This Show Case features five pieces submitted in response to our twenty-fourth Writing Prompt: X. You can see responses to each prompt in the drop down menu for this page. Try an item. They are all delicious. We hope they stimulate your mind, spirit, and urge to write. Maybe they will motivate you to submit a piece for our next prompt, which you can find on the Show Case home page.
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The Forex Fitness Center
by GD Deckard
Roy’s Brothel for Medicare Recipients was a surprising success. He received $108,405 in government funds for the old Bed Bath & Beyond store, now repurposed as the Forex Fitness Center and duly registered with the Feds under Title XXXX as a gym providing exercise to Senior Citizens.
His attorney squinted in the morning sun coming through the window behind his desk and came right to the point. “There is no Title XXXX, Roy.”
“Get to the point, Sarah.” Roy had little time for lawyers, especially ones who billed him.
“You commit fraud every time you file for payments,” she told him pointedly. “The government is bound to find out and you will go to prison.”
“If that’s the way they’re going to treat me, I’ll stop dealing with them.” He still had most of last year’s payment. “I’ll give them back their money.”
“You still have it?”
“I live frugally.” He had bought U.S. Savings Bonds and used the bonds as collateral to take out loans online in the name of Sarah Brady, his attorney. Roy relied on attorney-client privilege to mean that he didn’t have to mention it. He could afford the refund. “Besides, most of my expenses are covered by the brothel.”
Sarah Brady shook her head. “I still don’t get that. You don’t have any women working for you.”
“We cater to men and to women. Old people prefer dark rooms. They don’t know they’re both customers.”
Sarah shook her head and opened her briefcase. “Let’s get that money returned.”
“Well, that was great! Been too long since I -” the old man stopped short just inside the room. “Uh, Sarah?“
“Dad! What are you doing -?” Sarah Brady blushed and closed her briefcase. “I’ll ready the refund paperwork at my office, Roy.” She jumped up and brushed past her Aunt May on the way out the door.
“Oh. What’s her hurry?” May smiled at the old man. “Good to see you here, Ike.”
“You too. Both of us still benefit from a roll in the hay, now and then, ‘eh Sis?”
“Yeah. I don’t know where Roy gets his men, but this last one was great.”
“Thanks.” Roy smiled at his first two customers of the day.
The Art of Waiting
by Boris Glikman
Waiting is an ancient art that is, perhaps, dying. Nowadays, it seems people either have no time for anything except patience, or they have time for everything but patience.
There are those who wait years and years just to discover their true nature. Even then, their raison d’être is only revealed to them when they align their bodies in a particular way with a specific arrangement of objects in the sky, at a certain time and place. As it is quite likely that that precise pattern of stars and clouds occurs just once and is never repeated again, it is imperative for them to be there on time; otherwise they may never find their calling in life.
As burdensome as this sounds, these people may actually be the lucky ones compared to those who do not know where and when the right configuration of stars and clouds will arise; those compelled to be forever on the move and to keep positioning their bodies in different ways against the ever-changing sky, every instant of their lives, until the appropriate heavenly pattern appears and their destiny is divulged. If only there was an X that marked the spot, so that they could know for certain where to stand.
The least fortunate of all, however, are those for whom the correct alignment comes at the very end of their lives, just as they are passing on to the next world. Only at the death’s door is their life’s calling disclosed to them – their wait and their existence ceasing at precisely the same moment.
A Deal. A Heel. A Pearl. An Earl.
(Actually a duke, can’t find a rhyme for duke.)
by Mimi Speike
This is an excerpt from The Rogue at Sea, book two of Sly.
SET-UP: Pedro, a runaway duke disguised as a cabin boy, is being ferried north to a French grandfather, out of reach of a murder-minded uncle. The Santa Clara, tailed out of the port of Bilbao by an English privateer, has been overtaken and boarded.
Hernando Del Gado (aka Gato), aide to Captain Moreno, the boy’s protector, was put in charge of the youngster. He’d stumbled on a cache of gems he assumes to be Pedro’s. (They belong to Sly, who, finding his belongings disturbed, moved them elsewhere.) Gato intends to find the relocated gemstones before the English do. He cobbles a plan with John Cole, one of the enemy marauders.
* * *
“Listen,” says Gato. He and Cole are conferring in the galley. “Here’s our story. We’ve worked out a deal. You’ve agreed to help me help the brat escape. We’ll get him ashore, from there to the Grandpa, who will pay as well or better than the uncle, and you won’t be having to share the proceeds twenty ways with shipmates. I ask but a quarter share, the rest is yours.
“The worm will be dug out, no way around it. But he can count on you to work on his behalf once he’s transferred onto the Turbulent. No promises. You’ll do your best for him. This here ring’s the payment for your trouble, in case it don’t work out. He knows how I value my pearl, my father’s bequeath, that I treasure. So I tell him. Actually, I won it at dice.
“Turns out, it’s a clunker. I wear it to remind m’self: trust no one, least of all a swell. Look, I don’t push. I never push. I let all fools bust their money as they like. Men will bet while they got breath in them. I give ‘em a fair bilk. If I got a better memory for cards, that’s a fair go. If I thrive on cheerful losses until I’m ready to be vicious, that’s still honest enterprise. And if I have jiggered-dice, well, that’s on them, not to be up on tricks.
“Gentlemen, titles even, are not honorable, not to a lowlife like me. They got appearances to keep up, paste taking the place of the blunt they’re forced to hock from time to time. When they run through their bank, they toss a fine-looking ring into the pot. A dumb country boy, dazzled by fancy threads, says to himself, these folks stink of money! That’s a honey of a pearl! How was I to guess it weren’t the real thing? That’s how I know them sparklers are no bamboozle. After that trip-up I made it my business to know stones. Here’s your ring, put it on so he sees it on you.
“I’ll warn him, don’t try to bullshit me. A duke ain’t shipped north with empty pockets. I don’t buy that, not for a minute. You got coins or, more likely, gems on you, hand ’em here. These thugs are gonna strip you bare-naked, turn every stitch of clothing you own inside out. Stash your pretties with me. I got a trick heel will hide them, no one the wiser. The boy agrees, he has no choice. You get me boarded with him. Talk me onto your slut – I’ve watched you in action, you’ve got one hell of a mouth on you. We play it by ear from there.”
* * *
Pedro, concealed within a heavy pile of sail, has cried himself to sleep. He realizes that if his crew mates are to survive, he must surrender. If he hesitates to betray his location, it’s because a) he still hopes the cat can save them and b) he’s gagged and bound.
* * *
What’s that cat up to? Sly’s aware of a mysterious log. He’d watched it withdrawn from a secret compartment as he relaxed in front of a bank of windows, enjoying a sunset. He’d jumped to the captain’s desk and gotten a look into it. It consists of page upon page of coded entries. Entries of what nature? Who cares? He’s conceived a use for it in regard to the current situation. To get the ship within sight of coast is his immediate objective. He’ll worry about a code later.
He’ll tart up the pages with art – coins, a chest of gold and, most crucially, a map. They’re off La Rochelle, France. He’d passed time there years back. He can construct a decent representation of landmarks and distances.
He rushes to Moreno’s cabin. Normally, he would have tapped at the door. Pedro, his bed just beyond, would have let him in.
The door is cracked open. Sauntering past a lone sentry, he heads to an embellished footlocker. The cabin is deserted. A search of the space will not commence until the captain of the Turbulent sets foot on the Santa Clara. He’s not yet come on, the coast is clear. Sly inserts a claw into a flaw, causing a concealed drawer to jut forth slightly. He hooks the lip, pulls it open, and extracts a red leather sleeve.
* * *
Shipboard furnishings are either built in or bolted down to prevent migrations. You’ll see no open shelving, only doors with latches, everywhere. There are few of the cubbyholes cats are partial to. But within a small Delft-tiled coal-burning stove, installed by a man who demands a minimum of comfort in cold climes, a grilled slot above the fire-chamber, used to keep platters warm, or to heat gloves and mufflers prior to facing frigid temperatures topside in northerly latitudes, might also be occupied by a small animal. Sly is especially pleased to be able to watch the comings and goings in the cabin from a central vantage point, behind iron fancy-work, in no danger of being kicked, as Hernando Del Gado is apt to do.
Gato is allergic to cats. He can’t enter the cabin, since Sly’s arrival, without sneezing his head off. Captain Moreno, glad the man’s allergy signals his remarkably quiet entrances, has a bowl of choice leftovers available to the animal at all times, to keep him close.
The aide had been foisted on him by a coalition of investors in Madrid; he’d had no say in the hire. His is a unique set of skills, he’d been told, the board of directors is delighted with his qualifications. He has nothing specific against the man, he just plain doesn’t like him.
* * *
Sly adores the seclusion of the cubby. No, there is no danger of a fire lit under his butt, not off Aquataine in mid autumn, thanks much for your kind concern.
The cat squeezes into his hideout, folio between his teeth. The English filth – his countrymen, but that doesn’t alter his assessment – must not catch him at work. He’d previously stocked the site with ink and quill and paper, he enjoys writing verse. Why doesn’t he use his pencils?1 He has a finite supply that is dwindling rapidly.
His plan had been to dress up Moreno’s code with scrawls of coins and gems and the map, a flamboyant X marking a location. The thugs would surely prefer to investigate a bonanza in jewels, and postpone a trickier attempt to collect what had to be an inferior compensation.
In that cramped keep, his nose an inch from papers he had previously regarded from a distance, Sly recognizes a faint odor. Lemon! To one with his experience in intelligence, this means one thing: invisible writing. This has to be investigated.
His new plan is to create a document from scratch. The drawer will be discovered in due course, one way or another. A coded ledger will be found in it.
He will convey Moreno’s log into the hands of one better trained to decipher what may be a highly sophisticated code, once he’s back on English soil.
* * *
- The pencil had been invented thirty-odd years earlier in the north-western corner of England. It was used to mark sheep in the field. The discovery of the only large deposit of the hard form of graphite ever found (to this day!) was a closely-held military secret. (The more important use of the substance was in the production of cannon balls.) Sly has a small stock of pencils. (Pilfered from Prince Bittor, in Haute-Navarre.) He’s trying to make them last.
by John Correll
The window opens on a quaint island in the middle of the south pacific. Some deserted heap of silica between Fiji and Tahiti.
What an idyllic place to search for my treasure — buried gold, jewels for the queen of Spain, a real pirate horde.
If you find it, your hard work and dedication will be paid off. You can fulfill the dream where I failed because now, where I’m going, I can’t take it with me.
So, with the brief time I have, here’s my map:
First, find the grandmother of coconut trees and stand by it. Then spy around until you see the half-empty rum bottle. Walk six paces towards the bottle. If you go beyond the rum, you’ve gone too far, but feel free to take a sip. Turn left and take two more steps. Now, lick your finger and hold it up. You should feel the prevailing breeze. If you don’t feel the breeze, you need to start again with a better finger. Travel with the wind for three short hops and look at your feet. If you don’t see an X, you picked the wrong tree. Unless the little coconuts multiplied, there should only be two more palms to try.
If you don’t find anything, then the sands of time have washed away my X. But don’t despair. You can use a 21st-century solution to find my gold.
Don’t bother with a metal detector or compass. The anomalous ten-tesla magnetic field that surrounds this island renders these devices useless. I didn’t want any Blackbeard, Ching Shih, Francis Drake, or Jack Sparrow digging up my money. So, this isn’t going to be easy.
No. You’ll need to employ kiloflops of raw computational power.
Take your smartphone and download a graphic calculator. Now you’ll need to solve for X in terms of y, z, and t. This is a real-world, four-dimensional equation. Climate change has likely shifted this pathetic pile of pulverized, long-gone marine invertebrate exoskeletons; namely, the scorching sand you’re standing on. Consequently, my treasure may have migrated.
In order to account for any shift, you’ll need to add the constants a, b, c, and d and assign one to each variable. Pray that these don’t morph into irrational or imaginary numbers; otherwise, your phone will overheat and melt in the tropical sun. If you feel your hand burning, you can cool your cellphone in the pleasant waters only a short stroll away, but beware of the sea mites, jellyfish, sharks, giant clams, poisonous sea snakes, and broken splitters of rum bottles. I had a great party when I buried my treasure.
If all else fails, if your phone gets stuck in an infinite loop, an albatross steals your reading glasses, or you just get tired and lonely, there is an easy escape. You can leave this hell hole in the water in a zip-zizzle. You only need to find a better X.
Don’t worry; this is an easy peasy X. Look at the window’s top right corner (unless you have an Apple, it’s on the other side). Find the X, click it, press it, or do whatever you do to smash it. Done.
Once An X
by S.T. Ranscht