Solitaire Conspiracy, Shang Chi, and what I’ve been writing

If anyone’s curious why I’ve been able to post so much recently–well, for the first time in a while, I’m working a job where I’m not required to start grading / lesson planning the second I get home. Honestly it’s a little unsettling, but I’m certain I’ll get used to it eventually. But until then, I basically have to keep writing just to keep from going crazy, so I thought this week I’d just give quick updates on some stuff.

What I’ve been Playing: Solitaire Conspiracy

Bought this game on a reccommendation which said it was a “surprisingly engaging” remix of the classic game. Which, really, Solitaire is “surprisingly engaging” on its own, but this game is hilarious because it “remixes” the card game as this super-spy story.

“Oooh, Candidate! Our agents have been isolated, only you can save the world by playing Solitaire! If you get up to level 15 you’ll be able to access all the spies.

It’s hilarious. I mean, they mix it up by giving the suits different “powers” that reshuffle stacks or whatever, but it’s the same schtick–stack cards on top of other cards. There’s barely anything approaching a plot, with obviously telegraphed plot twists and villains who are just lame, not even cartoonishly lame, but just lame. It’s actually an interesting study in re-framing things–can you make a game newly exciting just by giving it a new skin?

It was surprisingly engaging. But then, the original game itself is, like I said, pretty engaging on its own, which people tend to forget, so I’m not sure how much that has to do with the re-skin.

What I’ve been Watching: Shang-Chi

(L-R): Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

People were saying this was the best of the superhero movies, their new favorite, etc. etc. So I decided to go out and see it. There were four other people in the theater. Eleven cars in the parking lot. I mean this was a Thursday afternoon, but holy cow theaters are dying.

It’s a good movie. It’s not so amazingly better than everything, but the visuals are beautiful. In some ways it doesn’t even feel like a superhero movie, just like a straight urban fantasy about an aimless young man discovering a fantasy world full of magical creatures and a dark gate with an evil monster behind it. It’s definitely a celebration of Chinese culture–distinctly Chinese-American in the same way Black Panther was African-American. A Chinese teen says “I speak ABC,” just casually, which I took to mean “I speak English,” but apparently means “I speak American-Born-Chinese.” Fun detail.

The character Katy, in my opinion, makes the movie. She’s a delightfully goofy sidekick who plays as an extremely relatable straight (wo)man, picturing very well the sort of aimless immature millenial that the movie is pushing against.

It’s easy to wonder if the movie is Chinese propaganda. China is a big movie market, and Disney has shown repeatedly they’re willing to kowtow to get a slice of that sweet sweet market. Especially there’s a scene where Katy and Shang-Chi arrive in a Chinese city and everything is colorful and cool and everyone’s having fun, which is… not the reality.

But the theme, which is about finding direction as a young person, moving beyond the past but remembering where you came from, pushes against Chinese authoritarianism in a way that perhaps the censors don’t realize. Perhaps the Chinese version of the movie is slightly different. I wonder, sometimes, if American movies in Chinese theaters undermine the Chinese mindset more than the government appreciates. Of course, catering to a Chinese market definitely influences American movies. I don’t look to see any movies even mentioning Uighyr Muslims for a while.

What I’ve been Writing: The Machinist

Pic I drew in High School

With The Hospitaller Oath out in stores, I’ve been revising my old The Machinist story, which was picked up by Montag Press over two years ago. They insist they’re really really almost ready finally to move forward with finding a cover artist and stuff. So anyway, here’s the opening from that book, which I’ve been revising for the last few days.

The door to the shop banged open in a way it really wasn’t supposed to, nearly jangling the bell off its hook.  Iosif had just registered the gun in the man’s hand, and was groping for the shotgun under the counter, when the man tossed something onto the counter in front of him.

            “Woodpecker.”  He gasped.  “Take care of this for me.” And whirling on his heel, in a hurried manner that made his overcoat swirl dramatically, the man was gone again out the door.

            Iosif blinked as the door slammed shut. The entire exchange had lasted less than thirty seconds. Slowly, he let go of the shotgun, and stepped up to the counter to see what the man had tossed onto it.

            To his surprise, he did not recognize the item at all.  There were very few things that he was unable to repair (the natural exception being federal appliances, for legal reasons), having had frequent cause to dabble outside the various watches that were the (stated) purpose of the shop.  ‘We fix anything’ had been tacked beneath ‘Whisterhorn’s Watches’ for nearly two years now, and Iosif had never failed to fix, let alone recognize, a single device.

Yet this was most peculiar.  It was not quite a cylinder, as he had thought at first—the shape was broken into six distinct sides—and it was certainly not a ‘woodpecker,’ whatever the customer might think.  There was no real joint or obvious opening—even a magnifying glass under a gaslight revealed nothing more than beautiful scrolling patterns etched in the metalwork.  The only clear thing he could recognize was the hexagonal button set mid-way up the cylinder (which was jammed—that must be the problem.) 

Perhaps Master Whisterhorn would know more about it.  He should send him a message.

            The mail machine had a few stuck buttons of its own, but Iosif was used to them.  He typed out:


            Customer has left ‘woodpecker’ here.  No name given. What are the details of the job?[JR1] 


            He pressed “Send” and watched as the machine ripped off the paper and folded it into the envelope.  Valves hissed as heat clamps sealed the letter shut—the left clamp got stuck again, but Iosif freed it with an impatient movement—there was a clickclickclick noise of pins punching the destination sequence along the top-left corner, then a hook cleanly poked through the top of the letter, carrying it along the track and up into the mail chute.

            Iosif shook his head to clear it and turned back toward the shop.  “Is crazy,” he muttered to himself.  “Is so crazy.”  He could have fixed that side clamp ages ago, but it wasn’t worth the jail time.  Without so much as a machinist license, much less a Federal Engineering degree, Iosif was barely allowed to touch the machine. That left clamp would doubtless stick for five years more, and maybe longer, until the maintenance request finally came through. 

For a moment he looked over the shop, his eyes flitting across the wide array of machinery he’d added to it.  He was reluctant to use a power saw or a steam drill on the strange device until he knew more, but perhaps the vacuum seal…  Iosif pulled the machine out from under the table and lifted it onto the workshop.  Clambering onto the barstool (one of the less-fancy but more-necessary additions Iosif had made), he connected the vacuum to the steam line on the wall, opening up the valve to set the machine to purring and humming

He’d barely started examining the strange item when the mail machine chattered in reply and he looked over to see an envelope arriving on the track. 

Hurrying over, he ripped the letter off the hook, and slit the envelope open with a nail.


            No such item scheduled, but sounds like a toy.  Put it aside until you finish the Vernweiler watch.


            Iosif rolled his eyes.  Mrs. Vernweiler was not only very rich, but very exacting, and it was important the job be finished correctly.

            The workroom only had space for the one workbench, but all the watch tools were kept in closed drawers, where they could be kept relatively clear from dust.  Iosif dragged the barstool over to the set of drawers, climbed on top of it again, and opened up the corresponding drawers, finding the watch after a few moments’ search and setting to work with a pair of tweezers.

            Iosif’s eyesight was not much better than his boss’ in some ways, and he found himself forced to use the jeweler’s eyepiece in order to properly look over the watch.  It was very fine, and very intricate, showing the movements of the stars and moon in small windows in its face.  One of the gears had been misaligned—possibly by Mr. Whisterhorn.

            The troublesome gear was badly jammed in there, and Iosif had barely managed to work it loose when the bell over the door clanged again.  He exhaled loudly through his nose, but there was little choice.  Setting down the watch (and the eyepiece), he hopped off the barstool and exited the workroom.  “I help, hold on,” he said, grabbing a rag to wipe his hands.

            The gaunt-faced gentleman at the counter didn’t actually recoil when he caught sight of him, but his eyes definitely widened and there was a sharp intake of breath.  Iosif barely noticed– he knew what his face looked like and after having it for so long he’d grown used to the reactions.  He just smiled as he came up behind the register, his head and shoulders just barely above the counter.  “I help.”  He repeated.  “What is problem?”

            The gaunt-faced gentleman blinked at him.  “Is your father in?”  he asked.

            Iosif sighed internally.  “I sixteen,” he assured the man.  “Apprentice.  Whisterhorn not here today.  What is problem?”

            Usually the very next question was about his accent, but instead the man seemed to shrug it off.  “I’m here for a piece of merchandise,” he said.  “It would have just been dropped off a few minutes ago… frightful accident, my friend meant to drop it off at a shop down the alley.  It was long and thin…”  The gaunt man gave a smile.  “I’m afraid I don’t know what it was for, but my friend’s anxious to get it back.”

            Iosif frowned and tapped the sign on the register.  Items left for repair must be collected by original customer.  Too many shifty-eyed customers came in claiming to ‘own’ the expensive timepieces sitting in the glass case.

            The man looked at the sign, then back at him.  “Surely you can make an exception—my friend caught a tramcar moments ago, he’ll be half on his way to Toledo by now.  It’s all perfectly simple; I only need to move it to the watch shop down the street.”

            Iosif was not in the habit of breaking contracts, but even if he was, there was another problem.  “No other watch shop on this street,” he said quietly, watching the man.

            The man’s gaunt face froze, his deep-sunken eyes flickering over Iosif.  “Well, aren’t you a clever boy.”

            “I sixte–”  Iosif stopped as a revolver whipped out of the man’s coat, lining up squarely with the middle of his forehead.

            “Now listen here, mongoloid.”  The man’s thin lips twisted in a snarl.  “You and I are going to walk into that back worksh—“


            The buckshot tore out through the thin plywood of the counter, slamming into the man’s chest and turning a significant portion of his face into hamburger.  The blast knocked the man to the floor, but he was already starting to get back up when Iosif clambered onto the counter and leveled the second barrel at his face.


            Iosif winced at the way the man’s head spread across the floor. Glancing around, he dug the spare shells out of the cash register, reloading the shotgun in case the thief had friends.  He let out a long, shaky breath.  Gangsters were getting bolder, no doubt about that. But this needed to be cleaned up. He laid the shotgun on the counter and hopped off onto the floor of the shop.

            The bell over the door gave a cheery tinkle.

            “My stars!”  Mrs. Vernweiler nearly screamed, recoiling at the sight of the headless body on the ground.  “What in heaven’s name…?”

            Oh dear.  “Was attempted robbery, miss,,” Iosif said, spreading his hands.  “No danger now.  All is good, yes?”

            “Robbery!?”  Mrs. Vernweiler’s eyes latched on to him.  “Not my watch, I hope!”

            “No, no.  Nothing stolen.”

            “Oh, thank goodness.”  Mrs. Vernweiler fanned herself.  “Are you all right, dear?  Not hurt?”

            “I fine,,” Iosif said, managing a smile.  “Is Detroit life, eh?”

            “Oh… oh my.”  Mrs. Vernweiler swallowed and looked away from the corpse.  “Well, have you mailed the police?” 

            “Not yet,,” Iosif said.  “Soon.”  For all the good it would do.

            Mrs. Vernweiler seemed satisfied with this.  “And is my watch ready?”

            Iosif sighed.  “Not yet,” he said, picking up the man’s body.  “Soon.”

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