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Trash Detector

A half-story of a detective seeking a client’s lost ring in a garbage dump.

In any long-term endeavor, or anything that could honestly be cursed as toil, there is a moment when everything falls away, leaving only the essential and ageless question: why didn’t I choose a life of crime?

In this case, that question came as I was belly-deep in a trashyard armed only with a metal detector and two high-proof breathmints I had shoved in my nostrils to guard against the memories that stench would bring. They say our oldest, deepest memories are smell, and I chose to annihilate any chance of that in favor of the tearful pain of my mucus lining being attacked by menthol.

All of this for a lost engagement ring, and I wasn’t even getting married. My client, Miss Rosey Riley, had inadvertently tossed her dowry prize out with the outer cabbage leaves, the lamb bone, and the scraped-away mint jelly of a traditional Irish supper. That was what she claimed, at least. I didn’t really care if she and hers had a fight and it came from a moment’s spite or if she had polished off a doped coffee and simply swept her hock off the counter with the crumbs. She was paying me for its return, not to believe her reasons.

Hence the mucking, in what was sure to be the right spot, but even with my nose dripping sweetly for four hours, I had yet to get a hit. I had a friend in the waste truck depot that had done the solid of tracing the route to the dump to the dumping ground and double-checked the spreading schedule of the two days prior when the treasure became buried. In one of these thousand anonymous sacks was gold, but it had not registered on my magic wand, and I was at that precipice, asking myself wouldn’t it be easier to rob a joint? Pondering the rush of a crowbar’s tines through a display case window. Imagining the fireworks from tossing dye-bombed stacks out the front door of a bank, watching them turn into a poof of indelible blue in the late morning air before making a speedy getaway.

I was about to take up my mobile and start searching for the nearest kids’ lemonade stand for just a tiny taste of that other life when the detector started to beep faster. I paused everything but my heart. Like a bloodhound going stiff at that first scent. Though I could have quick-pulsed that detector like a canine nose, drawing perfectly oriented scent particles deeper, heart pumping, brain cells churning, paws ready to march on that signal.

But I only paused, I let the beeps sing out. I slowly circled the dish of the detector on the nearest bag, giving time for the chirps to quicken or slack off.

On the drive out, I had made all kinds of plans on how to approach the search. A grid, pull the hits off to the side and go through them all after. I would clear one square down deep, piling the misses off out of the way, then fill that square with the next’s, leaving no sack unsquished until I had set aside all that could, and therefore the one that would, contain Riley’s finger flair.

That lasted until I had waded out to the patch in question, which was a quarter-acre, about the size of a football field if it were a square, and that’s not including the third dimension. I was doing well not to drown in a sea of black plastic balloons stuffed with peels and rinds and rot and dread, drain clogs and shells and first drafts so vile they couldn’t be recycled.

It wasn’t that there hadn’t been hits before. The box cutter I’d brought had gutted four score and seven sacks and then some. There had been broken scissors, a doorknob or three, kitchen knives and shutoff valves, a hubcap. I had even found a few rings, but not hers.

I had the make of Riley’s bags, the variety I was against being vast. Cheap bags were plentiful, but a few of the fancy models with stretchy skin and drawstrings dotted the sea. In my misery I briefly pondered the prospect of snowflake bags, each with its own distinct pattern, from which an electronic eye could quickly locate the correct piñata of dread.

Back then, when I was getting irked, but still held out hope. What followed was a thousand more sweeps of the wand and a dozen more disappointing pulls of broken bottle openers, lamp harps, washers, and a chipped-paint paperweight molded in the shape of an ice cream sundae on its side, oozing out.

Now, I had to get out of here. I didn’t want to check this bag. I didn’t want to clamor and stumble over that smushy landscape back to my car. I wanted to strap on a black strip of cloth with two eyeholes and run down dark alleys with a burlap bag that had a dollar sign stenciled on it. I wanted to work with guys that went by names they picked up in the can, with tattoos they picked up in the can, whose favorite food was beans heated by a cigarette lighter, who had RAP sheets long enough to use as toilet paper.

Over the hours I had gotten some feel for the sniffer, and this wasn’t a lamp harp, it wasn’t a paperweight. It was small. It gave me hope, and I wanted to pull out a switchblade and tell that hope, “Hand over your wallet.” I wanted to sneak into that hope’s office at night and take the little lockbox that held the petty cash.

But I didn’t. Because once you turn down the road of righteousness, it’s its own kind of record. A clean sheet that grows, that you can’t use to wipe your ass. It builds its own momentum of wanting to see things turn out alright, of rooting for the good guys in the flicks, wanting wallets to stay where they belong. Instead, I reached for that garbage bag, kind of pinned it with my knees as I set the metal detector down and got the blade out.

I grabbed the bag by the neck and brought the sharp of the blade up to it, a small little nip that I could spread down the side as the plastic lost its connection on both sides. With my gloved hand, I batted away some beer cans, lifted an empty milk carton and tossed it aside. There it was, resting on a worn-out scouring pad.

My breath stopped as worry grew. Here it was, but insecure. Any number of false moves, and it would be spilled from the bag and into the heap. I was never closer, and yet never more vulnerable. If I reached, I could slip. I could not risk it. I slowly moved my hands back to the torn edges of the bag, and I clutched them gently, pulling the one atop the other, smothering the contents and ensuring nothing could escape.

I folded the full bag on itself as best I could, to pressure the folded split against opening and looked around for a plausible reinforcement. There. Next to the detector. An almost-empty bag with its twist-tie making most of the bag a neck. Like a beautiful black groundflower’s bud, all ready to bloom.

Taking the prize bag between my knees, I bent and snagged that second bag. I gave the twist a quick look, and I unscrewed it. As I turned that black plastic over, I watched as three black ski masks slid out, followed by two stacks of bills with bands that read $10 000 on them. That’s something, I thought, but I quickly realized the trouble. I needed to preserve this evidence.

I carefully grabbed through the mouth of the bag, picking up the spilled items, and turning the bag back over, I tied a knot in the top. Now I had two bags to deal with, and still needed a third to guarantee the ring’s safety.

A scan for prospects held no offers. The other bags were all bulging, bloated sacks that would be too much trouble. I looked farther, the nearest option, but I knew I wouldn’t trust myself not to faceplant and spill the spoils on the way. So I took off my gloves, placing them on the loot bag, and I unbuttoned my shirt, which I carefully removed and spread it out on the flattest patch I could.

I took the ring bag from between my knees and nestled it in the back of the shirt, which I folded across, then the tail up to the breast. I brought the arms of the shirt across and tied them together once. And again. I put my gloves on, and took my shirt bundle in one hand, the loot bag and my detector in the other, and I turned toward the edge of the pile.

There I was, a shirtless sweaty stink of a man, crawling over the wash of society’s refuse with a woman’s missing jewels in one hand, with hard cash from some ripoff job in the other. I stumbled and slipped along the dunes of disposal, hot sun baking, the squish and suction sounds of my weight falling on closed bellows full of filth. Sometimes there were holes, which would send out hisses and smells that could nearly penetrate my burning nose.

After twenty minutes—many stumbles and four tumbles—I made it back to the car. There on the flat gravel, I liberated the torn bag from my shirt, which I put back on. Although I’m sure it smelled, it must have before. I peeled back the edges of the bag, and I had to poke about to find that promise, cast in gold with a diamond stopper, which I wasted no time in grabbing—the risk gone. I gave it a few quick wipes along the hip of my jeans, and I slipped it onto my pinkie, down to the second knuckle, figuring it was safer there than anywhere.

MSWL as WP 1: “Professor Profligate Grades Papers”

Having sent my queries on a novel, I’m currently working on some other writing projects. But I added the agents I queried to a Twitter list to try to better understand both Twitter and literary agents. One of the things you’ll see if you read any agent’s feed is “#MSWL” which stands for “manuscript wishlist.” There’s even a site dedicated to letting agents maintain their MSWL: the expectedly-named manuscriptwishlist.com.

WP is “writing prompt,” a seed, however developed, to write something, however developed.

So I figured I might cross the two, taking a #MSWL idea and writing a short piece based on the idea. For fun and science and all that jazz.

Saw this one from a reply to a reply:

Twitter: Nivia Evans: 6 June 2018 says:

An inventive, female-led magic school story, but from the teacher’s POV.


Manifestation, not infestation!” Pamela Profligate shouted at the essay. She sat on her grading stool trying to manifest a paper-eating inkbug to save her from toiling through eight more flubworks on Basic Magic Theory.

Year by year, the predictable mistakes of spelling, of syntax, of confusing concentration for willpower. Enough to drive a witch to flight. She drew a red C on Vincent’s paper and added: “It’s not enough to make magic. You must understand it.”

Eyeing a copy of Leslie von Sport’s 101 New Ways to Play Kickball, Pamela knew if she made haste, a chapter could be had before bed. She grabbed the next essay from the stack and started reading.

Enchantment is the fundamental problem of magic. Though identified as the elementary basis of all things magical by Sally M. Witchford in her treatise “How Does a Spell?” we still have not advanced the science of magic to understand what makes an enchanted thing. There are theories about. . .

An interesting start, thought Pamela, peeking at the name: Jaunkrast Gravelley. No doubt named after that atrocious writer from one of the mountain worlds.

. . . energy beings, your dryads and such, inhabiting magic objects and living symbiotically inside the souls of magical beings. There are the beliefs in a supreme will that channels itself based on lay lines and bloodlines and star charts. But for every theory there are examples that contradict. Ordinary objects that, by processes unknown, came into possession of magical properties.

Take the very pages you now hold, dear teacher. . . .

Pamela tried to let go of the pages, but her fingers held firm. Binding—what a rascal to even try it! She spun on her grading stool to the waiting flame of cleansing and set the essay afire. As the flame bit at her fingertips, she was already composing in her mind: “You should know better, Ms. Gravelley, than to bother with trickery. I am failing you, but I would still like to read your essay. Please provide me with a clean—” The spell had broken, and she reached for a page to write on.

As she finished, she turned back to the cleaning candle to dust up the ashes. In the unwavering flamelight the curls and flakes of ash fluttered and hopped about. The flecks puffed and breathed and spread into one another, forming strands that grew into a pool. The pool formed ridges along its edge and lightened and darkened until the essay had mended itself.

Out came Pamela’s testing blade. She removed the cork tip, and pressed the blade against the seal on the back of the cork. It glowed light red: the blade was working. She placed the sharp at the center of the topsheet, depressing slightly. The blade did not glow.

She used it to turn the page and continued reading:

. . . dear teacher, they are no longer magical. Where did the enchantment go? Some, like Witchford, would claim that the flame took it away. But the ashes still held the enchantment of assembly, so that cannot be right. And enchantment cannot be exhausted by mere repetition, as Ruther Arglave showed by spending 30 years trying to use the magic up from a single box of toastmaking, from which he turned over ten million single slices of bread into as many slices of toast. The process of remaking the pages could not devour the magic. And yet your blade proves it is gone!

Pamela Profligate went to her shelf and pulled Spellbreaks. She flipped through to “Flames” and read the passage on flames of cleansing. The power rule required multiple passes through flame for multiple spells. The timing rule required the flames to engulf an active object for at least a tenth as long as its activity. But there was nothing about the ashes.

She set the gradesheet aside, along with Ms. Gravelley’s missive, and moved on to the next essay.

Magic works because you have to want it. If you do, magic works. You want the water to stay in the cup when you turn the cup over and the water says in the cup. That is the basics of magic. . . .


Maybe a start. I’m sure the intention behind the #MSWL was more about the class interactions with a magic teacher, from her perspective (“Timothy, we do not stick orbs of remembering in our noses!” and “Who knows the first witch to circumnavigate the globe?” “Was it the Harlem Broomtrotters?”).

But I like the idea of a magic teacher grading papers and having to deal with that side of things. Because, fun fact, teaching is about a lot of stuff beyond just standing in front of magical children and teaching them not to open portals to dimensions full of cottage cheese. There’s a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork (not to mention class sizes, budgets, and all that).

The other concept here, of a teacher not knowing everything and being confused by her own student’s magic, reminds that even experts are not omniscient. It also would make me figure out how Jaunkrast managed it. Leaving hurdles to either knock down (Jaunkrast merely included a blank page that would recreate the essay from its ashes and was protected from the flame of cleansing by the other pages) or leap over (Jaunkrast discovering a new property of enchantment, possibly setting up a trip to a magic fair (comp: science fair) where students present their magical inventions).