Tuesday, May 1, 2018

#33Stories: No. 1, "The Warden"

No. 1: “The Warden”
Context at the end of this excerpt.
Other entries in #33Stories at the Table of Contents. See you tomorrow!

pp. 99 to 100 of the May 1985 edition of Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine:

Jack Warden was the latest in that brand of late-20th century American folk hero – the electronic whizz kid-entrepreneur. Lately, the trade publications had taken to comparing him to Nolan Bushnell and Steve Jobs.

Warden hadn’t made a splash only on the business pages. Not yet forty, he’d wrecked two marriages, served time for drunk driving, fathered an illegitimate child, Presently, he was engaged in an ugly custody battle that was generating a lot of local ink.

More intriguing was all that talk of Warden’s alleged obsession with the black arts.

No one knew where the rumors had started. Maybe it was his house – a brooding Victorian mansion whose last owner had hung himself in the pantry, or so they said. Maybe it was that widely repeated quote that he’d sell his soul for the perfect computer.

Maybe it was Albany Mystery Number One: the disappearance of his partner, T.J. Putnam. One morning last spring, T.J. kissed his wife, slid into his Caddie and left for work. Or somewhere, because he never made it to Warden Computer. There was an investigation, a nationwide search, a generous reward that Warden put up – but T.J. never surfaced. Not even his car was found.

T.J. had been on the outs with Warden. Two big egos on a collision course. Warden himself told the cops that, and the cops told a newspaper reporter, and soon it was all over the city. The cops knew about T.J.’s debts, about some shadowy friends – but they didn’t have a thing on Warden. Just this silly babble about Black Masses and devils.

Privately, Warden had to laugh. He’d clogged the courts with libel suits, but he thrived on attention. Everybody knew that. He liked to think he took his cues from Ted Turner, the only man he had ever envied.

“I hope you enjoy the machine,” he said to Dexter, who had been watching him with a blend of fascination and distaste. “It’s quite an invention, artificial intelligence. Quite an invention.”

“Quite,” Dexter said.

“Every day, they get more and more like us, these little microchips do,” Warden said. “Someday, they’ll be asking for the right to vote.”

Then he laughed – louder and longer, Dexter imagined, than he should have.

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I wrote this in 1984, at the start of the home-computer age, on my own first machine of the dawning internet age: an IBM PC. It had two five-and-a-quarter inch floppy discs, one that contained the early MS-DOS operating system, and the second for memory; each had just 360 KB of memory (KB: that’s no typo), but the whole setup seemed a complete wonder, which is one of the emotions that suffuses “The Warden.” Crazy times then – you reached the internet, what little there was to it, by dial-up modem. I can still hear the sound of that external (and PAINFULLY slow) device beeping into an ordinary telephone line.

Hey, at least computers, crude as they were by today’s standards, were an advance over  manual and electric typewriters.

This was a feverish writing period for me: working long hours by day at The Providence Journal, where I covered the social-services beat (the state prison, the state psychiatric hospital, the state institution for the intellectually and developmentally disabled, the child-welfare agency), then coming home, dining, putting my first child, Rachel, to bed, and writing horror, mystery and science-fiction short stories late into the night on that PC.

I was submitting pretty much anywhere I could – this was the early Stephen King era, and all sorts of publications big and small were around – and if memory serves me, I had already succeeded in placing a few stories in small-circulation, home-produced zines (for no money, of course, you were thrilled just to get in print). And how did we aspiring writers get those stories to those publications? By printing on a dot-matrix printer, another marvel of the age, and mailing via USPS with a query letter and return envelope with postage for return of the manuscript if rejected (a LOT were rejected).

And then came this card in the mail:

How excited I was! An actual payday for something I had created from pure ether. A penny-and-a-quarter per word, totaling something like $50. Seems like peanuts now, and it was even 33 years ago, but it proved powerfully motivational. And so I kept writing and writing, and not just short stories, but the beginnings of horror novels. More about those later in #33Stories.

Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine long ago ceased publication after a run of some three decades.


I would have loved to republish the whole story, but the original file is long lost, and I just don’t have the time to retype the whole thing – it ran to 14 (small-type) published pages, pp. 97 to 111!


That "Coast Guard" photo was while on assignment for The Cape Cod Times.

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