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Entries in fiction (2)


Gems, Lies, and Elephant Tusks

My longtime friend Linda recently posted her photo entitled The Elephant in the Room on Facebook, which featured the great elephant blazoning the rotunda of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. I, too, have always been taken with that great tusked beast whenever I visited. Then I learned why the museum closes at 5 p.m. daily. They hold receptions and fundraisers in that grand space, which inspired the following tale I'd written for a flash fiction contest for pieces under 1,000 words:

The Rotunda of the Museum of National History, Washington, D.C.Gem, Lies, and Elephant Tusks

by Gale Martin

“Enjoy the reception,” intoned the president of the Not-Quite-Ivy Singles Club. “And the museum. Make it a goal to meet someone new this evening. Since we have the place to ourselves, mill about. I recommend catching the Carmen Lúcia.” The woman glanced at her notes on the podium.  “A stunning Burmese ruby, the newest acquisition in the Hooker Geology Hall.”

Mindy’s attention drifted from the speaker to a pair of hulking tusks overhead. Normally she avoided the mix-and-mingle scene. But the Museum of Natural History sounded like something a cut above, a classy place to meet the right kind of guy.

Everything in the rotunda—the stately columns, the white table linens, the African bush elephant grazing on a crag of faux African savannah—had a pinkish cast from the neon light fixtures embedded in each towering arch. Swords of pink light parried with the marble in the cavernous space. The crystal sparkled and fresh hors d’oeuvres were butlered every other minute. All of which surpassed Mindy’s expectations. Finding this event on the alumni website was kismet.

“One rarely sees elephants from sipping chardonnay. Or a lovely grad ensconced beneath a charging elephant.”

A man with sandy hair in a tweed sport coat grinned at her.

She noticed he had leather patches on his elbows. Very attractive. Not afraid to be different. He reminds me of...Indiana Jones?

“Have we met?” she asked

“Carter Pratt, class of 2000.”

 “Mindy Salmon. Class of 2002."

“What was your major at G-town?”

“Accounting," she smiled. "I work for the I.R.S.” She waited for the inevitable reaction when people learned she was gainfully employed by the universally feared and hated Internal Revenue Service.

“I’d better be good then,” he said, his green eyes sparkling. “No wonder we never met at Georgetown. I did a lot of field assignments off campus—France, Italy, Egypt. Anthropology major, archaeology minor. Plus, I’d have remembered you. I never forget a pretty face.”

Mindy flashed him her 200-watt smile. “What do you do for a living?”

“Right now, I’m in sales, trying to get a graduate fellowship at American,” he said. “Do you live in D.C.?”

“Just outside of Arlington. I’ve moved back to D.C. in January to take the government job.”

“Right. I never thought I’d have any reason to be grateful to the IRS,” Carter said, his face easing into a wide grin.

His teeth were white and straight as piano keys. At that moment, his pupils verged on overtaking his irises—not necessarily a bad thing. Mindy had just read a tidbit in a magazine that a man’s pupils often dilate when looking at a woman he finds attractive.

“Care to head to the Hooker with me?” Carter asked.

“I’d love to. I haven’t seen their gem collection since my tenth grade class trip,” she said, then tittered, suddenly giddy from the wine or a good-looking man’s attention or both. “I wonder if they still have the Hope Diamond.”

“I’m sure they do. But, in a manner of speaking, every diamond is a sort of hope diamond, n'est-ce pas?”

*  *  *

Mindy gawked at the 23.1-carat ruby, one of the world’s largest, set in a platinum ring, flanked  by triangle-shaped diamonds.

 “Ruby is my birthstone,” she purred.

“A businessman donated it in memory of his wife, a mere token expressing the abiding and transcendent love of a man for a woman,” Carter said. “Fascinating. I never knew rubies larger than 20 carats were extremely rare. Or that the curator of this gallery considers the Carmen Lúcia their most important acquisition in twenty years.”

 “Stunning. Simply stunning. But way too extravagant for my taste,” she countered. “What with the price of real estate in D.C., I’d rather sink that kind of money into a down payment on a house.”

“Pretty and practical. That’s what I call rare,” he said, raising his champagne glass to her.

*  *  *

Mindy hurried up the Museum’s front steps. Carter’s message said to meet him at the Rotunda after work. But traffic had been too heavy. Then her cell phone ran out of juice. Her fears evaporated when she spotted him standing beneath the tusks of the great bush elephant.       

“Remember, we met last year under these tusks,” he said, handing her a velvet box.

“Oh, my goodness, Carter.”  

Mindy’s eyes grew wider than a pachyderm’s footprints as she opened it. She froze. She looked down at the ring again to make sure she was seeing straight, then up at Carter, blood rushing into her face. Her head felt ready to explode.

“A quarter-carat?” she wailed. “You got me a quarter-carat diamond for an engagement ring?”

“'Nothing extravagant.' That’s what you said. You said you’d rather spend the money on a house.”

“I may have said it, but I didn’t mean it,” she said. “If you had any class whatsoever, you would have known that.”

Mindy threw the box on the marble floor and dashed down the steps, not caring whether Carter intended to chase after her.

*  *  *

Carter thumbed through a mountain of mail that accumulated while he was overseas. Bills, magazine renewals, junk mail, a few letters from the Georgetown alumni office, and a registered letter from the IRS.

The IRS? What could they possibly want with me?

His heart pounded. Maybe he forgot to mail his tax return before he left for Greece. He felt certain that he had.

Ignoring the letter opener on the counter, he tore off the end and yanked out the notice.

“Dear Mr. Pratt,

Because of numerous irregularities in your 2015 Federal Income Tax Return, you have been selected for an office audit.

You will be required to bring the records and documents listed below to the IRS office and to meet with one of our agents for review.

Within ten days of the receipt of this letter, you must call Mrs. Mindy Morgenstern, the agent assigned to your case, to set up an appointment...”


Five tips for writing action scenes from "The Fugitive"

Harrison Ford as Richard Kimball
No matter when it comes on, no matter how late it is, if I'm channel surfing and I find the 1993 film The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford and directed by Andrew Davis, I flip it on. There's only a handful of movies that never bore me--that are like opening gifts each time I stumble upon them--and this is one of those films.

As a rule, I'm not an action movie die-hard (pun totally intended). But there are certain qualities about this movie--the clever screenplay, the acting, the main character's refusal to give up until he discovers who killed his beautiful wife--that impress me each time I watch it.

My newest book culminates in an action scene. I'm on the second revision, and as I tuned in the last twenty minutes of  The Fugitive last night, I was for the first time, watching it as a storyteller, looking for parallels between the conclusion of the movie and the last scene of my book (before the denouement).

Spoiler alert: Yes, I give away the end of the movie. Big deal. If you haven't seen The Fugitive by now, you must've been living on another planet or have lived in a cable-television-free bubble your whole life.

Here's what I learned:

  1. Make your hero heroic. When Harrison Ford's character (Kimball) discovers that his colleague and friend is behind his wife's murder, he doesn't merely pay him a visit at his home or his office. He walks into the lecture hall of the upscale hotel where his friend is delivering a lecture at a conference and confronts him during his speech--something a regular joe would probably never do. Another interesting choice is that as distraught and infuriated as Kimball is, he uses words as his weapons first, then his fists--because it's a much more effective scene if it replicates a playground brawl between childhood friends first. Also, it prolongs the action, giving it a chance to escalate. Think outside the realm of possibility and make your human hero do something you and ten of your friends would never have the guts to do.
  2. Use dialogue, too, not just action. In The Fugitive, you have two highly educated characters, doctors, trying to kill each other. Of course, they're going to have dialogue--and they do until they are hiding from each other in the laundry room. I have two better educated characters fighting each other, too, so dialogue must be deftly incorporated into the scene in addition to the expected action that qualifies it as an action scene.
  3. Give equal literary attention to the antagonist's reaction. Though the story is told from the hero's viewpoint, the camera (and or the screenplay) in the action scene is an equal opportunity device. Give the antagonist's reactions to the hero's actions equal weight. For instance, the hero pushes the villain into a bookcase and books fall on them and all around them. The villain, lacking a conventional weapon, reaches down and picks up a book and hurls at the hero with all the force he can muster. Actions will be strengthened by an equal and opposite literary focus on the reaction.
  4. Allow the scene to escalate--and choose a setting that will let you do that. The fight between the two doctors begins with words and moves to a hotel room where shoves, swings, fists, and furniture are all used (and in some cases destroyed) while they're trying to kill each other. So, the hotel room is completely trashed. Bad enough? Not nearly. The hero and villain end up on the roof (while Chicago police in a helicopter are trying to fatally shoot Kimball), fall through a skylight, landing on the elevator several stories below, which starts off and drops them off in the laundry room of the hotel. Amidst dangerous machinery and overhead girders not to mention the cover provided by the oversized racks and other equipment in a hotel laundry room, they stalk one another. By the time they two characters discover each other in the laundry room, you're as physically exhausted and emotionally spent as they are. The upscale hotel is the ideal choice for this scene--offering so many dramatic possibilities.
  5. Make sure the reader feels the hero suffer and knows that they could die. In the final confrontation with the villain, make sure the hero gets beaten up and battered. They might even need to get stabbed, shot, or suffer a concussion or a fractured skull or lose something or someone important to them. The reader needs to feel that the stakes have never been higher. This is no time to allow your hero an easy victory. Whatever it is that makes your hero vulnerable, make sure your antagonist has discovered that weakness and exploits it. In the end, their victory might have to be pyrrhic, or one with devastating costs to the hero.
As I go back to revise the climactic confrontation between my hero and the story's villain, I intend to keep lessons learned from The Fugitive in mind. Also, I like when good guys win, which is something that makes the movie a favorite, too, and I intend to have a similar, affirming outcome.