Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sharing an Oldie but Goodie

Thought I'd give you a treat today.  Thought I'd share a Turner Hahn and Frank Morales story.  An oldie but goodie.  I know, I know . . . you might have read this one earlier.  But here it is anyway. 
If you don't know (or haven't read a Turner Hahn/Frank Morales story) Turner and Frank are the first two permanent characters I created years ago.  Characters I want to share a lot of stories with to those who might like truly interesting, dynamic . . .  . . . uh . . . characters.
I don't know if you'll agree with me or not but noir fiction is devoid of clearly memorable characters.  Oh I am sure each of us can knock of half a dozen or more names of steely eyed, cold blooded, damnably efficient killers.  I can too.   But characters . . . basically good men with their own set of eccentricities doing a job, either by choice or unwillingly, which throws them into life and death situations,  seems to be sorely missing.
I'm talking about people you actually would like to get to know and hang around with.  People you could trust.  People who you could share a bawdy joke with.  Those kinds of people.  Turner Hahn and Frank Morales are two who do this for me.  Each unique.  Each a character.
Turner looks like the spitting image of a well known movie star who worked the cinema back in the 30's and 40's.  A farm boy who hates the farm.  A guy who, by sheer accident, becomes filthy rich (honestly) yet chooses to remain a cop.  A guy with a wiry sense of humor.
Frank Morales is a hulking monster with short cropped stringy red hair with a jaw made out of plate armor.  If Turner's humor is wiry . . . Frank's is morbidly dry.  And he's incredibly intelligent with an IQ that may be four-digits long.  Yes . . . I said four-digits long.  Frank is also a married man.  Happily married (rare to find such a character in the noir/hard-boiled world).  A beautiful wife, a house full of kids, dogs, cats, and parrots.
Put the two of'em together and they make one hell of a homicide detective team.  Or at least, I think so.  So here's Coercion.  See if you like it.
            “You know, this probably isn’t a good idea.”
            I stood behind my partner, Frank Morales, with hands in slacks and watched the big gorilla hold the wiry form of Nick James in on one of his big, shovel sized hands like the kid was nothing but a discarded rag doll.  Frank had his other hand up and cocked back like a ram, his fist the size of a wrecking ball, about to jackhammer straight into the kid’s face
            Frank turned, looked over his shoulder, and shook his head.
            “Turn, we don’t have time for niceties. Shit is gonna explode pretty fucking soon if we don’t get some answers.  And I’m betting this little creep has some answers.”
            I grinned.  Couldn’t argue with simple logic like that.
            We were standing in the back room of a pool hall down on First Street.  A smoke filled, dimly lit dive with a back room that smelled of stale cigarettes and piss.  Out front two people were knocking around a cue ball–the click of the balls smacking into each other somehow oddly comforting to listen to.  Glancing at my watch I noted it was a quarter past one in the afternoon.  We had exactly forty-five minutes to find Tex Edwards.  Just forty-five minutes.
            Or all kinds of hell were indeed going to be let loose.
            “Nick, I can’t tell you how much this kind of interrogation hurts me.  Hurts me somewhat less than it’s gonna hurt you, I’ll admit.  But let’s not quibble over nuances.  A little cooperation would be helpful.  Tell us what we want to know and you won’t have to go to the emergency room.  Or spit out teeth.”
            “But I haven’t a clue where the hell Tex is, Frank!  Shit. He doesn’t give me an itinerary of his coming and goings.  Why would he?”
            Crack!  The sound of a fist smacking into hard bone was almost as sharp and clear as the pool playing behind us.  Nick, the idiot, flew back two or three feet, smashed into a stack of beer, rattling bottles and threatening to tip over, before sliding semi-unconscious to the floor.  Frank walked over Nick, reached down and yanked him to a standing upright position,  and rolled up his fist again.
            “You know where Tex is.  You know his little hideaway.  I know you do.  Now, we can do this one of two ways.  We can be civilized and you can answer my questions without any form of coercion.  Or I can beat you to a bloody pulp and throw your ass in jail for resisting arrest and accessory to a murder.  You’re choice.”
            “Oooh, coercion.” I crowed, grinning as I looked at Frank.  “A big word for you, buddy,”
            “Yeah, I know.  I don’t use’em often,” Frank nodded, almost smiling, but not taking his tiny little eyes off Nick.
            True.  As smart as the block of cement was, he wasn’t usually a talker.  But when he took on the mantel of Lead Investigator of a crime it was remarkable to see the transformation sweep over him.  Like watching a rerun of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hide.
            We’re cops.  Homicide division down at South Side Precinct.  Yeah . . . I know.  Cops are not supposed to act like goons and beat the shit out of potential witnesses.  We’re supposed to follow rules.  Department regulations.  And we do.  Most of the time.  But there comes a time . . . a place . . . where you have to bend the rules.  Take chances.  Even . . . become a goon.
            Take this case.
            Two hours earlier in the day the two of us were driving down Melrose in my rag top ‘71 Camaro heading toward a witness’ house to talk to her.  Different crime–different case.  My case.  But it was a beautiful day.  The sun was out.  The sky was a pale light blue.  The street filled with the traffic and noise I find very comforting to listen to.  Half way there my cell phone rings.  Pulling it out of my sport coat I handed it to Frank to answer.  He frowned, flipped it open, and grunted.  And then listened for the next three minutes before snapping it closed and looking at me grimly.
            “That was the lieutenant.  Apparently we’re investigating a kidnapping.  Top priority.”
            “Whose been nabbed?”
            “A kid.  The son of–get this–Lewis Abernathy.”
            I whistled softly in surprised.  Lewis Abernathy was maybe the richest guy in the city.  The state.  Damn close to being as richest guy in the country.  Abernathy Industries owned just about every kind of major manufacturing and high tech industry one could think of.  Rich wasn’t a word that came close to describing Lewis Abernathy’s wealth.  Frowning, looking at Frank, I raised an eyebrow expectantly.
            “Five million dollars in old, and unlisted, bills.  Nothing bigger than a twenty.  That’s what the kidnappers want.  And they want it by two this afternoon.  Or they kill the kid.”
            “What do you have for leads?”
            “Me?  What do you mean . . . me?”
            “It’s your case, buddy.  I’ve got mine.  Now you’ve got yours.”
            Frank started to make a protest.  But he took one look at my kisser and decided to clam up.  And then he shook his head and sighed.
            “Shit.  Okay, my case.”
            “What do you have for a lead?”
            “Need to get back to the precinct.  Supposed to have a video from a security cam from  the kid’s school showing how he was nabbed.  We’ll start with that.”
            I made a sudden U-turn in front of a cabby . . . who hit his bakes and screeched to a stop as he proudly saluted me with his middle finger . . .and we hurried back to the precinct.  We watched the video.  The three of us.  Frank.  Me.  And Lieutenant Yankovich.
            We call him Yank.  As tall and Frank and me.  Slightly stooped over.  The haggard, pale face of a corpse.  Yet for a boss the guy is okay.  And as a cop goes they don’t make them any smarter.
            We watched the tape.   Saw the dad’s big limo pull up in front of the front of the private school.  Saw the dirty white van setting at the curb just in front of the limo.  A van with ‘Dino Plumbing’ written on its sides.  Saw the chauffeur get out of the car and open the back door for the kid to get out.  Saw the kid’s body guard slide out of the limo’s front passenger side.   Watched both chauffeur and body guard smile at the kid and say something nice.  Saw the four masked thugs jump out of the back of the van and take out both driver and body guard with two quick slugs into their backs.  Watched closely as one of the masked thugs nabbed the kid and picked him up roughly in one arm and hurried back to the van.  Saw the van driver limp quickly around to the driver side and jump in.  Saw the van squealing away in a cloud of blue smoke coming out of the van’s back end.
            “That’s it,” Yank grunted in a rough whisper.  “ The chauffeur and body guard are wounded.  But they’ll make it.  Other than that,  that’s all we got.”
            “It’s enough,” Frank grunted, frowning, and rewinding the tape.
            “Enough?  You got something?”
            We both nodded.
            Hell.  When you work long enough with someone you like, the two of you start to think the same way.  See the same things.  Come to the same conclusions.
            “Watch the driver,” Frank said as he stepped back to watch the tape again.  “See the limp?  Left leg.  About two inches shorter than his right.  Remind you of anyone?”
            The three of us watched the tape again.  And then again.  And then again.
            “Yeah, it does look familiar.  Been years since I’ve noticed him around.  Can’t think of his name just yet.  But it’ll come to me.”
            “Tex Edwards,” Frank said, nodding.  “Been in the slammer for the last ten years on a robbery rap.  “Turn and I put him there.  Betcha five-to-one he got himself paroled.”
            I pulled out my cell phone and make a quick call.  It didn’t take long to confirm Frank’s suspicions.
            “Yep.  Been seen a couple of times down at Nick’s Pool Hall down on First Street,” I threw out.
            “Our first stop,” Frank grunted, the corners of his lips twitching–his form of a grin.
            Yank’s gray lips split back into a wide grin as he nodded.
            “Good hunting, boys.  Find the kid and bring him back alive.  Don’t do anything too foolish.  But if you do, I know the name of a good lawyer.”
            So here we were.  Having a nice, friendly, chat with Nick in the back room of his pool hall.  It didn’t take long to get a lead on Tex’s whereabouts.  And Nick got to keep his teeth.  Most of'em at least.
            It was a house down on 112th Street South.  A house set back deep in the lot and surrounded by old elm trees.  To one side of the house was a detached garage.  In front of the house was a beat up, splinted picket fence screaming for a new paint job.  We drove by the house once to get a good look at the place.  Circling the block we parked about half a block down and then walked up to the house next to our target, hopped a fence, and now stood backs against the garage wall on the far side of the garage away from the house.
            “Did you notice the windows?  No screens.”
            “Flash Bangs,” I suggested, lifting one up in my hand and grinning.  “Yeah, thought you’d have that in mind.”
            “Smart ass,” he grunted, the corners of his lips twitching as he pulled out his 9 mm Glock from its holster underneath his left armpit. “Toss it in the side window.  I go in the front.  You go in the back.  Take’em out if they show any resistance.  First one finds the kid grabs him and runs.  The other will cover.”
            And that’s the way it went down.  The Flash Bang did its work.  Lots of noise.  The shock wave knocking everybody silly.  Only one gunman popped up as I went through the back door.  He was on his way out as I was on the way in.  But a knee to the groin and the butt of my Kimber on the back of his neck persuaded him to stick around.  Frank met Tex in a bedroom just as the creep was lifting a gun up to shoot the kid.  But he didn’t make it.   Frank, as big as the ugly butt head is, can move when he has to.  And he did.  A swift kick to the side of Tex’s good leg–just to the side of the kneecap–snapped the leg in two like a twig.  The guy screamed, dropped his gun, fell to the floor and grabbed his broken leg with both hands.   Frank shut him up by using a number 14 shoe size of his into the man’s face.
            The kid was safe.  We took him to his parents and watched father and mother grab their only kid and hug him for all their worth.  Yeah . . . no joke.  Even rich people love their kids just like everyone else does.   Go figure.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Re-inventing a Legend

All right.  A conundrum, kiddos.  A head-scratcher.

Along comes someone who wants a character written who acts like Sherlock Holmes but isn't Sherlock Holmes.  Yep . . .  acts like Holmes but isn't Holmes?

What exactly does that mean?

Sir Conan Dole, a small time country physician who, to supplement his income as a practicing doctor out in the rustic rural countryside of England, decided to invent a detective of unusual eccentricities.  So unusual in fact that the character threatened (and eventually did) become better known than his creator!

Sherlock Holmes has become a legend.  An intellectual circus of deduction, acute observation, and reason which overwhelms the reader in his application of solving violent crimes.

And the guy has his peculiarities.  He's apparently a gifted violinist.  He's a casual abuser of drugs. And someone who mistrusts women.  His photogenic mind is so voluminous it actually pushes people away from him.  And let's face it; the guy is a bit of a snob.  He knows he's smart and he doesn't hesitate to let everyone around him know he knows he's smart.

A fascinating creature for a reader to discover.  One hundreds of writers have tried to mimic in one fashion or another.  None of them, in my opinion, coming close to the luster of the original.

So now someone wants a new, historical, Holmes-wannabe to be created.  As a writer you have to ask yourself . . . . where the hell do you begin?  What traits of Holmes do you keep and which ones do you throw away?  Just who, and what, makes a Holmes character . . .  act Sherlock Holmes?

Is it just the intellect of the man?  His eccentricities?  His constant companionship with a Dr. Watson around to recount all his cases? 

Hmmm . . . .

The request was make him a 1st Century Roman.  Place him in a specific historical setting and work from there.  Okay.  That's no problem.  But . . . historically speaking . . . are there any examples of anyone in that time frame who thought like a Holmes?  And the answer is . . . possibly.  Greek philosophers and scientists (yes, there were Greek scientists), soon followed by Roman equivalents, were becoming more and more inquisitive on the intellectual plain, establishing by the 1st Century C.E., a long history of scientific reasoning and philosophical inquiry a gifted intellect might be aware of.


Now, what kind of personality?  What's his familial background?  Where does he come from?   What are his eccentricities? (ever meet a genius who wasn't eccentric in some fashion?  Me neither)

So I have a character in mind.  Named him Decimus Octavius Virilis.  Ex-soldier.  Retired from the service with still all his limbs intact.  Distant cousin to Caesar Augustus.  Genius.  A character that is becoming more and more interesting the more I write about him.  Say . . . maybe I've got something here!

Read my previous blog.  Read the first chapter I've written.  See if you'll agree with me.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A little something I've been working on


Got a request the other day from a lit agent asking me if I'd be interested in possibly developing a book/series featuring a Sherlock Holmes-type character hailing from Rome around the 1st Century C.E.

Uh . . . . yes.  I would be very interested. Of course the request automatically reminded me of Lindsey Davis' Falco series (a roman 'detective' set in the times of the Emperor Vespasian . . . roughly in the late 60's C.E)

No.  This character  had to be more Sherlock Holmsian than the smart-ass little bastard Falco (and I say this in all due respect since I happen to love this series).  Further, he had to be set in the 1st Century Rome . . . in the era of Augustus Caesar.  And he had to be  . . .  naturally . . . unique.

So . . . .

Meet Decimus Octavius Virilis.  Decimus, 'The Lucky.'  Retired centurion/tribune with 30 some years soldiering for the empire of Rome.  A distant kinsman to Caesar Augustus.  One smart, tough, sonofabitch.  Think of Sherlock Holmes with an attitude.

I thought I might share with you the opening chapter of the novel and see what you think of it.  Feel free to praise, rant, nitpick, or howl over it.  Feedback . . . any feedback . . . is good.

The title of the first novel might be While the Emperor Sleeps.  Or not.  I don't know yet.  Hope you find it worthwhile.



            With a shrug from a shoulder he slipped off the short toga he favored and then took the first tentative step into the hot bubbling waters of the bath.  Behind him his servant, a pepper haired old Roman soldier by the name of Gnaeus, eyed his master ruefully and then bent down and retrieved the short robe from the marbled floor.

            In the flickering light of a hundred oil lamps burning in brightly polished brass lanterns hanging from the marbled ceilings on long brass linked chains he eyed the black marble columns of the private bath, noted the rich drapes which hung from the marbled ceiling, felt the warmth of the marble floors he stood on and nodded to himself in pleasure.

            The Baths of Juno Primus, with its marbled columned porch and impressive water fountains at the base of its portico steps, was the newest public baths in Rome. It sat just three blocks away from the gigantic Balisca Juluis, the elegant and impressively enclosed public form and administrative building just completed in the heart of the city.  The baths, rumored to have been built with donations from the Imperator himself, were equally impressive.  It may have been true.  He knew Gaius Octavius.  An old man now known as Gaius, the Augustus, Caesar.  Knew the old man was that kind of person.  A trait this Caesar took after his great uncle and adoptive father Julius. Both had a passion for building.  Building large, grand structures out of the finest marble.  Converting in one life time a once dreary, almost rural, city called Rome into a  world class megalopolis. 

            Smiling to himself Decimus Virilis stepped down into the warm clear waters and lowered himself onto a marble bench.  Closing his eyes in relief he stretched arms on either side of the bath and leaned back and heaved a sigh of relief.

            He sat in the water and allowed his senses to wonder.  Vaguely in other parts of the large bathhouse he heard the voices of men mumbling or the splashing of water.  Somewhere a woman's voice, probably that of a serving girl, was laughing merrily.  Somewhere else the tinkling of goblets clinking together told him men were enjoying their wine. The baths was a giant complex filled with senators, generals, politicians and the rich from all walks of life.  Cabals were being hatched.  Dark secrets were being revealed.  Roman politics in its darkest, most cynical forms being orchestrated by those who lusted for power.  Sighing, he gently pushed the cacophony of noise from his mind, and allowed the heat of the water to seep into aching muscles and a tired body with its soothing fingers of sensual delight.

            He was an average size man in height.  But the numerous scars which tattooed his flesh in a bizarre matrix of randomness, along with the amazing display of muscles he yet retained, would have indicated to any on looker this man was anything but remotely average. 

            Thirty years soldiering in one of the many legions loyal to Octavius Caesar had a way of hardening a man's body . . . a man's soul.  From Hispania to Egypt; from Illyrium to Gaul.  One legion after another.  Fighting.  Fighting Gauls.  Fighting Spaniards.  Fighting Romans.  Hundreds of skirmishes.  Several pitched battles.  Stepping over friends and foes alike lying on the ground dead, sword dripping with blood in one hand and shield in the other.  Battle fields littered with the dead, the dying, and the cowering for as far as the eye could see.

            Thirty years.

            Watching fool politicians appointed to command riding in on prancing horses, banners and Eagles rising in the sunshine, with men shouting and hammering their shields with the swords, only to, months later, see the legion either decimated and defeated.  Or decimated and barely clinging to victory.

            Thirty years.

            Rising up through the ranks.  First as a centurion in the tenth cohort---essentially the raw recruits of a legion.  Proving himself as both a leader and as a fighter.  Attaining on the battle field the promotion to tribune and assigned again to a tenth cohort to begin the rise again through the ranks.  But eventually . . . with a little luck at surviving defeats as will as victories . . . rising eventually to primus pilum, or First Spear; the top ranking centurion commanding the First Cohort in any Roman legion.  And finally, from there, to being promoted to a tribune and given the rank of profectus castorum.  The highest rank a professional soldier could attain.  Third in command of a Roman legion.  The soldier's soldier a legion's twenty or so tribunes and eighty or so centurions came to with their problems.  The soldier expected to maintain discipline in the army.  To feed the army.  To provide the arms. To mold thousands of disparate individual souls into one efficiently killing machine.

            But no more.  No more.

            Thirty years of soldiering was enough.  With what few years of good health remained to him he would enjoy as a free man.  He had accepted all the accolades, all the honors bestowed on him by noblemen and commoner, and retired from the army.  He no longer served anyone.  No longer took orders from anyone.  No longer felt obligated to anyone.  It was a strange feeling.  A dichotomy of emotions.  On one hand was the feeling of joy . . . immense joy of finally, finally being in command of his own fate.  On the other hand was this feeling of extreme loss. An odd emptiness hanging just below his consciousness.   As if there was something critical was missing.  An order given and yet to be obeyed. Frowning, he inhaled the hot humid air of the baths and opened his eyes.

            What was he going to do with himself?   The need to be gainfully employed was of no concern.  Retiring from the position of profectus castorum meant he left the service of the Imperator as a wealthy man.  Almost twenty five years of being a tribune meant, among other things, being involved in the handling of his men's savings.  Yes, most of the men he commanded spent their wages on women and drink as fast as they could.  But a number of men in any legion had learned to save some money back.  To throw it into the cohort's banking system in the hopes that, if the army was successful and cities or provinces were plundered, their meager savings would grow.

            The final three years of his army life had been a considerable financial boon.  As perfectus castorum  his staff had been in charge of the entire legion's savings.  Several thousand sesterces worth.  If an officer was astute in his men's investments a sizeable profit could be had by all.   And if a legion was fortunate to be favored by its commander, or legate, for exceptional service, the reward would be even greater.

            He was not called The Lucky for nothing.  Lucky in war.  Lucky in investing.  Lucky in being related to the richest man in the empire.  Gaius Octavius Caesar.  Money was of no concern to him.  He would live comfortably for the rest of his life.

            But what to do?  What exercise to entertain and stimulate his mind?  He needed a challenge.  A goal . . . a . . . puzzle . . . to keep his wits about him!  Without some challenge for the gray matter in his skull to dwell up life was nothing but a series of boring mannerisms to endure.

            Closing his eyes again he idly heard his servant Gnaeus pouring wine in a large goblet for him.  And then . . . a brief silence.  An odd silence.  And out of place silence.  Softly followed by just the lightest whisper of heavy cloth rubbing across the leather scabbard of a sheathed gladius.

            He didn't move or show any outward gesture he was aware of a new presence behind him.  Resting in the water of the bath he appeared to be asleep.  But ever nerve in his body was tingling with delight! He heard the soft tread of three distinct sets of sandals.  With one of the three, strangely, without question an old man. Opening eyes slowly he noticed the colors around him . . . the blue of the water, the black of the marble columns, the white of the marble bath walls . . . seemed to be a hundred times more intense!  For the first time in weeks he felt alive!  And when he heard that distinct shuffling of feet and the odd hissing of someone finding it difficult to breathe he almost laughed out loud.

            "Good evening, cousin," he said quietly, coming to a standing position and turning to face his unannounced guests.

            Three of them stood above him looking down at him as he stood in waters of the bath.  Two of them were big men dressed in the distinct cuirass and greaves of the Praetorian Guards.  Around their shoulders were short capes of the royal purple trimmed in silver thread.  Underneath their left arms were their brightly polished bronze helms.  At their waists lay the short blades of the Roman gladius. The double edged weapon that had carved out a vast empire for the City of Rome and its people.

            Between the two was an old man slightly stooped over and dressed in a dark wine red toga.  Around his shoulders and covering the curls of his white hair was a plain woolen cloak and hood.  But there was no mistaking this man.

            "Good evening, Decimus Virilis," Augustus Caesar said, an amused smile spreading across thin lips.  "I see you still retain all your limbs and most of your senses."

            "No thanks to you, Imperator!" Decimus laughed, making his way out of the bath completely unconcerned about his nakedness and men armed standing before him.  "You've tried to kill me at least a hundred times!"

            "One of my few failures, I'm sure," replied the old man, chuckling.

            "So tell me, cousin.  To what pleasure do I owe you receiving your company in a public bath house suddenly ordered vacated by a detachment of your Praetorian Guards?"

            The old man's eyes, bright and alive, looked upon his distant cousin with mirth and pleasure.  They had known each other for years.  Ever since Decimus, as a boy of fifteen, ran away from home and joined his first legion.  A legion he happened to be commanding in Greece facing Mark Anthony so many years ago.  Nodding approvingly, the old man moved closer to the younger man, took him gently by one arm and squeezed it affectionately.

            "I am in need of your services, cousin.  A very delicate situation has come up that must be addressed swiftly and surely.  Swiftly and surely with . . . uh . . . only the talents you can bring to bear."