British author Edward Rutherford (born 1948) writes the kind of sprawling, multi-era historical novels that James Michener (1907-1997) used to write. (Rutherford has, I believe, acknowledged Michener as an influence.)
Rutherford’s books are similar to Michener’s, but generally more readable, in my opinion. (Michener could drag things out a bit too long sometimes.)
Sarum is about the history of present-day Salisbury, England. Following a common Rutherford pattern, Sarum begins in prehistoric times, and then moves forward. Sometimes this means skipping hundreds or thousands of years between chapters.
This means that most characters exist for only a few chapters, at the most. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that Rutherford’s books are really collections of long short stories, or novellas written around a common setting.
To some readers this will be a feature, to others, a bug. Sarum has mostly 4- and 5-star reader reviews on Amazon. The few negative reviews the book has received note that the fast succession of characters leaves little room for character development. Also, the transitions can be somewhat abrupt, when Rutherford makes one of his big leaps in time.
As I make my way through Sarum, I’m enjoying each new story, and each new cast of characters. I recognize that Rutherford is actually telling many loosely connected tales, and not a single, unified tale. But I’m okay with the that. The book is holding my interest.
Sarum was originally published in 1987; and it has been reissued several times. It’s a monster of a book, weighing in at 1,145 pages. (Note: I’m actually listening to the audiobook, which is more than 45 hours long.)
I would like to write a book like this someday. But I would probably structure it as a series, more like John Jakes used to do. I can’t see myself ever publishing a single book that’s more than a thousand pages long.
But Sarum is proving to be a fun read, so far. If you like history and good storytelling, you should check this one out.
It’s the beginning of March. Two months of 2021 are already in the rearview mirror!
To celebrate March, and the imminent start of spring, I’m putting two titles at $.99 for the first part of the week (through Wednesday).
One is a horror novel, the other is a corporate thriller.
12 Hours of Halloween is a coming-of-age supernatural horror novel set in 1980. On Halloween night, three young friends must face the trials of a ghostly curse in the suburbs of Cincinnati.
The Eavesdropper is a workplace/corporate thriller set in a large electronics company. A purchasing agent named Frank Joseph has just discovered that three of his coworkers are planning a murder. One of the conspirators happens to be his boss.
Will Frank stop the murder conspiracy, or will he become its next victim?
Both The Eavesdropper and 12 Hours of Halloween will remain at $.99 (on Amazon Kindle) through Wednesday, March 3. Hopefully that will give everyone a chance to check them out!
I’ve launched a new series: Clint and Jennifer Huber Mysteries. These novels are classified in the “amateur sleuth’ category.
The first book in the series, 1120 Dunham Drive is out.
Introducing Clint and Jennifer Huber: amateur sleuths who must investigate a very personal mystery—the web of obsession, betrayal, and violence surrounding their “dream house” at 1120 Dunham Drive.
The problems begin with a former owner who refuses to leave quietly, and strange disturbances during the middle of the night.
Oh, and there’s something sinister about a room in the basement.
1120 Dunham Drive is a suburban mystery/thriller that will keep you guessing to the last page.
Preview the book below!
To thirty-four-year-old Jennifer Huber, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive seemed pretty close to perfect. If only, she would later think, there had been something wrong with it—something that would have sent her and her husband Clint running, never to return.
That wasn’t the way things worked out, though. On a sun-scorched Saturday afternoon in mid-July, the house at 1120 Dunham Drive drew the Hubers in.
Or at least the house drew Jennifer in. The seduction began in earnest in the realtor’s car, as Jennifer, Clint, and Tom Jarvis (the realtor) pulled into the driveway.
“It’s a Tudor!” Jennifer exclaimed.
“And what would that be?” Clint asked.
“This style of home,” Jennifer replied. “This is what they call a Tudor-style home.”
Jennifer had a fairly extensive knowledge of residential architecture, and she had studied the house’s spec sheet on the Internet the previous night. So she already knew that this would be a Tudor-style home. Her surprise had been feigned: It had simply been a gambit to prod Clint into showing some more enthusiasm about what they were doing today.
“You’ve got to admit, hon: It looks good from the road.”
“It’s a good-looking house,” Clint allowed.
Built in 1940, the house had a look that was simultaneously homey and classic: It had steeply pitched gables (a prerequisite of the neo-Tudor style), decorative half-timbering on the exterior walls, and brick inlays around the ground-floor windows.
“Let’s have a look-see,” Tom Jarvis said, turning off the engine of his Lexus and opening the front driver’s side door. Jennifer didn’t wait for either Jarvis or Clint.As soon as the vehicle was parked, she was out of the overly air-conditioned back seat and racing ahead of the two men.
“It looks like somebody really wants a house,” she heard Jarvis say conspiratorially to Clint.
Who wouldn’t want a new house? Jennifer thought. That’s the sort of thing we work for, after all.
That thought reminded her of the job she hated and the secret that kept her bound there. She pushed these thoughts away. Today was a happy occasion. She wasn’t going to think about her job at Ohio Excel Logistics. Not on a Saturday afternoon like this.
“Check this out,” Jennifer said, pulling her husband Clint by the hand. “Japanese maples.”
The front garden did indeed have three Japanese maples, plus several small pine trees, and a whole lot of ivy. It was the sort of landscaping that took years to develop—either that, or a whole lot of money.
“Connor would like the yard,” Jennifer observed as Tom Jarvis bent down and retrieved the key from the lockbox on the front door.
“He probably would,” Clint replied.
“And best of all, it’s in the Mydale school district.”
Their son, Connor, was going to be a first-grader in a mere two months. The public schools in Mydale were regarded as the best in the Cincinnati area.
And then there was the most important thing about the house—the factor that made this a real possibility: The asking price of the home at 1120 Dunham Drive was within the Hubers’ range. Most of the homes in Mydale were a lot pricier.
By now Jarvis had unlocked the door. He smiled and held the door open for them.
Jarvis smiled again as Jennifer walked by and looked down. He wasn’t overly obvious about it, but the realtor had clearly taken the opportunity to check her body out.
It wasn’t the first such glance that she had noticed from the real estate agent. Nor was it all in her imagination. Clint had remarked the other day that Jarvis had taken so many liberties with his eyes during their real estate office meetings and home viewing excursions, that he owed them an additional ten percent off the asking price of whatever house they eventually settled on.
She asked Clint if it made him jealous—Jarvis looking at her that way. Clint had scoffed in reply: Jarvis was an old guy, basically harmless.
Jarvis was indeed older than them, maybe in his mid- to late-forties. He was balding and could have dropped ten pounds; but he still carried himself with the swagger of an ex-jock. Jarvis had probably been a “hound” back in the day; and his manner strongly suggested that he still considered himself a claimant to that title.
As Jennifer walked into the cool house and out of the midsummer heat, Jarvis closed the door and briefly loomed over her. He finally looked away, but not before allowing himself a furtive glance down her blouse.
Okay, that one was a bit much, she thought, but did not say.
Since roughly the age of thirteen, Jennifer had noticed that a large number of men noticed her. That seemed to go along with being thin, blonde, and reasonably pretty. Most of the time it wasn’t a big deal; and for a period of her life it had been undeniably flattering.
But she had been married for most of a decade. She was a mom now; and she was devoted to Clint.
Or at least she thought she was. Would a woman who was totally devoted to her husband and son get herself into the jam she was in at work?
Is there something wrong with me? she wondered. Do I give off the wrong signals?
Her unpleasant thoughts were pushed aside by the interior of the house. The front hall was high-ceilinged and spacious. Their footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor. Unlike many older houses, this house wasn’t dark and dingy. Quite the opposite, in fact. The windows of the downstairs flooded the first floor with natural light.
“I think I love this house.” Jennifer declared, setting aside what she knew to be her habitual skepticism about being sold anything at all. Clint, who was standing beside her, gave her a curious look.
Then the realtor said what Clint must have been thinking:
“Well, Mrs. Huber, you’ve only just seen the front yard and the front hallway. But that’s a good start.”
It’s like he doesn’t want me to get my hopes up, she thought. They had toured numerous homes with Tom Jarvis—most of them homes that Jennifer and Clint had preselected through exhaustive, late-night Internet searches. Practically none of those homes had given her instantly warm and fuzzy feelings.
But this one did. And Jarvis wasn’t exactly right about her having seen only the front yard and the front hallway. Having spotted this house online and grasped its potential, Jennifer had pored over the available photographs of its interior and landscaping. She had bookmarked the home’s portfolio in her web browser, and had returned to it numerous times, in fact.
On the drive over from the realty office, Tom Jarvis had said that the situation surrounding this house was “complicated”. He had started to explain; but apparently the act of giving an explanation was complicated, too.
“For now let’s just keep our options open,” he’d said. But what exactly did that mean? Was Tom Jarvis planning to ultimately steer them toward another house? Maybe a turkey of a house that could only be unloaded on a naïve young couple making their first home purchase?
Well, she thought, the unknown motives of a self-serving and mildly lecherous real estate agent were not going to dissuade her if this house turned out to be as perfect as it seemed. Real estate agents were always working their angles, she’d heard. None of them, she had been warned by friends, were to be trusted.
She didn’t want to make a negative generalization about an entire profession. Still, she and Clint would have to be careful. The Internet was filled with horror stories about dishonest and prevaricating real estate agents. Tom Jarvis knew they were first-time homebuyers. That might lead him to the conclusion that they could be easily led.
One thing was undeniable: For some reason, Tom Jarvis didn’t want them to purchase this house.
Here’s a little about the story, and why you’ll enjoy it if you like a.) East Asian settings, and b.) adventure.
North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens
In my prior professional existence, I was deeply involved with Japan. I learned the Japanese language, and even worked as a translator for a time. I also worked for years in the Japanese automotive industry. I made many trips to Japan.
One of the ongoing issues I learned of in Japan was the so-called ratchi mondai 拉致問題, or “abduction problem”. This intractable matter came up whenever there was talk of Japan and North Korea resuming ordinary diplomatic relations.
Throughout the 1970s and part of the 1980s, North Korean agents abducted numerous Japanese citizens on Japanese soil. (Japan and North Korea are quite close, geographically.) These ordinary Japanese people, who happened to become targets of the North Koreans, were taken to North Korea and forced to work in a variety of capacities. Many were employed against their will as Japanese language instructors.
North Korea’s abductions didn’t stop there. In 1978, North Korea abducted Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee. Shin Sang-ok was a well-known South Korean movie director. Choi Eun-hee, his former wife, was a successful actress. The pair spent about eight years in North Korean captivity. They worked directly for Kim Jong-il, the future Supreme Leader of North Korea. Shin and Choi were tasked with making films for North Korea’s movie industry (against their will, of course.) They finally escaped in 1986.
North Korean abductions and Americans
I knew there was a story there. I wanted to write a story about an American kidnapped by the North Koreans, though. So far as my research could determine, there had never been a documented case of the North Koreans abducting an American on foreign soil.
But why couldn’t it happen? After all, thousands of Americans travel to Japan and South Korea every year. Many are skilled business and technical experts, human assets that Pyongyang would surely covet. And North Korean agents are known to be active in both Japan and South Korea.
An American abducted and taken to North Korea
THE CONSULTANT is the story of Barry Lawson, a successful business consultant from Chicago who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And then he finds himself in North Korea.
Barry Lawson is an aging Lothario in his late forties. He has a way with the ladies, and this has often gotten him into trouble. Barry is divorced, with two children.
When Barry is approached by an attractive woman at a bar in Osaka, Japan, he can’t resist….even though he knows better.
This is a decision that he’ll soon regret. Within hours, Barry Lawson, successful business consultant and ladies’ man, must find a way to survive in—and hopefully escape from—the hellhole that is North Korea.
He’s not the only foreigner there, though. Barry he meets a Japanese man, Shoji Tanaka, whom the North Koreans abducted from Hokkaido (in northern Japan) when he went out for cigarettes one night.
Barry also meets Anne Henry, a woman who knows the Korean language. Anne, it turns out, has a traumatic abduction story of her own.
That’s all for now. I don’t want to ruin the book for you.
THE CONSULTANT is available in paperback and Kindle. (An audiobook is in the works.) You can presently read THE CONSULTANT in Kindle Unlimited, as well.
Want to preview THE CONSULTANT? You can do so below.
Near the town of Elkhorn, Wisconsin, not far from the Illinois border, Bray Road runs through miles of flat, lonely farmland. It is near this location where a werewolf-like cryptid, called the Beast of Bray Road, has been seen since at least the early 1990s.
Tonight I watched a documentary on the Travel Channel about this cryptid. Similar upright “dog men” have been seen in Michigan, Indiana, and even Ohio. (I live in Ohio, as some of you may know.)
According to the documentary I watched, there are a number of theories surrounding the dog men. One is that the creatures are manifestations of the Native American wolf spirit. (The dog men seem to be associated with sacred Native American sites.)
There is a long tradition of spectral dogs and werewolf-like animals guarding portals to the underworld. Greek mythology has Cerberus, or the Hound of Hades. There are similar “hell hounds” in Irish lore.
The hellhound is a concept that has found its way into at least one of my horror novels: Eleven Miles of Night.
The Travel Channel documentary (which was focused on the Beast of Bray Road) contained some rather convincing eyewitness testimonies. Among the witnesses interviewed was a former math teacher. A Roman Catholic Bishop speculated on the possibility that the Bray Road Beast has a supernatural aspect. Maybe you believe, and maybe you don’t; but these folks weren’t conspiracy theory whackos.
Linda S. Godfrey, the newspaper reporter who broke the story of the Bray Road Beast back in 1991, has written a book on the topic. I haven’t read Ms. Godfrey’s book, but she was interviewed for the Travel Channel documentary. If you are interested in the Bray Road creature (or cryptids in general), her book would probably be worth checking out.
Most writers tend to change over time. Stephen King’s most recent offering, If It Bleeds, is quite distinct from his early breakout novels like Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, and The Shining. If It Bleeds is almost like a book from a different author.
King is one of the best-known examples of writers who’ve changed, but there are many others.
I haven’t been writing and publishing for as long as Stephen King, of course. But I’ve been at it for about a decade now, and that’s long enough for my story interests and narrative style to undergo significant changes.
Relatively early in the game, I wrote and published a short story collection, along with three novels: Blood Flats (2011), Termination Man (2012), and The Maze (2013).
The short story collection, Hay Moon and Other Stories, has remained on Amazon since 2011. Readers have liked it, and it sells fairly well, as short story collections go.
But the aforementioned novels were a different matter. These are all standalone novels, and in a mix of genres. A marketing nightmare. Although reviews were generally positive, sales languished.
These three novels are all long books, well in excess of 100K words. (Blood Flats is about 180K words). This past year I decided that it would be a good idea to take the books off the market for a time, give them a thorough reread, and decide if they needed to be altered, republished as originally written, or scrapped.
I’ve written so much in the intervening years, that rereading these books was a bit like reading three books written by another person. I remembered the general plots of each novel, of course; but I had also forgotten huge swaths of the stories.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that all of these novels are, well…pretty darn good.
I subjected these books not only to an author’s reread, but also to an external proofread. A handful of typos were found and corrected (though not many).
I’ve rereleased these books and put them back in Kindle Unlimited. Here they are, with Amazon links and descriptions:
Blood Flats:Lee McCabe is on the run from the law, mafia hitmen, and rural meth dealers. A gun-blazing chase through the badlands of Kentucky.
Termination Man:Sex, lies, and corporate conspiracies! A workplace thriller for fans of John Grisham and Joseph Finder.
The Maze:Three ordinary people step into an alien world of magic and nonstop danger. A modern-day parallel world fantasy with the soul of a thriller!
If the above story descriptions appeal to you, then I think you’ll like each of these books. And you can presently read them for free in Kindle Unlimited.
I’ve enrolled The Consultant in Kindle Unlimited for 90 days… so those of you who are members can read it for free.
Paperback also available. Audiobook version coming soon!
The most oppressive regime on earth has taken you prisoner. And they have a mission for you!
Barry Lawson is an American marketing consultant traveling on business to Osaka, Japan. After striking up a conversation with a woman in a bar, he agrees to accompany her back to her apartment.
But the mystery woman is not who she seems. Days later, Barry wakes up in a cell in North Korea.
He discovers that the North Korean government has abducted him for a specific purpose. The North Koreans don’t plan to ransom him. They want him to work for them.
But Barry is determined to escape—whatever the cost.
His allies are a Japanese abductee, and a beautiful American woman who understands the North Koreans, and speaks their language.
With a U.S.-North Korean summit fast approaching, a coup plot shakes the very foundation of the Pyongyang regime. Barry chooses this moment to make a desperate dash for freedom. But he and his fellow escapees risk death at every turn.
The Consultant is a thriller ripped from real-life headlines, with unforgettable characters and nonstop action!
Sometimes old novels need to be be updated in various ways. I recently rereleased Blood Flats with a new cover. I also corrected a few typos that had made it through when the novel was originally published in 2011.
This was my first novel, but I think it’s a pretty good one, nonetheless. (I reread the entire book in September, and I was frankly surprised at how much I enjoyed the story, huge chunks of which I had forgotten over the past decade.)
Blood Flats is the story of Lee McCabe, a former marine who returns to the fictional Hawkins County, Kentucky after serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Lee is framed for a drug-related double homicide that he did not commit. He goes on the run, pursued by local meth dealers, mafia men from Chicago, and law enforcement officers with a variety of motives.
I wrote most of this book in 2010, and the events would have occurred in 2009. You’ll therefore notice some differences in the way that cell phones work, for example. Other than that, though, this is a modern story set in the modern world.
Which brings me to the influences for Blood Flats. There were two novels that strongly influenced this book: Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove.
No Country for Old Men might best be described as a period noir crime novel, set in 1980. Lonesome Dove is a long western epic, set in the 1870s.
While writing Blood Flats, I had in mind the bleakness of the McCarthy’s book, and the long, epic journey of Lonesome Dove. The plot of Blood Flats isn’t similar to either of the books that influenced it; but I like to think that some of the moods and themes are similar.
This is my way of saying: If you like No Country for Old Men and Lonesome Dove, you’ll probably like Blood Flats.
Blood Flats is a long book. It isn’t quite as long as Lonesome Dove (about 900 pages). Blood Flats, though comes in at 180,000 words. This makes it about twice as long as the standard 90K-word commercial novel.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
Mark looked down at the business card in his hand. It was printed on plain white card stock:
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.
I regularly listen to a handful of podcasts for indie authors. These shows rely heavily on guest appearances. Usually the guests are indie authors who have found success, and are willing to share their secrets.
About three years ago, T.S. Paul started appearing on these shows. I knew immediately that he and I were two different kinds of people, and different kinds of authors. I could also tell that he was a bright guy, and worth watching. I figured that I could learn from him.
T.S. Paul rejected much of the standard advice for indie writers. He didn’t believe in review-begging, for one thing. (Several times I heard him say in interviews, “I don’t care about reviews.”) He didn’t believe in making any of his titles free for mass giveaways, either. (He also once said, “I don’t believe in free.”) Continue reading “R.I.P., T.S. Paul”