Friday, April 30, 2010
We spent a morning at a school in a VERY rural part of Africa. We rumbled up hot dusty back roads in the Apparently Indestructible Truck Thingie and after a number of spine jarring bumps, we rolled up in front of a brick building.
It was a drab brick affair with peeling paint and a tired principal standing out front. My expectations weren't all that high.
But there were kids singing inside and despite the drab feel of the place, there seemed to be a little cloud of joy surrounding it.
We were led into a grade eleven classroom and the kids sat there looking at us with shy eyes and we looked back, nodding and smiling and feeling like nasty interruptions in an otherwise lovely day.
The principal assembled the kids and they started to sing.
Okay: I admit it. I put my polite face on. I was prepared to endure a school assembly type of thing.
That lasted five minutes. As the kids sang and the audience clapped something PDC (Pretty Darn Cool) happened.
The kids started to laugh and really sing and dance. Energy infused the room and suddenly everything was magical. Inside of a few minutes, we were all laughing and clapping along with them.
It was one of those wonderful travel moments where two completely different cultures meet, shake hands and actually like each other.
It happened in a "way too hot" classroom in a town so small I'm not sure it even has a name.
Wednesday, April 28, 2010
It was our second night in Africa. Our guide warned us to watch the path carefully at night for scorpions. So Sheree and I made our way back to our little cabin sweeping our headlamps back and forth looking for these venomous little peckers.
It was sort of exciting in a strange way,. We don't get a lot of scorpions in Edmonton...although I felt a geek wearing a headlamp. (I knew a kid who was president of the Science Club who took a headlamp to camp once...enough said.)
Anyway: since the room lights ran off a generator and we were asked to keep the power uses down, I decided to read my book using my headlamp.
Sheree was sleeping beside me and I was turning pages on a Mankell thriller about a guy in South Africa during the bloody uprising era waiting for the machete to fall.
Time passes and I am deeper and deeper into this book. Then all of a sudden there's this humming thrumming sound and something flies into my face.
I assume it's a bug, but it's a fast little sucker. It smacks me in the face and flies away. Since the only light source in the room is currently on my forehead, I accept it. (I don't like it, of course and am better than half way grossed out by it, but I accept it.)
Since the hero of the book is landing in serious doo-doo, I go back to my book. A few minutes later it smacks me in the face again -- and I am starting to get better than half pissed now.
It must be some serious kind of bug, I think. And, being a great white hunter, I shrewdly evolve a clever plan: I shall hang my lit headlamp on the bedpost, wait for the insect to be drawn to the light again and I will squish it with my book (being very careful not to get any African bug guts on me because...well y'know.).
(Sometimes I surprise myself with my own cunning.)
So I sit there in the dark, novel poised, every sense alert and tuned to the whispering darkness. I was quivering with a hunter's anticipation.
Pretty smart bug I think.
I get tired and begin to think it's a little silly for a grown man to be waiting in the darkness to outsmart and then ambush a bug.
That little sucker comes round again, with the usual soft whispering thrumming sound I can't identify...and I see it's not a bug at all. In the flash I see it's a BAT. A little tiny bat.
I abandon the "wait and squish strategy," turn out the light and go to sleep.
Being a Great White Hunter, I most definitely do NOT pull the covers over my head.
Great African/Canadian hunter: zero.
I love Africa. I really really do. This is an amazing place.
We're here for another two...almost three days...before we leave for London.
Thought you guys might like to see The Headlamp...and it makes for an excellent excuse to tell the story.
Tomorrow, Sheree and I are going into a shark cage in Great White Shark infested waters. They promise up-close interactions with the most ferocious ocean predator on the planet. Seriously...we are. Her idea. Of course. Imagine that: going into a cage in the water...with sharks. On PURPOSE. Geez.
I think I'll take my novel with me in case I need to squish the shark.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
I was in a South African city. I can't remember which one. I was out with Sheree looking for (what else...?) an Internet Cafe.
Our course took us into a seedy part of town, lots of people standing idly on the stoops of worn out looking shops, talking and sitting and watching us.
We found two Internet Cafes. One was closed and the clerk in the other looked up and said "Not working," with a sad shake of her head. Many things don't work in Africa.
We were walking along the seafront and saw a fascinating old building: broken down with shattered windows that looked like broken bones to me.
I tried to photograph it from different angles, but nothing was working.
An old man came by and I stopped him.
"Are you from around here?" I asked.
He nodded. "All my life," he said.
"Do you know what this building is...was?" I asked.
He nodded, and stood looking at me.
I raised my eyebrows in the universal "Ummm...well?" gesture.
"I was born there," he said finally, looking at the broken windows, the peeling paint and the graffiti.
"It was a hospital?" I asked, seizing on the obvious.
"Yes. A hospital only for children. It's been closed for years. The government can't decide what to do with it." He looked at the building for a long moment. "Very sad to me."
The desertion of things, people and places in Africa make a strange kind of sense after a while. So many beautiful things are ignored and forgotten...so many lovely things are treated casually or allowed to stand and rot away...but then there are SO many wonderful things there you can sort of understand it. Most of these people are just trying to live through the day, to get enough to eat. Buildings fall low priority lists.
Still it was such a lovely old place: with a grand edifice and superb old world touches...
I played around with this image for a while. But nothing was working until I took a child's face and put it into the corner. This child was a student in a remote school not far from the seriously wild areas of Africa.
I loved Africa. There is something utterly mystical there. Maybe it's a vibrant quality in the air or the exotic nature of the people. Maybe it's the way you can turn a corner on a dusty road and see something amazing...or stand mere feet from an elephant or lion going about their business.
I loved Africa. I loved being there. Part of me still is.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
I spent some time with Auto FX's Cliff Weems and asked him about Mystical Focus.
What sets this Mystical Focus apart from other options on the market?
There is another release on the market that seems to have a similar "focus." How does Mystical Focus compare to Alien Skin's Bokeh release?
When Bokeh was launched, the reaction from some parts of the market were "I can already do that in Photoshop." Can people make the same comment about MF?
What was the toughest part of this development?
Who's the primary market for this package?
That's it for the interview with Cliff Weens of Auto FX.
I've been working with Mystical Focus for a week and a half now, trying out the various filters.
The effect at the top of this posting was accomplished in less than a minute. It uses the Radial Focus, which has a "global effect." An Ellipse can be applied to change the effect of the blur on the image.
The filter applies with lightning speed and I have been utterly delighted with how quickly professional effects can be applied and then customized to suit the precise parameters of the project.
There are eight Focal effects simulating a really broad spectrum of results.
The really interesting options are presented under the Atmosphere Menu. Here are six outstanding options that add the kind of stuff you expect like "Grain and Noise" to stuff you never expected like Highlight Smear and a Vignetting option guaranteed to blow your socks off.
Here is a filter set that hits a home run in areas like ease of use, and application speed. The interface is intuitive and extra Auto FX touches like instant explanation of the control your cursor is resting on eases the learning curve very significantly.
It's a package designed to save you time, vast amounts of it, even as it delivers genuinely clean and easy-to-customize results.
Overall rating: 9/10
You owe it to yourself to take a hard look at Mystical Focus. It's one of the best new filter sets on the market. It's selling for $149. You can get an additional 10% off using a time limited code.
If a rich relative has died, or you are casting about for something worthwhile to "invest" that income tax refund money in, you may even want to consider the whole Mystical Suite, composed of Mystical Lighting & Ambiance 2.0, Mystical Tint Tone and Color 2.0 and Mystical Focus. This suite is marketed for $399.00 and qualifies for the 10% discount.
Auto FX makes some of the most inventive software around for graphic designers and photographers. Take a few minutes to download the demo version. And let me know what YOU think, okay?
As Weems said, the real power of this package, in addition to the speed and specialization of the effects, is in the ability to blend them. Layers can be created within Mystical Focus and then blended and combined with other effects from the Atmosphere menu OR any of the other Mystical Suite effects. As you can probably tell: I really like this whole package.
Find all the goodies at www.autofx.com
A FINAL NOTE ABOUT REVIEWS: I don't make anything for recommending or reviewing the software on this site. I don't get a commission and you will notice there are NO banner ads for any of the software companies -- even the ones I like. I know times are tight for a lot of us in the design/photography field and it's important that you be able to trust someone to tell you what they REALLY think.
Saturday, April 24, 2010
Sheree and I got up at 4:00 IN THE MORNING.
She wanted to capture a sunrise. I, on the other hand, longed to point out that sunrises happen pretty much every day and that I saw no reason to drag my lazy butt out of a warm comfortable bed for this particular one.
The conclusion, to no one’s surprise was never in doubt. My lazy butt was in the shower and then we were in the car with Sheree chirping on about how GREAT it was going to be to watch the sun come up and how we were going to find the PERFECT place to photograph it from. Her optimism grated on my jagged disposition.
I tried not to sigh too loud, sipping coffee and praying that God would just take me now.
The morning eventually took us to a field of flowers (big surprise) and so there I stood feeling foul(er), glaring at the flowers and their fricking happy colors and apparent inability to understand that sometimes the day just sucks.
Then I saw this little flower in a direct beam of light.
“Hey…over here you floral Luddite,” it whispered.
I ignored it because it is patently obvious to any thinking being that flowers can’t talk.
“Pssssst,” it hissed.
I chanced a glance that way and saw it gently moving in the breeze in a decidedly “come hither” fashion.
“C’mon,” it whispered. “Admit it. I’m pretty. You KNOW I am.”
I snorted. Again.
“Look. It’ll be just between the two of us,” the persuasive petals posited. “You can tell people you ripped me out of the ground after you took my picture. It’s okay. I won’t tell.”
I felt myself wavering. But my testosterone kicked in and, as I considered actually WANTING to take a picture of a fricking flower, my resolve hardened.
“Hey, Daaaaaviiiiddd….take my picture. You know all the other photographers are doing it. C’mon. How can one little picture hurt? Just so you’ll know what it’s like.”
“I’ve taken pictures of flowers before,” I said in my best make-my-day-you-punk-flower growl. “I just never liked it much.”
I raised my camera and took a picture of a stoooopid bench. The picture sucked, but at least it wasn’t a fricking flower.
I concentrated all my attention on trying to turn the image of the bench into something decent. Time passed pleasantly.
Then I heard a soft floral sob from somewhere behind me.
I looked around. Sheree was happily and unselfconsciously intent on photographing a fricking flower some distance away. I peeked back at the yellow flower…and something that looked like dew ran a tragic wet course down its petals. The sound of inconsolable floral grief.
“Knock it off,” I hissed. “I refuse to surrender to a flower.”
It said nothing, simply turning a fraction of an angle toward the sun, which only served to highlight the wetness now running freely down its petals.
I took another shot of the bench. Stoooopid bench.
I turned and looked and saw the yellow flower shining bright in a perfect ray of light.
The flower caught me looking and instantly stopped sobbing. It looked as hopeful as a little flower can look.
“Take my picture,” it pleaded.
I didn’t say anything.
“C’mon. Take my picture. Why not? I’m pretty. Pretty is what I am all about. It’s what I’m for. So why not take a picture? C’mooooon.”
I looked around me. No one anywhere near. No one to see.
“In a few weeks I am going to be all crusty and dried up. Now…I’m beautiful. Take my picture, okay? Justonelittlepictureandyoudon’tevenhavetoenjoyit.”
I crept over and raised my camera. The flower perked right up, smoothing its petals and turning its most flattering angle toward me.
I raised the camera. My hand was shaking. I took the picture.
I think it smiled at me as I took the shot.
Friday, April 23, 2010
“You go ask,” says Sheree. “I’m shooting pictures.”
I look blankly at her. This is not what I had in mind at all.
“You’re the people person,” I remind her. “And you’re naturally cute. YOU should ask.”
“You’re the husband,” she says. “Go.”
My mental referee calls it “Game, Set and Match.” Sheree has played the Husband Card, which actually counts for double, since today is our anniversary.
We are in an auto wrecking yard near Lamont, Alberta. There is a fence with no nonsense barbed wire. It is festooned with “NO TRESSPASSING” signs. The only thing missing from the picture is a hillbilly in an ancient rocking chair with a shotgun across his lap and an inbred dog with yellow teeth, bloodshot eyes and a nasty disposition lying in a puddle of its own drool.
Sheree has decided we are going to shoot here. Geez.
It’s an amazing place. There are over four thousand cars waiting to be chopped and crushed. I am remembering how often movies link gangsters to wrecking yards, and I am thinking about a scene where a would-be informant was crushed alive in his own car as I cross the dusty yard.
The sun is warm on my skin. I love the sun, I think. I am going to miss it after I am dead, trapped in a cube of crushed metal. I sigh.
I open the office door, and peer into the way too dim interior.
“How you doing?” booms a friendly voice from behind the counter. I cross the room and see a blonde guy with a biker’s nap on his head. He’s standing there like he’s been waiting for me and he’s grinning. At me. Maybe I’m not going to die after all…
“Beautiful day,” I observe shrewdly. I am, of course, procrastinating. I am trying to come up with an excuse for why an apparently brain dead photographer ignores all the “NO TRESSPASSING” signs and is standing in an office in the middle of rural Alberta (where a person could, like just disappear…) about to ask if he can take pictures.
“Yup,” the biker guy booms. Again. “You a photographer, huh?”
I nod, not trusting my voice.
“You want to take pictures, huh?”
I nod again. After all – it’s been working for me so far.
“Go ahead,” he says. “We used to get a lot of photographers out here.”
I decide not to ask where the bodies are buried, since he doesn’t seem to be the body burying type. Instead, I thank him and head back out into the sunlight. Sweet sunlight.
Sheree is engrossed in photographing a broken down tractor.
“So?” she asks.
“Well…it took some persuading,” I say shaking my head wearily. I am the Returning Hero. “But I talked them into it.”
She nods, like she expected no less and turns her attention back to the tragic looking tractor she is shooting. I consider telling her the truth about the biker guy and the fact that they are really friendly after all.
So we spent two plus hours of our anniversary together shooting. She goes her way and I go mine and we meet up every once in a while. This seems to fit us way better than a dinner out or a houseful of friends.
I came across these lug nuts on the rusted seat of a tractor. Seizing the opportunity to turn my art to a communication of yet another cosmic truth, I shot this image.
So here it is.
Thursday, April 22, 2010
I spent most of my childhood crawling deep into books. The deeper the better.
We moved frequently. Being the New Kid at school, in a class full of other kids who had grown up together, was a thing I expected to endure each September.
Eventually, I figured out I had no more control over whether or not we moved, than I had over whether the Russians bombed the shit out of me. (It was, after all, the sixties…) But one day I realized that I could always choose the things that occupied my mind.
I started light with Dick and Jane – and that wonderfully antiseptic world they lived in where Father always wore a suit and Mother even wore a frilly dress to fix supper. The kids all got along and Spot was a cool dog. Even Sally was mostly okay…vacuous as hell…but mostly okay.
Then I moved over to the Hardy Boys (and Nancy Drew when no one was watching since they were basically the same kind of story…although one was ostensibly for girls). After that I main-lined Doc Savage and Tarzan, Sam Spade and Miss Marple. I ate up AA Merit and Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson. My heroes weren’t actors or athletes. They were Heinlein and Asimov, King and Matheson. On my more shadowy days I read Edgar Allan Poe and the Dark Shadows series. I totally bought into all of it.
Why am I telling you this?
Because remembering my childhood is a little like photographing old cars. They awaken the same sense of longing I used to feel reading fiction. I have this powerful sense that nothing bad could possibly happen in these beauties.
In the world these cars came from Father would always have time to play catch and Mother would bake endless cookies and the house would look like a photographer from Good Housekeeping was expected at any moment. Sally could always be counted on to say something cute. And Spot would never EVER pee on the floor.
There’s something majestic about these regal vehicles, something utterly surreal. They carry in the very fabric of their metal, something wonderful. Simply sitting a car like that would be like breathing magic, right?
In my mind’s eye I can see the whole family cruising down the highway listening to the radio and singing along with Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby. These cars were designed to go out on frosty Christmas Eves and return home with the perfect tree tied to the roof as the snow gently falls and everyone inside is smiling.
They are tough little time travellers because they are survivors, rolling gently into our world from a time when making something beautiful was more important than gas mileage, when designers put fins on their cars because they added elegance and, let’s face it, just looked really cool.
This car was magical to me. I could smell sweet dreams all over it. This image is about trying to infuse that sense of wonder and longing in a picture.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Doing a review of Auto FX releases is sort of like trying to count chickens. You think you're done -- but you inevitably see something new. The reason? There are simply too many things to look at and evaluate if you're going to do a thorough job.
Regular readers of this blog (and who isn't...?) know that Mystical Lighting 1.0 is one of my absolute favorite utilities. Often a simple nudge from one of the utilities in Mystical Lighting can be used to make any image really pop.
So I was delighted to get the latest "Mystical Lighting & Ambiance 2.0" just before I left for Florida. It gave me an opportunity to really play around (oops...I mean "Make a meaningful examination of...") this filter set.
It's split into three broad categories.
This is where 1.0 really shone. (Pun intended.)It's where 2.0 shines as well. There are a number of outstanding "easy to use" lighting effects. In 2.0 you can brighten highlights, infuse the image with wonderful warm sunlight -- a total of 14 different effects are here.
Admittedly, some will be very specific in their applications -- but I think most graphic artists and photographers will find really useful options here. Effects can be subtle or "in your face" splashes of color and light.
I very much like what has been done with my favorite from 1.0: radial light caster. Very simple to use -- and much more easily customizable in 2.0. "Light in the Dark" and "Mood Lighting" are both excellent utilities. They are not as easy to use as other filters in the set. But you'll be wise to spend a few minutes learning them.
Here's where the real treasures lie in 2.0. You can create vast mood and atmosphere with the careful application of what's waiting inside this category. Try Black Shade for instant jaw dropping atmosphere...or try Shadow Play to take your images to whole new levels. There are 5 very good shading options here.
Here's where I found myself really looking forward to seeing the new stuff. There are eight options here. Add Ethereal lighting...or paint with rainbows and mist. I found it fairly similar to 1.0 in many respects -- although it's a package geared to allow for easier, faster customization of effect.
Some software manufactures issue upgrades with cosmetic changes, but very little little that is actually NEW. Mystical Lighting and Ambiance 2.0 isn't one of those. A lot of thought went into each filter, and how best to create practical applications. Overall, it's a good upgrade. If you haven't had this filter set in your arsenal at all -- you really need to give it your attention.
If you're considering upgrading from 1.0, let me suggest that you download the demo from Auto FX and look it over. There's some great new stuff here which, to my mind, easily justifies the upgrade price. (There are some time sensitive discounts available as well. Check out the interview with Cliff Weems just below.)
Did Mystical Lighting and Ambiance blow me away? Not exactly. But in all fairness, my expectations were so high, and my use of 1.0 so common, I don't know what Auto FX could have done to send me into the "Blown away" zone -- as they did with their outstanding upgrade to Mystical Tint Tone and Color.
As with all filter sets from Auto FX, you really need to sit down and take a hard look at each option, spending a little time on learning how to use it properly. It's an excellent investment of time.
In summary: great creative options here. You can build fabulous atmosphere into your images with just a few keystrokes. Smart designers will really make a study of the many options built into this upgrade to learn how to use them most effectively.
Overall rating: 8.5/10
Saturday, April 17, 2010
Here's Mary Poppins. Okay. She's an actress in the role of Mary Poppins at Disney's Magical Kingdom. I used ONLY filters from Auto FX in the processing of this image. Specifics on this later in the week.
I've been in Florida for nearly a week poking around. Just before I left, I had the opportunity to download the latest Mystical Lighting & Ambiance package from Auto FX.
It's a package I've been looking forward to for months. You'll recall that Auto FX launched the blockbuster upgrade to the lackluster Mystical Tint Tone and Color 1.0 and blew me away.
I've been working with a hands-on copy of ML&A for a week now. My review of the package will be published next week. But in the meanwhile, I had an opportunity to chat with Cliff Weens of Auto FX about their package. Here it is:
1) What are you MOST proud of in Mystical Lighting 2.0?
The photo-realistic, natural way in which our light rendering engine capture the essence of real-life streaming light.
2) What are the three most significant differences between 1.0 and 2.0 in your view?
Number one would have to be the interface with features like the Brush Palette and new brush shapes. Number two would be the new atmospheric effects and the addition of over a dozen new filters in the suite. Number three would have to be the way it is integrated into the Mystical Suite allowing you to combine Mystical Lighting and Ambiance 2.0 with 80 other filters from the Mystical Focus and Mystical Tint Tone and Color suites. This gives the new version of Lighting a vast amount of power as you can add Focal effects and Color and Tonal effects to set the scene up for a photo-realism that is really beautiful to see.
3) Was "ease of use" a key consideration in your development of 2.0?
Absolutely - we wanted to proceed the first version which was released 7 years ago with something worthy of an upgrade ... we wanted to make it as easy as humanly possible so we worked really hard to improve the look and feel of the interface.
3a) Are there significant changes to the user interface?
One of the features we really liked in this release was the larger Before / After presets that let the user select from our instant presets or save their own and see the original then the effect version of the preset. It makes storing the instant presets so much nicer.
4) Has processing speed been enhanced?
By around 30%. We do have a multi-core version releasing this summer that is a free update - it has an extremely fast performance ratio and will improve speeds up to 5x faster on just about every effect and on some it will be close to real-time.
5) You've added "Ambiance" to the title. What are the key package differences that led to this?
When you see how Mystical Lighting can set the mood for the scene you immediately see where the Ambiance idea comes from - the new atmospherics are also a part of this name addition.
6) Which of the filter options do you use most often?
I am a huge fan of Light in the Dark and the Rainy Light / Haze filters as they add lots of drama to a scene.
7) What were the big challenges in developing the new package?
We spent lots of time with studying what we had already done and how it was being used - this meant seeing photographers like Lisa Jane (http://www.lisajane.com/) were using our solutions in their workflow.
8) What's BRAND NEW in Mystical Lighting 2.0?
We added twice as many effect filters. The new Snowy Light / Rainy Light let you stream lighting and rain / snow across your scene so you can really create some amazing looks.
9) Where do you see the primary applications for the filter sets?
Setting the tone and mood for a photo in a post-production environment. Many times studio photographers don't want to setup a fog machine and try to fight with creating real haze in the studio. Or when on an outdoor shoot they can't always control the lighting ... Mystical Lighting and Ambiance gives the photographer the ability to control this aspect of their work in a digital suite of filters.
10) Can upgrades be made on-line?
Sure can ... we have the upgrade priced at $129 and it is downloadable as well as available in a physical copy too.
11) Any purchase discounts available?
Sure are - between now and July 30, 2010 users can upgrade or purchase a new copy with a 10% discount if they use coupon code: P24568
12) What's next for Auto FX?
We're working heavily on the 64 bit Mac version right now (out in a couple of weeks) as well as making sure support for CS5 is rock-solid. We also have a team working on multi-processor support with a new rendering engine that is very fast. So the biggest work we have are the optimizations we're applying across our portfolio of over 150 filters.
That's the interview. The review comes next week, and will probably be composed on a plane in the middle of the night.
Auto FX has also released an interesting little "Mystical Focus" package. We'll have information on that next week as well.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
All detective movies finish in a drawing room. This is where the detective has assembled all the suspects, witnesses and assorted sidekicks into one room. A hush falls over the crowd as he starts to speak and untangle the twisted web of the mystery.
The conclusion of this story takes place in a tiny car…one I suspect Europeans did not design with humans in mind. I was in the back seat with my knees braced to my chest, trying not to look like an accordion…or sound like one for that matter.
“You’re Greta?” I asked, a little wheezy from the lack of oxygen.
“I’m the voice you heard on the phone. Yes. I needed to bring you into the case,” she said.
I smiled my most world-weary smile. “Because I was the first detective you saw?”
She shook her head. “No. I just said that because I wanted you to stop calling me ‘Toots.’ You have a special quality to you. Something we needed.”
Pretty much every overweight Dungeons and Dragons player has a genetic predisposition to getting suspicious when a pretty girl tells them they’re ‘special.’ Comments like that are usually followed by ‘So do you want a date?’”
But she was nodding, looking me directly in the eyes. I noticed her eyes, one blue and the other green, were large and round and so very sincere. There was a little dimple that moved at the lower corner of her mouth when she spoke that made me very glad my knees were pressed against my chest.
“When I was looking for help, I simply passed my hand over the phone book and my finger came down on your name.”
I settled back. “I get it. Sure. Coincidence.”
She shook her head emphatically. “No. Guidance. Destiny. You were supposed to be here. Without you, we could never have recovered the coin.”
Gerald was nodding.
“He already had the coin,” I pointed out.
She was nodding too. “Yes. You were chosen to help. Without you, he would never have made it out alive….plus you found the secret door no one else could find. Something happened in there…in the chapel, right?”
I remembered the strange sense of following the music to the keystone. I nodded.
“How did Gerald get in?” I asked.
She laughed. So did Gerald – which was not a pleasant sound.
“He was captured at the end of our fight. We knew we were losing. He surrendered, hopefully to be taken into their lair and very hopefully get the coin. Which he did. But he had no way to get out. Until you came along to unlock the door.
“We agreed beforehand that if the battle should appear lost, for me to meet him here. And I have been here every day since. Waiting.”
She finished with a smile, a flash of white teeth and something that almost approached shyness.
“So you followed me, and pretended to be Greta, because you didn’t think I could get the job done,” I said.
She thought about it and then nodded. “Well…would you have trusted you?”
Finally I nodded back, smiling.
“Do you know what happened to me in the chapel?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No. But I know it was destined to happen.”
I told her about the vision (okay…I felt a little silly using the word ‘vision’ but there was no other way to describe it) of the man of fire.
She exchanged a sharp look with Gerald. Their eyes were talking to each other. In the end she shook her head.
“Strong suspicions. Nothing’s certain.” She stopped talking and looked me square in the eyes. “The driver, this McGee person, was sent by them. The Stokers must have intercepted our message to you.”
“He would have killed you and taken the coin,” said Gerald.
I gulped, which was difficult because my mouth was suddenly very dry. I turned and looked at Jennifer for a long moment and she looked back at me. We both knew something heavy was blowing in the breeze. Finally she spoke: “I hope you will stick around long enough so we can figure it out…together.”
I half laughed, half snorted. “You want me to?”
Her face was suddenly serious. She nodded. “Stay with us. Work with us. Become a Keeper.”
My jaw dropped and my heart was already setting up all the many reasons we should tell her to forget the whole thing.
“You want me to hunt vampires? With you?”
She nodded. “With us.”
I thought about it. My life flashed before my eyes. I thought about returning to an empty office, friendless and client challenged. I though about what an eternity of thinking about her and wondering how things WOULD have been with her. The decision was made.
“Jennifer,” I growled. “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“We’ll always have Glasgow,” said Gerald, laughing and it didn’t so bad this time.
“Here’s looking at you, kid,” said Jennifer.
We all were laughing .I knew I was with my people. The fact that we hunt vampires for a living? That’s just a bonus.
So that’s it for Mr. Diamond for the moment. Thank you all for your kind attention, your comments and your patience with someone who insisted on writing a story on a photography blog.
A pair of students were wolfing down a meal as we staggered out of the chapel into the fading sunlight. It looked strange to see something so normal only feet away from where we had just come from. Had it been only a few minutes ago we’d been fleeing some clawed creature in the dark?
“I have a ride,” I told Gerald. “Greta sent him.”
He stopped and looked at me, suspicion painted stark on his sharp features. “Greta did?”
I nodded. “She sent him to pick me up at the ship.”
“How do you know?”
“When I got off the ship, he was there with my name on a placard.”
I was offended. I was sore and my ankle was bleeding profusely from where the minion had clawed at it.
“And what?” I demanded, dismayed to hear the slight whine in my voice.
“Greta didn’t send him,” Gerald said.
“Yes she did,” I insisted. But the look in his eyes and the sense of my heart were sinking the declaration.
We’d been walking. More precisely, Gerald had been walking and I had been limping. We rounded the corner and before us was one of those tiny cars the Europeans favor. Leaning against it was Jennifer.
She watched us approach with interest. As she recognized me, her eyes widened and she rushed forward, nearly knocking me down as she threw her arms around me.
“Sam!” she said. I don’t think my name has ever sounded better.
“Jennifer,” I responded, since that seemed the appropriate thing to say.
Gerald was standing, arms folded, a crooked smile on his lips. He gestured toward Jennifer.
“Mr. Diamond, allow me to present….Greta.”
We flew up the stairs, Gerald and I. Sometimes we fell and sometimes we collided. But somehow we neared the doorway.
I could hear the beast breathing now. We had rushed. But it had moved with furious feral speed, as though it could taste our blood already. The doorway was three feet away and I allowed myself to hope.
My mind left me at that second, the same way it had when the music guided me to this place. I saw something…the flash of something happening…somewhere. A man of fire becoming something else…and so very calm about it all. There was lighting…and a planet…and…
The vision slipped away into a fog of pain as something closed on my ankle. I felt the pressure on bone and the pinpoints of claws digging deep into my skin.
My moan and the beast’s howl of triumph came at the same time. Gerald paused, framed in the light of the doorway. I and the creature of the shadows were far behind him. He was frozen.
The creature tugged at me and my fingernails scrabbled frantically for a hold on smooth stone. Gerald looked at me a moment longer, then produced a blade of glistening steel. With one smooth motion, he leapt down and drove the blade forward in a smooth glittering arc.
If you’ve ever cut into a watermelon with a cleaver, you would recognize the sound. It was a meaty thunk, followed immediately by a cry of rage blended with the sharp surprise of pain. Abruptly the pressure on my leg stopped and I kicked hard, eager to be rid of the thing.
I staggered to my feet and Gerald threw one arm around my shoulder and manhandled me through the doorway. He let me go as we moved into the determined peace of the chapel. I fell hard to the ground. He spun and drove the point of his blade hard against a stone and the doorway closed.
Perhaps a second later there came the sound of something powerful slamming into the rock. I listened carefully, thinking that I could hear the howls of blood rage from the other side…but maybe not.
“What was that thing?” I asked.
“Minion,” Gerald said, luxuriating for a moment, leaning against the stone doorway.
“A what?” I asked.
“Minion. One of the Stoker’s guardians.”
“Holy crap,” I said. I inwardly noted I had been saying “holy crap” a lot lately and resolved to say something else in the future like ‘Holy Smokes’ or ‘holy….well…something else.’
The assault on the stone door was getting louder as though the thing expected it could claw through stone to get to us.
“It will stop in a minute,” Gerald said. “It’s job is to guard…and ensure we don’t come back.”
Gerald closed his eyes. He was the picture of an exhausted man. I noticed bags heavy under his eyes and for a moment his entire body seemed to sag.
“We need to go see Jennifer,” he said finally. “We have a lot to tell you.”
Hands pulling at me.
Painful corners digging into my bones. Slow progress and the steady sound of “Thump Thump” that oddly enough was tied to the equally regular motion my head made as it jounced up and down. And then the dawning realization that it WAS my head, thumping over stairs.
Next came the sound of labored breathing.
I opened my eyes and saw a man’s face. Oddly familiar. I had seen it somewhere before. A racing magazine? Nah.
“You’re awake,” he whispered.
“Unnnghhh,” I responded.
“You fainted,” he said softly.
A surf of indignant sensation washed away the cobwebs.
“I did not,” I insisted.
A rough hand pressed to my mouth and suddenly his face was close to mine. Too close.
“Shhhhh,” he hissed. “You want to get both of us killed?”
Since it sounded like a rhetorical question I didn’t respond.
I looked closely into his face. Both heart and male orbs went into immediate panic mode as realization dawned. I was looking into the face of Gerald – Fitzroy! He was the man I had initially been hired to follow. He’d last been seen about to do mortal battle with the undead Stokers underneath the Unfinished Church in Bermuda. My partner, Jennifer had gone down to help him while I fled…oops…while I made a strategic retreat. Neither of them had been seen again.
I did my best to form a fist and drive it into his jaw. My body wasn’t quite ready to take orders yet, so instead of smacking him, my pinky finger embedded itself in his right nostril.
He looked understandably confused for a moment and then swatted my hand away.
“You’re an idiot,” he said.
“And you’re dead,” I responded.
“No I’m not,” he hissed, shaking me by the lapels for emphasis.
“You went to fight an army of the undead in Bermuda,” I said. “You’re toast. History.”
He shook me again. I was getting a little tired of this.
“We escaped,” he said.
My heart skipped a beat. Could Jennifer be alive?
He nodded curtly. “Jennifer is in the car. Waiting for this.”
He produced a small coin from his pocket. It was covered in ornate carvings. One side was gold and the other silver. I could feel power radiating from it.
My jaw dropped.
“And I have been waiting for you. You took long enough, by the way. We need to get out of here,” Fitzroy/Gerald/Whatever his name really was hissed. “Before they realize it’s gone.”
As if on cue there came a high keening wail from somewhere below us. It was inhuman and as it pitched up and down the scale, the emotion it carried moved from grief to fury.
Gerald looked at me, eyes wide with what could only be described as terror and scrambled up the stairs.
Heart pounding, I followed.
Then I heard the sound of claws scratching on stone. The keening wail had become a growl of animal fury. It, whatever it was, was coming up the stairs directly for us, coming fast, panting with the naked desire to rip…to rend…to tear. The doorway loomed in the distance…impossibly small and simply too far away.
We may be taking a little break in the story over the next few days to bring you up to date on some VCD (Very Cool Developments).
As you may or may not know, Auto FX has just released the latest update to Mystical Lighting. It's available now at www.autofx.com. On the face of it,it appears to be a radical departure from the classic Mystical Lighting 1.0. I'll be taking a hard look at the demo over the weekend.
Good or bad remains to be seen. I use Mystical Lighting 1.0 frequently -- so do a lot of you. It'll be interesting to see if 2.0 is as vast an improvement on 1.0 as Mystical Tint Tone and Color 2.0 was on the "mostly useless" MTTC 1.0. MTTC 2.0 blew us away. Hopefully Mystical Lighting 2.0 will have the same effect. Time will tell.
I'm trying to line up an interview with Cliff Weems, from Auto FX about his latest creation and posting the interview here.
2010 promises a bumper crop of Photoshop releases. We're all looking forward to seeing what Adobe's going to do with the new CS5. Alien Skin is working on a new Bokeh update, which yours truly will be helping them with. We'll keep you posted.
Look for that interview...and a the last three episodes of STOKERS later in the week.
Now: Back to Mr. Diamond:
The darkness closed around me like an accountant’s fist and even when the door should have been just a few feet away from me – it loomed what appeared to be miles above.
Pungent scent filled my nostrils and made my eyes water. This didn’t matter a whole lot, I decided, because I could barely see anyway. Bogie would have had a flashlight or simply happened across a richly guttering torch. But this wasn’t a movie and there was nothing. As I moved forward I knew that a single misstep would send me tumbling down these stairs and who knew how far I would fall? Maybe forever. Maybe longer.
“Are you out of your freaking mind?” my heart snapped. “Do you realize what you are doing here? What you are risking here? You are like, going to get us killed, you freaking dumbass moron.”
“What else were we supposed to do?” my brain asked my heart coldly. “We have to know what’s down here.”
“We do?” asked my heart, dripping sarcasm. “Why is THAT?”
“Because we have to know,” explained my brain patiently. “We must experience...”
“Dork,” my heart hissed.
“Chicken,” my brain hissed back.
“Moron,” the heart cried – a little louder this time. “We’re in a black pit working our way deeper into darkness, blockhead.”
“You want us to stay where it’s safe and NEVER know what’s down here?” my brain responded, and then began casting about for an appropriate invective. “Mr. Poopypants.”
“That’s the best you can do?” began my heart.
“We think we should do whatever is safest,” chimed in my male orbs softly, speaking in unison.
It went on like that for a long time. My body parts have a long history of arguing with each other.
I continued down into the darkness, my hand carefully tracing a path along the wall. The light was closer now. I could see it moving on the wall with the oddly flickering dance that a fire throws.
It was then that I heard the first sound. It was a leathery step. Think of the sound two pieces of paper make when you rub them together.
“That’s it. We are like TOTALLY screwed,” my heart moaned.
My mind came to complete attention and began studying the darkness in front of me.
The sound came again. Closer. Coming our way. Definitely.
Very quietly, my male orbs went back into hiding while my heart gibbered incoherently and the figure on the stairs grew closer.
My heart pounded in my ears….and for a second I thought I was going to faint. For a second I stood peering into the face of the Abyss…alive with color and stars and things that moved with impossible speed.
Then the darkness took me and I knew nothing at all.
But something happened at that precise moment. First, the hand vanished in a puff of blackened smoke. But it had been pointing at something. I turned to look and immediately I was swept into a river of uncanny perception. I was taken by the sensation of drifting above myself and in that moment I was completely aware of everything. I knew there was an insect scuttling along the floor, I knew the young man in the corner of the chapel who was playing those fabulous praise choruses was chiding himself for not peeing before his shift started. And I knew that there was a secret passageway somewhere in front of me.
Don’t ask me how I knew. I just did.
It looked to me as though the piano music were something I could see moving in an oddly colored line through the air before me and my eyes (even though they weren’t my eyes…exactly) followed it to a nondescript stone directly below a statue of a worshipping angel. The line forming in the air seemed to make the objects along its trajectory shift like looking down a black highway on a sweltering summer day,
The stone at the end of this etherial line glowed with a sickly yellow light.
I walked across the mostly deserted chapel and pressed my hand to the stone.
I moved it gently from the right to the left.
I rapped against it sharply with my fingers.
Finally I raised both hands (and no, I could never tell you why I chose to do this, I just did) and pressed each index finger into an opposite corner of the stone.
There was a growling, grating sound and a three foot section of wall slid open.
I stood there, examining the tips of my fingers for a moment. Then I peered into the small opening at a circular staircase, moving downward into the darkness. No. Not darkness. Somewhere ahead was a flickering light…like a torch.
Whenever I watch horror movies, I am continually amazed by dumbass people who go down into dark places where there are more than likely slavering monsters waiting for them. How dumb can you be? I’d wonder aloud.
My heart was pounding. I could feel it pulse in my ear like a high pressure water hose on a firetruck. I’d already made my decision.
Placing my hand against the wall, I ducked into the opening and made my way into the darkness.
My initial idea was to do a detective serial, where the detecive would be in the same trip Sheree and I just got back from. The concept was that I would write the story day by day. As we went to a port or spent the day on the ship, so would he.
We got too busy and I ran out of steam. (You can go ALL the way back to #1 here if you want to start from the beginning.) But Mr. Diamond has been bugging me, reminding me I stranded him in Scotland.
This Red Hand isn't in Trinity Chapel. It's actually part of a statue in a fountain out front of the spa on the Grand Princess cruiseliner.
So I'm going to work on the story a little more. Here's number 14:
“So have you been a dick long?” asked McGee.
I didn’t like the way he said “dick.” I’d taken to this guy like a mongoose takes to a snake. Something about him was like biting on tin foil.
“Long enough,” I growled, thinking of Bogart in To Have and to Have Not.
“My orders are to take you to Glasgow University Chapel. I am to wait for you for a full two hours and then return you to your ship…and to take a package, which you will give me, to the courier.”
I nodded as though I had some idea what he was talking about.
“You have no idea what I am talking about, do you?” he said, working snide into the comment like Julia Child works warble into her voice.
“Of course I do,” I said.
“You know what package my…employer…expects?”
“Uh huh,” I said, pretending to be fascinated with something going on outside.
“I don’t believe you, Mr. Diamond,” he said finally. “I have no idea why she chose you.”
He made the word “you” sound like the word you’d use for something stuck to the bottom of your shoe after you’ve been tap dancing in a cow pasture.
I shrugged with carefully cultivated indifference.
The rest of the ride was silent and I watched the old streets of Glasgow slide by. Strange city, I thought. So much old and so much new, existing right alongside each other as through they belonged there.
Gradually “old” seemed to be replacing new. Business people rushing purposefully down the street gave way to young people toting books and book bags and, using my keen sense of detection, I realized we were nearing the University…and the chapel.
McGee pulled over and kept his eyes fixed ahead, like looking at me might just make him sick.
“Are we there?” I asked.
“You’re the detective,” he said dryly.
I got out of the car and from somewhere off to my left I heard the sound of classical piano music playing something that sounded old and vaguely hymn-like.
I decided to follow the sound. As I closed the door, McGee put his hand resolutely out to prevent me.
“That package, Mr. Diamond. You will not forget the package.” He paused and looked at me evenly. His eyes glittered. I’m not making that up. His eyes positively glittered. “It would be very, very bad if I see you again and you don’t have a package for me.”
Then he smiled with his lips, but his eyes made me think of a shark or a vulture. They didn’t smile.
I gave him my best “I’m a detective and you’re not” two fingered salute and walked away. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, what I was supposed to get…or how exactly I was going to get it.
The Glasgow University Chapel loomed ahead.
I walked in – and that’s when I saw the creepy red hand reaching for me out of the wall.
The six days at sea between Bermuda and Glasgow passed uneventfully. I learned three things. First: never EVER adjust the water temperature while you are still in the shower. Second: when on a cruise eat ONLY cooked or frozen foods. (These treatments kill all the calories.) Third: we are not alone. There have been three murders as we cross the Atlantic.
In all three cases, the corpses weren’t discovered for at least two days, since most old people look corpse-like when they are sleeping and there are a LOT of old people on this ship.
The medical officer, a man with suspiciously large ears, believes they all died of natural causes. I was half-hoping for a burial at sea in shark infested waters – but apparently they send the bodies home.
I drifted by the medical office on the fourth floor and casually brought up the topic of the deaths.
“Why do you want to know?” he asked coldly.
I laughed in my most disarming manner. “Curious. Call it curious.”
“None of your business,” he said finally.
“Okay,” I said. I was thinking with lightning speed now. “I am a travel writer. Yeah. That’s it. I’m a travel writer. I am working on a series about why people should avoid cruising because contagious diseases can spread like wildfire, killing all the old people first. I’m calling the series ‘Death Ships of the Princess Fleet.’”
Have you ever seen ALL the color fade from someone’s face? It goes from a healthy pink to a pasty looking white. So when I say that the ‘doctor visibly blanched’ you know what I mean.
He looked at me for a moment and I tried to keep my eyes off those enormous ears. Since he is probably sensitive about it, I avoided all discussions having to do with Dumbo or Prince Charles. That’s why I’m a pro.
Finally he shrugged. “Well, I suppose there’s no reason for you not to know. Their hearts all stopped. But they were old and that is to be expected. Why aren’t you writing this down?”
I tapped at my temple. “I memorize everything as soon as I hear it. It’s a gift. Were there any marks on the bodies?”
“They were old. There were lots of marks.”
“Any…ummm…marks like the ones on that guy who died in the deck chair a while ago?”
The doctor looked away and got intensely interested in a file on his desk.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about Mr….?”
“Smith,” I said. “I am John Smith. Travel writer.”
“Your cruise card says you are “Sam D. Diamond.”
“Pen name,” I responded with a sly wink.
He paused a moment longer, as though deciding whether or not to make a big deal out of this. In the end he just shrugged again.
“If there’s nothing else, Mr. Diamond, I have a lot of paperwork to do.”
“Of course it is.”
“So no marks?” I said. I was a terrier. A BULL terrier, never letting go.
“Nope. No marks.”
I tipped the brim of an imaginary hat to him. The door slammed almost instantly behind me.
We arrived in Scotland on a foggy morning. I’d taken an internet plan out that had cost me HUGE dollars…sixty cents a MINUTE! Who in their right mind would blow that kind of cash on the Internet? You’d have to be cracked or loaded to spend that kind of dough.
But I used my time at thirty seconds per session, to research the location of the chapel at Glasgow University. I had a vague idea of where I was going.
I was among the first to get off the ship, having used my elbows on several old people in walkers.
I stepped off the ship and saw a terrier thin man in a badly wrinkled suit standing before a tiny car with the words McGee Realty stenciled on the window. He held a clipboard with the name “DIAMOND” scrawled on it. He was looking hopefully at each person with a slight head bob and waggling eyebrows as he asked his silent question.
“I’m Diamond,” I said.
He looked me up and down, moustache twitching like a whiskered rodent.
I held up my cruise card, which he scrutinized.
“We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Diamond. I understand you need to see some angels?”
“Who are ‘we?’”
He smiled, showing really bad teeth. “All in good time, Sir. Step into the car, if you please.”
I needed to fold myself into it, since it looked like one of those cars at the circus that six hundred clowns get out of. But in a few minutes we were off to Glasgow University to meet an angel.