“Counterclockwise” My Dickens Challenge Novel

December 16th, 2007


Chapter One: Vacancy


People who say they’re their own worst enemy are usually forgetting about somebody else.

In the case of Edwin Arnold Tallerico, he was forgetting quite a large number of people. Talley, as he had named himself — he thought “Edwin” was too formal, “Ed” was too informal, and “Tallerico” was too ethnic — had, in fact, created a good-size club of people who would have been happy to see all of Talley’s licenses revoked simultaneously.

Which, soon enough, would cause no end of trouble for an LAPD homicide detective named Laura Callow.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Despite absolutely Napoleonic ambition and no scruples whatsoever, Talley hadn’t made it to Brentwood. The house was big enough for twelve and sheltered only two, but it wasn’t in Brentwood. The yard had green, sweeping willow trees, man-made hills, and a swimming pool no one ever used, but it wasn’t in Brentwood. When Talley met people he was absolutely certain he would never have to invite home, he told them he lived in Brentwood. But in brutal fact, Chez Talley was in West Los Angeles, one of an odd little knot of luxury houses that had clustered together for reassurance in an extremely unfashionable area south of Santa Monica Boulevard and east of Overland.

So the last day of Edwin Arnold Tallerico’s life began resentfully in not-Brentwood, like every other day did. He went to the garage at 7:30 AM, started the aging Bentley, heard a rattle in the engine that sounded like $3500 in his mechanic’s pocket, and backed out, swearing under his breath at the length of the drive from not-Brentwood to the Westwood offices of ZAL Music, the company Talley owned. The journey took him twelve to fourteen minutes every morning, depending on the usual variables. If he’d lived in Brentwood — the right part of Brentwood — the drive would have taken nine to twelve minutes. Or, if there were problems on Sunset Boulevard, which is always a good bet, forty minutes.

But he would have been coming from Brentwood.

Sitting behind the wheel of his car, three hours before his death, Edwin Arnold Tallerico had pushed his blood pressure into the red digital countdown zone; he was on his third cigarette; he was imagining painful death scenarios for his mechanic; and he was hoarse from shouting at the idiots who seemed to think they were allowed to turn left or turn right or go forward. And he’d only been awake 52 minutes.

It’s a terrible thing to die angry. That’s one good reason to try not to get angry. I could list four or five more, but it would slow the pace.

His cell phone treated him to its new ring tone, the guitar riff that Talley hoped would propel his new band, Vacancy, to the top of the charts.

He pushed hands-free. “Yeah?”

“It’s Darren.”

“I know who it is, Knucklehead. It’s a freaking cell phone. Don’t waste my time with your name.”

“Where are you?”

“Just coming down the hill from, uh, Brentwood. Whaddya want.”

“We, um, we have a problem.”

Talley waited. The driver in front of him turned on his right-hand turn signal, and Talley went operatic on the horn. “And you’re going to make me ask what the problem is, aren’t you?”

“Vacancy won’t sign” Darren said. “Actually, it’s Standish. Standish won’t sign.”

“Whaddya mean, she won’t sign? I got her a great deal. I worked my ass off for that deal.”

“The guys in the band are for it. But Standish won’t even discuss it. And Vacancy without Standish –”

“Lemme get this straight,” Talley said, swerving around the turning car and offering its driver a single finger by way of saying good morning. “We got a band that’s like four months off the freaking sidewalk. They were so poor when we picked them up they couldn’t even afford to buy strings. And now the chick is turning down a one-point-nine million dollar advance?”


“What? What? Whaddya mean, essentially? Is there some difficult detail here that you understand and I don’t? Am I getting something wrong?”

“No, no, Talley, of course not.”

“Of course, of course not. I don’t get stuff like this wrong. What’s Standish saying?”

“She says she wants to release the album on the Internet.”

Talley murdered his cigarette in the ashtray and reached for another. “Oh, that’s good, that’s great. Tell her she has my permission to negotiate an advance from the Internet. And how much does the little genius plan to charge for the album on the Internet?”

“She — don’t yell at me — she wants the fans to decide how much to pay. She says everyone should be able to afford music.”

“Maybe I was wrong,” Tallerico said. “Maybe they could afford strings, but they didn’t know how many to buy because Standish couldn’t count to six. Make her change her mind.”

“I’m not sure –”

“How much is fifteen percent of one point nine million?”

“Three hundred eighty thousand.”

“How much of the one point nine mill do we get?”

“Three hundred eighty thousand.”

“And do we need that?”

“Well, I don’t –”

“Darren, do you know anybody who doesn’t need three hundred eighty thousand? You must know more interesting people than me.”

“She, I mean Standish, says that CDs are over anyway, that most of Vacancy’s sales are going to be downloads, and that Epoxy Records doesn’t know how to handle downloads.” Darren was talking fast, hoping to get through this clot of information uninterrupted. “She says, why should Epoxy take the lion’s share and give them some pishy royalty. That was her word, pishy.”

“How much of that lion’s share does Epoxy slip us on the back end?”

“I don’t know.”

“Of course you don’t,” Talley said. “Maybe a million and a half a year if the band sells good. You want to make that up out of your salary?”

“You know I can’t –”

“Then talk to her. Charm her. Change her mind, that’s your freaking job.”

“Actually,” Darren says, “she’s out there. She flew out yesterday.”

“Miss New York? Miss Claire LA-is-so-bogus-Standish? So talk to her on the phone, you’ve got a phone. I pay the bill every month.”

“Will do,” Darren said, not very enthusiastically.

“It’s my fault, really. I find these little jerks, dress them up, make them feel important, and then they think they can outguess me. I’m my own worse enemy.”

Darren said, “Worst.”

“What do you know? Change her mind.” He pushed the button and disconnected Darren. Darren was handsome. Darren was named Darren. Both good reasons to keep the little putz in New York, which is where Claire Standish should be. Talley briefly asked himself why she had come to LA and then dismissed it. The bands, he thought, the bands liked Darren.

An old lady with a shopping cart stepped into the crosswalk ahead. Talley leaned on his horn. It made him feel better.

Two hours and forty-one minutes to go.

* * *

Norah Tallerico listened as the garage door closed, then picked up her cup of coffee and began her usual silent count to one hundred. Making sure her husband hadn’t forgotten anything, wasn’t going to kick in the front door and march through the house, swearing, as he tried to find whatever it was. Ultimately, he’d accuse her of having moved it.

Thirty-one . . . thirty-two . . .

Well, she hadn’t moved it. They’d been married thirteen years, and it had been twelve years and eight months since she picked up anything that belonged to him. Even the maid of the week learned immediately to treat Talley’s things as though they were radioactive, which gave him something else to swear about, but at least he was swearing at the maid of the week, not her.

Most of the maids — fifty-five . . . fifty-six — lasted just about a week, although the deaf one had stuck around for a month. Norah had come to think of finding new maids as her primary domestic duty. That and maintaining a constant level in the bottle of Paradis Cognac, currently running about $370 a jug. That required some sleight-of-hand, and Norah was proud of the expertise she had acquired. Talley would never dream of drinking it, but he liked having the bottle on display, the alcoholic equivalent of the platoons of books that marched in permanently undisturbed order along the shelves on the far wall.

And thinking of the Paradis — sixty-nine . . . seventy — it was time to make the transition to special coffee. Norah got up, a slender, somewhat angular woman with pale hair and the faded beauty of a length of velvet left in the sun for six or seven years, and went to the wet bar that anchored one end of the living room, carrying her cup and saucer in two hands. At the bar, she drained all the coffee except for a single swallow, which she swirled around to coat the sides of the cup. Then she picked up the bottle of Paradis and filled the cup with it. Carrying the cup more carefully, she went back to her high-backed chair, the one Talley called her throne, and settled in.

Oh, Lord, that was good. Just one more sip — no, make it two — before doing her chore.

Ninety-seven . . . ninety-eight . . .

At ninety-nine, Norah grabbed an extra sip and put down the cup. She reached into the pocket of the robe she’d bought on sale at Neiman-Marcus — Talley had to be convinced that any purchase she made was a bargain — and pressed a button, holding it down for speed-dial.

She waited, eying the cup as though she suspected that it might move if she didn’t watch it. Then she said, “He’s gone. He should be there in about twenty minutes. He’s driving the Bentley.”

She ended the call, sighed heavily, and erased the number from the phone’s memory. Then she dropped the phone back into the pocket and picked up her coffee. Through the sliding glass door, the garden blazed in early sunlight. A bank of azaleas radiated an aggressive pink into the air like some Platonic ideal of color, so intense it hurt her eyes.

Talley had insisted on azaleas.

Those are going to go first, she thought. If I have to pull them out myself.



19 Responses to ““Counterclockwise” My Dickens Challenge Novel”

  1. Lisa Kenney Says:

    I love it — tons of tension, great characters, lots of story questions and a lot of reasons to want to keep reading. Oh, and I know that guy who thinks everybody’s moving his stuff all the time!

  2. reality Says:

    After reading John’s entry, then coming across this; I am impressed. The dialogs convey personality and the show is all there.
    Wonderful start.
    And I love the narrator’s voice dropping in. Tim, I’ll end up buying your novel.

  3. John Dishon Says:

    So, I have to wait a whole week for the next part? You tease.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, you guys, geez . . . I’m actually embarrassed because Lisa and John are off to such great starts, and I like my chapter less and less. (By the way, anyone reading this should go to John’s and Lisa’s sites, which are linked to in the post called “The Dickens Challenge.”)

    Thanks, Usman for noticing the narrator’s voice — that’s a very Victorian convention that I’ve never played with before. It gets re-established in my second chapter, which begins,

    “For just a minute, think of Los Angeles as Talley does: a large, warm, semi-arid urban sprawl with himself at its center.

    “And now, in Talley’s city, meet four women, unconnected except for the invisible line that stretches – or, in one case, soon will stretch – between each of them and Talley. And, if you don’t count Talley (and, pretty quickly, no one will), they have nothing in common.”

    At least, I think that’s how it begins.

    And John, I know what you mean — it’s kind of hard to wait for the next chapters of your book and Lisa’s, too. But it seems to me that a chapter a week is a viable pace, although part of me just wants to sit down and marathon the process. Fortunately, I’m working on two other novels right now, and can’t.

    I’m going to check everyone else’s site and see what else, if anything, is up. And we have a new writer, Wendy Ledger, who’s going up pretty quick.

    Great start, everyone.

  5. Lisa Kenney Says:

    This is funny. I read Tim and John’s and hated mine because of the lack of narration and too much dialogue. I guess I should keep reminding myself that each of these stories and the ones to come has its own voice and style (however experimental and temporary in my case). I’m glad I decided to do this and I love that this group is so supportive. I am going to add a sidebar to my blog for the Dickens Challenge to make sure that people are able to track all of the ongoing participants, without going back to find links in older posts. Tim, thanks so much for getting this started. I don’t know when you must sleep!

  6. Lisa Kenney Says:

    Wendy and Steve have both posted and I am humbled. Wendy, I don’t know if you have comments disabled intentionally or not. I wanted to tell you how intrigued and inspired I am. I love and appreciate that you’ve trusted the reader to intuit things about the characters and the story questions. I am excited to read more on this piece. And Steve, I commented at your place. It literally gave me shivers.

  7. Wendy Ledger Says:

    Tim, I love the narrator voice, too. I feel like as the reader, I’m in very capable hands, and I really like the way you’re setting up the story and starting in high gear.

    I’m looking forward to reading more and will, probably at odd times today.

    Lisa, thank you. I had a troll problem at my blog and just had habitually closed down commentary. Now I believe I’ve opened it up again. Thank you.

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, everybody —

    Just want to say hooray for all of us. Wendy’s first chapter, which is up now, is KILLER, and we have a new player, Jennifer, who’s going to start posting on the 21st.

    You guys are all doing great. I’m thinking we need to activate the discussion/writing group area on John’s thread so we can offer more detailed commentary, in addition to our public comments on each other’s sites.

    I’m keeping notes on my process in doing this, and sometime 2-3 weeks in I may put up a post about it, and/or circulate a question list to you all. Maybe we can generate something interesting from a survey of all these people who are working cheerfully without a net.

    (Suggested questions will be gratefully received).

  9. John Dishon Says:

    Wendy, I added your novel title to the forum. I think it might be presumptuous to add the installment itself, so I’ll leave that to the individual author’s discretion.

    I like it so far. The tone reminded me of The Things They Carried for some reason. I can’t put my finger on why exactly. Maybe the sentence structure.

  10. John Dishon Says:

    I’ve added an Icebreaker section to the forum so we can introduce ourselves and the novels we are working on. You can either follow suit and start your own topic, or you can post your introduction in the general discussion section and we can all just chime in together. It’s whatever you want to do. It will take some experimenting to see what kind of format/setup will be the easiest and most efficient, so just post whatever you want where ever you think it’s best, and we’ll go from there.

    This forum will hopefully provide Tim with some good info/experience for the dedicated site in the future.


  11. Wendy Ledger Says:

    Hi, John,

    you know, I’ve never read The Things They Carried, but I think I heard Tim O’Brien on “Fresh Air” long ago, and I think I have a sense of what you mean. I was thinking that there might be some lists in this project. It feels kind of like a mosaic to me. I have a feeling that that book was like that, too.

    I went to your forum and I don’t quite understand how to post my chapter in there. Do I need to create a log-in name and password and do some registration? Let me know. Thanks for providing the site.

  12. John Dishon Says:

    Yeah, there is a link at the top of the page that says REGISTER. Just click that and register. Then click on your novel title. On the next page, click the button that says POST NEW TOPIC and you can post your chapter in there.

  13. reality Says:

    That second chapter has a great start.

    Lisa, I couldn’t find time to read yours but I will. I did skim through it.
    Remember we are all writing different styles and experimenting. So don’t hate what you have written. [ I’ve done that a hundred times.] we can always come back and fix it. In revisions.

  14. Steve Says:

    Tim–I’m sure you have very high standards for yourself, but this is a fine beginning. The worst enemy line is great. And I loved your distinction between West Los Angeles and Brentwood. I couldn’t help thinking of Raymond Chandler.

    I like the idea that Standish wants to be Radiohead and release the album over the Internet. And even though Talley is a despicable character, he’s probably right: Vacancy isn’t ready to be Radiohead.

    While I don’t think this is going to be an inverted detective story like R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke stories, the anticipation of Talley’s impending demise is something that not only works very well, but resonates with those of us who love classic detective fiction.

    And Chez Talley–the phrase is worth a whole paragraph.

  15. Suzanna Says:


    This is really great. Seedy side of the music industry (is there another side???) is ripe for blasting given how the music business appears to be sliding into oblivion thanks to guys like Tally. I love reading books set in my old home town so thanks for that. Funny, smart, finely tuned. Don’t change a thing.


  16. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Steve, hi, Zanna –

    Please feel free to stop by with more compliments any time. I look at the chapter now and it seems waaaayyyyyyyy too raw, but I guess that’s the point.

    Anyway, it was fun to write — Suzanna, you ought to check out some of the other work. Everybody’s doing amazingly well.


  17. Nadja Says:

    I’ve finally gotten around to reading your chapter. What do you mean you don’t like it? It’s great. It’s fun. It’s got everything a first chapter needs. I really, really liked it.

  18. Jennifer Says:

    A major benefit of being as behind as I am is that I get the joy of reading so many chapters together and don’t have to wait for them. 🙂

    I was hooked from the beginning. Talley does seem to be someone people love to hate, and it’s going to be fun to see how the story plays out. I love the effect of the narrator waving at us every so often. And the humor, too. On to Chapter Two. . . .

  19. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hi, Jennifer, and thanks. Like you, I’m behind — so far behind I’m not even caught up on reviewing/approving comments for the site, so sorry it’s taken so long to get this online. I appreciate the nice comments, and the narrator is just something that happened because the weekly form seems to require some way to remind the reader what’s going on.

    Bet Dickens didn’t agonize over any of this.

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