The rebooted Magnum PI: mini-review

If you’ve been watching CBS in recent years, you’ll have noticed that many of the network’s top programs are reboots of shows from the 1970s and 1980s: MacGyver, S.W.A.T., Hawaii Five-O.

Now you can add a new one to the list: Magnum PI.

I’ll admit: I was a skeptic. The 1980s coincided with my high school and college years. I didn’t watch much television during that decade. But I did make time for Magnum PI. The original Magnum, starring Tom Selleck, is one of my favorite television programs from my youth.

I was sure that CBS would make a mess of the remake.

I was wrong. The new Magnum PI is just as fun and entertaining as the original.

I’m a conservative, and all conservatives are naturally nostalgic. We tend to believe that things were better in the old days, that previous versions of things were better than the new and updated ones. In this vein, there was a part of me that would have loved to have seen Tom Selleck star in the 21st-century reboot of Magnum. (Selleck presently stars in Blue Bloods, another  CBS staple, as the patriarch of an NYPD family.)




 

But another part of me knows that would have been ridiculous. Tom Selleck is very fit for his age, but he’s now in his seventies. The starring role in Magnum PI is one for an actor in early middle age: 35 to 45.

CBS has cast Jay Hernandez as Thomas Sullivan Magnum. And while Hernandez brings his own style and interpretation to the role, he pulls it off with as much flair as Selleck did before him.

The new show more or less ports the characters and the basic premise over from the original: with some necessary changes. In the original show, Magnum and his sidekicks (TC and Rick), were Vietnam War vets. In the 2018 reboot,  they’re veterans of the wars in the Middle East.

There is one fairly major character change: In the 1980s version, Higgins, the majordomo of the Hawaiian estate where Magnum lives (off the largess of the never seen Robin Masters) was played by British actor John Hillerman. In the reboot, Higgins is still British, but Higgins is a woman (Perdita Weeks).

Conservatives like me are supposed to hate it when rebooted shows arbitrarily change the genders of characters. I don’t necessarily hate this practice in a knee-jerk sort of way, but I’m always skeptical of it, often with good reason. (The reimagining of Boomer and Starbuck as female characters in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica produced uneven results.)  But in the case of Magnum PI, the distaff version of Higgins works perfectly. I think–sorry, Mr. Hillerman–that I even like the Perdita Weeks interpretation of Higgins better.

The show includes lots of fun details that were crucial to the 1980s Magnum, like the dogs Zeus and Apollo, and Magnum’s habit of thinking aloud to the audience. TC and Rick (Stephen Hill and Zachary Knighton) don’t get much character development. But then, they were little more than affable sidekicks in the original version.

The Magnum PI reboot is as good as any purist could have asked for, 38 years after the start of the original series (and 30 years after it went off the air).

Sometimes the networks botch things, but sometimes they hit home runs, too. The new Magnum PI is a home run

David Gaughran’s post about the Amazon “also-bought apocalypse”

David Gaughran is a constant source of valuable information for anyone publishing in this brave new world of indie publishing. One of his recent blog posts concerns the Amazon “also-bought” apocalypse.

If you’re a writer/indie publisher, the post is well worth reading in its entirety.

But here’s my quick take on the  matter:

For years now, thousands of indie authors have made themselves wholly dependent on the Amazon ecosystem. This trend has accelerated nonstop since Amazon established the KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited program in 2011.

At least one of the indie author “gurus” now states that indie authors no longer need individual author websites.

Why? Because the only thing that matters now is gaming the Amazon algorithms!

Many indie authors no longer think in terms of any kind of “platform” beyond Amazon.

Rapid release into KDP Select….

Rapid release into KDP Select…

Rinse and repeat…

I’m not anti-Amazon. (I rather like them, in fact.) But as David Gaughran’s post illustrates, it is dangerous to build a consumer-focused business that is solely reliant on a single channel of distribution.

What is the solution? Forget about silly “boycotts” and online petitions. Those things don’t mean squat, at the end of the day.

The solution is to spread the risks: Go wide, and work with other retailers–in addition to Amazon: Apple Books, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.

Let me make clear: Amazon is not evil. But Amazon is a large company that will, like all big companies, act in its best interests.

How do you think Amazon got to be the world’s largest retailer?

If you’re an independent author, you need to act in your best interests, too.

And acting in your best interests doesn’t mean relying solely and entirely on Amazon.

A Column of Fire, by Ken Follett (mini-review)

Get it on Amazon!

 

I just finished reading Ken Follett’s mammoth historical novel, A Column of Fire.

The novel opens in 1558, just as the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary is coming to an end. Mary has reversed England’s Protestant shift, which began when her father, Henry VIII, decided that he couldn’t make due with one wife and a mistress.

Mary, who is also known to history as “Bloody Mary”, occasionally burned Protestant dissenters, and this is depicted in one of the opening chapters of A Column of Fire. Hence the name of the book.

This is the opening historical backdrop. The hero of the novel is Ned Willard, who is a young man in love as the story opens. The object of Ned’s affections is Margery Fitzgerald. Ned’s affections are returned, but—of course—there is a problem.

Margery hails from a devoutly Catholic family that has prospered under the reign of Mary. Through the connivances of Margery’s fanatically papist brother, Ned loses Margery to Bart, a member of the local Catholic nobility.

And so Margery enters into a loveless marriage with Bart (who is an uncouth, insensitive, and blundering brute), while Ned goes off, forlorn, to seek his fortune in London.

Ned is a lukewarm Protestant who abhors the intolerance of Mary’s reign. Ned longs for a monarch who will allow the British people to worship freely (or as freely as possible, according to 16th-century standards of “freedom”.)

Just as Ned is reeling from the loss of Margery, Mary dies. Elizabeth takes the throne. A chance connection to Sir Francis Walsingham (principal secretary to Elizabeth) enables Ned to enter the service of the Crown. Ned is greatly impressed with the young queen. With the option of a married life with Margery closed off, Ned devotes himself to the service of Queen Elizabeth I, and the implementation of her (initially) tolerant ideals.

There is a lot more to A Column of Fire, of course. This is a 900-page book, after all. There is also a storyline set in France, where Protestants are a minority in an officially Catholic country. Still another set of characters has adventures in Spain and the New World. (All of the storylines converge before the end of the book.)

The overarching theme of A Column of Fire is the religious strife that gripped Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. As noted above, the story opens with anti-Protestant burnings in England. Follett later weaves into his plot the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris, and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The book covers around half a century. (Ned Willard is in his eighties in the final chapter.)

I loved this book. I have read almost everything that Ken Follett has written to this point, and A Column of Fire is hands-down my favorite.

I like stories with complex twists and turns, and physical threats; and A Column of Fire has all that in spades. There are sea battles, and opposing rings of Catholic and Protestant spies.

The majority of readers seem to agree with me. A Column of Fire is highly rated both on Amazon and Goodreads.

But even a really good book has its flaws. Most of the criticisms of A Column of Fire come from one of two angles, which I’ll address briefly.

Ken Follett seems to harbor a secret desire to be an author of Harlequin romance novels. Almost every movie, novel, and television series has a love interest (or multiple love interests), and I’m not suggesting that this, in itself, is in any way a drawback.

Follett, however, tends to go overboard on his sex scenes.

Now, before you ask, I’m no prude. I’m a fifty-year-old, very heterosexual man with right-leaning libertarian tendencies. I have an equal loathing for leftwing political correctness, and anything that smacks of goody-two-shoes censorship.

That said, there is only so much detail that I need when an author describes a romantic coupling. To be blunt about it: Once the author has described the male protagonist’s erect penis, or the heroine’s moist nether regions, the author has given me more detail than I actually need.

Follett does this on multiple occasions (and in more than a few of his novels). There are some lacunae that an author should trust readers to fill in for themselves.

Secondly, A Column of Fire has something of an anti-Catholic bias. Almost every Catholic character is portrayed as a bloodthirsty fanatic, an amoral schemer, or a deluded simpleton.

(This may be a thing with baby boomer British authors who write historical fiction, as I’ve noticed a similar tendency in the historical novels of Bernard Cornwell.)

These flaws, however, are minor ones. On balance, A Column of Fire is a great read.

A final word before I end: You’ll appreciate A Column of Fire far more if you already have a basic knowledge of European history in general, and the Protestant Reformation in particular. But then, if you don’t already have some interest in history, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be strongly attracted to this book.

Flash fiction, you ask?

A reader recently asked me about flash fiction: Do I write it? Do I plan to write it?

Flash fiction is defined as very short fiction–usually only a few hundred words. Sometimes even less.

I write a lot of short stories (some of which you can read right here, on this site). But my average short story runs about 3K ~ 5K words. This is not excessive where short fiction is concerned (it’s about average, in fact), but that’s way beyond the length desired for flash fiction.

I have read a survey of the flash fiction available, both in print and on the Web. The vast majority of it, it seems to me, consists of either a.) truncated scenes and vignettes, or b.) mere contrivances of “irony”.

There is obviously little room for character development in flash fiction, let alone setting.

I mostly regard flash fiction as a literary parlor trick–mildly interesting (on occasion) but nothing to get excited about.

The main selling point I always see touted for flash fiction is that it appeals to the ultra-short attention spans that supposedly hamper all of us in this age of Internet/24-hour news cycle/social media/latest i-Gadget.

I’m all for making fiction more gripping–more like good television. (This is a real task for some writers of literary fiction.) But is it really true that people’s attention spans are so short that they won’t sit still for an engaging story?

I recently sat through 85 episodes of The Sopranos; and I’m far from the only one who can make that claim.

Yes, the Internet and the i-Gadgets have their temporary pleasures: the cat pictures, the viral meme about Donald Trump or Maxine Waters. But if there wasn’t an appetite for good long-form storytelling, then cable TV channels wouldn’t be able to viably produce long series like The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, and The Americans. (None of the aforementioned series would work for a viewer with a stereotypically short attention span.)

This doesn’t mean that audiences aren’t more fickle than they were in the days of Charles Dickens. To be sure, anyone who aspires to be a storyteller faces more competition than they did in the past.

But the goal should be better storytelling, not simply shorter storytelling. The Sopranos would never have worked as the television equivalent of flash fiction.

Remembering those Burger Chef ‘Star Wars’ posters of 1977

I was part of the original Star Wars generation.

I remember being nine years old in the summer of 1977, sitting with my dad in the cinema, watching that first epic Star Wars opening crawl.

I became a total fanatic for Star Wars. And yes, that meant Star Wars action figures, Star Wars trading cards, and much else. During that first two years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, I wasn’t thinking about stagflation or the energy crisis, or Jimmy Carter’s “malaise”. I was thinking about Star Wars.

Among my favorite Star Wars memorabilia of that era were the four Star Wars posters issued by Burger Chef. (Burger Chef was a once popular fast food chain that went out of business in 1996.)

I had all four posters, and they were hung all around my bedroom. (I can still recall the exact placement of each one, in fact.)

These are now collectors’ items, of course. But they were just delightful children’s bric-a-brac in 1977.

Is John Grisham slipping?

Late last week I received my hardcover copy of John Grisham’s The Reckoning from the folks at Amazon. (I had preordered the book.)

Before I jumped in, I was curious to see how the reader reviews had been running.

The early reviews are less than stellar. The average, based on Amazon’s 5-point scale, is running at 3.1 at the time of this writing. There are quite a few 1- and 2-star reviews.

What might account for this?

Well, first of all, what doesn’t: No one dislikes John Grisham for being John Grisham. He isn’t political. So the negative reviews weren’t made in retaliation for something Grisham said or did outside the printed page.

(Grisham, unlike Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates, mostly stays out of the culture wars. He did test the waters with speaking out on a (very) inflammatory issue a few years ago, got burned, and promptly re-devoted himself to fiction.)

Nor does anyone, in 2018, purchase a John Grisham legal thriller with the expectation that they’ll be getting a fantasy novel or a romance. Everyone knows who he is and what he does. They either like Grisham’s schtick, or they don’t.

And for the most part, John Grisham does what he does brilliantly. But even he can have lackluster books.

For example, I was bored to tears by John Grisham’s 2010 novel, The Confession. To my reading, The Confession was a blatant piece of agitprop that Grisham wrote to oppose capitol punishment, and to attempt to SAY SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT ABOUT RACE IN AMERICA.

The Whistler, too, I found to be a little slow, though it was free of socio-political virtue-signaling.

But when Grisham hits one out of the park, he really hits one out of the park. His last two efforts, Camino Island and The Rooster Bar, have been among his best books ever.

So to answer the question posed above, no–I don’t believe that John Grisham is “slipping”. But the guy has been cranking out novels, at a rate of about one per year, since before Bill Clinton was president.

Not all of them are going to suit your tastes–even if you’re a diehard Grisham fan. And where taste is concerned, your mileage may vary. I absolutely loved Camino Island, but plenty of reader-reviewers panned it. Likewise, not everyone disliked The Confession.

Which brings us to another issue: Grisham has legions of longtime fans, people who have been reading his books for decades. Many of them have very high expectations for every Grisham novel. And they have their own proprietary ideas concerning exactly what a John Grisham novel should be.

There is only so much money within the indie authorspace

There is a predictable evolution that can be seen in all online communities.

I’ve witnessed it over the last fifteen years, in at least four online communities that I’ve been a part of.

At first, the online community is comprised of a small group of individuals who have gathered to share their enthusiasm for a specific topic. They freely exchange advice.

And then the community reaches maturity.

The numbers grow, and people inevitably start marketing books, courses, etc. to other members of the same online community.

We’ve definitely reached this point in the indie authorspace. (We reached it several years ago, in fact.)




 

Let me say, first of all, that I see nothing intrinsically wrong with this practice. I’m a proud capitalist, after all.

Moreover, I’ve benefited from a handful of these courses and books myself.  I’ve especially benefited from the work and advice of Dean Wesley Smith, and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I am also a weekly listener of several indie author podcasts, including: the Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast, The Creative Penn, The Sell More Books Show, Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula, and—most recently—The Career Author Podcast.

These are all great sources of information, and I recommend them highly.

 

 

But the indie authorspace is—to put it bluntly—overcrowded, and the market is oversaturated. (Even Joanna Penn, once endlessly optimistic that “there could never be too many books”, has belatedly recognized this.)

There are now over 3.4 million books in the Kindle ebook store. 

Ten years ago, the challenge for indie authors was to prove (to themselves and to others) that indie publishing is a legitimate alternative to a reliance on the New York-based legacy publishers.

Much has changed over the past decade. We’ve seen the big-time success of Andy Weir, Mark Dawson, Blake Crouch, JA Konrath, Amanda Hocking, and numerous other indie publishers.

Meanwhile, the collapse of brick-and-mortar bookstores has made New York’s stranglehold on traditional methods of distribution less significant.

We also see the rise of the so-called “hybrid author”. More traditionally published authors are either self-publishing, or going with small, entrepreneurial presses. (This is especially prevalent in genre fiction, as the New York publishers are systematically jettisoning any title that doesn’t have the mass-market appeal of the latest John Grisham or James Patterson thriller.)


 

Okay, so self-publishing is no longer a stigma. (And for what it’s worth, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen an impassioned argument on either side of that debate. The fundamental legitimacy of self-publishing appears to be a settled question.)

But if obtaining the permission and resources to publish is no longer a problem, discoverability is now a massive challenge, in a market that can only be described as over-saturated.

Discoverability still isn’t a major problem if you write ultra-niche fiction. I recently learned that there is actually a category called “billionaire reverse-harem romance”. The (exclusively female) readers for these novels congregate in online communities dedicated to this topic, and they’re easy enough to find.

But this doesn’t describe the situation of most indie authors.  Suppose you write generic legal thrillers, in the tradition of John Grisham. Your online reader community is far more difficult to locate.

 

All indie authors, however, are aware of one concentrated, relentlessly passionate online community: the indie authorspace. 

If you go onto Twitter and identify yourself as an indie author, you will immediately be followed by other indie authors whom you’ve never heard of. (And they’ve never heard of you, either.) There are Kboards, 20Booksto50K on Facebook, Authortube on YouTube.

Lots of author communities. Easy to find online. We all know where they are.




 

This is what makes it so tempting to say, Hey, I’ve learned a lot about self-publishing. Maybe I could monetize that knowledge! 

And so you write a nonfiction book for authors. (Whenever a fiction author talks about “branching out into nonfiction”, you can bet that the author is talking about writing a nonfiction book about some facet of self-publishing.)

Or maybe you start yet another podcast. Or you attempt to host your own convention for indie authors, as many of the established podcasters are now doing.

And if you’re really business-minded, you bill yourself as a consultant to other authors. This seems to be the latest trend. As newbie authors become increasingly desperate for any leg up in the crowded marketplace, more and more second- and first-tier indie authors are hanging out their shingles as fee-based marketing consultants.

 

I reiterate: I am a capitalist. I therefore have no moral or ethical objection to any of this. I would much rather see indie authors coming up with innovative business models, versus petitioning the government for subsidies.

At the same time, though, there is a fundamental economic constraint to keep in mind: There is only so much money in the indie authospace. This is not a community of stockbrokers and heart surgeons. This is a community of artists, most of whom are making less than what an ambitious Walmart employee could make.

 

I interpret this trend of authors scrambling to sell their books/advice/services to other authors as a sign that the indie author community is due for a major shakeout. A shakeout is the inevitable consequence in any market that is oversupplied, vis-a-vis the demand.

If you’re an indie author (and I suspect that you are, if you have read this far), I’m not going to attempt to play dictator here, and tell you that you can’t become the next Chris Fox, Joanna Penn, or Dean Wesley Smith by rebranding yourself as a writing advice guru.

I would, however, suggest that you do some soul-searching before you go this route. As a fiction writer, your focus should be on readers, not other writers. Let’s not forget that Stephen King had been a best-selling author for twenty-five years before he wrote On Writing.

Furthermore, you may already be too late. It is only a matter of time before the marketplace of authors selling expertise to other authors becomes oversaturated, too. I repeat: There is only so much money within the indie author space.

Binge-watching ‘The Sopranos’ in 2018

 

I have always loved mafia movies. I am one of those guys who has seen The Godfather more times than I feel comfortable admitting.

I also watch all the documentaries about the mob. I know the name John Gotti, of course, but also Paul Castellano, Carlo Gambino, and Aniello Dellacroce. The Italian mafia made an appearance in my first novel, Blood Flats. I’m sure I’ll write more stories about the Italian mafia in the future.

I was therefore a natural audience for the HBO series The Sopranos (1999 – 2007). But for various reasons, I didn’t get around to actually watching The Sopranos until this year, when I binge-watched all six seasons of the series over several months.

Yes, I’m a little late to this party. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Pages and pages have already been written on the Internet about The Sopranos, dating back to the aughts. I will therefore keep my comments brief. (Er, well, fairly brief.)


The Sopranos is probably best categorized as a drama, but it’s a drama that’s loaded with plenty of physical threats and suspense. (In this regard, The Sopranos is similar to The Americans (FX), my all-time favorite television series.)

The Sopranos  employs a great deal of black humor. Murders are often committed with a smirk.

Black humor is completely absent from The Godfather. But 1972 moviegoers didn’t expect a film about the mob to have a laugh track. By 1999, however, incessant “irony” was thoroughly embedded in our culture, and it would probably have been difficult for The Sopranos to be played completely deadpan for six seasons. Black humor is not usually my thing, but in The Sopranos, it mostly works.

It is important to consider just how difficult this high-wire act was, from the moment of its conception through the last scene of its execution. The creator of The Sopranos, David Chase, faced a two-sided challenge:

When conceiving characters who were mafiosos, Chase had to portray his subjects’ amoralism and brutality, without turning them into unsympathetic monsters. If a main character (even an antihero) is completely unsympathetic, audiences don’t become emotionally invested in him, and don’t care about his fate.

But at the same time, Chase had to make his characters sympathetic, while never allowing the viewer to forget that they’re ultimately criminals. Crooks. Thugs. Bad guys. So it really was a very difficult balance.

Chase pulls this feat off brilliantly. The Sopranos is filled with cynicism, violence, and betrayal. And yet…Each major character is complex and distinct.

Before you finish the first episode, you feel like you know these people, and you want to see more of them. And that’s as much as anyone can ask for.




All of the major characters are also expertly cast. I did a little research, and it seems that a majority of the actors were Italian-Americans who had some connection to the New York/New Jersey area.

Not just James Gandolfini, but also Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco, Michael Imperioli, Vincent Pastore, etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

Did that have an impact on the authenticity of the show? I think it may have.

But there’s one character, of course, who is the tentpole, the central pillar, the focus for the entire series…and that’s Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini. Without the character of Tony Soprano, The Sopranos would have been a mildly interesting Godfather knockoff that would have lasted a season or two, and then would have been quickly forgotten.

I would also speculate that without James Gandolfini, Tony Soprano would not have been nearly as effective.

I’ve seen James Gandolfini in a few other films. He played a junior U.S. Navy officer in Crimson Tide (1995), for example. Gandolfini is unspectacular in his pre-Sopranos roles. But as Tony Soprano, Gandolfini is a giant. He seems to have been born for this role. (It is also unfortunate to note that Gandolfini met an untimely death, at the age of 51, about six years after The Sopranos ended.)

Tony Soprano is capable of both nobility and venality, loyalty and ruthlessness. Flashback scenes suggest that his parents were both sociopaths. Tony, by contrast, seems to legitimately care about his wife and children. But that doesn’t stop him from engaging in a string of extramarital affairs. He is, after all, a mob boss. Philandering comes with the territory.

One of the more interesting subplots involves Tony Soprano’s (nonsexual) relationship with his psychiatrist, Jennifer Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco). Tony is tortured by crises of identity. He suffers from panic attacks. He has a spiritual side (several episodes are dedicated to explorations in this regard), even as he’s capable of being petty, greedy, and violent—exactly what you would expect a mid-level mob boss to be.

And this is, I think, why the character is so appealing. Almost no one who watches The Sopranos knows firsthand what it is like to be a mafia capo. And yet, we identify with Tony Soprano in a thousand ways.

I know that I do: I see a lot of myself in Tony Soprano, the fundamentally flawed and short-sighted human being who nevertheless harbors aspirations of doing/being better.

The Sopranos takes some dark turns in the final seasons. This may partly be related to the changes that were happening in the real world between 1999 and 2007. The first few seasons of The Sopranos has a buoyant fin de siècle feel, despite the subject matter.

Let us not forget that in 1999 and 2000, the mood of the country was optimistic. Everyone was captivated by the ever-rising stock market, and the then novel wonders of the Internet. By 2007, American politics had taken a sharply partisan turn, 9/11 had happened, and we were embroiled in two quagmire wars in the Middle East.

And so the last few seasons of The Sopranos focus—perhaps more than necessary—on the dark sides of the characters’ lives. Not just the killings, but also various personal traumas.

One of the main characters develops Alzheimer’s. Much time is devoted to the troubles associated with Tony Sopranos ne’er-do-well son.

Tony and his wife, Carmella (played by Edie Falco), separate for an entire season, when she decides that she can no longer tolerate his extramarital adventures. (Spoiler alert: Tony and Carmella eventually reconcile.)

Some of the arguments associated with the marital split are almost too realistic. While watching these scenes, I actually felt that I was an unwilling witness to the breakup of a real marriage. There were several moments when I felt physically uncomfortable.

And what about that final scene of the final episode? After a flareup of factional mob violence that leaves many of Tony Soprano’s friends and associates dead, he meets with his wife and children at a restaurant, for what is supposed to be a quiet family dinner.

The family members arrive separately. Tony has been in hiding.

While Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (a deliberately chosen song, of course) is playing on the jukebox, Tony surveys the other diners, speculating that one of them may be an assassin sent to kill him.

First Carmella arrives. Then his son, AJ.

Finally, Tony’s young adult daughter walks in. Tony looks up at the sound of the bell above the door (the restaurant is a neighborhood diner).

And the screen goes instantly silent and black.

The ending is wonderfully ambiguous and ambivalent, downright spiritual for a show about organized crime. (I have a confession here: I hated the ending the first time I saw it. But after I re-watched it on YouTube several times, I found that I recognized and appreciated what David Chase had done here.)

And now The Sopranos is over, for me at least. If you haven’t binge-watched this show, find a way to do so now. The Sopranos is among the best drama ever to see the screen.

Amazon earnings and indie authors

Today Amazon missed it’s earning estimates, leading to a fall in share prices.

Many indie authors are entirely reliant on Amazon. They are Amazon-exclusive, placing all of their titles in KDP. (Amazon makes this tempting, by dangling various cookies.)

I’m not anti-Amazon. On the contrary: I love Amazon–both as a reader and as an author. And under the current structure of the market, it would be virtually impossible to avoid any reliance on The Zon.

Nevertheless, as today’s news demonstrates, Amazon–just like any other company–has its ups and downs.

Amazon has also been known to make abrupt policy changes.

This is yet one more argument for “going wide”–or for making one’s titles available across multiple retailers.

The Van: a short story crime thriller

Troy is a single father, traveling with his 13-year-old daughter, Ellie, through Tennessee.

When they stop in a restaurant, Troy becomes alarmed as two rough-looking men begin paying his daughter unwelcome attention.

Troy is soon to discover that the two men harbor a horrible secret…a secret with implications for himself, Ellie, and other lives as well.

Troy noticed that the two men standing in the adjacent line of the crowded restaurant were eying his thirteen-year-old daughter, Ellie. The men were both in their mid-thirties, probably only a few years older than Troy. But unlike Troy, they were big, hard men, dressed like painters or roofers. Both had full beards. One was blond, and the other had black hair.

Their interest in Ellie was more than simply casual, and they were making little effort to be discreet, let alone secretive. Troy met their stares and neither of them turned away, as grown men would ordinarily do when caught in such an act of impropriety. On the contrary, they were laughing and ribbing each other while they looked at Ellie. 

Troy and Ellie were waiting in line in the Julep’s BBQ, just north of Knoxville, Tennessee, during the evening rush hour. This was one of Troy’s last dinners with his daughter, at least for the summer, and he didn’t want it to be spoiled by two random perverts. And there was also the very real possibility that these two men would turn out to be a significant problem, rather than a passing annoyance.

She’s only thirteen, Troy thought. What kind of men look at a thirteen-year-old girl that way? 

Nevertheless, he turned his attention back to his daughter. 

“Do you know what you want?” he asked her. He was somewhat relieved to see that Ellie seemed not to have noticed the men’s attention.

“When we stopped here in June, you had the pulled pork, I think.”

Ellie nodded, after giving the question the full attention that it deserved. “I’ll have the pulled pork again.”

Julep’s was one of those establishments where you place your order at the counter, fast-food style. It was hot and crowded at this hour of the evening. The last week of August in eastern Tennessee. 

Troy was an outsider in this part of the world, even though he had made numerous trips this way since Ellie’s mother had remarried and relocated from Ohio to Florida. Knoxville was one of the logical stopping places along the long southerly trek down I-75, and of course on the way back north. 

“Will you eat here on the way back from Florida?” Ellie asked. They were the next ones in line. 

“No,” Troy said. “Julep’s is our restaurant. I’ll stop at Wendy’s or Hardee’s or Chipotle, but not Julep’s.”

Ellie smiled. “Maybe I can come back with you. Mom doesn’t really need me.” 

She said this in a light-hearted manner. They both knew that Kylie loved Ellie. But Kylie loved her daughter in her own way, at a different intensity. Different people had different ways of loving, of expressing their love. This was a matter that Troy and Ellie had discussed at some length over the summer.

 “We can just go down to Gainesville and I can come home with you, then,” Ellie pressed. “I’ll pop in and say hi to Mom—and to Joe, I guess.”

Troy put his arm around his daughter’s shoulder. She hadn’t yet acquired that don’t-acknowledge-me-in-public attitude that teenage girls so often adopt toward their parents between the onset of puberty and the end of high school. It gratified Troy when Ellie said things like that, and he was more than a little glad to see that she still loathed Joe, Kylie’s “new” husband of three years—even if Joe wasn’t, on balance, such a bad guy.

“I wish you could,” Troy said. “But we both know how it has to be.”

Troy glanced over at the adjacent line. The two men were still there, still looking at his daughter. They were just out of earshot, given the buzz of the busy restaurant. But there was no doubt about what they were doing, whom they were looking at.

Troy stepped around Ellie and placed himself between his daughter and the leering men. Don’t give them anything to look at, he thought. 

Troy wished he were the sort of man who could simply walk over to the men and tell them to look elsewhere, and be confident that his words would carry the necessary weight. But there were two of them; and the truth was that either one of them would be more than a match for Troy. He wasn’t that sort of a guy, but he would protect his daughter however he could. 

He turned back to Ellie and noticed that her cheeks were reddened. She looked up at him knowingly. So she had noticed the two men. 

Troy was also suddenly aware of what Ellie was wearing: shorts and a halter top. It was summer, after all; and they were on a long drive through the South. Moreover, Troy still saw Ellie as the little girl she had been just a few years ago, eating cereal in front of the television in her pajamas on Saturday morning, her smile showing the gap of a missing baby tooth. 

Wanting to freeze time in place, he hadn’t fully acknowledged the changes that had taken place. Had he not made that mistake, he thought, he could have made sure that his daughter dressed more modestly. Then she wouldn’t have drawn the attention of these two perverted men in their thirties.

So he had failed to protect her twice: first, preemptively, and now, that these two men were actively making her uncomfortable.

Troy took a deep breath, and put his shoulders back, as if trying to expand his five-foot, nine inches to a brawny six-four. Ridiculous, and probably transparent, even to Ellie.

“Don’t worry about those two,” Troy said. There was no need to specify which two he was talking about. “I’m here.”

Ellie nodded and looked up at the lighted menu board behind the counter. The young woman at the cash register nodded for them to place their order, and they stepped forward together. Troy felt more inadequate than he had in a long time, probably since Ellie’s mother had first left him.

Five minutes later they had their food and had taken a seat out on the dining room floor. They both ordered the pulled pork.

Troy noticed, as they departed from the counter, trays in hand, that the two men were still waiting in line. 

The tables at Julep’s were varnished wood, covered with checkered red-and-white vinyl tablecloths. Julep’s was decorated in a faux country motif: The walls were rough-hewn, bare plank boards. There was a restored gasoline pump from the 1930s in one corner of the dining room. In another corner was a life-size wooden cigar-store Indian. The planks of the walls were adorned with vintage photographs from the early twentieth century. There were old signs for bygone brands: Walter’s Beer and Gem soap flakes. Ben-Bay cigars.

“Are you looking forward to school starting?” Troy asked Ellie as they sat down. He now realized that he had involuntarily avoided this question all summer, even though it was something that a father ought to inquire about. This was because the start of the school year meant the end of the summer, and the summer was theirs.

Ellie shrugged. “I guess so.” 

Ellie was going to be in the eighth grade this year. She was growing up so fast. To Troy, the news of her impending arrival in the world seemed like just yesterday. Troy had been a college student, two years away from graduation, when his girlfriend Kylie had told him that she was pregnant. 

There was no question about marrying Kylie then, even though he and Kylie had been dating for a little less than a year, and she seemed ambivalent about the entire situation. The pregnancy had not made her less ambivalent. Maybe we should consider our options, Kylie had said. But Troy had talked her into it. 

He now reflected that when you had to talk a young woman into marrying you, that was probably a warning sign. Didn’t women always leap with joy at marriage proposals in the movies? 

For the better part of ten years they had made a go of it, amid numerous disappointments and recriminations. Then four years ago, the inevitable had happened. 

Kylie had wasted no time remarrying, starting a new life, while Troy’s own life was stalled: He had no romantic prospects to speak of, and he was stuck in the same dead-end job that he had held at the time of the divorce: He was an assistant manager at an electronics shop—or more properly, a video game store, as that was all the establishment really sold anymore. And he had once planned to be an engineer. 

But Troy had no regrets about getting Kylie pregnant, even though common sense told him that he should feel otherwise. He couldn’t feel otherwise—sitting across the table from his daughter.

“The eighth grade is an important year,” he told her. “This time next year, you’ll be a high school student.”

She was about to reply when they were interrupted by a boisterous male voice, audible even above the buzz of the dinnertime crowd.

“Whataya think, Dennis? Where should we sit?”

Troy knew without turning around that the words had been spoken by one of the two men who had been leering at Ellie in the line at the counter.

“There’s a good spot!” the other one replied.

Troy didn’t know if they were speaking at an excessive volume to make sure he and Ellie heard them, or if unnecessary volume was simply an aspect of the way these two men moved through the world. Either answer was possible. The men—one of whom Troy now knew was named Dennis (though he could not have said which one)—noisily took a seat at a table behind Ellie, a significant distance to one side of them. 

Troy was grateful for the crowd, and the relative scarcity of seats. He had no doubt that these two would have claimed the table directly beside them, had it not already been claimed by another group of diners.

Ellie shifted uncomfortably in her seat. He should be doing more to make her feel comfortable, to reassure her, to behave in a protective manner. 

The two of them had had a good summer together, a summer of reconnecting. It had been a little awkward at first, as it often was when she came to visit after an extended period in Florida with Kylie and her husband, Joe. In another day they would be in Gainesville. He didn’t want their fleeting time together to be ruined by two Podunk buffoons from Tennessee.

At that moment he blamed a little bit of everyone. He blamed Kylie for taking so little time to remarry, and for “marrying up” to an older man who made more money than Troy was ever likely to earn. He blamed the judge who had signed off on the revised custody arrangement, the one that placed his daughter in Florida for much of the year. He blamed the lawyers who were involved on both sides.

But most of all Troy blamed himself: He had let Kylie get away when he should have done something—anything—to keep her (if he had ever really had her in the first place, that was). He had not fought long enough and hard enough when Kylie had first announced her plan to take his daughter out of Ohio due to Joe’s transfer. 

And now Troy was failing to protect his daughter in an obviously uncomfortable situation. Maybe he should say something. Yes, he decided, if the two men said anything more, he would say something—even if that meant fighting them both in the parking lot, and getting beaten half to death.

“I wish I didn’t have to go to high school in Florida,” Ellie said. “I wish I could live with you instead.”

Ellie had expressed this sentiment several times over the course of the summer, and Troy never got tired of hearing it. But the custody agreement was the custody agreement. It was fair—at least according to the way the law measured things—and Troy knew that he had no chance of successfully fighting it.

To make matters worse, Kylie’s new husband had turned out to be a reasonably decent guy—and what many women in their thirties would call “a good catch”. Joe was ten years older than Troy and Kylie. He was nevertheless more athletic than Troy. Tall, fit, and tan, Joe was an avid tennis player. 

When Joe’s high-paying finance job had necessitated the move to Florida, the three of them—Joe, Kylie, and Troy—had had to go back to court. Joe, consummately gallant and reasonable, had offered to kick in an annual stipend to defray the travel expenses that Troy would incur going to and from Florida. Troy had refused, not wanting to take any of Joe’s money. Not a single cent.

There was no abuse on Joe’s end, either physical or emotional. Not even a hint of it. Troy had subtly probed in that direction, and found nothing. Ellie had made no intimations of late-night visits to her bedroom, or of angry slaps. Based on what Ellie had told him, Joe kept his tone studiously neutral, allowing Kylie to be the face of discipline on the rare occasions when it was necessary. 

So there would be no change in the custody agreement—at least not anytime soon.

“I wish you could go to high school in Ohio, too,” Troy said. “But well, I suppose your mother has rights, too. And the court said that her rights mean you live with her for most of the year. Also, she loves you, too.”

“Mmm,” Ellie replied. “Yeah, I guess so.”

There was a loud, unmistakable whistle from one of the men. Troy looked up and Ellie turned around. It was the blond one who had made the wolf-whistle. He winked obscenely at Ellie.

The men were both laughing now. A few of the other patrons briefly noticed, then turned away. Either the entire context of the situation wasn’t clear to them, or they didn’t want to get involved. 

Troy met the men’s stares and shook his head. Come on, now, he was trying to say with the gesture. You’re adult men; she’s an adolescent girl. This isn’t right.

The men returned Troy’s look, directly and without any fear or restraint whatsoever. These two weren’t going to be shamed. They weren’t going to back down. 

Troy glanced across the table at Ellie. He saw her embarrassment, of course; but he was also acutely aware of the way his features mingled with Kylie’s in the child that the two of them had made. He realized now that because of Ellie, some part of him would always love Kylie, despite everything that had happened.

Troy started to stand up, knowing that he would be hopelessly over his head. But he couldn’t let this go. If he couldn’t defend his daughter against these two men, then what use was he as a father? He had let Ellie down in so many ways already.

The men leaned back and smiled expectantly when they saw Troy begin to rise. Come on over, their smiles seemed to say. This should be fun.

“Dad, no.” He felt Ellie’s hand on his. “Sit down, Dad.”

“I can’t let them carry on like that with you,” he said.

“It’s okay,” Ellie said—though it couldn’t be okay. “It’s just talk. This isn’t the first time. There are guys like that at school, you know. And besides, you can’t fight them both.”

“I can try,” Troy replied. “What I can’t do is let them carry on like that.”

“Dad, please: sit down. You can’t fight them both.”

Troy saw that Ellie was more distressed by his proposed suicide mission than by the men’s behavior. His daughter was standing up for him. That realization made Troy both proud of and sad for her. She was growing up even faster than he thought; and she deserved better.

Troy allowed himself to be persuaded by Ellie’s beseeching. Or am I simply glad that I’m off the hook now? He looked quickly over at the men: They were shaking their heads; they had known all along that Troy was a paper tiger. On the brighter side, though, they were now turning their attention to their plates, loaded with smoked meat and baked beans. Maybe it was finally over.

“Okay,” Troy said, sitting again. “But I won’t let anyone treat my little girl that way. They’re grown men and you’re only thirteen. And I don’t like hearing about guys your age showing you disrespect. What’s that all about?”

He wondered, briefly, if Joe would stand up for her in situations like this, if Joe was aware of the boys at school. He was going to ask her, but he knew how transparently self-serving that question would come across. 

“It’s no big deal, Dad. They don’t touch, and they don’t necessarily single me out for special attention. It never amounts to more than a little whistling or a silly comment. Just like these guys.”

“They aren’t ‘guys’, Ellie. Boys your age might be ‘guys’. They’re grown men.”

“Dad, please: Can we talk about something else now?”

“Sure, Ellie. Sure. Of course we can.”

 They started to talk about other things: the upcoming school year, and the texts Ellie had recently received from her two best friends in Florida, Jenny and Taylor. Troy had not met any of Ellie’s Florida friends, but he had deliberately learned all the major ones’ names over the summer, along with their distinguishing characteristics.

Troy hoped that Ellie had forgotten about the two men, though he doubted this was so. Whatever she said about boys her age whistling and staring, how could a thirteen-year-old girl coolly overlook attention like that from two men who were at least her father’s age?

The two men ate more quickly than Troy would have expected. He and Ellie were still talking about Jenny’s latest adolescent crisis (some conflict with her overly protective parents) when the men stood up from their table. Troy was not surprised to observe that they did not dump their disposable plates and plastic silverware in one of the many trashcans positioned about the dining room, as was the practice at a semi-fast-food restaurant like Julep’s. They left their empty trays on the table to inconvenience the next party of diners. That much figured: Men like that would also be inconsiderate, wouldn’t they?

They paid no more notice to the lone man who was obviously eating with his daughter. In fact, they seemed to be almost in a hurry. 

Troy watched them over Ellie’s shoulder, half-listening to her in a way that he knew would be called distracted parenting. Troy’s seat faced the big window that looked out onto the parking lot; and he was able to watch the two men climb into an old Ford van. The vehicle was brown, with a long dent along its passenger side. For all Troy knew, the accident that resulted in the dent might have occurred twenty years ago. The van was that old.

Just as the van was rumbling out of the parking lot, Troy noticed another diner several tables away: a fortyish, burly man in a police uniform. He was obviously on-duty, as he was not only wearing a uniform, but also carrying a sidearm and radio. 

Did the sudden departure of Ellie’s tormenters have any connection to the equally sudden appearance of the policeman? Troy had no way of knowing. It didn’t really matter. The important thing was that the men were gone.

But the two men were not gone. An hour after dinner, Troy saw the dented brown van again.

They were south of Knoxville, on the outskirts of the city, checked into the Holiday Inn where he and Ellie would be staying for the night. Troy had thought about driving farther—possibly even attempting Chattanooga. But that idea had been a nonstarter. The long stretches of Tennessee highway between the major towns were unpredictable regarding accommodations. He and his daughter had been driving for the better part of the day since leaving Ohio late that morning. 

And finally, every mile closer to Gainesville was a mile closer to losing her for the summer.

Troy saw the van as he was coming back from the Holiday Inn’s ice machine. Despite the imminent sunset, the day was still muggy as hell. In the distance he heard a vacationing family frolicking in the waning daylight in the outdoor pool. The ice bucket, its contents already beginning to melt, was tucked in the crook of one arm. Ellie was waiting for him in the hotel room.

He dismissed the van as an imposter at first. How many brown Ford vans were there in the state of Tennessee? How many old brown Ford vans?

Then he spotted the long dent along the passenger side. There might be a lot of old Ford vans in the state, and possibly a lot of old brown Ford vans. But there wouldn’t be all that many old brown Ford vans with the same dent in the same location, traveling this particular stretch of I-75 through Knoxville at the same hour.

The two men had found them.

That was a ridiculous thought, of course. The two men had left Julep’s before them, and had therefore arrived here at the Holiday Inn first. Unless they had waited for Troy and Ellie alongside the highway. No—that was ridiculous, too. The two men had bolted out of the BBQ restaurant at the sight of that policeman. Or so it had seemed.

The two men couldn’t have been following them, nor had they tracked them here. And when Troy gave the matter a bit more thought, it really wasn’t such an amazing coincidence. Knoxville was perhaps the third or fourth largest city in Tennessee, but it was still Knoxville. Knoxville wasn’t a huge metropolis; and there were only so many hotels along the main highway leading through town. If the two men were traveling somewhere, it didn’t take a leap of improbability for them to land here in the same Holiday Inn. 

But still—if the van hadn’t been brought here by the deliberate artifice of its two drivers, Troy’s more superstitious side made him wonder: Had the van been brought here by something else?

He was about to exhale and stopped himself when he heard the two men’s voices—over-loud and uncouth as before—approach from the far side of the van. Troy held his breath and took a step backward. He had a split-second to wonder if a tiny rattle of the ice bucket would give him away.

The men opened the rear double doors of the van, shielding most of the opening with their bodies. They glanced cursorily around and miraculously missed him. Well—not that miraculously. They were careless types. Moreover, it was now almost full dark, and this end of the parking lot was poorly lighted. In daylight they would have seen Troy. A more observant pair would have seen him.

There was a flash of a tiny penlight in the back of the van. Troy looked at the assortment of objects back there, and recalled the way the men had looked at Ellie. Troy’s mind made some instant connections, and those connections brought on a cold, sodden dread. 

It was similar to the dread he had felt, five years ago, when a cardiologist had called him and his three siblings into a consultation room at Good Samaritan Hospital, and declared that their father, a lifelong smoker, would not survive his second heart attack. It was not unlike the dread that he had felt shortly after that, when Kylie had finally announced that she was leaving him. 

And at the same time, this dread was wholly different. It was a primeval dread, a dread of men who knew neither goodness nor mercy. 

“Dad!” 

Even though there were probably any number of hotel guests who answered to that name, Troy instantly recognized Ellie’s voice.

She was standing on the sidewalk alongside the hotel. She was aware of her father, but completely oblivious to the van, or the presence of the two men who had ogled her in the restaurant. And, of course, she had no way of knowing what Troy had seen in the back of the van, and the conclusions he had drawn.

“Did you see the pool?” Ellie called out.

This caught the attention of both men. They whirled on Troy, then looked over at Ellie. Troy noted that she was still clad in the shorts and the halter top—the outfit that had drawn their unsavory notice in the first place.

It might be summer, Troy thought, but I wish I could make her wear a sweatshirt and baggy jogging pants. To protect her from men like these. 

An old story flashed into his mind—something he had read in a book or seen on TV. In olden times, men used to send their wives and daughters to the hills when the barbarians invaded, but not before shaving their heads and blackening their faces with ashes.

But the barbarians were right here, in front of him.

“Go back to the room, Ellie!” Troy called out.

“I just wanted to see the pool!” she called back, a trifle indignant.

“Yeah, let the girl see the pool,” one of the men—the one with black hair—said, and his companion laughed. They closed the van’s rear doors but not with excessive haste. What Troy had seen in the back was not incriminating, technically speaking. It required one to make certain extrapolations, based on the type of men these two were.

“Go back inside, Ellie!” Troy called back, ignoring the men.

Ellie looked ready to respond, but then she simply nodded and returned, retracing the steps that had brought her there. Troy was grateful that their room was on the other side of the building, so the men would not be able to see where she went, exactly.

“You look familiar, mister. Do we know you?” the blond-haired, blond-bearded man said. 

With a supreme effort, Troy controlled his voice. He wondered if the ice bucket was shaking.

“I don’t think so.”

“Sure, we know him,” his companion said. “What a coincidence. Did you and that pretty little girl enjoy your dinner?” 

Troy didn’t reply.

“Do you have a problem here, mister?”

“No, none at all.”

“Then why are you still standin’ here?”

That was a good question. There was no reason at all.

“Have a good night, gentlemen,” Troy said, before departing, giving them a wide berth. 

That had been an idiotic thing to say, he thought. Those two men were not gentlemen. There was nothing gentle about them.

And there would be nothing good or gentle about this night, because of them. They had ruined the evening for him and Ellie. And they had likely ruined a lot more, besides.

Several hours later, Troy was lying in bed, listening to the wheeze of the hotel room’s ancient air conditioning unit, thinking: What should I do? 

Because to do nothing would be a choice, too. 

Troy was quite confident that he and Ellie could spend the night in their room, check out early in the morning, and avoid the two men. But he could not unsee what he had seen in the back of that van, he could not unmake those conclusions. That all entailed a certain responsibility. 

Ellie was sleeping in the next bed over. Troy wished that there had been enough money for two hotel rooms, one for each of them. Ellie was getting to an age where she wanted and deserved privacy, even around her father. 

But a single room with two king-size beds was the best that he could afford. So he had stepped outside while she showered and changed. He had also retrieved an item from the trunk of his Chevrolet Malibu—an item she would not have suspected that he even owned. 

Troy had not mentioned the second appearance of the men to her. There was no point in scaring her, or making her feel even more uncomfortable. The leers in the restaurant had been bad enough. Maybe Ellie had noticed the men and recognized them, and maybe she hadn’t. In either case, there was little to gain by talking about them.

I might have been mistaken, Troy thought to himself. Maybe I didn’t see the items that I thought I saw in the back of that van.

No, there was nothing mistaken. 

There was a chance that the two men were no longer at the Holiday Inn, that Troy’s presence had spooked them as much as theirs had spooked him. Those odds were slim. Those types were reckless, and cunning only for a while. Sooner or later they would make a mistake, and get caught.

I, thought Troy, I am their mistake.

If that was true, then fate had indeed brought them together. Fate had brought them together twice—once in the restaurant, and now here again, at this Holiday Inn south of Knoxville. 

He could not simply let the matter go. He would have to do something.

After a few more minutes of steeling himself Troy decided, and he woke his daughter up.

“What’s wrong, Dad?” Ellie asked. Once again, she reminded him of the little girl she had so recently been. She was wearing a pair of gym shorts and a long Florida Gators tee shirt. 

A memory came to the surface, unbidden: It might have been six or seven years ago: happier times, semi-happy though they were, when he and Kylie were still married, and they were all living together as a family in Ohio. Ellie had awakened in the night from a bad dream, cried out, and he and Kylie had gone into their daughter’s bedroom to comfort her. 

Now Ellie was growing up, and some bad dreams had turned out to be real.

Ellie was still half-asleep. Troy was kneeling beside her bed, dressed, with two objects in his hands. 

“What’s wrong?” she repeated.

He regretted having to wake her up—as he regretted so much. But he was required to act—he fully understood that now—and his action required him to wake her. Otherwise, she might awaken while he was completing his errand, and wonder where her father had gone. He could imagine her then going outside to look for him, and all the dark possibilities that would entail. 

“I have to go out for a while. I won’t be long, but you need to know.”

Bleary-eyed, she looked down at the tools he held and instantly grasped the entire situation, or so it seemed to Troy.

“It’s something to do with those men, isn’t it? I saw them, you know, back there in the parking lot. They’re perverts, aren’t they?”

“Yes, honey. They’re definitely perverts.” He couldn’t tell his daughter that he now knew them to be much worse than garden-variety perverts. But he was determined to put a stop to them.

Ellie looked at his tools: The cell phone was innocuous enough. But Ellie had never seen his hunting knife. It had been a gift from Troy’s grandfather during his early teenage years, when Troy had shown a flash-in-the-pan interest in camping and the outdoors. The knife had been in Troy’s possession for almost twenty years now. Unused, it was as sharp and potentially deadly as it had been on that Christmas morning from long ago. You could penetrate a man’s heart with this knife, Troy thought. You could ram it through his ribs and thrust it right though his heart. 

“Don’t—” she suddenly pleaded. “They won’t bother us anymore. Just let them go.” 

That was a perfectly natural reaction on her part. She would want him to leave the men for someone else’s father to take care of. They were his responsibility, now, though. He could not rest until he did what had to be done—however difficult and risky it might be.

“Go back to sleep,” he said, standing. “And don’t open the door if anyone knocks.”

“What if it’s you? Don’t you want me to open the door for you?”

“That won’t be necessary. I have my key. Now go to sleep, Ellie. Everything will be okay when you wake up, I promise. This will all be over soon.” 

They were delayed several days in Knoxville, while Troy gave his testimony to the police. 

Ellie’s mother was worried, but ultimately resigned. She made a series of frantic calls to Troy.

“Are you sure Ellie isn’t hurt, or traumatized? Joe and I can drive up and get her, you know.”

What was unsaid in the background of this was that her time with Troy was up, anyway. He was to have delivered his daughter to Gainesville forty-eight hours ago. Never mind that he had stopped along the way to help the police capture two serial killers. 

For a brief few hours, Troy actually considered Kylie’s proposal. This was unpleasant business. And since Ellie had not been directly involved in the apprehension of the two men, there was little for her to do while her father talked to the police and the prosecutor’s office. 

Then Ellie got on the phone with her mother, practically ripping the phone out of Troy’s hands. 

“I want to stay up here with Dad,” she insisted. “I don’t start school until next week, and he’s almost finished with getting this stuff all sorted out.” 

That put an end to Kylie’s complaints. Ellie would arrive in Florida when Troy arrived, whenever that might be.

The tone of the Knoxville police was generally laudatory, but Troy was made to repeat his story several times. 

“When they opened the back of that van I saw a pair of handcuffs attached to one of the inner pillars of the vehicle by a chain,” Troy reported. “Also a roll of duct tape.”

Troy then went on to explain the obvious conclusion: handcuffs, duct tape, and the odd behavior of the men—these all added up to something sinister. 

Troy had taken a chance, though, when he had performed his next action:

“Then I took my hunting knife and punctured two of their tires. After that I called 911.”

Troy reflected that he had known he was taking a chance: Had he been mistaken about the van and the men, he would have been both civilly and criminally liable for vandalism. As things turned out, though, his instincts had been correct. The two men were changing one of the tires when the police arrived.

The two men were Dennis Smith, 35, and John Coulter, 36. Both were part-time laborers from Huntsville. They subsisted on painting and hanging drywall, but their shared passion was the abduction, rape, and murder of young girls.

Within twenty-four hours of their arrest, Smith and Coulter were charged with the kidnapping of three missing girls in Alabama, Tennessee, and Georgia. 

Smith cracked in the interrogation room, and confessed that they were planning another abduction that very night. They might have carried it out, if not for a man from Ohio.

Smith also confessed to the three previous murders. The confession would help seal the prosecution’s case, of course. But even before Smith’s confession, forensics had removed genetic evidence—blood and hair fibers—from the back of the van. As Troy had suspected, Smith and Coulter were as careless as they were brutal. That blood and hair fibers would surely be traced, eventually, to one or more of the missing girls.

“Tennessee is a death penalty state,” one of the police detectives told Troy, during his second interview. “If we can’t extract the location of the bodies from them, one of them may cut a deal for life without parole. My guess is that will be Smith.”

Troy was not uninterested in the case against Smith and Coulter, but he was also anxious to get on with his life. He was more than a little relieved when the police—both Knoxville PD and the FBI by this time—told him that he was free to go.

“I suppose you’re a hero,” a Knoxville police captain told Troy. The remark was not an attempt at irony or patronization. It was matter-of-fact.

Although he supposed it was true, in a manner of speaking, the praise made Troy vaguely uncomfortable: Whether he had been a hero or not, three young girls—all within a few years of his daughter’s age, he had since learned—had had to die to pave the way for his heroism. That was no way to become a hero. 

“I think we’ve got it from here,” the lead detective told Troy during the final meeting.

Troy: “Will you need me to come back?”

The detective shook his head. “I don’t think so. We’ve got your testimony on video, and your signed statements for the prosecutor. I don’t expect we’ll need to take any more of your time. The guilt here is pretty unambiguous.”

He could have easily spent a few more days in Tennessee, talking to news reporters from Knoxville, Chattanooga, and other regional cities. There was also a nice lady from CNN who slid a business card under the door of his hotel room (which was now being covered by the City of Knoxville) and called him once from the front desk.

Troy had no desire to talk to the media. His name inevitably leaked to the press. But without his encouragement, his fifteen minutes of fame were over before they began. 

Troy took Ellie and left Knoxville, feeling relieved to be done with it all.

When Troy arrived in Gainesville with Ellie, he was made to feel like a hero, despite himself. Ellie wouldn’t stop telling Kylie and Joe how her fast-thinking father had punctured the bad guys’ tires, called the police, and saved the day. 

Kylie and Joe were good sports about it all, and gave Troy his due. For the first time in years, Kylie looked at him with an expression that approached appreciation—even admiration. This was a vast improvement over her usual modes with him: either barely constrained annoyance or grudging toleration. Not in his wildest dreams did Troy believe that this was the deus ex machina that would somehow give him back his wife and child, a semblance of a normal life. He was happy for the respect, though.

Joe—a larger man than Troy in more ways than one—clapped Troy on the back and gave him a handshake. “Damn good work,” he said.

The two of them were on the back porch of Joe’s palatial home, looking down into the crystal blue waters of the outdoor pool. A well manicured, lushly watered hedge surrounded the pool area, along with several faux classical statues of nymphs and cherubs. 

Kylie was helping Ellie unpack. Joe had suggested that the two men might go out back, to give the ladies’ some privacy. Troy didn’t want to go outside with Joe, but he could think of no polite words of objection. Joe’s suggestion was by no means unreasonable.

Joe was a tall man who stood nearly an entire head above Troy. He had dark chestnut hair that was bordering on black. There was no trace of grayness or pattern baldness, even though Joe was in his mid-forties. Troy’s wispy hair, by contrast, had started thinning several years ago, shortly after his thirtieth birthday.

“Don’t worry that you didn’t do anything over the top,” Joe said, almost as soon as they were alone outside.

“What do you mean by that?” Troy asked, genuinely baffled.

“I mean like apprehending them, or anything.” Joe paused, as if searching for the proper tactful phrasing. “You did the right thing—simply puncturing their tires and calling the police. No one expects you to be a tough guy hero. I’m not sure that I would have handled it any differently.”

Now that Joe’s game was clear, Troy merely nodded. Joe might think him a simpleton who worked in a videogame store, but Troy knew a backhanded compliment when he heard one. 

Then he understood fully what he should have never allowed himself to forget: Despite this guise of decency and manly camaraderie that Joe displayed whenever they met, he and Joe were not friends. Joe was sleeping with Troy’s ex-wife, a woman whom Troy still thought of as his wife, for all intents and purposes. Troy had slept with and fathered a child with Joe’s wife. Those inexorable truths could not be forgotten or solved, and would always remain between them.

But Ellie was the only person in this household who truly mattered, as far as Troy was concerned. Joe was not to be trusted beyond the most superficial of matters. Kylie, despite Troy’s love for her, had betrayed him. Here in Gainesville, his only concern was Ellie.

A few hours after his one-sided exchange with Joe, Troy was exchanging farewells with Ellie in the driveway. Joe and Kylie had mercifully given father and daughter some privacy, though Troy suspected that Kylie, at least, would be furtively watching from a nearby window.

“Why don’t you stay for a few days?” Ellie implored. “We have a guest room. We have three guest rooms.”

Ellie gave him a conspiratorial smile, laced with sarcasm. It made her look grown-up, Troy thought.

“No honey: Don’t you think that would be trying your mother’s patience?”

 “She’d let you. She’d have to, after what you did.”

Ellie had a point there. Although he had resisted the siren call of the media, he was still a minor man of the hour. And a part of him wanted to stay. It would not only allow him more time with Ellie, it would also be a way of spiting Joe.

But no—it was time for him to leave. He had already used up most of his vacation time at the shop, and he wanted to save some for Ellie’s next visit. 

“All I did was poke two tires on an old van and call the police. It was nothing that any eighty-year-old woman in perfect health couldn’t have done. And besides, you need to get back into your routine here.”

 “I don’t want to stay here. I want to go back with you.”

Troy was gratified to hear this. And yet, he realized that his encouragement of this line would be a recipe for conflict—a conflict that he and Ellie would ultimately lose. Like it or not, there were rules they all had to abide by. Kylie was still the girl’s mother; and Kylie had chosen to live in Florida, thereby dividing the girl’s life with the court’s blessing.

And her home here with Kylie and Joe could be a lot worse.

 “You wouldn’t live like this with me,” he said. He made a sweeping gesture across the front of the house. “You’ve seen my digs in Ohio.”

Troy lived in a cramped condo built thirty years ago. The furnishings reflected the sensibilities of the 1980s. The place was stuffy in the summer and drafty in the winter. 

 “This doesn’t mean anything,” Ellie said. The ‘this’ was obvious: the big house, the pool, the meticulously cultivated palm trees.

But this line of conversation would bring them to no productive end. 

 “I’ll call you as soon as I get home, ok? And I’ll be back to get you in less than two months, when your school has its fall break.”

Ellie was on the verge of tears. Then the tears came. She threw her arms around him, and squeezed him with an intensity that belied her thin, thirteen-year-old frame. For a moment, Troy feared that he would cry, too.

Traveling back to Ohio, Troy encountered no bad people at the restaurants, hotels, rest areas, and convenience stores along the way. It was as if his encounters with Dennis Smith and John Coulter had exhausted his quota of evil for a while. 

He stopped at the same Holiday Inn south of Knoxville. The hotel was filled with families with young children. Their parents were taking advantage of the final week of summer, the last chance to get away before the school year began. 

Troy sat by the edge of the pool that night, watching them. He wondered if any of the parents noticed him, a solitary man in his thirties in their midst. He wondered if he aroused their deepest suspicions. None of them would know that he was the one who had stopped the two bad men who abducted and killed children.

He thought again about Joe’s taunt: What did Kylie’s second husband expect? That Troy was supposed to have captured Smith and Coulter single-handedly, armed only with a knife? What a blowhard Joe was.

Troy did his best to put Dennis Smith and John Coulter out of his mind. Smith and Coulter were significant to the lives of three little girls, and three families. In the long run, they would not be significant to Troy. With time, they would become nothing more than an incident in Troy’s life, in Ellie’s life. 

But Joe, on the other hand, would likely be an unwelcome part of their lives forever.

Consider the irony there, Troy thought. With that he bade the families a wordless goodnight and returned to his room in the Holiday Inn.

The next day he continued north, through the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, then through the Cumberland foothills of Kentucky and the bluegrass plains beyond. 

As he drove through Daniel Boone country, he reminded himself that he had, in fact, stopped two murderers. But more than that, he had been a father to Ellie this summer—an imperfect father, to be sure, but a real one, nonetheless.

While he drove, he consoled himself with the thought that he would be back this way in two months, to see her again.