#FridayFlash: A Level-Headed Man

A Level-Headed Man

by Tony Noland

His makeshift tools were sharp and slippery, but Larry kept working on the lock. Even more than his schoolboy likability, Larry's ability to focus on the task at hand was the thing about him that Caroline most admired and most despised. In nine years, she had never once seen him lose his cool. Or fail.

"Don't worry, babe. I've almost got it. Shouldn't be long now." He sounded optimistic and encouraging, as he always did, but he didn't turn away from the lock.

He'd said the same thing ten minutes ago. She wanted to slap him. She was exhausted, her eyes were burning and she had to pee. He'd been up just as long as she had, but his hands kept moving slowly, deliberately as he manipulated the sharp little bits of aluminum he'd torn from her can of Coke Zero. She was also starving. They hadn't eaten since Mexico City, more than fourteen hours ago. She sat on her suitcase and watched him work.

Whatever the situation, Larry could be counted on to keep his head and come up with a solution. One time, they'd had a blowout doing 90 in heavy traffic on the freeway. The car had whipped around so hard it actually left the ground. If she'd been driving, they would have died on the spot. But Larry had flipped the wheel with one hand, slapped the hazard lights on and blared the horn with the other. With the car fishtailing madly, he'd negotiated across four packed lanes, bringing them to a grinding stop on the shoulder. Then he'd just turned and given her his "kick-ass grin", a shit-eating mass of toothiness he wore whenever he'd pulled off something especially clever. She'd opened the door and vomited onto the pavement through the stink of melted tire and hot metal. Larry had wound up making friends with the tow truck driver and getting the tow for half price. He was an amazing guy, and she had grown to hate him.

He said, "Ah, there we go!" and she saw both his hands rotate clockwise in unison as he succeeded in picking the lock. He turned the knob to open the door, then looked back at her with the beginnings of a grin. Just as he did so, both of them were blinded by an intense white light.

"Police! Don't move!"

Larry's grin faltered and turned into a look of surprise, then he smiled again and laughed out loud. "Oh, man," he said, "oh man oh man. Okay, officer, no problem." He got to his feet, his palms spread out by his sides. Caroline turned as well, but her reaction was far less sanguine. Her need to pee was intense.

"It's alright, officer, I can explain everything." Larry stopped, then laughed again, this time at himself. "Oh my God, I didn't think people actually said that, and here I am saying it myself! Seriously, though, this is my house. You must think this is some kind of a break-in or something."

The officer in front had his flashlight held high, a long six-battery police brutality special. He kept the light shining in their faces. Behind him, lost in the glare, the other cop was watching the scene while he spoke quietly into his radio. Officer Flashlight said, "Stay where you are. I want to see some ID from both of you."

"No problem, officer. I'm going to get my wallet out, and my girlfriend's is in her purse, right, honey?" Larry gave her a big apologetic shrug to go with a frat boy wink. She wanted to die. She wanted to kill him. He smiled and nodded at the officer, and made exaggerated motions of getting his wallet out with three fingers, like people did on TV to show they were unarmed. She made no attempt to hide her irritation as she undid the snap of her purse and reached in. She saw the cop's hand move to his gun.

She took a deep breath. She slowly took out her wallet and removed her driver's license for the cop to see. He studied their ID's for a moment, comparing the pictures to their faces, then handed them back to the other cop. He lowered his flashlight, playing it over their luggage. "Alright, while my partner is running your ID's, how about you start at the beginning. We got a call about a possible burglary in progress at this address. We pull up and see you standing outside a freshly opened door. You said you had an explanation?"

"Jesus, my timing sucks, huh? We just got back from vacation," Larry said, "and I must have left my house keys in the hotel or something. When we got home, we couldn't get in. I didn't want to break a window or anything, so I, uh, I just thought I'd... " He spread his hands and grinned in an embarrassed way.

"You thought you'd pick the lock?" The officer did not sound impressed.

"I saw a guy do it on the Discovery channel, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Cheaper than a locksmith, you know? And my girlfriend really would like to get inside to powder her nose. It's been a long day, if you know what I mean." Larry smiled at both of them, but she only glared back, silent. "It took a little longer than I thought it would. I guess it looks easier on TV than it really is."

The cop didn't say anything, but continued to look at them, the house, the luggage. The second cop brought back the licenses and nodded slightly. Officer Flashlight handed them in turn to Larry and Caroline. "OK, Mr. Karlman, this all checks out. We had to check to make sure this was really your place; sometimes burglars make fake ID's with the address of the place they're breaking into. You're both free to go about your business. Let me give you a piece of advice, though. A lock that you can pick in ten minutes, any criminal can go through in ten seconds. I'd get some better locks if I were you. And next time, call a locksmith."

Larry shook his head and laughed again. He said, "Thanks, officer I will. And thanks for stopping by. I appreciate your work, even if it was a false alarm this time, thank God. Good night." He waved good-naturedly as the cops got back in their car and left without further comment. Larry pulled their suitcases through the door and closed it behind him.

Caroline was already sitting on the toilet with her skirt up and panties down, shuddering as she tried to get her body to relax. Larry tapped on the door, then walked in. She looked at his face, his grin as wide as she had ever seen it. She twisted her torso around, trying to face the sink. She almost made it. She convulsed, splashing urine on her legs and vomit over the floor tiles.

Larry shook his head as he undid his belt and lowered his pants. "Babe," he said, "you have got to learn to go with the flow." He stepped out of his pants and briefs and squatted on the floor. "You always get so tense, and always at the wrong times." He reached up between his legs and grabbed hold of a thick piece of string. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, his wide grin serene as he smoothly expelled the first of the bags of heroin.

Other #FridayFlash pieces can be found here


  1. superb. just grand with an unexpected twist that was the perfect capper - saw something else completely..nicely done

  2. I saw something else entirely, too. This was really well-written, and the pacing is great.

    "...a freshly opened door..." for some reason, this hung me up. I'd take "freshly" out, because it doesn't fit, IMO. Also, she vomits twice, and maybe once is plenty.

    Loved it. Especially that she's starting to hate him, and it's revealed slowly why she does so without coming out and banging us over the head. Really well-done.

  3. Very good story. I was nervous when the cops arrived, relieved when they left, and horrified at the trouble they would have seen if the cop had known and checked and "pulled" that string.

    well done.

  4. Ewe. Shudder shudder Ewe. :-) I suppose that wasn't the reaction you were going for? Very intense! I can see why she hates him, maybe she needs to move on.

  5. Nice. I went from thinking she was ungrateful to considering him to be scum!

  6. Superb job of raising tension. That line about the flashlight being a police brutality special - brilliant! Subtle, powerful implication using the simplest of objects. I'm totally stealing that move.

  7. Man, you did a great job upping the suspense one line at time. You through me for a loop at the end. Really good write here, Tony!

  8. What a twist. Larry seemed so smooth for a mule (I'd be squirming). Great story. Peace, Linda

  9. I love the intensity of your characters; they felt like real people in what could be a very real situation. I've totally known smarmy guys like that, and you caught his actions and her reactions to him superbly.

    Thanks for the fun read. :)

  10. Thanks for the comments, guys. I'm glad the pacing and tension buildup worked well for you!

  11. From shit-eating grin to shitting heroin. Noice!

    (I don't think a woman would use 'shit-eating' as a descriptor though...)

  12. Cascade Lily: Y'know, that single moment of him, ahem, producing the heroin took me FOREVER to write. I went from anatomically specific to obliquely discreet and back again half a dozen times.

  13. Great couple of characters. I like meeting them at a point where she is fed up with him. I think you could have a lot of fun with these two.

  14. Interesting pair. My only question is, would a guy that smooth be a mule himeself? You'd think he'd smoothtalk someone else into carrying stuff in for him!

  15. Really well written piece. As others have said the pacing was spot on. The description of the blowout was particularly well drawn. Very visual.

  16. I wondered about that, too, Alan, and briefly considered tossing in something to explain why he was doing the donkey work himself (pun intended). In the end, I decided to let it slide for two reasons: it would have killed the punchline, and I'm already at 1200 words. (Don't tell the #FridayFlash rules committee.)

    As I think about it, though, I could have made the twist at the end read: "He said, 'You need to learn to go with the flow.' Kneeling in front of her, he reached up between her spread legs. He slid two fingers into her, and took a gentle but firm grip. His grin grew. He said, 'This should help you relax,' as he pulled out the first of the bags of heroin."

    Hmmm... I actually like this ending better. I guess this story wasn't finished after all.

    I have a confession to make, Dan Powell. The blowout scene wasn't fiction, it was a memory. I was the driver and it happened pretty much that way, including the terrified passenger. I was only doing 70, I don't think my car actually left the ground and traffic wasn't all that heavy, but the shredded tire, the blaring horn, the swerving cut over four lanes, the smell of melted rubber and hot metal - all a slice of life. Hence the verisimilitude.

  17. Actually, I think your revised ending works much better. It's in keeping with the characterization of the scum sucking pig.

    *Ahem* Sorry. Got carried away. Heh.

  18. I'm on the fence I guess. In terms of an ending for flash the revised works a little better, but in a longer piece I think the original would fit with his character more. Guys like him need to prove their own confidence and abilities to themselves. It's kind of like playing a video game on an easy level just so you can win. Just my two cents Tony. They are, in my opinion, both strong endings.

  19. Tony, I have to be honest - that would have been a much better ending! That's the beauty of things like this though - the discussion brings out the best in us. :)

  20. So, Netta, Laura Eno and Alan like the alt ending, while Chris has some concerns. I appreciate all the thoughts here.

    If this new ending had occurred to me prior to posting, I would have used it. It just feels very right for this very smooth operator to ensure that everything goes as it should... for him.

    Did anyone notice that she doesn't actually say anything at all? In the almost-final version of this story, there was dialogue between Caroline and Larry at various points. After a while, I realized that in order to show her as a powerless victim caught in this guy's world, her voice needed to be taken away completely. He did all the talking for her. Having him take control of her body would have been the capper.

    So what are the lessons to be learned here? Nothing revolutionary, I'm afraid. Just a reminder that the author should ask himself some questions as he writes: "Does this action make sense for this character?" "Would it make more sense for another character to do this?" "Is this consistent with the overall theme you're trying to convey?"

    These are lessons to be applied to the next story, and to my WIP. Improved endings notwithstanding, I have to call the story frozen. If I let myself get caught up in the would'a-could'a-should'a cycle of revisions, I'll never finish anything.

  21. "He did all the talking for her. Having him take control of her body would have been the capper."


  22. I really liked the beginning of this, it set the scene so well. At first I thought, so this is how McGyver would get on someone's nerves; I'm feelin' it and by the end I was hating him too. I thought they were both mules, and that's why she got sick. I'd be one to choose your second ending where he is completely controlling her as the victim in this (I guess I honestly want to be right in despising the guy!)

  23. Great ending to the story. Made me smile.

  24. Very nice. Good pace. Great reveal at the end.

  25. Ha, nice one!

    I'm in two minds as to which ending I prefer, but I think I'm leaning slightly more towards the alternative ending...

  26. Wow, nice one! I did not see that coming at all! Good job!

  27. Love this story - very well-written. I think i prefer the alternate ending as well - either way, it's a shocker! Well done!

  28. Nice twist! I liked it, though I could have done without the visual at the end. ;)

    Very well written. I hated him too. :)

  29. Thanks so much for all the comments, guys. I'm glad this story is still showing some legs, even with all of the other #FridayFlash stories out there. One of the keys to a good Flash story is the twist, and I think I hit it pretty well with this one. This coming Friday's story is finished and already scheduled. It has twists threaded throughout; I'll be interested in what people think of it.

    Rosa Say: so this is how McGyver would get on someone's nerves

    That is funny on so many levels, I can't even begin to explain. As far as hating this guy, go right ahead - that's why I made him!

  30. This was terrific. I have to agree, the alternate ending would work much better, and really drive home why she hates him so much. The way it stands works well, but my vote is for the alternate. Excellent piece.

    p.s. The Rules Committee never sweats the details. ;)

  31. I'm late to the party, Tony. I even arrived after Jon!

    I much prefer the new ending. That really makes this guy a plausible sociopath. How much more would it complicate and, perhaps, satisfy in this story if you gave him one redeeming characteristic?

    Also, in the beginning, I had a hard time believing they were breaking into their own house. When the cops came back with an "all okay," I was really off balance. I thought maybe the guy was doing some kind of thought control on the cops to make them think this was their house. Anyway, that was my reaction.

    I love your stuff, Tony, and I love the discussions and thoughts you have about it.

    Jeff Posey


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