Freebie Mondays: Black Licorice Day (Prompt Novel Chapter 1)

Freebie Mondays: Black Licorice Day (Prompt Novel Chapter 1)

For 2024, I have decided to devote my prompt writing time to a novel. The twist is that the novel plot will be generated entirely by the writing prompts I chose to use for the project – which were rolled randomly using my trusty dice and a few online prompt lists. You can find the Table of Contents here.

For Chapter 1, I decided to use the first prompt I rolled – “During a bout of road rage, a woman puts a curse on a man that upends his life.”

If you’d like to see this chapter come together, you can watch the VoD on Youtube!
. . .

Days came in many flavors. Today’s would best be described as black licorice or star anise – her least favorite.

Ira gripped her steering wheel so tightly her knuckles turned white as she navigated the bumper to bumper traffic that sat between her home and her office. Usually it took only fifteen minutes to navigate the roadways between the two spaces, a blessedly short period of time for a city commute. But today, the construction that had been choking the downtown districts had spilled into new areas, and the side roads she usually took to avoid heavy traffic were full of extra cars displaced from their normal routes.

She had been sitting at red lights for what felt like half an hour, and if she didn’t get around this final turn soon, she was going to be late.

Normally, it wouldn’t matter if she strode through the door to her office an extra five minutes past the start of the day. She worked in a nice corner office with windows that looked down on the city. Her tasks required no extra input from outside team members, and her pace was brisk enough to make up for any lost time.

But today, she was supposed to be giving a presentation to a high-profile client. The kind of people who didn’t like to have their time wasted and preferred everything associated with them be prompt.

The kind of deal she was going to lose if she was three minutes late, no matter how ridiculous traffic had proven to be.

You should have left earlier, was a common refrain among offices like hers. Everyone from the boss down to the janitor would simply roll their eyes and say, you know what traffic in this city can be like.

Ira knew. That was why she always left forty minutes early even though it put her at her office twenty minutes before it was time to start the day. It was also why no one ever questioned an extra five minutes here and there; Ira was reliable. Ira always got the job done.

Fuck this.

The second the light turned green, Ira jerked her steering wheel sideways. She would drive up onto the sidewalk curb if she had to. She was not losing six months worth of work over some stupid mix-up by a dumb city planner who probably didn’t even actually have to commute.

The shoulder provided ample opportunity for her to slip free of the press of traffic, however. Then she crept along the outskirts of the road until she was within inches of the turn.

She could hear everyone silently cursing her through their windows. She felt blazing eyes turn in her direction as she committed the most hideous sin of acting like an entitled driver.

But on this day, this terrible black licorice day, Ira didn’t give a damn. She activated her turn signal and swerved so that the car nearest the turn off would give way, allowing her to enter the flow of traffic rather than collide with their pristine sports car.

Horns blared, and Ira gritted her teeth. But then she was around the corner and moving. With the flow of traffic opening up, and the last of the stop lights behind her, she was confident she could reach her office just before the presentation was scheduled to start. And because she was always prepared well ahead of time, she would be ready to go when the big moment came.

She relaxed, loosened her grip on the steering wheel and settled slightly back in the driver’s seat. She could turn this day around. All things were possible, even when the day left that sickly sweet black licorice sensation in the back of her mouth. All it took was one victory snatched from the closing hands of defeat.

The building that held her office loomed at the far end of the street. One set of stop signs and a sharp turn into the parking lot were all that stood between her and sealing this deal.

Ira eased her car to a stop, performed a cursory check of the intersection and pressed her foot to the gas again.

A streak of blue came blazing out of the distance, horn blaring. Though four identical stop signs adorned the corner of the intersection, the streak showed no signs of slowing.

That bastard isn’t going to stop, Ira’s mind screeched as she scrambled to hit the break. Her heart hammered in her chest as she instinctively lifted her foot and slammed it on the opposite pedal. A second blaring horn joined the first as the heel of her hand moved of its own accord. The sound at least drowned the curses flowing from her mouth.

She thought she stopped just in time to give the asshole the space he needed. But as the streak blew through the intersection, the corner of the front bumper skidded along the front of her car. The impact was minimal, but the scraping sound grated along the insides of her ears for several long seconds after the car vanished into the distance.

“Son of a!” Ira snarled as she unhooked her seatbelt and vaulted from her car to check the damage.

There it was – a long, dark grey scratch gouged into the otherwise perfect facade of her lipstick red coupe. Damage that would likely cause thousands of dollars to fix – and no insurance from the jerk that did it.

Plus, the seconds were ticking down while the alarm on Ira’s phone indicated that she was supposed to be inside her office building at least thirty seconds ago.

Ignoring the sound and her location for a moment, Ira squeezed her eyes closed, curled her hands into fists and stood as rigid as was possible while she called to mind the image of the speeding sports car. It passed too quickly for her to get a look at the driver, but that didn’t matter.

You will pay for this, she pledged silently. One way or another.

Then she muttered something under her breath, a curse so foul she swore she would never actually speak it. But with the weight of the world pressing on her shoulders and the words you’re late about to be screamed in her face, the action seemed warranted.

She did not bother to contemplate the wisdom of her actions once the words were spoken. She simply climbed back into her car, deactivated her phone and navigated the last short stretch of road that would bring her to her destination.

*   *   *

The day started out all right. As far as days go, Alyial would have labeled this one average. He had no particularly strong feelings when he rolled out of bed in the morning, and his first sip of coffee tasted particularly good. That was about as much as anyone could hope for when they worked a high-stress job like his. It meant he hadn’t had to bring the office home with him the night before – a welcome relief to be sure.

But as soon as he stepped out the door, his trajectory adopted a sharp downward slant, and the slope seemed to be gaining momentum rather than slowing.

The text arrived while he was still only halfway to his office – a forty minute drive on a good day, and one that took most of an hour with traffic backed up to kingdom come. The message said only, Noodles needs you in the office five minutes ago.

That was his cue to floor it.

Alyial did not usually approve of ignoring traffic laws. He wasn’t what he would consider a reckless driver. But the nature of his work had grown increasingly time sensitive as the project had gone on. As the code he and his peers developed transformed into a full-fledged simulation, it needed to be carefully monitored, sometimes around the clock. It had grown increasingly difficult to step away from the office without receiving frantic messages from whoever had been assigned watch duty, mostly because each of his colleagues contributed a different type of code and expertise to the design.

Since none of them had yet mastered the skills of their fellows, they needed to be on constant call in case the simulation needed attention. So if Noodles needed his input five minutes ago, the situation was probably pretty dire.

It’s too bad they don’t offer police escorts to lab technicians. ‘My computer simulated universe needs my help or it might collapse’ probably wasn’t going to earn him any favors if he got pulled over for speeding. But given the nature of drivers here in the city, he was relatively confident when he hit the gas the odds of getting pulled over would be relatively low.

In that regard, his luck had held. But in every other, he might as well not have bothered.

He was pretty sure he sideswiped someone when he ran one of those stop signs. He didn’t know for sure because he was moving at a fast enough speed he barely felt the minimal impact, but he did note the massive scrape across the driver’s side front corner when he vaulted out of his parking space and charged into the building.

Not that he had time to think much about the connotations of expensive repairs and a possible hit and run. He was in such a hurry to reach Noodles and their ailing simulation, he almost forgot to scan his security card. The red lights blinked and the alarm bleated a single sharp whine before he managed to fumble the card free of his pocket. Failure to scan would have resulted in being escorted out of the building and, as it was, several heads poked out of offices to give him dirty looks.

All of it would have been worth enduring, however, had he not arrived in his office to find Mr. Noodles, the tech assigned to watch duty for the previous evening, furiously slamming his fingers on his keyboard while screaming, “Come on, do not do this! Do not shut down on me!”

Two years of work and ten months of intense constant vigilance were on the line when Alyial shoved his office chair aside and added his furious typing to the mix of click clacks echoing through the small office chamber. He barely heard the reports offered by Eidas, the man who had sent him the text about the problem, as he focused the full force of his energy on the code errors reported by the simulations monitoring program.

“I thought you ironed all of these stability issues out?” Noodles snarled during one of the rare moments he glanced up from his keyboard. The name printed on his security badge actually read Nodlehs, but everyone on the team affectionately referred to him as Noodles or, when formality dictated or they were just feeling particularly smart-assed, Mr. Noodles.

“I thought I did too, clearly,” Alyial snapped in response. “I wouldn’t have gone home and slept like a baby otherwise.” He should have known to be suspicious of his first full night of sleep since they activated the simulation, but it felt so nice he hadn’t wanted to question the cost at which it came.

“It’s still hitting the red line,” Eidas warned. “If we get another spike like that, we’re going to have to shut down or we risk damage to the results.”

“If we don’t get this fixed before Nala gets here-” Noodles started, but he was cut off by the slamming of the door.

“Fuck!” Alyial muttered as the sudden intrusion to his concentration made him jump. His arms flew sideways as his hands grasped the edges of his keyboard for balance, and his wrist connected with the coffee cup he set on his desk when he entered.

His heart leapt into his throat as he said a silent prayer the cup would fall backwards over the edge of the desk. Instead, it teetered sideways and caught on the edge of his keyboard. The lid must have fallen at just the right angle to snag one of the keys because, when he tried to dislodge it, the lid slid off and the remainder of the hot sticky liquid flowed over and into his keyboard.

“No!” Alyial cried. “No, no, no!” But it was too late. He didn’t manage to type another full line of code before the keys began to stick. He slammed his hands down with as much force as he dared, but the letters repeated several times in sequence no matter how hard he tried to prevent it.

“I’m activating the shutdown sequence,” Eidas called even as Nala planted her hands on her hips and said, “What in the hell have you done? I step out for five minutes and I come back to pure chaos!”

Alyial didn’t have time to worry about Nala’s righteous fury. He reached down to his computer tower and yanked free the plug to his keyboard, hoping he could swap one out quickly enough to solve this problem before they had to completely yank the simulation offline.

He felt the USB cable slide free of its mooring, but he moved with such speed he didn’t have time to halt when he felt something else slide free with the plug.

The sharp crackle of an electrical surge filled his ears, and the acrid smoke of technology burnt to a crisp reached his nose. Several cries went up across the office, but it quickly became apparent the smoke was the result of a short. There was no fire to be put out.

But his computer was completely fried.

“Fuck!” Alyial cried as he sank down into his chair and set his head in his hands.

“Fuck,” Noodles agreed as he also abandoned his keyboard and plopped into his chair.

“God damn it,” Nala added as she stomped across the small office to yank her chair out from under her desk. “Did we at least get the sim shut down before the surge?”

“I’m not sure,” Eidas admitted with a sigh. “The monitoring software is offline. We won’t know if there’s any damage until we can get all the software up and working again.”

“And how long is that going to take?” Nala demanded as she glared acid in Alyial’s direction.

It should have only taken a couple of hours. By mid-afternoon, they should have at least been able to verify what was going on with their precious code. But the day had been one disaster followed by another, to the point where Alyial was starting to wonder if it had all been some terrible nightmare.

At least if he woke up tomorrow morning to a text demanding he rush to the office to tend the sim, it would mean this whole day never happened.

The short turned out to have fried a significant portion of Alyail’s motherboard. A quick swap of the hard drives proved the data was still intact – but inaccessible until they could rebuild a secure enough system to properly display the encrypted data.

Unfortunately, the lab they worked for was short on funding these days, and their frantic search for replacement parts turned up empty – unless they wanted to steal a computer from another department.

Nala’s ability to disassemble and Frankenstein together two different systems was legendary, but she couldn’t compensate for missing parts.

Wisely deciding to let his team members handle the frantic phone calls required to locate the replacements in a timely fashion, Alyial had banished himself from the office with the intent to provide lunch. But he was waylaid at the restaurant by a series of misplaced and misread orders, which meant it was mid-afternoon by the time he returned.

Nala had finally located a replacement motherboard that matched his – thankfully – intact CPU, but it would take three days to get it physically to the office from its current location. Eidas likewise reassured the group that the simulation was safely shut down, but he still wouldn’t know the state of it until they could get their management software up and running.

Thus began a mad scramble of redistributing the pieces of Alyial’s computer that could be salvaged without destroying months of work. Noodles began a hardcore decryption protocol on the drive, in hopes it would finish before the replacement motherboard arrived. Eidas farmed out the watchdog software to the remaining systems by rerouting the server connections, and Alyial did his best to help Nala with the hardware.

By the end of the afternoon, Alyial was ready to pull his hair out. Everything he touched seemed to go to shit, and he couldn’t figure out why. The connections he made constantly required rewiring – and if Nala hadn’t double checked them before activating the new system, they would have two fried computers instead of the one.

Exiled to reviewing code, Alyial found mistakes in code he finalized months ago, as if someone had gone through his old files and sprinkled them with useless punctuation. It was the most infuriating and frustrating day he could remember experiencing since their code simulation went live, and it ended with more questions than answers. The state of their precious project remained unknown – though on the plus side, it did mean all four of them could go home and get an unbroken night of sleep for the first time in over half a year.

Rather than retreat to their private dens, however, the demoralized group trudged free of the office building in unison with the agreement that they would share dinner – if only because they needed a collective distraction from their woes.

Alyial found that one of his tires had gone flat when he returned to the parking lot. The tire directly beneath the scrapes indicating his earlier run-in with another car – an incident he had forgotten about in the chaos of the rest of the day. He had no spare, so he had to hitch a ride with Eidas until he could return with the means to fix the issue.

It was a problem he was happy to leave to another day because he was fairly certain trying to replace the tire now would result in yet another mini-disaster.

“I swear I must be cursed,” Alyial admitted around a sigh as he sipped from his wine glass and waited for the waiter to bring the group’s dinners to the table.

“You are not cursed,” Nala snapped in response. “That is the most unscientific thing I have ever heard you say.”

“It was just a bad day,” Eidas agreed. “And given how tenuous a lot of this project has been, it was probably only a matter of time before the trouble caught up to us.”

“We’ll build a backup into the stability before we go live again,” Noodles suggested. “It will save us all a lot of headaches.”

But none of the reassurance penetrated the haze of gloom that hung over Alyial’s head as the sun sank below the horizon. He had been the one to knock coffee on his keyboard. He had been the one to fry his system. And he had apparently been responsible for numerous tiny errors that might have led to the simulation’s instability in the first place.

He was lucky he hadn’t been collectively voted out of the study.

He almost breathed a soft sigh of relief when their dinners appeared. His stomach rumbled with insistent hunger, and he inhaled the delectable scents of their orders as the plates were set in front of them.

His first bite, however, soured his appetite. “Ugh…” he exclaimed and glanced in horror at his plate. “I don’t remember black licorice being one of the ingredients listed for this dish on the menu.”

Nala cast him an irritated glance. “That’s star anise,” she declared and pointed to a small, star-shaped pod near the edge of his plate. “Haven’t you ever tasted it before?”

Alyial stuck out his tongue. “Definitely cursed,” he muttered as he pushed the plate away from him.

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