Category Archives: serial fiction

The Truth Has Found Me Out: I Am a Serial Killer

In the preface of The World According to Bertie, McCall Smith writes, “All of [my characters] are, in their own way, looking for some sort of resolution in their lives, some happiness, which is what, I suppose, all of us are doing. Some of them find it in this volume–or appear to find it–others will have to wait. The whole point of a serial novel is that the future is open. If freedom eludes Bertie in this book, and if Big Lou does not just yet find romantic fulfillment, then all is not lost–there is always another chapter.”

Some of you know I began writing a serial novel on this blog more than a year ago. Some of you were regular readers of this serial novel–probably not you, however, because those readers most likely dropped my blog after I failed to fulfill my commitment to you with weekly installments. To you people whom I let down (and I know there was a handful, because I received e-mails from some of you), I owe you an apology. What use is a writer who doesn’t make good on her word, who doesn’t finish the work she begins?

By way of excuse, I’ll tell you a little secret: I was writing my serial for fun. I was writing it to escape the pressure of slamming out words with the hope of traditional publication–to escape from monotonous editing–and to engage in the sheer fun of creating characters and their stories. When the writing of the serial ceased to be enjoyable, I stopped midway, approximately 20,000 words in. At 1000 words per entry per week, 20,000 words divides into quite a few weeks of pleasure for Ella and Anthony and their mystery. But that doesn’t change the lack of resolution for these people and their lives.

It’s no secret that McCall Smith doesn’t waste much of his precious time on editing. He has a formula. And with his serial installments, he manages to tie his many threads together with a final party and poem. Most of the time, this works for him. His threads flow together, and it’s obvious he enjoys himself while working them–or he’s clever enough to hide his boredom. Occasionally, he backs himself into a corner, as with his first volume of Corduroy Mansions, and then simply wraps up the book because he must. However, in his own defense, he says of Corduroy Mansions, “[T]hese stories are character-based: what interests me is what makes the characters tick rather than intricate and potentially confusing plots” (The Telegraph).

I sorely wish I could exchange my anxiety and bad attitude for his attitude of fun. I wish I could shed my skin and escape myself, tell myself my serial is all about the characters. That’s all I care about in fiction, anyway. That’s all I care about in actual life, to be honest. I like people, and I enjoy watching them and determining the reasons behind their actions. Oh, I can’t help myself! I keep returning to his McCall Smith’s last words in the top quote: “[T]here is always another chapter.”

There is, isn’t there? And that brings me hope. Thank you, Alexander McCall Smith for your completed serials, and for your philosophy on life (I’ll learn someday that his philosophy is borne out of anxiety, too, and then I’ll nod and commiserate.) 

p.s. I had a comment suggesting I increase my font size, which was previously set at “normal”. Now it’s set on large. Is this better? Did you know you have the ability to increase the font size on your screen by hitting Ctrl +?


New Mexico Noir: Partners in Crime

We hustled with the paintings and the bursting file folder out to the back porch, only to discover that Walt had disappeared.  It occurred to me that this primo of Anthony’s might not exist as a completely material man.  He was there one moment, and the next, he was gone.

I shook my head.  “Where. . . ?”

“Quien sabe?  He probably took off when he heard the alarm.  And we should, too.”

“I agree.  But will you help me with these paintings so I don’t damage them?”

“Why did you have to steal her paintings, of all things?  What are we going to do with them, put them in the back of the truck? ”

“Yes, I guess we are.”

Anthony was a little irritated with me, which was no surprise, since we spent most of our time together being annoyed.  But, more than that, he wanted out of the neighborhood.  He obliged me and took hold of the largest of the painted Masonite boards, and then we crept back to the truck by ducking in the sparse shadows of the xeriscaped neighborhood.

Once in the cab of the truck, I urged Anthony to drive slowly so as not to damage my mom’s precious artwork.

“You planning on redecorating?”

“No.  I just want to see if . . .”  I couldn’t finish.  It was absurd, I realized, that I had stolen my mom’s artwork in order to find hidden messages in benign renditions of life.  My mom would not hide messages in her paintings.  I groaned.

“You miss your parents, huh?”

“Yes.  Yes, I do.”

“It’s been hard for you lately, Ella.”  His tone sounded a little off, as if he wasn’t used to comforting people.  He reached over and patted my knee, but only for a second because he had to shift.  “I don’t know how this is all going to work out, but we’ll stick together, all right?”

“Um, yeah, sure.” 

I didn’t know he meant by that, but—-hey–sticking together sounded like a good idea.  The hand on the knee gesture threw me for a loop, too.  I was too tired to consider whether it was a grandfatherly type of pat or something else entirely.  My head jerked back against the seat, and I cranked open the window so that the cool night air blasted me in the face.

Back at his house, with the crickets chirruping around, I forgot how late it was. The crickets didn’t watch the clock, so why should I? I unwrapped the paintings and lined them up against the living room wall, ready to investigate.  If I’d had access to a hammer and some hardware, I would have hung them up, gallery style and sauntered back and forth in front of them, my chin cupped in my palms.  Lacking these things, I sat on my haunches and made a steeple with my fingers while I stared at the images.

“You praying, mi’jita?”

I wished he wouldn’t call me that.  It gave the wrong impression of our relationship.  It was as if he was my elder rather than my peer.

“If you are, will you pray for me, too?  Your mom’s organizational skills are worse than mine after I’ve been drinking for three days straight.”

“Do you do that often?”

“Not for a couple of weeks.”

“That’s reassuring.”

My eyes returned over and over to the painting of Demetria.  Who was the man?  I knew who he was, but my mind was too tired to focus.  In fact, the images blurred in front of my eyes, and the characters might have actually moved, but I couldn’t be certain.  I yawned.

A dream sequence of bailes filtered through my mind.  It had been so long since I’d attended one.  Victor had dragged me to a Christmas dance several years ago, the one sponsored by the mayor.  I smacked myself on the forehead.  Of course I’d recognized the man.

“Demetria’s dancing with the mayor.”

“What?  Not on my premises, I hope.  Oh, right, on the painting.  I could’ve told you that.”

I turned around and studied his wavering face, wavering because my eyes were blearier than before.

“Don’t look at me like that, Ella.  I recognized his bald spot and the stripy shirt he’s wearing.  Come here, you have to look at this.”

I staggered to his desk.  Sleep.  I needed to sleep, and I didn’t want to look at anything else. I looked, anyway. Sitting in front of Anthony was a plain page with a chemical construction of some sort on it.  It meant nothing to me.

“What do you think this is?” Anthony asked.

“Why would I know?”

“You’re the one who’s college educated.  The girl with the degree.  The smart blonde, so I’ve heard some people say.”

“Literature. I studied literature, not chemistry. Why don’t you call the lab that’s listed there on the header?”

“You are smart.  It’s verified.  But, sadly, most labs aren’t open at three in the morning, or whatever hour it happens to be.”

“Then call tomorrow,” I whispered, because it was now officially too late, or too early, to vocalize.

“That would be your job, Ella.  You’re the secretary.”

“Fine, then.  I’ll call tomorrow.”

“Except I don’t think I want you to be my secretary anymore.  You aren’t very good at it.”

I looked at him and felt nothing but despair. I could have wept.

“Why don’t you sit down?  We can go through these papers together.”

Demetria’s chair still sat in front of the desk, and I dragged it around and dropped onto it.  I leaned over and found that my head was very near Anthony’s.  We were a team, sticking together.  How ludicrous was that?

He turned to me abruptly.  “Maybe you should be my partner instead of secretary.”

“Huh.” Another dream sequence filtered through my mind, except this time it was pure fantasy, and Anthony and I were partners in crime.

“What?  Why are you looking at me like that for?  Do you want me to kiss you, or something?”

I did, actually. “No,” I said.  “I want to sleep.  Maybe we can be partners tomorrow.”

***Painting: Fire in the Bosque by A. Leon Miler (otherwise known as my dad)


New Mexico Noir: Life Half-Painted

At first, I stood still and waited for the man outside to do something—anything that would demonstrate his purpose. I sucked in my breath and let it out in one slow exhalation. Then I tiptoed into the living room with its darkness and distance from the porch, and its carpeted flooring.

I paced. I’d meant to slip out the front door and run for Anthony’s car, but I was too afraid, and so the pacing commenced. My nose began to throb as if in memory of my previous attacker. It was still swollen and a little red and, to the average observer, appeared as if I’d caught a summer cold or eaten one too many hot chiles. My fragile mental state, I suspected, couldn’t handle another kick in the head.

Where was Anthony? And what was I to do? Maybe the man on the porch had chloroformed him as he would have done if he were a character in a Nancy Drew book. Maybe Anthony was slumped in the shadows somewhere, beyond my reach. Maybe I should call the cops and ask them to send somebody who had known my dad and, consequently, knew me, too. But I couldn’t remember the names of any officers who hadn’t retired to administrative work—or to civilian life.

It was my fault, I realized. Since I was an adult, I’d avoided cops like the plague. Good Lord—I began to pray—and I turned away from the corner I was facing and walked right into a man who was practically breathing on my shoulder.

My throat tightened. I yelped, and managed to sound like a perturbed cat.



“We should finish this job in five minutes or less. What’s left?”

I waved my arm frantically toward the front porch.

“You were already in there. Are you sure you want to search the kitchen again?”

“There’s a man. On the back porch. I saw him when I was looking for you.”

“That’s Walt.”


“Yeah. You know, my primo? I called him earlier and asked him to meet us here. I figured he’d show up when he wanted to. He can play lookout while I help you.”

“And what have you been doing all this time?”

“Watching you walk back and forth and stare at the wall.”

I re-focused on the task at hand, which was to break into my mom’s studio. If I didn’t focus on that, I would have to hurt him, yes, hit him for the expression on his face, the infuriating look of smugness. I clenched my fists.

“Ella, don’t you think we should finish up what we came here to do? Not that I know exactly what that is.”

“We need to break into my mom’s studio. It’s in what used to be the garage.”

“Lead the way.”

I backtracked to the locked door, and he bent to the work of picking the lock. Several minutes passed.

“Why are you taking so long?”

“Excuse me? You want to do it? Some locks are harder to pick than others. Your mom’s got a high-security lock on her door.”

“I’m sorry. It looks like all the other ones.”

“That’s because you can’t see inside. It’s got security pins in it. Hold on, I’ve almost got it.”

“Wow, impressive,” I said, but my teeth chattered in nervousness as the lock gave, and he pushed open the door.

And that was the moment the alarm began to blare.

“Ah, shit. Hurry up. The APD could either take hours to respond to this, or be here right away since your dad’s an ex-cop. Whichever, I don’t want to be here.”

I didn’t either. In fact, my body froze again, and I was unable to think clearly. I wasn’t used to this kind of work. I was a waitress, not to mention, a literary type. I was used to jumping at the sound of customers demanding coffee, before clocking off and reading about this sort of situation in books.

Anthony gave me a push and scanned the interior with his penlight. “Get moving. You take the back half, and I’ll take the front.”

I moved forward a few paces and stumbled over a paint box. Inside, my mom’s various art tools rolled around: scrapers and brushes and feather dusters and pencils. I studied the painting that was propped on the easel, the parts that she had finished, and the background, much of which was still painted in a ghostly blue layer. She painted in layers, thin and meticulous with pure pigments that she mixed herself.

“Isn’t that . . .?”

I wasn’t certain, but it appeared to be a rendition of Demetria, whose head was barely visible as it peeked over the shoulder of a man whose back was to the viewing audience. The two were dancing on the plaza, beneath a moonlit sky. The gazebo, in the background, was nothing more than a line drawing, still. On the gazebo appeared several blue, wraith-like figures.

As quickly as possible, I stepped out of the studio and into the hallway, where I felt for the doorknob to the linen closet. I grabbed several soft blankets and ran back in the studio. I was determined to steal any of the paintings she had recently finished or was still working on. There were three stacked one on top of another on the easel. This was only possible because my mom painted on Masonite boards, which were thinner than canvases. Plus, she was sloppy with her works of art, not seeming to care whether her paintings were damaged. She could always fix them, she claimed. Paint was not permanent.

No, it certainly was not. I wrapped the three paintings without really looking at them. Maybe I would hang them in my room. Maybe I would bring a little bit of my family with me, even if the paintings revealed nothing.

At the last moment, I spied the butterfly painting, leaning against one wall. I added it to the pile. Meanwhile, Anthony flipped through a thick file folder filled with papers.

“Let’s go,” I said. “We’ll bring it with us. I’ll take responsibility for her things.”

He looked up at me and, in the darkness, his eyes looked sad. “I’m not sure you want that responsibility, Ella.”


New Mexico Noir: Parental Abandonment

If Demetria followed us, I was almost positive we lost her at the grocery store.  Seriously, we would have lost anybody.  Shopping with Anthony was about the most annoying sport I’ve played all year.  Here is my note to self, post shopping: Don’t fall for Anthony, dreamy eyes and all, because he will drive you out of your mind. 

He inspected and commented on every item I added to the cart.  For example, I wanted butter.

“Isn’t that bad for you?” he asked.  “Won’t that make you fat, mi’jita?”

I wanted Daisy sour cream, the full-fat variety.

“Oh, wouldn’t you rather have this low-fat kind?  It’s better for you.”

And on it went like that with me throwing in my favorite saturated-fat foods, only to have them censored and thrown back out by the opposing team.  Who would’ve thought an alcoholic who lived on pizza and beer would suddenly turn into the food police when I was desperately hungry for some real food?  Finally, we compromised, agreed to disagree on food choices; I ate a pre-made burrito to stave off starvation, and we both sighed in relief.

We carted the groceries back to his house, where I detected no signs of Demetria—and, yes, my senses were throbbing and in overdrive.  If she’d been hiding somewhere, I would have smelled her or, likewise, spotted her with my hawk eyes.

Still, as we walked back out into the night, my skin prickled at the nape of my neck.  The farther away we drove, the better I felt, even though I already knew we would end the night breaking into my parents’ home.  Meanwhile, the tension from earlier completely dissipated over a shared thermos of coffee, as we sat for two hours surveilling my parents’ neighborhood.

They lived on a quiet side street and, although they had security stickers on their windows, I didn’t think the stickers meant anything.  In the early days, my dad had left his police cruiser parked at the curb most nights, which was an adequate deterrent to would-be burglars.  In the early days, life was a bit simpler for them.

When Anthony had deemed that the hour was late enough, that the sky was dark enough due to an obscured moon, that the neighborhood slept as if dead to the world, we crept to the back of the house, and he went to work with his lock pick tools.  With every second, my heart beat faster, from the same caffeine that had anesthetized me while we’d surveilled in safety from his truck.  It wasn’t that I feared a neighbor would hear or see us.  It was that the hedge of darkness surrounding the backyard could have hid anything or anyone from us.

Several moments later, which felt like several hours, he had the door open.  We crossed the threshold. I was caught instantly by the smell.  The house, my parents’ house, smelled of abandonment.  If I breathed in very deeply, I detected a lingering hint of oregano and fried tortillas, of roasted chiles and beans.  The coolness from the tiles seeped up from the floor and wrapped my ankles in chills.  The air nearer my nose, however, was hot and stuffy, as a closed-up house would be at the end of summer in Albuquerque.

“I’m going to wait by the back door for you,” Anthony said.  “Whatever you’re looking for, be fast about it.  All right?  This whole situation makes me nervous.”

I nodded and walked softly over the tiles of the dining area and into the living room, where the only sign of life emitted from the answering machine, which flashed with a 9-9-9.  Even the VCR and DVD player were dark.  I had, thanks to Anthony, thought to bring a small canvas bag with me, and I unplugged the answering machine and threw it in the bag.  I felt very much like a real detective at that moment—but, then, my eyes smarted.  I was a detective by default investigating my own parents.

I briefly scanned the surfaces of the living room and saw nothing but a layer of dust.  Feeling as if I must have missed something, I backtracked to the kitchen, where I quickly glanced through the orderly drawers.  My mother had never tolerated mess, and she didn’t have the ubiquitous junk drawer that others had in their kitchens.  The refrigerator was both empty and dark, left unplugged and with the two doors standing ajar.  In the cupboards, I discovered a few dry goods, such as a bag of pinwheel pasta and a few cans of tomato sauce.

As my eyes roved the kitchen space one last time, I saw a face at the kitchen window and nearly suffered a heart attack right then and there.  It was Anthony, and he held up one hand as if to indicate I had five minutes left.  I flipped him off with one finger, and he wasn’t amused with me, so I moved on.

My dad’s office was not exactly where I would have chosen to focus my search, but I couldn’t leave without at least glancing in its dark, static interior.  Over the walls, I swept a small flashlight, looking at his police awards and pictures and trophies.  His desk was as empty as I expected it to be, the laptop missing, and only a dark printer left in one corner.  The drawers were filled with scandalous items such as stamps and envelopes and tape dispensers and pens and pencils.

Briefly, I looked through the closet, only to discover that my dad had failed to pack his golf clubs when they’d fled to Colorado.  So it wasn’t a golfing vacation they were on, apparently.

I left his office behind, feeling like an inadequate detective.  The room that had, at one time, belonged to me as a guest room, or a place to crash, was now filled with my mom’s artwork.  Boxes and boxes of paintings filled the room and threatened to burst the walls from their frames.  How would I search through these boxes in five minutes, or less?  And that was not to mention the garage, which she had revamped for her studio. I flipped quickly through the first box of paintings.  They were older pieces, images of the church and community gatherings, bailes, and matanzas.

I realized I couldn’t, actually, search through all of these boxes.  I turned around and quickly looked through their bedroom with its carefully made bed, blue and white coverlet without a crease to be seen.  They’d cleaned everything before they’d left—everything!  There wasn’t a scrap of paper left for me to investigate.  Even their bathroom was spotless.

It was depressing.  I also felt that I was wasting precious sleeping hours, both mine and Anthony’s.  Why would I have thought they would hide incriminating evidence in their home?

As a last resort, I tried my mom’s studio, but the door was locked.  All right, I would fetch Anthony and his lock-pick tools.  I scurried outside and nearly yelled at the black-clad man on the back porch, forgetting the hour, the darkness, our mission.

But it wasn’t Anthony.  It was another man, another black clad-figure, and I hauled up in alarm and slipped back inside the confines of the house, my heart pounding.


New Mexico Noir: Never Trust a Man With a Bigote

Of course Anthony wouldn’t hurt me.  This woman was nuts.  I ushered her out through the kitchen, only to find Herman had let himself in and was sitting at the dining table drinking a beer.  He stood up at our presence, chivalrous man that he was.

Demetria stopped short in her usual pattern of legs akimbo.  “What is he doing in here?”

“I have no idea.”

She smacked him in the chest.  “Were you listening to our conversation?”

“¿Comó?”  He opened his dark eyes wide.

“Don’t play the no speakie inglés with me,” she said.

“Cerveza?” He held up his beer and grinned at her like a fool.


Yes, I agreed.  These people, including her, were unbelievable.  I turned to the refrigerator to help myself to a beer, feeling that I deserved something finer than Bud Light.   I also knew without looking that there was nothing finer. 
 When I turned around again, bottle in hand, the universe and its disparate particles linked together to cause me trouble.

Anthony walked in while Demetria stepped out, and Herman cornered me by the sink, where he clinked his bottle suggestively against mine.  Over his shoulder, I saw Anthony and Demetria exchange hate-filled glances.

“Hasta mañana, Antonio,” Demetria sang with her a la Salma accent.  “Your secretary made me an appointment.”

“Great.  I love my secretary.”

Well, I loved him too.  He was the one who had left me alone with no instructions whatsoever, and without a phone.  And now I had Herman nearly leaning over me and breathing into my face with his beery breath.

“Ella, if you ever need me, I’m there for you,” Herman said.

I put my hands out as a reflex to prevent his falling on me, and they landed on his shoulders.  Well, one of them did.  The other still clung to my bottle, which I rammed into his chest.   He must have interpreted it as an intimate gesture, however, because he brushed my cheek with his bottle-free hand.

“Thank you, Herman,” I said.

“I want to know what you’re doing living with Anthony.  It’s not right.  Anthony’s my dude, you know, my hombre, but he’s not right for a nice girl like you.”

“You don’t need to spell it out for me.  I’m just borrowing his spare room for a while.”

“Well, maybe so, maybe not.  If you need me, you know where to find me.”

Herman really did have a luxurious mustache, as glossy and full up-close as it was from afar.  I had a sudden, strange desire to touch it, smooth my fingers over it, but I didn’t dare.  I couldn’t begin to imagine how he would interpret it.  I drank down my entire bottle of beer in one swallow and, in the background, I heard the swoosh of the refrigerator door.

“Anthony, will you get me another beer?”

“Nope, Ella, I don’t think so. Free beer doesn’t come with the contract,” he said.

“Why not?”

“It might, if you didn’t share it with the neighborhood.  I also have a landlord’s clause in my contract that says I don’t put up with your little trysts, especially if Herman has anything to do with them.”

Herman straightened up immediately.  “Hey, Anthony, chill out, all right?”

“Funny, I don’t think I’ve signed any contracts,” I reminded him.

“Well, you’re going to, tonight.  Herman, get out of my kitchen.  I need to have a private chat with Ella.”

“Mind if I grab a beer for the road?”

“Sure, whatever.  Take two if you want,” said Anthony, and he thrust two bottles at him.

After the screen door slammed behind him, Anthony turned to face me.  “I don’t ever want to come home to find those two in my kitchen at the same time.”

“Are you implying that I wanted them here?”

“From where I was standing, you were all over Herman.”

I couldn’t listen to this on an empty stomach.  I searched through the refrigerator and, lucky me, found more Bud Lights, y nada más.  I uncapped one and drank it down.  The bubbles made my stomach roll over in agony.  When had I last eaten?

“Herman was all over me, and not the other way around.  Demetria swung by to see you, not me, but you weren’t here.  Where were you, anyway?”

“Maybe it’s none of your business where I was.”

“Well maybe,” I paused as dizziness swept over me, “it is my business if you’re going to attack me for attempting to be your secretary without an appointment book, or a gun for heaven’s sake, to ward off the men who sneak into your kitchen and steal your beer.  Do you have food, by any chance?”

“Food?  I don’t think so.  I just came from my daughter’s birthday party.  I haven’t really had time to do the shopping.  You could do some.”

I closed my eyes and swayed back and forth.  He was at his daughter’s birthday party?  I’d forgotten about his fatherhood status.  “I don’t have a working car.  In fact, I won’t have any car at all if we don’t tow it away before my ex-landlord does.”

“You are the most pathetic secretary I’ve ever hired.  Did you still want to break into your parents’ house?”

Oh, yes.  I’d forgotten about that.  I nodded.  Of course I did.

“Let’s go do a little shopping first.  We’ll need to wait for it to get good and dark.  They don’t have a security system, do they?”

“Not last I checked.”  But, then, I didn’t know much about my parents anymore.

“I guess we’ll have to risk it.”

“Yeah, I love to take risks,” I said, and followed him out the door as if it were actually true. 

I noticed he was careful to lock up and wondered if he would ever give me a key so I could have the same privilege.

I also noticed a lingering odor of Demetria that pricked the backs of my arms with goosebumps.  It wasn’t dark yet, though, and I didn’t spot her or her car anywhere in the vicinity.  Maybe it was the scent of flowers, I told myself, the perfume of the late-August Hollyhocks next door that were covered in magenta blooms–which, as it turned out, was simply a poetic way of ignoring the obvious.

p.s. The dude in the picture is a Mexican singer called El Chapo.  He’s got a fantastic crooning voice, which is complimented by banda music of the finest sort.  Why is he here, in my NM Noir?  Well, he’s got a gran bigote.  That’s why!  Oh, plus, I have that album, and I happen to like it.