laughed, which was probably inappropriate, so I said. “I’m sorry.”

“We can laugh about these things.” Seth pulled out his fancy smart phone and said. “You look just like your picture.” He showed me the picture Connie had sent to him.

“Jesus, is she trying to set us up.” I said.

“Well, we are both human and currently alive.” He said.

“She told me about your blog.” I said.

“Yeah, that’s pretty darn special.” Seth said. “They just don’t hand those out to anyone.”

“Your photographs are wonderful.” I said hoping he wasn’t a frustrated artist who hated himself for selling out.

“Glad you enjoyed them. I thoroughly enjoyed taking them.” He said. “I understand you like flags?”

His hands were a little beat up, but not completely callused like they did heavy work all the time. He looked like he’s just gotten a manicure. I could see tattoos on his wrists and it looked as if he had a couple of full sleeves, though I could tell because of the jacket.

“You really can’t miss them, huh?” He asked. I was apparently out of practice at being inconspicuous. Seth took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves to give me a closer look. There were devils and skulls and roses and cartoon characters all tied together by some fancy scroll work. “Most of these are pretty awful. I went through a phase where I was getting them every week. I don’t mind having the tats, I just mind that they suck. If I did it now, I’d plan them out and have a cohesive theme across my back and arms. Not just a bunch of random stupid stuff. Skulls and snakes and what the hell. I’ve had them fixed up and filled in with some better color and designs, but there’s only so much lipstick you can put on a pig.”

“What would it be if you got it now?” I asked.

“I think I’d do a waving flag all across the back.” He said. “Maybe a sunset, a nice cross. But I’m in a better place now. Most youthful folly is not so obvious.”

“Unless it’s a kid.” I said. “Which thank God, I avoided. I don’t even have a tattoo.”

“You’re smarter than me.” He said. “Which is not uncommon.”

Seth Christopher had been the victim in one of Don’s early cases with The Bureau. Don called him a sharp, strong little fellow with a photographic memory. His near perfect recall of names, faces and circumstances had put almost a dozen people behind bars in a major child pornography bust. For years afterwards they had needed his testimony and he was always more than willing to give it. Seth had allowed himself to be interviewed for the purposes of better understanding how pedophiles work and what they tell kids to secure their cooperation. Don had never lost touch with him and he’d been so darn proud when Seth found success as a photographer. He would bring in magazines and point to the pictures. He’d read Seth’s food blog entries aloud to me. I had never been raped or forced into child porn or been dragged into testify for an unending series of trials. Yet here I was throwing a pity party for myself in the library garden.

“So you think the four of us could go get some food?” He asked. “That’s spread is pathetic. Frozen puff pastry stuff isn’t that bad if you cook it right, but steam trays and pastry do not mix. What are you drinking?”

“Water.” I said.

“It’s probably stronger than the booze they’re putting out. I want some real food. Where should I go? I think I can legitimately escape about nine. These nice people are showing off my calendars and I should thrill the guests with my company. If you don’t mind hanging around, we can grab something then.”

“Then will Connie get off your back?” I asked.

“Nothing to do with Connie.” Seth said. “I’m hungry. I want meat and booze.”

“I need to get out and do something.” I said. “And you’re a good shield against Connie.”

“I was thinking the same thing about you.” Seth said.

Seth excused himself and went back to schmoozing with the guests. Schmoozing probably isn’t the right word, he seemed genuinely friendly and happy to talk to everyone. Lots of ladies were asking about his blog. Apparently he had some great recipes for dips. More than one person said that Seth should have made the food for the library. Seth joked that he would never try catering, it was just too tricky.

Don came up and put his arm around me. “How you doing, kid?”

“I need to work.” I said. “But I don’t think I ever want to directly be in the position of being responsible for someone’s safety again.”

“I understand.” He said.

“But if I don’t use the skills I have to stop these freaks, I’m not doing all I can for the kids they’ll get to eventually.”

“We’ll work something out, kid.” He said.

I felt better. If Don said it was so, it just had to be. He’d never steered me wrong since I’d met him.

“Seth is a nice guy.” I said.

“He’s a good kid.” Don said. “Don’t care if he is over thirty. I was a little worried about him there for awhile, but he figured it all out.”

“All of it?” I said. “He’s way ahead of most people.”

“He’s figured enough out.” Don said. “I always told him that every step he gets ahead in life it like kicking that son of a bitch in the crotch. He liked that.”

“I like that one, too.” I said.

I was not thinking much about restaurants. A big change from my usual chowhound self. Connie wanted to take Seth to a bistro-style place that had gotten good reviews, so we went. Connie was her usual chatty self talking about work and her hobbies and charitable endeavors. Seth updated them on the upcoming book of his photographs and the success of his blog. It was now getting so many visitors daily that advertisers were willing to buy ads. Don did not say much about work, probably in deference to me. We ordered steaks with those crispy thin French fries and the food was excellent. I was picking at it, which was not me and thinking I needed to get the hell off these stupid medications and back to living. I just wasn’t sure how to make it all work.

“Don and Connie, it’s been great to see you guys.” Seth said after he insisted on picking up the tab for everyone. “But I really need to get going.” Then he turned to me. “Martie, can I give you a ride home?”

“We can take her.” Connie said. “I’m not sure how’d you even find it.”

“Rental cars come with state of the art GPS.” Seth said. “And it’s not a problem, if she doesn’t mind accepting rides from strangers with bad tattoos.”

“I’m not too worried.” I said. “I’ve been trained to kill with my bare hands.”

“Great.” Don said. “I’ll probably call you tomorrow Martie. I have something I’d like to discuss with you.”

“I’m always available.” I said.

“You want to go straight home?” Seth asked. “Or is there something pretty we could look at?”

“Would beloved National Monuments be too obvious for a guy who does patriotic?” I asked.

“Spot on.” He said. “I love that stuff. You want to drive?”

“I haven’t been doing a lot of that lately.” I said.

“You didn’t have anything to drink all night.” Seth said. “You certainly don’t seem impaired. I figure you know the roads around here better than I do. I don’t mind driving, but I might like to take some pictures and that can cause problems if you’re driving.”

“Sure, I’ll drive.” I accepted the keys and took a deep breath. It was time to come back in to the world and see what it held for me.

I selected the obvious Potomac at night view and he seemed pleased by it. “I need to schedule some time and come back here to shoot. I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off these days. Usually I stick pretty close to home.”

“I’ve been sticking a little too close to home.” I said. “That’s why I went on this wild ride with you.”

“I think Don is following us.” Seth said.

“Oh yeah.” I confirmed his suspicion.

“Glad to know he trusts me.” Seth said.

“I’m the mental patient who knows how to kill.” I said.

“I am trying to get you alone.” Seth said.

“I know.” I said. “Do you have some words of encouragement?”

“Martie.” He said. “Don’t let some piece of garbage ruin your life. I let the devil control my life for too many years. Just don’t do it.”

“She’s dead.” I said quietly. “And we didn’t do anything to save her. The smallest, most helpless among us. Three fricking FBI agents and a goddamned SWAT team and we couldn’t save her.”

He nervously and lightly touched my hand. “I know. Save yourself, okay? Save yourself. It is okay to save yourself. You are a valuable person. Don loves you. Connie loves you. I’ll bet a few dozen people love you.”

“I know.” I said. “It’s not that I don’t know.”

“Don’t give in. Whatever got put in your head that you can’t get out. You beat it out. You chase it out. You stuff your head with something else. Sunflowers and flags work great, but whatever floats your boat.” He sounded truly upset.

“I won’t give up.” I said. “I have to get myself together. There’s probably going to be a trial and I have to testify. The defense is going to attempt to exclude the video on the grounds it will prejudice the jury.”

“That’s a find defense.” Seth said is disgust. “I did something so vile that just seeing it will make you puke, so let’s exclude it.”

“Photographic evidence has been excluded before on those grounds.” I said.

“In Texas?” He asked “I can’t believe that would happen in my home state.”

“I don’t know how anxious the prosecution will be to show it.” I said. “You want the jurors to end up in a padded room?”

“No matter what.” He said. “You don’t give up. You don’t quit. You have your life. They get away with it and get away with it and get away with it. But you don’t quit. You don’t hide. You don’t stop eating.”

“Usually I don’t except rides, candy or advice from strangers. “ I said.

“I don’t blame you.” Seth took a card out of his wallet and wrote on the back of it. “My phone and my personal e-mail. If you ever want to text me or something. I’d be glad to talk to you about the long ride back from around the bend. And I’m familiar with the subject matter, so you don’t have to worry about freaking me out or giving me nightmares. I already have them.”

“You don’t need any more of them.” I said.

“It’s not like it gets worse.” He said. “Once you know it’s out there, it changes you. Knowing what happened to me did something to my family.”

“I knew it was out there.” I said. “God knows I knew it was out there and somehow I was able to live with that.”

“I admire your work. I don’t think I’d have the strength to immerse myself in it like you and Don.”

“Well, obviously I didn’t have the strength.”

“You’re not broken.” Seth said. “You took a hard hit and maybe you staggered or went down for a minute. You’re far from done. If I can get my sorry butt up, so can you.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Wild ass guess.” Seth said. “You seem spunky.”

I laughed. “So do you.”

“Took me a long time to get here.” Seth said. “I used to divide my time between feeling sorry for myself, being pissed at the world and worrying I was going to start wanting to lure little boys into my car. Then I realized self-pity is useless, the world don’t give a damn if I’m mad and that if I was going to turn perv, it would have happened already. Anyway, if I start thinking kids look like something I’d want to date; I’d just kill myself. Don’t know why more of them don’t do it. I mean, if it’s like they say and they can’t help feeling that way, I think I’d help myself off a damn bridge. I wonder why more of them don’t.”

“Weak.” I said. “They snivel like little bitches when catch them.”

“See, you’re still feisty.” Seth said.

“How do you know I was ever feisty? You just met me.”

“Connie told me.” Seth said. “So did Don. I think he called you a firecracker.”

“Boom.” I said.

On the drive back to my apartment, we played the satellite radio. I even put the windows down a little when I felt we were out of the prime carjacking zone. I pretended I was out on a date while Seth told me how he’d gotten the idea to chronicle his learning how to cook in a blog. I parked the car and we both got out. Seth called Don’s cell number.

“Hi Don. I’m just walking her to the door now. I should be back in about five minutes. Do you want to pull around the corner and wait or do you want Martie to call you when I leave her unmolested in her house?” He listened for a moment and ended the call. “You call him.”

“I should have you sleep on the couch just to spite him.” I said.

“I wouldn’t want to mess with Don.” Seth said. “And I think I’m the one who’s going to be sad about that.”

He walked me politely to my door.

“If you do get a chance to come back this way, give let me know.” I said. “We can go somewhere without Don and Connie following us.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Seth said.

I gave Seth a quick, incredibly awkward peck on the cheek that made me blush for some reason. By God, I was still alive. I called Don the second I got in the door. “The crazy has landed.” I said. “So goodnight and I love you both.” Then I sat down on the sofa and put Seth’s contact information into my phone. I pulled out my laptop and looked up his blog and started reading. His webpage was cleverly called Sethcristopher.com and his blog “Alone on the Range.” He had decided to learn how to cook one day and chronicled his adventures in big color pictures and humorous prose. I read about his disastrous attempts at pancakes until he found the perfect method. Then I called him.

“Hello.” He answered.

“Checking to make sure you didn’t fake number me.” I said.

“I wouldn’t do that.” He said.

“And I’m reading your blog.” I said. “Sorry about your dishtowels and your eyebrows.”

“Eyebrows grew back. Bought new towels. It’s all good. “

I ended the call and suddenly felt hungry. Pancakes sounded damn good.

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