Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Social Media Translating into Writing Success

Rough Draft for new Turner Hahn/Frank Morales book cover.
Hmmmm . . . .

Been thinking about this lately.  Ever since this blog hit the 1,000 pages-per-month mark recently.

Been thinking about blogging/social media participation and its translation over in contributing any form of success to a writer's sales/familiarity to the reading public.

To be honest, I don't think there is any.  At least, not for me.

The reason I think this goes something like this;  for months now this blog has been in the 800-900 page views per month level.  About a month go it leapt up to the 1,200 per view mark.  Additionally, on various other social network sites I'm hitting the 1,000 mark in 'friends' categories.  Sure, I know; not really large numbers compared to a lot of other writers.  Not even close.  But . . .

In a way it IS a set of large numbers.  There's something like a ripple-effect when contemplating this concept.  Who you know ripples across those who have 'friended' with you.  Say you have accumulated 500 friends/fans on the various social network sites.  And each one of those know at least 500 hardy souls.  The original 500 you know keep an active interest in your comments and on the 'stuff' you write  They make comments on THEIR pages which is seen by THEIR FRIENDS (all 500 of them).  In turn . . . well, you get the picture.

I'm not a mathematician. And you sure as hell don't want to hire me as your tax preparer! 
But I'm thinking that, theoretically, the math should go 500 x 500 x 500 . . . . all the way to the 500th name!

Krikies!  That's a number with a bazillion, gazillion zeros behind it!

You would think . . . and I know that is a dangerous proposition for a lot of us, including me . . . that out of that large number maybe 1% would find your writing interesting.  Just 1%.  That's STILL is a huge number!  And if that 1% purchased  some of your works you'd be considered a very successful writer.

It doesn't work that way,  Don Corleone.  Why it doesn't I can only conjecture.

Now . . . for the doppelganger effect.  And there is one (I think).

Somehow, someway, you become a successful writer through the traditional channels.  You sell books and a lot of them.  Suddenly this social media network you've built up begins to pay off.  Your active on your social media networks.  Instantly people recognize your name and what you write.   MORE books are bought because you're ALREADY well know and you are OUT THERE in the social media!  Fans can actually TALK  to you!  Yowser!

 . . . admittedly this doppelganger effect is a theory of mine.  I have no tangible proof, amigo.  Just a working theory.  If you've got some other ideas . . . or evidence to prove or disprove my theory . . . I would be very eager to hear it.

For now, however,  I've got to figure out how to sell my damn stuff to a large enough audience.  That little pickle is also open for discussion.  Got any ideas?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A 'Bonus' Smitty today

Thought I'd share one more Smitty story today.  Maybe the last one to come for a while.  Hell!  I need to write some first!

If you're familiar with Smitty who know he wasn't always a killer.  So what got him started?  Wouldn't it be curious to read about his very first professional 'hit?'

I thought so.  So I wrote and entitled it, 'First Kill.'

And remember me talking, in the last post, about surprise endings?  Uh huh . . . well . . .

The story (you'll have to go over to the right and get both collections of Smitty stories to fill in the gaps) begins only hours after the incident which made a guy once called Johnny turn into a creature called Smitty.  You'll find that story--about Johnny turning into Smitty--in a story called, "There is No Johnny.  Just call me Smitty." (you can find it in  Volume One of the series here)

So here's 'First Kill.'  Hope you like it.

First Kill


            He was the only customer in the bar.

            Just him and a kid for a bar tender.

            Sitting in a both in the far corner, back against the wall, a cold glass of beer sitting on the table in front of him.  As he sat staring at the glass huge beads of condensation slowly slid down the dirty glass in some kind of hypnotic trance.  Just him and the kid.  No jukebox playing.  No radio blaring.  The silence of this man-made tomb broken gently by the soft hiss of  city traffic moving back and fourth on the city street outside.

            The kid was humped over the bar resting his head on a propped elbow, working today's crossword puzzle in the New York Times.  He looked bored.  He looked too young to be working in a bar.  Especially this kind of bar.

            Reaching for his beer a thin snarl of a smile played across the lips of the dark eyed man.  The place was exactly the same as it was the first time he saw it.  Nothing had changed.  Even the three-tiered rack of booze behind the kid looked exactly the same.  To the right of the bar was a dark, urine stained hallway leading back to the restrooms.  From his booth he could see the same smashed in indention in the far wall where some drunk, ten years ago, got angry and threw a punch at him in a drunken stupor.

            Nothing had changed.


            Except . . . maybe.  Him.

            Ten years ago today he began his current career. Contracted out his first kill.   Sitting in this very booth.  Ten years ago today . . .


            He was sitting in a bar. Some bar he stumbled into after dumping his wife off at the railroad tracks.  After . . . after.

            Grabbing the glass of beer sitting on the table in front of him he tossed the liquid down with one gulp and glanced at the black man standing behind the bar.  The man nodded and turned to reach for another glass.

            His guts rolled.  His hands shook.  He could hardly breathe.  He had almost done it.  Almost slapped a fresh clip into his .45.  Almost blew her brains out.  The bitch.  The whore.  All these years.  All these years!

            Playing him like a patsy.  Yet really in love with his twin brother.  The two of them.  Screwing behind his back.  Taking money out of their joint back account.    Laughing at him all this time.

            Just by chance he discovered their little game.  On the spur of the moment standing in front of bank teller and asking her to write down how much money was in the bank account.  When the girl slid the paper with the amount written on it with a clean, feminine hand, he almost blacked out.  Almost retched.

            Thirty thousand dollars!  Gone.


            Driving home in filled with a furious, black anger, he found them.  Found them on the living room divan.  Screwing each other.  Like rats.  Like hyenas.

Something happened to him.  Something died.  Snapped like a twig.  Disconnected.  He wasn't furious any more.  He wasn't angry.  Well . . . not the type of anger he was used to.  He was cold.  His mind was sharp.  Clear.  Like a  frigid, cloudless Artic morning.  Colors were bright.  Almost glowing in their brilliance.  His hearing somehow became more acute.  Standing on the lawn, watching the two rut like feral pigs on the living room divan, he could actually hear them.  Hear them giggling.  Hear them whispering to each other.  Hear the lovemaking.

            It was if he was standing on the lawn watching his brother and wife . . . yet . . . somehow . . . he was watching himself standing on the lawn watching the two making love. Feeling the sun on the back of his neck.  Idly aware that behind him his neighbor was standing on the drive with a lawn hose in his hand, puffing on a cigarette as he watered the green grass.

            But he it was him watching himself.  Yet . . . strangely . . . it was not him.  It was someone else.  Someone different.

            Someone who wanted to be called Smitty for the rest of his life.

He almost killed them.  Came within a fraction of an inch of killing his brother with a tire iron.  Dragged his wife into the car and drove out to some desolate, abandoned railroad track and put a gun to her head.  Pulled the trigger twice on the  .45 caliber Colt.

            Both time the hammer fell on an empty chamber.

            For some reason . . . some reason he couldn't fathom . . . he didn't slap in an ammo clip into the handle of the gun.  Made sure he didn't jack a round into the firing chamber.

            Why?  Why?


            Glancing up his eyes fell on the plate glass door of the bar's entrance.  She came in through the door like a sudden gust of wind.  Came in dressed in a blue summer dress with a red leather belt around her narrow waist.  Sandy blond hair wind blown.  A tanned goddess of stunning beauty.  Looking remarkably like his wife.

            Yet a woman with fear clearly written all over her.

            Yes.  He remembered.  His first contract.  His first kill.

            She hurried into the bar, glanced at him sitting in the very same booth he was sitting now, and then turned her attention toward the bar tender.  His was an older man back then.  Bald man.  Black as coal with startling white teeth.  Named Val.  Val Arthur.  Knew everyone in this town.  Or, at least, knew everyone who worked on the other side of the tracks.  Worked their trade in the night and hidden from the prying eyes of the cops.

            That's why she was here.  To talk to Val.  She wanted to hire someone.  Someone only Val would know.  Someone with a specialty.

            She hurried to the bar and leapt onto a barstool with one knee and leaned over close to Val's ear.  Val hadn't even looked up when she came hurrying into the place.  Standing at the bar drying shot glasses, towel in hand, he leaned an ear closer to the beautiful woman's lips but kept drying the shot glass in his hands.

            "Did you find him?  Did you find out how much he wants?"

            "I found'em," the bar tender nodded, his voice a soft Jamaican accent. "He not in'trested."

            "But . . . but he has to be!  I mean . . . I mean, if he doesn't help me who will?"

            "No can help you, missy.   He says he don't know you from Adam.  Won't touch your money."

            She looked devastated.  Crushed.  Her eyes tearing up and threatening to spill over.  Pale as a fresh wrappings of a newly entombed mummy.  She slumped down on the barstool and stared off into the distance.  Val, the bartender, glanced up once at her and then down at the towel he was using to dry the shot glasses.  And then glanced toward the small figure sitting alone in the booth.

            "Maybe he help you," he said the woman nodding his head toward the dark eyed man. "He got the look.   Bad man, missy.  Bad man."

            "You know him?" she whispered, leaning toward Val but unwilling to glance toward the man in the booth.

            "Nope.  Don't know'em.  But know his type.   He either a cop or a killer.  Can't say which.  But maybe he's your only chance.  Won't hurt to talk to'em.”

            She looked at Val for a moment, frowning, then turned to stare at the man sitting in the booth.  Not a large man.  Not a small man.  With high cheek bones.  A thin, straight nose.  Dark brown hair.  His hands were almost delicate looking.  But he didn't look delicate.  The way he sat in the booth . . . the way both hands wrapped around the tall glass of beer . . . and those black, black eyes.

            Biting her lower lips, worry written all over her face, she glanced at Val again and then slid off the barstool.  Hesitantly she took a step toward the silent man.  What was she going to say to him?  How was she going to say it?  Should she tell me her real name?         What if . . .

            That's when cold black eyes came off the table and looked straight at her.  Like the eyes of a King Cobra staring directly at his next meal.

            "Good evening, Mrs. Sloan.  Care to join me?"

            The man's voice . . . a faint, soft whisper . . . like Death itself . . . physically made her jump back.  Color drained from her face.  She felt faint.  Her heart seemed to be beating so fast she was afraid it was going to explode.

            "You . . . you know me?"

            A faint, cruel smile played across gray lips.  And the eyes . . . the eyes so black.   So bright.  So intent.

            "A famous actress marries the richest man in the city.   A man many believe owns most of everything in the state.  I doubt anyone in the city doesn't know you by now.  Please.  Come sit down.  Let me buy a drink.  Tell me what is bothering you."

            She hesitated.  Something in her told her to turn and run.  Run as far away from this strange man as she could.  Yet those eyes . . . those eyes . . . pulled her to the booth and compelled her to slide into the seat directly opposite of him.  Hands worked furiously on the table in front of her.  She found it difficult to breathe.  To speak.

            "You . . . you see, I . . . I think my husband is in trouble.  Terrible danger.  I . . . I think there is someone trying to kill him!"

            The dark eyed man remained silent.  Black eyes played across the woman's face in front of him.  Played across her soft, white hands.  She was nervous.  She was terrified.  Terrified at whatever it was which made her believe her husband was in danger.              Terrified at sitting in this booth with him.


            "Take a deep breath, Mrs. Sloan.  Start from the beginning.  Tell me everything," the dark eyed man whispered softly.

            And she did.

            Told him an intricate, deadly story.


            Someone was blackmailing her husband.  Was threatening to harm her husband's two young daughters from his first marriage if he didn't pay the three hundred thousand promised to him.  Two years ago his first wife died of cancer.  Or so what was said in the papers.  For two years he was the only parent of two beautiful young daughters, ages eight and six.  Devoted to them.

            As the current Mrs. Sloan said she was.  Devoted to them.  To her husband.  To the children.  That's why she was so terrified.  The man blackmailing her husband was dangerous looking.  She overheard her husband and this man one night in her husband's study.  Heard his accusations.  Heard what he would do the children if the money wasn't paid.

            In the end, when she fell silent and stared down at her hands like a young, frightened gazelle, fear gripping her soul, he knew what to do.

            "I'll take care of it.  I promise.  Go home now.  Go back to your husband.  To the children.  Nothing is going to happen to them, Mrs. Sloan.  Nothing."

            His first kill.  His first hit.

            Turned out to be quite simple.  One night, sitting in an old pick up truck he had politely 'borrowed' from a kid, he sat underneath a large oak tree on the street leading down to the palatial estate of Barnabas Sloan.  A few questions.  A few inquiries and he found out who the blackmailer was.

            Mrs. Sloan was quite correct.  The man was a very bad man.  A killer in fact who killed both for the money and for the pleasure of it.  A man who didn't deserve to live.  So he planned the hit.  Waited patiently for the right moment.  Knew from the beginning it would be successful.  Even felt a growing sense of excitement as the time approached.

One night the killer visited Barnabas Sloan's home.  In the early morning hours when the neighbors and servants would be asleep.  It was payday for him.  Sloan had given into his demands.  Given in yet knowing in doing so he was trapped.  The man would be back.  Again and again.  Demanding money.

            When the dark eyed man saw the lights of the killer's automobile pull out of the gates of the Sloan estates he turned on the lights to the pickup and pulled out into the middle of the street and stopped.  Getting out of the truck, leaving the door open,  he walked to the front of the truck and lifted the hood just as the killer's big Ford SUV rolled to a halt behind the truck.

            "Hey, get that piece of shit out of the way! I'm in a hurry!"

            "Fuck you, old man!  I've got troubles of my own!" Smitty yelled back from underneath the hood of the truck and sounding exactly like a teenager who had been drinking too much.

            What happened next was precisely what Smitty anticipated.  The killer, whom his contacts informed him had a blazing hot temper, came out of his Ford SUV in a flash.  Slamming the door closed the big man strode toward the kid underneath the hood of the pickup, rolling hands into fists in the process.  He was going to teach the fucking loud mouth kid a lesson!  He was . . . . !

            The 'kid' stepped away from the grill of the pickup.  In the darkness of the early morning hour the killer thought he saw something big and bulky in the kid's hand.  He heard a 'Puffft!'  Felt a sharp stinging sensation in the thigh of his left leg.  Looking down he saw the bulky looking syringe of a tranquilizer jutting out of his leg as he took one more step.

            "Why you sonofa . . . . . "

            That was it.  That was the man's last words.

            With a hard thump the man fell first into the pavement of the street.  Dead before his face hit the asphalt.  Lowering the dart gun Smitty eyed the form lying on the street between the SUV and the pickup for a moment before removing the syringe from the dead man's leg.  Gently closing the hood of the old pickup, Smitty threw the dart gun into the front seat of the truck and then quietly walked back to the dead man's SUV.

            In the passenger side's wide bucket seat was a plain looking athletic canvas bag.  A heavy one.  Three hundred thousand dollars heavy.  Not touching anything in the SUV Smitty reached over and retrieved the bag and walked back to the pickup truck.  Climbing in he started the old engine up and drove away.

            The next day the papers had a huge headline proclaiming the death of a known criminal who apparently died of a massive coronary in the early hours of the morning.  Died in the street only a few hundred yards away from the gated estate of Barnabas Sloan.

            His first kill . . . .


            Years had come and gone since then.  Years and death.  How many bodies?  How many hits?  Too many.  Too many.  Reaching for the beer in front of him paused when the kid behind the bar shook his head, grunted, and stood up.

            "It's hard to believe, ain't it?  I mean . . . Barnabas Sloan dead.  First his wife dies.  Then he remarries that bitch of a new wife.  And then his two daughters die in that fire.  Now he's dead.  He's dead and that bitch inherits all those millions.  She fooled us all, fella.  Fooled us all. There ain't no justice in the world.  No justice!"

            The dark eyed man slid out of the booth, turned, rolled two twenty dollar bills onto the table, turned again, and started walking.  Moving past the young bartender he said nothing as he walked out and into the bright light of a late afternoon.  Glancing to his left and then to his right, black eyes surveying the street casually, he moves to the rear of his black CTS Cadillac.  Unlocking the rear lid of the car he lifts it up and looks down.

She stares up at him with terror filled eyes.  Gray duct tape covering her lips.  Her arms and feet secured tightly with layers of gray tape.  Her beautiful sandy blond hair in a rumpled mess.  For a moment or two he stares down at her silently.  And then, with a finality he should have done ten years ago,  he lowers the lid and closes it tightly.

            Yes, Mrs. Sloane.  You fooled us all.

            If he had been better at it, if he had taken the time to do a little more research,  the children of Barnabas Sloan and Sloan himself would still be alive today.  Too late to save them now, pilgrim.  Too late. 

            But Justice could be served today.  Belatedly . . .


Friday, October 19, 2012

The surprising endings, Edward

The surprising ending.  That 'kick' at the end of the story you as the reader may be kinda hoping comes along but maybe not fully expecting it to arrive.

But when it does . . . Oh, Mama!

To be honest I think these kind of endings are more important in the venue of short-story writing than in the longer venues.  Oh sure, we want our fill of surprises and discoveries when we're reading a novel.  But those come a few pages from the end of the novel---not at the very end where they seem to happen in a short-story.

And somehow (at least, for me)  when the come at the end of a short-story they are both far more surprising and far more satisfying.

So as a writer do you consciously plan for them?  Plot them out to the final period; the final sentence?  Or do you begin the story and somewhere in the middle of it suddenly have a spontaneous revelation on how the story is going to end.

(Raising my hand sheepishly and grinning like a rube)  That's me, brother.  No planning.  Just begin writing the damn thing and hope for the best.  You may have already guess, from reading perhaps some earlier posts of mine,  I'm not too big on outlining or forethought when it comes to writing a story.  My my motto is:  Just write the damn story.  It'll come to you!   So I start and fill in the blanks as I go along.

But you have to do what fits the bill for you.  The first rule (and the only one you really need to keep in mind) is this one. 

 (1).  Write the story which feels most comfortable for you and forget whatever the hell anyone else has said about it.

Just to show you what I mean I present to you an older Smitty story I wrote about a year and a half ago (I think.  Linear time is not all that important to me.  I know I wrote it after I turned 60 and before I turned 63.  So it's been one . . . two . . . years ago.  Maybe.  I think).  Anyway . . . read it and tell me if you think the end had enough of a surprise to it;  a surprise you were not necessarily expecting.

Competent Hands


             “Listen, that sonofabitch killed my father.  So I want you to kill him.”

            “You think Ellery killed your father.  Why?”

            “Why?  Why?  Because he wants to take over.  He wants to be the head of the family.  Three hundred million a year is a nice round figure.  More than enough reasons to want to be the capo de capo.”

            “But I thought your father died of natural causes.  A heart attack, wasn’t it?”

            “There was no damn heart attack,” Daniel Venelli growled, pulling the cigar from his mouth and shaking his head. “Dad’s ticker was strong.  He was as strong as an Ox.  Took care of himself.  Had regular check ups.  No, this was murder.  And Ellery was the one who ordered the hit.”

            Daniel Venelli was the oldest of the two Venelli brothers.  Ellery was the youngest.  Both men carbon copies of their father.  Small framed.  Smartly dressed. Athletic.  All three as hard as tempered steel and as ruthless as a Great White.

            Sitting in the stretched Daniel’s stretched limo, with the car parked at the curb of the only paved street which wound its way through a hilly, tree filled manicured cemetery, the man with the black eyes sitting alone in backward facing seat looked first at Daniel Venelli and then at the small man sitting beside Daniel.  There was, in the facial construction of the smaller man, a definite family resemblance to the Venelli clan.  The same jaw line.  The same compactness of the body frame.  The same structure in the eyes.

            Gilbert Venelli was the man’s name.  A cousin to Daniel and Ellery.  A very quiet, very shy man.  But he wasn’t either Daniel or Ellery when it came to being outright ruthless.  The brothers—like their father—could be ruthless.  They’d kill with a tire iron just as easily as they could with a gun.  And possibly enjoy it more with the tire iron.

Gilbert was different.  He was quite.  Contemplative.  Intelligent.

            And for years working as Daniel’s right hand man in the organization.  A loyal soldier through and through.

            “I want you to kill my brother.  Today, Smitty.  Half a million dollars is yours if you can get it down before sundown tonight.”

            Smitty’s black viper eyes looked directly into the face of Daniel Venelli for a moment and then he nodded.  Opening the door of the limo he rolled out of the car and walked away . . . walked toward the gathering dignitaries for the funeral of Tomas Venelli.  The father.

            It was a crisp autumn morning.  The trees filling the cemetery were ablaze in outrageously bright colors of Fall.  A sharp, cold light breeze, filled with the promise of a wet, snow packed winter, nipped at the ears of both men and women somberly dressed in black as the stood huddling in a pack and waiting for the funeral to begin.  He too was dressed in black.  A tailored black suit of silk covered a slim, hard frame of bone and muscle.

            And eyes as black as sin took.

            Turning, hearing the soft whisper of footsteps across the lawn, he watched the figure of Ellery Venelli, followed by his assorted goons and sycophants, approach.

            “What did my brother want, Smitty?”

            “Nothing.  Nothing important,” the dark eyed man said, smiling. “Said with your father’s death there was going to be a period of adjustment everyone had to endure.”

            Ellery Venelli, an exact replica of his brother, nodded and turned to glare at the limo setting at the curb.

            “Who you loyal to, Smitty?  Me or my brother?”

            “Loyalty? Why would you ask, Ellery.  You know what I am loyal to.”

            A vicious, hard grin stretched the thin gray lips of the younger brother as a grunt of humor came up out of the man’s diaphragm.

            “Money.  The only thing you’re loyal to.  Money.  I like that, Smitty.  I like that.  So I have a proposition for you.  A quarter of a million in cash—clean and untraceable—is yours if you’ll kill Daniel for me.  Today.  As soon as you can after the funeral.”

            “Kill Daniel?  Why would I want to do that?”

            “Because that sonofabitch killed Dad.  I don’t know how.  I don’t know the method he used.  I don’t know who he hired to do it.  But he killed him.  So I want you to kill Daniel and I’m willing to pay for it.”

            Smitty gazed into the eyes of the younger brother, then glanced toward the limo encasing Daniel Venelli, before returning his gaze back to Ellery.  With a quiet, gentle nod toward Ellery, Smitty turned and made his way toward the grave site of Tomas Venelli.

            The ceremony was a quiet affair of Catholic fanfare.  The attending mourners . . . a broad spectrum of the family’s henchmen, corrupt judges and politicians, sprinkled with a few dignitaries from the city’s police force . . . sat in compact rows underneath a green canopy.  Smitty, standing at the back of the canopy, watched and listened.  With hands folded in front of him he made no sign of recognition when he felt and heard the presence of Gilbert Venelli step up beside him.

            David and Ellery Venelli sat at the head of the gathering, heads bowed and respectful as the Priest worked his clerical magic on the crowd.  Diligently they marched past the casket.  Each laid a rose on the casket and then moved away.  Dutifully they shook hands with everyone who approached and offered them condolences. But neither brother said a word to each other through the ordeal.  And when the moment came they separated and moved away from each other quickly.

            Smitty watched.  Watched and waited. 

            Black eyes watched as Daniel Venelli and his entourage hurried toward their limos and piled in.  Stretched limos, two of them, pulled away from the curb and started moving down the winding lane and away from the mass of parked cars.

            And then a strange thing happened.

            The limo in front, the one carrying Daniel Venelli, suddenly shuttered, clipped a Ford Crown Victoria setting at a curb, jumped the cement curb and then plowed grill-first into a massive oak tree.  The limo’s horn began blaring and wouldn’t stop.  Several women screamed in terror and a number of men began running toward the limo in an effort to pull Daniel and his hoods from the damage vehicle.

            Ellery Venelli, watching incredulously as he stood beside his limo with a hand on the rear door, watched his brother’s car crash into the oak tree.  A frown played across his lips as he turned and looked for Smitty standing in the crowd.  But he did not stand around for long.  His bodyguards opened the door and shoved their man into the backseat unceremoniously and then leapt in themselves.  With a squealing of tires the black Caddy roared past the line of parked cars, past the smashed Mercedes of Daniel Venelli, and started screaming down the wide open cement ribbon of the road and for the cemetery’ main gate.

            It never made it.

            Almost to the cemetery’s big gate the car exploded.  Exploded in a thunderous roar of noise and flying debris, hurling the car ten feet into the air before crashing onto the thick manicured grass and onto its shredded roof in a bright funeral pyre of roaring flame.

            And through all of this, as people screamed and fled in panic in every direction, neither Smitty nor Gilbert Venelli moved a muscle.  But, eventually—when the immediate area around the two men was barren of any living soul, Smitty slipped a hand into his suit coat and walked down the aisle between the empty chairs underneath the canvas canopy and toward the open grave of the father.  From his coat he withdrew three black roses.  One at a time, solemnly, he tossed each one down onto the casket of the elderly Venelli.

            When finished with this quiet act of respect for the fallen, he turned and stared at Gilbert Venelli.  And nodded.

            The family business was in good hands.  Competent hands.  Intelligent hands.  The family feud was over.  The strongest Venelli had won.


Saturday, October 13, 2012

Setting the Mood, Maude

Let's talk about setting the mood of a story through the use of descriptive detailing.

I have to admit (or maybe, I have to confess, I don't know which would be more accurate) the visual scene of a story's opening is what gets me writing.  I see an image first in my head.  And then I write the story around that image.

Verbal photographs, kiddo.  That's the key.

And I think it's a good technique--one that is becoming rare these days.  I find it rare, in my opinion, to find a writer who can make a Polaroid shot in words so clear, so vivid, it instantly comes into sharp clarity the moment one reads the passage to themselves. 

Yet isn't that one of the key ingredients needed to be perfected if a writer wants to be successful?

Words describing images,  or individual actions, sets the tone for the entire story.  In any genre I'm thinking.  But so especially true if you're writing noir/hard boiled detectives.  The mood of the story sets up the interaction between characters.  Ultimately sets up the motives for each of the characters involved in the story.  So important.  So critical for a story to succeed.

Take the photo above.  When I wrote this Turner Hahn/Frank Morales story you're about to read the image that exploded in my head was very much like the one above.  I saw it clearly.  Absolutely crystal clear:  Turner and Frank moving around in a dark basement filled with boxes and boxes stacked on top of each other, their flash lights throwing out long beams of white light cutting through the darkness.

Maybe I'm all wrong. (What?!  Me?  Wrong?  Oh Pissssshawww, Maude!)

Read the story below.  Tell me what you think.

We Found Beatrice Bonner


            The dark basement smelled of dreams long forgotten.

             Of memories unremembered.

            In the inky darkness the startling white beams of our flashlights cut through the cobwebs and layers of dust and decay and played across the clutter of a lifetime’s worth of hoarding in stark silence.  Carefully we made our way through the narrow corridors of the blackened basement,  the white beams of our  flashlights arcing across the canyon walls of dust covered boxes stacked clear to the floor jousts above our heads to the darkly moist cement floor.

            The place smelled.  Smelled old.  Ancient.  With a whiff of decay–a sharp sting of disease.

            Boxes.  Magazines.  Newspapers.  Books.  An assortment of bicycles.  Steamer trunks, one atop another, locked and sealed shut back when Nixon was president.  Clothes.  Boxes and boxes of clothes neatly folded, covered in a fine coating of dust; smelling dank and fungal infested.  A life time of someone never letting go.  Never discarding either the important or the frivolous.

            Our flashlights danced across the darkness to our left and right.  Seeking.  Looking for what we already knew was down here.  In silence we made our way deeper and deeper into the basement of the old house knowing that we were eventually going to find the grisly prize at the end of our search. 

            Behind me I heard my partner grunt and then heard a box slide to one side ominously.  Twisting around I played the beam of light across his face and then at the tall column of boxes towering over his head suddenly beginning to tilt dangerously toward him.  The red headed wannabe Mountain Gorilla braced the leaning stack with one outstretched hand with a look of growing frustration playing across his rugged looks.

            “This place is fraking nightmare, Turner.  One wrong move and we’re going to be buried in a mountain of shit.  It’ll take a month for the forensics boys to find us.”

            I turned back to face the front, a grin playing across my lips.  We were both big men.  But Frank was the proverbial Spanish bull in an English china shop.  He had shoulders that would make the prow of an aircraft carrier feel slighted.  Arms as thick as the main cables holding up the Golden Gate.  Finesse, my friend, is not his main forte.  Blunt trauma is more his shtick.

            The flashlight in my hand roamed across the curtain of darkness in front of me and there, just visibly at the far end of the flashlight beam, the image of a brick wall and an edge of a large, deep, wash basin.

            “Over here,” I said quietly.

            And we found what we knew we would find.  In the middle of the deep wash basin.  The bloody stump of a person’s leg.  Ripped from the victim from just below the knee cap.  Still wrapped in the tan cloth of a pant’s leg.  The foot encased in a black, worn old shoe with a bleached out, formless blue sock partially covering an exposed ankle.

            A heavy coat of coagulated blood covered the bottom of the wash basin. Lying flat in the sink beside the single shoe was a hack saw.  A bloody hack saw with a broken blade.  Playing the flashlight across the dust covered cement floor of the basement to my left and right I could find nothing else for a body.  But I did find a fifty-five gallon drum, black and dull, with white letters that said ‘Hydrochloric Acid’ stenciled across the middle of it.  The lid of the barrel was partially closed.  The stench of the acid . . .and some other smell I didn’t want to dwell on . . . overwhelming.

            I didn’t want to pull the lid to one side and look inside.  Fortunately I didn’t have to.  Frank’s voice behind me stopped me.

            “Turner, looky-here.  In the wall to the right and above the wash basin.  See it?”

            I saw it.  It was unmistakable.

            Two dark red bricks were missing from the wall.  Visibly in the light was the smooth round curve of a human skull partially filling the gaping hole.  Both powerful beams of our flashlights latched onto the wall and didn’t move for a long time.  Neither of us said anything.

            We found her.  Beatrice Bonner.  A thirteen year old girl missing for the last twenty years.  Found her stuffed into the basement wall of a dilapidated wreck of a house owned by a hermit named Charles Friedman.  But the missing person file would soon be replaced.  She was no longer missing.  From the large round hole in the top of her skull–a clean, sharp puncture wound made by something long and sharp–the Missing Person stamp would soon be changed to Murder.

            “Call the boys,” I said quietly as the flashlight turned back and illuminated the bloody stump standing upright in the sink.  “Tell’em we found the old man and the girl.  Tell’em to bring enough boys over.  This is a double-homicide case now.”

            Cautiously we trekked our way out of the basement and slowly moved up the rickety steps of the basement to the kitchen.  The house was empty.  Old and empty.  Forgotten and empty.  It sat in the middle of a corner lot almost hidden from prying eyes by weeds and rows of untrimmed bushes.  Visible from the west side windows of the kitchen was the sagging frame of a detached garage.  One garage door stood at a severe angle.  Held upright by a single hinge still attached to the garage.  Glancing out the window I could see the trunk lid and tail lights of an old car.  A car that hadn’t been moved in generations.  Hugging up against the car’s sides were boxes and boxes of newspapers.  Dried, faded, fungus-infested newspapers. 

            The kitchen itself was amazingly clean and tidy.  There were no dishes in the sink.  They was nothing on the flat surface of the kitchen counters that seemed out of place.  In the middle of the kitchen floor was a small white painted table with four matching chairs.  Chairs precisely aligned..  The table’s surface spotlessly clean.

            “What’s wrong with this picture?” Frank grunted, turning to look at me and lifting a questioning eyebrow.

            “Someone has a cleaning fetish,” I answered, frowning myself. “In a house that’s been turned into warehouse of discarded trash.”

            “Our suspect?”

            Our suspect was a forty year old recently released mental patient by the name of Jacob Friedman.  The son of the home owner, Charles Friedman.  Four hours earlier Jacob walked into South Side Precinct, took the ancient elevator up to the second floor which housed the homicide section, found Frank and I sitting at our desks doing paperwork, and confessed he had just murdered his father.

            Just like that.  A nervous little man with hands that wouldn’t stop shaking and watery blue eyes that could not look you straight in the face.  Confessed standing beside our desk in a soft voice of quiet resignation.  He said he had killed his father.  Said he knew where Beatrice Bonner’s remains were.  Said he wanted to go back to the hospital.  Wanted to go back to the lock up ward.  Back to safety. And never wanted to left alone again.

            Jacob Friedman had spent the last eighteen years in an insane asylum.  Ten of those eighteen years in a high-security section of the asylum.  Behind locked doors and barb wire fences.  In a padded cell.  With eyes observing him eighteen of the twenty-four hours of the day.  Twenty years ago the state accused him of kidnaping Beatrice Bonner and murdering her.  Circumstantial evidence, of course, since a body was never discovered. Jacob was already known by the neighbors as being a sick, twisted kid.  Several testified it was Jacob who had stolen their beloved pets and had abused and tortured them in the woods behind the Friedman’s house.  The same neighbors, and other witnesses, said this scared, frail and pale creature of a man and the girl had been seen together that day walking down to neighborhood convenience store.  They remembered him walking back from the store.  Alone.

            Beatrice Bonner was never seen again.

            Until now.

            I remember the drive out into the suburbs to find the Friedman’s house.  It was an overcast, sour, despicable day of random showers, high humidity, and sweltering heat.  It seemed that day the weather had every one in a bad, scurrilous mood.  As I drove the Shelby GT350 Mustang, my favorite car, with Frank sitting in the passenger side bucket seat to my right, I remember listening to music of Depeche Mode playing on the radio.  It was their Policy of Truth.  A rumble of bass guitars lamenting about a love gone bad.  A perfect cover tune for this case, I thought to myself, as I drove.

            Thinking about the case the music still plays darkly in my mind.

            Eerily, as we drove back to the precinct house hours later after the forensic boys went over the place minutely, the song played again over the radio. 

            A couple of days later Assistant District Attorney Anthony Scarborough beamed up at us and said we had did a find job in this investigation.  The case was opened and shut.  This time Jacob Friedman would get the gas chamber and no smart lawyer would get him off by copping an insanity plea.

            “Did he sign a confession?”

            “Hasn’t said a word or moved a muscle since the day he walked in and told us he did it,” I answered sourly.  “Been sitting in his cell like a statue.  Hardly eats.  Never says a word.  Doesn’t move a muscle.”

            “Well . . . that’s okay,” the DA growled and nodded.  But the furrows of lines creasing his forehead looked worrisome. “As long as you to testify he confessed to the crimes when he approached you.  That, and the evidence we have, should be enough for a conviction.”

            “What evidence, Jethro?” Frank grunted, frowning, and looking like a maleficent volcano about to explode.

            I fought hard  to hide the grin that wanted split my lips in two.  Jethro was a moniker my mountain-gorilla lookalike for a partner use to label people he thought were blithering idiots.  And he pegged Deputy DA Anthony Scarborough at the top of the list.

            “I am not Jethro, Sergeant Morales!  How many times do I have to tell you that?  And the evidence?  Try this out.  He’s a known sadist.  He’s father’s remains–what little there is of him–was found in a basement sink in a house he and his father occupied.  He was last seen with the girl as they walked to a local store.  And his fingerprints are all over the weapon used to chop his father up!  What more evidence do you need?”

            Open and shut.

            Even I felt the guy was probably guilty.  But . . .

            This nagging voice in the back of my head.  An insistent whisper that just wouldn’t shut up.  Couldn’t make out what it was trying to say.  But I could tell it sure as hell wasn’t happy in the way this case was playing out.

            Brother . . . if you’re a cop . . . you get these nagging little voices occasionally.  Listen to them.  More times than not they start yapping at you just below the surface of consciousness when something’s wrong in the investigation.  Not yelling loud enough to slap you up the side of the head with a brick and tell you what’s wrong.  But making noise; an irritating noise that tells you you’ve screwed up somewhere.  You missed something.  Or overlooked something.  Or something just doesn’t add up.

            Or maybe . . .just  maybe . . . it was just too damn easy.

            Frank and I rode in elevator in silence.  Just the two of us.  Both of us had our arms folded across our chests and frowns on our lips.  We eyed our sour mugs in the reflections coming off the stainless steel doors in front of us.  We both knew something was wrong.  Something didn’t fit.  Something was out of whack somewhere.

            “Do you think maybe . . . ?”

            “Damn right,” he nodded before I could finish.  “A guy keeps his kitchen spotless yet leaves the basement sink looking like a butcher’s table.  Doesn’t make sense.”

            “So he’s possibly not our . . . . ,” I started to say.

            “Hell no!  Some other freaking sicko did the murder of the old man!” Frank snapped angrily, nodding in head decisively.  “And I’d bet next month’s paycheck Beatrice Bonner’s murder was a frame-up as well!”

            “So maybe we should . . . ?”    

            “You took the words right out of my mouth, kiddo!  By god, we ought to go back to the house and go over it like a fine tooth.  Cover that fucker from antic to sub basement.  There’s gotta be something we missed over there.  Gotta be!”

            I grinned as the elevator doors opened and glanced at my pal.

            “Glad we talked,” I said, nodding, as we stepped out of the elevator.

            “Turner, sometimes you talk to much.”

            The grin widened as we made our way out to the parking lot and to the Shelby Mustang.


            Hours of searching the basement.  The ground floor.  The upstairs.  Combing through everything.  Probing ever nook and cranny.  And finally, tackling the piles of newspapers that seemed to be tall, silent columns of deadly silence littering the basement floor.

            And . . . . epiphany.

            Something clicked.  Something slapped together in our collective heads.  Those little voices bothering both of us suddenly shutting up.  We looked up from the piles of newspapers almost burying us and just stared at each other.

            “I’ll be go to hell,” Frank snarled, shaking his head in disbelief and looking down at browned, brittle paper spread out across his lap.  “Gag me with a spoon, California Girl, and call me stupid!”

            “Stupid!”  I said, smirking,  as I ran a hand through my hair.  “But who the hell would have caught it fifteen years ago?”

            “Yeah.  But still . . .”

            Buried deep in one pile of newspapers were six papers which had blazing headlines across the front page in big letters saying,  Body of Dismembered Girl Found In Woods.

            Six of them.  Two in Kansas.  One in Missouri.  Two in Illinois.  And Beatrice Bonner.

All almost identical stories. Cases that stretched out across decades.  Girl snatched off a sidewalk in a quiet residential neighborhood.  Missing for weeks.  And then pedestrians, or hikers, or construction workers, stumble onto the scattered bones of the dead in a forest.  The girls were killed by two holes punctured into the back of the head.  And then dismembered.

            The murders went back eighteen years.  The first two happening when Jacob Friedman was only two years old.

            “Jacob Friedman didn’t murder Beatrice Bonner,” Frank growled, looking up at me and frowning.  “His father was the killer.  Apparently a serial killer.”

            “But I betcha our sicko killer didn’t try to hide his little secret from his son.”

            “You think Jacob helped the old man kill these girls?”

            “Don’t think so,” I said, shaking my head no.  “But the kid knew.  Knew for a long time.  And knowing what his father was doing made him go off the deep end.”

            “Say,” Frank said, lifting an eyebrow in surprise and half turning to look at the brick wall and the hole where we found Beatrice Bonner’s remains.  “You know, we haven’t found a thing that mentions Jacob’s mother.  No divorce papers.  No funeral notices.  Nothing.  You don’t think . . . ?”

            We both looked at the brick wall of the basement and narrowed our eyes thoughtfully.

            Yeah.  She was in there.  Behind a cement patch in the casement wall.  It took a team of forensic boys three hours to dig her out.  But she was, like the other victims, dismembered and with two holes punched into the back of her skull.

            We had solved seven old cases of murder.  But we still didn’t know who killed Jacob Friedman’s father.

            “Jacob could have,” Frank said, rubbing his chin thoughtfully as we stood watching the lab boys insert bones into plastic baggies and label each one meticulously.  “Could have come back from the crazy house and just . . . snapped.  The old man must have said something and Jacob just lost it.  Went bat-shit crazy.”

            I was half listening to Frank’s musings.  But I was more interested in a newspaper I found which detailed the disappearance of Beatrice Bonner.  It was a concise, well written story.  So well written two things leapt out at me almost instantly.

            The first one was Beatrice Bonner’s family lived directly across the street from the Friedman’s house.  The second one was the dead girl’s father was a plumber.  When I read that I stopped, looked up and at the now gaping hole where Beatrice and Mrs. Friedman had been resting in for all these years. 

            Sure enough.  Water pipes snaked in through the casement wall and twisted their way down toward the washtub sink in front of us.

            “Come on,” I said, tossing the paper to one side and turning to leave.  “I think I know who killed Old Man Friedman.”

            He was an old man now.  Patrick Bonner.  White haired, bone thin.  Skin dark brown and rawhide tough.  Dressed in an old shirt long faded with time and baggy blue jeans. He was sitting on the front porch in a battered looking rocking chair, one leg thrown over the other, smoking a cigarette and eyeing the comings and goings of the police and lab boys with a dispassionate interest.  Didn’t blink an eye or move a muscle when he saw Frank and I come out of the Friedman house, walk down the sidewalk, cross the street, and start up the sidewalk leading to his house.

            “Did you figure it out, boys?” he finally said in a casual, almost friendly voice, as our feet slapped on the first step leading up to the porch.

            “Yes sir, most of it.”  I said, nodding.  “But you can fill in the details if you want.”

            One eye narrowed and watched us for a moment or two as the cigarette hung in his lips and blue smoke drifted up past his face.  Finally he shrugged, lifted a hand up and pulled the cigarette out and snapped it out into the lawn in front of him.

            “Sure.  Why not.  It’s all over now.  The waiting.  The unknowing.  The anger.  All of it.  Gone.  I hope that sonofabitch burns in hell.  Burns for eternity.”

            “What happened, Mr. Bonner?” Frank asked.

            “Charlie’s been in a wheel chair for the last three years.  In poor health.  Living off what little retirement and Social Security he could get.  When he found out Jacob was getting out of the hospital and was coming home he called me and asked me if I would be willing to fix a leak down in the basement.  I didn’t like the sonofabitch.  Never did.  Always thought he was an odd old coot.  Thought his son was nuts.  But I said okay.  I’d come over and see what I could do.

            That’s when I found her.  Beatrice.  I had to knock a hole in the brick wall and take a peek at the plumbing.  Just happened to pick the exact spot Charlie used to hide what he did to my daughter.  I went . . . . well, you know.  You know what happened next.”

            “And Jacob?”  I asked.  “Where does Jacob come in to all of this?”

            “I dunno,” sighed the old man, shaking his head and looking thoughtful.  “He must have found what I did to his father in the basement.  What little sanity he had left him decided to check out.  I saw him get into a taxi and disappear down the street.  Apparently the taxi took him straight to you guys.  Hell, I’ve been sitting on this porch and waiting for you guys to show up for the last three days.   Was beginning to wonder if I was going to get away with it.”

            We took him downtown.  Booked him for Murder One.  Then we went over to deputy District Attorney Anthony Scarborough and told him he was a fucking idiot.  Well . . . not so bluntly.  But when we left he had no doubt what we thought of him.  After that we drove Jacob Friedman back to the insane asylum.  We left him smiling at us dreamily as two male nurses gently took him by his arms and started walking him down the wide garden path of oblivion.

            Justice is a cruel bitch.