More Subtext

Okay, so…clearly I don’t get this subtext thing, because I blew it on the last exercise. Here’s another try.

She smoothed the apron around her waist and sat down, floating to the seat. The sound of his utensils on the dinnerware made her motion unheard, and he didn’t see her with his eyes riveted to the iPad on the table in front of him.

She looked down, laced trembling fingers through her hair, and exhaled through her nostrils, slow, deliberate.

“Everything all right?” he said, around a wad of food in his mouth.

“Mm,” she said, and the corner of her mouth pulled back slightly.

“It’s good,” he managed as he shoveled another forkful of food into his mouth. “Great.” He never set down his tablet, and his fingers danced over the screen, leaving smudges of residue behind. He scowled at it.

“Thanks,” she said, and the corners of her lips curled just a touch, then fell. Her eyes shined moist.

She listened to him, fingers drumming lightly on the plastic as he swiped and pecked.

“Do you still think I’m pretty?” she said., and tipped her chin his direction.

“‘Course,” he said. “You’re beautiful.” Drum-drum-drum, thump, tap-tap. Swipe.

She sighed and stood up, went behind him, and laced her arms around his neck, resting her cheek on top of his head. She let the smell of his shampoo and scalp drift into her nose, and felt the texture of his hair on her face.

“Do you still love me?” she said, voice barely a whisper.

“Yeah,” he said, and chewed. “‘Course. Sure you’re all right?”

She stood up, and slid the gleaming chef’s knife from the pocket of her apron.

“Yes,” she said, “I think so. I finally think so.”


Subtext is one of the most important skills a writer can add to their skill set. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get the concept. Basically, “subtext” is literally “under the text”, or what isn’t said.

To be honest, I stink at this. I think I’ve written stuff too “on the nose,” as the expression goes, which means the characters do and say exactly what they mean to do or say. This makes for a flat, uninteresting story, because the reader’s given everything. To really make the story shine, subtext is key.

There are a lot of ways to add subtext, but dialog is one obvious way. Another is by actions which are discordant with the situation. A simple example is a Southern woman saying “Bless your heart,” when she means, “I hope you die.”

So, this is an exercise in subtext for me, because I really, really need to practice. And I really, really need to write. Like, POST HASTE. I’m rotting inside for not doing it, and I can’t find the convergence of time and energy to do it, to study it, to outline, to do anything except my day job, which is stressing me to the point of high blood pressure.


So anyway…subtext practice.

She heard the floor creak, and her eyes popped open.

The dark seemed to bubble in pockets of black and deeper black, but she blinked, fully awake now, seconds after sound sleep, at the sound.

It was the familiarity of the creak that beckoned her. She strained her ears into the night, through the open bedroom door, to the hallway, listening. A long moment passed, the silence seeming to hiss in her head. Then it drifted to her. The familiar sound of his pace over the floor. She’d heard so many times, so many nights as he padded to the kitchen from bed, or to the bathroom in the night. She’d heard it every day as he got up to shower for work, or he went to turn on the TV or the coffee maker. She knew that pace, that pad across the floor they’d shared for sixteen years.

She knew the sound well, and it became clear now as that familiar, easy walk approached the bedroom where she lay curled on her side.

And her blood ran cold, her eyes widening in terror, and a scream caught in her throat, just like when they lowered his casket into the ground last year…


My lungs burn as I round the corner, the damnable soles of my expensive shoes skidding on the concrete, driving me to my knees. The raking breaths burning in my lungs matches the burn on my palms when I stop my fall with my hands, a hot white bolt shooting up my arms.

I shoot a backward glance, down the dark stairs, suck in my breath and hold it against my pounding heart. Silence and night.

My vision smears the lights in their neat, white globes as I fight back to my feet. No time. No time!

I shoot back to my feet and pound forward, coattails flapping in my slipstream. The station isn’t bright enough, but it’s not dark either. I’ve been in Podunk towns where a single bare bulb swung from an exposed wire wearing a flattened stainless steel funnel hat. The fluorescent bars here offered some illumination at least.

It just doesn’t feel bright enough.

I glance back again, confronted now by the turnstiles and pay booths. They’re unmanned. I check the rest of the area.

No guard. My heart sinks.

I spring over the turnstiles and yank my straining body up the concrete stairs by the cold iron handrail beside me. It stings my scraped hands as I launch myself faster up the flight to a landing, a break in the climb before another set of steps taunts me.

I freeze for a split second.

Did I hear something? Something coming, from behind me?

My adrenalin jumps another notch and scorches my veins. My heart flutters and I dart up the second flight, trying to keep up the pace, but slowing. The platform is at the top, but the loading area is far from where passengers vomit out of the stairwell. Dimly, something far in the recesses of my mind realizes this isn’t ADA compliant as I push with my arms while racing with my leaden legs up the stairs.

Then I do hear it. Clear, definitive, something banging and grinding behind me.


My feet skid on the corner of the stair riser and bark my shins. I scream out, no longer caring what hears me, and I push through the pain. I feel the warm trickle of blood down my shin, and know I’ll leave a trail behind me.

I can’t care.

The sound grows to a din now, and then there’s a scream, a wailing howl like metal dragging over metal, and I can smell the thing now. I can’t look back, I have to press on, move, move, dammit, move!

It’s on me, I can see it as I round the corner of the platform, my damn shoes betraying me again, and I hit one knee on the ground while my feet still scrabble for purchase. I launch myself up, but my equilibrium’s gone and I fall into the brick wall just under the schedule.

Too late! Too, too late!

The shriek sounds again, and the klaxon bangs a tattoo of hopelessness against my ears. In huff it’s moving, foul air rushing into my face and blowing back my hair. It gains speed in an instant, and I fall, helpless, to the cold floor of the platform as it rushes to me, and then past me.

I watch the train’s lights vanish into the night, down the dark tracks, and groan when I see the schedule above me.

Next one’s not due for an hour.

I misread the prompt, too. It said, “plane,” not “train.” *Sigh* Oh well.

Noir Fiction: “Brick Work” (Guest Author Bryce Beattie)

I’m honored to have a great young pulp author today posting fiction here on my nest o’ nightmares! This piece comes direct from author Bryce Beattie, from, and author of the zombie-pulp novels Oasis and The Journey of St. Laurent.

So, without further ado, let’s have some noir! Take it away, Bryce!


Brick Work

by Bryce Beattie © 2012 Bryce Beattie, all rights reserved

People tiptoe through my office door all the time burdened with questions to which they do not really want to know the answer. If they also come through the door carrying enough lettuce for a three day retainer, then we do business. It’s not usually easy, it’s often dangerous, and it almost always requires getting more than a little dirty. Ah, well, it’s work. Brick work. That’s my idea of a joke. You see, my name’s Brick Baines, and I’m a private dick.

I sat in the Buick and let my thinker meander to the fine ham sandwich that rested lightly in my paws. It had plenty of cheese and a divine-smelling mustard. I figured the new deli might actually work out. And the best part was that for the third day in a row, I’d be eating a lunchtime hoagie on a client’s dime.

And just then, before the cold cuts could cross my lips, for the third time in as many days, a long pair of legs rounded the corner and breezed into the smoky gin joint known as O’Malley’s. On day one, I sat around and waited for the frail who owned the legs to leave with some beefy affair. No such luck. She went home alone. Ditto for day two.

Both days she scrammed walking too straight to have been tossing back giggle water for those six hours. So what was she doing all that time?

After I tailed her home that second night I asked around about the bar. It had survived prohibition and then the war due to the fact that it was owned by “Dangerous” Donovan Druggan. Being a solo act, I don’t really go in for stirring up the hornet’s nest known as organized crime, so I didn’t know much about him. The fact that he was in his seventies and working stiffs still called him “Dangerous” told me something.

The fact that the owner was a Mafioso didn’t mean that the frail was necessarily mixed up with his business. Because, you know, delicious dames often hang out daily in dingy crime-owned bars for no apparent reason. A guy can hope, right?

And speaking of bars, I’d just like to make my point again. The bright small time private investigator tries to avoid even digging dirt in establishments owned by big time operators. This is because bright small time investigators like to keep hot lead out of their heads. Of course, I was retained to find out if she was having an affair, so I’d have to bite that bullet, march in and maybe put myself on the radar of some very shady cats.

Yep, the very thought of diving into that particular den of vipers was enough to make me lean back and finish my sandwich.

When the lunch meats were gone, so were my excuses.

Not wanting to spark an accidental gun fight, I ditched my heater in the Buick’s jockey box before legging it across the street past the parked cabs and into O’Malley’s.

The door opened up onto some steps that led down. At the base of the steps was a second door. The joint was set up so that daylight would never defile its smoky innards.

The interior of the place was about like you’d expect – dark, with pockets of darker. And in a couple of badly planned spots, it brightened up to almost poorly lit.

I scanned the room looking for my mark. She sat in a booth along the back wall, bathed in shadows. A notebook and a coke sat on the table in front of her.

I sat at the bar and ordered a scotch on the rocks. Some say that ice ruins a drink. The people who say that? They’re right. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there to enjoy a tasty libation. I was there to pass time and watch a client’s wife. That meant sip slowly and water it down. I could get three sheets when the case was closed.

A man sitting at the end of the bar saw me, looked again, then looked a third time. After that he stared hard at his drink and rapped his tubby fingers on the counter.

He looked familiar, but I couldn’t get a good enough gaze of his mug to put a point on where I might have seen him before. I wasn’t here to watch him, anyway.

The mirror behind the bartender didn’t give me a good look at the dame, but I could see one leg as well as the seat opposite her.

Halfway through my second drink, a squirrelly guy in an ill-fitting suit slid into the hot seat across from the girl. He didn’t look to me like much of a lover, but sometimes you can’t tell with these things. He made some nervous chit chat and then pulled out a few greenbacks and held them out.

She pulled the geech from his trembling fist and set it somewhere, then scribbled something first in a book and then on a scrap of paper. She slid the paper across the table. He picked it up, put it in his pocket, and made a hasty exit.

From the corner of my peeper I saw the man at the end of the bar signal for the barkeep.

Two others sat down with my client’s wife in turn and performed the same ritual.

Any mook could see what was going on. She was taking bets.

Now, my client’s wife was a looker, but she wasn’t fine enough to be running an operation out of a mob joint without their express permission. And by express permission, I mean more like “working for.” The dame’s supposed affair was really just a part time gig as a bookie for a local hood.

My client was not going to like that any better.

The man at the end of the bar whispered his secrets to the bartender and then practically ran for the exit. The bartender glanced just once over at me and then marched over to the door at the back marked “storage.”

This little show put me on edge, but I wasn’t ready to make like a drum just yet. If I could get it, I needed some kind of proof to take back to my client. My camera was out in the Buick, and dim, smoky joints weren’t the best place for clicking the shutter anyway.

There wasn’t much time to stew on the quandary of proof. The storage room door opened up and in shuffled three burly mooks dressed in finery much too fine for a dive like this. The bartender crowed close behind them and pointed at me. Stinking coward.

The lead monkey pulled the cigar from his lips. “Whatchu doing here?”

“Just getting a drink.”

“No you ain’t. Cliff fingered you as a private dick. Brick Beans or sumpin’.”

I looked from gorilla to gorilla to gorilla. They scowled back.

“Baines,” I shrugged. “All right, all right. It’s true. I am a private dick.”

“Mr. Druggan don’t like none of youze nosy types snooping around.”

“Yeah, but I’m not here chasing anything to do with Mr. Druggan. I didn’t even know he owned the place. A man hired me to find out if his wife was having an affair. She’s supposed to be around in a few minutes. I was just going to watch if she met someone.”

“Yeah, we calls that ‘snooping’ around here.”

One of the backup heavies stepped in. “And who names a kid Brick anyways?”

You know the funny thing? My name’s not really Brick. It’s Daisy. That’s right, I said my given name’s Daisy. Ma and Pa Baines each had a very vivid dream on the same night that the forthcoming kid was to be named Daisy. Three months later I was born a boy, but it was too late, fate had chosen my name.

Still, you can’t go telling tough guys you have a flowery name. “Brick’s a nickname, pal. When I was fourteen, I put a brick through the window of a cherry top. By the time the folks fetched me from the station, the name had stuck.”

The meat didn’t even crack a smile at my story. Oh well. It doesn’t always work. I checked the mirror and saw another transaction happening with the dame. The gambler was a lanky gate in suspenders and looked like he was in a hurry. That gave me an idea.

I lifted my glass to the gorillas. “Can I at least finish my drink? I’ll even pay for it.”

The big one chomped on cigar again and cracked his knuckles. “No. Scram. Now.”

The gambler in the mirror pocketed his receipt.

I took a sip and set down the hooch. “What’s the matter? You run out of sentences and you’re down to just little words?”

“Youze a real smart guy, huh? Maybe you want help findin’ the curb.”

I don’t know what my problem is. Maybe I don’t want to look weak in front of anybody. Maybe I just like making trouble. Plus, I only needed to buy a few seconds.

I stood, sneered, and pointed with my left at his oversize chest. “I told you, ugly, I’m not looking into your boss, so–”

A lot of hired muscle have short fuses. Still, this one seemed especially primed for violence. One direct insult and he went down to business, pulling his beefy fist way back. Much farther than he needed. It gave me all the time in the world to duck and weave.

That’s not what I did, of course. I could have, though. I just want to make that crystal clear. I needed to buy those extra couple of seconds.

His large mitt drilled into my cheek.

I bent my knees, spun to my right, and took a stumbling step back.

The punch hurt but probably wouldn’t even pop a shiner. Some of those giant-types never do learn to fight right. They just rely on a pile of muscle to do all the work.

The lanky gambler shuffled the long way around the commotion.

I brought my left hand up to my cheek and squeezed out a groan. Just for show. My right was turned away and hidden to the three bruisers. I dug it into my pocket.

“Stand up, shamus. Youze is just gettin’ started.”

The gambler was mere feet from the exit when my fingers slipped into the holes of the brass surprise in my pocket.

The monkey who had hit me reached out and grabbed my shoulder.

I pulled out my fist and bent a little lower.

The monkey tugged up on my shoulder, and leaned down to stick his face in mine. “Look at–”

I built my rebuttal punch from my toes pushing against the ground, thrusting my hip forward, and pounding my brass knuckles into the fleshy underside of the monkey’s jaw.

He collapsed, if you don’t mind my saying, like a ton of bricks.

I didn’t stay planted long enough to watch his primate brethren trip over his unconscious corpse in a mad frenzy to rip out my windpipe. I made for the door like a drunken freight train.

The bartender said some unsavory words. The lesser monkeys roared.

I stashed the knuckles quick as I could. If nobody saw me use them, it’d be swell for my reputation. The lanky gambler was my final obstacle. He stood in the lower doorway, staring over his shoulder at the carnage, mouth agape.

I clutched at his left shoulder, fumbled for his right hip, my hand slipping into his pocket, then spun him around. He was a lot lighter than I expected. Even if my luck were good, his featherweight awkwardness wouldn’t slow them down much. Still, they didn’t need to be slowed much. I had plenty of head start.

The still-conscious gorillas tossed table after table out of their way.

I raced through the door, up the stairs, and out the other door.

I signaled one of the cabs and dove in, then told the driver to get moving. It didn’t matter where. I could come back for my Buick in a couple of hours.

The cab squealed out into the street.

I smiled and opened my hand. It contained a piece of paper I had lifted from the gambler’s right pocket during our little dance. Sure enough, it was a receipt for a ten dollar bet on Brooklyn for Saturday’s game, complete with a stamp. The whole thing was handwritten beautifully. It’d be a walk in the park to show that it was her handwriting. That meant proof to tie the dame to the less than legitimate business.

Now I just had to figure out how to tell my client, the Burbank chief of police, that his wife was making book for Dangerous Donovan Druggan.