NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge Round 2: Chess at Heaven’s Gate

So, I managed to make it to the second round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge!  Woo!  For those of you wondering, I came in 6th place in my group with 9 points.

This time, I was required to write a Ghost Story.  As you guys all know from my podcast diet, I’m a big fan of true crime stories, so I wrote a piece inspired by the serial murders committed by Alexander Pichuskin, the Chessboard Killer, whom I had recently heard about on the Parcast’s Serial Killers podcast.  Once again, DebsG inspired me to keep it local, so I’ve written about Xiangqi.

I hope you guys like it!


Chess at Heaven’s Gate

To truly master the art of Chess, one must spend several lifetimes dedicated to its study.

Genre: Ghost Story
Location: Chess School
Object: Safety Glasses

Xiaqi jostled with the crowd as they vied for precious front row spots around one of the many stone tables dedicated to Chinese chess.  All of them had come hoping to improve their game, and as their numbers grew, it became increasingly difficult to get a glimpse of the board.

Today’s feature match was between a schoolgirl and a businessman.  General, the oldest of the group, pointed to the girl’s defensive line and frowned.

“All right, everyone, this is a common mistake made by rookie players faced with the classic Centre Cannon versus Screening Horse[1] opening gambit.” He explained, “It’s never a good idea to move an unprotected chariot into enemy territory.  It leaves you open to all sorts of attacks.”

General continued with his lesson, explaining the concept behind the opening gambit and pointing out where the girl had left holes in her defence.  Sure enough, the man declared checkmate after four more moves.

General had started the amateur chess school at Heaven’s Gate Park to pass the time after his retirement.  Perhaps in deference to his skill at the game, he had been branded on his back, instead of on his face.  He still bore the tell-tale ligature marks from his death.

Xiaqi studied the board as the schoolgirl started another round.  She couldn’t help but think that the General was wrong.  The opening gambit wasn’t as important as a good endgame and a good offence often made up for weak defences.

She glanced at Right Elephant, a plump, middle-aged woman, then looked askance at one of the unattended tables.  Right Elephant smiled, her mouth twisting into the horrific brand on her cheek that left one eye melting out of its socket.  The two of them sat at opposite ends of the table and played with imaginary pieces.  Xiaqi laid out her strategy for turning the flawed opening gambit into a victory, forcing Right Elephant into the defensive quickly, once the woman had played into her territory across the river.

“That is an interesting idea.” Right Elephant giggled after Xiaqi pushed her general into a corner.

She headed over to join her sister, Left Elephant.  The twins were once identical, but Left Elephant had struggled less when they were being crushed to death and so kept both eyes during the branding.  Xiaqi herself had a brand – Cannon – after her aggressive style of play.  In keeping with the theme of her piece, most of her body had been burned before she was stabbed and thrown in the park’s cistern to drown.

After the sun had set, the ghosts watched as the businessman returned and carefully carved a small symbol under the table.  兵 – a Pawn.

Xiaqi hoped that the schoolgirl would keep losing.

* * *

The schoolgirl didn’t keep losing, but she didn’t end up in the cistern.

Instead, when the killer reached the chess tables with her body, Xiaqi gave the signal and the General led the charge.  With otherworldly shrieks, everyone rushed the man, running through his body.  The coordinated attack caused the wind to kick up, forcing him to drop the schoolgirl.

Each time the killer moved forward, the wind beat him back, howling and moaning in his ears, raising goose bumps, and making his hair stand on end.  Uneasy and frightened, he ran off into the night.  As the schoolgirl breathed her last, a new Pawn stepped out of the body to join the rest of the group.  Xiaqi knelt and closed the girl’s eyes.

Sometimes, sacrifices had to be made to ensure final victory.

* * *

A small crowd had gathered around Heaven’s Gate Park that morning.  Everyone watched with great interest as the police set up a cordon around the body, taking pictures and marking the surroundings with little placards for evidence collection.

The Detective bent down to get a sample of the victim’s torn clothing and cursed as the biting wind caused a bit of blood-matted hair to smack into his safety glasses, leaving an ugly red stain in its wake.

Spotting the chess tables in the shade, he sat at one of them, absentmindedly polishing the glasses with a sanitising wipe as he considered the case.  The victim was a well-known sugar baby with multiple daddies.  So, this was most likely some sort of Triad killing, with the branding on the face being a message to a rival gang.  Investigating such cases was futile.  Triad money always kept the perpetrators out of court.

His glasses grew hot in his hand.  Surprised, he dropped them.  They skittered across the concrete and landed just underneath one of the other tables.

“Butterfingers!” he grumbled as he stumbled forward to retrieve them.

As his fingers reached for the plastic frames, he saw the word Pawn – “兵” reflected in the lenses.  Turning, he looked up at the underside of the table and saw another chessboard painstakingly etched underneath, circles marking out where pieces would normally be, some of them blank, but others filled in with symbols.

He stood, making a note to check the table more thoroughly later.  As he reached for his glasses again, another gust of wind caught the light plastic frames and blew them into the bushes.

When he got closer, the glasses flew again, this time landing near a cistern hidden under the shade of some trees.

Later, when he explained his horrific find to his colleagues over tea, he swore that he felt an electric shock.  The glasses shot out of his hands, twinkling in the morning light as they dropped right through a hole in the cistern cover.

* * *

Xiaqi smiled as they pulled her bloated corpse from the depths of the cistern and laid her down beside the others.  She glanced up at the killer in the crowd, noticing the colour drain from his face as he watched the police pull victim after victim out of the wet darkness.

“Checkmate.” She grinned as she began to dissolve.

She wondered if there would be chess where she was going.

~END~


[1] For those of you interested, the General’s lesson is adapted from this Youtube video by Singaporean Xiangqi Grandmaster, Alvin Woo.

P.S. Here’s my previous submission for round 1!

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NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge Round 1: The Towkay, The Seamstress and The Coconut Tree

Since I’ve quit my job, I’ve been focusing on my writing, something that I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little girl.  The Boobook has been really supportive of me throughout this process, so that’s always a blessing.

It has been some time since writing was my main source of income, so I’m a little rusty.  To get me back into the right mind frame for wordcrafting, DebsG encouraged me to join NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction challenge.  Each round of the challenge, I have 48 hours to craft a 1,000 word flash fiction story from the given location, item and genre.

Here’s my response to the first round of that challenge.  At 996 words, it comes in just under the word limit.  I hope you like it!


The Towkay, The Seamstress and The Coconut Tree

In which trees are climbed for profit and a seamstress comes up with a clever plan to protect her modesty.

Genre: Romantic Comedy
Location:  Tropical Island
Item: A Brick

“If you’re talking about coconuts, I like them very fresh.” Chan Benghock murmured as he leaned lazily against the tall tree, “And I’m willing to pay top dollar for the fresh fruits from this tree.”

The handsome young son of the local towkay fanned himself with an expensive sandalwood fan as he addressed the small crowd of lovely young peasant girls.  The fan’s heady, sweet perfume was like a breath of fresh air in the stale, humid afternoon heat.  Some of the girls clutched their cheap sarongs and pretended to swoon as he proffered the prize money for his coveted coconuts, a whole fifty ringgit.

“Of course, at these prices, I can only really afford for one girl to get them for me.” Benghock intoned with comically feigned sorrow, “So, who will it be today?”

There was an intense clamour as the girls bounced on their heels with hands raised, eager to please the rich young man.  Fifty ringgits was no small sum, and climbing trees was an incredibly easy feat.  Besides, there was always slim chance that one of them might be chosen for his bride.  He took his time watching the girls, enjoying the sight of ripe coconuts bouncing in the sun.

Eventually, he pointed at one of the girls and gave her an especially charming smile.  The other girls sighed as the chosen woman, a voluptuous teenager by the name of Aishah, stepped forward and gave Benghock a shy curtsey.  The young man waved his hand dismissively and the crowd dispersed in a matter of seconds, leaving the pair to their business.

In a trice, Aishah was climbing the tree with the practised ease of a farmer’s daughter, her sarong stretched taut between spread legs, slowly riding up her body as she rose up the tree.  When Aishah reached the top, she collected a coconut and was about to come down, when she noticed Benghock waving at her from below.

“Don’t carry them down!  It’s dangerous!” He shouted, “Just throw them!”

“They’ll break if they hit the ground!” Aishah retorted.

“I’ll catch them!”

Aishah took careful aim and sent the coconut tumbling down into Benghock’s waiting arms.  He did little to hide his obvious delight.

#

“He did what?!” Rosmah spluttered.

“He caught them, perfectly!” Aishah beamed as she related the events of the day, “You should try it, Rosmah!  Young Mr Chan is pretty generous.”

Rosmah sighed and shook her head, rubbing the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger.  She had known her friend to be a little ignorant, but she hadn’t expected her to be quite so stupid.  Then again, if Benghock had been able to trick the rest of the village girls, it stood to reason that he could trick young Aishah too.

“I… see.” She said slowly, “I suppose I could use the extra ringgit.  The seamstress business hasn’t been very good lately.  Not many weddings during this season.”

“You’re the prettiest and smartest girl in the village, you’re sure to catch his eye.”  Aishah beamed and gave Rosmah a conspiratorial wink, “Who knows?  Maybe we’ll be celebrating your wedding soon!”

“Oh, don’t you start, Aishah.  You know I’m already taken!”

“What, by Ahmad?” Aishah groaned, “Come on, Rosmah, a rich man’s son will make a way better match than a poor bricklayer.  I’m only looking out for you.”

“I like Ahmad.  He’s good to me.”

Aishah sighed, “I suppose he is.  I do wish you had a little more ambition, dear.”

Rosmah rolled her eyes, “Don’t call me ‘dear’, you’re three years younger than me.  Should I start calling you ‘Auntie Aishah’?”

“No way!  I’m not that old!” Aishah protested.

The rest of the conversation dissolved into teasing and laughter.  While she prattled away, Rosmah began to scheme.  It was time to put a stop to Benghock’s nonsense.

#

The next day, Rosmah was among the girls vying for Benghock’s attention as, once again, the little pervert was picking yet another patsy for his coconut scam.  She far outshone the other contenders in the beautiful batik sarong she’d made especially for the occasion, her cheeks pinked with safflower powder and eyes lined with charcoal to match.  There was no contest.  Benghock’s finger picked her from the crowd as soon as she appeared.

Rosmah produced a thick piece of cloth, looping it around the tree and tying it to her wrists.  Using the rope as an anchor, she began walking up the tree, keeping her knees together.  She almost laughed when she noticed Benghock squinting and moving his head from side to side.  He wouldn’t see a thing.  She’d spent an evening sewing shorts to the inside of her sarong.

When she reached the top, Rosmah plucked an object from her pocket and called out, “I’m dropping it now!”

Benghock hollered as the heavy red brick smashed into his hands.  Rosmah started lobbing coconuts at the ground around him.  The fresh fruits burst open upon impact, covering the young man’s fine clothes in sticky juice.

When she had exhausted her arsenal of coconuts, Rosmah shimmied down the tree.  She dabbed the perspiration off her brow with her climbing cloth, then turned to face the towkay’s son.

“I hope you have a hundred ringgit for all the coconuts I brought down.” She said cheerfully.

“You ruined my clothes!  I’m giving you nothing!”

Benghock turned to run, but collided into Ahmad’s solid chest.  He fell backwards into the mud.

Rosmah moved to stand over him, “The next time you decide to peek up girl’s skirts, coconuts or no, I’ll have Ahmad here tell the Imam what you’ve been up to and you’ll be catching more than just one brick.  Bagus?”

“…bagus.” Benghock squeaked.

He threw the money down at Ahmad’s feet and scampered away.  Rosmah and Ahmad caught each other’s eyes and started laughing.

“Remind me never to cross you, my love.” Ahmad guffawed.

“I’m sure you never will.” Rosmah chuckled.

“You are the best woman in this village.”

“I know.”

~FIN~

Easy Listening (Part 2): Debs G’s Podcast Favourites

ABC, I hear you about listening to podcasts during recuperation from the dreaded lergy.

I often suffer from migraines which means that I need sit in a completely dark room, and podcasts are extremely comforting to me. I also enjoy listening to them when I’m doing housework – they just make time fly!

Here are four podcasts that help me to relax:
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1. A Prairie Home Companion by American Public Media

I have talked about this radio show in passing before, and it is one of the favourites in the Owls Well household. The Prairie Home Companion is a radio variety show featuring American folk music alongside comedy sketches (complete with sound effects) and musical interludes from fictional sponsors. This show never fails to put a smile on my face and I often find myself tuning into it when I need a pick-me-up.

Producer and show runner Garrison Keillor, he of the golden radio voice, has now retired and his mantle has fallen upon musician and songwriter, Chris Thile. Chris Thile may not have the same deep and smooth timbre as his predecessor, but the man does sing like a nightingale and he’s also very, very funny, so he is forgiven.

(For those of you who, like myself, miss Garrison Keillor, he is to be found and heard on The Writer’s Almanac where he reads a poem every day and tells stories about significant events in literary history.)

2. Welcome to Night Vale by Night Vale Presents 1424727845212

Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, this podcast features the mellifluous bass tones of Cecil Baldwin. The fictional desert town of Night Vale is a strange place where all the conspiracy theories are real and the Night Vale radio show host, Cecil, reports on the local weather including the large cloud that glows in many colours (ALL HAIL THE MIGHTY GLOW CLOUD), various cultural events, and announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police.

On evenings when The Barn Owl is on call, I often play an episode from Welcome to Night Vale and fall asleep. I find that afterwards I get the most interesting and psychedelic dreams.

11312636_10101329805815525_5002516714209367793_o.jpg3. Astronomy Cast by Fraser Cain and Pamela Gay

This is an educational podcast that discusses various topics in the field of astronomy through the form of a light-hearted conversation between co-hosts Frasier Cain (editor of the space and astronomy news site Universe Today) and Dr Pamela Gay (Professor of Astronomy at the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville).

I love listening and learning, and letting Dr Pamela Gay’s soothing warm alto tones wash over my ears as I’m pottering about the house.

17971953_448676435476708_6086957621977028490_o4. Story Not Story by Chyna & Craig

This is a super cute podcast that is great for unwinding at the end of the day! Story Not Story features a married couple, Chyna and Craig, relaxing together and telling each other bedtime stories. I enjoy hearing Craig and Chyna banter with each other – they are sweet and funny and just adorable.

The fun part for me is trying to guess where each story is going to go and I am usually very pleasantly surprised. You’ll definitely be a butter person for hearing them!

(And you can also see more of Craig and Chyna over at the Youtube channel, Wheezy Waiter.)

Easy Listening (Part 1): Short and Sweet

I’ve been pretty much bedridden with different varieties of the hideous flergy for the last month, coughing up nasty goo and generally being icky.  I couldn’t even watch TV or play video games because the fevers made it a little difficult for me to pay attention to what was going on onscreen.

Thankfully, I managed to avoid a case of yellow wallpaper madness by entertaining myself with podcasts!

I love podcasts.  I learn primarily by hearing stuff and I like having a bit of chatter going on in the background.  That being said, I’m very picky about what I listen to and even though my subscribe list is about a mile long, I’ve only stocked it with stuff that I feel is engaging and fun.

I’ve thought long and hard about how to divide my listening list for sharing as some of the shows I listen to cover a plethora of different topics, sometimes even in a single episode!  I’ve settled on splitting them by average length per episode.  So, without further ado, here’s a list of everything I listen to that’s short and sweet – 15 minutes and under.

HAalbumart.jpgThe Hidden Almanac with Reverend Mord by Dark Canvas Media

Written by acclaimed children’s book author, Ursula Vernon and brilliantly acted by her husband, Kevin Sonny, The Hidden Almanac is a witty and brilliantly surreal adventure comedy.

Each episode, Reverend Mord shares useful gardening tips, historical events of the day and various advertisements for an alternate universe in which miracles, magic and librarian conspiracies are a daily occurrence.  While the good reverend would like nothing more than to devote himself quietly to managing the Hidden Almanac test garden and his thrice weekly radio broadcasts; he is often reluctantly sucked into adventures with his “friend” and colleague, Pastor Drom the Miracle Worker.

At under 5 minutes per episode, The Hidden Almanac is easily the shortest podcast in my list as well as the most frequently updated.  It’s pretty much child and AgedP friendly, containing no cursing and very few sexual references, particularly since both Reverend Mord and Pastor Drom have taken vows of abstinence.

This is a series that needs to be listened to from the very beginning.  While the earlier episodes suffer from a little bit of early installment weirdness, they’re still worth listening to just for the world building alone.  The characters are lovable and become more so the more you get to know them.

That’s the Hidden Almanac.  Be safe and stay out of trouble.

Det_Pod_MF_1400x1400-2.jpgDetective by Panoply

At roughly 15 minutes per episode, Detective is a quick and interesting true crime series.

Each season of Detective covers the experiences of homocide detectives from various backgrounds and walks of life, with each episode discussing a different aspect of their career.  Unlike most true crime series, Detective steers away from the gruesome and grizzly murder details and instead focuses on the human interest part of how the detectives go about their work.

The series covers a range of topics from motives for murder to the social work that the detectives do in their spare time.  I highly recommend the first season, which follows retired Detective Joe Kenda of the Colorado Springs police force.  He’s an engaging speaker and has a wonderful matter-of-fact manner that makes me imagine him as the crusty old sheriff in a cowboy film.

Detective is AgedP friendly, but may not necessarily be child friendly.  Despite the slightly gruesome topic (murder is never pretty) and the occasional curse word, the series never strays towards being overly foul or gratituous.  It’s definitely worth listening to.

downloadEOS 10 by Justin McLachlan

A science fiction dramady podcast, EOS 10’s episodes run anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes each and follows the adventures of a Dr Dalias and Dr Urvidian, a pair of misfit doctors aboard the space station EOS 10.  Joining them on their adventures are Jane Johns, their slightly unhinged charge nurse; Levi, the hypochondriac foodcourt dishwasher who claims to be the deposed prince of an entire planet; and Akmazian, Destroyer of Stars.

EOS 10 balances issues like addiction and death with hilarious comedy without cheapening the seriousness of said issues.  It’s a fine line to walk, and EOS 10 does it very well.  The dialogue is always engaging and the characters are well-rounded, quirky and fascinating.  Even though I’ve listened to this series several times over, I’m still discovering new things about the characters and haven’t gotten sick of it yet!

EOS 10 is possibly AgedP friendly, but definitely not child friendly.  While the show doesn’t contain any cursing, it does contain a lot of sex, though it is never handled in a puerile manner.  That being said, the fourth episode of the series (Up, Up, Up) is primarily comprised of penis jokes and doesn’t ever stop being funny.

If you’re looking for a clever, lighthearted and cheerful podcast, I cannot recommend EOS 10 highly enough.

So, there you have it.  These are the three shortest podcasts on my listening list right now.  I hope they entertain you as much as they do me!

Schindler’s List (1993): Thoughts from the Couch (Potato)

Schindler's_List_movieRight, so I have been wanting to watch this movie for literally years.

I mean, I was thirteen when the movie first came out in theatres and all the grups were talking about this forever and EVER and there were even a couple of teens who even snuck into the film by putting on salaryman uniforms and carrying briefcases whilst slouching and looking troubled, you know, basically trying to look old and responsible and many years older than 21 years of age.

But when I turned 21 and wanted to watch this film, NOBODY wanted to see it with me. It was all ‘Yes yes yes you should totally watch Schindler’s List it’s a very good film’ but also ‘No no no I can’t watch with you I just can’t watch again it’s too horrible’.

Finally, The Barn Owl decides that he will watch the movie with me so it was quick get hold of a copy of the movie from anywhere before he changes his mind!

As far as holocaust films go, this one is particularly interesting, especially since the main characters, Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth, are both members of the Nazi party – and you see the similarities and differences between them. The horrors of the the holocaust are plainly depicted – elderly men and women made to run naked in the mud so that the sick and ill can be weeded out, the randomness of executions, SS soldiers going insane from the atrocities they are committing…and there’s also the little girl in the red coat, whose brief and tragic story is only hinted at. Ralph Fiennes is chilling as Amon Goeth. He’s always good at playing bad guys. He makes you actually feel a little bit sorry for the demonic Amon Goeth because that guy is just so unhinged and he just loathes himself for his attraction to his Jewish maidservant.

And for course, there’s Liam Neeson.

Debs G Recommends: Watch this film together with “Life Is Beautiful” for a full evening’s emotional holocaust.

P.S. Get Schindler’s List here

P.P.S. Check out the rest of the Couch Potato series here.

Australia (2008): Thoughts from the Couch (Potato)

Australia movie posterA British aristocrat, Lady Sarah, inherits a cattle ranch and unwillingly engages the help of an Australian cattle drover (cunningly named ‘Drover’) to protect her property.

Usual love story ensues.

This takes place around WW2 and is cleverly interwoven with the mystical story of Nullah, a half aboriginal boy who is trying with some success to avoid being separated from his tribe and sent to Mission Island to join the rest of the ‘Stolen Generation’.

This film is beautifully rendered with the usual breathtaking cinematography that is associated with Baz Luhrmann. There are plentiful scenes of Hugh Jackman doing all sorts of sexy things in slow motion (walking, riding, getting doused in water/dust/mud, gazing thoughtfully into the horizon etc etc).

In comparison, there are precious few beauty shots of Nicole Kidman, though. Very few closeups. She may be over 40 in this film but she is still gorgeous and it would been nice to see her beauty celebrated just a teensy weensy bit, Mr Luhrmann!

Debs G recommends: Watch this movie with Moulin Rouge! for more beauty shots of Nicole Kidman to balance out your Baz Luhrmann evening!

P.S. Get Australia here

P.P.S. Check out the rest of the Couch Potato series here.

Hairspray (2007): Thoughts from the Couch (Potato)

HairsprayMoviePosterI must admit that I was very reluctant to watch this musical, simply because the title sounds vapid (Hairspray? Really?) and because I am utterly resistant to the charms of Zac Efron.[1]

However, John Travolta, James Marsden AND Christopher Walken in a musical together? DANCING?

THIS IS MOVIE GOLD!

And yes, Movie Gold it is indeed. Apart from the catchy tunes and snazzy dance numbers and the fact that John Travolta looks fetching in a dress, the storyline is both relevant and uplifting.

(And…Christopher Walken totally rocks.)


[1]During my first pregnancy, I was rather sickly, so The Barn Owl, in an ill-conceived attempt to alleviate my symptoms, borrowed High School Musical from the local video library. Needless to say, I spent most of that day staring down the U-bend.

P.S. Get Hairspray (2007) here

P.P.S. Check out the rest of the Couch Potato series here