The Daily Ed

YouTube’s guitar heroes

I know: It seems I never say anything positive about social media, because…mostly I don’t. I wouldn’t mind if most social media platforms (especially Twitter) disappeared tomorrow.

But even social media has a few upsides. One of these upsides is the abundance of very talented young musicians on YouTube. 

Sophie Lloyd, the guitarist in the video posted above, does a virtuoso job on the guitar. I took guitar lessons myself for a while in the very early 1980s. I couldn’t begin to do what she does, but I do have an insider’s understanding of how much practice it takes to play like that.  

I also love the rock bands of the 1980s–Van Halen, Boston, Rush, AC/DC, Def Leppard. A solid cover of any of their old songs is sure to get my attention. Continue reading “YouTube’s guitar heroes”

Cincinnati in TV and the movies

My hometown of Cincinnati isn’t exactly Paris or New York. It is therefore somewhat understandable, I suppose, that our local news media is making a big deal of the episode of The Brady Bunch that was filmed here nearly a half-century ago:

47 years ago, The Brady Bunch visited Kings Island

While I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, going to Kings Island—Cincinnati’s only real amusement park—was a “big deal”. Much of the scenery in the above clip from The Brady Bunch therefore looks familiar. 

Kings Island is still there, by the way. But it’s changed a lot since 1973.

***

A few feature-length films were shot in Cincinnati in the 1980s. Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, comes immediately to mind. This movie was filmed in various locations in and around Cincinnati.

I’ve had lunch in the Italian restaurant Pompilio’s, in Northern Kentucky, where Rain Man‘s iconic “toothpick scene” takes place. Continue reading “Cincinnati in TV and the movies”

‘Blazing Saddles’ is a politically incorrect classic

Watch the Mel Brooks satirical Western comedy, Blazing Saddles, if you haven’t seen it before.

There is one memorable scene in Blazing Saddles in which the African American Sheriff Bart  (played by Cleavon Little) distracts a pair of Klansmen, so that his sidekick, Jim (played by Gene Wilder) can carry out a necessary mission of reconnaissance.

Jim pretends to catch Bart for the Klansmen. He grabs Bart by the collar and calls out to the Klansman, “Hey boys, look what I’ve got!”

Bart then says, in a Southern black dialect, “Hey, where the white women at?” Continue reading “‘Blazing Saddles’ is a politically incorrect classic”

John Mellencamp, campaign music, and champagne socialism

Hey, did you know we have an election coming up in a few months? And yes, it promises to be a real mess. (We could get a whole bunch of blog posts from that, and I expect we will.)

One of the minor controversies from this year, though, involves the Trump campaign and rock music. Various musical artists, including Neil Young, Elton John, Rihanna, and some group called Panic!At the Disco have either objected to Trump playing their music at campaign events, or issued actual cease-and-desist orders.

Brendon Urie, the frontman of Panic! At The Disco, wrote in a tweet:

“Dear Trump Campaign, F— you. You’re not invited. Stop playing my song. No thanks, Brendon Urie, Panic! At The Disco & company.”

Come on, Brendan, quit beating around the bush. Tell us how you really feel.

This is not a new controversy. It didn’t begin with Donald Trump, who is (whether you love him, hate him, or accept him with reservations) an undeniably polarizing politician. Almost no one is neutral about Donald Trump.

Most celebrity musicians, like the rest of the Hollywood/entertainment jet set, are millionaires who fancy themselves socialists. Taylor Swift has a net worth of $360~$400 million. (It fluctuates with the market value of her immense portfolio.) Taylor Swift is the ultimate “one-percenter”, to use Bernie Sanders’s term. And yet, Taylor Swift has recently come out as a vocal proponent of the Democratic Party.

Back in 2008, John McCain was the GOP nominee. McCain got into hot water with his campaign music, too. McCain made the mistake of playing several songs belonging to John Mellencamp, a rocker whose popularity peaked in the 1980s.

Mellencamp objected, and issued a cease-and-desist order of his own. Speaking through a publicist, Mellencamp said:

“If [McCain is] such a true conservative, why [is he] playing songs that have a very populist pro-labor message written by a guy who would find no argument if you characterized him as an ardent leftist?”

A few points to unpack here. First of all, it is rather foolish for GOP candidates to use the music of elite musicians who probably hate their guts.

Consider, for example, the aforementioned Neil Young. Neil Young has moonlighted as a left-of-center activist since the 1960s. Neil Young also has a net worth of $65 million.

Even fellow musicians, the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, recognized Neil Young’s hypocrisy long ago. They openly rebuked him in their 1974 classic, “Sweet Home Alabama”.

That said, Donald Trump should have known better than to use a Neil Young song at a campaign event. What was he expecting?

John McCain should have known better than to use a John Mellencamp song in 2008, too. Mellencamp, who spent the early years of the 1970s immersed in the drug-addled counterculture, has long distinguished himself as being left-of-center. The signposts have been out there for years. Mellencamp has never been shy about expressing his views, such as they are.

I’m too young to care much about Neil Young, and too old to care about Taylor Swift. I hadn’t even heard of Panic! At The Disco until just the other day. I’ve maybe heard of Rihanna, but I couldn’t name one of her songs to save my life.

I do remember John Mellencamp, though. His breakout album, American Fool, was released in 1982. I was then entering high school, and the heart of my teenage years. John Mellencamp was never one of my favorite artists; but a few of his songs I genuinely liked, and still listen to from time-to-time.

That said, I have to call Mr. Mellencamp out on his self-description as an “ardent leftist”. Mellencamp has a net worth of $25 million. That makes him a pauper by Taylor Swift standards. He’s pretty poor compared to Neil Young, too. Nevertheless, with a net worth of $25 million, John Mellencamp more than qualifies as a one-percenter.

Here’s the way I see it: If you want to call yourself “an ardent leftist”, then act the part. Give away your fortune to help the less fortunate—or to fund the revolution. Move into communal housing in the inner city, or perhaps a dingy cubbyhole of an apartment. Eat rice and beans for dinner every night.

But if you have $25 million in the bank—and you keep it—then you don’t get to call yourself an “ardent leftist”. And no, you don’t get to simply “identify” as a leftist, either. This isn’t like sex reassignment surgery. All Mellencamp (or Neil Young, or Taylor Swift) would have to do is give away their vast sums of wealth. Then they’ll be “ardent leftists” in name as well as deed. Until then, they’re Republicans in denial.

Actress Cynthia Nixon, known for her roles in Sex and the City and The Pelican Brief, tried to retool herself as a progressive politician a few years ago. Her plan, so far as anyone can tell, was to run against Governor Andrew Cuomo from the left. At one point, Nixon referred to herself as a “democratic socialist”. (This is basically socialism without the gulags and firing squads (at first, anyway).)

Nixon, however, has a net worth of $25 million. This makes her about as rich as John Mellencamp.

Not to beat a dead horse here, but a “democratic socialist” with $25 million is just as much of an oxymoron as an “ardent leftist” with $25 million. Some things go together, and other things don’t. The Pope, or so I’ve been told, must be a Roman Catholic. The Pope can’t be a Muslim, a Jehovah’s Witness, or an atheist. A proper Marxist, likewise, can’t be filthy rich. 

I would issue the following challenge to Cynthia Nixon, John Mellencamp, and other “champagne socialists” out there: Socialism, like charity, starts at home. If you want to impose socialist economic policies on everyone else, start by giving away all your excess millions, beyond the bare amount you need to live. Redistribute your own wealth first. Give it all away! Then you can talk to us about redistributing everyone else’s wealth.

What kind of horror do I write?

This is a question I received the other day on Twitter.  It isn’t a frivolous question, I suppose. About a third of my titles are classified as horror, after all.

Perhaps I should begin by clarifying what kind of horror I don’t write.

I don’t do excessive gore/violence.

I have never been interested in horror fiction that fetishizes violence and cruelty for the mere sake of wallowing in such things. (If that’s your goal, then why not just watch one of those ISIS beheading videos?)

This means that graphic depictions of torture (for example) don’t appear in my books. Cannibalism is pretty much out, too. (Gross.)

I’m old enough to remember the capture of Jeffrey Dahmer in 1991. Suffice it to say that I am not interested in exploring the most extreme possibilities of human depravity in fiction. Again, what’s the point?

Are you into “splatterpunk”? You probably won’t like my books. Do us both a favor, and read something else.

I don’t like horror tales with unlikable characters.

Likewise, I don’t care for horror stories that simply involve horrible things happening to horrible people.

You’ve certainly seen horror movies that involve the following scenario (or something like it): A group of obnoxious, unlikable people enter a house, and they’re killed off one by one.

But the thing is…you don’t care! The protagonists were all awful people, anyway. (Maybe you were even rooting for the monster.)

I don’t do comedy-horror.

Do you like the Zombieland movies? My horror fiction probably isn’t for you.

I love comedy films—Airplane, Blazing Saddles, etc. Cheers from the 1980s can still make me laugh.

But horror is serious business. There can be moments of levity amid the darkness. There are many of these in some of Stephen King’s novels. (Cujo and The Stand stand out in this regard.) But when the monsters come out, it’s all business. Monsters are serious.

***

So what kind of horror do I write, then?

My influences are Stephen King, Peter Straub, and the campfire ghost stories of my youth.

I have always been fascinated by urban legends. I am endlessly interested in the dark house at the end of the lane, the one that all the kids say is haunted.

A good horror story should involve characters that you care about. If you don’t care about the characters, then you won’t care if the monster gets them. 

A good horror story should involve redemption. The evil is defeated in the end. Or some crucial lesson is learned. Or the human condition is in some way illuminated.

Redemption is a key element of most of the horror stories that we love best. The salvation of Mina Harker at the end of Dracula. The closing scene of The Stand, in which Frannie Goldsmith and Stu Redman wonder aloud if people ever really learn from their mistakes. The last scene in The Dead Zone, in which the shade of Johnny Smith assures Sarah that nothing is ever really lost, nothing that can’t be found.

Note that redemption doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending. But there has to have been a point to it all.

***

I like ghosts, monsters, things that go bump in the dark. My sainted grandmother was a direct descendant of immigrants from County Cork, Ireland. And every Irishman (even a diluted, generations-removed Irishman like me) loves a good ghost tale.

Let me give you some examples. Here are a few of my horror novels, to date:

Eleven Miles of Night

A college filmmaker takes a walk down a notoriously haunted road, in order earn a $2,000 fee for documenting the phenomena he sees.

This novel contains ghosts, demonic beings, and a long-dead witch who inhabits a covered bridge. Oh, yeah—and hellhounds!

View Eleven Miles of Night on Amazon

12 Hours of Halloween

On Halloween night, 1980, three adolescent friends go out for “one last Halloween”. But they have been cursed by an entity known as “the ghost boy”. As a result, their familiar neighborhood is transformed into a supernatural landscape filled with vampires, wayward spirits, and trees with minds of their own.

View 12 Hours of Halloween on Amazon.

Revolutionary Ghosts

In the summer of 1976, an Ohio teenager named Steve Wagner discovers that the Headless Horseman has returned to terrorize twentieth-century America. The Horseman has brought other ghosts back with him, including the once beautiful (but now hideous) Marie Trumbull, an executed Loyalist.

View Revolutionary Ghosts on Amazon

I have others; but these are the three you might check out first. They are usually enrolled in Kindle Unlimited, which means you can read them for free if you subscribe to that service.

New book: ‘Venetian Springs’

I’ve got a brand new book on Amazon: Venetian Springs!

Two couples—one idealistic, one criminal.

A ruthless Mexican drug kingpin. A fortune in heroin and cash.

They all come together one night at a casino called Venetian Springs, in a high-stakes gamble that only a few of them will survive.

Preview Chapters:

Part I: Tuesday

Chapter 1

Mark Baxter was determined that he and his wife, Gina, were going to crack the nut of their household budget. 

Laid out on the kitchen table before them were a pile of bills, a desktop calculator, and a yellow legal pad.

Mark had drawn a line down the center of the top sheet of the legal pad, dividing it into two vertical columns. In the lefthand column, he had tallied up their monthly take-home pay. They were both second-year teachers at Ambrose E. Burnside High School, a school in the Indianapolis Public Schools district. 

In the righthand column he had listed their expenses: mortgage payments on the house, their college loans, groceries, utilities, and everything else.  

The total on the left was only slightly larger than the total on the right. 

That was a problem.

Gina, moreover, wasn’t paying attention. That was another problem. Her brown eyes kept darting to the open doorway between the kitchen and the rear hallway. She was twirling a length of chestnut brown hair between two fingers.

Gina had been distracted of late—and not just because of their perilous household finances. Mark knew part of the reason for her distraction; but he suspected that there was also something that she was keeping from him.

Why would Gina be looking toward the rear hallway?

The rear hallway of the house terminated at the back door. Gina was probably thinking about the intruder again.  

Mark didn’t believe in the intruder, and Gina did.

That was yet another problem.

In recent weeks, Gina had become convinced that someone was entering their house during the daytime hours, when they were both teaching classes at the high school.

She claimed to notice that some items in the house were slightly awry, as if an outsider had been rifling through them. Closet and cupboard doors were left ajar at unfamiliar angles.

Or so Gina had claimed.

Mark had taken his wife’s concerns seriously—at first. He checked all exterior doors and windows for any sign of a break-in or tampering. 

And he had found nothing. 

Mark also pointed out that the supposed burglar had not taken any of their few possessions that were actually worth stealing: the laptop they used jointly, the antique brooch that Gina had inherited from her Grandma Tortelli, etc. 

Even the cigar box, the most obvious target for a thief, had been left intact. This was the old Dutch Masters box that they kept atop the dresser in their bedroom. It always contained between fifty and a hundred dollars of emergency cash. 

Any self-respecting thief would have taken the cigar box, Mark observed. 

But the thief had not taken the cigar box, nor anything else—so far as either of them could ascertain.

Mark therefore concluded that there was no thief, no intruder. 

“Earth to Gina,” Mark said. He waved his hand from side to side in the air, as if trying to rouse her from a trance. 

“I heard something,” Gina said. “At the back door.”

“Oh, no. Don’t tell me that one of the problem students at Burnside has followed us home again.”

She didn’t laugh at the obvious joke. She flinched, in fact. 

Mark wondered: Was one of the students at the high school in fact bothering her? Was that her problem?

“I’m telling you, Mark, I heard something back there.”

The damn intruder again. Mark rarely spoke a cross word to Gina, but he was getting fed up with talk about the nonexistent burglar. Whatever else was going on, there was no evidence that anyone had been inside their house.

“Gina,” he said gently, “I don’t think—”

And then Mark heard it, too.

Chapter 2

It was the sound of someone rattling the back door. Exactly what Gina had said, more or less. 

Mark stood up. Gina started to stand, too.

“Where are you going?” they both asked, more or less simultaneously. 

“I’m going to check the back door, of course,” Mark said. 

“I’m going with you!”

Mark had a sudden mental image: an intruder—a real one, this time—pointing the muzzle of a gun in his wife’s face.

He didn’t want to go there. 

“No. You stay here. I’ll take care of this.”

He exited the kitchen and entered the back hallway before Gina could offer further protest.

Speaking of guns, Mark didn’t own any. 

Not that he had any principled objection to them. Indiana, after all, was a Second Amendment state. 

Mark had grown up in Merrillville, in the northwest corner of the Hoosier State. Merrillville was within the orbit of the progressive-minded, gun-controlling megalopolis of Chicago. But both Mark’s father and his grandfather had been outdoor sportsmen. By the time he was twelve years old, Mark had been comfortable handling firearms.

Mark and Gina had purchased their first home in an inner-city neighborhood. Though most of their neighbors were decent, working-class people, the neighborhood was far from perfect. There were predatory elements. It wasn’t uncommon to hear sirens on a Friday night. Just a few weeks ago, the Indianapolis police had broken up a drug den not three blocks away. 

Once or twice Mark had toyed with the idea of buying a gun. It would have been easy. No state official in Indiana would deny a gun permit to a school teacher with a spotless record. 

In the end, though, he had judged a gun to be an unnecessary expenditure, given their financial state. Moreover, he’d never really believed that he needed one.

Until now.

The back hallway was flooded with the sunlight of a late March afternoon. The back door was a plain wooden door with a four-pane window. 

Mark could see no man-size shadow lurking in the window, but who knew what might be outside?

He strode forward and grabbed the knob, twisted it, and pulled the door open.

As he stepped out into the cool sunshine, he tensed his muscles for a fight. He stood on the back stoop, and looked to his right and then to his left.

No one there. 

The spring-loaded back door slammed shut behind him. From a few blocks away, he heard the air brakes of a school bus. 

They had a small back yard, and there were not many places to hide. There were two maple trees, but their trunks were not thick enough to conceal an adult. There was a large bush that had only begun to bud. Mark could look right through it. 

No one there.

At the very back of the yard, there was a high wooden fence. It belonged to the property behind them.

Could someone have rattled their back door, and then run across the yard and climbed over the fence?

Only if the prowler happened to be a very fit U.S. Navy SEAL, Mark figured. And even a SEAL would be challenged by that fence.

He had undoubtedly heard something. Both of them had. But the evidence was right here—or rather, it wasn’t here. Mark had no choice but to conclude that there was no one in their back yard.

After giving the yard a final look (there was not much to look at), Mark turned and opened the back door, to go back inside.

And he saw Gina, standing there with a butcher’s knife. 

Gina was holding the knife aloft, as if preparing to meet an attacker.

“What are you doing?” Mark asked, indicating the knife. He stepped inside the house, exercising care to stay away from the tip of the blade. He recognized the knife from one of the drawers in their kitchen. 

“I wanted you to have backup.” 

Mark involuntarily smiled. His wife was no milquetoast.

“What did you find?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Really?”

“Really,” he said. “I checked. There’s no one back there.”

“But we both heard a sound at the back door.”

“We did,” Mark allowed. He had been thinking about that. “Sounds carry inside the city. All these houses. The echoes bounce around. While I was out there, I heard a school bus jam on the brakes a few streets over. It sounded like it was right on top of me.”

“But there was no one out there?”

“No. Say, could you put that knife down?”

She relaxed, and lowered the knife.  

Mark wasn’t completely satisfied with his own explanation, about the sounds carrying. But it was time to put this talk about prowlers aside. They needed to get back to those two columns of numbers on the legal pad.

“Anyway,” he said, “let’s resume our discussion of the budget.”

“What about—”

Then the doorbell rang. At the front of the house. 

“I’ll get it,” Gina said.

“And you’ll scare the hell out of the Girl Scouts—or whoever it is—with that knife. I’ll get the door. Wait for me in the kitchen, okay?”

With visible reluctance, she relented. 

“Be sure to look through the peephole before you open the door,” she called after him.

Chapter 3

Mark didn’t use the peephole, though—even though he figured that Gina was probably right.

It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon. Children were still arriving home from school for the day.

If we have to be afraid under those circumstances, Mark thought, then what’s the point of having a house?

He pulled the front door open. The person on the front porch wasn’t exactly threatening, but he was nothing Mark would have expected, either. 

He was about the same age as Mark and Gina—probably in his mid- to late twenties. He had a mop of reddish blond hair, and a scraggly beard of the same color. 

He wore a rumbled blue blazer over his lanky frame. Mark saw threads dangling from the cuffs. 

His trousers—a shade of blue that didn’t match the blazer—were too long. 

Mark glanced down at the man’s feet: He was wearing mud-stained tennis shoes that had once been white. 

“How can I help you?” Mark asked. 

The stranger flashed Mark a smile, revealing several gaps where there should have been teeth. Mark was immediately reminded of documentaries he had seen about drug addicts, how narcotics destroyed their teeth.

“No,” the stranger said. “The question is: How can I help you? Joe Johnson’s the name, and credit counseling’s my game!”

Mark was on edge now.

Only a few minutes ago, he and Gina had been discussing their household budget. Then the sounds at the back door. 

And then this guy shows up, claiming to be a credit counselor.

But nothing about him added up. Mark might be a high school history teacher, but he had had his share of interaction with professionals in the finance industry: banking officers, loan agents, and the like.

None of them were anything like this Joe Johnson.

Then there was the fact that Joe Johnson sounded suspiciously like a made-up name.

“Were you at my back door just now?” Mark asked, getting right to the point. 

“Me?” Joe Johnson said, pointing a finger at his sparrow chest.

“You’re the only one on my porch right now.”

“Absolutely not,” Joe Johnson said, shaking his head. 

Mark didn’t entirely believe him. But there was no way to prove the matter, one way or the other. 

“Okay,” Mark said—though it wasn’t okay. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m a personal credit counselor!” the odd-looking man said. 

Mark listened to about a minute of the spiel. None of it made sense, really. 

A personal credit counselor? Seriously? This guy?

Whoever this Joe Johnson really was, whatever his game was, there was no way Mark was going to let him within a stone’s throw of his and Gina’s finances. 

“I’m sorry,” Mark said, interrupting him, “but I’m really not interested.”

Mark had expected that that would be the end of the matter. Like Gina—he was no milquetoast. In high school, about a decade earlier, Mark had played both football and baseball. He’d been in his share of fisticuffs. Few men tried to bully him. 

And he could have knocked this Joe Johnson off the porch without even trying, had he been so inclined.

But Joe Johnson, for his part, wasn’t quite ready to call it a day.

“If I could just come inside,” he said, “and talk to you and the missus.”

Now Mark’s hackles went up again—just when he had been ready to dismiss Joe Johnson as a harmless flake. 

“I didn’t say anything about a wife,” Mark said. “And no, you can’t come inside.” Mark’s tone wasn’t exactly hostile, but he was done playing nice.

Joe Johnson seemed flustered again. “A guy living in a house like this,” he stammered, “in this neighborhood…I figured you’d be married.”

Mark considered that. Possible. But he was done with this discussion, nevertheless. 

“Thanks anyway. But I’m not interested.”

“Could I at least get you to take a card?”

Mark didn’t want a business card from this man. But Joe Johnson was already reaching into the front pocket of his rumpled blazer. 

Anything to get rid of him at this point, Mark thought. 

“Okay. I’ll take one of your cards.”

Mark reached out and took the proffered business card.

Then Joe Johnson spun on his heels, and walked away.

Mark watched him depart. He couldn’t help it. There was so much about the man in the shabby blue blazer and soiled tennis shoes that didn’t add up.

Joe Johnson made quick steps up their walkway to the main sidewalk, where he made a sharp right turn.

Then he kept walking. He didn’t turn at the house next-door, nor the house after that, either. 

Yet another thing that didn’t add up. If Joe Johnson was working door-to-door, then he would have stopped at at least one of those other houses.

But Joe Johnson wasn’t doing that.

He just kept walking. His pace seemed to accelerate the farther away he got, in fact.

So the door-to-door man wasn’t an actual door-to-door man. Joe Johnson—or whoever he was—had come into the neighborhood for one purpose: to call on Mark and Gina Baxter.

Most unusual.

Mark looked down at the business card in his hand. It was printed on plain white card stock:

Joe Johnson

Credit Counselor

There was a telephone number, which—Mark would have been willing to bet—connected to an over-the-counter burner phone. Also a Yahoo email address.

No company name. No website. No logo.

It simply didn’t add up. None of it. 

When Mark walked back into the kitchen, he found Gina sitting at the table. She was looking at the legal pad, the numbers that governed their lives and future.

“Who was that?” Gina asked. 

“No one.”

She made a face. “Come on. It was someone.”

Mark crumpled up the business card and tossed it into the trash container beside the refrigerator.

“Just a salesman,” he said. “I got rid of him. Anyway, let’s get back to the budget.”

Chapter 4

One hundred and eighty miles north of Indianapolis, in an alley on the South Side of Chicago, Vic Torino knelt over the body of Alina Wells. 

The young woman had been dead for about eight hours, based on the information that law enforcement had so far. 

Beside Vic was Sgt. Dennis Haskel, of the Chicago Police Department. Haskel was also kneeling over the body. 

The alley was blocked off by two squad cars of the CPD, and two uniformed officers. 

“I knew she was your CI,” Sgt. Haskel said, “which is why I called you.” 

Vic nodded without replying. Alina Wells had indeed been working for Vic as a CI, or confidential informant. She had been helping him gain an inside hold on Tony Mendoza’s criminal organization. But that was all over now.

Vic had seen many corpses; but when you had known the person, it was different. Alina Wells’s body was clad in a pair of faded, ratty jeans, and a shirt with red and white horizontal stripes. Both of her feet were bare. Her clothes were soaked by the previous night’s heavy rain. 

Vic couldn’t help wondering about Alina’s final moments…And to think that she had been talking about turning her life around, the last time Vic had met with her.

Alina’s face, preternaturally pale with death, was framed by the helmet of her blonde hair, also rain-soaked. Alina Wells had been twenty-four years old, though her heroin habit had made her look considerably older…even while she was still alive.

Vic drew one palm over the top of his bare head, wiping away a sheen of cold rain droplets. The previous night, a Canadian front had descended on Chicago from Lake Michigan, bringing in the chilling rain and near freezing temperatures. 

So much for springtime, Vic thought. The rain was only now tapering off to a spittle. Vic was an Arizona native, and he often swore that he would never get used to the weather in Chicago. 

“Thanks,” Vic finally said to Sgt. Haskel, “for the phone call.”

Vic Torino was a twenty-year veteran agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. People often said that Vic was built like a fireplug. He had a swarthy complexion, an immaculately shaved head, and a thick black mustache. 

Vic looked down into Alina’s lifeless face. He wasn’t responsible for her death—not directly, at least—but her involvement with him might have been a contributing factor.

“She probably OD’d,” Haskel speculated, without much emotion. Haskel, like Vic, was a longtime veteran of law enforcement. He had seen his share of bodies in alleyways, no doubt. 

“She probably did OD,” Vic agreed. “But I think she had some help.”

Sgt. Haskel shrugged. “We’ll see what the coroner says.”

Vic stood up. There was nothing more he could do for Alina now (as if he had ever really done anything for her, he thought).  Alina would leave the alley in a van of the Cook County Medical Examiner. There would be no ambulance, of course. 

He thanked Sgt. Haskel again, and made his way out of the alley. The CPD would handle the crime scene from here. 

Vic had to contact his other confidential informant—Rosita Cruz. She was the only one he had left now.

Before he departed, he took one last look at Alina Wells’s lifeless body, and silently swore revenge on Tony Mendoza.

Chapter 5

On his way back to his office, Vic sent a text message to Rosita Cruz. He told her only that he had an urgent need to see her.

He sent the message using a texting app, which would not be traceable to his DEA phone. Rosita was involved in various illicit acts of commerce to support her habit, just as Alina Wells had been. It would not be unusual for her to get such a message from an unidentified, apparently male, contact. 

Vic’s office was located on the tenth floor of the Kluczynski Federal Building in the downtown Chicago Loop. He shared an office space with two dozen other DEA agents. There was nothing to complain about here, though; his desk afforded him a view of Lake Michigan. 

When he reached his desk, Vic was still reeling from the news about Alina Wells, the sight of her body in the alleyway. 

He couldn’t yet prove it, but he knew that Tony Mendoza was behind her death. This was not the first time that a confidential informant associated with Tony Mendoza had conveniently died. 

Vic had been tracking the Los Angeles-based drug kingpin for the past year. Tony Mendoza and his organization controlled a sizable portion of the heroin that found its way to Chicago, and from there to more than a dozen other cities in the Midwest, including Indianapolis, Detroit, and Cincinnati. 

Mendoza had ties to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the brutal syndicates that controlled the narcotics trade in Mexico. But the domestic drug market within Mexico wasn’t worth that much. El Norte was where the real action was. The Mexican cartels all existed to serve the U.S. market, which was many times wealthier, and many times hungrier for illicit drugs. 

And so it was with Tony Mendoza. He divided his time between California and various points in Mexico. He had an alibi for all those trips, of course: His parents had both been born in Mexico, and he had many ties south of the border. 

DEA agents in Los Angeles, in coordination with officers of the LAPD, had acquired warrants, and carried out at least two searches of Mendoza’s Bel Air residence in recent years. They had found nothing. Tony Mendoza was smart enough to isolate himself from the actual merchandise and violence of the drug trade. 

Likewise, the Chicago branch of the DEA and the Chicago PD had busted plenty of street-level dealers who ultimately got their heroin from Tony Mendoza. But none of these arrests had served to build a case against the California drug baron. None of the street-level dealers had even been in the same room as Tony Mendoza. Their heroin supplies came through a complex network of middlemen. 

Vic needed to land someone high enough in the organization to have a direct, provable connection to Tony Mendoza. 

He had thought that Alina might get him closer to such a person. But now Alina was dead, and he was back to square one. 

Vic’s desk phone buzzed. He picked it up. 

“Vic. Ah, I see you’re back in the office.”

Ralph Morris—his new boss. Morris had been transferred to Chicago from Washington only two months ago. He and Vic were already locking horns—over a variety of things, but especially Tony Mendoza. 

“What can I do for you, Ralph?”

“Could you come into my office, Vic?”

“I’ll be right in,” Vic said, terminating the call. 

He stood up from his desk. It was shaping up to be a very bad day, indeed. 

Chapter 6

Ralph began by grilling Vic about Alina Wells. He, too, had heard about her death from sources in the Chicago P.D.

“I understand exactly what you’re trying to do,” Ralph said. “You’re trying to get the big score. There’s a lot more glory to be had in taking down a continental drug baron than there is in taking down dozens of smalltime dealers. I get it. But sometimes our work involves dismantling networks piece by painstaking piece. You need to learn that.”

“What are you saying, Ralph?”

But he already knew what Ralph was saying—or at least he had a very good idea.

“I’m saying that you screwed the pooch, Vic. That’s what I’m saying.” 

Ralph waited a few beats for Vic to react. When Vic remained silent, he went on. 

“No, Tony Mendoza didn’t personally murder your CI. Someone at the street level in his organization did. Obviously. And had you taken down that person weeks ago, Alina Wells might still be alive. Also, as an added bonus, there’d be one less drug dealer on the streets of Chicago.”

Vic felt his frustration rising, but he held it in check. They’d had this conversation before. Nevertheless, he did feel compelled to present his side of the argument—again. 

“If I—if we—take out Tony Mendoza, then we take away a double-digit percentage of the heroin supply for the Midwest. That could be a pretty big thing.”

“For a while,” Ralph countered. “The Sinaloa Cartel is a very resourceful outfit. They’ll find another Tony Mendoza in a matter of weeks, if not days.”

Vic had no ready answer for that. Moments like this  forced Vic to wonder if he wasn’t giving in to his own vanities. 

His pursuit of Tony Mendoza had become personal. A certain degree of that was inevitable in law enforcement, but if you took that impulse too far, it could cloud your judgement.

“I want you to refocus,” Ralph said. “Concentrate on wrapping up the local dealers. Let the LA office focus on Tony Mendoza. If we bust him anywhere, we’re going to get him in LA. That’s where he spends most of his time, after all.”

“I’m working with another CI,” Vic said. “She’s going to get me an inside contact in Tony Mendoza’s organization. At the upper levels. Then we can take the whole network down.”

Ralph was obviously not impressed. After all, Vic had made this promise before.

“You have another week,” he said. “Then you shift your strategy: to reeling in the Chicagoland dealers.”

Chapter 7

Three hundred miles southeast of Chicago, and one hundred miles southeast of Indianapolis, fifty year-old Jim Garrett sat behind the wheel of his maroon 1981 Monte Carlo.

The car was parked in the rear parking lot of a truck stop on I-75, just south of Cincinnati, right over the Ohio River and the Kentucky border.

It was a chilly day in Cincinnati with sleet. The sleet clouded the windshield of the Monte Carlo, but Jim sat there with the engine turned off. Sometimes the engine light came on when the car idled for too long. 

On the seat beside Jim was a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol. 

Jim Garrett was unusually fit for a man of fifty. While in prison he had acquired the habit of lifting weights. There was little to do in prison but pump iron.  

Jim was tall and lean. He had long, salt-and-pepper hair, and a thick horseshoe mustache. He also had a natural tan. His mother—long dead—had often told him that there was some Cherokee in the family tree, but Jim was suspicious of this claim.

Jim gripped the steering wheel of the Monte Carlo anxiously. He looked at the tattoos on his fingers, also acquired in prison. 

He was always a little anxious when he was about to buy heroin. He and his supplier took precautions. More than once, though, Jim had learned the hard way that the law is often one step ahead of you. 

He didn’t want to go back to prison again. He would use the Glock 19 before he would let any officer of the law put handcuffs on him.

He was sure of that. 

But that was hypothetical—at least for now. What was real at the moment was that Jim Garrett was a heroin dealer, and he wasn’t making much money at it.

Jim Garrett sometimes reflected that he was living proof of the old adage, crime doesn’t pay. In his youth he had believed—for no good reason—that it was his destiny to be the lead man in a heavy metal band. He had even tried this out, going for a few auditions, but they laughed him away when they found out that he couldn’t play any instruments, and he couldn’t really sing, either.

Then, almost at random, he had turned to a life of crime. Small-time stuff at first, none of it ever going anywhere. He was arrested a few times, but nothing ever stuck.

Six years ago they had busted him on a burglary charge. That stuck. He spent almost three years in Ohio’s Lebanon Correctional Institution.

For the past two years Jim had been out of prison. He was trying his hand at something new—dealing heroin. 

For years he had been hearing about how much money there was in narcotics. So he had decided to jump in and get his share. He had been disappointed almost from the very start.

There were people making money in the drug trade, surely, but not this far down the supply chain. By the time the heroin reached Jim, various middlemen along the way had already taken their cuts, jacking up the price to the point where the margin was extremely small.

Jim had read somewhere that the average street-level dealer is a twenty-one year-old man who lives with his mother. Jim was more than twice that age. His mother was long gone, but he was barely getting by.

A hell of a place for a man to find himself at midlife.

He thought about the man he was about to meet: Toby Gates. Toby was a young guy, a low man on the totem pole of the network headed by Tony Mendoza. Toby Gates was nothing, really. But Toby used his association with the LA gangster as an excuse to lord it over Jim at every opportunity. 

Jim bristled at the thought of treating with Toby again. 

As if summoned by Jim’s thoughts, Toby’s car—a blue Honda—appeared on the access road that ran beside the interstate. 

Let’s just get this over with, Jim thought.

He looked at the Glock on the seat beside him. He could leave it in the car. It wasn’t necessary. Toby was annoying, but he had never been aggressive. 

Then he thought again: You didn’t go unarmed to a meeting with a member of Tony Mendoza’s organization—even a low-level putz like Toby Gates.

Jim picked the gun off the seat, tucked it inside his jacket, and stepped out of the Monte Carlo.

Chapter 8

Toby leaned back against the side of his car as Jim approached. He wasn’t going to give an inch, wasn’t going to meet Jim halfway. That was his manner.

The little putz, Jim thought.

Toby Gates was short and on the pudgy side. His flaxen hair was almost white, like an albino. Jim often thought that Toby would literally fry if exposed to direct  sunlight, like a chubby vampire.

When Jim got close, Toby delivered one of his favorite jabs.

“Hey, old man. Movin’ a little slow this morning, aren’t you?”

“Toby, I’ve got twenty-five years on you, and I could still outrun you, out-lift you, and kick your ass. So why don’t you just keep your comments to yourself today, huh?

“Whoa,” Toby said. “Looks like someone didn’t get their bran flakes and Geritol this morning.”

“Just keep pushing it, Toby.”

Jim took a quick look around and over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching them. The front parking lot of the truck stop was behind them. There were plenty of big commercial rigs, but also smaller vehicles whose drivers stopped at the truck stop for fuel, drinks, and snacks. There was both a Subway and a McDonalds attached to the truck stop. 

But none of these transient people was likely to pay attention to two men meeting briefly in the back parking lot. That was the advantage of this location. 

The interstate ran beside the truck stop, but it lay atop a steep slope, and set back from the crest of the incline. A trucker in one of the big rigs might be able to see them. None of the drivers in pickup trucks or passenger cars would see them without some real neck contortions. And all those vehicles were whizzing by at around 70 m.p.h.

Jim had the money for the heroin all counted out in advance, and tucked inside an envelope that was folded in half once. 

The usual procedure was for him to palm the envelope and make as if shaking hands with Toby. Toby would take the envelope and pocket it. Then Toby would hand him a small package containing ten grams of heroin. 

Still leaning against his car, Toby held out his hand to shake. He took the envelope. But instead of pocketing the money and handing over the heroin, he held the envelope in his palm and said:

“How much money is that?”

Jim restrained a sudden, almost irrepressible urge to grab Toby by the collar of his windbreaker and slam him against the Honda. What was he trying to pull? Did he want them to get caught?

“What do you mean: ‘How much money is that?’ You know damned well how much money it is. The same as always: enough for ten grams. Come on. The weather sucks today, with this sleet, and I want to get going.”

“Ah,” Toby said, “‘enough for ten grams’. you must be unaware of the new policy.”

New policy? What the hell are you talking about?”

“The new policy is: There’s a new minimum: twenty grams.”

“Twenty grams?”

“That’s right, old-timer. You want wholesale prices, you buy wholesale quantities.”

Jim was so flustered at the moment that he overlooked Toby’s use of the appellation, “old-timer”. 

“And when did this go down?”

Toby shrugged. “I don’t know, exactly. But I know it’s the new policy.”

“Does Ice know about this?”

“Of course Ice knows about it,” Toby said. 

Ice was Toby’s immediate superior. Although the whole network was ultimately headed by Tony Mendoza, there were various hierarchical layers in-between, even at the local level.

“Ice knows about this,” Jim repeated. “That’s what you’re saying?”

“That’s what I said. And the policy applies to everyone. Across the board.”

Jim was highly doubtful of that. Toby loved nothing better than yanking Jim’s chain, and it wouldn’t be beyond him to make up a fish story in order to do so.

If he had known in advance, he could have purchased twenty grams today. It wasn’t that big of a deal, really. 

But he didn’t have enough money on him to purchase twenty grams. He would have to go home, and get into his cash reserves. 

Toby wouldn’t wait for him, of course. So he would be without supply, until this little flaxen-haired putz deigned to meet with him again. 

And he was almost certain that Toby was lying. He had caught Toby in lies in the past.

Then Jim felt his temper snap, like a tiger being let out of a cage. 

No, he thought, that isn’t going to happen. I’m sick of being jerked around. If Tony Mendoza were here, jerking me around, maybe I would take that. Maybe I’d have no choice. But I’m not going to take it from Toby Gates. 

“No, Toby. I have another idea: I say you’re going to sell me ten grams. Today. Right now. If the new minimum is twenty grams, then we can do it that way next time. But today you’re going to sell me the usual amount. It isn’t fair to change the minimum amount without telling me in advance. That’s bullshit, in fact.”

Jim stepped closer, towering over the younger man. He raised both hands slightly, as if readying himself to give Toby a shove.

Suddenly, Toby’s face turned bright red. Toby was seized by what was obviously a fit of great consternation. 

He had really gotten under the little putz’s skin, apparently. 

In fact, Toby was downright speechless. He started to speak, but he was unable. 

Enough of this, Jim thought. This shouldn’t be so complicated.

“Just give me the ten grams, Toby, and take my money. Then you can go home and play video games, or beat off to Internet porn all day, or whatever it is you do.”

But Toby’s face turned yet another, deeper shade of red. He sputtered out something that Jim couldn’t understand. 

Toby let the envelope filled with Jim’s money fall to the ground.

What happened next happened very quickly. Jim would later reflect that it happened too fast for him to even begin to think about the consequences at the time.

Toby reached inside his coat. In the context of a heated argument over a heroin deal, that could only mean one thing.

Toby was about to draw a weapon on him.

Jim had never been in an honest-to-goodness gunfight. During his time at Lebanon, however, he had talked to several men who had had that experience, and who had lived to tell about it.

They all said the same thing: When guns are drawn with an intent to shoot, the man who acts decisively is the man who walks away. The man who hesitates is the man who doesn’t walk away.

Toby’s hand was still inside his coat when Jim pulled out the Glock 19. 

Toby saw the gun, and his eyes went wide. His face still bright red, he sputtered out something, which Jim still couldn’t understand. 

And Jim shot Toby twice in the chest.

End of preview chapters

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‘The Stand’ (1994) now available in blu-ray/DVD

It was the late spring of 1994. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Seinfeld was the country’s most popular sitcom. (Friends wouldn’t debut until the autumn of 1994.)

I was living in Wilmington, Ohio. I had a job I liked, and I lived in a cheap apartment with wood panel walls and worn shag carpet from the 1970s. I was 25 years old. Those were good times, all the way around.

For five days, from May 8 to May 12, 1994, ABC aired a miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s 1978 post-apocalyptic novel, The Stand.

In case you’re not aware, The Stand is one of King’s most popular books. The Stand is a good-versus-evil epic about a supernatural battle between good and evil.

Oh, but before that happens, 99% of the world’s population is wiped out by the Superflu, or ‘Captain Trips’. That was years before COVID, of course. But the end of the world is always a good place to start a story. Right? Continue reading “‘The Stand’ (1994) now available in blu-ray/DVD”

Remembering ‘Red Dawn’

80sThen80s now is one of the few accounts I follow on Twitter, because, well…I’m nostalgic for the 1980s.

Today the account tweeted this post about the movie Red Dawn (1984). In response to the poll, I gave the movie a 9. 

Red Dawn wouldn’t necessarily be a 9 if it were released today, mind you. But you have to evaluate a movie by the filmmaking standards of its era. A lot of movies in the early 1980s were pretty rough, compared to the slick, CGI-enhanced productions of today. And so it is with Red Dawn. Continue reading “Remembering ‘Red Dawn’”

52 years old

Today I turn 52 years old. I am not making a big deal of the day in my real life, because well, when you’re this old, what’s another birthday but a step closer to the grave? (We’ll get to that matter shortly.)

Due to a misspelling on my Ohio driver’s license, I recently had to order a copy of my official birth certificate from the State of Wisconsin. My Certificate of Live Birth lists my parents’ ages as 22. It is difficult for me to imagine either of them as twenty-two today. For that matter, it’s not so easy to imagine myself as twenty-two.

Not that I have much to complain about, mind you. During my teen years, I developed a habit of moderate diet and daily exercise, and I’ve stuck with it. I’m not going to say that I feel like a 19-year-old. I don’t. But I don’t feel much different than I did  when I was in my thirties. That’s something. Continue reading “52 years old”

What if your coworkers were planning a murder?

If you haven’t read The Eavesdropper, now is your chance to get it on sale for only $0.99!

Frank Joseph has a quiet life, a daughter he loves, and a “typical boring desk job” in the purchasing department of Thomas-Smithfield Electronics.

Until he overhears three of his coworkers planning a murder.

Oh…and one of those coworkers is his boss!

If you like corporate conspiracy thrillers (like those written by Joseph Finder), you’ll love The Eavesdropper.

For four days only (August 2 ~ 5) The Eavesdropper is on sale on Amazon Kindle for just $0.99!

Get it now on Amazon!

McDonald’s Arctic Orange Shakes

My coming-of-age supernatural thriller, Revolutionary Ghosts, is set in 1976.  The tale’s hero, an Ohio teenager named Steve Wagner, has a summer job at McDonald’s. 

One of the recurring jokes in the book surrounds the Arctic Orange Shake, which McDonald’s did indeed introduce in the summer of 1976. Continue reading “McDonald’s Arctic Orange Shakes”

Walking and your brain

I’ve been systematically walking and running for going on 40 years now. 

I mostly do this for the fitness benefits. I’ve long noticed, however, that I seem to get some of my best ideas while I’m out and about, on my feet.

I’ve also noticed that when I’m perplexed or upset about a problem, a long walk often makes me feel better about it. Continue reading “Walking and your brain”

Sharks in New England

A 63-year-old New York woman was fatally attacked by a great white shark while swimming off the Maine coast. For whatever they’re worth, I offer my condolences. That would be a terrifying way to go. 

No one really expects to be attacked by a shark while swimming in the waters off Maine. Shark attacks are something we associate with the tropics, generally. Continue reading “Sharks in New England”

Jenna Moreci and WriterTube

“WriterTube” refers to the YouTube community of writers. Basically, it is an ongoing discussion about writing and (mostly self-) publishing with YouTube as the platform.

The vast majority of the WriterTube vloggers and commenters are teen girls and young women who are interested in the romance and young adult fantasy genres. I’m a 52-year-old man who writes and reads suspense, horror, and thrillers. WriterTube therefore isn’t a big draw for me, on either side of the camera.

Nevertheless, there are exceptions. From time to time, I have tuned in to the videos of Jenna Moreci. She was recently interviewed by Craig Martelle, whom I follow.

Most indie writers nowadays spend all of their time writing new fiction, and relatively little time building an online platform. Many indie writers have no fixed online presence beyond their Amazon sales page. As a result, they must spend disproportionately on various ads, mailing lists, and the like. Continue reading “Jenna Moreci and WriterTube”