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Flash Fantastic!

No. 3January 2004

by Kimberly Brown

"I will not!" Lydia stamped her foot.

Her mother sighed. Why did the child have to be so obstinate? "Baby, please?" She hated pleading with the little girl. Why, she sounded as whiny as Lydia!

Lydia folded her chubby arms and pushed her lower jaw out. "Sweetheart, I'll make spaghetti for dinner if you do it for me. You know you love spaghetti!"

Lydia shook her head, golden curls swinging. "Nope!"

Lydia's mother paced. What would Eric do if he got home and she still hadn't talked sense into Lydia? She wrung her hands and tried to think of another tactic. "Lydia, darling, we'll buy you the new doll you were looking at the other day."

"I don't want a new doll. I like the one I have!" Lydia grinned an unpleasant grin.

Tears came to her mother's eyes. "O.K., you win, as usual." She sat down and Lydia leaned down to pick up her doll-sized mother. Lydia stroked her hair.

"If you'll be good, I'll let you out of the toy box tonight, Mommy. But I won't make you big again!"

"Don't close the lid! Lydia!"

Darkness fell as the huge lid of the toy box swung shut.

"I won't make you big! I won't make you big!" Lydia sang. The wooden box vibrated as the 7-year-old skipped away.

by Guy Belleranti

"Haven't we met somewhere?" Nigel asked.

The man in the alley froze, but didn't reply.

"I know," Nigel continued, stepping closer. "It was in that pub a couple of blocks over. You were sitting at the next table and- No, that's not it. Last night...that's when it was. You were in a hurry, running actually, and-"

Nigel's eyes widened, a gasp popping from his mouth as the man leaned into him, as the man cut his sentence - and life - short.

Jack the Ripper wiped the blood from his knife and melted into the gathering London fog.

by Jan Christensen

"You have to give the ring back," Winston insisted, jumping up from his chair. "It was my grandmother's." He began to pace in Mandy's apartment.

"Since you're breaking up with me," Mandy said, "I'm keeping it." Unruffled, she remained sitting on the blue futon.

"But why? It has no sentimental value to you. If you're so bitter about this breakup, I'd think you'd throw it back in my face."

"I'd rather throw a rolling pin," Mandy said. "Don't you get it, Winny? I'm keeping it because I'm mad at you. I'll never give it back. Never."

ďLook, I'll pay you for it. It's worth about $3,000." He stood next to her and whispered, "Please." His mother would be furious. She'd be angry enough that he broke off with Mandy. She liked Mandy. They were both so much alike. Demanding, loud, rude. He hadn't realized it when he first started going with Mandy. Now his eyes were wide open.

Mandy grinned at him, her thin lips a caricature of a smile. "No. I want the ring. You couldn't pay me enough to give it back."

His stomach clenched. He had to get away from her. Forever. But he needed that ring. It glinted mockingly on her finger. He clutched his hands together so he wouldn't reach out and wrench it away. When he felt in control, he said, "You won't reconsider?"

"You won't reconsider?" she mimicked him. "Just get out of here, Winston. You've broken my heart."

I didn't know you had one, he thought as, shoulders slumped, he stomped out of her apartment. What was he going to do? Maybe he could have another ring made just like it. But they didn't cut diamonds like that anymore. His mother would know. Until she gave it to him for Mandy, she'd worn it herself for years. He'd never seen what was so special about it, just a solitaire in an old setting. He had to get it back. The only way he could think of would be to sneak into Mandy's apartment--fortunately he still had the key--and take it.

That night, Winston went to Mandy's apartment complex and snuck inside the unlocked entrance. He stood with his ear to Mandy's door, listening. Nothing. Afraid she'd already changed the lock, Winston took out the key and inserted it. He was relieved when the key turned. He slipped inside quietly. He stood a moment to let his eyes adjust, then tiptoed towards the bedroom, careful not to make any noise. As he crept to her bedside, the sound of Mandy's steady breathing reassured him. He knew that sometimes she slept with the ring on, other times she slipped it off and put it on the bedside table. Her left hand was under the covers. He checked the table. It wasn't there.

Winston hesitated. If he pulled on her hand, she'd probably wake up. He'd have to risk it. Suddenly, Mandy sat up. She snatched a gun from under her pillow and pointed it at Winston's navel.

"I thought you might try something like this, you scum!" she hissed, the gun wavering in her hand. "Get out of here. Get out!"

Winston couldn't move. In shock, he stared at her. The gun wobbled at him, the hole in the barrel looking enormous. He took a tentative step towards the bed.

"Stop right there," Mandy warned. But she looked as scared as he felt.

He took another step and was now close enough to touch her. Was he crazy? he wondered. He should turn around and run. But the diamond winked at him as her hands shook, tantalizing him. He thought of his mother.

Mandy scooted backwards in the bed, the gun waving erratically. She used both hands to steady it, but that didn't work.

"Give me the ring, Mandy."


Winston lunged. The gun went off, but he felt no pain. He tore the hot pistol away from her hands and pointed it at her chest. Another blast, and she lay still. Heart pounding, sweat streaming down his whole body, Winston stuffed the gun into his jacket pocket and tore the ring off her finger. As he ran from the room, he saw the bullet that had missed him in the splintered doorjamb.

He dashed out to his car and sped home. In his apartment, he carefully put the ring and the gun in his night table drawer. He fell into bed, exhausted, and went to sleep.

On his way to work the next morning, he stopped by his mother's house, just as he always did. After they sat down at the kitchen table for coffee, he pulled the ring from his jacket pocket and laid it on her placemat.

"What's this?" she demanded.

"The ring. Mandy and I broke up last night."

"And she gave it back? I'm surprised.

"She wanted to keep it," he acknowledged. "But I got it back."

"Well, that's good. But I'm very upset that you broke up with her. It was her idea, I suppose."

"No. Mine."

His mother seemed astonished. "I'd thought it would have been hers. I was sure that once that girl got a hold of that ring, she'd never give it back. Thatís why I had a copy made for you to give her. Cubic zirconia. I was going to switch it after the marriage. I knew you'd never notice that the cut was modern instead of antique like your grandma's real ring." She cackled, then looked at him sharply. "Why, Winston, what's the matter with you? You look ghastly. Let Mother get you an aspirin."

"Get me two," Winston said. When she turned her back, he took the gun out of his pocket...

Special Feature

Earl Staggs
, current president of Short Mystery Fiction Society, is interviewed by Patty G. Henderson for FLASH FANTASTIC

Patty G. Henderson: Why short stories as opposed to novels?

Earl Staggs: There are two reasons I prefer to write -- and read -- short stories rather than novels. First, there's the return-on-time-spent factor. In the amount of time it takes to write a novel (let's say one year, which is actually on the low side), I can write a dozen or more short stories and some of them will be published somewhere. Just for illustration, letís say ten of them are accepted and published. That's ten times Iíll enjoy the thrill of receiving an acceptance letter, ten times Iíll feel I've met the challenge of having written a salable story, and ten times I've received validation from an editor that I'm actually a writer.

If I'd spent that year writing a novel, I'd then have to submit it to an agent or publisher, then probably wait another year (again, probably on the low side) to have it accepted and published. If...that were to be accepted and published. The chances of a new novelist making that step to actual publication are slim these days.

So, that's a minimum of two years out of my life devoted to writing a novel with a minimal chance of seeing it published. With short stories, in that same two years, I could have seen my name in print and felt the elation of achievement twenty times.

Ah, but there's not much money in writing short stories, you say. Yes, that's true. Only a few publications pay for short stories and if they do, it's certainly not enough to live off of, not by a long shot. But the odds of a new novelist getting published and making the Big Bucks are about as good as winning the lottery. Most new writers are unable to crack the major book publishers and are being published by small independent houses that pay no advance and, without the benefit of large press runs and distribution outlets, offer little promise in future royalties. I know several writers who have had one, two, or three books published and are still waiting to realize as much money from their books as I have from my short stories.

My second reason for preferring short stories has to do with variety. I like variety in my reading. With most novels, after a few chapters, I begin to yearn for a different set of characters, a different setting, a new plot, or simply a different style of writing. If Iím reading short stories, I can enjoy a hardboiled PI story, then switch to a cozy or cop yarn, or move from a dark and serious story to a light and humorous one. That same need for variety applies to my writing. Iíve written stories in different sub-genres of mystery and crime from PI to Cozy to Hardboiled to strictly Humorous, and enjoyed them all. I think all writers should experiment with different characters, settings, and styles of writing to find what is most comfortable for them, their "niche," so to speak. Some may eventually find one character or one sub-genre that is perfect for them and stick with it. Others may continue to write a variety. You just never know where your niche may be until youíve tried your hand in different arenas.

PGH: How long have you been writing and was your first story a mystery?

EARL: Like most writers, I harbored a desire to write as far back as I can remember. I dabbled with it half-seriously at different times over the years but pushed it aside due to the pressures of making a living, raising children and the like. When my wife and I entered the empty nest phase of our lives and the pressure of earning a living eased up, I decided to have a serious go at writing. I thought it would be a good idea to take a writing course and checked the local community college. The only course available happened to be one on "How to Write a Mystery." Hmmmm. Iíd never really thought about writing mysteries before, but why not? Writing is writing, right? Happily, writing mystery was an immediate fit.

The teacherís plan was for each student to write a complete short mystery story by the end of the course. I did that and was so impressed with the brilliance of my writing ability, I submitted the story to a magazine. When the inevitable rejection came, I decided the editor was an idiot and was not deterred from my goal to be a writer. By then I had written another story. That second one and several afterward were accepted and published and I was hooked on writing mystery stories.

About three years later, I pulled out my original story. Wow! Either I had learned a lot in those three years or someone had sneaked into my file drawer and turned my brilliant writing into amateurish crap. I rewrote that first story and it was eventually published not by one magazine but by two at the same time. One was a print magazine and the other was one of my favorite ezines to this day, Mysterical-e. The story, titled "The Missing Sniper," is still there on Mysterical-e, by the way, in their Premier Issue archives.

PGH: What are your current projects?

EARL: I always have two or three short stories in the works and ideas for many more, so thereís never a shortage of something to write. The shortage is in time to get it all done.

Even though I prefer short stories, Iíll admit to having a touch of the ambition held by all writers, that of being a "Published Novelist." I have one book finished and two in the works. Someday, one of them may be published. Even then, if it happens, Iíll continue writing short stories. I enjoy it too much to give them up.

PGH: Some say that the market for short genre fiction is dead or dying. Do you think so and if not, what is your outlook for short mystery markets?

EARL: I donít think short genre fiction will ever completely die but the demand for it has drastically changed in recent years. There was a time in our society when reading was a favorite respite from the pressures and demands of daily life. Relaxation and entertainment meant getting comfortable in a cozy chair and reading. A wide variety of weekly and monthly magazines were available at newsstands, on store racks, or through subscription to fill the needs of the public to escape into fictional worlds for relaxation, entertainment, adventure or romance. Nowadays, people plop on the sofa, pick up the remote, push a button and watch their favorite shows on TV. Or they plop in a videotape or DVD, then plop themselves on the sofa. The result has been the evolution from a reading society to a plopping one.

This change has also brought about the disappearance of many publications which once flourished. In the mystery field, there only two large circulation magazines (Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines) remaining, and even they are struggling to survive. There are, however, dozens of electronic magazines ("ezines") and a handful of smaller print magazines still being published and providing outlets for short story writers and readers. More and more writers and loyal fans of short mystery fiction are discovering and turning to these avenues to keep the genre alive. I expect growth in this direction to continue and this growth will guarantee an everlasting life for short mystery fiction.

Unless, of course, medical science discovers that watching TV slowly weakens brain cells and causes hair loss, accelerated aging and significant weight gain. When that happens, the public may stop plopping and return to reading.

PGH: What is your favorite type of mystery story and do you read other genres as well?

EARL: My favorite is the old-fashioned whodunnit. Like most mystery readers, I love a puzzle and enjoy sifting through clues, red herrings, and suspects along with the protagonist of a story. I love it even more when I figure out who dun what to whom before the PI, cop, or amateur sleuth does. A good writer and a well-written story, though, allows me to keep right in step with the protagonist but keeps me guessing right to the end. I also enjoy a story in which the emphasis in less on whodunnit and more on why an evil deed was done. A well-written story of this type is more literary in nature and a good writer will take me inside the minds and hearts of the characters and leave me thinking about their motivations and the consequences of their actions long after the story ends. I read very little in genres other than mystery or crime. I certainly have respect for writers of other genres such as Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, but I prefer to read about people and places more similar to the world in which I live.

PGH: Explain what the Short Mystery Fiction Society is and your role in it.

EARL: The Short Mystery Fiction Society is an email list group created to provide a gathering place specifically for writers, editors, publishers, and fans of short mystery and crime fiction. There are many web sites for those interested in novels and many SMFS members write books also, but SMFS is unique in that it focuses on the short stuff. Members ask questions about writing problems or techniques and freely exchange advice and guidance in marketing their work. Members also provide encouragement and support in a field which gets much less attention in the writing community than books. Membership has grown to approximately six hundred and continues to grow not only with new members throughout the US, but in other countries as well.

Itís not unusual on any given day to find a discussion on the SMFS list involving members from three continents. At any given time, also, there may be a discussion on how private eyes operate or how cops handle a crime scene in real life. There may also be questions about the best way to poison someone or the safest way to dispose of a dead body. These questions, I assure you, come from authors wanting to write about such matters, not someone contemplating the commission of such acts. At least, weíre fairly certain thatís the case.

In 1997, SMFS created the Derringer Awards to honor excellence in the creative artform of writing short mystery fiction. Each year, writers, editors and publishers submit the best stories published during the previous year and SMFS members vote for the best in each category. Entrants do not have to be members of SMFS, and stories published in any English language magazine or anthology in book form are eligible.

Iíve been a member of SMFS for more than five years and have learned a mountain of writing information. I find the daily postings a valuable means of finding markets for my own stories, a means of keeping up with which members are selling stories to which publications along with the latest calls for submissions for anthologies and contests. Iíve also formed friendships with other writers to whom I can turn for encouragement, support and help when needed.

I served a term as Vice President of SMFS and now have the privilege of being President. Current Vice President Michael Bracken and I share the duties of monitoring members and discussions on the list, which means, for the most part, dousing flame wars and keeping spammers out.

Weíre currently updating and revising the SMFS website at: Complete information about joining SMFS and submitting to the annual Derringer Awards are there.

PGH: What is your favorite color?

EARL: Aha! Getting personal now, are we? Okay, I have two favorite colors, depending on the season. For the cooler days of fall and winter, I prefer the warmth and cozy comfort of brown. In spring and summer when life is more vibrant, active, and colorful, I like green. For those in-between times, when the seasons overlap, I may opt for a combination of brown and green. Sorry for getting complex with this answer, but Iím afraid Iím a complex person cursed with an active imagination and given to constant revision. After all, Iím a writer.

THIS ISSUE OF FLASH FANTASTIC -- "The Doll" is ©2004 by Kimberly Brown.  "Man In The Alley" is ©2004 by Guy Belleranti.  "The Ring" is ©2004 by Jan Christensen.  Interview with Earl Staggs is ©2004 by Patty G. Henderson.  All contents of Flash Fantastic edited by Patty G. Henderson.  Final formatting and additional graphics by Nolan B. Canova.  All contents of Crazed Fanboy dotcom and Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2004 by Nolan B. Canova.

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