Recently, at the urging of some folks in my writing group, I entered the NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge. You can get all the details on this particular flash fiction contest by clicking the link in the last sentence, but here’s a short explanation from the main site:
The Flash Fiction Challenge is a competition that challenges writers around the world to create short stories (1,000 words max.) based on genre, location, and object assignments in 48 hours. Each writer will participate in at least 2 writing challenges and as many as 4 depending on how well they place in each challenge. When the competition begins, writers are placed in groups where they will be judged against other writers within their same group. Each group receives its own unique genre, location, and object assignments (see past examples here). After 2 challenges, the top 5 writers that score the highest advance to the next challenge. In Challenge #3, writers are placed in new groups and given a new genre, location, and object assignment. The top 3 writers from each of the groups in Challenge #3 advance to the fourth and final challenge of the competition where they are given the final genre, location, and object assignment and compete for thousands in cash and prizes.
Pretty straightforward, right? Well, I didn’t make it past the second round, and both my stories came in 13th place (out of like 30, if I remember correctly) in my various heats and did not score enough points to put me into the semi-finals. Despite my lackluster showing, I thought it would be fun to share the prompts I recieved AND the stories I threw together with them. So let’s do that.
- Genre: Thriller
- Location: A commuter train
- Object: An ethernet cable
Not the toughest assignment, and the idea for “No Guns, No Knives” came pretty quick. You can read it below.
No Guns, No Knives
Kissinger’s target walked past his seat carrying a black laptop bag. Andrei Volkov was short, solidly built, and his heavy limbs and black beard gave him an almost bear-like appearance.
Outside the commuter train, the Pacific Northwest sped past. The Sounder ran from Tacoma to Seattle, and the few people on board were absorbed in books or smart phones. None of them noticed Kissinger reaching beneath his coat to touch the cool steel butt of his Beretta. The handgun was uncomfortable to carry with the suppressor attached, but it and the subsonic ammunition made the weapon no louder than a sharp clap, easily obscured by the noise of the moving train.
As Kissinger rose from his seat to follow Volkov his phone buzzed. Frowning, he pulled the cheap burner from his pocket and sat down again. It was Frank. “Jesus, I’m about to go to work.”
“I know,” Frank said. “But there’s a problem. The client has, uh, changed his mind on the details.”
“What?” Kissinger said, alarmed. “This guy is twenty minutes from the Federal Building. If he gets there, our client is fucked.” Volkov was an accountant who’d been cooking the books for Ivan Kuznetzov, a local Russian mob boss. Word on the street was he’d been indicted for tax fraud and was eager to make a deal with the Feds. The considerable information he had on Kuzentzov would be irresistible to the FBI.
“Turns out Volkov is Kuznetzov’s cousin,” Frank said. “He wants him . . . intact for the funeral.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Kissinger hissed into the phone.
“No guns, no knives.”
“Goddamn it, Frank. I didn’t bring tools for that kind of work.”
“I know; I’m sorry, really.”
Kissinger considered his options. They were few and unappealing. “What if I didn’t get this message?”
Frank was silent for a moment, then, “You want to fuck around with Kuznetzov? I like you, Kissinger. You’re precise and professional. But if you shoot or stab Volkov, there is an excellent chance the next contract across my desk will have your name on it.”
Kissinger sighed. Frank was right. “Fine, I’ll do it.” He snapped the phone closed.
During Kissinger’s phone conversation, Volkov had moved to the next car. Kissinger got up and walked slowly toward it. By the landmarks whizzing by outside the window, he estimated he had about ten minutes before they reached Seattle.
The gun under his jacket and the knife in his right boot were useless weight at best, dangerous temptations at worst. He’d killed men with his hands before, but it was slow, loud, and likely to draw attention. His preferred method was a single gunshot to the head. Quick, painless, certain. Unfortunately, a hollow-point 9mm slug often did not leave a pretty corpse.
Volkov rose from his seat when Kissinger entered the next car. He froze, wondering if his target had spotted him for who and what he was. Instead, the Russian ambled slowly to the tiny bathroom cubicle at the other end of the car.
Kissinger looked around and realized the car was empty except for him and his target. Hit men did not ignore good fortune when it smiled on them, and he raced forward, slamming into Volkov as the Russian opened the door to the bathroom. He ended up in a three-foot-by-three-foot cubicle, pressed up against the back of the man he was supposed to kill.
Volkov’s right hand shot to his left pants pocket, scrabbling at what had to be a concealed pistol. There was no room to aim it, but if he fired the weapon, the whole train would hear the shot.
Kissinger threw a short, sharp punch into Volkov’s kidneys, keeping him from pulling his pistol, and desperately searched for something to fight with. Volkov’s bag was open, and Kissinger pushed his left hand inside while he held Volkov in place with the right. The Russian grunted and struggled, but didn’t cry out. That wouldn’t last.
Kissinger’s hand became entangled in something in Volkov’s bag. It felt like thin, plastic rope. His eyes widened, and he yanked out a coiled length of blue Ethernet cable. Kissinger pulled away from Volkov’s body as much as the small space allowed. The Russian used the tiny bit of freedom to go for his gun again and managed to get it out of his pocket. Kissinger used the space to bring both hands up and wrap the Ethernet cable around Volkov’s throat. He spun around, bent forward, his forehead brushing the bathroom door, and lifted Volkov off his feet, drawing the cable tight around the Russian’s throat.
Volkov made a terrified gagging noise, and his pistol clattered to the floor. Kissinger hung on, the cable digging furrows into his hands. Volkov’s feet drummed against the sink, and he jerked and writhed. Finally, his struggles weakened, then stopped. Kissinger held on for another thirty seconds to make sure.
A sudden latrine stench told Kissinger the hit has been a success. He sat Volkov’s body on the toilet, pocketed the ethernet cable, and checked his handiwork.
Volkov’s eyes were open, bulging and red, and his tongue protruded from his mouth. A livid red line encircled his neck. It would turn into an ugly purple bruise in a few minutes.
Kissinger slipped out of the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. The car beyond was still blessedly empty, and he made his way to the next one, praying no one would need the toilet.
He spent a tense few minutes waiting for the next stop. When The Sounder pulled into downtown Seattle he was through the doors and walking away from the station in less than a minute.
He called Frank when he was far enough away to avoid suspicion.
“Is it done?” Frank asked.
“Were you able to meet the client’s request?”
Kissinger snorted irritably. “As best I could, but they’re gonna want a high collar and a necktie for the funeral.”
As you can see, all the prompts added up (for me anyway) to an assassination or hit on a commuter train with the ethernet cable as the weapon. Since it was a thriller, I needed the story to move quickly and have a fair amount of action. I also needed some kind of wrinkle that would force my hitman to use such an unorthodox weapon without stretching belief too far. I think the story accomplishes what I needed it to. It is clearly a thriller and the object and location are strongly incorporated and integral to the plot. It’s failing, I think, is that it’s not particularly memorable. I like some of the dialog between Kissinger and his handler, Frank, and the bathroom scene was fun to write, but at the end of the day there’s probably not much that makes this story stand out. It gets the job done, but not much more, hence it’s relatively low score.
Well, that was round one of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. Check back next week and I’ll show you my round two story 🙂