Guest editor Sally Berneathy critiques the first five pages of THE VICTIM, by GFW Writer member, Joe Parr. In addition to editing services, Sally has fifteen published novels in romance, mystery and dark suspense under three pseudonyms and has won several awards including National Readers' Choice, Romantic Times Best Silhouette Romance and two Rita finalist slots. . Currently she has two e-pubbed cozy mysteries, Death by Chocolate and 'Til Death. A sequel to Death by Chocolate is in progress.
THE VICTIM by Joe Parr
The Victim walked down the dark street watching his shadow shift from in front of him to behind him as he passed under the few dim street lights that still worked in this part of town. It was late, almost two in the morning and this was definitely not his neighborhood. A white man dressed for the office in a long, wool overcoat had little business walking down South Calhoun Street in broad daylight much less at this time of night. He knew this but was not deterred. As he moved south toward East Daggett, he passed the dirty walls of the Supreme Golf warehouse and a handful of other buildings that looked abandoned. Off to his left, the slow creak of a northbound BNSF car carrier echoed as it skirted the east side of downtown.
In the distance he heard the muffled sounds of Blues music coming from one of the late night clubs. The night was cool, it was early November, but not really cold enough to warrant the heavy overcoat he wore. Between the coat, the walking and the pounding of his heart, he had begun to sweat, wiping his brow every so often.
He stalked down the street. Passing by a darkened alley, he was startled by movement and a voice. “Hey man. Where you goin?” The wino shuffled as he tried unsuccessfully to sit up. The Victim’s heart nearly jumped through his chest.
His breath caught, almost hyperventilating. (His breath isn't hyperventilating; he is.) 'His breath caught. He was almost hyperventilating.' He stepped down the street, just
far enough to be away from the wino. He leaned his back against the grimy brick
as the wino broke into a rendition of ‘Stormy Monday.' (Periods and commas always inside quote marks.) He tried to catch his
breath, calm his nerves. Maybe this
wasn’t such a good idea after all. Maybe I should just get back to my car and
get out of here.
He had parked his car, a beat up rust bucket 1985 Chevy Impala, on East Vickery in front of the Builder’s Equipment and Supply warehouse just west of South Jones. The car fit in perfectly with the neighborhood. It wreaked of urban decay with at least three different paint colors, all tinged with an undertone of rust. The exterior appearance of the car was deceiving. Underneath the rust, the engine, transmission and suspension were pristine. He'd bought it for reliability, not style.
After a few minutes he slowed his breathing and his heartbeat was at least at jogging level. He sweat more heavily now and wiped his forearm across his face. He pushed off the wall and continued slowly south away from the wino’s serenade and further into the night. He reached both his hands into his coat pockets, searching, gripping, feeling comforted.
His walk tonight wasn’t so much about a destination as it was the journey itself. He didn’t want to get more than a few blocks from his car. No matter what happened tonight, he wanted to be able to get away quickly if needed. After all, he would either find what he was looking for or he’d make his way back and move on to another location, another journey.
He continued, reaching East Daggett and crossed quickly. The wind was out of the north to his back. It wasn’t strong but seemed to push him along as it fluffed his hair into his face. There was an empty parking lot to his right with a large clump of trees on the backend. A car was parked up under the trees, doors opened, thumping music blasted out. A couple of young thugs, hard looking, leaned against it. They had beers in their hands, bandanas on their heads. Seeing them, he picked up his pace. They just stared, swigged some beer.
Once he crossed Daggett, there were two buildings and a sidewalk on his left. It wasn’t much of a sidewalk at this point, more like crumpled remnants of what used to be one. The handful of cars on the street used it for parking. He stepped around them, out into the street and moved closer to East Broadway. He could hear sounds behind him, shuffling feet, beer bottles dropping to the ground. His heart raced again. What have I gotten myself into? Have I lost my mind?
He picked up the pace again, almost to the corner. The sounds continued behind him. He didn’t dare turn around. Not yet. When he reached the corner, the Victim stopped momentarily. The sounds had faded. The streetlight on the corner was broken, the
victim of prey to a well placed rock. (Because the character is called the Victim, I'd change this word.) The only light came from a block
away casting his faint shadow long to the east.
He stole a look over his left shoulder. He couldn’t hear anything but swore he saw a shadow move behind one of the cars he’d just passed.
With his heart pumping
forcefully, his ears pounded. (The sound pounded, not his ears.) 'The sound of his heart thudding pounded loudly in his ears.' His eyes flitted back and forth, searching the
urban landscape. Are they following me?
Was it just my imagination? He felt like breaking into a sprint but where
would he go? If they followed him, he’d have to run past them to get back to
his car. To run away from his car would be suicide.
It took a moment for him to get his legs working, but then he turned left and started toward South Jones. He moved slower, more cautiously hoping to make the block, turn north and head back to his car. He walked with the building on his left, more crumpled sidewalk under his feet. Coming up on the corner of the building, he heard something
up ahead, (Repitition of 'up' in close proximity) stopped in his tracks. His breathing was so heavy
now it was audible. Oh shit. What now?
Should I turn back? Should I run?
Before his mind could process the situation, someone stepped out from behind the building and stood, facing him, maybe ten feet away. The Victim froze, looking at a black guy, late teens, maybe twenty. He wore baggy jeans, hung low, an oversized jacket, blue bandana. There wasn’t much light but the Victim could see a scar along his jaw line, hard features. With limited lighting and his eyes hidden by wrap-around sunglasses, he had a menacing appearance.
The Victim felt his knees quiver, his breathing now shallow as his throat constricted. His mind raced trying to figure out his next move. Even in the middle of all his synapses firing, the oddest thought crossed his mind. He’s wearing sunglasses at night. Now, on top of his near panic, that crappy song started playing in his head. (What song? Stormy Monday? It's been a while, so you might want to remind the reader of the name of the song. I had forgotten and had to go back and look) It was oddly calming and after a quick moment he was able to regain his composure.
The Victim looked at the man standing in front of him. The guy’s right hand was down by his side holding something, a club maybe. It was
kind of hidden behind
his leg. (This is really picky. "Kind of" just doesn't seem to go with the rest of the writing tone.) He brought it forward, started tapping it on his leg, his hand
“Say dawg. Where you goin' tonight?” There was almost a laugh in his voice but it sent a cold chill through the Victim.
The Victim didn’t say anything but started to take a step toward the street. The man moved quickly to his left holding up his hand. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, dawg. No need to be runnin’ off now. We got business to do tonight.” His jaw continued to move, chewing gum at a rapid pace.
The Victim finally found his voice, weak as it was. “Leave me alone. I’m not bothering anyone.”
The Victim once again tried to take a step. This time the man
stepped moved a little
closer, (repetition of 'step') clearly revealing the club. “Well now, that’s where you wrong honky.
You see, just you being on this street is botherin’ me.”
Now the Victim turned, started to run. His eyes went wide. Reality crashed down on him. There was a second guy behind him. He moved back to the sidewalk and turned where he could see both men, his back to the building. To his right was a carbon copy of the first man, same baggy pants, similar jacket, same blue bandana. No sunglasses but eyes that in the shadows of the street looked like black holes. It was as if his pupils were the size of dimes.
The Victim literally had his back to the wall. His hands were still deep in his pockets, the front of his coat was unbuttoned and opened slightly. He managed to squeak out, “What do you want?”
This time the second guy answered. “We here to collect the honky tax.” This brought a snicker from the man with the sunglasses. He added, “Yeah, that’s right. The honky tax.” Directing his comment to his partner, he added, “How much is that these days?”
“Oh that’s easy. The honky tax is everything you got on you.” His black eyes were now joined by a wide smile, gold capped teeth. This brought a chuckle from the man with sunglasses.
They both took a step closer to the Victim, his back now touching the wall. He could feel the outline of the bricks across the back of his shoulders. It seemed like his feet were involuntarily trying to push him through the wall.
The Victim summoned everything in him to sound brave and said, “Leave me alone.”
Now the man with the sunglasses barked, “Look muthafucka, you in no spot to be spoutin’ no orders.” They both took another step forward, each now standing barely more than arm’s length from the Victim. He tapped the club on his open palm. “Now give me your wallet and your watch right now and we might let you live.”
The Victim didn’t move. His mind was racing. Oh my God. Is this really happening? Am I going to die? Can I do this? He took a deep breath, thought about her. I won’t let it end like this. A calm washed over him. He fixed his stare at a point between the two. In a voice he’d never heard before, he quietly, calmly said, “You don’t want to do this.” As he said it, his posture straightened, no longer cowering.
“Alright muthafucka, I warned you.” The man with the sunglasses took a step forward raising the club from his palm.
In a single move, the front of the Victim’s coat flew open, both hands came out from inside holding identical Baretta 92SB 9mm pistols, one pointing in the direction of the each assailant. There was no warning, no talk. The guns exploded almost in unison, each two times. All four bullets hit their marks and the Victim stood alone, his back still against the wall, his deep breaths sucking in the smell of burnt gunpowder.
The sound of the bullets firing had been deafening. Death echoed off the buildings. The night went quiet, nothing but a ringing in his ears and the beating of his heart.
He looked down at the two bodies sprawled on the jagged concrete, one convulsed. Dark circles expanded on their chests, blood pooled beneath them. The momentary rush left him, his knees buckled. He caught himself before he fell. Oh God. Oh God. I did it. Oh shit. Oh shit. Sweat drenched his forehead, spit dribbled from the corner of his mouth. He swiped his forearm across his face, leaned forward and rested the warm guns on his knees and caught his breath.
Focus damn it, focus. Sucking in several quick deep breaths, he started to get his bearings. Got to get out of here. He stepped out to the street between the two bodies, turned to his left and passed the man with the sunglasses. As he stumbled away, he holstered one of the guns. He stopped and pulled both hands out of the coat pockets. He had cut away the pocket linings so his hands could move the guns up without taking them out of the pockets. This night had most definitely been planned.
He ran to the corner, turned left and took off in a full sprint heading north back to East Vickery. As he ran behind the storage yard of the Builder’s Equipment and Supply, his mind raced, his heart pounded and he was so out of breath it felt like he’d run miles not yards. Got to get to my car.
Jones Street was only two blocks long. Why is it taking so long? He came flying up to where Jones Street spilled on to East Vickery. He stopped, leaned against the wall behind a dumpster, his chest heaved with each breath, every muscle burned. He held the 9mm down at his side and listened. Silence. No sirens. No feet. No voices. He stepped around the dumpster to the street corner, poked his head around to see if anyone was on Vickery. Empty.
He was twenty feet from his car. He reached into his pants pocket. He’d rigged his car with remote locks and a remote starter. He pushed the button, heard the doors click and the engine crank. In a few quick strides, he was in the car. He dropped the gun on the passenger seat, slammed it into gear and headed east in seconds. Got to get out of here.
He had mapped out his route ahead of time. His head was still spinning, his pulse continued to pound. It was hard to focus, to see. He had just killed two people. Thugs sure, but still people. He was on autopilot, took a left, went north on the South Freeway feeder road. He swerved, driving too fast. What have I done? Oh my God.
He stopped for the light at Lancaster. The emotion overwhelmed him. He opened the door and puked onto the street. Heaving, taking deep breaths, wrenching until there was nothing left in him. He sat back in his seat, closed the door, closed his eyes, regained his composure. He started again, turned right on Lancaster heading toward Beach Street. A left on Beach and a quick right onto the I-30 ramp, he was gone.
The writing in The Victim is excellent with a smooth, nonintrusive flow. The descriptions of the surroundings are vivid and put the reader there. The story in intriguing and makes me want to read more. I find only a few small issues to critique in this entry.
The Victim's journey through the streets could be tightened. Once the Victim's fear is established, further description with no action, no story, becomes redundant. I understand he needs to walk around for a while before encountering his targets, but perhaps you could collapse time with a phrase like, "He'd been walking for half an hour…" and improve pacing.
Another suggestion for improving pacing would be to move the description of the car to the scene when he actually approaches the car. We don't need to know the details until then.
The Victim's heart rate and perspiration are used several times to show his fear. Consider changing some of these to other signs of fear such as knot in the stomach, clammy palms, dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, not sure legs will support him.I would have liked to know a little more about the Victim's mindset, why he's so determined to walk around these dangerous streets when he's so obviously terrified. The paragraph that begins "His walk tonight wasn’t so much about…" gives the reader a hint, but something more concrete is needed, something along the lines of: "He didn't want to do this. He'd much rather be home in bed with his wife. But this had to be done, and he was the only one who could do it." It doesn't have to be enough to reveal any secrets, just enough to orient the reader to this character's mindset and to justify his behavior.
Thanks for such a great critique, Sally! Post a comment or question for Sally Berneathy below.
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